From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Interview: Locus Awards Top Ten Finalists, Part Two

The Locus Awards are one of the few major awards that feature a range of novel categories, including Best Fantasy Novel. Awards inevitably reflect the tastes of the people who decide on recipients: the selections for the World Fantasy Awards reflect the tastes of a given year’s jurors; each year’s Hugo Awards reflect the tastes of Worldcon memberships; Nebula Awards nominees and winners reflect the reading habits of voting SFWA* members.

The Locus Awards are a bit different. Ostensibly a readers’ poll, the Locus Awards are decided by an open vote: anyone can participate, and there are no requirements, other than the ability to cast the vote. This means these awards potentially reflect the tastes of a broader range of individuals—but presumably still folks who love genre fiction. So, who better to talk about fantasy fiction than the top ten finalists of the Locus Awards in the Best Fantasy Novel category?

We invited the authors of the top ten Best Fantasy Novels (according to the Locus poll) to participate in a brief collective interview, to discuss their work, their careers, and other things. We asked them all the same ten questions, with the request that they respond to at least seven of them, and let them pick whichever questions they want to answer. We are breaking the interview into two parts, across two issues, for space.

Last month we presented part one; this month features part two.

We hope you find their responses as interesting as we did!

*The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association

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Locus Awards Top Ten Finalists, Best Fantasy Novel Category interview, Part Two, featuring (alphabetically): Ryka Aoki, Fonda Lee, Naomi Novik, C.L. Polk

• • • •

Ryka Aoki

What are some of your favorite works or authors that use fantastic elements (from the past or more recent, whichever you’d like to talk about), and what do you like most about them?

RA: Hayao Miyazaki is one. I love how his worlds do not adhere to what we imagine as right or wrong or beautiful or ugly. His work alters our way of seeing the world, and I am grateful for that genius. Toni Morrison is another. I know that Morrison might not seem fantastical—much of what she addresses is anything but faraway and make-believe. However, there is the fantastic in how she writes about it. Her language is so lush and rich and musical and evocative . . . it reminds me what words can do when one treats them with love and respect.

How did you get into writing narratives with fantastic elements? Was it something you always did, or was there a transition, or a moment of inspiration?

RA: I think growing up queer and trans one is always wondering, “why am I this way?” and “how did I get here?” As a child I might not have known who I was, but I knew I didn’t fit in. It is a very lonely place—not fitting in, and it seems unfair. So . . . was there a reason that I was made like this? I’ve always loved stories that gave me new possibilities to answer that question.

What was “breaking in” like for you—did you sell stories or novels right away, did you have connections, was it random, or was there a period of submissions and rejections and trunked work?

RA: There was a lot of work and a lot of luck involved. I spent years working with small presses and hand-printed ‘zines. Journals, presses, publishers . . . I got rejected all over the place. I did get some acceptances, though, and the entire time I was growing, and writing and learning—even though it didn’t seem that way at the time. And I was living. People around me soared and sailed and some died . . . one feels differently about one’s art when that happens. So when the chain of events began, everything that led to Light From Uncommon Stars, I think I was as ready as I would ever be.

What, for you, are the most challenging craft elements in writing novels, and how do you deal with those challenges?

RA: I have a poetry background, and I still write like a poet, which can be daunting when writing a novel. I usually feel like a slowpoke. Knowing this, I try to create a routine where I can work on pieces of the novel—almost like a poetry collection—before bringing them together. And I hope the results are worth the wait.

The Locus Top Ten Finalists is the result of a readers’ poll—readers voted your book as being one of the best books out there! (CONGRATULATIONS, by the way! = ) ) Please talk a bit about the way you use the fantastic in your book, and what you like most about the way you’ve utilized it.

RA: I use the fantastic in a very day-to-day way, because I feel all of us are magical once we get to know each other. So many people have talents and skills and stories that can seem unreal. This is why I blend starships and donuts and demons and kiwi boba. Because I believe in the magic of this world. And yes, I will always believe in the fantastic, no matter what is happening around us.

What was the main inspiration for this book, how did it develop, and were there a lot of changes from initial concept to final product?

RA: I wanted to write a tale about space aliens, violinists, demons, and donuts. But not your ordinary, everyday tale of space aliens, violinists, demons, and donuts . . . Instead, I wanted to make the space aliens Asian refugees, the violinists transgender runaways.

I wanted to evoke the names and faces of people I’ve known all my life. In Light From Uncommon Stars I wanted to share my hometown, the miso soup, kiwi boba, weekend menudo, and Chinese BBQ duck. I wanted to share the donuts, and the donut people, of my childhood.

Most of the changes and adjustments were all giving myself permission to tell the story I wanted, without worrying about what was expected. That let me create relationships and voices that I am proud to bring to my readers.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to readers, and separately, one piece of advice you’d give to writers who are just starting out?

RA: To readers—try to address each author individually. It is easy to think of and to market blocks of books—queer writers and women writers and writers of color—and it can be a convenient shorthand. But each writer is SO different and I think going into each book—no matter that the cover copy says—with open arms and hearts and minds will make your reading experiences even more magical.

For writers just starting out—start building a trusting and loving relationship with who you are tomorrow. It’s a long road, and you’ll sleep a lot better at night if you know the “tomorrow you” will preserve and expand and improve upon the words and stories your write today.

For some of the authors on this list, this may be their first award nomination. For others, it’s just one of their recent awards nominations. Do you feel like awards make a difference in terms of writing fiction, or in terms of career?

RA: Awards and nominations can help sell books, and that is always good for a writer’s career. Personally, I think awards mainly let me know that some readers really like my work. And then I can get an interview like this where I can say thank you.

What else are you working on? What do you have coming up that you’d like people to know about?

RA: I’m working on my next book for Tor right now! Super excited about it—I think it’s some of my best writing yet—but I can’t talk too much about it now.

Also, I have a newsletter “Ryka’s Most Excellent World” where I chat about science and the arts and life as a working writer. Sometimes I even post new stories there. Please check it out!

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Fonda Lee

The Locus Award is the result of a readers’ poll—readers voted your book as being one of the best books out there! (CONGRATULATIONS, by the way! = ) ) Please talk a bit about the way you use the fantastic in your book, and what you like most about the way you’ve utilized it.

FL: Thank you! Winning the Locus Award is deeply meaningful to me because I think of Locus readers as some of the most knowledgeable and well-read speculative fiction consumers out there, so the fact that they voted for Jade Legacy on a ballot full of good choices is something that’ll always stay with me.

In the Green Bone Saga, I employ the fantastic in a limited and grounded way. The island nation of Kekon is the only place with bioenergetic jade, which endows those who’re trained to use it with superior abilities like those you might see in a wuxia martial arts story: the ability to leap over walls, channel energy, deflect bullets, or punch through concrete. What I enjoyed most about the magic I put into my books was how non-magical I was able to make it seem in the story. I wanted this precious substance, jade, to seem very much like an ordinary, day-to-day part of the world and the culture I’d created.

What was the main inspiration for this book, how did it develop, and were there a lot of changes from initial concept to final product?

FL: I began with a concept for the world that was really an aesthetic created from a mashup of concepts that excited me. I envisioned a modern era Asian metropolis with gangs and magic-fueled martial arts. Men in suits smoking in alleys. Business deals made in private dining rooms and politics at the edge of a blade. Luxury cars and guns, nightclubs and blood feuds. Clan warfare, family drama, and duels to the death. I didn’t have any plot or characters when I first began, just vibes. I’m really proud to say that the vision I started out with did become fully realized, but the biggest change along the way was the growth in breadth and depth of the cast of characters, and the amount of time (thirty years) that ended up being covered.

For readers who haven’t read this book, who mainly have the cover and blurb to go by, what would you like them to know about this work? What is important or special to you about this book?

FL: The marketing for the Green Bone Saga tends to emphasize the martial arts action and the mafia genre comparisons, especially to The Godfather. What’s most special to me, however, and what I think has truly resonated with readers, is the Kaul family. This trilogy is a family saga at its heart.

How did you get into writing narratives with fantastic elements? Was it something you always did, or was there a transition, or a moment of inspiration?

FL: I’ve been reading fantasy since as early as I can remember reading, and writing fantasy since as early as I can remember writing. I was in fifth grade when I wrote my first fantasy novel while riding the bus to and from school each day. I was that bookish kid spending all her physical time in the library and her mental time in the made-up world of her own imagination, so fantastic elements were neither a sudden revelation nor something that I slowly and consciously adopted; they were simply always there.

What was “breaking in” like for you—did you sell stories or novels right away, did you have connections, was it random, or was there a period of submissions and rejections and trunked work?

FL: I went straight into writing novels. My first complete attempt was a fantasy novel that I queried without success and that ended up trunked. The following year, I wrote what would become my debut, a young adult science fiction novel called Zeroboxer. I signed with my agent off of a cold query. We did a round of revision and then went on submission and sold the book in a month to a small press for a modest advance. I wrote another book and sold it to a larger publisher, for a better advance. Another book followed, then another . . . While it certainly hasn’t all been smooth sailing, and there’s been plenty of rejection along the way, I haven’t looked back. Even when it’s hard, this is a job I enjoy.

What, for you, are the most challenging craft elements in writing novels, and how do you deal with those challenges?

FL: I find drafting to be the most challenging part of writing a novel. I’m one of those authors who enjoys revision (and especially enjoys having finished the book!), but who struggles with the first draft because a) I’m a slow writer, and b) the more experienced I get, the easier it is to see how much everything sucks when it first comes out on the page. Intellectually, I know that it’ll improve in the revision process, but in order to get through the painful first drafting phase, I really have to be disciplined about forcing myself into the chair, tuning out distractions (so many distractions), and above all, lowering my own standards and giving myself permission to write badly so that the first draft gets done.

For some of the authors on this list, this may be their first award nomination. For others, it’s just one of their recent awards nominations. Do you feel like awards make a difference in terms of writing fiction, or in terms of career?

FL: Awards, in my opinion, may not result in a noticeable increase in book sales in the short term, but they absolutely do make a difference when it comes to getting recognized within the industry, and to a lesser degree, among readers. Having awards to one’s name opens up opportunities, sometimes unexpected ones. That might include a solicitation to submit for an anthology, a request to teach at a workshop, a foreign language translation of your novel, an invitation to speak at a conference, or an agent or editor expressing interest in your next project. There’s also the psychological and emotional value of the award, which boils down to knowing that your peers and/or readers like what you’re doing. That knowledge can sometimes be a huge balm on the days when the solitary work of writing is especially difficult.

• • • •

Naomi Novik

What are some of your favorite works or authors that use fantastic elements (from the past or more recent, whichever you’d like to talk about), and what do you like most about them?

NN: Some of my favorite authors from my earliest fantasy reading include Tolkien, Ursula LeGuin, Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, Anne McCaffrey, and Mercedes Lackey, among many more. Right now, there’s amazing work from Martha Wells, Zen Cho, Katherine Arden, Seanan McGuire, and N.K. Jemisin, whose Broken Earth Trilogy is fundamental.

When I read fantasy myself, I love the experience of being transported to a world that you couldn’t otherwise go to. Whether it’s a past world that no longer exists, one that has yet to come into being, or one completely imagined—I want to immerse myself in the world of the story and believe in it. When you pick up Dragonsong, for one example, the reader fully steps inside of Pern and inhabits it. It’s a real, living place, and every character you meet is carrying their own story inside of them. If a world is wholly believable, you can ask the reader to come along and accept fantastical elements, like the existence of dragons.

How did you get into writing narratives with fantastic elements? Was it something you always did, or was there a transition, or a moment of inspiration?

NN: I write what I can write, when I can write it! Fantasy doesn’t necessarily need to have elves, magic, wizards, or dragons; it’s where the author has the power to craft the stage for their characters, and the stakes of their situation. The appeal for me is that your world and your characters can grow together.

What, for you, are the most challenging craft elements in writing novels, and how do you deal with those challenges?

NN: The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received is: SET SOMETHING ON FIRE.

I always let the characters lead the story. My plots are determined by what the characters need or want, what happens in reaction to their actions—which is shaped by the world around them. So if I find myself struggling with what is happening next, or what should be happening—it can be useful throwing unexpected catastrophic events at them: burning down something they care about, or turning things upside-down around them. Even if you don’t end up keeping it, you find out what is important to your characters.

The Locus Top Ten Finalists is the result of a readers’ poll—readers voted your book as being one of the best books out there! (CONGRATULATIONS, by the way! = ) ) Please talk a bit about the way you use the fantastic in your book, and what you like most about the way you’ve utilized it.

NN: In the Scholomance, I’ve tried to create a genuinely terrifying setting by taking things that many of us fear in actuality, and amplifying them to a whole new level by means of the maleficaria—life-threatening creatures that prowl the school preying on students. Some of the maleficaria embody real, visceral anxieties that we have, like unseen things that come wriggling out of our food or crawling out of the drain while we are showering. Others prey on students in places where they feel the most vulnerable, like walking the more remote hallways of the school without the company of friends, or just as they’re curling up into a comfortable big chair in the library.

What was the main inspiration for this book, how did it develop, and were there a lot of changes from initial concept to final product?

NN: Schools of dark magic have fascinated me since I was ten years old! I first encountered an evocative illustration in a volume from The Enchanted World series by Time-Life Books, depicting scholars of dark magic studying in pitch-black darkness—locked away from sunlight for many years with no teachers or contact with the outside world. At the end of their studies, the last student is taken for payment by the Devil. Later, I came across a mention of the Scholomance itself in footnotes of THE ANNOTATED DRACULA. (Dracula went there!) The legend has stuck in my head ever since: why would anyone choose to go to this terrible place? How would they survive it? The answer has to be: Because it’s worse on the outside. From there, the world outside of the school developed. The school evolved as a character, like any other character.

The biggest change was when I realized I had to write three books instead of two! It was originally planned as a duology, but A Deadly Education ended where it had to—and that is how one ends up with a trilogy.

For readers who haven’t read this book, who mainly have the cover and blurb to go by, what would you like them to know about this work? What is important or special to you about this book?

NN: The importance of building community and finding connection with one another is very much a part of this story. When we come together to face struggles, we can meet challenges that would otherwise be insurmountable for any one of us alone. In the Scholomance, this imperative is made literal, not least of all on the last day of senior year.

I also hope that readers identify with the anxieties that confront El: having nowhere to sit in the school cafeteria, or finding yourself with nobody to walk with to class. In the real world, these situations can really feel like a matter of life-and-death; in the Scholomance, they actually are!

What is one piece of advice you’d give to readers, and separately, one piece of advice you’d give to writers who are just starting out?

NN: FINISH THINGS. Write a lot, and finish a lot. And if you have to pick one, finish a lot. In the beginning, if you have not yet sold anything, learn to finish things—and then let them go, even if they aren’t perfect. Finish everything you start, until you get good at finishing things. We all just have to sit down and write. You have to write something bad before you can write something good.

What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that you’d like people to know about?

NN: My next project is called Folly—very generally—a story about how people and place shape one another. It’s still very much in early stages; I’m normally a pantser—it may be my first foray into full-scale world building.

I’m currently constructing the world from the ground up—continents, climates, historical contexts, where the mountains and rivers are.

• • • •

C.L. Polk

What are some of your favorite works or authors that use fantastic elements (from the past or more recent, whichever you’d like to talk about), and what do you like most about them?

CLP: My favorite SFF author is Tanith Lee. I was obsessed with her books, and I have lugged around a stack of yellow-spined paperbacks for decades just to keep my collection wherever I went. I loved her prose, most of all, and the quality of her voice. I’m very interested in writers who have great ideas and enviable prose, and there are so many to choose from these days.

How did you get into writing narratives with fantastic elements? Was it something you always did, or was there a transition, or a moment of inspiration?

CLP: It was something that I always wrote, even when I was a little kid. If there wasn’t a magical, supernatural, or speculative element in the story, I didn’t write it. That’s not true. I did write one story that didn’t have any of these, and I never even tried to share it with the world.

What was “breaking in” like for you—did you sell stories or novels right away, did you have connections, was it random, or was there a period of submissions and rejections and trunked work?

CLP: I sold my first story ages ago, in 2002. It was the first short story I had ever written with the intent to sell it to a magazine, and after a quick no from Strange Horizons because they didn’t publish horror, I sold it to Gothic.net. A few years later I sold a science fiction story to Eric Flint to Baen’s Universe . . . and then nothing for ages. I wrote a few stories for Shadow Unit, and then a few years after that, I sent out Witchmark.

Honestly, I didn’t send out many stories, and I would trunk them after a handful of rejections. A lot of people worked hard at selling short fiction, but I wasn’t one of them!

What, for you, are the most challenging craft elements in writing novels, and how do you deal with those challenges?

CLP: Trusting the process is the most challenging. I spend a lot of the drafting process worried that everything I’m doing is wrong. Maybe that’s not craft-aligned enough, but it’s the hardest part because I can’t just study it like I can for things like story structure and characterization. Those things, I figured out by trying different things. Trusting the process doesn’t have an easy fix.

The Locus Top Ten Finalists is the result of a readers’ poll—readers voted your book as being one of the best books out there! (CONGRATULATIONS, by the way!) Please talk a bit about the way you use the fantastic in your book, and what you like most about the way you’ve utilized it.

CLP: Well, the magic of the Kingston Cycle and the presence of the Amaranthines are tied together, though I don’t know if that’s obvious from reading it. I had a very basic starting point for the magic, and expanded on that beginning until I stopped writing whatever came to mind to say aloud, “oh gosh, that’s horrifying,” and then promptly started working on a story based on that.

But the result wasn’t really so much about the magic as it was about power. I’ve said it a few times—Fantasy stories are stories about power, when you get down to the roots, and so the stories I write explore what happens as a result of this world having people who can do the impossible.

What was the main inspiration for this book, how did it develop, and were there a lot of changes from initial concept to final product?

CLP: Soulstar is the final book of the Kingston Cycle trilogy, and so it’s the book that finishes the series. But specifically, this book’s main inspiration was activism and community building. I wanted to write about the people who see the need for changes their society and government doesn’t care about or doesn’t want, and go ahead and do it anyway. I wanted to talk about collective action for social and political change. I know that isn’t a usual thing for fantasy, but I liked the idea.

For readers who haven’t read this book, who mainly have the cover and blurb to go by, what would you like them to know about this work? What is important or special to you about this book?

CLP: Firstly, it’s not the first book in a series; it’s the last. There are two other books to read before this one: Witchmark and Stormsong. It’s special for me because I didn’t really think that I was a series writer, but as it turns out, sometimes you can turn that into an opportunity to explore a form in a different way.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to readers, and separately, one piece of advice you’d give to writers who are just starting out?

CLP: For readers? If you’re looking for something different, there are a lot of online resources to help you find if someone’s already done that (they probably have) but it’s going to mean breaking out of what the internet believes they know about your reading preferences and have helpfully algorithmed the others away.

For writers? Apply as little success pressure on your work as possible. Write it because you want to see how it turns out. Your writing world and priorities change after the publishing deal. There isn’t really much reason to start simulating those conditions now, when you’re never going to get another chance to experiment and play around like the one you have now.

For some of the authors on this list, this may be their first award nomination. For others, it’s just one of their recent awards nominations. Do you feel like awards make a difference in terms of writing fiction, or in terms of career?

CLP: Unfortunately, I’m sure they do. An award final ballot nod or win does make a difference. It increases your visibility across the field, and that has several effects. Some of them are really good. But award nominations are stressful, no matter what. If I can give a little more advice? Making the shortlist is the win already. You did it.

What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that you’d like people to know about?

CLP: I have a novella coming out with Tordotcom Publications! It’s called Even Though I Knew The End, and it releases on November 8th. It’s a short book about a series of horrid murders and the detective who uses divination magic to track down the killer, because if she succeeds, she’ll get her soul back from the Devil.

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Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg is a 2021 and a 2022 World Fantasy Award Finalist as well as a 2022 Locus Award Finalist for his work as co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine. Arley is a 2022 recipient of SFWA’s Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards: for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is a senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes, run workshops, and been a guest for Clarion West, the Odyssey Writing Workshop, Cascade Writers, Augur Magazine, and more. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Find him on Twitter @arleysorg. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.