“Family Secrets, Migration and Diaspora… and Mismatched Couples”: An Interview with Aliette de Bodard

The Big Peat

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PL: I loved Fireheart Tiger and how many ideas it seems to hold. Can you tell me what was the original spark for the book?
ADB: The idea seed was this young woman who had survived a palace fire–I knew she was some kind of hostage and had almost burnt down with the palace because everyone had forgotten her. I then unspun this idea to understand where she was coming from–a country about to be colonised–, why the palace had burnt and what kind of scars that had left on her.

PL: After you’d unspun the idea and had your plot, were there any scenes you were really excited for when you got to write them?ADB: I’m excited for most scenes at the beginning, and then we get to the dread middles and everything starts to drag! I fortify myself with the knowledge there is no correlation between how I feel about a scene when writing it and how successful it actually is. A scene I was really happy to write was the chess game: it was a conversation between two characters that required me to have a point of focus, and I thought a (very unsubtle) game of pawns being moved would suit Thanh’s mother very well.

PL: The chess scene was one of my favourite parts of the book, not only for its drama, not just for the way it led me to believe it’d be a straight-forwards romance for Thanh for a moment (even I was unsure of Eldris) – leading to the greater impact of the twist – but because it seems to be the moment that Thanh’s mother comes closest to seeing her as more than just another soldier, as well as making her position most clear. Is there meant to be a juxtaposition there, or am I reading too much into it? Also, do you have any plans to maybe return to Thanh and her family relationships in the future?
ADB: I didn’t do that on purpose, I admit! I was trying to write a scene in which Thanh was facing her mother, and I got bored with meal scenes and court audiences, and looked for something else. I was thinking of Nirvana in Fire, and the chess scene just happened. I think your interpretation is correct though–and it is the reason Thanh’s mother starts seeming sympathetic towards Thanh, as a last ditch attempt to control Thanh through sympathy.

PL: I saw you mention in this interview – Our Friend is Here! Asian Heritage Month Edition – An Interview with Aliette de Bodard, Author of the Dominion of the Fallen Series; On Writing Her French & Vietnamese Identities and Lunar New Year – The Quiet Pond – that you found approaching Vietnamese culture in Dominions of the Fallen ‘bloody scary’. Was that still true when writing Fireheart Tiger?
ADB: I think it’s less scary, though to some extent I’ll always feel a little daunted by it: it’s a curse of being mixed race and diaspora, and doubting my own capacity to do it justice. It’s gotten easier because I’ve gotten more at peace, I’d say, with myself, and I don’t pretend that I’m speaking for anyone but myself when I’m writing Vietnamese culture: I obviously try to deal with my own biases to minimise harmful narratives, but in the end it remains something very personal–it’s my connection to what I was raised with and the meaningful things I derive from it, something I have full rights to.

PL: I’ve always really admired the way your titles are poetic and striking, while also tightly tied to the book’s themes. Is there any particular process you have for coming up with your titles?
ADB: I believe Fran Wilde actually came up with that title for me! My original idea for this one was “The Eternal Princess, in the Embrace of the Fire”, which everyone agreed was a really bad idea because it was such a mouthful (and also not quite getting across what I wanted in terms of the book’s themes). I tend to either find the title straightaway, or be struggling with it for a long time, and this book was in the latter category.

PL: Well, thanks to Fran Wilde then! Speaking of things that really link into the book, I love the cover. How much input did you have into it? And do you have any favourite covers from your other books?
ADB: I don’t have a whole lot of input into cover, and most of my remarks on this one were “oooh how pretty!”. I love the way that Alyssa Winans got across so many of the small details of the book, from the dragons carved on the pillar to the cup of tea catching fire (if you pay attention, you can see that the character on the cover is actually holding a tea cup), to the evocation of tigers’ stripes on the main character’s clothes and skin. I have been blessed with a lot of really pretty covers–one of those I really enjoyed lately is Maurizio Manzieri’s cover for Seven of Infinities, which just says “badass lady in space” in such an evocative way.

PL: Something I’ve really loved about reading your books so far is how tonally different they can feel – Dominions of the Fallen or Fireheart Tiger doesn’t feel like Master of the Underworld, which doesn’t feel like Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, which doesn’t feel like The Tea Master and the Detective – yet they all feel like your books. Does your writing approach differ across projects? Do you find yourself drawing on different influences for different projects?
ADB: I don’t consciously set out to write different books, but I do like to draw on different vibes: Tea Master is my Sherlock Holmes in space book, Fireheart Tiger is a romantic fantasy inspired by precolonial Vietnam, Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders is a Vietnamese court drama. So to some extent I think that’s reflected in the mood of the book? Otherwise the approach feels much the same for all my projects, or at any rate there’s nothing that I do consciously differently (obviously my writing process changes and evolves across books, but that’s not really conscious!)

PL: Returning to twists – this definitely seems to be becoming something that readers associate with you; almost like a signature. Are there any other things you’d say seem to be consistent throughout your works – an author brand if you will?
ADB: I think generally speaking a lot of my work is influenced by the 19th Century classics I read in class and outside of it (Victor Hugo, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Edmond Rostand as well as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and a bunch of novels from other countries), so you’ll find a fascination with Gothic novels, whether it’s the crumbling decaying environment or the height of feelings and drama which mirror it. And a fascination with family, family secrets, migration and diaspora, and wars and its effect on civilians. Also, apparently, mismatched couples who end up respecting each other without asking the other to give up the core of who they are.

PL: Finally, what’s your favourite character relationship you’ve written about – and your favourite that you’ve read about?
ABD: My favourite character relationship remains Thuan/Asmodeus: I guess to me there’s something very soothing and very hilarious about putting together a soft-spoken diplomat who wants to do the right thing, and pairing him with a murder person who has his own very strict code of morality but absolutely no scruples when it comes to enforcing it. In relationships I’ve read about, the one I’m most fascinated by is Vimes and Lady Sybil from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld: they both bring different strengths and expectations to the marriage, and they work very hard to align with each other.

Thank you again to Aliette for her time. Fireheart Tiger (and a lot of other very good books) are out now and to find out more about them, visit her site here

(Originally posted at “Family Secrets, Migration and Diaspora… and Mismatched Couples”: An Interview with Aliette de Bodard – Peat Long's Blog (wordpress.com) )
 

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