The author interviews continue! This week, I’m talking to CL Clark, author of the new fantasy novel The Unbroken, which follows a soldier called Touraine and a princess called Luca and their complicated relationships with empire and with each other. We chatted about Arabic dialects, how the book changed in the editing process, and whether it’s possible to hold power ethically. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below, or download it directly to take with you on the go!
Things We Discussed
Cherae talks a bit about different dialects of Arabic, so to break down what they’re saying a little bit: Darija is Moroccan Arabic; Masri is Egyptian Arabic; Shami or Sami is Levantine Arabic (Syrian, as well as Lebanese). The question I ask about saying the G is because the Arabic letter J (?) is pronounced as a G in Egyptian Arabic. The thing Cherae says about negative sh is about the consonant construction “sh” that’s used to negate a statement.
The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
The Thousand Names, Django Wexler
Powder Mage series, Brian McClellan (first one is Promise of Blood)
Broken Empire trilogy, Mark Lawrence (first one is Prince of Thorns)
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla
What Remains of Edith Finch
Shadow of Mordor
Winter’s Orbit, Everina Maxwell
The Monster Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson
A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine
You can get at me on Twitter, email the podcast, and friend me (Gin Jenny) and Whiskey Jenny on Goodreads. As a brand new feature, you can also follow me (Gin Jenny) and Whiskey Jenny on Storygraph! If you like what we do, support us on Patreon. Or if you wish, you can find us on iTunes (and if you enjoy the podcast, give us a good rating! We appreciate it very very much).
Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Theme song by: Jessie Barbour
Gin Jenny: Welcome to the Reading the End Bookcast with the Demographically Similar Jennys. I’m Gin Jenny, and I’m here with author CL Clark, author of the new fantasy novel The Unbroken. Cherae, great to have you on the show.
CL Clark: Hi, thanks so much for having me.
GJ: I wanted to start by— Could you tell us a little bit about the book and about yourself?
CLC: Sure! I’m CL Clark, you guys can call me Cherae. I am a writer from Kansas City, Kansas, though I haven’t lived there in quite some time. I’ve been on the road for the last several years. I am the author of The Unbroken, which is a novel about Touraine, who is a conscripted soldier for the Balladairan Empire. And she’s very loyal to it, at least when we start the book. And it’s also about Luca, who is the Balladairan Empire’s princess, and her main goal is to get her throne back from her uncle. And so when they both end up in Qazal, all of their best laid plans get turned upside down.
GJ: Awesome. That’s a great description. Let me ask you a question that’s not about this book. When people say they’re from Kansas City, Kansas, versus when they say they’re from Kansas City, Missouri, can you explain what that distinction is? I know it’s a city in two states, but I don’t understand that specific thing.
CLC: Okay, so to be fair, usually—I don’t even know why I made that distinguishment now, but I usually just say Kansas City, because for me, they’re the same city. But there are distinct law differences. Like you can’t buy alcohol on Sunday in Kansas City, Kansas, but you can in Missouri, and so my friends would exploit that quite a lot. But they’re one greater metro area, really. And when I became like, a young adult with my own apartment, I technically lived just a block over the state line. And so I was technically in Kansas City, Missouri. And so, you know, it’s for me, it’s one large sort of super-city, I guess.
GJ: Okay, awesome. That is so enlightening. Thank you so much. The last thing is fascinating. Okay, so returning to The Unbroken, which I loved. What was the germ of the idea for this book? You’ve been calling it Touraine’s Arms on social media, which I feel like distills it down to its most fundamental assets. But where did you start with it? Was with the characters, the relationships, the setting?
CLC: Actually, when you mentioned Touraine’s arms with it, though, I did not literally think of her physical arms, one of the things I really wanted to do and explore was when female characters in fantasy are allowed to be violent. And so it really is about her arms, her weaponry, like how she gets to physically hurt people. And yeah, so I guess that’s not— I mean, there are a lot of things to say about that. But, um, so it was like, when women get to be violent, and how they’re allowed to feel about it, like, do they have to feel remorse? Must it always be in service of saving a child or themselves? Because so often it was, and if it wasn’t, then they were a bad guy. You didn’t see the same thing with the guy characters. So there was that, and there was also, I was also in this class, a couple classes, studying postcolonial literary theory, and reading books by colonial, postcolonial authors. And so it all just kind of slammed together into one book, specifically one scene, which was the soldier who had to execute people who were her own people. That was the beginning.
GJ: Yeah, that scene is, yeah, remarkably impactful. So what changed from your first idea that— As you’re writing, is there anything that really significantly changed as you were going through? Or is it pretty true to your original vision for it?
CLC: The book itself is pretty true to that original vision. But there is one major, major change that happened in the last draft in between my like despair at never getting an agent to finally getting an agent selling the book. And that is a character, there was one character who—I’m not going to say any names, but if you’ve read the book already, you can probably guess—there’s one character who was Touraine’s brother, and I changed that character. They are not her brother anymore. They are someone else. But I didn’t change anything else, the rivalry and the hatred and the anger, even the like, fistfights, they all stay the same. And it changed the book so dramatically. And I just fell in love with this character. And yeah, so that was the biggest change.
GJ: That’s really cool. Why did you make that decision?
CLC: I cannot tell you because that would tell you who this character is now. And I don’t want to do that on air. Okay. But I’m happy if somebody wants to, like, do it off books, and I will answer that question for people.
GJ: All right, that makes sense. So you talked about some of the ideas from the book, arising from you studying postcolonial literature. What can you tell me about your research? I’m always so fascinated by what authors do to prepare for writing, especially, fantasy novels, where of course, the research can go in a lot of different directions, because ultimately, you’re making it all up.
CLC: I did, I did make up a lot of things. But before I did that, I really wanted to better understand how colonialism has worked in practice in the real world. And since my area of study was French, French language, and French literature, it was my first real inroad into this, because at first I was, you know, I was, like many Americans, I was in love with France and in love with Europe. And that love led me to digging deeper into the language and the culture. But that also meant I was digging deeper into the history, which means you’re seeing the underbelly of everything that made this perfect nation. And so actually one of the things I did was start learning Arabic as well, because I wanted to have access to some primary source documents from the colonial era. And even after, so I could see what people were talking about in their own language, not just North African writers writing in French. I watched, as well as reading books, I watched films by French and North African French artists, like Battle of Algiers is one pretty famous one, but also Ici on noie les Algériens, which is Here We Drown Algerians, and yeah, it’s a— So yeah, it was not really light reading by any means.
GJ: Yeah, no, sure. So I took a little Arabic in high school. My teacher was Tunisians so I have a Tunisian accent. What kind of Arabic are you learning?
CLC: So I had to learn Moroccan standard when I was studying, but they also taught it to us with one colloquial and tandem and but I had different teachers each time. So one teacher was Moroccan, but he taught me Egyptian because that was what the department said everybody had to do. But we had, we had like, Darija club. And so I would speak Darija with him outside of class. But then I had another teacher who would speak I we only really had Egyptian, we have Masri or Shami, so Syrian, dialects to choose from an actual class. And so we did Syrian dialect, Leventine dialect, in another class. And so it was back and forth. And actually, I, my partner and I, sometimes we speak Arabic, but she makes fun of me because I have a in general I have a Moroccan or Egyptian accent.
GJ: And you say the G?
CLC: Mmmm… Sometimes! Sometimes, okay, but I still I have my kafs from hanging out with my Moroccan professor a lot. And oh, gosh, what else? I keep all of my negative shushes. And they do not.
GJ: So yeah, I remember when I was taking Arabic because my mom studied Arabic as well. But she and she lived in Egypt for a year. So I would be pronouncing things the way I was pronouncing them. And she’d be like, No, no, no, it’s this way, the Egyptian way. So how did you decide what to put in the book from history and what to ditch? Like one thing that I found really interesting is that Balladaire, which is clearly inspired in part by France, is an atheist state rather than being Catholic as France was. So how did you make that kind of decision?
CLC: Well,one thing that I didn’t want to do was to make just straight analogs of these nations. I wanted on one hand, just to be able to write, you know, a fantasy world with different magic and stuff like that. And so if I were going to distinctly create a Catholicism and Islam or whatever, I’m not actually really writing fantasy, I’m just writing historical fiction. And that wasn’t where I wanted to go. But also, I’m not a historian, and I’m not North African. And so that’s not really, I don’t think, for that, really for me. Not unless I’m doing a substantial amount more research than I have done. And I’ve done research in general, but also specifically, and I just don’t, I would never call myself expert enough to write like a straight historical fiction about France and any North African country.
GJ: Oh, that makes total sense. Do you have any—are there books that you thought were particularly good? Like, if people were interested in learning more about the actual French colonization of North Africa? Are there books that you thought were particularly superb?
CLC: The films would be a good start.
GJ: Okay, awesome. Yeah. I’ll include those names in the show notes so people can look for them. So how did you come to the fantasy genre? Have you always been a fantasy reader? What are some books you started with?
CLC: Have I always been in the fantasy genre? Definitely, almost to the exclusion of science fiction for a very long time. Yeah. But I can’t remember what my first young fantasy book would have been. But the one that really changed the game for me was when I first read The Wheel of Time, the first Wheel of Time books, and because I had like a kids’ edition—
GJ: Oh my God, that’s adorable.
CLC: Yeah, it was like, I mean, I don’t know if it was intended to be for kids. But it came in like my school’s little book catalog. And it was like divided into two, so it was like, small hand size, smaller hands, I don’t know. And so that was kind of the beginning of the end. And then like, my parents noticed me or family members noticed me—like I was always a bookworm, but they started seeing that I was interested in this fantasy. And I will never forget, I had a family member, a couple aunts of mine who really loved Lord of the Rings. And basically, they found out I liked fantasy. The night that I was hanging out with them at their house, and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers had just come out. And so they kind of looked at me, and then they looked at each other. And they said, Okay, we’re going to the movies tonight. And they sat me in front of Lord of the Rings number one, bought us tickets for Lord of the Rings number two later that night. And then I got about like halfway to like Gandalf fighting the Balrog, and then they just sort of picked me up and whisked me away to the movie theater. And that was the end, and then like for Christmas that year, I got Lord of the Rings book, I got Lord of the Rings soundtracks. I got all the movies up to that point. It was—yeah, that was it.
GJ: That sounds like a near perfect movie viewing experience. It’s actually so validating to hear someone else say they saw the movies first. My sister was a big fan. My older sister was a big fan of the books. And I tried to read them numerous times before the movies came out. And I just couldn’t get past—like I know, everyone says Tom Bombadil, and I did struggle to get past Tom Bombadil. And then I really couldn’t get past the Council of Elrond. When Fellowship of the Ring came out, I just saw the movie. And then I skipped and read The Two Towers first, which worked really well.
CLC: Yeah, I don’t know if I would have made it if it hadn’t been for seeing the movies first. And then I mean, the third movie didn’t come out for so long that I had nothing else to do. I was, you know, I was a kid. So I just read through it, I guess.
GJ: And you said to the exclusion of science fiction— Are you reading more science fiction nowadays?
CLC: Yes, yes, I am. I’m, I’m sure I had like some bad experiences reading like classical science fiction. And at this point, I don’t blame myself. I’m like, Well, of course you did. But now things are a bit different. And so I think I think the first one that kind of really got me into science fiction— And so now I’ve gone back and been reading through things, but I think Ancillary Justice was, I don’t know, my science fiction gateway drug, maybe?
GJ: I read Ender’s Game when I was in middle school, and I really liked it. So as you can imagine, that’s been a whole journey since then, given that its author is just an absolutely terrible person.
CLC: Yeah, I did read Ender’s Game. And that was the only one
GJ: Yeah, it was the only one for me to– I’m not really sure why, I’m not really sure what bounced me out of reading more SF. And then for military fantasy, is that a subgenre that you’ve read a lot of? Because I have read a moderate amount.
CLC: I feel like I’ve read a lot. But part of that for me, it was just that I feel like so much of fantasy has been military fantasy. It’s always about somebody going off to fight this war and that war. But I do think that the subgenre is getting more specific. And I remember stumbling upon Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names. And it was, as I was rolling this seed of an idea, that scene of Touraine having to execute some people, and in my head at the time, it was her with a rifle. And she was part of a firing squad. And I couldn’t quite reconcile the idea of, you know, jumping forward in technology like that, in fantasy. And so seeing The Thousand Names was like, this light bulb going off, like, oh, it is fantasy. You can, you can do whatever you want.
GJ: Whatever you want. It’s great.
CLC: Yeah. And that proved that there was a market for it, as well as Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series. And so I just sort of ran with it. I didn’t really look back, didn’t ask any questions, though, I probably will, I will go back and probably write something that’s just like, swords because I like them. But sorry, to go back to your actual question. I’m—the other sort of scholarly interest I have, it’s related to postcolonial stuff, but it’s also war literature, and war narratives, and how we talk about war, how we engage in it, how we memorialize and how we fantasize about it. And so, I probably still have some more military fantasy coming out in the future.
GJ: That’s awesome. Am I right— Did I read that you have a background as a personal trainer?
GJ: Was that useful to you in writing a character like Touraine, whose living depends on her being in really good physical shape?
CLC: I don’t know that I use that, per se. I mean, like, I have a pretty solid idea of what humans are capable of training to do. And not just like what they could do in a fantasy book. But I didn’t—I don’t think I really used it so much. But it did impact how I conceived of her and how I conceived of characters’ physicality in general.
GJ: Yeah, for sure. So what is the best workout routine to attain arms like Touraine’s like if you were going to do something that didn’t require you to be taken from your home and raised by a punishingly racist imperial system of warfare,
CLC: I mean, I am primarily a body weight training emphasis. And so my go-to would always be different varieties of push-ups and pull-ups. But if you’ve got some dumbbells laying around your house, by all means, pop up some curls and stuff and load them up.
GJ: All right, this is great to know, I have very weak noodle arms.
CLC: I would definitely start with the push-ups then.
GJ: Okay, all right, noted. I definitely can’t do a push-up, but I guess I can work up to it. Um, so Luca and Touraine’s relationship is obviously really complicated. Luca’s trying to prove herself as a ruler so that she’ll have access to her rightful throne. And I’m curious about the writing process when you’re writing about a character who, who personally is sympathetic, but who structurally as part of the ruling class of this empire is capable of doing and is doing a great deal of damage,
CLC: It was a very interrogatory kind of process. Like, I would not even say that I made her all that sympathetic. Like, I think that there’s, there are some people who will see more, and some people who will see less, put it that way. But I really just wanted to show that she had these conflicting desires, and like many of us do, and that sometimes we don’t always want the good thing, more than we want the thing that is for us. Yeah. And sometimes, you know, the good thing is what helps people and what is for me, is just for me.
GJ: One thing that I thought was interesting about Luca is that she really hasn’t asked herself about the ethics of holding power at all. She’s thinking exclusively in terms of, well, I think I would be better than, say, my uncle. So she’s not really thinking about the fundamental ethics of running an empire. Do you think there’s an ethical way to hold power in a monarchy? You know, the easy questions on Wednesday evening.
CLC: Well, I’ll put it this way. I do not think there is an ethical way to have an empire at all.
GJ: Yeah, agreed. I think it’s inherently violent.
CLC: But I do like my little fantasy books where we can just, you know, la la la la la, princess is cute, kiss. But that’s also not what I’m writing here either.
GJ: Yeah. I mean, the relationship is at all stages very fraught. Are you—if I understand book schedules correctly, you must be at least well into writing Book Two.
CLC: Yes, I have, as of now, given a draft to my editor, and am thinking revision thoughts about it, as well as trying to figure out how we’re going to wrap this whole thing up.
GJ: Sure. Is there anything you can tell us about what’s ahead?
CLC: Well, we’re going to have a few different points of view, a few new characters coming in. I’m not entirely sure how many of them will make it, at least their point of views will make it into the actual final second book, but they are all characters you’ve met before, or at least heard about. And so I am excited to let people get to know these characters a bit more
GJ: Awesome. And how was the process of writing the second book, as compared to writing the first one,
CLC: It was very fast.
Gin Jenny 20:51
It seems incredibly hard.
CLC: In between my very, very first draft of The Unbroken, and this draft, I became an outliner. And so that was very, very helpful. And so I actually was able to outline and write through it for the first draft of book two—We have some titles, we just need to get them approved. I can’t wait. But I think it also just invited its own new challenges, you know, because I’m, like, like many authors say, when they’re writing their book twos, especially when they’re writing them on like genre schedule publishing, like a year later, and a year later, you start seeing people’s reactions. And sometimes, you know, that’s getting into your head and impacting things you thought you wanted, but don’t want and, and so on. So it’s definitely an exercise in finding your core desire for the story and being able to block out the noise and other people’s opinions for what story they want you to write. So in that way, it’s actually quite difficult.
GJ: Yeah, I’m sure. So you said you became an outliner? How did you become an outliner? What were you before?
CLC: Like a very just faint sketch of an outline, like, here’s some vague ideas. This is the beginning. And this is the end. And this is probably how they get there. Because you know, they need this scene and this scene. And so I went kind of like that, and that was not the worst idea. I think someone’s described, basically, what I did is like the headlights method, you can see as far as your car’s headlights, and it was fine. But I also had to do a lot of revision. And so like nine years later, here we are. And yeah, very different from the outline and the year.
GJ: Yeah, no, I’m sure. The headlight method, that’s really good. I haven’t heard that before. But that’s an extremely good analogy. Another thing I always like to hear about is the cover design process. Were you involved much in that and what was that process like on your end?
CLC: It was exhilarating. Because I found out very early on that I was going to get Tommy Arnold who I’ve been in love with his work for forever. Even before I knew it was him, like, he stopped the show for everybody with the Gideon covers. So when I found out the same guy was going to do the art for Touraine, I just lost my mind. But before that, I was talking with Brit, my editor, and she really understood the kind of story I was telling and the kind of writer I am and the kind of person I am, honestly. And she said that she wanted to take the idea of the man in the center of the cover on a throne or in his pile of bones chair whatever. Like think of The Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns and like that series, those covers, or think of The Powder Campaign, the Bryan McClellan books, think of those covers. And she’s like, I want to keep those elements but I want it to be a woman, and I was like, that’s exactly it. That’s what I want. And so we have Touraine, and we’ve got power, we’ve got biceps, destruction in the background, all those things that are usually guy things are now hers.
GJ: Yeah, it’s a beautiful cover. I think it’s really great. We’ve been in quarantine for a year now. Have you discovered any new quarantine skills? Or is there anything that’s gotten you through quarantine?
CLC: Um, do I have any new skills? No. But I wouldn’t have minded—I thought a lot that I wish I had my instruments. I play the cello, but my cello has been at my mom’s in Kansas City for the last few years while I travel. Well, you know, so I guess I could say I picked up running a couple years ago, but started doing it more, racking up my mileage this year, training on and off for races that are not happening, but still, you know, pretending. What else helped me get through? The Assassin’s Creed games. I spent the first half of quarantine playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. And now a year later, I started playing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. So that’s where I’m at with my quarantine life.
GJ: Those seem like amazing things. I just started gaming for the first time ever in quarantine.
CLC: Oh, welcome, welcome.
GJ: Thank you. Thank you. People are very welcoming. Overall, I feel like everyone’s like, Oh, good for you. It’s a good time to be a gamer.
CLC: What are you playing?
GJ: I like walking simulators. They’re not stressful, and I’m a very stressy gamer.
CLC: Oh, like what?
GJ: Oh, like, um, okay, what if I haven’t played that many games yet? So bear with me. Um, I think the first one I played was What Remains of Edith Finch.
CLC: Oh, okay.
GJ: And then what else have I done? Oh, like, Machinarium, and then there’s another one from—maybe, that’s maybe that’s not a walking simulator, in which case I apologize for forgetting the terminology. But yeah, Machinarium. And then I played a couple other games from that company, because they’re, they’re cute and not stressful.
CLC: I’m partial to—I mean, I don’t really know terminology either; like, I know basic stuff. But I just know, I like games that have stealth modes assassination. So the Assassin’s Creed games, obviously, are a go. And also the Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of War series have a similar play style. I can either stab in the dark or range weapon, or melee, I have the option of deciding who I want to be that day. And either being a sneaky killer or just laying waste, and then it just depends on my mood. But I also, I don’t know, real gamers may not care for these things. But I like the settlement aspect of Valhalla right now. You get to kind of build your own settlement. It’s a little bit Age of Empires. It’s kind of funny, because my partner is also playing Stardew Valley at the same time. And so there are all these little parallels, like they go fishing, and I just have a fishing rod now so I can go fishing. And I have to go and collect these little iron pieces, and they have to go collect these little iron pieces. I do a lot more murder.
GJ: So there’s more that unites us than divides us. And then before I let you go, just wondering what you are reading right now?
CLC: What I am trying to read would probably be more accurate, because I’m actually just sort of surfing gently between books that I’m really excited about, but my brain space just, I’m struggling to sit down sometimes and just read. But I’ve got Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell. I have very high hopes. I am very excited for something nice and warm, especially given that my other read is The Monster Baru Cormorant. I’m rereading that.
GJ: Oh, yeah, I’ve heard it. I’ve heard it’s brutal.
CLC: Yeah, I love it. And then I also just got my copy of A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine, so some really good stuff on deck.
GJ: So Winter’s Orbit came out of fanfiction, sort of. Are you a fanfiction reader at all?
CLC: I have been, but I haven’t lately. I think actually, honestly, part of it was, and I’m sure other fanfiction readers will describe their adventures into it the same way. But, you know, I was a young queer reader, and I couldn’t find anything. I mean, there were some books but not like the plethora there is now. And now that there is just so much more, I’ve found myself reading these outside books instead. Now that I’ve been talking about it more with people, I’m thinking about, you know, finding some good stuff. So if people have recs, by all means, please, I’m ready. I actually found myself wishing— So this is a call maybe to your listeners for some good Eivor/Randvi fic, like, the gay one. Which is from Valhalla, the video game? So if anybody’s got any of that, I want it.
GJ: Oh, okay. I’m gonna ask my video gaming friends. This is all a mystery to me, but I’ll ask them. What did you read fanfiction in when you were younger?
CLC: It was not a specific property, but just like original fics that people were writing. Though I did used to belong to a writing role playing forum for the Wheel of Time series, which was my gateway drug.
GJ: Alright, awesome. Well, hopefully we’ll be able to get you some fantastic recs. It has been a nice solace during the pandemic to have fanfiction to return to I’m relatively new to it. I’ve only been reading it for, I don’t know, five or six years. It’s been really nice during the pandemic when my brain just doesn’t have room for anything else.
CLC: Yeah, I bet.
GJ: Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast It’s been really great. Where can people find you online if they want to say hey, or learn more about the book?
CLC: My Twitter is at C_L_Clark. And you can sign up for my newsletter at clclark.substack.com. And I think my website is attached to both of those things.
GJ: Okay. Perfect. And the book is The Unbroken and it’s out now and everyone should read it. It’s really great. I couldn’t put it down. I was really so excited to find out what was going to happen next. And I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.
CLC: Thank you so much.
GJ: This has been the Reading the End Bookcast with the Demographically Similar Jennys. You can visit the blog at readingtheend.com; you can follow us on Twitter @readingtheend. We are both on Goodreads as Whiskey Jenny and Gin Jenny, and you can email us—we love it when you do—at email@example.com. If you like what we do, you can become a podcast patron at Patreon.com/ReadingtheEnd. And if you’re listening to us on iTunes, please leave us a review. It helps other people find the podcast.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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