Words by Denise Bishop
Images courtesy of Samantha Vitale
Book Review and Author Interview
The Lady Alchemist is an exciting Young Adult/Fantasy debut novel by Hampton Roads author Samantha Vitale. Seventeen-year-old Sepha has grown up in Three Mills, a mill town in the middle of the island nation of Tirenia. After her mother’s death when she was a girl, she was raised by a mentally and physically abusive father who, among other offenses, pulled her from school to work at the mill when she began to suffer from a kind of dyslexia as a child. When Alchemist begins, Sepha is heading to the mill for a demonstration of her self-taught alchemical skills. If the demonstration is successful, it could mean a revitalization of Three Mills. Unfortunately, a slip of the tongue lands Sepha in a sticky situation. Unable to turn straw into gold, she is forced to make a contract with an undead magician: she has a year to make a body for him or he will take the body of her first born child.
Vitale does an excellent job creating the world of Tirenia from its past war with (and subsequent oppression of) neighboring country Detenia to its battle-ravaged plains to its famed Institute of Alchemical Discipline. This is a land where Court Alchemists are revered and Military Alchemists are feared. But as much as alchemy is valued, magic is illegal and magicians must be punished. Sepha must keep her contract with the magician a secret as she travels to the Institute and beyond as she searches for a way to create a body for him through alchemy.
Though Sepha’s story starts out simple enough, recognizable as a modified retelling of the Brothers Grimm Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, it quickly grows more and more complex and compelling. Haunted by the memory of her controlling father, Sepha journeys to the coast to the Institute of Alchemical Discipline along with Ruhan, a handsome aspiring young alchemist also heading to the Institute for study who has a knack for saving Sepha’s life (and stirring her heart), and Destry, a fierce Military Alchemist who has been assigned by the Magistrate to assist with Sepha’s studies.
As Sepha learns more about alchemy (and, of course, herself along the way), she discovers that things are not always what they seem and she might even have a few allies, if she can bring herself to ignore the doubting voice in her head and learn to trust them.
I spoke with Samantha Vitale recently about The Lady Alchemist and her experience as a writer:
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Growing up in a Navy family, I moved a lot, but books were a constant. Reading and stories have always been really close to my heart. I always wanted to write, but I didn’t think that I would ever get to be a writer. Then I had kids. After my first son was born, I realized how much time I had. Just because I have a full time job, that doesn’t mean I don’t have time to write.
Who and what are some of your favorite authors and books?
- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – she’s amazing.
- Brandon Sanderson – his plots are amazing with a really long slow build.
- Susan Denner
- Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give and On the Come Up – they are really important and deserve all the praise they’ve received.
- N.K. Jemison
Where do you draw inspiration?
I read non-fiction books or I watch documentaries. The real world inspires me because the universe is really cool. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.
In much of recent fiction, magic and magicians are generally portrayed as good. What made you decide to make them evil in Tirenia?
It’s easy to fear the stuff that you don’t understand and can’t understand, especially when something powerful is happening. Both on a personal level and on a political scale (as in people I can’t control or imprison).
When you write for young audiences, do you consciously include lessons, such as Sepha’s learning who to trust?
I tend not to really enjoy books that try to teach me something, like allegories. With Sepha, I used her to work through some of the things I have struggled with: trusting people and moving past the negative voice in her head. So it was less about telling others a lesson and more about sharing my story. So if a reader had a similar situation, I want them to know they’re not the only one going through it; there is a way out. It’s less about teaching a lesson, and more about extending a hand.
Can you tell me a little about your process writing this book? Did you outline first or write from start to finish?
I don’t have a general process; it depends on the story. This one is a Rumplestiltskin retelling, so the framework was already there. I usually start with the world and build out from there. Once you understand the world and the main character, the rest of the story naturally builds out. I do create an outline (for the illusion of control), but when I’m writing, the characters often do something else.
Have you done anything locally to promote the book and connect with readers?
The Slover Library had a Local Authors Virtual Fair over the summer. They also have some great writing classes.
What advice do you have for young writers?
Keep reading. Read in a lot of genres. And write. You don’t have to write anything good. You can write fan fiction or original stuff. Be careful who you take writing advice from. You may find yourself paralyzed from conflicting advice. Find advice from an author that you love, filter out the rest, and then go write.
Vitale also wanted to share the story of how this story came to be:
After I decided to write a book, it took a year and a half. It was barely past a rough draft, but I loved it. I signed up for a pitch conference in New York. On the first day, I attended a pitch workshop, and when I gave my pitch during the workshop the guy running the workshop said my pitch was so bad that he didn’t even have advice for me. After that, we broke for lunch. What do I do? Do I leave? Do I stay? I called my husband and decided to stay. I went home to my grandparents house where I was staying and thought, I can’t save this idea. So that night, I came up with a new idea. Overnight, I came up with a new idea for a new story, and I came up with a new pitch. The next day, I gave the new pitch and the guy running the workshop looked at me like “You came up with this?” and I was like “Yes”. So I pitched The Lady Alchemist, instead of my other book. By the end of the conference, I had interest from a woman to publish The Lady Alchemist. So to aspiring writers, I say, you will probably faceplant. In front of other people. But it is not the end. Be ready to fail and keep going anyway.
Book 2 in this series has been submitted to the publisher but does not yet have a release date due to the pandemic.
Samantha Vitale has an insatiable hunger for two things: big challenges and amazing stories. When not working at her highly technical day job, she can be found devouring books or writing new ones of her own. She lives in Virginia with her husband and their two small humans.