Interview with Jackie Dana
Jackie discusses YA fantasy, St. Louis history, and publishing a book series
I had the wonderful opportunity to interview, author of By Moonrise, and writer of Story Cauldron, Fictionistas, The Wonderful Books of Oz, and Unseen St. Louis.
I’d seen Jackie around in the Substack Writers Unite Discord, but we met for the first time during one of the Fictionistas monthly Zoom calls. In this interview, I ask Jackie how she manages her time between 4 different Substacks, why she tends to lean into Young Adult fantasy, and what her inspirations were for starting each of her Substacks.
When did you know that you wanted to write creatively? Has your interest always leaned toward Young Adult fiction?
I’ve been writing fiction most of my life. I wrote my first short story in grade school, wrote short stories and a one-act play (for a competition that I won) in high school, and around the time I graduated I had started what would much, much later become my first novel (most of it radically changed over the years, but a few key pieces remained from those very early days to publication).
Most of the fiction I’ve written has been fantasy of one form or another. YA came about because I tend to read a lot of it. For me, YA fantasy tends to have more rapid pacing than adult fantasy and doesn’t typically have as much violence or sexual content. It’s more focused on characters learning and growing through a series of adventures, and that appeals to me.
What inspired you to check out Substack? Did you have a community, or a preferred place to publish your work, prior to joining Substack?
I had known about Substack for a while, because a couple of political writers I followed had tried it out. I think Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin had talked about it. At the time I switched, I was looking for a better solution to newsletters than Mailchimp and a better platform for gaining readership than Medium. Substack seemed to solve both problems for me, and it had the added benefit of being free. And almost two years later, I am still super happy with Substack overall.
In 2015, you published the historical fantasy novel By Moonrise, a tale of intrigue, mystery, and romance. Can you describe how that story came about? What lessons did you learn during the publishing process that you’d utilize again, and others you’d improve upon?
I started that novel decades ago and worked on it here and there for a long time. It was heavily influenced by the books I read at the time, which were adult epic fantasy, European and American history and political theory (I was in grad school twice during the time I wrote it), and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.
I actually published it because back in 2015 I was getting to know indie authors and I learned about publishing on Amazon. Since by that point I had a complete novel, I figured might as well put it out into the world. Since I published it, I've received a lot of positive feedback and despite minimal marketing, it's sold pretty well. What I learned, however, is that you can do a lot better publishing a series in relatively rapid succession, so for my Favor Faeries novels, I don't plan to move those towards publication until at least 3, if not all 4, books are done and ready to go. And that won't happen until I finish (this spring) the draft of The Hidden Moon, which is the sequel to By Moonrise.
With Story Cauldron, you invite readers to explore your The Favor Faeries series, along with other short fiction.
What would you say is your biggest takeaway from publishing fiction on Substack? Have you noticed a difference in reception from serial stories versus short fiction posts?
I get really good response from both the short fiction and nonfiction I post on Story Cauldron. My serial novels haven’t been as successful but that could be because they’re behind a paywall, and as other authors have noted, people don’t seem to be willing to pay for fiction, especially serial fiction. I’m currently trying to decide what to do with the novels I’ve been serializing. Eventually they will go up on Amazon but I want to wait until I have the next two books done (which I hope will happen this year), so I’m uncertain if I should make them free on Substack or just leave them alone.
Can you give us an introduction to The Favor Faeries stories and how to read them? Are you seeking to indie publish, or go the traditional route?
As I noted above, the goal all along has been to publish them all on Amazon, in rapid succession to take best advantage of the algorithm. And Story Cauldron all along was intended to be my “author newsletter” but with actual content rather than just personal updates. So that’s the ultimate goal.
The Favor Faeries series is right now four stories, two of which are essentially complete (I am a couple of chapters out from finishing book 2). The concept is that there are faeries that appear across the city and who will grant wishes in exchange for snacks and trinkets. My two teenaged protagonists, Jenny and Holden, visit the faeries to help them with typical teen angst needs — meeting a boy, dealing with a bullying brother, etc. However, as one might expect from trickster faeries, the wishes get granted but not exactly as Jenny and Holden expect.
The first book is a novella entitled The Girl Behind the Camera and follows Jenny, who is a photographer for her school paper who gets overlooked for editor when her nemesis gets chosen instead. As the story opens, Jenny meets Holden at a Journalism camp. The rest of the story focuses on her desire to prove her merits as a photographer so she can earn a scholarship while at the same time trying to solve the mystery about the cute boy who sends her messages but is nowhere to be found.
The second book is The Boy Who Can Taste Color and follows Holden, whose older brother Travis just flunked out of college and is making Holden’s life a living hell. Holden goes to the faeries asking for Travis to leave, thinking his brother will find an apartment or something. Instead, his brother vanishes into thin air. Holden is then forced to find his brother before his parents and the police pin Travis’s disappearance on him. The title is a reference to Holden’s synesthesia.
Coming up are The Boy Who Dances with Faeries, which follows Travis’s adventures, and a fourth which is tentatively titled The Witch Who Rescued the Green Man, about a young witch and friend of Jenny’s who rescues a faerie on the run from the faerie queen’s minions. Both are about half done and I hope to complete them this year.
On Unseen St. Louis, you document interesting historical places, events, and tidbits that tell the unique story of St. Louis. You started the Substack in order to research information for The Favor Faeries.
How has writing Unseen St. Louis informed your fiction writing process?
Right. My Favor Faeries stories are set in St. Louis. According to the legend in the books, if you go to one of these places after midnight and bring a suitable snack and trinket, the faeries will grant a wish. As I was driving around visiting potential sites, I stumbled across a bridge that was PERFECT (and ended up being a critical location) but couldn’t for the life of me figure out why it was where it was, as it served no purpose (there’s a modern bridge right next to it). I had to dig into the history to try to figure out why it was there, and it was such a deep and unbelievable rabbit hole. Where now you’ll find a drab industrial neighborhood full of pre-fab metal buildings, that area was once considered one of the most idyllic locations in the area, with a sulfur spring that spawned a resort community. The very first train station west of Downtown St. Louis was built there because it was so popular. Later it became the site of the major players in the brick and terracotta industry that was so critical to the growth of St. Louis itself and its role as an industrial powerhouse. And all of that history came to be simply because I was looking for novel settings!
And now Unseen St. Louis is not only a Substack, but Unseen STL History is now a monthly history speaker series! My first live event (featuring a staff member from the Missouri History Museum, Amanda Clark, and myself) takes place on February 16th at Spine Indie Bookstore and Café, 1976 Arsenal St. I’m hoping to upload the audio on Substack afterwards. I will be featuring historians and history buffs from around the area to talk about more cool STL history. (And the recaps will generate more content for my Substack!)
With The Wonderful Books of Oz, you're serializing the books by L. Frank Baum for a new generation of readers. Utilizing public domain stories in the digital era is a great way to engage new readers with the writers of the past. Due to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998, congress appealed to a litany of corporate voices calling for an extension to copyrighted material from 1923 (looking at you, Disney).
Will this become increasingly popular in the coming decade as more 1920's literature makes its way into pop culture after the 20-year hiatus?
I certainly hope they can’t extend the copyrights further! There are lots of great novels and other content published in the 20th century that gets very little attention nowadays and could use new readers. The Wizard of Oz books are a great example of that. They were readily available in libraries when I was growing up, but they have fallen out of favor with the flood of new children’s books. For me, the books were my first real introduction to fantasy worlds and portal fantasy in particular, and are probably the most influential books to me as I write my Favor Faeries series.
You created Fictionistas (co-managed by Geoffrey Golden), a Substack specifically for fiction writers, although all are welcome to subscribe and get involved (even the food writers).
What is your ultimate vision for Fictionistas? Do you see it growing beyond Substack?
Fictionistas has succeeded well beyond my wildest imagination. I wanted to create a small community of fiction writers on Substack, and thought maybe we’d have 50-100 people max, and do occasional zoom calls. Now we’re at over 1200 members and it keeps growing. We’ve just launched a new feature with monthly writing prompts, there are Fictionistas Office Hours and chats, and the Great Substack Story Challenge, and all of these things are happening because our members stepped up to the plate.
I don’t know what my ultimate vision is because it’s already so much more than I had anticipated. I just hope that members are getting something out of it and enjoying being a part of a community of writers, because that’s the main point of doing it.
How do you approach time management practices in order to effectively run four successful Substacks?
That’s a good question that I don’t think I can fully answer! In addition to my four Substacks, I have a separate “day job,” I’m writing novels, and I just launched a new monthly speaker series to go with Unseen St. Louis. I honestly don’t have time for all of these things but I somehow am managing to do them all anyway. What I have discovered is that as I focus on novel writing, I don’t put as much time into the Substacks, and vice versa. I need to figure out a way to balance all of that so I can have my gluten-free, low-carb cake and eat it too!
How do you define success?
Being able to cross everything off my to-do list. :)
Who is your biggest inspiration and why?
This is too hard. There are so many people who have had major influences on me and my work, from famous authors to high school teachers to my friends and family, that have helped me become the person that I am. If I had to choose one person who has had the most impact on my life over the past couple of years it would be Nicole Rivera of Stop Writing Alone, whose support, ideas, and friendship has made a huge difference to me as I continue on my journey.
What is something you know now that you wish your younger self knew?
That you can make a living as a writer, and that if you take your writing seriously, people will want to read it. I was such an undisciplined hobbyist writer for so long because I never thought it would amount to anything. And now look at me! Everything I do is either writing or writing-adjacent. That was not true a decade ago.
What have you learned about yourself over the course of your career?
That taking risks is the only way to move forward. If you’re too scared of failure or change to take big risks once in a while, you’ll never accomplish anything.
How do you overcome the fear of public scrutiny?
I just recognize that every writer has critics. The more popular you get, the more fans you may have, but also more people who will hate what you do. The best thing you can do is just keep going and not worry too much about what others think about your work.
Do you have any advice for early or independent writers?
I don’t believe you can be taught to be a good writer. You can take classes to learn about writing and how to follow article or story structures or whatever, or how to do research, but the vast majority of becoming a good writer is just to do it. Write as much and as often as you can. It doesn’t even matter what you write.
One of the best things I ever did as a writer was to spend several years in an ill-fated Ph.D. program. I didn’t get the degree (but I still have the student loan!) but the personal discipline I had to learn to keep up with everything on top of a full-time job, the research skills, and the significant amount of writing I did, made everything I do now possible. I know my writing improved many times over as a result — even my fiction, which I had to abandon for most of that period other than holiday breaks. And I believe it was the sheer number of words, and the need to revise constantly, that made the difference.
Thank you so much for your time, Jackie. Congratulations on starting the new speaker series talking about STL history! That sounds very exciting. We wish you the best of luck on the book releases for The Favor Faeries and The Chronicles of Sarducia, as well as continued growth and success for each of your Substacks.
That’s the end of our interview with Jackie Dana. We hope you enjoyed it. Please like and share this with friends and family. Join us in the comments for any questions or interests you may have. Thanks for reading. ~ WM
Another great interview! I especially appreciate the insights on publishing a series. It's great to see a writer pursuing such varied interests. Best of luck with all your endeavors!