Following on from Alyssa’s review of Kate Elliott’s latest novel, Cold Magic – a “steampunk meets ice” fantasy – the author was kind enough to answer some questions about her world-building, novels, writing and more.
Cold Magic, the first novel in your Spiritwalker Series, is out now through Orbit, with the second (Cold Fire) coming out in September. How would you introduce the series to a new reader? What can we expect from future instalments?
I call this series an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure with bonus airship, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons (a type of small dinosaur). It is, in other words, a mash-up of diverse influences, purposefully so.
An American Library Association list referred to Cold Magic is “When steampunk meets ice.” Not everyone who has read it think it meets all the steampunk requirements (whatever those may be), but it is definitely a novel about how things change during a time of great social upheaval because it is set in the early industrial revolution.
The story is told in the first person by Cat Barahal, a young woman about to turn 20 who was orphaned at the age of six and has been raised by her aunt and uncle. A large part of what changes in Cold Magic is Cat’s own understanding of the world and her place in it. The second and third volumes expand and complete the story; in addition, we’ll see more of the world. Book two includes the talking head of a dead poet, crows, icebergs, sharks, buccaneers, tropical fruit, civic revolution, and a fair number of vocabulary words from the original Taino, who were the first people the Columbus of our world encountered when he reached the Caribbean; fortunately for the Taino of my Earth, Columbus never lived and thus never voyaged, so they are doing quite well.
Large & Mass Market Paperback Editions (UK)
In the Spiritwalker Series, you’ve created a complex alternate history. How did you go about constructing this world? Where did you begin? What were your biggest challenges in creating it?
As I’ve said elsewhere, the world got its start a few years ago when my then high-school-age children came to me one day and asked if I wanted to “world build” with them. So, while they had already made a start on an alternate world (not then an alternate Earth), we did a lot of the work on it together. I admit that once I decided to write a novel in the world, I took it off in some directions (alt-Earth specifically) they might not have chosen for themselves, but one of the great elements of this project for me is that I still consult them on world building and some plot questions.
The Spiritwalker world is not a true alternate history. The addition of magic, a spirit world bound to our own, and the intelligent descendants of troodons militates against it being a straightforward branch version of our own world (as per the old “what if Charlemagne had converted to Islam” road of what historians call “counterfactual history”). One of my readers calls it “a different Earth, with magic.”
I wanted to write a novel that to some degree (although only partially) steps outside the dominant Euro-American fantasy paradigm. I wanted to write a world in which people from outside Europe migrate to and settle in Europe and, due to their wealth and power, make lives for themselves there as equals within the social order, because we far more often see stories about how Europeans travel to, observe, and colonize other parts of the world. I wanted to see that narrative flow reversed or, at the least, mixed up some (historically, of course, the movement of peoples has rarely, if ever, been as one-sided as it sometimes seems in fiction and, alas, in the sort of history which privileges one perspective).
The major thing that made this difficult for me as a writer was my exceptional ignorance about West African history. I’m well read. I know history. I’m sorry to say it came as a shock to me how deeply the history of such exceptional polities as the Mali and Songhai Empires is ignored and made invisible through neglect. I even know better; I know how easy it is to elide or negate lives and whole cultures in the writing of history. And yet it still surprised me. So I started quite honestly by finding a couple of good recent children’s books to get a very basic overview; then I plunged into more in-depth reading (there is a lot to read, once you start looking), as well as listening (Mali has a truly amazing musical tradition as well as, I later discovered, an unbelievably fabulous textile tradition). I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Mali for three weeks in early 2010. It’s not that I could learn that much in a mere three weeks, tromping into the country as an outsider and tourist, but that I did feel I could absorb something intangible, however small, by experiencing the land and culture for myself. I did learn a few things by being there that I could never have gotten from the pages of a book.
My mash-up of history, throwing together Iron Age Celtic, post-imperial Roman, Phoenician/Carthaginian, and Mande (Malian Empire) cultures with a few other influences, is (to be realistic) a mere shallow approximation of what a real culture looks like in its fullest sense. However, I hope I was able to suggest a world and culture different from our own history and yet with enough resemblances that readers can relatively easily enter into that world. In a way, for me, making the attempt was the most important thing about the project. It was and is daunting to use real-world material, because there are so many opportunities to screw it up in so many diverse ways, from factual errors to issues of cultural appropriation, but whatever my successes and failures, I’m really glad I took the plunge. And I’m glad my children dragged me into this project in the first place.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? Who and what would you say are your biggest influences?
My parents and extended family are my biggest influences in terms of how I look at the world and approach what I want to write about. As a child of an immigrant growing up in an ethnic household, I’ve always been interested in the dynamic between cultures, the process of assimilation into the new versus the retention and prolongation of the old, as well as the ways in which cultures interact, change, and conflict when they come into contact.
As for fantasy and science fiction, I read Tolkien when I was 13. The Lord of the Rings made a big impression on me, enough that I decided I wanted to make up my own worlds. I didn’t want to live in Tolkien’s world or make up stories set in places other writers had created; I wanted my own. As a child growing up in rural Oregon, in a time when girls were bombarded with a lot of cultural messages about what they couldn’t do and ought not to want or desire, fantasy and science fiction offered a kind of freedom to explore all those acts and feelings I actually did want and desire despite being told I shouldn’t. How I approach writing and life has changed to some degree as I’ve gotten older, but there remains a strong sense, for me, that I can engage in a dialogue with myself, with my younger self as well as my self to come (who I can’t truly know), and with the world through writing.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practice?
People pay me for making up stories. I can’t complain about that.
I write because I love writing novels, but I also treat writing as a job, because it is how I make my living. I treat work hours the same as if I was employed at a job where I was required to show up at specific times. That is, I can’t just hare off to run errands or entertain guests or see a film or what have you.
On writing: I usually write very sloppy and overlong first drafts, although by the time I have gotten to the end of a “first draft” the text usually has portions that have been rewritten multiple times as well as sections that are truly raw first draft. When I revise, I cut a great deal, and I sharpen and focus scenes. I rewrite extensively, although generally the shape of the book is set by the end of the official “first draft.” I do the most post-first-draft work on details, flow, and nuance.
With research, if I don’t know much about a subject I’ll first attempt to find a very basic introductory volume and move from there into increasingly specific academic books and articles until I feel I have the information I need to write what I want. When possible and necessary, I am sometimes able to travel to places I want to investigate or get a feel for. I also consult experts if I can find willing victims... I mean, people eager to share their hard-won knowledge with me.
The Crossroads Trilogy (UK)
When did you realise you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I started writing in my early teens. I have files full of false starts and paragraphs and pages of unfinished story ideas. I think I still have a copy of every fantasy map and spaceship layout I ever drew. There’s something about early writing that I think is very pure in that you’re doing it solely for the discovery and joy of the process. I still write to seek those elements of discovery and joy, but because I’ve written so many novels now and because I write for a living, other factors keep crowding in. One of my constant goals is to clear away the underbrush of all these other considerations to find the heart of the storytelling impulse. So, yes, I look back on that fondly, although I say that without any desire to actually go back to those days.
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
Book 2 of the Spiritwalker Trilogy, Cold Fire, is finished; it will be published in September 2011. I’m currently working on book 3, Cold Steel. After I complete Cold Steel I expect to write a fourth Crossroads novel. While it will follow some of the characters previously seen in the Crossroads Trilogy, it is intended to work as a standalone novel as well. Other projects I have in mind are the fifth Jaran novel, a Young Adult project I’m developing, a second trilogy set in the Crossroads universe (which is actually the original story I was going to write before I decided I had to write a “prequel” trilogy which is now the three “Gate” books), other stories set in the Cold Magic universe, and finally a fantasy novel I started writing for my son when he was in basic training in the Navy which he would like me to finish. That’s the short list. There’s a long list, too, but I try not to think too much about all the books I would like to write and may never have time to complete.
Who are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
At the moment I am reading or have just read:
Fiction: The Dread Hammer by Trey Shiels, a self-published novel by SFF Linda Nagata (publishing under a pen name). I can’t recommend this enough: it’s a beautifully and tightly written fantasy novel about love, vengeance, war, duty, and violence. You guys should read it. Everyone should read it.
The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells – a fabulous novel about a young man’s quest to find out who he is. It’s got rich world-building, a strongly sympathetic lead character, and assured storytelling.
Non-fiction: Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History by Wim Klooster, Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans by Andrew Riggsby.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
That’s a tough one. That I’m an athlete? That I own a Playmobil Viking ship? That I’ve been in Timbuktu? That I met my husband in a sword fight? That despite being a female fantasy writer, I own no cats? The only things I definitely know might surprise people I’m not free to discuss in public. Or ever.
What are you most looking forward to in 2011?
A big question. Leaving aside world peace and universal health care, as well as all personal family things, I’ll define this in writing/SFF terms.
I’m most looking forward to finishing a solid draft of Cold Steel (Spiritwalker #3) as well as, if I can manage it, two short stories related to the Spiritwalker books. And I hope to finish up a proposal for a new project as well, plus be ready to launch into Crossroads 4 once Cold Steel is done. So, I suppose what I most look forward to is writing a ton.
Visit Kate’s Website for more information about her books and writing.