INTERVIEW: Aliette de Bodard
[Interviewer's Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Apex Book of World SF edited by Lavie Tidhar. It'll run every Monday to Friday until I run out of interviews. Two of these interviews will be reprinted in Apex Magazine but the rest are exclusive to SF Signal.]
Aliette de Bodard lives in Paris, where she works as a Computer Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction, with short stories published or forthcoming in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy and Fantasy Magazine. She was a Campbell Award finalist and a Writers of the Future winner. Her first novel, the Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld, will be released in 2010 by Angry Robot.
Hi Aliette! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with speculative fiction?
In a stealthy way, mostly. I read and enjoyed a lot of it as a child (notably Tanith Lee’s Black Unicorn, Patricia McKillip’s The Changeling Sea, and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain), but without making much of a difference between those books and, say, an Agatha Christie or an Alexandre Dumas.
It wasn’t until I got London (when I was 16) that I became aware that all those books were all in the same genre–and that I could find the books those had been inspired by or that they had inspired by looking along the same row of library shelves. That was when I started reading widely in the genre and acquainting myself with the classic works of SF and Fantasy.
What made you decide to become a writer? What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?
When I started reading widely in the genre, one of the authors I discovered and really liked was Orson Scott Card. When I finished reading every fiction book the library had from him, I searched for more–and found that he had written a non-fiction manual, “How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction”. That was very much a revelation: first, that writing was something that could be taught (and, if it could be taught, then I could learn it), and second, that there were still people writing today. This is not as obvious as it sounds, because the bulk of my reading had been classical French literature, which has the distinct inconvenient of having been written by long-dead writers–not to mention daunting polymaths who did everything from poetry to politics).
I started to write my first novel at age 17, which I never finished: we moved in the interval, and the hard disk on which it never worked again after the move (thus teaching me another very important lesson about making regular backups). Then I wrote two more novels, and I never really looked back from that point.
The biggest hurdle I had to overcome, aside from language, was taking myself seriously. Writing has a couple of problems that I was aware of early on: the first is that it’s an essentially solitary activity, and it’s hard to believe that anything you come up with through mysterious process of tinkering in front of your computer can have any value. The second is that, except for a minority, it’s not something you can depend to live on, which can make it hard to consider it as “proper” work.
Amusingly, getting a day job helped a lot with that, by letting me see what I’d have to do to my writing activities to make them feel like a second job instead of a glorified hobby. It’s half a matter of discipline, and half a matter of mindset for me–I have to believe that writing is a serious activity to make space for it in my life.
What are the obstacles you encountered when writing in English?
The biggest one is that it’s not my native language: I started learning it when I was 10, and didn’t reach fluency until 17-18. I’ve got better at it, but the fine nuances and idiomatic expressions used to be particularly difficult for me (and I still have trouble using them instinctively, though I understand most of them). Inevitably, I’ll make usage errors and small grammar mistakes–I’m hoping they don’t show too much, and so far it seems to be working *grin*.
A secondary problem is that it’s not the language I speak, either at home, with friends or at work. That makes it hard for me because I essentially have to shift gears whenever I’m writing: the drawback of becoming completely fluent in English is that translation has become very hard for me. Since I speak English well enough to think in English, and don’t have to go back to French in order to express myself, it also means that I’ve completely lost the links between both languages. So, in order to write, I have to place myself in an “English mindset”, which isn’t always obvious.
Mostly, I’ve tried to ease this by creating a strong association between English and speculative fiction. English is the language I read in, the language in which I discuss writing, whether face-to-face or online, the language I use at conventions, the language in which I research… This means that, whenever I start thinking about speculative fiction, English bubbles up, and I’m in the proper mindset to start writing.
Also, reading in English helps me keep my mastery of the language and especially my vocabulary, which would vanish pretty fast if I never saw any English.
What’s the appeal of the English language for you? I know you don’t like writing fiction in French but do you think you’ll try your hand at it in the future?
For me, English is the language of speculative fiction: I first became aware of the genre in English, and it was also in English that I read most of the classics such as Zelazny, Asimov, Le Guin… So starting to write in English was very much a natural evolution for me.
The fact that it’s a foreign language to me means that it feels very different to me: as I said above, it’s the language associated with writing and speculative fiction for me. Weirdly enough, it’s also the language of poetry, as I read a lot of poems in English when I was younger, and there’s a musicality associated to it that I don’t find in French (I’m pretty sure at least part of it is due to the fact that it’s not my everyday language, which invests it with a sort of glamour that French will never achieve). It means I pay a lot of attention on a sentence level to have something that flows and sings.
Finally, when I write in English, I’m unencumbered by the thousand of grammar rules that were hammered into me in French: I feel a lot freer twisting the English language than I do the French, essentially because I have no baggage associated with it.
I’m not sure I’ll try my hand at writing fiction in French: essentially, I’d have to relearn in French all the writing reflexes I taught myself in English. I suspect it would require a significant time investment–it’s not impossible, but I doubt it will happen soon.
Do you read French speculative fiction (and if so, who are some of your favorite writers)?
I don’t read much French speculative fiction, I have to admit: I have read speculative fiction in French, but a lot of it was in translation.
Out of what I’ve read, one writer I do like very much is Elisabeth Vonarburg, a French Canadian who was the Guest of Honour at the 2009 Worldcon: she writes both thoughtful science fiction and very nice fantasy.
Her novel The Maerlande Chronicles was an awesome examination of a Europe where the female gender had become dominant, and what it would mean both for the society and for the language. And her fantasy series Queen of Memory (“Reine de Mémoire”) is set in an alternate France where magic has given rise to an established religion just a hair askew from Christianism, and where the French are colonising an eastern land similar to Cambodia or Vietnam–it’s both very familiar and delightfully foreign, and I very much recommend them.
Since you’re half-French and half-Vietnamese, do you see yourself as a French or a Vietnamese writer (or both)?
That’s a hard question, because I have to confess I don’t feel particularly French or particularly Vietnamese.
Most of my education was French Catholic, but my Vietnamese mother and grandmother played a big part in it, which means that I ended up getting a lot of their culture and mindsets mixed in with that of the French Catholic upper-class. And moving to London for two years at the end of my adolescence was an awesome experience, but didn’t really help on that level, since it uprooted me at the age when I was starting to build my adult personality–thus increasing the sense of being a bit of a mix, culturally speaking.
If I had to answer something, I would say somewhere in between, leaning mostly towards the French side.
How have your travels affected your writing?
First, naturally, my travels have given me a lot of ideas for my fiction: I like visiting places with historical monuments, which is a great way to learn about historical events and cultures, and to store ideas for future use.
The second way they have affected my writing is by broadening my mind: seeing how other people live and think made me aware that my culture wasn’t the beginning and the end of everything. It’s already amazing to see the diversity on Earth today–and even more amazing when you start adding up all the ways of living from different time periods.
In your fiction, you tackle a lot of different cultures other than your own. What are the challenges in researching other cultures?
That’s a hard one, because I’m still not entirely convinced I’m doing it right. I think the most basic challenge is not applying your own preconceptions to the culture you’re researching, which is a lot harder than it sounds. We have a number of hard-wired concepts in our brains that are very difficult to dismiss, because they mostly take place at the unconscious level: for instance, to take an obvious example, for us it’s sad but normal for old people to enter nursing homes, but the same prospect is viewed with horror by the Vietnamese, to whom it would never occur to abandon a family member in their old age.
There’s also the matter of sources: you have to be aware when you read books (academic or otherwise), that the author is always biased, to a lesser or greater degree: it’s that preconception thing again, except that this time it’s others’ preconceptions. For instance, Sahagun, who wrote about the Aztec empire in the days of the conquistadores, had a viewpoint that was very much coloured by the Christianity of his day and time, and it definitely shows in the Florentine Codex .
One challenge that’s not often mentioned, and that I’ve run into several times, is that culture, beliefs and mindsets change over time: for instance, there are common elements between China in the Tang dynasty (600-900AD) and China in the Qing dynasty (1600-1900), but there are also a lot of differences. To take one example, by the Qing dynasty, nearly all Chinese girls had bound feet, an idea that hadn’t yet occurred to the Tang. Funeral rites had changed, too, as had a host of other things. When researching another culture, you have to be careful of the time period you’re considering: it’s not enough to research Modern China if you want to set your story in the Qing dynasty. That’s a pitfall that’s hard to spot, because we like to think our belief system is mostly unchanging (religion and values in particular, but also politics and even family life).
What’s the French speculative fiction field like?
Well, for starters, it’s much smaller. We don’t have as many short fiction magazines (off the top of my head, I can think of 4-5, plus some French Canadian ones), and they certainly don’t pay as much as 5c a word. I’m less familiar with the novel market, but again it’s much smaller: we definitely don’t have as many small presses or even as much sheer output as the United States.
A lot of it is also in translation–from other languages and from English, though the amount of translations from English sometimes feels a little overwhelming.
How do the French define speculative fiction? How about your definition of speculative fiction?
Hum, again, I’m not really sure how the French define speculative fiction, since I’ve read so little French speculative fiction.
For me, speculative fiction is anything that is set in a place different from our own: it can be a contemporary universe in which the rules of magic apply, a completely different secondary world, or a time in the distant future where technology has changed the way we act and think.
You’ve written both short stories and novels. Which are you more comfortable with?
I’m a novel writer at heart: my love of novels is what started me writing, and I’m always more comfortable with novels than with short stories. With short stories, I’m always struggling with length: my strengths, at least as I see them, are worldbuilding and characters, two things which really play out better when you have more space. Most of my short story production has been leaning towards the novelette side.
I do love reading short stories, and I’m in admiration of those writers who can write effective short fiction under 5k–something I generally fail at unless my muse hands me a miracle.
For unfamiliar readers, where can we find more of your work?
I have published a host of short stories: you can find the complete list over at my website http://www.aliettedebodard.com, along with a list of my online short stories. I’ve written stories ranging from alternative history to horror, most of them within non-Western cultures such as Ancient India, China or the Aztec Empire. My recent publications are “On Horizon’s Shores” in the September issue of IGMS, an SF novelette about aliens, grief and separation; and “Golden Lilies”, a dark fantasy about bound feet in Ancient China, which is up at Fantasy Magazine.
And my novel Servant of the Underworld (an Aztec fantasy/mystery with ghostly jaguars, hungry gods and fingernail-eating monsters) is forthcoming from HarperCollins imprint Angry Robot in January 2010 (Spring 2010 in the US).
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