I am delighted to bring you another interview from our ongoing series here at Smash Dragons. This week I had the amazing opportunity to chat with the wonderful Aliette de Bodard as she took time out of her busy schedule to talk about writing, her upcoming book, and diversity and the fantasy genre.
Aliette, welcome to Smash Dragons!
First up, tell me a bit about yourself and your upcoming title The House of Shattered Wings.
I'm a writer of fantasy and science fiction infused with history/mythology, winner of two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. The House of Shattered Wings is a Gothic fantasy set in a Paris devastated by a war between arcane faction--featuring Fallen angels, Vietnamese ex-immortals, witches, alchemists and entirely too many dead bodies! It's coming out August 20th from Gollancz in the UK/Commonwealth, and August 18th from Roc in the US.
Why did you start writing? Was there one exact moment that led to you becoming a writer or was it a slower evolution?
I've always been a voracious reader (the library was my favourite haunt as a kid), and I dabbled in writing as a child, though you will offer thanks that my first novel, about the Emperor of Cat People, was lost in one of the numerous family relocations (it was an illustrated book. Let's just say I'm not cut out to be an illustrator, and at the time wasn't a very good writer either!)
What was the inspiration behind The House of Shattered Wings? What were the biggest challenges you faced whilst writing it?
The House of Shattered Wings started as a urban fantasy about dynasties of magicians at war--except that I could never make the worldbuilding click for me; and after a while I realised that I needed to do something a little more drastic to the setting in order to be happy. Accordingly, I thoroughly nuked the city in the wake of a magical war--I made it so that the familiar monuments and streets were ruins covered in spell residues, the Seine river ran black with ashes and lashed out impredictably at people who got too close; and magical factions, the Great Houses, fought each other for every scrap of power.
The biggest challenge I faced while writing it actually has nothing to do with the novel: it's that I became pregnant while writing it, and by the time I was done with it was parenting my very own personal tornado (aka the snakelet, my son whom I dearly love--as long as he's not eating my manuscripts or sending nonsensical emails to people by fiddling with my keyboard!). It meant, first, that there was a 6-month hiatus while writing the novel, which killed a lot of the momentum I had going and made it really hard to pick it up again (I was about a third of the way in when I stopped writing, and starting up again meant I had to reread everything, get under the characters' skin, understand the reasons for the worldbuilding, etc., all while being perpetually tired and zombie-like); and second, that I had to get organised to start writing again, to find some brain-space around work and childcare.
A post apocalyptic Paris is the setting for this novel. I’m curious, what was it about Paris that was so appealing to build a fantasy novel around?
I've lived in Paris roughly all my life, so it was a natural setting for me to use--there's a lot of history and a lot of interesting tidbits to mine for story stuff. Also, post-apocalyptic narratives in English tend, not surprisingly, to be centred around Anglophone countries; I thought it would be a nice change to set a story in France!
Did you undertake much research for this particular novel?
Certainly more research than I thought at the outset: I had this naive idea that setting this in the city where I live would involve very little to research. In reality, there was a lot of things I had to find out about the geography: the plot revolves around Ile de la Cité, so I ended up doing a lot of looking into its history, its famous places and how my alternate Paris would have changed this--it's one thing to nuke Notre-Dame, but what happens to the nearby Hôtel-Dieu hospital, the Préfecture, etc.?
The society I depict in the novel is a mix of Belle Epoque and post-apocalyptic mores: the class system based on wealth and birth has given way to a class system based on who has safety and who hasn't (aka who is affiliated with a Great House and who isn't), and who can offer it and who can't, so there are slightly skewed dynamics, but still a recognisable system. I dug a lot into 19th Century novels (Hugo, Dumas, Maurice Leblanc etc.) to get the period feel, which given the nature of the novel felt to me more important than getting it historically accurate, and also researched a lot on the aristocracy and the servant system.
And finally, since a significant strand of the story involves Indochina (the old French colony that covered Vietnam and Cambodia) and a Vietnamese magical system, I had to research a bit of colonial history as well, in addition to re-immersing myself in the folk tales my grandmother used to tell me when I was a child.
Your characters in The House of Shattered Wings are a richly depicted mix of Fallen, Humans, and other powerful beings. Did you have a particular favourite to write? Why?
I have a particular fondness for Selene, the head of House Silverspires: from a writerly point of view she's a fascinating character to watch, because there is a great disconnect between how she perceives herself and how others see her. Selene thinks herself unworthy of being head of the House and fights crippling self-doubt, but never actually lets it show, so you essentially get two very different versions of her character, depending on whose head we're sharing at the moment. People think she is arrogant and cool-headed, but meanwhile she always agonises about whether she's doing the right thing. She also has quite a good eye for fashion, which allowed me to go wild with the description of people's clothes :)
How would you describe your writing style? Are you a ‘planner’ or ‘pantser’?
I am a total planner. I need to know where the plot is going and why I'm doing things. I can't improvise, especially at the scale of a novel, because then I feel totally lost, and I hate the feeling I've produced a first draft which I will then need to either throw away or substantially revisse. On a typical project I spend maybe 30% of the time planning, and 70% writing, sometimes less? I write those extensive outlines, and rewrite them in the middle of first drafting if I deviate a lot from them. I think a lot of it is my engineer background, which is that I'm lazy, and it's easier to modify an outline rather than impact dozens of scenes?
What it is about the fantasy fiction that you love? Do you think the genre as a whole is improving in terms of its diversity or not?
I love fantasy fiction because anything goes; and because you can get this sense of awe and wonder from fantastical things and events: I love that thrill that runs down my spine when getting the first glimpse of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere in London, or the Grass King's Palace in Kari Sperring Grass King's Concubine, or during a particularly emotionally charged moment like the ending of Adrian Tchaikovsky's Guns of the Dawn. Fantasy allows me to visit wildly different places with wildly different rules; with actual magic and the presence of supernatural entities--but in the end it remains a powerful way to look at people who remain human with all their foibles (or superhuman with a different set of foibles :) ).
I think the genre as a whole is definitely improving in terms of diversity, yes--there's a marked difference compared to when I started out in 2006. Witness the success of people like NK Jemisin, Ken Liu, Charlie Jane Anders... It's, however, a slow and sometimes frustrating process, and I think sometimes we're a little too eager as a group to say that we've got there and have got true diversity; where the truth is that being more diverse and more inclusive is something that happens slowly, like any values shift--and that, like any shifts, we have to keep working at it. Right now I and a few other people are making a concerted effort to include more people beyond the Western Anglophone world in SFF, whether it's people from Western countries but outside the Anglophone world, or people from non-western places like Singapore, the Philippines--I think it's a much needed infusion of new things and new visions into genre.
Hypothetical question… if you could travel back in time to spend the day with one historical author who would it be? Why?
Hmm it's a really, really tough one. It's a tie, but I think I'd want to spend it with Ho Xuan Huong--she's arguably the most famous Vietnamese poetess, and she wore very irreverent stanzas: she was very clever and chafing at the constraints imposed on women at the time, and I think we would have lots to discuss (of course I'd need to get over the language barrier as my Vietnamese is atrocious, but I'm assuming that would be magically provided). The other person in the tie was Alexandre Dumas, because Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo are the best books ever written and I reread them every once in a while. Especially Monte Cristo.
What would be your Fallen name if you fell from the heavens into post-apocalyptic Paris?
Well, Fallen mostly pick the name they want--I kind of favor Morningstar's approach of picking them from books and old historical events, except I think picking it from a fantasy book would be totally legitimate *grin* I'm going for Tenaka, the hero of King beyond the Gate, because I've always had a fondness for him--there are obvious sympathy elements (he's half-Nadir half-Drenai, and as someone who's half and half herself I've got a lot of sympathy with his experiences growing up, though mine were nowhere as drastic!), and obviously he gets to the head of his very own empire! (it's a man's name, but I figure no one would bat an eyelid)
The House of Shattered Wings is not your first published work. You have previously written a number of award winning short stories and the Obsidian and Blood trilogy. I’m curious, how do you feel you have grown as a writer over this period of time?
Immeasurably I feel! I've found that I grow in fits and starts as a writer (as we do in many things): I hit a plateau for a while, and then abruptly level up after months or years of struggling and collecting rejections and frustrating "this doesn't work" critiques. Between writing the first book of Obsidian and Blood in 2010, I hit at least two plateaux that I'm aware of. The first was handling more complex novels: Servant of the Underworld was written in a tight first person point of view with few characters, because I was afraid I couldn't handle a complex plot with many points of view and complex worldbuilding; The House of Shattered Wings had three point-of-view characters, a host of minor characters and a lot going on in the background that I hint at.
The second is that I became much, much better at world building: I became more comfortable with handling complex exposition (which is necessary when you're writing complex things that don't necessarily conform to readers' expectations: the Vietnamese elements in my work require a lot more exposition than the "classic" ones), and more willing to take risks with story structure and worldbuilding that melded disparate elements. My Xuya series, for instance, merges science and technology with mythical undertones, and I don't think I'd have been able to pull it off if I hadn't leveled up as a writer.
Who is your favourite fantasy writer at the moment? Why?
This is a bit like choosing a favorite child, isn't it? :p I have lots of favorite writers that I admire for different skills and different ways of blowing me away (Sir Terry Pratchett, Elizabeth Bear, Kari Sperring, Sergey and Marina Dyachenko...). If I can plug just one at the moment it would be Zen Cho--she's Chinese Malaysian living in London, writing fiction that is both funny, heartbreaking and incisive. Her short story collection Spirits Abroad won the Crawford, and her book Sorcerer to the Crown is coming out in September--it's Regency England with magic, fairies, characters in over their heads, and laugh-out loud moments. (disclaimer: Zen is a friend, so obviously I'm a bit biased. But I'm not the only one who thought her book was great).
And finally, can we expect to see you at any conventions or events in the near future?
I will be in London August 6th for Fantasy in the Court at Goldsboro Books, and at Worldcon in August 2015 for the release of the book, and in October I'll also be attending a few events in Europe (Italy, the Netherlands and France).
Aliette de Bodard, thanks for chatting to Smash Dragons!
You're welcome! Thank you for having me here!
The House of Shattered Wings is out on August 18th-20th (check you local online retailers and shops for more details.) I have provided some links below.
I implore you all to check this book out. I recently finished it, and it is truly stunning!
Until next time everyone, be nice to each other and keep on reading!