Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Acacia: The War with the Mein was your first fantasy novel. What lessons did you take from that experience and how did you apply them to your most recent novel, The Other Lands?
Every novel (and publication) is a learning experience. There are always up and downs. Hits and misses. I don't feel that the fantasy aspect of Acacia changed that – or that the lessons I walked away with are somehow more specific.
What I can say is that with most of the setting work done in the first book I could jump into motion faster in The Other Lands. Each character begins the novel either in action or with it thrust upon them pretty quickly. And when there is a new world to get to know it's done looking over the shoulders of the characters who are seeing it for the first time. It's less about world-building exposition and more about experiencing things with the characters. I like that about it. So far, at least, it seems like readers do too. That's something I want to keep rolling into the third book, which is where Acacia's ancient history and recent history really collide in earth shattering ways.
How different was it for you to sit down and to start writing a book which had little in the way of a true beginning and no real conclusion to it? Did it take several drafts before the introductory and concluding chapters felt right?
It didn't take many drafts to figure out the opening or the conclusion. I knew the ending before I began. That's almost always the way it is for me. Right at the start I know how things conclude. Most of the writing process is about how I write the story to get to that ending.
So... The rocks that Dariel walks across heading west… The child that Kelis is guarding… What Mena is faced with in preparation for the next book… The magic that Corinn works at the end… I had all of that at the beginning. I know all the endings of the third book too. That doesn't mean it's easy to get to them, though.
With The Other Lands I took things as far as I could, up to moments of change and revelation for all of the main characters. And then I had to cut it there because the things that come next all mark the beginning of a plot arc that will take hundreds more pages before there's a pause. To me, that’s the stuff of another book. It’s a book that’s almost joined at the hip with The Other Lands, but it is its own creature.
Is there any danger of this third book spilling over its conceived boundaries and thus necessitating a fourth volume to the Acacia series?
Ah… How much do you think people would mind if it did?
That’s tempting, but I think I can keep it from happening. I know what the narrative arc of each character’s story is for this third book. The end is the end, and I don’t think it likely that I’ll need to carry on into another book.
I have other ideas of further Acacia books, though. I don’t know if I’ll write them. That depends on how much readers are interested. But those further ideas aren’t continuations of the core plotlines of this series. They’re other stories, perhaps other multi-volume series in themselves.
Well, there might be a few people who will threaten to hold their breaths and not buy your work, but outside of that, I guess most wouldn’t mind. So you know the end of the story, huh? Any chance that something in the writing process might inspire you to alter the narrative arcs in some major way?
That’s always possible, but I don’t think so. I’ll admit that I probably have more loose ends than I’m entirely sure what to do with at the moment. Just the other day I realized I had two plotlines that I couldn’t figure out how to merge. They just conflicted and I was getting pretty sure I couldn’t have both. One would need to be cut.
But then… I was admitting that to my wife. Halfway through saying it I realized the way I could have both. It was very weird. It just happened, and suddenly several things that I’d introduced but didn’t quite know what to do with slotted into place. That happens a lot. Usually, it’s not a matter of the outcome changing, though; what may change is the path to that outcome.
Several reviews of your last two books noted certain “real world” issues, from enslavement to the drug trade to imperialistic attitudes, being present. Did you set out to tackle these issues from the beginning, or did they arise to meet the needs of the story?
I'm not sure what comes first: the issues or the story. Did I sit down to write a fantasy about slavery and drugs and imperialism? Not exactly. These novels began with a family, with a father and his children. But moments after that I have to place them in a context that feels real to me. And then seconds after that the seedy elements that have always controlled the world start to climb out of the woodwork.
The "real world" elements of the story are there because I've never seen – looking backwards at human history – a time when these issues weren't affecting our lives. It would be very strange for me to write a world in which some variation of enslavement didn't exist. It was part of our history ten thousand years ago. It's part of the modern world. For me, fantasy is wonderful, but it’s not an escape enough for me to ignore the gritty workings of the world.
Did I intend for the League to be some sort of egg-headed version of Haliburton? For Acacia to be some representation of American and European colonialism? For the mist to be something between China's opium trade and current "reality television" and a metaphor for living on credit? No. And yet… I can't deny that when I look at what I wrote it's those things that I see.
I just wrote a scene in the next book where one character explains why one nation is attacking another. I realized what I was describing could just as easily been about why Europeans conquered the New World. I hadn’t particularly thought of that ahead of time, but when the moment came to explain the move I realized the words coming out of the characters mouth could just as easily apply to our world history. That seems to happen a lot.
Since the root word for “story,” historia, also deals with our present-day concepts of “history,” perhaps there is a strong connection after all? What would the Acacian chroniclers make of all this?
Oh, they’d be gravely perplexed, I imagine. Just like we’d be a bit disturbed to discover we are characters created for the amusement of another world…
It’s funny, though. The first thing that comes to mind when you ask about “Acacian chroniclers” is that it would depend on what age we’re talking about. The chroniclers from Tinhadin’s time to Corinn’s - a period of four hundred and some years – weren’t expected to record the truth. Their work in preserving the history of the empire was really about building the myth of the empire. They were there to lie convincingly about the nation’s history for certain political purposes.
But history goes on and on. I do see there being different ages of Acacian history, some of which would value finding the truth much more. Maybe I’ll get to write about that age someday.
What books, if any, did you read during the composition of your latest novels? Were there any authors, whether read years ago or more recently, who have had some sort of influence on how you’ve chosen to tackle a narrative problem or how to tell a story?
I read all the time. I have books beside my bed for at night, and I’ve always got something on my iPod that I’m listening to as I go about life.
Thing is, most things I read don’t directly influence how I write or solve narrative problems. It’s not like I read something and go, “That’s it! That’s awesome. I should do the same thing!” That just doesn’t happen often. I may read something and think it’s awesome, but that doesn’t usually translate to wanting to do the same thing.
More often, I love reading writers that do things quite differently than I probably ever will. I’ve really come to love Neil Gaiman. I’ll never write like him, but that’s probably part of why I enjoy his work so much. He reminds me of the power of storytelling for storytelling’s sake. I’m on Richard K. Morgan kick, loving the technologically enhanced violence and cyber sex and hipness of his work. I’m in awe of the crime writer George Pelecanos. His writing is so unadorned, straight and to the point. It’s deep, too, but his approach to language is nothing like mine. I got a kick out S. M. Stirling’s In the Courts of the Crimson Kings because of the everyday strangeness of his Martian world. I enjoyed the blood-splattered macho melodrama of Tim Willocks’ The Religion. I couldn’t write something in which the triumph of the main character is so clearly pre-ordained, but I enjoyed the foul, stinking, lusty ride of that novel.
Octavia Butler has become very important to me also. In that case, I do feel a lot of kinship to her, but the thing she has that I don’t is bone-deep wisdom. She’s really, really empathetically wise. She layers that into her writing with a quiet skill that I’m in awe of. But that’s good. I like being in awe of other writers some times.
It’s interesting that you proclaim a love of reading authors that perhaps might touch upon some elements you include in your writing. Many authors interviewed in the past by myself and others have stated that they try to avoid reading anyone working in a similar area to their own work. What do you make of these claims that reading similar-type stories might “ruin” their own work and creativity?
I certainly believe that can be true for other writers. We each individually know what effects our writing, for better or worst. Personally, I just don’t feel it’s a problem. My voice is my voice. My style of storytelling is my style of storytelling. It can no more change because of influences than I can change my speaking voice because I’d rather have a Scottish accent. My wife has the Scottish accent in our family. I love it. I hear it every day. I lived for years in Scotland. But damn if I don’t sound like an American every time I open my mouth.
Same is true of my writing. But even with that example I know that other people are different. My sister in law is Scottish, but her accent changes depending on who she’s talking to. American, English, French (which she speaks fluently), New Zealander (she’s married to a Kiwi and lives down under)… it doesn’t matter. Her accent morphs to theirs, and I don’t think she’s consciously aware of it when it happens. I kinda wish I had some of that, but I don’t. Nor do I think my writing fundamentals are skewed by reading other writers.
I think not reading other writers of similar material is equally dangerous. I’ve never in my writing career been accused of stealing from another writer – except for some readers thinking that Acacia: The War With The Mein was influenced by Martin’s Ice and Fire series. Thing is, I hadn’t read a word of Martin when I wrote Acacia. I’ve read every word of the series since, and I love it. I can see similarities, but they’re not the similarities of influence. They’re the similarities of us both finding ourselves drawn to tell similar stories.
If I had read A Game of Thrones before starting my fantasy I would have modified some things. The effect would have been just the opposite of imitation; I’d have been compelled to make changes to avoid similarity. That wouldn’t have been hard to do. I see those similarities as superficial. Thematically, I think George and I work in very different territory.
The Locus review of Acacia: The War With The Mein said something I found very interesting. It was very thorough, insightful review. The reviewer explicitly said that the book shouldn’t be compared to Martin’s work nearly as much as it should be compared to China Mieville’s. I dig that. That makes sense to me. That reviewer is the only one I’m aware of that made that comparison, though. It’s got nothing at all to do with style and character and plot similarities. He was pointing at a philosophical backdrop to it all that’s harder to put your finger on. He may just have something there. I’ll have to read more Mieville to find out.
While I hadn’t thought of comparing the two of you like that, after reading that, I can see where the comparisons between you and Miéville could be made, especially in The Other Lands when the consequences of the mist trade are revealed. Harking back to the “truth” question above, could it be argued that the revelations given by those victims constitute a central “truth” about the Acacian world and perhaps its possible future?
Yes. Well said. That sort of observation is key to the way I think societies need to be understood. Acacians aren’t going to understand what their nation is really about until they include within their notion of themselves all the things entailed in selling children to a foreign land – why they did it, how they benefited, what happened to the ones sold and to the souls of those who were spared. That’s Acacia. The sparkling palace on the idyllic isle is only a small part of the larger picture.
The same is true of real world societies. If you studied American history but only learned about the Founding Fathers, about the high-ideals of the nation and all the fine things we’ve accomplished… you might be studying the truth, but you’d be getting an incomplete picture, one that would hamper your working understanding of this country. In terms of functionally looking to the future, you’d also need to know about slavery, about the incredibly crimes done to Native Americans, about how long women were kept out of the political process, about how various immigrant groups were exploited… I don’t think people should consider such things for some bleeding heart liberal guilt reason; I think they should consider them because they’re smarter if they do and they’re more capable of making successful decisions.
I hope that Acacians manage to get more of that perspective as they move into their future.
You mentioned above that you are working with George R.R. Martin and other writers on stories set in the Wild Cards universe. How did you come to be a part of this?
Albany, World Fantasy 2007. It's the night of the big signing session thing where all the authors show up in a big room, grab their name card, and find someplace to sit. Likely, you seek out friends, find a corner, or just carry on in with whomever you just had dinner with. I walked in there looking around for a choice seat. I saw George, kinda off by himself, getting settled down.
Thing about sitting near George at a signing is that… well, no one wants to do it! Who wants to sit there making paper airplanes next to a guy with an unending line of devoted fans/book dealers arriving with bags of first editions, etc? Apparently, I did. I went over and asked if I could share his table. He graciously agreed. He hadn’t read my work at that point, but he seemed to have heard good things about Acacia: The War With The Mein. He signed. We talked. He signed. We talked. He signed… You get the picture.
We ended up talking about historical fiction, including my novel Pride of Carthage. I offered to send him a copy. He said sure. So after the con I did. At some point a few months later I got an email from him saying he’d read and enjoyed the novel. Very cool. We’ve been in touch ever since. I’ve seen him at a number of cons, spent time at his parties or just in the bar.
I think is was sometime after World Fantasy in Calgary that he dropped me a short note asking if I’d any interest in being involved in Wild Cards. I’d read a few Wild Cards stories before, but never imagined I’d be part of it. Of course, when George makes an offer one should jump at it! That’s what I did.
I started reading up on the series, thinking up characters, brainstorming with my kids. I pitched him a few character ideas that he kindly shot down. And, then I offered one that he liked: The Infamous Black Tongue. Before I knew it, I was in, and IBT had a three-part story scheduled for an upcoming book!
So far it’s been a lot of fun. It makes me flex slightly different fictional muscles, and it means a level of collaboration I’ve never tried before. Wild Cards novels use characters created by lots of different authors, with twenty-some books worth of history to consider, with lots of different styles and temperaments to blend together. Very interesting process, and I’m still in the middle of it.
The book is called Fort Freak. Look for it in a year or so!
Is your contribution to Fort Freak your first published foray into writing shorter fiction, or have you had short fiction published in the past?
I’ve published a few short stories. Like… uh… three, I think. I got pretty good mileage out of them, though. A couple have been anthologized several times. Those stories “The Boy-Fish”, “August Fury”, and “An Act of Faith” are all contemporary African-American focused. Mainstream fiction.
Fort Freak is my first time writing SF in the short form. George had already signed me up before he thought to ask, “By the way, do you actually write short fiction?”
In the end, George met me halfway. My story is a three-parter, spaced throughout a larger narrative. It’s not miles away from having a novelistic feel to it. It’s still about my character over time, dealing with a series of events that are complicatedly plotted. Other characters written by other authors intersect with mine. In lots of ways I’m not so much writing three short stories as I am writing three parts of a larger narrative.
Writing in a shared-universe setting often carries a stigma. What are your thoughts about shared-universe and/or media tie-in stories and how they relate to original fiction, genre or otherwise, in terms of story crafting and character creation?
I’m aware that to some degree I’m a writer for hire in this gig. George gave me pretty specific stipulations about the type of things that needed to happen in my sections. It’s up to me how I make those things happen, but I’ve got to do my part so that the other parts fit together. It’s not going to be about making my parts stand out from the crowd; it’s about being part of a collaborative. So, yeah, it’s different than writing entirely original fiction.
But I’m chuffed to be getting a shot at the contemporary, urban sf comic blend that Wild Cards is. By my internal cool meter, this one has the needle popping. I’ll trust that. I don’t think I’d say yes to just anything, though. Wild Cards pushes a lot of buttons that I find interesting. The first book, in particular, was serious, dark, intense. Since I respect the series I feel comfortable writing for it. If I didn’t respect the series that would be another issue entirely.
I’ve been invited in to bring things to the series. To bring perspectives and characterizations that are particularly my own. My story is about a vigilante half-snake mutant on the run from the police and trying to get the cops that framed him, but it’s also about an African-American youth that’s dealing with not having lived up to his family’s expectations. It’s about him coming to value himself despite that. It’s also about his search for connection – friendship and romance – and how the difficulties of that shape his character. Thematically, that stuff interests me, and I’m glad to layer it in the action the stories contain. To me, that’s engaging with the creative process in a meaningful way.
As for writing a media tie-in novel… that’s probably not my style, but I haven’t been asked yet either. I can’t swear I’d say no to something until it’s on offer as a real possibility.
After you finish the Acacia series and Fort Freak, what sorts of stories do you envision exploring next?
I’m tempted to give you a long, rambling answer, detailing all the story ideas that I have, all the different possibilities and explain why they’re important to me. But I think I’d regret that…
Truth is, I have lots of ideas, but I’m not sure what will come next. I won’t know until I’ve finished the Acacia trilogy. That’s all I can say with certainty now.