Happy Saturday! Today, you can read our interview with Digging for Heaven author, Jenna Jarvis! Don't forget to check out our Instagram to join our next giveaway, going live at 5pm, where three winners will receive a signed paperback of this epic fantasy romance!
Congratulations on your debut novel, set to be released in July! Tell us about Digging for Heaven and what inspired you to write it.
So Digging for Heaven is a high fantasy romance epic that's intended to be the first of a four-part series. This first book is set mostly on a road trip across a desert that separates Aelshia, a jungle country which loves dragons and is partly controlled by them, and Jeenobi, a country which is very proud of its dragon slayers. The story begins after the war between the two has just ended, after Jeenobi’s new king has agreed to ban dragon slaying. Kella is the most famous dragon slayer Jeenobi has after her mother's death ten years before, and she doesn’t believe the kingdom can survive without what she does, so she ignores this ruling and ends up arrested. In an effort to try and keep the peace, her king strikes a deal with the visiting Aelshian ambassador Litz, a princess and a dragonrider, to extradite Kella across the desert as a punishment. Most of the book then takes place on this road trip that Kella and Litz find themselves trapped in, soon with only each other and Litz’s dragon to rely on. While they grow closer to each other, we also follow Kella's brother Ker, who spends the book trying to track her down and deciding just how far he's prepared to go to get her home safely.
Can you tell us a little bit about your characters? Which, if any, did you identify with most and why?
The story is a lot of things, but ultimately it’s a love story between Kella and Litz, so I had a lot of fun crafting their differences and figuring out what sides to each other they drew out. Kella has grown up famous. Part of the reason her king, who is actually an ex-lover and friend she feels very betrayed by, chooses to send her away is because even if she doesn’t plan on using it, she holds a lot of power in the popular imagination. And because of this, she has a lot of the child star issues. She’s still in her mid-twenties, but she’s so important to most people she knows, and she’s fixated on continuing with being the perfect hero even if that’s no longer something the law allows for. She’s also the older sister to Ker, so they’ve grown up very much in complement to each other. He’s quieter and more intellectual, and she’s confident enough for both of them. She’s also a very messy bisexual with a drinking habit, whereas he’s actually asexual and would prefer to avoid crowds, so they spend a lot of their lives relying on each other to force them in or out of situations.
Litz by contrast is an only child, but she’s been bonded to her dragon Loren since she was a child, and they share almost all their thoughts and feelings, so she definitely understands what it feels like to depend on someone. To most people in Aelshia, Litz is an anomaly few people understand very well: she’s the niece to the king but she’s not interested in playing politics, she’s a ruthless officer rising in the ranks of her national army but she’s not very good at following orders, she’s gay so she doesn’t want to make a political marriage, and she’s a dragon rider which is very unusual. So a lot of people find her odd, but she’s got a confidence in herself that Kella could never have, and she keeps a lot of secrets.
In terms of relating to them, I think as a writer you’re always going to be a little in all of your characters; you're always doing it from your own lenses because those are the only ones you have. But it's Kella absolutely who got most of my flaws turned up to an eleven - she's how I would love to be and how I fear I would be if I'd grown up famous and more fucked up. She lies compulsively, is extremely reckless, and has never spent any significant time alone. It's worse than her being a people pleaser: she needs to be sure that people are thinking of her and remembering her when she's not there.
What initially drew you to the fantasy genre?
I'm drawn to fantasy because that's most of what I grew up reading. And when you can write whatever you want, why wouldn’t you write whatever you want? No one is stopping you from adding in dragons and magic, so you might as well go for it. It’s your wish to fulfil.
How did you build a strong magical setting for this novel? Did you draw from other places, real or fictional? What did your writing process look like in regard to world-building?
My real gold standard of fantasy fiction is Terry Pratchett, so I’ve always tried to think about worldbuilding in terms of how people make a world work. Like if dragons live in a rainforest, how do they get around in there if they don’t have any space to fly? If people who use magic can lift anything, why aren’t they all flying everywhere? If I’m making one of the kings be polyamorous then how is succession affected for their children? So asking those questions constantly as I come up with concepts is always where most of the worldbuilding “rules” come from. But this book was inspired a lot from a lot of me being a nerd about world mythology, and also dinosaurs. Though there aren’t explicitly any dinosaurs in the book, I enjoyed playing about with fantasy biology and geology, which was inspired a lot by thinking about which creatures can live together, why certain creatures died out, and what different animals need to survive.
The book includes enemies to lovers, one of our favourite tropes. Can we expect any other tropes in this story? What are your favourite to write and do your preferences change as a reader? Any you avoid altogether?
I play a lot with found family but here it's more a family that is in the midst of falling apart. I also had to have the codependent siblings, which is always a big one for me, both in reading and writing. Then Kella especially is such a purposeful jumble of tropes: she’s trying so hard all the time to be the carefree outlaw, the quippy superhero who can seduce anyone they feel like, but she doesn’t necessarily always succeed at this performance the way she’d like to. There's a little side action of arranged marriage too, with the new Jeenobian king Jev and his new wife, who is Litz’s cousin Eisha. Honestly, I love writing all different tropes: I come from a fanfic background online so I love getting a good tropey prompt. Like there’s some forced proximity, there’s some hurt/comfort. I guess I do find it harder to write especially romances with less conflict though it's still something I love to read or watch when it’s done well. So friends to lovers isn't usually something I write much of or if it is it's then a swerve back to enemies somewhere in there. In the sequel I'm working on right now, there's one of those relationships highlighted, along with the classic scenario of one person being oblivious to another person pining for them.
Did you come across any challenges while writing Digging for Heaven? How did you overcome them?
Writing and plot always came easy for me – that part is always the joy that comes as you go even if sometimes the solutions to a self-made plothole really take their time arriving. It’s the making time to get started on that, but especially the editing process which has always been difficult for me. Figuring out when to stop adding to and changing an existing manuscript is really hard, and then deciding where to cut when your editor and publisher need less of a word count and you really did just keep going. That I find tough and I don’t imagine I’ll ever stop struggling with.
Your book features lots of diversity, including asexuality, bisexuality, POC, and non-binary characters. What representation do you hope to see more of in the coming years?
Generally more queer rep! Nobody has enough of it, especially trans people, and that is about changing the industry. It's still a talking point because we really don't have much to pick from a lot of the time even now. I think I'd just like to see more of the weirder messier stuff getting greenlit - like I am a huge sucker for all the really sweet shows for kids out there, but I'd love more weird genre stuff for adults where the main queers get to be just as messy or terrible or monstrous or ridiculous as the straight characters. I think it's something we fear a lot because we are still getting used to being allowed happy endings at all and as creators we find it scary to mess with that.
Do you have any advice for authors about to dive into the publishing world? Anything you’ve learned while working with Bold Strokes Books?
I would say you have to have a thick skin. While working full-time, I started querying DFH for the first time in 2017, so between that and Bold Strokes accepting my submission it was a long time. And it was a long time of silences and refusals and learning you're just not quite what someone's looking for. And mostly the only response you can have to that is to put it down for a while, choose if you want to rework it - and I did, many times - keep writing other projects, and then keep trying again. And maybe trying it again through a different publishing avenue. I don't think there's necessarily a right route to take, especially these days which often sees runaway self-publishing success. Whatever you do, prioritise finding at least one trusty beta reader so you've had feedback from someone who isn't just trying to buy and sell it but is reading it as something they want to enjoy, and to make you proud. But honestly come back to me in five years since I'm not even sure if what I'm doing right now is working yet! Way too soon to say!
You also love karaoke! What would be your characters’ go-to karaoke songs when they aren’t busy with dragons? (And what’s your go-to song?)
Litz wouldn't want to sing but she could be bullied into it if drunk. She would pick something she secretly loves and knows all the words to, that also reveals a little about how badly she wants to get laid. Something like "Untouched" by the Veronicas or Beyonce's "Love On Top". She has a lovely voice but in this state she wouldn't be very good, and it wouldn't occur to her to pick songs based on how well she can sing them. For Kella, I'm thinking a big fun rock song, "Hot-Blooded" or "Born To Run" or "Hit Me With Your Best Shot". She's a showman but she's insecure about her voice, so she’d just want to yell and get the crowd going with her.
For me I love doing silly group ones a la the Spice Girls or Cobra Starships, but I am also partial to an old rock tune since a lot of them have a nice easy range for me – I love some Billy Joel, like "Only The Good Die Young" or AC/DC’s "You Shook Me All Night Long".
We’d love a hint about any of your current projects! Are you working on anything that might please or even surprise your readers?
I am working on the sequel, and am trying to plot the rest of the series which should be a four-book series all in, but sooner than that I have another road trip romance coming out. That should be released in November. It's kind of a modern Thelma and Louise vibe, except they're sisters-in-law, no one dies, and they actually get to have sex. I also have another few horror-fantasy-style projects on the backburner that I’m hoping to get the chance to polish up and release.
Have any other shows, movies, books, or games influenced your own work at all?
I grew up reading so much fantasy it really feels that it was never going to take much to start me writing it – I wrote fantasy fiction all through high school. Pratchett, Hobb, Brooks Canavan, and Le Guin were all huge touchstones for me. On a less thoughtful note, I also really love action movies. My mum always had a thriller or adventure movie on when I was growing up and all my favourites are led by failure characters who are just good at this one thing they do. It’s keeping them alive through the movie’s runtime but it’s painfully obvious that their personal life is still a mess outside of it. But then I'm also a huge TV person, and fantasy procedurals especially are a gigantic weakness of mine. And what I always want for the characters is for them to get to face lasting consequences and be wrong more often. It’s the nature of procedural TV to have an almost violent metatext ensuring that everything returns to the same place so that the next episode can continue on in the same set. So I wanted to have those kind of hero characters forced to go through change and for it to really affect them and their story.
Our podcast focuses on media we’re currently loving. Are there any books, shows, movies, games, or podcasts you’re enjoying this Pride month? Any recommendations for our audience?
Unfortunately, with writing deadlines, I really don’t get to do as much reading as I’d like to, but I have been getting more into different queer horrors with a book group in Glasgow. Recently our book was Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, which is a great wee horror-thriller about mermaids. Also with mermaids, I got the chance to read the early copy of Lyn Hemphill’s wonderfully sweet but incredibly well-world-built sapphic romance Drifting, and I cried as I read one of the ending chapters - and I was very in public at the time so could have done without that. On TV watching, I’ve finally gotten into Yellowjackets, which I’m adoring, and I managed to start Dead Ringers, because obviously I’m obsessed with Rachel Weisz. I was so sad to hear Disney are scrapping Willow when it was such an adorably gay breath of fresh air, but everyone should still try and watch it. I've also been getting sucked back into long wuxia dramas and Word Of Honor is so so good and it’s still on Netflix. It’s not plot-similar to DFH, but from a character point of view, the leads have an incredibly similar dynamic to Litz and Kella’s and it’s such a joy to watch. Oh, and I’ve only recently got into podcasts, but I want everyone to listen to Girls, Guts, & Giallo because it’s helped me find so many of my favourite movies.