Today we’re joined by Marie Brennan, who’s kindly agreed to answer some of my importunate questions. Some of you, no doubt, are already familiar with her work: her first two novels, Warrior and Witch; her four-book Onyx Court series of historical fantasy out of Tor (Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lies, A Star Shall Fall, and With Fate Conspire), and her Lies and Prophecy from the Book View Café.
Most recently, her A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir of Lady Trent has hit the shelves. If you haven’t read it already, you should all go read it as soon as you can.
LB: For the first question: One of the things that regularly crops up in discussion of the genre is the representation of women (and race, and class) in SFF. Your Onyx Court books feature a variety of female points of view, and a variety of classes, and A Natural History of Dragons also seems to me to engage with gender and class, as well as aspects of travel influenced by imperialism. What’re your views on the conversation around representation in the genre?
MB: I’m glad we’re getting a lot more representation of those things in fantasy now than we were, say, thirty years ago... but we still have a long way to go. There’s still a tendency (if I may be permitted a gross generalization) to fall back on the easy defaults established by decades of fantasy novels and popular understandings of history, which form the foundations on which we build so many of our ideas. The research I did for the Onyx Court series did a lot to kick me out of my simplistic assumptions about gender and class and race and sexuality and all the rest of it—assumptions which are sometimes used as a justification for writing women and lower classes and minorities and gay people and so on out of our fantasy settings. The truth is that real history was a lot more complicated than our popular understandings lead us to believe.
With regard to those subjects in this new series, I’m trying to walk a middle path. It felt cheap to just hand-wave away all the prejudices of the real nineteenth century; I’d be left with something made of plastic, a happy shiny world that erases all the problems of the Victorian period, leaving behind only corsets and brass. On the other hand, I didn’t want to just replicate those problems wholesale, writing it all off as “realism.” I chose to set my story in a secondary world so that I would have the freedom to change things; that means I own whatever problems I build into that world. Since I’m not interested in utopias, there are restrictions on women’s social freedom, a lot of privilege for people with money or a good name, and a degree of economic and military imperialism. But the balance isn’t the same as in history: women’s restrictions are a bit different, and Anthiopeans aren’t the only ones playing the imperialism game. Which will, I hope, make it easier for me to give the people Isabella encounters a variety of roles in the story, rather than having all the power be on one side.
Whether the result works... we’ll see what readers say. But the complicated, warty version of the nineteenth century is more interesting to me than the Disney one, and I want to do what I can to move the conversation forward.
LB: You’ve spoken, I believe, in several venues about folklore and anthropology, and its relationship with fantasy. How does this play into your writing?
MB: Most fantasy takes place in a setting different from the world the author lives in. Some urban fantasy comes very near to reality—the “closed” type, where the supernatural is hidden from most people—but open urban fantasies, historical fantasies, secondary-world fantasies, and so on, plus anything that diverges from the author’s own background and experience, require the understanding and invention of culture. And anthropology is, at its core, the study of human culture.
I honestly think anthropology is one of the most useful fields a fantasy writer can study, more so even than history. It introduces you to other ways of living, other ways of thinking, and really cracks apart the idea that things which are familiar to you are somehow the natural product of existence, rather than social constructs that, from an outside perspective, may seem very odd indeed. This can be anything from the big ideas (some cultures are horrified by burial of the dead; others are horrified by cremation) to the small details of daily life (which meal of the day is the big one?) to things that are completely random and recent (pink used to be a boy’s color!). Putting those kinds of things on your radar can make your settings far richer and more interesting, whether you’re writing about the past, the present day in a country foreign to you, an invented land based on some part of the real world, or some place as unlike reality as you can manage.
As for folklore, in some ways it’s a subset of anthropology, while in others it overlaps with literature. I’ve been blogging about it every two weeks over at Book View Cafe, because a lot of it is the material from which we build our fantasies: fairy tales, legends, myths, superstitions, and so on. Apart from the value in knowing about real-world folklore (which can be great fodder for stories), I’m also interested in the way such things get built into the worlds we write about. I’d love to see more novels and short stories where the characters have their own folklore, that isn’t the Plot-Bearing Prophecy of Doom. Sarah Monette does a lovely job of this in her Doctrine of Labyrinths series, and it really brings her world to life. Settings with that kind of depth, that kind of reality, will hook me as a reader much faster than a third-generation copy of the standard Eurofantasy warmed up in the microwave.
LB: How did your approach differ, in terms of research and planning, when you returned to writing second-world fantasy after a four-book series of historical fantasy?
MB: This series is kind of a bridge between historical fantasy and a pure secondary world. Each place Isabella travels to is directly inspired by a particular region in our world, but I’m not restricted to the historical specifics of any single country at any set time.
Because of that, my research is more general than it was for the Onyx Court. I try to get the flavor of a culture in my head—for Vystrana in A Natural History of Dragons, that was mostly Romania, with a bit of Slavic Europe mixed in—but if I want to toss in other details, I can, which is why Vystrana has Finnish-style saunas. I still do a fair bit of reading, because it helps prod me out of the default settings of an English/Western European model, but the use I make of it is different.
On the other hand, I also end up researching things I didn’t have to worry about before. To whit, the underpinnings of the physical world: geology, climate, ecology, and so on. I need those details to give verisimilitude to Isabella’s research, but instead of being able to just look up the correct answer, I have to learn the principles and work out something that will make sense for my setting.
LB: What led you to that choice? The choice to use direct inspiration, I mean, vs. a more indirect inspiration or (as Naomi Novik has done) the real world with dragons?
MB: I’m the sort of person who, once I put dragons into the real world, feels obliged to think about how their presence would have changed history. I can enjoy a story like Novik’s, where the dragons basically get plugged in to the Napoleonic War without worrying about whether you would have a Napoleonic War in a world that harnessed dragons two thousand years before—but I can’t make myself write it. I’m too obsessive. I would get hung up on the details.
That’s why I originally made the decision to go with a secondary world, anyway, back when I first began playing with this idea. By the time I came back to it and pitched the idea to my editor, I had another reason, which is that I’d just spent the last four years writing a historically intensive story; I was more than ready for a change of pace.
And working in a secondary world—even one based on real settings—gives me more freedom to arrange things to suit my purposes. The continent that’s my Africa analogue has two fairly powerful indigenous empires that make for a different balance of colonial power than we had in our nineteenth century. If I tried to do that in historical fantasy, I’d stick on questions of how that came about, what factors I’d have to change to provide a basis for that situation. By stepping sideways, I can let go of those issues and just create what I need for my own story.
LB: Will there be more ancient ruins in the next Isabella book? If so, can you tell us more about them? I trained (sort of) as an archaeologist, and feel the public has a right to know.
MB: It warms the cockles of my heart to find that other people love the ancient ruins as much as I do. Archaeology geeks for the win!
There’s one small incident of that type in the next memoir, but I can’t say much about it—partly to avoid spoilers, and partly because I’m still revising the book, so a great many details about that scene have yet to be finalized. I can promise you, though, that archaeology will become more significant in the third book, as I’m planning to introduce a character for whom that’s a specialty. In fact, I’m trying to figure out whether I can justifiably manage underwater archaeology at a Victorian tech level....
LB: The very last question. Now that A Natural History of Dragons has hit the shelves, what are you working on now that we might hope to see in the near and medium-term future?
MB: I have a short story coming out in the fourth Clockwork Phoenix anthology this summer; it’s called “What Still Abides,” and it’s written entirely in words derived from Germanic roots (no Latinate terminology). On a per-word basis, it is probably the most labor-intensive thing I’ve ever produced: I had to look up everything in the Oxford English Dictionary, and struggle to find synonyms or other ways to phrase things when I ran afoul of Anglo-Norman vocabulary.
I’m also hoping to collate and revise the posts from my blog series on how to write fight scenes and put that out as an ebook, through Book View Cafe; the plan is to do that around September. There may be other things as well—I’d like to write some more short stories—but those are the only things currently scheduled between now and the second memoir, which is slated for this time next year.