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Interview: May 26, 2016

Tosca Lee has a long list of award-winning, bestselling books to her name. Her latest entry, THE PROGENY, is the present-day saga of a 400-year-old war between the uncanny descendants of Elizabeth Bathory, the most prolific female serial killer of all time, and a secret society dedicated to erasing every one of her descendants. In this interview, Lee talks to’s Melanie Reynolds about discovering her characters, how her own life spills over into the fiction she writes, and how much she appreciates her readers --- even if she has to pretend they don’t exist in order to write honestly. When I began THE PROGENY, I was hoping that Elizabeth Bathory was an imaginary character. Then I discovered she wasn’t! How did you decide to use her as an origin point for this book?

Tosca Lee: A fan wrote to me and said, “How about a book on Elizabeth Bathory?” Though this book isn’t about her per se, she provides the backdrop and mythology for the story --- so thank you, Keith!

BRC: We meet Emily as a young woman with no history or personal identity. Although a mystery to herself as well as to us, she is immediately arresting. Did you write her story “backwards,” so to speak, with the end in mind, or did you discover her story as you went along?

TL: I had to discover it with her, which was the most fun! I knew a few details, but several of them came out as I outlined just ahead of the story and went along with it. Even with an outline, so much happens when I get in there, boots on the ground.

BRC: The characters in your books are often shrouded in mystery (Eve, Judas, the demon), and you unfold them as the stories progress. What draws you to design your characters in this way?

TL: So many of those characters we know only the barest bones about. The accounts are very two-dimensional. But no life is two-dimensional. There are so many things going on that inform their decisions, and who they are as people. I love looking into what the context of their lives was or might have been and popping them out into 3-D.  We like to think we know people, and we tend to pigeonhole them into categories for our own comfort. But lives are far more complex than that. And I think it’s important to remember that people always have complex motivations and usually think they’re doing the right thing at the time --- even if history proves otherwise.

BRC: Your descriptions of place and location are always so vivid, yet they’re unusual settings we don’t often read about in fiction. I notice you’re a world traveler. Are the settings in THE PROGENY favorite places of yours?

TL: Thank you! Honestly, the settings in THE PROGENY weren’t places I had been before except for Budapest. Croatia, Triete, Italy and Slovakia were new to me. I had a great time exploring them --- especially because I brought my mother with me. I get a lot of my wanderlust from her, and it was so fun to bring her along and see (and eat!) everything with her. We absolutely loved everyone we met, and some of these locations --- from Cachtice, Slovakia to Nyirbator, Hungary (an hour from the Ukrainian border) --- are sometimes hauntingly beautiful.

BRC: I absolutely adore the love story here; it’s beautiful and tangible with such winsome characters. Are we going to get more of this relationship in future books in the series? (Please say yes!)

TL: Yes! I admit, I’m a sucker for a love story and romance. I got engaged and married (and became a new mom to four!) while I was writing THE PROGENY and its sequel, FIRSTBORN. So I’m sure some of that leaked over. ;)

BRC: Inherited traits play a part in Emily’s story. Were you thinking of the Biblical descriptions of generational blessing and cursing as you wrote?

TL: Yes, there was definitely some of that. But also, my mother is a life-long genealogist. We grew up going with her to courthouses to look up records and cemeteries to find tombstones of people she was searching for. I used to think my mom was just really into cemeteries and dead people. And craziest thing --- while working on THE PROGENY, I learned I'm distantly related to Elizabeth Bathory. Eek!

BRC: The love of God is set against some pretty horrific circumstances and crimes in THE PROGENY. I’m interested in the way you can marry these themes so successfully, when often fiction writers can talk about one or the other but not both together. Any thoughts on this?

TL: I think regardless of our circumstances, no matter how easy or horrific, we are always wondering how God plays into it. At least, I am. And I think that most of us spend our lives wondering if we’re good enough, if God truly notices us and takes interest in us. We’re told God loves us, but the idea of God liking us is a whole different thing. I remember the first time a friend said, “I think you’re just going to have to accept that God likes you.” It nearly broke me. I couldn't wrap my mind around it. But I think it’s true. Meanwhile, history is often barbaric. Life is. But somehow, God is there.

BRC: THE PROGENY is a vital story in terms of character, setting and events. Life just seems to pop off every page! And yet death is a very present theme in this book. How do you bring such life in the midst of death?

TL: I think the idea of chasing life becomes very real when death is right around the corner. So many of us live in such safety. We don’t think about death. It’s shocking when it happens. We’re lucky in that way. But you have to chase life hard and fast when you know you could die at any moment, right? 

BRC: For whom are you writing? Who is the audience you imagine on the other side of your book?

TL: When I write, I tell myself “no one will ever read this.” Because if I think about reviewers or readers, I clam up. I worry about whether they’ll approve or like it (because I want them to). But I can’t think of that if I’m going to write honestly. So I tell myself I’m writing in secret. It’s a lie, of course, but it’s the only way to be honest on the page while I’m working.

BRC: C.S. Lewis told the story of an idea that popped into his head of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels, which became the genesis for THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE. How do ideas for your writing come to you?

TL: In weird ways. While I’m driving. Or napping or doing laundry. Or thinking about weird things that have interested me for a long time. In this case, it was the marriage of an idea from a reader and my desire to write a thriller about some young people with some slight supernatural abilities, and to explore the idea of losing one's identity. We stake so much on our titles, our positions, our jobs and roles…but what if those are stripped away? Who are we really? That was interesting to me.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

TL: Right now I’m working on edits for the sequel to THE PROGENY, FIRSTBORN. It’ll be out in February! (So anyone who wants to kill me after the conclusion of THE PROGENY, the next book is right around the corner!) Also, shout out to my readers --- I seriously have the coolest readers in the world. I love you guys. Ready for another adventure?