Friday, November 2, 2012

Interview - Elizabeth May, author of "The Falconer".

As a former resident of Edinburgh (one who is hoping to return there as soon as possible), I'm always excited to see the city portrayed in film and literature. It's not often that the capital gets attention in the YA scene, so news of Elizabeth May's debut novel "The Falconer" undoubtedly piqued our interest here at The Book Lantern. Elizabeth was kind enough to answer a few questions on paranormal YA, it's future, and the challenges faced in combining the real with the fantastical, and I managed to restrain myself long enough to not just sob over how much I miss my adopted home city.

1. Why did you choose Edinburgh as the setting for “The Falconer”? What do you think is so appealing about the city (interviewer note: I could squeal over the joys of Edinburgh for nights on end. I miss it!)

I squeal over it often, myself. I love it here!

My interest in Edinburgh began from a largely academic standpoint.  I’m a PhD student in anthropology, and I was keen to write a dissertation topic that involved Scottish legends.  The whole of Scotland is incredibly rich in lore, and Edinburgh in particular is a city steeped in superstitious history.  From ghost stories to curses to tales of the fae — these are all such ideal starting points for a writer. 

So while I gradually directed my dissertation topic to a more focused aspect of lore, I found myself continually drawn to the city for a book setting.  For an urban fantasy novel, it’s particularly inspiring.  Intense glacial erosion left such a dramatic landscape here, of crags and cliffs and hills. I loved the character of the city itself, how it’s split into two terribly distinct halves.  On the one side, we have New Town Edinburgh, with all of its white columned buildings and neoclassical architecture.  And on the other side is the more ancient half of Edinburgh, with dark, pointed buildings and crammed tenements and mazelike wynds.  In the Victorian era, it was even more congested and populated than it is now.  I imagined it to be the perfect place for monsters to pick off their victims.

2. While your novel is set in an alternative universe Edinburgh, how closely does it stick to the real city, and what research did you conduct, if any, to keep the setting authentic?

Very, very closely, I should say.  Edinburgh is a special city to me — actually, the first city I’ve ever truly fallen in love with — so I thought it important to keep it largely intact.  There are one or two embellishments (such as the size of my heroine’s house in Charlotte Square), but you’ll find they’re quite minimal.

As for research, it was extensive.  I scoured for maps to get a sense of the city’s layout in 1844 (not terribly different from today in terms of layout, but there are a few name changes, and a number of buildings in Old Town especially that are no longer standing).  I also read diaries and etiquette books from the era to get a sense of behaviour, manners, expectations, and overall daily life. 

I dug up any photographs that I could find that were within a ten year range of the time period, so I had visual reference of what the city and people looked like at the time.  Perhaps the most vital research I did was read travel guides from the time period.  Wealthy Londoners were fond of traveling to Edinburgh, and a number of them documented their excursions throughout the city.  I used them in an attempt to recreate what it would be like for someone who was unfamiliar with the setting (as a resident, I was afraid my language would be too familiar and therefore less detailed), so I could bring that kind of descriptive rendering to the book for readers who have never been to the city. 

For my part, I frequently did walk-throughs of the locations I used so I could recall certain smells, memorize the terrain and layout, and more aptly describe the ever-changing weather in Edinburgh.  It’s too easy to write that it’s raining and leave it at that—because, after all, Scotland and rain are very close friends.  But the rain has character here, too.  It changes, moment to moment.

3. How do you approach the construction of an alternative universe version of a real place, particularly when it involves an alternative historical setting?

I really love it if alternative settings have some grounding in reality that I can connect to.  Every place has a distinct essence to it, a culture to it, and it’s just not the same to say, “This is based on historic Scotland,” if it doesn’t feel like Scotland.  So my most important goal was to give the setting authenticity by first rooting it real 1844 Edinburgh.  

The Industrial Revolution was already a period of profound change, especially with regards to technology.  Although, I think people more often tend to focus on England during that era, even though many incredible inventions and ideas came out of Scotland.  It’s an era in history that is already rife with ideas for an alternate setting. 

A particular interest of mine was the contrast between the ideals brought about by the Scottish Enlightenment (which emphasized the importance of art, science, and technology), and enduring superstition that was especially prominent among the more impoverished Edinburgh citizens.  So there’s some dynamic between old and new ideas, especially with regards to the fae.  This book plays heavily on that dichotomy.  What I did was enhance some of the tech, especially for my heroine (an engineer of weapons in her own right), because faeries are particularly hard to kill.

Though, I feel I should clarify that the first book is more firmly an historical setting, but becomes more speculative as the books progress.

4. For a while in YA, the paranormal genre was impossible to escape and almost every creature and situation imaginable has seemingly been tackled and reimagined. How do you tackle an oft-imagined mythos from a new angle?

I think the most vital thing, as a writer, is not to overly focus on what other authors have written on a particular mythology.  So much work has been done on faeries that if I looked at the sheer volume, it would suddenly become daunting.  It would feel overdone.  And I would feel that I had nothing new to add.
Instead, I kept my attention on the lore itself, primarily on Scottish mythology. There are a lot of novels out there that tend to confuse Irish and Scottish myth, so I thought it particularly important to keep to the lore contained to mainland Britain.  So almost all of the faeries featured in the novel are from Scottish myth. 
And in Scotland, faeries are not really sympathetic.  They steal children, they kill people, they toy with human lives.  They’re monsters, some of whom happen to come in very pretty packaging.

So once I got an idea of what I wanted to present in this book — faeries as villains — I could better sculpt my own mythology surrounding them to fill in the gaps in existing lore.  The one thing I positively knew I couldn’t do with the fae is present them as being part of a very old world that knows nothing of modernity and are puzzled by Victorian Era newfangled inventions. The most powerful fae are vastly intelligent creatures, innovative, and not at all humbled or awed by human technology.  I imagined their culture, their hierarchical structure, their language, their prejudices, their weaknesses.  I could explore the effects of power and the consequences of immortality.

And I think that’s the way I’d advise writing any creatures of myth.  Because even if you ignore the fact that these are non-humans (and fictional), they should still have their own distinct culture and behaviour, and that can be presented in a wealth of different ways.

5. Despite all the hype and press coverage, the dystopian YA craze never fully took off in the same way the post-Twilight paranormal romance/urban fantasy YA one did. What is so appealing about the genre for YA readers? Where does the future lie for it?

I think many people long for adventure, to discover the extraordinary within the mundane.  Urban fantasy often posits that the world we live in is a mere fa├žade, that beneath it all is an underworld of vampires, werewolves, faeries, etc.  That these creatures exist under the very noses of humans — except for the rare human who is let into their secret world. That directly appeals to our innate desire to for uniqueness, our desire for knowledge, and to be aware of secrets no one else is.

The extraordinary/mundane contrast doesn’t often exist within dystopia.  I think that the strength of a good dystopian story lies in its ability to reframe already existing flaws in our societal and psychological tendencies and conceive of the possible consequences where those flaws are magnified.  So we have dystopias where citizens voices are silenced, where uniqueness is a negative, where people are forced to conform to certain roles.  On some level, we’re already familiar with these things in our own world.  Some of us have lived through them.  And that’s why dystopias can be so troubling and powerful at the same time.

So while dystopian protagonists reach a point where they begin to question their society, they still live in it.  There is no escape, just like there is no escape for us.  Protagonists are still bound to that world, whether it improves, or whether — like Winston Smith — they’re forced to conform in the end.  Urban fantasy gives its protagonists an escape.  Sometimes the underworld of paranormal creatures is worse.  Sometimes it’s romantic and dangerous at the same time.  But it’s something none of us, at least, have to experience on a personal level the way we do certain dystopic elements.

As for the future of urban fantasy: I wish I had an answer.  I do have to say that an exciting thing I’ve seen, as a reader, has been watching the genre evolve.  I started reading UF as a preteen, and there was very little of it to choose from then.  Even before TWILIGHT jumpstarted paranormal in YA, there was incredible buzz around adult UF and I loved seeing more and more books come out.  I’m not sure what the future holds, but I don’t believe the genre is stagnating at all.  I know some people do, but I still think it’s an exciting genre with loads of new possible stories.  And I can’t wait to see them.

6. Do you have any future projects in the pipeline? 

I’m hard at work on THE FALCONER’s sequel.  Other than that, my current side project is an adult urban fantasy novel — but I shan’t speak of it further because it’s not on contract.  If it doesn’t see the light of day, this answer will haunt me, I swear!

7. What books would you recommend to our readers?

Some of my current favourite paranormal and urban fantasy novels:

MAGIC BITES by Ilona Andrews
SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman (which is fantasy, not UF, but I would be remiss if I didn’t add it)

"The Falconer" will be released in May 2013 by Gollancz. Elizabeth May's website can be found here. Many thanks to Elizabeth for her kindness, and we wish her the best of luck!

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