Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she spends her time practicing piano, studying karate, and playing a variety of role-playing games.
Her many publications include over forty short stories, the Onyx Court series, and A Natural History of Dragons. Her second novel in the Memoirs of Lady Trent series, The Tropic of Serpents, hit bookstore shelves on March 4th 2014.
ANDREA JOHNSON: Congratulations on the publication of The Tropic of Serpents! What’s the quick elevator pitch for the new book?
MARIE BRENNAN: The Memoirs of Lady Trent continue with Isabella’s journey to the savannahs and swamps of eastern Eriga, where disease, warfare, and politics pose a greater threat than the predatory dragons she is there to study.
AJ: Let’s talk cover art for a moment. The cover art for A Natural History of Dragons reminded me of a painting that might have been done from a naturalist’s sketches. The cover art for The Tropic of Serpents is a little more fantastical, but still looks like something found in a naturalist’s sketchbook. Did you have any input on the cover art? What do you think of it?
MB: I’ve been very lucky that my ideas for cover art have meshed well with those of my editor, Tor’s art director, and Todd Lockwood (the artist). I suggested a skeletal diagram for the first book; my editor had a life drawing in mind, and so the cutaway approach hybridized our suggestions in a brilliant fashion. For the second book, I suggested a motion study of the savannah snake, which is one of the types of dragon Isabella is studying. I’m utterly delighted with the results, and can’t wait to see what we come up with for the rest of the series.
MB: It will be a five book series. Each book focuses on a particular expedition, with various stand alone adventures in the course of those endeavours, plus the long-term progress of Isabella’s research. As she indicates in the first volume, there’s a particular discovery for which she has become famous; the series as a whole is building toward that triumph.
AJ: Last month you offered readers the opportunity to write a letter to Lady Trent, and she would respond. What a brilliant idea! How did the project go? Did Lady Trent receive any really memorable letters, and is this something you would do again?
MB: This is actually the second year I’ve done the Month of Letters project with Lady Trent (the year before that, I offered readers a chance to write to characters from the Onyx Court series), and I absolutely intend to do it again. Most of the letters she receives are brief, but it’s great to hear from people who connect to her as a character, and I really enjoy writing more casually in her voice.
AJ: You’re very well-known for writing heavily researched historical fiction and historical fantasy, such as your Onyx Court series. How do you decide which details will be based on research, and which details to make up?
MB: It depends on the project. With the Onyx Court, nearly everything that had to do with the mortal world was based on research: many of the human characters are historical figures, and certainly the places they go and the material circumstances of their lives are drawn from reality. With a “secret history” series, I think it’s important to get the history as real as possible, to create the illusion that the fantasy might actually have existed in the gaps and behind the scenes. And even the fantastical bits were somewhat research based; I did a great deal of folklore reading to get inspiration for the faerie side of things. Even a few of the fae characters are “real,” in the sense of being taken from folklore, like Wayland Smith or the Gyre-Carling.
For other works, though, I may be more flexible. In the case of the Memoirs, I certainly do what I can to make the science as realistic as possible, while still allowing for things like giant flying fire breathing beasts. The lands Isabella travels to are also inspired by real world cultures. But I made a deliberate choice not to nail it down to perfect historical modeling, so that there would be more room for inventing material. If I want a particular invention to have come earlier in history, or a particular cultural detail to be present so I can play around with it, I have room to do so.
AJ: You travel a lot, and take amazing photos on your travels, as can been seen in your “A Year in Pictures” series on your blog. Where have you visited that you most connected with? Is there a connection between your travels and your fiction?
MB: Some of my travel has been done explicitly for research; that was the case with most of my London trips. It does go the other way too, though. My honeymoon, which was a Mediterranean cruise, inspired an idea for a young adult novel I hope to write someday.
I have a deep and abiding love for London because of how closely I’ve studied it; in many ways I “know” it better than any of the cities I’ve actually lived in. I am also exceedingly fond of Japan, and may yet turn that fondness into some kind of fiction. But any place I go to has an effect on me as a writer in general, because of the way it expands my mind and introduces me to new things.
MB: My current camera is a handmedown Leica VLux 2 from my mother, which my parents gave to me when I got more serious about photography. My best trick probably has to do with museum photography: clean the glass with your sleeve as best you can, put the lens directly against the case (to cut out reflected glare and steady your aim), and put the fstop down to 2.8 with the ISO not too high. It doesn’t always work and it’s useless for photographing large objects but in general that will help you avoid the blurriness and glare that make most shots of items in display cases so terrible.
And for lowlight photography in general, if you don’t have a tripod, drop the fstop (aperture) as far as you can go, to reduce the exposure time and therefore the blurriness. High ISO is the usual way to get a faster shot, but it makes the photo grainy my Leica is sadly awful in that regard, which is why I play with the aperture instead.
AJ: You recently returned from FOGcon. Can you tell us a little about the FOGcon experience? Were you involved with any panels or readings there? Do you have plans to attend any other cons this year?
MB: I did two panels and a reading there. (It would have been three panels, but I had to back out of one so due to cross cheduling with a karate belt test.) It’s a very enjoyable convention; they pick a theme each year, and do a great job of coming up with interesting approaches to the theme, including social/cultural angles alongside the literary ones you might expect. For example, this year’s theme was “Secrets,” so in addition to talking about secret history and conspiracy theories and so on, there was a panel on the concept of “passing” (as straight, white, whatever). As a result, they avoid the rut a lot of panel programming tends to fall into. And speaking as somebody who’s been on a fair number of panels, it makes for a refreshing change of pace!
I’m intending to attend the World Fantasy Convention as usual, and possibly also WisCon. Beyond that, my schedule is not yet set.
AJ: You’ve got an ebook collection coming out later this year called Monstrous Beauty. What can you tell us about the collection?
MB: Monstrous Beauty is a small side project I’m doing with Book View Cafe, collecting seven of my short stories into a little ebook. The stories belong to a set of fairy tale retellings I’ve published over the years, all of them sort of horror-toned and featuring, as the title suggests, monstrous beauties. It will be out on October 28th just in time for Halloween.