#LoveOzYA Q&A with J.S. Burns for WHISPER OF SHADOWS AND SNAKES
After living in various cities, J.S. Burns now calls Queensland home. He is a retail manager, model, and now author, with the release of his debut YA fantasy, WHISPER OF SHADOWS AND SNAKES.
#LoveOzYA’s Bianca Breen recently chatted with Jake about his first novel and how the exciting, magical adventure came to be.
Hi Jake, thanks for chatting to #LoveOzYA! For those who haven’t read A WHISPER OF SHADOW AND SNAKES yet, can you tell us what it’s about?
Thankyou for having me! It’s still so surreal that I’m a published author and people are interviewing me about my book!
Whisper of Shadows and Snakes sees Alek and his two friends, Benny and Sarah whisked away into a world of deadly monsters and ancient magic. But heartbreak and betrayal threaten to tear them apart as we follow Alek who struggles to navigate his own anxiety and questions surrounding his sexuality all while the pressures of this new world threaten to overwhelm him.
It’s set in an epic fantasy world with shape shifters and thieves in the night. It’s a story of friendship and coming into your own power. Of how hard it can be to accept yourself and your flaws, while monsters prowl through the impending shadows, waiting to strike at the first sign of weakness.
Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?
Growing up I was in love with fantasy tales filled with magic, monsters, and danger. From The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, Animorphs and Avatar the Last Airbender. They always captured my imagination and transported me to another world, which is my favourite feeling in the world. When your mind leaves your body and you’re fully immersed in the story – I wanted to create something like that.
In grade 8, my best friend came to school and told me he was going to write a book, and so being the competitive person I am, I decided I was going to do the same, but mine would be better! And so, I drew on all my favourite components and tropes from the fantasy stories I had read over the years and created my own world, combining everything I loved in those other epic tales.
You mentioned pouring your own struggles and lessons into the book – how did you find drawing on lived experience helped with the story’s development?
It was not something I intentionally set out to do. I mentioned earlier that I first wrote Whisper of Shadows and Snakes in grade 8 – that version of the story definitely didn’t touch on a lot of the struggles and lessons this current version does!
Growing up gay and closeted can be extremely isolating and anxiety inducing, and really effect your relationships and the way you present yourself to the world. I remember reading all of my favourite books and wishing that there was a character like me in them, someone who’s journey was mirroring my own struggles.
Then in 2019 when Covid hit and I set about re-writing my book, Alek very unintentionally became a much more auto-biographical character. Suddenly, as his character evolved, I realised I was writing him about myself, or rather, what I perceived as my worst self. His struggles with anxiety, with his sexuality, with other people’s expectations of him all come from my own life experience.
As I finished writing the book, it dawned on me that I had created that book that my teenage self had been searching for all those years ago, a story filled with monsters and magic, with a character who struggled with his sexuality and identity and makes (a lot) of mistakes as he tries to accept who he is.
Having a character so closely mirror something so personal to me was daunting as I put the book out into the world, I didn’t know how people were going to react to Alek and his flawed journey. But thankfully my struggles are shared across the world by many members of the LGBTQ+ community, and it’s so rewarding to have people celebrate Alek and be able to find themselves in him while enjoying a fantasy tale.
I think it takes a lot to pick up such an old idea and work on it again until publication. What was the editing process like?
Long! Haha, I had no idea what I was in for when I got back my first manuscript appraisal! I think as writers, we all like to think our work is perfect – and we all get very attached to our characters and our story. So to have someone read it meticulously with a fine toothed comb and then criticize (constructively of course) your work, it can be very confronting.
The editing process was interesting, as certain scenes and plotlines I had replicated straight across from the original manuscript I wrote in grade 8, from a thirteen-year-olds brain. While others I had fleshed out and expanded upon with a 25-year-olds brain so meshing together the combination was a little clunky, which my editor did not hesitate to tell me!
In the editing process, which took about 6 months – I’m good at procrastinating! I re-worked most of the older portion of the story, so that it gelled with the newer characters and plotlines much better, while still maintain that original magic I had created when I was thirteen. I think I added in roughly an extra 30,000 words in the editing process, and some of my favourite scenes that had never existed suddenly appeared in the story. Such as Sarah’s interaction with the mysterious old librarian (one of my favourite characters!).
Reading my book now, it makes me smile when I get to a passage that is almost word for word taken straight from that very first draft I wrote back in 2007. Teenage Jake’s words are still in there, woven throughout a much more mature and honest tale – I think he’d be proud of how it turned out.
Elemental magic is no stranger to fantasy novels – how did you balance using a well-worn system while still keeping it fresh?
It was hard, there were multiple time’s I considered changing the magic system to move it away from elemental magic, because like you said, it has been done so many times. But I’ve always loved elemental magic, and the visual spectacle it can create in your mind’s eye when written the right way, which I hope I have done!
I’m a huge fan of Avatar the Last Airbender, not only for the incredible bending system that was created for that world, but the depth of the characters and their development throughout the seasons. So, I definitely drew inspiration from there.
I think with the magic in my world, it isn’t necessarily that there are characters born with elemental powers, it is that some people in the world are born with magic, and the way it manifests its power is different for the different cultures in the book.
For example, I briefly touch on the Shifters magic. They were born with magic, but had no way of actually harnessing that magic, of manifesting it. And so, their elders crafted the Shifters tattoo’s, inking animals onto their skin, allowing their magic to manifest itself through those tattoos and transform them into the animals they have drawn on them. The elemental magic is similar in that it is just an expression of the characters energy, of their power. I wanted it to feel very natural, as if the element moved with the character, was alive around them.
That is why Sarah’s hair will often blow on an intangible breeze, or Benny will feel flames in his throat, coating his tongue whenever he gets angry. I didn’t want it to be a magical skillset that they learnt specific moves or spells for, rather I wanted it to be an extension of themselves and for it to grow in power as the characters came into their own.
How’s book 2 coming along?
Haha! Book 2 is coming along nicely.
I’ve almost finished the first draft. Without revealing too much, it has been so exciting to take the characters out of the school where we spent the majority of book 1 and throw them into this huge world that they have no idea how to navigate or what dangers await them. I’ve had so much fun exploring the new environment and adding some terrifying new monsters to the mix.
Book 2 has some of my favourite scenes I have written thus far, the tension is higher, the stakes are greater, and there is lots of new characters to thwart our main characters journey! And there may even be a sneaky few chapters from the point of view of a certain Shifter I know everyone has been clamouring to know more about.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Don’t stop dreaming. Live in your imagination, embrace it, and don’t put pressure on yourself to create. Let it come naturally, when the time is right, the words will flow out of you. But when you force it, you won’t enjoy the process and it’s very easy to feel defeated and give up.
Some days you might wright whole chapters, others you might only write a paragraph, but celebrate it, regardless of how many words appear on the page.