Interviewing Megan O’Keefe

A few weeks ago, I discovered that it was a lot of fun to hand people some casual interview questions and see what they had to say. This is interview #3.

Thanks to Megan O’Keefe for playing! I don’t know Megan very well, except by coincidence it turns out that I’ve been buying her etsy soaps and perfumes for a while. (I like them!) Megan is a Writers of the Future winner.

Her first novel comes out today from Angry Robot Books, Steal the Sky.

The interview:

You’re a professional soap maker. I’ve actually bought a lot of your soap. I was buying your soap before I knew you were you. Can you talk a little bit about how you make soap and how you got into it?

That’s so awesome! I didn’t know you were buying from me before we met. Lately I’ve discovered that there’s a surprisingly large overlap between people who are my soap customers and people who love fantasy and science fiction. It’s definitely been a pleasant surprise.


I make soap using the cold process method of soapmaking. This is one of the oldest methods, the origins of which were people using ash from their fires to clean greasy pots, as they found it worked better than plain scouring because there were traces of sodium hydroxide (that’s lye) in the ash created by burning wood. The lye would react with the grease in the pots to create a very basic soap. My method has evolved some since then.


My standard formula is one I developed over the years to suit most skin types, but is skewed toward those with dry skin. Each oil you add to a soap mix brings its own properties, and mine began with the three “pillar” oils of soapmaking: olive, coconut, and palm. Olive oil brings moisture to soap, palm oil brings stability to the lather (often called “creaminess”) and coconut oil brings big, fluffy lather. Despite popular belief, coconut oil when turned into soap is actually extra cleansing – it can dry you out if not balanced with other oils. I then add safflower for silkiness/glide, and castor oil for another bubble boost. The resulting bar is capable of producing lots of fluffy lather while not drying out your skin.


Random cool fact about coconut oil: a 100% coconut oil soap is the only kind that is capable of lathering in salt water.


2. How do you go about developing new perfumes? In particular, I’m interested about the inspiration–does instinct tell you what scents might mix? Experimentation? Etc.?

I have an arsenal of accords I’ve created over the years – blends of scents that achieve a single note fragrance, such as red rose or fern. When I have an idea for a new scent I review these and start making notes on which ones I suspect will blend well together to achieve the scent I want, then I start testing.


For example, when I was creating my scent The Librarian, I knew I wanted something warm and spicy, reminiscent of books, and with a hint of banana as an ode to Terry Pratchett. I had to blend up the banana accord from scratch, but I started out with my bourbon vanilla, white oak, and chai spice accords. Once the fragrance has the basic feel I’m going for, I start refining by tweaking percentages and adding small amounts of other accords just to see what happens. Then I move on to longevity testing to see how long the scent can “stand” on skin, and from there I move on to testing it in soap. It’s an involved process, but I find it fun and relaxing.


3. Your new book, Steal the Sky, comes out in 2016. As an epic fantasy, it’s coming onto the scene at a time where G. R. R. Martin’s Grimdark is ruling TV, while simultaneously The Goblin Emperor’s lighter approach earned it places on the major award ballots. Where is your book coming into that conversation?

Steal the Sky is sliding into the middle of that conversation with a wink and a nudge. The Scorched Continent is a desperate place, full of people struggling to earn their daily bread and water, and also home to a variety of human rights abuses. It’s not an easy place to live, but there are some elements of hope that remain.


In his past, my protagonist, the conman Detan Honding, hasn’t exactly been give the short end of the stick – he’s been hit with it. Repeatedly. When we meet him, there’s a hint of this troubled past, but he is blithely wise-cracking and generally willing to stir up mischief just for the sake of mischief. It feels light. It feels fun. But you’re tightly in Detan’s point of view – and there’s a reason he’s quick with a quip, and it’s nothing to do with jolliness.


I’ve always felt that humor and darkness are inextricably intertwined. There’s silliness, of course, but the stuff that really gets you – that makes you choke out laughing despite yourself – that’s the stuff that cuts. The stuff that reveals some darker nature and points out the absurdity of it. It says that – yeah, we’re human. We’ve moved beyond our baser natures, built civilizations, and transcended the primordial mud. But we’re still animals. Can’t help ourselves. And confronting this intrinsic fault with a laugh is an excellent way to cope. Some of the darkest scenes I’ve ever read have been in Terry Pratchett novels.


So, sure, from the start the surface of Steal the Sky is a fun adventure. Detan jokes his way through his troubles and Tibs plays the straight man, a ready contrast to Detan’s ridiculousness. But Detan’s laughing because he has to. Because as soon as he stops laughing, something’s going to break within him, perhaps irreversibly, and it won’t be pretty for anyone involved.


4. You have some writing advice articles on worldbuilding on your blog. Can you recommend some novels that you think do worldbuilding really right?

This is probably cheating, but I have to recommend The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. The world – Wu – is huge and fully realized. Erikson is a professional archaeologist, and his attention to detail is eloquently demonstrated in the cultures he creates. Not only does he avoid the trap of mono-cultures, he has also built in somewhere around 300k years of history to his world, and the cultures that exist in the “modern” time period of Malazan feel like they have naturally grown out of that rich past. It’s an unforgiving read, however. Erikson dumps you straight into his world and right behind the eyes of the characters, not bothering to have them explain things that they would naturally know the answers to. I’ve heard that some people have a rough time getting started with Malazan, but if you can make it through that tricky first book, then you’re in for a treat.


That said, the world of Wu was originally created as a setting for a role-playing game, and at times that does shine through. For a truly unique take on worldbuilding, look to N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood Duology. The culture’s aesthetics are inspired by ancient Egypt, but the magic and political systems are wholly their own. There’s no hint of the Aristotelian elements here. The magic is loosely based on Egyptian medicine with a dash of Freudian dream theory, and the city’s rule is focused on the preservation of peace. Jemisin deepens her world by layering in stories of its past rulers.

5. Obviously, your novel is due out soon. Do you have any other writing news you’d like to share, or opportunities for us to see more of you and your work?

In the Scorched Continent Series, book two is well on its way to being complete and book three has a hearty outline, ready for drafting. I do have another novel project in the works, but that one’s a secret for the time being. In the meantime, you can find a handful of my stories for free around the web. My Writers of the Future winning story, Another Range of Mountains, is free to read on Wattpad. And my short story, Of Blood and Brine, which has been featured on SFWA’s Nebula reading list, can be read for free over at Shimmer or listened to at Podcastle. I also have a fun, tongue-in-cheek piece of Christmas flash fiction that just went up on the Barnes & Noble blog.