Disrupting the World in Large Ways: A Conversation with Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard describes her Obsidian and Blood series as a cross between "historical Aztec fantasy and a murder-mystery, featuring ghostly jaguars, bloodthirsty gods and fingernail-eating monsters."
Think Philip Marlowe slogging through the mud and blood of Mesoamerica or Sam Spade sleuthing among the Aztecs, shadow beasts, and flesh-eating star-demons. Imagine the lone detective in a world of human sacrifice, religious hierarchy, and political chaos.
The series' central character, Acatl, was inspired by the fictional character, Judge Dee, who was adapted by Robert Hans van Gulik from the central character of the 18th century Chinese novel, Dee Goong An, which was in turn loosely based on a historical magistrate. As de Bodard puts it below, Acatl is also "a stubborn man with a sense of honor and a lot of misplaced prejudices".
De Bodard was born in the United States and raised in France, where she lives and works as an image processor. While she writes speculative fiction in a variety of settings, she is best known for her alternate Mesoamerica and her Xuya universe, which posits that China settled North and South Americas instead of Europeans. Her body of work includes science fiction, fantasy, and horror, often heavily influenced by non-Western mythologies.
De Bodard has won the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction and has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Campbell Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Electric Velocipede, Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, Shimmer, The Year's Best Science Fiction, and Writers of the Future XXIII, among other venues. The Obsidian and Blood series includes a number of short stories, as well as the novels Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and the forthcoming Master of the House of Darts.
Below, de Bodard and I talk about alternate history, world-building, and character creation.
What do you enjoy about writing?
Not writing is a bit like not breathing for me—I've been doing it for such a long time (whether professionally or not) that I find it hard to imagine not doing it! I'm a big reader, and for me writing is first and foremost about making up the kind of stories I love to read, and to stretch my imagination by making up characters and worlds in which they live.
Writing novels in particular—as opposed to writing short fiction—is something I particularly enjoy, because I have more space for world-building and character development. (I always feel constrained by short fiction in a way that I don't for novel).
A novel is also something that can evolve as I'm writing it. I'm a more organic writer now than I was a few years ago, and I enjoy the freedom of the plot veering into unexpected directions as I'm writing the story, of characters finding their voices and being a part of the story I hadn't planned for. With short fiction, if something unexpected happens, I'm basically going to have to redraft and reorganize the entire story, whereas novels are more... elastic? They can survive a lot more things thrown at them, basically.
Are image processing and writing fiction similar? Does your day job inform your fiction writing and vice versa?
I think my education in Applied Maths (and specifically Image Processing) serves me well as background: I know how a laboratory works, I have a very broad knowledge of various sciences, and all of this is, of course, very helpful for writing science fiction. But I don't really think they're that much related, otherwise.
I do try to keep them both separate. The main reason is that I don't really want one to bleed into the other, because I can't do both things well; but the other one is that I write fiction as a hobby, and I want my hobby to be significantly different from what I'm doing in my day job, otherwise I'd find no fun in it.
From the day job to the writing, there isn't much, because, as I said, they're both very different beasts. It certainly helps me on a daily basis to be able to write convincingly (say, for a formal proposal), and to speak English very well, but to me those are side-benefits of writing, not necessarily specific to my being an author of speculative fiction.
And vice-versa, about the only influence from the day job into my writing I've noticed is my tendency to be over-organized when writing a novel. I'm one of those persons who will write scene-by-scene outlines (and update the outlines when I'm writing the novel and no longer following said outline because of unexpected plot developments). I think this comes from my engineering background, in which a project is organized according to a very specific and definite "V-cycle", from high level to low level and back again.
The reasoning behind the "V-cycle" is that you can easily make big modifications at the high level, and that it becomes harder and more costly to do large-scale modifications the further down you are in the implementation cycle. After a couple traumatic experiences in fiction writing, I set about to applying this to novels, and figured out that if I wanted to, say, remove a character from the narration altogether, it was a lot easier to do in outline stage rather than after the draft was finished and I had two zillion mentions of said character that I would have to eradicate one by one...
Likewise, I'm fairly methodical when I tackle my novel revisions: I'll sit down, condense all the crits into one huge checklist of stuff that doesn't work, and then order the solutions to those by order of growing complexity. Then I'll take the draft and the checklist, and work my way through the list item by item, crossing them off as I go. It's very similar to the way I proceed at work.
Where does a novel usually start for you—image, plot, character, historical event, somewhere else altogether?
I tend to proceed in two stages when writing a novel: the first is figuring out the milieu. I'm an obsessive world-builder, and I will usually spend a lot of time researching and collating information in order to have a world, a belief system, a political system, etc.—ie, everything I need as background to my characters. Usually, by the time I'm done with this, I have a very good idea of how the in-book universe works, but absolutely zero plot. At the most, I might have a main character or two, or a couple events down the timeline I want my plot to go through.
Then the second stage is what I'd term the inciting event: I usually start brainstorming for a specific novel with a strong idea of its beginning. For instance, for the first book in the Obsidian and Blood series, what happened was that I thought "Oooh, let's do Judge Dee among the Aztecs, with some magic"; then, for book one, I sort of wasn't very clear at first where I was going, but I had a strong first image of my main character Acatl being called in the dead of the night to a crime scene where his estranged brother was the main suspect. Then I sat down, and worked out the consequences of that, all the way to the end of the book.
Once I have the inciting event, I usually fill in things a bit haphazardly: I do some research, fill in the holes in the background and then I set to brainstorming scenes. I usually have very good ideas for set-pieces, but I'm not quite clear on where they're taking place.
For Servant of the Underworld, for instance, I had a very strong set of scenes where my main characters would be chasing a beast of shadows through the sleeping Aztec capital. I wrote those and set them aside. Then I had an equally strong set of scenes involving an autopsy, and so on.
I used to write down stuff on index cards and when I had enough of those I would clear the living room, put all the cards on the floor (because there were about 20 or 30 of them, and they couldn't possibly all fit on my writing desk), and slowly build a plot from them, putting them in order, adding extra plot events, discarding those that didn't fit anywhere.
It was a bit reminiscent of playing Lego as a child, now that I think on it...
Now, the living room is too crowded, and I find index cards a bit cumbersome, so I'll usually do all of that via the computer. I'll use brainstorming software such as Freemind to generate extra ideas (in addition to the bits I glean from research, or come up with on my own), then I'll open a Word document, and cut and paste the various events into a coherent narrative. It comes to the same result, except I no longer have to copy my index cards by hand into the computer—so win, definitely.
Then, once I have the rough outline, I'll produce two things: one is the synopsis for my agent or publisher to handle and the second is for me, a scene-by-scene and chapter-by-chapter blow of what happens in the book. That last is the document I use on a daily basis while I'm writing the novel As I mentioned above, I'll edit it if my actual draft starts diverging too much from it—that way, I can always know where I'm going.
And, if all of this makes me sound like a control-freak, yup, guilty as charged...
When writing alternate history... where do you start? How do you build—or is it rebuild—the world?
With alternate history, I usually start with a strong idea. The basic premise for my Xuya series was what would happen if the Chinese got to America first; the idea that drove my story "The Wind-Blown Man" was what if science had been developed by the Daoists instead of by the Aristotelians. This is usually followed by a heck of a load of research, because I tend to have ideas that disrupt the world in very large ways. I was researching Xuya for a year and a half before I ever wrote the first stories, and "The Wind-Blown Man" took me several months to brainstorm properly.
I'm always doing the same thing whether I'm researching historical fantasy or alternate history, which is figure out what the "rules" of the world are: not in order to build the plot, but in order to understand what makes my characters tick. An Ancient Aztec, for instance, would have thought human sacrifice was necessary to prevent the world from ending and this is very different from an Ancient Chinese, to whom human sacrifice was an abhorrent ritual in the distant past.
With Xuya, a lot of the decisions I made had to do with how ways of thought would evolve in the centuries past the divergence point: what would happen to the religions, how would they evolve, would it remain in competition with science, or coexist? What political systems would be developed, and how would various cultures deal with contact with their neighbors, or with more distant countries? Of course there's no definite answer to any of this, and a lot of alternate history is hand-waving. (I'm no historian, but my personal opinion on this is that divergence points are very rare in real life. Single events are rarely powerful enough to send history hurtling in a completely different direction, because you have a socio-politico-religious background behind the various events that can't be easily erased). But I think doing all this thinking gives more heft to the story—it always feels more real and plausible if the background has been properly thought out.
Well, that, and I'm a research nut and will take any excuse to go back to my beloved history books...
Where on earth did Acatl come from? How'd you create him as a character? What makes for a compelling protagonist?
Er, wow, not sure how to answer those? Acatl originated in a short story where I needed a detective able to practice magic in an Aztec setting: since the basic premise of the universe was that the Aztec belief system was real and that the gods held magical powers, it was pretty natural to make the priests—the strongest god-followers—into magic wielders. I made him priest of Lord Death because I figured this would be the order most acquainted with dead bodies: a lot of cultures had taboos about handling dead bodies, and I figured that an order specialized in preparing people for funerals would have a plausible reason for examining said bodies (even though I made Acatl's order up, as we don't have a record of a body of funeral priests among the Aztecs, even though there was definitely a cult of Lord Death).
As to his actual character, I don't remember very clearly. I think I made him in bits and pieces, by thinking of who that kind of priesthood would suit very well, and what character traits would help the story. I needed a stubborn man with a sense of honor and a lot of misplaced prejudices, so those went into the character sheet. I filled in the rest by rounding him out and trying to make him less cardboard-thin.
I don't think there are any recipes for compelling protagonists, other than making sure they're not walking clichés, and that you go deep enough into their minds to get the reader to understand them. A few years ago, I would have said a really repellent protagonist wouldn't have made a good character, but now I tend to think that you can also make this kind of character fascinating, partly by making the reader empathize with him (being in his head and understanding what makes him tick, even if it's not something the reader approves of), and partly through the sheer fascination of "forbidden" thoughts (ideas the reader consciously rejects, but unconsciously wonders about).
And, for me, that's a lot of the attraction of speculative fiction: that I can read books and discover people who cover the whole spectrum of thought, and empathize with characters who are very different from me (of course, I can also empathize with people who share my core beliefs, but that's not much effort).
All three of the Obsidian and Blood novels are written in the first person point of view of Acatl. What were some of the drawbacks of using the first person narrator? What were some of the benefits?
Well, if I had to rewrite Obsidian and Blood, I would definitely use third person! I picked first person partly as a homage to noir books such as [Raymond] Chandler's, and partly because I was a new-ish writer tackling a novel seriously for the first time, and first person seemed easier to handle.
The main problem with first person is that you're rapidly constrained in terms of scene-setting: your character basically has to be there for nearly every major event if you want said events to have an emotional impact on the narrative (you can get away with second-hand narration, but it won't have the same effect, and too much of it easily gets boring). It's problematic, because I basically ended up writing three books which had a single character around which the plot revolved, and this caused me quite a few contortions when I was thinking up said plots.
The second, obvious problem is that the only voice will be the main character's, which means it will be harder to build up your secondary characters. You can use external cues such as dialogue to help with the building of characters, but nothing really beats point-of-view as a character-building tool. I really wanted to explore more aspects of the Teomitl/Mihmatini relationship in Obsidian and Blood, for instance, but it would have made little sense for Acatl to be present at every intimate scene between them!
The third one is more insidious: I actually find first person to be a very distancing technique. You can't display emotions too prominently in that voice, because your narrator ends up sounding like an overwrought hysterical—whereas you have more leniency in third person because the voice isn't quite that of the main character, it's filtered through a narrative artifice that lets you, say, have your character panic for three straight paragraphs without the readers going, "Oh, God, what a wimp!" That was a major source of problems in the series: Acatl ends up sounding either very distant or over-emotional, which makes my job as an author very, very hard.
First person has the main advantage of being simple, as I said: you don't have to balance several points of view, you always have a continuous narration no matter what you do, and it's a lot easier to structure the novels. It also lets you display more of the main character's actual voice, though I didn't actually make much use of that in the books.
What's next for you in terms of writing?
My agent is currently shopping around a novel set in my alternate history universe of Xuya, Foreign Ghosts. I'm brainstorming a few other concepts—the one I'd like to tackle is a fantasy set in Paris, but I don't have a good idea yet of what that would be like. In the meantime, I'll go back to short fiction writing, and hopefully manage to complete a few stories in my "unfinished" drawer.