Badass author (and actual ninja) Tori Eldridge returns to the show to discuss her new globe-trotting, century-spanning dark fantasy novel DANCE AMONG THE FLAMES, writing fiction that doesn’t give a damn about genre, and why power-hungry female characters can be so empowering.

DANCE AMONG THE FLAMES is out now, so pick up your copy (or any of Tori’s previous books) in the official Unlikeable Female Characters Bookshop.

Episode Transcript

LAYNE: Welcome to Unlikeable Female Characters, the podcast featuring feminist thriller writers in conversation about women who don’t give a damn if you like them. I’m Layne Fargo, and I’m here with Kristen Lepionka.

KRISTEN: Hello!

LAYNE: And we are also joined today by Tori Eldridge, who I believe is our first two-time guest on the show, I want to say that’s true? She was on a few years ago talking about her Lily Wong books, which include The Ninja Daughter, The Ninja’s Blade, and The Ninja Betrayed. She is the national bestselling author, and Anthony, Lefty, and Macavity award finalist author of those books. And now her new one, Dance Among the Flames, is coming out on May 24th. So welcome, Tori. Welcome back!

TORI: Hey Layne, Kristen, thanks for having me. I feel so special.

LAYNE: We’re excited to talk to you again. And we were trying to remember, we think just Wendy interviewed you last time, but what is time and who can remember anything?

TORI: All I know is I love Wendy.

LAYNE: We do too, and we’re trying to get her to come back. She’s super busy and important, but we’re harassing her daily. I still text her all the time, and she’s one of my favorite people in the world. She’s awesome. Wendy, if you’re listening to this: we miss you, bitch.

KRISTEN: Get back here.

TORI: And you owe me a hike. Just saying.

LAYNE: Yeah.

TORI: Throwing it out there, honey.

LAYNE: Oh, that’s right. You guys go hiking in LA, don’t you, with the rattlesnakes and the heat. She likes to send me pictures of the rattlesnake crossing signs to horrify me since I’m terrified of snakes.

Okay, so Dance Among the Flames is very different from your previous books, very much a departure in terms of genre. So could you tell us a little about what it’s about and how you came up with the idea? It’s really fascinating, especially in comparison to your first books, which are a little more, like, anchored in the real world, and this is like a dark fantasy? Would we say that?

TORI: Oh, yeah. Dark fantasy, literary, horror, throw it all in there. Dance Among the Flames is about a desperate mother who rises from the slums of Bahia, Brazil, to become a fearsome wielder of Quimbanda magic. And this story takes place over 40 years, three continents, a past incident in 1560 France. There’s passion, betrayal, horror, Brazilian gods, sex, dark. It’s got all of that going on. I have to warn my Lily Wong readers. So whenever I talk to one of them, I always make sure to insert the word “dark” at least twice.

LAYNE: That’s smart. Yeah. Cause this is just completely different. It’s always fascinating to me, authors who can have that span in terms of genre and subject and tone and everything. Like a lot of authors, myself included, I just stick to one thing, at least so far. And it’s amazing that you can do such different books.

TORI: I appreciate that. I think the running theme over everything I tend to write, is there’s always going to be this extraordinary female protagonist going on. And Serafina Olegario is most definitely extraordinary. And I like to look at feminism and empowerment from all different angles, sometimes from the light, sometimes from the dark. So that’s something that’s in there. And of course I do tend to dive into culture, whether it’s my own or one that has captivated my fascination.

KRISTEN: I love the absolute sweeping span of this book. As you said in the beginning, it opens with that 16th century France element. What inspired you to write something so sweeping?

TORI: Oh, goodness. It all came from a screenplay that I was writing that was set in Brazil. And the first run of this screenplay didn’t work. And so I had to dive into my research for Brazil and find out what really was intriguing me. And that’s when I discovered the spiritualism, this amalgamation of African Yoruba and Brazilian traditions and Portuguese Catholicism. And all of that just opened a rabbit hole for me. And I don’t even know where my crazy imagination went, but I just saw these three main characters tied over centuries. And this culmination in this exciting story in more contemporary Brazil, and I guess that’s where it came from.

LAYNE: I assume you had to—had to? Got to—travel, to Brazil and do research. This is the thing, I keep setting my books in like Chicago or Pennsylvania, and I know Kristen, a lot of yours are set in Ohio. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why are we not setting our books in like Paris or like Italy? You have the right idea, Tori.

TORI: I don’t know. Because it’s expensive to get there?

LAYNE: But it’s tax deductible. It’s research.

TORI: Yeah. I had a great opportunity when I was coming up with this, like I said, back in those days. This story has been haunting me for over two decades. I am so relieved to get it out in the world. But when I was first researching this, my insider connection, in addition to all my crazy research, which back then took place in libraries with actual books and newspaper clippings.

LAYNE: Wow.

TORI: Yeah. Yeah. Old school. But my insider track was my son’s preschool teacher, who was from Rio de Janeiro. That’s where she was born and raised. And so I always was hitting her up with questions and interviews and all this stuff. And one day I called her on the phone. I had a question, don’t remember what it was. And she was like, oh, I’m so sorry, but I have to get on a plane. I’m going home to Rio. Oh, you should come!

So keep in mind. I had a son who was like four, another son who was one. I hadn’t been on a plane in years. In 10 days, I got a passport, a visa, left the kids with the poor hubby, hopped on a plane, and zipped down to Brazil. For four days. I made it just at the end of her trip. But it was so amazing because I got to stay with her and her aunt in their little apartment, in this sketchy area. And I got to hang around with her and her family and her parents. And I just had this whole insider local view of Rio de Janeiro, as well as them taking me around to show me the touristing sites. So it was nice to be able to see both aspects of that so that I could write the different characters that were in my story.

LAYNE: Yeah, that’s true. Cause you have characters who grew up there, and then you have another character who’s American who comes in, and is experiencing it through that outsider view. And you have people of all different social classes within Brazilian culture. It’s a really interesting mix of characters.

But let’s talk first about Serafina, who I loved. She is… problematic. I was reading this book and I was just like, oh yes, this is the unlikeable female character here.

TORI: Hey, hey, hey. Some people like her. You like her in the beginning. It’s just an interesting tipping point. It’s like, when do you start to have your doubts? I don’t know.

LAYNE: Never! No, she’s someone who is power hungry in a way that like—wanting any measure of power is considered unlikeable by most people. And she starts out trying to explore this power and not really understanding it. And then yeah, at a certain point, she’s just like, I want more, I want all the power. I want to break powerful men and enjoy it, which I’m like, yes, queen.

TORI: Yeah, she is unforgivingly sexual.

LAYNE: Let’s talk about that. So her power comes from—it’s like sex magic, We interviewed Sara Gran a few months ago about her new book, which is all about sex magic. So fascinating, because it’s something women in America, especially in the conservative Christian culture or whatever, we’re taught that sex is something to protect ourselves from, or something that’s done to us that we have to tolerate for the sake of what men want and the idea of women taking pleasure in sex, but also gaining power from it, or exerting power over someone else with it is so fascinating to read about. And fun.

KRISTEN: Yes. And I like that we’re seeing maybe a mini trend of books about this.

LAYNE: All the sex magic books! Let’s do it.

KRISTEN: Yeah. Maybe this will become a sex magic podcast, who knows.

TORI: That’s so funny. I’ve never thought of this as a sex magic book, but that’s so interesting because Quimbanda is the dark side of the Umbanda religion, or they call it Candomblé over in Bahia, but they call it Umbanda in Rio de Janeiro state. And Quimbanda, it’s wound up in there, but it’s also become its own religion. And it’s very much a dark magic possession kind of thing. Yeah. Sex magic. Interesting.

LAYNE: It’s like her specific expression of it is sex magic, right? There are some very memorable scenes between her and a certain Brazilian god that I will not spoil for the readers.

TORI: There were quite a few really memorable scenes.

LAYNE: Yes, yes.

TORI: Maybe scenes you can reread. I’m just saying. Maybe with a glass of wine or a shot of cachaça.

LAYNE: I could just feel you reveling in and, like, having fun writing this very dark, very power hungry, very shameless character. Did it feel empowering for you? Cause I know sometimes when I write characters who are quote unquote “unlikeable,” it lets you do things that you wouldn’t do in real life. It’s fun.

TORI: It was glorious. And I got to say, my husband really liked it when I was writing certain scenes in this book. Not so much other scenes. It’s really interesting. I have a tendency of taking on the characteristics, emotions, moods, personalities of characters that I write. So as you can imagine, all the different times in the last couple of decades when I was working on one rendition of this book or another, you can imagine how it might have influenced me, shall we say? And there were just some times where my husband was like, oh boy, I know who you’re writing about today. And then other times where he’s like, I know who you’re writing about today.

So that was interesting. But yes, she is very empowering. No matter what she’s doing, there’s just an assertiveness and a core about her that is just extraordinary. And it’s exhilarating. It’s exhilarating to get into Serafina’s head.

LAYNE: My partner should be grateful that I didn’t get quite that into writing my last empowering female character, since she’s a serial killer who kills men. That might’ve been bad for him., He would’ve been like, I know who you’re writing today, and then I stab him in the face. I don’t know.

TORI: I know who you’re writing about, and I’m going on a trip.

LAYNE: Leaving. That would be smart of him, yeah.

KRISTEN: Yes. Did you always know that you wanted to write across genres like this?

TORI: I don’t know. I don’t think I really thought about genre. Honestly, when I started writing—and again, I started in screenplays. And this story, Dance Among the Flames, is inspired by a screenplay that was a semi-finalist for the Academy Nicholl Fellowship. And it just happened to be the first thing that was out of my head. And it is in and of itself a blend of genre, and kind of defies genre. I remember somebody doing coverage of it for a big studio, and they gave it all the stars, but they said we couldn’t find coverage for this because we just don’t know what it’s like.

And so I think that kind of set the tone where I was like, genre schmenre, you know, just write what you want. So then I started writing other screenplays that were very different, that were rooted here in real earth, real world, and dealing with parents and all sorts of things, and adapting other people’s novels.

So the first actual novel that I wrote was back then, and it was an early precursor to Dance Among the Flames. I put all that aside because I wanted to raise my kids, and I had just gotten addicted to the martial arts, and I didn’t come back to it for like 13 years. But in the course of that, I wrote a short story that inspired the Lily Wong series. And all of a sudden I have this other thing in my head. And then from there I started getting invited to do other short stories, and each one was different, you know? I had one with this Balinese witch doctor, another one that was just dystopian, sci-fi, futuristic thing. And I was like, oh my gosh.

So when I wrote the Lily Wong series I knew I was writing a mystery thriller. I didn’t really realize there was this thing called crime fiction, but I had already felt I was an author who just wrote in a wide variety of genre, because that’s just what I was doing.

And so I think I just always embraced that and just knew that at the heart of it, me as a writer, there was always going to be these strong female protagonists. There were always going to be probably, cultural or family elements in there, vivid sense of place. But as far as genre, whatever I want to write, that’s what I want to write.

LAYNE: Genre is a marketing thing. Where do we put it on the shelf at the bookstore, how do we tag it in the metadata on Amazon or whatever, but I do think, and I would include myself in this, a lot of authors can get super hung up on what genre is this before the thing even exists. And it can become really limiting to people’s creativity, as opposed to just being like, I’m going to write what I want to write, and we’ll see what it is when it’s done and whatever, like, labels people want to slap on it to sell it, that’s a separate issue. So I love that attitude. I want to embody this moving forward.

KRISTEN: What was it like getting this published, compared to the more easy to categorize Lily Wong books?

TORI: I got to say, it’s a big book. Can you imagine coming out with Dance Among the Flames as your debut novel?

KRISTEN: I can see how that could be a challenge.

TORI: It is a big, expansive book, and it was a huge thing to take on. And the reason it sat with me for so many years is because there were so many ways in which to tell the story. From this point of view, from that point of view, chronologically, in flashbacks, in dueling timelines, in convergence. There were so many ways to do it, and I tried them all. So it was an interesting thing. The submission process for this was a real learning experience for me, because this project became the project on which I learned my craft. And in doing so, I also learned the business, and I made tremendous friends, editors and agents and authors who were incredibly generous with their feedback and their encouragement and their assistance.

So at different points in time, I had both Lily and a particular version of this story out in submission at the same time, and it was like, leaving it up to the gods. I’ll go in whatever direction hits first. And so Lily Wong hits first, and I branded myself as this kind of ninja Hapa thriller writer, and came out in gangbusters with that.

And so as it came time for this, and I found the right publisher for it, then I just started opening up, you know, that brand to accommodate it. But I ended up with Running Wild Press because they actually specialize in books that don’t fit neatly in a box. That’s what they publish. And I went, oh my gosh, you are perfect for me. And this book.

LAYNE: That’s really cool. I wasn’t familiar with them. Now I want to look up other books they’ve done. That intersection of genre is so interesting to me.

KRISTEN: Yeah, I think really interesting storytelling can take place when you shuffle out of that, this is the genre, this is what you have to do, here is the convention. You can really get to some very good stuff.

LAYNE: But it’s like, you need to know the rules to break them. And you know the rules, you’ve been working on this for a long time, and you’ve published in the crime fiction sphere and everything. It would be difficult to debut with this, I can see that, but where you are in your career now, and—Tori, I feel like your brand is just, you’re a bad-ass. That’s your brand. When I think of you, that’s what I think.

TORI: I love that. I totally embrace that. Yeah. When I was writing this, structure-wise I just thought in terms of suspense, you know, or a thriller. The last quarter of it is as action packed thriller as anything that I’ve ever written. But it also has that deep literary and almost historical fiction quality about it that I really enjoyed diving into.

So it was blending that. Maintaining suspense right from the beginning and keeping that, all the way through. And of course, there’s a very strong horror element about it, especially towards the end. But yeah, it’s a tricky thing to name, cause you could say magical realism, you could say horror, you could say dark fantasy, you could say suspense. If you think in terms of the ending, you could almost think literary thriller. It’s a blend. It’s dark. It’s dark fiction.

LAYNE: It is dark. And it had a lot of fairytale elements too. The relationship and conflict between Serafina and her granddaughter, Adriana, is a very like—and this is a compliment, but it’s like a very Disney princess and evil stepmother, evil queen vibe, right? Like where there’s this conflict between these two women who don’t even really know each other. How did you think of their relationship when you were writing it? Cause it’s like this conflict where they’re not actually in contact with each other very much.

TORI: I love looking into family dynamics. Lily Wong’s family is, of course, much healthier than Serafina’s family. But with this book, I really wanted to examine the potential of love to corrupt. And how corruption can change love. So both of those two things, that was something that I really wanted to look at.

And Serafina’s relationship with her son, with her granddaughter, it takes us down a path, and you’re watching her perception change in the course of the book. That’s something that I really wanted to explore was this changing a perception, not just with the characters, but for the readers. I want readers to be reading and change their opinion about a character constantly. And question, you know, their feelings about their change of perception and maybe how long it took them to change or why it took them to change or why it didn’t change. I think these questions are really fascinating to me, and what I really wanted to look at.

We’re looking at big themes in this book with colorism, and bigotry, and classism, and abuse.q Domestic, psychological and physical abuse. All these things are wrapped in their entrapment. What it is to enslave people and this corruption of love. There’s a lot to bite off. So yeah, I enjoyed looking at her family and her perception of her family.

LAYNE: It made me think a lot too, about just in general, how if you’re a part of an oppressive system—which, there’s all sorts of overlapping marginalizations happening here, as you said—then sometimes people will just blame someone that they can have power over.

So like Serafina, a lot of the stuff that’s happened in her life, or happened to her, it’s not Adriana’s fault, but she can blame Adriana and go after her and narrow it down to that because she can’t take on all of these other systems of class and colorism and all of that stuff. Kind of a commentary on, under the patriarchy specifically, how women will tend to blame other women for things, instead of blaming who we should actually blame, which is the men and the systems.

TORI: Oh, I don’t know. She blames a lot of men.

LAYNE: She does blame a lot of men. I do not want to downplay that, she blames so many men and she makes them suffer, and I applaud her.

TORI: You applaud her! That is hilarious. But it is true. Who we blame or what we blame as people changes based on our circumstance in life and what is safe for us to blame, and what is not safe, and perhaps what we have enough power over to take action and what we can’t take action on. It’s an interesting thing. I love these gray areas of the human condition. I live for that. That’s where I like to write.

LAYNE: There’s so much moral ambiguity in this, and it really comes out in the way that you write about all these different religious traditions as well and how they’re all overlapping, and they all kind of have different ideas of what good and evil mean, but commonalities too. I’m not a religious person, but I always find all that stuff fascinating, how people from all these different traditions, like Catholicism, whatever, they’re like, I know what’s right and wrong, I have the answer. But then they have so many similarities with these other religions they’re calling evil. It’s a whole mess. That’s why we fight all these wars.

TORI: I have that same fascination. I became just enthralled with the Umbanda religion, which is quite benevolent, and this ability for the mediums to channel God so that the congregation, the believers, can communicate directly with the spirits who can help them instead of having things translated, right? Through a priest, or what have you. And I thought it was very empowering, some of the messages and the lessons, and especially the way Serafina is introduced to Umbanda, I found to be just really benevolent and empowering.

KRISTEN: How did you learn so much about this religion?

TORI: Goodness. Libraries, libraries. So early on, that’s where it was, you know, taking out books and hiding out in research rooms. And I wasn’t able to talk to my friend about this, because like most Brazilians, she was raised Catholic. Which I thought was a very interesting thing, because so many of the traditions, especially New Year’s Eve, are tied into this spiritualism, this Brazilian spiritualism, the Umbanda religions. And people follow it almost like superstitions. But when it comes down to it, that’s not the box they check. It’s like, what religion are you? Oh, Catholic. I go to church, I do the mass, I do all this kind of stuff. And so that was really interesting. Now, when I went back to this after my hiatus to get the fifth degree black belt in the ninja arts.

LAYNE: That little thing.

TORI: And raise my kids. But when I went back to this, then I was able to really dive even more deeply because I had the Internet. Ooh, such power.

LAYNE: That is the ultimate power. I can’t even, I don’t know. Kristen and I are both of the generation where we like, remember having to go to the library and looking at things on microfilm, but now it feels so far away.

KRISTEN: Cause now not only do you have access to every piece of information you could possibly want, but you can just basically ask the Internet a question and probably someone else has already asked that question.

TORI: Isn’t that amazing? You just start typing a question in a search engine, and bam. Now you can walk the streets of a particular neighborhood, through Google Maps. I couldn’t have done that. And that was huge for me, being able to walk, quote, “walk” through the Pelourinho in Bahia, that was so important for me.

LAYNE: I just use that when I don’t want to leave my house in Chicago. I look up the Google street view of things that are like a mile away from me. I’ve definitely done that.

KRISTEN: I use street view to look at a place that I’m going so I can figure out if I like the looks of it or so I can figure out where the door is. It has really taken over

TORI: Yeah, it really has. It really has. Yeah. And so you can see what the building looks like from the front, so you don’t just walk by it. Absolutely.

KRISTEN: I wanted to ask about writing in the horror genre. I know that we talked about how genre is just a marketing label and really, what you’re doing is telling the stories that really interest you, which I think is amazing, but I feel like we’re seeing a lot of books that are coming out that are overlapping between thriller and horror lately. We’ve got Cina Pelayo’s Children of Chicago, Zoje Stage’s books do that too. What do you think is the similarity between them that allows this overlap, but in what ways are they also different?

TORI: Yeah, horror and thriller, we really go hand in hand. I’m a long-time member of ITW and Horror Writers Association, and there are many of us who belong to both of these associations for that very reason.

The difference between a thriller and a mystery, is that a thriller you’re in jeopardy, right? And, you know, a mystery, the protagonist is hunting down the clues, solving the crime, whatever, solving the mystery. But for it to be a thriller, there has to be jeopardy. There has to be danger. There has to be threat. So at the core of horror is dread and fear and danger and threat.

So all of those things exist. Some horror expands into the paranormal, the supernatural, monsters, cosmic, it could get into body horror, but not all horror does. Some horror could be domestic, contemporary fiction, could be a family-oriented, could be serial killer-oriented. It doesn’t have to be fantastical. But there always is a sense of dread, where you’re constantly keeping the reader connected with that fear. And that’s one of the things that makes horror so amazing as a genre is that we can safely look into those dark places and connect with what it is that scares us and vicariously win over it. It’s a very powerful genre.

LAYNE: It’s so fascinating to me how this moment in time, as we’re dealing with the pandemic and all these awful things happening in the world, there seems to be this resurgence of horror. And what I keep hearing from my agent and editors and other people is like, readers want horror. And then they want, like, light fluffy romance and nothing in between. And I am in that mood too. It’s like I watched Yellowjackets, and it stressed me the fuck out, but I loved it. And then I’ve just been reading all of these fluffy romance novels that feel like a warm hug. And I don’t know what that’s about, but-

TORI: That is so funny. I didn’t think about that. I tend to read as widely as I write, so I’m constantly switching up the kinds of books that I read. And even during the pandemic, I didn’t find myself gravitating toward one or the other. It was just mixing it up and whatever presented itself, or perhaps friends were coming out with something really great that I just had to read.

KRISTEN: It’s interesting what the pandemic situation has done to our consumption habits of media and pop culture and art. I’ve been on a kick of just watching disturbing documentaries, and it’s like, why do I want to be more disturbed right now? I don’t know.

TORI: That’s so funny. It’s an interesting thing. Sometimes watching or consuming disturbing media or literature has the opposite effect. Where we feel a little safer and a little better, a little more positive about where we’re at in our own lives, in comparison. So it’s a funny thing. It can go both directions. Or it can just depress you.

LAYNE: Yeah, I’ve been over here watching Is It Cake? On Netflix. And I’m like, is it cake?? I have to know. That’s enough stress.

Tori, this was so great, such a great conversation. If you could tell us what you’re working on now, or what’s next for you, and then also where people can find you on the internet?

TORI: Absolutely. True to form, I just came out with a short story, “Missing on Kauai” in the Crime Hits Home anthology, which is the 2022 mystery writers of America anthology. And that short story inspired a novel that is diving into my own native Hawaiian roots. Yeah, so here I am, I’m on tour for this wild Brazilian, epic dark fiction.

And I’m writing about this Pahukula Ohana in Kauai, and diving into my native Hawaiian roots, and, bringing that Kanaka Maoli perception into mystery/thriller contemporary fiction, because a lot of the native Hawaiian authors have written amazing books in historical fiction or mythology, or, fantasy, things like that. But the mystery/thrillers that are set in Hawaii tend to be not necessarily written by native Hawaiians. So this is something that I wanted to bring, and I wanted to explore. So that’s what I’m working on right now.

And you can find me at torieldridge.com. It’s so great because there don’t appear to be famous Tori Eldridges in the world. Spell my name correctly on Google, boy, you find me everywhere. And I love posting on Instagram, writer.tori. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter, Tori Eldridge. And I love putting out monthly newsletters. And I usually have these giveaways of amazing books by author friends, and people can subscribe on my website. And if you go to the upcoming events, you’ll find all sorts of things going on for the book tour for Dance Among the Flames.

LAYNE: Thank you so much. And you’re the famous Tori Eldridge. You’re pushing everyone else down the rankings. It’s you.

KRISTEN: Good luck to any other Tori Eldridges who might be out there. You’re it. You’re the one.

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