Q&A: Aliette de Bodard

24 September, 2015

House of Shattered Wings

In the late twentieth century, the streets of Paris are lined with haunted ruins, the remnants of a Great War beween arcane powers. The Grands Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burned-out shell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes, rubble, and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart. But those who survived still retain their irrepressible appetite for novelty and distraction, and the great Houses still vie for dominion over France’s once-grand capital.

Once the most powerful and formidable, House Silverspires now lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; it founder, Morningstar has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House three very different people must come together: a naïve but powerful Fallen angel; an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction; and a resentful young man wielding spells of unknown origin. They may be Silverspires’ salvation or the architects of its last, irreversible fall. And if Silverspires fall, so may the city itself.

Aliette de Bodard’s new novel, The House of Shattered Wings, set in a 20th century post-apocalyptic Paris filled with fallen angels and mortals vying for power while something dark and dangerous is slowly picking them off, is a wonderful blend of fantastical elements from both Western and Eastern mythologies. I’ve been a huge fan of her work for a number of years and love her stories set in the Xuya universe and her Obsidian and Blood trilogy set during the Aztec Empire of which Servant of the Underworld is the first volume.

Upon reading her latest novel, I sent her a number of questions which she was kind enough to answer. Enjoy!

1. In The House of Shattered Wings, which character did you most connect with and who did you most enjoy writing about?

That’s a bit like asking me to pick a favourite child! I really like all the characters in the book (even though they might not like me, as I put them through a bit of a ride!). I particularly connect with Madeleine, the House alchemist, who is a bit of a geek and inept at social situations (the scene where she attempts to play high-level politics and fails was something that was very familiar to me!). The character I enjoyed writing about the most is actually head of House Hawthorn and part-time antagonist Asmodeus – I certainly wouldn’t like to have a drink with him or trust him with much of anything, but as a writer he’s great to put in scenes because of all the snarky comebacks. Also, the fact all three main characters distrust him, fear him and/or hate his guts make him a great plot mover and generator of conflict.

2. What were your inspirations for the novel?

I had a lot of inspirations for the novel: part of it is my love letter to 19th Century novels (Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Hugo’s Les Misérables, Zola), part of it draws from manga and anime (I took some lessons in period drama and creepy monsters from Full Metal Alchemist, and also took some inspiration from Black Butler‘s alternate and phantasmagoric Victorian England), and part of it is classic fantasy of people doing small and epic things against overwhelming odds (David Gemmell’s King Beyond the Gate and the other Drenai novels, and books by Elizabeth Bear, Kari Sperring, Tim Powers, China Miéville and many others!). And finally part of it is fairytales and myths from Vietnam my grandmother used to tell me when I was a child.

3. Could you tell us something about your writing rituals? Do you create as you go along or plot meticulously?

I am a methodical plotter and I tend to do very badly without an outline (translate by ‘flailing around and moaning a lot’!). I generally do a chapter by chapter, scene by scene outline which I use as a basis for launching into the book. It tends to be a bit vaguer as we get close to the end (one book in the Obsidian and Blood series memorably had ‘somehow, they win the day’ to cover the last three chapters of epic battles!), and I also tend to heavily rework out as I go. For instance, The House of Shattered Wings originally had Madeleine returning of her own will to House Hawthorn, and this bit ended up not making sense at all, so I changed the timeline of the last three chapters. The ending (I won’t go into it because spoilers!) was also one of those totally unplanned things that ended up looking as though it’d been there all along – it was kind of a relief and kind of scary, actually – felt like my muse and unconscious had been working double time while I was desperately trying to get the last chapters working!

I write when I can, which means when the infant isn’t taking up all the space in my life: I do a lot of first drafting on the metro while commuting, and a lot of revisions in the evenings or on weekends. I am a slow first drafter, but I revise pretty fast fortunately (and don’t quite need as much brain space and immersion), so that helps!

4. I love that you incorporate other cultures in your work, especially your Xuya Universe and the Mexica Empire in your Obsidian and Blood trilogy, and I want to read more. What sparks your interest and how do you go about your research?

I’ve incorporated other cultures in my work because I feel the need to bring fantasy beyond Western, pseudo-European cultures, and draw inspiration from further afield. Part of it comes from growing up away from the mainstream and with a different culture – I feel like, in many ways, I’m always writing for ten-year-old me, who was so desperate for anything Asian that she devoured anything with dark-haired, short women in them.

I also think a lot of it (particularly the Chinese in the Xuya universe) was my way of circling Vietnamese culture and never quite bringing myself to write about it because I was scared I wouldn’t do it justice! (And I was already imagining my entire maternal family coming down like a ton of bricks on me). It took a conversation with my good friend Rochita Loenen-Ruiz to realise that if I didn’t do it, who else would?

I do research with a variety of sources: primary sources, academic texts, fiction–and people (for Obsidian and Blood I didn’t do that last and it was a mistake).

5. And what are some of your favourite books and authors?

Ha, too many to be listed! I really love Terry Pratchett: I own all the Discworld books and come back to them from time to time, like old friends. Recently I’ve enjoyed Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem, a combination of hard SF and Chinese history that is mindblowing (and I’m looking forward to The Dark Forest), Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts, an epic fantasy set in an analogue of the Silk Road, J Damask’s Jan Xu books, wonderful family-focused urban fantasy set in Singapore, and Sergey and Marina Dyachenko’s The Scar, a dark and intense fantasy about a man’s search for redemption in the aftermath of a magical war.

Thank you so much to Aliette for providing such fabulous answers. I will certainly be checking out her incredibly diverse list of books and will be waiting with bated breath for the sequel to The House of Shattered Wings.

Servant of the Underworld

Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

One of my favourite series, The Glass Books trilogy by G.W. Dahlquist comprising The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, The Dark Volume and The Chemickal Marriage, has just been made available as e-books by Penguin. The trilogy follows the adventures of three unlikely allies, Miss Celeste Temple, Cardinal Chang and Dr Svenson, faced with a diabolical enemy who is trying to take over the country and enslave the citizens in an alternate neo-Victorian world.

I loved the books and was lucky enough to pose some questions to G.W. Dahlquist. Enjoy!

1) I loved The Glass Books trilogy and was a little heartbroken to say goodbye to the characters. Will there be any further adventures for Miss Temple, Cardinal Chang and Dr. Svenson?

I mean, never say never, but right now I have no plans to continue with them. Who knows, maybe sometime I’ll want to write short stories about events earlier in their lives, or a novella about events after the end of The Chemickal Marriage, but for now I’m caught up in other projects. I did carry those characters around in my head for about 8 years – they were a very regular part of the day, if that makes sense – so to set them aside was a little like moving house. But as someone who has also recently moved house, it’s usually healthy to shift things around every once in a while.

2) What were your inspirations behind the characters and plot for The Glass Books trilogy?

More than anything, the books flowed from a lifetime of reading: reading both proper history, and historical, social-tapestry novels, but also all sorts of more plot-driven novels that we associate with the 19th century. So many genres erupt out of that world: deductive mysteries, speculative science fiction, romances, adventure, exploration, erotica – it seemed like a natural thing to put a contemporary spin on those styles and try to wrap them all together. The main characters flowed very much from the action. That I started with Miss Temple was probably spurred by being American, by my interest in the clash of New World and Old. I’m interested in tarot cards, and one way of thinking of the major arcana cards is that each the opposite of the one that precedes it (e.g., if the Magician is consciousness, the High Priestess is intuition). This is sort of how I think of how Chang and Svenson took form, each one in some crucial sense the opposite of the narrator who’d come before. I certainly didn’t plan them, they just took form based on what else had started to happen.

3) It seems as though you had as much fun writing the books as we had reading them. Could you tell us a little about your writing rituals and what kind of research was involved in completing the books?

I had a very good time writing them, the first one probably most of all, since it was written for no other reason than to entertain myself. I try to write every day, for between 4 and 6 hours. I usually work in cafes, drinking lots of coffee and listening to music pretty loud on headphones. I’ll listen to the same things, or the same musicians, again and again while I’m working on a given piece.

I didn’t do very much research to start, on any of the books – as I said, they’re really the product of years and years of reading. Some of this is because I’m not writing about a particular, existing city, or a particular stated year. This is a fictive world, deliberately. I’d like readers to be caught up in what’s happening, but I’d also like them to see that what’s happening has been made, that they’re reading a story written now. That said, I certainly checked a lot of specific facts about language, and about science and the commercial availability of various things. Equally, sections of the books are very much inspired by particular places. The Iron Coast in The Dark Volume echoes where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the US, for example, as the journey to the Vandaariff tomb in The Chemickal Marriage is indebted to a tour through Highgate cemetery in London, and the Royal Thermae in The Chemickal Marriage carries the influence of the Szechenyi baths in Budapest.

4) Did you know how the books and the trilogy was going to end or did you create the story as you wrote?

I did not know how each book would end before I wrote it. My mode of writing comes from writing plays, where I think it’s useful to very much understand the world of the play (or the book), and the ideas one wants to attack, but not necessarily work out the plot itself, or not in such detail. My plot outlines are generally along the line of a hand-written note, “S meets FX. River.” Which is to say, what I don’t know is the actual dialogue, the actual nuance of the scene, because for me those roll into one another in the moment. In the case of The Glass Books, there’s a murder that’s discovered in the first chapter, whose solution figures rather prominently in the climax – but I didn’t know exactly who’d done the murder until about half-way through the last chapter. Of course, that kind of decision-making necessitates a lot of rewriting after the fact, but I think that the choices you make having been steeped in a book are more informed and less imposed than choices you make at the very beginning, when you frankly don’t know very much about the who and why of that world.

I didn’t write The Glass Books with any sequel in mind, and when the idea was broached by my editor I wasn’t sure, but soon enough I began to think about new possibilities for the characters, how the different locations at the start of The Dark Volume could bring out new parts of their personalities, and I became quite interested in pursuing the story to another stage. With The Chemickal Marriage, while I knew there would be a third book to finish things, I spent a lot more time thinking about how that world had changed and needed to change still before beginning to actually write. But for all that additional time, I wrote the book in the same way, keeping myself in the dark, or at least with one eye shut, knowing that there would be ample time to revise.

5) Please tell us about some of your favourite books and authors.

My favorite authors include playwrights, like Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, and novelists like Nabokov and Faulkner. I’ve always read a lot of science fiction, and particularly like Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, and Iain M. Banks. I also read a lot of mysteries, mostly older authors like Ross McDonald or Georges Simenon. The last five books I’ve read have been Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, The Roman Emperors by Michael Grant, and Today We Choose Faces by Roger Zelazny.

Thank you very much G.W. Dahlquist for taking the time to answer these questions and in so much depth. I will be checking out some of Gordon’s favourite books and am looking forward to re-reading The Glass Books trilogy. If you haven’t tried them, then I strongly urge you to – they’re mad, bad and deliciously subversive.