I live in Toronto, Ontario and make my living writing science fiction and fantasy; I also review books and teach writing online at UCLA. I’m a legally married lesbian and in my spare time I take pictures with Toronto Photo. My wife’s name is Kelly and we have two cats, Lorenzo and Chinchilla, born in spring of 2014.
1. I always ask authors this question but could you guide us through your writing process. Is there a specific process through which you go about worldbuilding? It’s significantly different for fantasy writers who have to build entire worlds with different (though, maybe, similar) foods, customs, geography from the real world. Do you do a lot of research beforehand and then incorporate it into the narrative?
For me, the process of builds setting varies from world to world and story to story. Sometimes I write a piece and then figure out the organic sense that lays beneath it.
That said, where I started with Stormwrack was a world inspired by the biodiversity we see in the Galapagos islands. I imagined what appears to be Earth, albeit an Earth after a catastrophic rise in ocean levels, and with vastly reduced landmass. About 250 island nations evolved on what remained, their cultures developing in relative isolation before anyone developed reasonably good sailing technology. After that, there was a period of intense competition, local wars, and various forms of colonialization and conquest.
Sophie arrives on Stormwrack at a point when a global peace treaty has been in effect for over a century. This prolonged Cessation of Hostilities, as it’s called, has created some political stability and the beginnings of an overpopulation problem. There are nations and people who love the peace, and those who want to go back to more of a war footing.
Primary research for this book, then, fell in the areas of history, anthropology, and a lot of stuff about microclimates and ecosystem management. The biodiversity ties into the magic system, because the people of Stormwrack write spells using the materials they have at hand. The kind of magic you can create depends entirely on what animals and plants you have in your local ecosystem.
2. One of the things I really like about Sophie is how different she is from many other protagonists of high fantasy/portal fantasy novels. As someone who was until recently a graduate student and experienced the thesis defense, I empathized majorly with her. How did you ‘meet’ Sophie? Did she come to you as a fully formed character or did you have to construct her piece by piece which sounds really odd but you know what I mean. Are there any elements or characters your protagonist simply must have?
I am in some ways a tight lipped and cagey woman, and in a lot of my stories this comes through in my characters, who are the sort of people who think first and hesitate to speak until they know (or think they know) every variable involved in a given problem. Astrid Lethewood in Blue Magic is like this. Terrible things happen in the novel, and her first reaction each time is to withdraw into herself, to quietly fall apart emotionally while pondering her next move.
Obviously it’s limiting to only write about one kind of character, so one of the things I really wanted to do in my next book, after the two about Astrid Lethewood, was write about someone who was open-hearted, quick to speak, strongly opinionated, a bit undiplomatic… and yet still brilliant. Too often in our world people get slapped down for expressing their feelings, and I wanted Sophie Hansa to be fearlessly emotional. When she’s mad, she yells. When she’s unhappy, she cries. None of that keeps her from doing her job and doing it well.
I knew Sophie would be a videographer because it’s one of those jobs I imagine having in an alternate timeline. I take a lot of nature photographs and I love wildlife documentaries, but I’m too bookish and indoorsy to spend six weeks camping near hungry lions (just to take one example) to get a fabulous piece of footage for the BBC or the Discovery Channel. Instead, from the comfort of my own home, I dream up novels about women with that much spirit of adventure… and the mad camera skills to match.
I tell my students that the protagonist of the novel almost always has to have at least one of the following qualities: they must either be nice, smart, or funny. I’ve never really written anything long whose protagonist was flat out unlikeable (though I’ve done it in short stuff, like “The Color of Paradox”) but I think it’s safe to say all of my characters are extremely good at at least one thing: they’re smart in the sense of being good at magic, or science, or theater. They understand human nature, or they’re great pilots. I find competence very sexy, and I’m not sure how I’d write a story about someone who was universally hopeless at everything.
Which probably means I ought to try exactly that, sometime or another.