Interview with Marie Brennan
Marie Brennan is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. Her short stories have appeared in more than a dozen print and online publications. Her newest novel, WITH FATE CONSPIRE, is the fourth book in the Onyx Court series and released August 30, 2011.
What are you reading right now?
I'm doing a big project, re-reading (and blogging about) all of Diana Wynne Jones' books, as a memorial. I think I've made it through ten of them so far, which is about a fifth of the total. She wrote a *lot* of books!
What first sparked your interest in writing?
Diana Wynne Jones, sort of, which dovetails nicely with the above. I know I made up stories before I started reading her work, but it was her novel FIRE AND HEMLOCK that made me decide I wanted to be a writer. It's a story about stories and about the power they can have; no wonder that left a mark.
What do you love the most about writing? The least?
"Most" would have to be the moments when it feels like the story's writing itself, because my subconscious is tossing out ideas as if pointing out what actually happened, rather than making stuff up. Those are always the best ideas, at least for me; they mean a part of my brain has figured out something important, even if the rest of me hasn't yet caught up.
"Least" is probably the fact that novel-writing is a marathon sport. I know there are people who can do binge-writing and knock out a whole book in, like, a week flat…but I'm not one of them. (If only because my hands would fall off.) It requires several months of steady work, day after day, and after a while the numbers seem to move at a snail's pace. That middle third starts to feel like a real slog sometimes, with no end in sight.
Do you have a writing process?
Everybody who writes must, by default, have a process for it. :-) Mine has been changing lately, though. It used to be that I produced near-final first drafts, but the Onyx Court books required more and more revision, just because of the complexity of what I was trying to do. And the one I'm working on right now, A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS, is breaking my usual pattern of "a thousand words a day, rain or shine" — I keep taking a day off and then writing two thousand words the next day. I'm really not sure why. But it's important first to find the process that works for you (rather than the process you think you ought to have) and second to remember that it can change. What works for one book may not work for another
What inspires you?
My academic background is in anthropology, archaeology, folklore, a lot of history classes — I like knowing about different ways of living and organizing societies. I've gotten a lot of plot ideas, especially for short stories, out of "what if there were a culture that did X?" My first bit of success with fiction, “Calling Into Silence,” came out of reading about spirit possession in sub-Saharan Africa. Character has to come into it, too — I'm not interested in writing about societies in the general sense — but I always think up characters in context, having particular roles and problems that come out of the culture they live in.
And that interest goes beyond the "colorful" value of those differences. We have a built-in tendency to assume the way we live is somehow "natural," that our way makes sense and everybody else's way is weird. The truth is, it's all weird. The more time you spend looking at alternatives and thinking about what they would be like, the more you see that…and the more it opens up the chance of you doing things differently, too, or at least understanding why other people might. That matters.
Because I like it? :-)
It just feels to me like it has more freedom. I could write stories set in other parts of the world (and I have, sometimes), but then you have an obligation to represent them accurately, which means you maybe can't tell the story you want to tell. And fantasy means that the experimentation I described above can go beyond tinkering with the mundane details of the world and into the metaphysics. Mesoamerican cultures believed that blood sacrifice was necessary to keep the cosmos functioning; what if they were right? How does that change the ethics that we take for granted?
How was MIDNIGHT NEVER COME born? How about WARRIOR and WITCH?
I've described the genesis of both in fairly extensive detail on my website; MIDNIGHT NEVER COME was born from a roleplaying game I ran, and the doppelganger books grew out of a random collusion of two very small ideas (see the "About the Novel" section).
Did MIDNIGHT NEVER COME require a lot of research?
Vast, vast mountains of it, that seemed to get bigger with each subsequent book. I have my entire research bibliography posted on my site, along with the journal of all my trips to London. Partly that was because I feel a genuine obligation to get things right, when I'm talking about real people and real history, but partly it was because researching really fed the story, as much as it restricted it; I kept turning up little details that I never would have invented on my own, which took the narrative in really cool directions.
How did writing the MIDNIGHT NEVER COME series and the WARRIOR series differ?
Did I mention the research? :-) They're very different kinds of stories, too; the doppelganger books are more about adventure, though they have a side order of politics, whereas the Onyx Court is much more political in nature. The latter is a lot more like writing a chess match, with more moves planned out in advance and more need for me to keep several narrative balls in the air at once. I also think of the Onyx Court as urban fantasy, albeit of a historical sort, because ultimately the fact that they're set in London, and follow the way the city changed through the centuries, is crucial to the story. Even the most important bits of the setting for the doppelganger books never came close to that kind of central importance.
Why did you divide MIDNIGHT NEVER COME into acts?
Honestly, it came about because I knew I would need to skip over a chunk of time partway through. Deven had to spend some time working for Walsingham before things got complicated; it just didn't make sense that Walsingham would give that kind of trust to somebody he'd only just taken on. And the process of establishing Lune in her new position would have necessitated a kind of prose montage, that wouldn't have been very interesting. So given that I was going to skip forward, it made sense to have some kind of division. Then I realized that the 1588 bit was likely to be approximately a fifth of the book, and of course plays in that period were often divided into five acts. Once I sat down to consider how the five-act structure works, it turned out to map pretty well to the structure of the novel, so I went with it.
What got interesting was deciding how to divide up the later books. Each one is different, but they all have some kind of part setup. IN ASHES LIE is in four parts because of the four days of the Great Fire, so that felt like the obvious choice. A STAR SHALL FALL, on the other hand…I went with seven because the number recurs so much in alchemy, but it turns out there's a good reason that seven-part narratives aren't common; it just doesn't feel natural. That one was a lot harder to wrestle into shape. It was a relief to go back to something very familiar, the three-part structure, for WITH FATE CONSPIRE.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Advice of that kind tends to fall into two categories: brief platitudes and really lengthy rambling. On the platitude side, I'd say write more, revise more, send out what you've revised, and have patience. (It sounds trite, but it's true.) On the rambling side, I've got a lot of essays on my site dissecting the craft and business and philosophy of writing; it's only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what I could say, but I keep adding new essays all the time.