Author Interview: MJ Pankey

Are there any books or authors that inspired you to become a writer?

I read the Iliad as a teenager and fell in love with Greek mythology and Homer’s heroes. I loved how there was no wrong or right side of the conflict and the gods were competing against each other using humans as pawns. It was the first book I’d read where the outcome was totally tragic for everyone to a certain degree, and where there wasn’t a clear “bad guy”. There were characters I liked less than others, but each one was there for a reason they felt was justified, and they were all in conflict, not only for those on opposing sides of the war, but also within the same camp as well, and this ambiguity really struck a chord with me. The Iliad was the stepping off point in my obsession with mythology stories from all over the world. I have read many Celtic and Norse collections that have also contributed to my passion for mythology. The psychological relationship between human beings, the gods, and the world in which they live fascinates me, and I want more of it, and not just retellings, but new stories too.

How do you use social media as an author?

Writing is hard. It’s especially hard when books are published and don’t get the boost that they deserve, which is all too common for debut authors, especially indie authors, and social media has been an amazing place to connect with both readers and fellow authors. I have met some of my best friends through the writing community on twitter, some amazing beta readers who provided critical feedback on my story, and several ARC reviewers who have shared reviews and helped me promote my book. Instagram is especially fun for connecting with readers. I think about reading as a relationship, and being able to invest in my readers as much as they are investing in me through reading and reviewing my book on their platform has been a very positive experience. I think a lot of times, both readers and authors often forget that there is a human on the other side with feelings and emotions about this book, and I have found that connecting on social media adds that level of humanity back into the reading experience that is so often absent.

How long did it take you to write this book?

Versions of this book (or certain chapters and characters in this book) have existed since 2002. I did finish a rough draft in 2012, and because of life, I didn’t pick it up again seriously until 2018 when I formed the Augusta Writer’s Critique Group. When the pandemic hit in 2020, our group started meeting online weekly and this was really when Epic of Helinthia began to transform into what it is now. So 21 years this book has been in my head. But in all seriousness, about 5 years of really dedicating myself is what it took to produce the final form. I don’t think readers of Epic of Helinthia would recognize much from the early 2012 draft. The plot (at its most basic level) and the main characters are really all that has survived. But that draft was a crucial step in this process.

How much research did you need to do for your book?

Quite a lot. Earlier drafts were heavily influenced by medieval-esk language and setting. These just came more naturally to me as I was writing because the majority of fantasy novels are heavily influenced by the medieval period, so when I decided that I was going to make it exclusively Greek, I had to do a lot of research to make sure the world was believable. Having obtained a minor in Classics, I already had a good idea where to start, and my most heavily researched topics were architecture and language. I even researched ancient makeup composition. There were other things not specific to Greece that were essential to the story, such as drought conditions and farming that I needed to research as well. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from reviewers on the research that went into this novel, and that really makes me feel good about all the hard work I put into it.

If you’re planning a sequel, can you share a tiny bit about your plans for it?

There will likely be three more books in this series. My main goal is to showcase struggles that reflect a certain timelessness–conflicts that anyone can identify with or have personal experience with, especially in regards to relationships and social interactions. I don’t expect every reader to identify personally with every character, but I would like them to be able to say “oh, I know someone like this” and provide them a glimpse into the psychology of why people might behave the way they do, even when we don’t agree with their actions or motivations for doing it. I don’t necessarily want a good vs evil narrative, although there are certainly elements of that in the characters’ minds, but I want instead to show the more nuanced nature of conflict, where both sides believe what they’re doing is right, which is most often the case in real life. It’s human nature to make decisions with harmful consequences–intentional or not. So with that in mind, the sequels will have lots of conflicts and characters behaving in ways that don’t exactly produce the results they expect. The ending will certainly not be what any of my characters expect, and I daresay, my readers either.

What are the essential characteristics of a hero you can root for?

I personally gravitate towards characters who are struggling in some way with who they are or who they believe they should be, or characters who are struggling with the expectations put on them by others. I’ve struggled with this personally throughout my life, and I think it’s something that most people can identify with and become invested in. I think it’s also important for heroes and heroines to have flaws and pitfalls. Harnessing and leaning into these human characteristics creates so many opportunities for growth and depth in the narrative, and I think it provides a more engaging experience for me because it’s more identifiable, and therefore, more hopeful and gratifying when the hero(ine) finally succeeds in the end.

What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?

I generally have a very basic plot idea to begin with: the major conflict and at least one antagonist–but the more nuanced aspects of plot begin to develop as I plan out my character arcs. I like to establish who my characters are at the beginning and who I want them to become by the end, and then create plot points in between that will provide the conflict needed to transform them into that end state. So much of the plot unfolds mysteriously even to me as I craft these characters, and sometimes even I don’t realize the easter eggs I’m weaving in until after I’ve written them and have an “ah ha” moment. There have been several instances where I begin a story with a villain in mind, and then as the story unfolds I realize that they’re really not who I thought they were at all and I’ve foreshadowed most of it quite by accident. The story and characters very much reveal themselves to me as I write.

What do you do to get inside your character’s heads?

I dissect each character down to their most basic psychological building blocks: What do they desire most and what do they fear the most? From there, I explore why they desire and fear those things and draw associations from them–incidents, interactions, people, places–what are the things that influenced the origins of those desires and fears, and then I can better decide what will continue to either fuel those things or drastically change them. How this ultimately plays out for them depends on where I want the character to end up at the end of the book/series.

What is the most difficult part of your writing process?

The first draft is definitely the hardest part. There are so many ideas in my head at once, and it’s overwhelming to try and sort them out into that first draft. There are also parts of the story that I’m more excited to write about than others, so the in-between points that I haven’t fully fleshed out are always more challenging to write. There have been plenty of times where I end up just writing out bullet points in place of chapters so I can get to the chapter I want to work on and still have somewhat of a blueprint to how I got there. Editing comes much more naturally to me. It’s more like a puzzle from that point, you have all the pieces in front of you, and it’s just a matter of arranging them in a way that makes sense and is engaging for readers. With the “big picture” first draft in front of me, it’s much easier to see where more or less is needed than the first draft.

What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book?
The first draft is going to be ugly. There’s no getting around it. I see too many authors (and I struggle with this myself) getting hung up on the details of a chapter, worrying over descriptions, or flow, or is it good enough, and they never move on to chapter two. It’s very hard to wiggle out of this mindset because we all hope that we are going to write a perfect story the first time and be a bestseller, but that’s rarely the case. There were four complete rewrites of Epic of Helinthia and countless partial rewrites amounting to hundreds of thousands of words scrapped and reworked before the final form. And it doesn’t stop there. As authors, even when we have the final manuscript in our hands and we’re getting feedback from readers that it’s a great story, it’s common to still find something you want to tweak or change when you crack open the book. It’s way too easy to let your creativity be stagnated by this obsession. My advice to writers working on their first book: Give yourself grace to be imperfect, make it sloppy, make it ugly, make bullet point chapters, infodump for three pages straight, do what you need to do to get the first draft out. The first draft is for you, the author, to figure out the story wrangling to get out of you. Once it’s out, then you can train it into something beautiful for your readers.

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