Five Questions with Aliette de Bodard

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This interview is part of the Codex Author Tour.

Aliette de Bodard is a writer of fantasy and science fiction (and the very occasional horror piece). She is a Campbell Award Finalist, and Writers of the Future winner. Her debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, an Aztec mystery-fantasy, was released in last year from Angry Robot, and the sequel, Harbinger of the Storm, just came out last month.

Although Aliette and I haven't met in person, the world of speculate fiction is small, and I've followed her rise as she wrote short fiction and eventually got her deal with Angry Robot. I'm terribly jealous of her command of the language, but at the same time I'm terribly proud of her debut with Servant of the Underworld, so when Aliette's name came up as one of the authors participating in the tour, I knew right away I wanted to talk to her.

I asked Aliette five questions about her books, neologisms, and her plans for the future. Here we go…

Harbinger of the Storm is Book 2 in your Obsidian and Blood series. What was the biggest surprise in writing Book 2 as opposed to Book 1 from the perspective of writing the book? How about from the perspective of the content?

I think the biggest surprise was the pressure. It's quite different to write a novel for fun (as I mostly wrote book 1), as it is to write one under contract and under deadline: under contract meant that I had to worry about whether it was going to be acceptable to my editor; under deadline, that I needed to plan well enough in advance, so that the book had time to loop through my first reader and my crit group before being handed in. 

The content was hard: first off, I didn't want too much repeat, thematic or otherwise, from the first book; and second, I had determined to make every book in the series standalone, which meant reminding the reader of what had gone on before with low to moderate amounts of spoilers, and without boring the reader already familiar with the world. As a writer, I also have a habit of using certain words and phrases too many times, which really starts to be problematic in a series of books: similarly, I didn't want the metaphors or similes or language to be merely a re-tread of book 1. Plotwise, I opted for a thriller structure, as opposed to the structure of book 1, which was mostly that of a traditional detective story like Agatha Christie or Elizabeth George (minus the multi-POV that makes George so freaking brilliant)—which was great, but essentially meant I had to re-teach myself everything about plotting, since it's a very different beast.  

What drew you initially to the world of Mesoamerica and in particular the Aztecs? Is it a world in which you find yourself writing for a long time to come?

It was a combination of things: when I started writing fantasy, I was irritated at the sheer number of Eurocentric fantasies (what's more, Eurocentric fantasies that tended to be very bad manglings of Anglo-Celtic culture). I wanted to write and research something different; and I wanted to use the opportunity to discover cultures I might not be very familiar with. As it happened, because I was widely read in mythology, I'd touched on most of Asia, most of the fertile crescent and a lot of European medieval civilisations; but Mesoamerica remained a blank. So that was one thing.

The other was pretty much sheer contrariness: when I was in high school and consuming an alarming amount of books per week, I read many books that used a pseudo-Aztec culture as the epitome of a bloodthirsty, Barbaric civilisation with no redeeming features whatsoever. Which seemed … a little excessive and facile, I guess, so I felt motivated to research the Aztec culture and see how much of the bad stories were true. Not that many, as it turns out. They did have gory sacrifices—which derived from a very particular obsession that they needed blood to prevent the world from ending—but their civilisation was also fairly forward in other ways: they had pretty developed science, decent women's rights for a medieval civilisation, and a good concept of social fairness (not quite equality, as noblemen were held to a harsher standard than commoners). 

I do like the world, very much: it's a fascinating civilisation with a very different mindset, and it makes for great stories from epic fantasy to alternative history. I have no idea how long I can mine it for story ideas, but so far I'm doing pretty good, and always discovering new tidbits. 

Did you find it difficult working with the tropes of murder mysteries in an ancient Aztec setting? Did you ever find neologisms creeping into the writing? What did you do to combat these?

It's always difficult to impose modern narrative forms such as murder mysteries on an ancient setting (epic fantasy is a bit of a different beast, because every culture had their version of it). One reason is that such forms often have underlying assumptions that are fairly modern. In the case of murder mysteries, you have the problems around the crime: the essential setup of such mysteries is that every crime can and should be punished, and that the particular crime under investigation is going to sustain enough twists in the narration (most crimes, when you get right down to it, are fairly simple and often solved right away). The other problem is the convention of having a sleuth, which can be problematic when the society doesn't allow for one (as I said: most crimes are really simple when you get right down to it). I worked my way around those two problems by making my main character a forensic priest, with the responsibility to investigate magical offences: since the premise is that any large spell can terminally disrupt the balance of the world, there is a strong drive to investigate, and catch the right culprit. 

The tone of the writing has always been a big problem for me: I try to strike a balance between being over-formal and being too casual: being too formal makes for distanced narration; being too casual multiplies the risks of using idiomatic expressions, which instantly make the narration sound too modern (in Book 1, for instance, I had a reference to "the prodigal son", which is of course impossible to have in a civilisation that didn't know the Biblical story…). At the same time, I think overworrying about neologisms isn't constructive: when you get down to it, most of the words we use in everyday English are very new (18th Century or even newer than that); and using vocabulary appropriate to the time period would mean writing like Shakespeare (and not even that, since you'd have the effect of translation from the Nahuatl used by the characters into English)… It starts getting so hideously complicated that it's not worth aiming for accuracy. I think that like many things, it's a question of balance and of maintaining the illusion of a period-appropriate narration.

What's on the horizon for you? Do you have any Ancient China books working their way around in your hindbrain?

Ha, I wish I knew. I've been a bit busy lately, so haven't given much thought to this. There's a couple of ideas kicking around in my hindbrain—Aztec steampunk, and more Vietnamese-oriented stories—but we'll see once I have finished book 3.