The Writers Who Read series continues this week with fantasy author Karina Sumner-Smith.
Who are you?
I’m Karina Sumner-Smith. I’m a Canadian fantasy writer and author of the Towers Trilogy (Radiant, Defiant, and the upcoming conclusion, Towers Fall). The series is set in a far-future, post-apocalyptic city where magic is used as currency and ghosts are fuel for living, floating towers. The books tell the story of a homeless girl with no magic who risks everything to save the ghost of her only friend—and how everything changes because of that rescue.
Which book or series was your gateway into the world of reading?
I was lucky to grow up in a book-loving family, so I don’t remember a time before reading. Story time was the best part of going to bed as a child—one of my parents always read to me, and that was worth putting on my pajamas and brushing my teeth and all those other inconveniences. But of all those books, I still remember C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time as favorites.
Nowadays, what makes you crack open a book instead of pressing play on your favorite Netflix show?
Books have always been a part of my daily life—TV, not so much. I’ll admit, I enjoy quite a few shows, from Orphan Black to random things like MasterChef, but watching is a very different experience from reading.
Shows and movies are entertainment. Books are like breathing.
Which authors are auto-buys for you? Why?
There are so many! In fantasy and science fiction, I’ll always grab anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, Naomi Novik, Michelle Sagara/Michelle West, Julie E. Czerneda, Robin McKinley, and Daryl Gregory. They’re all authors that I have come to trust over many books, and know that—regardless of the story—I’ll find something in the pages of their books that I’ll fall in love with. With some, it’s their gorgeous prose, their voice, or the rhythms of their writing. For others, it’s the characters that have come to feel like close friends and family.
I have a few other authors that are rapidly climbing onto my auto-buy list. Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor was simply amazing, I was recently blown away by some of N.K. Nemisin’s work, and totally fell in love with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.
What is your book kryptonite–those unique settings, tropes, or character types that make you unable to resist reading?
I admit it, I’ll always fall for amazing world-building. If you can build a strange and amazing fantasy world, or a different magical system, or a truly startling setting, I’ll give the story a shot on those strengths alone. (Perhaps this is why describing my own stories can be so difficult—I love putting together strange combinations of world/magic/setting into something that feels new and interesting.)
But what really get me are strongly emotional, non-sexual love stories. Stories about found families and life-altering friendships, finding your place in the world through the people you love and who love you. And I say “non-sexual” because when one says “love,” people tend to assume that’s synonymous with sexual attraction and romance, and that’s not quite what I mean. While I enjoy a good romance or two, my kryptonite are the love stories that aren’t about sex.
And if the author’s prose is amazing? All the better. I’ve been known to buy a book on the strength of a beautiful sentence or opening paragraph alone.
What is your ideal time and place to read?
Two spring to mind. In the summer, I love taking my book to the beach—I live by Lake Huron, so the beach isn’t far away. I’ll happily spend hours down by the water, reading, listening to the waves. But when the weather’s not co-operating, I have a rocking chair by a window where I’ll sit with a blanket on my lap and a cup of tea on the table by my side. Rare as such days are, nothing’s better than a quiet day with hours in the afternoon to spend reading.
Are you a re-reader? Why or why not?
Absolutely! There are plenty of books that I’ll only read once, even if I truly enjoyed reading them—and then there are the books that come to feel like old friends. I have books I’ve read and re-read times beyond counting; books with pages that have become soft and worn from repeated handling.
I also find that there are books that feel like new discoveries each time that I read them. I’ll see gorgeous lines I never noticed, be moved to tears by a character moment that I didn’t even remember from my first reading, even understand the story in a different way. I think that we bring something of ourselves to a book every time we read it, and as we grow and change we find new and different wonders in stories we love.
Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
I think part of being a writer, for me, is always studying other authors’ work, pulling it apart and seeing what makes it work. I think two of the biggest influences for me early on in my development, though, were Sean Stewart’s Mockingbird and Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seed.
What makes a book a satisfying read for you?
For me, it’s a combination of character, voice, a different idea or interesting plot, interesting story structure, and/or beautiful writing. A book with only one element will probably languish; one with two of the above will likely be read through. Three or more? I’ll be hooked.
Truth is, I love a wide variety of books in a number of genres, and sometimes truly unexpected things will leap out and grab me. I try many more books than I finish—this is part of what makes libraries, and free ebook previews, and luxurious times to browse through the bookstore so wonderful. I try to be open to new works and new writers especially; I never quite know what I’ll fall in love with next.
What are you reading right now?
Right now, I’m in the middle of quite a few books. I’m re-reading an old favorite, Julie E. Czerneda’s A Thousand Words for Stranger, in preparation for her November release of the first in a related trilogy, This Gulf of Time and Stars. I’m also about halfway through Kameron Hurley’s genre-bending fantasy novel, The Mirror Empire.
For nonfiction, I’m reading Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident about the strange deaths of ten Russian hikers in the 1950s, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery, and philosophy book In the Dust of This Planet.
Like I said, I love variety!
Karina Sumner-Smith is the author of the Towers Trilogy: Radiant (Sept 2014), Defiant (May 2015), and Towers Fall (Nov 2015). In addition to novel-length work, Karina has published a range of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories that have been nominated for the Nebula Award, reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies, and translated into Spanish and Czech. She lives in Ontario near the shores of Lake Huron with her husband, a small dog, and a large cat. Visit her online at karinasumnersmith.com.