Michelle Sagara, also known as Michelle West, has a twenty-year track record in writing epic fantasy. Beginning with Into the Dark Lands in 1991, she's published twenty-five novels, three of them in the last year: Skirmish as Michelle West, Silence and Cast in Peril as Michelle Sagara. (All three of which - but especially Silence - I commend to your attention, O Gentle Readers.)
She graciously agreed to answer some questions for us - so without further ado, let's get to the interesting part!
Let me start somewhat generally, by asking you how you see the relationship between women and the SFF genre? Do you feel that epic fantasy by women authors receives less attention than similar novels by men?
MS: The act of reading is not defined by gender, but the interaction with text often is. When I was fifteen, I was a little ball of outrage; at almost fifty, having learned just how much I Did Not Know at fifteen, I don’t feel I can tell readers how to interact with text.
I’m a product, in many ways, of my generation. When I started reading SFF, I didn’t start with Heinlein, or Asimov, or Clarke; I started with Ursula K. Le Guin, with Theodore Sturgeon’s short work, with Frank Herbert and Joanna Russ.
I’ve had numerous arguments with Tanya Huff about Heinlein, because she’s six years older and she did start with Heinlein. I was given a number of his books. Glory Road I could not finish. Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I could - but I was grinding my teeth to crowns at the obvious sexism. Red Planet I liked - but again, grinding my teeth through the sexism. The argument many of my friends made (they’d started with Heinlein as well) was that Heinlein was very progressive for his time. And, fine; maybe that’s even true. But I wasn’t of his time, and I didn’t see the point in reading things that frustrated me when there were authors like Le Guin. I was not writing essays on the history of SF. I wasn’t doing research that required me to reset my reader lens. I was reading to be enlightened and entertained - and by the time I was a teenager, there was nothing enlightening about the objectification of women.
Yes, Heinlein clearly liked women. But I would argue that he worshipped them - and in this culture, I know what we do to the gods we can actually get our hands on: we crucify them. We kill. I don’t consider worship to be a positive thing; I consider it just as objectifying, just as unrealistic. Both worship and hatred are a cultural othering of women. They’re a pressure to be something that we’re not.
Many of the early SF writings othered women. I didn’t care for them, so I didn’t read them. But books like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, I loved. They made me think in ways that I hadn’t, up to that point. They made me question my own assumptions, and gave me the impetus to reach past them, to reach out, to begin to question cultural context. Books were therefore very much like individuals: some would dismiss me, look past or through me; some would engage me. This did not seem unfair because I did the same: I dismissed or engaged. I have never lived in a world in which there has been 100% engagement and 0% dismissal, in any endeavor.
Since many of the authors I read were women, I didn’t feel there was no place for women in the genre. Because the second or third SF novel I read was The Female Man, I also didn’t feel that there was no place for examination of gender politics, and while I agree that much of that book was polemical, it wasn’t, to me, Women Good, Men Bad; I could see the edges and the killer instinct in the most traditional of the women presented.
I remember being confused about James Tiptree Jr. By the time I read her - and I read everything - it was known that she was a woman. But I couldn’t understand, reading her stories, how anyone could have argued that she was male, although people clearly did. Her stories were “ineluctably masculine,” according to one (male) SF author. No. They were ineluctably feminine. Their concerns, their anger, their alienation - feminine.
All of my friends read Le Guin. Most of these friends were male; very few of the other women in high school read SF. So, again, in the context of what I knew, and in a world not broadened by the reach of the internet, it didn’t occur to me that women writing in genre would be treated vastly differently, or that there were men who wouldn’t read women writers.
I did encounter this when I began to work in the bookstore. I’ve been told it’s a large problem now: accepted wisdom is that men won’t read SF written by women. I’ve also met a lot of younger readers who won’t read SF/Fantasy written by men. This second is a newer and more recent phenomenon. Women half my age will not read books without strong central female characters, or books written by men.
The epic fantasy question - for me - is a bit different. If we take as given that there are men who won’t read epic fantasy written by women and women who won’t read epic fantasy penned by men, there’s a rough balance. To me.
But. Take Romance as a genre. At its core, it is about the love between two people, and at the end of the book, there has to be a Happily Ever After. Readers who want romance will be extremely pissed off if they bought a romance and it failed on either of these scores. When they approach a romance, they know what they want from it.
Questions of execution matter: a romance can be well-written or it can be cliché-riddled. There’s flexibility with setting, with time period, with external, secondary plot elements. But at base, there’s a paradigm, a set of genre conventions.
My argument is that epic fantasy is similar. The largest readership of epic fantasy goes to the sub-genre looking for certain things. They are not as clear-cut as they are in Romance, but - I think they’re there. If you write a book that contains those elements, most of the epic fantasy readers will read it.
If you write an epic fantasy that doesn’t - you’re making choices that limit your audience in that subset of the SFF genre.
Karen Miller’s epic fantasy hit the NYT list for the first time in the same position as Brent Weeks - and Karen is not notably a masculine name. But I think her first books encapsulated many of the tropes that succeed in the genre. She took those elements and made them her own - as the male epic fantasy writers must also do if they’re going to sell widely.
Male writers of epic fantasy sell better; that’s inarguable fact. But if you look at the components of the books that have hit the print NYT list, they have a lot of common elements. They’re elements that many of the women writing epic fantasy don’t concentrate on, or aren’t interested in in their own writing.
And in case you think that I’m advocating that women change what they write: I fail that component test. I think we can only write the stories that speak strongly to us. If horror were the next big thing, I would have severe difficulties because I’m not a horror writer. Horror doesn’t speak to me in a story-voice.
You mention that fantasy speaks to you in story-voice. I know how fantasy speaks to me as a reader, but may I ask what it is about fantasy that speaks to you?
MS: Let me take a stab at this (I am fighting a slow and losing battle against a sinus infection that followed me home from the Worldcon, so I'm not at my most clear-headed).
Fantasy is about transformation, for me. In the broadest sense, it's a coming of age, a gaining of wisdom, a story of how experience changes a person. There are many transformational narratives: about an outsider becoming an insider, about a person finding a home or a cause, about someone choosing agency rather than passivity and fear.
As such, our escapist journeys can’t be absent conflict: conflict is the crucible that shapes us, that proves our strength, that reveals our essential character.
But I'm not actually interested in the conflicts of characters I can't stand. I don't want to read about the struggles of, say, a proto-rapist across a landscape that enables and subtly justifies him, because I don't actually care if he survives or triumphs. There is nothing in that struggle that gives me hope for anything.
This doesn't mean that the character won't speak to others or give them hope; it means the character doesn't speak to me.
I don't think my reaction is entirely simplistic. It’s not that I feel, in the example above, that the protagonist is a “bad guy” when I want a “good guy.” Our concepts of either good or bad are very much part of our cultural context. It’s not even that I don’t understand this type of protagonist; I do.
I’ve written some characters that people hated. I didn’t. I’ve written characters that people loved - but who I felt, objectively, were entirely in the wrong. I don’t defend the hated characters and I don’t point out that the loved characters were, in my opinion, entirely in the wrong; I think the work has to stand for itself.
But I’m interested in, compelled by, the struggles of characters I identify with. I don’t have the good vs. evil paradigm in my human characters because I don’t really believe in it; people have disparate goals, and they have reasons for most of what they do; they don’t see themselves, ever, as evil. I have the leeway though, when writing fantasy, of assigning Evil. I have demons. I have gods. I have creatures who are not, in any way, human. They highlight the struggle. They change the stakes.
People who don’t identify in any way with my characters are not going to enjoy my books - just as I don’t enjoy books whose characters don’t speak to me. But what I want out of fantasy as a reader, and part of the reason I write it, is hope.
I want my crucible to highlight, to emphasize, to challenge the characters I write about: to put them in situations that you or I will never face in real life. And I want them to emerge scarred, but tempered. I want them to struggle to hold on to the humanity that defines them, in spite of the losses that will also define parts of their lives.
When I first read the Lord of the Rings, I wanted to be Legolas (wish fulfilment, it’s true), but I identified with Frodo. Frodo who wasn’t magical, who was caught up, always, in things that were beyond his control, and who struggled to put one foot in front of the other until the very end of his journey.
He failed at the foot of Mount Doom.
But he also succeeded, because in pursuit of his quest’s end, he never forgot how to be human, how to be decent. He offered empathy, sympathy - and yes, compassion - to Gollum; he loved Sam. If not for these ultimately human things, the world would have ended. It was his humanity that defined him, and in the end, saved the world.
Sometimes, we’re going to struggle with things that feel beyond us in all ways. We’re going to be surrounded by people who are stronger, brighter, wiser. We’re going to fail. We’re going to bite off more than we can chew. But if we can hold on to the small things, the things we do understand, the things that define the small elements of our lives, we also succeed.
There's a wee bit of difference in style between your epic fantasy as Michelle West and your Chronicles of Elantra books (and more recently, your Young Adult novel Silence). Are there any particular reasons behind that?
MS: Each book, or perhaps each world, has a voice and a tone.
I think the epic fantasy voice is closest to my natural voice. I love the freedom of having multiple points of view, because I don’t have to contort the story just to tell it: I can move viewpoints, like opening windows, so that the reader knows what’s happening, even if specific characters don’t. I love the glimpses of things that are majestic and wild and utterly inhuman, and the attenuated echoes of ancient history.
The CAST series was my attempt to teach myself two things: one, to write short books. Two: to write books that would be more accessible. I didn’t intend for the West novels to be opaque or dense or confusing because no one writes Big Fat Fantasy novels with that intent. There’s no percentage in it. If you need literary respect, you write something else.
But many people found (and still find) The Broken Crown confusing and difficult. Which is all kinds of heart-breaking. That was the first book that did what I felt I set out to do, and at this remove, I feel like I failed the story unintentionally. As a reader, I don’t like to be smacked over the head with things. I don’t want everything spelled out in obvious and painful ways. I am afraid to be too obvious.
And I think the book suffered for that.
The CAST novels don’t, in the same way. But tonally, the CAST novels are very much like urban fantasy. The world, the city, and many of the situations can be mapped onto a more contemporary experience. Kaylin, the protagonist, is a cop. She has to work for a living. She doesn’t make a lot. She’s come out of a difficult background, and she has to untangle some of the responses that kept her alive in her early years, but she is trying to build a better life for herself.
Silence is different. With Silence, I wanted to tell a specific story. It’s set in the here-and-now. The main character, Emma, is a high school girl, in mourning. What she’s suffered is not larger than life; it’s part of life. She hasn’t spent half her life almost starving; she hasn’t been employed as an enforcer; she hasn’t been raised in an Empire. She certainly doesn’t have to deal with cranky dragons. She doesn’t live in a world in which magic works. Or rather, she hasn’t, at the point the book starts.
She does have to deal with loss. But nothing about that loss is rooted in fantasy or fantastic elements. One of the ways she’s kept moving is her friends. When I look at some of the popular books in the field, I don’t see a lot of friendship in text. I see a lot of loners. And that works for those books, and it works for readers - I’ve read a lot of books with lone women as central characters.
But my friends were important to me. They were important to my sanity. And I’ve seen strong friendships among girls of various ages. I wanted that grounding. I wanted to write a book in which it wasn’t about jealously or competition.
So the tone of Silence is different, the voice is different.
Friendship seems very important in your novels (at least, in my reading of them, though I regret I haven't read your West books prior to The Hidden City). Is it important to you as a reader? What sort of tropes, or subversions of tropes, or other things, appeal to you? Please feel free to give examples.
MS: This is a question I’ve never been asked before.
Friendship is important to me as a reader. I understand the reasons that romantic relationships play a pivotal role in a lot of stories, but in my experience, it’s often the friendships that are the most enduring. And it’s not an either/or situation; people have both romantic partners and friends.
Friends see you at your best and at your worst. What you feel for your friends, what you put up with, what you offer, and what you accept go a long way to defining you, at least in a social context. Some of our most intense and personal relationships will be with friends; they’re not sexual, but they’re not trivial.
There are all kinds of reasons why someone has no friends in fiction. But I think there are also all kinds of reasons why they should. With the single exception of Silence, I don’t think I’ve started a book with a conscious intent to showcase friendship - but I find it hard to write characters when I have no sense of their immediate community.
As for tropes. Hmmm.
I think I have two different reading paradigms. I’ve mentioned part of one: I don’t particularly care for books when I can’t stand any of the characters in them. An argument can be made that these characters are realistic - but if I wanted flat out realism, I’d be unlikely to be reading fantasy as a leisure past-time. And I would counter the argument by saying there are a lot of non-revolting people I know in real life; you don’t have to be an asshole to be a realistic person.
To expand on that a bit, when I’m exhausted or when I want to retreat from the stress of real life, I read for comfort. Reading for comfort is like watching television (for me); I don’t demand high levels of verisimilitude. I want something to which I have a strong emotional response; I want to start the book and feel, on some visceral level, that I’ve entered a warm and familiar pub, where the food is decent and the soda is not flat. I am perfectly willing to cry or rant, because I do these things. But I want to spend time with a friend.
Terry Pratchett comes immediately to mind. Patrick Rothfuss fits here as well. Someone elsewhere on the internet listed Rothfuss as part of the Dark & Gritty fantasy movement and no. Just ... no. Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken spoke to me really strongly and she did a few unexpected things - but I’ve read that book three times. Megan Whelan Turner’s Attolia books.
Some of these books can make me weep for joy. Some can break my heart. Frequently between the same covers. I want that engagement. I want that level of trust in the author.
But on the flip side, there are books that appear in my hands like puzzle boxes, and I can’t help but turning them over and over to try to figure out how to unlock them. Vellum, by Hal Duncan, ate my brain for a week. IQ84 did the same - although the intellectual weight of the ending didn’t justify the read, for me. Palimpsest by Valente. Or anything by Valente. There’s a raw honesty to every word she writes that reminds me very much of modern (feminist) poets. Anathem by Stephenson.
These books don’t comfort; they kind of sink hooks in my brain. I don’t know where they’ll take me - but I’m all in for the ride, and I can’t really come up for air until they let me off. They have these solid edges, these incredibly hard and unexpected lines. Reading them is like juggling, like attempting to hold all the disparate details of a book in the air until they coalesce. If they do. *wry g* I don’t even always like them, once I’m finished.
But they engage me enough when reading that I don’t think of tropes, don’t see them except as part of the structural puzzle.
Cast in Peril, the eighth book in your Chronicles of Elantra series, came out this September. It seems to me that most of the books in that series stand well on their own: are there any particular challenges in writing an ongoing series in which most of the volumes are reasonably self-contained?
MS: LOL! Yes, yes, yes.
In fact, Cast in Peril is the first of the CAST novels that I had to split.
I love multiple viewpoints, because it gives a story the broadest range. By that I mean: there’s no contortion required to get a single character into every scene that moves the major events. The characters can exist believably and entirely in their own context. This doesn’t mean they don’t act, or that they have no agency, but rather that both action and agency flow out of who and what they are.
Single viewpoint books are harder that way - for me. Others manage with aplomb. But the only thing that makes a book short for me, for a range of short that is under 150k words, is having a single viewpoint.
If I write something set mostly in our world, that also cuts back on length, which is why Silence is my shortest published novel.
But a fantasy world is a character. Where I can count on readers to map elements of the fantasy world onto more familiar elements of ours (the Hawks are police, for instance), the world doesn’t demand space. But in Cast in Peril, there’s a lot more world that is unusual, and I didn’t realize, while writing it, that I was breaking the “single viewpoint story” rule.
I try very hard to make each story self-contained, because I think that works best for these books. And I admit I’m nervous because it’s the first to obviously break that rule (arguments have been made that Cast in Courtlight requires Cast in Shadow [The second book in the CAST series and the first, respectively - LB] for full effect). But it affects the type of story I can tell, yes. Kaylin’s job allows her to travel relatively freely - but there are places she can’t easily go without breaking some of the intrinsic sense of who she is in her context.
One last question! Apart from Cast in Peril, what's next in the works for you?
MS: I have just finished final revisions on Battle, the next House War novel (it’s a January 2013 title). I am on the third attempt at Touch, sequel to Silence, and am working on Cast in Sorrow. Because that book takes up where Cast in Peril leaves off, there’s been a lot more start-and-stop (as in: write three thousand words, throw them away) with that one because back-story up front always has that effect on me. *wry g*
Thank you for agreeing to talk to us. Ladies, gentlemen, honourable others: Michelle Sagara / Michelle West!
Find Liz Bourke @hawkwing_lb on Twitter.