AJ Scudiere on Enchantment by Orson Scott Card
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Books discussed in this episode:
Ticket to True Love Series, multiple authors
Enchantment by Orson Scott Card
Jack Reacher by Lee Child
The Murder List by Hank Phillipi Ryan
Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett
Angel Fire East by Terry Brooks
Enders Game by Orson Scott Card
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Phoenix by AJ Scudiere
Snake Eyes (Nicholas Cage movie)
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Nightshade Forensic Files by AJ Scudiere
The Other Woman by Hank Phillipi Ryan
Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Books discussed in Patreon-Exclusive Episode
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Julie Strauss: Hi, AJ!
AJ Scudiere: Hi, good morning.
JS: How are you today?
AJ: Yeah, it’s morning here. Yeah. I just phased into afternoon, 20 minutes ago. So I’m hoping for a stay of execution on that one.
JS: You’re in Tennessee, right?
AJ: Nashville area. Yes.
JS: Nice. One of my bucket list places I want to visit.
AJ: It’s fantastic. And it’s gorgeous. It’s sunny and beautiful outside my window right now, which is wonderful because we have stopped having spring and have begun having monsoons.
JS: Yeah, but you’re not having a monsoon right now?
AJ: No, we had monsoons all last week.
JS: Right. Yeah. Okay. Well, when I come visit you, I’m going to have to schedule it for non monsoon season.
AJ: You will. Yeah.
JS: So, we know each other because we are co-authors in a shared world called Ticket to True Love, which is a contemporary romance series that is all set in the same fictional town in Pennsylvania. But you do not only write contemporary romance? Tell us a little bit about the different writing that you do.
AJ: I started writing as AJ, which is thriller suspense with a very science-y edge. I’m a scientist at heart. I have science degrees and those all come into play. But I discovered after writing a couple of them that I really needed a palate cleanser. You have this moment where you’re like, Was the bullet hole through the skull the big clue in the last book too? And so I had always kind of written the romances in between for myself. And after a while we had a moment of, you know, I have seven novels sitting here, but clearly, they could not be published as AJ. The friends I gave them to for beta reads said they kept waiting for someone to die! So, hence: Savannah Kade and a whole separate genre. I think I have five readers who read both, and I can name all of them. They’re very different taste.
JS: The Savannah Kade books are all contemporary romance or do you get science-y or, or thriller?
AJ: They are all contemporary, but there’s a pretty good gamut. The newest series is very Southern. It’s set in Georgia and it’s kind of a small-town Southern romance. In my ideal world, I’ve lived in the South a long time. It’s way more diverse than people think. And it’s, there’s wonderful, twisted backstories, if you go into the small towns. So that’s in there but it’s not suspense. I also have a series that’s paranormal. So my, my goal in writing is: was what would it be like if you actually had witchcraft powers in the South? And then I have a contemporary, more steamy, and I have two, um, romantic suspense novels in the Dark Fall series. And my next series is going to be more romantic suspense.
JS: How many books have you written altogether?
AJ: Can I have a minute?
AJ: Okay. 17 by AJ, if I’m not missing anything. 18-20 by Savannah. So, roughly 37 altogether. Yeah, that sounds about right.
JS: That is amazing. And how fun that you can switch between the genres and really entertain yourself that way.
AJ: It is. Thank you. That’s the right way to put it. I am entertaining myself and others in the process.
JS: Well, it is nice that it’s separated out so that your readers know. A lot of readers don’t want romance. They’re just not interested. And a lot of readers, me being one of them, don’t want bullet holes through heads.
AJ: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of, there’s certainly crossover. I’m huge on character development. I don’t like romance stories that are driven by sex and random occurrences. You know, they have to be character driven and I don’t want, like, thriller suspense. That is all plot-based, where the characters don’t play any role in what’s happening. You know, things blow up around them and they run this way and then they go find this clue. But the character doesn’t have any real role in it. Other than being the thing that everything happens to.
JS: It’s so interesting that your fiction sensibilities come across in very different genres as you write.
AJ: Yeah. I think it works because it’s a deep-seated, underlying philosophy of what a story should be. So I can put into both genres. It’s not quite so specific.
JS: Is your reading life as diverse as your writing life? Do you read all over the place also?
AJ: Yes and no. I read character-driven stories, so apologies Clive, not a Clive Cussler fan. They’re very action-driven stories and the characters are, you know, very two-dimensional. I’m not a Jack Reacher fan. I love Hank Phillipi Ryan, and Lisa Gardner – really character-driven stories. I read nonfiction, surprising no one. I have this one – this is what I’ve been showing off to everybody. It’s a pandemic book. If you can’t see this while you’re listening, it’s wide enough that they can write the title horizontally on this.
JS: That doesn’t exactly sound like light reading during this time.
AJ: Oh, it’s awesome. I read that one before, when it came out. I [also] love Harry Brooks fantasy. I’m not a big fantasy reader, but his is so character driven that I love it. I’ve read Jim Butcher and then, you know, hit and miss on romance authors. I think it’s that same kind of – I’ve written a lot of what I wanted to see more of.
JS: Where do you read? Where what’s your reading corner?
AJ: It’s usually my bed, which involves a pile of pillows and an electric blanket. It’s warm and cozy. And I also have a little spot carved out in the corner of the couch and I used to have a chair in the living room, but my daughter has taken over that. Obviously fluffy, comfy corners.
JS: Well, I think you need the soft edges considering you read really tough things. So how did you first come across this book that we’re going to talk about today?
AJ: I don’t even remember. It was the first Orson Scott Card book I ever read. I read “Ender’s Game” later. Everybody knows “Ender’s Game.: And I was like, Oh, that’s by that guy who wrote “Enchantment”, just in case my nerd cred wasn’t quite high enough. There’s a very good possibility that I got it from a librarian or a bookseller somewhere along the way. I read it way back closer to when it came out on paper.
JS: What genre does this count as? I couldn’t figure it out. It’s got an element of, there’s certainly a romance element to it, but it’s not a romance.
AJ: No, it’s not even, like, enemies to lovers. They, they don’t have that, you know, feisty underlying lust. They just don’t like each other, but it’s, it’s a little bit myth and a little bit suspense and a little bit literature.
JS: Yeah. It’s a mush pit of genres. My teenage daughters were asking me about it and I said, it’s kind of a modern retelling of Sleeping Beauty. I could see them click onto, Oh, it’s like a Gregory Maguire, like “Wicked.” And I went, no, no, no, it’s not. It’s not really like that. Cause it’s not precisely a retelling.
JS: Is this something you reread often?
AJ: Sometimes. I’m not a big reader. So the fact that I have re-read this one says a lot. I’m the person in the bookstore that’ll be like, Oh, this looks interesting. And you know, two pages, I say, Oh, I already read this.
JS: So what draws you so much to this book? Because you didn’t hesitate very long when I said pick your favorite book and let’s talk about it.
AJ: I have favorites in each genre. And I think this one, like you just said, really hits so many genres that it helps it occupy that top spot. You know, I, I like different books for different things. I love Nabokov’s “Lolita.” The writing in that is just, uh, it’s a compelling story. Nabokov can do in a paragraph, what it takes the rest of us five pages.
JS: And do you feel that way about “Enchantment” also?
AJ: I think Scott Orson Scott card has a very different style. He doesn’t quite condense to where it’s like one line in, you know, he leads you on. His is more lyrical. He leads you on and he really world builds. I love that. And I think he had a really hefty job here of world-building.
JS: Oh, yes. It took me a long time to read it. We were at the beginning of Corona time, so my mind wasn’t exactly focused. And I kept thinking, I think this book’s maybe kind of boring? but then I realized it was just, it’s a slow–ish start, and a slow build, but very compelling. That was just my concentration problem, having six people in quarantine in my house. But I was so pleased at how the pace ratcheted. And the payoff is so good.
AJ: It’s so good. I noticed that on the reread. It starts slower than I remembered. But I think the writing is compelling enough that he does such a good job. You like Ivan pretty much from the first start. So you have a likable character. It’s like, okay, I don’t think in the beginning, I’m compelled to read the whole book, but I’m willing to turn the next page and it gets me turning the next page enough until I’m like, Oh crap, I got invested five chapters and I didn’t quite realize it.
JS: Yeah. That was exactly my experience. And I really felt like me not being able to figure out what genre it was – I thought that was very deliberate on his part because I thought this guy’s playing with us. What is happening here?
AJ: Yeah. And you have no clue in the beginning with all the little pieces you have. It’s so well planned. That, to me, is the best payoff. You get to the end and you realize you had all the pieces all along. And again, another genre because there’s almost a mystery element to it when we see how it all connects at the end.
JS: Can you tell our listeners, as best you can, the general plot of this book?
AJ: I don’t think there’s any way to talk about it without giving away some of it. Ivan is this kid who gets snuck out of Russia on a fake passport as a kid and grows up in America and becomes this scholar. He speaks proto-Slavonic, which is a completely dead language because his father is a scholar in that. And he goes back to do his thesis and visits his cousin Merrick. And he remembers that as a kid, he had found this weird spot in the woods. And when he goes back to the spot, the leaves blow away and it’s a pedestal in the middle of a moat. There’s a bear in the moat and on the pedestal is Sleeping Beauty, and the way it’s set up only, he couldn’t have saved her. But he’s a track star and he speaks the language. What I love about this book is every time you get one of these pieces where he happens to speak this thousand-year-old dead tongue because it’s built into his family history. And in fact, the whole reason it’s built into his family history is why he found the spot in the woods in the first place. So I just, I love that you get like these little pieces to start with and they not only connect one way, they connect around the other way as well. It keeps going from there. Sleeping Beauty isn’t even from life as we know it.
JS: One thing that really tickled me was when he first goes to Sleeping Beauty’s world, which for the record, they don’t call her Sleeping Beauty.
AJ: No, the reader has to really grab that. He mentioned it a few times.
JS: Yeah. But when he first goes to her land, he sort of – it’s more complicated than this, but he crosses this bridge and he loses all of his clothes in the crossing and he’s mortified by his nakedness. And he asks to borrow her gown. She has an extra cape or something. I don’t even know what it was. So he walks into this town in her cape. And that is the biggest deal to this town is that he’s wearing women’s clothing when he walks in, because his concern is being naked and their concern is the cape. I spent a long time thinking, why are we still talking about him in the dress?
AJ: Because it was a plot point.
JS: And what was so fascinating about that was that towards the end of the book that was one of the pieces that connected. This is all about gender. This entire book is about gender roles in mythology and in religion and in society. And it blew me away the way this little bit that I thought, Card is really beating this dress thing into the ground. Come on. Can we get over it? It goes on and on. And she is mortified that the knight who finally saved her is someone who’s wearing a woman’s dress to cover his nakedness.
AJ: The connections then with his mother, and his mother’s relationship to religion.
JS: His mother had this very complex relationship. I underlined this thing at the very beginning of her relationship to Judaism. It says, “Mothers showed not a doubt that God really existed. She just wasn’t on speaking terms with him.” Which cracked me up right off the bat. I thought this mom was so funny and complicated. And then this relationship between the women – what was your take on all of the gender roles going on here?
AJ: I don’t even know what he’s was saying about them so much as he filleted them and held them open to the light. You know, I didn’t really get the feeling that he was trying to make a stance that this is how it is or should be. But it was very much, this is how it is and here’s where it came down historically. And why you might believe that this is really a thing we never concluded you should or shouldn’t believe that.
JS: Exactly. There’s so much between the mother and father, where the mother is very much like women pay attention to this and you missed all of it because you’re a man, which, you know, isn’t true in every situation. And I love the idea that there were these Russian immigrants, which is, I would think, fundamentally part of a different part of the story.
AJ: Yes. But probably not, because everything’s connected. But you know, when they come to America and they have these, these different, since they still have that kind of old world sensibility that they keep demonstrating to each other.
JS: And what I thought was fascinating, too, was all of this religious sensibility. I would not call this a religious book, but it felt like the author knows a lot about religions and was able to connect them to sort of a shared historical knowledge that all cultures have, and then develop the fact that there’s this town of Tiana that does not exist anymore. And he is trying to explain why it doesn’t exist anymore is fascinating. To think of all these cultures that we have lost track of, or that we have absorbed and assume that we know how they work.
AJ: And we absorbed them piecemeal, which I thought was a really interesting scenario. Like we had brought the Christianity, but what he had found was Christianity prior to any previous written records.
JS: And then there is a lot of magic blended in there. There was this moment that I love in a key battle scene, which I won’t spoil, but I will just say this one detail, there is a key battle scene where a person who is already magical, it turns out has more power because she just found out she is pregnant.
JS: That kind of killed me because I love the mythology in “Harry Potter,” that he is protected by the mom. I’m assuming you’ve read “Harry Potter”? I’ve always loved that magical protection element of it. Obviously, this book came first, and the magical protection that child conferred on the mother in this battle scene I thought was fantastic.
AJ: If you go back and read the mythology, or follow modern day Wicca, you’re right. He knows a lot about these religions. All of it was spot on and even the Baba Yaga stuff. And again, I agree. I don’t think he necessarily decided which religion – he doesn’t say you should be this religion or these people were better or worse. It showed how they clung to their religions, and how they dealt with people in other religions. Again, it was that same – I think he kind of filleted them and held them up to the light.
JS: Does loving this book change how you write?
AJ: It straight up influenced my writing. My fourth book I wrote, a suspense, I specifically gave myself the challenge of writing a book with no Deus ex machina.
JS: Tell our listeners what that means.
AJ: That book of mine is “Phoenix,” and it’s about a firefighter. I wanted nothing to happen to this character that was random or external. Everything that happens to him, he triggered the domino effect that eventually hits him in the end.
JS: Can you give us an example of Deus ex machina? In say – let’s say in a popular movie that everybody’s seen?
AJ: Oh, I have one. So if anybody’s seen “Snake Eyes” with Nicholas Cage, my husband and I now use the phrase “to be Snake Eyesed” to indicate massive Deus ex machina. Actually, it’s a very good movie until about three minutes before it ends, at which point, they’re chasing the guy who has stolen, of course, a lovely little velvet bag of diamonds. Because all diamond thieves carry their diamonds this way in their hand. Naturally. But Nick Cage and Carla Gugino are chasing him and they crash through a wall, hit the guy, holding the diamonds, fly up into the air and fall into Nick Cage’s hands. It’s random luck that the wall they crashed through has the guy behind it, that the guy is holding the diamonds in the hand, happens to get hit in such a way that he goes flying one way, but the diamonds go straight up. And of course, Nick Cage catches them. And it very much reads as though they were making a movie and somebody said, Oh crap, we ran out of money.
JS: Yeah I can I always tell when I’m doing it, when I’m writing and I’m exhausted and I’m like, dang, I just need to get these two characters to kiss. Someone’s about to fall off ladder into someone else’s arms. I have to always stop myself.
JS: So you wanted to write a novel that had nothing like that. No hand of God controlling anything. So tell us how you did that?
AJ: So Jason is a firefighter in outside of Montgomery, Alabama. He is a firefighter because he was rescued from a fire as a child. He was orphaned in that fire. It turns out the fire was arson and it was arson specifically to go after his family. When he discovers this, he actually winds up working for the fire chief, who was the firefighter who rescued him, but he winds up working for that fire chief because it’s a town one over from where the big fire was. The fire chief is from this town he’s adopted into. He gravitates toward this man unknowingly for eight years before he realizes that they were in the same place. He has a new last name because he’s been adopted. It’s an interesting retelling of Jason and the Argonauts.
JS: Oh, wow. That sounds fantastic.
AJ: I love it when people are like, but do you have this organized? And I’m like, I do.
JS: You really did plan it out that way?
AJ: I planned it. I went and did a ride along with a fire station too. And when it hit initially, plotting the book in my head, they were Dallas Search and Rescue. And when I got done with the ride along, I was like, now they’re small town, Alabama. Everything that he finds, every time he makes another step in finding out what happened – in the beginning of the book he does this heroic rescue of a puppy out of a burning barn. People are standing around with their phones and they get pictures and he becomes this poster boy for the fire station, which his chief then tells him is necessary because the station is getting retooled because they’re changing up how they do EMS in the town. And these are all things I learned in my ride along. These are things that happen to you. Fire stations, these days, you know, everybody has to train up if they want to keep their jobs. Jason doesn’t want to be the golden boy, but as he is, he starts having these nightmares because he did this rescue and he does the rescue because he was the kid who was in the fire, who was rescued. This triggers his nightmare, which leads him to talk to his mother. And when he speaks to his mother, she tells him about how they were advised by the psychologist to leave his trauma behind, but they adopted him when he was seven and his four year old brother died in the fire. So of course, he’s now compelled to go find the brother and there’s no death certificate and I will quit there.
JS: Well, it sounds fantastic. I’m going to order this book today, it sounds so good. Now is this, is this part of a series?
AJ: This is a standalone. I wrote standalones when I started, because I didn’t want to get pigeonholed. Right now, my bestselling series is the Night Shade Forensic Files, and people who love it get mad. Like there wasn’t enough this in this book and I’m like, if it comes back, it’ll be there. I started writing standalone cause I didn’t want to become, you know, the vampire thriller author or the, you know, creepy demon author. So I purposefully hit these very different sub-genres of mystery thriller up front.
JS: A series makes a good case, just as “Enchantment” does, for the slow burn. For giving yourself time to dig in. I’m so glad I stuck with this one. And I’m inevitably glad I stick with series because I tend to be a very judgy reader in that I’ll give it 50 pages. And if it’s not for me, I have no problem setting it aside. I’m so glad I didn’t set this one aside because it really rewards the investment.
AJ: I think being older and being from a time period, where there weren’t as many books available and publishers push things and people were more likely to pick it up. I think it has a little bit of an old style. Now they need to grab a reader in the first 50 pages, because there’s plenty other places they can go, even for free.
JS: I feel like I’m tempted, when I’ve been telling people about it, to call “Enchantment” a fantasy. Because I know that when people hear the word fantasy, they expect a volume. But then I’m afraid to call it fantasy because it is, sort of, but not really. Right.
AJ: It’s a challenge to describe it. The only way I would describe it as just go in with that expectation. And yeah, just go with it because if you go with it, you’re really rewarded. Yeah. And I love that he blended actual magic and the idea that it was still available with modern day science.
JS: It looks like magic a thousand years ago, right? It was so well put together. She’s blown away, this person who comes from the old times, is blown away by the light turning on and off. And he’s trying to explain the difference between a tool and magic and which was the same thing she had been doing for him. Like these things that are impressing you are not magic. They’re just, that’s how we live.
AJ: Right. That’s the way it is.
JS: AJ, what are you reading right now? Are you in the middle of anything at the moment?
AJ: I just started Hank Phillipi Ryan’s “Murder List.” I love Hank Phillipi Ryan. She does suspense that has, I would argue, it has a very mild romantic element in it, but it’s so much more suspense and she just, she gets down into the characters. It looks like the husband is cheating, but it’s obviously so much more complex than that. And it’s not a domestic thriller. It’s a thriller-thriller it’s, you know? Murders and chases and serial killers.
JS: The difference between the two is that a domestic thriller is like “The Girl on the Train,” or the, the conflict is between a husband and wife?
AJ: Usually I think it’s that the conflict is more homebound. It’s more internal to the relationship. Whereas a thriller-thriller is more a third-party conflict.
JS: I see.
AJ: And yeah, they both get some good, true evil.
JS: Well, I cannot thank you enough for introducing me to this book. I always love talking to you, but I especially love talking about books with you, and I’m absolutely thrilled because I never, ever would have picked this one up on my own. Ever.
AJ: I don’t know where I would have gotten it. When people ask me, as a writer, what should I read? I’m like this. This is how you construct a story.
JS: Yeah. This is one that I would recommend to writers, but I would also recommend if someone just said, I just need to get away from, you know, daily briefings on the coronavirus. This is perfect.
AJ: It’s got these really great surprises in it. And, and even as you’re getting hit with the surprise, you’re going Oh, of course. Yes, of course. Those are almost perfect resolutions. JS: Well, thank you so much for being with us today. This has been a delight. This has been wonderful having you on.
AJ: And I went back and re-read one of my favorite books, which was fun.
JS: Before we go, will you tell our listeners how they can find you on all the interwebs?
JS: Beautiful. We’ll link all of that in the show notes as well.
AJ: Thank you.
JS: Thank you, AJ. This was fun.