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Success Story Interview - Rebecca Mueller Callahan

An Interview with Rebecca Mueller Callahan (RMueller on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Russell Galen of Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency, Inc..


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
It's called The Frozen Witch and is a contemporary fantasy set in Iceland. I studied the Elder Edda and medieval Icelandic sagas in graduate school and wrote a paper comparing the different treatment in Norse literature of witches and Valkyries. That paper was the seed of The Frozen Witch: the protagonist Hrimhildr practices traditional Icelandic magic, and the other main character Mariam becomes a Valkyrie.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
I recall being very proud in third grade of writing a story that did not begin with "Once upon a time," but started in media res, just like a real book. So let's say about twenty years.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
Two and a half years, but it started even earlier as a few short stories, which I then strung together to begin the novel. That is a terrible way to try and craft a plot, and I don't recommend it.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
The worst day came after I finished The Frozen Witch. It had been done for weeks and I couldn't get anyone to look at it. I spent an awful day sobbing, repeatedly, in public, because I'd worked so long and hard on this story that I loved and even my own mother wouldn't read it. (To be fair to my mother, I'm sure she would have picked it up that instant if she'd known how upset I was.) But even then I never seriously considered giving up, because I knew I'd never forgive myself if I didn't try my absolute best to be published.
QT: Is this your first book?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
No, it's my third. The first one I finished at fourteen and was an ugly, cancerous mass of fantasy cliches. The second I wrote just before The Frozen Witch, and I still maintain that it's pretty good, though I wasn't able to sell it.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
I might get flak for this, but in fact I rather avoided formal writing training. As a genre writer I wasn't sure an MFA would suit me. Instead I pursued an MA in English and made sure to study plenty of authors I admired.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
Before I had a kid? Nah. After our son was born? I need two uninterrupted hours of writing time three or four days a week, or I turn into a crazy woman shambling around the house muttering the alphabet song under my breath.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
I'm working on the fourth major re-write.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
My husband is my best beta reader. Isn't that lucky?
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
What seems to work for me is writing from the hip for the first three chapters or so. I toddle along after the characters and let the story brew for a bit. Then, when I've got a good sense of how different personalities mesh and what the major conflicts are going to be, I start outlining.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
I first sent ten query letters for this book and got very little response. I hired an editor to evaluate my letter, and per his advice wrote an entirely new query. I sent different versions of the new letter twelve or thirteen times and got four full manuscript requests, including one from an editor.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
I looked very carefully at their clients. If they represented authors whose work seemed similar or complementary to mine in some way, I added them to the list.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
Yes! Very much so! When I chose an agent to query I read every interview with them I could find, looking for information about special interests or pet peeves. Then I tailored each query letter specifically to them, emphasizing those aspects of the book I thought they'd find most appealing.
I knew from several articles that Mr. Galen really appreciates series, so in my letter to him I didn't just pitch The Frozen Witch or its intended sequels, but the whole extended universe those books are set in. I said my goal was to create a complete set of interrelated series, similar to his client Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar collection. He liked it.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
I've seen several agents advise authors to keep their query short, get right to the story, and not personalize. All I can say is that the exact opposite worked better for me. I got many more responses when my letter was longer than a page and started with an explanation of why that particular agent would be interested in my book.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Rebecca Mueller Callahan:
Certainly. This is the basic letter, with no personalization.

Query Letter:

Dear Agent,
[Here is a paragraph explaining why this book may appeal to them].

The elevator pitch of The Frozen Witch: Hildr Jonsdottir's parents were killed in a car accident in the Icelandic countryside when she was four. She was rescued from the wreck by passing giants and raised in their homeworld, Jotunheim, until forced to return to Iceland as an adult. Now Hildr ekes out a living on the fringes of modern society, squatting rent-free in an ancient longhouse and selling spells by word-of-mouth. After eight years of exile, she learns that an ancient magical mill, which has the power to grind out anything from salt to soldiers to good luck, has been stolen from its trollish guards. Believing that this mill can secure her reentrance to Jotunheim, Hildr will do anything to claim it for herself.

Hildr tracks down the mill, only to find it in the hands of an unlikely adversary: Galdur, the severed--but still talking!--head of a rival occultist. He’s allied himself with a white power band called Aryan Lightning, who will use the mill to ignite simmering Scandinavian race tensions into a full-blown war. It won’t be long before Galdur deciphers the mill’s complex spells, leaving Hildr with not much time to decide: should she summon the giants to save a world she hates, or try to steal the mill for herself? And if she fails, how many people will die for the sake of her wounded pride?

Of course, this brief description leaves out many of the most engrossing characters and developments. It gives short shrift to Mariam Haddad, the teenage Muslim immigrant whom Hildr persuades to become a valkyrie. It doesn’t describe antagonists who are not mere Nazi stormtroopers, but eminently human characters whose worldview is both more chilling and more common than many readers are aware. It doesn’t explain the meta-element of two adolescent fantasy fans at last experiencing real magic, only to belatedly discover that it neither solves their problems nor satisfies their emotional hunger. It never even mentions how The Frozen Witch smashes the Bechdel test. These are all story elements that I, as a lifelong lover of fantasy, wish to see more often in my favorite genre. I know that other readers feel the same.

That shared feeling may prove worthwhile, as The Frozen Witch is only the first of a planned series of novels set in the same universe. I am currently outlining Witch’s sequel, The Veiled Valkyrie. I have also already completed drafts of two other novels, Bluebeard (88,000 words) and The Troll Cross (100,000 words). Both of these books--the first set in London, the second in the Southern U.S.-- share minor characters with The Frozen Witch, but can be read separately. Given the opportunity, I would love to produce a much larger collection of loosely connected books, along the lines of Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar novels or the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett.

To write The Frozen Witch, I studied the Elder Edda and medieval Icelandic sagas extensively while earning my Master’s degree in English Literature. I’ve worked to make every aspect of Hildr’s traditional lifestyle, from her ancient longhouse to her iron kettle, period-accurate. For example, for Hildr’s axe-fighting scenes, I consulted a Weapons Master from the Society for Creative Anachronism. I also conducted research on the current rise of white supremacy in Sweden, lurking on Internet forums and referencing political publications by Stieg Larsson (author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The fictional political party to which the antagonists belong, the New Swedish Democrats, is a thinly-veiled reference to the actual right-wing party the Sweden Democrats and their splinter party the National Democrats.

I’ve included the first three chapters and a synopsis below. This is a simultaneous submission, and the full manuscript is available upon request. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with additional questions and/or comments about this project.