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French author Aliette de Bodard has established herself as one of fantasy’s rising stars. She is the author of the genre-crossing Obsidian and Blood series, which follows Acatl, the Aztec High Priest of the Dead, as he investigates supernatural crimes in pre-Columbian Mexico. The series currently has two books: Servant of the Underworld (Angry Robot, 2010) and Harbinger of the Storm (Angry Robot, 2011). A third book, Master of the House of Darts, will be released by Angry Robot in October of this year.
In addition to her novel-length works, de Bodard has also published short fiction in such publications as Azimov’s, Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction.
De Bodard was kind enough to answer the Toonari Post’s questions via email.
Toonari Post: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
Aliette de Bodard: It depends… I started writing when I was eight, but I didn’t have much organisation or drive at the time. I guess the starting point was my deciding I wanted to publish a novel: I was sixteen at the time and living in London, and I found a book by Orson Scott Card about “How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction”, which explained the nuts and bolts of craft. I immediately started working on a novel (I still remember cutting out my own index cards). I didn’t ever finish that novel, because the hard disk it was on was fried on the move back to Paris–which taught me a very important lesson on the value of backups–but I never looked back after that.
TP: Could you describe your journey from aspiring writer to published author?
AdB: I have the inconvenience of not living in an English-speaking part of the world, so for a while I was struggling to find like-minded people. I finally joined up an online crit group at Hatrack, and started writing short fiction, which I religiously submitted to Writers of the Future every quarter. For a few years, I skipped between crit groups, trying to find one that would work for me–I finally joined OWW, which provided a big breakthrough in terms of craft: I could crit the numerous stories posted there on my free time, which enabled me to gain a much better understanding of the things that worked and didn’t work for me, and I could get fast feedback on a piece.
I kept submitting (and collecting rejections, which I pinned to the wall behind the dining room table where I worked), and I finally got two big breakthroughs at nearly the same time: first, Jetse de Vries told me he was buying my short story “Deer Flight” for Interzone; and, about a month after that, I got a call from Writers of the Future telling me I’d placed second in my quarter.
TP: What made you decide to write about the Aztecs?
AdB: I had had exposure to the myths and legends of many cultures when I was young, but somehow I’d managed to always skip the Aztecs: the first I heard of them was through my Spanish courses. At the time, the consensus was that of the conquistadores: that the Aztecs were a barbaric, bloodthirsty people. I twigged on pretty early that the conquistadores were not very nice people, and it made me wonder what they’d managed to distort in their reports on the Aztecs. And, sure enough, it only took a little bit of digging to find out about a fascinating civilisation, who was way ahead of Europe in lots of ways (gender equality, medicine, astrology), and whose empire managed to span the entire length of Mexico (no mean feat considering their armies were basically on foot and had to cross mountains and deserts). And I thought it was a real shame that this entire culture had been basically reduced to bloodthirsty villains. I don’t personally agree with human sacrifice, but I can see why they would have thought it was necessary given their belief system (and God knows the Middle Ages that their raft of practices I personally find unsavory, such as torture–something which actually shocked the Aztecs, as they couldn’t understand why something as sacred as pain and blood would be so casually used). So I decided to write stories set in that milieu, partly as a way to explore the culture, and also partly seeking to do my bit to redress the balance (though I’m aware it’s going to take more than a few books to change perceptions, but I can at least try).
TP: How did you find your agent? Do you have any advice for writers who are struggling with the dreaded query letter?
AdB: I found my agent through a series of weird coincidences. Basically, we met at World Fantasy in Calgary, in 2008, through a friend we had in common; but it’s likely nothing would have come of it if my plane back to Heathrow hadn’t been canceled, leaving my agent, me and Marc Gascoigne (who was editing for Angry Robot) stuck in the same hotel lobby with nothing much to do. They both coaxed me into pitching Servant of the Underworld to them; and, after the first moment of panic, I managed to condense my query letter into something short and punchy–and that’s how I ultimately got both my agent and my editor.
I have struggled with the query letter myself, and I think a lot of the problems I had was trying to summarise the entire book in two paragraphs, which is just impossible. I found that it helped me to think of the query letter as a short introductory paragraph setting out why you’re contacting this particular agent, the book title and word number, two or three short paragraphs of book summary, and a paragraph about the relevant bits of your experience as an author (mention previous publications, and other credits if they are relevant to the book). The main problem I had was with the book summary, and I solved it by thinking of it, not as a summary, but as that little blurb you put at the back of the book to make readers want to pick it. I got books from the library and studied the blurbs for a while, and I saw that they were focusing on one aspect of the book and one cool character, and that was about all they had space for. That’s how I wrote my own summary.
TP: Do you have a particular routine for writing? For example, do you set aside a specific time to do it? Do you aim to write a certain number of words/pages per day?
AdB: I wish I had a routine, but the sad fact is that with the day job and the irregular evenings, I don’t have much of one. I basically slot writing into the empty spaces of my schedule. I tried aiming for a certain number of words or pages, but it didn’t work for me, because I can be so irregular. I prefer to set aside, say, 1-2 hours during which I do nothing but write, and accept that sometimes I’ll have 500 words at the end of it, and sometimes 100 words–and sometimes negative words, because I’ve been editing and had to excise an entire section…
TP: Do you do anything special to get yourself in the mood to write, such as listening to a particular kind of music?
AdB: I do have music I listen to, which helps me maintain the mood across the various computers I write on. What I usually do is brew a teapot full of tea (or a herbal brew if it’s too late in the evening), and bring it to my writing desk. I then answer a few emails and browse forums for a bit; and then I start writing by turning the music on.
For music, I mostly go for singer-songwriters such as Vienna Teng, Dar Williams, Girlyman (my new favourite), or for ambiant mood pieces such as traditional Asian songs. I used to listen to last.fm to get my songs, but we got a home stereo with way better sound, so now I tend to put a CD on the stereo and listen to that. It has the advantage of giving me a break when I get up to change the CD.
TP: Given the prominence of human sacrifice in Aztec culture, some readers may find it odd that Acatl never sacrifices anyone as part of his duties as High Priest of the Dead. Could you explain why you chose to omit human sacrifice from the cult of Mictlantecuhtli?
AdB: I did it for a couple reasons. The first was that I was a very green writer when I started writing Servant of the Underworld, and I took one look at the possibility of writing a scene with an actual human sacrifice–and just didn’t think I could pull it off in a way that wouldn’t be corny.
The other one was a basic sympathy problem: the Aztec civilisation is already fairly brutal and fairly distant from our current society, and I didn’t want to add to that distance by having an utterly unsympathetic main character (and I was already running into enough trouble with the animal sacrifices, which put some people off). Acatl was the reader’s only viewpoint in the society, and so he had to create some reasonable empathy with the reader, since I wasn’t going to be able to use someone else as a counterpoint in the narration. I had already given him a sense of duty and a distaste for political manoeuvering, but he remained fairly distant as a narrator, and I thought having him offer human sacrifices in the name of his god would break the fragile balance of empathy I was trying to achieve. So I decided that I was going to skip the human sacrifice part from the clergy of Mictlantecuhtli, but also that it would be disingenuous to remove it from the society. I tried to include some of it in Servant of the Underworld, but I think I was more successful in integrating human sacrifice in both Harbinger of the Storm and the forthcoming Master of the House of Darts.
It’s been three years since that first draft now, and I feel more confident that I could pull this off and still draw the reader into the story, but still… it would be a very difficult juggling act, since the main explanation I could offer would be religious belief, and a lot of people in the US either find religion repulsive, or follow a religion that categorically forbids human sacrifice as an aberration.
TP: What are your influences as a writer?
AdB: Every book I read! More seriously, in genre, I’m very much influenced by Patricia McKillip (I love her style, and her evocation of magic as something mysterious and deadly, not as a system that can ever be mastered and fully understood), Ursula Le Guin (who always has such lovely wordbuilding, and very efficiently manages to question what we think of as the fundamentals of genre and society, such as gender, or political systems, or religions), and I’m indebted to Roger Zelazny for the flamboyant use of style and mythology in his books such as Lord of Light.
Out of genre, I got a lot from mysteries: I love Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael for so accurately nailing the mindset of the Middle Ages, and for presenting a character for whom faith is the centre of the universe; I read Elizabeth George for her depiction of the devastation left by a murder and her fine psychological studies of characters; and I probably wouldn’t have written [the Obsidian and Blood series] if not for Christian Jacq and his books set in ancient Egypt, and Robert Van Gulik and his Judge Dee mysteries.
TP: Could you give us a taste of what will happen in Master of the House of Darts?
AdB: Ha! Master of the House of Darts is, basically, the consequences of what happened at the end of Harbinger of the Storm. (trying not to spoil the end of the second book here…) The main characters made an important decision at the end of that book, but they didn’t pause too much to consider what it would do to the Fifth World. There were also a number of unsolved conflicts, particularly between Teomitl and Tizoc-tzin, that will take centre-stage in this book; and Acatl is in for a number of surprises from people he took for granted.
TP: How do you go about making the past accessible for readers who might not have much historical knowledge?
AdB: Making the past accessible boils down to two things for me: one, making the mindset accessible, and two, getting the details right; The mindset is pretty much vital, but it has to be explained enough. I can tell you that someone I know took a job at a bank manager, and you’d guess they did that because they liked finance and/or wanted a high-paying job; but I tell you that my main character wants to die as a human sacrifice, and I’m going to have to do much more explaining so that you don’t get the wrong idea. It’s the gulf between our Western mindset today and the mindset of an unfamiliar culture in the past.
The second things is details: once again, I can tell you that me and my friends went for Chinese food, and you’ll probably be able to fill in the gaps. If I say that my main character had a typical Mexica meal without telling you what, you have few ways of guessing. So I have to fill in the gaps: tell you what he ate, what it tasted like: I could also do it for me and my friends, and it would reveal things about our characters; but here’s it’s a far more basic need. I have to tell you so you can imagine it. And the more details I give you about the food, about the houses, about the rhythm of daily life, the more real the setting is going to feel to you. There is an upper limit, though, beyond which anything I tell you is just infodumping, but the reader tolerance to details can be fairly high.
It’s also very easy to get details wrong or slip into the wrong mindset (i.e. back into the 21st Century): a writer friend and I once had a good laugh over the fact that his main character in a medieval fantasy had just had donuts–I surmised he must have been hungry at the time.
TP: In addition to your historical fantasy, you’ve also tried your hand at alternate history in the form of your Xuya universe. Could you briefly describe Xuya, as well as your inspiration for it?
AdB: Xuya is what I think of as my sandbox of cultures: it’s what would have happened in North America if the Europeans hadn’t arrived first. The basic premise is that Chinese ships land in America in 1411 (this would have been technologically possible, because Chinese ships were much more advanced than European ships of the same time period; it just didn’t happen because various factors caused China to all but close its borders and fall back into hardcore Confucianism). Because the Chinese were more interested in prestige than in conquest, I imagined that as when they met the Mesoamerican Empires, they would prefer trade to conquest. And, because China already has a foothold in America (and brought gunpowder and smallpox ahead of schedule), the Spanish find it much harder to land at the end of the 15th Century.
This leads to a tripartite North America: you have a Chinese colony in the West (but with far more rights given to the Native Americans), the northern tip of the Mexica Dominion (the Aztecs) in the South, and the much diminished and much impoverished United States. This is the setting for the modern stories; I also took this forward into space, and imagined civilisations centred around Minds, artificial intelligences incubated in human wombs.
TP: On your website, you say that you’ve written novels set in the Xuya universe. Do you have any plans to publish them?
AdB: I do have plans! My SF thriller set in the Xuya universe, Foreign Ghosts, is undergoing revisions at the moment, and I’m brainstorming a few sequel ideas. Then it’s going out on submission, and we’ll see what happens.
TP: There are all kinds of stories now about authors finding success by self publishing on the Kindle. What made you decide to go with a traditional publisher? What are your thoughts on the future of the publishing industry? Do you think self publishing will be the way of the future, or will there always be a place for traditional publishers?
AdB: I’m not really in a position to know, I confess (I live in a country where Kindle access is fairly limited). I wanted to have a physical book, and one that would be sold in major bookstores, which pretty much ruled out self-publishing (and, at the time I was writing, self-publishing was just taking off, and the Kindle was barely out).
I think there will always be a place for traditional publishers, both as gatekeepers, and as people doing the work authors don’t want to do. It’s a bit like agenting: I could negotiate my own contracts, but I don’t have the will, the time or the competences to do so. Similarly, I was listening to Michael J. Sullivan at the Nebulas weekend, and he was saying that doing the covers, editing and proofreading his work had been very much time-consuming–and I totally believe him, because I’ve seen how much work went into friends putting up even a simple short story on the Kindle. I have a dayjob; and I admit I just don’t have the energy to do all of this.
TP: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
AdB: Believe in yourself, and keep writing. And beware of rules: you have to know and understand why they exist, but after you do that, you must allow yourself to break them. Otherwise you’re just limiting yourself.
TP: What’s next for Aliette de Bodard?
AdB: Several things are in the pipeline: I have a novella I hope to finish one day, and then I’ll move to editing the Xuya novel, Foreign Ghosts, as well as planning its sequels. Then we’ll see; I reckon that should keep me busy for a bit.