Foz Meadows – Writers of Fantasy Interview
A new series of the Writers of Fantasy Podcast from Scifi-fantasy network!
Joel Cornah talks to Foz Meadows, author of An Accident of Stars! Foz is a genderqueer author, blogger, essayist, reviewer and poet.
In 2014, she was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer for her blog, Shattersnipe; she is also a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Black Gate, and a contributing reviewer for A Dribble of Ink, Strange Horizons and Tor.com.
Give the episode a listen here, or on iTunes! There are some key quotes below.
JC: How long have you been a writer and what drew you to fantasy fiction in particular?
FM: I’ve been a published author in the novel-producing sense for about seven years now. But I’ve always written. I came into science fiction and fantasy kind of natively; I had a childhood love of mythology that naturally evolved into reading Redwall books and the Geoffrey McSkimming Cairo Jim novels. They were about antiquities, and old gods, sort of middle grade novels.
They evolved into me reading fantasy novels once I got older and I never really stopped. It was always more interesting to me to read about an imaginary world, or this world with magic, than to just read about people existing and being sad for narrative effect.
JC: You’re also a poet! How did you get into poetry?
FM: Again, something that I was really interested in as a kid. We grew up with a lot of Shakespeare in my house. And I always had an interest in language and the way it could be used, and I always really liked different turns of phrase.
I was always really confused as a kid, because I got really into shakespeare and we’d have to read it in class at various points. It made perfect sense to me because I’d been picking over it and going ‘Oh, so this is a word for this, and this is what this means’…
I loved a lot of Australian bush poets when I was young. Like, Banjo Paterson; I had the typical pre-teen horse interest, which a lot of people seemed to go through. In the Australian context that devolved into loving the man from Snowy River, and the poem, which meant Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, and it snowballed from there.
JC: Poetry and Prose can often be seen as very different disciplines; how do you find moving from one format to the other? Do they inform one another at all?
FM: It’s an interesting question. I am a sucker for a nice turn of phrase, an inventive turn of phrase. In my extremis I will sometimes veer into what might be called Purple Prose in narrative, and then I have to try and dial it back.
The key to poetry is rhythm. Regardless of whether you’re rhyming or not; the rhythm of the thought, of the context. That’s something that translates when writing prose. Just having an awareness of how each sentence flows onto the next. Something I’ll often find myself doing is going back and slightly tweaking a sentence structure, not because it changes the content, but because choosing to put a clause at the start rather than the middle will change the rhythm.
But there are some sentiments that poetry is really great for. Particularly powerful, emotive, personal stuff. I always like to include that kind of thing, if I can, in my work. So, in An Accident of Stars, there’s some religious poetry that comes in for the pantheon of the world. That goes back to Redwall, I think, because Brian Jacques always did that
JC: What about your writing for reviewing, blogging, etc? Do you feel that that, again, is a different skillset? And is it also informed by your prose and poetry?
FM: To some extent, yes. As a technical skill, writing in different disciplines is always a little bit varied, like, there are some people who are magnificent at short stories – and I’m in awe of that.
But trying to write a good essay, or a good blog, particularly in a non-academic context, you really have to balance on the one hand making it interpretable to a lay reader… And at the same time making it engaging and compelling for people who are already interested in the subject matter. They’re the ones who are ultimately going to be passing it on.
In that sense there is a similarity to good world-building, in that you’re trying to juggle those two audiences. But otherwise, they are largely separate.
JC: Let’s talk about An Accident of Stars! There’s a lot of intricate political machinations going on. How did you map that out? Was it something that developed out of the wider story arcs?
FM: For me, the politics in any given story comes natively from the people and from the context. So, it’s not something I ever sat down and did a decision tree for. In my blogging I often argue that the personal is political, and the political is personal. So, I’m always kind of aware of that.
I’m aware of it when I’m writing about characters, particularly characters who in the context are politically active – and when you look at a lot of fantasy that’s what everybody is. If you’re a warrior sworn to a liege, or some sort of high priestess, all of those organisations in a fantasy context are still about people and power. That means they are political in a sense.
It becomes a question of how are these people relating to one another, what are their positions in these institutions, and what do they want from the people around them. It all sort of organically comes out in how I construe their characters and how they relate to each other. And it’s always kind of fascinating to take two different characters and suddenly they’re talking for the first time in a scene, and you’re watching them bounce off each other. You actually learn something about them that way.
JC: The main character is a person from our world, so she has a lot of cultural signals to drawn on – she’s read Narnia, presumably. How do you balance that out with an audience who is less knowledgeable about the conventions of portal fantasy?
FM: When I was a teenager, which is when I had the fledgeling idea for Saffron (which was basically a version of me that got to go and have adventures) I couldn’t have written this story at that age. Bad things happen to her and it was purely escapist fantasy. But when I did try to write those early versions, because she was like me and I was a geek, there was a temptation to make her someone who read fantasy novels and was heavily invested in Lord of the Rings.
It’s really difficult to do that in a novel at this point because geek culture is so wide ranging that you can’t write a geek character falling into another world without having to reference so many other people’s work. Unless you’re putting them in a context where it’s a parallel world where all of the works they’re referencing are invented to some extent.
So, then I think it’s that question of; yes, she’s got an idea, enough of a cultural frame of reference to comprehend that magic is a thing, that was hypothetical and now appears to be real. And then just letting the surroundings do the talking. Like, what is the native, conversational path? When she’s talking to Gwen and asking what the hell is going on, how do you distill that down? How does that lead to a natural conversation?
I have a side rant about conversation trees in TV as well as in fantasy. I grew up listening to a lot of radio and watching a lot of theatre, and the thing about those two things for dialogue is that they are continuous. You have to have somebody talking at all times. You can have silences, of course, but the scene can’t just cut away to a new thing, you’ve always got dialogue that’s ongoing.
Whereas in a lot of TV because you can cut after two or three lines you can distill conversation down to a very brief thing where you only get the relevant information and then change the scene. That’s what leads people who take their cues in written works from TV and movies to ‘As you know, Bob,’ conversations. Because they’re used to a conversation where they’re just cutting between the meaningful stuff.
If you’re writing for a medium like radio or the theatre, you have to have continuous dialogue. The question of a conversational tree and what answers natively flow from what questions becomes a much more detailed undertaking. Because the very slightest reworking of a question can actually lead someone to give a very different answer. So, you tend to have to map that a bit more carefully.
JC: You champion a lot of racial, gender and sexual diversity in your works. Was that a liberating experience where you’re not stuck with the generic straight white man who occasionally broods. What’s it like in the industry? Were they open to it or were they skeptical?
FM: Honestly, my agent really loved those aspects of the book. Angry Robot liked those aspects of the book. If think if, at any point, I’d been asked to dial it back, or ‘what’s the utility of this?’ I would have balked. But I think it’s just that question of; we have this socially instilled notion of how stories work. Again, thanks to TV and film. That you are only getting particular forms of information about a character if it is directly pertinent to the story.
But in a longer form narrative, that’s not the case. You actually want extraneous bits of character, you want to flesh things out, because not everything has to be filmed in a 30 minute block. And because you can give those more full pictures of characters, it really doesn’t make sense to think ‘I can’t say that this character is queer if they don’t have a relationship in this section’ and why not? Queer people can have adventures!
The idea that giving particular pieces of information or characterisation is somehow not relevant unless activated. It’s kind of like how, say, this character has red hair, and red haired people exist, therefore why can’t a redhead be a character? It’s a fact about somebody.
People might say ‘oh wow you’re ticking a lot of boxes, there’. And, well, if you want to criticise how I’ve portrayed them, if you think it’s an accurate portrayal or not, I’m willing to have a conversation about that because I always want to improve.
But, if you’re saying that just because I’ve given them that attribute, that’s a box ticked. I always want to ask these people ‘under what conditions would this person exist in a story without you saying that? What criteria do they have to meet for you not to find that detail incongruous?’ As soon as you give me restrictions on that, you’re telling me that you’re not comfortable with that aspect of somebody’s personhood in a narrative. And that’s your issue more than the story’s.
JC: What would you say is your favourite aspect of writing?
FM: It varies from story to story. The bits I’m always looking forward to writing are often what I call ‘link scenes’, the bits that are sort of drudgery. Having to get from point A that I was really interested in to point B that I’m really interested in and all the mundane bit in between.
But once I can see a particular scene in my head and it starts unfolding; not just working it out on the page, but the ‘oh right! I know these two characters are going to meet and they’re going to have this interaction! This is going to happen!’ And once I’ve got something like that in my head, weather it be an action scene, or a sex scene, or a big dialogue exchange.
Once I can visualise it, once I can feel the intensity of the feeling behind it, that’s generally what’s the most engaging. Any scenes where there’s a heightened sense of emotion. That allows me to picture it really clearly and that’s when I’m bashing at the keyboard, rushing to get to it.
JC: Without giving away too many spoilers, were there any bits of An Accident of Stars that were like that? A favourite line, shall we say?
FM: It’s hard to say because a lot of the bits that I was really into come quite near the end. Things that happen with the Council of Queens fall into that category. And in the sequel, A Tyranny of Queens, the early scenes with Saffron also fall under that banner.
JC: That makes a nice segue, so Tyranny of Queens has just come out. What can readers expect?
FM: Narratively, it’s a direct continuation of An Accident of Stars. The theme I had in mind as I was writing it was ‘aftermath’. What happens next? So, it’s not really a secret throughout An Accident of Stars that Saffron is going to be missed while she is away in the other world and she’s going to have to go back at the end.
So, A Tyranny of Queens starts with her having to deal with that aftermath of ‘I’m back now, what do people think of me? Where do they think I was off to? How do I cope with their impressions of me?’ And her friends back in Kenna are thinking ‘We’re still left in a political situation here, how do we try and solve the issue that we’ve been presented with?’
There are a couple of new point of view characters. Yenna, who’s a character in the first book, is a point of view character in the second. There’s a new character as well called Naruet (sp?) who is also a point of view character, and he was really fun to write.
JC: What else are you working on right now?
FM: I’ve got a couple of queer fantasy romances that I’m really excited about. I’ve been slightly stalled on them for a little bit largely because I set them aside while I was doing edits for A Tyranny of Queens. So, I need to get back into them soon-ish. Also, various self indulgent projects.