22 Oct An Interview with Author CJ Campbell
Today I had the immense honor of joining Beautiful Writers podcast host Linda Sivertsen in chatting with crime fiction legend Patricia Cornwell (aieeeee!!!!).* We talked about a lot of things–working during lockdown, creating through fear, the strange full-circle moments that happen in writing and in life. But also, what it was like to hold our very first book in our hands. That day for me happened in 2007. It was a turbulent time in my life and I ended up gifting away that very first copy of my very first novel after a really surreal moment spent holding it in my hands. It’s a moment so many of us dream of. Recently, a talented author I had the pleasure of meeting several years ago had that very first book-copy-holding moment for herself. I knew she’d been looking forward to this moment a long time and couldn’t wait to ask her all about it. Please join me in welcoming the brililan C.J. Campbell all the way from Ireland!
* Our episode airs on Halloween!
C.J. Campbell is a self-professed Tolkien fanatic, an Elven Queen-of-Fanfiction (Lord of Rings), and a caffeinated book-dragon. Her alter-ego is a Professional Occupational Therapist with an interest in alternative medicine/rehabilitation by day and a multi-award-winning author of fantasy, romance, and inspirational writing by night. She’s super excited about her debut fantasy novel, Tempest: The Veil Chronicles, Book 1, available at a magical portal near you. Discover more at, www.CJCampbellOfficial.com
Q: Tell us all about your amazing writing journey to date!
A: Amazing. Yup. That’s one word for it. Haha. And unexpected, hilarious, emotional, and y’know some days I think to myself HOLY CROW? What just happened? Because, truthfully me writing a book—my primary school teacher would be belly laughing so hard if he knew I wrote a book, or maybe he’d be furious, who knows?
It’s interesting how you remember a moment. The moment someone breaks or makes you. My primary seven teacher—I think that’s fifth grade—he always had us writing stories. He read us a lot of historical fiction, some Harry Potter, but mostly on the literary side—I was not literary. Oh, I loved books. My grandfather was a book dragon with a trove of thrillers and espionage, but he was also an engaging storyteller of Irish folklore, and I’d grown up on his fireside stories of warriors and magic, pain and loss, heartbreak and victory. Not to mention my mother—total sci-fi geek. We watched Star Trek and Stargate most weekends together and the occasional spooky stuff when we were brave enough. I was also a 90s child—vampires, pleather, and Sunnydale High was in, and I knew how to slay monsters. So, naturally, when I submitted my stories every month to be considered for the ‘wall of fame’ where our teacher—ironically, Mr. Rice—would select and pin his winning story, I was never picked. Every month, Mr. Rice, who you’d think would like monster stories, ridiculed what he’d call silly stories, but the worst came when he defined mine as the epitome of absurdity. A nightmarish thriller about a girl locked in her own dream where the monsters chased her until she learned to embrace the dark, tame the beasts, who returned her to her bed with a little spooky reminder they might be real—there were was an Oriental-inspired dragon, a shifter, demonic ivy, and of course, the odd vampire. Mr. Rice was not impressed. He ripped up the paper. And I never wrote another word again. And, mind you, I used to write all the time. But after public embarrassment in front of my entire class and with the words ‘there is such a thing as too much fantasy and this is it’ ringing in my ears, I figured I was not my grandfather—or, my mother—I was not a storyteller.
Fast forward a decade, and I was sick—very sick—a serious and life-changing illness that struck in my late teens and left me disabled and incredibly isolated, constrained to my home. In an attempt to hold onto my sanity, I returned to reading, though I’d struggled since my grandfather had passed a few years earlier. We’d read together a lot, and he’d gone blind in his last years, so books became a painful memory. But I’d found an old copy of Lord of the Rings. If you know me, you KNOW I’m a huge J.R.R. Tolkien fan, like MEGAFAN, again probably something to do with my formative years coinciding with the phenomenon that was Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations. So, I threw myself back into a world of fantasy and escapism, anything to distract me from pain and the grind of living with chronic illness, and eventually—as megafan nerds usually do—I discovered fanfiction and began dabbling around in that world. One day, I strangely got it into my head I could totally write one of these fanfic stories because I wanted to write on a specific subject that very few in that community had addressed. So, I did—despite having NO prior writing experience, training, and with Mr. Rice’s words still firmly clogged in my ears that my writing style was absurd at best. But, for the first time in forever, I needed to write. Yes, the idea was utterly silly, but maybe I’d risk it, maybe someone might like it, besides I just needed to write something. So, I started telling a story again, and within the year, I’d attracted a million readers and thousands of reviews on my fic. The attention was garnering notice of actual authors on the platform. These guys wrote fics on the side for fun as well as being published authors with careers … and with actual know-how on writing. These guys came alongside me and encouraged my abilities, patiently explaining basic techniques and grammar and really pressing me to consider writing a novel. But, how?
Then, one day, I woke up to an invitation to attend a writer’s conference in the States – I’m from Ireland, the North of Ireland specifically, in a wee town outside Belfast—and I hadn’t traveled in years, my illness had prevented it, but maybe, maybe, I could do this. I paced the floors of my parent’s house, I chewed off fingernails, I stared at the messy draft of an original story I had on my laptop with creased brows and wondered if I was mad. Crazy to believe that just because millions enjoyed my fanfic that they’d want this—would they? Or, would it be absurd? Was it even crazier to think I had the grit for this? The strength to travel? But what if I didn’t? What if I stopped like I had all those years ago when Mr. Rice ridiculed me? What if I stopped reading again because every time I opened a book, my heart ached a little? What if I stopped moving altogether? Stay right here and hide. Or, what if I embraced absurd? What if I wore weird, too-fantastical, and a little-bit-whimsy better than anyone else? What if I danced in the dark with the unknown and petted the beast and found it to be friendly—a courageous dragon instead—who flayed the memories of a stuffy, old teacher to nothing but dust and ash. What if I just did something wild . . . what if I went to a conference, in America, all by myself without knowing a soul?
And I did. Twice actually. The second time I went back with the manuscript of Tempest under my arm. My first original novel—a contemporary reimagining of the Irish myths I grew up on. The story of a young woman with a fantastical secret plunged into a world of secret organizations, shadow governments, and webs of lies that she’ll only begin to untangle when she finally embraces her truth and claims back her power. And, at that second conference, I met Tosca, author of Progeny, *insert fangirl squeaking* and she dished out some great advice and stories. I didn’t feel so crazy or alone anymore for believing in myself and my stories. And, there, I also found my now literary agent, my tribe, and four years later, here we are. I’m being interviewed by one of my favourite authors, of one of my most favourite books, about my own debut fantasy novel. I’ve two more completely different books under contract. And, I’m the healthiest I’ve been in my entire life—no more pain or hiding out at home for me. In fact, when that second conference finished, I stayed on in Florida for a bit and went swimming with dolphins. I hadn’t been able to swim for years because of the pain. And, there I was, treading deep water resting on the back of a beautiful dolphin named Capricorn (ironically my zodiac sign) after having just received an offer of representation from my literary agent. I couldn’t help thinking, with Capricorn splashing me for attention and kisses, that this was a pretty magical life. And this journey I was on, phew, what a ride, and who knew where it was going? But I was so ready to find out.
So, moral of the story, look where absurd, fantastical dreams can take you when you have just a little bit of belief. Doesn’t have to be a whole lot. A grain size is enough if it gets you to put a foot out of your front door, lift a pen, fill in the application, take the trip, or just give yourself permission to be you.
Q: You get the first copy of your book. You open the box, take it out, and hold it in your hands. What is that like??
A: Ahhhh. The unboxing dream I didn’t get. But, got something so much better,
I think most soon-to-be authors, expecting authors, authors-to-be—legit, how many book baby references can I get into one sentence—dream of the moment they open up that box and hold their brand new creation for the first time. More importantly, get to cuddle it and love on it before it toddles off into the world. Except, COVID-19, Brexit, and one international crisis after another kind of ended that magical moment for expectant authors everywhere, or at least expectant authors who live on tiny islands on the far end of the Atlantic.
I kind of knew I’d likely not get to hold my book baby before anyone else. Living in Northern Ireland is pretty amazing, but it’s a wee bit away from my publisher in Alabama. As many might know, the pandemic caused mayhem in the publishing industry and, unfortunately, affected shipments and ruined my unboxing plans. I’d not get to hold my book baby for quite some time, and that was okay because lots of authors were going through that. Besides, I’d carried my little story for several years; a few more months would be fine. But it was surreal. It’s like knowing you have a book but no proof that it exists—very weird sensation, questioning reality kind of moment. I couldn’t even visit a bookstore; it wouldn’t be stocked in the U.K. and Ireland yet. Besides, a lot of our stores were still closed.
But, thank God for friends in high places, with halos and camera phones. Tosca, you sent me the video of your early arrival of Tempest. It was the greatest gift. I was out with family. I shrieked for them, and they came running. We all huddled around the phone and watched. There was a high chance I was sobbing, my mother was definitely dancing, and my dad. . . well, he’s an ex-farmer, so he smiled and nodded approvingly.
There it was—my book. Introduced by Tosca Lee, reassuring me she was real, beautiful, just perfect, and ready to be released into the wild. Now, how many folks can claim that? To see their book being loved on and cuddled, its pages flipped through, and its spine stretched. Knowing somewhere in the world, it’s got a home. You can’t ask for better than that.
I did finally get to meet Tempest in her physical form. She arrived a month after publication, and there’s nothing quite like holding your book. Something about how it fits in your hands, how the pages flip-flop to reveal all your words printed in black and white, weaving the story you thought up so many moons ago. A dream with form.
Q: What surprised you the most on your way to publication?
A: Ooooh. Good question. Can I say all of it? I’m kidding. Kind of.
So, here’s the thing. I’m a research kind of person. I’ll spend hours marinating in documentaries, YouTube, books, interviews, blogs, you name it, I will likely consume it. And, since writing as a career was such a revelation to me, I figured I’d have a lot to learn and leaned heavily into many different publishing info sources from author and industry professional perspectives. I was gonna be a genius! A walking, talking directory. The fountain of all information. I’d know what to expect before it happened. I’d be prepared . . .
Ha. Haha. Hahahahahahaha. First surprise of my journey to publication—there is no map. Also, I shouldn’t use others’ maps as a guideline because they all had different starting points. That’s the thing, isn’t it? We hear all these Cinderella stories and think the publication journey should be some kind of magical experience when it’s not at all glamourous. It’s pacing floors in the wee hours, going over pages and pages of a manuscript trying to make it better. It’s sitting in the dark places after a particularly tough rejection or opportunities that didn’t play out. It’s long hours with absolutely nothing to show for it. It’s months and months (or, in some cases, years) of silence and then weeks of rushing and scrambling. It’s constantly showing up at events, conferences, on social media over and over and over, smiling through personal and professional pain because you know you’ve got to be there for you and your art. It’s lonely, tiring, and often overwhelming. And, no one really talks about it because the highs are so HIGH they make all of that worth it. Because there are the friendships found. The deals made. The celebrations when you first catch a glimpse of your book cover. The support that flows in from fellow authors. The editors, proofreaders, the ARC readers, the endorsers who believe and love on the book so much that you wonder why you ever doubted yourself in those dark moments.
And . . . then you do it all over again.
So, I guess the surprise is that it never stops. There’s never a moment when you stop being an author, and that being an author is so much more than writing a book—you’re a living, breathing story unfolding. It’s only in moments like these, in interviews with peers, that we share a glimpse of the story behind the book. The physical product of our own stories—a little piece of ourselves to share with the world.
Q: What word of encouragement would you give another aspiring writer who also wants to see their novel out in the wild?
A: Quiet your mind. Breathe. Listen to that still small voice. Truthfully, coming into the writing world was one of the most frightening and overwhelming experiences of my life—I’m sure many can resonate with this—and the amount of information flung at you can seem too much. It is too much, and you don’t need to know it all right this second. No one actually knows what they are doing. Everyone is trying to ‘make it,’ and they all think they’ve got a piece of the magic puzzle. You’ll find the right people to help you with your style and type of writing, you’ll find your way of doing things, and your confidence will soar when you tune out all the chatter and go with your intuition. You got this far, sweetheart; just keep the faith. Eyes on the destination, remember everyone’s scared, but you can learn to dance with your fears and turn them into epic stories to help those around you learn the steps to overcome their own.
There’s no magic formula—it really does come down to belief in yourself and your story. You’ll be tried and tested at every intersection, decision, and even when you think you’ve got over one mountain, you’ll discover you’ve just climbed a hill. But (and I do believe I learned this nugget of advice from you, Tosca, and it stuck), you’ll only ever be at the beginning of this journey once. This time is sacred. You don’t have deadlines, several different outlets volleying for your attention, another book on the back burner—and though those things will come, but right now you want them so bad it doesn’t feel good—just remember to enjoy this part too. This is where you learn so much about yourself. The person you are right now is the person your future-published-author-self will lean on because the person right now is strong, with a faith that doesn’t need proof. Enjoy it. All of it. Oh, and celebrate. Even the little victories. You deserve it.
Q: You wrote fan fiction before this—and had a large fan base, I believe! Please tell us all about it, including what fan fiction is for those unfamiliar with it. Also, is your fan fiction still available, and can we read it—and if so, where?
A: Now, this is when I get all bashful and geeky.
Yes, this is true, my formative writing years were spent mainly in fanfic land, and I loved it. Still do, though I don’t get to spend anywhere near as much time as I want to in that world these days. Fanfiction, for anyone not familiar with it, is basically the term used to describe any work of fiction that is based on/inspired by/continued from original source material already in the public domain, such as; books, movies, comics, Manga, games, TV shows, etc. Many popular fandoms like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Sherlock, and my personal favourite, Lord of the Rings, all have fanfiction content. There are massive websites and apps devoted to fanfic and its huge reader base. Fanfic authors post stories on their favourite worlds or characters on these sites, and the readers are just as fanatical about the fanfic as the canon material. A lot of professional authors write fanfic on the side. I do believe some superstar authors like Cassandra Clare are known to have started in fanfic, many even elude to enjoying it. You can’t make any money in fanfic as it’s all for the fans by the fans and simply a way to celebrate a beloved fandom. Often, people get into writing fanfic because they want to answer a question left open-ended by an author or creator, or they want to know more about side characters, or simply they just want to play out different scenarios within their favourite worlds. For me, that was Lord of the Rings.
I make absolutely no secret of my love for the Elves of Tolkien’s universe. I do not shy away from the fact that—like nearly every fantasy-obsessed nerdy teen back in the day—I was obsessed with Legolas in the Peter Jackson movies. HOWEVER, it was because of the fandom-wide love of our favourite elf that I began researching the appendices and got really interested in the history of Legolas’ culture, people, family tree, and in general, the Silvan Elves of the Woodland Realm—in particular one thorny Elven king, that shows up mainly in the hobbit. Tolkien did not give too much away on Thranduil’s character except that he was a pretty traumatized soul who harboured a great deal of fear over the outside world and gradually shut himself in, only to come out fighting in the end. So, long before the Hobbit movies became a thing, I’d scribbled lots of stories as to who and what he was. And then came the announcement; Peter Jackson was making the Hobbit movies, and Lee Pace would play Thranduil. Cue the swooning—Legolas who?
And so the frenzy for Elven King fanfiction exploded. It all centered on the usual questions; who was his queen and Legolas’ mother? What happened to her? Why was he such a jerk? What was the wine fetish about? But then Jackson and Pace threw a curveball at fans and—inspired by the Fisher King, Arthurian legends—played out the iconic ‘dragon fire’ scene in The Desolation of Smaug. And, that scene skewered me. It was the moment I think I found my passion to write again.
You see, I already knew the Elven King character was one who suffered trauma, and the dragon fire sequence was brilliant storytelling. Effectively it shows Thranduil peel back the glamour of perfection he uses to fool the world to reveal hideous, disfiguring scars underneath. A metaphor as such for the horrors that haunt and continue to leave him wounded. I could resonate. Not only because of the hidden horrors of my own physical illness and disabilities, but because of terrible trauma I’d been carrying for years. That scene and sequence was the moment I decided I needed to write a healing arc for Thranduil—and maybe for myself—and so I started, ‘To Live Again.’ It was initially a quirky, out-there, very alternative universe reimagining of the events of Middle Earth told from the perspective of an intruder to their world—a woman named Clara from our human world. Clara is named after my great grandmother, an ode to my grandfather—the man who gave me my love of storytelling—because Clara was his mother, and he always told me the most enchanting stories of a kind and compassionate lady; a nurse and local healer to a rural community in Ireland.
I never intended to take the story too seriously. In the beginning, I was only writing for myself. I was incredibly ill and struggling both physically—in a scarred body—and mentally—with a fractured mind—and pouring myself into writing this story was a lifeline. It saved my life, and it was only when I began posting it on fanfiction.net that I suddenly realized it was resonating. Within days hundreds of readers were pouring in, within weeks, thousands. By the end of the year, a million-plus. Today, a few years on, there are millions of readers, tens of thousands of ratings and reviews on the story. It grew into a much deeper tale. It became complex but still held a lot of its early humour and quirkiness. Readers began sending me mail thanking me for creating the story, it’s messages of healing and hope, helping them with their own struggles. I’d so many I didn’t know how to respond, or even if I could put into words how humbled I was. A lot of early readers became—and are still—dear friends. Truthfully, the fanfiction community and the Lord of the Rings fandom are the reason I’m here today. They’ll always be one of the greatest blessings in my life.
And, yes, you can totally check out my fanfiction. It’s available on fanfiction.net under the username Wunderkind4006 or at Wattpad under the username CJ_Callahan here. I will throw a caveat out there—I keep these stories in their raw form, very much unchanged from when I first began posting them, so you can see how far my writing has actually come. It’s more for myself. The early chapters have poor grammar, waaaay too many adverbs, and all the exclamation marks you can think of. I always point to it when I’m talking to new writers as a reference. Look where I started. Look where I am. Imagine where I’ll be. And if I can do it, you absolutely can too. I’m actually in the process of adapting the story into an original novel on Wattpad, so if you love dark faerie retellings and mythologies, you should come on over and watch me bash out a first draft in all its raw and messy glory.