Marie Brennan is a fantasy author with an academic background, which influences her work in wonderful ways. She has written many novels, novellas, short stories, and nonfiction pieces, including the Onyx Court series, Deeds of Men, Monstrous Beauty, and “Such as Dreams are Made Of.” If you are interested in learning more about Marie Brennan, you can check out her site, you can follow her wordpress blog, or you can follow her on Twitter @swan_tower.
Isabella is one of the strongest female characters I have ever read and yet she lives in Scirland, a Victorianesque society. Her ability to operate in that society and the consequences of her occasional missteps are very realistic. Was is difficult to balance her personality and adventures with the rules of the world in which she lives?
I wouldn’t put it in those terms, precisely, because there are real-world women who were just as amazing: Mary Kingsley, Gertrude Bell, Freya Stark, Mary Anning, Elizabeth Carter, and the list goes on. (Isabella Bird, too: I didn’t know about her until *after* I’d named my Isabella, but she’s a remarkable analogue in some ways.) The only part of her life I consider unrealistic is the way that she wins acclaim: she actually gets respect and acknowledgment for her achievements, instead of being forgotten or brushed off or slotted into a more familiar role as the “assistant” or “muse” to a man. To some extent I’m underplaying the obstacles she faces, but that’s as much a matter of word-count as anything else; I don’t want the novels to be 200,000 words of Isabella getting *to* the adventure, and then 20,000 words of the adventure itself. So I’m trying to nod at those things and the ways women handled them, without either dwelling on them for too long or skipping past them too quickly.
Was there ever anything you wanted to have her say or do, but had to cut because it didn’t fit within the bounds of the world that you’d created?
Yes, but mostly in the sense of her own attitude toward things. I lean pretty heavily on the fact that she’s writing her memoirs as an older woman in a later time period to have her offer a more modern perspective on her own past behavior — she can recognize in places that she was shortsighted or a snob or whatever — but that only goes so far. She’s not a twenty-first century liberal social activist; she’s just someone who might have become such a person, if she lived today. I try to hint at that, while still keeping her a flawed individual the reader is welcome to argue with.
One of my favorite things about The Memoirs of Lady Trent series is the rich world in which it is set. Did you base Scirland and the countries that surround it on places you have actually been to, or were these simply places that have been occupying your imagination for a long time?
I’ve been to England repeatedly, and in fact my previous series (the Onyx Court) was set in different periods of London’s history. For the rest, though, it’s been more a matter of asking myself “where might it be interesting for her to go?” They all have some kind of real-world basis: Vystrana is Romania (with some Russian overlords), Bayembe is a mix of several historical West African countries, Mouleen is the Congo, the Puian islands that feature heavily in Voyage of the Basilisk are Polynesia, etc. I haven’t been to most of those places in person, though, and some of them I didn’t know the first thing about before I started researching them for these books.
In previous interviews, you have said that you consider yourself to be a “novelist who writes some short stories.” Is this still how you see yourself?
I’m definitely still more of a novelist, simply because that’s what I spend most of my time and wordage on. I would also call myself a short story writer, though — which is a change from my early career, when the short fiction still felt like something of a fluke.
How do you decide upon a format for your stories? Do you typically know what a story will be before you start writing, or is that something you’re unsure of until you finish writing?
It goes all ways, really. Some pieces start out as me flinging a few sentences down on the page and then walking away until they sprout into an actual story — which can take years. Others, I know more or less the whole arc of it before I start writing. After you do this for long enough, though, you build up a subconscious awareness of the size and shape of the thing you’re making, so that you can at least eyeball whether something is going to be an efficient little 2K tale or a sprawling novella or what. To some extent that’s subject to modification . . . but it really sucks when you’re trying to force that sprawling novella to fit into 7500 words or less, and sometimes you just can’t do it. Mostly things need to be their natural size.
You have a very interesting academic background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore that I think gives your novels and short stories an interesting perspective. Can you tell me a little about that? What motivated you to go into academia originally and what ultimately lead you to leave in order to pursue your writing career?
I majored in archaeology as an undergrad, but switched to cultural anthropology for graduate school after one of Ursula LeGuin’s essays made me realize I could actually study science fiction and fantasy, and the community around them. I quite enjoyed it, too — but I sold my first novel just as I finished up my coursework for my Ph.D, and the shift to treating that as a professional career rather than an aspirational hobby really drew my time and energy away from completing my degree. The breaking point came with the Onyx Court books, which were very research-intensive: I realized I couldn’t write both those *and* a dissertation. Since the company my husband was working for went bankrupt about the same time, it seemed pretty clear that I should leave academia and we should move to a place where his job prospects would be better.
How do you think your background as an anthropologist and an academic has influenced your work?
It’s pervasive, really. It’s given me an interest in a wide variety of real-world cultures — everything from pre-colonial Mesoamerica to feudal Japan to the classical Mediterranean to the Vikings. It means that I like worldbuilding, and look for places to build in unusual cultural quirks or highlight ideas you don’t see as often in fiction. And it also means I’m not afraid of research: I pay for access to Stanford’s libraries, and will happily carry home thick academic works to read for my next novel. The latter has stood me in *extremely* good stead over the years.
You are very active on social media. Your Twitter is a fascinating look into your writing process and your daily life. How do you feel about social media and the way it influences the author – reader relationship?
Honestly, I think it can sometimes be a burden for authors. There’s a sense that you *have* to be out there — in fact, it’s surprising to me that you call me “very active,” because I think I’m a complete slacker when it comes to such things. I refuse to use Facebook (their handling of user privacy is appalling to me, and I hate the way they’ve become near-obligatory for so much of the world), and I float in and out of Twitter; I’m far from one of their power-users. There are times when I think I’m somehow failing as an author because I’m not pouring more energy into being visible on one social site or another. I have to remind myself that in the end, what really matters is my fiction, not the way I promote my fiction online — despite what people would sometimes have you believe.
But I love actual blogging: longer-form posts, digging into topics at greater length than 140 characters can possibly allow. That scene has faded from its heyday; I’m still on LiveJournal, but comment threads aren’t as active as they used to be, and I haven’t yet built up a solid readership for the WP face of my blog, which these days is its actual “home.” Still, I love interacting with people in that mode, because we can get into really interesting discussions. It also means that the divide between authors and readers becomes smaller: you can see your favorite author fan-squeeing over the books they love, or glimpse enough of their process that the whole thing becomes demystified and starts seeming like something you could do yourself. In the other direction, it means that my audience becomes more than just anonymous numbers on a royalty statement. So despite the burdens social media can impose, I think the benefits it provides far outweigh the drawbacks.
When you are not reading or writing, what do you like to do to spend your time?
My primary hobbies these days are photography and role-playing games, mostly of the tabletop kind. I also practice shorin-ryu karate, and am on the home stretch for my black belt.
Of all the novels and short stories you have read, which is your favorite and why?
Oh, jeez — there is *no* way I could name a single favorite! Diana Wynne Jones is the author who made me want to be a writer, though.
Thank you, Marie, for taking the time to answer our questions. If you are interested in Marie’s other work, check out her forthcoming novel The Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent.