Fantasy books, other than Tolkien’s works perhaps, are often left out of discussions within literary academia. Why do you think this is, and what do you think the genre has to offer within these discussions?
I think what’s left out mostly are not fantasy works per se but works published by genre presses. The enduring divide is between literary and commercial fiction, not literary and speculative fiction. Many academics recognize this distinction—witness the yearly International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA), a global con that’s about 80% academics and yet one of the year’s best experiences for speculative writers to boot.
Sadly, other academics still practice sloppy thinking: fantasy equals pulp, genre presses are all commercial ventures, etc. And a good many others know better but live in terror of the stigma that might result if they speak up for genre. The good news is that these biases are being challenged like never before. Some walls of prejudice remain intact—place your tale in an invented world and the literary crowd won’t acknowledge your existence—but others are crumbling before our eyes. It behooves us to keep at them, with our fingernails if necessary.
Why do we [fantasy readers] find ourselves connecting so deeply to narratives set in the past, whether they are in a secondary world or the real one?
The appeal of past settings is often dismissed as escapist. The trouble with that verdict is less the use of the world than the negative connotations we attach to it. We should all thank Tolkien for reminding us that such acts of escape are fundamental expressions of “the freedom of mind and soul.” But there’s more to the past’s appeal. Distance can bring clarity, a settling of the dust. We kick up a lot of dust by living. Only a frenetic, self-absorbed society like ours—gazing forever at those “black mirrors” in our pockets—could expect a Literature of Now to yield all the answers.
In non-fiction, we have nature writing and collections of personal essays that explore themes of historical loss and longing, but also fear for the future on an environmental level, as many fictional narratives from the fantasy genre do. Examples of writers that spring to mind include Kathleen Jamie, Robert MacFarlane, and Roger Deakin. There seems to be a link between these two genres, these two very different narrative forms, and I wondered whether Fantasy would be the best genre in which to write a story that focused on the power relationship between place and people.
Such a marvelous question! I don’t know if we can ever pin down that concept of “best” (I was gnawing that old bone last night as Oscars frenzy gripped the planet), but I can certainly point to as many examples of fantasy doing this well as you like. Aliya Whiteley’s Skyward Inn, Rob Cameron’s The Lesson, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, Empress Ursula’s Always Coming Home, García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the deeply place-conscious stories of Jeffrey Ford, Liz Hand, Sofia Samatar, Ken Liu, Kij Johnson. We could go on all day. It’s a golden time for these tales that fuse geography, memory, loss both personal and ecological, and exquisite execution. It’s a bittersweet gift of dark times, I think, this body of excellent, contemplative work.
You have previously described worldbuilding as an “expensive” process. To write a fantasy book set in a secondary world, how much worldbuilding do you really have to do to create a sense of place for the reader that feels very much alive? For example, do the details about economy, trade and gender roles have a larger impact on sense of place than the hierarchy of government or magic system?
I’ve really changed in this regard. Years ago, I felt the need to write a gazetteer or encyclopedia of every aspect of the world I was inventing. That this was a product of my role-playing game youth I have no doubt! I’m not knocking RPGs for one instant. That training served me very well indeed, and continues to do so. But games are a different mode of storytelling. The dungeon master in an RPG has to come armed with as many details as possible, at least the way we played. When I began to write seriously, I naturally carried on with this impulse.
Looking back now, I think that some of that exhaustive effort was really about getting into a state of mind where the world became sufficiently real for me to inhabit it. With practice, I’ve learned to streamline some of that self-immersion, to arrive in that place a little more easily and fluidly.
Don’t get me wrong: I still created those encyclopedias; they’re just more compact. You can’t get around the need to make a lot of very basic decisions, to map and sculpt and paint in the details—sometimes before any actual writing hits the page, and sometimes in a slow process of incorporating that detail naturally as you go. For me, fortunately, doing so is extraordinary fun. Never, ever does it feel like work.
What are some of your favourite recent reads?
I mentioned Skyward Inn above: it’s really a stunner, first contact and deep questions about what it means to be human in a rich, near-future Southwest England. I also loved Sarah Moss’ chilling short novel Ghost Wall, also set in England; KJ Parkers’ The Escapement, his brilliant conclusion to the Engineers’ trilogy; and David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue. Only Mitchell could involve me that deeply (as in, “Don’t talk to me at all until I finish this!”) with the story of a fictitious 1960s folk/rock band. That’s the beauty of fiction—it makes us care despite ourselves.
What do you enjoy doing outside of writing and reading?
Pacing and worrying about deadlines! No, seriously: I am madly passionate about nature. Take me to see a rare duck or healthy patch of forest and I’m happy all day. I’m also fascinated with and to the best of my abilities, devoted to learning about Latin America. In fact I’m answering these questions from Colombia, the country I’ve been longing to return to for 25 years, and finally have.
If you only had one piece of advice to give to an aspiring author, what would it be?
Never forget that the dependable joys of the writing life are non-monetary, period. If the market decides to embrace you, wonderful. But your gifts as a writer are another thing altogether. Many great writers never manage to sell their books in any quantity; others never manage to publish at all. Many poor and mediocre writers sell quite nicely. And of course, a certain number of excellent writers also sell quite well.
The troublesome thing is that we hear all about that last category, and not about the mass of great writers who do not have their good fortune. This creates an illusion which wounds many writers very deeply: “If I’m not selling, I’m no good; I’m a loser; I have no talent; I was vain to think I could write.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Quality is just one variable in a successful writing career, and often not the decisive one. Never tie your sense of self-worth to the fickle, faceless commerce of book selling. Write ‘cause it’s fun.
Are you working on any new books or other projects at the moment?
I am rushing to finish Siege, the final volume in The Fire Sacraments epic fantasy trilogy. I’ve reached a point of great momentum and great satisfaction. I wake up each morning, and lie awake many nights, thinking about the next pages, the next chapter. Still a lot of work to be done, but I can see the destination now. I’m really hopeful now that readers of Master Assassins and Sidewinders are going to have their expectations met in this final volume.
As for what comes next, I can only say this: standalone novels! I don’t plan to write more tales that sprawl over multiple books, although I can certainly imagine writing interconnected novels. From this point forward, however, I plan to make each story the size of one book exactly. My imagination and my energy are both pushing that way. I do have plans to return to the world of my first series, to learn what trouble Pazel Pathkendle and Thasha Isiq and Felthrup get into next. I also have a novel set in my native Virginia simmering at the back of the stove. We’ll see which one I finish first.