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Needle and thread

Five questions with Rowenna Miller

At Breaking the Glass Slipper, we love innovative genre fiction. Rowenna Miller’s debut novel, Torn, uses the traditionally feminine art of sewing as the basis for its magic system. We asked Rowenna how she fit so many different elements into the one novel, the background to her magic system, and her views on women in fantasy.

Romance, politics, and fantasy! That’s a lot to cram into one novel. Why did you want to include such a wide range of sub-genres within one title?

I’m not sure it occurred to me not to! Most people have many facets to their lives—at any given moment, I’m fulfilling a role as a writer, mother, professional, wife, friend, citizen, cat’s domestic employee, parishioner, military spouse…and those things aren’t distinct, discrete elements.  I don’t get to put being a parent in a box and set it on a shelf when I sit down to write! For the vast majority of people, the rest of life doesn’t get put on hold because of political turmoil or war—it just gets exponentially more complicated as the challenges of putting food on the table, raising kids, and helping Grandma out with her turnip harvest just got a lot harder.

Do you prefer magic systems with clearly defined rules or a more organic, mysterious approach? Why?

As a reader, I like both.  I can appreciate an intricate, heavily structured magical system, and I also enjoy reading more experiential treatments of magic. Both, for me as a reader, are about losing oneself in possibility—and there is possibility in both more scientific approaches to magic and in intuitive, artistic approaches.

For me as a writer, I tend to find myself drawn to linking the two, that what’s experienced organically might have rules, that what seems clearly defined might have a lot of mystery still bound up with the practice or understanding itself.  In particular with Torn, with a seamstress casting spells through sewing, I found myself comparing the magical system to clothing construction. There are rules; measurements, the grading of patterns, basic stitches. But there is also an extremely tactile, experience-based side—you don’t improve except by letting it become somewhat intuitive. You can first approach and learn either way.

Torn by Rowenna Miller

I did want to create a magical system that was a cottage industry, and that was traditionally feminine.  To clear one thing up that only gets touched on briefly in the books—in the eighteenth-century world I was inspired by, sewing isn’t actually solely a female trade, and male tailors were one of the most numerous professions! But I created a type of magic that was passed down mother to daughter (or similarly female-based relationships). I wanted to play with a system that wasn’t the most highly rated commodity in the world it occupied—most of the time, magic is a very desirable commodity and heavily linked to ruling classes.  In Torn, the magic isn’t powerful stuff, and it’s disregarded by most of the culture as backwater superstition.

Your magic system is based around sewing – a traditionally feminine art. Was the feminine aspect to the magic a deliberate choice or a by-product? Did you receive any push-back for writing such a feminine magic system?

I didn’t really get much pushback for either the feminine or the intimate nature of the magical system—in fact, a lot of readers found that the magic resonated with them as creators and crafters, that they appreciated seeing magical rendering depicted in a way quite similar to how they felt about knitting, woodwork, or baking. Anyone who’s geeky into any DIY hobby knows that there’s a little bit of magic in creating something.

What tropes around women in fantasy stories would you like to see retired? What would you like to see more of for female characters in fantasy?

I’m not sure I can think of any tropes that I don’t think can work, sometimes, when done well—the badass woman rocking a sword and eschewing all things girly to the feminine, sensual woman rocking some irresistible doe eyes.  Those tropes can be done well, or they can be tired and stale and offensive; to me, it all comes down to whether the character is fully developed, with sensitive attention paid to her goals and her world and how she processes and reacts to that world. You know, treating her like a real person. 😉  

The issue I have is when women aren’t included at all, to be honest—if anything needs to be retired, it’s the absence of women, and I think we’re getting there. I sometimes still see defenses based on “historical accuracy”—that this military fantasy can’t have women because women weren’t soldiers, that this political fantasy can’t have women because women weren’t politicians.  First, it’s fantasy—so you are in fact allowed to rewrite the gender norms of your imaginary society. But beyond that, I find a lot of inspiration for fantasy in history, and a whole range of study is busting myths of female absence in historical spaces wide open, showing where the women were, how they were involved—even in “male” pursuits. I’d love to see more women riding the middle ground between lady warriors and princesses, more farmers and military camp followers and politically active women and coffee shop owners.

Pitch us Torn! Why should we be reading your series?

How’s this—if what’s fun about fantasy to you is powerful magic duking it out on a grand scale, swords and horses and armor, people in high places, and really clear good vs evil story arcs, Torn is not for you. And that’s ok, and happy reading with something else! If, on the other hand, you like non-medieval settings, women’s perspectives, a protagonist with humble goals like building a business and caring for her family, and complicated ethical quandaries and questionable choices from all involved, you might just like Torn! Oh, and if you’re into clothes and sewing. There’s a LOT of silk.

Rowenna Miller

Rowenna Miller is Midwestern born and raised, and it turns out you can’t take the Indiana out of the girl. She has a Master’s in English Film and Literature because she can’t shut up about stories, and has taught and tutored writing. She is also a historical reenactor and seamstress, which partially inspired her debut novel, Torn. She lives in the Midwest with her husband, daughters, and two derpy cats.

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