A Conversation with Ronlyn Domingue

Ronlyn Domingue, author of The Plague Diaries 

Contributor Ronlyn Domingue released her fourth novel, The Plague Diaries, this week. In a private archive owned by the mysterious magnate Fewmany, Secret Riven stumbles upon the arcane manuscript that vanished after her mother’s untimely death. She suspects it contains a profound secret, but is yet unaware of how it connects to a thousand-year-old war and her own family’s legacy.  The final book in the Keeper of Tales Trilogy, The Plague Diaries (2017) reckons the cryptic prophecy of The Mapmaker’s War (2013) with the troubling mysteries in The Chronicle of Secret Riven (2014).

Ronlyn’s critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages and nominated for several awards, including the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, The Independent (UK), and Shambhala Sun, as well as Salon.com. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University and served as a fiction editor and co-editor in chief of New Delta Review. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still.

We caught up with Ronlyn to ask her a few questions about The Plague Diaries.

Border Crossing:  The Plague Diaries begins with a prophecy. The narrator, Secret Riven, has been given a choice to bring darkness or light:

        I thought I had a choice to accept neither. I wanted no part of a prophecy, though my blood and bones knew it to be true. Foolish, because I’d read enough myth, lore, and fairy tales to know when one receives a call–hold a candle to a sleeping monster lover, search the world for a lost daughter, take a basket to Grandmother’s house, spin straw into gold–one must heed it.

Secret Riven is a particular archetype of heroine: a reluctant one, easily distracted. Could you talk about Secret’s struggle to accept her fate, and your reasons for writing such a reluctant heroine in our current age?

Ronlyn Domingue: From the moment she comes into the world, Secret is not ordinary. Birds have a council in the room soon after she’s born. Her mother is from a kingdom far away; Secret resembles the people of that region—black hair and tawny skin—and she also has eyes the colors of night and day. She doesn’t speak until she’s seven years old, and before that, she realizes she has the ability to communicate with creatures and plants. She copes by trying to hide her abilities and, literally, herself.

As she gets older, she suspects there’s something ahead for her. She gets attention she doesn’t want for a drawing she made of a symbol she saw in a dream. Her visceral response and her mother’s reaction to an arcane manuscript that comes into the house (her mother is a translator) are two other clues.

Secret’s struggle isn’t only about the tasks she must complete—the familiar trope in so many myths and fairy tales—or the questions she has to answer about her family’s and kingdom’s pasts. It’s far deeper and more terrifying because her fate is linked to her own individuation. She must come to accept the parts of herself she’s wanted to erase or discard, which, to others, are the most beautiful, powerful aspects of her.

I’ve said this before in interviews, and I’ll say it again. I don’t choose my novels—they choose me. Whatever the trilogy is, wherever it came from, the people in this story had something to transmit. Secret, I think, will speak to anyone who struggles with being who they truly are. She had to accept her own unique power to change herself, and her world. There’s a message in that for us. We need the Secrets of our world to come out. No more hiding. Too much is at stake.

BC: All of the books in the Keeper of Tales trilogy are illustrated with beautiful, carefully placed woodcuts.

Tower by Kathryn Hunter (Blackbird Letterpress)
Tower by Kathryn Hunter (Blackbird Letterpress)


Cogwheel by Kathryln Hunter (Blackbird Letterpress)
Cogwheel by Kathryn Hunter (Blackbird Letterpress)

What inspired your decision to include this style of visual art in the book? Could you tell us a little about the artist as well?

RD: At the point I knew I’d have a prequel and sequel—a trilogy wasn’t in the plans, then—and I understood how Aoife’s (pronounced ee-fah) story entwined with Secret’s, I wanted a visual element to connect them. The Mapmaker’s War: Book 1 takes place in a time similar to our Dark Ages, and The Chronicle of Secret Riven: Book 2 is set 1,000 years later in what resembles our Victorian Age. For me, that meant the illustrations had to involve a technique that’s been around for centuries.

There are 18 woodcuts (technically, linocuts) in Book 1 that appear again in Books 2 and 3. They’re meant as links, or portals. When you see them in Books 2 or 3, you can refer back to the same images in Book 1 to get a glimpse into what’s connecting Secret to Aoife, even though Secret doesn’t fully understand this relationship until Book 3.

My friend Kathryn Hunter did these and the other illustrations for the trilogy. She’s the award-winning owner of Blackbird Letterpress. To me, Kathryn’s creative work is whimsical and contemplative, and she’s meticulous about her craft. I knew she could tap into the story and bring out the heart of it in images.

BC:  Secret finds the manuscript in the private archive of Fewmany, a mysterious magnate, who I think is probably my favorite character in the last two books of the trilogy. He is another highly archetypal but complex character, with a great deal of energy that resonates not only with other characters from literature but also from real-life. Tell us about his role in the book, his corporation, and some of the modern-day connections you see with him right now in the real world.

RD: Ah, Fewmany. . . Around the time I started this project—this would have been early 2007—I was reflecting on dystopian stories and why they no longer engaged me. I jotted in my notebook something about who is responsible for the state of things, “…someone else, another generation, an anonymous powerful fewmany.” A seed was planted then. I returned to it almost a year later and wondered if “fewmany” was a person, place, or thing. In time, it was clear, he was all of these.

He heads the conglomerate Fewmany, Inc., which spans everything from tea shops to coal mines. Basically, he owns half the kingdom and inserts himself at the highest levels of influence within it. He is the personification of greed and capitalist excess and the means of control. He mythologizes himself, a self-made man. There’s something eerie about going back to The Chronicle of Secret Riven: Book 2 now—much of which was written in 2012 and published in 2014—in terms of the story’s themes and specifically what he tells Secret during an interview about his many businesses: “There are so many. . .because I have an instinct to discover a bright idea or clever good, then make it accessible, especially appealing, and provide it to those who find benefit. In this, I have no equal. No one does this better. No one trumps me.”

In The Plague Diaries: Book 3, Fewmany expands beyond the flat dimension of a fairy tale villain. He becomes someone you love to hate, and hate to love. He shapeshifts among the archetypes of the Shadow, the Trickster, and Eros. His interest in Secret from Book 2 develops into an unusual, intense relationship in Book 3. You’re aware he’s manipulating her, and not sure how he really feels about her. You know Secret suspects he wants something from her, but she’s distracted by his attention. And when it’s finally revealed what he’s been after all along, which could make him inestimably more powerful and wealthy than he already is, she has to decide whether to help him. There’s something in it for her, too, if she does.

This trilogy, and especially Book 3, is an allegory for the profound struggles which confront us here and now. Fewmany not only compels the reader to consider unchecked power over human beings and environment but also to find compassion for those whose soul wounds are so deep, they neither understand nor care about their capacity to destroy.

BC: The essay you published with us in our third issue, “Silence, An Adventure,” describes a forest retreat you had to take while working on the trilogy, before you knew it was going to be one. The essay opens as follows:

Morning light amplified the old plum tree’s purpling harvest. The turned soil under my feet did not shift. I stood with my hand on the shovel, a breeze at my back, and rage in my belly.
          Go to the woods, an invisible messenger said.
          That instant, I understood why. The directive was personal and professional. Worn thin by the novel I’d been incubating, I could push no further with it. A retreat would serve the book as well. One of its main themes was silence, beyond any the characters—or I—had experienced.

How does what you experienced during this retreat manifest in the trilogy, and how does the theme of silence manifest in any, or all, of the books?

RD: The retreat, in the summer of 2008, gave me a deeper understanding of the power of and need for silence. For a week, I was completely alone on a forest hilltop. There were no other guests; no one came to maintain the property. There was no cell phone service, TV, or internet, and I didn’t bring any music.  Overall, the experience was remarkable. I’m glad I did it. But the silence was terrifying. There’s no running away from one’s thoughts in this environment. Personal demons and creative ones exposed themselves with great clarity.

Because of the way I work, it’s not so much that my experience manifested in the books, but rather I had an understanding of what the story was revealing over time because of my experience. I had a reference point. I understood better why we keep ourselves so distracted with our media and devices and detach ourselves from Nature. There is too much truth to contend with in the silence.

How does silence manifest in the trilogy? In Book 1, Aoife has the greatest insights into herself when she’s alone and silent, especially during her quest and the early years of her exile. In Book 2, Secret’s mother requires Secret’s silence, and this is a form of erasure. But Secret also uses her own silence as a way to hide from others as well as observe them. There is much unspoken and yet to be revealed in this book. In Book 3, Fewmany’s manor is a silent place with many locked rooms. It’s in this book that the silence is broken on a lie told for 1,000 years. And Secret accepts her fate—to release a Plague of Silences meant to destroy, and transform, the world as all have known it.

The Plague Diaries was released on August 29, 2017 and is now available bookstores everywhere. Online, it’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, and Kobo.  Learn more about Ronlyn Domingue and the Keeper of Tales trilogy at her website.

Visit the artist, Kathryn Hunter, online at Blackbird Letterpress.