Sunday, February 12, 2023

An Interview with Khalia Moreau, Author of The Princess of Thornwood Drive

This post I'm taking a break from my regularly scheduled travel and Foreign Service-specific programming to highlight my friend and former classmate from the University of Virginia (UVA): Khalia Moreau! I learned Khalia's debut novel is coming out this year, and the more I learned about it the more I knew I had to share it with as many people as possible. I and many colleagues and friends of mine are passionate about writing and aspire to be traditionally published, so I thought I would pick her brain for advice and learn more about her awesome book. She graciously agreed to share her wisdom on the blog, so please see our interview below.

Tell us a bit about The Princess of Thornwood Drive. What was the nexus of it?

The Princess of Thornwood Drive is a story about two sisters trapped at opposite ends of reality who must fight to bring an abuser to justice. It's told from the perspectives of the two sisters, with alternating contemporary and fantasy narratives. Here is the jacket copy summary if you want more details!

One year ago, a tragic car accident killed 22-year-old Laine’s parents and left her 18-year-old sister, Alyssa, paralyzed and nonverbal. Now—instead of studying animal nutrition or competing as one of the few equestrians of color—Laine is struggling with predatory banks, unscrupulous health care organizations, and rude customers at the coffee shop where she works. That’s why when Lake Forest Adult Day Center offers to take care of Alyssa, free of charge, Laine is nothing but ecstatic./br>>Alyssa isn't ecstatic, though. After all, in her mind, there was never a car accident. Instead, she and her parents—the king and queen of Mirendal—were attacked one year ago in the forest, her parents kidnapped while she was cursed, and now must spend her days in Lake Forest's Home for Changels—a temple caring for mortals such as herself. Perhaps there, she could meet other changels who show her how to embrace her new life.

However, there is a dark prince at Lake Forest, one who has taken a peculiar interest in not only Alyssa but her sister as well. And while Laine struggles to make ends meet on an everyday basis, Alyssa finds herself leading a battle that threatens to destroy not only her and her sister but their entire kingdom.

I've read a lot of fantasy that takes place in what N.K. Jemison has described as "Medieval McEurope." How did it feel to write fiction that incorporates Trinidadian folklore?

Firstly, it's cool that you mention N.K. Jemison because my agent also represents her! I'm a big fan, so, needless to say, to be offered representation by the same person made my year :).

As for incorporating Trinidadian folklore, it was fun but also tricky! I'm currently on submission to publishers with a Caribbean young adult horror/fantasy set in 1963 Trinidad. In a story like that, it's easy to build a world steeped in Caribbean folklore. We're in the Caribbean, after all! However, for Princess of Thornwood Drive, one of the big themes in the story is the sisters' biracial lineage (half-black/half-white) and how that has shaped their experiences growing up. We especially see this in Alyssa's fantasy narrative, where her world plays off what she sees in real-time and past experiences. As such, we get this blend of your more well-known European-type fantasy settings/ creatures and those of Trinidadian folklore. Finding a balance to represent this identity struggle was challenging. Thankfully, though, I had a lot of beta readers and critique partners (both non-Trinidadian and Trinidadian to provide feedback and suggestions to achieve a balance!)

Your cover is gorgeous. What was the cover design process like? Did you have a vision of how you wanted it to look?

Thank you! I actually did have a vision, which was quite different. Before even writing the story, my brother and I brainstormed a cover idea where we'd have a house and car that would blend into a castle and carriage by the time we got to the other side of the cover. A plane on one side of the cover would be a dragon on the other. This was to show how Alyssa and Laine's points of view (POVs) are very much the same at their core. Of course, I sent this and some other ideas to my editor, but they have a marketing team and artists who work together to create what they believe will be the most aesthetic and marketable cover.

In total, we had three drafts. The first draft had similar colors, but I wasn't a huge fan. I told my agent and editor this. A few days later, we hopped on a call and discussed ways the cover could fit more of my vision. They also explained their ideas and why they thought certain things were imperative from a marketing front. The second draft was much better, and I loved the direction. After a month of incorporating a few more suggestions, we ended up with the third and final draft, which I loved!

Have you taken creative writing classes, workshops, or any kind of formal training? How many beta readers and critique partners do you have?

I actually haven't taken any creative writing classes or workshops! No formal training either, although if I could go back in time, I would have definitely taken a creative writing class while I was at UVA!

If I had to count how many beta readers and critique partners (CPs) I've had in my lifetime, I'd say close to sixty. However, if we're only considering the CPs and beta readers I had for this book, it was four critique partners and five beta readers. I also had one official agent critique on the first 100 pages and one query package critique from a freelance editor. Lastly, I had a very close friend and parents read it. The general advice is to never give your friends or family things to read because they won't be honest. However, my friend and parents are some of my best beta readers. My friend is an avid reader, so she knows what to look for when it comes to tropes and pacing. My mother is the same, as is my father!

This wasn't the first book you wrote. What kept you going, and how did you stay motivated to write and query and do all the things necessary to get traditionally published?

It was not! Fun fact, my first book was a young adult (YA) dystopian fantasy that I'm actually in the process of revising right now. However, when I first queried it in 2018, the consensus from agents (who were kind enough to provide feedback) was that the writing was, to be blunt, trash. I refused to let that soak in for a long time and got defensive. Writing is subjective at the end of the day. However, when you have several people alluding to something, it's best to take a step back and approach it from an objective perspective. So, after a year, that's what I did. I started to read more and work on my craft. I also took my aunt's advice to write something else a year later. This idea turned out to be Princess.

How on Earth did you manage to write a novel in med school?

Time management, time management, time management! Also, writing was very much a stress relief for me. It's one of my biggest passions, so I easily get caught up in it. Another thing, which I don't tell many of my med school friends, is that I find medicine easier than writing in certain aspects. To expound, in medicine, there's cause and effect. You run tests, read results, and get your answers. There's an objectiveness to it that I like. However, in writing, a lot of it is, in fact, subjective. An agent might reject your novel because they were having a bad day and not in the mood for the story you submitted. Another might not like your writing style, while another might love the writing but hate the plot. As such, getting immersed in medicine almost served as a getaway from writing (as much as writing functioned similarly for medicine).

What's your best advice for aspiring writers?

A lot of people will tell you don't give up. I'm going to echo that. You have to keep at it. It only takes one yes. That said, it is crucial to know when to take a step back. I had to take a step back several times. After all, rejection is part of life, but it does hurt. Be kind to yourself and remember why you write. The inability to do this will only lead to stress. After all, traditional publishing is a capitalist industry at the end of the day, and that puts pressure on authors to be constantly hustling. (For example, getting an agent is cause for celebration but then comes trying to sell your book. Sometimes, the book doesn't sell, so you have to write another. In the case of authors who do manage to sell their books, some might compare the sizes of their advance...whether or not their book was optioned for film. It's comparisons galore, and very detrimental to one's mental health. So, stay grounded and remember why you write in the first place!

*Also, no one's journey is the same. Self-publishing is a viable route. So is being a hybrid author (an author who self and traditionally publishes).

Where can we follow you online and buy your book?

You can follow me on Twitter @kmoreau11. I have also been making a lot of Tiktoks about my publishing journey if you want specifics. You can find me awkauthkc. In terms of preordering, you can do so using this link!

Also, to make things easier, here is my linktree :)

Thank you, Khalia, for offering your insights and for sharing your talents with the world through your book (that I've already pre-ordered and can't wait to read). I wish you the greatest success with your debut this year!

Sunday, February 5, 2023

A Week Away from DC, Speaking at CNU and W&M

After a rough week in world events and work, I was thrilled to get away from DC for a long-planned weeklong family road trip. I split up my maternity leave and was able to use one of those weeks now, which was such a delight. A friend of mine from college invited me to give talks at two universities, Christopher Newport University and the College of William & Mary, as part of a speaker series for their students. I was so happy to accept and make a little family getaway of it.

First, we visited friends of ours who had moved from northern Virginia to Midlothian. Baby S loved playing with their kids' shiny, unfamiliar toys that still had sound capabilities (as M removed the batteries from pretty much every toy we have that makes sound). We also visited the Children's Museum in Chesterfield, and it was perfect for letting kids of all ages learn and play. After the kids went to sleep, we adults had a blast catching up and playing Crokinole, a Canadian bar game my Canadian former roommate taught us.

Unfortunately, most of us came down with a nasty bout of food poisoning halfway through our trip. Somehow, M and baby S escaped unscathed but I felt pretty awful. After a day of resting, staying hydrated, and sleeping 10+ hours, though, I started to feel better. We arrived in Newport News to gloomy weather, but S got to enjoy the view of the fountains in the city center from our hotel window and it was so fun to see his face light up with excitement.

On Thursday, I had lunch to catch up with my friend Dr. Francesca Parente, gave a talk at The Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at Christopher Newport University, and then enjoyed dinner with my host and a few of her colleagues. I even ran into a student with whom I'd overlapped at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and with whom I shared many mutual friends. It's such a small world!

On Friday, we popped over to the International Justice Lab at the College of William & Mary. I grabbed coffee with some students, held my talk in a very modern venue that defied my pre-conceived notions of Williamsburg campus spaces, and then joined my host Dr. Kelebogile "Kelly" Zvobgo for dinner with several other scholars. Our conversation really got me thinking about the importance of learning from the past when determining the way forward on transitional justice, or "how societies respond to the legacies of massive and serious human rights violations" as defined by the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Meeting with my academic counterparts, such inspiring rising stars in human rights and international affairs scholarship, and spending time with students really energized me. Although I didn't recover 100% from my stomach bug in time to enjoy more of the touristy activities and museums I had planned, I was so glad I could continue with the main purpose of the trip: outreach to these bright young people. It reminded me of some of my favorite days in Public Diplomacy and gave me a lot of hope for the future of our field.