INTERVIEW: Nalini Singh on Archangel’s Resurrection, Her Series, and Her Love of Books
I’ve been reading Nalini Singh’s riveting books for sixteen years, and am a big fan of several of them. She has published a lot of novels across a variety of genres, with a remarkable degree of consistency. In this interview, we talk about these topics and more (including my recent favorite couple, Illium and Aodhan!). –Janine
Alexander and Zanaya’s story, Archangel’s Resurrection, is coming out tomorrow. What can you tell readers about the book, and their romance?
This is an unusual book, both in terms of its structure and the sheer span of time it covers. But at the heart of it, it’s very much a sprawling and epic love story– a romance between two juggernauts who can as easily smash each other to smithereens as they can battle to the death to protect each other.
Theirs isn’t an easy story, but it is very much theirs. The love story of two beings who have lived a long, long, long time. So long that it’s beyond our comprehension.
I’ve often said one thing about the angels in this series – that they don’t always act “human” or relatable because honestly, they’re not like us. They live too long, have too much power. In this book, we see both the price they pay for such long lives filled with power – and we see the gifts bestowed by immortality. And we see a love that endures even as it breaks.
I love this book (and Zanaya and Alexander) with all my heart.
What was the most intriguing aspect, for you, of Zanaya and Alexander’s relationship, and what scene in the book did you have the most fun writing?
The sheer span of their love – and its intensity. Theirs is a flame that burns even when they’d rather it didn’t. It’s uncomfortable at times – and yet, it’s also a glory. Is it all worth it? And who are they to each other once they strip away all the rest, all the trappings of being archangels? I loved exploring the complexity of such a long and complicated relationship.
In terms of the most fun – the epilogue makes me laugh just thinking about it. Without being spoilery, it reveals a piece of information that brings me much amusement.
As a longtime reader of your two paranormal series, I’ve been struck by how subtle clues and beginnings are seeded early on and later come to fruition, both in terms of character relationships (Hawke and Sienna, Illium and Aodhan) and in terms of the overarching plots that deal with the world (Kaleb’s rise to topple the Psy council, for example, or Shoshanna and Henry Scott’s development of the mind control neural implants, which are still having an impact many books later). How much of that is planned and how much develops organically? Is the larger external arc in all your series pre-plotted, and / or are there times when something surprises you on the page and you follow it where it leads? And how do you balance the two?
I always know the beginning and ending of a story arc. So for example, with the Psy-Changeling series, the beginning was Silence – a world where the Psy live lives devoid of emotion under the Protocol. The ending I foresaw [spoiler!] was the fall of Silence.
Knowing the beginning and the ending is what I need to keep me on track. I don’t usually write it down, but I must know it. Before I wrote Silver Silence, I spent a long, long time considering the next story arc.
I knew we needed a second arc, because the events at the end of the first arc brought up all kinds of questions – but I wasn’t about to write that second arc until I knew exactly where I was taking my readers. Because for me, the fun of a journey like in this series, is that there is a payoff. All the pieces of the jigsaw fit in the end, so that if you go back and reread, you’ll see the path laid out from book 1.
So I guess the short answer is that I plot out where we’re going, but how we get to that point? It’s organic. The breadcrumbs get laid organically. But because I know where we’re heading, I don’t tend to head off on tangents. Like a road that has lots of side roads, but I don’t turn off, because those don’t lead to my destination. That doesn’t mean those side roads are forgotten – rather, I explore them in novellas, short stories etc.
And yes, my process means there are surprises.
In general, the surprises tend to be more on the emotional end of things. I believe in letting my characters grow and develop and reveal themselves. I don’t know every single detail of every single character with the first book – that’s an impossibility, given that each character only gets a certain amount of page time per book. Some might not appear for three books, then pop in for two, then go off-page for another. To me, it feels like getting to know friends. Some are super open and easy to know, others are shy, others are basically impenetrable walls for a long time (Arrows, I’m looking at you).
So with Aodhan and Illium, at first I saw only what they showed the world – their friendship. It was only as I began to spend more time with them – more scenes, more glimpses – that I began to understand that things were shifting between them, that their relationship was undergoing a sea-change. Though, I think, “surprise” isn’t really the right word here. It all felt very organic, with a sense of inevitability to it.
In terms of balance, I go with my gut and trust my instincts.
The Psy/Changeling series is a futuristic paranormal romance series; the Guild Hunter books an Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance/Fantasy blend with elements of thriller and horror; contemporary romances comprise the Rock Kiss and Hard Play series; and recently you’ve published two thrillers, A Madness of Sunshine and Quiet in Her Bones. You’ve also written a fantasy romance, Lord of the Abyss, and a handful of category romances for Silhouette Desire. What motivated each divergence and do you have your eye on any genres that you haven’t explored yet?
I keep threatening to write a historical, but alas, I’m not too keen on historical research, lol. Though I might one day finish the novella I wrote a while ago set in the time of the Territorial Wars in the Psy-Changeling series.
The divergence has been very natural, just stories I’ve been compelled to explore. One thing many people don’t realize is that I’ve always written contemporary and PNR/SF, from way back when I was a teenager writing my first books. And a lot of my work has mystery elements, so diverging into thrillers wasn’t a major stretch.
The one big change was learning to think outside the rhythms of romance – my second thriller in particular, has no romance in it at all. And that was a conscious learning curve, me pushing myself to bring the story in my head onto the page in all its haunting darkness.
This year marks 20 years since I sold my first book (Desert Warrior) and I’m still as excited every single day that I get to do this for a living. I think a large part of that comes from giving myself room to “play” – my rock star books were born out of a play project, as was my first thriller. As was Angels’ Blood. No one ever knows of these projects until they have shape and form. There’s no pressure.
Any writer who’s been around me for five minutes has probably heard me wax lyrical about the importance of such projects – the places where as a writer, I go to figure things out, delve into new genres, and honestly, get things wrong without any consequences. And so, like my characters, I grow.
You’ve written well over fifty books and that’s not counting your many novellas, short stories and newsletter extras. How are you so prolific? Can you give the rest of us some productivity tips? ;-)
Well, in my early years, I was obsessive. Especially as I was writing first around university, then around full-time work. My friends (lovingly) called me the hermit. After switching to full-time writing, I suddenly had enormous swathes of time compared to what I had before. It would’ve been easy to fritter it away, but those early days where I only had bits of time here and there really taught me great lessons in terms of how to maximize my writing time.
One practical tip is to keep a small notebook* with you, and scribble down any thoughts about scenes as they come to you through your day – then when you get to your keyboard, whether you have ten minutes or forty-five, you just look at those notes and write scene after scene. Basically, use time where you can to think through the scenes so all you have to do is put them down. Washing dishes? Think about the book. Making lunches for your kids? Think about the book. Stuck on the subway? Think about the book.
It makes it much, much easier to write even if you’re mentally tired at the end of a long day of other work. You’ve already laid the groundwork. This same tip works for full time writers who want to increase productivity – do your initial thinking the day before, jot down some notes on at least one scene that you want to write, then when you come to the computer, you’re not starting from scratch. You can just go. Because starting is often the hardest part.
And if you can learn dictation, do it. While it can raise wordcounts, I didn’t do it for that reason, but to protect my body, which is critical to long-term productivity. Writing thousands of words per day or week can be hard on the wrists/shoulders/back. Being able to speak my drafts is worth all the months it took me to train the software to my voice, accent, and speech rhythms. So don’t give up if it doesn’t work straight away! Think long term impact.
Beyond all that, at the very core of it, it comes down to my love of writing. I enjoy what I do. I want to do it. I urge every writer to nurture that love, to find projects that challenge you, interest you, and speak to your heart.
(*You can use your phone to keep notes, too. The reason I prefer a notebook is that it acts as a cue to write or think about writing simply by existing. It is a dedicated writing prompt for your brain.)
Whenever I read your books, I’m impressed with how consistent and sprawling your worlds are, and with the number of moving pieces there are in the plots and subplots. How do you keep track of it all? Do you use a series bible, charts, maps, storyboards, and/or collages?
I have a detailed story bible (I used to maintain this on my own, but now my assistant keeps it updated), an overall series timeline, plus timelines for each book, birthdays for all major characters (helps with maintaining time continuity), maps, and tagged copies of all the books (physical copies tagged with Post It notes). I redo the tags for each new book I’m writing in terms of relevant information. (I also, of course, have full electronic files for reference, too.)
If it’s a character that’s been mentioned previously in the series, my assistant will pinpoint every single mention of them in the series, so I can reread those sections. This not only maintains plot continuity, it maintains character continuity.
A lot of it, however, is still in my head. I know the characters as individuals, and I remember them all the same way I remember my friends. As unique people. The plots are nowhere except in my head – each series is a vivid internal movie, full of color and life.
(I should state that the series’ (and their movies) are constantly humming at the back of my brain, pieces slotting into place, storylines developing. I’m not only thinking about them the months I sit down to write a particular book, and I’m not always thinking in linear time. Heart of Obsidian (book 12) for example, was set up in Visions of Heat (book 2). I actually wrote the first chapter of Heart when I wrote Visions. Again, it all comes back to knowing where I’m going.)
I’m a big Illium and Aodhan fan so I have to ask this: After Archangel’s Light came out, you mentioned in your newsletter that this was only the beginning for them. Does that mean another whole book focusing on them (please please pretty please)?
Yes, they will get a second book.
Yay! You have no idea how happy that makes me.
Spoiler (maybe): Show
Which of the characters we’ve already encountered in the Psy/Changeling series you are planning future books for?
Many, many! Malachai, Miane, Adam, all the bears (only slightly joking), and Remi, to name a few.
Spoiler (possibly): Show
The next two questions come from Kaetrin:
Are you planning more books in the Hard Play series?
If so, will there be a book for Viliame? (Please say yes).
The Hard Play series is complete.
However, I do like Vili a whole lot, as I do a number of other rugby players we met in that series. So there’s a chance I’ll go back and do a separate series focusing on players from both the Southern Blizzard and the Harriers. A spin off vs a direct continuation.
No promises yet though as I’m currently heavily scheduled to write other projects.
And here’s one from Jennie—
The majority of your books are set in alternate realities – is it easier to write books set in ‘the real world’ or are there challenges involved in having to hew more closely to reality?
I’d say it’s a case of different challenges rather than one being easier. With alternate worlds, I have to keep track of continuity on an intensive level – because those details are what brings the world(s) alive. For example, I don’t want to say “some time ago” – I want to say “three days and forty-seven minutes ago” – that level of detail adds immediate impact. I keep track of everything, from the layout of roads, to where people live, what their aeries or apartments or other residences are like, and more.
With real-world settings, I have to put in the same level of detail – but I have to research it to make sure it’s factual. For my second thriller, I had to make sure that the long and winding road from which I have a car going off and crashing into thick native forest, to be submerged for ten years, did in fact have spots where this could happen. Where a car could vanish without a trace.
In both cases, it’s detailed research.
Now for two purely selfish questions.
Years ago, you recommended Mary E. Pearson’s YA SF novel The Adoration of Jenna Fox. I read it and really liked it. So—what books have you read in the past few years that you love or that have excited you?
Oh, I remember that book!
So, for this, I’ll take the opportunity to shout out a few books that are more recent reads:
Breathless by Amy McCullough – a thriller set on a climb of one of the tallest peaks in the world, this debut took my breath away. Amy is an experienced climber, so there’s a level of realism in this book that had me racing through it.
Dance with the Devil by Kit Rocha – this book is the third book in KR’s Mercenary Librarians trilogy, so there’s a full story arc across the three. Their post-apocalyptic world is brilliantly built and peopled with a fantastic set of characters, and is deeply romantic. I hope they do write more in this world.
Arya Winters and the Tiramisu of Death by Amita Murray – this is the darkest and quirkiest cozy mystery I’ve ever read. The protagonist (from the descriptions we get in the book) appears to have Tourette’s, makes “macabre” cakes complete with bloodshot eyeballs and sugar cobwebs, and doesn’t really like people – but beneath that outer layer is a painful vulnerability. The writing is lyrical and lovely, and even if I’m not sure I always understand Arya, I find her fascinating as a character. I’ve already preordered book two.
In terms of authors who were new to me in recent years but who I now follow: Martha Wells and her Murderbot books (can’t get enough of Murderbot’s voice!), P. Djeli Clark’s work (I started with A Dead Djinn in Cairo and just kept going!), Vivien Chien’s Noodle Shop Mysteries (love both the mysteries and the sense of family), and Sharina Harris’s books about friendship and family and romance (she just hits straight at the heart).
Along similar lines, what are the books you loved as a kid? And what are the books that turned you on to each genre you now write in or that made you say, “I can do this”?
Hmm, this is hard to say because honestly, I devoured every book I could get my hands on as a kid. Maxed out my library card and was done within the week, then read the newspaper or the cereal box or my dad’s TIME magazines!
I have a tome of beloved fairy tales that I was given as a birthday present and that I read over and over, so clearly, I’ve always loved other worlds.
Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey were definitely seminal authors during my teen years – they taught me how to build worlds by doing it so seamlessly that I didn’t truly understand the beauty of what they’d done until much, much later. At that time, I was just swept away by their storytelling.
Then I discovered Mills & Boon romances and in some part of my brain, I began to realize that the two (romance and speculative fiction) might be able to exist in the same space. Still took me a long time to stumble onto PNR, but that didn’t stop teenage-me from writing what I now know was SF romance.
As to when I thought, “I can do this”, I truly don’t know. I began trying to write books as a very young teen. It was just something I wanted to do, so I did it and didn’t really think about the next step (publication) until a long way down the track. (This was pre-Internet, with no ability to put work online in any fashion, which I’ve come to see as a gift. It meant I developed my voice as an author without any external input.)
By the time I began to think about publication, I’d already written multiple full-length books (and made my best friend read them!) so I figured, hey, why not? The worst the publisher can say is no. They did. Many times!
Lastly, can you tell us a little bit about the book(s) you have in the works right now?
I recently turned in the next Psy-Changeling book, and all I can say this early on is that it features bears. I adored being back with StoneWater, and I love the pieces of the jigsaw that become clear in this book.
Now, I’m beginning work on my next New Zealand-set thriller. Right now, I’m getting to know the characters and allowing the story to take shape in my mind.