Welcome back to The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, a recurring series here on Tor.com featuring some of our favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, artist, and others! Today we’re joined by Marie Brennan, the author of A Natural History of Dragons, which has been described (okay, on this site) as “Downton Abbey with dragons” and is a very fine tale of a Victorian woman who strives to become the anthropological expert on dragons. (It’s also full of great illustrations and hits shelves today!)
Join us as we cover topics ranging from defenestration, how scary an immortal elite class would be, and how we should revive the 17th century swear-word “windfucker.”
What’s your favorite method of procrastination?
The most honest answer is probably “surfing the Internet,” but that’s boring. So I’ll say instead that I recently acquired a digital piano (higher quality than most keyboards, but no actual strings), and have been slowly rediscovering the skills I had when I was thirteen. I would probably rediscover them faster if I spent solid blocks of time practicing, but I’ve mostly been doing it in shorter bursts, in between other things I ought to be doing.
Do you have a favorite underrated/unknown/under-read author?
Since she comes up again down below, let’s go with Dorothy Dunnett. Historical fiction, of which so far I’ve read the Lymond Chronicles, set in sixteenth-century Europe. Her style takes some getting used to; it’s very dense and littered with quotations, allusions, and occasional bits of untranslated French or Italian or whatever, and she has this habit of telling you everything in the scene except the important thing at the center—you really have to pay attention to hear what she’s not telling you. But she’s brilliant.
Do you have a favorite word/phrase/etymology?
Defenestration! I just love the fact that we have a word for throwing things out of windows. I loved it even before I knew about the Second Defenestration of Prague—yes, the second one, and the most awesome part of learning about that was the fact that they’ve thrown people out of windows more than once. (I don’t know what it is about Prague and windows.)
I also—uh, delete this if profanity is a problem—loved discovering that “windfucker” is an old name for the kestrel (apparently by way of “windhover”). And, people being what they are, that was briefly a swear-word in the seventeenth century.
If you had to choose one band or artist to provide the official soundtrack to your (new/last/latest) book, who would it be?
I make “soundtracks” for my books, actually, out of the music I listen to while writing, so if you didn’t restrict me to just one source I would simply point you at that list and call it a day. But if I have to pick one....
John Powell. He’s the composer who did the score for How to Train Your Dragon, and I’m worried I will run out of tracks from that CD before I’m done with this series. (I’ve stolen more from it for the soundtrack to the second book, too.) The music is just so delightful, with occasional moments of grandeur, which is very much what I would want out of any custom-composed score.
Would you rather discover the fountain of youth or proof of life on Mars?
Oh, life on Mars. No question. I’m a writer; as soon as I imagine what would happen if I found the fountain of youth, it turns into a dystopia in my head. Not that life on Mars wouldn’t potentially create its own problems (especially if it’s sentient life), but at least it probably wouldn’t lead to an effectively immortal elite class and a bunch of wars fought over access to the fountain.
What D&D character alignment best describes you first thing in the morning?
Sleepy neutral? My mood depends heavily on what happens to me right after I get up.
Two roads diverge in a yellow wood: one leads toward a mysterious laboratory in which a mad scientist is currently ensconced. The other winds its way toward a tower inhabited by a powerful wizard. You could really use a snack, and it would be nice to have somewhere to crash for the night—which road do you choose?
Hmmm, that’s a tough one. Neither mad scientists nor powerful wizards are known for welcoming unexpected guests (at least not in any way that ends well for the guest), nor for remembering to keep the pantry stocked.
I think I’m going to have to cheat and say I take the middle path (“that bonny road / That winds about the fernie brae”); your two roads immediately made me think of the ballad “Thomas the Rhymer.” Because going to Elfland always ends well!
What was your gateway to SF/Fantasy, as a child or young adult?
I didn’t really distinguish between genre and not-genre as a kid, until I made the transition to adult fantasy, via Terry Brooks. (Magic Kingdom for Sale followed by The Sword of Shannara, and boy, did that produce some whiplash.) But I think my actual taste for fantasy was instilled earlier by a variety of authors, Diana Wynne Jones above all. Fire and Hemlock is the reason I’m a writer.
What would your patronus/familiar be?
Probably a cat. I grew up with one, and would have one tomorrow if only somebody came up with a cure for my husband’s allergies.
If you were secretly going to write fanfic (or, even better, slashfic) about any two characters, who would they be?
I’ve written fanfic, about a good deal more than two characters; I’ve participated in the Yuletide fanfiction exchange for the past three years. But I’m going to pretend that I have been magically endowed with the ability to write the Platonic Ideal of the fanfic in my head, and say I would write a (non-slashy) story about a descendent of Francis Crawford of Lymond (from Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles) going to work for Neil Burnside as a Sandbagger (in the late-70’s British spy show The Sandbaggers).
I will never actually write this story because I’m not good enough to do it justice: the dialogue should be so sharp you bleed just looking at it. But the thought of putting somebody like Lymond to work for Burnside? They would take over the world.
Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy.