Interview with Mary Irving

October 1st, 2021

I read Mary Irving's Escape From Hell as a beta reader, and even at that early stage, it was an interesting, original and moving time travel story. The book is coming out on October 18, so why don't we get to know its author a bit better? :)

Hi and welcome, Mary! Could you please introduce yourself?

I work as a material scientist in research and development and my passion is writing. I enjoy working to build narratives and explore new ideas. My day job involves discovering and helping people understand real life systems, and in writing I love using that same fascination with systems and the way the world works to build my own worlds. I enjoy drawing and painting both with traditional mediums and digital. I am drawn to expansive worlds and complex magic systems with engaging characters. 

I’d like to start with discussing your novel Escape From Hell. Could you say a few words about it for the people who haven’t read it?

Escape from Hell is the story of a fantasy villain who is assassinated and taken from her time the instant before her death by time travelers to pay for her crimes in a sci-fi prison called Hell. It plays a lot with themes of guilt and redemption which are lightened by some fish out of water trope fun and some women loving woman romance.

How did you come up with the idea for Escape From Hell?

The initial seed for the story came from my love of villains. Villain characters are often built as these complex characters and I often find their stories feel like they’re cut short. The protagonist gets a satisfying closure to their story, where the villain is just killed or thrown in prison. I wanted to explore more of what happens to them. So the first two chapters of Escape from Hell are essentially the ending of a heroic character’s story and the rest of the book explores what happens to the villain after the end.

Rin is a complex protagonist that was fascinating to read about. How did you feel about her while writing? What was the most challenging thing about her arc?

I love Rin. She starts out pretty vile, but I knew how she would develop. It was a lot of fun writing a character who goes through such a transformative experience. She’s also a very active protagonist. When she decides to do something, she does it, sometimes to disastrous effect, but at least she’s committed! She’s a layered person and it was fun pulling back and exploring some of those layers. The most challenging thing was balancing the line between cartoonishly villainous and a more genuine feeling villainy.

Do you have a favorite scene in the novel?

Most of my favorite scenes are from later in the story so I’m going to answer this question with very vague terms to avoid spoilers!

The final climax was the first image I had for the story. Usually when I write a story, early in the process a few scenes come to mind and I work out from them. So it was very satisfying to see that scene on the page.

I also love Sochi and one of her scenes is on my list of favorites.

Most of the guards dehumanized the prisoners and treated them badly. One might say that they deserved it. At the same time, it felt wrong to me and made me sympathize with the criminals. What were your thoughts when you were writing that? Were you trying to make a point? Was it part of the punishment for the criminals or just a likely way for the people in the position of power to act?

It’s important to preface this answer by stating that I have no expertise on criminal justice. Everything I’ve learned has been from documentaries and other edutainment sources. I have no academic background on the topic.

I personally think dehumanizing people, in any context, is wrong, and I see dehumanization in the criminal justice system, especially in the US, where I live. That being said, I understand that there is a lot of nuance to real life criminal justice. In the debate of revenge vs rehabilitation, I lean towards support of the rehabilitation approach to criminal justice, but again, I have no academic grounding for my opinion.

I didn’t write this story with the intention of making a point about criminal justice. I actually learned about the debate after I wrote the first draft of the story, and although it heavily influenced further drafts, it wasn’t the basis for the story.

For me, I think the story is more grounded in the way people tend to villainize people. That includes criminal justice, but more broadly includes things like Twitter dog-piling and the judgement of the media. People tend to need a villain to project their anger and frustrations with the world. In this story, people are able to pull the most uncontroversially vile people from the past and pin those projections on them. I wanted to show how this isn’t good.

What do you think about redemption? Does everyone deserve it and under what circumstances?

Redemption in real life is much stickier than in fiction. In fiction, we get a back seat in a character’s head and we know when they are genuinely sorry and when they are ready for redemption, but in real life we don’t have that luxury. Still, I believe rehabilitation should be the goal of a justice system, not revenge, although I recognize in some rare cases that is difficult.

How did the writing process go? Did you enjoy it? Were there any difficulties or major setbacks?

I love writing. It’s how I spend most of my free time. For this book in particular, it was a long process. I wrote the first draft of Escape from Hell as NaNoWriMo project back in 2013! After “getting it out of my system,” I put the draft away and forgot about it until 2020 while cleaning up my writing files. Rereading it captured my imagination. A year later, I’m publishing it.

When I picked the book back up with seven years of distance, I had a lot of changes that needed to be made. It was around 60k words, which were cut down to around 30k and built back up to 85k. The main thread remained, but a lot changed. As I mentioned earlier, I toned down a lot of cartoonishly villainous elements to Rin’s character. I also introduced and fleshed out side characters like Sochi, Gai, and even Cleo. Jason got a much bigger role and I extended the ending and beginning a bit.

Because of how tight the plot of this story is, once I nailed down the major plot points, it was pretty easy to clean up the story for publication.

Can you say a few words about your blog?

My blog is where I monologue about writing and reading. It’s taken a bit of a backseat lately as I focus my efforts on publication, but I like having the space to talk about the books I love and the craft of writing.

Why do you review indie authors’ books?

I have a few reasons for reviewing indie authors. I started reading indie books when I was trying to decide if I should pursue self-publishing or traditional publishing. As I immersed myself in the community, I realized how important reviews are to self-pub authors, so I started prioritizing reviewing self-pub books.

The indie and self-pub space is wonderful, to me. I love the idea of authors getting out from under the thumb of industry gatekeepers. I believe a lot more interesting stories can be told when not trying to hit the largest possible market base. Self-pub and indie books can explore more niche topics and I think that’s beautiful so I try to support it.

I also like the idea of authors being financially independent of publishing houses. I was published a few years ago by an indie publishing house, and my eyes were opened to how much is expected of the author when it comes to marketing. I assumed that once the publisher was involved, the author could let them handle the book and start working on their next project. I learned that, unless a book is one of the publisher’s handful of tent pole projects for the year, the author is expected to shoulder the burden of marketing. It quickly gets to the point, where I don’t see the value added by a publisher and I want to support authors who are cutting them out of the equation.

Can you recommend a good indie sci-fi book?

Atropos by John Japuntich

An interesting sci-fi story on a loooong time line, hundreds of years, that follows a ‘what-if’ technology and how it develops alongside humanity. A really different story and worth the read. Great for fans of Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Refuge by J.J. Blacklocke

A fun space opera story. The first in a trilogy. Lots of fun alien races, none of them human! Great characters that are easy to connect with. Great for fans of standard space opera fair, like Star Trek.

What do you do for fun?

I write! I love embracing my creativity, so most of my pastimes revolve around creating something. I draw and paint, digitally and with traditional medium. I lean towards pen and ink and watercolors, although I’ll try my hand at something new from time to time. I also occasionally take a stab at sewing. In the summer, I like going for walks and visiting the lakes, especially Lake Michigan.  

Who are your favorite authors?

Oof, this is a hard one! I’m going to go with my three biggest favs.

Brandon Sanderson: has been more influential to me for the writing education material he provides online. I love his writing, but I really value the resources he provides for free.

Martha Wells: has written some of my favorite books I’ve read in the past year. Her character focused sci-fi adventures are exactly what I love.

Elizabeth Moon: an older author, but hugely influential on my writing. I love her expansive space operas and her worlds and characters are so breathable.

If you could travel to a world described in a book that you’ve read, where would you go and why?

I’d love to go to the world of The Founders Trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett. The books are a bit up and down for me, but the world and the magic system are exciting! When it comes to this question, I always gravitate towards stories with a magic system I’d like to explore. Even if I would probably be dead within a week of arriving!

If there is anything else you’d like to add, feel free!

Thanks for the opportunity! These were some thought provoking questions and I enjoyed mulling them over.

Thanks a lot for the interview, Mary! <3

Escape From Hell will be live on October 18, but it's available for preorder now! You can get it directly from the author's website, on Indiebound or Amazon.

Check out my review.

You can also check out Mary's website, Twitter and Goodreads.

Interested in Science Fiction?Subscribe!