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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Aliette de Bodard
    by Lawrence M. Schoen

Aliette is an alumna of Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp, a winner of the Writers of the Future competition, a finalist for the Campbell, Hugo, and Sturgeon awards, and the proud owner of a Locus and a British Science Fiction award, as well as two Nebulas. Her most recent novel, House of Shattered Wings, came out from Roc (in the US) and Gollancz (in the UK). She lives in Paris, but the power of the internet folds space and bends time sufficiently to get her answers to a few questions.

SCHOEN: I always like to start by asking about an author's background, and in this time where diversity is such a hot topic it's worth noting that though born in the US, you're of French/Vietnamese descent and grew up in France. Moreover, English is not your mother tongue. Which - if any - of these do you feel is most typically at the forefront of your writing: gender, race, nationality, ethnicity? And, speaking as someone with lots of "diversity cred," what are your thoughts on the issue of authors writing "the Other?"

DE BODARD: Er, that's a tricky question - I seldom think of it that way. I'm aware that in many ways I'm what is considered "the Other" (while also aware that there are people with more uphill climbs than mine!), but I try to write what feels true to me - and that kind of includes everything, in ways that I'm not very well placed to pinpoint . . . the author is really the worst person to comment on this, I feel (grin). Similarly, I don't really feel like I have a lot of "diversity cred", as you put it - and I wouldn't want anything I say to be taken as the Only Truth or Last Word on the matter!

That said . . . for me, "writing the other," or at least writing outside your lived experience, is always possible - the thing that people often misjudge is that it's a lot of work - and by that I don't mean a couple of days at the library! Thing is . . . the further away your character is in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, time period . . . from you, the more work you're going to have to catch up with them. And when you're doing a minority culture, there's also a significant risk of misrepresentation: it is very very hard to not perpetuate problematic clichés (the Mystical Asian, the Native American magically in tune with nature, etc.), because, if you haven't had firsthand experience of the culture, the clichés are what feel natural to you. It's a problem both because you continue perpetuating clichés, and because you drown out voices from the culture - if you're majority culture, then your portrayal, which hews close to the familiar and reassuring depictions, is a lot less alien, a lot more comfortable than the portrayals made by insiders - so you're both writing things that aren't truth, and making less space for that truth at the same time?

(that said . . . "truth" is of course a complicated thing, and I personally want to see the term "authenticity" struck from the vocabulary, as it's more often than not used to police and exclude. But that's a whole other kettle of fish! ) All of which is to say . . . of course it's not impossible to write outside your experience, but please please don't underestimate how hard it is.

SCHOEN: I have many things I want to ask you about your latest book, but before we get to that I'd like to go back to your debut novels, the Obsidian and Blood trilogy you did with Angry Robot. You published that at a time when several other authors were also writing Aztec-based and Mayan-based fantasy. You took things a step further and made yours an Aztec murder mystery. Was there some Mesoamerican conspiracy going on among fantasists at the time, or do you think it was just some random chance that has made this a popular culture for storytellers in the past decade? And more specifically, what is it that attracted you to this time and place? Was it the blood ritual, the breadth and depth of deities that defined the worldbuilding, the incredible architecture, some combination of these things, or something else entirely?

DE BODARD: Ha, I don't know! I came up with it before seeing the other authors. I think that part of it was that the genre has been looking for inspiration further afield for a while, and that time probably coincided with a greater reaching out to non-Western cultures? (and if you're going to look into Mesoamerica, the Mexica/Aztecs kind of come up pretty fast, as they're one of the most instantly recognizable civilizations in that area, at least as far as popular iconography is concerned).

Personally, I was attracted to this time period because I'm a bit of a contrarian - I've long thought that the Mexica were a much maligned civilization (when the people accusing them of being barbarians are the conquistadores, no saints themselves, you begin to suspect there might be a tiny little bias in the accounts that have been preserved). I really wanted to show that they were not evil barbarians, not bloodthirsty monsters - but simply people who thought they were doing the best they could to keep the universe going. And sure, they had some horrendous customs; but the Middle Ages had some horrendous torture methods too, and that doesn't make everyone who used them irredeemable monsters.

SCHOEN: Switching gears now, let's talk a bit about your Xuya universe. The range of these stories is breathtaking, alien while at the same time deeply human, and time and again you've captured a poignancy that the reading community has responded to with nominations and awards. What's the common thread for you with these? Is there an underlying metaphor, a particularly angled mirror you're holding up, or are you just challenging yourself to see how far you can push the speculative fiction envelope?

DE BODARD: Mostly I'm having a lot of fun with these? They sort of grew organically, from a simple alternate history in which China was dominant, to an intergalactic space empire based on Confucian culture (rather than the ubiquitous Roman empire which often serves as the template for such empires). Along the way I sort of ditched China for Vietnam, because I was more comfortable with that latter culture for obvious reasons. And I really like the way they allow me to explore different mores, and in particular different familial structures and different values - and also the way that the universe is wide enough for me to add bits and pieces in different corners of space to explore new themes and new angles!

SCHOEN: Moving on to House of Shattered Wings at last, I found this book to read like a stroll through an art museum, scene by scene and chapter by chapter, switching between brightly lit watercolors to dark and heavy oils. You manage to tease and torment readers with compelling ideas (the reality of Heaven implied by the presence of Fallen who cannot recall it, the evidence of resurrection without explanation, to mention just two) but without eliciting anger when you fail to answer the inevitable questions because you throw a brilliant combination of magic and addiction at us as a distraction. Was this a deliberate balancing act, or am I giving you credit for something you just stumbled upon?

DE BODARD: Hahaha no, it was definitely a deliberate balancing act. At least where the theological questions are concerned - I didn't want to step into this for a variety of reasons (the main one is that it would have taken over the storyline and it would have been really hard to wrench it back). I wanted the questions of faith to still be something the characters struggled with, but without being too heavy-handed about it. I didn't think of the magic and addiction as a distraction; but I did deliberately focus the book on the plot, characters and magic.

(Also, I tend to dislike books that explain all the underpinnings of the world because I feel they show the author's hand a bit too much, and I didn't want to do this with my own book!).

SCHOEN: The cast of characters you created for House Silverspires is rich and detailed. This book is clearly Phillipe's story - or at least a piece of it - but I kept wondering how drawn you might have been to making it Morningstar's story, or Madeleine's, or Emmanuelle's, or any of several others. You've barely touched on most of these back stories. Will you be going back to reveal more of these in future volumes, or will subsequent books go forward without looking back?

DE BODARD: I actually think of it as being a three-voice story? Philippe probably occupies the most space in terms of scene, but for me it's equally Madeleine's and Selene's story - that they have slightly fewer scenes doesn't make their part in this any less important. And I did have a lot of back story for several people in the book (Asmodeus, Emmanuelle and Aragon are the three which come most to mind), which I never had space to cram into the book! Going forward I hope to tease some of these: certainly book 2 is going to be focused on the House of Hawthorn, so you're going to be seeing a lot more of Asmodeus and Madeleine.

SCHOEN: Moving away from specific works to the writer herself, how old were you when you first started writing, and can you say what pushed you into the authorial abyss? And too, in the time since you first took that step (or plunge) can you look back and see clear demarcations where your voice has changed, and if so, how?

DE BODARD: Strictly speaking, I think I was 12? I've always been a voracious reader, and I tried writing an illustrated book about the Emperor of space and a planet of cat-people, which proved a number of things to me: the first was that my future career was definitely not going to include any illustrations, and the second is that cat-people aren't a terrific idea either. I took it up again when I was an older teenager and living in London, and then sort of grew into it. I've got a number of very thick, very bad, epic fantasy novels in my trunk, which will hopefully never see the light of day, and from there I moved to novelettes, short stories (I had issues with writing short. It comes naturally to some people; I had to learn how to ruthlessly prune my complicated ideas into bite-sized prose), and then back again to novels when I felt I was ready.

My voice has definitely changed: I recently had cause to reread a story I wrote in 2009, and the difference was definite - more confidence, more willingness to take risk, and also a growing liking for semi-colons (grin). I'm not sure if I can pinpoint demarcations, but I can think of a couple of landmarks: the first is attending a workshop with Benjamin Rosenbaum, where he pointed out that since I was writing in a far future universe with radically different underpinnings, I didn't have to keep using the same rigid scientific terms (it was likely, for instance, that nanotubes were going to be called something completely different) - that was when I realized that scientific rigor in SF was more of a guideline, at least insofar as I was concerned, and that my stories didn't have to be constructed like a demonstration of engineering feasibility. The second was when I took the leap of faith to write about Vietnamese culture and base stories more explicitly on my personal history rather than trying to edge around topics that I didn't really have passionate faith in.

SCHOEN: Apropos of that last question and given that this interview will appear as part of the IGMS anniversary celebration, looking back on the experience, what do you feel has been the main and lasting impact of your experience in OSC's Literary Boot Camp?

DE BODARD: I think the main lesson I learnt from Boot Camp is that rules exist to be broken? Actually, that's not quite accurate, more that you have to know the reason for a rule, and then feel free to break said rule if it doesn't apply. This has come in handy countless times.

(And, also, of course, I met a lot of tremendously awesome people at Boot Camp and am pleased to still be in touch with some of them).

SCHOEN: You've demonstrated the ability to write vastly different worlds, in both short and long form. What's next for you? Will you continue the series of your most recent book, return to expand on your Aztec fantasy mysteries, or give us a Xuya novel? Or something else entirely new and glorious?

DE BODARD: Ha! At the moment my main preoccupation is writing the sequel to The House of Shattered Wings, which is going to take me a big chunk of time . . . Beyond that, I've got a few ideas, but nothing definite. I've been toying with the idea of putting together a stich-up novel set in the Xuya universe, but every time I keep balking at the amount of research involved - who knows, it might even come to fruition soon . . . (grin)

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