The Usonian Interviews, No. 10: Speculative fiction writer Leanne Howard
On navigating the fantasy genre and telling old stories in new ways
In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a new storyteller or artist from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with speculative fiction writer Leanne Howard about her writing process and her interest in the genres of fantasy and romance. Learn more about her work at leannehoward.com.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
THE USONIAN: Your literary work often involves the fantasy genre, featuring romantic elements. How do these genres interact in your writing life, and why do you choose to write in these worlds?
LEANNE HOWARD: Fantasy romance, as opposed to contemporary romance, offers higher stakes for the characters, because it’s really hard to write a contemporary romance where, if the couple doesn’t get together, the world might end. That’s just not how it goes.
But in fantasy that’s totally possible; that [element] could be worked into the story. I like that the outcome of the romantic plot or subplot could be something with such high stakes.
As far as inspiration, I think magic as a concept offers so many possibilities for real-world metaphor. In one of my stories, a character suffers from chronic pain. The story involves magic, with a deal-with-a-devil kind of situation. A lot of real-world people who have chronic pain, myself included, might imagine that [narrative] as a metaphor for lived experience. It definitely seems like a lot of medications are a Faustian bargain.
I like how different people can read something in a fantasy setting and be like, oh, you know, the devil was a metaphor for the disease, or the devil was a metaphor for doctors, or the devil is a metaphor for yourself, and how you treat yourself when you’re in pain. There’s room for different interpretations, which I enjoy. I like hearing from readers that they took something completely different away from the story than I intended. Hopefully, it’s not [because of] confusion. I don’t want that. But it’s cool when readers give the story a new meaning.
TU: What’s your writing process? Are you someone who writes every day?
LH: I do not write every day. I spent a long time beating myself up for that thinking like, it’s never going to happen unless I get that level of discipline. I don’t think that’s true—that’s a misconception a lot of people get from reading other people’s advice.
I go through periods of productivity, and then periods of drought. And when I am productive, I can write really fast. I think I’ve written up to 8,000 words a day in those periods. But when I’m in a drought, I spend a lot of time thinking about my next project [while] not writing anything down.
Once I learned that about myself, I tried to use those moments wisely, and acknowledge that it’s okay to be in a drought, as long as I’m letting the ideas gestate.
Recently I started using an Excel spreadsheet to set my own deadlines, which I never did before. And then I map out every writing day between the time of making the spreadsheet until the deadline, and I’ll try to decide what my word count goal is for each of these days. That has helped me a lot because the simple act of tracking it made me stay true to it as much as I could. And that was how I actually finished the rough draft of my longest project, my novel-length project [the summer of 2020]. So I’m like, okay, the Excel spreadsheet method? Gotta use it again.
TU: What made you want to be a writer, and what have been formative moments in your writing development?
LH: I think a lot of writers say this, and it’s sort of a cop-out. But they can’t remember not wanting to be a writer, in some form. If I had to pin it down, I would say that reading made me want to be a writer.
I feel really lucky because my mom is a retired elementary school librarian. When I was a kid, she would bring me books from her library all the time, and I could read them for free, and she would just return them the next day.
I never went without a vast supply of books without us having to buy them, which was great for me at the time. Though a lot of what I read at that time was fantasy, the kind of fantasy that had a renaissance in the 1980s and 90s, written by women with a lot of female main characters. And for me, those stories were really relatable. I loved stories of these girls growing up and having adventures. After a while, I was like, I want to use my imagination to take the same idea, but apply it to a world of my own invention.
TU: On a related note, are their writers you consider as your influences on your work?
LH: A lot of those early fantasy authors I read are definitely still influences on my writing, such as Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce. I recently picked up one of the [McKinley’s] books that I had loved as a kid. And I was like, oh my god, this is so related to my style now, in a way that surprised me a lot. I hadn’t thought that I was drawing from her that much, but she just has a tendency to really elaborate on setting or a character’s internal thoughts. I realized I do that too. It was startling to re-read a book that had influenced me so much and realize that still, to this day, it’s in my head.
TU: Are you working on any projects that you’re excited about right now?
LH: My goal right now is to write a longer work, a novel-length fantasy romance. I’m playing with the idea of self-publishing it and seeing how it goes. This is the struggle for anyone writing fantasy and romance—deciding whether you want to follow the traditional publication route, or do you want to self-publish? These are genres that could work in the indie format. So it’s very tempting.
There are all sorts of stories of people who make six figures and live a comfy life writing self-published books. There’s also a part of me that’s like, I want to try for a book in the traditional route first, because you never know.
I’m trying to tell myself, this project has lower stakes, because it might just be something I put online and see what happens. It’s a fantasy romance. It has a secondary world setting that involves demons, which seems to be a theme for me.
TU: Do you have any advice for young writers who might be interested in writing in fantasy or in romance?
LH: I guess I’d have two pieces of advice. And my first piece of advice would be only take the advice that works for you, and disregard the rest.
So often, as a young writer, I was deeply influenced by writerly advice from writers whom I admired. That’s normal, like they’re doing the thing you dream of doing, so of course you’re going to try to find out how they did it.
But my second piece of advice relates to this. Follow your gut and intuition to write about the things that you love. That’s advice I wish I had heard at a younger age, because a lot of my time as a developing writer was spent obsessing over being original, and doing something that had never been done before.
I believe that was the only way you could make it as a writer. Now that I’m older, I think that that is impossible. All writing draws from what came before, especially in the fantasy romance genre.
I need to lean into certain tropes. A lot of advice runs contrary to that. Worry less about being completely original, because every story has been written. Instead focus on why you’re drawn to that story, what you specifically bring to it. Then you can make it your own.
TU: Are you reading anything now that you’d like to recommend?
LH: I recently finished reading Loving Day by Matt Johnson. It was a great genre-bending book, because it’s about a character whose father dies, and he has to return to Pennsylvania to inherit this decaying mansion that his dad had purchased to fix up and sell and make money on the turnaround. But his dad never got to it. And so now the protagonist has a decaying mansion that needs to be restored, which is going to be really expensive. Then he finds out that he has a daughter he didn’t know about. He’s also biracial, and his daughter was raised to believe that she was white. The novel deals with so many different things—the loss of his father and the attempt to get his daughter to be familiar with her more diverse background. It’s funny, it’s very poignant, and it covers so many bases, but it was also fun and a quick read.
I also wanted to plug a podcast I really like, called My Imaginary Friends by L. Penelope. She writes fantasy romance, and she also talks in her podcast about writing process a lot. It’s a great podcast for fantasy romance fans or writers.
Leanne Howard is a writer of speculative fiction who divides her time between the Great Basin of Northern Nevada and Brooklyn, NY. When she isn't writing, she can be found teaching, reading, cooking, or re-watching her favorite period dramas. Her stories have been published on NewMyths.com and in Typehouse Literary Magazine, including "Heavenly Bodies," a 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her latest publication is "Seven Beacons Burning," out Fall 2021 in Luna Station Quarterly. Find her online at leannehoward.com or @leannehoweird.