What motivated you to write LGBT+ fantasy novels and embark on The Enpirion Project?
I actually never set out to write an LGBT+ themed novel…or any novel for that matter. It just sort of happened. I was attending DigiPen for my BFA when the whole thing started with a series of very intense and realistic dreams that got me into a Thing. The art came long before the writing and became a bit of an obsession that took over all of my non-school related art time. My sketchbooks, notebooks, random anything wound up with doodles, mostly of Piri. I met him and was learning about who he was long before I was introduced to Neph or their relationship. And, honestly, Piri and Neph’s relationship was actually something of a surprise to me, not because it was a gay relationship, but simply because I never expected things to turn into a love story. As I’ve told others, and I know people find it a little odd, I don’t take credit for creating the story or characters. They introduced themselves to me and are as real, in my mind, as anyone I know. I simply listened to the story that they told me and wrote it down, rather than actively creating or forcing something. But there were months of drawings beforehand as I learned who they were. It was finally one specific sketch where I sat back and went “Whoa, there’s more going on here than a simple friendship.” It wasn’t long after that when I began to actually write things down.
How do you incorporate LGBT+ themes and representation into your fantasy novels? Why is it important for you to include diverse characters and narratives?
Both the inclusion of LGBT+ themes as well as diversity isn’t something I ever thought of or actively worked in. Neither of those is something that, to me, should ever have any thought of “inclusion”. The characters, as I met them, were simply as I’ve shown them, as diverse in race, identity, etc as anyone in real life. I didn’t change who they were or suddenly think, “Oh, I need to diversify the cast.” That said, I do think that it’s incredibly important to have diversity in any sort of media. That’s life and why shouldn’t we show it? It’s what makes the world so wonderful and interesting. We should be celebrating all of that wonderful uniqueness. I find it a sad state of affairs that we have to actively include diversity and think about it. At some point, I hope that we get to a point where it’s just normal.
Can you tell us more about The Enpirion Project and its significance in the context of LGBT+ representation in literature?
The Project itself centers on Enpirion (Piri) and, while it’s a fantasy story, the main thrust of the book deals with Piri himself and his personal struggles. The books cover everything from being a severe introvert and having to deal with interpersonal relationships to mental health battles, but, at the same time, none of it is a big, narrative deal. It’s not thrown in your face and I’m certainly not using the books to martyr myself over a cause. The issues are simply part of who Piri is and how he copes with life. They’re treated as normal struggles, the same that many of us deal with.
I do think that the book is significant in the context of representation because, regardless of my intentions (or rather, lack thereof), it IS an LGBT+ book, something that is sorely lacking in the fantasy genre. It also normalizes the relationship of the two main characters. It avoids gay male stereotypes, something that I’ve always disliked and something that many of my gay friends also dislike. The characters are simply who they are. The world of the book and its main race/culture, also treats the relationship as normal. There’s no stigma, no prejudice, something you also rarely see in novels.
How do you approach world-building in your fantasy novels, particularly when it comes to creating inclusive and diverse societies within the context of the story?
Just like with the story itself, I listen to the characters. I allow them to convey the intricacies of their world and society and I would never consider myself a world builder. I’m merely a conveyor of the story. I do, however, take copious notes. The walls of my studio are covered in white and cork boards containing everything from post-it notes to sketches to a full timeline of Seri history. I have the equivalent of another book that’s nothing but background and history of the world. I’m constantly fact checking myself and making sure I haven’t gotten things wrong and I am well aware of when I’m trying to insert something into the world that doesn’t click with what the characters have told me. I don’t consciously approach any of this. It’s probably not the answer you’re after, but it’s the truth.
Are there any specific challenges or rewards you’ve encountered while writing LGBT+ fantasy novels and working on The Enpirion Project?
Probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve run into is just the fact that it has a gay relationship that’s at the forefront of the story. For as many people who have no problem with the LGBT+ community, there are just as many who, sadly, do and I’ve had people confront me about it or refuse to even consider reading the book because of it. At one author event, someone made a snide remark concerning the themes of the book and told me he didn’t understand why I would bother trying to sell something like that. It happens. It’s unfortunate.
But for as many people like the one mentioned above, there are just as many who have read and adore the books. It’s a reward in itself just to have people connect to something I’ve created and enjoy it.
How do you balance the elements of fantasy and storytelling with the exploration of LGBT+ experiences and identities in your novels?
This wasn’t something I ever had to think about. While the books are about overlying politics and supernatural events and all that good fantasy stuff, the real story is about Piri and the challenges he deals with, from interpersonal relationships to his mental health. His story was always at the forefront and everything else just wrapped around it. And, to be honest, I don’t actually consider the Piri/Neph aspect to be about a gay relationship. It’s simply their relationship. No tags attached. They both just happen to be men.
Can you share any feedback or reactions you’ve received from readers about the representation in your books and the impact it has had on them?
The feedback I’ve gotten from readers has been incredible and I love my fans. I’ve heard so many stories about people identifying with so many of the themes, from the representation and realism of the mental health aspects of the book to how much they love Piri and Neph’s relationship and how it’s delivered: their understanding and acceptance of each other, the consent and boundaries they set. Many fans have commented, just as I related before, on the normalization of the relationship without the stereotypes and how the relationship is treated as completely normal with no stigmas or labels. I’ve had just as many fans comment on the diversity of the characters themselves and how much they enjoy seeing a broad cast that, again, is all treated as normal and doesn’t feel forced.
The Enpirion Project seems to be more than just a series of novels. Could you explain any additional aspects or goals of the project beyond the books themselves?
It is definitely more than just the novels (for me, at least). And the title, while extremely important to the story (especially in the upcoming third book of the trilogy), is also a description of what it is: a Project. First and foremost, I’m an artist, and the Project really reflects that, from the myriad illustrations in the books themselves to the special merchandise available on the website. In my own personal collection, there are well over a thousand sketches/drawings, only several hundred of which are part of the actual books. I have physical paintings and pencil drawings. There are visual storyboards and mini animations. There’s a folder that contains nothing but character turn-arounds, clothing design, environment concept, weapons designs, etc. My ultimate dream would be to see the books turned into an animated series. I even know which studio I would want to animate it (cough Studio Mir…who wants to hook me up!).
In what ways do you hope your LGBT+ fantasy novels and The Enpirion Project contribute to the broader cultural conversation surrounding LGBTQ+ rights and representation?
I would love to see it become less of a niche book and get more into the mainstream. The more LGBT+ themed novels become widespread and become accepted as part of literature, the more normalized it becomes and the less people have to draw lines. And, just like with anything, whether it relates to gender, religion, sexuality or identity, it’s wonderful for people to see and be able to identify with characters who represent who they are and that they can connect to. Everyone should have that available to them.
How do you handle potential criticism or challenges that may arise from readers who may have differing perspectives on LGBT+ themes in literature?
At one point in time, I might have gotten upset and tried to argue about it, but those days are gone. People can choose not to read my books, it’s as simple as that. I may not agree with it and I certainly have an issue with their viewpoint, but arguing about it or getting confrontational only gives them cause to entrench themselves even further. My suggestion to anyone looking to criticize or challenge is to simply give the books a try. You might surprise yourself. I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that my novels will change their viewpoint, but maybe it will give them a little more pause. The more you expose someone to a view that conflicts with their own, the more they may think on it. And every little bit helps to break down that barrier.
Sadly, I find I also have to be careful in how I consider interacting with someone, especially in person, when it comes to this topic because of the current state of affairs in the country. I have to consider my own personal safety at events and if someone is looking for a fight, the last thing I want to do is engage because, anymore, you just never know where that’s going to go.
Are there any specific storylines or characters within your novels or The Enpirion Project that you believe readers have found particularly resonant or impactful?
Not so much specific storylines or characters individually, though I’m sure people have, but I’ve had a lot of readers bring up how the mental health aspect is addressed and the descriptions and how the other characters treat/react to it. I have quite a bit of personal experience in dealing with severe anxiety/panic/depression and I know the signs and symptoms well and how it all plays out, which a lot of readers have commented on and how they appreciate the realism of it and can relate.
Can you share any future plans or developments for The Enpirion Project or any upcoming LGBT+ fantasy novels you have in the works?
Right now, I’m working on illustrating the third book in the trilogy, which is totally written and going through its final editing phases. It takes a long time to do all the art concept and then take the concept to actual illustration, and, depending on my health (I deal with a pretty serious medical condition), it can take longer than usual. Post book 3, I do have possible plans for either a new story arc or maybe a prequel novel/graphic novel. But I tend to have to take things one day at a time, so my focus, right now, is entirely on the third book…unless someone wants to hit me up for that animated series. 😉
Do you believe that representation in literature can play a role in societal change and acceptance of diverse identities? How do you see your work contributing to that change?
Absolutely. The more people are exposed to something, the more it normalizes the concept. And that, unfortunately, goes both ways with things. The hope is that you normalize the positive, focusing on kindness and acceptance, rather than the other way round. This is a wonderfully diverse world and it should be celebrated in media of all kinds. I would hope that my novels, in some small way, help contribute to that.
Are there any messages or themes within your LGBT+ fantasy novels or The Enpirion Project that you hope readers will take away and reflect upon?
The one biggie that I hope readers take away, especially people who aren’t used to having gay main characters, is that there is nothing odd or unusual about it. They’re normal people, with all their quirks and oddities and their own issues. They love and interact the same as everyone else. They have the same problems in life and relationships. And, just like everyone else in the world, they want to live happily.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about your LGBT+ fantasy novels or The Enpirion Project?
If you’re looking for something new and unique, please give the books a try! Each book is full of artwork, with over 200 illustrations and 3 paintings. My hope is that you come to love the world and characters as much as I do.