Cath: While this interview is predominantly about your new book, Turning Darkness into Light, readers might appreciate a little grounding in the setting and world of this book. To that end, would you talk about The Memoirs of Lady Trent? The history of the world borrows from our own nineteenth century, but clearly the world of Lady Trent is not our world. How would you summarize the series to people yet to have the pleasure of your work?
Marie: The Memoirs are the life story of a lady adventurer and dragon naturalist in, as you say, a quasi-Victorian world. In this setting, dragons are natural animals — not magical creatures like Smaug — and each novel of that series showed Lady Trent on a different expedition in various lands to study them, and invariably getting into trouble along the way. Because that’s what happens when you’re a protagonist. Turning Darkness Into Light then moves along to a sightly later period, a bit more like the 1920s, and concerns itself with the ancient past . . . and the effect it’s having on the present day.
Cath: Lady Trent is a dragon naturalist. The five book series is a memoir written by an older Lady Trent. Why did you choose the memoir format for this series?
Marie: To be honest, I more or less stumbled into it. When I began playing around with the idea, the voice defaulted to first person, and to a retrospective tone — which authors do all the time without framing the story as a memoir, but given the Victorian-ish setting, that seemed like a natural fit.
I didn’t realize until I got deeper into the story how many advantages there were to that approach. It let me get away with a great deal of description and exposition that also doubled as characterization, and opened up space for perspective; Lady Trent comments on her own youthful foibles, which I think invites the reader to also reflect on where they might still disagree with her. It wound up being the perfect way to tell the story, so I wish I could take credit for having done it on purpose!
Cath: Fantasy’s fascination with dragons is enduring and deep. There are parallels between the nineteenth century fascination with antiquities and ancient history in our world with that of Lady Trent’s desire to study dragons and the ancient sites associated with them. Why did you choose to present dragons as an anthropological/archaeological study in the series?
Marie: One of the first things I did for this series was make a list of fun pulp adventure tropes, and “ancient ruins” were pretty much at the top. So of course that meant I had to invent an ancient civilization whose ruins could be relevant to the plot! And it’s such a Victorian mood, discovering the past while also charging at top speed toward the future. I shamelessly borrowed everything from the ruins of Abu Simbel to the decipherment of Linear B to the legend of Atlantis, and only regret that there are all sorts of awesome archaeological things I didn’t manage to work in there, like the Terracotta Army.
Cath: The world of Lady Trent is not ours. Sometimes writers of fantastic history choose to integrate a fantastic element into our world, but your books are secondary world books. Why did you choose to invent a new world rather than use this one?
Marie: My previous series, the Onyx Court, was set in London at various points during its history, and I did epic piles of research for it. Which was a lot of fun . . . but it also meant I knew the standards I would hold myself to if I set this story in the real world. It would wind up shackling me: I couldn’t just make up an ancient civilization and stick it into the past, then expect everything after it to stay the same. Plus I wanted the freedom to address issues like colonialism without making them exactly the same as they were in real history. Scirland is still a colonial power, but the imbalance isn’t as great as it was in our own nineteenth century, nor as unilaterally tilted toward the West. Making up a secondary world gave me the freedom to play around with the details to suit my story, without feeling like I was misrepresenting the actual past.
Cath: Now onto your new book! Turning Darkness into Light is about Audrey Camherst, as she translates ancient Draconean tablets. You use the epistolary technique in this novel to brilliant effect, telling this story through newspaper articles, letters, and journals. Can you talk about your decision to use this technique?
Marie: There’s a tendency for authors to do a clever thing they wind up regretting later. It happened to me with the titles of the Onyx Court books (all of which are quotations from period literature that end in a verb), and it happened with this setting, when I decided to make not only the Memoirs but a short story I wrote later on consist of in-world texts. With those data points in place, it felt wrong to write anything else in that world as a conventional piece of fiction.
And in fact, the original idea for this book was something else entirely. I was going to write an in-world novel — a contemporary of Lady Trent penning a sweeping historical epic about the downfall of the Draconean civilization. I soon realized the downfall of a civilization makes for a depressing story, though, so it slewed sideways into being a Draconean myth, and from there into Lady Trent’s granddaughter translating such a myth, with associated complications in the present day. Which naturally lent itself toward alternating between the text of the myth and what’s happening in the present moment — and for the present moment to itself be a text, I had to turn to diary entries, letters, and so on. Which was a fun challenge, but also made me tear my heart out from time to time . . .
Cath: A lot of fiction being written right now examines ideas of difference and prejudice. Your book takes these issues and confronts them head on. One could say that prejudice is the driving mechanism of the book. How much did what is happening in the world today influence your decisions to examine Scirland’s reaction to Dragonkind?
Marie: I try not to actively foreground those kinds of thoughts, because past experience tells me it results in me writing very preachy fiction. But yes, I have no doubt that I was influenced by current events. I do know I consciously chose to make Audrey bi-racial, half white and half her world’s equivalent of African, because there’s not enough racial diversity in fantasy. And of course if I wanted there to be conflict around an ancient mythological epic, then there had to be conflict around the people in the present day for whom that epic is important. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a great deal of romantic nationalism, i.e. the promulgation of the idea that racial groups had some essential (and unified) identity expressed in their culture, especially in their literature. So it was a natural move to bring in those issues . . . which are sadly all too topical these days.
Cath: An important element of this novel is the story and translation of the Draconean tablets, prose akin to ancient Eddas. What were your influences for writing such text? How did you so skillfully manage the discussion of the translation of the work as the characters were considering it?
Marie: It helps that I’ve done translation work myself, though not professionally. I studied both Latin and Old Norse, along with various other languages for more conversational purposes (none of which I’m fluent in). That gave me a footing for asking useful questions of people who specialize in cuneiform and Akkadian, which I used as a basis for the Draconean language.
I also have an academic background in folklore, so I was already familiar with many of the world’s great epics, and before I began writing I dove into a binge read or re-read of quite a few: the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Mahabharata, Journey to the West, the Kalevala, the Popol Vuh, and so on. The fingerprints of those are all over what Audrey and Kudshayn translate.
Cath: I can’t talk about the ending of the book, because I certainly want people to read it spoiler free. However, the story is more about friendship and professionalism than it is about romance, and I applaud how the book is more about these things, because this can be an empowering message for young women. What do you hope readers take away from Audrey and her journey?
Marie: A lot of readers responded very positively to the fact that Tom and Isabella don’t hook up in The Memoirs of Lady Trent. I enjoy a good romance subplot as much as the next person, but I also adore friendship, especially between men and women — because media so often pushes the message that such a thing isn’t really possible (it will always turn to sexual attraction at some point), or that friendship and professional success aren’t satisfying enough on their own, especially for women.
Which isn’t to say romance doesn’t get addressed in the book at all. Like you, I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that I think it’s important to talk about what happens sometimes when romance falls apart.
Cath: Can you talk a little bit about your next projects?
Marie: I’ve got a novella coming out this month, The Eternal Knot, that’s connected to the game Legend of the Five Rings, but can definitely be read by someone who isn’t familiar with the game. But my big news is that last year I wrote a collaborative novel with my friend Alyc Helms, and we recently sold the series to Orbit Books. That’s going to be the Rook and Rose trilogy, and it will come out under the joint name of M.A. Carrick — a fact which we’re trumpeting far and wide, because we want readers of our individual work to know that these books are our work, too.
Marie Brennan is the World Fantasy and Hugo Award-nominated author of several fantasy series, including the Memoirs of Lady Trent, the Onyx Court, the Wilders series, the Doppelganger duology, the Varekai novellas, and nearly sixty short stories. More information can be found at Marie’s website, her Patreon page, and on Twitter as @swan_tower.