Skye Allen is the author of two YA LGBTQ+ fantasy novels, Pretty Peg and The Songbird Thief. Her short fiction has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and Of Dragons and Magic and her poetry in Insomnia and Sinister Wisdom. She is also a musician and occasionally performs around the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her wife, a cat and six chickens.
How do you develop your plot and characters?
I identify pretty closely with Lee, the main character in The Songbird Thief. Her story is way too familiar to young people who run away from bad situations at home – all I added was the fairies. The central relationship in the book is between Lee and her unofficial foster mother, Sonja, who wants to protect her but who has her own set of human faults. Lee is queer and she’s a little bit in love with Sonja, but it’s not a love story. I wanted to write about someone whose challenge was harnessing the power of her own voice and independence. It’s a fantasy novel, so for Lee that’s literal — she sings and it makes people do things.
Are you working on anything at the present you would like to tell us about?
I’m working my way through a novel about an instrument maker who goes up against a big timber corporation. There’s a transgender character, there are themes about family violence and the corrupt health care system, and – I can’t help myself – there’s a ton of music. It’s a big topic, but I’m steadying myself with small chunks of research about how to make guitars. That’s fun because I’m also learning how to play more than just the same old three chords. I have a beautiful Martin that I bought with the advance for The Songbird Thief, and my music friends agree it’s way too good for me.
Describe your writing space.
I am ridiculously lucky to have my own room. My wife renovated the building – she has more talents than I can count – and I have a lair with two walls of bookshelves and my guitar and keyboard ready to come out and play whenever I need them. I watch the birds in the coast live oak outside my window and usually listen to acoustic guitar or violin when I’m writing. I’m from Generation X, so I’ve gone from vinyl all the way to Spotify, but I have LPs of two of my musical godparents, Dick Gaughan and Emmylou Harris, watching over me from the top shelf.
What is your work schedule like when you are writing?
At heart I’m a pirate – ye can sleep when yer dead. I get up at 6 to exercise and either write or practice before I get on the bus, I get a little writing in during slow times at my office job, and at night it’s either writing or music. It can be a challenge to have two muses, but it’s a good motivational system for an ex-Catholic, because whichever discipline I’m paying attention to, I always feel guilty for not doing the other thing.
How do you do research for your books?
For Pretty Peg, I read a lot about the U.S. war with Afghanistan during the early 2000s – writing by locals, aid workers (one of my characters worked with an NGO there), members of the military, and media representatives. I only used a handful of details in the book, but that research gave me the grounding I needed. For The Songbird Thief I spent time wandering around those low-income parts of San Francisco that tend not to make it into Airbnb ads, all neighborhoods I’ve lived and worked in and that are changing fast right now. I have a bank of dialog in my head that I’ve collected from teaching teens and tweens, and I rely on that for my YA stories. And because Lee is a singer, but the lyrics I quoted all had to be in the public domain for my publisher to let me use them, I got to learn some glorious old songs.
Where’s the harm in a little petty theft now and then? Fifteen-year-old Lee is about to find out. Lee has a gift—the ability to use her songs to enchant prospective victims, making them easy to rob—but it isn’t without a price. The source of this mysterious ability is revealed when Lee comes to San Francisco, fleeing her stepfather’s abuse: she is half fey. This knowledge puts a strain on Lee’s relationship with her friend and secret crush, Sonja, since Sonja thinks entanglements with the fey only lead to trouble. As her adventure takes her deeper into the intrigues of the Faerie Realm, Lee discovers her power has the potential for more than fun and profit. Some would use it for evil, and only Lee can decide if there’s good to be found in her songs.
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The Songbird Thief by Skye Allen Excerpt
I know Sonja will be late even before the tired woman behind the counter yells my name to give me the message. My name is an all-access pass— Lee—but she still manages to make it into two syllables. I jolt out of my exhausted trance when I finally realize I’m the Lee she’s yelling for. I’m pretty sure I’m the last girl in California not to have a cell phone. It’s after one o’clock in the morning. I’m at the 24-Hour Chinese Food and Donuts on Harrison Avenue and Second Street. Transient central for San Francisco. I probably look like a homeless person, but I’m technically only between addresses for a few hours. I kick my duffel farther under the table and make my way up to the counter, watching my bag the whole time, and wait for the inevitable announcement—“Your friend is on her way.”
I sit back down and hug my wilted cup of coffee to my face. The strength of it surprises me, dark and oily. A man in a tight green dress flashes an incomplete set of teeth at me from the counter and holds up his own cup. He looks harmless, but he could get chatty. Social rejects get chatty late at night. Sure enough, he starts up in a groggy voice, “You sure are tall, honey. What are you, six feet?”
He’s off by two inches, but I don’t want to talk about my height. I touch my index finger to the rim of my cup and draw a line across the yellow Formica in front of me. It works better with actual spit, but I just got off a Greyhound bus. I don’t want to lick my fingers.
“Are you part black or Indian? I don’t mean anything by that. I’ve dated many gorgeous brown men. And with that cute short haircut, you could just about pass for one of them.” My new white friend chuckles.
I don’t know the answer to his question. I stare at the line I drew and wait for it to work. I don’t have a lot of magic, and whatever I do have is most likely evil, if I can believe Da. I discovered the spit trick by accident, and it doesn’t work for much, just redirects people’s attention when I don’t want it. That and the music thing. Maybe one or two other minor skills. That’s all I have.
I don’t know what else I’d have in the way of magic if it weren’t for Da. His house, his rules. He’s my stepfather, or he would be if he’d married my mother. We have no legal or blood relationship, not that it matters. I know kids whose real dads beat them up. Being related doesn’t do them any good.
But I’m still going to look for my real father. That’s why I’m here.
Where to find Skye Allen