As part of Angry Robot’s Backlist Boost series, I’m thrilled to welcome Aliette de Bodard to the blog today! She was kind enough to answer a few questions about her Obsidian and Blood trilogy (Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts), and much more!
Will you tell us a bit about your “Aztec noir fantasy” series and what inspired you to write it?
Sure! I found out about the Mexica (Aztecs) in Spanish classes: they were depicted as bloodthirsty savages, and that made me a little suspicious, because the conquistadores doing the description were hardly saints themselves! I did some research, and I realised that, aside from issues of greed and conquest (which admittedly loomed very larger), there was also a fundamental cultural misunderstanding, between a culture which saw blood sacrifices as the only way to uphold the world, and another one which had abjured them as abominations a long time ago.
A lot of the books I read on the Mexica depicted a society a few years before the arrival of the conquistadores–in decline and doomed to die. I wanted to write something that wasn’t that narrative: a world where the Mexica were at their peak, a vibrant and living civilisation, and a world where blood magic worked–where human sacrifices did keep the sun in the sky and the earth fertile. Hence the Obsidian and Blood series, which is set 40 years before the arrival of the conquistadores. And because I’ve always liked a good murder mystery, I used that structure for the books: they chronicle the adventures of Acatl, who investigates murders of supernatural origin and (rather reluctantly) becomes involved in court politics. There’s murders, star-demons, and monsters who eat the eyes and fingernails of the dead–everything you need in your fiction!
Your fiction is very culturally diverse, so I imagine your research has been fascinating. What do you enjoy most about exploring, and writing about, different cultures?
Ha, some of the research has been fascinating–some of the Vietnamese stuff involved merely asking my maternal family, who looked at me rather funny; and a lot of science involves either unpiling my old university text books, or asking my husband, who also looks at me rather funny 🙂 But yes, you do find out fascinating tidbits, and also you do unexpectedly get to do very hands-on things: especially with the obscure stuff, my love of languages turned out to be very useful. Reading Spanish was obviously very useful for the research for the Obsidian and Blood books; and recently, I had to get my Vietnamese-English dictionary to translate the names of the all reign names of the Emperors of the Nguyen dynasty (I needed to name a fictional empress in a space empire, and I wanted to make sure I got my naming conventions right. I ended up plugging through Chinese in google translate for some words that weren’t in my dictionary. Rather… unexpected).
I have a peculiar fondness for piling up research books (for my latest novella, I put together a pile of books about the Vietnamese imperial court that spanned three languages and a rather wide range of subjects, from the colonial administration to daily life in a Chinese village under the Ming dynasty); and you’ll have worked out that
I’m also a very, very dedicated language geek!
What is your writing process like?
I’m pretty big on planning: a story generally starts with a couple weeks/months of research and brainstorming, until I get to the point where I can confidently put a plot onto the page. I use that plot as my guideline when I’m writing the first draft (I *hate* not knowing where I’m going when writing, it makes for catastrophic drafts on my end). Generally my first draft is written very fast, because I’ve done a lot of the groundwork beforehand.
I use beta-readers to help with critique: it used to be my husband then other readers, but since he’s been increasingly busy, I’ve skipped the husband part and gone straight to beta readers (except for my novels, which he still gets to read first!).
You mentioned Asimov and Le Guin as a few of your gateways into SF, but what are a few other authors that have particularly inspired you?
I love Patricia McKillip, who writes these gorgeous, atmospheric fantasies that make myths and fairytales feel real–I read her in French translation (The Changeling Sea is the first book of hers I read), but the originals are very different.
David Gemmell–I read him as a teenager, and again as an adult, and the books actually hold up pretty well (not every one of my childhood favourites does…) . For grizzled warriors doing the impossible in the face of monstrous odds, he’s pretty hard to equal.
In mysteries, I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan (I recently got the annotated edition of the short stories for my birthday): these had a pretty significant impact on me, as did books by Agatha Christie. I also have a peculiar fondness for Robert Van Gulik, who brought Ancient(ish) China to life with his Judge Dee books–they’re a bit dated of course, but I loved reading them; and I loved the author’s notes at the end, which explained the historical inspiration for the plot points in the novel.
And finally, whoever wrote that book of Chinese fairytales I had as a child definitely deserves a medal for being my inspiration 🙂
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Uh, tough choice. Probably Andre Norton’s Year of the Unicorn, which made a big impression on me for no reason I can particularly name–it’s probably a combination of the characters and the atmosphere (Gillan is one of my favourite characters. Practical, not given to mopping, and incredibly resourceful).
You graduated from one of France’s top engineering schools, and indeed, it’s your day job. How do you balance this with your writing?
With great difficulty! Writing actually is a great hobby for this, because it allows me a break from the engineering–one of the reasons I find it difficult to write near future SF is because it’s a bit too much like my day job with a slightly longer horizon–I try to find the technologies that will work in two to three years, near-future SF tends to be centred on such technologies in 15-50 years–so there are a lot of similarities (though thankfully no peer review/expert committee has ever given me a grilling on the accuracy of my near-future science!).
I usually write in the evenings or on weekends–lately, I’ve dusted off my alphasmart neo, which is this nifty dedicated writing machine (little more than a keyboard with a small screen and memory, an instant on/off; and batteries that just go on forever), and started writing on my commute. It’s been really instrumental to finishing my novel.
You grew up in France, and live in Paris. If someone were to visit you there for the first time, what sites would you take them to?
Uh. I presume they’d find the Eiffel Tower on their own, so I’d take them a little off the beaten track–in all the good restaurants around town, for starters: a great source for these is the 13e arrondissement, which is where the entire Southeast Asian community of Paris meets for their meals and shopping; but our current family favourite is the Zen Garden, on rue Marbeuf near the Champs Elysées, which serves pricey but wonderful high-end Chinese gastronomy.
There are lots of museums in Paris, but my favourite is Musée de Cluny, which is within a 15th-Century house that used to be a haunt for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela; and also contains the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries–and, afterwards, a walk through the Latin Quarters and its numerous bookshops would be sure to satisfy cravings for the bibliophile 🙂
And, shopping-wise, I can recommend Rue du Commerce, which is near the Metro station Commerce and a good source of shops that are for everyday use rather than for tourists.
What’s next in the works for you?
I’m rewriting a novella set in the Xuya continuity, 120 years after On A Red Station, Drifting (and with a cameo from some of the characters). It’s a complex Chinese knots of four different points of view around a singular event, and I’m trying to get it right.
But the big thing is my new novel, which is forthcoming from Gollancz in August 2015: it’s set in the ruins of Paris following a big war between magicians. The city is ruled by a quasi-feudal system of Houses; and magic is obtained through Fallen angels–either directly, or through their stored breaths/bones/flesh. The novel is centred on Silverspires, the House founded by Lucifer Morningstar near Notre-Dame: once the effortless leader of the power games played in the ruins, Silverspires has now sunk into decay. Following the arrival of a naive and powerful Fallen into the House, Selene, the head of Silverspires, must make some hard decisions when a dark power starts stalking the corridors and rooms of the House, and killing what it touches.
It’s got an addictive drug made from ground Fallen bones, a Vietnamese Immortal with a grudge, and a boatload of political/magical intrigues (and dead bodies); and I hope everyone has as much fun reading it as I had writing it.