The OF Blog: Interview with Sarah Monette, Part I

Friday, August 03, 2007

Interview with Sarah Monette, Part I

Sarah Monette is an award-winning novelist and short-story writer who writes primarily in the fantasy and horror fields, with occasional ventures into Science Fiction, according to her website. She has published two novels, Mélusine (2005) and The Virtu (2006), with another related novel, The Mirador, set to be released on August 7th by Ace Books. In addition, she has a short-story collection, The Bone Key, scheduled to be released later this month by Prime Books and a collaborative work with Elizabeth Bear, A Companion to Wolves, to be released in October 2007 by Tor Books. Sarah and I conducted this interview by email over four weeks and this is the first of two parts, with the second to be posted early next week, to coincide with my review of The Mirador.

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, Mélusine and The Virtu?

I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I've been reading fantasy and science fiction all my life. I have a Ph.D. in English literature; my specialty is Renaissance drama. I double-majored as an undergraduate in Classics and Literature (an interdepartmental program between Comparative Literature and English), and my love of languages is all over my books: Ancient Greek, Latin, French, Old English . . .

You mention your love of languages is all over your books. One particular case sticks out: Mélusine itself. Is there some sort of thematical connection between the city and the medieval legend of the woman with a serpent's lower body?

As an alert reader pointed out to me, there *is* a monster beneath the city who is female and who has a serpent-esque lower body. I have to admit, though, that that wasn't intentional.

The city was one of the last things to get a name--in the original draft (and several subsequent) it was deliberately nameless. I talked myself out of that before an editor had to, but it was extremely hard to think of a name for the city. I chose Melusine on a parallel with Medeia and Lamia--great mythic female monsters. On the same principle, the world is named Meduse. Not that that enters into the stories anywhere.

Speaking of your Ph.D., have you found yourself mixing in elements of what you did your research on into the stories you write?

Oh yes. I wrote my dissertation on ghosts in English Renaissance revenge tragedy. You can see the interest with ghosts ALL OVER my fiction, both long and short, and my love for the theater has a lot to do with Mehitabel Parr's character in particular. I also had more fun inventing plays than I probably should have: The Singer's Tragedy may be my favorite.

What was “it,” if “it” can be defined, that led you into writing?

If there's an "it," I don't know what it is. I started writing stories when I was eleven, but I think I'd always told myself stories--if I wasn't reading them.

And what sorts of stories appealed to you most and are these sorts reflected in your writing today?

The first story I ever wrote was a ghost story. The second story I ever wrote was an Epic Fantasy Quest. So the answer is yes.

I've loved fantasy since my father read me L. Frank Baum's Oz books, which he started doing when I was very very small. There's never been any doubt in my mind that that's what I wanted to write.

When you began writing short stories and later your novels, were there any preconceived goals that you had in mind that you wanted to accomplish with your writing?

Actually, I began writing *novels* first. Short stories were a later development and one that it took me a long time to get the hang of. I didn't write a successful short story until 2000.

As best I can remember, I wanted to be a professional writer pretty much from the moment that first story (when I was eleven) started getting positive feedback from my parents and teachers. Along the way, I've developed strong opinions about art and ethics, etc. etc. But in the beginning the only thing I wanted to accomplish was to have fun, and I'm still trying to hold onto that.

Speaking of these "strong opinions" about art and ethics, I was recently skimming through your website and came across a July 2006 post of yours about eleven things that you would try not to put in a fantasy novel unless you were undermining them. To what extent are your characters subverting those elements?

Heh. I had to go reread the post to remember what it was I was abjuring.

1. You will notice that no one ever describes the Virtu as an orb. Even though it is one.

2. Felix is beautiful. Whether he's good is a far more problematic question.

3. Oh, I fight with the quest plot. I do. Mélusine and The Virtu are sort of a quest, although several alert reviewers have remarked that the quest isn't the important part. The Mirador is not a quest, and it was the hardest book to write of anything I've finished to date. Summerdown *is* a travel narrative in large part, but it isn't a quest.

4. "Specialness" is another one of those qualities that Felix exists in an adversarial relationship with. He's got most of the markers: beauty, unusual coloring (especially his eyes), traumatic past (with scars!), extraordinary charisma, most powerful wizard in the whole of whatever, etc. etc. But the underlying principle of Felix's character is the observation from real life that many extraordinarily charismatic people are also cruel and petty and frequently real jerks. Not *all* extraordinarily charismatic people, I hasten to add. But I've observed the phenomenon often enough to find it interesting. So Felix is Special, but he's also an asshole. And the traumas in his past have given him defensive mechanisms that are frequently dysfunctional--the way defensive mechanisms often are.

I suppose I didn't eschew the trope of Specialness so much as I faced it head on with psychological realism.

5. A Companion to Wolves, which I wrote with Elizabeth Bear, comes out from Tor in October. QED.

6. This one, I actually abjure.

7. Mildmay is as much an argument with this trope as Felix is an argument with Specialness. He *is* a social predator and he *is* sympathetic (although I am stunned at *how* sympathetic readers seem to find him)--but I hope I've managed to complicate the situation beyond that.

8. Malkar is pretty much Evil, but in The Mirador and Summerdown, I've worked hard to create antagonists who aren't Evil, simply antagonistic.

In my own defense, Malkar was invented when I was 19. I've grown up a lot since then.

9. Well, Felix is a campaign against heteronormativity all on his own.

10. Ironically, Summerdown does feature what one might call a P.R.O. But we are introduced to it in the first scene and there are hellish consequences.

11. Nobody in these books even knows the *extent* of the world. Felix has to do a lot of heroic grandstanding, but the immediate effects are generally confined to the area of a city. Of course, the social and political consequences would snowball, but that's not something Saving The World tends to think about.

You've chosen to tell the stories of your two main character, Felix and Mildmay, via dual first-person PoVs. Was this an intuitive choice or were there many false starts and frustrating failures before you were able to discover their voices?

In early drafts, Mildmay sounded EXACTLY LIKE Felix.

Evidence here.

On the other hand, these books have *always* been first person. When I started writing them, I didn't *want* them to be first person, because I didn't think I could write first person well. But Felix's story refused to be told in any other voice.

Homosexual leads are not very common in secondary-world fantasies. What sorts of difficulties, if any, have you had in terms of portraying homosexual characters as fully-realized characters and not as characters whose sexuality overwhelms the rest of their personality?

That, actually, I haven't had any trouble with. Or at least, none that I'm aware of.

A friend of mine in the UK, Roh, who recently read Mélusine at my urging noted that to her there seems to be a tendency among female authors that she's read when portraying homosexual characters, especially males, to present them as somewhat "fragile". Here is a copy of a message she sent me recently on this topic:

"Anyway. I am beginning to notice, or to think I notice, an intriguing trend. It sums up very crudely as: When a Woman Author Writes From The Male PoV, The Male Is Marked As Physically UnStrong (Without Being Emasculated). For short, I label this phenomenon "The Mark" (regardless of grammar). I sort of pick up books written by women where a main character is male, and I wait for him to be, well, beaten up. Or raped. Or tortured. If nothing else, I look for them to be slim, even thin. A lot of the text gets devoted to these woundings, and to the recovery process, and to the physical sufferings of the male character as he suffers. It gets concentrated when it's a gay male, I think."

I was wondering if this is a perception you've heard often in regards to Felix or some of the other characters, as what my friend pointed out to me is something that I have noticed, especially in contrast to how a Hal Duncan portrays his homosexual characters, although I'll admit that I'm not as well-read on this issue as I wish I could be. If you'd like to answer it and have it be part of the interview, I'll try to think of a way to condense it into a single, short question, as I am really curious about this issue now.

I think this does happen to gay male protagonists (the most obvious example is Mercedes Lackey's Last Herald-Mage books). And I think Felix does fall into this trap to a certain extent, although in my defense I will say that the reason he gets raped is because I was interested in the tension inherent in a character who could be both rapist and victim. Which could have been a woman, or a heterosexual man, but it was most obvious and easiest to mobilize with a gay man.

I also chose a gay male protagonist because my abiding interest is in the power dynamics of human relationships, especially sexual relationships, and it is VERY VERY HARD to write about that with a heterosexual female protagonist without pigeon-holing her and yourself into either a re-inscription of patriarchal gender roles (male dominant, female submissive) or a simple gender reversal (female dominant, male submissive) (which I did work with some in my novella, "A Gift of Wings," in The Queen in Winter). A lesbian relationship is also a possibility, but it's far more interesting and attention-grabbing to take power away from a man than it is to give power to a woman.

I'm not sure I've said that very well.

I was also trying that apply-psychological-realism-to-trope thing again--because, actually, my experience differs from your friend's, in that while the trauma to the gay male lead is frequently shown in exhaustive detail, the recovery tends to be glossed over. Hence, Felix spending most of a book insane--and the point of the next three books is, in very large part, the fact that there aren't any easy fixes and that recovery is a process that you never get to the end of.

And that raises a related observation: In our society as a whole, depictions of male rape vary considerably from those of women in general, if such depictions are ever brought to light. I seem to recall reading somewhere that in fiction, female rape is often a plot device that serves to illustrate the external inequalities of power distribution, but that male rape becomes something that is not just internal, but often is either "too powerful" or too much of a taboo to be examined at length within the story. What would you say in response to this and the perception that male rape is, somehow, fundamentally different from female rape?

I think our cultural reactions to rape are intensely problematic and damaging, regardless of the gender of the victim. I'm certainly prepared to agree that male victims face an even greater stigma than female victims, and that that's as terrible as the fact that rape victims face any kind of stigma at all. And I want to be really clear that when I talk about rape in fiction--rape as a trope, rape as a narrative device--nothing I say should be considered to apply to rape in reality.

I think you're right that in fiction, male rape is more taboo, and hence more titillating, than female rape. It's hard to get at the right words to unpack this, aside from pointing out that women have been being raped in literature and mythology for pretty much as far back as we have anything written down. The Sabine women, the Trojan women after the fall of Troy, Io, Europa, Leda, et cetera et cetera et cetera. It's so common that children's books of Greek mythology don't even leave those stories out. All they have to do is suggest that the women enjoy it, and they're home free, not to mention reinscribing yet another toxic
fallacy about rape for another generation.

Male rape, on the other hand--it does feature in Greek mythology, with the story of Ganymede (Zeus wants him as a ... a cup-bearer! Right!), but other than that, there aren't any representations of it that I know of until ... okay, the earliest example I can think of is Deliverance(1970), but I'll be the first to admit my knowledge here is not encyclopedic. My point, though, is that in fiction, male rape is a much less utilized trope than female rape--although it's rapidly becoming a cliche in its own right.

Also, because we live in a patriarchal society and have for several thousand years, there's nothing new or shocking about the idea that women are victims. (I'm not saying this is a good thing, mind you.) You can get more narrative charge out of victimizing a man and you aren't reinscribing the same old gender role patterns into that ever deeper groove of men act and women suffer.

Would it then be fair to say that what we’re witnessing when we read fiction concerning male rape is a transgression of social roles, something that shocks us, makes us reconsider what is going on in regards to "normal" power structure relationships, something that might just cause us to think about where we set our limits when talking about gender roles?


Which is to say, I don't think that's always what's going on, on either the author's side or the reader's side, but it is definitely one of the potentialities in literary depictions of male rape, and one of the ones I find most interesting.


This is the end of Part I. In Part II, Sarah talks about the title for her series, the relationship dynamics between Felix and Mildmay, upcoming projects, the sexualization of same-sex friendships, speculative fiction as compared to "realist" fiction, among many other things. Hopefully, this second part will be up by the middle of next week, our schedules permitting!


clindsay said...

Oh, wonderful interview! Can't wait to read Part Two.

Larry Nolen said...

Part II is even better in my opinion and I think considering that this week is Blog Against Racism Week, there will be elements in that which will refer to issues often intertwined with that, especially gender politics. Hopefully, Sarah will have a response to two final questions in for me tomorrow and I can have it up that evening, or Wednesday. :D

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