Author Monalisa Foster was born into communist Romania. Living there was an experience that will stay with her for the rest of her life. And that experience influences her fiction. Foster did a Q&A with The Loftus Party and provided more details on her background. She also explains how surviving communism allows her to avoid writing Strong Female Characters. And she shares even more, including an in-depth look at her space opera series (Ravages of Honor).
The Loftus Party: What motivated you to become an author and why does writing fiction appeal to you?
Monalisa Foster: I came to the U.S. when I was nine. I had already had some English (I was the only one in the family who spoke it) in school, but I was nowhere near fluent. So I was stuck in ESL with a bunch of Spanish speakers and I was doing very poorly in school because I was being taught in Spanish, a language I had no knowledge of, despite its similarity to Romanian.
So I decided to teach myself English. Dictionary in hand, I would “translate” what I read (articles, texts, anything I could my hands on). I loved the library because it had A/C and if I got there when it opened in the summer I could spend all day being comfortable (my family could not afford to run the A/C). I didn’t even have a library card because my parents wouldn’t get me one.
So, I spent my summers in the library translating science fiction from English into Romanian. That’s how I was introduced to Robert Heinlein’s works and he gave me something I never had before—a sense for being an individual. This was a foreign concept to me, coming from a culture and tradition where you were not allowed to be an individual, but were always a member of a collective (whether family, clan, or society) first. Heinlein’s sci-fi not only taught me English, but taught me how to be my own person, taught me my value as a person, as an individual. He saved my life and my sanity by giving me these wonderful worlds to escape into. I’ve wanted to become an author ever since.
I actually wrote two novels that never saw the light of day (one in high school and another in college) but didn’t take writing up seriously until about 2015 after my kids were old enough that I had the time to devote to my old passions.
I strive to do what Heinlein did—give people a world to escape into while at the same time showing them the value of individualism, freedom, and liberty and all the wonderful things that can come from them. In all of my work, it’s my goal to immerse the reader and place him or her not just in the story, but inside my characters’ minds and hearts. I want to give them the ability to live a hundred different lives, to experience what it’s like to be not just somewhere else, but to be someone else. I want to show them how to overcome adversity, how to survive, how to grow as people, in other words, all the things we value heroes for.
TLP: Pretending to Sleep may have been the first work of yours I learned about. I have purchased it but haven’t yet read it—it’s on my book pile. And it’s obviously a book that directly ties into your life. What, if anything, do you wish to share about your early life in communist Romania? Does your early life influence or inform any of your other work?
MF: Most of what I’m willing to share about that early life is in Pretending to Sleep. What I do want people to know about that book is how it came about.
I wrote it for a workshop run by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. The guidelines said not to hurt the small children or fuzzy animals so please keep that in mind. Kris wanted a story about passions—something that the character was passionate about (in 6000 words or so). This story just came pouring out of me. It took me nine hours to write (I didn’t dare stop) and my hands shook the entire time I was typing.
My husband came home to find me bawling my eyes out. He thought someone had died. I couldn’t even explain it to him. I had to just point at my monitor and he sat down next to me and started reading because what else are you gonna do when your wife can’t even speak.
I was terrified to send this story in, but I send it in I did, and even as we sat in this room with the editorial panel, I was scared witless. I thought it would destroy my career even before it began.
The editorial panel was made up of six editors (seven really, but two of them were working on the same anthology) and they all gave feedback on it. Some of them thought that the story was very weak because the protagonist (a ten year old girl) was too passive. Someone suggested that an audience raised on Hollywood action films would expect her to weaponize her hair ribbons and the buckles on her shoes, take down the guards, escape, and lead a team of insurgents against Ceaucescu’s forces. That’s what makes a “strong female character” these days.
So, I was utterly floored when Kris said that (a) the story was entirely believable because that’s what people living under communism are like, and (b) that it was superbly written and she was going to buy it. It ended up being my first professional sale but didn’t get published (the anthology it was bought for did not get filled). So I decided to self-publish it because I couldn’t find any publisher interested in buying it.
Does my past influence my other work? You bet it does. How could it not? Especially after being told by First Worlders (who have no idea what it was like to live under communism, who’ve never had to face arrest or imprisonment, or had their water and power shut off for not saying the “right” things, their ration cards revoked, been followed, harassed, physically assaulted, abused, and persecuted) what a “strong female character” should be like—the smartest, strongest, faster, most kick-ass person of EVERY room or situation she walks into.
I found this to be the most ludicrous assertion, and not just because it’s the “standard” applied to female characters, but because then every character is a superman without any weaknesses (or with just token ones). Nothing bad can happen to her. She can’t lose. She can’t grow. She can’t be a hero. And no matter what her name, she answers to Mary-Sue.
Characters don’t need to be perfect. In fact they need to be imperfect. What they do need to be is relatable, flawed people who get to struggle, to fight, to grow, against real adversity (not shallow, superficial ones like accepting a flaw in their appearance or accepting that they are not perfect).
I write complicated characters who have depth and undergo significant change whether they are fighting monsters or fighting for freedom. I write characters who are individuals, not part of a movement, a collective, or a cause. I write about real strength not just physical strength. And more importantly, I write not just strong women, but strong men. I write passionate, grown-up people, not selfish, entitled children in adult bodies.
Oh, hi, Mary-Sue, long time no see.
TLP: Ravages of Honor: Conquest is book one of your romance / space opera series. You include an interview someone did with you on the book’s Amazon page. Quite interesting. Do you have the entire series planned out and can you reveal any themes readers will find throughout the run? How many novels will there be? And how does it differ from modern, popular space opera?
MF: Book 2, Ravages of Honor: Ascension, just came out on 11/19/21. Go and get it.
The theme of book 1 was conquest. The conquest of fear, of one’s desires, of the unknown, of one’s self. Syteria had to conquer her fears, adapt to an alien world, and rediscover the person she was meant to be, the person that the Rhoans destroyed. And she had to learn to trust enough to fall in love—something that would have earned her a death sentence back on Rho. Darien is conquered by Syteria as much as Syteria is conquered by Darien.
For book 2, the theme is one of ascension, about rising above and becoming something else, something stronger.
The overall theme of the series is about the ravages (that is the devastating consequences) of honor. Honor is very important to both Darien and Syteria because ultimately it’s about doing the right thing, and doing the right thing (not the easy thing) often has a higher price than they can possibly know. People like to talk about honor, about doing the honorable thing, but when it comes to walking that talk, too many fall short. Darien and Syteria don’t.
Currently there are two novels and two novellas (Featherlight and Dominion) and a short story (“Bonds of Love and Duty” in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Fantastic Hope anthology) and I am currently agonizing where to go with book 3. Do I pick up right where book 2 leaves off or do I skip to ahead? I just don’t know and probably won’t know until I sit down and start writing. So there will be at least one more book in this main trilogy, and others in the same universe, although perhaps with new characters taking the center stage.
One of the ways that (I think) that Ravages of Honor differs from modern, popular space opera, is the characters. The main characters (Syteria and Darien) change significantly in each book. There’s plenty of action — court intrigues, travel to exotic planets, political machinations — but my stories tend to be more character-focused.
Another way that it’s different is that while I have FTL [faster-than-light technology], genetic engineering, and nanotechnology in my world, they are not the main focus of the story. There are no extended space battles since most of the action takes place on planets.
Ravages of Honor is also different in that it is written more like a fantasy than sci-fi. It shares some tropes with popular fantasy. The donai are genetically engineered “samurai” but a lot of my readers like to point out that they are a lot like vampires (vampires being the popular trope nowadays) even though there is nothing supernatural about them and they don’t go around biting people. It’s different in that the donai don’t use lightsabers or blasters. They actually carry swords for matters dealing with honor and because you can’t heal being decapitated, and sidearms (projectile weapons) because … well, I don’t want to give away too much.
The other way that Ravages of Honor is different is Syteria, the female protagonist. She is a fish-out-of-water, a stranger-in-a-strange-land. As eniseri (the slave soldiers of the Rhoan Matriarchs) she may have been one of the physically stronger, faster females, but among the donai, she is not. What she is is a survivor, one who embraces feminine strengths. Darien is more of a Byronic hero. He has strong emotions and is willing to go to extremes, especially when it comes to matters of honor.
TLP: Are there any in-progress works or planned future works that you’d like to tease?
MF: Ravages of Honor book 3 is going to be my main focus going forward. I have some short stories in a couple of anthologies with Baen (Robosoldiers is one and the other is a hard SF one that has not yet been announced). I encourage people to sign up for my newsletter for updates.
TLP: Where can readers follow you online and where is the best place for them to buy your works?
MF: My works are available via Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Google Play, Apple, etc. (If you have trouble finding me, remember that Monalisa is one word.) Check me out on social media at the following locations.
I am also on MeWe, Gab, and Parler as Monalisa Foster but I’m not very active there.