Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Interview: Aliette de Bodard by Marshall Payne

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Since selling making her first short story sale in 2005,
Aliette de Bodard has been making a name for herself with her multicultural fantasy and SF. She was a finalist for the 2009 Campbell Award for Best New Writer and also a 2006 winner of Writers of the Future. She has sold fiction to Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy, Interzone, IGMS, Fantasy Magazine, ASIM, and Abyss & Apex, among others. Her story in Interzone #219, "Butterfly, Falling at Dawn," has been reprinted in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, ed. Gardner Dozois. Her first novel, Servant of the Underworld, will be out in the Spring of 2010 from Angry Robot. She lives in Paris, France, and though a native French speaker she chooses to write in English, her second language. She works as a computer programmer by day and writes fiction by night—therefore, she says, spending most of her time endlessly staring at a computer screen.

Please tell us about your upbringing and education.

I was born in New York, but didn't really stay long enough for that to make an impression on me (in fact, I was so young when we left that I remember nothing from that time period). I'm half-French, half-Vietnamese, which makes for an interesting intersection of backgrounds: though most of my education was French, my Vietnamese mother and grandmother played a huge part in it.

One of the most formative experiences I had in many ways was living for two years in London as a teenager: it's always eye-opening to move elsewhere, even if the "elsewhere" is a neighboring country. It was also in London that I discovered SF and fantasy as a genre, rather than the occasional book borrowed from the library.

When did the idea of being a writer first occur to you? When did you tackle it in earnest?

I've always been an avid reader, but apart from a brief foray into writing fiction when I was eight years old (an embarrassingly bad SF story involving cat-people and the Emperor of the Galaxy), it never occurred to me that being a writer was a legitimate job until I moved to London. There, I discovered Orson Scott Card and checked everything he had ever written out of the library. When I ran out of his novels, I found a small book of his called How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and discovered that writing was a craft with its nuts and bolts—not only that, but that anyone could do it. I had somehow got from my French classes that writing was something only for the polymaths and influential people like Victor Hugo, who combined the careers of writer, poet and politician.

How have you overcome the obstacles of writing in English when French is your native language? Has the online world helped you in this respect?

I try to keep my English fluent through regular practice. As the people around me speak mostly French, I rely mostly on online relationships, whether they be email conversations, discussions on forums or interactions with my critique group. That means I'm reading and writing English on a regular basis—in addition, of course, to the mass of English books I read over the year.

Are you a quick facile writer or a slow methodical one?

Hum, I guess it depends. Writing a draft for me involves a very slow phase of research where I need to get the basic details of the setting and of the characters right. I can get rather obsessive at this point: it varies, but on average I'd say I spend at least two or three weeks doing research and brainstorming around plot events for a short story. The actual story is written fast, though: it's common for me to produce a complete draft in two or three days.

I have an engineer's approach to first drafts, which is that I find it easier to get the big picture right at the concept phase, rather than have to gut the story during rewrites: I try to get as much of the first draft right as I can, especially in terms of setting and plot events. I then pass it on to my first reader, and generally through a critique pass. If a substantial rewrite is required (by which I mean taking the story in a completely different direction), I'll go through yet another critique pass afterwards. But it depends a lot on the story, of course.

I wrote a couple of (still embarrassingly bad) novels over the next five years, but it wasn't until I entered engineering school in 2004-2005 that I started to take it seriously: I joined my first critique group on Hatrack, Orson Scott Card's website, started to write short stories as a way of learning the craft, and made my first submissions to professional markets.

You just signed a three-book deal with Angry Robot. What can you tell us about that?

Well, this was totally a case of serendipity. Last year, I was rather miffed when British Airways cancelled my flight home from World Fantasy, leaving me stuck in a shabby hotel with not much in the way of distraction. By sheer luck, there were also two people in the hotel: John Berlyne, who was setting up a new agency in the UK, and Marc Gascoigne, editor of the new HarperCollins Angry Robot. Together, they cajoled me into pitching the novel I had completed at the time (and which I'd had no intention of pitching at all, making for a rather flustered few seconds while I got my sentences under control).

And, as it turned out, the first became my agent, and negotiated a three-book deal with the second, for the novel in question and two sequels. It all feels very surreal, but there you have it.

The novel is called Servant of the Underworld, and is a fantasy-mystery set in Aztec times, featuring death-priest-cum-investigator Acatl (and ghostly jaguars, bloodthirsty gods and fingernail-eating monsters). It's a wild, fast-paced ride through a blood-soaked land where the old gods are manifest, and quick to demand their due in all kinds of unpleasant ways. It's due in print Spring 2010.

You have a story in Fantasy Magazine entitled, "Golden Lilies." Where did the idea for this story come about and what can you tell us about it?

"Golden Lilies" was the end result of some research I did on Imperial China. In particular, I've always horrified by bound feet, which consist of girls having their feet broken and compressed together when they were still very young, in order to make them vulnerable and attractive to men. What struck me as the worst wasn't so much the barbarity of the procedure, but the way it was so widespread that it was barely mentioned in the literature of the time—it was just taken for granted by everyone, and parents were considered cruel if they didn't bind their daughters' feet, because they were wrecking their chances of a good marriage. A good mother was thus someone who deliberately mutilated her daughters. This set me to wondering what would happen if parents had been kind according to modern standards, and left a girl to grow up with normal feet—what could she expect out of life?

I mixed that with another Chinese mainstay: that of female ghosts, who tend to carry a lot of sexual unease, by being either impossibly, virginally pure, or life-sucking fiends.

The story practically wrote itself from that point, drawing on all the research background I'd been accumulating over the last year. About the only problem I ran into was the ending, which I rewrote several times: I wanted to make sure that the last few paragraphs and the last sentence in particular were going to stick in the reader's mind, and I just couldn't find the word I wanted. It turned out that there was a case of misapplied bilingualism: there was a perfect word, but it was in French... I ended up rephrasing everything to make the ending less awkward.

Where did your interest in ancient cultures come from?

I've always had an interest in mythology and history, which has seeped into my writing. What I love about ancient cultures is that you don't need to go to another planet or another galaxy to discover people who are utterly alien to you: it's amazing to see how mankind, over the course of a few millennia, can think of so many variations on the basic blocks of society-building that you'll have trouble apprehending everything. One of the things I love is seeing how what might seem like a weird custom from the point of a 21st-century reader stems from a society's core values and environment in the most logical and irrefutable way—and of course, writing about characters for whom the custom is an integral part of their worldview.

The three main cultures you've explored in your fiction are Ancient India, Ancient China, and the Aztecs. Do you have a favorite? Which one has proven the most difficult to capture? The easiest?

I rather like the Aztecs, as a matter of fact. I tend to have a soft spot for the underdog, and the Aztecs are a very much maligned culture in literature and movies. Whenever someone needs a bloodthirsty tribe of invaders to make suitable villains, they have a good chance of turning to an Aztec-flavored society. But, if you set aside the stumbling block of human sacrifice, Aztec society had a lot that was positive: a humane system of justice which held the rich to a higher degree of responsibility than the poor, a higher degree of equality between men and women than most ancient civilizations, and high social mobility between commoners and noblemen. I also find Aztec society is the easiest of the three to capture, mainly because we have so few sources about the Aztecs that, if I can't find a detail after a reasonable amount of research, it's probably that it's not known and that I can make it up with a reasonably clear conscience. On the other hand, Ancient China is frustrating because it has the reverse problem of a glut of sources, which are not always easy to get hold of.

Is there another culture you plan on exploring in the near future?

I'm currently reading up on Inca and Maya cultures, to complete my knowledge of Pre-Columbian Latin America.

One of the strengths of your fiction is your detailed, vivid worldbuilding of other cultures. Obviously research plays a big role in this. Could you tell us how you use research in building a world and crafting a story based on that?

I usually start out by reading mythology and literature from the culture, because that gives me what I need most—the mindset and belief system (I'm using this in the loose sense of religion, politics, outlook on life...). That in turn defines both the environment in which the characters are going to live, but more importantly what they're going to feel about this environment and what their long-term goals are likely to be. An Ancient Chinese, for instance, will value a scholar's career over one in the army, whereas an Aztec would tend to have the reverse reaction, since war was so revered in Aztec society. Individual outlooks will of course vary, but it helps to know in what environment those outlooks are fostered, and what ideas would not be conceivable.

What I need after that is details on daily life: what a house looks like, what's the structure of a family, what's the basic form of worship and who takes part in it. I need to have those details in mind, both because otherwise I will go back to my default 21st-century daily life, and because it's those details that will help anchor the setting by giving the reader the impression that they're here, standing inside this house with this family, or listening to this religious ceremony going on.

If I have extra time, I'll read proper history books to get the big picture of politics and war, but since so few of my short stories have that kind of large scale, I tend to compress that part when researching.

If you were stranded on a desert isle and only had a few books by one author as your literary diet, who would that be?

It's hard to decide, but I'd say Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond books. They're amazingly detailed historical novels set in Renaissance Europe, which not only have a large cast of very realistic and sympathetic characters, but also this fantastic wealth of scholarship. When I'm rereading them, I'm always either finding something clever I hadn't seen before, or falling back in love with the characters all over again.

Who are some of your literary influences? Is there an author or two whom you've studied for craft and technique you've found especially beneficial?

Orson Scott Card obviously looms large as an influence. What I took from him was the idea that both SF and fantasy can and should concern themselves with moral questions, but also how to craft characters the reader loves. I also owe a lot to Ursula K. Le Guin, for introducing both a non-Western outlook and a thoughtful examination of gender roles in her Earthsea series—as well as for showing me that you can string together the simplest words and make them sing.

Despite that you've had recent success with short fiction, you've said that writing novels is your first love. Currently you're working on a novel set in an alternate-history world from two of your Interzone stories. Can you tell us about that and are there any technical difficulties you've had to overcome?

I designed the alternate-history world of Xuya as a sandbox for intersecting cultures I was interested in. The central premise is that China discovered America a century before Columbus, and that this radically changed the history of the continent—notably because both the Aztec Empire and the Inca Empire remained in existence, albeit in changed forms.

I didn't want to go the route of many alternate histories I've read, where a single culture or two ended up dominating the planet, either politically or culturally, because I tend to be skeptical of huge empires and uniformity. So my North America is a melding of different influences, a place where vastly different cultures can interact—and both the short stories and the novels explore the theme of immigration and of fitting in. For instance, an Aztec character finding solace in the outwardly unchanging nature of Chinese society, or a US detective learning to tolerate Aztec values. It's something I'm very much fascinated by, all the more so when the cultures never met in real life.

The main problem I ran into is that my divergence point is in 1411, six centuries before the time of the short stories or of the novel—and that in that amount of time, any culture would have undergone drastic changes. In order to make those changes plausible, I have to really understand the culture and its basic values, to have a plausible idea of how it might have evolved down the line. And that in turns entails a huge amount of research.

Outside of writing, what are your other interests?

I like traveling. It's always interesting to see how things are in another country—not to mention seeing all the gorgeous ruins (I remain, after all, a history buff). Other than that, I'm a huge video games fan: I used to play on PC before my computer got too old to handle the latest games, and I've now transferred my activities over to the Wii, which allows me to compete with several other friends.

What's ahead for you? Goals? Ambitions?

Currently, I'm trying to wrap up the alternate-history novel, so I can focus on the sequel to Servant of the Underworld. I'm looking forward to throwing in more elements from the very peculiar Aztec mythology, and to develop the characters some more by putting them through the wringer (only decent way to do any work in a novel).

I'm also brainstorming various short stories to keep up my short fiction skills.

Oh, and naturally I want to take over the world with the help of my evil minions and mad engineers. Plans for that are currently underway. You'll know it when it happens. Trust me.


Marshall Payne has worked as a touring musician, music producer, sound technician, a salesman, and a waiter. He has written over 100 short stories and his fiction has or will appear in Aeon Speculative Fiction, Brutarian, Talebones, Fictitious Force, to name a few. He has a website at http://marshallpayne.com/ and a blog at http://marshallpayne1.livejournal.com/.

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