Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed author Terry Birdgenaw, about his writing and his recently released debut, Antuna’s Story (The Antunite Chronicles Book 1), a charming, engrossing tale set in a vividly realized apocalyptic world. (Read the review here.).
The author, Terry Birdgenaw, is a Metis of Oji-Cree, English, Scottish, Dutch and French-Canadian heritage, whose mother’s first cousin is a long-time lead elder of the Metis Nation of Canada. However, Terry would argue that by moving away from the Oji-Cree territory a few generations ago, his family became assimilated by European Canadian culture. Yet, Terry has long been fascinated by the story of his ancestor, Mistigoose, the indigenous Canadian woman who was the first to welcome a European into his mother’s family line.
Mistigoose was both a tragic figure and an inspiration for this series. Her tragedy was that she drowned herself while distraught over the loss of her first son William, whom her British husband Robert had taken permanently to England. Against her will, the author’s fifth great grandfather wanted to ensure their son would be eligible to receive a handsome inheritance promised to his heir. Ironically, as British law prohibited Metis from owning property, William never received his rightful inheritance, so his translocation and mother’s death were both in vain.
The translation of Mistigoose, an Oji-Cree word, inspired parts of the story told in The Antunites Chronicles. In English, Mistigoose means little branch or twig. The title character of Antuna’s Story, whose own mother drowned, used a twig in a selfless effort to save her newfound friend Dinomite. The resolution of the second book in the series, The Rise and Fall of Antocracy, also depended on the insectoids’ realization that they needed tiny insects to break down little branches to generate the new soil required to rehabilitate their spent lands.
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Who and what ultimately inspired you to become a writer?
My wife, Ann Birdgenaw, started the second book in her children’s chapter book series, Black Hole Radio, and was undecided about what type of aliens her heroes would meet. I helped her decide and gave her some ideas about the alien world. As she progressed in her book, I continued to give her input. However, at some point, she felt the plotlines were getting too complex for the target age of her readers. She suggested I write a backstory about the planet in a book targeted at older kids. I took her up on it and started my fiction writing adventure.
What inspired the premise of your book?
As my novel and trilogy establish the backstory for my wife’s book Black Hole Radio, Bilaluna, the premise of my trilogy was to explain how the aliens ended up on their moon Bilaluna and what happened that they had to leave their planet for Bilaluna. But since the story was about giant cyborg insects, I also needed to explain how they became cyborgs and why they looked like giant Earth insects. My first book, Antuna’s Story, is about how Earth insects were transported to a new planet they called Poo-ponic.
From where did your ideas for this story come?
The original plot outline for the story came from my wife’s book. Yet the backstory I wrote also followed the exploits of several insect species and how they had to work together to survive after being transported to Poo-ponic through a wormhole from Earth. Therefore, I researched the field of entomology to develop ideas about how insects communicate and interact both within their own insect families but also between insect species. Also, because the story is an allegory about human aggression, several ideas came from various conflicts throughout human civilization.
Has this novel changed drastically since you created it?
My novel originally started as a 26,000-word novella and was a historical account written as a satire of former President Donald Trump and his administration. The novella had little dialogue, primarily written as fictitious historical quotes. I was fortunate to have my novella read by a fellow scientist, Sci-Fi author, and book coach, Nina Munteanu. Nina inspired me to expand my story to include more dialogue and action scenes, and my novella grew first to a novel and eventually to a trilogy, ‘The Antunite Chronicles’.
How did you decide on this title?
My novella was initially entitled ‘Poo-ponic Plague,’ with plague referring to the toxic environment caused by ignoring a rapidly developing climate crisis on Poo-ponic. Yet, as the novella grew into a novel and the novel into a trilogy, it became apparent the efforts of the trilogy’s first character, Antuna, would have a lasting impact on the insect civilization on Poo-ponic throughout its history. Thus, the first book, which centers on Antuna and her friends and their struggles, understandably became ‘Antuna’s Story.’
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?
My favorite section in Antuna’s Story is a series of scenes in the last chapter that involve the interactions between Antuna, the ant main character, and her spider friend, Spifry. What I particularly like about these scenes is how they reinforce the deep friendship between the two since Spifry saved Antuna’s life at the beginning of the novel. Antuna must hide Spifry from Malevolant’s evil regime, which intends to carry out a genocide of both spiders and termites. The scene provides a venue for their growing relationship. It allows Antuna’s character to develop fully as the founder of the insect underground trailway and as a non-queen ant who becomes a mother with a deep-seated desire to continue her family line. Fearful that the two will be shamed and burned alive if the authorities discover that Antuna is hiding Spifry, the two must decide what to do to avoid that cruel possibility.
How do you come up with names for your characters?
The tale is narrated by a historian Narrant, reading the story to a human podcast host on Earth. He explains to the host that the pheromonic names of characters are too difficult to translate, so he made up names. The fabricated monikers always include the character’s species at the beginning or end of the name. The rest of the title provides information about the character’s physical characteristics, position, or personality. Thus, Antuna combines the words ant and una, reflecting that she is an ant and the first one described in the story, with una being the Spanish feminine word for one. Spifry’s name signified he was both a spider and a runt, or a small-fry.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
The trilogy’s primary focus is on the struggle between altruism and aggression, two characteristics that are critical to insect social interactions but equally important to human civilization. While in the latter books of the trilogy, this struggle affects issues such as democracy versus autocracy, environmental stewardship versus economic greed, and freedom versus authoritarian social control, Antuna’s story reflects grappling on a more fundamental level. This book wrestles with choices between friendship versus mistrust of others, cooperation versus competition, and compassion versus hostility.
What makes this book important right now?
The main point of this story is timely, with the horrors and atrocities taking place in Ukraine. Insects on Poo-ponic, like humans on Earth, need to learn how to squelch basic aggressive instincts that drive a lust for power and conquering one’s enemies. Instead, they must strive for altruistic enlightenment that inspires compassion for those like us and those who are different, allowing for inclusiveness as we work towards common goals that elevate all in our world, insect or human.
How long, on average, does it take you to write a book?
It took me about two months to write the first draft of each of my novels, but typically after developmental editing, I extend the story considerably. Recently, I took part in Nanowrimo21 to write the first draft of the third book of ‘The Antunite Chronicles’ trilogy: ‘Antunites Unite.’ The goal was to write 50,000 words during November 2021. I accomplished the target, writing my first draft of 53,000 words in 30 days. Yet, after receiving comments from my developmental editor and beta readers, I expanded the second draft to about 82,000 words during the next few months.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
I learned from my experience with Nanowrimo that writing energizes me. I enjoyed writing every day and found that I was frustrated when other tasks impeded my writing. I have yet to experience any writer’s block. I use an approach that I call green-light mode, where I write whatever pops into my head at the time and only edit or re-write after the first draft of my novel is completed. I am also what authors often refer to as a pantser; I write off the seat of my pants with very little advanced planning and no organized outline. Perhaps during editing, I may become more of a plotter, but any framework I generate at that point is very loose.
Does your family support your career as a writer?
My wife and I are recent empty-nesters, so our family responsibilities are minimal. Since we are now both fiction authors, we each understand the commitment it takes to finish a book. Yet, I learned during Nanowrimo just how supportive my wife can be. Completing the first draft of a novel in just 30 days requires a singular focus, and my wife understood this and cheerfully took on all of my household chores so I could reach my goal. As this challenge occurred during the COVID-19 epidemic, sacrificing restaurant and other outings to prioritize time for writing was easy for both of us.
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