Welcome to WOLF NOTES, where interview questions stray from the rest of the pack. It’s nice to know the usual stuff like where an author gets their inspiration and why they write, but sometimes we need a little fun in our lives.
Rhiannon Held writes urban fantasy, along with space opera and weird western (as R. Z. Held). She lives in Seattle, where she works as an archaeologist for an environmental compliance firm. At work, she mostly uses her degree for copy-editing technical reports; in writing, she uses it for cultural world-building; in public, she’ll probably use it to check the mold seams on the wine bottle at dinner.
Wolf: If you could be any animal in the universe, what would it be and why?
Rhiannon: I’m not sure I’d ever want to be an animal literally, but being one metaphorically (in the best tradition of animals that talk in folktales) would be fun! My personal metaphor animal (or patronus) is a fox. Sometimes foxes are the villains of the piece in Western folktales—sly, killing chickens, stealing what isn’t theirs. But what if folktale foxes applied their methods to less villainous goals? I aspire to be stubborn like a fox. Not stubborn like an ox, just going forward and hitting your head against a wall until it breaks (or does it?). Stubborn like a fox, who sees a goal and goes over or under or around or talks their way in or distracts the guard or in the end, makes peace with deciding it wasn’t actually worth it. If they do decide it’s worth it, they keep stubbornly trying different methods of getting to their goal until they succeed.
Wolf: I never thought about foxes like that. What is the meanest thing you’ve ever done to your characters?
Rhiannon: At one time, I thought I might write a spin-off series of my main urban fantasy series, Silver. That ended up not being where I wanted to go with my limited creative time (though I still love the idea for it!). The spin-off was intended to be set about 60 years in the future, when the werewolf characters who were part of a society hidden from humans in the Silver series had mostly died in clashes with humans once they were discovered. It meant that the characters I’d written about originally had somewhat passed into legend, with all the crunchy misunderstandings and exaggerations that intrigue me about real history. It also meant that I had to know how they all died.
That’s not the mean part, though. Death is death; it comes to every character off the page. No, the mean part was when I figured out what life must be like for the characters who remained. Though the series was slated to take place in a relatively safe enclave, anyone who’d made it that far had lost pretty well everyone in the life to violence. That’s one thing to have in backstory, but it’s another to have happen to characters readers have already met!
Wolf: So true. While walking in the woods you come across…
Rhiannon: As the interest in history I mentioned above hinted at, for my day job I’m actually a professional archaeologist. Specifically, I work in compliance archaeology, which involves checking places slated for development before ground is even broken, so that we can know or predict with confidence whether there are any “cultural resources” (not just artifacts or objects, but also other things that are evidence of past humans, such as stains in the soil, trails, ditches, or building foundations) that might be disturbed when development goes forward. Over my career, I’ve specialized and now mostly edit the technical reports we produce for our results. However, I was trained in survey, which is what I would be doing when I was walking out in the woods and came across something.
What might I find, out on survey? In the Pacific Northwest, not much on the surface—our survey almost always involves digging what are called shovel probes because otherwise things are just plain too grown over to see. But we’re hypothetically walking, not digging! When walking, we often find railroad grades, but almost never rails or ties, as those were removed by the railroad companies when they closed the lines, or moved spurs as they opened up new areas for logging in historical times. Old roads are also out there. Occasionally one can find concrete foundations or pads associated with homesteads or houses. And can or bottle dumps! Workers on the job or people traveling on a road might dump the cans or bottles from what they’d eat or drunk by the side of the road or tracks. Cans rust away and can be hard to identify very precisely, but bottles often have maker’s marks, as well as how particular shapes tell you what’s inside (take a look in your recycling bin—you know what had wine in it, and what had ketchup!).
Just as a note—even as archaeologists, most of the time we record things, we don’t collect them. The point is what they can tell us, not possessing them, and they can tell us things while staying right where they are for another person to see! So if you find historical stuff in a the woods, be like an archaeologist: look it over and leave it there.
Wolf: Just like I learned in scouts. Take only picture. Leave no trace. If you could have a super power, what would it be?
Rhiannon: There are two answers to this question! The first is, I’d love to be able to teleport, mostly so I could visit far-flung friends whenever the heck I wanted. Narratively, though, that one’s no good, because no super power can just work quickly and conveniently with no side effects, tradeoffs, or complications. I’ve seen plenty of complications for teleportation across fiction, but none of them are meaningful for my personality. For instance, getting lost in some kind of limbo state if you step in without picturing your destination clearly enough makes the most narrative sense for a character who metaphorically doesn’t look before they leap as well. That is the diametric opposite of me!
So the second answer is, I think I’d probably have empathy. It’s great for understanding people and helping them, but it’s pretty terrible for making sure you don’t burn out trying to fix the world all on your lonesome. If I had that superpower, maybe I wouldn’t use it very much…
Wolf: Interesting. One of my works in progress is about an empathic teleport. She has loads of complication. What five items would you want to have in a post-cataclysmic world?
Rhiannon: I have a very high, wonky prescription for which I currently wear contacts, but obviously in that case I’d want my glasses first and foremost. The next things are all bound up in what I’d like to consider my long-term survival strategy. Assume for the sake of these items, that in this new world, there are now more resources than people (true for a disease outbreak, not true for crippling drought for decades, etc.). Most fiction likes to focus on the fighting after the cataclysm, but people already tend to stick together during disasters, and enough resources afterwards means there’s much less impetus to fight to go steal someone else’s food because you’re starving, for example. But I digress!
Second item, I want a farmer’s almanac. Gotta get some crops in the ground if I want to eat in the future. But those won’t be ready for a season, if not more, so time to get me something to eat now, with a book of city maps. Remember those, from the 90s, with street maps for an entire city in far more detail than one fold-out map can give? It’ll be outdated, of course, given all the updates went online, but it would be enough to orient you and record your progress as you start scavenging. Maps are important! I won’t just be scavenging food, so I’ll want a solar panel so I can generate electricity to run any useful items that I find.
Last? Well, it’s kind of a big item, but I want a printing press. Preserving knowledge is so important, and while it’s easy to go the direction of worshiping books as singular, magical objects, I think that’s not the way to go. Preservation of knowledge is about replication. Find the books, copy down the information, and fire up the press! Print a hundred guides describing how to build a water filtration system using charcoal, and which wild plants are good to eat. Then all the people around you and their knowledge of their experiences can survive in the new world too.
Wolf: You and Tatiana, the main character in Star Touched, would get along great. Books and wild edibles are her things. What story are you working on now?
Rhiannon: Oddly enough, speaking of a post-apocalyptic world…That’s not quite true, I have at least four projects on my hard drive right now in various stages of completion, but the one I’m currently revising is a weird western, set centuries after the apocalypse, that explores, among other things, just what people looking back on us might put in their books about the period of their history we’re currently living in. Also it has conscious AI and other leftover technology from the old world as well as tall tales, lonely trails through deep forested canyons, private dancers, saloons, gun battles, and bicycle chases.
Wolf: That sound great. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Rhiannon: For hobbies that get me out of the house, I belong to a community choir and have a D&D game, and I also enjoy hiking and finding little local museums to poke around. On a given evening, though, I write until I have no more brain left, which isn’t always bedtime, so I also have to fill that time. To get away from words without completely vegging in front of Netflix (which I do my share of, let’s be honest) I enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles and cross-stitch. The bigger the picture the better, for both of those!
Wolf: All fun activities. What’s your philosophy that keeps you going through the hard times of writing?
Rhiannon: A question I get a lot that I never know how to answer is “Has there ever been a time you tried to give up writing?” It’s hard to answer because the honest reply is, “No.” But there’s a really interesting question buried inside of that, it’s just been made too specific. When times are hard (and every writer knows, damn but they get hard) even if you don’t feel that difficulty in the form of wanting to quit, how do you get through?
My philosophy: things work out. That needs a bit of explanation, otherwise it sounds like an empty platitude. Not everything will succeed. Not everything will get better. But things will change. That change might bring something that’s even better than what you thought you wanted. It might bring what you feared but you find out there was no reason to fear it after all. It might bring something so awful that you’re forced into making a decision that you never would have imagined making that brings even more change…that might be better than you imagined. Or worse. My life philosophy is that change is terrifying but as you get used to things, you realize they’ve worked themselves out. Somehow. Not how you imagined. But probably not bad, in the end. And a writing career is just a microcosm of that. There are no guarantees you’ll succeed at any one project or goal, but if you keep writing and submitting and give the change something to work on, you’ll end up somewhere new. And I’d like to keep finding out where that new place is!
Wolf: Great philosophy. You can connect with Rhiannon through these links: