Interview with Francis Deer and Mika Hunter

Stars and Ravens: Interview with Francis Deer and Mika Hunter

It’s our pleasure to host the great friends Francis Deer and Mika Hunter, the authors of the SPFBO 9 entrant, Stars and Ravens, the first book in the Valerian Crow series.

Meet the Author
Mika Hunter and Francis Deer

Francis Deer and Mika Hunter have been friends for over 30 years, at one point deciding to join forces and become co-authors. They both live in Munich with their respective families: two husbands, two girls, two boys, two cats and the occasional nest of hornets. 

Francis Deer holds diplomas in theology and adult educational science. Currently, she works as a software tester for an IT company. In addition, Francis trained as a baby-wearing consultant and runs her own small business. Over the years, she acted in various theatre groups, always striving for the romance part yet ultimately ending with the comedy role. Francis is an avid collector of tarot cards as they offer an intriguing mix of beautiful artwork and rich symbolism. 

Mika Hunter studied foreign languages in Germany and France. After her exams, she went on to work for a European patent and trademark attorney firm. She spent several years in Sweden, where she helped to run a shop for children’s clothes. Mika leads a fantasy role-playing game, enjoying to surprise her players with intricate plots. She loves writing sonnets and drawing everything from birthday cards to stage backdrops for children’s theatre plays. She enjoys a variety of music, among her favourites Italian opera as well as Finnish rock and heavy metal.

Connect with Francis Deer and Mika Hunter

About the Book
Stars and Ravens by Francis Deer and Mika Hunter

Investigating a murder case, Valerian Crow is drawn into a mystery discernible only to him due to his unwanted magical abilities. Joining forces with unlikely companions, he finds himself increasingly entangled in enigmatic events.

When Valerian accepts work from strange employers, magic is more and more invading his world, endangering his hold on reality. Valerian has to decide whom to trust and learn to rely on others. A challenging task, even more so since all his life he has been forced to lock certain parts of himself away and thus never deciphered the ways of his own heart.

Interview
Welcome to the Asylum, Francis and Mika! Take a seat by the fire, have a glass of beverage of your choice and tell us something about yourselves that’s not in your bio!

Mika: Thank you kindly, Timy, not only for your invitation to the Asylum but also for allowing us to bring our raven Fenwick and offering us these lovely seats next to a gently crackling fire. And how lovely you have coffee for Francis and Earl Grey tea with gallons of milk for me. Oh, and look, you even baked a batch of lemon biscuits! How wonderful! We know only too well from a certain someone in our novel that hosting guests can be a demanding undertaking, so we appreciate your courtesies and the cosy atmosphere all the more.

Fenwick swoops down from Mika’s shoulder and snatches a lemon biscuit.

Francis: As to something that’s not in Mika’s bio, she’s an amazing gift-giver. She loves to ponder the perfect present for each individual and goes to great lengths to realise her ideas. She even designs greeting cards, wraps everything in matching colours, and delights in people’s joy. Her love for presents has also trickled into the novel: Gift-giving is not only a recurring theme but also plays a vital role in our sequel.

Mika: Francis is a hunter for knowledge and the best possible solution. When her interest in something is awakened, she won’t stop until she has familiarised herself sufficiently with the subject in question. Her curiosity doesn’t just extend to theoretical knowledge; she loves to test things to see if they work – and can do this professionally in her job as a tester. Although a rather cautious person, she loves to explore the culinary diversity of this world and is not afraid to try new food whenever the opportunity presents itself. Not surprisingly, food – and the hunt for it – also plays a role in our book.

I’m curious about your story. How did you two meet? How did you come to write and publish together?

Mika: We consider ourselves a match made in fandom heaven. In our teens, we both used to be huge musical fans, first and foremost of The Phantom of the Opera. That was in the distant days before the internet and social media. When I placed an ad in a musical magazine stating I was looking for other fans and all sorts of Phantom memorabilia, Francis realised we were living in close proximity, looked me up in the phone book and gave me a call. 

Francis: In the beginning, our meetings were all about Phantom, but soon, we realised we had so much more in common and became friends.

A decade later, Mika set up her own D&D role-playing group. Little did we know that this would lay the groundwork for our series.

Mika: I had been part of an RPG group for a few years and enjoyed it so much that I decided to become a Dungeon Master. I created my own world, brought along my character Taran – a loveable, chaotic thief – and asked Francis whether she would be interested in joining the group. Fortunately, she was, and Valerian Crow, magic-user against his will and owner of the inquisitive raven Fenwick, was born. (One of the perks of being a Dungeon Master was that I could always snatch food from the players and blame it on Fenwick. ;-))

After another decade…

Francis chimes from the side: We’re no spring chickens…

Mika: …we set out to write a fantasy story inspired by our RPG, writing the kind of book we always wanted to read.

Aww, that’s so cool!
What do you think, is it easier or harder to write and publish a book with someone else, than it is doing it by yourself? What were your biggest challenges so far and how did you overcome them? How does your process look?

Mika: Writing as a team works best for us. I would never have tackled a novel if Francis hadn’t encouraged me to give it a go…

Francis: And I, the perfectionist, would never have published Stars and Ravens if it hadn’t been for Mika, who reminded me perfection never finishes.

When circumstances allow, we meet twice weekly to plot and write. Since our book is character-driven, dialogue has a particular focus, so we often start with that and flesh out the rest later. Ideally, we continue working on the scene during the week, swapping it back and forth for feedback and improvement. Like this, we are each other’s corrective and often catch plot holes or wrong developments early on.

At times, we have varying ideas on how a scene will play out. We now view this as a special chance and have come up with intriguing compromises. For us, the moment when the whole becomes better than its parts always holds a kind of magic.

Mika: The biggest challenge was that the past few years haven’t been very kind to us. Multiple health issues affected both our families. These challenges, combined with job-related surprises, not to forget the usual chaos of family life, often derailed our schedule. However, our mantra is ‘Slow and steady wins the race’. Despite all odds, we’re still here, writing the second book in our series, Suns and Kingfishers, which we will publish…

Francis: …when it’s good and ready.

You entered your novel, STARS AND RAVENS, into SPFBO 9. How did you learn about the competition? How did you find your first experience with it? How did you cope with the stress/waiting? What advice would you give to those who are thinking about entering? Would you do it again?

Francis: Mika stumbled upon SPFBO when looking for bloggers who might be interested in reviewing our novel. So we decided to try our luck. Initially, we refreshed our Twitter pages far too often, constantly fearing we’d miss some vital development. The anxiety only ebbed down once we were cut.

Mika: When we entered the contest, we jumped in at the deep end with almost no connections in the community. Our advice: If you want to make the most out of SPFBO, engage with the writing and reading community long before entering and enjoy the exchange. Support other authors, and don’t forget to advertise your book as well.

Francis: Mika had the wonderful idea to send out Fenwick, the raven from our book, via Twitter/X (#InquisitiveRaven) to ask book-related questions and present her reviews. 

At this point, Fenwick croaks loudly and rustles his wings. 

Francis: Fenwick would like to state he will forever miss the bird logo, even though he would never have fit into that bird’s nesting box; it was far too tiny.

Mika: Tiny are also our chances of another SPFBO participation in the near future since our focus is on completing our Valerian Crow series. 

Have you read any other books that entered into SPFBO9? Or are there any that caught your attention?

Mika: Oh, that’s an easy question. I’ve read several SPFBO books I liked a lot, but one felt as if it was written for me: The Wings of Ashtaroth by Steve Hugh Westenra, instantly becoming one of my favourites. I also enjoyed and highly recommend Mordicax by Mark McKerracher, Petition by Delilah Waan and The First Rule by Steven William Hannah.

One of the great things about SPFBO is that you come across a wide range of fantasy and become aware of books you would otherwise have missed.

Francis: I had elaborate reading plans for 2023 and purchased a dozen SPFBO books. All my plans, however, fell to pieces when life threw me one curveball too many. The Wings of Ashtaroth caught also my attention, and I’m currently enjoying my journey through the pages.

What inspires your writing? Do you listen to music, stare into the fire, listen to the whispering of the wind, make deals with the Devil?

Francis: Nothing of that sort. Our greatest inspiration is sharing the writing experience.

Mika: In addition, Francis gets a lot of inspiration from household chores; mopping floors and polishing windowpanes bring her deep insights and have resolved many a plot hole.

Francis: I’ve retired from folding laundry, however. It killed all sparks of creativity. Mika replenishes her energies by drawing, playing the piano and going for extended walks.

House chores are sure an interesting way to get inspiration. Then again, doing chores is much for fun if you can occupy your mind with something else.
Which character of your book do you identify with the most and why? Who would you like to live with in an asylum?

Mika: That’s a tricky question. In a way, every character has something of ours and, at the same time, differs in many ways. Taran and I, we both strive for harmony and tend to avoid conflicts. With Skiarin, I share the joy of hosting guests – provided they are dear guests and not obligatory ones.

Francis: I sympathise with Lif’s practicality, especially when it comes to financial concerns (‘From what money, Taran?’). With Valerian, I share frequent flights of fancy. Like him, I enjoy sizzling conversations and the occasional battle of wits.

Writing Lady Ravenstar, meanwhile, is excellent therapy: We admire her enormous self-confidence and the ease with which she shrugs off all criticism.

Mika: As to the question with whom we would like to live in an asylum, we can’t offer a good solution. You see, none of our main characters would tolerate being locked up. 

I don’t think anyone would ask their opinion about that…
What was the main inspiration for the story? Which aspect of the book was the most challenging to write and why?

Francis: As mentioned earlier, our role-playing game was our initial spark of inspiration. Of course, we discovered early on that plot developments perfect for an RPG don’t necessarily work in a novel. The characters, too, gained in complexity, and are now a three-dimensional joy.

With respect to writing, the many interwoven mysteries are our greatest challenge. For the role-playing game, Mika had an overview showing which character knows what and updated it after each gaming session. It became rather overwhelming at one point, and we vowed not to have so many different knowledge levels in our book.

Mika: Haha, guess how well we did with that resolution…

Francis: Slotting mysteries, both big and small, into the right places is a task that often feels like assembling an intricate clockwork.

If you could launch a release party with your MC(s) present, how would that go down?

We are thrilled you ask this question since we believe this would play out fantastically…

On your desk, you find a letter. You open the envelope, and when you read the elegant handwriting, you realise you are invited to Ravenstar Mansion, an estate located in the best quarter of Astraria. While you still wonder whether to accept, catchwords like ‘informal occasion’, ‘come by any time between 8 pm and midnight’ and ‘book release party’ sound tempting. You decide to drop by – after all, you can always leave, right?

When you arrive, the iron portal stands wide open, and you stroll into a beautiful garden. Water splashes from a fountain, even though it’s winter. Warm light spills through the open entrance doors, bidding you welcome.

Inside, you feel slightly overwhelmed by the luxurious interior and the many people, all in a celebratory mood and engaged in lively talk. The crowd parts. A lady in a shimmering emerald ball gown appears, kisses you on both cheeks and chimes: “How wonderful you have come! The more, the merrier!” Pulling you into the salon, she points you toward the buffet. When you take in the tables laden with silver tureens and platters on wine-red damask, you discover among them all your favourite dishes. How did they know what I like?

After filling your plate, you check out the bar. Enticed by the selection of the drinks, you pick a Green Flame. Served burning, its heart of golden liquor tastes of wild honey and resin. While you sip from your drink, you admire the pair of acrobats who juggle flaming torches, their costumes in copper and kingfisher-blue glittering in the fire’s light.

While you look around to spot a free seat, an elven man dressed in black, the single sombre spot amid a kaleidoscope of colours, approaches you and leads to a wing chair in a corner, the perfect cosy spot to watch everything while savouring your food.

A short time later, a tall young man stops by. He draws you into a conversation about your favourite topics and makes you feel at ease. At last, he hands you a chonk of a book, on its cover a bird swooping over a wrought-iron gate.

Relishing the atmosphere, you sink back into the chair, open the book, and begin to read…

Ha! Clever.
If you were a character in your series/book, how would you be described? And what your profession/role would be? How long do you think, you would survive in that world?

Francis: We would be background characters watching events unfold from the sidelines, observing how the heroes struggle and suffer, learn and grow. Should they involve us in conversation, we would be very sympathetic and nod a lot while patiently listening. We would strongly suggest therapy for most of them but know all too well they would not heed our advice. 

Mika: As for surviving in this world, I would knock on the door of Ravenstar Mansion and apply for a job as a chambermaid. Not that I have any references in this regard, but neither has anyone else of the current staff.

Francis: I’d like to live in Darksea and work for the Dazzle, writing juicy articles or operating the printing press. Perhaps I’d also join Mr Brightsky in his famous and succinctly named shop ‘Barnaby Brightsky — Finest Potions To Treat Your Body, Brighten Your Heart & Lift Your Spirits’. There, I would dust the shelves, serve the customers, and learn to concoct his amazing Victory pills. (Product placement, beware!)

What are your plans for 2023/2024? Any books you are working on? Any particular events you plan to attend?

Francis: We’ll continue working on Suns and Kingfishers, the second book in our series, and start translating Stars and Ravens into German. In addition, Mika plans to write more reviews, which Fenwick will present.

While you are locked in here for eternity, we will allow you to invite one visitor (fictional and otherwise) – who would you invite? And no, they can’t help you to escape.

Mika: Hm, the visitor can’t help us escape, you say?… Nevertheless, we take our chances with Taran, our brilliant thief who once bragged he could open any lock with a chicken bone.

Francis: In case he has overestimated his abilities, Mika still has an ace up her sleeve: To bribe our way out, she brought something special with her.

From her bag, Mika pulls a soft toy panda; its black-rimmed eyes look huge, its paws are raised for a hug, its fur feels so very fluffy…

Mika: No, Timy, the cuddly fellow is still ours; give it back. Thank you.

I have to let you know that the Asylum is guarded against anything that could aid in escaping. Including lockpickers. We have wards and anti-magic spells, etc. We take security very seriously. Also, bribing doesn’t work either.
Well then, it was a pleasure to have a chat with you! Please allow these nice attendants to escort you out. We hope you’ll enjoy your stay in the Asylum! Any last words?

Thank you, the pleasure was ours.

Mika, smiling confidently, makes the panda wave its little paw.

*takes the panda away and runs out of the door, locking it*
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Stars and Ravens by Francis Deer and Mika Hunter

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