As a tie-in to this month’s Queering SFF Pride posts on Tor.com, A.M. Dellamonica and J.A. Pitts, the authors of Blue Magic and Forged in Fire respectively, interviewed each other about the personal choices that determined the narratives of their books.
The discussion covers a range of emotion, from the joy of being able to romp with dragons, swords, and volcanoes to the surprisingly huge sense of personal loss that accompanies coming out to those you love.
And that’s just the beginning. Read their interview below and catch them this Saturday at Borderlands Books in San Francisco on June 23rd at 3:00 p.m.
A.M. Dellamonica: The thing that’s piqued my curiosity at this particular moment might be a question you’ve answered a thousand times: why Norse mythology? How did it come to be that Valkyrie and dragons and the children of Odin fit best with a leather-wearing blacksmithing lesbian heroine?
J.A. Pitts: Good question. I’m a huge fan of mythology. Ever since I was a kid, I’d grab books on mythology either from the library or the used bookstore (when I had some folding money).
Norse mythology caught my eye with the original Bugs Bunny cartoon based on Wagner’s Rings Cycle. After that I started reading about vikings and Asgard.
In the 80’s I collected comic books, including Thor. I found it fascinating that these gods were not immortal. They were very powerful, but they could die.
In 2006 I was invited to an anthology about swords (Swordplay by DAW Books). I thought about all the cool swords I’d read about through history and mythology and decided that the odds of someone picking Fafnir’s Bane aka Gram, was fairly slim. And what’s not to love about a sword who’s entire purpose is to slay a dragon?
Once I knew the sword, I had to pick someone to wield it, and decided on a blacksmith instead of a warrior. Things just fell into place from there.
Question back at you. I know you live in Vancouver, BC. I was curious why you chose to set your novel in Oregon. Do you have ties there? Is your setting based on a real place, or is it a total fabrication? I find that setting can really make or break a novel. How do you see Indigo Springs in this context?
AMD: Oregon was, in so many ways, the only choice for the setting of Indigo Springs. I had long since decided that the eruption of magic would happen, primarily, in the North American west and had previously set some related stories in Nevada and central Alberta. For Indigo Springs, I needed someplace in the Pacific Northwest: I wanted to write within my home ecosystem, essentially, while having events play out within a United States legal jurisdiction.
I fell in love with the Portland area the first time I went to the city for an SF Convention—it was Potlatch, and my Clarion West class was taking the opportunity to use the Con as a mini-reunion in 1996. (I also fell in a freak ice-storm and dislocated a rib, and even that didn’t dim my ardor.) I love the city. I have lots of friends there, and that— combined with the fact that Orycon is pretty much my favorite SF convention—is what draws me back just about annually.
Finally, I also wanted the mystical disaster to play out near and feature an active volcano, and hey—Mount Saint Helens!
The fictional town Indigo Springs is a blend that draws heavily on the small town in Northern Alberta where I spent my early childhood, the even smaller town in Nevada where my maternal grandparents lived their lives, and a minuscule summer village near Edmonton, where my great-grandfather’s house is located.
Your turn: That first time Sarah Beauhall tells someone “I’m gay” in Black Blade Blues gave me a real jolt—it’s is a moment where you can feel exactly how tough it is for this character to accept herself. I know you have lots of women and queer folk in your life who’ve inspired your writing, but what do you draw on, specifically, when you’re mirroring a watershed moment for all of your gay readers—something they probably remember pretty vividly? Or is that even how you see it?
JAP: Watershed moment? Good question. More like moments.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of my life with two overriding principles. “Pride goeth before a fall” and “you are not good enough.” My teen years were especially hard. I never thought much about it from a rational view. I lived inside my head, oblivious to how others were feeling inside their own. The more I got to know other people, come out of my shell and take risks, I found that lots of people are afraid they aren’t good enough, that they are too different, that they are the outsider, no matter what anyone else may think of them. That’s when I turned a corner in my own life.
I still have visceral, gut-wrenching moments of inadequacy, I’ve just learned to compensate for it in an adult world.
But when I’m writing, I go straight back to those deeply held beliefs, mythology and fear. I channel that poor, fatherless kid who feared the dark until far too late in life. I knew if I stepped over a line that I would lose everyone I held dear. It was that terror that kept me up at night as a kid. Don’t get me wrong, my entire life was not mirthless and dank. I had positive things, moments of joy and sheer willful silliness. But the cycle of light and dark was ongoing, ever turning.
I had vivid dreams where I was alone in the blackness of the void. It was just the way my life would always be. Luckily I found that comic books and science fiction and fantasy gave me an escape from the pervasive fear.
By the time my mother remarried when I was twelve, I’d begun to work past that all consuming darkness, but it is still there, deep in the recesses of my memories, ready to sweep forward again and destroy all hope. My teen years were bleak on the inside. I find that people from my past think of me fondly, as a positive influence in their lives. I just didn’t see it. Frankly, I struggle with that today.
That’s what I thought of, that is the deep horror I knew would consume Sarah if she said those words out loud. She would lose everything she was, lose everything she’d built in her life because she was not worthy of love, was not worthy of her friends.
She would be the fraud I always feared to be. Sarah discovers that the world will not shun you when you embrace who you really are. Not those who really matter. The rest can go to hell.
So, while I have not had that moment of coming out, I have friends who have, friends who have shared their experiences with me and I can empathize. I’m a writer. It’s my job to put myself into the characters and feel what they feel. There are times when I hit the bulls eye. I think this may be one of those times.
Just so you know, some of this I have never said out loud or in writing. I’m not entirely comfortable with putting this out in the world because it feels like exposing a weakness. Not logical, but very palpable. But I think it may help some people to understand how I could write such a powerful character who is in many ways do different from who I am.
Because deep down, we are more alike than not. That in itself scares people.
Writing is hard.
Next question… Magic in your world has a cost. What made you decide that the vitagua could enchant objects, alter the natural path, but in itself could not power the magic?
How much thought did you put into the science of your magic?
AMD: The most honest answer to that is one of those two things are true at once replies, with the two things being 1) “Lots!” and 2) “Not that much!” Lots in the sense that I wanted a magic system that felt as though it could fit with what we know about the world, that might have discoverable laws—conservation of energy. It originates with a cell that has features of both plant and animal cells, one that really no longer exists in its original form because those cells were compressed (as plants long ago were compressed into crude oil) into vitagua.
The people in Indigo Springs and Blue Magic are us, and if magic did burst out into the real world, as it does in these books, there’s no doubt in my mind that the scientific community would be in the forefront of those trying to understand it.
But none of my quasi-scientific development of this magic system holds up beyond a certain point. The minute I laid this all out in front of someone with real scientific training—author Peter Watts, just FYI—we had a conversation that went thusly:
Him: “So, are you doing this with quantum entanglements?”
Me: “Peter, I have a Theater Arts degree. I have no idea what that means.”
All magic systems have within them an element of the impossible. The luxury of not having to make it all scientifically plausible is one of the things you get from choosing fantasy over harder forms of speculative fiction.
My next magic system is based less on science and more on contract law. I’ve had a lot of fun with it.
Now to you: Sarah is chosen, over the course of the first book, to wield Gram. And she earns that maybe-blessing, maybe-curse, is my reading, because she reforges the sword in the first place. Is this big D destiny? How much free will would you say she has, after she’s become linked to Gram in this way?
JAP: Free will is a big part of the equation. What are our obligations, percieved, social, etc. Is there a geas attached with the sword? Does Odin’s marking of Sarah have further obligations or implications?
This is part of the overall discussion in the books as a whole. One of the themes I explore. In the first two books, Sarah is so overwhelmed with the newness of everything she barely has time to react, much less start to think proactively. By book three, Forged in Fire which comes out June 19th, this has started to shift.
It’s part of the unfolding story line.
Final question: What are you working on next and will you continue any of the themes you’ve started in Indigo Springs?
AMD: I’m currently working on two (related) things—a trilogy and a series of stories, both set on a world called Stormwrack. I call the stories “The Gales” and the first of them is up on Tor.com. It’s called “Among the Silvering Herd.” I’m about ninety pages into the second novel and it’s my summer Clarion Write-A-Thon project.
Stormwrack is very different from the here and now world of Indigo Springs, but a lot of the same kinds of thinking have gone into it: there’s a lot of stuff about ecology and puzzling out mysteries that are connected to magic. The world is almost entirely covered in ocean, with chains of islands that have the same kind of microclimactic variation to them that we see in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. The international culture is a seafaring one: people get around in Age of Sail-type tall ships, though some of them are enhanced by magic.
They’re more adventurous and upbeat than Indigo Springs and Blue Magic, and have a lower bodycount. But underlying the swordfights and battles at sea and monster-hunts and dive sequences there’s the same stuff about human impacts on the environment, resource use and personal responsibility that I’m always grappling with.
Last question for you is the same one—what are we going to see next for you? What are you working on and what’s most exciting about it?
JAP: I’m currently working on the Hearth & Home, the 4th book in the Sarah Beauhall series. I plan to have the first draft done in the next six weeks or so. Then I’m switching to a new series I’m writing with Jay Lake. It’s about a guy with Achondroplasia which is responsible for something like 70% of all dwarfism. It also happens our guy here is a werewolf. The dwarfism translates when he becomes a werewolf, so he ends up the size of a very husky Corgie. The proposals for the first 3 books are out to our respective agents. Beyond that I have two different YA books in early outline stage, one weird west fantasy and another straight up science fiction. Depending on how things shake out, I could be juggling several different series at the same time. I have things on the back burners beyond these as well, but we’ll see hwo things progress.
Basically, I hope to continue the Sarah Beauhall series until its end along with running one or more series and stand alone works. Oh, and the day job, of course. That’s a never ending story itself.
A.M. Dellamonica has two short stories up here onTor.com. First up: an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Her second story here is called “Among the Silvering Herd.” In October, watch for a novelette, “Wild Things,” that ties into the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.
J. A. Pitts resides in the Pacific Northwest where he hunts dragons, trolls and other beasties among the coffee shops and tattoo parlors.