An Interview with Ed McDonald

This summer, acclaimed author Ed McDonald will be releasing Daughter of Redwinter, the first novel in his brand-new fantasy series. The novel follows teenage protagonist Raine as she reckons with her forbidden ability to see the dead and enters Redwinter, fortress stronghold and training ground of the magical Draoihn. Ed McDonald is best known for his Raven’s Mark series. He has also contributed to Grimdark Magazine.

Steve Green and I sat down with Ed to talk about his thoughts on the post-grimdark age, magic as a resource, necromancy as a trend, and what affects his writing process.

Cover for Daughter of Redwinter[GdM] Without giving too much of the plot away, can you give potential readers the number one reason to pick up your newest book?

[EM] Have you ever wondered what would happen if you followed The White Witch from her earliest days at wizard school?

[GdM] Your Raven’s Mark series got a decent amount of buzz (including from us!). Did potential critic and reader expectations influence your process for this novel?

[EM] It’s easy to get yourself tangled up in worrying that you won’t gain new readers, or that you’ll alienate the old, but ultimately being a writer is about creativity. The best thing to do is ignore everything you’ve heard (and where possible, avoid reading reviews of your own books – they’re for readers, not for writers!). Ultimately the only effective way you can approach writing is to tell the story that’s in your heart, and for me that means I have a bunch of feelings or I’ve had certain experiences and I want to share them on the page. I think that writers need to ignore their critics and not worry about pleasing their fans. Each book (or series of books) is its own thing. They may not be for everyone, and that’s alright.

[GdM] What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters of the opposite sex?

[EM] I was very conscious of trying to get Raine right, and for her to feel like a real person. For Daughter of Redwinter I spent a lot of time talking to my partner about how to portray Raine, trying to ensure that she felt honest. From those conversations, my big takeaway was that the important thing when writing any character is to remember that they’re an individual, not a representative, and that you should write each character, who or whatever they are, just as themselves. Of course, male authors writing female protagonists can’t help but be aware of the more comical errors some male writers have made in the past, and I think that often where they’ve made those errors it’s because they’ve focused on the character as a symbol (and delved either into stereotyping or some baffling assumptions), rather than as a personality.

[GdM] How does living with another writer affect how you write?

[EM] The best thing about having a partner who is a writer is that they understand what it’s like – the pressures, the work that needs doing, how your moods shift and that kind of thing. Publishing is a complex, frustrating and sometimes baffling industry and having someone close by who understands it is invaluable. I like to bounce ideas off a sounding board, and Cat is excellent for that (and she can be pretty vociferous when insisting something needs to be added). Conversely, she doesn’t like to spill any secrets at all before she’s finishing writing a whole book, so we’re quite different in that regard. We edit each other once manuscripts are completed, and that’s an extremely helpful thing to have in your arsenal.

Inevitably, elements of your own lives make it into your books and sometimes we can see ourselves reflected in each other’s writing, which can be both fun and terrifying.

[GdM] It feels like we are on a great journey with Raine as she experiences politicking within the clan system and learns more about the Draoihn trances. What inspired you to create this magic system functioning within a larger clan system?

[EM] The two elements were essentially separate elements of world building that came together in the only way that they could. This is one of the most fun things about creating new worlds, and can occasionally be frustrating when one element refuses to support another. But in any world where magic is rare then either it’s hoarded up at the top of society, or it’s hidden away from everyone (and still likely to be exploited by the elite). Magic is a resource, and so it’s going to be well protected.

Regarding the clans, I wanted to give this book a Scottish feel, and lots of the mythology is inspired by Scottish folklore as well so the two were really asking to go hand in hand.

[GdM] What was the most challenging scene to write in Daughter of Redwinter?

[EM] There’s a scene where Raine first experiences some feelings about another character in a bath, and I hadn’t expected those feelings to be there when I was first writing it. I experienced a moment of thinking “Is this who Raine actually is and I didn’t realise?” and typically when I have those thoughts, the answer is going to be “Yes,” or I wouldn’t be having them. Getting the tension right, having to think into two characters heads as things go between them unspoken, and showing enough that the reader can pick up on what both characters are doing without anyone explicitly stating it, and neither character is really self-aware enough to know why they’re doing it… well, that’s quite a task and I hope I pulled it off.

Oh, and I should say “The first six chapters.” I rewrote them from scratch about nine times, with different locations, different characters, all changing each time until I settled on a version that worked.

[GdM] We’ve noticed an increasing number of protagonists who practice some version of death magic or necromancy (Gideon the Ninth and Bone Shard Daughter, to name a few). Do you feel this is a trend you were consciously tapping into? 

[EM] I first wrote Daughter of Redwinter in a different form back in 2012, and I rarely read fantasy these days – unfortunately when I read fantasy my brain sees it as work, and begins dissecting it on the page, trying to see influences, guessing where it’s going and generally spoiling the experience for me. However, we’ve definitely seen some fun takes on necromancy, and stories that ask “What if Sauron was right all along?” It’s perhaps a natural part of Grimdark’s journey as a sub-genre that we started by asking what happens if the bad people are on the good side, then asking what happens if the bad people aren’t on anyone’s side, to asking “What if good people are using bad ends on their own side?”

[GdM] What did you learn while writing this book?

[EM] To go with my gut and to stop worrying how it will be received!

Author photo for Ed McDonald[GdM] You mentioned in another interview that you consider us to be in the post-grimdark age. How would you explain this to readers of Grimdark Magazine? How do you think authors can stay original within the bounds of the grimdark genre?

[EM] There was a time when dark-and-gritty was all that fantasy publishers wanted to buy up (OK they also wanted paranormal romance). Grimdark was everywhere, and I caught onto the tail end of the ride in 2016. But by around 2018, the market was saturated, and new interests pushed publishers to redirect their energy towards fantasy set in non-European settings and more hopeful books, tapping into an audience for whom morally-grey protagonists were now starting to feel… well, grey. The pandemic solidified the change – readers wanted escapism and every wave has to break. When you look back at the books that were first dubbed Grimdark – let’s say Abercrombie or Lynch – they’re practically “noble-bright” compared to what authors tested the limits of the subgenre with eventually. But that extreme end of the market is not a large space, and publishers began to buy up different stories.

However, like any trend or movement, Grimdark has indelibly left its mark on fantasy as a whole. Even the more hopeful fantasy books getting published now retain much of its edge. “Morally grey characters” was once part of Grimdark’s definition, and now it’s standard across most of fantasy fiction – what was once subversion has become the norm. It’s natural that this happens, but that’s why I say we’re in a Post-Grimdark Age: new literature wouldn’t be the same if we hadn’t gone on the journey, but dark-and-gritty is no longer the dominating force in publishing houses’ lists that it once was. Grimdark stories are still being published (and I’ll be interested to see whether Daughter of Redwinter gets classified as such!) but publishers are no longer using the label – nobody wants to be marketing something under yesterday’s sales pitch.

I advise all budding fantasy authors to ensure that what they’re writing has one big, defining characteristic that means two readers who’ve forgotten the book’s title could instantly know the book the other was talking about. So if someone says “It’s that book with a place called the Misery” then I think they’d both get that it was the Raven’s Mark straight off. But ultimately, any story told from a unique character perspective is an original story, and it’s characters that matter over everything else.

[GdM] What’s on deck for the future?

[EM] The second Redwinter Chronicles book is in edits, and then it’s on with the third. I’d love to have a crack at a thriller and my partner and I are looking to write an audio drama together – if we ever have the time.

Read Daughter of Redwinter by Ed McDonald

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Julia Frazer

Julia Frazer has been a devoted science fiction and fantasy reader since elementary school. Her favorite books involve women who kick ass. She is based in sunny California.