In a special author interview with BCS, Fran Wilde discusses her new story in BCS #181, “Bent the Wing, Dark the Cloud” (also podcast BCS 157), her previous BCS story “The Topaz Marquise” (also podcast BCS 131), and her brand new novel Updraft, set in the same world as “Bent the Wing, Dark the Cloud,” which released from Tor Books two days ago; writing epic fantasy at short fiction and novel lengths, the qualities of secondary-world settings, and more.
(See this giveaway post to enter to win a free copy of Updraft!)
BCS: Some people say that epic fantasy can’t be done at the short fiction length, but you’ve written epic fantasy short stories, like “Bent the Wing, Dark the Cloud” and your previous BCS story “The Topaz Marquise,” and you’ve written epic fantasy novels, like your new novel Updraft, set in the same high-altitude world as “Bent the Wing, Dark the Cloud.” What similarities do you see between writing epic fantasy in those two formats of very different length? What differences?
Fran Wilde: Whoops. No one told me that! [kidding] Hmm.
In all seriousness, I think short stories taking place within a larger, epic world are not only entirely possible, they’re important to think about and play with when writing the longer work. Deciding whether a story is big or small is sometimes a matter of scope–for me, a problem arc that characters can work through in a matter of days can be a short story, a novelette, or a novella (it can also be a novel, don’t get me wrong); a problem that takes longer to solve and more people to solve it is often a novel.
I don’t think the world beyond a novel’s main focus should cease its workings just because it’s not the focus. Many stories gain some ground in my notebooks as I develop the bigger story for that reason. Some of those, I incorporate; some inform deeper layers of the story; some become short stories on their own.
So, now I’m curious. What do you think about the differences, Scott?
BCS: Hey, now you’re interviewing me! :)
Wilde: HEE. YES I AM… come in, the water’s fine…
BCS: That’s a question I love talking about, and have been on several convention panels about. I really like your defining of it by the scope of the problem the characters are facing. Frodo could not have walked all the way to Mordor in a short story, but he could have climbed Mount Doom in a short story. Both of those would feature the same root problem for him as a character–gotta throw The Ring into the fire–but you can feel how doing it in either of those length formats would give a very different reading experience.
I also define it, especially given the current fashion in epic fantasy novels for having lots of major point-of-view characters, by the scope of how many recurring point-of-view characters the work has. If a work has more than one or two, I think it may have trouble being condensed into a short story or novelette. Of course, “Bent the Wing, Dark the Cloud” has two recurring point-of-view characters, which is unusual for a BCS story, but its problem arc does feel like one that the characters can work through in a matter of days. Both the point-of-view characters are arguably working through the same problem arc, just different facets of it. Then at the end, they– Oops; no spoilers! :)
Another facet of epic fantasy that is different in short fiction vs. novels is establishing the world-building of the fantasy world is. In novels, you have more room to show details of the world and societies and the backstory of how they became that way. In short stories, you have to keep the focus tight and the pace moving. What challenges did you face writing “Bent the Wing,” in showing this rich fantasy world at the short fiction length, the same world you have also shown in greater detail at the novel length in Updraft?
Wilde: That’s a hard one for all of my short stories. I love detail and I get wrapped up in it. I could only hint at a few world details in “Bent the Wing, Dark the Cloud,” that are much more front-and-center in Updraft. It helps that “Bent the Wing” is set earlier than Updraft, though.
BCS: There must be a few details of the world that you would have loved to slip into “Bent the Wing” if it’d had the extra room of a longer piece. Tell us a couple!
Wilde: I did hint at a fear of the clouds and the unseen, but didn’t specify why. As well, at least one important character from Updraft makes an unnamed cameo in “Bent the Wing.” Similarly, in Updraft, Liras Viit is a relatively minor character, for now (and he’s much changed), and Calli Viit as well.
BCS: “Bent the Wing” features two point-of-view characters in the story, alternating between them in different scenes, which is a narrative technique often done in fantasy novels but usually avoided in short stories. What challenges did you face in using that narrative format in a short story?
Wilde: Not a challenge at all! More like a pleasure. Two point-of-view characters let me explore the issues from different perspectives and ages. Both characters have flaws and regrets, and both characters are important to the other. I wanted to hear what each had to say. Making sure each voice and the scene’s perceptions were appropriate to the characters was important.
BCS: Both “Bent the Wing” and your previous BCS story “The Topaz Marquise” feature a strong setting element of a handcrafting vocation. In “The Topaz Marquise,” it’s the jewelry crafting of gemstones and settings. In “Bent the Wing,” it’s the building of the bone-sparred wings that the characters use to fly themselves across their world, which feels not just a craft but also a societal custom or institution. Is there a reason why an element of craftsmanship features so prominently in your fantasy worlds?
Wilde: I make things, so it’s not a surprise that my characters often do too. I was a jeweler’s assistant in college, primarily for access to the oxygen-acetylene torch. I sail, which requires an understanding of how to put a boat back together if it comes undone–and a boat is a foil/aerofoil, similar to, albeit much less complicated than the wings in the story.
I like knowing how things work–and I think that hands-on approach to work in a world I’m building helps me understand the world better.
BCS: Both the vocations in those stories feel deeply connected to the protagonist characters; do you view a character’s vocation or craft as a key part of who they are?
Wilde: I think that depends on whether they love what they’re doing or not. Work often feels like it becomes who you are whether you want it to or not, but when you step out of that work (or run from it), you realize it was an illusion… For characters who truly love their craft, or their vocation, I think there’s no stepping out of that role. Who they are is intrinsically tied to what they do, and their actions and work speak louder about who they are than their words do. For other characters, I think they choose their work in order to gain something for themselves–and that’s a different aspect of character.
BCS: You also write Cooking the Books, a popular blog about F/SF authors and food. What do you think about food and cuisine as elements of a fantasy world?
Wilde: I don’t write Cooking the Books as much as herd it along–the authors and editors (BCS) who visit are the ones who make it go.
I do think food and cuisine are very important elements of a fantasy world–or a science fiction world, or any world really. What a character eats, and how, can tell you many things quickly about economics, environment, and society.
BCS: Is there an example of an interesting food in the world of “Bent the Wing” and Updraft that for you says a lot about the world itself and the characters who live there?
Wilde: Food in “Bent the Wing” and Updraft is edge food–it’s scarce and hard-won, though most characters have no experience of plenty to compare their situation to. Much of what they eat has to be caught in the air or grown on the towers. It’s high-altitude food, which limits things as well. And much of it is winged. There are superstitions around how to eat the wings of various birds. No one eats the spiders, though, because bleah. :)
BCS: You love lush epic fantasy worlds and short fiction. What are some of your favorite authors and short stories of epic fantasy at the short fiction length?
Wilde: Oh hrmph. Just epic fantasy? Ok. Recently, I’ve loved N.K. Jemisin (“Stone Hunger,” in Clarkesworld), Siobhan Carroll (“The Year of Silent Birds” in BCS), E. Catherine Tobler’s Circus stories in BCS, Margaret Ronald’s “A Family For Drakes,” Saladin Ahmed’s short stories (collected in Engraved Upon the Eye), anything by Yoon Ha Lee, Aliette de Bodard’s “The Breath of War.” I really like M. Bennardo’s stories as well, and... And–OK you see? I can keep going for as long as you let me.
BCS: The novel Updraft is your current project in the high-altitude world of “Bent the Wing.” What are your future plans in that world? Both novels and short fiction?
Wilde: Cloudbound is the next novel in that world, out next year from Tor, and I’m working on the novel after that, with the catchy moniker of [title to come]. And yes, more short stories as well.
BCS: Do you also have further plans for the gemstone world of “The Topaz Marquise”?
Wilde: I do! There are more short stories to come from the Jeweled Valley, both short and long. Tor.com will be publishing the novella “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” in spring/summer 2016. That’s a secret history story and if you look close, you’ll see the topaz of “The Topaz Marquise” hidden in the weave. I’m working on several others, and it’s important to find the right settings for each of them–which takes time.
Thanks so much for having me to visit, Scott!
BCS: Thank you for talking with us!
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