Sunday, June 14, 2009

6 + 1: Interview with Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material.  Her short stories have sold to more than a dozen venues.  Her Onyx Court series of historical London fantasies includes Midnight Never Come and the recently-released In Ashes Lie, with two more to come.  More information can be found on her website,

Question 1:  I am silent and then I'm not/ You fear me but I feed you/ I am everywhere but always scarce: what am I?

. . . I have no idea.  I think I left my brain somewhere during this past month, when I was traveling, but I was in so many places that I have no clue where it might be.

Question 2:  The new Onyx Court novel, In Ashes Lie, comes out now, in June.  Tell us about the novel and about the two new ones you are writing.

More backstabbing faerie politics beneath London, this time with bonus explosions!

Ashes covers the period of the English Civil War, leading up to the Great Fire of London in 1666.  Like its predecessor, it concerns itself with the Onyx Court (the faerie court hidden beneath London) and the ways in which the fae interfere with mortal history, but each book shifts its focus a bit, as the world changes around them.  Midnight was in many ways about the royal court, whereas Ashes has more to do with Parliament and the City itself, and that trend toward more ordinary people is going to continue.

They're all set roughly a century apart, so the upcoming two are in the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively.  I'm starting work on the first of those right now, mashing together alchemy and the Enlightenment and the first predicted return of Halley's comet.  Next year, it'll be steampunk faeries in the later Victorian period.

Question 3:  In your essay "Frazier's Goddamned Golden Bough," you forcefully reject the notion that fantasy writing is an exercise in nostalgia or avoidance of the future.  I agree strongly and would like to see your essay read more widely.  Any thoughts on updating/expanding the essay, and/or bringing it to a broader audience?

Well, it helps when people like you bring it up!  I've posted it on my website, of course, but haven't really made any plans for pushing it further; I'd republish it if someone offered an appropriate circumstance, but that depends more on other people than on me.  And I'm not sure if I could expand it, though I might polish it a bit -- the whole thing was very much an explosive reaction that I flung out in one go, and having said my piece, I was done.  There are related issues I could talk about, but they seem more the kind of thing I'm going to unleash on some poor fellow panelist at a con someday, rather than anything I could formulate into an essay, at least right now.

Question 4:  One of your strengths is your focus on craftsmanship, e.g.,  your study trip to London for In Ashes Lie, your essays on grammar and narrative devices.  Tell us more about how you attend to the details of creating great stories and the worlds they portray.

It goes in cycles.  At the moment, I'm thinking a lot about characterization; the next Onyx Court book features an honest-to-god extrovert, a guy who wears his passions on his sleeve and doesn't think as much as he should before opening his mouth.  That's very difficult for me to write, so I'm having to be very conscious of how it works.  For another book, it might be a more complicated plot, or a specific prose style.  You can't think about everything at once, but you can pick specific things to focus on at specific times.

It's mostly an issue of awareness: instead of letting things be invisible to you, passing under your radar, you have to stop and think about them.  Sometimes it also helps to look at books or stories which do that thing particularly well, *or* particularly badly -- you might think you should only look at good models, but the odd truth is that you can often understand something much better when you see it break down.  A successful example can be harder to pick apart.

Question 5:  Thinking of the fight and dance scenes in Warrior, for instance, I characterize your descriptions as "kinetic, gracefully flowing."  Do you have dance or music training?  Do you storyboard the sequences before you write them?

I have both, actually -- thirteen years of ballet (plus assorted years of jazz and modern lyrical during that same period), piano from the age of six, French horn starting in junior high.  I've also done some fencing and dabbled in martial arts, though I didn't really commit to learning karate until long after those novels were written.  It always pleases me when readers say they really liked those scenes, because I think conveying movement is quite hard to do in prose.

I don't storyboard them per se; that's really a film technique (or, in a different sense, a comic-book one), and while I'd be happy to see that book turned into a movie, I'm not writing with film in mind.  You've got to craft everything for the medium you're working in *now*.  I do, however, often sketch out a rough map of the space the fight is happening in, and label it with stage directions -- stage left, upstage, etc -- so that I can map out the flow of movement and keep track of where everyone is.  (Because if the writer can't keep it straight, the reader doesn't stand a chance.)

Question 6:  Yoon Ha Lee has written a lovely theme song for Onyx Court.  How did the collaboration come about?  Any thoughts about working together on an entire suite, perhaps you writing the libretto for her score?

It was a pretty simple thing, actually.  There was an online charity auction called Live Long and Marry, raising money to fight Prop 8 (a ban on gay marriage) in California, and Yoon offered an original composition to the buyer's prompt.  I leapt on the Buy It Now price the instant the auction opened, and sent her a copy of Midnight Never Come as my prompt.  There was a bit of back-and-forth about what kind of piece I was looking for, and a tweaking of a certain passage in her first draft, but mostly she just went with what the book inspired in her.  As to whether we'd ever do more, I hadn't really thought about it -- though I can tell you I'm unlikely to write a libretto.  I was not born under a rhyming planet.

Question 7:  Your turn!

If "forty-two" is the answer to life, the universe, and everything, what is the answer to death, the void, and nothing?

I am just back from my trek to Helicon, where I put your question to those who dwell there. The nine could give me no distinct answer, disagreeing gently amongst themselves. Urania spoke of Hubble's Constant and the Lambda-Cold Dark Matter theory. Thalia, laughing as she wandered the heather-clad mountainside, tossed back over her shoulder in reply: "goodbye and thanks for all the fish!" Dear Clio expostulated with her sisters, citing the Olmec Long Count Calendar and the origins of the Jain Lokavibhaga.

Erato, strumming on the lyre, said nothing 'til all the others had opined. Then, at last, she sang forth the best answer I can offer:

"Great streets of silence led away
To neighborhoods of pause;
Here was no notice, no dissent,
No universe, no laws.

By clocks 't was morning, and for night
The bells at distance called,
But epoch had no basis here,
For period exhaled."

(--Emily Dickinson, "Void," XXXVII in Time & Eternity)

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