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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Tansy Rayner Roberts on Urban Epic Fantasy, Ancient Roman History and Feminism

TANSY RAYNER ROBERTS is the award-winning author of the Creature Court trilogy, consisting of Power and Majesty, The Shattered City and Reign of Beasts.  Her short story collection Love and Romanpunk was published by Twelfth Planet Press in 2011. You can find her at her blog, on Twitter as @tansyrr, and on the Hugo-nominated podcast Galactic Suburbia.  Tansy lives in Tasmania, Australia with a Silent Producer and two superhero daughters.


Charles Tan: Hi Tansy! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first get involved with speculative fiction?

Tansy Rayner Roberts: Hi Charles!  I’ve always loved SF and fantasy since I was a small child being indoctrinated into Doctor Who fandom at my mother’s knee.  I spent most of my teens writing novels and occasionally submitting half-hearted queries to publishers, and then struck it lucky with Splashdance Silver, which won the inaugural George Turner Prize in 1998 and was duly published by Bantam/Transworld.  So I’ve been at this a while now…

CT: For those unfamiliar with your book, could you tell us about The Creature Court trilogy and the world of Aufleur?

TRR: It’s urban epic fantasy in a world inspired by 1920’s Ancient Roman Victoriana.  With monsters.

Can you tell I’ve been working on my elevator pitch?  The story is about a secret society of shape-changing, underworld-dwelling reprobates who sneak out every night to save the city from destruction in an invisible war.  They’re all deeply messed up, partly by their own magic and partly by the messy (and bloodthirsty) court politics around them.  My heroine is a dressmaker who is supposed to be part of that sinister world, but had her magic stolen from her as a child – by the time she learns the truth she is a sensible professional adult who doesn’t particularly want to give up her life just because of some kick-ass magical city-saving hero destiny.

Or, to put it another way, what if Buffy was a grownup?

CT: What is it about epic fantasy that appeals to you?

TRR: It’s the word ‘epic’ mostly.  The big, broad, enormous tales.  Stories where whole worlds or cities are at stake, though of course the best ones always come down to individual characters anyway.  I love the idea of people whose actions or place in history makes them important, though at the same time I also love to poke at that idea until it squeaks, because who’s to say it’s the general or the king or the traditional leader who is the most important person in the world?  What if the king’s grandma is the one it all turns on?  Big, expansive, epic stories are also the ones ripest for subversion.

Plus, swords are cool.

CT: What were the challenges in writing the trilogy?

TRR: The biggest challenge was that in between selling book one and finishing book two, I went and had a baby.  Who is, okay, adorable, but it did add a lovely layer of panic to my deadlines and other writing plans.  Also as with any writer I agonised over particular elements of the story – of having a book 2 that doesn’t sag in the middle, of having a book 3 that ties everything together.  I did a few quite odd things I think in the process of the book – like occasionally including first person narratives woven in amongst the multiple third person story, for more intimate layers, and I fretted whether they would work.

The elaborate but necessary backstories & emotional baggage of my characters were hellish to manage – I discovered very quickly why it’s so common for fantasy writers to start with a young, ignorant protagonist who hasn’t met all the most important people in his life yet.  Building in all the complex histories most adults have acquired is extra tricky when you’re also juggling magic and imaginary worlds.  But I am very happy with how it ended up – and no one has shrieked too loudly at me about the ending (apart from individuals whose favourite characters didn’t make it out alive which, fair enough) so I think I pulled it off.

My first ever “trilogy” never got as far as Book Three because the publishers pulled it, so I had a bit of a superstitious hurdle to get past with this one.  I am so very grateful that this trilogy gets to be complete.  Yay me.

CT: How did your PhD in the Classics and fascination with Rome shaped the way you write your fiction?

TRR: It bleeds into everything.  I like to think that it’s a conscious choice, but it’s not – as with any other deeply important cultural influence and the writer it owns, Ancient Roman History is a part of me and there’s no shaking it.  The Creature Court trilogy has some overt associations with Ancient Rome, such as the design of the city, and particularly the religious festivals that are so much a part of its culture, but there’s a bunch of other references and snippets, some of which are deliberate and some which aren’t.

It gets a bit much sometimes, and I have to rein it in.  Like, Livilla’s name is taken from the Julio Claudian imperial family, and then I ended up writing a different book (short story collection Love and Romanpunk) about the real Julio-Claudians and I couldn’t call the real historical Livia or Livilla (actually more than one real Livilla) something else, so I ended up with two books in the one year coming out with characters of that name in it.  All well and good, except that now I’m writing a book about Rosaline from Romeo and Juliet and her sister’s name as credited in the play turns out to be Livia.  So do I go against canon, or do I have yet another book including that name?  Which wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t also hanging out to write my Great Livia book someday.

These are the things writers think way too hard about.

But um, yes.  Ancient Rome is my favourite and my best.  I think having studied history gives a certain weight to the way I look at fantasy and science fiction – and that’s where the epic aspect comes in again!  But also because I’ve had such focus on women’s roles and social history in Rome, I’m able to apply that perspective to building fantasy worlds, and I enjoy being able to use my academic skills in that way.

CT: You’re also the author of Love and Romanpunk. What’s the difference for you between writing for the short form vs. the long form?

TRR: Short stories are super hard.  They look suspiciously bite-sized but they’re not!  I know most writers start out with short and then stretch until they get to novels, but I went the other way around.  I started out only writing short fiction under sufferance, but have come to appreciate it more and more the older I get.  I feel like I’m finally starting to get a handle on short fiction, and I am enjoying it very much.

For the last five years I have only really written short stories when asked by Alisa (editor & publisher of Twelfth Planet Press) or other friends because I was so busy with novels and deadlines and babies, but once Love and Romanpunk was done, I found myself actively craving the form in a way I haven’t for about a decade.

So now I’m writing short stories on spec!  Which is somewhat delightful and distracting.

CT: How did you get involved with Twelfth Planet Press?

TRR: Alisa stole me.  She does this regularly when she spots people whose work interests her – she tucks us into a large sack marked ‘LOOT’ and sneaks off into the night.

I was lured into ASIF first, Australia’s main spec fic review site and Alisa’s first dip into Australian Speculative Fiction, and then I was drafted in to help with some of the set up and worldbuilding of New Ceres, a regency science fiction shared world project which ended up tanking because no one wanted to read electronically back then (I KNOW), and then Shiny, a YA (Young Adult) ezine which was a fun project for a while, but again, a touch ahead of its time.

Then I pulled out of behind the scenes work at Twelfth Planet Press because of Big Publisher Writing Deadlines, and because I had become horribly over-committed. I kept contributing short stories when asked, and occasionally helping out with a bit of editing work, and so on, to keep my hand in.  I feel quite invested in TPP, and not only because Alisa publishes lots of my work!  Her books are so very pretty, and I enjoy the voice of the work she puts out there in the world.

CT: What were the difficulties you faced in establishing your career? What advice would you give your younger self?

TRR: I had some astounding success crazy early, only to crash as I discovered that actually, getting a couple of books published doesn’t mean every book will get published, and advances don’t come in every year.

On the other hand,  I made good use of the long fallow period in between published novels.  I made friends and allies and became part of the Australian SF community.  I taught creative writing through my 20’s which is an opportunity someone of that age would rarely get.  I studied and got my PhD, travelled, started a family.  I built a whole bunch of skills so that when The Next Phone Call came, I was able to make use of all my gathered experience and contacts.

But if I was to give my younger self any advice, it would be: write more, write faster, learn faster.  Once I had children I had to unlearn a lot of bad habits, and strip away any sense of preciousness about my writing habits, my work processes, and my prose itself.  Imagine how many more books I might have written if I had learned those lessons before having children, when time was cheap!  Now, an hour’s writing is a successful work day.

CT: You describe yourself as a feminist. Could you explain what that entails, and how that informs you as a reader, a writer, and a podcaster?

TRR: I think the important thing about being a feminist is to accept first off that you don’t have to do it perfectly, or the same as everyone else.  There is the baseline, which is believing that people should be treated equally because of their gender.  But after that people do tend to argue a lot about definitions, and it’s easy to get bogged down in all that.

My personal feminist activism involves trying to promote the work of women, and to be critical and thoughtful in how I handle and discuss gender, no matter what hat I’m wearing.  I try to keep expanding my perspective and my definitions of what feminism is or should be doing.  One of my current interests is how easily critique which is intended to be feminist or pro-female often ends up deriding or dismissing women.  It’s so easy to fall into that trap!

Gender roles and expectations surrounding the marketing of pop culture, toys and clothes to children is another topic I get hugely passionate about, not only because I have two daughters but also because of my godson and his brothers, who are just as surrounded by troubling gender-related pressures.  The most important message that I think needs to be shared is that the ingrained imbalances and sexism in our society can be just as damaging to men as women – this stuff hurts us as humans, and it can be found everywhere. We can all contribute to that damage, quite unthinkingly, but we can also help to change things.

It’s also important to look at the ways in which feminism can fail or be imperfect, and in that it hasn’t always been helpful to all women equally.  I’ve been very much aware of this as a feminist mother, because domesticity and motherhood have often been casualties of feminist conversation.  Now I’m trying to learn more about intersectionality, and how the feminist conversation has often failed women of colour.  It’s a massive learning curve!

Our podcast, Galactic Suburbia, is a proudly feminist take on SF and publishing – and we try to demonstrate that you can disagree, and view the world differently, and be imperfect, and still identify as feminist.  There’s more than one way to do it.  So many of our listeners, both men and women, have reached out to tell us how we have changed the way they look at gender issues or their reading habits, and it brings us great joy to hear those stories.

CT: Being a James Tiptree Jr. judge was previously one of your goals. What was the experience like? Would you like to be on the jury again?

TRR: It was amazing!  I have been a rabid Tiptree fangirl ever since I read Helen Merrick and Tess Williams’ book Women of Other Worlds and was blown away by the history and concept of the award.  So yes, being asked to be part of it was beyond words.  It was hugely exciting to get boxes of books in and to be reading so specifically for gender and sexuality issues, which as you might have guessed are of particular interest to me.  We had great conversations, and I enjoyed being able to call attention to some marvellous Australian work being done last year.

It was an honour to be part of awarding this year’s Tiptree to Andrea Hairston for Redwood and Wildfire, and as we get closer and closer to this year’s Wiscon, the more sad I get about not being able to be there in person.  Someday!

CT: As a reader, what culture are you currently consuming? Who were some of the authors that played an important role in nurturing your passion for reading?

TRR: I am consuming many, many things, though I never have enough time to read!  I’ve just finished Garth Nix’s new YA space opera, A Confusion of Princes, which totally feels like the space opera Diana Wynne Jones might have written, possibly if locked in a room with Lois McMaster Bujold.  I have been reading a bunch of graphic novels and comics, and recently enjoyed Womanthology, some Gail Simone Wonder Woman, and the newly released first issues of World’s Finest and Earth 2.

I discovered Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic a month back, and am kicking myself for not reading her work before now.  I also adored reading Ishtar, a collection of three novellas by three of Australia’s best short fiction writers: Kaaron Warren, Deborah Biancotti and Cat Sparks, which has been gathering awards nominations by the bucketful, and rightfully so.

I learned to read early, and fast.  I was fed on a steady diet of Enid Blytons and Arthur Ransomes, which taught me to appreciate ongoing series, adventure stories, and novels long enough to sustain you through multiple bus rides.  It’s only recently that I have stopped carrying a novel in my handbag everywhere I go, because reading time has become something I have to work at finding rather than filling up randomly.

My first fantasy loves were David Eddings and Jennifer Roberson, who between them taught me a lot about what the genre could do,.  Marion Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and even more importantly her Trojan epic The Firebrand made me think hard about where history and fantasy collide, and how to make them do it as often as possible.  Also about why we need to have massive epic stories told through the eyes of women too.

But hands down the most important writer in my teen years was Terry Pratchett, who showed me the wonders of meta commentary in fiction, and made me want to be THAT GOOD.  Later, Diana Wynne Jones taught me how to aspire to perfect plots and puncture the cliches, and between the two of them, they ruined me for most genre fiction.

CT: Anything else you want to plug?

TRR: My Creature Court trilogy is recently available in the US, UK & Canada on the Kindle store, which is wonderfulafter two years of being Australian-only.  Also, Alex, Alisa and I are excited every time we get new people listening to Galactic Suburbia. We’d talk ANYWAY but it’s way more fun when people are listening.

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