Author Interview: Lisbeth Campbell, author of THE VANISHED QUEEN

Hey, all, Luther here. I got to see a VERY early draft of The Vanished Queen, and made some comments and suggestions, so I got to read an ARC before it came out. It’s good. You should read it. This is Lisbeth’s debut novel, and she agreed to do a brief interview with me. The book releases today, everywhere finer novels are sold.

Tell us a bit about yourself.  What made you into an author?

I started writing when I was a kid and knew by the time I was a teenager that I wanted to be a writer. After that it was just persistence. There have been long fallow spells but I always come back to it. I was a voracious reader as a child – I would check out 10 library books and be done with them within a few days if it was summer vacation – and I loved the worlds I was able to experience in reading. So I think part of what got me going was the desire to recreate the moments I especially liked. Then I discovered worldbuilding of my own, and I was unleashed. When I was younger, I wrote a lot of poetry too, because I revel in language, but it didn’t stick the way storytelling did.

What was your journey with this particular book like?  I’m fascinated at how different the final version was than the one I read a few years ago; I don’t think I’ve ever revised anything that significantly.

This book was the book that would not let go. I started in 1995, I think, and wrote something which had curses and plagues and demons and quests and meditations on historiography. It went through multiple revisions and even got to go out visiting once, but nothing happened. 

In 2015 I picked it up once more, thinking that the market had changed and I could fix stuff in just a few months. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha….. I beat my head against a wall for a long time, scrapped the second half for the umpteenth time, and realized that Mirantha, the missing and presumed murdered queen, belonged. Once I brought her in as a character through her journal I didn’t know what to do in the present of the novel. That was when I sent it to you. 

You told me very usefully that it was a ghost story, and I reconfigured a lot of the early stuff, but I still ran into a dead end. So I sent it to a professional editor and asked for big picture comments. She told me that my prose was lovely and the bones of the story were good, but that even with the journal I was not letting the queen have her story. She also said Anza, one of my main characters, was too passive (as you note below).

So I gave Anza a personal stake: her father had been executed by the king. She had a reason to fight. Suddenly the rest of the story became a lot clearer. Her connection to Mirantha, which had always felt crucial to me but had no good basis within the narrative, was a connection of shared grief. I wrote and revised that draft in slightly less than a year.

I got an agent whose completely understood the story, and I revised again with her guidance, three times. After it sold I did three more revisions for my editor. All of these revisions focused on the last quarter of the book and making it more revolutionary. So by now all that is left of the very first version is the characters and a few early scenes, which have been much reworked. I’ve saved everything, and who knows, the outtakes might turn into a story or scenes in another novel.

How much did the “real world” impact on how you wrote this story?  I know this book was started prior to the Current Unpleasantness, but I imagine it’s difficult to write a book in 2020 about a resistance against the rule of a despotic king without certain parallels forcing their way into the story.

The election of 2016 and its aftermath significantly affected the writing of this book. The story I wanted to write had always been about resisting tyranny. After 2016 I was writing to a different audience than I had been (including myself). I was writing for Americans who needed a vision of how to resist tyranny because of real life. The story was not just about Anza and Mirantha; it was suddenly deeply personal. I did not try to avoid parallels – I sought them out.

One thing in particular was added when I was incandescent with rage at the outcome of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Nothing had ever made it so clear how much women are silenced and disbelieved. Mirantha’s situation became much more vivid to me, and I gave her my anger. I have always been fascinated by Cassandra, so the theme of the disbelieved woman was already present, but I sharpened it after seeing what happened to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

Let’s talk about Anza herself a bit.  Where did she come from?  She was a very different character in the version of the book that I read– quite a bit more passive, for one thing, and straight, for another.  I’ve seen you talk about how her bisexuality sort of forced its way onto the page; (feel free to reword that) how much about her characterization surprised you?

The change in Anza from a witness to an active resistance fighter was because her passivity was dragging the book down. I do believe that witnessing can be an act of agency, but it just wasn’t working here. As soon as I gave her a personal motive (stakes!!) and altered some other things about her backstory, which I won’t go into here because spoilers, the book acquired much more strength and shape. 

As far as her sexuality goes, she was attracted to her roommate in my head in one of the very early versions, but I let the roommate go and the bisexuality with her, partly because I didn’t know what to do with the bisexuality and partly because it was a distraction. When I picked the book up again in 2015, Anza got the hots for every attractive young person (female or male) who crossed her path. But her bisexuality was still distracting from the rest of the story so I kept it out. At some point I realized that what was really going on with her was her coming to realize she sucks at relationships. Her self-discovery is not about queerness. It’s about learning how she screwed up in her interactions with people. And that story is not a distraction from the story of revolution, which is a story of relationship. So I let her be bi. I like queernorm worlds, because that is how the world ought to be.

As to where she came from initially, I have no idea. My characters just emerge on their own and do their own thing.

Any plans to continue with this world in the future?  Any other projects you’d like to let us know about?

Right now I have no plans to continue with this world. But I can certainly see a novel set ten or fifteen years later that plays out what happens afterward. 

My big novel project at the moment is something I am describing as a mash-up of The Secret History, Richard III (Shakespeare version), and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” with steam trains. The elevator pitch tag line is “Political intrigue, dangerous magic, and found family.” It’s about a nine year old king who is dethroned by his uncle. One of the characters has a back story involving magic and murder at college. That’s as much as I want to say, because there’s always the chance that it will crash and burn. I sputter out at times, and publishing is weird.

I want to thank Lisbeth for popping by and talking to us about the book today. The Vanished Queen is available in hardcover and ebook, and you can follow Lisbeth on Twitter at @fictionlisbeth or find her on the Web at