It’s been a real pleasure to interview literary fantasy novelist Sarah Micklem, and I’m sad it’s come to an end. Below is Part Three of her interview with WU. You can find Parts One and Two by hitting the link.
Q: What draws you to the fantasy genre? Do you find you can say things in fantasy literature that might not be accepted in other genres?
SM: I love reading fantasies; I suppose that’s the first and most basic reason I wanted to write them. I heard Diana Gabaldon say on a panel that she wrote historical fiction because it was easier to research a particular place than to make up a setting from scratch. I admit I had the opposite notion—easier to make it up than to try to get all the details right, and have scholars point out all your mistakes. Tolkien didn’t care that there were no potatoes in Europe in the Middle Ages, because he was writing about Middle Earth, a different place and time altogether. I get to make my own rules too, and I decided not to include potatoes.
Writing fantasy also allows me to pursue my interest in non-scientific views of the cosmos. Through scientific methods we have constructed huge edifices of knowledge, testable, provable, rendered useful through technology, and I believe that is a great collaborative human accomplishment. Most of us take it on faith without understanding the particulars. This works out fine because my TV turns on when I press the remote control. A central tenet of this faith is that everything can or eventually will be explained through scientific analysis. Call this the modern consensus.
I’m interested in what lies outside this consensus: other cultures with different ways of trying to make sense of things. Also I love anomalies and anecdotal evidence, the sort of thing scientists prefer to ignore or dismiss. I want to believe in marvels, even though I’m a big skeptic. I don’t think there’s an afterlife, but if a friend tells me she saw a ghost, who am I to disbelieve her? As the White Queen told Alice, believing the impossible just takes a little practice.
As a healer, Firethorn tries to figure out the cause of illnesses and cure them, partly by using her training, partly by improvisation. I find I have to push myself to be bolder if I want to be true to the weird experiences recounted by shamans and witches. You find these accounts in anthropological literature, even though anthropologists are by and large working within the modern consensus, and don’t believe what the shamans and witches tell them. For my purposes, I take these tales literally.
Q: What are some of your literary influences and why?
SM: I like to read novels, and for a long time that’s all I read voluntarily. Short stories were too short for me. All I wanted was to be kidnapped by the narrative dream, and for years I didn’t care what the prose was like, or notice it much. Andre Norton wasn’t a great stylist, but she put indelible images in my head. Becoming a writer has made it harder to be an escapist reader. Either I get hung up on an awkward sentence and start trying to rearrange it, or I’m stopping to admire the scenery. Which is another kind of pleasure, of course.
It would be great to read a great book and sit down and write one just like it that was not a poor imitation. But how impossible! It’s harder than it looks to imitate the prose of great writers. Not just prose that boggles the mind with lengthy and fluid sentences, like that of James Agee, but subtle beautiful language, the kind you forget you are reading. I felt that way about Mary Renault.
I’d like to be able to write big complicated stories with multiple opposing factions and multiple points of view, like Dune, or Cyteen and the other Union/Alliance novels by C.J. Cherryh, or George R. R. Martin’s books. I don’t know how the authors manage it. Maybe I’ll get there eventually.
I love Le Guin’s work, and my favorite is still The Dispossessed. She is one of the few writers, in speculative fiction or out, interested in grass-roots movements for social change. Which sounds dry when I put it like that, but it’s more like a miracle, or what they call a state shift in chaos theory. How is it people are suddenly brave enough to insist on freedom and justice? One novel about this subject that I loved was by Ousmane Sembene, God’s Bits of Wood, about men and women involved in a railway strike. More recently I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s beautiful book, Years of Rice and Salt, in which ideas of the betterment of mankind (and our tendency to commit the same horrors over and over) are bound up with the cycle of rebirth of souls.
Q: What are you reading now that excites you?
SM: This morning I finished a book by a 10th century Japanese court lady, called The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (translated by Ivan Morris). It’s an intimate view of a lost culture, and also a peculiar and idiosyncratic view, like the woman who wrote it, apparently. She includes lots of lists, which is an interesting way to compose a text. Lists of Splendid Things, Embarrassing Things, Things That Should Be Short. In the high society of the time, everyone was expected to be able to swap quotes from Chinese poems, and also compose poems on the spot. Sei Shonagon was thoroughly snobbish, opinionated, witty, obsessed with rank, fashion, and who was sleeping with whom, and the book is full of odd tales and observations.
Q: What’s next for you?
SM: I am committed to finishing Firethorn’s story, and that’s going to take a while. I’m closing in on the end of Book II and thinking ahead. Firethorn’s single point of view is confining, almost claustrophobic at times, and I’m stuck with it for the duration. (Aren’t we all stuck in a single P.O.V. in some sense?) But her perspective opens outward as she sees more of the world and moves between the layers of stratified societies. Her ideas change about what she can do, what she’s capable of. There’s still a lot to say within the confines of this story about the subjects that interest me, or to put it more accurately, a lot more I can find out.
THANK YOU, Sarah! We are eagerly awaiting the next Firethorn book.