Carrie S Interviews Mary Robinette Kowal - Part I

Book Mary Robinette KowalLast month, Carrie attended the Nebulas and interviewed several authors. So far we've posted her interview with Alethea Kontis, and EC Myers. Today: a two-part interview with Mary Robinette Kowal!

Carrie: You guys, I totally geeked out during this interview – and Mary was very sweet about it.  I had so much fun, and I hope some of that comes through in this transcription.  There was a lot of laughter!

Mercifully for us all, I did not transcribe the parts of this interview where I geeked out all over the place and was a total fangirl – but I did leave in the part in which we talk about names, because I think it shows a) an interesting side of Mary and b) how very gracious she is.  Read on as we talk about Jane Austen, hidden Doctor Who cameos, and having adventures in every stage of life.  I inserted a couple of explanatory remarks and one epic squee in brackets.

Carrie:  Why is Jane Austen so important to us today?

Mary:  One reason is that she was dealing with situations that we still face.  Situations in which you're trying to look at who you are in relationship to society.  Even though society has changed, that question still exists.

She was also one of the first people who was writing in a modern style.  She is credited with inventing or popularizing free indirect speech, which is such an important part of modern storytelling today.  That's where when you're in third person, you say something like, “She wondered whether or not he was going to ask her out to the dance”.  Her works read as more contemporary than they are.  She was so bright, and so fresh, and really experimental compared to the other people who were writing at the time.  I think that a lot of the ways that we explore fiction today comes from having learned it from Austen.  Plus, she's funny!  She also established a lot of archetypes, like the Darcy archetype.


Carrie:  By this time, you've done so many interviews for all three of your books, and you must get asked the same questions over and over again.  What do you always wish an interviewer would ask you?

Mary:  Well, I get tired of answering the question, “What are you working on next?”

Carrie:  Oh no, that was my next question!

Mary:    It's a valuable question! It's a valuable question for an author, because it allows you to market your book.  But it's not something I can engage in a long conversation about, or have deep thoughts over.  I like it better when an interviewer asks me something that makes me think of something I haven't thought of yet, or asks me about something that I'm really excited about!

Carrie:  So Mary, what are you excited about?

Doctor Who - The Fifth Series Mary:  That's an excellent question!  Right now I'm in revisions for Valour and Vanity, which is book four in the Glamourist Histories Series, so that's very focused in my mind right now.  I have Lord Byron as a character.  The book is set in Venice, in 1817, and Lord Byron was actually in Venice in 1817.   One of Lord Byron's travelling companions was a man he often referred to as “The Doctor”.  I have Doctor Who cameos in all my novels.  So I found that, and I was like, “Well, OBVIOUSLY!”  It was Doctor Polidori, and he referred to Lord Byron as his “companion”.  And there's a two-week period in which Lord Byron is more or less unaccounted for.  And to me, it seems very clear that Lord Byron and The Doctor were gallivanting in the TARDIS.  It's obvious!  So that is the thing I'm ridiculously excited about.

Book Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks

In all of the other novels, I have fit in a Doctor Who cameo, and it makes sense.  But this one makes SO much sense.  And there are also Barbary Corsairs in the book, which is in part a reference to Lord Byron's poem, The Corsair.  Barbary Corsairs built their turbans around their fezzes.  So the Doctor that I have in there is the eleventh doctor, Matt Smith.

Carrie: Is Matt Smith your favorite Doctor?

Mary:  My favorite Doctor is Tom Baker.  But I haven't managed to fit him into any of the novels yet, because of the scarf.  David Tennant is my next favorite.

Carrie:  And look how deftly you managed to tell me what your next novel is about, without me having to ask!

Mary:  When we pitched it, we called it, “Jane Austen writes Ocean's Eleven”.  It's a heist novel with Lord Byron.


Carrie:  Your tone has shifted a lot from the first book, Shades of Milk and Honey ( A | BN | K | S | iB ).  The first book was not really high on the action.  There was some dueling stuff at the end, but on the whole, it was closer to Austen.  And then, part way through the second book, there's this huge shift to more action.  What led to that?

Mary:  That's actually a very good question, and I'm very excited to talk about that!  There's a couple of things that I do in the first book that may or may not be noticeable to readers.  The first is that, when I wrote the first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, I wanted to see if fantasy could fit into a Jane Austen novel.  So I worked very hard to follow the Jane Austen model, which is about women living in a very constrained society.

But one of the relationship things is that Vincent [the male protagonist] tells Jane [the female protagonist] that he wants to see what she would do if she weren't so concerned about following the rules all the time.  So at the point when Jane starts falling in love with him, and he gives her a book, we start to break the Jane Austen model.  And that's partly why that book gets a little more swashbuckling as we move forward.

The other reason that things get more swashbuckling in that book is because all of the things that happen at the end are things that happen in Jane Austen books, but in Austen, they happen offstage because her women weren't allowed to go deal with those things.  In two of Austen's books there's a duel, and there's a frantic horse chase in Pride and Prejudice, and one in Sense and Sensibility and in Persuasion.  I felt like a modern reader wouldn't like that, if I said, “there's this really cool action scene, that you can't watch!”  Since I wanted to deal with the idea of breaking out of the mold, I thought, “Well, I'll crack it a little here”.  I'm still following all the rules, except that I'm putting my main character in a place where she can see what's happening.

The second book [Glamour in Glass] was a little different.  Jane Austen did not write sequels, she did not write about married life.  And the fantasy instincts that I had been fighting really hard in the first book, were to insert an evil overlord.  So I thought, “I know what fantasy does now if I put it into a Jane Austen novel, and it actually works pretty well.  But I've done that.  And I like these characters.”

Shades of Milk and Honey was set in 1814, and in 1815 Napoleon comes out of exile.  So I had an evil overlord!  That allowed me to use a more traditional fantasy structure.  It's secretly a spy novel.  In the first part of the book, Jane doesn't know she's in a spy novel.  I was trying to plant enough clues that it was obvious to the reader, but I don't think I did that quite well enough.

In the second part of the book – well, something that's always made me crazy when I read Romance or other relationship based books is when every thing could be resolved if the hero and heroine would just talk to each other, but people are keeping secrets for no reason at all.  So in Glamour and Glass ( A | BN | K | S | iB ), Vincent has a darn good reason for keeping a secret.  And when Jane calls him on it, they just talk about it, like grown-ups, and they work together – like grown-ups.  That's something that's been really important to me in these books.


On adventures in every stage of life:

I wanted to explore a healthy, married relationship, and I wanted to have a married couple that is having adventures together.  I think that the narrative that happens a lot is one where you build the relationship to where they get married, and that's the end of their adventures.  Or, the woman's husband is killed – and then she can have adventures.  The idea that somehow your life ends when you get married, which turns up in fiction over and over again, makes me absolutely nuts.

I have this thing that I want to do with these books.  We're doing five.  I want to do five, because I personally, as a reader, kind of burn out after reading five books in a series.  There's only so high you can ratchet the stakes up in someone's life, and with each books the stakes are supposed to be higher and bigger, and at a certain point, their life is ridiculous.  I mean, if you're the main character in one of those books, your life sucks!  Everything is going wrong all the time!

So I said, “Let me do these books as a cycle of five, and have each book work as a stand alone.”  And then I want to step away from them and do some different things and then I want to come back to them when they're middle aged.  And they'll have middle-aged adventures!  I'll do another cycle of five, and step away again, and come back when they're old, and do another cycle of five.  People's lives don't just stop.  My grandmother's a hundred and eight!  My other grandmother went to Egypt and rode camels and saw the pyramids when she was eighty.

Carrie:  Do you have things in mind, for when you're switching gears?

Mary:  Uh-huh.

Carrie:  Are they things you'll tell me about?

Mary: Nuh-huh!  Well, I will tell you that I'm one of those writers who likes to write all over the map.  Some of the projects I'm looking at involve science fiction, urban fantasy, and historical fantasy.  So we'll see what happens!

Part II is coming in a bit – this would have been too long for one post otherwise! We might have broken the internet. Can't have that. Stay tuned for more with Carrie and Mary Robinette Kowal! 

Comments are Closed

  1. Merrian says:

    I would love to be able to buy these as ebooks here in Australia, I keep reading excerpts and articles on and now here and lament the sad reality of geo restrictions.

  2. Jen G. says:

    You had me at Doctor Who cameo.

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