In Conversation: J R Koop

J R Koop is a fantasy writer from Adelaide whose debut novel, Racing the Sun, was released on April 12 this year. Koop has spent years building up her world and her novel to the completed version we see today. The self-published book is available in paperback or as an ebook on all major ebook retailers. Racing the Sun is a queer throw-back to Sleeping Beauty and a tribute to her fiancé, Salsabil Hafiz, set in a South-Asian inspired land. Tulpa’s Kayla Gaskell had the opportunity to chat with Koop about the book and her writing journey.

Having already spent time shopping her book to traditional publishers, earlier this year Koop decided it was time to self-publish her long-time project, Racing the Sun. A stand alone in her fantasy world of Abrecan, Koop has spent four years developing the novel. From a first draft with a typically Western setting, Racing the Sun has come so far. Koop decided to alter the novel after feedback from Hafiz suggesting Koop make it “more interesting”.

And by interesting, she means diverse. Racing the Sun has a wide spectrum of characters ranging from the blind oracle, Taeng, through to the PTSD and chronic-pain suffering faerie Qadira. With plenty of input from a variety of sources and sensitivity readers, Koop says “a lot of people helped make this book what it is and made sure I’d written in a non-offensive and accurate way.”

Set in a South-Asian inspired land, Koop says that the conflict between the Praitosi Empire and Delorran was reminiscent of the conflict between India and Pakistan. While this is a fantasy, Koop was sure to discuss these allusions with friends and sensitivity readers, keeping in mind that the world is inspired by ours but at the same time very much its own. The novel turns away from a more traditional Western-centric fantasy vision, presenting more POC than not. When asked about this choice, Koop replied: “If I just wrote white characters it would be a boring world.”

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In terms of challenges, Koop’s greatest one was accepting that Racing the Sun was finished. She says: “I could keep staring at it for years, or I could put it out there.” Having done countless edits on the manuscript Koop says she was starting to wonder when it would be enough. Once the decision was made, Koop turned her mind to researching self-publishing where-upon she settled on a joint e-publication and print-on-demand package with publishing service IngramSpark. Koop didn’t want the limitations of e-publication to hold her back when so many readers who prefer physical books.

Koop goes on to discuss how expensive self-publishing her novel was, although she was lucky enough to engage an illustrator who has become a great friend. Sylvia Bi took to the project with enthusiasm and produced a gorgeous cover. Koop decided on an illustrator for her book because she wanted Racing the Sun to have a professional feel as well as take a little of the pressure off of the process.

In earlier drafts of the novel, Koop says there was a pronunciation guide to help readers with the many and varied unfamiliar terms, however, in the final version this was scrapped. “I kept adding to it, there are too many things in this list, people might get scared.” Like with many fantasy novels however, Koop confirms that you can easily pick up the terminology as you go.

The world of Abrecan is already a vibrant alternate world and Racing the Sun is just the beginning. A stand-alone within the world, Koop has plenty of plans in various stages of completion to bring more of Abrecan to life. As she says: “people are just coming across this one book, they’re not seeing the other works just yet.” With more than twenty folders of ideas on her shelf, there is always something to work on. Her next project is a circus novella set in a French-based area, although she also has plans for a Cinderella retelling and an Egyptian-based retelling of Cupid and Psyche.

 

To keep up with Koop, follow her on Twitter or Instagram or visit her website.


 

Words by Kayla Gaskell
Images provided by Jasmine Koop

Racing the Sun

44330028Reading Racing the Sun by J.R. Koop was like taking a deep breath of fresh air. Set in a Southern Asian inspired fantasy kingdom and with a queer love story at the centre, this Young Adult work is bright against its heavily heteronormative, and predominately Western-based peers. After the soul is stolen out of her secret lover’s chest by a sorceress bent on resurrecting the Ashen God, Rahat must race through the dangerous jungle to save both her lover and her kingdom.

Koop’s writing flows easily and is very fun to read. Her characters and their relationships, especially between family members, are engaging and well-formed. The passages with the faerie, Qaidra, were some of the book’s best they provided much of the lore and world-building background for the work. Qaidra is a being that has suffered and the glimpses into her past were sharply drawn and helped flesh out the faerie into a strikingly memorable figure. That said, I do think the world of Abrecan  could have done with a little more world-building in terms of the lore of the Gods and the significance of the faerie Rapture; at times it felt as though the author expected you to be privy to the inner workings of the world without the full breadth of that insider knowledge quite making it to the page. However, the world-building that was present was rich and interesting – Koop clearly has a vivid, active imagination and lots of love for the things she creates.

The politics of this novel – Rahat and Iliyah, her lover, are both of the ruling class but cannot be together: instead Rahat is promised to Iliyah’s brother to unite their kingdom – add tension to the plot and a desperation to Rahat that endears her to her readers. Although, again, I would have benefitted from a tiny bit more of an explanation about the things that prevent Rahat and the girl she loves from being together, especially given the reason for their separation – Iliyah’s service to a God as a dream weaver – proves to be easily dismissed at the end by the powers that be.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which felt like a good mix of Neil Gaimen, Garth Nix, and Audrey Coulthurst. There’s lots to love in Racing the Sun: the rich world of Abrecan; the sweet love story; the love and encouragement between family members; the unusual range of creatures and beasts (I loved the mechanical horses, they were my absolute favourites); the adventure. This novel is a refreshing addition to the YA genre, and I am excited to see what Koop produces next.

Four Stars.


 

Words by Riana Kinlough

Heaven Sent

Heaven Sent
S.J Morgan
Midnight Sun 2018


S.J Morgan’s Heaven Sent is a fun, easy-to-read Young Adult debut. Following Evie, an Australian sixteen-year-old with a crooked spine, the novel examines the complications of separated parents, new love, and mental illness.

This novel is home to some strong, if inconsistent, writing and I ripped through it in a matter of hours. The prologue, in particular, struck me as both vivid and wistful. There are some pacing issues that are distracting – the immediacy with which Evie trusts the boy, Gabriel, who crashed through her bedroom wall one night, feels rushed and a little bit at odds with the girl’s naturally suspicious nature. Additionally, this feels like a book deciding what it wants to be as it goes – the beginning feels like it could be a supernatural romance, but the ending is definitely an action-thriller. Morgan’s writing is capable of being both tight and engaging in either genre, but toying with both is disorientating.

However, Morgan seems to have a thumb at the pulse of the friendships of teenage girls. Evie and her best friend, Paige, demonstrate the simultaneously emotionally manipulative and caring behaviour of teenage girls, who are still determining the best way to navigate the world. Indeed, Morgan is gifted at creating some rich characters. Gabriel’s erratic and earnest attempts at ‘watching over’ Evie create a chilling atmosphere and a creeping sense of concern. Seb, Evie’s mother’s much younger boyfriend, was perfectly cast as a slimy, pathetic loser. Even Evie’s house, broken and tarp-covered, feels like an oppressive character, and the eventual move she and her mother make is a satisfying thematic event.

Evie suffers from scoliosis – a condition that warps the spine into a ‘S’. She is in the final stages of wearing a brace designed to straighten her spine. Scoliosis is an incredibly painful condition and Morgan’s depiction of it feels a little simple and easy. The brace is removed in the first half of the novel and though Evie often complains about having to wear it, there’s no complexity to the physicality of both the condition and the treatment. It feels as though the brace is removed before it can be an imposition, or narrative object.

That said, Morgan has produced a novel with a lot of heart. Heaven Sent will appeal to its teenage demographic, its pacing faults aside. To me, Morgan is an author with a considerable amount of potential and her next work will be something to keep an eye on.

3.5/5 stars


Words by Riana Kinlough

Bridge of Clay

Bridge of Clay
Markus Zusak
Picador 2018


As a fan of Markus Zusak’s previous work (The Book Thief, The Messenger, and When Dogs Cry) there was no doubt in my mind I’d love Bridge of Clay when I read it. Yet Bridge of Clay raised a number of questions about the book and the evolution of Zusak’s prose style. For me, this book was a change from his others by the sheer literary feeling of the writing. If you’re unsure what I mean by “literary”, perhaps the simplest way to describe it is writing that screams writing. The first page caught me off guard, but it didn’t take long to appreciate the style and story.

If I weren’t a fan of Zusak—or if I’d read the blurb before I jumped in—this is definitely a book I would seek out and read. I am one of six children and so I’ve always been fascinated by large families in fiction and on screen (Cheaper by the Dozen, Septimus Heap, etc.). Seeing someone portray the lives of five brothers is fascinating to me. A lot of these moments and interactions just felt truly authentic and familiar. Although, my family was never quite so wild.

The story is told by Matthew, the eldest Dunbar brother, and follows the younger brother, Clay. Clay has spent his life training, but training for what? This question appears at the beginning of the novel and is repeated throughout. While the others drive, he runs. While jockeys ride horses on the nearby racecourse Clay creates his own race-course or obstacle course, complete with local tough guys charged with keeping him from completing his race. But Clay doesn’t care about winning—the only race he cared about was won and done, the family reluctantly one mule richer for it.

About a third of the way through it becomes clear that Clay’s training isn’t to win at anything, it’s simply a way to help him survive the ‘murder’. The boys, much like Justin Torre’s We the Animals, are a united front against their remaining (and absent) authority figure, their father, who they refer to as the murderer. When the murderer returns, he upsets the entire household, effectively tearing a brother away with his plea to help build a bridge. Clay makes the decision to leave Matthew, Rory, Henry, Tommy, all the animals, and his almost-girlfriend, Carey, to build a bridge with his Dad.

While the novel tells the story of Matthew, Clay, and their brothers, it also delves back into history to bring the story of their parents, Michael Dunbar and Penelope Lesciuszko.

Zusak creates a full and authentic story with his Dunbar boys and the stories of their parents. This is a book that will stir your emotions; it will call up fear and anger and grief. You will grow to adore the Iliad and Odyssey, fall in love with Carey, and wish you could know the Mistake Maker, just as I did.

For readers of The Book Thief, particularly for any readers who dislike or struggle with literary fiction; I would approach this with awareness that this is quite a large book and it may take a chapter or two to find the rhythm. Regardless, this is an utterly beautiful testament to childhood and simply being Australian. This is the story of boys, horses, and surviving whatever life has in store for you.

3.5/5 stars


Words and photography by Kayla Gaskell

The Art of Taxidermy

The Art of Taxidermy

Sharon Kernot
Text Publishing 2018


Sharon Kernot’s Young Adult verse novel The Art of Taxidermy offers an intimate look at the mechanisms of grief and how it can make you strange. Charlotte is just thirteen, has lost her mother and her younger sister, and is obsessed with making the dead look alive again. Her obsession leads her to collect, and then later taxidermize dead animals she finds in the bush surrounding her Australian home. Her aunt is horrified by this behaviour, but her distant father defends it as the burgeoning habits of a young scientific mind. Kernot makes the collection of the dead feel like a natural extension of Charlotte’s grief and pain; much like the meddling of Charlotte’s aunt and the distance of her father is an extension of theirs. The desire to resurrect the dead with whatever means available is both naively young and incredibly human, and Kernot explores it with a matter-of-fact tenderness.

It is not only their grief that makes Charlotte and her family strange. They are German immigrants and her father and grandfather were interned in the Loveday camp, near Barmera on the Murray River. The verse novel is set in the years after the second World War ended and the family’s German heritage marks them as different, as Other. It’s hard to imagine this family living outside this deep saturation of sadness – their tragedies started before Charlotte was born and it feels as though they will continue long after she’s dead.

Kernot paints a family in freefall after the unthinkable has happened, not once but twice, with a sure and steady brush. The work couples the swift, clipped charm of a verse novel and the unpredictable beauty of the Australian landscape in a captivating manner that showcases an author entirely comfortable with her form. This is a novel easily consumed in an afternoon, but one that lingers in the mind for weeks afterwards.

The Art of Taxidermy is due for release July 2 and can be purchased from Text Publishing here.

The book will be launched July 18 at the Tea Tree Gully Library from 6:30pm click here for more information.

5/5 stars


Words by Riana Kinlough