Debut Club

The Debut Club: Jessica Cluess chats about A SHADOW BRIGHT AND BURNING

Swanky Seventeener Sarah Cannon recently chatted with Sweet Sixteener Jessica Cluess about her debut YA historical fantasy, A SHADOW BRIGHT AND BURNING (Random House, September 20, 2016).
shadow-bright-and-burning-cvr_finalAbout the Book
Henrietta Howel can burst into flames. 
Forced to reveal her power to save a friend, she’s shocked when instead of being executed, she’s invited to train as one of Her Majesty’s royal sorcerers.
Thrust into the glamour of Victorian London, Henrietta is declared the chosen one, the girl who will defeat the Ancients, bloodthirsty demons terrorizing humanity. She also meets her fellow sorcerer trainees, handsome young men eager to test her power and her heart. One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her.
But Henrietta Howel is not the chosen one. 
As she plays a dangerous game of deception, she discovers that the sorcerers have their own secrets to protect. With battle looming, what does it mean to not be the one? And how much will she risk to save the city—and the one she loves?
Find A SHADOW BRIGHT AND BURNING at Amazon, Random House, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.
cluess-author-photoAbout the Author
JESSICA CLUESS is a writer, a graduate of Northwestern University, and an unapologetic nerd. After college, she moved to Los Angeles, where she served coffee to the rich and famous while working on her first novel. When she’s not writing books, she’s an instructor at Writopia Lab, helping kids and teens tell their own stories. Visit her at and follow her on Twitter at @JessCluess.
Sarah: When did you know you were a writer? As a child, did you make teachers uneasy by turning in macabre monster stories? (I really like this image, especially if the stories were illustrated.) 

Jessica: I decided to become a writer at the tender age of…twenty-four. I’m a bit different from a lot of others in that respect. So many authors I know had the dream from kindergarten on! I’d always loved writing, but I knew I wanted to really do it sometime in 2008, soon after the recession began. I was just out of college and unsure about the future, and I decided I needed an escape. I’d never been a huge sci-fi or fantasy fan up until that point, but I picked up a copy of Dune and got totally immersed. It transported me to a world of scorching desert sands, very different from the snowy Chicago streets outside. I knew I wanted to write books that swept people away from their everyday problems, so I got started. It’s been a great ride.

Sarah: What does your writerly support system look like? Are you part of a local group? Are all your CPs online? Some hybrid of the two? Tell us about it, and why/how it works for you.

Jessica: I have so much support, it’s wild. First, there are my Clarion friends. Clarion is a huge sci-fi/fantasy writers’workshop that’s produced people like Octavia Butler and Kim Stanley Robinson. I was lucky enough to go there for a summer, and I met some of the best critique partners and friends of my life there. On top of that, my debut group the Sweet Sixteens has given me some incredible friends as well. I talk to them all the time on twitter, and they’re amazing for bouncing ideas, celebrating when things are great, and encouraging when things are not. The beauty of the internet age is that you don’t have to live nearby to share stories, ideas, or jokes. Publishing has given me some of the best people in my life, and half of them I haven’t met in the flesh. That’s amazing.

Sarah: In the acknowledgements, you refer to SHADOW as “Victorian Cthulu Harry Potter”, which delights me. SHADOW also gave me all the Susanna Clarke feels (and some JANE EYRE ones, as well.) Did lightning strike like it was animating Frankenstein’s monster? Tell me how the idea for A SHADOW BRIGHT AND BURNING evolved.

Jessica: The idea came from Charles’ Dickens Nicholas Nickleby. There’s a scene in the novel where Nicholas stops an attack on a defenseless boy, so I got to thinking about how a girl in the Victorian era might handle such a thing. Out of nowhere, I had this image of her opening up her hands and shooting fire out of her palms, which had my attention at once. From that image, I knew the story would be set in Victorian England, I knew it would feature magic, and I knew that the core of Nicholas’s character—strength, a desire to do what’s right, kindness, and rashness—would shape my main character’s personality.

Sarah: I’m lucky enough to have you for an “agent sibling”, but I don’t actually know the story of you signing with our favorite Slytherin, Brooks Sherman. Tell me about it!

Jessica: Oh man. Most of this story is pretty normal: I found him during #MSWL on twitter, sent him a query, sent him the manuscript. The fun part came about a week after I’d sent the book, when I got an email from Brooks late, late on St. Patrick’s Day. He said he’d loved the book, had some questions, and could we talk on the phone? I was so excited the next day, because I just knew we were about to have the call. I googled some of his clients, and found that one of them had a story where she thought she’d gotten ‘the call’, but in fact it was Brooks offering an R&R. Disheartened, I made what I thought was a super smart decision and didn’t write down any questions, because I didn’t want to tempt fate. Genius move. So Brooks and I got on the phone, and when he offered representation, I forgot how to speak English. I remember clearly him saying “Now I know you’ll have questions for me” and I made a low kind of grunting noise. Then I asked him why his parents named him Brooks. I wish to God I was making that up. Thankfully, he still signed me.

Sarah: HA! I was positive our call was about an R&R right up until he offered.  I may or may not have started giggling at him during a panel we were on last summer, b/c he said he thought he’d gotten better at making offers without people thinking they were R&R requests. He looked at me and just sliiiid the mic my way. (Truly, Brooks, it was just that we couldn’t believe our good fortune.)

Lightning Round Questions:

 One thing I always want to know is whether a given book has a playlist. (Blame Charles De Lint. He’s the one who got me started.) Is there any music you listened to while writing A SHADOW BRIGHT AND BURNING, or that you think of as the soundtrack to the book? 

Three things I listened to pretty much on repeat during writing were “Seven Devils” by Florence + The Machine, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Stephen Sondheim, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. I am all over the map musically when I’m writing.

What books were you reading when you were 16? Are there any particular favorites you still reread today?

I was huge into Ray Bradbury and Anne Perry mysteries when I was a teenager, and I still love them today. Also, I might have snuck Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour into class on more than one occasion. How else are you supposed to learn about sex?

In SHADOW, seven dire beings, known as the Ancients, plague humanity. Which would you be most afraid to face, and why?

Easy answer: Nemneris the Water Spider. She’s a fifty-foot spider that spins webs under the water, catches ships, and then eats everyone. I hate spiders to begin with, so that’s a new level of hell for me.

What are your trustiest writing tools and props? A certain type of pen or pencil? A snack that you must have? A setting most conducive to writing? Tell all.

My laptop, probably. Although when I’m planning, I like to go to a café with a notebook. Coffee helps, too. Actually, coffee. Coffee is the answer.

Coffee is always the answer.

 If you could be a fly on the wall for any historical event, what would it be?

Apparently, Queen Elizabeth I and Grace O’Malley the Irish pirate queen once had a meeting in which they spoke Latin, since neither knew the other’s language. I would really like to know what went down.

If we were playing Two Truths and a Lie, what truth would you use to fool me?

I once ran down a highway in Texas wearing black pumps, a striped sweater, and a jester hat with bells.


Sarah CannonAbout the Interviewer:

Sarah Cannon has lived all over the U.S., but right now she calls Indiana home. She has a husband, three children, and a misguided dog. Sarah holds a B.S. in Education. When she’s not writing books, she homeschools her kids, and writes non-fiction articles for all sorts of people. She’s a nerdy knitting gardener who drinks a lot of coffee, and eats a lot of raspberries.

She is probably human.

ODDITY is her debut middle grade novel.

About the Book

Eleven-year-old Ada Roundtree was born and raised in Oddity, New Mexico, where the dumpsters can be carnivorous, aliens big and small walk the streets, and the whole shebang is run by evil puppets. When her twin sister, Pearl, disappears, Ada distracts herself by tracking down the truth behind local legends. But as Ada soon discovers, the powers that pull the strings in Oddity are lying about all sorts of things, including what happened to Pearl. With not-terribly-accurate rumors running rampant among Ada’s fellow conspiracy theorists, saving Pearl may depend on getting to her first! But Ada’s the reigning Queen of Shenanigans in Oddity, and she’s never been one to back away from a challenge.


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