Leslye Penelope, a bestselling fantasy author, filmmaker, and podcaster who has published both traditionally and independently, is breaking out a new series, Bliss Wars. The first book, Savage City, introduces a young woman who goes from nearly invisible to princess in a strange near-future world of human shifters. In a recent starred review of Savage City, PW praised Penelope’s “seamless blend of fantasy subgenres, wrenching action, and all-too-human characters.”
What was it like creating the rich and varied world of Savage City?
I read across a variety of genres and am always looking to write books I’d like to read. Worldbuilding is one of my favorite things about writing. I’d never tackled postapocalyptic fiction before, so, as I built the characters and the two rival shifter clans, the world began to take shape. I would get new ideas I wanted to explore—ways to push the characters and conflict further—and had to hold myself back from making the world too complex, but I still wanted it to feel full and inhabited, with its own history and culture and beliefs.
What were some of your influences when writing the hero-villain relationships in Savage City?
I’ve always had a tough time writing pure villains. Characters who are just pure evil aren’t that interesting to me. Because my writing is often mirroring and inspired by real social conflicts, I’m far more intrigued by realistic motivations for villainous acts. The thing that really excited me the most about the original idea for this book was the story’s main villain and how he could be a tyrannical ruler and a truly loving and caring father. Stories where characters are painted in shades of gray are often my favorites, and I was just trying to create more depth in my characters.
How is Savage City different from your other series?
Savage City was originally meant to be a spin-off from another book. When it became clear I would have to put that novel on the back burner indefinitely, I changed the character names and origins to make this book stand on its own. This book is right in line with my other fantasy and paranormal series. It’s about a woman who is searching for a place to call home, a place where she is accepted. There’s plenty of action and romance, like most of my books. It’s different because I’m in a new time period—a near-future dystopia—and am playing with popular elements, a different take on animal shifters from what you often see.
How have the experiences in both traditional and indie publishing been?
I really enjoy being a hybrid author. The freedom and control of indie publishing work well with my skills and personality. I love conferring with the cover designer, laying out the print book, coming up with schedules, and enacting a marketing plan. But I also really enjoy working with a team of professionals who handle those things. It can be difficult to not be in charge of the various aspects of publishing, or not even have a say in some of them, but it’s also quite freeing not to have to organize everything myself. Because I’m hybrid, I can’t always enact some of the latest indie tricks and tips—I’ll never be someone who can pull off a rapid release—but the attitude and skills I learned starting out as an indie have definitely helped me with my traditional releases.
What initially drew you to indie publishing? What keeps you independent?
I’ve always had a DIY spirit. My undergraduate degree is in film production, and I worked on independent films in various capacities. I’m also a web developer and started my business working with indie musicians and artists. I cofounded an independent literary magazine with a group of friends I met at a writing workshop. When it came time to publish my own books, it was the natural choice. I had also heard plenty of negative feedback from other Black and POC authors about experiences in the traditional publishing industry. Everything from whitewashed covers to racially insensitive editorial changes, to certain houses or imprints being unwilling to publish more than one book by a particular ethnic group or race in any given year. I figured I’d save myself the drama and put my book out myself. Now, what keeps me indie is the satisfaction I get from putting out professional products that exactly match my vision. Also, I enjoy being diversified. As the industry contracts and imprints disappear, I feel confident that my author business will be able to navigate whatever the future brings by remaining flexible.
What would you like to tell readers about your upcoming August release, The Monsters We Defy?
The Monsters We Defy is a fantasy heist which takes place in 1925 Washington, D.C. It’s my first true historical fantasy, and my first heist, a genre that I adore. The main character is based on a real historical figure: a Black teenager arrested in the 1919 race riots for killing a white police officer who had stormed into her bedroom. She was convicted, but went free after being granted a new trial. The novel imagines her six years after these events and gives her clairvoyant abilities. It’s a Jazz Age story about a self-reliant Black community threatened by powerful spirits, and a group of people seeking freedom from special powers that all come at high cost.
What projects are next for you, both in writing and your podcast My Imaginary Friends?
I’m working on the follow-up to Savage City: Beastly Kingdom, the second in the trilogy. It’s a marriage-of-convenience story between warriors from the enemy shifter clans. I’m also working on standalone historical fantasy about a Depression-era all-Black town and a mysterious, magical stranger who shows up just as the town is on the brink of being flooded by the construction of a new dam.
Mary M. Jones is a freelance reviewer who lives in a house with a book dragon husband, too many cats, and an ambitiously tall “to be read” pile.