GETTIN’ LUCKY: An interview with Miriam Forster, author of CITY OF A THOUSAND DOLLS

Today on the One Four KidLit blog we’re pleased to interview Miriam Forster, who’s debut fantasy novel, City of a Thousand Dolls, was released on February 5th. Here’s the blurb.


Nisha was abandoned at the gates of the City of a Thousand Dolls when she was just a child. Now sixteen, she lives on the grounds of the isolated estate, where orphan girls apprentice as musicians, healers, courtesans, and, if the rumors are true, assassins. Nisha makes her way as Matron’s assistant, her closest companions the mysterious cats that trail her shadow. Only when she begins a forbidden flirtation with the city’s handsome young courier does she let herself imagine a life outside the walls. Until one by one, girls around her start to die.
Before she becomes the next victim, Nisha decides to uncover the secrets that surround the girls’ deaths. But by getting involved, Nisha jeopardizes not only her own future in the City of a Thousand Dolls—but her own life.

You’ve managed to write a book that falls into the magical territory of being young adult but still something many younger readers can connect to. Did you set out to write a book that would span age groups or did it develop holistically?

Thank you! That was actually a total accident. When I first wrote City of a Thousand Dolls, it was a much darker book. The idea of a city where girls are trained to be anything has some really disturbing implications if you take it far enough, and I played around with some of those implications in the original draft. Also, Nisha started out as older. But as rewrites happened, and I started to cut subplots, the character’s age went down and the darker tones went away.

City of a Thousand Dolls is a superbly realized world. Tell us about your world-building process? Also names! Not only are the characters named in interesting ways, but plants, trees, and landmarks. What guidelines did you follow for this aspect of the world, if any?

Yay someone asked about the names! *does total geek dance*

A few of them are my own invention. My first novel was a western-style sword-and-dragon fantasy with all kinds of epic-type names. Names like the Long-Tailed Cat and the Mountains of the Dead are holdovers from that habit. Frost flowers, frost-flame trees and Earthsleep came about because of the unusual weather patterns of the Empire.

As for the rest, when I decided that the story was taking me to a South Asian setting, I became very laser-focused on the details, including the names. For people’s names, I turned to baby naming websites  Tanaya, Jina, Sashi, and Nisha are all real Hindi or Sanskrit based names. Many of the other proper names are modified versions of Sanskrit names, or modified Sanskrit words. (Except for the Arvi and the cats. Those naming systems are different.)  For example, the capital city of Kamal is named that because it’s the seat of the Lotus Court andkamala is one of the Sanskrit words for lotus.

(Told you I was a geek.)

In fact, I used modified words for a lot of the items in the city. The girls wear asars, which are long, one piece garments that resemble the saris that girls wear in India. Nisha fights with a lati staff, which is based on a South Asian weapon called a lathi. Some of the details are real things. Mukhwas mix for example, and jeera puffs. Lemongrass tea is a real thing, and the night queen flower referred to in the book is actually another name for night-blooming jasmine.

Modifying words did come with a risk though. There are at least two places where I tweaked a real name or a Sanskrit word and accidentally flipped the gender of the person’s name. I didn’t discover this until I had to look up pronunciations for the audio book and by then it was too late. (And no, I won’t tell you which ones they are. *grin*)

Cats play a major role in City of a Thousand Dolls. As a lover of books with animals as characters, did any book(s) from your life as a reader influence this decision? And do cats play a role in your own life?

I’m an animal lover in general, and many of my favorite books growing up were books where animals could talk, like the Redwall books, and fantasy stories where the hero was accompanied by/connected to animals, like Perrin in the Wheel of Time series.

We had lots of different kinds of animals when i was growing up, but the most constant were the cats. We always had at least one, usually two and once as many as four. I wasn’t always good at training our dogs–several of them were much stronger-willed than I was–but the cats could take care of themselves. As an independent, loner sort myself, I identified with them. Currently, my husband and I have a cat named Kona. He’s hilarious and crazy and I made him a Pinterest board because of reasons. 🙂

There’s so much I want to say about this book, but, gah, spoilers abound. How hard was it to write the mystery and pace the reader’s discovery?

So, so hard. Actually, the hard part wasn’t pacing the mystery, it was writing a mystery-paced book in a fantasy setting.  I like to joke that I have multiple writer personalities. I plot kind of like Agatha Christie and I world build kind of like J.R.R. Tolkien. Which can be a mess if you’re not careful. In the first few drafts, everything–including the characters–just served the plot and the mystery. And that style did not work in such a complex fantasy world. It was really hard for me to find the balance between taking the time to let the world and the characters flesh out and keeping the suspense up.

Because our blog is composed of authors just beginning the process of becoming publishing (and some, uh hm, with the same editor), can you tell us what your editorial process was like? High points? Low points?

Oh, the edits. That was….interesting.

So before we got the offer, Sarah my editor asked for some revisions of the first eight chapters. She wanted to be able to show the acquisitions people what she had in mind for the book, and since I figured I’d end up making the changes anyway, I said yes. And they were really good suggestions, tightening up the beginning, making the setting clearer, strengthening some of the relationships, etc.  The first round of revisions was actually an extended version of those notes. That round wasn’t super stressful, but it was REALLY tiring. Especially since I ended up rewriting the entire ending.

Then we did a couple rounds of smaller edits and line edits and that’s where I got stressed. It was actually a humbling experience, since I thought I was a pretty stable writer with a low level of crazy. But I was wrong.

Basically, I went into editing with the idea that my editor was my boss. It wasn’t a conscious thought, but after a decade in customer service I was very hyper aware of the need to “meet or excced expectations” at my job. And when writing started to pay, that “employee” part of my brain kicked it.

So I would fix something and it would come back in the next round with more notes because it wasn’t quite there yet and all I could think was I FAILED. And I’m not a good communicator when I’m stressed. I freeze up and have a hard time asking for help. So I was tired from the first edits and subconsciously waiting to get scolded for something and frustrated because I couldn’t get it right, and the whole thing just got more and more overwhelming.

I finally had a long talk with my agent, which helped immensely. And my editor was really patient and awesome too. But it took a while for me to let go of the constant fear of failing.

That being said, I really liked editing most of the time. Sarah had a lot of really amazing suggestions and thoughts and it was cool to see how the changes made the book stronger. It was like a magic trick.

And finally, as this community is All for One and OneFour KidLit, we’d like to know what two or three books inspired you as a kid.

As I said above, I’m was a huge Redwall fan as a kid. (Still am, actually.) There wasn’t much kidlit back then for a post-high-school-reading-level Jr.High student, so I started reading adult fantasy as well. I was really into the Xanth series by Piers Anthony for a long time. And Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles are still a favorite. I also read tons of Agatha Christie and all the Sherlock Holmes stories.

MIRIAMMiriam Forster learned to read at the age of five, wrote her first story at the age of seven and has been playing with words ever since. In real life Miriam is a recovering barista, a terrible housekeeper and a bit of a hermit. But in her mind she’s a deadly international assassin-ninja AND a fantastic dancer. When Miriam isn’t writing, she plots out fight scenes, obsesses about anthropology, nature shows and British television, and reads far too much.

Jaye Robin Brown, or JRo to most everyone but her mama, lives and writes in the Appalachian mountains north of Asheville, NC. She’s fond of dogs, horses, laughter, the absurd and the ironic. When not crafting stories she hangs out with teenagers in the high school art room where she teaches. Her debut novel, SING TO THE WIND (Harper Teen, Fall ’14), is a love song to small town girls and mountain music.

3 thoughts on “GETTIN’ LUCKY: An interview with Miriam Forster, author of CITY OF A THOUSAND DOLLS

  1. Your book is EXACTLY WHAT I WANT TO READ and EXACTLY WHAT MY TEEN SELF WANTED TO READ. I’m going to go get it tonight so I can read it during the blizzard that’s on its way.

    Also, that cover? Gorgeous.

    Woohoo for ABLA authors!

    • Whoops it posted before I was ready. I was going to go on to say, that I’ve donate it to our high school library because I had a list of several students that I knew would love it. Thanks for letting me interview you, Miriam!

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