Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Hugo-nominated Xuya Universe series—”space opera set in a galactic empire of Vietnamese inspiration where sentient ships are part of families“—and the Dominion of the Fallen series—”dark Gothic books set in a Paris devastated by a magical war.” A triple-Nebula-award winner, quadruple BSFA-award winner, and a winner of the Locus award, she also works as an engineer in railway signalling and currently lives in Paris.
Her newest book is Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders, which she describes as “a fantasy of murders and manners that merges Asian court dramas with high Gothic—perfect for fans of KJ Charles, The Untamed and Roshani Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves.” This week, she dropped by r/Fantasy for an AMA, where she talked book recommendations, tea recommendations, fountain pen recommendations, writing from the POV of sentient non-humans, writing as an exophone writer, exposition, endings, novellas, mythology, Full Metal Alchemist, and much, much more. Here are the highlights!
[Editor’s note: Questions and responses may have been edited for length and clarity.]
Do you find it tricky to write characters that aren’t human [like the sentient spaceships in the Xuya Universe]? Or is it more of a fun challenge?
Sentient spaceships take more time to write, because I have to remember that they don’t quite follow the same anchors as humans–I did cheat and have them conceived and raised by humans, which makes them more likely to have human reactions. But they’re a fun challenge because they think differently, and they’re also embodied in a completely different way, which means I get to play a lot with their perceptions (my favourite scene in Tea Master is when Long Chau comes onboard the ship).
What inspired you to write about mindships?
I created the mindships originally because I wanted to write a story about a dangerous pregnancy, and it didn’t feel realistic to me that human pregnancies would still be dangerous in a far future universe as they’re a major cause of mortality and people would want to fix that. So I immediately jumped to “oh, I know, she’s carrying a spaceship!”. I then developed them as human-reared AIs because I wasn’t interested in debating whether AIs were sentient or not: I took that as my starting point and then wondered what society would look like for them and what kind of role they’d have in them. And I made them family rather than employees because I wanted them to be part of the fabric of society, and to have the interplay of very different people being related to each other.
What books have influenced your writing and what are some of your favorite books?
I’ve been influenced a lot by an old book of Vietnamese fairy tales that my grandmother or mother gifted to me, and which I still have at home, as well as by the stories they told me when I was growing up. I also draw my influences from Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars, Ken Liu’s work, Michelle Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra, Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon, and Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Some of my favourite books: Hogfather by Terry Pratchett, David Gemmell’s The King Beyond the Gate, CS Friedman’s Black Sun Rising trilogy, Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist.
How has your knowledge of engineering influenced your works?
I think it’s mostly given me a general scientific culture that I can then re use to build worlds (I can research a given, say, physics subject without getting bogged down by incomprehension). The other thing it’s given me is the organisation: I’m a planner and an exhaustive researcher, and I think a lot of it comes from the engineering culture of needing to be organised prior to starting a project.
I’ve used my experience in engineering in a fairly direct fashion when writing The Shipmaker, in which the main character has to build a mindship: I drew the structure of the engineering team and the meetings about the last minute adjustments from personal experience.
As a reader, do you prefer happily ever afters or brutal and/or tragic endings? Which type of ending is your favorite to write?
I’m actually more of a fan of the bittersweet “something is gained something is lost” ending, written in a way that is just haunting enough. These are the ones I also like writing, but the haunting part isn’t always easy to pull off.
What draws you to the novella format?
I love novellas! They offer enough space for worldbuilding and playing around with characters, but they’re compact enough and simple enough that I can hold an entire plot in my brain easily (with a novel I need notes, it’s just too big of a thing).
How does one go about enjoying fountain pens?
It really depends on what you want? If you want a fine line, I’d turn to the Japanese makers (for a first pen i usually recommend the platinum plaisir). If you prefer a smooth writing experience and ink being displayed on the page, I can suggest the TWSBI with a M nib or a 1.1 nib. And then some nice ink: try Yama dori from Sailor, for instance, a lovely teal that looks stunning on the page.
Do you have a favorite black or purple fountain pen ink?
I don’t do black inks, really: the only one I own is Sailor’s standard black, which is quite good. For purples my favourite is Diamine Amazing Amethyst, which is the colour of the stone and shades quite nicely. If you want something work appropriate Robert Oster Dragon Night is dark enough to pass as work office blue but is really purple, which is the best kind of sneaky.
If you had to match a character with fountain pens and inks what would the matchup be?
I would match Sebastian from Black Butler with this; https://www.nibs.com/pens/sailor/sailor-pro-gear-classic-imperial-black (classy pen, black black black), and red inks (probably ink of naotora, which is blood red and also has a fascinating sheen too it, a bit like Sebastian is a lot more than a human).
What’s your favorite tea?
I don’t have a good answer to favourite tea as it depends a lot on time and mood, but currently I’m enjoying a lu shan yun wu I got from Teavivre last year: it’s got a floral, sweet taste I really enjoy (in general I prefer green tea or lightly roasted oolongs–if the tea is too nutty or too bitter I will find it hard to like it).
And what tea should we drink while reading your work?
Lots of suitable tea: I’d recommend a Chinese green or a lightly roasted oolong such as Weshan (or deep steamed sencha if you like to taste the sea and the grass).
How about a tea for a late summer afternoon with a good book?
I would recommend a light oolong like wenshan oolong, which is floral and creamy rather than having a nutty taste. Or a light, grassy tea like a deep-steamed sencha.
Can you tell us about the mythological references in your work?
A lot of the Xuya world is drawn from the stories I heard as a child: there are a lot of folklore and fairytales references in the books. For instance, the Shadow’s Child is a reference to a fairytale where the man went away to war, and the mother comforted the frightened child by making a shadow of his absent father on the wall and saying “look, here’s your father” (it didn’t end well: when the father came home, the child said that his real father came at night, and the father thought the mother was having an affair). Similarly, the Citadel of Weeping Pearls is a reference to the One Night Lake (a magical city built by a princess and her husband, which vanishes in one night when the princess’s father decides to invade it).
Any tips for writers struggling with whether or not they have “too much or not enough” story?
Ah, the dreaded exposition. It’s a really tough problem. You can try seeing the story as a reader will: not in terms of story but in terms of interest (I’m of the opinion that one can get away with a lot of exposition as long as the reader’s interest is piqued enough). Another thing that worked for me: polish it as much as i can and then find a few friends who can have a look at it for me and tell me whether it engages them or not. They don’t have to be writers, but they do have to be capable of telling you when they got bored, confused or otherwise impeded in their reading.
How about tips for work/life/writing balance?
Couple of things that have helped:
-short burst writing sessions (15-30 minutes)
-writing on the commute
-have a couple dedicated days for writing where no reading or TV happens
-commit to writing three sentences a day. I’ve found generally by the time I get around to these I feel like writing a fourth
I don’t agree with everything in the book, but I’ve found Cal Newport’s Deep Work quite though provoking in terms of making time and finding focus.
Can you talk about your experiences writing as an exophone writer, in this case writing in English with French as your first language?
RE writing as an exophone writer, I started writing in English because I was living in the UK at the time, and reading in English, so it made most sense to me to be writing in the language I was writing in. I think the biggest challenge I faced, as said above, is living away from where publishing happens: I do have to travel (or did, before the pandemic) fairly frequently and building a network is possible but a lot of work. My agent is in the UK, so I can meet him a few times a year (it’s one of the reasons why I have a UK agent). I never considered moving permanently to the US. I guess the main advice I’d have is attending English-Language conventions if you can afford it (i know these don’t come cheap): again, not necessarily US ones, the UK ones are also quite useful–and making contacts as well as you can through social media (in times of pandemic I’m not too sure when cons will resume, but many of them have moved online!).
Oh, and also: SFWA does have a mentorship programme that I think has been very useful for mentees.
Do you have advice on reading order(s) for your various series/universes?
All the Xuya stories are standalone. If you want a starting point, I can suggest Tea Master and the Detective, which is Sherlock Holmes in space where Holmes is an abrasive scholar and Watson is a spaceship.
If you don’t want space opera, I can suggest either In the Vanishers’ Palace (dark science fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they’re both women and the Beast is a dragon), or a Dominion of the Fallen book (if you want epic, The House of Shattered Wings, and if you’re more in the mood for fantasy of manners, Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders).
A more detailed answer on Dominion of the Fallen specifically:
The Dominion of the Fallen short stories stand alone: they’re listed here https://aliettedebodard.com/bibliography/novels/dominion-of-the-fallen/
The novella Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders also stands alone. The trilogy of House of Shattered Wings/House of Binding Thorns/House of Sundering Flames has plots that stand alone, but I’d not advise reading it out of order, and I would CERTAINLY not start with House of Sundering Flames, which requires the other two (people have read House of Binding Thorns on its own and enjoyed it, but it’s a little confusing, I’m told).
Head on over to r/Fantasy for the full AMA.