Seraphina: Origins IV

(It’s been a while since I wrote an Origins post! If you’re interested in the previous instalments, here’s the first one, or you can check out the “Roots” category under the “Preoccupations” heading on the sidebar.)

I sometimes hesitate to bring up my influences because it can create inaccurate expectations. If I list Tolkien as an influence, you might assume I’ve written a sword and sorcery quest book. If I mention Neil Gaiman, suddenly my book (in your imagination) turns into a Goth girl with black nails and an ankh necklace. Which would be awesome, but nothing like my book.

I guess my caveat here is that influence isn’t the same as resemblance. If you want to know who I write like, I would protest loudly that I’m probably the least qualified person to answer that question. If you won’t accept that answer, I might say, “John Green?” in a squeaky little voice. Which is nuts, right? Except that it’s not: we’re both preoccupied with epistemology and our books are full of nerds. I’d call that a resemblance. (I fully expect this to come back and bite me someday, when somebody sends me an irate letter saying, “Hey! Your book is fantasy! I was expecting John Green!” Allow me to say preemptively: Oh, were you? Oops.)

I can’t call Green an influence, though, because I never read any of his books until Seraphina was pretty much done, and my husband has not yet invented that time machine I keep asking for. (Confidential to my husband: DUDE. TIME MACHINE. I need it like, yesterday.)

I consider influences to be writers (or others) who have taught me something new and expanded my understanding of what is possible in art, people I technically owe a thank-you note or maybe even a fruit basket. Seraphina and I owe this debt of gratitude to Terry Pratchett, Lois McMaster Bujold, and George Eliot (TIME MACHINE, NEUTRINO MAN).

Now, see, if you’re jumping up and down and squealing, “Terry Pratchett! He’s hilarious!” you’re already in for your first disappointment. I’m funny* but I’m not funny the way he is.

* Insert obligatory joke about my face.

Terry Pratchett is an influence because he expanded my understanding of what fantasy literature is for. I’d always intuited this – I suspect it’s why I’ve been a speculative fiction person most of my life – but SF/F is essentially a way of performing elaborate thought experiments, of permitting you to ask “what if” questions until you’ve run them to their logical conclusions, of allowing you to set parameters and discuss things that people might find objectionable in other contexts.

I really got this for the first time when I read Pratchett’s Small Gods (and again later, and better, with his YA book Nation). Pratchett uses fantasy to explore serious questions about belief. All his best books have these questions in the background; even his lesser books have them, but it helps if you know they’re going to be there and can go looking for them. He’s had such a prolific career that you can really trace the evolution of his thought through many variations. It’s a wonderful, rich pattern underlying everything, and when I noticed it I said, “Yes! That’s fantasy put to interesting purpose! That’s what I want to do, too, with my own questions and preoccupations.”

Lois McMaster Bujold mostly influenced me with one specific work: The Curse of Chalion. I’ve enjoyed many of her other books (and I just recently reread Paladin of Souls and found it pertinent to my real life – it is so refreshing to read about a middle-aged fantasy heroine!), but it’s Chalion that made the deepest impression. It is, hands down, my favourite fantasy novel.

When I was moaning and groaning about having to turn Seraphina from an intimate, personal story into a big, earth-shaking story, Captain Editorpants said to me, “Have you never read a novel that’s able to be both things at once?” And I realized at once that Chalion fit that description perfectly. It is an epic, kingdom-spanning story about politics, princesses, and magic; and it is a deep, personal story about one man’s relationship with his gods. It has the best thought-out theology I have ever encountered in fiction, and that was really what tied it together, because the gods are simultaneously very big and very small. So this, too, opened up possibilities for me, that I didn’t have to choose between the personal and the political, so to speak.

(Notice a pattern here? Me too. I am one of those atheists – as is Pratchett – who is keenly interested in belief. So that’s a layer of influence as well: here’s how other authors are approaching these questions. Another thing they have in common is well-built, enormous worlds. Which brings us to our final novelist…)

Lastly, I need to send a fruit basket back in time to George Eliot. She’s been with me a long time, dear old George. Chalion may be my favourite fantasy novel, but Middlemarch is my favourite novel, period.

You want good worldbuilding? Middlemarch, baybeh. Don’t roll your eyes at me. She may have been writing about England (which I’m told exists), but she was writing a) about the England of her childhood, on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution (meaning: the England of her adulthood was something very changed)(I believe I know what that’s like), and b) Middlemarch isn’t a real town. She builds this town, she peoples it, and it is a world unto itself.

You want good characters? Middlemarch, baybeh. I’ve never seen a book with so many real humans in it, people with ambitions, hopes, fears, foibles, failings. The book asks the same question I do, every day: how do I live this life? I keep asking  the question because the answer changes. Every character in this book strives to answer and comes to an individual conclusion. Sometimes they get it wrong; sometimes the world deals out disappointments they can’t foresee or control. But you come away feeling the striving is good and right and necessary.

You want plot? Go somewhere else, you heathen! Ah, I kid, but I imagine plot (or rather, the fact that it takes half the book to get going) is what trips modern readers up. And it’s really too bad, because pacing is (to my mind) a matter of fashion more than anything else. It’s not bad or ineffectual art just because it’s slow: it’s merely unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar requires more work. I promise it’s worth the effort. In fact, here’s a blog post I wrote about the ending (it’s the second post on the page, called “The End”. I couldn’t link to the individual post for some reason). Go ahead and read it; don’t be afraid of spoilers. It’s not the kind of literature that spoils easily.

As far as its influence on my writing goes, Middlemarch is what I aspire to, ultimately. Not the slow-starting plot – I’m a product of my times, and I see the point of keeping it moving – but the depth and breadth, the complexity and humanity of it. I want to create a world that rich with people and ideas, contained between two covers.

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