“While Monette’s story engages, her characters deserve a standing ovation.”
“A lush novel, rife with decadent magic, debilitating madness, and dubious deeds, told in a compelling entwined narrative.”
With the publication of MELUSINE, a stunning debut into the fantasy market, and successful followup effort, THE VIRTU under her belt, Sarah Monette has carved out an enviable place in a genre noted for invention and literary tendencies. Her juicy prose and complicated plots have garnered raves from the genre’s jaded readership, and admiration from fellow authors.
We are pleased to bring you Part Two of our interview with Sarah.
Q: You’ve written an essay, “Doing Tolkien Wrong: Why Fantasy Shouldn’t Follow in Tolkien’s Footsteps.” REFLECTION’S EDGE (March 2005). Can you give us one or two of your arguments why the fantasy genre shouldn’t follow Tolkien and why? (I haven’t had the privilege of reading this, but I’m burning with curiosity over your take on the fantasy genre in general).
SM: My argument about Tolkien, in a nutshell, is that too many people imitate his product when what they need to imitate his process. Or, as I put it in a recent blog post, his imitators go after the surface structure (elves, dragons, quests, etc.) and ignore the deep structure, the thematic resonance that Tolkien invests in his fantastic tropes. So we get a lot of what Jo Walton calls Extruded Fantasy Product, full of cliches and conventions but completely lacking in the care and thoughtfulness that characterizes Tolkien’s work.
There’s also, of course, the part where Tolkien was a linguistic genius, saturated in the literature and mythology he was himself imitating, who spent his entire life developing his secondary world. That’s not a sustainable model for most professional fantasy writers these days. Which isn’t to say we can’t write excellent fantasy, just that we shouldn’t be trying to imitate the product when we don’t have the time, energy, or intellectual gifts to imitate the process. Trying to write something “just like The Lord of the Rings only different” is an enterprise doomed to failure. Trying to take Tolkien’s approach to storytelling and revamp it to suit our own personal needs and strengths–that could get some really good novels written.
Q: Your characters are a complicated stew of contradictions. Felix, for example, is sophisticated, selfish and proud. His brother Mildmay, by contrast, is cunning and brutal yet with a core of humanity that his brother lacks. Do you let your characters evolve organically as the story progresses, or do you go into the novel with their traits, foibles, etc. fully formed?