BookView Interview with Author Terry Birdgenaw

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, Antunites Unite, the third instalment in The Antunite Chronicles that features an entertaining blend of sharp dialogue, colorful characters, and smoothly paced narrative. (Read the review here.).

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 family line.

Mistigoose was both a tragic figure and an inspiration for this novel and 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 novel’s first character, Antuna, whose own mother drowned, used a twig in a selfless effort to save her newfound friend Dinomite in Antuna’s Story. 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.

As a neuroscientist, Terry has over 150 scientific publications, yet this is his first work of fiction. His background has allowed him to research many scientific facts to present an authentic science-based fiction story. And his growing concern for social justice and climate issues reflects his Metis indigenous roots with a shared respect for sanctity of human life and environmental stewardship.

What inspired the premise of your book?

The first two novels in my trilogy, The Antunite Chronicles, were the backstory of my wife’s children’s book Black Hole Radio-Bilaluna. They explained how Earth insects were transported to a planet in a far-off galaxy, how they transformed into cyborg insects, and how they destroyed their world and nearly destroyed their moon. The third novel of the trilogy is much more open-ended since it occurs long after the period described in the Children’s book. Yet the characters are still cyborg insects that have returned to their rejuvenated planet. So, although the plotline was less constrained, I again drew the world-building and character archetypes from my wife’s story. The premise for the plot, however, was heavily inspired by the dystopian novels Brave New World and 1984. As in book 2 of my trilogy, an authoritarian dictator seizes control of the planet, but this draconian leader takes it to an entirely different level. Rather than the environmental crisis of book 2, the leader thrusts citizens of book 3 into a dystopian world where all aspects of his subjects’ lives are controlled. Unlike Brave New World and 1984, which have very depressing endings, in Antunites Unite, spies from the planet’s moon implement actions that result in a positive conclusion for the planet’s residents.

How do you come up with names for your characters?

In the first two books of my trilogy, characters were named by my ANT narrator Narrant. He made up names because it was too difficult to translate their pheromonic titles into English. Each character’s name included their species as part of the name (e.g., Antuna, Beefirst, Gretant, Thunbug, etc.). This format continued for the characters on Bilaluna in book 3 (e.g., Beelieve, Beeutee), as well as for a time on the rejuvenated planet (e.g., Antebon, Rustant). However, when Rustant took control, he changed his name to Rust and forbade the use of species identifiers in names, which were superfluous as the new colony of Antalonia only had ANTs. Yet, Antalonia rulers used a color-based caste system, so the names of the characters all reflected the social level to which each individual belonged. Red ANTs had names like Rose, Ruby, and Rust, while black ANTs were named Raven, Pepper, and Darci (a word of French origin meaning ‘Dark One’). This moniker system created an artistic problem for me since, for the final draft, I switched the color of the ANT rulers on Antalonia from black to red. This decision necessitated changing the names of all the characters. For example, Raven became Rose, Jett became Jasper, and Cole became Clay, to name just a few. Also, every mention of the word black became red, and red became black. You can probably imagine how many proofreads were needed before the colors and names were all straight. Various reasons motivated the switch, but the clincher was my research about the aggressive behavior of ants on Earth. I came across several articles about slave-maker ants that raided other colonies to capture enslaved laborers. There are many examples of slave-maker ant breeds, but most are red ants, and their slaves are usually black ants. So, ants in nature on Earth became the basis for the caste system rankings within my fictitious colony Antalonia.

How often do you base your characters on real people?

As an element of my stories is political satire, I often use current or past political leaders as inspirations for my characters, particularly the story’s antagonists. However, I don’t necessarily stick with one political figure so that they may take characteristics of several current politicians or historical personages. Also, they may exaggerate an individual’s personality traits as a caricature to enhance the parody of such motivations and actions.

What sort of a relationship exists between you and the characters you created in this book?

Sometimes I feel like a movie director, not a strict one, but a laisse-faire one that allows the characters to ad lib. As such, I let myself get into the head of each of my characters and then allow them to tell me how the scene should go. Since I am the type of writer known as a pantser (one that doesn’t use an outline and writes off the seat of their pants), I let the characters’ motivations inspire me and direct the plot and the dialogue. My wife is amused when I start laughing out loud or crying while writing a scene, as my characters’ actions get to me emotionally.

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

The best money I have spent as a writer has been on developmental editing. I was fortunate enough to find an excellent book writing coach, Nina Munteanu, as the developmental editor for my three books. Nina is not only an editor, but a Sci-Fi author, former environmental scientist, and a current creative writing instructor, and I benefited from all this expertise. As a scientist myself, I found Nina knew my strengths and how I thought, and she pushed me to pursue the research needed to support my story. Scientists tend to write passively, and Nina understood this and helped me overcome my shortcomings there. As a Sci-Fi author, she knows what the genre expects, and she steered me in the right direction. Finally, as a creative writing instructor, she taught me the basics of fiction writing, allowing me to transition from science researcher and writer to science fiction author, as she had done.

Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?

My favorite part of Antunites Unite is what I refer to as my black widow scene. In this chapter, Antebon exacts lethal revenge on the evil ruler Rust, poisoning him while she seduces him. I filled the scene with witter banter and sexual innuendos as Antebon plays a wily and willing mistress whom Rust meets at a bar called The Widow’s Nest. Antebon has recently discovered that she has chameleant abilities, and she changes her color from black to a most brilliant red, calling herself Lava, to ensnare the unwitting Rust. Enamored by her stunning red shell, Rust, who frequents the Widow’s Nest to meet mistresses his age, falls into Lava’s bewitching spell. She convinces Rust that the poisonous jinsome weed is black licorice, an ANT aphrodisiac. He is suspicious, and she must convince him to play along, yet she imagines the steps a trapper uses to catch a wild animal within her inner monologue. Antebon reveals her true name and color to Rust after he is poisoned and dying, telling him that sometimes lava is too hot to handle and turns black as it cools. He learns the hard way that his red-hot mistress is instead a black widow.

How long, on average, does it take you to write a book?

I began the first novel of my trilogy on January 1, 2020, and finished the third book on September 6, 2022, including right up to the last typo corrected on the formatted proof. That totals approximately 32 months for three books, or an average of nearly eleven months per book. Of course, delays occurred waiting for editor comments and beta reader reports. I spent much time shopping around or querying for agents and publishers. I still would consider this part of the writing process since feedback from agents and publishers often inspired me to go back to editors or beta readers and revise my books further. Despite a few offers from hybrid publishers, in the end, I decided to self-publish with my own imprint Cyborg Insect Books. For this book, Antunites Unite, I wrote the first draft in November 2021 as part of National November Writer’s Month. Abbreviated NaNoWriMo, this is a challenge to write a 50,000-word book during the 30 days of November. I met the challenge with a 53,000-word first draft of book 3 completed during the month. Yet, I knew this was a rough draft that would expand. Following comments from my developmental editor and a series of beta readers between December 2021 and Spring 2022, and after considerable editing, my second draft topped out around 85,000 words. Still not completely satisfied, I sent this draft to another beta reader and a line editor. After subsequent revisions, copy editing, and proofreading by my reading-partner wife, I completed the final draft at 95,000 words or about 400 formatted pages after 10 months.


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