By Fiona Stephens.
We are very happy to welcome Mara Rutherford to The Reading Corner to discuss her upcoming release The Posion Season, out December 6th!
Leelo has spent her entire life on Endla, coexisting with the bloodthirsty Forest and respecting the poisonous lake that protects her island from outsiders who seek to destroy it. But as much as Leelo cares for her community, she struggles to accept that her younger brother will be exiled by his next birthday, unless he gains the magic of enchanted song so vital to Endla.
When Leelo sees a young outsider on the verge of drowning in the lake, she knows exactly what she’s supposed to do. But in a moment that will change everything, Leelo betrays her family, her best friend, and Endla by making an unthinkable choice.
Discovery could lead to devastating consequences for both Leelo and the outsider, Jaren, but as they grow closer, Leelo realizes that not all danger comes from beyond the lake—and they can only survive if Leelo is willing to question the very fabric of her society, her people, and herself.
Hi Mara, thank you so much for allowing me to read this evocative and enchanting tale. I am a huge fan of fantasy and it was a real pleasure to enter the world you created. Before the interview begins, please tell our readers a little about yourself and your work?
Hi Fiona! Thanks so much for having me! A little about me: The Poison Season will be my fourth published novel. I currently live in Brussels, Belgium, with my husband (a diplomat) and our two sons. We love to travel, so this lifestyle has been great for our family, but I also love being at home with our mini poodle, drinking tea, and dreaming up new worlds.
One of my favourite aspects of your book was the role nature played throughout. The forest and trees signifying the Great Mother and death mother. Nurturing and menacing simultaneously. “The wandering forest had found people who would protect it, and so it, in turn protected us”. Nature as being alive, sentient. These chords really resonated with me considering our own context. Did you draw from the climate crisis we are facing? Are there any messages you wanted your readers to take from the role of nature?
Funnily enough, this is the second time I’ve written a setting that is both beautiful and terrifying to me personally (the first being the ocean setting in Crown of Coral and Pearl). I love nature – I spent a lot of time outside exploring as a kid – but I’m also fairly risk-averse. So there’s something fascinating to me about a setting that is idyllic on the surface but quite dark underneath. From an environmental standpoint, I’ve been a vegetarian for over half my life (I eat fish occasionally now), so Leelo’s soft spot for animals comes from a personal place. The idea of giving back to the land (as the Endlans do, rather literally!) and not taking more than your share is definitely something I believe in.
The novel is dual perspective between Jaren and Leelo. This really allowed us to view the cultures from both sides of the poisonous lake and inspect our central characters. Were there any other characters’ perspectives you felt drawn to write from?
In the first draft, I actually included several other points of view. My editor thought it was better to keep it down to two, but I really enjoyed writing from Story’s perspective (one of Jaren’s sisters – I actually have enough from hers for some possible bonus content!) and from Sage’s, particularly. I love writing morally grey characters, and Sage is definitely one of my favorites.
The first meeting between Leelo and Jaren brought to mind the scene in the film ‘Romeo and Juliet’ where they see each other for the first time through the panes of glass of a fish tank. It spoke to a purity and innocence but also their separation, their differences. As well as this notion of destiny. How would you describe Leelo and Jaren’s relationship?
I would describe Leelo and Jaren as “star-crossed lovers,” so the Romeo and Juliet comparison is certainly apt! I loved the idea of two people from completely different worlds – two people who never should have met, let alone fall in love – connecting based on their shared humanity. One of the things I have appreciated living in places like Russia is that when we get past politics and cultural differences, we find we have so much in common with each other.
Thank you for using the name Fiona. As a Fiona myself, I don’t see the name often in literature, so it gave me a little thrill to see it on the page. And what an interesting character- wrapped up in regret, guilt and recriminations. There were some complex female relationships in the book- Sage and Leelo, Leelo and Fiona, Fiona and Ketty. There was a sorority and strength amongst these women, but their greatest betrayals and hurts came from them too. Which dynamic did you enjoy exploring the most and why?
I love the name Fiona! And there is something so fun about seeing your name in a book (Mara is becoming more common, but as a kid it only happened once!). Fiona is a character who sort of breaks my heart. She and Leelo have so much in common, but Fiona takes an entirely different path that leads her to spending the rest of her life in guilt (not helped at all by Ketty, of course). Female relationships are fascinating to me because they’re such a large part of my life. I have four sisters, a challenging relationship with my own mother (something I’m sure many people can relate to!), and I place a lot of value on my female friendships, which can be incredibly meaningful but also fraught. I enjoyed writing all of the relationships in TPS, but the one between Sage and Leelo was probably my favorite to explore. It’s part of the reason I wanted to include Sage’s point of view, because I think she really does come from a well-intentioned place in her own mind, and without her rationalization, she can come off as quite cruel.
Another intriguing concept was the Endlans with a voice which made them magical. This subsequently granted them protection and community. Whereas the Incantu are without magic and subsequently exiled. Leelo seems to ask how do you give a voice to those who don’t have one? How should we treat our vulnerable?
In TPS, Endlan magic is a kind of groupthink that bonds the community. To keep anyone around who doesn’t have magic challenges that belief, and they rationalize the exiling of children in order to protect themselves. I think most societies (if not all) behave in a similar in-group, out-group way. A need to belong is inherent to humans and our survival as a species, so I do think it’s ingrained in us on an almost cellular level. But it brings to mind the Gandhi quote, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” In that sense, Endla is failing miserably. It takes a brave person to stand up to everyone and be a voice for the vulnerable, which is why I think Leelo – who seems weak to everyone by Endlan standards – proves to be the strongest.
Are you able to sing at all? If so, do you have a go-to song?
I absolutely love to sing. But am I able to sing? The answer to that is a resounding no. Not that it stops me. Taylor Swift is a favorite, but I’ll sing out loud to anything I know the words to (only when I’m alone or in front of my poor, long-suffering family, though!). But if I could have one artistic talent, it would probably be singing.
Ideas of community are pivotal throughout the book. Secrets amplify the characters’ shared trauma. Fear and shame seem to be big motivators. All under the banner of “the greater good”. What would you say is the most important thing about community?
I never really felt like I belonged to a community until we moved to Belgrade, Serbia, in 2018. The embassy there was a great size – small enough that I knew everyone by name, but not so small that everyone was in each other’s business all the time – and it was the first time I felt a true sense of belonging to a group larger than maybe ten people. I felt especially protective of everyone during the pandemic, particularly in terms of morale and mental health. I think that’s probably the greatest thing about community – feeling a responsibility to something larger than yourself.
In the need for order and control, Leelo and the Endlans especially resort to ritual in the form of prayer, blood sacrifice and festivals. It also serves as a means to hope. Do you have any rituals when it comes to your writing or in general?
I think because we move so frequently, my rituals (or routines, as I think of them) have become very important to me. My morning tea and podcast listening session is probably my most treasured. But in terms of writing, I’m fairly flexible because I’ve always had to fit it in around everyone else’s schedule. I do love the idea of a ritual, though! There’s something very comforting about them.
This seemed to be a novel stepping back to folklore/fairy tale/fantasy roots. There were notes of ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Pied Piper’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Did you research fairy tales? Were there any that inspired ‘The Poison Season’? Which are your favourite fairy tales?
I didn’t research any fairy tales for this book, but I do love them! One of my favorite things about moving to a new country is exploring its fairy tales and folklore. You can learn so much about a culture that way. In terms of classic fairytales, I love Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast. And I adore a retelling! I recently re-read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and it made me want to write all the retellings!
There were hints that Leelo was more than she seemed amongst her people. An exception. There were other questions left hanging at the end of the book. Does this mean there will be more to come from this world or was the slight ambiguity intended to allow readers to come to their own conclusions?
The Poison Season was always meant to be a stand-alone, and I don’t think my publisher would ask for a sequel. For me, this ending is as neatly tied-up as a book can be (because in the story of Leelo’s life, it’s really just a chapter!). But I love this world and these characters, so who knows? I never say never!
Through Booktok and Bookstagram, female-lead fantasy is seeing a huge surge in popularity. Which authors are your go-to? What books should be living on our readers’ shelves?
My go-to authors are Laini Taylor, Margaret Rogerson, Leigh Bardugo, and Holly Black. Lately I’m loving Erin Craig, Shea Earnshaw, Alison Saft, and Rebecca Ross. Honestly, there’s just too much good fantasy out there and not nearly enough time to read it!
Thank you for your time, Mara. I wish you every success with the book. It just leaves me to ask where can people get their hands on a copy of ‘The Poison Season’?
Thank you so much for having me, Fiona! You can find The Poison Season wherever you buy books, or you can request it from your local library. For signed copies, you can order from One More Page Books in Arlington, VA!
Mara Rutherford began her writing career as a journalist but quickly discovered she far preferred fantasy to reality. Originally from California, Mara has since lived all over the world with her diplomat husband and two sons. A triplet born on Leap Day, Mara holds a Master’s degree in Cultural Studies from the University of London. Her favorite days involve books, tea, and Mishka (a small red muppet often mistaken for a dog). She is the author of the CROWN OF CORAL AND PEARL duology, LUMINOUS, and THE POISON SEASON.
Mara’s Instagram: @mararutherfordwrites
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