Sunday, January 27, 2008
Over the past two weeks, I have conducted an email interview with Russian-born novelist Ekaterina Sedia, whose latest novel, The Secret History of Moscow, was published in November 2007 by Prime Books. In this interview, we discuss a wide range of topics related to SF, cultural matters, and even a tiny bit of mutant plant stuff. For more on her, visit her website.
Sometimes in order to understand a book or series, one has to know something about the author who wrote the book. What can you tell us about yourself, your background and how it might relate to your first two novels?
First, I'm a big proponent of books standing on their own -- that is, the writer should not be relevant to how the book is perceived. On the other hand, of course all writers' experiences inform their books – what they choose to write about and, more importantly, what sorts of underlying assumptions come crawling from the prose the minute you take a close look at it.
So to answer your question -- I am a plant ecologist, I teach in a liberal arts college; I started out in neuroscience but switched to plants when I began graduate school. So teaching and science are my primary occupations, with writing a close second. I was born in Moscow, but have been living in the US since early 1990's. I started writing in 2003, and since then I had two novels published (two more are forthcoming), as well as a couple of dozen short stories.
My place of birth is relevant to The Secret History of Moscow, obviously -- much of it is grounded in personal experience. In pretty much everything I write one can notice a persistent theme of not-belonging, which probably stems from my own situation. I do not mean alienation of a brainy kid in a movie version of high school -- rather, a deep cultural rift when you realize that none of the people you interact with on a daily basis share your basic frames of reference. Which can be both wonderful and disconcerting. But identity, and especially national identity, and the ways in which it is shaped, is a prominent theme, I suppose.
Interesting, as I did indeed notice this sense of a "cultural rift" in reading The Secret History of Moscow, particularly in the portrayals of many of the mythological creatures of the Underground. How much of a challenge, if any, was it for you to write of these Slavic mythological beings such as the rusalka in a way so as to not confuse the English-speaking audience who are not familiar with these myths?
I tried to subtly point out what those things were and worked what they did into text by how characters reacted to them and what sorts of things they anticipated, but I didn't specifically attempt to cater to the American audience. If there's anything I would say a writer should always avoid it would be talking down to the readers. I tend to err on the side of explaining too little rather than too much -- I read some book where things are overexplained, and it just sets my teeth on edge.
So I would take it that you try to avoid infodumps whenever possible in your work?
And this is where I contradict myself. There's nothing wrong with infodumps, ie conveying information in a lump. Sometimes, you can spread it around, but sometimes it's the most direct and best way to get your point across. I think the general 'avoid infodumps at all cost ' trend is really about avoiding awkward infodumps -- when info is conveyed for no particular reason, or from no particular point of view, or the dreaded 'as you know, Bob'. I certainly have tons of infodumps in Secret History, but I tried to do them through the eyes of characters. Same info, different emotional loading. Or something like that.
When I mentioned overexplaining, it's not so much providing info in a lump but treating the reader as a dim child. Most people are very good at figuring things out from context without having their nose rubbed in it.
So in other words, would you agree that the reader needs to be more active in the reading/discovery process, rather than being a passive observer of whatever the author wants to write or tell the reader?
Oh, absolutely. I agree with M. John Harrison on some things. I'm not opposed to immersive worldbuilding per se, it's just not something I enjoy reading or writing. I like my books to be a bit more open. I don't think any of the two is necessarily superior though -- it's all a matter of taste.
What led you to come up with writing The Secret History of Moscow? Was it born out of strictly personal memories, or were there also influences from stories that you might have read?
This was a book I always wanted to write -- first, it's history written by the losers, the view from the eyes of those who have perished during various cataclysmic events. Then there's a religious component -- I always found religion fascinating -- this conflict between the pagan past and the Christian present. You can find it pretty much anywhere in Europe, although it's the Celtic paganism that is more frequently exploited in fantasy lit. Also, the idea of a city as character, changed by its accumulated layers of history and myth. I thought it would be interesting to write about this triangle between city, people and myth, and to play with the ways each of them changes the others.
It does have some personal memories -- mostly the city, really. There are a few homages in there, especially to Viktor Pelevin who is one of the most consistently interesting Russian writers working today, as well as to Gaiman's Neverwhere and other underground secret world books. And, of course, history. I relied on personal recollections of history lessons in 4th-5th grade for that part, as well as things overheard and just learned in some unknown fashion.
I find it difficult to tease apart individual influences -- it's more like this huge mass of everything I ever read, experienced or thought about. Some of it comes out in writing, but it's difficult for me to trace. And comparisons can be tricky as well -- for example, this book has been compared to both Neverwhere and Nightwatch trilogy, but it is neither of those books.
You spoke above of this triangle between City, People, and Myth. In the course of writing this novel, was there anything about how you portrayed the city of Moscow, or its people, or its history and myths that surprised you in the sense that you didn't set out to cover at first, or were all the angles planned before you began writing your first draft?
I didn't really plan much in advance, beyond a general idea of the plot. So yes, there were many surprises, mostly in the ways people interacted with the city. They were either battered by it or tried to survive unnoticed; Galina is the only one who actually engages with it in a positive way -- it is her city, after all. She sees beauty and comfort in it. For the rest, it is all about how to persist in this city. I actually noticed it after I finished the book.
With history, there was a real struggle which time periods should be written about, because there's so much and all of it is so bizarre and so interesting. So it was sad for me to let go of some things I wanted, just to keep the book from collapsing onto itself.
As a trained historian, I did notice those periods and kept thinking about the struggles involved. For those that are not as familiar with Russian history, could you please describe in general terms some of the struggles that took place during those time periods that are reflected in your book?
Well, the earliest one is 14th century, when Moscow was a dependency of Tatar-Mongol Golden Horde. Then there's the Napoleonic war of 1812, the Decembrists' revolt in 1825, the pogroms of the late 19th- early 20th century, WW2, Stalin's repressions and Kruschev's thaw. The latter two are probably fairly familiar to most American readers, but I don't think many realize how horrible and repressive the government has been throughout most of the history. The Decembrists' revolt was largely about freeing of the peasants who at the time were property, tied to the land. Afterwards, the repression of the Jewish populations who were restricted in where they could live and whose property and lives were destroyed the moment there was some unrest and dissatisfaction; czar Alexander (and Nicholas) was quite happy to incite pogroms and to blame the Jews anytime there was some dissatisfaction with the government.
Basically, whatever time you choose, you can find some form of oppression, and that was a really fascinating notion for me. In every epoch, there are winners and there are victims, and sometimes they trade places.
I wonder if some of the cynicism comments (from both positive and negative reviews) might be because of this seemingly unrelenting cycle of oppression. What sorts of differences have you noticed between American readers and readers from Russia or elsewhere outside the United States?
I honestly do not see how talking about oppression equates to cynicism; if anything, ignoring it would be cynical. I understand that people may get annoyed when they expect escapism and get a fairly grim and fairly realistic book; but I would not call it cynicism. And I cannot make such a general statement as a difference between readers -- everywhere you find readers who want different things from their fiction. Which is a healthy and normal thing.
In addition to being a writer, you've done many other jobs. For those unfamilar with you, what sorts of jobs both inside and outside the speculative fiction sphere have you done?
Writing-wise, I edited a couple of anthologies. Paper Cities will be coming out in April 2008 from Senses Five Press, and it collects urban fantasy from a bunch of writetrs I admire -- Catherynne Valente, Hal Duncan, Barth Anderson, Cat Rambo, Vylar Kaftan, Greg van Eekhout, Jay Lake, and a number of other wonderful folks. I'm also working on an anthology for Prime, Russian Winters, that will collect Russian myth-inspired stories. There are a couple of other editing projects that are kicking around, but nothing yet definitive.
Outside of writing, I had a bunch of jobs -- laboratory technician in a neuroscience lab, bartender, a seller of used records... a bunch of things, really. I don't think I ever had a job I didn't like.
In regards to Paper Cities, there was a question asked on a forum that I frequent about what is 'urban fantasy' ? Is there a quick and easy definition for this term?
Heh. No. It seems to me that recently the idea of 'urban fantasy' mutated from 'predominantly contemporary fantasy taking place in real world cities' into vampire/werewolf/fey genre. There is an urban fantasy community on LJ (of which I am a member) called Fangs, Fur and Fey -- and it's a pretty good descriptor of this portion of UF market. Then there are of course all sorts of sub-categories and sub-sub-categories, from New Weird (that doesn't seem to really mean much anymore) to Post-Industrial Fantasy (the anti-manifesto of which can be found here) to Paranormal Investigation to probably a million of other things I'm forgetting right now. I prefer to stick with the original broad definition, but remain aware that other people might use the term differently.
Sounds like the definition of pornography that a US judge once gave, something like I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. But after reading that link, a question occurred to me: If fantasy is, after all, a mood, then what sorts of moods have readers discovered in your works?
Generally, pretty dark. I think my books are hopeful, but concede that this might be a minority opinion. I don't think books should provide simple answers to complex questions, and what is generally described as optimistic stories (a la golden age SF) do just that -- technological solutions traditionally glorified in those are rarely as simple and consequence-free as portrayed. I hear some people grumbling that SF is pessimistic nowadays; I disagree -- I don't think it is pessimism but rather recognition of technology's limitations. Optimism without cause is delusion.
Same with fantasy. I am interested in myth, but I feel that myths change and grow as time goes by, as religious and political climates shift, so I don't tend to perceive myth as static. And once one acknowledges that real world seeps into myth and colors it, then writing about real places and real politics seems necessary, and that in turn affects the mood. Did I say dark already?
So would it be fair to say that one of the criticisms leveled against fantasy writings, particularly secondary-world/epic fantasies, is that the themes and the plots appear to have become static in some form or fashion?
That's a complicated question. For one, I'm not convinced that SF is all that much more progressive or forward looking. Both seem very eager at times to embrace status quo -- your basic plot when the order is upset somehow, and the entire book is spent restoring the way things ought to be is equally frequent in fantasy, SF and horror. So there's stasis in that sense.
Then there's a frequently heard criticism against message fiction and fiction that attempts to engage with political/ethical issues. Also, books that oppose the status quo are perceived as agenda books while those that maintain it -- just entertainment, which I find a bit strange. Surely, both have a message -- only the message in the latter is less noticeable because it is more familiar.
Before The Secret History of Moscow was released, you had another novel and some short stories released. Would you please share with us a little bit about those tales and how they might be similar to or different from The Secret History of Moscow?
My first novel, According to Crow, was published by Five Star/Thomson Gale in 2005. It's basically a shameless riff on the Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes; I even kept the cutting off of Holofernes' head. But in my version, the protagonist is a son of the woman who saves her city by cutting off the enemy general's head and said beheaded general. It's a secondary world fantasy, and it was very fun to write, because I am a sucker for swords and trekking across deserts and childhood traumas. But the protagonists are all outsiders, with the narrator being a biracial teen traveling between two countries at war with each other. So yes, identity crises ensue.
Short stories are more varied -- I write everything from fantasy to horror to SF (some of which was published in Analog). So there is a lot of variety, or at least I like to think so. I have a story which is somewhat similar to The Secret History online here. It's called "Zombie Lenin," and that's pretty much what it is about. You can see some traces of The Secret History's origin in that one.
Otherwise, they run a gamut. I love shorts because they allow for such diversity of styles and themes, affectations, and really experimental and baroque stuff -- the kinds of things that could become annoying in a novel can be done in short form very nicely. That is not to say that novels cannot be experimental, but I find that my writing voice in novels tends to be less varied and closer to what I find natural.
Sounds like you run the gamut of styles. In your upcoming novel, The Alchemy of Stone, how would you describe its plot, setting, and its overall mood ?
This is a very plotty book, with a general ambiance of clockpunk (I doubt it actually qualifies as steampunk since it's not taking place in the real world but rather a secondary one.) So the mood is of gritty industrialism, pollution, revolution both industrial and social, and the role of ethnic minorities in it. But with gargoyles and automatons, so I think there's plenty of shiny there. I think it is somewhat similar in tone and setting to Miéville's New Crobuzon novels.
Speaking of matters such as clockpunk, steampunk, and even Miéville's works, who are some of the authors that you believe a reader who's enjoyed your fiction might want to explore next?
Mainspring by Jay Lake is a very good clockpunk novel. Among slightly older works, Swanwick, Di Filippo, Neal Stephenson. And of course classics -- Blaylock, Jeter, Tim Powers, Bruce Sterling. Those are all steampunk as it ought to be.
Other excellent writers are Catherynne Valente, Jeff VanderMeer, Lyda Morehouse. But I assume people read them before they got to me -- I am, uh, new.
And finally, we have a tradition of asking a rather non-serious question that the author can answer whichever way s/he prefers: Considering your day job, have you ever found yourself tempted to write a story about a mutant plant that could take over a metropolis quicker than kudzu has claimed the South? And if not, would you be tempted to think about doing so after reading this question?
I've written that story, about a plant that causes instant decay of anything it touches. Shockingly, it didn't sell.
A pity, since kudzu (and squirrels) are the two main biological threats to the power supply here in the mid-South. Thanks again for agreeing to do this interview!
Thank you -- it was a real pleasure, and I enjoyed your questions. Also, I would be happy to answer any post-interview questions or engage in discussion, if there's interest.