The past is not so easily forgotten, especially once magic is in the mix. Gavin Lewis, his sister Amber, his best friend Topher, and a mysterious new addition to their crew learn this the hard way in Bets Davies’ debut novel Rebirth. Below, Davies talks inspiration, motivation, and character creation, as well as giving a sneak peek at her next project.
“…a great read…I really enjoyed going on this journey”–– Kay McLeer, NetGalley Reviewer
All Gavin Lewis wanted was a week to forget his awful summer. When he discovers a resurrected Celt in a museum exhibit, memories of his ex-girlfriend and dead dog become the least of his problems, especially when the powerful necromancer who raised her shows up—ready to kill anyone who gets in the way.
Along with his best friend Topher and sister Amber, Gavin and his new two-thousand-year old charge, who he names Jobi, flee the museum, banding together to search for answers. But it won’t be easy helping Jobi navigate a now unfamiliar world. The necromancer wants Jobi for herself. And the woman will stop at nothing until she finds her.
As myths and monsters are brought back to life to hunt them down, Jobi must use her growing magical powers to save herself and her friends. Along the way, a love triangle closes in as quickly as the necromancer trailing them. It’s in the face of death that they each learn what they have to live for.
- What inspired you to write Rebirth?
When I was in my program at Mills in Oakland, California, I often visited a group of friends in LA. One of the times I hopped the short flight there, part of our mission was to go to the natural history museum. An exhibit had just come in there—The People of the Bog. I still have the flier for it. The exhibit offered a view of items recovered from pools and nearby land, including several famous bodies, and two new ones from Ireland. One was a very complete mummy that the exhibit centered on—the bog girl.
I was actually still on the plane when I whipped out my writing journal and began to make notes on the idea of a bog person come back to life. The exhibit in the book exists as it did in my notes, except for a few key changes. I first heard of the bog exhibit because I have a friend in Pittsburgh as well, and it had been at the Carnegie museum there before it moved out to LA. She said it had the same layout with the bog girl I used in my novel at the center of the exhibit.
- Rebirth has a lot of mythology, history, and folklore in it. One of the characters is even an anthropologist. What drew you to write about these subjects?
The mythology, history, and folklore I owe to a childhood of PBS, and parents interested in the same subjects. We grew up sitting around the fire and reading fantasy novels, but mythology was our fantasy as well. As my brother and I grew older, we began to see mythology as the background of current history. I never lost that fascination. In every fantasy I have worked on, I looked at it from a perspective of how the true, in this case, “folklore” fit into the larger society.
My brother, in fact, has a cultural anthropology degree from the University of Michigan. My friend in Pittsburgh, who I often visited, once specifically to put my book in context, was working on her anthropology doctorate at the time. Another of my friends has an anthropology doctorate. As you can see, I have some familiarity with anthropology, which made it easy to include in Rebirth.
- Tell us more about the Wild Hunt and some of the creatures/mythology that we’ll get to read about in your book.
I hate to give you any spoilers as to what my characters face. But I had read a lot about The Wild Hunt in various fantasy novels. Being me, I also looked it up in mythology and read the poem “Tam Lin”, on which part of my story is based. I decided to use what I often saw in relation to The Wild Hunt in my studies—the unearthly Sidhe in Irish, or in English, the Fair Folk. Those who live in the mounds. What today we would call elves, though the large, Tolkien-esque elves, not small jolly folk. The Wild Hunt was an eldritch ride of the Sidhe through the country side and towns on their white horses with cloven hooves. They hunted with their white, green eyed, red eared hounds. The Hunt would collect humans who were unlucky enough to be in their way or be run down by them.
As for the rest of the creatures, I used the idea that my necromancer, while strong in death magic from all the cultures she studied, was strongest in her magic when she used the mythologies of her own life. So we see some familiar figures in the earlier fights as the necromancer channels her own fears and dreams into shaping the creatures my characters face. Some of these creatures would exist on their own, but the methods in which they appear and fight, their strengths, are based on hers.
The Wild Hunt is actually the exception here. The Hunt exists on its own, formed by history, bonds, betrayals and tales. When the necromancer comes to true desperation, she calls on this dangerous ally.
- The characters are vivid, complex, and relatable. Tell us about your process when crafting your characters. How do you make them come alive?
In the creation of complex, deep characters, I owe a great debt of thanks to Leonard Chang, who taught novels at Mills. I was only in his class for a few days, but he handed out a character sheet that exhausted all aspects of a character’s life. I can tell you that character sheets of this kind—lists or attributes, characters and backgrounds do abound in books and on the web if you are searching for one of your own.
However, I have to say beyond the character sheet, in this book, I wrote the shared histories. Once I started on a timeline for one of the friends and relatives, I realized I had to back up and create their histories going far back to when they first met or were born to each other. Jobi was a little more difficult. There is not as much information about Celts of her time. I was disappointed that I did need to make up some of her past, resting upon what I had researched and stretching a little.
- Which character was your favorite to write?
I know Gavin Lewis is my central character, and many would assume I was drawn to Jobi, my magical wonder kid, but I found Topher Soper is my favorite. A lot of that, I would guess, would be from detailing Topher and Gavin’s history together. On the way, I fell in love with them both. As I moved further into the story, I realized in some ways, for all that he is a secondary point of view character, Topher is often the hero—or perhaps anti-hero. For all his sarcasm and grandstanding, he’s a sensitive guy who takes himself and his friends seriously.
- Which character was the most challenging to write?
Jobi was frustrating because of the scant information about Celts of her time. But the hardest character to write, beyond her first few scenes, was actually Amber Lewis, Gavin’s adopted sister. Amber has bipolar—or manic depressive––disorder, and when we first meet her is in the throes of mania. I am bipolar. When I first started writing her, Amber’s mania, and the manias and depressions she had been subject to for so much of her life were familiar to me. However, when Amber is cured of the disorder, her arc takes her farther and farther away from this familiar territory. I have had to beat it into my head since
I was twenty [when I found out] that I have bipolar disorder, and while medications and therapists will come and go, and improve drastically, I will always, to some extent, be riding this wave.
Amber, on the other hand, has to go through the identity crisis of no longer having this strong force shaping her.
- History plays a big role in Rebirth. Talk about shaping your characters’ pasts and how you decided which experiences would happen before the start of your novel.
It sounds simple, but I decided on the beginning scene quickly. That moment—the characters building into it, the actions that set it off—was as clear as a cold, crystal stream. After that, however, as I shaped the characters’ sheets and then their histories, they ran somewhat amok. When working with history I invented a short hand version of scenes I call scene sketching. It looks a little like a play or movie script. The dialogue is there. The emotion is, though always scattered through in parentheses, the center of the experience. Actions are short and in parentheses. But much of the description is missing, and what there is is set off in more brackets.
I admit, sometimes I get carried away and start writing my sketches and notes on characters more and more like full scenes. But this book taught me more than any other thing I have written, that I will fail without them. Through the course of this history, Gavin moved to being the central character, Topher took on a secondary role when at first he was more of an edge character, and relationships developed. Even Jobi’s relationships in her former life, which we never see or hear of in the book, filled out her character.
- Your novel also has a rich sense of place. Do you have special attachments to these locations?
Yes. I have a special attachment to almost every place these characters go. The apartments used, the co-ops visited, the museum, pretty much everything but a few houses in lesser scenes, I’ve been in the physical location. I already had strong associations with these places.
- Jobi represents an antiquated point of view, and while she’s technically from two millennia ago, some of her viewpoints are still present in our society today. Talk about using Jobi as a way to shed light on archaic beliefs that are damaging to some individuals or all individuals today. Did using a character like Jobi make broaching these topics easier?
Using a character who is an outsider to a culture makes it easier to discuss both the culture at large that your stranger has been dropped into, and the beliefs of that character who comes to a sudden culture crisis. I never specifically thought “Now I will use Jobi to look at roles in arranged marriages versus the relationships of today,” but as I went through I found she made it easy for her archaic beliefs to be introduced, stick, or change, as well as highlighting the things in this culture that surprised her, and that many of us never think about in a full-fledged way if we don’t run into a wall that makes us.
- Amber has bipolar disorder, which the reader gets to see from multiple angles in REBIRTH. Instead of only focusing only on her struggles, you also discuss how this disorder is part of her identity, and how being cured comes with downsides, which many wouldn’t expect. What inspired you to feature a character with bipolar disorder? Do you think it’s important to demonstrate what having this disorder could be or is like for readers who are unfamiliar?
I first gave Amber bipolar disorder because I knew she was going to be adopted, adopted at four, which is relatively late, and that her mother had killed herself. The disease followed Amber down the genetic line.
I never thought “Ah-ha! This is how I will speak out about people with mental illnesses and their difficulties so often misunderstood.” I did make her manic at the beginning because I wanted her to be cycling when you met her, and for her to have a reason to pick up and take her life several hundred miles on a whim. I also wanted her to be a complicated character for Gavin to have in his family, and love. Once I got going, yes. I did channel much of my own tone from when I was manic into her reactions to her backdrop.
I do not believe we talk about mental illness. Some of us have lifelong disorders. Some of us have a period of un-understandable pain that comes and goes. Either way, we don’t address any of these behaviors that may last for some time and be overwhelming—not just to the person experiencing them, but to their loved ones. There is no cultural standard for what you say when someone admits to having a mind or emotions—what we consider central to our identities—that they cannot always control. We know the platitudes for illness, for deaths, for births, for so many occasions, but what do you do when the person you have always known and loved has changes of emotion and beliefs that can be shocking and frightening from the outside—even to the people who have them or work with them every day. Bring a casserole?
Initially, I did not mean for Amber to be cured. But given the scope of the plot and characters, once I introduced her, I couldn’t come up with a valid reason why it wouldn’t happen. At that point I realized re- learning her life would be much of Amber’s arc.
I don’t want to have given the impression that because Amber’s life is complicated by her disorder being cured, that the cure is a downside. If I had my way, I would trade away my disorder in a second. At the same time like any large factor in life, this disorder warps a lot of what you see as being you. Because it changes mind and emotions—what we consider our core.
Amber is not in any way dis-serviced by the fact she loses her bipolar disorder. She is lucky as hell. That doesn’t mean that she isn’t left sorting through a history and personality that were built on something no longer there.
Each of these characters goes through identity changes during the book, and much of Amber’s work has to do with realizing she has to come up with other ways to define herself—that she is now free to do it. Look at it this way, if a person has had a bad childhood that leads them to make the same mistakes over and over again, would we ask that person of say, physical abuse, to keep that personality for the rest of their lives? No. We would encourage them to grow and change. Amber gets this chance.
- Gavin and Topher’s love story is a major part of REBIRTH (and swoon-worthy, too!). What inspired you to write, not only about a same-sex couple, but also sexual fluidity? Do you think homosexuality and bisexuality are unrepresented in today’s fiction?
I didn’t need to think when I made first Topher, and later Gavin, sexually fluid. As Gavin himself explains, his mother had always told him that sexuality is on a continuum. Not a box. I believe that opportunities to fall in love and move your identity from one camp to the next have always been open. I grew up believing it. My family and friends are rife with people who have made these sorts of decisions. Some of them identify only as a person who has fallen in love with another person that happens to be their gender, but don’t integrate it into the core of who they are. I know others who have changed gender, or chosen to change to being lesbian or gay and have it become a central aspect of who they are—forming the groups they belong to, and the like.
All of these ways of thinking are valid. I once had a friend congratulate me for being brave enough to tackle this issue head on in my writing, but frankly it never occurred to me not to have sexually fluid people in my books. They are integral in my life. If I were to write a book without them, there would be a big, gaping hole.
But, of course, in putting these characters into my writing, I look at what they face, as much as I look at what they face with any other aspect of their lives. And I know they still struggle. Even being lucky enough to have grown up in Ann Arbor—a liberal Mecca—hurt, discrimination, and shame still have found them at various points in their lives, albeit shown mostly in their backstories.
Is sexual fluidity, or other gender identities under-represented in literature? I haven’t read everything. I do know that after the first sets of strict rules in science fiction and fantasy (boy gets girl, humans win) these genres have allowed for a lot of exploration because often they do not follow the norms of our culture, though my book does (or at least those of Ann Arbor and several other large cities). I do believe more could be done to have people of multiple gender and sexual identities and subcultures be more central to our lives. That usually means they should be more central to our art. Art has been said to reflect culture, but it also pushes culture—making those who experience art evaluate assumed values in new ways.
- Jobi not only has to discover and navigate her second chance at life, but she also reaches a point that many modern-day men and women experience, and that is discovering themselves apart from their partner. Jobi’s particular situation (you know, being resurrected and tossed into a totally foreign world) emphasizes this lesson. Can you talk about how Jobi was the perfect character to demonstrate the importance of being independent?
Okay. First of all I have to point out that while Jobi has made it a mission to become an independent person, she still does have a wide net of support around her. I do not believe anyone stands entirely alone. The difference for Jobi is that she is a woman who has always abided by OTHER people’s expectations of her. She followed what her parents wanted for her, including who to marry, and then followed being a part of her husband’s world. In her culture, she always had to follow the culture of a very small town with very strict rules.
When she makes the decision to be independent, she is making a bigger choice than most of us make. Most of us have that thing called the teenage years and our twenties when self-identification is the psychological push. As we become older, we may or may not become ingrained in new relationships and families, but we ideally have ourselves to come home to. Jobi’s choice was clearer, because she began this life believing she needed to be part of someone else’s. So it was easier to examine her struggle. She had more of a defined battle than most of us muddle through. While I believe reaching a point where you understand yourself as an individual is key, I don’t believe it is a given in this culture.
Too many times the culture swoops down and stuffs us into the box of a two person relationship or a family. These relationships become something that are supposed to take up our whole lives, our personalities, and fulfill our sense of selves. It’s a ridiculous idea if you think about it. To become full people, we all have parts that we should allow that do not fit everything about the relationship we have chosen. We should still go out with friends our partner may not even like. We should come home with stories our family doesn’t already know.
Jobi’s journey to independence makes all these lessons easier to examine. But I have to point out she can only go on her quest to be independent in all the ways she wants because she has people around her encouraging her, supporting her, and helping her to be able to re-emerge as she does.
- What are you currently working on?
I am almost done with another fantasy novel set in modern day America. Because the rules of YA have been morphing in the last ten to twenty years, I decided to set about in recreating this story as Young Adult with the help of a YA editor.
In Sheep That Stray eighteen-year-old Alexandra Graham should enjoy a dream world—a rich family and community, the boyfriend she always wanted, even the chance to go to France for college. But lately Alex has been feeling—lacking. Her life has been defined by her father and boyfriend. She can’t say who she is. Her father can be emotionally cruel, leading her to erect barriers around herself—a cage of thought to keep herself safe.
Next door, sixteen-year-old Robin Larks moved in a few months ago. His life was never a dream. The only thing that can be said for it is that his rich, socialite mother retains her wealth when she marries a soldier boy. The fights have left Robin’s empathic side reeling since his birth. He fights for a sense of self in the midst of others’ emotions by indulging in some ugly vices.
The two never would have gotten to know each other if danger hadn’t erupted at their school, forcing them and a small cadre of other misfits to flee. In their search for answers, the magic that is their birthright blows up in their faces, and leaves them clinging closer to each other as they search for answers. Wandering the map in search of new lives, they find home in one another.
About the Author:
Bets Davies enjoys writing fantasy and mixing together genres and subgenres. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan and received a Master of Fine Arts from Mills College. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with a protective macaw, two dogs, and a cat. When not writing, she draws and tries to remember how to play the bassoon.