What do Syria, Wiccan practice and jiu-jitsu suffragettes have in common? They all spark the imagination of my guest author, Juliet E. McKenna, whose latest epic fantasy novel, Southern Fire, will be available soon!
1. What was the inception of this project? What were your first steps in building that idea into a viable story?
My first epic fantasy series explored ways in which ordinary people could get caught up in the affairs of wizards and princes, how they might react and how they could still influence outcomes without the advantages of magical or political power. Looking to write something new, I found myself turning that idea around. What about a story where someone with significant magical or political power gets caught up in a situation where those advantages can’t actually solve the problem? Since as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility, that’s going to be a major crisis. Everyone lower down the pecking order will be looking at the person at the top, expecting them to put things right.
How and where could that happen in the world I’d already created? It was immediately obvious. I’d already established the Aldabreshin Archipelago was a swathe of island domains ruled by warlords with absolute, unquestioned power, all with an implacable hatred of magic. So if magic turned up causing strife, they’d be in real trouble. Especially if that wasn’t civilised, wizardly magic which could be negotiated with but something else entirely… By that stage, my imagination was off and running!
2. What kind of research and/or world-building did you do before beginning?
Since the Aldabreshin Archipelago is in this secondary world’s tropical latitudes, it was already established that, logically, the inhabitants were people of colour. This was an obvious prompt for me to move away from the Northern and Central European cultures and myths I’d drawn on so far in my work. So I read a stack of African, Indian, Near- and Middle-Eastern histories, some general and others focusing on specific themes and periods, always making sure to read as much as possible written by experts whose history and culture these actually are. This gave me a wealth of material to draw on; for devising customs, attitudes, expectations, clothing, furnishings, you name it. All of this is so vital for creating a vivid sense of place and culture. And wide reading is essential to avoid falling into that awful trap of appropriating one particular culture wholesale and hoping no one will notice just because the writer has changed the hairdos and hemlines.
Since Aldabreshin reliance on divination, omens and portents had already been sketched in, when characters from the Tales of Einarinn visited these islands, I had to develop that belief system far more fully, so I read up on such beliefs from Ancient Babylonian astrology all the way up to modern Wiccan practise. Studying symbology in particular was absolutely fascinating.
Then there was exploring historical examples of the limitations of absolute power and failures of the hereditary principle. What happens when the heir to a throne is simply not up to the task? What happens when an absolute ruler decides they can behave however badly they like without fear of the consequences? How have different feudal, authoritarian cultures dealt with the perennial problem of surplus sons, once they’ve got the heir and the spare?
3. How does the real world (historical or contemporary) affect your speculative fiction?
Historical research, including social as well as political history, gives me the solid foundation that’s essential for building a fantasy world which readers can really believe in; from the everyday detail drawn from real events to the actions and reactions of the people who live there, tested against the real world behaviour of family, friends and strangers around me. Because if readers can believe in the world, they can believe in the magic and dragons.
My reading also turns up unforeseen incidents, people and pre-industrial technologies which I would never have imagined unprompted but which turn out to be just what I need to spark a new idea to significantly improve a story. It also gives me solid references for those moments when someone protests something I’ve written is implausible ‘because history wasn’t like that’. Discussing how and why the history which they were taught wasn’t the whole story by any means is always illuminating.
Incidentally, my reading for fictional-research purposes frequently improves my own understanding of the contemporary world around me and in the news. World-building for The Aldabreshin Compass series taught me an awful lot about the history, cultures and religions of what’s now Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula. That gives me invaluable perspective on current events in that part of the world.
4. If you could choose a few descriptors that would go in a blurb on the front cover of your book, what would they be?
Tricky; I’ve never worked in advertising and besides, British women of my generation are always told firmly not to put ourselves forward… How about –
“Intricate, inventive, enthralling.”
“Worlds away from Tolkien. That was epic fantasy then. This is now.”
“How far must a man go to be the hero everyone expects? What will he lose on that journey?”
5. Where should readers go to find out more about your work?
My website’s the obvious place to start. There are sections introducing each of my series so far, along with more detail on each individual book and sample chapters for reading, as well as maps and background material for the curious. Along with other oddments of quite different fiction and the blog where I discuss things that amuse or interest me, so that should help people decide if we’re generally on the same wavelength.
6. Care to share a link (aside from your own work) to something amazing you think everyone should see or know about?
The history that isn’t taught is so often the history of women and minorities. I love the story of Edith Garrud, who taught ju-jitsu to a crack bodyguard unit of UK suffragettes, to run interference between the police and the Pankhursts (among others). This wikipedia entry is merely a starting point for a tale that upends so many incorrect assumptions about days gone by. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Margaret_Garrud
and check out the BBC’s article as well!