Sunday, 4 December 2011

Interview | Aliette de Bodard

I recently read, loved, and reviewed the latest installment in the Obsidian and Blood series, Master of the House of Darts: a historical urban fantasy murder mystery - set amongst the Aztec civilisation. (By the way, I thoroughly recommend it!) Aliette was kind enough to agree to an interview, so here it is:

Welcome to the blog, Aliette!

Your Obsidian and Blood series is set in an Aztec culture - and it's a far cry from the typical quasi-European 'Fantasyland'. Do you think it's time fantasy looked further outside this inspiration/setting?

I think there's a strong current of fantasy that is starting to look outside the quasi-European settings--N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy, David Anthony Durham's Acacia books, and Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, to take just a few examples; and those are books that can achieve a lot of critical success. It seems to me that the majority of the genre, though, is still very much inspired by Tolkien, not only in settings but also in plots (there is a very strong Western inspiration in Tolkien's books, a meld of Nordic and Christian elements that is very visible, especially in the Silmarillion). There are many such books on the shelves, whereas non-European settings remain more of a curiosity.  And I'm not saying quasi-European books are bad--I'm the first to lap up Steven Erikson and Brandon Sanderson and Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars books--but I do think we should definitely encourage more diverse books, both in setting, and in genre tropes. As well as more diverse authors, not necessarily from the Anglophone world: coming from a country where more than half the fiction is translated into French, I've always been horrified by the lack of translated fiction in the US and UK. It can make genre look very insular and parochial--and not very welcoming from people who come from outside the Western Anglophone world.

Another area in which Obsidian and Blood differs hugely from the norm is in its protagonist: Acatl, a priest (and occasional raiser) of the dead - stereotypically the role for antagonists! Did you have a particular reason for writing Acatl into this position, or did you think of him this way from the start?

I filched Acatl from historical mysteries rather than fantasy. In those, there is always someone in those who has forensic expertise: it can be the actual hero such as in Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, or a sidekick like the Controller-of-Deaths in Robert Van Gulik's Judge Dee novels. But you always have someone to manipulate corpses and perform crude autopsies, because very often key points of the plot revolve around the examination of the murdered people. And I thought it would be a shame to pass on the opportunity to have extra clues, so I decided I wanted to have forensics in my own books. Hence the priest of death as my protagonist. And, as a bonus, he had magical powers, which came in handy for solving murders (much easier to ask the victim, which is why I ended up having so many magical crimes in which this wasn't possible for a variety of reasons).
I confess it had never actually occurred to me that necromancers and priests of the dead tended to be antagonists in fantasy books when I did this, and that Acatl would be going against the grain in this respect...

I hadn't thought of Acatl in the role of forensic examiner before, though it's definitely true. Again talking about characterisation and culture: the Aztec beliefs and society are intrinsic to Obsidian and Blood, and the perspective of its protagonists. Do you ever have to stop yourself putting a modern idea into an Aztec mouth by mistake, or are you now firmly stuck into their mindset?

I try to be as much within the Aztec mindset as I can before writing a book; or, to be more accurate, as much within a reconstituted mindset as I can. In the case of the Aztecs, not only do I have to battle my natural tendency to be a 21st-Century woman; I'm also up against the lack of records. We don't know much about the Aztecs, mainly because the conquistadores were so thorough in their extermination (though you do have a strong remnant of Nahuatl people in Mexico with a very vibrant tribal culture). To really know what they thought in the 15th Century is beyond difficult: I'm no Nahuatl, no historian, and I don't own a time machine... And, finally, you have to add to this the fact that I'm placing the Aztecs in a very modern storytelling style: both the mystery novel and the fantasy epic are very much derived from a 19th-20th-Century Western aesthetic, which makes being true to the culture a very difficult balancing act--because I end up using tropes that are majoritarily of Western origin in the course of writing the story.
Those reservations aside, I would like not to stop at all, and write the story as it comes; but in reality it doesn't happen, and I regularly make sure that I look at what my characters are doing and spot as many anachronisms as I can. One particular pitfall is that my characters tend to be very outspokenly feminist, which just doesn't fit the time period; and I have to make sure I don't take this onboard.

You mention the conquistadores: in your alternate history, do you ever intend to write about their entrance into the Mesoamerican world?

I doubt I will, to be honest. One of the reasons I set Obsidian and Blood in 1480 was to avoid the hoary trope of stories showing the fall of the Aztec Empire. You already have very little literature on the Aztec civilisation, and those few books you do have suffer from an over-focus on its end, as if the only importance of the Aztec civilisation was that the Spanish came along and destroyed it. I'd rather focus on a civilisation and a culture that are vibrantly alive, and don't need any war or disaster or conquistador intervention to become significant. Indeed, in my other alternate history, Xuya (which is more SF-oriented), the Aztec civilisation actually defeated the conquistadores and is still around in the 21st Century! 

Ooh, interesting. You bring the Aztec culture very much to life in Obsidian and Blood - so were there any aspects of it which, in your research, really took you by surprise to discover?

Lots of aspects, actually--it's always fascinating to see how the larger picture of a culture you might have had (in this case, that they practised sacrifice and ritual war as a way to avert the end of the world) ends up getting more and more complex as you do more research. One of the things that I was fascinated by was the Aztec treatment of women: I had expected a warrior society to be very bad on women's rights, and it was interesting to see that the Aztecs thought that women were simply warriors in another context. They believed that women would fight against childbirth to bring a new soul into the world; and, as such, women who died in childbirth were the equivalent of warriors--they became fearful goddesses in their own right, and escorted the Sun from afternoon to evening, and were revered as much as warriors who had fallen in battle. It's a very different notion of equality than we have now: we're tending towards a world in which the roles of men and women are interchangeable (although you can argue that a lot of the "progress" has tended to make it acceptable for women to hold the role of men--ie have a dayjob--rather than for men to hold the role of women--ie stay at home and raise the children). The Aztecs thought men and women were equally valuable, but had different roles to play.

We're used to a rather accentuated version of one aspect of the Aztec civilisation: the token 'human sacrifice people', so the bulk of Aztec culture is very different from the familiar. How difficult did you find it to introduce the reader to this entirely unfamiliar world?
I had fortunately got a lot of practise with exposition-heavy story while working with short stories set in, for want of a better word, unconventional settings such as Ancient China. All of this came very much in handy when I was trying to get across some of the sheer unfamiliarity of this world to the reader. To some extent, I "cheated" by having a first-person narrator, which narrows the focus of the tale and makes it easier for me to convey things. I also tried, as much as possible, to use the language itself to convey part of the culture: for instance, comparing warriors to eagles jaguars, and vultures gets across a lot of baggage in a single simile. A lot of little details like the food are very easy; and it's a little harder, but not that much, to convey unfamiliar attitudes by using the point-of-view character's own thoughts.
The hardest, I felt, was the physical setting: if I don't describe anything and just say "palace", a lot of readers are going to see Hampton Court or some variant of European courts; whereas the reality was very different. So I end up describing a lot of things just to get a mental image across to the reader--and it's a slight breaking down of the fourth wall, since it's slightly unlikely that my characters would pause and describe the way a room or a plaza looks in excruciating detail, since they're already so familiar with it. I know several reviewers complained about this surfeit of descriptions, but I didn't feel there was much choice in the matter. It remains, at heart, a difficult balancing act: I don't want my characters to be modern-day people in costume, but neither do I want my readers to drown under tons of information.

I'd count myself among those who enjoyed the extra description - particularly around the lake! So, onto writing: as a writer, do you tend to outline, and if so, how far ahead do you plan before you start writing? 

I'm somewhat of an obsessive outliner: it's partly an engineer thing, as I hate to start something without a serious plan to complete it; and partly, I suppose, to counteract my tendency to be incredibly messy if left to my own devices.
I outline novels from beginning to end: I used to be pretty rigid about that--Servant of the Underworld was about 90% plotted, with just the last 2-3 chapters left blank in order to leave me wiggle room for the ending--but lately I've mellowed and started taking outlines a bit less seriously. I still outline extensively, right until the end of the book; but I'll allow myself to redo an outline if it's become clear the story is completely lost in the woods and needs a change of focus. For Master of the House of Darts, I changed a major plot point (the role of a suspect in the investigation), and it had repercussions forward and backward onto the novel: I rewrote the outline, made the backward chances in the novel itself (because I'm still obsessive enough to prefer my books to be coherent while I write them), and then continued onwards as if nothing had happened. 
Now Master of the House of Darts is released, have you got any plans for which book comes next?

I'm focusing a lot on short fiction at the moment, but I have two novels in the pipeline: one is Foreign Ghosts, an alt-SF thriller set in my Xuya universe (where China discovered America before the Europe, and where the Mesoamerican cultures have survived--the same setting as my novelette "The Jaguar House in Shadow", which was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards). The other is more nebulous and still in the planning and research stage: it's a urban fantasy set in Paris, focusing on dynasties of magicians at war.

Have you ever turned (or been tempted to!) one of your short story concepts into a full novel, or the reverse? 

 The reverse, not so much... My short stories already suffer from being over-complex, and trying to cram an entire novel universe into a short story generally results in much grief. But from short story to novel, I have already done twice: I tend to explore a concept at short story length to have an idea of whether it will work or not, and then take a larger risk by launching into a novel. The Obsidian and Blood series started with a novelette, "Obsidian Shards", which was very simplistic compared to the larger world, but already had the basic concept inked in (priest for the Dead cum investigator gets into trouble with magical crimes. It even had an early version of Ceyaxochitl). And my Foreign Ghosts started with a couple novelettes, "The Lost Xuyan Bride" and "Butterfly, Falling at Dawn", which had the basic setting inked in--when I moved to a novel, I added two new points of view, a more complex plot, and was able to fit in a lot of worldbuilding tidbits I had been unable to tackle in the short stories, making it the entire universe way more solid than in the short stories.

How much do you wouldbuild relative to what we see in your novels? A lot more, or only what needs to go in?

Hum, a lot? I'm an "iceberg" worldbuilder: I don't feel comfortable showing bits and pieces of a world knowing that is all there is to it, and I would much prefer to know everything I might reasonably need about the world. I'm not a very good confidence-trickster, and I can't muster the brash confidence to tell a story without knowing a lot about its attending background. The other thing is that having a lot of background helps me get past the 21st-Century mindset: if I don't immerse myself sufficiently in the culture, I risk writing stuff that is soaked with my current surroundings, and get some of the characters' attitudes wrong (at least, more spectacularly wrong than they should be). For instance, I know all sorts of little tidbits about life at the Aztec court and the Aztec priesthood that never made it into the books, and, more often than not, I end up cutting whole swathes of exposition the book doesn't need (but that I need in order to get my details straight). 
When you're reading, do you have a preference between short stories/anthologies and novels? And for that matter, which do you prefer to write?

I think they're different reading experiences: a short story is usually shorter, more intense but less immersive. For instance, I tend to read short stories and novelettes in one sitting, because I found I didn't like pausing halfway through. I read a lot, and read both (as well as non-fiction) with equal pleasure. Likewise, I think they're very different writing experiences. With short stories, I think you have a lot of freedom for, say, weird structures or stylistic experiments; but they're very unforgiving--you have to punch hard at the ending for them to make an impression, and there is far less margin for wasting words. Whereas novels.. as I said, novels are more immersive, which means that on the one hand you have to create and sustain the immersion (which is harder at say, 100,000 words than it is at 3,000, where you need far less worldbuilding). Because novels are a larger time investment for a reader, I think there is less room for experiments: some styles are hard to translate into a novel (not saying it can be done, just that it's much harder: it's the difference between juggling balls for 3 minutes, and doing the same for an entire day!). But, on the other hand, there is some slack: there isn't the same need for leanness that you find in short fiction. Novels can be slightly bloated, and it doesn't matter as much (again, not saying it doesn't matter. Just that they're more forgiving on that front). And, of course, writing a novel is a far larger investment for me than writing a short story...

Another reading question, then: any particular favourite authors? And did they influence your own 

He, too many authors to mention... Taking a pick of my faves: Patricia McKillip taught me the importance of prose, and that stories didn't need to have all-evil antagonists to work--that people created their own tragedies with the best of intentions, and that this was more powerful stuff than generic "let's kill evil" quest fantasy. Ursula Le Guin was the first fantasy author I read in English--I learnt a lot about worldbuilding and subverting genre expectations, especially while reading the Earthsea books (though my absolute favourite works by her are the Annals of the Western Shore, which explore the facets of power and knowledge and how they interact in the lives of very different children). And, more recently and in a totally different genre, Elizabeth George--she writes those amazing mysteries that deconstruct the puzzle stories, because they're not so much about who committed the murder, but rather the way the damage from the crime spreads outwards and changes the lives of everyone involved. And, hum, David Gemmell, Orson Scott Card, Elizabeth Bear, Terry Pratchett--too many...!

You mention breaking genre expectations: what do you think about the trend (online, at least), towards fitting things into subgenres - urban fantasy, epic fantasy, historical fantasy...?

I can see the logic behind it, which is essentially grouping stories that have similar elements; it's an extension of the genre/non-genre distinction. On the one hand, I think it can be very useful: when I was a child, the local library filed everything under "adult fiction", which meant you had Victor Hugo and Stendhal side by side with Roger Zelazny and Agatha Christie--and I remember being always apprehensive when I walked in, because I'd have to go through so many shelves before I found something that I would like. On the other hand, fitting things into subgenres can discourage people from reading outside those subgenres at all: people will, for instance, read only epic fantasy, and check out nothing outside of this; or only space opera, and will discard a book merely because of the genre it's been put in. I think it can be a dangerous game in that regard, because it effectively compartimentalises people according to their reading preferences. Also, whenever you draw boxes like that; you run the risk of losing things--what do you do about an absolutely brilliant story that doesn't fit into any subgenre? If your first instinct has been to categorise things, then it's likely you'll want to reject things that do not fit into any category.

Within the subgenre system, though, do you have any particular preferences? Any subgenres you don't read?

I have pretty eclectic tastes... The main subgenre I read little of is military SF--I tend to skim over action scenes when I read, so obviously I'm not a very good candidate for this type of SF! In general, I have a weakness for SF with rich worldbuilding and sprawling plots, such as Alastair Reynolds and Ian Banks; and for any type of fantasy that involves a historical setting, a mystery plot or a non-standard setting. I like a little dash of romance in my fiction, though not too much. But I'll read in any (sub)genre as long as it comes with solid worldbuilding, characters and plot: I don't want to pass up on something just because of the classifications. For instance, I'm not much for military genre, but I'll definitely check out Myke Cole's Control Point, because the idea of military urban fantasy sounds fascinating, and Myke is a very interesting person with fascinating experiences--and I have faith that this will translate into his fiction. 

Any books you're currently anticipating, then?

I am very much looking forward to Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts, which is epic fantasy set in a Central Asia setting. Likewise, also looking forward to Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon--he had me at "Arabic epic fantasy reminiscent of the Thousand and One Nights"--and to Tim Powers' new novel, Hide Me Among the Graves (Tim Powers, occult London, what's not to love?) I'm also fairly late to the party, but I'm also looking forward to reading Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief--I really liked his short fiction in Interzone and Subterranean, and the novel sounds like my kind of thing. 
Thank you very much for the interview, then! It's been great to have you on the blog. Oh, and good luck with the two projects you mention (who doesn't like warring dynasties of magicians?)

You can find Master of the House of Darts on the Angry Robot book store, here: Ebook
Or in hardcopy through Amazon, here: Hardcopy

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