Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Interrogate the Author: Sylvia Kelso

Hello and welcome to another exciting intsallment of "Interrogate the Author". This time we feature the eloquent Sylvia Kelso as we talk about her book "Amberlight" (reviewed HERE) and writing in all its aspects.

1. Thank you Miss Kelso for accepting my invitation to be interrogated by curious me. Proper manners urge me to ask: how are you feeling?

Proper manners, she replied, straight-faced, urge me to reply, Very well, thank you.

2. As a tradition in my interviews I always like to ask how authors first learned of their creative gift over the written word. I usually refer to it like the grand epiphany. When did you feel that you got what it takes to make it in this business?

I think you may have two or three questions wrapped in one there, Harry. Starting at the tail end, with “this business,” by which I take you to mean publishing, I would first have to ask, what do you understand by “make it”? Get a book in print? Outsell Stephen King? Win the Booker Prize?

Those are all senses of “making it,” but they are very different outcomes. I wd. very much doubt I’d ever make it in terms of the latter two. And in the case of “sell a great many copies,” I don’t think a “creative gift” for the written word has much to do with it. In fact, I can think of several enormous best-sellers, NOT including Stephen King, where creative gift appears to have very little bearing at all.

As for winning the Booker, that’s also unlikely, since they don’t do genre, and I don’t seem to do what’s usually called high literature, nowadays.

Getting published, or at least getting a book in print, is the easiest of the three, but it doesn’t mean much. What happens after that is more important, as in can you amass a readership, or even just produce more of the same? And the answer to that is “It all depends on luck”, and what happens to the market that year. The genre publishing landscape is currently littered with the abandoned careers of people who “made it,” often very comfortably, a few years ago, a lot of them people I would consider had a very good slice of the “creative gift.” So simply getting published is not quite the same “making it,” either.

Although, I’m not quite sure what you mean by “creative gift over the written word.” Gift for words? I’m assuming so. In that case, I don’t think I ever learnt of it, any more than you learn you have a gift for breathing. Putting words together was something I did before I could write. Coming from a family of male yarn-spinners with two women poets in the last generation certainly didn’t hurt.

As for when I felt I had what it takes to make it in this business, lol. I fear nobody can answer that with any surety from moment to moment. At least not right now in genre publishing, unless your name’s Dan Brown or some such. And even there, “making it” depends on such a series of variables, from timing to market taste, that you’d have to say, “Sure, I knew I’d bet on the winner in the Melbourne Cup” – when it was first past the post.

3. From your biography I see that you have aspired to write and have completed several manuscripts in different genres. How do you think has this range between fantasy, historical and sci-fi has influenced your writing style?

If I had to generalize, I’d say probably the biggest influence on my style was the first historical fiction, (not mentioned on the website, since it never even saw an attempt to get into print) which taught me to write *short.* It taught me an awful lot else, especially about 1st person POV, which I tend to prefer, but those are matters of discovering your bent, rather than influencing your style.

Apart from that, what most influences my writing style is the personality of the narrator. Length of sentence, quirks of punctuation, syntax, imagery, are all usually directly related to how he or she (although there may be an It coming up) develops in the text.

4. Was it hard to find your niche in the abundance of genres, if you have one single niche? I ask this because most authors identify themselves through one particular genre and age group.

I don’t think I’ve ever bothered trying to find my niche. I write what plants itself in my head and goes, “Tell me *what happened then*?” And won’t go away until I do. One of them turned out to be the big historical. One turned out to be my first fantasy. The most recent appeared to be heading for a classic supernatural mystery, to use the genre pigeonhole, until the Black Gang, aka the creative component of the writing operation (I stole the name from a Lois Bujold novel) handed me one of their trademark first-scene ticking-hatboxes – in this case, one simple detail that blew my expectations sky high. The whole thing wasn’t a mystery or even a thriller, in genre terms. It was a “time travel romance” as they’re often classified. Like Diana Gabaldon’s.

5. As an Australian author did you find it hard to find an agent ready to represent you in the US, especially if we consider your style, which can be quite challenging?

Firstly, I found an agent after I got publishers, which is mostly the way it works nowadays. I say mostly, because there are always exceptions at the ends of the bell-curve. Secondly, my style – if you’ve only read “Amberlight” then you may be over-generalizing. My mate the French Canadian writer Elizabeth Vonarburg says I have a Voice – an identifiable way of writing – but the style, as in above, syntax, sentence shape, etc., etc. can vary quite a lot.

When I wrote “Amberlight”, though, yes, I was taking no prisoners. I was in the guts of my PhD, reading a lot of high theory on one side, and some push-the-parameter SF and fantasy writers like Joanna Russ and Samuel R. Delany on the other. I wasn’t in print, and didn’t expect to be. I wrote for what I then thought would be the ideal SF or fantasy reader, the one who would know all the words, get all the generic allusions, and demand a twist on the genre’s expectations into the bargain. One who could deal with the style of something like “Dhalgren” and the Neveryon series on the one side, and “We Who Are About To…” or “The Female Man” on the other.

I was also writing as a literal experiment in the field. I was thinking theoretically about what divided SF and Fantasy. I wanted to see if I could walk the divide so closely that readers couldn’t decide which side of the fence the book belonged. In that project I’m delighted to have succeeded.

And finally, the Black Gang were being let off the “hook” of analytical writing to play in the creative alleys. “Amberlight” came out like a geyser. It’s a lot denser and fiercer and generally more “lava-like” – a term of approval from another new mate, Warren Rochelle – than most of my stuff.

6. In connection to “Amberlight”, how did you come to the idea of writing heavy political fantasy?

Lol. See above. If you want to classify it so, I’m delighted, but so far as I’m concerned, “Amberlight” “came” to me as: “city in moonlight, strange - thing - with made-up name, what happened then?”

To tell truth, I consider this book fairly simple, politically. You have a long River with, in “Amberlight”, four different nations up its length. One’s an empire, one a matriarchal oligarchy, one an ungendered oligarchy, one a dictatorship. There are no intra-national factions, beyond the Alight Houses, no race or religious schisms, just four fairly homogeneous nations tumbled together into the storyline.

Though I do admit, Lois Bujold reckons my politics are more complicated than most, grin.

7. In that line of thought, what exactly inspired you to write about a culture and mythology that is gender inversed, having women be the ruling gender?

Well, it’s not precisely the whole culture that’s a matriarchy. Amberlight the city is a matriarchy. The rest of them are common or garden patriarchies, or in the case of Verrain, possibly a gender-balanced oligarchy.

And there really isn’t a mythology for any of them. Amberlight swears by “the Mother” and some of the others like Dhasdein and Verrain turn out to have temples and statues of their gods, but Amberlight has no priests or rituals, let alone myths, and no cosmogony either.

As for the gender reversal, it’s a v. common trope in what is often called “feminist” SF, and I was reading a lot at the time. I did notice the lack of a cosmogony after the writing, when I recalled another of my matriarchies with a very explicit and ideologically twisted cosmogony that still amuses me greatly. I call it my revenge on the Adam and Eve myth.

8. I am particularly interested in knowing how you came to the idea of pearl-rock, because it is a fascinating stone with versatile properties. If I have to be explain it the pearl-rock is a sentient harmless uranium with a temper. So far I have never read anything like that.

That’s quite a good description, except qherrique’s not a stone, in the proper sense, because it grows and feeds, and uranium/stone doesn’t. And qherrique isn’t harmless. I’d have thought the various incidents, even on the way up to the finale, wd. indicate that. But “with a temper” is certainly true.

As for how I came to the idea, that happened just where you see it in the book. Right there in the first paragraph. Where it came from? From where all the good ones come. I’d say from the Black Gang. Fay Weldon would say from Writer A. And if you asked Harlan Ellison, he’d say it came from Schenectady.

9. Considering the epic battles, sieges and war strategies I am compelled to ask, whether writing those scenes were hard?

Nup. That was the fun part. Once the world was set up, and the dominoes rolling, I just let the Black Gang have their heads. But then, Amberlight was exceptionally lava-like. Mostly it just came zapping straight out onto the page.

10. To follow the same thread how did you research for these scenes as well? The strategies and maneuvers on both sides seemed to real, gripping and totally out of the blue.

I didn’t research for that part of Alight at all. I did draw on a lot of the history I read for the big first historical, which was the story of Hannibal, largely the Second Punic War. And there are some crackerjack sieges in that. It starts with the siege of Zakynthos and goes on to the crucial sieges of Syracuse and Capua, just for starters. I nicked a detail direct from the Syracusan siege – the Roman general figured the length he’d need for his siege ladders by asking for a parley right under the walls, and having somebody count the layers of stones. But the circumvallation was straight from the siege of Capua. After that, the river’s presence made everything go “original” – there’s no river at Capua, and no catapults either, but the Hellenistic Greeks loved them. Knowing the details of what Archimedes – who was the scientific mastermind at the siege of Syracuse, btw – knew about hydraulics, etc. was useful there.

11. What I forgot to mention is that I noticed an interesting contrast. Alkhes and his black ink eyes are in complete opposite to Tellurith, who is associated with the white pearl-rock. Is this constant opposing intentional as well, foreshadowing to the fact that they might end up on different sides when the war begins?

Nup. Well. It’s not consciously intentional. The Black Gang are also in charge of motifs, images, echoes and resonances. I once kick-started a novel by writing down scraps of poetry I remembered, because they were “resonant” images. When it was finished, just for interest, I checked the manuscript. Every one of those images had made it in, and I hadn’t consciously included a single one.

12. I saved the thirteenth question for the 13 Houses in Amberlight. I wonder why you chose this number in particular and whether the fatality we give it acts as another skillful foreshadowing? If not I am still curious to know.

Thirteen was an alternate, not necessarily bad significance. Amberlight is a “moon book.” If you look at each chapter, you’ll notice in part 1 they all start with a moon image, and a sun image in part 2, except for Ch. 9, which goes back to the moon. That *is* intentional. And the moon is central to Amberlight, because dark of the moon is when you can cut qherrique. So the city naturally has a lunar calendar: 13 months in what would be one of our years. Tellurith actually tells Alkhes that at one point. And Crafters are particularly sensitive to the moon, as the book also notes, because that’s also a woman’s calendar. A full “normal” menstrual cycle is 28 days. Possibly it’s the oldest calendar ever invented, since some 28-mark engravings and figures have come down from the Paleolithic. So Amberlight has a lunar calendar and 13 Houses, naturally. But of course it’s also the number of a full coven, Wiccan or otherwise, as well as the number of Christ and his disciples.

13. What is your writing routine and what technique do you prefer to use: outlining or just dash out and see what comes out in the end?

I usually get the donnee – the first idea, paragraph, scene – and then I have to sort out a whole heap of stuff to get any further. At that point it’s just a seething mass incubating in the back of the brain(s.) It may also include a huge amount of research to sustain whatever wonder the Black Gang have landed on me in those opening paragraphs.

Somewhere in there, usually as or just after things begin to move out of that back-up stage, the overall narrative arc will begin to emerge. But usually, by then, the Black Gang will be dictating in detail and maybe unloading straight into the conscious mind at 5 or 6 am in the morning, and you know it’s time to get mobile, before the good oil drains away.

From then on it’s business as usual. Write what comes up. Address a whole lot of queries to the Black Gang about what happens next, what the setting/economy/history’s like, who the people are, etc. etc. etc., and write what comes back. Have the BG dry up. Figure out what’s needed – more data, more incubating time, a back-track – relatively minor, those, mostly, in my stuff – and start off again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Oh, and of course, deal with the unexpected swerves the BG throw into what you *thought* was a fairly organized general direction. The narrator and main female lead in the time travel romance was a nice little Bambi till about Ch. 16. Then she suddenly shot someone in the thigh with a high-power rifle, and the whole final third of the story went somewhere else. Incl. about three extra chapters dealing with the repercussions, and a good long time-out for research into local police emergency procedures …

14. What are your further projects involving?

At this point, I have two books in the promotional pipeline for later in 2008, “Riversend”, the sequel to “Amberlight”, in November 2008, and “The Red Country”, the third of the Rihannar series, coming out from 5 Star in October. Which means a lot of work doing promo, making videos for YouTube and sending ARCs out. Plus a local launch for “Amberlight” in July. And a couple of new leads to follow up for other mss that are currently sitting around in the stable eating their heads off.

Writing wise, I’m in medias res with book 4 of this series. Currently involving a lot of scratching around on the Web for working details of Neolithic and Iron Age houses in the Orkneys, and some critical decisions about language/dialect.

There’s a possible sequel to the time travel romance tapping on the back wall of the brain(s), but there are also some of the horrid knots that come up with time travel, even with conveniently foldable realities a la Everett’s quantum theory. So that one hasn’t got past the opening scene, and is still awaiting a workable answer to, “What happened next?”

15. Now for a grand finale. How do you feel being interrogated by a foreigner, not yet fully stepped into legal adulthood, who speaks English as a second language?

Well, seeing I’m Australian, I’m always being interrogated by foreigners, including one person from Singapore, and all the people from the US who’ve commented on my work on the Web or interviewed me on it, including one Afro-American, and one half-Cherokee. Age doesn’t worry me too much. As for the English, I have had occasion to edit some of yours, in search of what seems like the sense, grin. Otherwise, not a problem.

Now this is the kind of interview I am talking about. That Sylvia Kelso. I was shocked at that last one, embarassed as well, when it should have been vice versa. So this concludes this very informative and interesting installment of "Interrogate the Author". Be sure to check out more about Sylvia Kelso and her work at her WEBSITE, while you can easily sample a taste of her talent with "Amberlight" on Amazon, courtesy of Juno Books.

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