Time for another author interview! Thanks so much to my twitter friend and fellow indie author, M.L. East (she/her), for participating in a Q&A! (Also as a reminder, if you’re interested in being featured in one of these author interviews, please feel free to reach out via email/social media/or carrier pigeon!)
M.L. lives on a volcanic island somewhere in the Pacific, bunkered down with many imaginary pets in a cozy little shoebox. She’s been reading and writing books, poems, and lyrics since age three or four-ish, maybe five, back when paper was a thing. Her debut novel “Trick of the Spotlight” brings us a scandalous exposé of the K-Pop music industry. A Series of Falling Stars is inspired by events recounted (in strict confidence) by a former (totally non-fictitious) acquaintance who found herself swept up in the destructive vortex of a certain 5-man group.
Hayley: Hey M! Thanks so much for letting me ask you a few questions! So first off, of course I absolutely loved Trick of the Spotlight. The book was so fun, the characters so strong, and I absolutely just flew through that K-pop goodness. What first inspired you to write the book?
M: Hi there, Hayley! Thanks so much for having me! It’s always a pleasure doing business with ya! There are lots of things I haven’t really told the world that I’m going to unleash here, because if anyone should get my scoops, it’s my darling Hayley!
Ah, Trick. What inspired me? I’m wordy as all get out, so let’s just open with a tl;dr: My best friend inspired me. The end.
So, these characters have been living rent free in my head for a bit over a decade now and, as my bestie turned editor will attest, they’ve been written into lots of different universes over the years. Publishing a book was a childhood dream of mine, but life is busy, I have lots of dreams, and I hadn’t actually finished a book since the sagas I used to write as a kid.
One of the only people to read my recent work was my best friend, and she was just fabulously rabid about my writing–laughing and crying alongside me throughout the twists and turns, just as obsessed with my characters as I myself am, and always eager to read more. Our favorite thing to do together in our college years was to pry open a bottle of wine (with any and everything but a proper wine opener) and pass my book back and forth as we read it aloud. (I shouldn’t put this in past-tense. We still do this every time we get together! It’s a riot! 😂)
So, I’m going to put credit where credit is due: I never would’ve published this series if not for her hounding me about it for years. It was partially a strategy to get me to write more because she wanted new content, but at her behest, I agreed to publish, but only after I’d reworked the universe a bit and reincarnated the characters.
And here’s the other scoop–the really scandalous one! I was never actually a fan of K-Pop before writing these books! *cue gasps of shock, horror, and disgust* 😱😱😱
Maybe it’s no surprise to those who know I live in Tokyo, but I was actually always very exclusively, snobbishly into good old-fashioned J-Pop, whereas my dear best friend was inclusive and loving of all the Pops. And let me just say: she was a K-Pop fan long before the wave hit the west–what a hipster. Anyway, we used to bicker about it all the time in high school, all in good fun. So, to make up for all my ribbing over the years, I decided that the book I was publishing for her would be set in a K-Pop world. We’d also shrewdly decided it was a good way to reach a strong, established audience. The joke’s on me though; I had to do a lot of research to make this series accurate–awkwardly infiltrating concerts, snooping around Seoul, studying Korean, etc.–and over the course of my deep dives into K-Pop, I couldn’t help but fall prey to the genre. My own dear sweet bratty little creations forced me into their fandom!
I kept this a secret for a long time because I was afraid of being outed as a poser in the K-Pop community, but I guess I finally feel comfortable admitting it because I now know how loving the community is, and I’m now no longer posing! 😂
Hayley: Ha! What an epic origin story! Your friend sounds so awesome, and I would never have guessed you weren’t originally a K-Pop fan. The detail you put in Trick of the Spotlight is amazing and reads so authentically – you totally nailed it. And the sequel to Trick of the Spotlight, Face the Music, took the narrative from the main character’s perspective and expanded with four more point-of-views from our favorite K-Pop band. My first dual-POV novel is coming out this spring, and I have to admit I was a little intimidated when I first started writing it! What made you decide to make the leap to five? Any tips on writing a big ensemble cast like that?
M: Multi-perspective writing is absolutely a challenge, but I adore it above all else! I really enjoy getting to immerse in different minds–feeling their emotions, learning the way they look at the world, how their past, present, and future influence them. And I always knew that I would end up steering this series toward lots of POVs because back when I first started crafting these characters in another universe, that was how I used to write them. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t open with multiple POVs though. Because the names are unfamiliar to most English speakers, there ended up being a lot of complaints about my large cast, so I know now it was ultimately better to give readers the space of a whole book to get used to their names and personalities outside of their heads before taking the plunge into each POV! 😂 I think Trick also really helped people fall in love with Kit. I never wanted her to be just some Mary Sue. I wanted everyone to relate to her and enjoy being in her headspace.
As an adult, I’m able to globetrot and I’ve lived as an expat in a number of cosmopolitan cities around the world, but as a little girl, my only chance at exotic escape and foreign adventure was through writing, so I always wrote in first person. I’ve tried third person a few times but it’s always unbearably stilted for me, and I can’t seem to connect with the characters.
There are limits to writing from one person’s perspective though, of course. When I was little, I had no trouble making my one character the Chosen One-esque center of the universe–hyper-involved and informed with all goings-on, occasionally magically omniscient even. But now, as an adult, writing human characters with real flaws and struggles and limits is much more fun for me, so, if I want to create the kind of complex plot-twisty story I enjoy, it can only be covered from multiple angles.
To me, the most important thing about a large cast is properly distinguishing between them. I’ve read a lot of multi-POVs that don’t draw clear enough lines between the characters’ voices, and I feel this isn’t realistic. If you asked three different people to describe the same conversation in the same room, they’d all dwell on different things. I feel that multi-POVs should be true to that. But, even aware that this is crucial, I’m not immune to making this mistake; I’ve caught quite a few dissatisfactory scenes in my own books where I’ll occasionally get lost and forget whose head I’m in. I’m going to have to keep working hard on this as I go, but it’s worth it to me!
The best advice I can offer is really get to know your characters. Write their backstory even if it’s just for you. Interview them like you’re interviewing me. Scratch way beyond the surface–okay, their favorite color is navy blue, but why? Their favorite food is curry rice, but why? What’s their hobby? Squirrel watching? Pickling turnips? Carving soap? Challenge yourself to pick something weird and explain it, because there are no boring humans on this planet. Everyone’s weird and interesting and unique, so the more you flesh them out, the less you’ll have to worry about them blending together. Asking the hardest questions will help you to get to know your character, and the better you know them, the better you’ll understand how they see things, how their brain sounds when it thinks, and the better you’ll be able to write them
Hayley: That’s really excellent advice! I don’t know if I’ll ever move to more than two POVs, but if I do, you can bet I’ll be coming back to pick your brain! Also, with series authors, I’m always curious to know if you’re team plotter or team plantser? Do you have all those twists planned out before you even write the first word of book one, or are you along for the ride as you’re writing as well? Would you ever consider flipping sides?
M: I love how pantser wasn’t an option in there because you know that no series author in their right mind would ever write all these complicated books by the seat of their pants… but see, I’m not in my right mind! 🙃
My god, I wish I were more of a planner. I really do try. I make a rough outline of everything that’s supposed to happen, starting big and then working my way smaller. But once I actually get to writing, everything goes to heck! 😂 My characters never listen to me, and they’re always hiding things from me, and they just expect me to clean up after every last one of their messes. Half the time, they shock me as much as they shock you. It’s like my brain isn’t connected to my fingers sometimes when I’m typing. I’m staring at these words popping up on the screen, reading them for the first time, and I experience the mortification, the devastation, the disgust, the shock, the adoration, the hilarity just like any other reader.
I do try to force my hand now and then but it never seems to work; the atmosphere becomes strained and the characters grind to a halt and turn and glare through the fourth wall at me. So, part of my process has just become rewriting each book twenty to fifty times until I’ve gotten it right and everyone’s happy. (Well, happy as in true to form, because who are we kidding? We’re two books in and nowhere near the HEA so everyone’s miserable right now lol 😅)
That said, I don’t enjoy making my readers wait years between books; I’m always eager to overshare right away. So, I’m making an honest effort to adjust my method for the upcoming books and expedite the process, but I also don’t want to churn out quantity junk instead of quality junk, so we’ll see how it goes. Prolific writer that you are, do let me know if you have a tried and true template/method/flowchart/mind-map. You’d save me so much self-inflicted misery! 😂
Hayley: Ha! I can’t say my plots always go as planned either, but I become more of a plotter with every book. Save the Cat Writes a Novel totally re-invented my writing process, and I highly recommend! But since your books are obviously very music-oriented, are you also a very music-inspired person? Is there a playlist or a song that you think captures the spirit of your books?
M: Yes! Let’s spill some more beans! I am two humans. In my other life, I am a songwriter and musician. By night, a singer. And by night, an author. See the problem? I never sleep. 😂 I tried a day job too for a while but that was a little much. Art, creation, and nightowlism is where it’s at! But yeah, all those scenes about composing and recording and rehearsing, they’re written from the stance of someone who lives and loves that life! My two brands are actually insanely different from each other though, and I don’t like the two of them to bleed into each other and dilute the magic, so my other identity shall just have to remain a secret!
My taste in music is pretty eclectic, and as I was saying, not exclusively K-Pop, so the songs that inspire my writing are all over the place! I’ve made something of an attempt to craft a Spotify playlist of a few I felt really fit the vibe, but the songs don’t exactly fit cohesively with each other. As the books themselves range from hot to heartbreaking to horrifying, naturally the so-called playlist is a bit of a roller coaster too.
Having read my books, if you want to cry and angst out, listen to ‘The Painter Song’ by Norah Jones.
Hayley: That’s so cool! That’s awesome that you can use those experiences in your writing. But geez, how much talent can one person have?! How’s it feel to be one the universe’s chosen ones?! 🤣 Seriously though, both Trick of the Spotlight and Face the Music left us on some juicy cliffhangers! Could you let us in on how many more books you might have planned and when we might get book 3?
M: I know for sure that there will be a Book 3 in this series. I have at least that much planned because there are obviously a lot of loose ends left to tie up. What I noticed in the process of writing Book 2 though was that there’s only so much you can do in one book and things end up getting shaved off at the end in the interest of finding a decent place to wrap things up. Book 2 still ended up a chonker despite it ending at an earlier junction than originally planned. Perhaps such is the hazard of having such a large cast that I try to equally divide time between. So, having learned that lesson, I fully acknowledge that I have a vague list of things I want to happen in this series before I’ll be satisfied and I have no way of knowing how many books that will take. As I mentioned earlier, my brats have a way of throwing curveballs at me and inducing unplanned plot twists so maybe we’ll finish up in 5 books?
When I’m writing, it tends to take over my life in entirety. I eat, sleep, breathe, and… well you know, these books. So, I’ll be fully honest and admit that I’ve barely written a word in Book 3 so far. As a part of my aforementioned effort to make writing more smooth this time, I’ve done extensive planning with my editor and started to map out scenes in advance and I know the bones of what’s going to happen… but yeah, scarcely a word actually written. I’m giving myself a little break. But not an unproductive break! See, Books 1 through 5ish are the canon books. But I have quite a few bits and pieces coming together for books simply within their universe.
I’ve done some pretty extensive work on Star-Crossed, a back-number book that tells Saichi’s wild and tragic story–how he became the man he is, how he met Mino and joined Vortex, and all the ways that things had to go wrong before they could go right. You may have noticed that his perspective was absent in Book 2 despite everyone else getting a fair shot at the pages; this back number is why. I needed some serious time to get used to the inside of his head before I could bring his perspective into canon. I’m so excited to share his story with his fans! If you want some idea of the bittersweetness to come and want to try immersing in his head, check out the playlist for ‘Star-Crossed’ here. It’s a much smoother listen than the other playlists I mentioned earlier.
Saichi’s story isn’t the only one I’ve been playing with either! I put a lot of work into creating my supporting cast in these books. In real life, everyone around you has a past, present, and future; a story to tell. I try to emulate that and give everyone a unique personality in my books, and I’m always so excited to see those side characters get love and enthusiasm from my readers. My latest obsession is playing with their stories–some of them revolve around Kit and Vortex, and some of them don’t–and I think writing these fun little novellas within the universe will be a good way to keep my stamina up for the main canon! I also just want to be able to give more content to my darling, patient readers. I like to tell myself I’m good at giving my dear Kit-Kats and Vortexans everything they don’t know they want, so I’m hoping these little side stories will be satisfactory cud to chew on between books! (That was a super gross metaphor. Why do I do this? The inner Midwesterner surfaces again lol)
I gotta say; there was a time when you posted a screenshot of your very detailed and structured release schedule for all your upcoming books and 1) I was extremely impressed with your work ethic, your planning, and your rigorous timeline; and 2) I saved said screenshot as a model for how I aspire to be as an author. You are an absolute model for the entire indie author community and if I had even a shred of your discipline we might be on said Book 5 by now! 😂
Hayley: YASS playlists! Totally listening to that at this very moment. And, ack! I’m totally blushing. I’ll have to go back and look at that release schedule and see how totally off-base I was. 😂 But I so appreciate the encouragement, M, and I can’t wait to read all your Star-Crossed books! Thanks so much again for participating in the Q&A. It was so fun, and now I’m looking forward to book 3 more than ever! But now, it’s time for a Lightning Round!
o Favorite book?
Favorites in the last decade: All the Light We Cannot See, Where the Crawdads Sing, スプートニクの恋人. Old forever favorites: Light a Penny Candle, Gai-Jin, Little Women, Watership Down, The Hobbit
o Favorite quote?
“Believing you won’t break is half the battle.” – Oh Saichi
(I’m sorry. I know he’s my own dang character and it’s cringe af to quote him, but I just can’t stop thinking about it! 😂)
Here’s another (real) quote I’ve been thinking a lot about lately:
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” – James Clear
o Favorite trope?
Oooof… not always proud of all that I never get sick of but here goes…
Forbidden love. Angst. Soulmates. Slow burn. Us against the world. Love triangle. Locked in together. Amnesia. Fake marriage. There’s only one bed. Honesty through alcohol. Strong/gruff with a heart of gold (tsundere). Fake it til you make it love. Coming out/awakening together.
o Favorite song?
I Will by the Beatles
o Advice for aspiring indie authors?
Write for you and no one else. You don’t have to write what sells or what’s popular or follow any industry rules because you’re indie. Enjoy your creative license and create something truly original and unique.