Nicole Souza has released her new book, Sins of Our Mothers and I have the privilege of interviewing her. Join me as Nicole talks about how she approaches her writing.
Welcome Nicole. It is indeed an honour to have you on my blog. First, tell us,
- Why did you select to write about babies that were disabled, handicapped or had some kind of debilitating disease?
In the novel, the notion that the children at the Defect Research Center are defective, which in this world suggests they didn’t develop correctly or fully in the pod (artificial womb), is actually a coverup for the truth that the children being researched are male. In the world of Sins of Our Mothers, only women exist. They know nothing of any other sex or type of human within their species. They’re taught in school that Mother Earth (the deity in the story) creates the “seeds of life” that bequeath posterity to all living things, including humans/women.
Between now and fifteen hundred years in the future when the story takes place, women seized control of the government, all scientific research, and education. In order to establish world peace, they had to erase the existence of men who ruled unjustly from the beginning of time. They accomplished this by removing them from society, keeping them contained in remote settlements around the globe, and harvesting their sperm for IVF-style pod impregnation. They created a fictional story around this to convince future women the seeds that fertilized their eggs simply came from special plants in the earth.
Of course, to maintain this façade, they still needed women’s pods to bear male children for sperm production. Part of the lie they created is that any child born with a male body simply didn’t develop correctly in the pod and needs to be sent into research where they can be raised and controlled by the government. Instead of being labeled male, those children are labeled defective.
- How long did it take you to create a world around your protagonist and antagonist?
From the first draft to publication was around eight years. It was especially tricky to get the antagonist just right. In this particular story, the antagonist is not only the mighty military general, Sarah Love, and other women in power, it’s also a concept, a theory, a political philosophy.
The protagonist, Lyratelle Faith, is a hyper-observant woman with a particular appreciation for, and devotion to, truth and agency. Her enemies are anyone forcing onto her and those she loves beliefs contrary to those she most cherishes, as well as any philosophy that preaches something other than truth and agency as the primary pillars of excellence.
In past drafts, Lyratelle faced a variety of antagonists. Those portrayed in the final version of the book are the ones I felt best balanced the need for both human and theoretical antagonists. But, man, did it take time for me to get it right!
3. Does any of the book relate to your own life experiences?
In college, I made an astounding observation: nearly all my straight, married girlfriends, and those with a live-in boyfriend, were the sole providers in their relationships. This alone wasn’t all that strange. What was strange was that every single friend in this situation told me their husband or boyfriend was profoundly unhappy and had developed at least one addiction that was affecting their relationship. Though all relatively close to my age, these weren’t just friends here in the states. These were women of multiple ethnicities and cultures.
Some spoke English, some didn’t. Some had children, some didn’t. Some were students, some had mortgages, some were renting. Some lived with parents or in-laws. The one thing they all had in common was an unemployed adult man depending on their salary. The most bizarre detail was that not one of the women with children depended on her partner for childcare, even though he was home all day. They either relied on relatives or paid for professional childcare. They all blamed their partner’s addictions.
The men’s addictions ranged from simple things like alternate realities to more intense things like pornography and even detrimental things like alcohol and destructive drugs. Some of the men were students. Some were college graduates, some high school graduates. All had essentially disappeared from their families, their communities, and society—a trend I began to notice extended far outside my circle of contacts.
While several of these couples split or divorced, many pulled through and have progressed together. The fact that so many people precious to me—wonderful, intelligent people—intersected in this weird place all at once felt significant. I remember thinking, “These women literally do everything. They could just remove the men and their lives would remain the same, but without the stress of supporting a grown man and his addictions. All women really need from men is their sperm, right? Aside from that, are men even necessary?”
Settlement 1163 in the novel represents the struggles of these men and others I’ve met since. Lilac City, where the women live, represents those and all women who bear and raise their children, as well as support their families, alone. While the burden of supporting men in their homes is gone, they still, unknowingly, support the men in the settlements through taxes. But the emotional burden of feeling like they do everything alone doesn’t exist in the book because the only world the characters know is a completely female one.
The first draft of Sins of Our Mothers sent me on an arduous journey where I discovered for myself that, not only are men necessary, but masculinity is infinitely more valuable than those currently in power would have us believe. There’s a lot of talk nowadays about toxic masculinity. What’s not being talked about is how essential masculinity is to a free, successful, harmonious society. If we’re to live truly free, achieve our potential as the twenty-first century generation of the human family, and ensure future generations can liberally pursue happiness, we need good men.The final draft of the book is, I hope, a depiction of what I learned along that journey
Nicole, you have mentioned so many things that has created within me a desire to read your book. It sounds very engaging. I thank you also for the excerpt that I will post at the end of our discussion. Let’s take a few minutes to talk about your writing habits.
- Some writers write in the morning, others at night, and then others in the afternoon. When do you take the time to write?
I wish I could say I get up early, go for a jog, and get my writing done in the morning. Alas, I’m a sluggish, lifelong insomniac, so I write most productively in the evening or at night. I typically collect my thoughts throughout the day, making a mental outline of what I’ll work on. Finally, when my body and mind are fully awake several hours in, I sit and focus on getting those thoughts written down. This usually lasts well into the night. In fact, the only times I do write in the morning are when I notice the sunrise lighting my window and tell myself it’s time to stop and go to bed.
- Is it important for you to write every day? And if it is, why is it important?
Writing every day is a lofty goal. While I do try to dedicate time each day to honing the craft, resetting my mind and eyes is essential to completing any project. Sometimes, after distancing myself from a project for a few days, I’m able to see much better where it’s lacking. If I’m truly dedicated to telling a story, a day or two of rest doesn’t set me back. I’ve found rest actually propels me forward.
I strive to always have a side project to work on. That way, I can write a little without the pressure of getting it just right and simply enjoy the practice. I’ve written a few one-draft short stories with a specific reader in mind. When finished, I send the story to the muse knowing they’ll get some enjoyment out of it. Et voila! I’ve met my goal for the day.
I never beat myself up for missing a day. Writing can’t become a chore. If it starts to weigh me down, I step back, and reevaluate where I’ve got it wrong. Often, the answer is to give it a few days, work on myself for a bit, and dive back in when the time is right.
- Let’s talk about your writer’s voice. How did you develop it? Did it matter to you to find your own voice?
Having my own writer’s voice is important to me. I don’t want to sound like another author. Though being able to imitate the greats would be an accomplishment of sorts, it wouldn’t be my accomplishment. Writing, for me, isn’t like being a classical concert pianist. I don’t want my recitals to be the same songs, played with the same techniques, audiences have been listening to for centuries. Yes, they can still enjoy and be moved by those songs, but the performer has to produce the joy the audience feels. And I find more joy in creating something completely new than trying to redo what others have done.
That’s not to say I’m not often tripped up by clichés and lazy writing. I do occasionally find myself using expressions past writers popularized. It’s challenging to freshly express a common feeling or reaction. It’s also not to say I don’t recognize and appreciate those who blazed the trail for stories to be told so easily nowadays. All writers today stand on the shoulders of giants.
I’m still developing my writer’s voice. As I engage in projects of varying genres and points of view, I typically struggle to hear myself at the start. As I get going, I discover ways to showcase the unique qualities of my writing. It’s such an awesome moment when you see both story and storytelling becoming completely yours.
I’ve learned to patiently allow myself as many failures as it takes to get it right, and inch along. There’s a critic around every corner, ready and anxious to tell us where we got it wrong. It’s up to us, individually, to track how far we’ve come, to remind ourselves how far back we started, and how much we can still improve. Maximum potential is never reached without growing pains.
- How do you get to know your own characters? Do you write out a character profile or do you just start writing?
For me, character development is the most fun, yet daunting, aspect of storytelling. In the beginning, I just started writing. As the first draft of the novel developed, I learned I needed a system to help me get to know the characters better. I often didn’t know how one would react in a scene, what they would say, or what they even believed. To assist my chaotic brain, I developed a system I call SPEMPARFS, an acronym for: spiritual, physical, emotional, mental, psychological, artistic, romantic, financial, and social.
This is in order of importance as I like to get to know my characters in a certain way. That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes know a character’s physical traits or financial status first, it just means when fleshing out a character, this works great for me.
I begin with a character’s spirituality because it will tell me more about them than anything else and inform other attributes. I end with their social life because that’s when I’m ready to have them interact with other characters. Knowing their social status and personality helps a ton with dialogue! Most importantly, I can establish how that character is viewed by other characters, and how she views them.
Here are a few questions I ask myself in each category when developing a character:
- Spiritual: What are the character’s fundamental beliefs? Is she steady in them or figuring them out? Is her spirituality relevant to the story? What aspects of her belief system need to be included? How do her beliefs inform her behavior? What’s her inner drive? Does that change throughout the story? What deities exist in her world? What’s her relationship to them?
- Physical: What does she look like? How tall is she? What is she physically capable of? Does she struggle with her health? What scenes will showcase her physical abilities or lack thereof? Does she have a healthy relationship to food? Does her physical health inform any talents? What are her physical goals? What color are her eyes and hair? Does she have any scars? How did she get them? What’s her lineage and ethnicity? Do her reproductive organs function well? How does her menstrual cycle affect her?
- Emotional: Establish a default emotional state. What sets her off? What excites her? What makes her cry? Does she cry often? Does she struggle to express emotion? Does emotion drive most of her choices? Does she have control of herself? Is she balanced? Temperate? Which are her most common emotions? What’s her typical daily mood and what most often changes it?
- Mental: Is she formally educated? What did she study? Is she street smart? Does she speak more than one language? Is she a good teacher? Does she thirst for knowledge? Does she care how the world works? Is technology important to her? If the story is fantasy, and school as we know it doesn’t exist, what programs helped her gain knowledge and experience? Is she a master in those? Did she fall below average?
- Psychological: Is this character straightforward? Manipulative? What mental illnesses run in her family? What about her past informs her psyche? Is she stable in relationships? Confident? What comforts her when scared or alone? Can she be trusted with the tasks required to reach the story’s end goal? Could her psychological struggles become strengths used to achieve her goals? What terrifies her?
- Artistic: Everyone is an artist. Everyone creates something, even if just a concept. How is this character artistic? Is she an architect? Painter? Songwriter? Does she play an instrument? Does she express herself through dance? Does she want to change the world somehow? Which of her talents could help? What are her dreams? What keeps her up at night?
- Romantic: What is her romantic status? What characteristics does she look for in a mate? Is she in a stable marriage? Does marriage as we know it exist in her world? What bothers her about her current romantic situation? Is she afraid of romance? How does her body react to attractive potential partners? Is she driven by sexual desire? Is she a virgin? Is sex sacred to her?
- Financial: How does she make a living? What’s her home like? Her neighborhood? Does she rent? Are there new forms of currency in the story? What’s her status in her society? Is she comfortable where she’s at? Is she ashamed of her poverty? Prideful about her wealth? Embarrassed of how she’s made money in the past? Is she honest in her financial dealings?
- Social: Who’s in her inner circle? Is she outgoing? Shy? Where does she meet up with friends? Does she trust them? Does she hang around shady people? How do her friends influence her decisions? Does peer pressure sway her? Does she get along with her coworkers? Boss? Neighbors? Family? Is she important in society? Is she respected? Is she a nobody? How does this change throughout the story?
Even after completing the SPEMPARFS, I refer to them often throughout the revision process.
5. I’ve heard some writers say that reading is not important to them or they don’t have the time to read. Is reading important to you and do you read other authors or only authors in your genre?
I love to read. It definitely makes me a better writer. When I see how other authors set up heartbreaking moments or compile little details into a mind-blowing reveal, I’m inspired to discover ways to give my readers similar experiences.
I love dystopian novels, the genre Sins of Our Mothers fits into. The Giver by Lois Lowry was one of the first full novels I read, and it captivated me in ways nothing else ever has. The idea that I could make an argument by illustrating through storytelling what the world would look like if the opposite of my argument came true was inexplicably beautiful to my young mind.
I do, however, venture out of this genre often. I enjoy romance, horror, mystery, psychological twists that move me in unexpected ways, really anything that keeps my attention until the end. I’ve even been profoundly inspired by manga, which is about as different of a storytelling artform as you can get from Sins of Our Mothers. To me, the ultimate success as a writer would be to create a character as impactful as Levi Ackerman from Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama, my favorite fictional character of all time. From his backstory in the underground to his later encounters with the beast titan, his entire character arc is just phenomenal.
I think reading for a writer is a lot like eating for a chef; you improve the more you experiment. Just because someone specializes in Italian cuisine doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy, and be inspired by, excellent Thai food. There’s no way every possible combination of seasonings will ever be achieved, which just means there’s no limit to a person’s capacity for creation.
Beautiful! Thank you for taking the time to be specific about your writing habits. By the way, I too believe that writers must read. We can learn so much from another author.
Thanks for dropping by, Nicole and for my readers, an excerpt of Sins of Our Mothers is posted below.
Juley 17, 1513 P.C.
“Oh, glorious Mother Earth.”
Grace’s mother, Faye Angels, who diligently served as Prophetess to the northeast region of Lilac City, fell to her knees with a theatrical sigh. “How generous You are to Your creatures. We’re unworthy to touch Your soil.” She dug her fingertips in the dirt. “Yet we do so that we may be filled with Your goodness.”
Lyratelle grimaced across the circle at Grace, who responded with a shrewd grin. The most dedicated worshipers in the circle, the true believers, wore ceremonial sackcloth dresses wrapped twice around their bodies, secured by a half-inch rope, homemade from twelve lines of twine. They decorated their untamed hair with wildflowers every morning before service and formed a circle around Faye, who led them in a verse of “How Great You Are” before regular citizens arrived to recite the ceremonial prayer.
Lyratelle attended worship once a month—the minimum requirement before being fined for shirking her duties as an inhabitant of Mother Earth. She couldn’t stomach more than that.
Faye looked to the pale sky, raised fistfuls of dirt over her head, and hummed as it rained down upon her. “I bathe in Your magnificent soil that yields the seeds of life. Let it cleanse me.” The dirt and wildflowers clinging to her hair created the illusion that a garden grew from her head. The remaining dirt on her hands she rubbed over her shoulders and arms.
The women surrounding her, including Lyratelle and Grace, fell to their knees. The dirt was soft and cool on Lyratelle’s ankles and the tops of her feet. They gathered handfuls of dirt and sprinkled them over their heads while repeating in unison, “I bathe in Your magnificent soil that yields the seeds of life. Let it cleanse me.” Lyratelle, of course, only mouthed the words, refusing to participate in the ways she could control.
She did, however, appreciate the beauty of the Chapel Garden, the “holiest” room in the church. It was essentially an enclosed sandbox filled with soft, fresh dirt. Flowers in decorative pots were placed along the walls. Smaller pots hung in every corner. The ceiling was convertible. When closed, it was a tented tarp guiding rain or snow to the gutter. When open, it revealed the morning sky. Lyratelle loved the orange and purple stripes remaining from sunrise.
“We thank You,” Faye trembled with passion, “on behalf of all Your creatures, for the seeds Your miraculous being produces, graciously given, which bequeath posterity.”
“We thank You,” the women sang, rubbing the excess dirt on their shoulders and arms.
“We thank You on behalf of plants and insects.”
The women echoed, “We thank You on behalf of plants and insects.”
“On behalf of fishes and fouls.”
“On behalf of fishes and fouls.”
“On behalf of beasts and women.”
“On behalf of beasts and women.”
“We ask that You continue producing the seeds of life. Help our brave sisters, the Harvesters, to find and gather them safely. Oh, Mother Earth, lead them to healthy seeds, that they may avoid defectives.” She cupped both hands around her face and inhaled the scent of the soil. “Today, we include a special prayer for the Harvesters injured in the explosion yesterday. Heal them. Bless them. Ease their pain.”
The women repeated, “Heal them. Bless them. Ease their pain.”
“This is our prayer,” Faye concluded. “Amen.”
While the others chorused “Amen,” Lyratelle breathed a sigh of relief.