TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery.
Marie: Thanks for having me! I have to say, I love the name.
TQ: Thank you!
TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Marie: Probably my academic background, which comes out a lot in my worldbuilding. I majored in archaeology and folklore as an undergrad, and completed most of a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology in folklore before leaving school to write full-time.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Marie: These days, somewhere in between. I used to be very much on the “pantser” side of things, pulling my plot out of my ear as I went; I would start with my characters having a problem, and walk through the question of how they would solve it one step at a time. With the Onyx Court books, though, I began to have more of a sense that I wanted certain events to happen later in the story, so now I tend to have something that might, if you tilted your head to the right angle and squinted, look like a distant cousin of an outline. I tend to think of those events as pegs that I hammer into the ground ahead of me, and then I wander around trying to find the best path to those fixed points. Compared to my plotter friends, though, I’m still pretty much just making it up as I go along.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Marie: Getting myself to believe I’ve laid the groundwork correctly. Writing historical fantasy was both good and bad for me, in that sense: it made me get a lot more rigorous about every aspect of my worldbuilding, but the downside is that now my subconscious believes that if there’s any hole in what I’ve made up, no matter how tiny, then everyone will notice and throw my book across the room. And I do mean “tiny;” with this new series, a part of me is petrified that the climate of the various places Isabella travels to doesn’t quite match the geography of those regions, and so I’m starting the rainy season too early or too late, or whatever. Never mind that for anybody to catch me on that, they would need to know the latitude and elevation of those regions, and also they would have to know the conversion from Isabella’s calendar to our own, plus they’d have to be pretty well-versed in climatology -- in other words, it isn’t likely. But I very easily fall into obsessive patterns on such things.
TQ: What inspired you to write A Natural History of Dragons and why Dragons??
Marie: Credit goes to Todd Lockwood -- yes, the same Todd Lockwood who did the beautiful cover art and interior sketches for the novel -- and the people behind the Dragonology calendars. (There are books, too, but I haven’t actually read them.) I had one of those calendars on my wall the same year I was playing in a Dungeons & Dragons game; I went leafing through the D&D supplement Draconomicon in search of something for my character, and became entranced by the skeletal drawings (which were Todd’s work), discussions of the draconic life cycle, etc. Then I thought, you could run a game where, a la the conceit of those calendars, you’re trying to study dragons instead of killing them and taking their stuff. I never ended up running the game, but I did write about a third of the novel on the spot. A few years later I picked that back up again, and here we are.
TQ: Tell us something about A Natural History of Dragons that is not in the book description.
Marie: The dragons of Vystrana have begun attacking local people, quite in contrast to their usual behavior. So the expedition Isabella joins, which was supposed to be a nice quiet affair studying biology and so on, has a rather pressing need to figure out why these attacks are happening, without getting themselves killed along the way.
TQ: In A Natural History of Dragons who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Marie: Isabella was by far the easiest; her voice and personality clicked the moment I sat down and began writing. The hardest was probably Thomas Wilker, one of the other men on the expedition. I like him quite a lot, but Isabella’s early interactions with him are very tense, largely because she doesn’t understand him at first, and he doesn’t understand her. It’s one of the places where the memoir approach created problems for me; I had to figure out how to balance their personality conflicts at the time of the story with Isabella’s feelings about him at the time of her writing.
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in A Natural History of Dragons?
Marie: The cavern scene -- that’s as detailed as I can get without giving spoilers. A close second, and much less spoilery, is the menagerie scene where Isabella meets Jacob for the first time. Like Athena from the head of Zeus, that scene sprang out of my imagination almost fully-formed when I began playing with the idea for this book; I made up several types of dragons and all kinds of random details of biology, and in some ways it really created the heart of the story, right there.
TQ: What's next?
Marie: I’m slated to write at least three books in this series, so next up is the sequel, which takes place in an equatorial setting modeled on West and Central Africa. I have a first draft of that right now, and will be revising it soon.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Marie: Thank you again for the interview! This was a lot of fun.
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
A Natural History of Dragons 1
Tor Books, February 5, 2013
Hardcover and eBook, 336 pages
Marie Brennan begins a thrilling new fantasy series in A Natural History of Dragons, combining adventure with the inquisitive spirit of the Victorian Age.
You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .
All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.
Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.
We filed through into a large room enclosed by a dome of glass panels that let in the afternoon sunlight. We stood on a walkway that circled the room’s perimeter and overlooked a deep, sand-floored pit divided by heavy grates into three large pie-slice enclosures.
Within those enclosures were three dragons.
Forgetting myself entirely, I rushed to the rail. In the pit below me, a creature with scales of a faded topaz gold turned its long snout upward to look back at me. From behind my left shoulder, I heard a muffled exclamation, and then someone having a fainting spell. Some of the more adventurous gentlemen came to the railing and murmured amongst themselves, but I had no eyes for them -- only for the dragon in the pit.
A heavy clanking sounded as it turned its head away from me, and I saw that a heavy collar bound its neck, connecting to a thick chain that ended at the wall. The gratings between the sections of the pit, I noticed, were doubled; in between each pair there was a gap, so the dragons could not snap at one another through the bars.
With slow, fascinated steps, I made my way around the room. The enclosure to the right held a muddy green lump, likewise chained, that did not look up as I passed. The third dragon was a spindly thing, white-scaled and pink-eyed: an albino.
Mr. Swargin waited at the rail by the entrance. Sparing him a glance, I saw that he watched everyone with careful eyes as they circulated about the room. He had warned us, at the outset of the tour, not to throw anything or make noises at the beasts; I suspected that was a particular concern here.
The golden dragon had retired to the farthest corner of its enclosure to gnaw on a large bone mostly stripped of meat. I studied it carefully, noting certain features of its anatomy, comparing its size against what appeared to be a cow femur. “Mr. Swargin,” I said, my eyes still on the dragon, “these aren’t juveniles, are they? They’re runts.”
“I beg your pardon?” the naturalist responded, turning to me.
“I might be wrong -- I’ve only Edgeworth to go by, really, and he’s sadly lacking in illustrations -- but my understanding was that species of true dragon do not develop the full ruff behind their heads until adulthood. I could not get a good view of the green one the next cage over -- is that a Moulish swamp-wyrm? -- but these cannot be full-grown adults, and considering the difficulties of keeping dragons in a menagerie, it seems to me that it might be simpler to collect runt specimens, rather than to deal with the eventual maturation of juveniles. Of course, maturation takes a long time, so one could --”
At that point, I realized what I was doing, and shut my mouth with a snap. Far too late, I fear; someone had already overheard.
One of the stunning interior illustrations by Todd Lockwood:
If you would like a bigger version of the gorgeous cover, please check out this post on tor.com which has download options for various sizes.
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