Aliette de Bodard is a Paris-based speculative fiction writer. Her list of accolades is impressive: she’s won a Locus award, three awards from the British Science Fiction Association, and the Writers of the Future contest. Oh, and two Nebula Awards. She kindly agreed to chat with me about her novel, The House of Shattered Wings, being released in paperback this week. It is stunning: fantasy set in a power-magical-war Paris, populated with Fallen Angels, Immortals, and Alchemists vying for power amongst the Great Houses. It’s a dazzling mash-up of mythology, mystery, and intrigue. The interview is below.
As a novelist, how did The House of Shattered Wings challenge your craft? What was the most difficult about this book?
The House of Shattered Wings was my first novel in 3-4 years: I’d spent a lot of time focusing on short fiction, so coming back to novels was a little hard (there’s a rhythm to writing them, and I’d completely lost it). I was also pregnant (and later wrangling a newborn) at the time, so my brain kept insisting that I had really better things to do than writing a novel. And, finally, this was a rather big change of style for me: I’d been writing either Vietnamese-inspired Science Fiction or dark Aztec fantasy in the first person, so changing to a dark Gothic set in Paris, with multiple point-of-view characters, felt like writing a very different beast, and my always very helpful brain kept insisting it was a really bad idea. Fortunately my agent made the right encouraging noises when I was writing this, which was very helpful.
There was a lot more world building that I thought: I was trying to channel a ruined Belle Epoque vibe, and a lot of my work consisted in looking up historical things from the late 19th/early 20th Century, and imagining what would have happened if there had been a magical apocalypse. Some of it was easy, like smashing up the dome of the Galeries Lafayette or destroying Notre-Dame, and some of it was rather unexpected: I hadn’t thought that there would still be extant gardens in that setting, but of course being able to maintain gardens, no matter how ruined and how fungus-ridden, would be a statement of power in an environment which is basically an equilibrium of terror (no one wants an all-encompassing war again, but everyone is scrabbling for the least bit of power).
Do you have a particular favorite character from The House of Shattered Wings? Why?
This is a bit like choosing favourite children isn’t it? *laughs* I like them all, but I confess I’ve got a particular weakness for Asmodeus, the leader of House Hawthorn, who’s my sarcastic character (you always need one of these in an ensemble cast, so that it’s not all doom and gloom and taking things rather too seriously). He’s also dark and creepy and there’s no way you’ll ever convince me to have a drink with him (I’d always be wondering if he poisoned it!), but as a narrative device he was rather useful. And in the sequel, The House of Binding Thorns, he gets to have his own spotlight (and be put through a rather hellish time, because that’s what I do when putting the spotlight on a character!).
I also really like Madeleine, the alchemist of House Silverspires, in a very different way: she’s fundamentally unsuited for a universe that’s dark and broken. In many ways, she’s the moral compass of the story, except that this isn’t the kind of plot where being a moral compass gets you much of anywhere!
Do you have any books that you continually finding yourself revisiting / influential books from your childhood that you still smile and reread now and again?
I periodically reread the entire Terry Pratchett Discworld books: he was the one author who got me into reading in English, since I really wanted to read his books as soon as they were out (in retrospect he is a very hard author to start with, with all the puns and jokes, but fifteen-year-old me didn’t care!). He managed to combine a really razor-sharp awareness of what makes people tick with taut plots and wonderful character work.
The other books I regularly reread are Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which are historical books set in Scotland around the time of Mary Queen of Scots: they’re dense and sometimes frustrating, but they’re bursting at the seams with details and vivid characters, and I love that the plot ranges all over Europe (and into Russia and the Ottoman Empire).
This is far from the first thing you’ve written. How would you say you’ve grown as a writer since, say, you wrote the Obsidian and Blood trilogy?
I’ve grown up a lot: there’s lot of mistakes I made while writing the Obsidian and Blood books I wouldn’t make again *shudder* I also learnt a lot about novels and how to pace and structure them better: it was very obvious when I was writing The House of Shattered Wings that I was doing something very different and much more assured (in hindsight of course. While I was writing that novel I was on the edge of panic all the time, as usual!).
I was used to writing short fiction, but it’s very different world building, character work and pacing for a novel: I learnt to go slowly, to take the time to write scenes that are quieter in intensity, rather than hit high points of emotion and drama all the time (you can afford that with a short story, but you’ll exhaust yourself if you try that with a novel: like having perpetual histrionics). I also learnt a lot about scene structure for a novel. I’m a fan of using what I can the inverted V: the low point of tension is somewhere in the middle of the scene, and the scene ends on a high point which is a cliffhanger, or a question, or a revelation that carries the reader forward into the next.
It’s pretty clear on your Twitter and FB that you really enjoy cooking. I seem to recall a quest for the perfect pizza dough, complete with controlled experiments. When did you really get into cooking? What do you enjoy about it?
I grew up in a family where food was very important, but didn’t get around to taking pleasure in cooking (my mother and grandmother were taking care of so much of it that I got basically lazy). It wasn’t until I moved in with my then-boyfriend that I realised that, while he might be a terrific cook, he certainly wasn’t going to be the one who cooked the Vietnamese dishes of my childhood. I learnt by watching my grandmother, reading cooking blogs, and watching a lot of youtube and craftsy videos.
What I really like about cooking is that it’s almost instant validation: even bread or pizza dough is the work of a few days at most before you can share what you’ve cooked with others. By contrast, I can wait months for feedback on a book *grin*
Any other hobbies or interests?
With two children I’m afraid I had to give up on a lot of hobbies! I do tai chi/qi gong to keep myself in shape, and that’s about all the time I have for myself.
A lot of people talk about diversity in fiction as if it is some kind of buzzword, ignoring just how important it is. I know this is a topic you feel passionate about (see, for example, the princess rant you had the other day that was fabulous). What does diversity in fiction mean to you personally?
I’m half-French, half-Vietnamese, and my native tongue is French, so not exactly the average SFF profile. But it took me an absurdly long time to realise that I wasn’t part of the dominant culture: it’s really hard, because the background of dominant media and books (and its attendant prejudice) just feels as natural as breathing. I’ve been mostly really lucky and met a lot of supportive people, and this is something I want to pass on, by making space for fiction that’s not necessarily within the “average” (I won’t get into waht we mean by “average” here because that is a very fraught discussion!). And also, I want to make sure that the stuff I enjoy gets shelf-space, and the only way I can help with that is to pass on the word and make sure other people try it.
I’m also a hobby historian: I didn’t actually formally study the discipline, but I’ve read a lot, and I don’t have a lot of patience for the myths that get perpetuated under the cloak of “this was the historical reality”. The truth is that we have very skewed ideas of the historical reality: what I was railing against the other day, the “innocent, sheltered princess” myth, is a toxic combination of believing that only the absolute ruler has any power (whereas in reality, power is held by various factions ranging from lords/ladies to priests to military men and no king ever ruled without the support of one or several of these), and that women have no power and therefore must be blissfully unaware of the realities of it (so much wrong with that one, starting with the idea that because women weren’t rulers in name, they wielded no powers, continuing with the idea that growing up in a political environment would produce a naive person instead of a very savvy one, and finishing off with the pernicious myth that no power means an uninteresting life. The narrative that the oppressed have no stories worth telling, and no struggle worth recounting, is one of those myths that infuriates me the most). But I could go on, really–there’s so much to unpack! (Kari Sperring and I were once on a panel about history in fantasy. We… bounced off each other in lots of interesting but probably off-putting ways.)
(slightly off topic but on history and women you really do want to read this fabulous article by Kate Elliott, which encompasses a lot of my issues with female “historical” roles in fantasy: http://www.tor.com/2016/03/23/writing-women-characters-into-epic-fantasy-without-quotas/ )
How do you juggle wrangling two kids AND a day job AND writing your fiction?
With difficulty! More seriously, the librarian (my youngest one) is a few months old, which means a lot of his time is spent feeding him, and the snakelet (my toddler) is starting to get to the age where he no longer tries to commit suicide on a regular basis (I joke but there’s seriously a period where you feel that human children are deficient in *any* kind of self-preservation instinct), but still takes naps. I mostly write during the naps or during the evenings. I also do a lot of drafting on public transport: I have a one-hour commute to get to work, and I can sit down and jot down notes, or write scenes on my alphasmart (which is this awesome compact little keyboard that I can just type things on in order to feed them back into the computer later. I wrote a good 75% of my next novel, The House of Binding Thorns, that way).
Another other projects in the works that we can look forward to?
I’m doing final revisions on The House of Binding Thorns, the sequel to The House of Shattered Wings: it’s going to be a standalone volume set in the same universe of ruined and dangerous Paris, less claustrophobic mystery and more dark thriller with a large ensemble cast. It’s going to focus a lot more on communities and what they mean–and of course it will still have dark magic, creepy corpses and decaying dragons!
I’m also starting preliminary research on a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo as a space opera, in the mood of Gwyneth Jones’s excellent Spirit. And I’ve got a couple other short fiction projects on the back burner.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Well, there’s always “buy my books” *grin* Also, in case you’re interested, I have a recipes section on my website (http://www.aliettedebodard.com/recipes) which features a lot of the cooking stuff I’m wrangling with.
You can pick up The House of Shattered Wings in paperback this week in the US. You can check the brick and mortar stores near you. It’s also on Amazon and Kindle (http://amzn.to/2algn3F). It has a fabulous audio book for those of you so inclined, and you can get that here (http://adbl.co/2aBtVsP). Check it out, and enjoy.