Embracing the Dark: Heidi Heilig on Grappling with the Past, Present, and Future in Her Fantasy Series

Embracing the Dark: Heidi Heilig on Grappling with the Past, Present, and Future in Her Fantasy Series

Heidi Heilig’s For a Muse of Fire series follows a shadow player named Jetta who possesses the ability to tie the souls of the dead to her puppets. Although it’s a fantasy series, it draws real-life inspiration from our world’s history of colonialism, war, and bigotry. With the second book in the trilogy, A Kingdom for a Stage, now on shelves, Heilig is working on book three and considering how the past, present, and future impact the narrative. Here, she talks about how the 2016 election spurred a rewrite that transformed her story.

Writing a series does strange things with time. Each book takes roughly a year to make, so as I celebrate the launch of the second and turn to writing the third, I’m thinking back to the start of the whole journey, and holding the past, present, and future in my head all at once.

I turned in my first draft of the first book in the series, For a Muse of Fire, almost exactly three years ago: a story about a bipolar shadow player who has the secret power to bind the souls of the dead to her puppets or to weapons. It was just before the 2016 election, and I was convinced it was finally time for those of us on the left to grapple with our culpability in the ongoing wars.

As it turns out, it was not that time.

In the chaos and emotion of November 2016. Others were lamenting, “How could this happen? This is not who we are!” For many, the election results felt like a betrayal of our values—of our country—of freedom and the American way. Of course, others knew better. Bigotry and racism and misogyny and theft have long been the American way. This is what we’ve always been. 

But the future depends on us.

In my own fight, art is a weapon—just as it is for my protagonist Jetta. In the ensuing massive rewrite of the first book, what had been a thematic exploration of the horrors of being able to kill people without ever having to look them in the eye turned into a story about a girl struggling to treat her mental illness while the whole world falls apart (as a reminder, the series is fantasy and not memoir.) However, the emotional themes remained and deepened: guilt, culpability, self-doubt, personal darkness. And in A Kingdom for a Stage, the sequel, I had to go even deeper, with Jetta’s powers exposed and sought by both the colonial army and the rebellion. Even worse, the dark necromancer whose powers tore her country apart is the only one who can teach Jetta how to use her own abilities for good, or for evil.

While working on this series over the years, I have at times wanted nothing more than to cancel my contract and write a fluffy, healing rom-com (which are also so necessary right now!). But I’ve always been more of a fighter than a lover, and so for me, it would have been the writer equivalent of “moving to Canada.”

With the legacies of bigotry and colonialism on display all around, it hasn’t been easy to sink my hands into the bloody mess and use it as artistic media. Then again, avoiding it is how we got here in the first place. When we ignore bad things, they proliferate, like roaches in the corners. 

If you’ve ever seen a shadow play, you know that while a strong light behind the puppets is needed to illuminate them, the story itself is told by the shadows. In examining the dark parts of our story, we can finally face it and by doing so, end it. And the best time for that is always now.

 

Heidi Heilig is the author of The Girl from Everywhere, which was an Indie Next Pick and also named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, Bustle, and Paste. Its sequel, The Ship Beyond Time, received a starred review from School Library Journal and was named a Best Book of the Year by Paste. Heidi Heilig holds an MFA from New York University in musical theatre writing, and she’s written book and lyrics for several shows, including The Time Travelers Convention, Under Construction, and The Hole. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.

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