Today, we have with us Rowenna Miller, author of stitchpunk debut Torn!
Hello, Rowenna, welcome to the Inn! First of all, how are you and how have you been?
Busy! I’m working on finishing edits on Fray, Book Two of the Unraveled Kingdom trilogy, and drafting the final book…plus chasing my two kidlets around. In fact, as I type this, the one-year-old has just pulled a mug of coffee off the table. I’m not sure which is worse—the mess or the loss of coffee.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your journey, and how you became Rowenna Miller the Author?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t “writing”—some of my earliest memories are dictating stories to my (very patient) mother and then illustrating them. I decided to more actively pursue publication after the recession—I was working at a small stationery company, my hours were cut, and I figured, might as well use my newfound time to dig into a dream. It only took a few trunked manuscripts, several job changes, experimenting with different genres, two interstate moves, two kids, and about ten years to get from “I’m going to try this” to publication.
From what we’ve heard, authordom comes with a lot of ups and downs. What have been some of your favourite moments and memories since becoming an author?
I never get tired of hearing from readers who enjoyed Torn, especially the little things that stuck out to them, the things that made them say “Oh! This feels like it was written for me!” There are a lot of quiet days in writing and days when you can feel kind of down—when you feel like maybe you’re pouring words into a void—but then I remember that I get to write things that other people read and that brings me right back up.
If you could grab any other author, living or dead, and pick their brain… which author would you pick, and what would you ask them?
This is a tough one! To be more sentimental than pragmatic or fangirly, my grandfather was an author and I never really got to talk to him “writer to writer” about writerly things. He wrote over a dozen books (on a typewriter) while working full-time and being a father to five kids. He wrote nonfiction, but I feel like there are some universals like balancing writing and work and family, dealing with rejection and criticism of your work, research and rabbit holes and revision. I would love to have that conversation!
What is the most “out-there” thing you’ve ever had to research for a book?
I think my most bizarre research is probably not book-related at all! I do Revolutionary War reenactment and living history, and a lot of my kooky research into the minutiae of historical life inspired Torn. We do a lot of what we call “experimental archaeology,” which basically means taking the historical sources we have and trying to actually put them into action. Sure, we know what that gown in a museum collection looks like—ok, how do you actually construct it? We know women were all wearing stays (corsets)—what does that feel like, what are your limitations (spoiler—not many), how do you adjust for pregnancy? We know this kettle was a standard military issue, and we know what ration rolls look like, but what dishes can you actually cook, and how? So a lot of very odd research avenues percolate up into the Unraveled Kingdom series from attempts and failures and successes at recreating historical lifeways.
You’ve taken an unusual approach to revolution in Torn, where those in power are not the antagonists of the story. What motivated that choice?
I wanted to make the overarching antagonist truly the system, not the people in it. I probably realized mired deep in revision that it would have been a lot easier writing to make the nobles all corrupt, crappy humans fully aware of the crappiness of their system and yet still invested in it! But in real life, in history? Most people truly think they’re doing the right thing, and unless we actively interrogate our “right thing” and the rhetoric we use to describe it, we can fall victim to supporting ugly, oppressive, and destructive norms. So in Torn, we have nobles who are nice, kind people but who are unjustly favored by an oppressive system. They believe in that system because of a set of principles they’ve built around it with its own convincing rhetoric. Yet even when they use their elevated stations to help others, there remains a sense of discomfort, a sense that something isn’t right for Sophie and, I hope, for the reader, because the system is still unjust no matter how nice the people in charge are. That disparity gives way to unrest and creates a space for exploitation of that unrest, too—not everyone who opposes a crappy system is altruistic. I couldn’t help but see parallels to this in our world today—most people who are privileged by class, race, language, anything aren’t bad people or trying to hurt others, and many often try to help, but that doesn’t erase that they are part of an unjust system.
If you were to make a garment with a small charm sewn in it, what would it be?
Like Sophie, I’m a bit of a pragmatist, so something small and easy to wear with anything, like a silk kerchief, with some basic good luck stitched in.
What can you tell us about Fray, the sequel to Torn?
In Fray, the people have spoken—they want change—but not everyone is willing to concede to a more democratic system. Meanwhile, Sophie and Theodor travel abroad and see the impact that the unrest in Galitha has on the rest of the world, and the impact that the rest of the world will have on Galitha. In no particular order, readers will encounter a feisty nun, opera, assassination plots, burning effigies, a day at the beach gone wrong, and a stray cat.
One thing we really loved about Torn was how the magic circles really resembled sewing/knitting circles in our world. Was that inspired by any of your own experiences?
Yes! We often trade tips, experiments, and ask “have you ever tried…? How did it work…?” questions that send us alternately down research trails or sharing tips. There’s nothing like the motivation to start, or finish, something like a friend working alongside you (or shaming you, whatever). Historical sewing is an even odder beast than “normal” handcrafting in that it’s crafting expertise mixed with research, so we’re often comparing citations and chasing down documentation as much as showing one another new stitches. I wish I could sew with my friends more often (too much moving has meant my sewing friends are spread out), but this modern age we live in is wonderful in that anytime one of us hits a snag, we’re texting each other “Does this look right?” and “What pattern did you use for that?”
Bonus question: So… would it give too much away to tell us which of our real life revolutions most inspired the one in Torn?
There’s a smattering of a few revolutions, and averted revolutions, too. I think the most clear antecedent is the French Revolution (the first one 😉 )—the general feel of the era as well as the issue of a terrifically lopsided distribution of wealth and power. One of the inspirations for Torn was researching late 1780s clothing and realizing that women were creating these gorgeous, and really quite innovative, garments with the spectre of revolution hanging over their heads. Pamphleteering and broadside printing is also a nod to 18th century revolutions, including the American War for Independence, which produced some truly beautifully rendered rhetoric. The focus on a proletariat uprising also finds roots in the Russian Revolution. But one of the spots I found a lot of inspiration was actually late eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain—which didn’t have a revolution but instead saw political reforms partly in response to a fear of rioting and revolt. There’s a needling question throughout Torn and into Fray—do you need a full-fledged, bloody revolution to effect change?
What are some of your favourite books, both fiction and non-fiction?
The impossible question! I always struggle to answer all-time favorites, so I’ll just rattle off a few I’ve read recently and enjoyed: Uprooted by Naomi Novik was just beautiful—a fairy tale for grown-ups that I desperately needed to read when I read it; Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, a retelling of Cupid and Psyche, tore me up a little with Lewis’ clear prose and incisive exploration of human people and ability to muck up even something like loving one another; and A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage, which was just fun as it explores history by tracking six iconic beverages.
Thanks for visiting the Inn and chatting with us, Rowenna! Anything you’d like to say to our readers to close off?
Many thanks! Keep reading and stay geeky—so many fantasy books out there right now have roots in nerdy pastimes and niche research interests. It’s a really great time to be a nerd—I love seeing what folks are creating and exploring out there!
About Rowenna Miller
Rowenna Miller lives in the Midwest with her husband and daughters, where she teaches English composition, trespasses while hiking, and spends too much time researching and recreating historical textiles.