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Interviewing Disa Dawn: Stone Cold Mortal – Book 1 of the Tennesse England Series
1. Where did your writing career begin?
As a kid, I fell in love with legends, folklore, and fairytales. I loved reading about impossible things, things that couldn’t happen (or don’t happen often). I think I was always writing in my head, but it wasn’t until I took a creative writing class my freshman year at the University of Guam that my passion for storytelling went from embers to wildfire.
My professor was a poet and she would whack a stick against her desk as she read poems or lines of prose. There was something so enchanting about how she gave words a heartbeat, and story breath. I wanted to do that.
2. What inspired you to write about Tennessee England and her adventures?
I’d always planned on writing a Pacific Islander heroine. And I had an idea percolating for some time about incorporating a mortician and death care into a novel. Then our family lost a good friend of ours and I wanted to honour his incredible spirit. But I wasn’t sure how to mix it all together until the summer of 2016.
That summer I was meditating and suddenly felt a powerful urge to visit a cemetery near our home. I packed a lunch, gathered the kiddos into the car, and drove to the cemetery. We ate and read names and paid our respects like we usually do. But there was one grave that I kept going back to. It just felt familiar, like an old friend was buried there. In our culture, we have a ritual of asking permission from spirits before walking on their land or picking fruit, that sort of thing. I asked this spirit if I could take a charcoal rubbing of her gravestone. She was all right with it, so I finished the rubbing, went home, and the next day the draw to go back intensified. It was weird and a little spooky, but I live for that!
I spent tons of time that summer sitting beside that grave, listening, talking, imagining. In the mix of grief and life, in that cemetery, Tennessee England and Godzilla were born. Everything started with their friendship. I’d say the entire series is really about friendship and the connections we share just trying to survive everyday life. I tossed in some demons because everyone has them.
Tons of freaky things happened after that summer: a minor car accident led me to a mortician, a bout with breast cancer led me to a Reiki master/medium who then led me to a witch; the same witch who summoned me to the cemetery that day. Lots of fuel to keep Tennessee going!
3. When writing Stone Cold Mortal, what surprised you the most when writing it?
How quickly it flowed. I wrote the first draft of SCM in about two months. That’s incredibly fast for me. My first book took me seven years to get to “the end”. Maybe it’s because I approached SCM with a different mindset. I set out to write something fun, an easy but fulfilling, read.
My goal was to gift the reader a bit of escape, while still addressing themes that pop up in daily life: picking up the kids, struggling to pay bills, grief, friendship, love. So, in a way, I also set myself free as a writer. I wasn’t trying to write a certain type of book. I just went with the flow.
4. You qualified in Psychology, what made you jump from the academic to the world of fantasy and the supernatural?
I really struggled with the decision to abandon pursuing a graduate degree in Transpersonal Psychology for an MFA in Creative Writing. Naropa University offered both and I was determined to go there. As an undergrad at the University of Guam, I was involved in qualitative research, and after graduation, I volunteered as a research assistant for a professor of Clinical Psychology. Along with another professor, we authored a paper that was published in the South Pacific Journal of Psychology. I was deeply in love with the rigour, gathering stories, uncovering themes, all the late nights, and volumes of texts to sift through. And the libraries!
It’s not such a stretch when I really think about it. My love of stories and the human condition transferred nicely into the world of fiction and writing, too. I was writing a novel at the time, tinkering with style and voice. I learned early on that the supernatural is part of my gristle and marrow; even when I set out to write something firmly rooted in the “real world” (what is that?), it still ended up on the far end of magical realism. It’s just where my mind naturally lives. But there came a point where writing alone in the void wasn’t pushing me to grow. So, I made the decision to pursue an MFA for the rigour of learning writing as a craft.
In an alternate universe, I submitted my Transpersonal Psychology application and am totally churning out research papers with a zany crew!
5. Do you relate to Tennessee England at all, if so, how?
I relate to her innate sense of duty to family and friends. She’s a natural caretaker. I’m a mom, wife, daughter, a middle child, and doting auntie, so I have a lot of nurturing time built into my day. It’s a juggle. I’m not as bold as Tennessee and I don’t think she should be smoking or running red lights. But she doesn’t play games, she speaks from her heart, she tends to what needs to be done. I try to live my life like that.
6. You have written other works: the Seekin Trilogy – do you think that your Stone Cold Mortal readers would like it?
I’m curious about that myself. I consider SCM lighter in many ways, probably a faster read. The style is straightforward, we’re following Tennessee as she discovers this new world and her place in it. Piper Laurel, the heroine of the Seekin Trilogy, walks a similar path, but it winds a bit more. I believe most books cross genres. The Seekin Trilogy crossed them intentionally, mixing in the literary style of vignettes with urban fantasy; perspectives flip and the reader is asked to bridge those connections with a little mental gymnastics.
But, ultimately, it’s the story of a woman who realizes her potential and her role in protecting her family and friends. Piper’s fierce, too. I love her! It just takes me longer to write her story. There’s a feeling of sorrow I tap into when writing Piper and it’s harder to stay in the deep end, but I’ve been wading in. The second book in the trilogy, Of Ash and Snow, is almost ready for my editor. Stay tuned!
7. What sort of research did you do to write up demonology in SCM? Or is this completely made up in the universe?
The demonology in SCM came out as I wrote it, and that includes the work I did just sitting and thinking in the cemetery in the summer of 2016. There’s so much about writing that takes place just in the mind. The imagination is always percolating. Our minds take in everything, even when we’re not trying to, so when the blank page is in front of you, stuff pours out, old stuff, new stuff, it’s all there on the page. It’s like a sort of divination. And everyone has this power, this extraordinary ability to create and communicate.
When world-building I enjoy working with constraints. Without them, it can be challenging to focus my thoughts. Giving Tennessee limits was a crucial aspect to developing the demonology. These “fantasy rules” solidified in the editing process. My copyeditor, Tara Blaine, is brilliant! If I broke one of my own rules, she was on me. So, I hammered them out and it became our guide. But if Empress Zaada decides to screw with Tennessee, well, those rules don’t apply! That’s the beauty of creating rules, you can break them too.
I actually did tons more research on the death care industry, morticians, green burial options, and the death positive movement. I attended the Death Salon Seattle in 2017 and that’s when I decided to include alternative burial options and Tennessee’s advocacy in death positivity.
8. To budding writers, what’s the best piece of advice you could give them, regardless of whether they self-publish or want to have an agent?
Before quarantine, I spoke with a classroom of fifth graders about my writing and editing process. I was not at all surprised to hear so many of them talk about how they wanted to write but felt they weren’t good at it. I was that kid. Heck, I’m still that kid.
Be kind to yourself. Your story matters. You matter. What you say to yourself matters. Practice. Writing is like anything else worth learning: playing an instrument, training for a sport, baking bread. You have to practice. Above all, just be yourself, you’re pretty damn good at that already!
9. Without giving away too much in the series, do you think you will release some background shorts on the ghost bound to Tennessee England, as he seems to have a potentially huge backstory?
Yes! That’s been an exciting offshoot. I have 10 books in the main series planned (likely more). In addition, each main crew member will get a book; an origin story from before they met Tennessee leading up to their friendship. I can’t wait to dive into Sho’s and Lin’s especially. I also plan to release holiday books: a Halloween adventure, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Day, etc.
I love writing this series, and hope to explore a graphic novel version too!
10. Do you have another book coming out/what’s the next project?
Fruit Bats in the Belfry, the fourth Tennessee adventure comes out this winter (cross everything!). I’m writing book five, Love Thy Demon now. And I’m in the middle of selecting a narrator for the SCM audiobook. That’s been fun!
I’m also working on a book of legends. I’m really passionate about that one. I’ve been reimagining legends from home. My goal is to make them suitable for adults and children. So, my kiddos will be hearing lots of new legends this year.
It’s been my dream to indie publish books featuring underrepresented, diverse heroines and characters. I’m excited to be actively adding my voice to that conversation. And I’m so grateful to my readers! It’s been amazing hearing how Tennessee made you laugh or cry or escape reality for a bit.
Thank you for supporting me and other indie authors!