Today The Bookpushers would like to welcome Marie Brennan. She has an extensive backlist that includes both fiction and non-fiction ranging from short stories to novels. Her most recent novel, A Natural History of Dragons, released in early February and was reviewed Thursday. Marie and her publisher are graciously sponsoring a giveaway so make sure you check out the giveaway entry rules. The lovely art work included in this post was created by Todd Lockwood used by permission.
BP: Thank you for joining us today Marie.
Thank you for inviting me!
BP: You have a strong background in anthropology, archaeology, and folklore. Did you have an opportunity to do field work? If so where was your favorite location and if not where did you want to go?
I did a fairly large amount of archaeology fieldwork: two volunteer projects before college, two field schools during college, and a summer working for a cultural resource management firm — that’s contract archaeology, doing surveys before construction projects, that sort of thing. (I am here to tell you that CRM is thunderously boring.) My favorite was probably the Iron Age Celtic hillfort I worked on in Wales, during my second field school. The weather was absolutely wretched and I lived in a pup tent for a month, but I met a good friend there and wrote a substantial chunk of Doppelganger with my laptop balanced atop my air mattress. Plus, the area was beautiful — when it wasn’t raining on me.
BP: Did anything in particular trigger your decision to make the switch from academia to writing fantasy?
For quite a while there, I was doing both. I wrote five novels during college (including Doppelganger, now reprinted as Warrior, and Lies and Prophecy), and sold my first one during graduate school. I left because writing a dissertation would have put the brakes on my fiction publishing, and because the company my husband was working for went bankrupt; moving vastly improved his employment prospects. But the two were always intertwined for me. You can take the writer out of grad school, but you can’t take the grad school out of the writer . . . .
BP: Your previous fantasy stories have been based in different time periods, but all tend to involve magic of some sort. While reading A Natural History of Dragons, I did not notice any magic except for that of superstition and imagination. Why did you decide to make such a radical change with A Natural History of Dragons?
It started with the decision to make the dragons animals, rather than the sentient, magical creatures they are in most fantasy. Once I’d done that, the world started developing in a way that just didn’t leave room for explicit magic. Isabella will, during the course of the series, encounter some things that wouldn’t really fit into our world — more than the simple fact of dragons, that is — but yes, it’s more a Ruritanian fantasy in its tone. Not our world, but also not magical.
BP: Part of me, the part that grew up with Anne McCaffrey and the part that was captivated with How to Tame Your Dragon, was secretly hoping that Isabella would be able to talk to and ride the dragons. Instead you took a very different method that still brought out the combination of wonder and fear of her experience. What inspired the more “natural” approach?
When your protagonist is a natural historian, it’s more or less inevitable. If the creatures are sentient, her research becomes more anthropological — or, to borrow a term from science fiction, xenological. That’s interesting, too, but I felt like it would take attention away from the people Isabella interacts with in the countries she visits; at worst, it might turn the dragons into a metaphor for the Other, which I really didn’t want. So instead Isabella studies dragons as a part of the natural world, and the ones she’s talking to (but, er, not riding) are human.
BP: A Natural History of Dragons was written in the style of the fictional archaeological report/memoirs that I have read before, usually in a mystery format. Are you planning on using this particular tactic again?
The whole series will be written in that style. I have one short story of a similar type — the excessively-titled “Letter Found in a Chest Belonging to the Marquis de Montseraille Following the Death of That Worthy Individual” — and may revisit it in the future. Probably not any time soon, though. Writing multiple books as memoirs will scratch that particular itch for a good long while.
BP: Your particular world happens to contain dragons from different ecosystems. Why did you decide to make them part of the natural order of things instead of entirely separate?
The entire spark for this series was the notion summed up in the title: a natural history of dragons. For that idea to work, they had to be a part of the natural order; they have to be something Isabella can study in a rational, scientific manner, as part of the environments they live in. I mean, theoretically it’s possible to hybridize that kind of science with fantasy — I did something of the sort in the later Onyx Court books — but in this case, the more realistic approach just felt right.
Besides, integrating them with their environments is fun. I have savannah dragons and swamp dragons in the next book, and there will be sea serpents in the third. Working out the details of those types, taking inspiration from real creatures, is half the pleasure of this setting.
BP: What other magical/mythical creatures intrigues you? And do you have plans to incorporate them in future books?
Well, obviously I have a fair interest in faeries! But I tend to go setting first, then creatures, using whatever fits the kind of world the story take place in; having this particular series start with dragons is something of an exception. It’s going to stay focused on dragons, though — it won’t branch out into unicorns or anything like that. The furthest I’ll go is to incorporate dragon-like creatures from other parts of the world (I want to put a quetzalcoatl in the third book), or to make up semi-draconic critters of my own.
BP: Do you have a new book or series next planned?
I’ll be doing at least two more books in this series — possibly as many as four — and I do have plans for other things I’d like to be writing in the meanwhile. I tend not to talk about those things until they shift from vaporware to actual contracted work, though. It’s superstitious; I don’t want to jinx myself.
BP: If you had to go on a magical quest and you had to choose a team of six heroes from any fictional world – who would they be and what kind of quest would it be?
It would be a quest to the World Tree/Axis Mundi, the center of all the countless realms thought of in fantasy and myth, a la Steven King’s Dark Tower series. Picking my fellow questors is hard, though; the list of possibilities is endless! I can think of roles, as if this were a game, but specific individuals are harder. I would want one really good fighter, two people with different kinds of magic (one offensive/combat and one defensive/healing, and from different paradigms in case we ended up some place where one or the other didn’t work), a sneaky thief-type, a survivalist/ranger type, and one incredibly persuasive person to be the “face.” (My role, of course, would be to know about all the different places we travel through.)
BP: That sounds like a lot of fun. Thank you again for visiting us and thanks to Tor for sponsoring the giveaway. To have a chance to win a copy of A Natural History of Dragons open to US and Canada only leave a comment talking about what magical quest you would like to go on. The winner will be announced Monday 25 Mar. To help you decide that you want to enter this we have an excerpt of A Natural History of Dragons going up later today.
If you are interested in finding out more about Marie below is her formal biography and some links to finding her on-line.
Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to many short stories and novellas, she is also the author of A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire (both from Tor Books), as well as Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, and Lies and Prophecy. You can find her online at SwanTower.com, Twitter, or Goodreads.