Thursday, September 17, 2015

Interview with Seth Dickinson, author of The Traitor Baru Cormorant

Please welcome Seth Dickinson to The Qwillery as part of his international Blog Tour and the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Traitor Baru Cormorant was published on September 15th by Tor Books.

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?

Seth:  Thank you! It's awesome to be here. I started writing before I could actually, ah, write words — I made up stories with my brother, and when our parents brought home huge scrolls of paper from a nearby factory, we'd draw our stories on them in crayon. Then we graduated to Legos, and finally I learned to write.

My smash debut was the Ripton Elementary School publishing night, in first or second grade. I read a story about a shapeshifting alien named Glorb who was stranded on Earth and who took the place of a Dickinson child named Seth, a boy so vile he wouldn't be missed. Then I tried to sell copies to the audience.

I think I started writing for the same reason many of us do — I had an imagination, I wanted to get it out and share it. In particular I think I have to blame Calvin & Hobbes.

TQAre you a plotter or a pantser?

Seth:  I'm some kind of hybrid. A planser? A panzer? I don't need an outline, but I do need an objective to drive towards and a set of loose operating principles. Something like 'this is a story about making impossible choices, the prose will be sharp and cold, it will end with a sacrifice.' Or 'this is a story about the need for compassion, each character will have a distinct prose style, it will end with the triumph of love.'

I need direction, because it lets me align each tiny piece of the story to fit the overall purpose. But I love the spontaneity and discovery of pantsing, and I always find something in the prose-level writing, a character's gesture or motion, that I know I couldn't have outlined. And that becomes important to the overall shape of the story. The small should be in the large and the large in the small.

I need to know where I'm going, but not how to get there.

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Seth:  It's the mind game. I feel so good after a good day, and so, so crushingly bad after a bad day. It's the easiest job in the world, right? You sit at a computer and type anything you want. But when you fail there's no one to blame but yourself.

A lot of writers struggle with depression and anxiety — it's a preposterous fraction, more than half, maybe? And I get that. Writing is an interior struggle. There are no benchmarks, you'll find no validation in reviews or praise, you'll never break your best time or make everyone happy. All you can do is write a piece you're mostly satisfied with. It's you against yourself. You have to learn some way to write without preying on your own soul.

TQWho are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?

Seth:  In no particular order — Hilary Mantel, Zen Cho, Kai Ashante Wilson, Elizabeth Wein, Iain Banks, Yoon Ha Lee, CJ Cherryh, Peter Watts, Megan Whalen Turner, Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, Cat Valente, Kij Johnson, Ellen Kushner, Cormac McCarthy, Alastair Reynolds, Elizabeth Wein, Bernard Cornwell, Matthew Stover, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jeremy Scahill. I know the moment I stop writing I'll remember a bunch more!

TQDescribe The Traitor Baru Cormorant in 140 characters or less.

Seth:  I serve you so that I can butcher you. Conquer me, and be conquered; make use of me, and by my will be used. I am your prize and your ruin.

TQTell us something about The Traitor Baru Cormorant that is not found in the book description.

Seth:  I really love the map! Most fantasy books, you get a map with some names but you don't know why you should care, because you haven't read the book yet.

But in this book, we have a nice clean map of Aurdwynn and its duchies, and then it's covered in Baru's notes! She marked up the map with points of crisis, people she doesn't like, comments on things she doesn't understand, and jabs at everything she wants to make fun of.

It has a lot of personality. I love it.

TQWhat inspired you to write The Traitor Baru Cormorant? What appeals to you about writing fantasy?

Seth:  A ha! I have a specific list of inspirations for just this purpose.

Cognitive psychology. Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars. Fantasy's neglect of the Islamic Golden Age, the Indian Ocean trade system, and other dynamic, vital sections of history. Code Name Verity, indirectly — I hadn't read it yet but people kept talking to me about it. Partible paternity in Amazon Basin societies. Naval warfare between Japan and Korea. The ugly history of eugenic ideology. Admiral Keumalahayati. 1984. Online discussion about who was and wasn't allowed to be the protagonist of an epic fantasy novel, because some people would, it was said, be 'too oppressed to do anything.' Megan Whalen Turner's Queen of Attolia. C. J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station. Civilization IV, but not V. Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. Everyone at the Alpha workshop who talked about making things hurt more. Yoon Ha Lee. Sundiata Keita. We Have Always Fought, by Kameron Hurley.

I like writing fantasy for a ton of reasons. I love fantasy, I love the sweep and transport of it, I think it has vast untapped potential. Fantasy lets us examine the human condition in contrafactual ways.

And that's specifically what inspired me about this fantasy: the chance to look at the system of the world from an angle. We treat history as inevitable, right? We treat the problems we have as a big, huge, inexorable fait accompli. But it could've all gone another way! Climate matters, geography matters, policy and language matter, individual choices matter, all these systems converge to manufacture the final shape of history. Fantasy lets us tweak some of these dials and see what else might have happened.

I wanted to write a book about a hard world turning out better. Map the way from dystopia towards utopia, if that course is possible.

TQWhat sort of research did you do for The Traitor Baru Cormorant?

Seth:  I had a few years of undergraduate and graduate research studying stereotyping, prejudice, and power behind me, all of which was invaluable. Beyond that, I read a lot of history, a few primary sources, and a lot of critical discussion on the Internet.

A lot of the narrative design of this book is drawn from my work on games. The cycle of tension between paragraphs and chapters pulls on some of the psychology of game design — I hope that makes it a compelling, clean read.

The most important part of research was beta readers! I had a small army of wonderful, diverse readers to check my blind spots and make suggestions.

TQHow did you create the character and place names in The Traitor Baru Cormorant?

Seth:  I'm not a linguist, so please forgive any malapropisms. For each of the main languages at work in the story — Aphalone, Maia Urun and its descendant Urunoki, Stakhieczi, the Iolynic creole, and the Oriati tongues Uburu and Seti-Caho — I built a pool of roots! These were simple things the language cared about, like words for 'hill', 'wolf', 'trade', 'salt', and so on.

Then I combined those roots to build names and words in a way that made sense. You can see this pattern a lot in history, in, say, Copenhagen (merchant harbor) or Croyden (crocus valley). I don't need the reader to understand the etymology of every word, but I hope they develop a sense for the languages — 'okay, that name Ulyu looks Maia, that word Pinjagata looks Stakhieczi...'

Then, to complicate things, I mixed up the languages to show the effect of centuries of warfare, migration, and drift. So you'll find a mostly Maia-blooded woman, with a Maia personal name like Tain Hu (meaning either 'great foreigner' or 'foreign bane', depending on how you read it), but she's Duchess of Vultjag, a Stakhieczi name for a fairly Stakhieczi land — because at some point in the past her ancestors conquered this Duchy, or married into the Vultjag line, or borrowed the name to legitimize themselves.

(If you look at the names of the duchies on the map of Aurdwynn, you can infer a lot about wars past.)

I tried to give each name a fairly distinct feel and shape, to help readers tell them apart. And I tried to write a few clues into the names: the dukes Nayauru, Autr and Sahaule are closely allied, and they share the 'au' in their names to signal this.

TQWho was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Seth:  Tain Hu was the easiest by far. She's an honest, passionate, principled person with an enormous amount of dynamism — wherever she goes she draws events along with her. When she was angry, I was angry, and when she was strong I felt inspired to write to her strength. She steps back when she feels she's in the way and steps up when she thinks her people need her, no matter how tough the fight. In a lot of ways she led me through the story.

The hardest character to write? I could say Durance, and you'd say 'wait, who's Durance,' so that's cheating (although that's also why it's hard!) I think I'll point to the Dukes, as a collective whole — there's not much space to introduce Vultjag, Lyxaxu, Oathsfire, Erebog, Pinjagata, Ihuake, Nayauru, Autr, Sahaule, Radaszic, Heingyl, Unuxekome, and Lachta, then make you care a bit about them! The solution was to give each Duke a clear desire, so that you could see the story from their perspective.

TQWhich question about The Traitor Baru Cormorant do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

Seth:  To pick one of many, many —

How idealized is Baru's memory of Taranoke, really? How can she claim to fight for the liberation of a culture she barely knew? Didn't a lot of complicated things happen during her many years in school, during those first two chapters that pass so quickly?

And I would say, yes, this is at the heart of Baru's conflict, because she has an immensely powerful moral compass, and that compass points towards personal autonomy and freedom, which she learned from her parents. But her compass is also a dynamo, of sorts, in that it creates its own morality: she loves power, she loves to know and control things, and armed with the belief that she's fighting to liberate a pre-lapsarian paradise, she can justify all kinds of ruthless utilitarianism.

Taranoke was never that paradise. Although it's far and away a kinder place to live than Falcrest, Taranoke is still an active player in the local community, with its own problems and divisions. But Baru holds on to the useful idea of her home and parents, so that she can carry out her mission.

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from The Traitor Baru Cormorant.

Seth:  “Money is only one kind of power. Faith is power too. Love is power. Slaughter and madness are both roads to power. Certainly, symbols are power — you wear one wherever you go, that purse you carry. And you wear others when you decide how to dress yourself, how to look at men and women, how to carry your body and direct your gaze. And all these symbols can raise people to labor or war.” Tain Hu looked down at her with regal distance, with no anger at all. “And you are a symbol. Look at yourself. Taken from one conquered land because you were young and bright, and set to rule another. How can you be anything but a challenge? A commonborn girl, given authority over a land of old noble men? You are a word, Baru Cormorant, a mark, and the mark says: you, Aurdwynn, you are ours.”

TQWhat's next?

Seth:  I'm working on another book, which will be a counterargument and sequel to this one! I also have a lot of fiction coming out in the new release of Destiny, The Taken King.

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Seth:  Thank you! You write great questions. It was an honor to be here.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant
Tor Books, September 15, 2015
Hardcover and eBook, 400 pages

In Seth Dickinson's highly-anticipated debut The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a young woman from a conquered people tries to transform an empire in this richly imagined geopolitical fantasy.

Baru Cormorant believes any price is worth paying to liberate her people-even her soul.

When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalizes her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire's civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free.

Sent as an Imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn, another conquered country, Baru discovers it's on the brink of rebellion. Drawn by the intriguing duchess Tain Hu into a circle of seditious dukes, Baru may be able to use her position to help. As she pursues a precarious balance between the rebels and a shadowy cabal within the Empire, she orchestrates a do-or-die gambit with freedom as the prize.

But the cost of winning the long game of saving her people may be far greater than Baru imagines.

About Seth

SETH DICKINSON’s short fiction has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others. He is an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, winner of the 2011 Dell Magazines Award, and a lapsed student of social neuroscience. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is his first novel.

Website  ~  Twitter @sethjdickinson


The Giveaway

What:  One entrant will win a hardcover copy of The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson from the Tor Books. US / CANADA ONLY

How:  Log into and follow the directions in the Rafflecopter below. Note that comments are moderated.

Who and When:  The contest is open to all humans on the planet earth with a US or Canadian mailing address. Contest ends at 11:59 PM US Eastern Time on September 26, 2015. Void where prohibited by law. No purchase necessary. You must be 18 years old or older to enter.

*Giveaway rules and duration of giveaway are subject to change.*

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  1. Cognitive Psychology? Yeah...I can see that.

  2. I am so excited to read this book! It is a little nerdy, but as an accountant, this book will hold a special kind of fun for me.

  3. I really like the premise not so much the trojan horse but I who am in plain view will make you bow just before I take you head. Looking forward to reading it.

  4. I have been hearing about this book everywhere and can't wait to read it.

  5. What a fascinating novel which I would enjoy. Thanks for this great feature and giveaway. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

  6. I love the idea of someone trying to disband the system from the inside out. Especially one who has lost so much.