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A Conversation With Sarah Micklem
interview courtesy of HarperCollins Voyager

Photo © Howard Gotfryd
Sarah Micklem
Sarah Micklem
Sarah Micklem had jobs in a restaurant, printing plant, sign shop, a refugee resettlement agency before spending the last 20 years making a living as a graphic designer. She wrote Firethorn while working as an art director for children's magazines in New York City. She lives with her husband, poet and playwright Cornelius Eady, in Washington, DC, where she is writing the second book of the Firethorn trilogy.

Author/Firethorn Homepage
SF Site Review: Firethorn
Firethorn - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7


Mark Stutzman

How did you become a writer?
Very slowly. When I was a teenager, I set out to be a Writer with a capital W. I saved money and went to live by myself for a winter in a house on a highway, 10 miles from the nearest town, and doggedly wrote five hours a day until I had finished a very bad science fiction novel. I didn't know about revision in those days. I took creative writing classes in college, which convinced me writing wasn't my destiny. A decade later, I began thinking about Firethorn -- first the character, then her world. I did it as a hobby. I'd make a few notes on the subway on my way to work or at night before I fell asleep, and I started to research, reading non-fiction for the first time in years. This woke up a certain part of my brain. A couple of years later, I began to write the story down on vacations. I didn't tell anyone but my husband, because I'd made such a big deal about being a Writer before, and I didn't want anyone to ask how the book was going. And sure enough, I gave it up at about 70 pages. I might never have started again, and certainly wouldn't have finished, if I hadn't taken a wonderful class with a writer called Abigail Thomas. She held it in her apartment on Tuesday nights, and we called ourselves the Tuesday Night Babes. It took me five years to write and rewrite Firethorn after starting the class.

Some people say you are from a new breed of fantasy writers. Would you agree?
There are great fantasy writers of all sorts out there. I think people underestimate the genre. It can be just as speculative as science fiction, but its speculations tend to be about societies, or how history might look if it had been tweaked a bit. For my part, I chose to write what I'd call a low fantasy rather than a high one, from the point of view of a powerless and disreputable woman rather than one of the movers and shakers, the kings and queens and warriors and wizards, of society.

I remember seeing a wonderful tapestry at an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a couple of years ago, showing a huge scene of an attack on a town, and people fleeing from the army encampment toward the viewer. One well-dressed woman, a camp follower, had a little lap dog in her arms. I was working on Firethorn at the time and I was struck by how rarely we see depictions of such women, in art or literature. I wanted the surprise of having an insignificant background figure thrust into the foreground.

Why did it have to be fantasy?
First, because I love to read fantasy. And also because it's good way to write about all sorts of things that interest me, such as love, violence, and magic. In historical novels, it's vital to be accurate in the details, but in fantasy, there's latitude to choose or invent details to fit the story you want to tell. But you want the sights, sounds, and smells to seem absolutely real. I was aiming for realism within the context of my imaginary world.

So tell us about love.
It surprised me that the book turned out to be so romantic. When I started, Sire Galan was just a way for Firethorn to get out of her village. And then Galan misbehaved and I thought he was a jerk, although an attractive one. But he became more interesting to me as I tried to figure out what he was doing and thinking.

What is he like?
He's narrow-minded, in a way: used to privilege, caught up in the need to demonstrate his honor, bravery, and intolerance for insults. Reckless to a fault. But I always liked those devil-may-care heroes, and I got to like him despite myself. And I think he grows up somewhat as a result of the bad consequences of his carelessness.

Firethorn becomes Sire Galan's sheath, a term I invented (for blatantly metaphorical reasons). A sheath is a low-caste woman kept for a warrior's convenience on campaign. She might accompany him for one campaign or many, if they get along well. Though not all warriors have sheaths, it's considered perfectly normal. But Firethorn becomes much too important to Galan. He can't keep his feelings neatly confined to the socially acceptable limits of the warrior/sheath, master/servant relationship.

What about Firethorn? She doesn't seem like the classical feisty heroine you find in many other fantasy books?
Feisty is a way of calling someone courageous and minimizing it at the same time -- usually applied to women, like a pat on the back. How many times have you heard someone called a feisty hero? Firethorn has many fears, and she's sometimes brave despite them, and sometimes not. She is also touchy and quarrelsome (another meaning of feisty).

Many people have told me they found her exasperating. She keeps making the same mistakes over and over. I thought that was realistic, though we seem to expect our fictional people to learn from their mistakes even if we don't ourselves. She's a bit dense about how Galan feels about her, but I think she has every reason to distrust him and her own feelings. Their unequal relationship shapes -- and warps -- the way they feel toward one another. Passion doesn't miraculously surmount every obstacle.

That is a very interesting aspect: Blending together love and violence... and sex!
Sex is left out of many fantasy books. I tried to deal with it as a matter of everyday life, as part of a new and overwhelming relationship, and as seen in context of a particular culture.

Sexual violence is a different issue. It's part of their caste system -- upper caste men look upon sexual access to lower caste women as their prerogative, whether the women consent or not. Rape is part of warfare (even now, as we've seen in Bosnia and Rwanda and on and on). The threat of rape is part of the overall atmosphere of violence in the army camp. Firethorn can't go anywhere alone; she has to have one of Galan's flunkies with her. I love warrior women in fiction, but Firethorn isn't one. She can't fight off attackers with her trusty sword. She has an independent streak, but she's in a dependent situation, relying on Galan for protection, as well as food, lodging, and clothing.

There is a lot of violence in the book. Why is that?
I wanted to look at a warrior culture -- one that celebrates warfare as essential to manhood -- from underneath and outside. It takes violence to sustain this society and give it meaning. Everyday violence keeps women and low-caste people in their place. The violence of war allows men to win glory, not to mention the plunder that sustains their way of life.

I think our epic fantasy has recently been shaped very much by World War II and the idea of the good and virtuous war against absolute evil. But I wanted to write about the other, more usual sort of war, fought for the usual reasons: money, land, power. What did that look for most of the participants, who didn't know or care why the war was being fought?

What place do women find in war, then?
It's not safe to generalize about that. Women have played many roles in warfare, depending on where and when. In Firethorn's world, the war is initiated by a queen who refuses to go quietly when her son comes of age and ends her regency. But she's the exception. The women who follow the army are mostly sheaths, whores, laundresses, cooks, and other menials. They have their own subcultures. They hang out together, make friends and enemies, get pregnant, have children, work. Campaigning is a way of life. It's also dangerous. Violence in war has a way of spilling over onto noncombatants.

Making peace sometimes seems harder than making war. I think that might be interesting to explore.

Where does magic come in?
There is a story hidden inside the plot: Firethorn's education as a shaman, someone who, according to the dictionary, "uses magic for the purposes of curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events." Of course I don't use the word shaman in the book, but that's the closest equivalent I can find for what she is becoming. By the end of the book she's learning to make use of some strange abilities, but she's still keeping them secret.

The more I read about magic in many real cultures, past and present, the more intrinsic it seemed to my imaginary world. Magic and religion are not two different things, but part of one cosmology: how people see their place in the cosmos and their ability to control (or fail to control) events. Especially powerless people like Firethorn.

What comes next for Firethorn?
I'm still finding out!

Copyright © 2005 by Sarah Micklem

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