Indie Spotlight – Remco van Straten and Angeline B. Adams

Remco van Straten and Angeline B. Adams have written about the arts, culture and folklore for a variety of publications, and their short stories have appeared in several anthologies, most recently Air and Nothingness Press’s The Wild Hunt. Their work is steeped in a shared love for folklore and history, and draws on elements of Angeline’s Northern Irish childhood and the northern Dutch coast where Remco grew up. Their first collection, The Red Man and Others, has now appeared in print.

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Welcome to my blog today, Remco and Angeline.

What made you decide to publish your books independently? What was your path to publication?

After having worked in arts and culture journalism for a while, we’d decided to focus on our own writing, instead of writing about other people’s creative works. The lead characters of two separate Fantasy stories met up in a third story, almost out of convenience.

Early readers responded to the world building, to the “found family of con artists” vibe, and to the way we foregrounded LGBT and disabled characters without making the stories about difference – what matters is who our characters are together. 

We realised that these three stories would form a very nice, rounded, anthology, but also that it’d be   hard to find an agent for a project like that. When the annual World Science Fiction and Fantasy convention was held in Dublin in 2019, we decided to bite the bullet and forge ahead and publish it ourselves. This allowed us to include ‘making of’ material, something we always like in books, and also Remco’s illustrations. And so, The Red Man and Others was born. 

Self-publishing via Amazon was a steep learning curve, but we got help from our friend, Fantasy writer Ricardo Pinto. We’d only had the time and bandwidth to do the digital version, and of course found that a self-published collection by unknown authors completely drowned in the sea of books offered at WorldCon. 

While we got good reviews and feedback after, we also learned that many people prefer a physical book, and it was Ricardo who ultimately convinced us to just do it. He also Skyped in and helped us through the technical aspects of uploading the book, when we were at  our wits end.   

We made an effort to make the print edition attractive, with extra illustrations, flash fiction and more behind-the-scenes material. Indie publishing has given us scope to do things like a book trailer, and special art for the chapter headings. 

A big advantage for us over traditional publishing is that we’ve been able to control the creative process: we’re really proud of the stories in book, but also of how it looks. We wanted it to be something that people would want to hold and keep, and we think we’ve succeeded in that. 

What made you decide to write in your specific genre rather than other genres? Have you ever written in other genres?

Though we broadly gravitate towards the Fantastic genre, within that we often blend a range of other influences. We follow in the footsteps of authors like Tanith Lee, who didn’t limit herself to one genre and whose stories employ individual bits of character and detail that enrich them – we’ve really tried to learn from that, rather than to treat genre as a boundary beyond which we can’t cross.

We believe that genre should be a means, not a goal in itself. Genre can offer convenient labels, but it can too quickly become a straight jacket: looking at genre from the outside, audiences have expectations that don’t really match what a genre actually is (“Fantasy? You mean dwarves and Harry Potter?”), while from within, definitions come with expectations of purity that stifle innovation and evolution (“That’s not Sword & Sorcery; that is Grimdark!”). 

In particular in the stories set in the universe of The Red Man and Others we’ve been deliberately elastic in our world building, deliberately allowing a variety of influences from other genres to bleed in. For The Return of the Uncomplaining Child in our collection we looked at Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen films, and for Road to Starohrad we took our cues from Elisabethan theatre, and because it’s also a bit of a romp, we took a hint from the old Crosby/Hope Road to… films for the title. Stories currently in progress have inspiration from film noir (in particular the Val Lewton chillers) and 17th century Dutch politics (never a dull moment: google “did the Dutch eat their Prime Minister?”)  

Our love of folklore and history particularly drive our folk horror writing, and our stories in that genre appear in various indie anthologies, including Underneath the Tree (Sesheta), The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase (Air and Nothingness Press) and the forthcoming Beyond the Veil (Flame Tree Press). 

Do you only read the genre that you write?

We both have varied tastes, from genre (science fiction, Fantasy, horror) to historical novels and modern crime. Angeline in particular reads a fair amount of realistic contemporary fiction, and Remco occasionally goes through a spate of historical novels – Norse, Greek mythology – some of which written quite a while ago giving them a “view on ancient times through the lens of history” construction. 

There are very few series we keep up with; Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins supernatural thrillers, about a CoE vicar getting enmeshed in folk horror, John Connolly’s Parker books, also supernatural thrillers but very different. We love Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom books, which have really influenced the scope of our own work. They’re about the Saxon/sometime Viking Uhtred, who we follow from childhood, and getting tangled up in Alfred the Great’s plans for the new nation of England, to old age. Cornwell has a knack for historical detail,  creating memorable characters, and not forgetting to make his stories bloody good fun! 

What are you currently reading? Watching on TV? Is there a type of music you listen to for inspiration?

Angeline’s enjoying Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. It’s a masterclass in creating grand, austere settings while keeping dialogue and character in a relatable, human register. Gideon is an irrepressible protagonist as she attempts to keep her necromancer charge out of trouble amidst an atmosphere of (very literal) skullduggery.

Meanwhile, Remco has just finished Madeline Miller’s Circe. Retellings of the old Greek tales are fashionable these days, in particular with a feminist bent. It shows that they’re a well not run dry by far: there are always new angles to find, perspectives that have gone underrepresented to be explored. These classics are not monoliths either, to be regarded at a distance and handled with museum-grade velvet gloves. Before Homer (or whoever -plural?- sits behind that name) wrote them down, these were oral tales, adapted for audiences, embroidered on and mutating. Then, of course, in translating them they were interpreted, and as Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey shows, imbued with societal bias and censure. 

We’re also reading a great deal of fantasy lately as research for a talk on disability in the genre which Angeline will be doing at OctoCon, Ireland’s national science fiction convention. Some classics turn out to be a chore (Michael Moorcock’s phenomenal writing speed is too apparent in his Elric stories) while others have us sit upright – the general view of Conan as oiled up muscle-man is doing his creator, Robert E. Howard, injustice, as we keep finding new layers and meaning in his work. 

On TV, we’re very excited about Netflix’s forthcoming Sandman series. It’s fashionable to slate comic adaptations, but Doom Patrol resonated with us for its offbeat humour and outcast ensemble of reluctant heroes. On a different note, we’ve recently binged Gordon Ramsay’s entire Kitchen Nightmares series, because who doesn’t love seeing grotty kitchens cleaned up, and underpaid restaurant staff vindicated when Ramsay tells bullying and clueless owners some home truths? 

We’d been looking forward to The Green Knight, but as Angeline is clinically vulnerable we haven’t seen the inside of a cinema since early 2019. We’re relieved to hear that it comes to Amazon Prime, but would’ve loved seeing it in our local movie house. 

Meanwhile, a large DVD collection, projector and a screen we can hang from our IKEA Billys (bookshelves) have got us through the pandemic. We enjoy old Hollywood classics, particularly film noir, and we love Ingmar Bergman: The Seventh Seal’s highbrow reputation can put people off, but it is so much more than Max von Sydow muttering in Danish and playing chess with death. 

Sticking with the Scandis, a lot of our stories have been written to the dark and minimalist albums of Tenhi, a Finnish progressive folk group who make us feel we’re exploring a deep forest and occasionally finding suspicious bones. It’s like Caspar David Friedrich paintings set to music. We’ve also had Eivør on auto-repeat. She’s a Faroese artist whose work ranges from jazz to synth pop to rock. We’re currently working on a novella with the backstory of Kaila, the small but fierce heroine of our story collection. It’s a bit of a culture clash, and we find that Jocelyn Pook’s music, with its fusion and sampling, is the perfect background for this, in particular Untold Things. In our minds, the track Upon this Rock got attached to Kaila: “I am your dervish, your fragile Dervish, I am both a stranger and I am myself. I am in love.” could be something she’d confide to her girlfriend Ymke, in the quiet hours. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

No advice is final, particularly if it insists that you must do X or you’re not a real writer. Disabled writers in particular often bounce off advice that assumes endless reserves of energy (you must write every day, or be up by dawn to fit in a couple of hours’ drafting before the school run) or the ability to produce consistently. It’s okay if writing has to fit around other things, or if you have to change your approach to compensate for chronic illness or executive functioning issues. Everything we’ve published exists despite those challenges, and some of it exists because of them. 

Where self publishing is concerned, find someone who’s been through it before, whether via forums or friends. Our book frankly would not have happened without Ricardo Pinto, who helped us navigate the technicalities of formatting, layouts and Kindle Create when we were tearing our hair out. Nobody is born knowing how to do any of this, and every problem you encounter will have stymied and then been solved by someone else already, so it makes no sense to reinvent the wheel on your own. 

Joining a writing group is valuable; we’re part of the loose collective made up by Otherworlds NI, which comes without obligations but with lots of mutual support. At its most basic, it’s good to gripe about what writing life is really like: when looking at your peers social media, you see their successes and their progress, but you don’t see the struggles behind them. Chances are, they’re going through the same doubts and problems that you are facing with. 

Play to your strengths, but farm out those tasks that lie beyond your skillset, whether that means paying someone to do a cover or getting professional marketing support. In our case, Remco’s background in illustration gave our book a distinctive visual identity. But do get an external editor: you need fresh eyes because you will miss things no matter how careful you are. We trade editing jobs with author friends who aren’t afraid to highlight problems, and our work is the better for it.

When self publishing, don’t go off half-cocked. Putting your book together is easy compared to selling it, so make sure that you place yourself in the best position to have eyes on your book once it comes out. Don’t skip the essential marketing steps and think you’ll make it up once you’ve got the book in your hands, as it’s like trying to cook a meal when you’ve already plated. And about that: have a clear idea who you are marketing your book to. This also ties into what we said about genre: we thought that The Red Man and Others would fit the Heroic Fantasy genre, but what we found was that those readers were either wary of it or liked it despite itself, and we also had several reactions of “I’m not a Fantasy reader, but I really liked this!” This prevented the book building up momentum when it needed it, and really hurt exposure and sales. 

What are you working on right now and what can we look forward to seeing from you next?

We’re working on more stories set in the Red Man world. We’ll revisit our protagonists twenty years from now when they’re no longer young scoundrels, and find out what maturity has done to them (or what they’ve done to it). Right now we’re particularly focused on the origin story of Kaila. A self-made woman, she’s a great character for teasing out questions of independence versus interdependence, and the lessons we learn from our mentors – good and bad. And naturally, there’ll be a literal cliffhanger and thrilling exploits along the way.

We also have a new folk horror story out soon in an anthology, Beyond the Veil, from a great independent publisher, Flame Tree Press. It’ll be out on 16 October, and our story is about a tiny fishing village, a storm, and the dangers of challenging nature – to say nothing of the risks of getting your tea leaves read!

Thank you very much for visiting me for Indie Spotlight today! I wish you both every success with your anthology and future work!

The Red Man and Others

The Red Man and Others: Three journeys of self-discovery; of love, loss and adventure.
While small but tough sell-sword Kaila and teenage con-artist Sebastien get their own back on a fundamentalist cult, Ymke lives in exile and learns the meaning of true strength and the price of hiding. When Sebastien is elevated to sainthood, the two young women find each other.

Book Description

In the divided city of Starohrad, the small but tough sell-sword Kaila liberates the teenage con-artist Sebastien from a group of religious zealots. They don their disguises and play their parts to get their own back on the Brotherhood of the Wheel: Sebastien
as one of the High Priestess’ boys, Kaila as an actor in the troupe that will perform in her palace. When the curtains are raised and the boards are treaded, they begin a two person revolution which will rock the Priestess’ oppressive regime.
In the war-torn north of Cruoningha, the young and disabled Ymke and her father live in exile. When her father rescues a giant warrior, Ymke learns that strength is not a matter of muscle alone. She nurtures the giant back to health, and they rebuild his lost humanity. Their precarious peace comes to an end when their predatory neighbour seeks to take control of their farm, and of Ymke.
Ymke finds herself cheated out of her commission as a scribe for the Brotherhood of the Wheel. Nursing her bruised ego and flat purse, she runs into Kaila and Sebastien. While the two young women fall in love they launch the boy as a reincarnation of the Brotherhood’s martyred Child Messiah. Though done for profit, their deeds reinvigorate the community,
until the Brotherhood decide that Sebastien should suffer the fiery fate of his predecessor.

Amazon | goodreads

Who is next on Indie Spotlight?

Dawne Archer is lucky to be alive, having survived blood clots in her leg and lung, aged  26. 

She vowed to live life to the full, and has indulged her curious nature in travel, as well as interviewing interesting people on the radio. Often roles are reversed, and she becomes the interviewee in her quest to raise awareness of thrombosis. 

Trekking the Sahara Desert may have been a step too far in her fundraising for Thrombosis UK, but it was just the start.

Dawne tried her hand at writing, and her first book ‘Trekker Girl Morocco Bound’ is the result. 

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