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In The Spotlight: Interview with Elizabeth Priest

Let’s start from the beginning. Who were the writers who inspired you to become an author?

I always feel like it’s too simple to just say my parents but I grew up with writers parents so knowing being an author was a thing was so much a part of my little baby worldview it just felt natural in that baby logic way that this is what you grow up to be. I was so surrounded by fiction it was very hard to say what inspired me the most, as the moment to become a writer who was serious about the craft hit me when I was writing for my friends at school. I’d type novels for my friend Catwin and she’d lean over my shoulder while I sat in the library and she’d egg me on. I think my own reading – lots of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones at the time – were really only fuel for the fire that learning I could be entertaining and get instant feedback had already set! In that regard a wonderful couple of writers from the young aspiring authors forum I was on back in the early mid 2000s inspired me the most and I have, alas, no concept of what’s happened to them or if they’ve gone on to be published, but they were fantastic writers and I was competing within this workshop space… As the meme says, [writing on the internet] is something that is possible to win and normal to want… Anyway they were known to me as Chance Salmon and Carly Pinkham. All the best to them.

What is the very first piece of fiction you ever wrote?

All by myself without someone taking dictation and probably editing in actual story beats… Maybe when I was four or so I had a whole little series of The Magic Shell where a princess finds a glowing shell by the beach and it’s magic and she takes it home. Then it glows a bit and she’s like, 'Wow it’s magic!' And after that I never really quite knew where to go with it, largely as a result of failing to set up and other plot beats along the way. Absolutely gripping fiction. As a teenager I first wrote a silly story about a kid off an adventure directly into a friend’s unchecked email inbox when she stopped replying due to technical issues. I think the plot may or may not have been to make her email me back via what aid a bog witch could offer. I was so impressed that I’d accidentally spewed something with a beginning, middle and end and that I’d managed to construct it in such a way that this could be coherently understood, that it hit me that writing actual full novels was a completely achievable goal, and off I went.

The first novel-length thing I churned out involved baby’s first self-insert character on a fun adventure where she was trying very hard not to become queen of a poorly realised fantasy kingdom, and eventually failed to avoid that end, but learned a whole lot along the way, and I am still meaning to re-write it in a way that properly realises all the cool themes and characters that a teenage brain can come up with, but with adult knowledge of how the world works or what pacing is.

Think back at your debut book. How did you approach the ‘getting published’ process? Any tips, resources that you can share with our readers?

I have such a lovely story about meeting Francesca of Luna Press back when I was lurking around conventions absorbing the culture and walking home with sacks of books… I was feeling pretty great about the progress I’d made on the series so brought it up talking to this young author with a small press and a lot of hustle, and years later she remembered me walking off with a sack of her books and telling me about my own series!

I have to say my experience is being brought to conventions since I was a baby so it’s probably not optimal advice if you did not get that start, but it is never too late to start making connections, and these days online there are so many people with public presences and events that it somewhat makes up for the pandemic times we’re in… I do miss the dealers’ room though. Where am I getting my sacks of books now??

Tell me about your books. What was the inspiration behind it?

My series as a whole sprung from a dream about the Piper! My main characters, as an amorphous collection of teen girls in my recollection now, were super invested in following him around and that naturally pinged in my brain (as one would obviously do) to the Pied Piper. He was playing a recorder, after all! I had Tanya as a left over character from childhood writings and decided it was time to work out the Tanya Saga, but I didn’t want to approach her as the main character as she has always been a very mysterious and contradictory person in my occasional writing of her. So I span up a proper friend group dynamic and it was all born out of working out these girls and their lives as a way to work my way back to the main mytharc. By the time I’m up to the first Tanya point of view book and the ones after it, I’m finally moving out of set up and into the stranger mysteries I always wanted to chew on!

My fantasy comes a lot from local folklore and fairytales, and I love learning about new places and the stories connected to them, and the deeper history that others have forgotten. I guess it doesn’t affect your day to day but I think it gives you lots of little secrets between you and a town that everyone else walking past you don’t know! Making up my own set of things for Troutespond to hold onto was one of the other main delights in setting out on this series.

Is there a particular book in the series, that it’s closer to your heart? What makes it so?

Book 5, The Empty Orchestra (which is, to explain the title, at least what How I Met Your Mother would have me believe, what “karaoke” actually means in Japanese so it may be a crime there’s no actual karaoke scene in there). The book follows my main self-insert of the stories setting off to university and having as many problems settling in and having her adult metamorphosis as it is about the weird ghost orchestra that is haunting her. I started this whole series while I was at university and somehow Ally getting to experience it for herself was a really moving and smooth thing for me to write, because I had experience to draw on of how these things worked on a social level for someone exactly as weird as her, so even if I was making up all sorts of things about the mundanities of it all, it was still very resonant to me to write such a dreamy strange character having to grapple with surviving on her own in the world.

How did you find the publishing process, in general?

Very smooth and encouraging! I can’t say enough wonderful things about my publisher. We’ve worked very well together and they made a gorgeous book. I also haven’t opened any of them at random and seen a typo yet, which I hear is one of the main emotional disasters of being a published writer. But as I am a fairly fragile person, I have been trying not to do that too often, in case it does eventually hit.

What is your take on social media, when it comes to being an author? Do you think that an author should have at least one channel of communication with the readers?

I think authors should be as weird and reclusive as they like to their own preference, but yes, in the modern age, writers having an online presence can be a benefit. I know reader friends who actually voluntarily go to look up favourite writers’ websites, which in the age of social media is an adorably quaint thing for most industries… I feel a thousand years old remembering when popular movies all came with a website and we actually wanted to go look at them, but this has endured better in writer land, I think. It’s the sort of weird fusty old thing a writer can do in this day and age which has the same feeling as typewriting a letter in response to a fan in an earlier time.

I don’t think writers should be feel obliged to talk to everyone who contacts them on social media, and having websites, blogs, email addresses etc can make a sort of ranking system for writers to choose how much and to what degree of investment they reply. Some writers get a real brand out of being Extremely Online, whether it reflects in their stories or not. Sometimes being adorably out of touch but choosing to use twitter like a grandma two finger typing out their replies (at any age, gender etc) can be a brand all by itself. I know putting yourself out like that can be extremely frightening for some people, so I don’t think it should be a solid requirement for publication, that you have to also be your online advocate. I thrive on it but have been too tired to put my human face on for the internet for several years… I know there’s other people who spend so much time online they have to banish themselves to internetless sheds to write, which is a sign that this can absolutely go too far the other way too. There are writers doing plagiarism scams stealing fan fic and filing off the names, selling an ebook, then aggressively marketing themselves and getting influencer money. I’ve seen the call out tweets. Don’t be those people.

What is the hardest part of writing, in your experience?

The global coronavirus pandemic of 2020-????

What do you think about Awards in publishing?

Absolutely essential part of the ecosystem, and human nature. You take away all the awards and within a year people will be making themselves little trophies from origami pages of their books and handing them around. I am not very opinionated on the current state of awards, beyond a wariness of the way we as a community do not have the healthiest relationship to seeing other people get prizes and then get weird about it… Given this is an inherently unregulated system except for self-policing within communities the real issues are way beyond the mere concept of giving recognition to excellence, which in itself is a lovely thing and we should do it more, with a broader scope.

What do you think is the status of publishing today? I’m referring to issues such as representation, diversity, etc.

A history podcast I listened to a while ago suggested that there were just plain zero black female voices in writing in our more historic/classic literature until I don’t know when but it was upsettingly recent (1900s? I have no facts to hand and a fuzzy brain). Despite, to be clear, that the UK has a diverse history throughout way back to earliest times. That has haunted me as a concept, that they and many other people just do not have a voice in those times which is part of how they’re so easy to erase and for others to pretend this has been an all white country.

I’m glad the circles I’ve been lurking in in the SF/Fantasy community have been diverse… It still freaks me out to look beyond the little bubble I hear about, and read about the state of things in general when it comes to representation and diversity, especially as someone who’s spent so much of my time online being exposed to, you know, normal people in all their diversity, being queer and disabled myself and therefore invested in seeing people respected from my corner as you do when you have a stake in it, and then you see the stats of what gets published overall? I get the impression the more money is involved the less likely interesting stories get told. I’m not qualified to talk about any of this, I have just read a few articles and forgotten all the numbers!

Anyway at the end of the day culture is pushed by the stories it tells so in a way it’s never really enough whatever is being produced because there’s always going to be changes to go in making society better. We should always be braver to tell different stories.

The Big Five Vs Small Presses. What are your thoughts in terms of strengths and weaknesses?

To carry on the answer from above, I think small presses do have a lot more freedom in what sort of stories they can tell and commission because they’re coming from a smaller investment and know their market share isn’t going to automatically be expected to hit as many shelves as something from a big press, so they can make the most of a niche. I think there’s definitely a benefit to big presses churning out lots of books and widely spreading them so more people get to read, but of course the bigger you get the more likely the books are to not take huge risks or to follow tried and tested formulas. Break out things can definitely happen which are really surprising and make everyone talk about something new and interesting for a while (which might be the sort of story that people have been writing in smaller circles for much longer with less recognition – people do act like things always came from nowhere but there’s writers everywhere writing things all the time and only a small amount gets published).

I feel like the internet has completely upended the market in indescribable ways and I’m very anti-Amazon (I had a genuine horror reaction realising I was sitting next to an Alexa at a garden party recently as I haven’t been around one for years thanks to the pandemmy) so I’m sort of feeling there’s a whole storm going on now that is not at all settled yet on what the industry will look like in the short and long term, so I am on the side of big presses versus Amazon, because it is like the small fish being eaten by the big fish being eaten by the enormous shark that also wants to go to space after eating them.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on the next book in the series (the sixth), sending Alana off to deal with her mysterious family problems… At least on the days where my brain isn’t filled with cotton wool. I’ve been writing familiar characters from my childhood stories to keep my writing muscles from atrophying and giving myself intense self-reflection on what sort of bananas policies my childhood brain inflicted on these fantasy worlds when I start to do adult worldbuilding in the same spaces… Why ARE the swamp folk attacking the trade routes and what, exactly, are they trading anyway. What sort of education system is this where you’re all learning the history of heroes going out doing magical quest things and is that some sort of weird imperialism given that the more heroey you are the more likely you are to somehow heroically save the country, marry the princess and eventually become part of the ruling class? Who exactly are you going out and fighting all the time to get there?

Anyway it’s exhausting, never revisit your old drafts of things in a fit of migrainey writer ennui.

If you had to recommend an author and/or a book, who would it be?

It’s not fiction but I’ve gotten weirdly obsessed with The Secret Life of Fungi by Aliya Whiteley this month. I don’t know why but it emotionally hits like how I felt after reading The Underground Man by Mick Jackson except it’s literally just a factual book about fungi, and then it just randomly hits you with a strange deep line and honestly it’s been much more of a ride than I expected when I was like “what on earth can this actually be about apart from facts about fungi” when I cracked it open. I don’t know, maybe it’s a novel about existence except it is passing itself off as fungus knowledge; I was gifted it so I don’t know what shelf it came from in the bookshop.

You can discover Elizabeth Priest's series, Troutespond, on the publisher's website.

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