Another Song of Ice and Fire

Tarr_DragonsInTheEarth_133x200I’m in another Storybundle from now through September 8th, and as part of the fun (because these are very communal experiences), we’ve all been interviewing each other about our books and our theme, which is Weird West.

For those who are new to the concept, a Storybundle is a curated collection of ebooks by a variety of authors on a particular theme. Patrons decide how much they’ll pay, and how much of that goes to the authors and a charity. If they pay the minimum of $5, they get four books. If they pay $14 or more, they get the bonus bundle: another five books. That’s a nice amount of reading for a very nice price.

My book, Dragons in the Earth, is a special debut. Its official BVC publication date is September 20th, but I was armtwisted—er, gently persuaded to offer it as part of the bundle. So it’s a brand-new book in a new genre for me: contemporary fantasy. It’s set in Tucson, and of course there are horses.

One of my bundle-colleagues, Lindsay Buroker, has written a story cycle set in Steampunk Alaska. When I started reading it, I knew we had to have a tag-team interview/discussion about ice, fire, and the Weird West.

Here’s our conversation. I really enjoyed it. I hope you will, too.

JT: Lindsay, hi! Welcome to the BVC blog. I’ve been having a great time reading your Flash Gold Chronicles, and I have a few questions. First of all, why Alaska? What draws you to that part of the world? How do you interact with the landscape, the location, the climate? 

LB: I wish I could say that I’ve been up to the Yukon and had first-hand experience, but I’ve only been to the very wet and green southern tip of Alaska, which is much like Seattle, where I grew up.

That said, I read just about everything by Jack London as a kid and devoured anything about wolves and dogs living out in the wilds of the north. The harshness of the setting made for some interesting stories where nature itself could provide a lot of the conflict.

In my first Flash Gold story, it’s the middle of winter, and my heroine is determined to win a dog sled race (with her steam-powered dogless sled, of course), so the short, cold days definitely played a big role in the adventure.

Now I have a question for you: It looks like your home is in Tucson, so it was probably a natural place to set a story. What do you enjoy about the desert? Did you incorporate a lot of real places in your adventure? Did you have any challenges in mixing the fantastical with the real?

JT: I moved to the desert for my health: I have fibromyalgia, and humidity kills it. When I began to have trouble riding horses in Connecticut, that was a crisis. I had to leave.

So the first thing that makes the desert home is that I feel good here. I can move. I can think—except during our annual summer rains, but those six to eight weeks of (highly relative compared to anywhere else) humidity are well worth it for the rest of the year, which is mostly dry and warm. Even the searing “dragon weather” of summer feels remarkably good; it bakes the ache out of my bones.

When I wrote Dragons in the Earth, I wrote it about the land I live in. It’s set in Tucson and Scottsdale and points between, and while the ranch does not exist in this world, it’s based on real places.

It was remarkably easy to mix the real and the fantastical. Tucson is a magical place. It’s been inhabited for thousands of years, and the old things are still very close to the surface. I often say I live in a fantasy novel. This is a taste of what it’s like.

Now here’s another one for you: Your characters are lively and interesting and seem very much a part of the world they live in. Are they based on real people? What’s distinctive about the people of Alaska? How did the personalities and the culture shape the stories you were moved to tell?

LB: I read some historical non-fiction about the Gold Rush and the Yukon when I was coming up with these stories, and it’s just crazy how hardy the people had to be to even get up there from Seattle to try and make their fortunes. A journey of months across inhospitable mountains.

I definitely tried to create some extremely self-sufficient protagonists for my stories while giving them enough flaws and quirks to make them interesting to read about. There were definitely a lot of characters up in the Klondike. One of the books I read talked about some of the gangsters and criminals of the time. They might have been the quirkiest of the lot!

My half-breed heroine is a fish out of water, as is common for so many fantasy protagonists, struggling to make her way when she doesn’t fit in with the white people who have flooded into the Yukon and also doesn’t fit in with the native people, even though she spent her childhood with them. Her biggest goal is to escape her past—and the frigid climate where it’s winter for so much of the year—and that’s a lot of what drives her.

Now, how about you? Your heroine definitely sounds like an animal person who may have trouble dealing with people. Is that autobiographical in any sense? Or just a character type that you’re familiar with?

JT: Definitely autobiographical. The more I know about humans, the more I prefer animals.

Claire’s personality is a pretty familiar among writers and artists and practitioners of various arts and traditions, here and everywhere. And she’s a horse person, which is a whole culture on its own. Tucson has quite a few of all these types of people; it’s an old Western town and a horse town, but it also has a distinct New Age and countercultural side. I’ll be showing more of that in the sequels, but I think there’s a fairly solid strain of it in the Dragons in the Earth.

Some of the experiences in the book are based on real life, too. The opening scene is drawn from life, though my experience was actually more fantastical: my dearly beloved and ancient cat died beside me on a hot Sunday afternoon in September, and just as he passed, the swamp cooler above us gave off a sharp electrical stench and expired. Purely coincidence, I’m sure. Nevertheless…

Since we’re segued back to magic, in your Flash Gold stories, did the magic come first, or did it emerge from the setting and characters? Or was it a bit of both? Did the setting (and that includes the time period) affect the development of the magical system?

LB: Even though I enjoy fantasy, my stories are often light on the magic, and this one is no exception. There’s a hint of some shamans having powers, but the main magic in the story comes from the flash gold that my heroine inherited, an alchemical energy source that many people would kill to obtain.

This particular item was definitely inspired by the setting and the time period, since these stories take place in the 1890s when people were mostly burning coal and wood for heat and power (not that there was much power up in the Yukon, but since this is an alternate history, I do have more airships than usual floating around up there).

In this story, my heroine is able to tap into the magical flash gold to get out of a few jams, but it causes just as much trouble as it creates!

What role does magic play in your story? Do the horses have any interesting powers outside of the ordinary?

JT: Much of the magic in the story grows out of the setting and the characters. The long history of human habitation, the remnants of the old people everywhere, from arrowheads to whole villages, the spirit of place that is so strong all over the valley—the story just about tells itself.

The horses…well. I can’t say too much without getting into spoilers, but let’s just say they’re not exactly what they seem. Dragons in the Earth is about Claire’s discovery of what they are and what they mean in the world. In the process she has to come to terms with her own abilities, and learn to accept certain things she’s been sliding around or outright denying. It’s not an easy road for her, but she’s stubborn enough to stick with it.

And then things get interesting.

Thank you, Lindsay! I hope you’ve enjoyed our conversation as much as I have.

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About Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr is a writer, a freelance editor and writing mentor, and a lifelong horse person. She lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she raises and trains Lipizzan horses. Her new book, Forgotten Suns, is out now from Book View Cafe. Yes, there are horses in it.
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