Please welcome Marie Brennan as part of her tour for her new book, A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent! Marie was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, and courtesy of Tor, we also have a copy of the book up for grabs to one lucky winner!
Marie, your new novel, A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, just came out! What made you decide to write a novel in the style of a Victorian memoir?
It sort of happened by accident. I started playing around with the notion of a quasi-Victorian dragon naturalist, and it fell automatically into this sort of retrospective voice, with Isabella telling the tale of her childhood and how she became interested in the subject. Given the time period, it seemed appropriate to embrace that approach, and frame the whole thing as a memoir. Which may be the best choice I’ve made in this entire project: the voice has been sheer fun to write.
You have a background in folklore, archeology, and anthropology. Were you able to put it to good use in researching this novel?
These books are less research-heavy than the Onyx Court was — and thank god for that; I needed a breather! But yes, I spent a certain amount of time reading about Central and Eastern Europe, since Vystrana is styled after that region, and also about other subjects: Judaism, for example, which is what the Segulist religion is based on. I’m not sure I’m capable of not researching things, at this point . . . .
When you began writing A Natural History of Dragons, did you know exactly how the story would end, or did you decide to see where Isabella and her story took you?
The first thirty thousand words were pure exploration; that wasn’t even the novel I was supposed to be writing at the time. Then that segment got shelved for several years, until I cooked up a pitch to sell the series to Tor. At that point I did put more thought into where the story was going to go, both in the first book and the remainder of the series. But none of it is nailed down too firmly, or in too much detail. A lot of it is still totally open, waiting for me to work it out as I go along.
What do you love most about writing fantasy?
I know I just said I needed a breather from heavy-duty research . . . but I love the excuse to learn about everything. People who don’t read fantasy often think we get to just make things up, but I’m constantly researching the most random subjects: dinosaur skeletons, nineteenth-century photography, Elizabethan espionage, early hang gliding, Nahua funeral customs. (Er, not all for the same story.) And then I get to take those things and fly off with them in whatever way my imagination fancies.
What are some of your biggest literary influences?
Honestly, I’m never sure how to answer to this question! I know who I’ve read a lot of; Diana Wynne Jones is, in fact, the reason I’m a professional writer. But I don’t actually think I write anything like her. I admire Dorothy Dunnett tremendously, but I definitely don’t write like her. It’s really not something I have any clear perspective on. (My first short story was compared to Ursula Le Guin’s work by a reviewer, though, which was incredibly flattering.)
What do you like to see when reading a good book?
My biggest doorways into story are setting and character. A book that presents me with a vivid sense of one, or ideally both, of those things can hook me in less than a page. I’m especially a sucker for settings that are either really solid depictions of historical periods or richly developed inventions — it’s the anthropologist in me. Get me interested in the world, give me a character to care about, and I’ll stick around while you get your plot rolling.
Is there anything that will make you put a book aside in frustration?
Boredom, really. That can happen if the opening feels hackneyed — characters and situations and plots I’ve seen a million times before, with nothing obviously fresh — or if the writing is rough enough that it keeps distracting me from the actual story. It’s a hazard of being a writer; you easily fall into a mode where you’re mentally rewriting the sentences to sound better.
What are you reading now?
I’m on a crusade to read several series I’ve been meaning to get through for a while: Discworld, Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey mysteries, Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series. It’s good to get some variety.
When you’re not busy at work writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
Role-playing games! Tabletop and live action both. It’s storytelling in a different form, this time with less typing and more friends. I also watch a lot of movies and TV, as well as reading. (In other words, yeah, my life revolves around stories.)
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about upcoming projects or events?
Several things I have my fingers crossed for — but none I can talk about right now. Sorry to be a tease!
Keep up with Marie: Website | Twitter
**Please note: All art on this page, including book cover, is by Todd Lockwood
We filed through into a large room enclosed by a dome of glass panels that let in the afternoon sunlight. We stood on a walkway that circled the room’s perimeter and overlooked a deep, sand-floored pit divided by heavy grates into three large pie-slice enclosures.
Within those enclosures were three dragons.
Forgetting myself entirely, I rushed to the rail. In the pit below me, a creature with scales of a faded topaz gold turned its long snout upward to look back at me. From behind my left shoulder, I heard a muffled exclamation, and then someone having a fainting spell.Some of the more adventurous gentlemen came to the railing and murmured amongst themselves, but I had no eyes for them — only for the dragon in the pit.
A heavy clanking sounded as it turned its head away from me, and I saw that a heavy collar bound its neck, connecting to a thick chain that ended at the wall. The gratings between the sections of the pit, I noticed, were doubled; in between each pair there was a gap, so the dragons could not snap at one another through the bars.
With slow, fascinated steps, I made my way around the room. The enclosure to the right held a muddy green lump, likewise chained, that did not look up as I passed. The third dragon was a spindly thing, white-scaled and pink-eyed: an albino.
Mr. Swargin waited at the rail by the entrance. Sparing him a glance, I saw that he watched everyone with careful eyes as they circulated about the room. He had warned us, at the outset of the tour, not to throw anything or make noises at the beasts; I suspected that was a particular concern here.
The golden dragon had retired to the farthest corner of its enclosure to gnaw on a large bone mostly stripped of meat. I studied it carefully, noting certain features of its anatomy, comparing its size against what appeared to be a cow femur. “Mr. Swargin,” I said, my eyes still on the dragon, “these aren’t juveniles, are they? They’re runts.”
“I beg your pardon?” the naturalist responded, turning to me.
“I might be wrong — I’ve only Edgeworth to go by, really, and he’s sadly lacking in illustrations — but my understanding was that species of true dragon do not develop the full ruff behind their heads until adulthood. I could not get a good view of the green one the next cage over — is that a Moulish swamp-wyrm? — but these cannot be full-grown adults, and considering the difficulties of keeping dragons in a menagerie, it seems to me that it might be simpler to collect runt specimens, rather than to deal with the eventual maturation of juveniles. Of course, maturation takes a long time, so one could –”
At that point, I realized what I was doing, and shut my mouth with a snap. Far too late, I fear; someone had already overheard.
About A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS:
You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .
All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.
Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.
About Marie Brennan:
Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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