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Feature Interview: Jacqueline Carey

Jacqueline Carey exploded onto the fantasy scene in 2001 with the publication of Kushiel’s Dart. It was a darkly romantic fantasy starring a one-of-a-kind heroine, Phèdre nó Delaunay. Phèdre is an anguisette. Pricked by the dart of the cruel god Kushiel, she is destined to experience pain and pleasure as one. Trained as a courtesan in the Night Court of Terre D’Ange, whose governing religious precept is “Love as thou wilt,” and tutored in the arts of spycraft by an enigmatic patron, she soon finds herself presiding over a series of dramatic upheavals from the vastly political to the intensely personal.

Readers responded enthusiastically to Carey’s edgy mixture of intrigue, adventure, and eroticism. She went on to write two more Phèdre novels in the Kushiel’s Legacy series, as well as the Imriel trilogy, which follow the adventures of the young slave-turned-prince Imriel de la Courcel.

In between Kushiel projects, Carey wrote the The Sundering duology, comprised of Banewreaker and Godslayer. The Sundering, a heroic tragedy in the tradition of Tristan and Isolde, has been famously described by George R.R. Martin as “a retelling of The Lord of the Rings from the point of view of Sauron.” Carey also wrote the stand-alone Santa Olivia, an urban fantasy set in the near future. It follows Loup, a genetic hybrid of human and wolf, growing up in the military-occupied town of “Outpost No. 12” (once Santa Olivia, Texas).

Most recently, Carey has penned her third trilogy in the celebrated Kushiel’s Legacy series. Naamah’s Kiss and Naamah’s Curse follow Moirin, a “bear-witch” of the Celt-like Maghuin Dhonn, whose affinity with the titular goddess of love and desire leads her on a series of far-flung adventures. The final volume of the Naamah series, Naamah’s Blessing, will be published in June. Carey recently revealed that she is writing the first book in a new series, tentatively titled Pemkowet Tales.

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On your website you just announced that you’re working on a new “not-exactly-urban” fantasy trilogy. How long has this been going on? What turned you on to the urban fantasy genre?

I’ve actually been thinking about it for quite awhile but I’ve only been working on it for a couple of months. Honestly, I live in a really quirky little resort town and I’ve always thought it would be fun to do something that was set here.

Do you have any favorite urban fantasy writers or particular tales that have influenced your take on that genre?

It feels like the opposite of that in a way. As I’ve been thinking about this I’ve done a lot of reading, mostly looking for the sort of niches that haven’t been filled. I guess if you go to the original impetus for me in the genre it would be a classic like [Emma] Bull’s War for the Oaks, but there’s been so much flooding the market that I’ve mostly been reading to look at what hasn’t been done.

You’re an author who has pioneered some very strong and unique heroines over the course of your career. I’d be interested to know what you think about the current status of women in fantasy. Do you think we’re seeing more interesting female characters emerge in today’s science fiction and fantasy writing or do you think we could still make some progress in that respect?

I definitely think there’s room for improvement. Obviously in some of the genres—like the explosion of paranormal and urban fantasy—there are a lot of strong female characters, but in classic epic fantasy I would think there’s still quite a dearth. I’ve read several very successful, highly regarded debuts in the last few years that had very, very few female characters.

If I mention a few specific heroines could you give me your thoughts on them?

I’ll try!

Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

You know, I really don’t like to speak ill publicly of other authors … I didn’t care for those books. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and it was pretty much your classic rape/revenge fantasy. It did not do a lot for me. It was one of those really big buzz books that just left me kind of tepid.

How about Scarlett O’Hara?

Boy! It’s been so long since I’ve seen the movie or read the book … I think she’s a wonderfully iconic character.

Bella Swan from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series?

[laughs] Pretty passive.

A big theme in your writing is romantic love. You’ve created some very wonderful romantic couples over the course of your career: Phedre and her protector Joscelin from Kushiel’s Dart, the doomed Cerelinde and Tanaros from The Sundering, Loup and Pilar, two teenage girls in love in Santa Olivia. Are there any love stories—real or fictional—that have inspired how you approach the idea of romance in your writing?

Not really! [laughs] I feel bad giving a brief “no” answer to a thoughtful question, but … no. Not that I’m conscious of. That’s one of the tricky things: We’re not always aware of what our influences are.

Much of your work strikes me as operatic in scope. Like an opera, you deal with big emotions, star-crossed lovers and sweeping locales. I know you’re riffing on Tolkien in your Sundering series but there’s just something about it that strikes me as Wagnerian—and when I started reading Santa Olivia I noticed there is a character right up front who lives in a dusty border town and whose sense of love is described as a “little bird” that lives in her heart…. This strikes me as being almost verbatim to what Bizet’s heroine sings about. I have to ask: Are you an opera fan? Do you have a favorite composer or opera?

Not as much as I wish I was. I went through a couple of years where I was going to the opera quite regularly and really enjoyed it. Of those I’ve seen I’d say that Turandot is my favorite. You’re the second person who has pointed out the Carmen connection. That’s not something that was conscious, but it very well may have been a connection my subconscious made.

Has any of your work been optioned for graphic novels or movies?

No. That’s something where every couple of years somebody in the industry expresses an interest and it’s never panned out. The length of my books has always been a challenge for adaptations. The feedback we’ve gotten regarding the movie rights has been a sort of one-two punch: budget and erotic content.

How very ironic, given our sex-obsessed culture.

I know. Fantasy is the one genre that, until quite recently, has been reluctant to explore anything potentially sexy. Although the adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novel, A Game of Thrones, on HBO could be a game changer.

You recently contributed to one of Martin’s anthologies; Songs of Love and Death. Did you get to work closely with him at all or was it strictly editorial?

He just sent out an invitation and invited me by email. Our communication was pretty minimal—although he plugged Banewreaker and Godslayer, the two books that make up The Sundering, on the “Currently Reading” section of his website a couple of years ago and I had scores of people emailing me to tell me about it. I think it gave my most neglected literary children a little boost!

I have to say that The Sundering may be my actual favorite of what you’ve written. There are pictures of me at the age of six, sitting on my dad’s lap while he’s reading me The Lord of the Rings, so, of course I was really tickled by the way you revised Tolkien in those books.

I’m very fond of them. I think they actually suffered a little from the success of the original Kushiel triology. When I delivered the manuscript the reaction was like: “Oh! This really is different.” I don’t think they were packaged and marketed in such a way that played to their strengths. I wish we could have made people aware that The Sundering is a great big crashing crescendo of a tragedy!

My friend who works with audiobooks reports that the audio recordings of your work are very popular. Have you listened to the audio versions of your work and, if so, has hearing those recordings affected how you perceive your writing?

I have listened to just some small snippets. There’s something about it that makes me acutely self-conscious.

I was just reading somewhere that there’s a school of thought which says an author shouldn’t spend time on little details such as a character’s clothing—but I’m guessing you would disagree with that? I’ve noticed that clothing, especially in the Kushiel series, plays a very integral part in indicating character and also establishing the world.

Oh absolutely. Particulary in Phèdre’s trilogy. I’ve been known to get hung up and unable to progress if I could not envision a significant garment. I wanted to convey this sense of opulence and that’s one of the ways that you can both do that and further character development.

Your fans have also responded enthusiastically to the idea of costumes. You feature many pictures of fans dressed up in Kushiel garb or sporting their tattoos on your website. How does it feel to have inspired people in that way?

When it comes to the tattoo phenomenon it’s pretty humbling. I feel in a lot of ways as though it really has nothing to do with me. I often say that no two people read the same book—reading is such an interactive experience and your imagination is part of what brings the story to life. To know that I’ve written books that have struck such a resonant chord with so many readers is, as I said, humbling. Although, every now and then, just to remind me that it’s really not all about me, I’ll hear of somebody who got the tattoo of Phèdre’s marque—which she earns over the course of her service in the Night Court—just because they liked the design. [laughs] I’m like: “You really should have read the book!”

As far as the costumes go, that’s just pure fun. I love seeing them. I’m delighted there are such creative readers out there who want to take things a step further.

You’re part of a Mardi Gras krewe in your home state. What costumes have you worn for that?

The most memorable costume that comes to mind is Snow White. We always get beads to throw for the event and there was one year when someone got panties: little Mardi Gras thongs. I didn’t realize when I threw my first one that you really had to wrap something around them to give them heft … I saw a friend several rows deep and I thought “Oh! I’ll throw her some panties!” I chucked them into the crowd and they immediately opened up and wafted down towards these two little boys who looked at them and then looked at me with this “Snow White just threw us panties!” expression. I thought: “Ohhhhhh … that’s going to be a weird association for them….”

Switching gears to Santa Olivia: I get the sense that it was very freeing to move from the high fantasy tone of the Kushiel series to the more down and dirty tone in Santa Olivia. What was it like writing that book after having spent so much time perfecting a more elegant tone?

Freeing is definitely a good description. It was a lot of fun. For so long during my struggling writer years I was actually trying to curb what is my naturally baroque voice. All conventional wisdom said “No, no, no! Clean, straightforward prose!” It wasn’t until I began writing the book that became Kushiel’s Dart that I let my natural voice loose. But then, after so many volumes, I felt that I wanted some restraints and a more muscular lyricism. It was a lot of fun to butch things up.

Santa Olivia is also your first novel in a contemporary setting and it explores some contemporary fears including viral contagion and the idea of military occupation. How influenced was that book by current events?

Quite a bit. There are issues I follow closely, or loosely. The idea of building an actual wall to seal off the border of Mexico is one that you see floated out there in the fringe. I did not expect Swine Flu to hit right around the release of the book!

In general, how much of a role do current events play in your writing? Do you find yourself referencing them even when you’re writing in your high fantasy milieu?

Absolutely. Kushiel’s Avatar in particular was written against the backdrop of the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. Paying attention to the actual human toll that violence takes informs my work a lot.

In books like Santa Olivia you capture the sense of high school intrigue very well—and also the sense of being separate or different from your peers. I was wondering if that was your experience growing up, too?

Well, I spent a few years, actually ninth and tenth grade, in a boarding school. It was basically a hundred kids in the woods. Half of them were there, as I was, for higher academics and something that was more stimulating and challenging than public school was offering. The other half was there because they had been kicked out of a larger, more expensive boarding school. It’s a very intense atmosphere emotionally and psychologically—a bunch of adolescents without parental supervision … I think that’s part of the perennial appeal of boarding school novels, in fact: that it is such a crucible of the adolescent experience. Maybe because I had a vivid time I’m still able to access what those years felt like.

After Santa Olivia you returned to Terre D’Ange with Naamah’s Kiss and a new heroine: Moirin of the Maghuin Dhonn. Moirin is a comparatively more sedate heroine than what we’ve seen from you before. After having created so many edgy, dark characters was it challenging to write from the perspective of a character who is comparatively more lighthearted?

Actually it was pretty refreshing. We’d had an awful lot of angst in the Kushiel series and it was refreshing to write a character who was more sort of straight forward. Moirin’s kind of a sensualist. One of the scenes that I felt summed her nature up for me is very early in Naamah’s Kiss when somebody has left her a gift of eggs. Moirin picks one up and licks it to see what it feels like and tastes like. That, to me, just summed up her essential nature.

In both Naamah’s Kiss and The Sundering you do some very interesting things with dragons. How did you want your dragons to be different from dragons we’ve seen before?

In The Sundering I was thinking that, for me, Ursula K. LeGuin’s dragons are always the ultimate dragons. I think I wanted to write a dragon who knows justice. In Naamah’s Kiss I was playing off the idea that, in Chinese culture, these are elemental creatures. He’s so very much a creature of his place, only he’s been deprived of that.

In a similar vein, your characters often seem to have passionate relationships or connections with animals. There’s Moirin and the Great Bear, Loup, who’s sort of wolfy, Carmen’s sense of love being described as a bird, Princess Snow Tiger who has a close connection with the dragon in Naamah’s Kiss … There are many examples of characters being closely linked to animals. I was wondering what your relationship to animals is in your life? Do you have any pets?

I share my house with two cats and one neurotic dog. I have only personally owned one other dog, who was with me for fourteen years, and he was a really excellent companion. So I certainly understand that bond.

You’re known for your strong research skills and you’re now working on your sixth series. Has the amount of research needed to flesh out so many unique worlds ever grown overwhelming?

Yeah, actually. In the process of writing Naamah’s Blessing I kind of hit the wall a bit. Part of it is set in the New World so I’m riffing on, initially, Aztec culture and in addition to all of the logistic research to bring the world to life, trying to really wrap my head around human sacrifice was a toughie.

You have definitely delved into some darker subjects. For the first Kushiel trilogy you researched BDSM and for the Imriel cycle you explored the experiences of abused children. I’m imagining that at some point that research tested your comfort level. Did you ever encounter anything that was just too dark?

Honestly, the research is not as challenging as bringing it to life. I would say that easily hands down in terms of both research and writing, writing the whole sequence in Daršanga in Kushiel’s Avatar was the most difficult. Even though in research you’re reading real stories and real incidents, to bring them to life when writing you have to internalize it to so much more of a degree that for me, personally, it’s more challenging.

Has your research ever brought any new practices or beliefs into your life?

I’m sure it has. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.… Actually, my interest in Yoga probably followed the writing the Naamah books.

What aspects of your writing do you feel have grown easier over time?

I can’t really say that it gets easier! [laughs] Each book has its own unique set of challenges and in some ways, having written so many big, sprawling books with a heck of a lot of plot in them I do find myself, as I cycle though ideas throughout the day, going “Ooo! What a great id—oh no. I did that.” There are only so many literary tropes and finding a way to make them fresh can be challenging. Like, in Kushiel’s Mercy I thought, “Am I really going to do the amnesia thing? How can I make this creative and fun and interesting and compelling?” What I came up with was to kind of double down on the whole thing and have two characters, not remembering either who they are or aspects of their lives, go through the entire process of falling in love again.

So when you are struggling to come up with ideas, what’s a bad day of writing?

This is actually an area where I can say things have gotten easier in that I’m experienced enough that I know when to push and when not to push. A bad day would be not knowing and trying to push through and keep writing when what I really need to do is step back and give myself twenty-four hours away from it.

What’s a really good day?

There are always really juicy, fraught scenes that I know are going to take place in the future. Working towards those is a reward for all the transitional or expository bits that aren’t quite as exciting until you get to one of those really good ones. When you’re writing it, nailing it, that’s a perfect writing day.

As your readers know and as you recently reiterated on your website you like to play with conventional storytelling tropes. You’ve written about women who are refreshingly unashamed of their sexuality and bad-guys who are more compassionate than good guys. Are there any tropes you are hoping to explore in the future?

Not that I can articulate at this point.

So we’ll just have to wait and see?

[laughs] Hopefully it will be worth the wait.

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Hannah Strom-Martin

Hannah Strom-MartinHannah Strom-Martin’s fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, OnSpec, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and the anthology Amazons: Sexy Tales of Strong Women.  Her non-fiction has made frequent appearances in Strange Horizons, The North Bay Bohemian, and The Sacramento News and Review.  She is a graduate of Bennington College (BA), The University of Southern Maine’s “Stonecoast” MFA Program, and the Odyssey Fantasy Writers’ Workshop.  She currently resides in California with her husband the obligatory cast of cats all named after characters from Tolkien.