Interview With Author Carolyn Tara O'Neil
From debut author Carolyn Tara O'Neil comes a thrilling alternate history set during the Russian Revolution. I recently chatted with Carolyn about her book, Daughters of a Dead Empire, and her writing process.
I see that your debut, Daughters of a Dead Empire, is a retelling of the Anastasia story. What inspired you to do this retelling?
That’s right! I love the legend of Anastasia, but it was really the stories of everyday people in Russia at the time that inspired me most. I felt it was only right to tell the (mythical) tale of the grand duchess’s survival by juxtaposing it with that of peasants who endured her father the Tsar’s rule.
That’s how I ended up writing DAUGHTERS in dual-POV. There are two protagonists: Anastasia, who has just escaped her family’s massacre, and Evgenia, a peasant communist girl who wants a better life for her people. As they are forced to fight their way across Russia in the middle of the Revolution, we get to see how two girls from diametrically-opposed backgrounds might come together and learn to trust each other during such a tense moment of conflict.
This novel is set in 1918 Russia. How did you research that location and time period?
Starting in the spring of 2013, I became a little obsessed with Russian Revolutionary history. I’d never studied it in school or college. But that year I happened to pick up a book called A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes. It’s about 1,000 pages long but reads like a novel, and it captivated me.
After that I read everything I could get my hands on! You can see a selection here of some of the books I read. This gave me basic background knowledge when I started actually writing DAUGHTERS OF A DEAD EMPIRE. Then, while drafting, I marked about a million items that I knew I would have to go back and double-check – for example, the kinds of dishes that might be in a peasant house in that region, the materials a girl’s dress might be made of, the languages Anastasia spoke, and so on. I didn’t let it slow me down during the drafting process, though. I just made a note to come back later.
The danger of that approach is you don’t know what you don’t know — you know? That caught me up a few times. For example, my editor Mekisha Telfer had to tell me there are no skunks in Russia. And I happened upon a Tweet that mentioned Russian Orthodox churches don’t have pews (they do in the US!) so I had to rewrite a scene. And my authenticity readers flagged so many things for me that made the book a thousand times stronger.
But all of those corrections were a joy! It was in writing this book that I discovered how much I love history. I’d never known that about myself before.
What was your process for writing Daughters of a Dead Empire?
I’m a big believer in routines. I wrote the first draft of DAUGHTERS over the course of 18 months or so. Every Sunday I went to a cafe near my apartment, and sat there for anywhere from 4 hours (a tough day) to 8 hours (a great day) scribbling away. By 2015 I had a full first draft — and a writing routine that worked for me.
So I kept going back. Kept revising, kept writing. I held that Sunday writing session sacred in my calendar. Today it is still a weekly commitment that I do everything possible to maintain. It’s one of my favorite parts of the week, and it helps me get a ton of writing done.
What was the path for publishing Daughters of a Dead Empire?
I love this question! Everyone’s paths are so different, and I learn something every time an author shares their story. So here’s mine:
By 2017 I thought it was time to start querying DAUGHTERS. I put together a strong query letter and started sending it out. I got almost no responses. After about 20 queries and 20 rejections, I figured I needed help. I applied to the Author Mentor Match program, and through that I met my wonderful mentor, J. Albert Mann, author of the exquisite YA novels Fix and The Degenerates, among others.
Jen helped me revise the manuscript, which was the real problem — not my query letter. She gave me the courage to rewrite the whole thing in dual-POV, as my latest draft had only Evgenia’s POV. That turned out to be just what was missing.
In late 2018 I queried again. I queried about 50 agents over the course of 4 months, before receiving two offers and signing with Andrea Somberg of Harvey Klinger. Andrea and I went on sub in early 2019, and amazingly, we sold it pretty quickly. But in the quirky way of publishing, it took three years to bring the book to shelves — and it’s now coming February 22, just a few weeks away!!
Where can people find Daughters of a Dead Empire?
It’s available for preorder now! Head on over here for purchase links.
Is there another story you’d like to do a retelling of?
So many! The one that’s been tickling my brain of late is Robin Hood, which is pretty on brand for me since DAUGHTERS is all about income inequality. But I have to say it was the setting, rather than the Anastasia tale, that drew me in, and that continues to be my natural inclination. I’ve got ideas for stories in Ancient Sparta, 1960s Harlem, medieval England, modern rural Japan, and even 2200s Ganymede! For me, it’s setting that captivates above all.
What's a piece of advice you’d give to aspiring authors?
Find your routine. Some people do their best writing every day at home, while others, like me, get it done in weekly sessions and need to get out of the house to focus. Every author is creative in their own unique way. Figure out what works best for you — where and when and how you write most enjoyably and effectively. Then stick with it!
Where’s the best place to follow you?
You can find me on Twitter @CarolynTara! I’m also on Instagram @carolyntaraoneil.