In Glorious Tones of Copper:An Interview with Samantha Mills - Uncharted

In Glorious Tones of Copper:An Interview with Samantha Mills

By Uncharted

Samantha Mills is a wildly successful speculative author, with Nebula, Locus, and Sturgeon Awards to her credit. Her debut novel, The Wings Upon Her Back, is coming out in April through Tachyon Publications. The book has been described as a “tale of redemption, by turns relentlessly grim and courageously hopeful.” In a starred review, Booklist reports, “The Wings upon Her Back is a triumphant debut novel.” And, from Publisher’s Weekly: “This cathartic adventure will stay with readers long after the final page.”

—Myna Chang

Myna Chang: Thanks for talking with me, Samantha! Let’s start with your forthcoming novel, The Wings Upon Her Back. Tell us about the story. Who is your protagonist, and what is the setting like? What themes does the book explore?

Samantha Mills: The Wings Upon Her Back takes place in a small, isolated city blessed by five gods. These gods bestowed great technologies upon their followers before one day retreating into (nearly) perpetual sleep. The book follows a warrior named Winged Zemolai. As a teenager, she gave up everything to serve a charismatic leader and earn wings in the warrior god’s service. Twenty-six years later, that leader holds great power over the city, and Zemolai has to face the fact that she is helping enforce a fascist state. The story begins when she is cast out of her sect, and then moves back and forth to the war that brought her sect into power, gradually revealing the nature of her city, her leader, and the gods themselves.

I used this surface story (the cast-out warrior who has to fight what they once upheld!) to explore themes of intergenerational trauma, hero worship, and abandonment. There is a core pain that permeates the entire city thanks to that original retreat by the gods, rippling down through the years until it reaches poor Zemolai. She is caught in a cycle of hurt people lashing out at the next target and perpetuates it herself before recognizing it for what it is. How does someone find their way out of a story that started long before they were born? How do they find answers when the past is so painful, it has been actively suppressed? It’s about waking up and changing things for the sake of the next generation.

MC: What sparked the idea for this story? How did the writing process go for you?

Samantha: The seed of this book was born way back in 2017, though it took a few drafts and some long breaks before the final version emerged. I was in fear following the 2016 election cycle, watching the United States step onto a slippery slope toward fascism and the religious state. I found that the abusive rhetoric of conservative politics was eerily, upsettingly identical to abusive tactics in personal relationships, and I wanted to write about that dynamic and untangle the threads a bit.

The writing itself was uncomfortable, but cathartic in the end. Zemolai’s leader is like a parental figure to her, but also the voice of her god and the head of state—that’s a lot of power to hold over someone! I was particularly interested in warped reality states, the potent blend of propaganda, gaslighting, and fear-stoking that makes it so easy for some people to succumb to strongman leadership. There’s an oft-used metaphor about frogs boiling to death in gradually heated water, but I’m sorry to say it’s only humans who rationalize staying in hot tubs until they collapse… frogs jump out!

MC: Do you have a favorite character or scene? Did any piece of the story especially resonate for you?

Samantha: I’m very happy with how the final chapter turned out, which I can’t describe for obvious reasons! I envisioned the structure of the book as a pair of mirrored graph lines. One story curves up before plummeting, and the other begins with a fall before the rise. They intersect at the end in a way I find very satisfying.

That was vague, so I’ll give an equally vague alternative. The final piece that I wrote ended up being a favorite for me: there is an essay interspersed throughout the book in the form of five interludes. (I was having fun with the structure again: these interludes break the book into five sequences of five chapters apiece, until the final sequence, which breaks the pattern with six.) If you plucked these bits out, they would form a continuous narrative, and while there’s an in-universe author who directly affects the plot, the author is also just me laying out the thesis of the whole thing.

Cover design by Elizabeth Story

MC: Tell us about the cover art for the book.

Samantha: The cover was designed by Elizabeth Story, who does all sorts of cover design, interiors, and other creative content for Tachyon Publications. I love the stark simplicity of it – a single mechanical wing in glorious tones of copper, against a shadowed city wall. So much of the book revolves around Zemolai’s desire for flight and what she is willing to do to get it, it was a natural focal point.

MC: Now, let’s shift gears. Your short story “Rabbit Test” (Uncanny Magazine) won the Nebula, Locus, and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards and was included in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2023. The story combines a non-standard format with an unflinching look at women’s rights. Tell us about the story, and its reception.

Samantha: “Rabbit Test” was written over the course of about a month in late spring of 2022. I was devastated by the repeal of Roe v. Wade and the erosion of rights that began long before the repeal and is now accelerating. When I’m upset about something, I do a lot of research to orient myself on the issue. My browser tabs were overflowing with ebooks, history and science articles, and government sites. In the course of all my reading, I wound up with a pile of stories from across history, and I knew I had to write about them. I decided to weave them together with the present and a potential future, digging into the patterns I saw. It was cathartic for me—a way to put all of my feelings on paper and ask, are you seeing this, too?

I knew it was a potentially hot topic, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to sell a story that was half history paper, so when Uncanny picked it up, I was thrilled and hoped it would resonate with some people. It turned out to be more than some! The story came out that November to immediate attention and rapidly escaped my little corner of the internet. It kept snowballing from there, even despite the implosion of Twitter’s new ownership that winter, all the way through the next year’s award season. I received translation requests for the first time ever, was flown out to Kansas for the Sturgeon Symposium, and had the supreme luck of being able to attend the Nebulas and Locus Awards in person, as they were both in California. It’s really been wonderful, if bittersweet – at the end of the day, I’d prefer if a story like this didn’t resonate with anyone, you know?

MC: I was struck by the complexity of the narrative, the way you wove historical facts with present-day events and potential futures, through the lives of multiple characters. How did you organize and manage the different aspects of the story? Did it ever get mixed up in your head?

Samantha: It took a solid month of my free time for a reason! It was a lot of research followed by vibes-wrangling. I organized my sources in a Word document, highlighting interesting information and pasting items next to one another if they felt like interesting parallels to me. Then, I organized my notes on the story narrative in another document, mapping out the main scenes I needed for the future storyline that binds it all together. It came together like a puzzle after that, matching story to history and figuring out the most effective transitions between them. There were many fits and starts as I tried things out and then reshuffled them, and I didn’t manage to fit everything from my history doc but it was still quite a lot! Afterwards I wrote up a blog post summarizing a lot of my sources, in case anyone was interested in the bigger stories behind the oddest tidbits:

MC: I have to ask about one of my favorite stories, “Kiki Hernández Beats the Devil” (Translunar Travelers Lounge and PodCastle). The story made the 2020 Locus Recommended Reading List. I love the overwhelming sense of fun in this piece. How did you come up with these characters and all the great names and images in this story? Might there someday be a sequel, or even a prequel, for Kiki?

Samantha: I’m so glad you liked it, because that’s exactly what I was aiming for: having some fun! I’m a big believer in matching form with function, so even though my tone varies a lot between projects, the process of getting there doesn’t. I knew I wanted to do something fun with rock and roll and the devil at the crossroads (think the legendary Tommy Johnson, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” or even “Tribute”), but, spoiler, it’s really difficult to convey the feeling of music in text form!

I knew I needed the voice to match the attitude of the music or it would just be me listing song titles to no effect. So, I spent a few afternoons on YouTube pulling up acoustic covers of electric guitar songs to get in the mindset, and Kiki was born out of those rhythms. (Seriously, look up Luca Stricagnoli for some awesome examples. He does a cover of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on two guitars, by which I don’t mean a double-neck guitar; I mean he plays on two guitars!)

The rest of the story spiraled out from the base concept of temptation and deal-making, followed by a long editing process in which I picked apart every sentence until it was the most energetic version I could wring out of it. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a companion story, but it would be fun!

MC: In one of your blog posts, you mention your tendency to stick to fantasy, telling whatever story you like on the surface and embedding something personal in the metaphorical underground. How does this approach come together for you? Are there themes or metaphors you find yourself revisiting?

Samantha: I can’t start a book until I have an ending, plus a critical mass of characters and how they relate to one another and the world. I usually have a theme in mind while planning the plot, but inevitably, by the end of the first draft, I’ve discovered something more personal has leaked in, and I’ll write a second draft drawing those ideas to the surface. It can be a little embarrassing (“This again, Sam??”), but the subconscious wants what it wants! Common elements in my work include fraught/complex family dynamics, notions of regret and repentance, resisting social strictures, and scenes of capture and escape.

What I like about fantasy is that I can explore emotions I’ve felt without needing to justify the circumstances in which I felt them. As a reader, sometimes I bounce off stories that are too similar to my real-life experiences because I get distracted thinking of all the tiny ways I would have done things differently. But in fantasy, the particulars get a special filter thrown on top. I’ve never cemented a violent leader’s rise to power, but I have felt my life spiral out of control thanks to putting my hopes in the wrong person. I’ve never been lost in time-traveling waters, but I have wondered if I’m a good enough mother to fight the impossible to reach my kids. Basically, this approach drills down to why a story resonates and then uses fantasy to craft a situation as big as it feels. E.g. if unequally-reciprocated love feels like drowning, you don’t just write about falling in love, you write about falling in love with the god of drowning. (Excuse me, I’ve just given myself an idea. XD)

This approach certainly isn’t unique to fantasy, but fantasy does have a supremely fun toolkit for larger-than-life imagery!

MC: Have other authors influenced your style or approach to fiction writing?

Samantha: I grew up devouring my mom’s endless thrillers, mystery, and suspense novels, genres which are all very focused on pacing, pacing, pacing. Jeffery Deaver, Tami Hoag, Carol O’Connell, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child… I also read books with horror/speculative elements (see the precocious 90s kid starter pack of Stephen King and Anne Rice, plus an endless supply of Dean Koontz), but it took me a while longer to find what I liked in fantasy. I read urban fantasy for a while (that combo of fantasy and mystery made it a logical stepping point!) and had a handful of tried-and-true authors I’d loved since I was young, like Terry Pratchett, but I didn’t know where to look to get recommendations for more.

Around 2014, my fantasy reading habit exploded, and the authors I read over the next couple of years really shaped my interaction with the genre: N.K. Jemisin, Catherynne Valente, Cherie Priest, Kameron Hurley, Robert Jackson Bennett, Neil Gaiman… Jemisin, Priest, Hurley, and Bennett all have an energetic depth of worldbuilding and characters that hook me, while Gaiman and Valente have mesmerizing prose and a style that really makes it feel like you are being sat down and told a story.

Everything I do now is an attempt to reconcile those three things: pacing (my internal meter is still locked tight by my childhood thriller reading), worldbuilding, and voice. Sometimes, they all merge naturally, but other times, they are directly opposed! Depth of worldbuilding can slow the pace, get too ornate with the voice, and it can reduce clarity in worldbuilding; go too fast, and you don’t have time to luxuriate in the voice… I put in everything I want, and then edit it down until I’m satisfied with a middle ground.

MC: Are you seeing any trends in speculative fiction? Do you see your own work dovetailing with these trends?

Samantha: I have definitely noticed an increase in spec fic engaging with labor causes, the effects of colonialism and empire, and works that say, “The answer to a bad king is not to install a good king, but to abolish the concept of kings.” The Wings Upon Her Back is engaging in that conversation, with a particular focus on theocratic rule.

MC: Tell us about your day job. How do you fit writing into your busy schedule?

Samantha: I’m currently an extremely part-time archivist at a local historical society! I worked in archives for years before taking a break after the birth of my second kid, but in mid-2021, I was desperate to get out of the house, and having a steady side income that wasn’t on a publishing timetable sounded great, too. The stars aligned with a great little organization that needed help managing their collections, and I started working there once a week. I intake new collections; process documents, photos, and objects; update the catalog; assist researchers; organize loans and exhibits; and even do some bookkeeping… it’s a job of many hats.

I have two elementary school kids plus three niblings I help out with, so my current schedule is: babysit on Monday, write during school hours on Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday, spend all day Friday at the archives, and then I catch up errands and family time on the weekend. Those fifteen hours in the middle of the week are vital!! If I’m lucky, I can also sneak onto a laptop to do writing-career-adjacent work while my kids unwind before bed. As I write this, it is currently 7pm and they are playing Minecraft. Thank you, Minecraft.

MC: What’s next for you? Is short fiction still in your future, or are you focusing more on novel writing?

Samantha: I am planning to write two or three new short stories this year! It’s not a lot for dedicated short story authors, but that’s the rate at which I come up with short ideas, so I spend a lot of time on each one. I am more of a novelist at heart—you pick one story, and you work on it for a very long time while bemoaning the number of ideas piling up in your notebook and wondering if you’ll ever get to them all. Satisfying!

Last month, I finished the (extremely rough) first draft of a new novel, so I’ll be spending the next few months whipping that into something worth showing other people. It’s my grand sea monster prison escape book, full of some patented Sam reflections on regret and change (but this time with more jokes). I can’t say too much, but I’m very excited about it. Cross your fingers that it sells!


SAMANTHA MILLS is a Nebula, Locus, and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award-winning author living in Southern California. You can find her short fiction in Uncanny Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, and others, as well as the best-of anthologies The New Voices of Science Fiction and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2023. Her debut novel, The Wings Upon Her Back, is coming out in April 2024 through Tachyon Publications. You can find more, including a full list of published work, at

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Short fiction


Pre-order The Wings Upon Her Back:

Barnes & Noble

Tachyon Publications


And Samantha’s favorite local indie SFF store, Mysterious Galaxy


MYNA CHANG is the host of Electric Sheep SF. Her work has been selected for Norton’s Flash Fiction America, Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Small Wonders, Fractured Lit, and others. Her micro collection, The Potential of Radio and Rain (CutBank Books), was published in 2023. She has won the Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the New Millennium Award in Flash Fiction. She is a member of SFWA, HWA, and SFPA. See more at or find her on Bluesky or Twitter at @MynaChang.