Writing: Where history, fantasy, and science fiction intersect

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I was pretty excited when I found out that Judith Tarr’s Arrows of the Sun was going to be included in the Indie Fantasy Bundle along with one of my own works, Lhind the Thief.

The two couldn’t be more different, which I think makes for a better bundle, giving the reader a wide range of choices. Where mine is pretty much adventuresome fluff, Judith Tarr’s demonstrates her mastery of history, deftly pulling together elements from various eras of human endeavor to create a new history and culture to tell the story of the people living there.

SMITH: When did you make the leap from history to fantasy? Or were you always writing fiction while studying for your phd in history?

TARR: Fiction came first—from the time I could write. The PhD was supposed to be the “day job” while I wrote on the side (my model, of course, was Professor Tolkien). We all know how that turned out.

SMITH: Talk about the ‘why’ of choosing cultural elements to build your world.

TARR: This whole world started as a space adventure on an alien planet with alien people. At that time, psi was SF if the author said it was. Anne McCaffrey’s dragons were John Campbell-esque alien creatures, and the lines between fantasy and science fiction were much less firmly drawn.

When I started sending my space adventure around in the late Seventies, however, I discovered that The Market couldn’t handle the kind of genre-mixing I was doing. Still can’t, based on the “official” reactions to this year’s space opera.

SMITH: One of the strongest aspects of indie publishing, I am convinced, is that writers can more easily mix genres.

TARR: I have a really hard time fitting into marketing boxes.

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SMITH: That’s one of the reasons why I really loved your Living in Threes. But go on, you were trying to market the space adventure, and having no luck.

TARR: So I went way, way, way, way, way back in time to the planet’s Bronze Age and wrote about what happened then. Voila! Epic fantasy! The Market could handle it! Whoo-hoo!

The original inspiration was the history and legend of Alexander the Great. The cultures evolved pretty much in any direction my teenaged brain could take them. When I grew older and got all that Earth history under my belt, I had more to work with, but the combinations were shaped by the needs and structures of the original world.

And, more than that, by the characters who first appeared in the original Great Teenaged Trunk Epic, including the time I decided to genderbend the whole thing and ended up discovering a lot of things about how gender works in our society. This happened ca. 1968. It was life-changing for me as a writer.

SMITH: I notice that you’ve always written strong, interesting female characters and employed the female gaze as narrative voice. Was this a conscious choice?

TARR: See above. Yes, from the time I was a kid. I’d write “default,” i.e. standard male, then shift it to female to see what that did to it. Then maybe I’d shift it back, depending on what the story seemed to need.

SMITH: Wow! I didn’t become that conscious of narrative presence and process for decades after you were already splashing in that pond.

TARR: What frustrated me when I started selling professionally was the push to always write female protag because “you’re a girl, you have to.”

Between that and the push to squeeze the stories into set marketing categories, I sometimes got cranky. Then I’d get subversive. That wasn’t always as successful as it might have been, and I made some pretty big mistakes. But it was an awful lot of fun. Still is.

SMITH: Talk about subversive—and why it didn’t work. Is that something you are doing now?

TARR: I don’t think I’m doing it now, but then I keep making a mess with genre rules. I get fantasy in my science fiction and history in my fantasy and then I go and write a book that’s all three genres at once, and sometimes readers think it’s great and other times they send me hate mail.

fall

The prequel to Arrows of the Sun is titled A Fall of Princes. It’s supposed to be volume three of a trilogy, but I already knew at the time I wrote it that I tend to think more in terms of pairs. Duologies. So while that book followed the timeline more or less chronologically, it went off in its own directions.

And because I was young and headstrong and more than a bit of a brat, those directions didn’t want to follow the ones mapped out by genre and plotline and general expectations of how a trilogy of that type should go. I wrote myself into a corner, and the way I wrote myself out of it got some really bad reactions.

The one I remember most was the fanzine reviewer (there were no blogs in those ancient days) who started off their review with, “I was looking forward to writing a review of the conclusion to the best fantasy trilogy I’ve read in years. Boy, was I wrong.” Followed by a passionate trashing of the book.

Well, I said at the time. At least they felt strongly about it.

Then someone else sent me torn-out pages from the book, scrawled on in black marker, excoriating me for writing about an openly gay love/hate relationship in a fantasy book (because fantasy is “for children”).

What I learned from the experience was that when you write in genre, readers have expectations based on the structures and tropes of the genre. You can play around with those, but you seriously have to respect them. It’s a contract with the reader, to give them what they’ve come to the genre for.

If you don’t give them what they wanted, if you don’t fit the template they bring to books in this genre, they can get very, very angry. They feel it’s a betrayal; a breaking of contract.

It was a sharp lesson. The book has its passionate fans as well, but you know how it is with authors. We remember the bad reviews long after the good ones have faded away.

One thing I did in writing Arrows of the Sun was to try to write essentially the same story without the twist that upset so many people, though it still has the gay relationship (and there’s a definite T element as well). So I guess that’s subversive in the ways in which it plays with sexual orientations, the many permutations of love, and also issues of race (and interrace) and culture. Not because I was trying to be socially conscious or politically subversive but because that was how the world had built itself, and those were the basic conflicts that emerged.

Would I do it differently now? In some ways—we’ve come a long way in awareness of LGBT and gender issues. But I’d still do the things that made people so angry (though with a number of differences of detail and emphasis). I think the story needed them, and the worldbuilding was persistent about evolving in that direction.

I do think the publishing landscape now, especially the indie landscape, is more open to these kinds of themes and plot developments. I just had to wait for everybody else to catch up.

The Indie Fantasy Bundle is available until Feb. 11th

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About Sherwood Smith

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8 Responses to Writing: Where history, fantasy, and science fiction intersect

  1. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for the great interview! While Arrows of the Sun sounds excellent, the one I just added to my wish list is Living in Threes, which I hadn’t heard of and which sounds right up my alley.

  2. Asakiyume says:

    How frustrating to be expected to write from a female perspective because you’re a woman. I understand the desire for those stories–and wanting them written by women–but as a writer, you’d like to be free to explore all sorts of viewpoints.

    • The freedom to explore all sorts of viewpoints is why many of us read. So it stands to reason we ought to be able to explore them through writing, as well. How else will we be able to connect with others outside ourselves?

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