To Build a Home
Four Austin writers discuss how they create their fantastic worlds
Nowadays, it's pretty hard to pull a Lewis & Clark and claim to have discovered a region unknown. But authors of fantasy and science fiction still have rights to the name "explorer" since, nine times out of 10, they're the only people who have been to where they're writing about.
Stina Leicht, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Donna Dechen Birdwell, and Katherine Catmull all make Austin their home base, but each has introduced readers to utterly disparate domains. Leicht's first series, The Fey and the Fallen, hinged on supernatural goings-on during the Troubles in 1970s Ireland, while her most recent book, Cold Iron, is a flintlock fantasy that focuses on conflict between humans and elves. Maresca's Maradaine Constabulary novels take place in a magical city with extensive criminal syndicates. In The Recall Chronicles, Birdwell has crafted a disquieting version of the future in which corporations exert extraordinary control over the life of the individual. Catmull's debut, Summer and Bird, followed two young girls on a journey into an enchanted wood, and her latest young adult novel, The Radiant Road, concerns itself with an ancient tree that forms a bridge between the human and the fairy realms.
Together, they parse different techniques of transporting readers to new worlds.
Austin Chronicle: What was the first fantasy/sci-fi world in a book that completely captured your attention?
Stina Leicht: I'm dyslexic, and I struggled with reading when I was a shy little girl. However, I've been a reader from the day I understood what reading was all about – escaping into fascinating worlds, having adventures, and meeting interesting people – sometime around the third grade. The first fantasy world that captured me was in a novel by Zilpha Keatley Snyder called The Changeling. It's the story of a friendship between two very different but imaginative little girls. In the story, they make up a world called the Land of the Green Sky. It's inhabited with people who build whole cities in the treetops – almost exactly like J.R.R. Tolkien's Lothlórien.
Marshall Ryan Maresca: I was utterly fascinated by Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Green-Sky Trilogy. I totally wanted to live in Snyder's world of tree houses, hammocks, and gliding from branch to branch to get around. But what was really amazing was how she took the "utopia has a dark secret" trope and used it to, in the long run, strengthen and unify the culture she had created.
Donna Dechen Birdwell: When I was an undergrad back in the late 1960s, Brave New World and 1984 were assigned reading, along with Animal Farm and Walden Two. I was entranced by the whole idea of thinking the world forward into potential future outcomes of existing trends, so I guess it's not surprising that this is exactly what I've done in my Recall Chronicles series.
Katherine Catmull: The first were the Alice books, which I think still influence me. A pleasant side effect of reading the Alice books as a young 20th century American was that the Britishisms and historical artifacts were all just as fantastic and unreal to me as Wonderland: talking playing cards, "repeating lessons," disappearing cats, treacle, gryphon, marmalade, magic mushrooms, bonfire night – all part of the same alien, absorbing world. I feel there is a lesson here about world-building – something about how intriguing it can be when a book assumes you know something you don't know.
AC: When you're creating a world, do you find that it shapes itself as you conceive of your characters? Do they build off each other, or do you feel that one always comes before the other?
Catmull: I feel oddly guilty saying this, but I'm probably more world-first. I am slightly obsessed with world-building. But they definitely build off each other as well. I like to develop different parts of the world and then lead my characters into it, see what they do.
Maresca: I'm always someone who makes the world first, and then I can find the characters and the stories within that world. It's a strange analogy, but I think of the old English axiom, "How do you make a great archer? Train his grandfather." Similarly, I need to know about the generations before a character is born to figure out what shaped them.
Leicht: My characters tend to come first. Everything else shuffles into place around them. Mind you, I have a vague setting in mind. With Of Blood and Honey, I already knew I wanted to talk about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Even then, the character, Liam Kelly, came first. As for Cold Iron, I wanted an American Revolutionary War-era world. In this case, I learned about Eledore through the eyes of Nels, Suvi, and Ilta – the point-of-view characters.
Birdwell: It is certainly the case that my characters compel me to flesh out details of my fictional world as they experience it in sometimes unanticipated ways. What I've done in Recall Chronicles is to create the world and then, in the successive volumes, recount the stories of very different characters who experience distinct facets of that world.
AC: What is the detail of one of your worlds that you are most proud of, whether or not that detail is actually discussed in print?
Maresca: I do a lot of deep work that never shows up on the page. For example, I've worked out 12 centuries of Druth history in my Maradaine books, and, of course, all that's never going to come up directly. Having been a theatre geek – part of the history includes the Druth equivalent of Shakespeare – I have a complete list of plays to draw on when I need it, from the comedy-of-manners Three Men and Two Wives to the tragic The Autumn of Corringshire to the historical Queen Mara. I really loved putting that stuff together.
Leicht: The approach I take to setting – through the eyes of the characters – has its drawbacks, I'm afraid. It's difficult to see the familiar as notable. In Blackthorne, one of the point-of-view characters travels to and from Eledore and Acrasia. One of those things that isn't clear in the first book is why Acrasians (humans) refer to Eledoreans (elves) as the beautiful people. You see, the Eledoreans have medical magic. Therefore, Blackthorne notices when he returns to Acrasia that Acrasians are scarred. They're permanently affected by disease. It was a comparison I couldn't bring up in the first book at all.
Birdwell: One of the things I've done is to separate out the strands of the mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle," although this is only implicit, never explicit in the stories themselves. Recycling has been co-opted by the plutocracy as a means of ensuring high consumption of intentionally short-cycle goods. New things emerge from the 3-D printers, and there's always a recycling box at every store. But is it all really being recycled? There's a dissident movement of "Vintagonists" who resent the destruction of old things and often "rescue" items from recycling. In the community of Walden 27, "reduce" is raised to an art form by people diligently following the "Way of Simplicity." And then there are communities of people called "Menders" who restore and reuse things.
Catmull: One that stands out for me is the swan-shaped stone castle in Summer and Bird. I created that with no idea what it was, just as something for Summer to stumble across. It ended up playing a huge role at many important plot points – everything about its design became deeply embedded in the story and theme. I love when that happens. If I tried to do it on purpose, it would be clunky and obvious. That castle just knitted itself deeply into the book, all on its own.