An interview with Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction: her short stories have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. She is the author of The House of Shattered Wings, a novel set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war. She lives in Paris.
Aliette kindly spoke to Michelle Herbert in August 2015.
I really enjoyed reading The House of Shattered Wings, when you were initially putting the story together, did you know you wanted to base your book in Paris or was this incidental to the events in the book?
I very much started this as a fantasy set in Paris - it was originally an urban fantasy with dynasties of magicians, except I could never quite get it off the ground and I ended up going for the devastated, post-magical-apocalypse feel. For me, it made sense to set the story there, since I've lived in or around the city for decades now - and it also was very useful to simply walk to places I needed to research!
The book really focuses on different religions as well as magic; did you find it challenging to show magic in different belief structures realistically?
I didn't really have that feeling while writing - for me, religion and a belief system have always been tied to magic and the supernatural, and I tend to go for magic systems derived from said beliefs (there are other ways to build up a magic system, of course! It's just the one that appeals to me most). I was also pretty familiar with both the main ones by dint of personal or familial connections - a lot of the Vietnamese magic is me putting together stories told by my ba ngoai (maternal grandmother) and giving them leave to exist even in a very changed environment.
There are a lot of different characters to follow through THOSW. Which was the most fun to write and why?
Actually, the funniest was Asmodeus, the head of House Hawthorn. He's the contrary element - the one you can rely on to make the cutting and sarcastic comments (among many other things), and to throw a spanner in anything the characters might have ongoing. It's not an antagonist role, per se, but certainly a big interference and a source of much frustration (but it was fun for me the writer!).
The Houses have an interesting structure with the Fallen and their dependents. Did the Houses start as a way to protect newly Fallen or for control?
Both, I think. The stated motivation was to protect newly Fallen, but of course protecting Fallen (who have the largest magical powers) is nearly equivalent to setting up your own power structure. I think something like that must have happened, and slowly calcified until we reach the fragile equilibrium of "magical terror" that's in the novel.
Morningstar is a very interesting character, equal parts cruel and enquiring. If you could, would you make him the main character of his own story?
I'm not sure I would. Like Asmodeus, he's one of those side characters who does very well when dropped into someone else's storyline, but who partly works because you're not privy to his thoughts - because there's always something dark and mysterious about him that makes him alluring and repulsive in equal parts. I don't think that effect could be pulled off with him in his own story.
Do you have plans to continue writing in this world? If so would it be a sequel or a companion novel set in another part of the world?
I'm contracted for another novel set in the same world, which is probably going to be a sequel with at least some of the same characters and what happens to them (it's still being written so am not too sure yet!). Tentatively, it's going to focus on the House of Hawthorn, just as this one was focused on the House of Silverspires.
Do you find it easier to write novels or short stories?
Oh, trick question. I like both, but they're very different things. With short stories I struggle to keep them short, because I naturally gravitate towards complex world building, fleshed-out characters and a plot with twists, all of which taken together make it really hard to keep the darn thing short! With novels it's more an inability to hold the entire shape of the thing in my head: when I'm writing one, it's not easy to take a step back and focus on structure and pacing and where things need to happen and why.
What book would you say inspired you to become a writer?
Mostly? All the books I read as a child - I think, like many writers, I write what I would like to read (it's a very selfish business sometimes :p). I devoured everything from Jules Verne to Agatha Christie to Roger Zelazny to Vietnamese fairy tales, and a bit of all of that goes into my fiction and hopefully comes out appealing to people.
What one question would you like to answer that you have been never asked?
About this book, I've never been asked whether Philippe's experience of being taken from his home in Vietnam and dragged to Paris to fight someone else's wars was coming from - I didn't make it up, though I wish I had! A lot of Vietnamese were conscripted during WWII and set to making ammunition and other stuff for the war effort, and they got repatriated long after the war had ended (5 years during which they basically performed indentured work). It's not something we talk about a lot, but it infuriated me so much I had to put it in the book.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.