Emily Tesh Talks Pratical Folklore, Fanfic, and How Witch’s Potions Relate to Worldbuilding in Reddit AMA!

Emily Tesh is the World Fantasy Award, Astounding Award, and Crawford Award-nominated author of the Greenhollow duology. It began with Silver in the Wood, her debut, and continues with Drowned Country, out from Tordotcom Publishing on August 18. In her own words, Silver in the Wood was about “what happens when the centuries-old Wild Man, the magical avatar of Greenhollow Wood, has his sedate existence of growing vegetables, doing DIY, and hunting monsters interrupted by a charming folklore nerd with no sense of self-preservation,” whereas Drowned Country is “the flipside of the duology…about what happens when you used to be a folklore nerd and now suddenly you are the folklore.”

This week, she dropped by r/Fantasy for an AMA, where she talked about folklore, practical folklore, drawing inspiration from stories about folklore, playing The Witcher 3 for 200 hours, classic nineteenth-century gentleman enthusiasts, fandom from an author’s perspective, great fictional forests, and much, much more. Here are the highlights!

[Editor’s note: Questions and responses may have been edited for length and clarity.]

Can you please give us an out-of-context sentence from Drowned Country?

“I am not sulking,” said Silver.

What’s your favorite part of Drowned Countryand what did you have the most fun writing?

My favourite part is the mask. LOVE the mask. The mask is a niche personal joke about Heinrich Schliemann, the ninetennth-century archaeologist who brought bronze age Mediterranean archaeology into popular focus, and it made ME laugh. In general I loved writing in Henry Silver’s voice – the narrator of the first book was a much more restrained and understated personality, so switching over to a very melodramatic nerd with a lot to say about everything was a delight. (He’s very chatty, the book came out ten thousand words longer than the first one.)

Will Drowned Country expand on some of the folklorish things we only got glimpses of outside the Greenwood?

Drowned Country is what I’d call casefic – a story where an already set-up universe and characters deals with a particular case: on this occasion, the Case Of The Presumed Vampire. So our heroes encounter a couple of new folklorish things! In particular the book goes hard on fairies, because I love elves… so much. They were only referenced in passing in the first one (mostly when Silver gets very much the wrong end of the stick about what is going on in Greenhollow Wood) but the idea of a Fairyland book stuck with me and I wanted to do it.

What made you want to write about folklore?

Hmm, I think I find folklore and mythology are interesting to write about because people think they already know about them. This means that you have some threads of audience assumption and expectation to work with, which you can either lean into or push against. But with the Greenhollow books in particular I did just make quite a lot of it up. I had a vague sense of an English-woodland-magic atmosphere, and a handful of monsters nabbed from different traditions, and then I just stuck it together in a way that felt fun and interesting.

How in the world did you come up with practical folklore?

I didn’t. I stuck ‘alarming mother’ into Silver’s backstory early on as a kind of stock character – think Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha – and I had no idea why Mrs Silver was alarming or what she was going to do or be until she turned up exactly halfway through the book and announced that she was a practical folklorist, which is to say a professional monster-hunter, and she was here to save her son’s life. It was the greatest moment in writing the whole book.

Did any particular “tales” inspire Silver in the Wood

If I had to name three sources that went into Silver in the Wood, they would be 1) Georgette Heyer’s historical romances, 2) rereading Lord of the Rings that year, and 3) playing 200 hours of the Witcher 3. None of these are ‘tales’ in the sense I think you mean, traditional stories from folklore, but it wouldn’t be honest to claim that I was working directly from a folk tradition – I was working from stories about folk tradition, which I found more interesting, and from the shapes and tropes of romance novels, which are old friends of mine. I am actually rather suspicious of ‘folklore’: while it is true that many stories which we tell have origins which are very ancient (nothing quite like teaching a class about the Roman story of Cupid and Psyche and having them say wait, isn’t this Beauty and the Beast? or Cinderella? – yes, it includes elements of both), it is easy to forget or elide the layers of retelling and reshaping that lie along the way. We mostly don’t have access to the authentic oral culture of our ancestors. What we have access to is what the literate (usually an elite group!) thought was worth writing down. And these are stories about folklore, not folklore itself.

The character of Henry Silver, in the Greenhollow books, is a direct comment on this. I conceived him as a classic nineteenth-century gentleman enthusiast – in fact, a lot of what we think of as ‘folklore’ was collated and curated by people rather like him. And he takes himself seriously as a scholar, he does research, he writes articles, he makes maps, he is completely wrong about what is going on the whole time.

What did your worldbuilding process look like? Any particular challenges? 

Oh no I’m about to embarrass myself. As I mentioned above my worldbuilding process is basically ‘hmm… that would be neat!’ I would say I am broadly interested in atmosphere rather than coherence. In Silver in the Wood in particular one of the main tensions is between the worldview of Henry Silver, whom I modeled on the many nineteenth-century gentleman-scholar enthusiasts whose approach to everything was ‘we must somehow categorise this’, and the uncategorisability of Tobias Finch’s existence. So the Wood has dryads, which are from classical myth, and ghouls, which are not, and fairies, which are a different story-strand again, and a lich, because why NOT; the Wood doesn’t make sense, it resists analysis, it is an inchoate myth-space where the logic of Henry Silver’s mortal world and mortal life do not apply.

None of this was challenging, as such: writing the book was pure joy, like being a child making witch’s potions by picking up everything I could find in the garden and sticking it into one pot and stirring.

Why did you choose to write Silver in the Wood as a novella rather than a novel, and were there any challenges involved in pitching a debut in this shorter format?

The decision to write a novella was a purely creative one and I genuinely did not think it would ever sell. At the time I wrote it I was brooding over what I can now admit was the festering corpse of a scifi novel that was never, ever going to work. I had spent five years refining it and I couldn’t bear to let it go, but I was starting to realise it was fundamentally broken, and it made me very sad, so I decided to write something short and easy that would make me happy so I could stop thinking about it. This turned out to be the right decision! There were no real doubts or challenges about debuting this way at all – novellas are great and fun and Tordotcom in particular is doing really exciting things with them right now.

What’s your favorite part of being published?

My favourite part of the publishing process is absolutely the moment when your publisher sends you cover art and you stare at it for a bit and then you realise your book is going to be a real and geniune book with a picture on the front, and it’s gorgeous. An author has almost no control over this part of the process, but I lucked out, and David Curtis’s gorgeous covers for the Greenhollow books stun me every time I look at them again.

As a reader, do you prefer happily ever afters or brutal/tragic endings? What about as a writer? 

As a reader this is like asking me if I prefer cake or whiskey. I like cake and whiskey. They do different things! It depends what mood I’m in! But to write – a happily ever after is a joy to write, but sticking the landing on a rip-your-heart-out downer without making it feel cheap or manipulative is the most satisfying feeling in the world. Haven’t done it in a published book yet.

Has publishing your own original works changed how you view fandom and fanfiction?

If I were still in fandom and writing fic, I don’t think I’d talk about it using my pro name! There’s much less of a separation between the pro and fan worlds now than there was in days of yore – in my heart I belong very specifically to the LiveJournal era of fanfiction, when we friendslocked everything and wrote urgent little notes asking creators not to read and also not to sue us – and I miss it; I think some separation is healthy, for both creators and fans. Finding myself on the pro side of things has led me to be much more aware of how much of the joy of fandom for me was the freedom from all authority – we all had access to the canon and we all did what we liked with it. Whereas an author by definition has authority, at least over their own work, and also I guess a certain amount of, hmm, ‘at least one gatekeeper has approved me and that makes my opinions valid’? Anyway I don’t think that shit has any place in fannish creation.

I think the opinion I’ve arrived at is that authors should stand well back and let fans and critics do and say what they want. Once you’ve written the thing and put it out in the world, it doesn’t just belong to you anymore; it belongs to everyone who reads it and brings their own interpretations to it. Distance is good.

Are there any other fictional (or non-fictional) forests you can recommend?

The ur-fictional forests for Silver are straight out of Tolkien – specifically, actually, the Old Forest on the borders of the Shire, which is objectively much less magical or mysterious than Fangorn or Lothlorien or Doriath, but which caught my interest as a place where extraordinarily dangerous and strange things exist basically right next door to the mundane and familiar – the feeling that you can step straight from the almost-kitsch fantasy of the cosy recent past into the much more alarming world of ancient myth, almost by accident. (I know that recommending Tolkien is very much the basic bitch approach of fantasy writing, but like. He’s super good. Anyway I have been referring to Silver as my sad gay Tom Bombadil story since before I started writing it so it’s too late to back down now.)

For non-fictional woodland, if you ever get a chance to visit Glen Maye on the Isle of Man, go at once.

What’s your next project?

My next project – WELL. I love two things: historical fantasy and space opera scifi. And I have now written two books of historical fantasy. So the needle is swinging back, and the next thing I have in mind is a great big adventure story with spaceships in it. It’s a lot more ambitious than anything I’ve written before, and I am cautiously extremely excited about it. The first draft is mostly done. I think it’s pretty good.

For more, including bespoke Ancient Greek and Latin translations, ruminations on teaching high schoolers about Greeks and Romans, job prospects for Classics majors, and more, head on over to the full AMA!

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