Have you ever wanted to step into the world of your favourite book? Well, today we are introducing you to Divine, the 2021 alternative-history and YA novel from M.J. Woodman, which we think you will become obsessed with.
Set in an alternate reality, Divine explores a modern-day world of tragic death, competition, and romance. It challenges the expectations of powerless young adults in society in the event of corruption in a totalitarian state in a reality, where the Roman Empire never fell, and the world was never the same, Divine takes place in present-day Appia – real-world North America which has been fractured by a mythical war and consequently divided into five Imperial fortress states. These states, shielded by an invisible forcefield and known as Havens, are designed to protect inhabitants from the world beyond.
Author M J Woodman is an ancient history and archaeology student. She is a self-proclaimed book-nerd, she has been writing and dreaming to become a published author since the tender age of 13. Several years later after writing the first draft, she revisited the untouched manuscript and rewrote her novel with a fresh perspective and clear and mature voice.
“As cliché as it may sound, being an author was always a dream of mine. From beginning Divine at the young age of 13 and putting the final touches on it years later, this novel embodies my passion for creative writing and Ancient History, exploring an alternate, modern-day world through a powerful young woman, forced into a journey of self-discovery.”
Divine immediately made its way onto our TBR list as soon as we read the premise. The book is a treasure trove of all the good tropes and if you’re a fan of YA novels and classic ancient history or fans of the Red Queen series, the Hunger Games, and The Man in the High Castle, you will love it. It is undoubtedly thought-provoking, heart-wrenching and it embodies Martha’s passion for creative writing and her love of Ancient History. She hopes to use her platform as an author to engage young people through history, which she believes, is crucial to building a better, brighter future. It’s amazing to hear, isn’t it?
We were so curious to chat with Martha about this book and when we got the opportunity, we couldn’t miss it for the world. We talked to her about Divine, her journey, aspirations, creative process, inspirations, favourite books, future projects and much more. So without further ado, let’s get into it!
Hi Martha, How’re you doing today?
Hello everyone! I feel great; the last few weeks since the book launch have been a whirlwind as I have recently moved house. It’s nice to step back and take a breath finally.
Massive congratulations on the release of your debut novel, Divine, which is utterly gorgeous. How does it feel to be a young published author and receiving all the appreciation for your first published work?
Thank you. It has been truly overwhelming, in a good way. I never expected to have so many people reach out who have not only read the book but enjoyed it. When I reminisce on my thirteen-year-old self, writing a book as an escape from my anxiety, it is surreal to see the finished product and have readers from all over the world give feedback. I am thrilled that readers, book bloggers, and other aspiring authors have taken the time to contact me and disclose their thoughts about Divine. It makes me genuinely excited for my future as an author and for being part of this wonderful community of writers and readers worldwide.
Walking down memory lane, you started writing this novel at the age of 13 and then revisited this idea. What stood out to you the most about this story that you decided it to be your debut novel?
The concept for Divine ripened in my mind over the course of two years or so. I loved YA literature and wanted to write a story of my own. I was hardly a practised storyteller, but I had spent my childhood inventing fantasy worlds and plots, using my vast collection of Sylvanian Families and plastic animal figurines to act out these improvised tales. Divine was the amalgamation of hundreds of stories, characters, and settings that I had devised throughout my childhood. At the age of ten, I started learning Latin at school. I was soon immersed in the language, mythos, and history of Ancient Rome. I quickly knew that I wanted to integrate my passion for the Romans into my novel, and the concept for Divine was born.
Talking about the plot, do you remember the moment when this idea first originate? How did you decide on the setting (alternative reality), characters, and the tone of your novel?
As my interest in Classics developed, so did the plot I had first outlined for Divine. I was enthralled by the dystopian worlds that had been masterfully created by authors like Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and James Dashner. It was also around this time when the TV show, The Man in the High Castle, was released. After being so captivated by the show’s first season, I read the book from which it was adapted. I was fascinated by the concept of an alternate reality and began to reimagine historical events, posing the question “what if?”. It wasn’t long until I began to wonder what the world would look like if the Roman Empire never fell. I wanted to marry this concept with the YA dystopian genre that had I adored as a child. The characters were born from this world and had influences not only from my own life but from historical figures throughout the ages. I believe the tone of Divine reflects its setting, the utopian world of the Havens meets the dystopia beyond, and how these concepts overlap as Electa, Divine’s protagonist will discover that as perfect as her world might seem, there is much hidden behind its polished marble veneer.
‘Divine’ challenges society’s expectations of ‘powerless and oppressed’ young adults in the event of corruption in a totalitarian state. What’s your take on this in the modern world, and what would you like your readers to take away from this book?
I had hoped in Divine that I would reflect and reimagine real-world events in the context of the Roman Empire still existing in the modern-day. In many ways, this world is a mirror of our own, showing what our society is not, but also what it could potentially be in the future if we allow our liberties to go unchecked by governments and regimes across the world. In western society, we take for granted the peace and prosperity we have realized since the second world war. This generation’s young adults need to understand the history of our world, the good and the ugly. I believe that history is not only the greatest story of them all but also the best teacher. We must learn from our past mistakes, horrors, and triumphs to pave the way for a better, brighter future. I also believe that society’s expectations of young adults have shifted radically. Exam grades determine success, and there is an expectation to attend university because the best-paying jobs usually go to those with a degree. Social media has only reinforced this cutthroat world where young adults are measured not by their merit and disposition but rather their looks, achievement, and wealth. I believe the world grows more superficial every day, and this is reflected, on a magnified level, in the world of Divine where young adults must face the Choosing, a method of population control that results in the lowest-achieving candidates being cast out of society.
Global pandemic pretty much shifted the functioning of the whole world, how did you cope during the pandemic and keeping your creative juices flowing?
I think it has been a tough year for everyone. Aside from the challenges the pandemic has brought, many aspiring novelists, who had previously carved time to write into their busy schedules, now have had the opportunity to hone their craft with minimum distractions. I know that the lockdown meant many people who had always dreamed of writing a book but were unable to due to the pressures and commitments of daily life were now able to realize that dream. I personally have found the pandemic very challenging, having started at University in September. A few weeks into my course, I fell ill with Covid-19, and unfortunately, its effects have lingered to the present day. Several months later, I am still grappling with fatigue that comes and goes by the day. I, unfortunately, had to withdraw from my University course so I could make the final touches to Divine’s manuscript and have it ready for publishing. I poured the little energy I possessed into Divine, and still, it was a struggle to present a polished manuscript when the illness was at its worst. Although I consider myself lucky, I hope I will revert to my usual energetic self in time.
Well, we truly believe that you did a fabulous job. We know that you always wanted to become an author, how’s life growing up and what developed your passion for creative writing? How has your writing mindset evolved since you first started writing?
I grew up more isolated from the world than most children do. Spending my formative years on Dartmoor in Devon, as an only child, had meant I was accustomed to finding ways to occupy myself. Often I would read to pass the time, and I also had a penchant for drawing fantasy maps of the worlds I had dreamed up that day. I certainly had an overactive imagination. My love of books lent itself to creative writing, and English soon became my favourite subject. I began writing poetry and short stories before delving into my first novel. Since I started writing Divine so young, its story and characters grew up with me. It was a learning process every day that I sat down at my desk to write. The turning point came when I attended a writing course at the University of Toronto. It was a transformative experience, particularly for my writing style and voice.
Who is your biggest role model and supporter in life?
My parents have been hugely encouraging and supportive throughout my childhood. I am so appreciative to have them in my life as I always know that I’ll never face anything alone. I like to think that my mother’s kindness and humour shaped me into the person I am today. My father has always been such a great role model for me; he had a very challenging childhood and has fought extremely hard to give my mother and me the most wonderful life. He taught me to strive for success and to never give up on my dreams. As a young child, I looked up to my grandpa. He was the one who encouraged me to write Divine, and it was the promise I made to him that helped me see this project through. Unfortunately, my grandpa passed away when I was fourteen, and I had promised him to finish writing Divine and share it with the world.
Being a full-time creative student and a published author is a tough job, how do you manage the workload while keeping yourself motivated?
Time management is key. I like to wake up early, exercise, and have a hearty breakfast before sitting down at my desk, but unfortunately, my schedule won’t always allow that. I find more and more now that I am glued to my seat for most of the day, although I am frequently distracted by my phone. Motivation for writing has always come easily to me because I am doing what I love every day, and not everyone is lucky enough to say that. However, I often struggle to find the motivation to promote and market the book. I barely used social media before launching Divine, and it has been quite an adjustment to constantly share book-related content and document my writing process. While it is a necessary and fundamental part of being an author, it has certainly challenged me more than any other aspect of this process. I am not ashamed to admit that I struggle to be creative with the distractions of social media.
Are you a plotter (someone who plans out their novel before they write it) or a pantser (someone who doesn’t plan a story outline)? Given all the twists and turns in the plot, how did you plan it all out? Did you outline the occurrence of those events, or did they sneak up on you?
Divine has evolved so much over the past seven years that I could hardly claim to be a plotter. However, I did roughly outline the book when I started writing it at the age of thirteen. I wouldn’t say I am a pantser either, as I like to do a lot of research before I start writing on any given day. Many plot twists in Divine emerged as I was writing the story, as I came to know my characters and the world in more depth. As I have said previously, the book and its story matured with me as a writer and person. With future projects, including the sequels for Divine, I know that I want to do thorough outlines before embarking on the first draft; however, I do expect, like many authors, plot lines and character arcs will transform as I write. It’s an incredible feeling to be surprised by your own characters and plot, and one of the things I love most about being an author.
Do you derive writing inspiration from other mediums except for books? Do you find any commonalities between your stories and ideas, or do you just follow the muse wherever it goes?
The simple answer to this question is yes. I glean inspiration from an array of mediums, particularly film and music. Before I wanted to become an author, I dreamed of becoming an actress and working in the film industry. My favourite movie of all time is, unsurprisingly, Gladiator, and I would watch it whenever I experienced a slump in my writing. I found that the film always transported me to Ancient Rome, which I wanted to emulate in Divine. Music, however, is undoubtedly is the greatest source of inspiration for my writing. I have extensive playlists of pop music and film scores that I listen to as I write. Before I start writing for the day, I will often spend an hour listening to music, jotting down scene ideas, and making Pinterest mood boards. I spend long car journeys and walks through the countryside, headphones firmly in my ears, composing the scenes of my stories to the melodies and shaping my characters through song.
Which scene or chapter is your favourite and which one was the most difficult to write?
My favourite scene is one of the most revelatory as the culmination of a significant conflict in the book, and to avoid spoilers, I will be quite vague. It is the moment Electa, the protagonist, must admit her deceit to the man she is supposed to kill, and the ensuing consequences are quite shocking. This scene was also one of the most challenging scenes to write as it is a huge turning point in the plot and the climax of pages’ worth of tension between these two characters.
How’s your publishing journey? Any piece of advice for aspiring writers who are struggling with queries and facing inevitable rejections? Did you face any issues with the writing community because of your young age?
My publishing journey was quite untraditional. I was fortunate to meet a film producer when I was sixteen, and we struck up a conversation about my novel. He expressed an interest in reading Divine; however, I never expected to hear anything more. Much to my surprise, a few months later, he contacted me with the hope of purchasing the rights to ‘Divine.’ Since that day, it has been quite the journey, and several re-writes and edits later, ‘Divine’ was ready to publish and share with the world.
The best advice I can give is to never give up on your dreams; if you believe in yourself and your story, fight to tell it, whether it be via the traditional or self-publishing route. It is a saturated industry that is highly competitive, so you must be prepared for rejections. There is, of course, a great element of luck, of the right story, right time, so it is essential to acknowledge that a rejection doesn’t mean your story or writing is bad. Even the most accomplished authors have received hundreds, if not thousands of rejections not only to their query letters but from publishing houses. While it can be a terrible blow to your confidence, it is an inevitable part of being an author, and it is up to you whether you give up or possess the tenacity to try again. The writing community has been incredibly welcoming despite my age. As I have previously mentioned, I attended a writing course at the University of Toronto when I was only seventeen and was by far the youngest in attendance. I learned so much from those writers, and it has shaped me into the author I am today.
Now let’s have a little fun. You love ancient history, so if you’re allowed to live anywhere in any era to write a story that took place in the same setting, where would you choose and why?
I would choose Ancient Greece, in the Age of Heroes (the late Bronze Age). As a writer, I like to romanticise history, and this world of myth and legend, with its fantastical creatures and heroes, would be the perfect setting for a novel. I can picture myself living a simple but beautiful existence, on some lonely Greek isle, much like the sorceress Circe, busying myself with nature, cooking, writing, weaving, swimming, exploring, and watching the triremes drift by on the horizon.
If your book was to be adapted into a movie or series, do you have a dream casting for the characters? And how do you want the soundtrack to be like?
I think every author dreams of their novel being adapted into a movie or series and has fan-cast their characters. For Electa, I always envisioned a young Alicia Vikander or perhaps Lily-Rose Depp. Noah Centineo has similar features to those of Asher Ovicula. Tom Hiddleston was always my pick for Lysander Drusus. Loki was always my favourite character in the MCU, and Tom Hiddleston’s performance in the National Theatre’s rendition of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus means he would be well suited to the role of a Roman General. I am a huge fan of Hans Zimmer’s scores. The score from Gladiator and The Last Samurai are two of my all-time favourites. I would love it if the potential soundtrack for Divine could emulate the dramatic, ancient tones of these scores.
Finally, are you currently working on anything new? And if so, can you give us any hints as to what we can expect from you next?
I am excited to say that I am working on a brand new project, alongside writing the sequels to Divine. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it is a NA Epic Fantasy set in the Ancient World that I have been ruminating over for the past three years. The uncomplicated way to describe it is Game of Thrones but set in the Ancient World. In the future, I would like to write mythological retellings from some lesser-known Ancient Civilizations and historical fiction novels.
Thank you so much for your time, Martha. It was a pleasure talking to you.!
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