Issue 042 Author Interview: Dana Berube and “The White Place”

Welcome to another Issue 042 author interview, dear readers! Today we chat with Dana Berube about her story “The White Place.”

LSQ: This is a wonderfully intense story! What was the inspiration for it?

Dana: Thank you! So, Ti is one of the protagonists of a fantasy trilogy I’m writing. The idea for this story was sparked by a line in one of those novels, set many years later, where he grudgingly confesses to a friend, “I never sold myself…but I perhaps bartered a few times.” In that novel, Ti’s circumstances are improved, but he’s still trying to fill that empty place within himself. I wanted to explore how moments in his past led him to be the man he is in the present, where he desperately wants to connect with people but still struggles to do so.

I also wanted to explore a failure of intersectionality. In fantasy, prejudice against magical beings has sometimes been used as a metaphor for some other kind of injustice. I’ve never seen the point in keeping it metaphorical. Ti lives in a messy colonial empire that is churning with inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-wizard hatred. As Ti reflects, his society’s prejudice against wizardry and homosexuality take different forms but stem from the same place. Logically, he and Berron should be allies. However, as we see in our own world, that’s often not how things work out. Systemic oppression grinds people down and keeps us fighting among one another for scraps. Berron isn’t a bad person; he’s just someone who found his own safe corner of an unkind world and never risked peeking beyond it. And for Ti, being both queer and a wizard just leaves him even more isolated.

I don’t claim to have any answers or lessons to share about these big issues. Most of my writing is me trying to work through it all for myself.

LSQ: There are a lot of interesting tidbits of a larger world sprinkled through this piece. Do you think you’ll write in this world again?

Dana: Absolutely! It’s a big world that I’ve put a lot of time and love into. I’ve got maps! As mentioned above, this story is a standalone piece that is part of a much larger project that includes a novella and a trilogy of novels, set years later than this story. In the novella, Ti’s past as the exiled scion of a wealthy family and his quest for love and stability again collide, but this time with a much bigger bang. His attempts to repair the damage he’s done spark the three books of the trilogy (and more broken hearts and explosions).

I am currently querying the first book in the trilogy, and I’d love to find a home for the novella.

LSQ: Ti is a fascinating main character, and his awkward relationship with Berron feels so relatable. How do you approach characterization? What was the first thing you thought of when you came up with Ti?

Dana: Ti has existed in my head in one form or another since I was in fourth grade (he was originally a cat-sized talking horse who could fly and do magic—yes, really). In his later incarnations, I’ve tried to take the archetypical strong, handsome, sword- and magic-wielding fantasy hero and deconstruct him. I’ve always been curious about the psychological scars that fantasy adventures would leave on the characters who live through them. And surely depressed and traumatized people can be fantasy heroes too? Ti is a powerful wizard who ultimately up-ends a kingdom, but he’s also deeply hurting inside.

In this story, he’s not yet a roguish hero, deconstructed or otherwise. He doesn’t have a sword. He doesn’t have anything. He’s just a hungry kid trying to outrun himself. One artistic choice I made to emphasize that was to have him think of himself as just “Ti” instead of his usual “Tiberius.” Those extra syllables are too heavy for someone who’d rather dissolve their sense of self into nothing.

I don’t have any set methods for characterization, but since I’m an artist, drawing the characters is a big part of how I try to “find” them. Do they come out looking cheeky or haunted? Do they dress a certain way, and why? I tend to let projects marinate for years before I put a pen to paper, so by then I usually feel like I know the characters pretty well. Of course, sometimes I’ll think I have a solid grasp on a character, and as soon as Istart writing, the character flips the script. I’ve had bad guys turn into good guys, genders and species change, you name it.

LSQ: Tell us a bit about your other writing projects. 

Dana: Quarantine did something unexpected to my brain. After working on speculative fiction for the past twelve years and assuming that was my lane, my brain went, hey! Let’s write a realist fiction novella! It’s focused on the same themes I often write about—relationships, trauma, mental health struggles, and found family—just without any wizards (…yet). Writing non-fantasy has been funny because I keep accidentally defaulting to metaphors about swords and kings for characters who live in modern-day Boston. I don’t know if it will go anywhere, but if the novella does nothing other than keep me sane during these odd times, I’ll be satisfied.

I have a short story about a pair of near-future, empty-nester Mongolian herders who adopt a Chinese reconnaissance drone coming out in Zombies Need Brains’ MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT IS GETTING DARK anthology in July. I’m incredibly excited to be a part of that with so many other great writers. I’ve also got a bunch of other ideas percolating, including some short stories set in this world and an unrelated fantasy novel about revenge, power, and linguistics!