Sunday, February 16, 2014

Diversity in Our Writing Projects: Umbral Heretic

Introducing my good friend, Erica, and her novel in progress, Umbral Heretic. The following interview is conducted by me, Nicholas Mena.

Your work in progress is titled Umbral Heretic. Where did this story come from for you? What was your inspiration?

I've enjoyed making up characters and stories in my head. They've occupied my daydreams since I was a kid, and at various times, I've tried writing stories about them. But I'd never gotten through a novel-length work or written anything I considered good enough to submit anywhere.

This all changed one day when I was walking my dogs along the river, and I got this image in my head of a healer in a fantasy world finding an almost dead man down by a riverbank. I started wondering who these two people were, why things had happened the way they did, and what they were going to do about it. It grabbed onto my imagination, and I decided I had to write their story down. As I am a pantser, not an outliner, it has certainly taken some unexpected twists since I started, but the notion that these characters were each going to be outsiders with things in their past they were ashamed of has been a constant.

While you’re setting is reminiscent of what can be considered an older era of Europe, there are many facets of it that don’t make it typically medieval. Would you mind elaborating?

A big difference that monotheism hasn't taken over, and there isn't one religious institution that dominates the entire continent where my novel takes place. The conflict between two different religious traditions is part of the story, and it's part of what has driven my protagonist from his home country.

Another difference is that the current level of social organization and technology is more analogous to the Renaissance, or even the very early Enlightenment in many ways, though I've tossed in plenty of twists based on general differences in history and geography, and of course, the presences of magic.

The geography of my world is also different. There are only three large continents, none as large as Eurasia, and the continent that spans the equator is actually the largest in the east-west axis. Borrowing the notion (from Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel) that the large size and orientation of Eurasia (and not the superiority of any given culture) contributed to its ascent as the largest colonial power, I have a world where no one civilization has held sway over the others historically.

The men and women in your stories (as well as your other humanoid races) don’t often stick to stereotypical gender roles. Those of us who know you well know this is a big issue for you. What were some of your reasons for having such diverse roles for your people in your society?

I don't know about often not sticking to traditional roles (the characters I've focused on are not typical members of their societies in many ways), but men and women do fall along a spectrum in many of my world's cultures. My favorite modern fantasy writers include Lynn Flewelling, Robin Hobbs, Glenda Larke, Kate Elliot and so on. They all have fantasy societies where women are doing most of the same things as the men, so I never thought that was an unusual approach in modern fantasy. My world is no utopia, but I wanted to write a story set in a place where men and women can both aspire to a variety of roles, where they're free to mingle socially, and where they have similar levels of autonomy.

I can't say why this is so important to me. Some of it's because I'm a woman, obviously, and I get pretty tired of reading stories where women can't participate fully in the story's events (or worse yet, lack motives and goals of their own). For me, traditional gender roles always felt like shoes that pinch my toes and rub blisters on my heels, especially when I'm told I must or mustn't do something because of my sex.

You seem to have two prominent protagonists in your story. Can you tell us a bit about them both and some of the challenges they face?

Jarrod is a dark wizard who is "cursed" with a conscience. In my world, umbral magic is pain driven, and it's addictive, so it's a serious problem for someone who gets woozy at the sight of blood. He's deeply ashamed of what he's become, and his attempts to bury his past and deny what he is, drives much of the conflict in the story.

Tesk is a healing student who has no interest in heroics outside of the infirmary. Pursuing her craft required her to sever ties with her own family, so she's learned to trust rationality, not her emotions. When she saves Jarrod's life and they become friends, she's very conflicted. He's got problems that would lead any rational person to turn tail and run, but her instincts are telling her that he's a good person who needs allies if he's going to undo the harm he's wrought.

Why are including new, less standard, and more diverse tropes and themes so important to you, particularly when it comes to the fantasy fiction you write?

I can't say exactly why, but it's something that's been evolving throughout my life. I was a strange, awkward child who never really got sucked into what passed for mainstream culture in 1970s-era Southern California. Maybe this has allowed me to relate more to people who are treated as outsiders in larger ways than I ever was. At some point, I just started to notice how one-dimensional many of the standard fictional tropes were and how they didn't usually reflect the world that was out there.

One thing that's always bugged me about classic fantasy is how homogeneous cultures are within their worlds. It's so common to see descriptions like this in fantasy novels: "The "men" of such and such a land are tall and fair, with booming voices and an appetite for mead. They mistrust magic and are quick to anger when slighted." Even as a kid, I thought it was strange that all the citizens of a country would be so alike in appearance and demeanor, when I knew darned well real people weren't.

Umbral Heretic takes place in a part of my world that resembles Northern Europe in some ways. But I've tried to make it clear there's a wider world out there. Each of my pov characters (and the important support characters too) are outsiders in one way or another. Each of them has been a victim of prejudice, whether it's based on their land of origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or social class, and this is what provides them with the perspective they need to resolve the main conflict.

What are your own personal aspirations for Umbral Heretic? What would you like your future and present readers to take with them from your story?

I'm in the process of polishing it up for submission to agents, and would dearly love to see it trade published with a pretty cover and sitting on the shelves of bookstores next to the works of some of my favorite authors. It would be amazing to be in a waiting room somewhere and to see someone reading this book and to have them turn to me and comment on how wonderful it was (without knowing I wrote it, of course). I suspect that's a dream many writers have for their first novel. Silly, but there you go.

As far as what I want my readers to take away from it? Whatever they want, really. My ultimate goal is to be entertaining. But if the readers think that my characters are interesting because they're more complex and filled with internal conflict than your typical fantasy heroes, then I'll be especially happy. If there's any overarching messages, they're that suffering can make people more, not less, empathic, and people can fail at things but not be failures.

Any final comments or questions?

The only other comment I can think of is that the story has a dog, and no, at the risk of making a spoiler, she's not going the Old Yeller route. I adore stories with cats, horses and wolves, but for whatever reason, I've always noticed that these species seem to be very well represented in fantasy. Dogs, for whatever reason, are thinner on the ground. So (at some urging from my test readers) I've decided to give the dog who found Jarrod by the river some other roles in the story, even though she's just a normal dog and not magical.

(A question for the interviewer) As a question for you, Nick, I know you've said you usually don't gravitate towards traditional secondary world fantasy, but you enjoyed many things about UH when you test read my first draft. What sorts of things would you like to see writers of secondary-world fantasy stories doing more often?

 Yes, secondary world fantasy is not my regular cup of tea, but I'm usually not one for outright exclusion. In fact, that is something I like to see in my fantasy, a fair amount of inclusion. I like boundaries pushed or even ignored. I like a bit of controversy and going against the grain. I'm one of those who used to be in the "Popular Things Suck" Club until it had too many people in it. I'm also a fan of old tropes breaking old stereotypes. Give me dark elves living in the swamps, but only because they are amassing forces for guerrilla warfare against the tree-elf overlords. Give me a venomous, black hydra who wishes he were mauve and had a beefcake wyrm hubby to grow old with (and not be killed off for his forbidden love in the third act). Give me knights in shining armor slaughtered by a killer bunny. You can do the same-old same-old when it comes to fantasy, but please do something different with it too.

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