“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?
SM: Character development is probably the aspect of narrative I value most. And for me, it doesn’t work if I map everything out beforehand. So, yes, the characters evolve as I write. I generally know a few things about them when I start, but the greater part of their characters I find out by putting them in situations and working out their reactions, and then deducing from their reactions what their past experiences are that make them react that way.
Q: You don’t shy away from “controversial” themes in your books: explicit same-sex love, or incest, for example. Even your protagonists do unlikable things at times. How important is it for a writer to be fearless in their writing? Did you worry that the “market” might not accept the direction you were headed?
SM: When I started writing MELUSINE, when I was nineteen, the first thing I wrote was the rape scene. That was the baggage Felix showed up with in my head. I couldn’t imagine ever showing it to anyone, much less trying to get it published, so there’s a real sense in which the original draft of MELUSINE and THE VIRTU was written without any concern for audience or market at all. And then I realized they were the best things I’d written, the stories I cared about (also, not coincidentally, one of the few things I’d succeeded in finishing), and I went with that.
I think it’s really vital for a writer to be, as you say, fearless. Because otherwise you’re lying to yourself, and what you write will feel like lies. That isn’t to say everyone needs to go out and write about hot topic issues, but if the character you want to write is, for example, someone like Felix with his wealth of psychosexual hang-ups, past abuse, and current bad decision-making, toning him down won’t make him more palatable. It’ll just make him flat.
Q: I loved how you had two very different voices for Felix, the proud wizard, and Mildmay, his gutterrat brother. Both characters are in first-person POV. Was it difficult to move back and forth between them? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to telling a story in first person?
SM: Actually, trading off between Felix and Mildmay has become one of the things I enjoy most about writing these books. (Which is obviously why I’ve made things more difficult for myself by adding a third narrator in books three and four.) It took me a while to learn to write distinct voices (in early drafts of MELUSINE, Mildmay sounds exactly like Felix), but developing their voices came hand in hand with developing their characters. It’s become something I can do reflexively.
Both the great virtue and the great defect of first person narration is that it is inherently an incredibly limited point of view. (Leaving aside the Victorian penchant for omniscient first person.) You can only tell the reader what the narrator knows, and if you want to do it well, you can only tell the reader what the narrator would tell them. Felix and Mildmay, for example, get very different kinds of exposition. They notice different things; they care about different things. I find it really jarring in a first-person narrative for the narrator to drop character to provide a lump of exposition. So one of the things I work at is finding ways to get the exposition in that remain true to the character.
The other thing about first person narrators is that they are incredibly unreliable. Even when they’re honest, they can still only tell you how they understand what they’re seeing. You never get the full picture from a first person narrator. That’s actually one of the reasons I love having two (or three) narrators in a book; it’s like switching camera angles and being able to see things that were hidden.
Q: What books influenced you as a writer, and why?
SM: Ellen Kushner’s SWORDSPOINT is probably the strongest and most obvious influence, both for the obvious reason of the gay protagonist and for the less obvious reason of the subtle and sideways way she goes about world-building. Also, her inclusion of a Jacobean tragedy showed me that it was okay to do that sort of thing: to invent plays and have characters who go to the theater and in fact have lives outside the rather narrow constraints of the plot.
Gene Wolfe is also an influence, particularly The Book of the New Sun, because he writes these very dense, inexplicable worlds, and he’s not afraid of puns or of using his erudition. It took me a long time to get comfortable with owning my own extremely geeky nature in my books.
I’ve joked that MELUSINE is what happens when Jane Eyre meets Huckleberry Finn, and obviously Dickens is responsible for a lot of the urban cityscape work.
I’m greatly influenced by M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft; although that shows up less in my novels than in my short stories, you can still see traces of them in the invented books that drive a lot of Felix’s side of the plot.
Q: You have an extensive short-story collection. Do you think this is a good way for a writer to develop their voice and test the market?
SM: There’s a piece of advice routinely given to beginning writers, which is that you sell short stories to start your career, and then break through and become a novelist. I disagree with this idea on a number of levels, the most important of which is that it assumes an evolutionary progression from short stories to novels, and that’s not–in my experience and the experience of other writers I know–how it works.
Short stories are different from novels. Beyond a certain basic skill set, the tools you need to write a good novel are not the tools you need to write a good short story.
Short stories–especially in the current era of webzines–are a really good way to establish a professional presence and some name recognition. They can be a foot in the door of the professional sf community, a way to begin to form professional relationships with editors and other writers. (If nothing else, you can say to an editor–and I’ve done this more than once–“Thank you for sending such a kind rejection letter.”) And if you have a good list of publication credits, it may help break out of an agent or editor’s slush pile. (Notice I said “may”; I don’t actually know whether it helps or not.) But there’s very little overlap between short story markets and novel markets, and making a name in one doesn’t actually say anything about one’s ability to perform in the other.
I write short stories because I enjoy them, because the satisfaction I get from them is qualitatively different from the satisfaction I get from novels.
Q: How have things changed for you now that you’re published?
I’m much happier than I was when I thought I was going to be a professor. This is what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I am incredibly grateful that I’ve gotten the chance to do it.Q: What’s next for you?
SM: I’m working on the copy-edited manuscript of THE MIRADOR right now, and it’ll be published in August. I have a collection of ghost stories, THE BONE KEY , coming out from Prime Books in June, and a novel I cowrote with Elizabeth Bear , A COMPANION TO WOLVES, coming out from Tor. I’m writing SUMMERDOWN, which is the fourth and final book in the series that started with MELUSINE. I have several projects vying for my attention after that; my current favorite is THE SIDHETOWN TIGERS, about the first mixed elven-human baseball team.
Thank you, Sarah!