Interview: Tansy Rayner Roberts
Tansy Rayner Roberts is a fantasy novelist who shares a pair of typing fingers with crime novelist Livia Day. Livia’s first murder mystery, A Trifle Dead, will be released from Twelfth Planet Press on 28 March 2013.
Tansy’s recent releases include Power and Majesty, The Shattered City and Reign of Beasts, the three books of the Creature Court trilogy. Her first novel, Splashdance Silver, was recently re-issued as an e-book.
With so much going on for Tansy and her alter ego, I thought it was high time I asked her a few searching questions. She repaid me with very thorough answers!
The Shattered City is a terrific book, telling a whole story yet still functioning as the middle book of a trilogy. You said to me you’d set a challenge to yourself to overcome the ‘Middle novel problem’. How do you define that problem, and how did you go about meeting it?
I think there are two sides to the middle novel problem – one is that narrative: the middle act in a three act structure is the one that has to hold everything together, and in the case of epic fantasy, that’s a really long time to keep everyone entertained while you move all the pieces into place for the big finale. What you don’t want is your reader to think of the middle book as being the interval they had to sit through in order to reach the second half.
The second and perhaps more dramatic problem is one of reader perception – fantasy readers are pretty worn down and cynical these days, and the middle novel of a fantasy trilogy has acquired a poor reputation, I think unfairly. If the middle novel is soggy or boring or has characters running around in circles for no good reason, then that’s the fault of the author and to some extent the trilogy – it doesn’t mean that middle books everywhere are unnecessary!
I rather like the middle book of a trilogy because it tends to be the one with the most character development, and more room to breathe because the readers know who everyone is now, and aren’t yet all tensed and psyched up for everyone to start being killed off. Which means, of course, that as an author, I can happily screw with their expectations.
In my own case, the secret was in fact to originally plan a four book series, agree to let it be a trilogy instead, and write two books worth of plot into the middle book. This meant paring down a lot of stuff, building up new characters, and sadly resisting the urge to kill off a beloved character as a cliffhanger to a volume. In retrospect, it meant that the middle volume had to be the tightest, and work the hardest, which is actually what I should have been striving for anyway.
After all that, though, Sarah Rees Brennan’s definition of the trilogy is one I now wave at people who suggest middle books are a waste of time. “Book 1 – Set up. Book 2 – Make Out. Book 3 – Defeat Evil.
If you’ll pardon the pun, the concept of Velody being a dressmaker is interwoven through the whole of the Creature Court stories. It’s not just her job, it’s fundamental to who she is and her approach to life, and that sense of creating new things permeates the politics and relationships we see. It is also, though, a catalyst for some pretty destructive plot elements. I suppose I’m asking if you’re a dressmaker and, either way, how that concept got woven into plotting the series.
I’m so not a dressmaker!
I love fabrics and textile arts, and I’ve always been fascinated by them. I’m a quilter and I love to play with the pretties. But my secret downfall is measuring. I sew like I cook (and like I write!) – madly, and without measure. Which means trying to make an actual garment that fits an actual specific shape is totally beyond me.
I have however spent my life surrounded by artists and creative people, and I am well aware that whatever your artistic obsession is, that’s how you see the world. So it was important to me that Velody’s Point of View voice would be wrapped up in her sewing terminology. I did need a friend to read the books over for clanger mistakes, though – and among other things, to make sure Velody could do what she actually needed to be capable of doing, I did shift the industrial level of the world just a tad, to let her have an early Singer sewing machine.
I knew Velody was a dressmaker before I knew what her name was, so it is an integral part of the story, but the most important thing to me was that she was a professional craftswoman, someone who was a practical producer of things, because of the conflict between that life and the insanely frivolous, beautifully dressed Creature Court. Sure, they save the world on a regular basis, but that’s their only contribution to society – in other ways, they’re quite parasitic.
Velody had to have a real job, because one of the essential questions of the book was – how can you save the world and hold down a real job at the same time? I wanted a woman as protagonist who had responsibilities, and valued what she did in the daylight, and had to weigh that up with what she could achieve during the battles of the nox. Not all superheroes are Batman – some have to pay the rent! And the contrast between Velody and Ashiol, who drops every responsibility he’s ever been given, never hurts for money, and constantly lets the people he loves down, because of that single justification that he’s busy saving the world.
Heroing is so often unpaid work in fantasy worlds, to the point where heroes who want to be paid are seen as unworthy of the role, and I wanted to write a fantasy which addressed how problematic that is from a privilege/class/gender point of view. Not that I’m preachy about it, I hope!
Frankly, one of the questions I want to ask is: “How do you manage to be so very, very awesome as a plotter?” but that’s a rubbish question. I still want to ask it, though. Do you do huge, 10,000 word story treatments, like PG Wodehouse used to do with his own convoluted plots? What is the secret of your success?
Thank you for the compliment! I work really hard on my plots, it’s not a magical talent that comes naturally to me. I tend to work fairly free form, with only a general idea where I am going, but a quite clear idea where I want to end up. Mostly I allow my plots to grow out of characters rather than the other way around, because I find characters more interesting.
I also try and stop and check in from time to time, to make sure I’m going in the right direction, and to run the story so far past other eyes to make sure I’m not majorly stuffing up.
I did call upon a spreadsheet or two for this one, but that was mostly to keep track of character history rather than plot threads – there’s a complex back story and the hierarchy of the Creature Court meant I had to know the history of servitude and alliance that each character had been through – the fact that Mars was Livilla’s courtesi once and is now her equal and ally is important to how they behave towards each other, as is the uncomfortable, complex relationship between Ashiol, Garnet and Poet (which you’ll see more of in the third book!). There are a couple of characters not alive for the entirety of the trilogy who are vital to how my sweeties interact with each other now.
But as for plotting forward… I’m actually a terrible leaper rather than a looker. I know the feel of what I’m going for, and I grope wildly towards it. More than once, I get it wrong, and have to recover fast.
I will admit that when I was writing the third book, I was still building the finale, and in many cases I only knew about particular events days or hours before writing them. Other parts had been planned out from the beginning. But I am a big believer in the idea that if you know the past of your characters in great detail, then their future will unfold with integrity.
Do you have any preferences for a fantasy casting of the novels? I like Johnny Depp for Poet, myself.
I want to say he’s too old, but Johnny Depp, of course, is never too old. You’d definitely need someone with his great capacity for being weird, scary and innocent all at the same time. I have a fondness for the actor who played young Octavian in HBO’s Rome series – I think he could pull off the part, in a few years, which is at least as long as it would take to get something like this off the ground as a production. If not, grab him from a few years ago via. time travel and he can do the flashback scenes.
After seeing all those beautiful stills of the Great Gatsby, I would accept Carey Mulligan as Delphine in a heartbeat. Joel Edgerton or Dan Spielman as Macready. Now I’m just totally rifling through old Secret Life of Us casting…
Nicholas Hoult is too pretty for nearly everything he is in, so I’m sure we could find room for him somewhere.
When it comes to my central protagonists, though, Ashiol and Velody, I can’t cast them at all. I know how they look in my head, but couldn’t match them to anyone real.
Your new crime novel, A Trifle Dead, comes out through Twelfth Planet Press later this month, under the pen name Livia Day. It’s set in Hobart and features a pastry chef named Tabitha Darling. Is this a kind of theme of yours? Elevating domestic skills to literary greatness? What is it about the domestic arts you find so appealing?
Partly it’s a fantasy for me – I will never cook as well as Tabitha nor sew as well as Velody. But I do value the domestic arts highly. The combination of practicality with aesthetic pleasure is fascinating – there’s a narrative there, and it’s something I find excellent to make stories out of. Tabitha doesn’t just cook – she uses food to soothe people, and butter them up, and tease them. She even withholds food on some occasions, which proves she is a little bit evil.
I wanted to show what a good detective she would make through her other life – and her other life is about social skills and food. You learn a lot from Tabitha about her work and her attention to detail – that’s there in how she dresses, as well, and organises parties, and is the social centre of her friendships.
But I also think that the domestic arts are not valued as highly as they should be in our society, particularly in our history. There’s that whole bullshit gender idea that something women do is lesser somehow, that it’s compromised, despite the fact that female artists often have less to work with from a resources point of view. As a social historian, I think it’s brilliant that women have often used domestic arts as a foil or a cover for other freedoms.
For instance the whole thing about patchwork being invented out of frugality and the saving of every scrap of fabric, is an insanely beautiful con job that the women of colonial America played on their men – sure, fabric was scarce, but it’s ridiculous to believe that the beautiful quilts they made were the most efficient use of their time. They used the cover of frugality and housewifely virtue to gather in female social groups, to share information and gossip, to entertain each other, and to make beautiful art that also had a significant social value as well as practical use.
And maybe that’s not true at all. Maybe that’s my immense Western 21st century ignorant privilege speaking, that I even think that. But the narrative seems so clear to me – a combination of pretty things and practical function can’t help but tell a story.
Also, my heroines are always more stylish than me. That’s definitely a theme.
This book is set in Hobart: what about Hobart makes it an appealing locale for the story?
Pretty much that I know Hobart inside and out, plus that’s where Tabitha lives, which makes it convenient. It was never a conscious choice.
Having said that, if I had been going out of my way to pick a location for a murder mystery that was going to be on trend in 2013, Hobart would have been a genius choice. Our media is exploding right now with the artistic and tourist boom in Tasmania, and it’s a very creatively exciting place right now.
We’ve been a forgotten corner of the country for a long time, off on our little island, but over the last few years, Tasmania has become a Destination with a capital D. When I first started writing about Tabitha and her world, I remember an earlier version of the manuscript being rejected by an industry professional who couldn’t comprehend my Tasmania at all – she had visited the place once I guess, and was so wrapped up in the narrative of us as a ghostly colonial throwback, all old fashioned sweet shops and “an almost biting sense of cold” that she could not accept a book which showed Hobart as being vibrant and bright and, you know, occasionally had a bit of sunshine.
AS I WRITE THIS WE ARE IN A HEAT WAVE BY THE WAY.
So yes, it’s rather lovely that the Australian narrative about Tasmania has changed and continues to change, just in time for this book to be released. Because the idea that books can’t be set here without being full of sad people and grey skies makes me want to beat my head on a sandstone brick.
Your first novel, Splashdance Silver, has just been reprinted. How do you feel you’ve developed as a writer since you won the George Turner Prize with that book? Do you have any advice for your younger self? Does your younger self have any advice for your current self?
Fifteen years, can you believe it? My first novel was published nearly fifteen years ago (the anniversary is in September this year).
I know that I’ve developed a lot as a writer since then because I have had the charming and alarming experience of proofing the books for e-release (Splashdance is available now at Wizards Tower, Weightless Books and via Kindle, the rest are to follow shortly). Aargh! I also learned that my publisher really had stopped caring about me by book 2 because oh my goodness, the errors that made it through to the printed version, they make my head hurt…
My advice to my younger self would simply be not to get ahead of yourself. Selling those books was a brilliant moment of my writing career, but it was not the gateway to a consistent or easy career and there were a few painful bumps and jolts along the way. Then again, if I’d told my younger self that it would be another decade before she had another year of Real Full Time Income from writing, then it probably wouldn’t have good consequences for either of us!
I would like to tell her to get more manuscripts under her belt before having children because OMG what did you do with your time before then?
I’m not sure if that younger self has much useful to offer me in return (though I would totally take any free babysitting she’s offering) but I’m glad her books are back in print. Every now and then I get an email, or meet someone who genuinely loved those books and it’s so nice to hear because I have a tendency to put down my early work, and I shouldn’t. You have to own your history, all of it, and those books were a really important stepping stone for me.
Coming back to them, I still love the characters and the world, even if I would write them differently now. It’s quite fun to think back to where I was when I wrote them, and what I was bouncing off. It’s not until the third book (written more recently) that it really felt like they were MINE, though, rather than that faraway twenty-year-old
What’s coming up next for Tansy and/or Livia?
Livia has to finish the second Cafe La Femme book and get it to the publishers by May, which is exciting. I do love me a deadline. Tansy, meanwhile, is writing a lot of shorter pieces right now, while gearing up for the Next Big Fantasy Series. I have stories due to appear in anthologies such as One Small Step (Fablecroft), Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe (Lethe Press) and Glitter and Mayhem. I’m also working on a bunch of non fiction commissions and will be announcing a new online creative writing course later in the year.
Plus, WORLD FANTASY OMG! I’m going to Brighton in October, and ridiculously excited about it.
Check out Tansy’s blog at http://tansyrr.com/, and follow her on Twitter as @tansyrr. You can hear her talking about the publishing industry on the Galactic Suburbia podcast, and about Doctor Who on the Verity! podcast.