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Interview with Jonathan Pembroke

He is a former meteorologist turned fantasy author who’s been writing for the last fifteen years. He lives in the southwestern United States with his wife Lisa and a bunch of unruly dogs. His fantasy trilogy, The Holly Sisters, just completed publication in March 2021.

Q.1 Tell us something about yourself not many people know?
At the age of seventeen, I fell out of a moving car. At thirty-four, I was thrown from a horse. I think when I turn fifty-one in a few years, I am going to walk everywhere. It’s fine, though; all those knocks to the head were probably good for my creativity.

Q.2 Do you have any upcoming books?
Nothing scheduled, though I have two projects ongoing. One is a sequel to my first book, Pilgrimage to Skara, that I would like to release at the end of the year. The other is the first book in a four-volume series, tentatively titled The Sentinel. It will probably be 2023 before that one is ready.

Q.3 When did you decide to write The Holly Sisters series?
I wrote a short story with the same title as the first book (Rumble in Woodhollow) around 2008. It was inspired by the movie Gangs of New York. I watched that and started thinking about what it would have been like had, instead of gangs of humans, it had been mystical races brawling for control of the streets. That story languished for a while. In 2018, I was working on an unrelated series and really struggling. My wife, who has long suggested I revisit Rumble, suggested I try and expand that story. I did, it took right off, and the rest is history.

Q.4 How do you come up with the name of your books?
In the case of The Holly Sisters, the longer I worked with the core story, the more I discovered that the central theme is really about the main character Sydney’s relationship with her older sister, Marla. They are faeries of the Holly Clan, which made the trilogy name, The Holly Sisters, very easy to decide on. Each book’s title is about the central plot device that propels the climax of the book. I may try to be a little less literal with the next series, but we’ll see.

Q.5 If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Wow. Probably to start writing books earlier. I wrote short stories for a long time but didn’t finish my first published book until I was in my forties. So I’d love to have the previous ten years before that to build experience writing novels. And to get things published sooner. And … and … Just less procrastination in general, I think. But that could probably be the message on any subject to one’s past self, couldn’t it?

Q.6 How do you select the name of your characters?
In The Holly Sisters, I tried to use consistent conventions for each race’s names. The faeries all have Anglo names, many quite contemporary. The dwarves all go by their family names. Dryads have two lyrical names with a short syllable connecting the two. In my standalone book, Pilgrimage to Skara, set in America’s heartland but centuries in the future, the names were all corrupted versions of American English names. I don’t think I have a hard rule on names; I try for a theme and then go with what sounds right.

Q.7 What are the three things a reader can expect from your books?
One, a classic hero’s journey. Sydney, the protagonist of The Holly Sisters, started as somewhat unsure of herself and hung up on her past. However, she finds her footing, grows, and overcomes. Two, I really wanted to show a good relationship between sisters, something that I think is rare in fantasy fiction. Their interactions grow and develop over the three books until Sydney and Marla are very close. Last, I hope readers find the books to be fun. There’s an adventure, some humor, a little romance, and lots of action.

Q.8 How many books have you written? Which one is your favorite?
I have four in publication. There are a couple others completed, but they’ll never see the light of day. Pilgrimage to Skara was the first book. It’s standalone, though I am writing a sequel. Then The Holly Sisters trilogy. I am someone whose favorite book is always the last one I wrote, so at the moment, it’s Book III, Sylvan Valley Aflame. I think Valley wraps up a lot of questions, the action reaches the proper crescendo for a good climax, and it leaves the door open for more adventures for Sydney and her friends, which I’m also planning to write.

Q.9 What were your feelings when your novel was accepted/when you first saw the cover of the finished product?
Awed. Holding the completed book in my hand is a feeling that’s hard to describe. I’ve posted on social media before that one of my favorite days in the whole writing process is when my first copies arrive, and I take the printed book out of the box. It’s a fantastic feeling.

Q.10 What is one stereotype about fantasy writers is absolutely wrong? What is one stereotype dead on?
Wrong? That we’re all obsessed with recreating Lord of the Rings or writing books with noble elves, dwarven smiths, and an evil overlord. There is some derivative fantasy, for sure, but I know plenty of authors (and readers) that want nothing to do with it. Fantasy is a big umbrella, and there’s a lot of wild and weird stuff under it. Dead on? Most of us are nerds in some way, shape, or form. I can think of a few exceptions, but not many.

Q.11 Do you have any unique and quirky writing habits?
Caffeine, and lots of it, but I guess that’s not too weird. I tend to go to bed early (like, before 10PM) and get up early (around 3AM). So I get my best writing done before the sun comes up. Does that count?

Q.12 Do you believe in writer’s block? If yes, how do you deal with it?
I believe it exists, but I don’t believe in it as an excuse for stalling. Sometimes, you just have to power through it. I will jump forward and write a later scene in the book or shift to another project where I’m not stymied. Keep moving forward on something. Get words on the page. If I do that, eventually, I resolve whatever impasse I had and can come back to it.

Q.13 If you could be a member of any fantasy race, which would you choose and why?
Is “dragon” an option? Dragon. The idea to breathe flame on my critics is a powerful temptation. Okay, I wouldn’t do that. But I might eat one or two.

Q.14 What is your favorite book from other authors and why?
Taken collectively, the six original short novels that made up The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock. They’d probably be called “grimdark” today. It was (outside of classic literature) my first exposure to a tragic hero-one with flaws, self-doubts, and a lot of moral gray space. The world-building is amazing, and considering the brevity of the series as a whole, it tells a remarkable story. Aside from that, Stephen King wrote a novella called The Long Walk, about a gladiatorial endurance contest undertaken by teenagers. It predates things like Hunger Games or Battle Royale and is breathtaking in its brutality and its brilliance.

Q.15 How do your family/friends feel about your book or writing venture in general?
My family has been very supportive. I owe a lot to my wife, who has constantly encouraged me, backed me up, and believed in me. My friends are mostly interested and helpful, and almost all of them will listen to me babble on about writing and boost me when they have the chance. I feel fortunate that I have not had anyone close to me tell me I should give up. I’ve heard other writers say they had a spouse or best friend trivialize their work, and I cannot imagine anything as discouraging as that.

Q.16 How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
For my plots, inspiration usually comes from something I see or hear about-like how I came up with the plot for Rumble in Woodhollow above. I make notes about my milestones-the significant plot waypoints from beginning to end-and fill in the space between points to tell the story. With characters, I usually start by visualizing someone specific, with strengths and weaknesses. I build a backstory for them, then ask when dropped into the world and the ongoing events-what that character would want. What do they need, and how do they get it? The pursuit of their goal is usually what gives me my milestones.

Q.17 What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Don’t quit. You’ll want to at some point. Even great authors get rejected. You’ll get negative feedback. People will tell you you can’t do it. Don’t listen. If you love what you’re doing, keep going. Pour your heart and soul into it; believe me, it will show.

Q.18 What is the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I think it’s just a matter of perspective. I’ve never been a woman, so I have no experience of it. We’re all human, so there is so commonality. But I think depending on the venue-women will approach a situation differently than a man, for a variety of reasons. Are sexual harassment and/or discrimination in your fantasy world-and? If not, is that consistent with the society you built? These are things you have to think about.

Here’s an example: in my current work-in-progress, The Sentinel, the main character is part of a special military force that ventures into a permanently darkened part of the world to fight the monsters there. The monsters can smell human blood a long way off. For the women in that warrior society, how does their monthly cycle play into that? That was something I never considered on my first draft; when it dawned on me, I knew it was something a woman would instinctively consider. Things like that. You really have to put yourself in another gender’s shoes. It’s a challenge, for sure.

Q.19 Who designed your book covers?
The covers to The Holly Sisters were designed by Jessica Dueck, a graphic designer who lives in South America. She’s very talented and has been a dream to work with. She took my plain ideas and made them into something special. You can find her website here:

Q.20 Share the experience of your journey so far?
In a word? Amazing. I’ll probably never get rich writing books. But when it comes to doing something with my life, there is nothing I’d rather be doing.

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