Kicking the Shift with Steph Swainston – Interview
This time we bring to you an author who has just released her second heavily anticipated novel, No Present Like Time, on the heels of her first well-received and successful debut offering The Year of Our War, which has drawn praise like “Thoughtful, exuberant, incredibly inventive: a blistering debut, and honest-to-god unputdownable” from China Mieville.
The Year of Our War also won the 2005 Crawford Award, awarded by the IAFA (The international association for the Fantastic in the Arts) recognizing the new writer in fantasy who demonstrates most promise and is a nominee for the John W. Campbell award for Best New SF or Fantasy writer which will be awarded at Worldcon.
Our guest this week is Steph Swainston, who was kind enough to agree to join us, her inclusion a necessity after I myself read her aforementioned impressive debut The Year of Our War. I’d like to thank Steph once again for sharing her time with us.
Jay — Steph, can you please tell the fans what can they expect from The Year of Our War?
Steph — The Insects appeared after god left the world for a short break, leaving the Emperor as caretaker. That’s what the inhabitants of the Fourlands believe, anyway. They are under constant attack by animals they can’t hope to communicate with. The war influences most aspects of the Empire.
There are deep and well-rounded characters in a world where immortality can be gained on merit and lost in a fair competition. There are battles against Insects and a pragmatic take on heroism. Survival is more important than honour, because you can’t strike noble poses against Insects.
You can expect great battles, complicated and difficult relationships, and scenes from the life of the flamboyant and self-absorbed narrator, Jant.
I find it funny to see the critics struggle with something that any attentive casual reader grasps straight away. The books are written from Jant’s point of view. The views he expresses are his, wholly within the Fourlands’ system of belief. They are not necessarily my views.
Jay — The second installment No Present like Time was just released. What can you tell us about this effort?
Steph — No Present like Time happens five years after The Year of Our War. There is a suite of events that often happens after major wars. I put a list of twenty on the ‘Theory’ thread on my www.ttapress.com message board. Some of these happen in the Fourlands, for example the Castle launches a voyage of exploration and an island, Tris, is discovered. Tris is the first in a volcanic archipelago arc and it looks like a Mediterranean island.
There are also some great sword fights.
Moreover, No Present like Time explores the relationship between Jant and Tern, which, to simplify, has matured from hectic passion to a cooler selfishness by 2020 when the story takes place. They still love each other, but Tern has affairs. Jant doesn’t want her to be subservient to another man who doesn’t respect her. That is partly a gangster’s attitude to women that he’s picked up, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a class difference between them that adds to Jant’s insecurities.
Jant is still very aware of his friends’ attitude towards his drug abuse. Whether or not they are condemning him, he thinks that they are. Jant’s friends may well empathies with him about his addiction, but they are in the middle of a war that the Eszai are supposed to be commanding, and a Messenger isn’t much use slumped in the corner unconscious. Jant has been on and off drugs in roughly five year cycles for ninety years, and by the time of the events of The Year of Our War, his friends have tried everything from being very sweetly cajoling to locking him in his bedroom. Jant tries their patience, which is all the more strained for knowing that he uses his self-harm to fish for their pity.
Jay — In The Year of Our War I thought you successfully set up a platform for numerous sequel possibilities, in terms of how many directions you could go in. This has to do with some the variety of details you touched on regarding the Four Lands, touching on castes, differentiating between social customs and political practices between regions and then again the variety in the regions themselves. Do you plan on bringing into focus more of these elements individually in further novels now that The Year of Our War effectively introduced them to the reader?
Steph — Yes, definitely. There’s a lot to say. You’ve seen the pure meritocracy of the Castle. You’ve glimpsed the Awian monarchy, which has a two-level aristocratic system of landed governors and tenant farmers. Hacilith city is teetering on the edge of an industrial revolution. Only the Rhydanne have castes depending on whether or not the child is born out of wedlock. They congregate in winter and disperse in summer; the hunters are nomadic, the herders transhumant. In a weird, non-human way the Rhydanne fail to organize any kind of society.
But the large and varied background of the Fourlands will always be an influence on the actions of the people and a backdrop to the story. I don’t use info dumps simply because I don’t like reading them in fantasy novels.
Jay — Can we expect that the rest of your work will focus on a different single POV in your future work in the Fourlands, and will your novels in this sequence be stand-alone in nature?
Steph — Yes, they will all be stand-alone in nature. They won’t all be from Jant’s POV, but the next one will be.
Jay — Lately there has been a bit of a long over due renaissance as of late of writers who are recognizing the influence of the peerless M. John Harrison. What do you think is propelling this “movement” and what do you find compelling about his work?
Steph — I can’t speak for other authors but I suspect it’s just because we read his work when we were younger! Harrison’s writing is so brilliant it will stand the test of time in a way that many other fantasies won’t.
Harrison wrote about the area where I grew up, so his work resonates with me. Some of his writing vividly records the millstone grit and grey clouds filtering the yellow winter sunlight of the Pennines, Yorkshire Dales and the towns in the north of England.
Many characters in Harrison’s work delude themselves in various ways. For example, in Course of Heart, Isobel Avens wants to have cosmetic alteration to grow feathers because she wants to be a bird. But she can never be a bird, she can only alter herself to look more like one, so she becomes desperately unhappy.
Lightning lives with a delusion as well; he maintains an idealized past. He describes the Awian court of the year 619 — which looks classical Roman but acts high Medieval — in such an idealized way that the reader can tell that his memories have been airbrushed to perfection. Lightning is a walking relic of the Fourlands’ middle ages (Awia’s ‘golden age’), and although immortality has affected him, he preserves some of the character that he had as a Zascai. Now his love seems too studied and reasonable to be so passionately held. But Lightning is comfortable with this, and can make his lifestyle work, so I can’t criticize the fact that he chooses to maintain an illusion.
Jay — Jant is so well characterized, with what seems a profound understanding regarding his nuances and sure vision of what he is conceptually, made so personable and real is he based off of someone you know, or a personal experience?
Steph — All my characters began as parts of me, augmented with parts from everything I’ve ever read and everyone I’ve ever known.
Jay — Your Harper/Eos interview indicates more influences and notes what you don’t read (I’ll let readers follow the link). What type of writer do you classify yourself as, and does it matter to you how you are categorized?
Steph — I’ll ignore any categorization! Are we to follow rules or rules to follow us? I’m determined never to insult the readers’ intelligence or waste their time. I think that good prose is paramount, and I will let the reader imagine the Fourlands for him/herself.
I’m showing fragments of Jant’s life, not a chronological epic. William Burroughs said that, ‘a review of a life is not an orderly account from conception to death; rather, it’s fragments from here and there.’ But you will be able to make links. The stories have been worked out before I began to write The Year of Our War, so that if you read four books, you will understand more of why Jant acts like he does in the first book.
I believe in thorough research, for example I read many of the surviving Renaissance fencing manuals for the sword fighting scenes in . The geography of the Fourlands makes sense, for example the continent’s west coast is straight and the jagged Darkling mountains are always increasing in height, like the Andes, because the west coast is a subduction zone for a plate moving eastward — plate tectonics applied to a fantasy world!
Moreover, I’m interested in the processes by which things happen — by which societies and characters change; I want to inject some realism. Even if a fantasy world begins in a medieval state, it will evolve along its own trajectory producing something radically different to a feudal society of our history. Elements of the culture may remain static, but there has to be a reason for it. For example, the Fourlands still has longbows because Lightning the Archer would prove the superiority of bows over any incipient new invention like guns.
I dislike Tolkien’s novels, in which the reader has no idea of what normal people actually do all day or what tools they use (apart from weaponry). It’s like the tales of Knights Errant — you gain a good idea what Lancelot gets up to, what his castle is like and how much meat he consumes, but everyone else is a bit part.
In the Castle world, I won’t use easy answers such as magic, because magic doesn’t exist in our world. I believe that the ‘real’ world of science and natural history is just as exciting and full of wonder as any enchantment. I was once lucky enough to be able to take photographs of ants using a scanning electron microscope.
They are powerful little monsters! I think the natural world is full of amazement ripe for use in fantasy.