21st November, 2023

In conversation with BOTY shortlisted author Jo Riccioni

The Branded (Pantera Press) is an addictive YA novel from Jo Riccioni. With captivating protagonists and an immersive landscape, this story is entirely devourable. It includes all of the best parts of YA – a treacherous journey, a dystopian societal structure, tests of loyalty, and just the perfect amount of desire.

—BOTY 2023 judging panel

We were lucky enough to chat with Jo about The Branded, one of the shortlisted titles for the 2023 SPN Book of the Year Award. The award ceremony will take place on 24 November and the winner will be announced on the night.

To see the full shortlist, click here.

To book a ticket to the BOTY award ceremony, click here. All the shortlisted books will be available for purchase at the Independent Publishing Conference through our conference bookseller, Readings. They can also be ordered through the Readings website.

Q. You’ve mentioned in interviews that the sickness was not originally a part of the story, and the division was instead a matter of fertility how did changing this change how you saw your main characters and their struggles?

I’d always had a fascination with the commodification of the female body and the pressure on women to find validation through motherhood. I’d read The Handmaid’s Tale as part of a feminist perspectives on literature class at Uni not long after the novel came out, and that theme simmered away for several decades in the back of my mind while I had a corporate career and then my own kids. The virus that decimates the continent in which The Branded Season is set was developed from an idea seeded by my agent. We’d both been reading newspaper articles stating that the biggest threat to human civilization would come not from the collapse of the planet but from viruses and overpopulation. I thought it was a great backdrop for the existing story because it set up another possible layer to the class structure – another division and the accompanying prejudices and tensions that so many fantasy worlds have built into them. But all this was in development before we even knew about COVID. In a weird convergence of fact and fiction, I submitted the next draft to my agent and she had it on spec while we were in the throes of the virus. Back then, I think we both thought the last thing any publisher or reader would want was a bloody virus book! (Kudos Pantera!) But then, it isn’t really a virus book. It’s a book about how governments spin narratives around events, warping how we see ourselves, our abilities, and our purpose in life … something that happens in the real world all the time. The fertility and the healing themes seemed to naturally fit together in my story because they are, even today, the roles that are so often foisted upon women – those of mothers and carers. I wanted to acknowledge those identities as well as disrupt them in the book. 

Q. Your previous book ‘the Italians at Cleats Corner Store’ is a completely different genre to ‘The Branded’, do you find your process differs? If so how?

Having been a bookseller for ten years, I know readers have their favourite genres, but I also know they read across categories and according to mood. I believe that more writers would also write widely and across genres if it wasn’t for the book marketing machine. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met who’ve told me they long to break out of their pigeonhole. Unfortunately, we have to market books and that means branding (excuse the pun), which apparently means picking a genre and sticking to it, at least if you want the best chance at a ‘successful career’ as a writer. But to answer your question, I can’t exactly say my process is very different when I write for a more commercial market. I’m always trying to write the best book I can, which still requires good character development and dialogue that rings true, plausible settings and sense of place, exploration of themes and motifs, a good turn of sentence. I guess the biggest difference is pacing and what I think of as ‘volume’. The Branded Season has many moments where the volume is cranked right up, the beats come thick and fast, and I’m thinking, “Ok, the reader needs a breath here. We need something low-key and poignant or subtle before the next onslaught.” The opposite was probably true with The Italians. With The Branded Season, I was also specifically thinking tension and cliffhangers to achieve that just one more chapter reaction in readers. I guess with The Italians and my short stories, I did go for visceral, shock-factor plot, too, but I did it in a quieter more contemplative way. I do think that writing and reading in very different genres and styles allows for a heightening of craft in a synergistic way. I’m still learning so much from the change. Professionally, it’s not an easy choice to make, but (at the peril of publisher outrage and the end of my career), writers, I highly recommend it!

Q. The world-building in your novel is excellent. I’m a huge fan of anything with a map at the start, how did you go about building the world? What inspirations did you draw on?

Ah, maps! So many things I’ve learned about working with maps … like, ’tis an optimistic fool who sets forth without a map in hand. At least plot it as you go along. Also, if you want to keep your eyesight and your sanity, for heaven’s sake get the final version commissioned and don’t try to learn Inkarnate while you’re deep in structural edits. 

But in terms of world-building, the first seed for my remote survivalist colony of Isfalk was a dream of girls trapped in a sleigh wagon racing across the snow. I’m an adopted Aussie who lives at the beach but I still have one foot in the snow and I hanker for the cold. In writing, we can go to places we can’t afford to visit. So why not? Once the idea is there, though, I find that as I begin to write and build the world, my influences become an amalgamation of places I’ve been, books and movies I love, and Pinterlust (Pinterest lust), all creating more than place … creating a mood inside me as I write.

Q. With the duopoly wrapped up, do you think there’s space for more stories set in the same world? Is there anywhere in your world you didn’t get to explore?

I’ve moved countries a lot in my life and it’s people who draw me back to places, not the places themselves. I love my characters and, you know, never say never. Fans asking for more is the highest compliment to a writer, but you have to want to revisit creatively. There has to be something else to say, or a character who’s asking to say it. For now, other voices are calling.

Jo Riccioni graduated with a Masters in Medieval Literature from Leeds University, where her studies included Icelandic saga and the Arthurian and Robin Hood legends. Her short stories have won awards in the UK and Australia and have been anthologised in Best Australian Stories. Jo’s first novel, The Italians at Cleat’s Corner Store, won the International Rubery Award for fiction and was long-listed for the New Angle Prize in the UK. The Branded Season is her first epic fantasy duology.

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