Seth Dickinson’s debut novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, just came out today, and he kindly answered a few of my questions about it, and more! Also, courtesy of Tor, we’ve got one copy to give a way to one lucky winner (US/Ca only), so be sure to enter to win at the widget at the end of the post!
Will you tell us a bit about The Traitor Baru Cormorant and what inspired you to write it?
I’ve always wanted to write a novel! But this one in particular came from conversations about who was and wasn’t allowed to be the protagonist of an epic fantasy story. ‘It’s just not realistic for a woman, a queer person, or a racial minority to be the protagonist,’ people would say, ‘because they’d be too oppressed to do anything interesting.’
History is much more complex, mutable, and diverse than we’re taught. It is absolutely full of crushing, soul-scraping oppression and atrocity (much of it dissimilar to what we have today). It’s also full of all kinds of people doing incredible things. Everyone’s always fought back, carved out a space to live.
I wanted to write a story about someone targeted by intersecting racism, sexism, and homophobia, someone who fought against those oppressions but wasn’t defined by them — a complex, challenging, ambitious person who carved through any challenge in her way and changed the world.
What makes Baru such a compelling character? Why do you think readers will root for her?
Ha, it’s been awesome to have such a powerful response to her. I think what people love most about her is her absolutely relentless agency — no matter how crazy the situation, she sizes it up, figures out a way to take command, and acts. One reader described her as an avalanche. I think people really admire her resilience, her pragmatism, her incredible kinetic energy. She’s smart and driven as hell.
But that comes with its dark side, a willingness to compromise some of her principles, a ruthlessness that drives her to sacrifice people she cares about. And she’s haunted by the terror that she’s doing all this not just to save her home but in the name of her own personal power.
Which is, ultimately, what I think is compelling about her, even if that’s not the same as rooting for her. She’s big, she’s complicated, she’s allowed to be angry and loving and proud and destructive and everything else. She can love her home and collaborate with her conquerors, she fights for freedom by supporting an oppressive regime, she’s torn up over her loyalties and her methods and yet she’s deeply, unshakably confident and self-assured, defiant and ferociously smart and alive.
The world tells her that she’s defined by laws, or oppressions, or tragedies, and she fights back, but she’s not any of those things: she’s herself.
Was there anything in particular that inspired the “world” of the novel?
First, I didn’t want it to be a recognizable analog for any part of Earth, and I didn’t want the people and languages in Baru’s world to map cleanly to any of ours. That would suggest that biology was destiny, and I detest that suggestion.
Second, I wanted the geography and climate of the setting to influence the crops and livestock which influenced the civilizations that arose. So it all had to make a loose kind of geographic sense.
Third, I tried to set out the lands around the Ashen Sea in an easily readable pattern, like sections of a wheel. It was really important to the story that readers grasp the layout of the contending nations.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
While I was in school I studied stereotyping, prejudice, and power, which was an invaluable foundation. I read a lot of history and a lot of critical discussion on the Internet — I think that easy access to clearly written criticism is a great feature of the Internet.
I drew on my work in games to handle some of the book’s narrative design. I really wanted a compelling, clean, striking read at both the sentence and the plot level — I hope that worked out!
And I had a brigade of wonderful, diverse beta readers to check my mistakes and make suggestions.
Have you always wanted to write fiction? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
Always, always! Before I could even write I was boring (or worrying?) my parents with elaborate stories. I moved to crayon, then Lego bricks, and finally to words. My brother was a great partner in all this, both for putting up for me and because he had better tactile and construction skills.
I grew up in a very small town in the mountains of Vermont. You can see some of my life in my unauthorized biography, ‘Calvin & Hobbes’. I tried to convince my schoolmates that the dump behind my house was the wreckage of the spacecraft that had brought me to earth. I got into my first writer’s workshop because I was working on a website about Lego spaceships. I studied social psychology in college, and began (but didn’t finish) a PhD program in social neuroscience. One day I crunched so hard on the ab crunch machine that I gave myself appendicitis.
What is your writing process like?
Most days I poke sullenly at the keys. Sometimes I sit down with energy and a great idea and I can produce a few thousand solid words. I’m still trying to figure out how to consistently hit those good days (and whether it requires unhealthy amounts of caffeine).
When I’m in the groove on a novel, I sit down, reread the previous day’s work (editing as I go), and then do another two thousand words or so. In this way I can do a full-sized novel in just a couple months, as long as I don’t take a wrong turn.
I’m constantly fine-tuning my prose as I go. My process is very language-oriented: I care a lot about the quality of each sentence.
What do you enjoy most about reading, and writing SFF?
The satisfaction of rereading a passage and knowing it’s good — and the joy of talking about good writing, whether it’s mine or another author’s, with smart vivacious people.
I read and adore quite a lot of straight-up literature, too, but I’m convinced SFF is necessary and vital to the project of articulating the human experience.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Oh, gosh. I love rereading books, so I can’t just pick my favorite. If there’s one book I’d want to slug me in the face with surprise again, it’d either be Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, or Blindsight by Peter Watts.
What are you currently reading?
Declare, by Tim Powers.
What’s next for you, this year and beyond?
Another book, a sequel and counterargument to this one, and then I’m on contract for a third novel after that. And more work on the video game Destiny, I hope — I do a lot of lore writing for Destiny’s fiction companion, the Grimoire.
I’m very excited to see the new Iñárritu movie. Are you? The trailer was fantastic.
Thank you for having me, and I hope you’re well!
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About The Traitor Baru Cormorant:
In Seth Dickinson’s highly-anticipated debut The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a young woman from a conquered people tries to transform an empire in this richly imagined geopolitical fantasy.
Baru Cormorant believes any price is worth paying to liberate her people-even her soul.
When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalizes her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire’s civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free.
Sent as an Imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn, another conquered country, Baru discovers it’s on the brink of rebellion. Drawn by the intriguing duchess Tain Hu into a circle of seditious dukes, Baru may be able to use her position to help. As she pursues a precarious balance between the rebels and a shadowy cabal within the Empire, she orchestrates a do-or-die gambit with freedom as the prize.
But the cost of winning the long game of saving her people may be far greater than Baru imagines.