I'm lucky enough to have on the blog today the magnificent Tansy Rayner Roberts, author of the Creature Court trilogy.
For those of you who haven't yet had the pleasure of reading these stories, you're missing out on the most epic world building and character development I've ever read.
With setting, I'm talking about a magical version of Rome, viewed through a Gothic Victorian lens. (Her words, seriously). Seriously.
How much do you want to read these books???
I've tried not to include any spoilery information in the interview questions, so you can read how she does it without ruining anything. You should know I'd rate the series R for sex, language, and gore. If that hasn't scared you off, the first in the series is POWER AND MAJESTY.
Hi Tansy! Thanks so much for doing this interview. I just finished THE SHATTERED CITY this morning, and OMG I can't wait to jump into book three! (Although I'm going to cry if my favourite characters die, ug.)
The main reason I wanted to do this interview with you is because the world building in the Creature Court series is incredible. I have so much to ask you about your planning and plot development, and I thought I'd share the answers with everyone rather than hog all your insights to myself.
First, obvious question: Is there a story behind where you came up with the idea for the Creature Court series? Did it happen instantaneously, like a burst of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly? How long did the series take you to write?
The first spark of it was when a little brown mouse invaded my writing room, back at the last house we lived in. I walked in and saw it halfway up the leg of the computer chair, and it suddenly froze as if maybe I wouldn't notice it, if it wasn't moving. So there was that...
Then I started to get the idea of this dressmaker character, and she wouldn't settle in my head until I found her name, which took AGES (I knew it started with V).
There were a few other scenes here and there which came together as the story started to build in my head, probably a good year or more before I started writing it down. I was working on other things, but this one kept invading. The first scene I wrote was an introduction to Ashiol which never made it into the book, where he's running through a city being destroyed by unseen forces, and then slowly the city begins to fix itself before his eyes, and his scars literally wriggle off his body. Elements of that found their way into the final story - and there is the key scene in the first book where we (and Velody) see his scars disappear, but pretty much everything else changed over the years & drafts.
The first book took the longest time to write, but that was more through interruption and circumstance than the story itself being difficult - The year I started writing it down was also the year I was trying to finish my PhD, and the year I became pregnant with my first daughter, so, TIMING. I had to set this book down when it was only 2/3 drafted, in order to finish my thesis before I had my baby which, haha, of course didn't quite work out in the right order. Plus my supervisor retired at the end of the same year, a month before Raeli was born. It would have been so perfect if I'd finished my thesis that year... but I didn't. So Creature Court languished for long periods while I sorted everything else out. The benefit was that I got to workshop that first book a couple of times, at varying stages of completion, with my writing group, ROR. They were the ones that pointed out I had started it in the wrong place (that scene with Velody and Ash in the marketplace, and him getting his powers back) and I had to go back and fill in how they got there.
Working backwards, the first novel was published in mid 2010 but sold I think in late 2008. The book was finished a year before that, in late 2007 which was when it first started to be noticed by potential publishers and agents thanks to the first chapter being published on my friend Marianne De Pierres' website. But I started writing it in early 2004, and planning it at least a year before that.
2. I have to ask about the city of Aufluer. It's absolutely gorgeous - possibly my favourite setting of all time. How would you describe it to someone who's never read the series?
Thank you so much, that's lovely to hear!
Aufleur is a skewed, magical version of Rome, viewed through a Gothic Victorian lens. Of course it's not really Rome at all, though I did build it on my head based on one lovely month of living in Rome and travelling everywhere on foot. I wanted it to be a tall, dark and handsome city that seduces readers with its cathedrals, storefronts and sinister secrets.
3. I find the reality of Aufluer is in the painstakingly crafted detail you've added to the series. How did you go about coming up with this world? Even in LOVE AND ROMANPUNK, which is a collection of short stories, you have so much history and reality drenched in your writing. Did you sit down and plot every festival/ritual/accompanying food and drink/building etc, or did you let it come to you as you wrote?
Mostly I worldbuild one detail at a time, as the story itself is unfolding. The festivals system of Aufleur required quite a bit of work, though, if only to keep track of things as I made them up, so as not to contradict myself later! I started with the Ancient Roman Fasti (calendar of festivals) as my starting point, as I was unduly influenced by Ovid's poem in honour of the many, many ancient festivals observed and/or ignored by the people of Augustan Rome. But I added a whole bunch more for emphasis, because I wanted the festivals of Aufleur to be even more outrageous and elaborate than the Roman system - I wanted an economy that revolved around the various observances, and I knew that would be relevant to my protagonist Velody and her friends, because their business revolved around the making of gowns, garlands etc. for the festivals.
Partly this was to create a sense of conspicuous consumption in the daylight folk but I also wanted to look at the kind of daily work that goes on in a city, and to show that Velody's priorities were already pretty fixed once the magical world intruded on her life. Imagine if Buffy the Vampire Slayer hadn't come into her powers until she was in her late 20's and had a job and a mortgage to juggle? I don't think she would have managed to slay nearly as many monsters...
But yes, there was a spreadsheet involved. And reference books.
4. Not only is there history in your setting, but each of your characters - especially in the Creature Court - have such a rich background. How did you go about creating these characters? Did you write a background story for each of them before you started the series?
I thought I was being terribly clever, telling an epic fantasy story from the point of view of slightly damaged adults as opposed to using a teenage farmboy as my starting point, but soon ran into trouble because of course they all had elaborate backstories and baggage to deal with! I worked this out mostly as I went but soon discovered that there wasn't a spreadsheet in the world big enough to factor in all the complexities of the Creature Court characters - most of their current relationships were deeply affected by the hierarchy of their world, where youngsters start off serving Lords as Courtesi, then become Lords themselves, and sometimes reach the level of King. So it completely made my head explode, figuring out all the details of who had served who, and when they had been promoted to Lord, and whom had served them, and in some cases many of them served more than one Lord. Their backstories changed as I needed them to, and a few of them - Livilla and Poet in particular - shifted allegiances as my chronology tangled itself up in knots.
Seriously. Even spreadsheets can't fix everything. I had a few fixed points such as certain ages of characters when particular events happened, and everything else orbited wildly around it. Sometimes I felt like I was juggling hamsters! Strange, sex-obsessed hamsters who liked to set fire to things.
5. Were you worried the reader wouldn't be able to keep track of such a broad cast list? (The only ones I'm having trouble with are the courtesi, but after the new character introduced at the end of the book two, I'm thinking we'll learn more about them in book three.) How do YOU keep track of the comings and goings of the heirarchy?
I worried a little bit, but mostly for myself. I think it helps that the story is told through several points of view, and so you get to see most characters from several different sides. Hmm. Maybe that doesn't TECHNICALLY simplify things. But because of the complexities I didn't have any qualms about just setting down details as they became relevant, through the observances of the characters. Ashiol, for instance, knows all the details of Livilla and Mars and well, everyone's sex life, and will happily supply any plot relevant details, either through dialogue or his brain. But he had been away for five years so even he needed things explained to him. Velody doesn't know who any of these people are, and what their connections are, but she's trying to work it out fast, and the readers get to go on that journey with them.
I realised quite late in the day that I didn't have a point of view character who was a courteso - all the other roles are covered, but that one wasn't. That was why Topaz joined the story in Book 2, another newcomer. And Book 3 has an ongoing flashback storyline from the point of view of one of our adult characters, giving new perspectives not only on what it's like for the youngsters when they first join the Creature Court, but also some insights into the emotional baggage and relationships of some of our favourites. I like to think all the bases are covered!
On the whole, though, there are a bunch of characters we really don't need to know about for the sake of the story, and there are some I've deliberately left blank because if I tried to go into detail about every single character, the reader would be lost, and I'd probably have thrown myself out of a window.
6. Any tips for writers who want to go into the type of depth with both setting and character background you have with the Creature Court series?
Spreadsheets are wonderful things! History will provide you with stranger and more wondrous facts than you can possibly ever invent. And it really does help to know everyone your protagonist has slept with, even if you never need to mention this in the narrative itself.
7. Finally, anything you want to plug while you're here? (Ahem, Galactic Suburbia, ahem ahem.)
Well I do have a rather lovely podcast you might be interested in! Galactic Suburbia was recently nominated for a Hugo, and it's basically me and my friends Alisa (indie publisher Twelfth Planet Press) and Alex (Atheling-winning reviewer) talking about speculative fiction, books, publishing news and chat. We're very proud of it.
You can also find my short story collection, Love and Romanpunk, over at Twelfth Planet Press in print or e-book (though we are nearly out of print of the print version I hear! Down to the last box). I recently had stories appear in the anthologies Beyond Binary (Lethe Press) and Epilogue (Fablecroft). I also have an essay in the upcoming book Chicks Unravel Time (Mad Norwegian Press), in which every season of Doctor Who is analysed by a different female writer, fan or critic. I'm writing about The Trial of a Time Lord and the problematic death/undeath of Peri Brown.
Thank you so much for answering my questions! I'm off to read the last book, and cling to the hope that this is going to end well...
Are you convinced yet? Haha, thought so. RUSH AND BUY THIS SERIES NOW!