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Interview: Richard Bowes on “The Queen and the Cambion”

Tell us a bit about “The Queen and the Cambion.” 

TQATC is about two British legends, Queen Victoria who reigned for most of the 19th century and Merlin, said to be the son of a demon and a nun, whose story emerged in the murky centuries after the fall of Roman Britain. One was a creature of history, the other a product of Welsh folklore later embellished by medieval minstrelsy and compiled by Mallory.

 In the story Merlin is obliged to come to the aid of whichever monarch in whatever year invokes the spell that binds him. The spell’s my invention and we get to see the four occasions on which Victoria summons him.

– What was the inspiration for “The Queen and the Cambion,” or what prompted you to write it?

– Why did you choose Queen Victoria as your protagonist as opposed to any other British monarch?

I’m going to answer these questions together:

I was invited to write a story for a themed anthology about magic and  Queen Victoria. At least that’s what I understood it to be about.  It seemed like an interesting change of pace from drugs, dark doings and gay Manhattan which I’d been writing about for the last few years.

My first problem was that Victoria was about as devoid of magic as any monarch who ever lived. But the magic didn’t have to be hers. Apparently, I’d had the Arthurian legend on my mind because out of nowhere I’d written a very short story, “Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things” about a rather disgraceful member of the Round Table. F&SF was nice enough to buy and publish the story last year.

Sometimes with themed anthologies I can take a story that was kicking around in my back brain and twist it to the anthology theme. Sometimes the theme comes easily to hand – it’s something I would have written anyway. Other times it’s a story that never would have been written except for the invitation.

This was one of those last. But I liked the idea of  mixing Merlin and Victoria. The editors seemed to approve. However when I submitted the story the editors wanted something different – darker or lighter or dark in a lighter way. Or something. And editors, of course, are always right.

So I was left with this unsold story. Fortunately F&SF, Help of Writers, took it. This is my twentieth appearance in the magazine over the last twenty years – nineteen stories and one “Curiosities” column.

What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

As a young kid I was given a book (I think it was titled “King Arthur and his Knights” – not a well known version of the tales – lines of Tennyson verse were interwoven with the prose and it had lots of vagueness about Lancelot and Guinevere, Morgan La Fey and Arthur and Mordred’s relationship – a book for kids) I’ve never been able to find a copy. The art was not by one of the canonical illustrators. But I remember it well. Especially the last color plate of the last moment of  Arthur’s last Battle – Camlann .Against a setting sun, with piles of dead knights all around, Mordred rushes to stick his lance through Arthur who is about to bring Excalibur down on Mordred’s – great stuff – lots of Merlin’s doings.

The Matter of Britain interested me from then on.

 Alfred Duggan was a British historical novelist of the mid-20th century. His “The Conscience of the King,” which I read in my teens is the story of an unscrupulous princeling, Cedric in post-Roman 6th Century Britain. This is the world in which the Arthur legend begins. Arturus, a fictional Roman cavalry mercenary, and a plausible guess as to the basis for the Arthur legends puts in an appearance.

I read The Once and Future King a year or two after it came out in 1958. My parents thought it would fascinate me and it did. In it along with much else including a clearer idea of the sexual underpinnings of the legends was a Merlin living backwards in time. When the musical Camelot tried out in Boston in late 1960, I skipped school, went to a matinee and got caught doing so.

Those are the ways I found Merlin. Queen Victoria came to me as a figure in history. And history to me is a long twisting tale out of which you make it a story reflecting your own ideas and interests. In truth people around Victoria like her uncle King William and her first Prime Minister Melbourne, fantastical 18th century men surviving into the 19th century interested me more than she did.

Writing the story I spent a few afternoons in NYU’s Bobst Library reading about her life and especially her youth. I found a human side of what had seemed a symbol, a statue. That gave me the story.

Would you say that “The Queen and the Cambion” is a kind of love story, and if so, at what point in the writing did you realize it?

I would. I think it’s the first love story I’ve ever written.

I was looking for a connection between a 19th century girl and woman and a half human cambion from a very dark age. The trick of the tale is that Victoria goes from youth to middle age and old age – the normal track of human life. The Merlin she encounters along the way is at various stages of his life – moments when he is available and she summons him. She’s young, he’s first mature and powerful, then dynamic but still older than she. She falls in love with him.  As a middle aged woman she summons and rescues a very young Merlin. He grows fond of her. Only at the end are their ages and experiences compatible. Love connects them.

What might you want a reader to take away from your story?

Terry Weyna reviewing the story in Fantasy Literature says, “The story is nothing more than a bon bon, but it is a delicious one.”

I kind of like that but I think there’s more here – mythic wonder and historical characters and human need.

What are you working on now?

The story of a 15 year old lesbian telepath in a dystopian New York: it does have some love.

– Anything else you’d like to add?

The two writing groups to which I belong, Altered Fluid and Tabula Rasa were a great help. Especially AF. It was the first thing I showed that group.

“The Queen and the Cambion” appears in the March/April 2012 issue.

Interview: Felicity Shoulders on “Small Towns”

– Tell us a bit about “Small Towns.”
“Small Towns” takes place in France in the wake of World War I; it’s the story of a particularly small and sheltered child growing into a young woman, and of a middle-aged man trying to retreat into the world of his childhood.
I’ve never set a story in France before. My family is part French and we have strong ties there, but our relatives live in the Massif Central to the south, a long way from the Western Front. I decided when I was drafting the story that I’d write no sentence for which I couldn’t imagine the equivalent in French: essentially, I was translating it into English as I wrote it. This was a bizarre, experimental process for me, and I wasn’t sure how the result would strike people. My first readers were all non-French speakers though and the language just seemed appropriately old-fashioned to them, so I forged ahead and it seems to have succeeded.
 
– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
Years ago I read a story by Angela Carter called “The Lady of the House of Love.” It’s about a British soldier on leave in Europe encountering the last scion of a vampire line. While Angela Carter wrote many modern fairy tales herself, this particular story implies strongly that World War I was the end of magic, and I immediately, perversely, wanted to write a fairy tale set in the aftermath of the Great War. I had an idea that the protagonist would be literally small, but not much beyond that.
That idea remained in the back of my mind for several more years, until I was reading about some World War I battles on Wikipedia. I wasn’t doing research, just reading about battles in which my great-grandfather had fought. I was struck by British aerial photographs of the village of Passchendaele, in Belgium. They showed the village before and after the fighting there, and in the second photograph even the roads are barely discernible. The fields, the trees, every feature blasted away. That image gave me the opening paragraphs of “Small Towns” and enough of the story to start writing.
(Here are the wikipedia photos of Passchendaele which Ms. Shoulders references, if anyone cares to look: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Passchendaele_aerial_view.jpg )
 
– What kind of research, if any, did you have to do for “Small Towns?”
I haven’t written a lot of historical fantasy, and this is the oldest setting I’ve tried: with more recent settings, I can do things like call up my grandmother and interrogate her about how they disposed of trash in Oregon in 1946. With this, I didn’t have any cheats.
I did a lot of photographic research online, looking at archival photographs of French and Belgian towns. I looked at pictures of women and girls and their clothing especially, since Fleur and her mother are seamstresses. I read up on the changes in fashion, in France in particular, over the period of the War.
Trying to research the life of civilians and especially refugees in France during the war was frustrating: my Oregon libraries didn’t have a great deal of information on the topic, and general books about World War I tended to focus their French homefront chapters more on the politically relevant topics of dissension and pacifism, and military matters like munitions manufacture, than on the probable experience of a displaced family. I found enough references to sketch out the Jaillets’ stories, and that was enough: the story is, after all, set after Jacques’s return home, not during his exile.
 
– Was this story personal for you in any way?
My great-grandfather lied about his age to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force at 17, and saw a lot of action. Canada was in the war from the beginning, of course, and the stories I heard from my family had some contrast with the stories of the American experience of the Great War, but fundamentally, the war was still “Over There”. I wonder about the recovery, what it’s like to be a “homefront” that’s not far from the warfront. I wondered about the lives of people who weren’t in the war, but were still scarred by it.
 
– Would you say that “Small Towns” is typical of the type of fiction you write, or unusual?
Unusual! Most of my published fiction is near-future science fiction with a social bent, and much of my unpublished work is mythic fantasy. While there’s a fable element to “Small Towns”, the voice and language isn’t the language of myth, and the setting is real and researched in a way much of my fantasy deliberately isn’t. 
 
– What are you working on now?
I’m revising a novel draft. It’s near-future science fiction, very far indeed from Fleur’s world, but perhaps still about the limitations of the body and striving to define the life you want.

“Small Towns” appears in our Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.

Interview: Ted Kosmatka on “The Color Least Used By Nature”

*Tell us a bit about “The Color Least Used by Nature.”

From start to finish, this story probably took me longer to write than anything else I’ve ever written.  It took an insanely long time, in fact, for what was supposed to be a short little story.  While I was working on it, I kept thinking that I was only a few weeks away from finishing, so I’d burn the midnight oil in what I thought was the final push, working on it late at night after everyone in the house was asleep.  But it was like some crazy carnival fun room where the exit kept retreating from me the closer I got.  I was half afraid the darn thing was going to turn into a novel by the time I was finished.  It’s amazing how a small, simple idea can take on a life of its own.  

*What was the inspiration for the story, or what prompted you to write it?

The story first came to me several years ago as an image: a man standing on a sandy shore watching his son sail away in a stolen boat.  I knew the son had stolen the boat from the father, and I knew that the father was secretly happy about it, though it was a bittersweet happiness.  I wasn’t sure what the idea meant, or how I might write a story so that the scene made sense to me, and I assumed that the need to write about it would fade eventually since I seemed to know so little about it.  But my mind kept returning to that single image again and again, so I knew there was something there.  Most of my story ideas don’t come to me in this way.  Usually, the kinds of ideas I get are what-if stories.  Or strange extrapolations from existing science.  But this felt totally different—more emotional at its core, less tied to the real world than my usual fiction.  Up till then I’d only written two types of stories: sci-fi, and semi-autobiographical literary stuff based on my time in the steel mills.  This felt like something new, and I was about five pages into it when I realized that I was writing my first fantasy story.  The idea for the walking trees came to me while I was on a hike in Hawaii, and I saw a tree with all these roots poking up out of the soil like little legs.  It seemed like the tree was ready to get up and walk.

*What kind of research went into the story?

A couple of years ago I wrote a story called “Divining Light” which extrapolates from a twist on a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics.  I had to do so much research for that story that my brain melted, and looking back now it seems like it might actually have been easier to become a real physicist than to write that darn story.  Okay, that’s totally a lie; the math required for a physics degree would have killed me.  (I still get mail from physicists and physics students, asking if the experiment in that story was actually performed.)  After finishing “Divining Light” I promised myself that my next couple of stories wouldn’t require any research at all.  Of course, it didn’t work out that way.  I can’t really help myself, and I ended up doing a ton of research for “Color Least Used,” which is part of what contributed to me taking so long to finish it.  I tried to get the details as right as I could. Even when you’re writing about a fictional island in the middle of the Pacific, it turns out that no island is an island unto itself, really, as it exists somewhere in the historical milieu of Polynesian expansion and Western colonialism.  So those are forces that have to constantly be taken into account.  I did a lot of historical research about island life in the late 1800’s, and I did my best to give as accurate a portrayal of the time period as I could.    

*Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way is “The Color Least Used” personal?

 Oh, I’m not giving up the goods that easy.

*What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

I fall firmly in the “story belongs to the reader” camp, so I’d be disappointed if every reader came away with the same interpretation.  The best stories are like life in that they can be seen from many different perspectives.  No one is a villain in their own mind, right?  I have my own take on the story, of course, but that’s not to say that it is any more important than anyone else’s.  If a gun were put to my head, and I had to choose the thing that I personally took away from the story, it would be the idea that everyone is flawed in some way, and that our flaws are part of what makes us who we are.  Sometimes our greatest qualities are our flaws, and vice versa.

*What are you working on now?

I’m a full-time writer at Valve, so I’m doing a lot of video game writing.  I’m also working on another novel.

*Anything else you’d like to add?

My first novel, THE GAMES, comes out March 13th..  You can buy it in bookstores or here at Amazon:   http://www.amazon.com/Games-Ted-Kosmatka/dp/0345526619/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328514398&sr=8-1

“The Color Least Used By Nature” appears in our Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.

Interview: Douglas A. Anderson on Evangeline Walton

 

– Tell us a little about Evangeline Walton.

Evangeline Walton was born Evangeline Ensley—the “Walton” came from a family name which she used to form her penname.  She was an only child, with a very large and close family on her mother’s side.  She was born in 1907 in Indianapolis, and raised there.  Her parents divorced when she was in her teens, and after WWII she and her mother moved permanently to Tucson, Arizona, where Evangeline lived until her death in 1996. 

– In what ways would you say that Ms. Walton has left her mark on fantasy fiction?

She is perhaps best remembered for her four-volume reworking of the Mabinogion, the Welsh mythological cycle.   The first volume was originally published as The Virgin and the Swine (1936), but was retitled Island of the Mighty when it was republished in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in 1970.  The subsequent volumes are The Children of Llyr (1971), The Song of Rhiannon (1972) and Prince of Annwn (1974). 

            Walton also published a fine novel of witchcraft, Witch House, the first original novel published by August Derleth’s Arkham House in 1945.  A new expanded edition, including a long prologue originally published only in the 1950 British edition, together with some previously unpublished chapters from another witchcraft novel, will be coming out in 2012 from Centipede Press. 

            Another of Walton’s books, The Cross and the Sword (1956), is a very fine novel about the about the clash of the Vikings and Christians a thousand years ago. It has had an unfortunate publishing history.  The manuscript was considerably chopped and altered by the publisher without her consent. Even the title was changed (her original title was Dark Runs the Road).  We hope to see the complete novel published. 

– How did “They That Have Wings” come to light, and why was it only now discovered, fifteen years after her passing?

Walton’s papers were left in disorder at her death in 1996, and after being roughly sorted they were stored in California by her family.  More recently the large number of boxes have been sent to Walton’s literary heir in Chicago, Debra Hammond, and I’ve worked with Debra in further sorting and reading, based on the pioneering categorization done by Debra’s mother.  With some manuscripts the whole process was easy, but with others the difficulties have been great.  For instance, in the mid-1940s Evangeline wrote a trilogy of novels about Theseus.  In the mid-1950s she wrote entirely new versions of all three books, but then put them on hold after Mary Renault starting publishing her Theseus books.  In the 1970s, after the success of the Ballantine editions of her four volumes of the Mabinogion, Walton visited Greece and started reworking the trilogy.  So imagine taking three different versions of three related novels, plus various carbon copies, and mixing all of the pages in a metaphorical blender.  I think there is something like eighteen or twenty linear feet of papers related to Theseus, so the sorting of these papers has been the most difficult.  Walton published a revision of the first volume, The Sword Is Forged, in 1983, and that serves as a basic point of reference.  But there remains a lot of work to be done with all the Theseus papers. 

– Does this story have any connection with Walton’s own experiences?  Did she, for example, know someone who fought in the Greek Theater of WWII?

No connections or personal experiences that I know of, but Evangeline was widely read and had a close circle of friends with whom she discussed the events of the day as well as her own writings, so there possibly could have been some related thread or inspiration.  More likely, though, was her wide reading in mythological studies, and thus the idea of putting modern clothes on an old mythological legend. 

– Would you say that “They That Have Wings” is typical of Ms. Walton’s writing in subject matter, style, etc., or is it an unusual example of her work?

What makes it very typical is that it takes a mythological (or fantastical) concept and puts living flesh to the idea, making it especially real.  In the most general sense that is what many of her stories do, and do so well.  With regard to details of this particular story, it may seem uncharacteristic because Walton is best-known for using Celtic materials, but the Greek stories were very important to her too, and she did work on her Theseus books for something like five decades.

– As Ms. Walton’s literary agent and in going through her papers, is there anything else you would like to add?

It’s been a fascinating endeavor, because going into it you have no idea what might be there.  Walton did not write for a living, and did not have a pressure to publish what she wrote.  So among the surprises have been a complete Gothic novel that she wrote in the 1960s, and a fine children’s fantasy novel that she wrote in the early 1940s called The Forest That Would Not Be Cut Down.  There are two related mystery novels (and two more novels that I haven’t read yet).  A verse-play titled Swan-Wife (about the Norse King Harald’s passion for a witch), some of Walton’s own translations of Wagner (Parsifal and Siegfried), and various shorter works.  I’ve put together a collection of her ten completed fantasy stories.  This includes her brilliant Breton tales that first saw publication in some anthologies in the early 1980s (though they were written many years earlier), as well as her sole story in the legendary Weird Tales magazine from 1950, and the newly-published “They That Have Wings”, along with a few other unpublished tales.  We’re also working doing the full version of The Cross and the Sword, and considering what is the best way to share the Theseus novels.  We’ve just begun a website (evangelinewalton.com) where we’ll post news as things become settled.  It’s all very exciting.

 Ms. Walton’s posthumous short story, “They That Have Wings,” appears in the November/December 2011 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Carolyn Ives Gilman on “The Ice Owl”

Tell us a bit about the story.

“The Ice Owl” is about a smart, slightly alienated teenager named Thorn who has grown up traveling from planet to planet along with her charming but irresponsible mother, Maya.  They are members of a class of people called Wasters, who have given up the sequential, rooted existence on planets for a roaming lifestyle that takes them all over human-inhabited space.  In this story, they are living in the iron city of Glory to God, where a fundamentalist revolt is brewing.  When extremists burn Thorn’s school, she is forced to find a tutor.  But the tutor she chooses, Magister Pregaldin, turns out to be hiding a secret that Thorn has to become a detective to find out.  The answer is more than she bargained for.

What was the inspiration for “The Ice Owl,” or what prompted you to write it?

Truly, this was an accidental story.  I set out to write the story of what happens to Thorn and Maya on the next planet they land on, but I felt I needed a flashback to explain the situation they just escaped from.  Then the flashback took over and became the story.

As Gordon noted in his introduction, “The Ice Owl” is set in the same universe as my novella “Arkfall,” but it’s also the same universe as a number of other stories I’ve written.  My novel Halfway Human is set in this universe, and the ice owl comes from the planet where “The Honeycrafters” takes place.  I’ve started calling this universe the Twenty Planets; I sure hope I don’t use them all up.  I never planned to write linked stories; I just keep coming back to this universe because the rules are congenial.  They have light-speed transport and (by the time this story takes place) primitive instantaneous communication. This creates some interesting situations I like to play with.  For example, in this story I wanted to explore what it would be like to grow up as an interplanetary vagabond—a childhood similar to what military kids have today, but with the time delays of space travel built in.

Another ingredient of the story came from my work in a museum.  The professional literature is just now full of stories about the repatriation of art looted by the Nazis, which a lot of museums have inadvertently ended up owning.  The situation has created legal problems that will long outlive the survivors of World War II.  It has always seemed to me there was a story there.

What kind of research, if any, did you do for this novella?

I am virtually always doing research, though I don’t think of it that way—I think of it as keeping up with the world.  I’m an avid reader of science magazines and scientific news.  I never know what sort of tidbit is going to come in handy, so I just shovel it all in, and something is sure to come out.  In this case, I admit I had to spend a day doing some directed research on chemistry to get one part of the story right enough to be convincing.

The setting of “The Ice Owl” is very vividly imagined and described, to the point that it’s almost a character itself.  Could you speak further about Glory to God: its genesis, etc.?

As in “Arkfall,” I started with a type of planet found in our own solar system, in this case a tidally locked planet like Mercury, where one face is permanently turned toward the sun, making half the planet too hot to inhabit and the other half too cold.  Life would only be feasible in the narrow strip between permanent day and permanent night.  Such a planet is unlikely to have an atmosphere, so my city had to be domed.  The inhabitants would have plenty of solar and geothermal energy, so they could get their oxygen from the iron oxides that are plentiful on this planet, and use the iron for building.  Living in an iron city on an airless planet seemed a rather grim and desperate existence to me, so I gave them a grim and desperate culture.  Fundamentalist religion, authoritarian power structures, and extremism are all reactions to the sheer difficulty of surviving in a place like this.

          In editing the story, Gordon suggested I put in more nonhuman life forms, which was an interesting challenge.  I wanted to put in cicadas because they would have given the story a rather maddening sound track; but they couldn’t survive without foliage to eat, so I have to give them up.  But there are two life forms that are going to go everywhere human beings go—rats and cockroaches.  We’re vectors for their spread.  So they are the dominant nonhuman residents of Glory to God.

Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way is “The Ice Owl” personal?

The main personal element in this story is one just about anyone has experienced—the moment when you realize that your parents are not really adult.  Or rather, that being adult doesn’t make a person any wiser, more powerful, or more competent at life.  I remember how disillusioned I felt when I found that my parents were just muddling along, and didn’t really know any more about coping with the world than I did—in some ways, less.  It takes a long time to forgive them for that.

          This is also a story about the moment when you first realize that life is a series of deliberate choices for which you are going to be responsible.  When we’re children, all the important choices are made for us by adults; we might not like them, but the onus of deciding is out of our hands.  But that phase of life ends.  I am frustrated by how many stories indulge in the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a life that is guided by outside forces.  Think of all the stories where the protagonist is fated to become king, or to save the world, or is thrust into a situation where there is only one right course of action.  It’s all about the author’s longing for a return to an infantile existence.  But life is not like that.  We aren’t just acted upon by events; we have to create our own futures through our own decisions, for better or worse.  What’s more, we create other people’s futures.  This is the main lesson Thorn learns from Magister Pregaldin.

What are you working on now?

I have just finished final revisions on my next fantasy novel, Ison of the Isles, the sequel to Isles of the Forsaken, which came out in August.  It’s a very intense book.  And for all the people who were frustrated when the first book ended with “to be continued,” the second book does wrap up the story!  It comes out in spring of 2012. 

 “The Ice Owl” appears in the November/December 2011 issue.

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