Please welcome Donna Glee Williams to The Qwillery. The Braided Path was published on March 15th by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Donna Glee: Thanks, Sally. It’s great to be Qwilled.
Even though I produced my first poem in second grade, I'd have to say that my first real momentum in writing happened in junior high school. There was a group of us misfit-types that were so crazy bored with school that we used our time in class to write elaborate “notes” to each other, assuming alternate, fantasy personalities, heavily flavored heavily by the books we were discovering: Tolkien, Poe, Bradbury—those guys. We got in trouble regularly for not paying attention in class, but nothing stopped us. Plots developed in the “notes,” adventures, even fantasy landscapes that we'd draw out in elaborate maps. (Think Tolkien's geography of Middle Earth.) Fantasy caught fire for me then. Later, after years of being “grown-up” (always a bad idea, btw) and learning my craft doing introspective contemporary realism, I got bored with writing--bored with myself, I guess--went back to the wellspring, and took up fantasy writing again.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Donna Glee: Pantser all the way. I can’t imagine writing a story that you already know. It would bore me silly. Too much like work. What would be the point? And the most interesting discipline of writing for me is trusting the story-source that’s smarter than my conscious intellect. (The intellect always thinks it knows better. Don’t believe it, at least not about creative issues.)
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing? Where do you write?
Donna Glee: What a great question. I guess the biggest challenge for me right now is the whole paycheck thing. How do you build a life where you’ve protected enough idle, dreamy time to really sink into an alternate reality and explore it while simultaneously bringing home the bacon, showing up to work on time in the morning and sharing your brain-space between your day-job and your writing.
And as to where I write, that’s been a bit of a journey. I used to only be able to write when I was away from home—at writers’ retreats, in hotels, on ferries, that kind of place that shelters you from all the routines and demands of your ordinary life. But just in the last year or two I’ve had some progress about that. I find that I’m able now to ignore the dishes and the laundry and the messages on my phone and write, in my own little cabin in the woods. I do all most all of my work where I’m writing this right now: in an ancient armchair, with my feet up and my computer settled on a pillow on my lap.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Donna Glee: Very early, it was Bradbury. I think The Martian Chronicles was the first book that ever gave me a taste of poetry in prose. I didn’t know you could do that, put lush language at the service of Story. Knocked me sockless. Then there was Poe, mostly the poetry, for teaching me about rhythm and atmosphere. Tolkien, of course, not just for language but for Story—maybe my first glimpse into the power of myth. His life overlapped with Jung’s pretty closely in time—Jung lived from 1875 to 1961, Tolkien from 1892 to 1973—and I think they were working with a lot of the same verities, each in his own way. Terry Pratchett, just for fun—except for Small Gods, which rises well beyond just-for-fun status, I think. Neil Gaiman. And the other one, Neal Stephenson, when I want to feel smart. Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake. Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. Josh Whedon brings me to my knees. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was probably the biggest esthetic experience in my life. Anything Whedon does, says, or thinks is of interest to me. But my dearest influence has to be LeGuin. Ursula K. LeGuin is who I want to be when I grow up, and I want the whole package: the wisdom, the language, and the imagination.
TQ: Describe The Braided Path in 140 characters or less.
Donna Glee: Whoa—tough one. Try this:
The world’s a wall & there’s just one path.
Two directions, though, one for each of them:
Cam’s called upward. Fox goes low.
Will the path they walk bring them home again?
TQ: Tell us something about The Braided Path that is not in the book description.
Donna Glee: I’ll give you two for the price of one.
First, the book positively oozes with pre-industrial technology. Living in the Appalachians and traveling to places where life is pretty simple, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot of traditional technology: making cord from fibers, spinning on drop spindles, making fire from a fire-bow, and so forth, and I used the details of that experience to help build the world of The Braided Path and make it feel solid and real. (Even though it’s not in the book, I’ll take this moment to brag that I’m one of the few people you’ll ever meet who has actually brain-tanned a deerskin.)
And here’s another piece of randomness: There’s no evil in the book. Not even any human brokenness to speak of. The conflict, danger, and struggle in the book come from other sources. I noticed this while I was writing it and tried to slip in some badness a couple of times, but the story just didn’t want it there. I mean, it’s not like I can’t write evil—wait until you meet the Chief Interpreter in my next book, Dreamers—it’s just that this story wanted to be an exploration of a society that might actually work without deforming its people. Sort of anti-dystopian. Not just “utopian,” meaning “nowhere,” but “eutopian”—“a good-where.” I wonder what people will think of this with grimdark being so fashionable?
TQ: What inspired you to write The Braided Path?
Donna Glee: Remember I said that I used to do most of my writing when I was away from home? Well, about seven years ago, I was at this fabulous creative retreat called The Hambidge Center, in the hills of north Georgia. (Writers, check it out!) At Hambidge, each writer, artist, or musician has their own “studio”—a little cabin off in the woods where you live in total solitude except for coming down to the main lodge for stellar vegetarian dinners in the evenings. (And, lemme tell you, people start to look really good to you after the isolation of the long work days. Everybody’s beautiful. Witty. Charming. Seriously.) I was on the long, uphill slog back to my cabin when a “what-if” started nibbling at my brain: What if this slope went on forever?
I’d recently been through a Wilderness First Responder Course, so I knew some of the answers to that question. Temperature would change, for one thing, by about 4 degrees per thousand feet. Atmospheric pressure would change. Humidity would change. And because these basic things would change, the plants and animals would be different at different levels along the path. And because the plants and animals would be different, the human society basing itself on these resources would be different, too, depending how high or low you were. Hmmm… This began to interest me. What would it be like to live where you could easily walk right out of your own ecological community?
So, when I got back to the cabin, I started to write and out of that one “what-if” came my short story “Limits.” (You can read it for free on Strange Horizons or catch the audio version on PodCastle.) Jed Hartman, then at Strange Horizons, helped me put a nice polish on that tale of Cam, a young man who longed to climb high, toward the top of the world, and Fox, a young woman who longed to climb low, down toward the mythical sea at the bottom of all things. “Limits” got some positive attention, showing up on several “Best of the Year” lists and getting an honorable mention in Gardner Dozois’s anthology that year. But best of all, the story kept going, as young Cam and Fox followed where their hearts led them. And led me on the merry hunt for the story. I finished it—for the first time—on a Fulbright Fellowship in Hyderabad, India. You may see a little of India in the book when Cam gets to Big River Town.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Braided Path?
Donna Glee: Most of the research was just my life—being a nurse and Wilderness First Responder, studying with traditional crafters, spending a lot of time on the trail in the mountains. But there was one thing that I’d really never done that became crucial in the book and that was making a cane boat. One of the main character’s deepest heart’s calling is to make boats—even though she is born in a place where that vocation has no possibility because there is no surface water there at all and boats haven’t even been imagined. I thought about trying to go to one of those places that teaches traditional boat building, but really didn’t want to wait to finish the book. So—thank you, YouTube—I was able to find some video of people making things from cane. That was really the only conscious “research” I did.
TQ: Why did you choose to write a Fantasy novel? Do you want to write in any other genres or sub-genres?
Donna Glee: I suppose that one answer is that I didn’t really “choose.” I don’t think writers have much conscious choice about what they write. You tell the stories you’re given and are grateful for the gift, in whatever form it comes. But if I did have a choice, I would stick with SF because of the issue of novelty. Our brains are wired to sit up and take notice of the strange and to relax and lie back in the presence of the familiar. It is literally true that you can go to sleep more easily in a familiar environment. Well, as a writer, I don’t want to go to sleep and I don’t want my readers to go to sleep either. Using the magic SF wand, I can make things new and strange, inviting the neurochemistry of alertness and curiosity. That’s where I want to live.
Also, I’m a Jung Junkie. (A Jungkie?) I believe in and respect the power of myth to shape human experience. Speculative fiction gives writers a great big canvas for working with myth without being jostled around by this thing we laughingly refer to as “reality.”
Some of my short stories are science fiction. (You can catch my flash, “Dancing,” on Pseudopod if you’d like to read about an arthropod ballerina having a midlife crisis. Or maybe “Dancing” is horror. I don’t know. I’m a little wobbly on the barriers between one kind of writing and another.)
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Donna Glee: Len was easiest. She was my way into the book, I think because she is closest to being my conscious self, an adult woman who thinks she knows pretty much what her life is about. Fox was hardest. I didn’t really get Fox until quite late in writing the book, after several drafts. I owe Fox to some conversations I had with an extraordinarily intuitive friend of mine, the composer and vocalist Lynn Rosser. I already knew about Fox that she’d been stymied by being born into a world where her vocation, boatbuilding, didn’t even exist. But what I didn’t understand, until I talked with Lynn, was how a lot of the load Fox carried came from becoming a mother too early, being left with a child so that she couldn’t follow her heart where it led her.
TQ: Give us one of your favorite lines from The Braided Path.
Donna Glee: I guess one of my favorite lines is the four-word line at the end of this passage. It’s near the end of the book, the journeys-end-in-lovers-meeting part:
Standing there by Nish, Len watches Cam’s head sink into
the night as he climbs down after Fox. For her, it’s so simple:
He’s home. Her son is home.
But it’s not simple for Cam and Fox. Len can see that now.
She reaches for Nish’s hand. His fingers settle into the
grooves between hers. The evening breeze flaps their robes.
She brings their clasped hands up where she can see them in
the firelight, see his darker skin interweaving with her lighter
tan. She squeezes his hand. The four slim blue fish tattooed
between his second and third knuckles all swim towards her.
This is what she wants for Cam, for Fox. This. Exactly this.
She can’t give it to them, though. They have to make it
Jade doesn’t wake up when Nish slips her into the lavender
cradle of her hammock. Her grandparents put away the clothing
they don’t need and bathe each other in the big stone basin
under the drape of vine that perfumes the night air with its
yellow blossoms. The water carries away the sand of the
day so that when they come together, skin-to-skin in the big
hammock, there is no grit to chafe them.
This, Len whispers. This.
TQ: What's next?
Donna Glee: Well, my second novel is in the hands of the wonderful literary agent Richard Curtis. It’s called Dreamers and happens in a much different landscape than The Braided Path, a desert land where everything revolves around rituals for bringing water up from the deep, both literal water to drink and the metaphorical waters of the unconscious. Unlike The Braided Path, Dreamers has a pretty serious bad guy in it and a dash of daring-do. I’m also working on the discovery draft of my third novel and trying to find a publisher for a little allegorical novella (think Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Little Prince, or “Leaf by Niggle”) about the adventure of going into solitude. I’ll be spending some time as a writer in residence in Norway this summer and scouting the West Highland Way in Scotland for a trail-based fantasy writing workshop I’m cooking up with Sarah McGuire, author of the forthcoming Valiant. If any of your readers would be interested in working on their writing in the literal Celtic landscape, they should contact me through my website (www.DonnaGleeWilliams.com) and I’ll put them on the list to hear about the details when we pull it together.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Donna Glee: Thank you, Sally. You’ve made this fun with some interesting questions. Let me wish the best to all my fellow writers out there in the salt-mines of The Word and send out my thanks to all my fellow readers who are making the world safe for the weird, interesting, non-cookie-cutter writing by buying it. I’d love to hear your responses on Goodreads or Amazon and I’ll be happy to connect with any book groups or classes reading the book by Skype, face, or text. Read on!
The Braided Path
EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, March 15, 2014
Trade Paperback, 224 pages
On the slopes of a vertical land where people’s lives are bounded by how high and low they are able walk on the single path that connects their world, the young widow Len Rope-Maker watches as years go by and her son Cam never finds his limits. Long past the time when other youths in Home Village have found their boundaries, Cam keeps climbing higher and lower, pushing on with his sweetheart Fox who also shows signs of being a Far-Walker. But Cam’s drive to venture far nudges him towards the top of the world, while Fox’s sends her downward, toward the mythical sea at the bottom of all things. Both are true to their own heart’s calling.
Read "Limits" at Strange Horizons here or listen at Podcastle here.
About Donna Glee
Like Cam and Fox in my book, I was born with the Far-Walker’s impulse. I want to see what’s on the other side of things, what’s around the next bend. I want to be there for the next adventure. I don’t want to miss anything on this planet and, if there’s anything to explore out in the land of Phantasie, I don’t want to miss that, either.
I come by the wanderlust honestly. My parents grew up well-rooted but, when hoof-and-mouth disease threatened the continent, they headed for the wilds of post-revolutionary Mexico with about 20,000 other cowboys, veterinarians, secretaries, and livestock appraisers to fight back the danger to North America’s food supply. I was the daughter of people who never saved money; they counted their wealth in stories. Adventure was the order of the day; my family prized the weird in everything from food to language. (Even deep into old age, my father would save up stories and colorful sayings to delight me.)
And I love to take people to new places, too. Physical places, sometimes, like when I invited a few friends to come get lost with me in the bayous north of Lake Ponchartrain. (They were a little put out when we actually did get lost. I guess they just weren’t they listening.) But for the last 19 years or so, it’s often been a new place of ideas or spirit—I’ve made my living as a seminar-leader, planning and leading learning adventures about all kinds of things and ideas that leave people with new horizons in front of them. Places to explore.
Books are places to explore, too—the cheapest form of travel. You can visit lands that never existed: Middle Earth, Earthsea, and The Braided Path’s strange vertical world where a person can walk out of one biome and into another in one day’s travel. You can try on an idea like a pair of pants, to see if you want to buy it. You can snoop without embarrassment into the lives of people you would never want to have dinner with. You can swash that buckle (or buckle that swash?) without risk to life and limb. You can see things in the shimmer of possibility instead of the dust of the real. You can have adventures of the heart and body. Adventures of the mind and spirit.