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Professor Sarah Kozloff Embarks on Second Career…as a Fantasy Fiction Writer

Sarah Kozloff, Professor of Film on the William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair, spent the first 57 years of her life not considering herself creative and not writing novels. Less than seven years later, she’s written four of them. The Nine Realms, her epic fantasy quartet, is a sweeping tale of a fabled queen who uses her strength, humility, compassion, and “the necessary touch of ruthlessness” to claim and rule her magical, mythical land. The first book, A Queen in Hiding, will be released January 21, 2020, and subsequent volumes will go on sale in February, March and April.

Photo: Robert Lechterman

What triggered this abrupt change in careers for this Vassar film professor, who will retire at the end of the academic year to pursue fiction-writing full time?

“The Bechdel Test,” Kozloff explains, alluding to criteria coined by cartoonist Alison Bechdel to determine whether a film or book passes the lowest bar of gender equity.  To pass the Bechdel Test, the book or film must contain just one thing: a scene in which two or more named female characters have a conversation about anything besides men. 

“I was teaching a seminar on American Women Directors in 2012, and we were analyzing films based on the Bechdel Test,” Kozloff recalls. “It was then that I realized that The Lord of the Rings (the article was analyzing the Peter Jackson films, but this is also true of Tolkien) fails the Bechdel Test. Since J.R.R. Tolkien’s series was a beloved touchstone, this came as a blow.”

In that moment, Kozloff decided to write an adult fantasy epic that put women at center stage. “I started writing in 2013 and had no idea how to do it,” she says. “All I knew was what my vision was: What if (Lord of the Rings protagonist) Aragorn had been a woman? What if a realm awaited the return of a queen?” 

Kozloff’s debut novel, the first in a series.Photo: Courtesy of the publisher

For the next two years, Kozloff carried her laptop with her everywhere. “For the first two years of the project, I was in an imagination haze,” she says. “I learned that writing is re-writing, and there were times when I took a subplot from one book and put it in another. My editing software told me I edited one passage 67 times.” Kozloff says themes connecting the story to contemporary events (refugees, xenophobia, water pollution) emerged as she wrote and revised.

Once the books were drafted, Kozloff embarked on the perilous quest of finding an agent and a publisher. But first she needed advice. Over the years, she had enjoyed keeping up with former students as they fanned out into life beyond Vassar. One of those former students was Douglas Stewart ’93 who had gone on to a career at Sterling Lord Literistic, a New York City literary agency. Stewart told Kozloff he didn’t handle books of her genre, but he happily referred her to another agent in his firm. Before he did so, however, he gave his former professor some painful advice.

“Doug told me my query letter was awful. He told me I should start by saying I held an endowed chair at Vassar. I said I thought that sounded like bragging, but he said, ‘Brag away.’ And in retrospect, he was absolutely right.” Her revised letter sparked the interest of agents, including Sterling Lord’s fantasy expert, Martha Millard, who offered to represent Kozloff in September 2016. 

Kozloff went on to write three more books.Photo: Courtesy of the publisher

Only after her agent landed her a contract with Tom Doherty Associates, the leading press for fantasy novels, did Kozloff open up to her friends about trying her hand at fiction.  “I waited until the books sold before I told anyone at Vassar,” she says. “Then, during revisions, I shamelessly leaned on my colleagues’ expertise.”

While Kozloff says she is “having a ball” with her new career, she says she has no regrets about not embarking on it sooner. “For me, writing later in life has worked out well,” she wrote in a recent blog. “The years have given me vast exposure to narrative texts. I’ve studied narrative techniques, but I’ve also internalized the rhythms of stories in my bones.”

Does Kozloff have any advice for aspiring writers? “You’ve got to love the process, because you’re probably not going to be rich and famous,” she says. “If it pains you to open up that computer, that’s a sign you shouldn’t be doing it.”

Would Professor of Film Sarah Kozloff like to see her work turned into a movie? “The four books are much too long for a movie,” she says. “But a Netflix series? Sure, that would be a kick.”

Professor Kozloff will be visiting regional Vassar clubs and bookstores around the country during the winter of 2020. For information, visit SarahKozloff.com.