When Royal Oak-based novelist Rebecca Mix had her first press interview, with a small local newspaper, the reporter told her that readers often get excited about buying books by area authors.
“I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know if the average older person in Royal Oak wants to read about a crazy teenage lesbian murdering people,’” Mix says. “But more power to them if they do!”
Mix’s young adult novel, The Ones We Burn, scheduled for a Nov. 1 release by Simon & Schuster, tells a fantastical story of a young witch’s mission to assassinate her betrothed: a gentle human prince. When the two uncover a witch-killing plague, they race to stop it, and Ranka also finds herself falling for the prince’s sister, Princess Aramis.
“The Ones We Burn is very much a story that I desperately wish I’d had when I was a teenager,” says Mix, who works by day in health care public relations. “It’s also a genuine love letter. Books saved my life.”
Initially, however, Mix had been a reluctant reader while growing up in Lake Orion — to the point where teachers sent home notes of concern — but when a fourth grade classmate told Mix she was stupid for not liking to read, she decided to take part in her school’s reading contest.
“You’d basically read a book and take a quiz, and then you would get points for that,” Mix says. “I went to the Paint Creek Elementary library and looked at the shelves and picked out the thickest book I could find. It was Redwall by Brian Jacques, and I did not understand it. I got five out of 20 points on the quiz. But I was like, ‘Good enough!’ And I started reading and reading and reading.”
Mix ventured into creative writing in sixth grade, when she got hooked on a virtual pet website called Neopets — specifically, a role-playing forum called Neoboards, where she’d create characters and co-author stories with others.
One problem? Others on the site were often teens or college students.
“I’d get kicked out … because my writing was so bad,” Mix says, laughing. “When new writers ask me, ‘How do you face rejection?’ I’m like, ‘I got it beat out of me when I was 12.’”
This rings true, since years of rejection and criticism failed to ever faze Mix for long. During her senior year of high school, Mix — at the suggestion of an English teacher — did an independent study that resulted in the composition of her first novel.
“I sent it out to agents, and they all said no. I was like, ‘Damn. OK. I guess I’ll try again,’” Mix says.
The Ones We Burn, in fact, is the fourth novel Mix has written, and it was the first to land her both an agent and a book contract.
But even then, the way was anything but clear.
In November 2019, on the heels of a Simon & Schuster imprint buying Burn, then-24-year-old Mix returned from grocery shopping one day and, while getting out of the car, slipped on some ice. The fall resulted in a traumatic brain injury.
“I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write, and I genuinely thought my life was over,” Mix says. “I remember lying on the floor with tears streaming down my face because I was so dizzy from trying to revise. But I genuinely didn’t have anything else to hold on to.”
Perhaps inevitably, Mix’s struggles found their way into her fiction as she revised Burn.
“I redid some of Ranka’s magic to mirror [my situation] — similar to the invasive, chronic condition that I was going through,” Mix says. “Suddenly it felt like my body had betrayed me, because I couldn’t talk on the phone or do anything. … It was the one thing that allowed me to disappear for a while. I just had to worry about this poor girl who — I really put her through it. But at least they were problems that weren’t mine.”
Mix also has a middle grade novel, The Mossheart’s Promise, scheduled for publication in 2023. That book tells the story of a girl who wakes up one day to find her mom full of mold — coming out of her eyes, her mouth, her ears.
The girl sets out to find a cure, only to discover that her world stands inside a rotting terrarium that her people were meant to leave a hundred years earlier, and she has to find a way out within five days.
Mix says Mossheart stems, in part, from being of a generation that was told, by many adults, that climate change wasn’t real.
“It’s about what it means to have this adult figure that you love … and realizing they kind of failed you,” Mix says. “It’s deeply weird.”
But also very much in keeping with the darkly magical stories that sustained her as a young person.
And given the trials presented by her injury, Mix sees nothing but the good in her writing life these days.
“It is such a miracle to me that [Burn] is coming out at all. Everything else is a bonus,” Mix says. “There have been so many wonderful things that have happened, and people who have reached out who are clearly the kind of person I wrote this for, that I am just like, ‘Man, I am so lucky!’”
This story is from the November 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.