The OF Blog: April 2005

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Caitlin Sweet Interview

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Caitlin. If you don't mind, could you give us a brief biographical sketch to give us a clearer image of the person behind the pen?

I was born in 1970 in Quebec, where my father was a university English professor. We moved to Lausanne, Switzerland when I was two and stayed there until I was four. After these four years of French living (apparently I was bilingual when we came back) we returned to Canada - this time to Toronto. My parents still live in the house where I grew up: lots of stability there!

I was not an active child. I willed myself to get nosebleeds every time we played baseball in gym class, and I generally attempted to be sick for swimming lessons. I read books while I walked to school - which was, luckily, very close to my house. I read books at family gatherings, in the car (Lord of the Rings on a summer trip to Maine), in my bed in almost total darkness. I burned my biology and math notes at the end of grades 10 and 11, respectively, when I officially finished with these courses. There was no resistance by my parents to this course-dropping. My father taught Latin and Greek mythology as well as English (my bedtime stories were Greek myths, with most of the gory parts removed or toned down). My mother had a degree in Library Science. (Incidentally, my six-years-younger sister is currently doing her PhD in English lit.) They never seemed to doubt that I'd have some sort of writing success someday. If they did doubt, they never let on. I was extraordinarily lucky to have such support, right from the beginning.

I did a BA in Humanistic Studies at McGill University in Montreal. Humanistic Studies was basically a liberal arts thing: I had to take a certain number of credits in English literature, literature in a language other than English, music and art history, geography...It was fantastic. It was because of this degree that I discovered Spanish literature. These books changed my life - seriously. Coming in contact with literature that was utterly surreal (Borges and Lorca) and magic realist (Márquez) was like discovering an entirely new form of fantasy. It's likely no coincidence that I started writing fantasy again, after a long hiatus, near the end of my degree.

I taught English in Mexico after graduating. I'd been accepted to a comparative literature MA program, but decided (along with my then-boyfriend, now-husband) that I wanted to go somewhere and actually use the Spanish I'd learned. Living in Mexico was a strange, wondrous, fraught experience. After we returned to Canada I kept teaching English, to mostly Korean and Japanese students. A few years went by; I needed a change; I applied to the University of Toronto and got a job as an administrative assistant at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. I had this job for five years, during which I also had two children (meaning much of my time at U of T was spent on paid maternity leave!). After I returned from my first leave I decided I needed to haul my long-neglected A Telling of Stars manuscript out from my basement - which I did. I found a literary agent, thanks to the lovely Internet connection at work, and printed out several dozen versions of the manuscript - and then, after getting my second Penguin contract in 2003, I quit.

I'm now a full-time mother (my daughters are 5 and 3) who writes every afternoon from 1:45 to 3. This schedule will change next year, when I should have a bit more time every day in which to write - but it's worked so far.

You said that your father taught English and mythology. By any chance were you exposed to Irish mythology, at least in passing? Because when I was thumbing through my copy of A Telling of Stars, I couldn't help but notice how a few names (the Alilan in particular) seemed to have close parallels with Irish mythological heroes, such as Ailil (from the story of Deirdre of the Sorrows).

I was indeed exposed to Irish mythology, mostly thanks to my maternal grandparents, who made many trips to Ireland and always brought me back books (knowing me well, as they did!). But I'd definitely classify this influence as "in passing," since I haven't done any re-reading of the myths as an adult. I may have echoed the name unconsciously, or entirely randomly - but I'm very glad you noted it. I really enjoy the points readers make about my books - points I myself didn't know I was making. Deirdre of the Sorrows seems an entirely appropriate myth for Telling to evoke!

We were talking earlier in email about the character of the Keeper, found in A Telling of Stars. Without spoiling too much of the story, would you like to tell the readers here about how you came to construct that character and his role in the story?

I'd just finished my BA when I started on the Keeper section of the book. I was still reeling from the experience of reading the Latin American greats - and I was living in Mexico. I now think of that part of the book as an homage to the concept of time I'd encountered in Borges and García Márquez. "Remember the future and imagine the past" - Carlos Fuentes said this in a lecture he gave at McGill, and it stayed with me. Time loops as much as it flows; it circles back and leaps forward, and humans just don't understand it very well. Keeper is a character who does understand it. He, and the fortress and gardens he tends, are alive in moments of all time - moments Jaele, the protagonist, becomes entangled in. She considers him a prisoner - but she also begins to see that he has a sort of power, as he slips them both in and out of the present. I liked the ambiguity of his role, and of the setting.

Keeper's fortress and gardens were influenced by Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, too. I was deeply affected by Peake's depiction of Titus Groan's castle: a sprawling, vast, decrepit place where you could always stumble upon a room or indeed a wing you'd never seen before. This sense of a place that's not exactly fixed, that could never really be rendered on a map, was precisely what I wanted to capture in the Keeper section.

Very cool! I was wondering about the exact nature of Keeper's power and to learn that you were thinking in part of what Borges, García Márquez, and Fuentes were describing in their stories is an added touch. But I'm curious about your comments regarding Peake: Are there any other elements in your stories that you would attribute to a fond reading of the Gormenghast stories?

I mentioned the sprawling, labyrinthine, apparently chaotic nature of Gormenghast castle; these adjectives also apply to Peake's narrative. I frequently refer to the plot of Telling as "organic" - meaning I didn't set out the details of the story beforehand, but let characters and setting lead me. This was the feeling I had reading the Titus books. Peake knew his places and people intimately, but the plot in which they were involved didn't unfold in linear, strategic fashion. (The third book in his trilogy, Titus Alone, is a really, truly problematic book in which chaos overwhelms any vestiges of plot.)

I too have read Borges, Lorca, and García Márquez and have recommended them to the readers here. But if you had to sum up in a few words the direct influence that these three authors have had on your writing, what would you say that you've taken from them?

A passion for the tangible power of narrative. Words, written and spoken, are incredibly transformative (in both wonderful and horrible ways) in Latin American fiction. I've also been influenced by the power of place in these stories. Houses, rooms in houses, towns, trains, the pampas of Argentina - these locales are rendered with care and intensity; they're vivid, often surreal, always essential to the lives of the characters in them.

You say that you learned a passion for the tangible power of narrative; that words, both written and spoken, are transformative - how would you say that you've applied this to your stories and the characters within?

In both Telling and Silences, the most obvious embodiment of the transformation-through-narrative idea is the Alilan. They are the capital T "Tellers," whose spoken words conjure images that seem entirely real to their audience. The Alilan are aware of the dangerous potential of this gift: Tellers are forbidden to use their words to make changes in the world. Of course, rules are made to be broken...

In Telling, Jaele often uses stories and words to significant effect. She utters words in the Keeper section that provoke a devastating (if ambiguous) change; her conversations with Ilario allow him a measure of peace and acceptance he hasn't ever had. He, in turn, teaches her how to write and urges her to write of things that matter to her; this ends up being extremely liberating (though also very difficult) for her. Lastly, Jaele herself becomes a Teller of sorts, as she recounts her story to an audience desperate for words and change.

In Silences, the words that aren't spoken (or, more specifically, written) are frequently more powerful than the ones that are. This is the distortion side of the transformation coin: when the truth is altered or simply not recorded, the stories that remain will of course be false. There's power and peril in this kind of narrative, too - though there remains the possibility that even untrue stories can be a vehicle for positive change (as is the case with the legend of Queen Galha and its effect on Jaele).

What was it, if "it" can be defined, that led you into reading and later writing fantasy?

"It" was an imprinting thing - something that happened so early I can hardly pinpoint time or place. That it did happen is thanks to my parents, who read me fantasy before I could read it myself, and certainly before I realized it was "fantasy." (Everything was just "story" then.) And thanks to my childhood friend Debbie, who gave me a copy of Lloyd Alexander's The Black Cauldron for my seventh birthday. That moment I remember, probably because I was so intrigued by the cover (the one with Taran, sword drawn, peering anxiously at the nasty cauldron and its three witchy keepers). As soon as I discovered that this was the second book in a series, I nagged my mother to buy me the first, which she did - and that was that. I devoured the Prydain Chronicles, and shortly after that, I started to write stories. Really, really long stories. Too long, in fact, for my grade two teacher (who was probably just plain tired of reading them, and of supplying me with more and more Hilroy notebooks!).

My reading of fantasy began early, before genre definitions apply - and so did my writing of it. I wrote "once upon a time" stories, and stories in which someone has all sorts of surreal adventures, only to discover they've been dreaming (I thought this a very sophistical literary trick when I was seven). By the time I was about 11, I had become aware that fantasy was its own genre. By the time I was 14, I was aware that fantasy had zealous detractors and zealous defenders. "Read Judy Blume," my friends demanded, and I tried, but I just didn't get it. "Read Dickens," my English prof father urged, and I tried, but again didn't get it (until several years later). Which isn't to say that I read and enjoyed only fantasy. But fantasy was most definitely where my heart was, as a young adult.

Something changed when I got older. I moved from y/a to adult fantasy, and started finding that the adult books just weren't satisfying me in the same way that the y/a ones had. It seemed there was less wonder, less care taken with language and characterization. I started understanding what fantasy detractors meant when they claimed all fantasy was "escapist." Lots of battles, lots of complicated lineages and magic systems - but, to me, very little real magic. I stopped reading fantasy, mostly. And I stopped writing it. I'd written my first novel-length work at 14, another at 15, another at (yes!) 16 - but after that I wrote only historical fiction for a few years, and after that (late high school, first two years of university) nothing at all. I didn't write again until my third year at McGill, in 1991 - not coincidentally, just after re-reading the Prydain Chronicles yet again. It was amazing, the rush I felt: the reinvigorating sense of wonder and possibility. I decided to begin something. A fantasy story I'd attempt to imbue with the sensibility of the y/a books I'd loved, but a story for me, at 21 years old. This story became, over the course of six long years, A Telling of Stars. It was difficult, slow going - but it was also such a joy. I'd returned to fantasy - the reading of it as well as the writing - and it felt good.

Does that answer your question?

Which authors have had the most influence on your decision to write fantasy?

I've already mentioned Lloyd Alexander. Early on there were also Eleanor Estes, E. Nesbitt, C.S. Lewis (the box set with the Pauline Baynes covers!), Susan Cooper, Ursula LeGuin, Alan Garner. Another huge influence on my early writing was Rosemary Sutcliff - not a fantasy writer, exactly, but her historical novels were as beautiful and awe-inspiring to me. As were Mary Renault's, which I read a bit later.

I've found through many conversations with other authors that they are as much readers within (and without) the genre as they are writers. As a reader, what sorts of things have you found in fantasy/science fiction writing that have appealed to you and which they would you wish to see more authors use in telling their tales?

I've always found a distinctive use of language very appealing. Obviously, there has to be a compelling plot to go along with the words - form over function definitely doesn't do it for me. But what I find so inspiring about the genre is that form can mirror function in a way it just can't in mainstream literature. Magical events can be described using magical language. (It's almost a kind of narrative-sized pathetic fallacy.) I certainly don't think that stylized prose is a requirement of fantasy story-telling - but I do think that the language of fantasy can and should be used with just as much polish and care as that of any other type of fiction.

When you state that the language of fantasy can and should be used with as much polish and care as any other genre of fiction, is this in reference to critical reviews of the genre and the styles (or possible lack thereof) that is perceived as being inherent in the genre?

I tend to attempt to defend fantasy against pejorative "critical reviews." Sometimes, though, I find myself straddling a tenuous line: I defend fantasy to its detractors, but I also understand some of the detractors' criticisms. One of these, as you've mentioned, is the low quality of genre writing. Now, there are certainly enough examples of badly written mainstream books to go around, and I'd extend my "polish and care" demand to them, too - but, frankly, it's the ghettoized genre stuff that gets blamed the most for sloppy writing. So I insist, "There's wonderful writing in that crazy section at the back of the store!", and also, "More fantasy should achieve narrative polish, panache and rigour!" It's a pretty bipolar existence.

In your first book, A Telling of Stars, you introduce a group of people, the Alilan, who seem to make the world come alive with their stories. Any insight as to the connection this might have with stars, or would that be spoiling the story too much?

The Alilan (who worship twin Goddesses of Earth and Fire) believe that stars are the fires of their dead ancestors. The connection between storytelling, memory, grief and redemption is extremely strong in the book - and that's all I'll say!

I recently read and really enjoyed your second book, The Silences of Home. I noticed it was markedly different from A Telling of Stars in both form and content. In which ways were these differences the result of the story being told and what other ways were more due to authorial development?

I started A Telling of Stars when I was 21, broken-hearted, mad at bad fantasy and desperate for all kinds of catharsis. The language I needed to use to tell this story was intensely poetic. The story itself was simple, plot-wise, but complex in emotional ways.

Fast-forward 12 years. Telling was finally done (i.e. edited, bound, on shelves!) and I was ready to write another book. I knew it would be connected to the first - but I also knew right away that its tone and content would be almost completely different. The story was not going to be related to my own cathartic needs. It would have to be complicated: lots of characters and shifting points of view, lots of tension and different kinds of resolution. I needed to plan this one. Minutely. I needed timelines and chapter synopses and point form lists of all sorts (hardcore fantasy readers who've read Silences may be thinking, "She thinks her plot's complex??" But it was. For me!). When I finally started writing, the language I used was different too. Less poetic description; more dialogue. The book ended up being longer than Telling, but it was also somehow less wordy.

So, as to your query: The kinds of stories Telling and Silences were determined the language I used to tell them. They were also written many years apart, meaning my "voice" was bound to have changed. I love that the two books are set in the same world, but so different; and I love the reasons for this.

Related to the above question: How do you respond to reviews and criticisms of your work? Have there been comments on your style and content that you've addressed in The Silences of Home?

Reader reaction to Telling was pretty polarized. Re: style: "What a joy to read such beautiful writing!" and "What a load of quasi-poetic twaddle!" Re: content: "How great that there are no wizards and battling armies!" and "Where's the plot?" I expected this polarity, and the negative responses didn't devastate me (too much!).

While I was writing Silences, I was aware that my different approach to content and style might make the book more accessible to more fantasy readers - but this wasn't what made me write it the way I did. I won't be disingenuous and claim that the prospect of reaching more readers didn't excite me - it did, and does. But the differences in approach were not the direct result of negative feedback to Telling.

Relatively simple question: What are some of the silences referred to in The Silences of Home?

The empty spaces left by absent friends and family, and by words that might (or should, or could) have been spoken. The sudden strangeness of a place that was once beloved and familiar.

You said above that reviews of your books have been rather polarized. I'm curious, what would you say to those readers who seem to have been very quick to dismiss your approaches toward telling your stories?

I'd say: If the kind of fantasy I write isn't the kind you like to read, don't trash it - try a "not my thing, but it's a big genre" approach and move on. Or at least be considered about your criticisms: give me something reasonable and respectful to react to.

More and more fantasy/science fiction authors these days appear to be depending upon internet sites such as wotmania to get the word out about their books. What are some of the good and bad things that you've noticed about sites such as these?

My first online writing experience was becoming a member of the Del Rey Online Writers' Workshop - something that galvanized me into starting the search for a literary agent. I "met" people on that workshop who are friends of mine today (Scott Bakker and Karin Lowachee, to name two). They gave me confidence, convinced me that the first three chapters of A Telling of Stars actually made them want to read more. Who knows how long it would have taken me to get my query letter written if I hadn't found this forum.

I've recently dipped my e-toe back into the vast genre pool that's out there/here on the Internet (via my forums at and - and again, I can say that I've felt welcomed, supported, encouraged. It's tempting to feel isolated as a writer - artistic, driven, misunderstood - whatever. But after a few minutes and days on a respectable online forum, you realize you're most definitely one of many. It's a comforting feeling.

And yet...for me, anyway, it's possible to feel too comfortable - and overwhelmed by all those other voices. About three months after I'd joined the Del Rey workshop, I left it. I was working on agent-requested revisions at that point; on a practical level I just couldn't keep up with the demands of the site (I was supposed to critique every writer who'd critiqued me). My head also felt like it was on the verge of exploding, all the time. I was getting so many different reactions to my writing, and I felt I had to navigate through them: choose the ones I wanted to act on, dismiss others. This became really, really confusing and time-consuming. Three months in I had to say, "Enough: now I have to get back into my own brain and just write." I'm feeling the same sort of semi-explosive sensation now. It's wonderful, talking and writing about my books, hearing about other writers' books - but I'm also feeling the need to burrow away somewhere and get on with the next one.

As usual, the Delphic oracle gives the best advice: "Know thyself" and "All things in moderation." (There's a bad "moderator" pun in there somewhere!)

Speaking of Scott Bakker, and because I know he will be reading this interview, are there are any funny/weird stories involving him?

Funny/weird and Scott Bakker in the same question…Hmm…

I can honestly say there’s been no weirdness of any sort. Except perhaps for that incident at TorCon involving him, five girls, and the “hey, chiquitinis!” comment. And the infamous “so hot, so smart; whaddya say?” encounter at the autograph signing at last year’s Ad Astra. And the time last summer when his sweet illusions/delusions about the essential goodness of the female mind were rudely shattered at the Fran's Diner on College Street in Toronto. And there’s been an awful lot of beer, and goofiness of the most erudite kind. So funny and weird, yeah – but mostly just cool, cool beans.

Other than that, my lips are sealed!

*whistles innocently*

And moving on now...

What questions, if any, would you like to have the readers here consider, whether it be about your works, your writing, fantasy in general, or even life, the universe, and everything?

(42's the answer, of course!)

Is "magic system" an oxymoron?

Who are/were your Fantasy Greats? Has your love of their work limited as well as inspired you, as either reader or writer?

What has surprised or intrigued you about the work of any new fantasy authors you might have come across recently? Do you like to be surprised by the books you read, or do you prefer familiarity?

What kind of escape do you look to fantasy to provide?

How does fantasy inform your "real" life?

And now for something completely different: The traditional wotmania "Monkey Question" (Aren't you just thrilled right now that this is the last question?):
If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

I'll go with the monkeys. I'd have three. (Three is a mystical number, especially when it comes to non-human primates.) Their names would be Gurgi, Chewbacca and Animal, in honour of my favourite childhood hirsute creatures. Or, going with the Star Wars theme, I might call them Sidious, Vader and Maul - because those are kick-ass monkey names.

Thanks, Larry. Not just for the monkey/midget question: for all of them. You've put a tremendous amount of thought and energy into crafting this interview, and you've made me think really, really hard about a lot of things. Gracias.

And thank you as well, Caitlin. Been a real pleasure working with you on this.
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