Aliette de Bodard – Codex Blog Tour

Hi, everybody! This is Aliette de Bodard!

Aliette de Bodard is a half-French, half-Vietnamese Computer Engineer who moonlights as a speculative fiction writer. She has a particular interest in non-Western cultures, particularly Ancient China and Mesoamerica. Her short stories have appeared in markets such as Interzone, Asimov’s and Realms of Fantasy, and her series Obsidian and Blood, Aztec fantasy mysteries, is published by Angry Robot. She has been a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and for the British Science Fiction Association Awards.

And now, the interview!

-Tell us something about you that would surprise us

I’m a computer geek first and foremost, but you’d never guess that by reading my stories (which tend to be pre-Industrial fantasy or low-science SF).

-I’d love to hear whether you advocate wholesale slaughter in your novels or see it as a sign of weakness? “How To Kill Your Imaginary Friends” is helpful with keeping injuries, death and dismemberment plausible, but sometimes I think they’re unnecessary. What do you see as the difference between necessary injury/illness/death and a weak attempt to kick start a poorly-thought-out plot?

I think that, like any tool, wholesale slaughter can be effective. The trouble is that it can be very effective, which means that you have to be careful to use it sparingly.

Death and injuries (especially in my novels, which are set in pre-Industrial societies) are serious matters, and if you have a character being injured every two pages, of course the reader is going to be bored soon, and counting body parts… (it’s slightly different if you posit a society where violence is all but the norm, such as Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy–but then you have to go over the top if you want the violence to have a genuine emotional effect).

-What’s the best writing advice anyone has ever given you? What’s the worst?

The best writing advice I got was from Orson Scott Card, about writing rules: he said that the rules were there for a reason, and that you had to understand what those reasons were. Once you’d done that, you could then start breaking the rules–as long as you were aware there was always a price if you did choose to break them.

The worst writing advice was several people telling me to check Strunk and White’s Elements of Style–as no self-respecting writer would ever want to be without the book. I dutifully checked the book out from the library, read it from cover to cover. And all of that advice looked awesome–except none of it seemed to apply to my writing. It wasn’t until much later that I worked out that The Elements of Style was actually written as a guide for writing academic texts, and that I shouldn’t ever have thought of applying it to fiction.

-In regards to backstory – how much is too much? I have read about some agents and editors who wish to be plunged into a narrative with no setup, while others seem to think that a world building introduction is key.

I wish there was a hard and fast rule, but I think it’s more a question of instincts, and of knowing how much the story can bear. Without any backstory, the world is going to feel flat, as if it didn’t exist outside the confines of the story. On the other hand, a story that has more backstory/worldbuilding than forward story generally gets bogged down in flashbacks (there are ways to make this work, but they require a different structure than a simple chronological narration of incidents).

Basically, what you need is to keep up enough interest in the current narration, one way or another (it can be interesting characters, it can be cool plot twists, it can be neat details of world building). While the reader’s interest is engaged, you can pretty much slip in all the not-so-interesting bit under the mantle.

There is also another way to handle this, which is to make the backstory interesting in and of itself: for instance, if you set up a character’s past activities as some kind of mystery throughout the beginning of the book, when you finally get around to explaining that, chances are the reader will be so impatient that they’ll swallow without flinching a big block of what would otherwise be infodump.

-How do you keep the pace and interest going when you also need to showcase your world?

Pretty much as above: the key is to grab the interest, but a story doesn’t need to be full of twists and/or fast-paced to be interesting. Anything that’s out of the ordinary will grab the reader’s interest: it can be cool worldbuilding, it can be awesome characters (and again, awesome doesn’t necessarily mean sympathetic. For instance, Darth Vader is easily the coolest character in Star Wars, despite being bad to the bone), it can even be a great narrative voice. All of those create and sustain interest.

The other thing to consider is that the world can be showcased in very small and subtle ways that reveal its underlying cultures: for instance, if you consider my books, I have a character who is sick and in the throes of delirium, and who says he is feeling as if “someone were scraping the maize from my stomach with a knife”. I could have merely said that he was in pain, but using that particular reference tells you something about the culture, about what it considers painful (taking food from within someone’s belly), and by way of it, what it considers essential. Small details like those don’t cost much, generally don’t interrupt the flow of the story, but easily bring tons of atmosphere to a story.

-How much research do you do on a subject you are sketchy on? (For instance, medical stuff. I’m an electrician, not a doctor, so the extent of my knowledge is my CPR and AED certification.)

If I’m sketchy on a subject, I’ll work out how much I need to know.

Sometimes, it’s just for a scene: one of my novels had an autopsy, where I needed medical knowledge, but of a very limited kind. I read a couple websites and articles, and had the scene checked by a doctor friend of mine.

On the contrary, there are times when I need to know a lot–my novels are set in an Aztec city in 1480, and I obviously need to know a lot more about daily life, economics, politics and religion than I needed to know about medicine in my previous example. And I do have a sizable stack of books that deal with life under the Aztec Empire (as I type this, the stack composes most of the underside of my desk).

So I guess the answer is that it all depends on the story and on what it needs.

-How far/tightly are your stories planned? Do characters ever show up midplot and steal the scene? Do plot developments ever get forgotten–or
become much more important than anticipated?

My stories tend to be fairly tightly plotted: I write historical mysteries with magic, and it’s easier to deal with those if you already have a good idea at the outset of who committed the crime and why (I tried improvising once. Suffice to say it didn’t work). My plotting has become looser with time: with every novel I write, I get less obssessive about detailed outlining, but I still need a good skeleton before I can start writing the story.

That said, there is always room for surprises. In my original outline for Servant of the Underworld, the main character’s sister, Mihmatini, had no more than a bit role–but when she showed up in the story, she had this great, no-nonsense voice as well as this great talent for magic–and I just took that and ran away with it, to the point of giving her an increasingly important role in the following books.

Similarly, I hadn’t anticipated that a minor antagonist in Servant of the Underworld would turn out to be so much fun to have around that he’d come back in the subsequent novels (though I did learn one very important lesson with that guy: namely, do not give minor characters tongue-twisting names because you think they’ll never come back. Chances are, the character with the longest and most hideous name is just going to be the guy that sticks around forever and ever).

Thanks, Aliette!

By the way . . . I’ve asked Aliette to lurk around for a bit and participate in any conversation that might pop up. And she’s going to! Isn’t that awesome?

Questions? Comments? To the discussion thread!

And visit the official Codex Blog Tour page for more interviewey goodness!

Published in: on February 1, 2011 at 5:48 am  Comments (9)  

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for having Aliette de Bodard as a guest, and thanks for appearing here, M. de Bodard! I’m very happy to be introduced to you and your work. Your books look and sound AWESOME!

    I used my mystic powers of interwebbery to find your website, and hereby present it to others who might want to go there: Aliette de Bodard

    What is it that attracts you to stories set in pre-industrial cultures? I have a good writer friend, T. Lee Harris, who is also a computer geek and who also likes to write stories set in pre-industrial MesoAmerica or ancient Egypt.

  2. Hi Marian,

    He, thanks for the link! For me (I can’t speak for your friend), but it’s classical displacement: I spend my whole day doing geeky things with computers, and when it comes time to write, I want it to be about something different. Computers just equal work for me, even if they’re dumped into an SF story with spaceships 🙂 So I tend to turn back to pre-industrial societies, which will not ever have geeks (though it has its own set of weird things).


  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Aliette de Bodard, Marian Allen. Marian Allen said: Awsomesauce interview with @aliettedb on her f/sf novels #fantasy #sciencefiction #sf #novels #fiction […]

  4. Great interview! I’m a big fan of Ms. (Mme.?) de Bodard’s work so I’ve been following this blog tour, and I have to say this was my favorite interview so far. (Some of the others seemed to get kind of repetitive.) And Ms. de Bodard, great answers! I really liked what you had to say about worldbuilding and plotting. I’m going to be writing down some of that advice in my notebook.

    • Thanks, clare! I’m glad some of the worldbuilding stuff sounds useful–it’s stuff I certainly wished I’d had earlier (I very much tend to be a “world first, characters second” kind of person, and most of my formative years were spent learning how to handle exposition gracefully).

  5. Watch out for long, tongue-twisting names… boy howdy do I hear that!! The meaning of names is huge to me, for some reason, and I have a regrettable tendency to burden my poor creations with more middle names than my Catholic-raised husband! And of course, then I have to find reasons to USE those names. Heh… I confess to changing names entirely just to get rid of Shouting Momma-worthy monikers that had proven cumbersome.

    (OH, and Doc? I added a new question to the Announcement! posting… hope it’s not too late for you to use it somewhere?)

  6. Laura: Ouch, I sympathise. I fortunately was able to skip the extra names for the Aztecs and simplify as much as I could, but when you’re dealing with a culture where diminutives are insults (as in, you couldn’t even take the time to pronounce the name properly), and most cute names are 5+ syllables, it’s a bit of a drag…

  7. […] Aliette de Bodard talks about her Obsidian and Blood […]

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