Today’s guest is A.R. Cook, author of the Scholar and the Sphinx series (The Scholar, the Sphinx, and the Shades of Nyx and The Scholar, the Sphinx, and the Fang of Fenrir). I’ve been holding off reading the second book until I can get my hands on the third, but the first book is an absolute delight. If you have a taste for YA historical fantasy with a spicy dash of diverse mythologies, this series is for you.
1. First, tell a little about yourself (brief bio).
I’m originally from Riverside, Illinois, although I’ve lived in Gainesville, Georgia for over 8 years now. At the University of Iowa, I studied English literature and theater arts with a focus on play writing, and had six short plays and one full-length children’s play produced there. Since moving to Georgia, I have authored the YA book series “The Scholar and the Sphinx” with Mithras Books, the YA imprint of Knox Robinson Publishing. Books 1 and 2 are currently available, and Book 3 will be out this Nov. 10. I also have short stories published in the anthology “The Kress Project” from the Georgia Museum of Art, and the fairy-tale collection “Willow Weep No More” from Tenebris Books (with another story to be published in the follow-up anthology, “Shadows of the Oak,” coming out this October). Additionally, I was the book review columnist for the Gainesville Times, one of the most widely distributed newspapers in northeastern Georgia from 2009-2013, but I still occasionally do reviews for Toasted Cheese Literary Journal.
- What inspired you to write the Scholar and the Sphinx series?
This is a story that has been a good 18-some years in the making. It was originally a short story I was writing in junior high school for a fantasy writing contest (nope, didn’t win) and it was extremely different – more mainstream fantasy than what it would eventually become. The story then remained dormant on a floppy disk (yes, a floppy!!) for years until one day I dug it up again, and remembered there were a lot of aspects about it I liked, but it definitely needed reworking and I wanted to expand on it. I had also become more interested in history, and found myself wanting to weave historical elements into the plot. Plus I replaced the main dragon character with a sphinx, and the blacksmith protagonist with a young scholar who was named David (for my husband) with the last name Dewitt, and he was British. Then, one day I was sitting in the dentist chair for a check-up, and suddenly I thought, “Spanish! David should be Spanish!” Following that thought, my mother-in-law’s last name is Sandoval, so I replaced Dewitt with that. From there, the character really became more like a 16-year-old incarnation of my David, and the rest just came together on its own.
- Who is your favorite character in the series, and why?
That’s kind of like asking me to pick my favorite child…I think each of my characters has their strengths to admire, and weaknesses to empathize with. I like Tanuki because he adds humor to the stories – he tends to be a lot of readers’ favorite character in the series. He’s that best friend we’ve all had: a bit of a clown but goodhearted, wisecracking but loveable. I also love Acacia; in many ways I wish I was more like her (I guess she channels that aspects of me I tend to reserve). And of course I’ll always love David, because I love the real-life inspiration for him, my husband (both are David Sandovals, but mine has the added “Cook” on the end).
- What’s the most important thing you hope readers will take away from the series?
I try to have a main theme to each of my books. The first book carried a message about “what makes us monsters, and what makes us human?” We are not defined by what we appear to be to the rest of the world. Book 2 was more about the relationship between generations; how youth and elderly need to respect one another and each can learn from the other. Book 3 reverts to a classic theme in fantasy, “destiny vs. choice,” but also how the threads of our own lives are all woven together with the threads of everyone and everything around us, and each has a place in the tapestry of the world.
- Who are some of your favorite fantasy authors, and why?
Neil Gaiman, no question. Much of what he’s written has influenced my own writing, plus he has explored every writing medium there is, from books, to movies, to comics, to TV shows, everything. That is something I aspire to do. I also remember one of the first fantasy books I read was “The Cat who Wished to be a Man” by Lloyd Alexander, so I’ll always appreciate how he got me interested in the fantasy genre. Also Anne McCaffrey, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Terry Brooks, and I’m finally getting more acquainted with Terry Pratchett’s work – what an imagination!
- What would you like to see more of, and less of, in YA fantasy?
The one thing I was getting tired of seeing in YA fiction in general – the dystopian future – is starting to wane, so I would like to see what the next “big theme” is for YA in general. I believe we are also seeing more stories that have male and female protagonists who can work together on the same level, as opposed to the typical “one is the hero, the other is solely the love interest/foil that needs saving.” I would like to see more YA fantasy writers trying to create original worlds and creatures, rather than the usual “urban fantasy” or “medieval fantasy” that’s common with the genre. I mean, I adore those types of fantasy, but I’d love to see fresh, unusual landscapes, stretched to the limits of the imagination.
- What’s the most important thing that aspiring writers of YA fantasy need to know?
Stephen King said it best: “Amateur writers wait for inspiration; professionals just go to work.” You can’t be a writer unless you write! I know we tend to write our best work when we get that “divine spark” of an idea, but you’d be surprised what will come to you if you just sit down and start typing away, even if at first we don’t know what to type. Write about your day. Write about what scares you. Write about your favorite food in ridiculous detail. And if you really get stuck, pick up a book and read. Most of the writers I know are (or were) readers – we love stories, whether it’s being the audience or being the storyteller. Only by being both can you spin a story well.
Many thanks to Ms. Cook for her time and her insights!