By Allison Stalberg Siebens
When neurodivergent teen writer Olive Joshi falls through a portal into her own abandoned story, Olive finds the world in peril. Double suns scorch the planet, the brutal Prince Burnash seeks supreme power, and her perfect protagonist, Coseema, has gone into hiding.
Bringing back her heroine might be Olive’s only hope of saving Lyria and finding her way home. But when her attempt to summon Coseema goes horribly wrong, Olive must flee for her life. With the fate of a star system on the line, Olive’s only hope is to find the hero in herself.
We spoke with author and playwright Bridgette Dutta Portman about The Coseema Saga, the third book of which is out now, as well as OCD, what it takes to write a trilogy, and her work-in-progress. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your YA series is both fantasy and sci-fi. Are there fantasy and sci-fi books, shows, movies, or video games that helped inspire your series?
Absolutely! I grew up loving Star Wars. I used to have big cardboard cutouts of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda in my bedroom, so that was a definite influence.
I sometimes describe my series as “Star Wars meets the Wizard of Oz” because of the portal fantasy elements. As a young child, The Wizard of Oz was my favorite movie. For a while, when I was about four, I would only answer to the name Dorothy. The idea of being transported to another word captivated me.
I can see that influence in the journey of my protagonist, Olive, and in the fantasy characters she meets, who bear similarities to her real-world friends and family members.
The main protagonist of your series, Olive, has OCD, and your website mentions that you also have OCD. Is Olive’s OCD a reflection of your own or are there ways you made her experience with the disorder different?
Olive’s OCD is largely a reflection of my own, which made writing her both easy and occasionally emotionally difficult. We both have a “fear of harming others” theme in our intrusive thoughts and writing about Olive’s fears made me reflect on my own fears. The reassuring notes Olive writes in her journal are something I did myself as a teenager. I’d say overall it was therapeutic to write her, almost like exorcising my own demons.
There are also some ways in which Olive’s experience with OCD is different from mine. For instance, she has a fear of handling knives and sharp objects, which is not something I struggle with. I didn’t want to make her exactly like me.
The final book of the trilogy is finished. Looking back, do you have advice for writers that want to write a series? How do you keep the momentum going? Also, was a trilogy planned from the start or did it evolve as you wrote?
Very early on, I planned a single book, but it quickly became clear that I wouldn’t be able to fit the whole story in it. At that point I decided to make it a trilogy. My biggest piece of advice to anyone planning to write a series is outline, outline, outline. You don’t have to have all the details worked out, but have the basic spine of the story in place before you start writing book one. You should know essentially what’s going to happen in each book.
I’m a “plantser” (a plotter + pantser) when it comes to writing. I always start with an outline, although that outline is flexible and I end up changing details as I write. I have added characters and scenes, changed locations, and made lots of other adjustments. Having that outline, though, was like a roadmap, helping me keep my eye on where I was going. The last thing you want to do is plan a series, then finish the first book and realize you have nowhere left to go.
You have a PhD in political science. How does that influence the stories you tell?
My stories do sometimes involve politics. It isn’t the central theme in the Coseema Saga, but it is there. We have an ousted prince trying to claim his throne and a rebel leader trying to unite a resistance force and spark a revolution. There are also power struggles within that resistance force. And I’d say that some of the tactics my villain uses to maintain power, appealing to people’s fear, is a reflection of what I’ve learned about political psychology. So I’d say political themes often creep into the things I write, even if subtly.
Not only do you write novels, but you are a playwright as well. Could you share some of the differences and similarities of writing plays and novels?
It’s a really interesting experience to go back and forth between the two genres. In playwriting, everything’s about dialogue. You need to avoid exposition. If you want to communicate anything to the audience about a character’s backstory or inner thoughts, it has to come through dialogue. It’s a challenge, and I think having the experience of writing plays has helped me hone the dialogue I put in my novels.
Plays also, generally, have fewer characters and subplots and take place over a shorter time frame. Everything has to be tighter and more parsimonious. With a novel, you have room to explore more in locations, characters, thoughts, times. Both forms can be very powerful and either can be a good fit, depending on the story you want to tell. I’ve also found that general storytelling craft elements, like characterization and overall plot structure, carry over from one genre to the other.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I’m working on a new standalone YA sci-fi novel, whose working title is I Was a Teenage Martian. It’s about a teenage girl born on Mars who struggles with generalized anxiety disorder. I’m hoping to finish a first draft by the end of this summer.
Bridgette Dutta Portman is a playwright and novelist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is president of the Pear Theatre board of directors and a member of the Pear Playwrights’ Guild, the 2022-23 PlayGround writers pool, and the Dramatists’ Guild. She holds a PhD in political science and an MFA in creative writing. She has taught playwriting and creative writing to a variety of age groups, and recently joined the faculty at UC Berkeley’s College Writing Programs. Her debut novel, The Twin Stars, was published in 2021 by Titan1 Studios. A sequel, The Silver Sail, was published in 2022, and the third book in the trilogy is out now.
Allison Stalberg Siebens is an indie author and foster cat mom. She is in the process of getting a Masters in Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University.
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