Happy Friday! Today, we have a wonderful treat for you — an interview with Gathering of the Four author, A.E. Bennett. Sit back and learn all about the inspiration behind The Serrulata Saga, from cherry blossoms to reproductive justice. And if you want to find out more about Bennett's wonderful world of scifi fantasy, romance, and upcoming horror, be sure to visit her website to keep up to date with all of her new releases!
Welcome! First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hello there! I’m Bennett. I’m a 41-year-old writer living in Washington DC. I write dystopian scifi with elements of fantasy and a bit of romance thrown in. I also have stand-alone romance novels and am publishing my first horror story on October 1 of this year.
What can our audience expect to find in your work? Tell us everything we should know about The Serrulata Saga — including the reason behind the title!
Prunus serrulata is the Latin term for a type of cherry tree that grows naturally in parts of Asia and can also refer to a specific cultivar endemic to Japan. I’m not a biologist so my limited scientific knowledge ends there, but suffice to say Washington, DC, does go a little “cherry blossom crazy” every spring in anticipation of Peak Bloom – and my series takes place in and around DC, albeit 2,000 years in the future, so I wanted to do a kind of call out. There’s a lot of death and destruction in the time between now and when my series starts, but through it all, the cherry blossom trees remain. They’re a beacon of hope in an otherwise grim world.
As for The Serrulata Saga itself, the first book starts in 4385, which is very far into the future – and also when the Hale-Bopp comet is set to next come our way. (More on that in a minute.) I will confess that, in addition to the comet angle, I set my books in a time that would allow me to do more of what I wanted in terms of world building. When we meet The Four in the first book, they are living in a rigid, structured society, and I wanted the Realm to be believable, but I also wanted to set my own rules. I think a pretty big time jump allows me to do that.
How did this series first begin, and how did it eventually grow into soon-to-be five books?
My favorite question to answer! I mentioned the Hale-Bopp comet previously, and for folks who weren’t around at the time, its arrival was a pretty big deal. If I recall correctly, folks in the northern hemisphere (like myself) saw it for a few months toward the beginning of 1997. It only comes around once every two thousand years or so and it was big and strange and ominous and marvelous all at the same time. It was so bright, you could see it during the day. I was a tad obsessed with it… and it inspired me to write a short story that would eventually become Gathering of the Four, the first book in the series. While I was writing, I realized it was going to take a lot more than one novel to tell the story I wanted to tell… and then some of my peskier side characters started clamoring for their own books. Suffice to say, there is a lot more Serrulata Saga to come!
Can you tell us a little bit about your characters in this series? Which, if any, do you identify with most and why?
Ack, this is tough because I’d like to think there’s a bit of myself in all of my characters – even the villains! If I had to pick, I’d say that The Four are the characters I identify with the most. Leora, Roland, Aurora, and Leopold all have aspects of my own personality within them. Their flaws are my flaws. They’re some of my best friends, and I’m doing what I can to keep them safe (though the plot is making that difficult).
Which characters do you think readers might connect with most?
I would really love it if there’s someone for everyone in my books. Leora is the main character, so of course I want readers rooting for her, but I know there are fans of some of my side characters out there, too.
There is lots of diversity to be found in your books! Is there any in particular that feels most personal or especially important? How does this representation enhance the characters and stories?
Growing up, I read a lot of scifi and some fantasy, and looking back the one theme I can recall throughout was that the characters were all white (or perceived to be white) and heterosexual. I firmly believe that scifi and fantasy are for everyone. Washington, DC, is a diverse city, and I wanted to reflect that, as well. I want the characters in my books to reflect where I live, even if they’re struggling to survive in a dystopian hellscape.
What inspired you to write sci-fi and fantasy, and what do you love most about blending the two?
The first iterations of The Serrulata Saga were much more fantasy than scifi. As I got older and the story evolved, my reading preferences changed, and this influenced my writing. When I let Gathering of the Four out into the world for the first time, I kept some tropes from fantasy (peasants and lords, swords and sovereigns) but the overall existence of the Realm is rooted in science fiction. Now that I think about it, this wasn’t intentional on my part; it just sort of happened.
Did you find any challenges while writing these books? How did you overcome them?
Yes! One of the lessons I’ve learned since I released my first book two years ago is that it is ok to ask for help; no one can self-publish on their own. I’m embarrassed to say the first version of Gathering of the Four had a lot of grammatical errors and typos. It’s better now, but I still wish I had put more work in before my initial release. I thought I could proofread the book myself – and that just wasn’t the case. I’m actually currently working on a second revision, because I didn’t catch all of the errors the first time. I’m still pretty ashamed of what I initially put out there but… life is full of all sorts of lessons.
All of your books include spicy scenes! What do you enjoy most about writing these interactions and why are they important to you and your stories?
I have always been a romantic at heart and am a huge fan of happily-ever-afters. I also think there are a lot of people out there who have unnecessary hang-ups when it comes to sex and sexuality. Here in America, violence tends to be accepted, whereas nudity or passionate expressions of affection are censored. (Yes, I know this is a generalization…) Writing is a way for me to not only combat some of the more conservative aspects of my culture, but writing steamy scenes helps me to explore my own sexuality. Plus, they’re challenging! Choreography – whether it’s a sex scene or a battle scene – can be difficult to write! And I love a challenge.
The fifth book in the series, Because You Asked (beautiful cover, by the way!) is out in December. What can we expect to find in this book, and will there be even more books to enjoy in 2024?
I’m so looking forward to this because this story is a sort of apology to a minor side character from the first book. I now realize I treated her abominably and she deserves happiness. Lady Isolda is one of the villains in Gathering of the Four. She is rude, obnoxious, and readers aren’t supposed to like her. When I was writing Test of the Four, however, I started thinking about what would motivate her to become so bitter. (She is a minor character in this book and Second Glance, as well.) When I really thought about why she would behave as she does, I felt sorrow for her. So, I decided she needed her own tale.
Then the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
I was going to wait to write Because You Asked until after the third main book in the series, but I was so upset and angry, I needed to pour my feelings into something positive that was just for me. This became Because You Asked. It’s a sapphic love story about two women who have suffered loss, struggled with their own identities, and who are both forced to start over during middle age. There’s hurt/comfort, angst, lots of pining – and, oh yeah – a clandestine reproductive health clinic, positive rep of sex workers, and positive rep of someone diagnosed with an STI. There’s also high tea.
Because You Asked will be out on December 20.
Have any shows, movies, books, or games influenced your own work at all?
I didn’t really think so, but one of my alpha readers has told me that my main story arc kind of reminds them of Star Wars. (I did grow up watching Episodes IV, V, and VI a lot.)
This is one I think my readers could better answer.
Our podcast focuses on media we’re currently loving. Are there any books, shows, movies, or games you’re enjoying at the moment? Any recommendations for our audience? Bonus points if it includes sapphics!
So this is the worst question because every time I’m asked it, my mind immediately goes blank and I forget everything I’ve ever written and watched.
August was a very hectic month and I didn’t get a lot of downtime, so I am behind on media.
I am going to recommend some of my favorite authors. Everyone should go and buy and read all of their things!
For fun fantasy adventure, check out Talli L. Morgan’s The Oracle Stone (and subsequent books). This is a super-sweet series full of adventure with a very satisfying ending. I’m also a fan of Rita Rubin’s Amulet of Wishes, which is the first book in a series where the protagonists have the ability to turn into dragons. Folks who want something spicier should pick up Gabriel Hargrave’s The Orchid and the Lion – sex workers in space fighting purity laws!
I review a lot of indie books, so for more recs, please check out my Goodreads page!
Thank you so, so much for the opportunity! I really enjoyed this and your podcast is amazing!
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