For this week’s episode of the Writers of Fantasy Podcast, I got to talk to Victoria Schwab, aka V.E. Schwab. She is an American fantasy author best known for her 2013 novel Vicious, the Shades of Magic series, and her children’s and young adult fiction.
We had a really good, long talk about world building, characters, writing, and gender issues in science fiction and fantasy. Listen here, and there are some key quotes! Check it out!
I started out when I was quite young, and I wrote my first book when I was nineteen. The Near Witch was the second book I’d ever written, and I was twenty-one! And I’m now thirty! There’s some growth that happens, I’ve not got thirteen books published, and obviously you grow and change as a person.
I get asked often ‘do you go back and look at your previous work and think of things you would do differently?’ The honest truth is that I kind of look at each and every one of my books as a time capsule of who I was and what I was capable of doing. So, I never want to change any of them, as The Near Witch is a capsule of who I was in college and what I was studying and what excited me.
Whereas The Shades of Magic series and The Monsters of Verity series are just as much time capsules of who I was and what I was going through while doing a Masters Degree on depictions of monstrosity. And I was travelling a lot. So, they’re precious to me in different ways.
Monsters and Villains
Certainly with something like Vicious, which is about villains, and villainy. About the arbitrary labels that we apply to heroes and villains. It’s a book about personal vendettas, and who is a hero and who is a villain. Is it determined by where they fall on opposite sides of this argument? In that book, specifically, I wanted to play with the idea [of villains].
I sat down and thought ‘wouldn’t it be a fun challenge to write a book without heroes?’ Could I write a book without heroes and make the reader strongly root for one of the villains? It was a craft exercise in learning it’s not what our characters do, it’s not what we do as people, but why we do it. Motivation Vs action.
Sometimes I do sit down and think. There’s always a seed. I gather ingredients for a story until I have enough to make a meal. But I think there’s always that one ingredient that’s the core, bonding thing.
A new series of the Writers of Fantasy Podcast from Scifi-fantasy network!
Joel Cornah talks to Foz Meadows, author of An Accident of Stars! Foz is a genderqueer author, blogger, essayist, reviewer and poet.
In 2014, she was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer for her blog, Shattersnipe; she is also a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Black Gate, and a contributing reviewer for A Dribble of Ink, Strange Horizons and Tor.com.
Give the episode a listen here, or on iTunes! There’s a transcript below.
Yes, this Saturday (14th January 2017) I will be on Manchester North FM! I’ll be interviewed for Hannah’s Bookshelf, a lovely show about, well, books.
We will be talking about The Sea-Stone Sword, The Sky Slayer, and probably The Miliverse as well. There’s also a section about what books I’d save during the apocalypse, so I’ve been agonising over that for the past couple of weeks. Let’s hope I don’t ruin society for post-apocalyptic humanity.
Having listened to other episodes of the show there’s no knowing how much ground we will cover. Writing, education, my dyslexia, cats, the interview series, who knows?
The show will be on Manchester North FM
Saturday 14 January, 2-4pm
On 106.6FM (if you’re in the North Manchester area) or listen online (if you’re further afield)
“Alien is a big old puppet show” says Kowal. She talks the Glamourist Histories, theatre and more. Mary Robinette Kowal interview for writers of fantasy.
Mary Robinette Kowal is a multi-award winning author, best known for the Glamourist Histories series, as well as being a professional puppeteer. She talked about her writing process, about puppetree, and how even some of your favourite sci-fi movies, like Alien, are big old puppet shows.
Take a listen here, and there is a breakdown of key quotes below for those who can’t listen right away.
On performing arts, puppetry, and writing;
“It absolutely affects everything I do because I spent twenty plus years in live theatre. It’s very easy for people to think about puppetry and theatre as being two different things. We jokingly call actors who do not use puppets ‘fleshies’ or ‘meat actors’.”
“The thing about puppetry is much like what happens with science fiction and fantasy. People tend to think of it as something other than literature. That it’s somehow ‘lesser’. We’ve all experienced that when we’ve been telling someone what it is that we like to read. So, for me, one of the things that it has done in terms of influencing the way that I write, that I approach fiction, is that my job is to approach an audience. That’s what I did in theatre, that’s what I’m doing as a writer.”
“If there’s an audience where they don’t like the thing that I do, I try to find a gateway. Rather than trying to convince them that ‘oh no, this is really good’ or being embarrassed about it. You know, a lot of people will pre-appologise for what it is that they love… And that gives people permission to laugh at you.
“Whereas, with puppetry, when people say ‘what do you do?’ and if I say it very matter of factly, I’ve found the same thing is true of my writing. And if I present it as ‘this is the thing, they have to accept it at that point as something that grownups do, because I am, in fact, an adult.”
“They usually respond with ‘oh I used to love that when I was a kid’. I ask them what it is that they like now and then suggest something that they might like that is in my field. That is adjacent to what I like. So, for instance, if someone says ‘I used to love puppets when I was a kid, but now horror is really more my thing.’ I say ‘Have you tried Alien? Because, that’s a big old puppet show.'”
“Have you tried Alien? Because, that’s a big old puppet show.”
“In science fiction and fantasy it’s much the same. If someone tells me they are a romance reader, I am not going to immediately suggest that they read Ender’s Game. That would be a bad fit.”
Becky Chambers Wayfarers series continues to be the kind of science fiction I wish I was reading all the time. The tone, depth, and complexities of the worlds and societies she has built, coupled with a crisp, clear breath of optimism and hope make this a perfect read for these dark days.
I interviewed Becky Chambers earlier this year and you can check that out here.
The main focus of A Closed and Common Orbit is on an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system called LoveLace, (or Sidra as she prefers), and a young mechanic named Pepper (or Jane23) and their seemingly distant lives. The book draws their stories together, revealing, slowly, the ties that bind them, the common threads that make them alike, and make them different. There are a lot of themes revolving around identity, personhood, and trauma. The pace can be slow at times as Chambers takes her time putting the reader (and the characters) through periods of self and social discovery. This can feel like a bit of an info-dump at times, but the information being dumped is still intriguing and builds your understanding of each character’s context.
Ideas like personhood are nothing new to the science fiction genre, and having an AI be the catalyst for such discussions and explorations are fairly common. But where Chambers takes a relatively lesser trod path is that much of the perspective on this is from that very AI, and how she navigates questions like ‘am I a person?’ Which feels very different to people asking ‘is that a person?’ in the more abstract. To make this a very personal journey, to put our eyes in that of a computer, does make the reader much more likely to empathise and to connect.
It is by no means a simple task. This isn’t Pinocchio who wants to be a real boy. Sidra isn’t even sure she wants to be a person for a long time. She is filled with guilt, with uncertainty, and with a lack of purpose. These struggles leave her desiring her old life as a ship’s computer, back when she knew what her existence meant, and knew what her purpose was. But as she grows, she doesn’t solve these issues, but gradually tries to embrace them as part of what it means to be a person.
What I particularly enjoyed was the fact that Sidra discovers her personhood through platonic relationships, through found family, and friendships. So often, in stories of robots or AIs where they are perceived as female it ends with them engaging in a sexual relationship with a – usually male – human. That was not the case here. Sidra develops close familial and platonic bonds with humans and aliens and through their shared experiences and love for one another, she grows. She gets to know her own personhood through her love and friendship, and it is not tied to sex, and perhaps it’s my ace side making me biased, but I really thought that was a stroke of genius.
The other half of the book, running parallel, is the story of Pepper, who also faced her own struggle with identity and personhood. She escapes a factory where she had spent most of her life sorting scrap and flees into the wastelands and eventually is rescued by the AI of a small shuttle. This AI, named Owl, is a caring and nurturing force in Pepper’s life, raising her, teaching her, and guiding her through the skills that will help her survive and thrive once they escape the planet they are trapped on.
Pepper’s life is shaped by her experience being raised by an AI, and so when Sidra comes into her life, we get a real sense of why it is so important to her that she looks after her. It is Pepper’s way of saying thank you. It is her way of sorting out her feelings, her way of reconnecting with the only real parental figure she ever knew.
Chambers’ writing style shifts between Pepper and Sidra. Especially when Pepper is younger, as the 10 year old factory kid has a simpler vocabulary, so does the narrator in these parts. She gets right into her head, describing the strange world in ways a young person with limited experience would understand. Big feelings. Bad things. This switch really hammers home how Pepper / Jane23 feels and really brings the reader into the moment.
Now, I won’t give away the ending, but I will say it was not what I anticipated. This is a good thing, I hasten to point out. Much like in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Chambers is an optimist, and the ending very much subverts what you might expect from a genre that is filled with the grim, and the horrorful. In an age of pessimism, optimism is a revolutionary act.
I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Patricia Rodriguez. It was a stellar performance (pun intended), though the moments where an online style text conversation is described tended to be a little tedious as the narrator had to read out every single identifying line, every single timestamp, and so on. Other than that, it was great.
This week’s interview on Writers of Fantasy is with Juliet E McKenna, author of The Tales of Einarinn, The Aldabreshin Compass, The Hadrumal Crisis and the upcoming Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom, which launched at BristolCon this October!
Juliet is an incredibly thoughtful and talented writer with countless books under her belt. We talked about the changing landscape of fantasy fiction, the rise of eBooks, politics, feminism, Doctor Who, and of course some good old fashioned writers’ advice. Take a listen below! You’ll also find some key quotes under the player for those who can’t listen right away.
On the new editions of The Alderbreshin Compass and working with Wizards Tower Press.
“Ah, the cover art by Ben Baldwin [on The Aldabreshin Compass] is absolutely fantastic! Those are the covers I’ve wanted for those books since I first wrote them!”
“This is one of the things that happens when you’re a writer who’s been around for quite a long time. When The Tales of Einarinn and The Aldabreshin Compass were written there was no mention of eBooks in my contracts. eBooks weren’t a thing. … So, basically, I retained all those rights. And, unsurprisingly, publishers have come along in recent years and said ‘Do let us do eBooks for you and we’ll give you a whole, oh, 15%!’ to which my response was ‘Thank you, but no!’ Because the returns on something like an eBook edition if you do it independently, obviously if you’re a writer, are very much higher. The trick is, of course, that you need somebody to do all the tech stuff!”
On working with Independent publishers vs bigger publishers.
“When it is one person working with one person on one specific project, we can have an exchange of emails in a morning and get umpteen things sorted out. An editor in a big publishing house is dealing with who knows how many writers, who knows how many books at different stages of publication … Again, a lot of people have to be involved in discussions and decisions and that inevitably builds a time lag into the process.”
Our Writers of Fantasy Interview series continues with David Anthony Durham, best known for the Acacia trilogy and his new book The Risen. We talked about building fantasy cultures, characters, and wider themes of representation and more!
Your books develop and explore numerous political machinations (Acacia especially); what was the development process for building and developing them? What did you enjoy most about the political intrigue?
I think the same thing sort of answers both parts of your question.
What I enjoyed most about the political intrigue was the process of slowly uncovering the secrets that are at the heart of what makes the Acacian world tick. In the first book I introduce the notion that the Acacian empire trades with a distant power that they know little about. They offer slaves; they get drugs to help them sedate their people in return. That’s about as much as the reader knows about things in the first book. Thing is, that was also about as much as I knew as well.
All the power players of the novel have secrets, things they keep hidden from others to give themselves advantages. They tried pretty hard to keep them hidden from me, too! I mostly had to figure things out by writing the story forward, following the characters, and every now and then going, “Oh… so that’s what these guys are up to…” And a little later, “And that’s what these other guys are up to…” And, “Wait… so these guys over here are actually doing this because of…” And so on.
That was fun. It kept things interesting and, hopefully, unpredictable.
With a number of cultures represented in your books what was the most interesting part of making new cultures and countries for your worlds?
I enjoyed being able to take bits and pieces of cultures from our world, pluck them out of their entrenched context, and splice them together with things that wouldn’t be possible in historical fiction.
The culture of the island power of Vumu, for example, is a real mixture of influences. Racially, I picture the people as looking like Sri Lankans. But the culture that took shape in my mind wasn’t particularly Sri Lankan. The mythology is more influenced by The Epic of Gilgamesh, which came from an entire different part of the world. I loved the racy bombast of the story, the epic conflicts and deceptions and the strange turns of events.
The people of Vumu take my variations on those types of stories and bring them to life with a visual religious display and ceremonies that seem to me to be sort of Polynesian. And I took the historical tidbit that there were once eagles in New Zealand that were large enough to snatch people into the air. I gifted that particular problem on Vumu. It became a physical danger on the islands, and it wove into their mythology and religion as well. The result, I hope, is fun and interesting and not quite like anything on earth.