Caitlin Sweet is the author of three adult fantasy novels: A Telling of Stars (Penguin Canada, 2003), The Silences of Home (Penguin Canada, 2005), and The Pattern Scars (Chizine Publications, 2011). The Door in the Mountain (Chizine Publications, 2014) is her first young adult book, and it is on the shortlist for this year’s Sunburst Award, whose jury says:
Sweet has fashioned a gorgeously dangerous world ruled by equal parts beauty, magic, violence, and the whims of gods.
The sequel, The Flame in the Maze, will be published in fall 2015. Her first three books were nominated for Locus Best First Novel, Aurora, and Sunburst Awards; The Pattern Scars won the CBC Bookie Award in the Science Fiction, Fantasy or Speculative Fiction category.
I asked, first:
Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess? Who was she?
Eilonwy, daughter of Angharad—the high-spirited princess of the House of Llyr, who tossed her red-gold hair all the way through the five books of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles.
Can you remember what it was she did or what qualities she had that captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?
I was seven when I first encountered Eilonwy. At the time I believed I might, in fact, be a princess from another world who’d been dropped off on this one, and left here far longer than intended, due to some cataclysm or other. Eilonwy was the princess I yearned to be. I knew it the moment I heard her voice and saw that red-gold hair: she was young, smart, quippy, beautiful, and royal, thrown in with a ragged band of misfits and swept up in adventures that got her dirty and wounded. When the men around her whined and moaned, she was undaunted. I thought this undauntedness was absolutely wonderful.
I re-read the Prydain books many times, over the years. When I was fourteen, I thought, “She’s the only one of the companions who’s female: of course she’s beautiful and smart and young. Of course she had to end up with the handsome young man, who of course turned out to be a king. Also: she stamps her foot a lot. And her eyes do a great deal of flashing.”
But analysis and cynicism always passed, as I read and re-read. These were my friends. The longing to slip into their world with them has always been there—even now, flipping through pages (when the longing is, of course, thickened with a healthy dollop of nostalgia).
How does she compare to the female characters in your work? Is she their literary ancestor? Do they rebel against all she stands for? What might your heroines owe her?
Not a single one of my female characters is like Eilonwy, because my worlds are nothing like Prydain—none of my published worlds, anyway. I did write a book when I was seventeen that featured a bunch of high fantasy tropes, and a young woman with red-gold hair, whose name was Aelwen.
That’s as close as I got. (It was, admittedly, pretty close.) I went out of my way to avoid tropes, in my later writing. Though there are a queen and a princess in my second book, the former is psychopathic, and the latter falls in love with an enemy captive and dies tragically, setting in motion a string of hideous events. Come to think of it, a queen and princess also feature in The Pattern Scars—but there’s absolutely no quippy undauntedness about them. (The princess never even learns to walk, let alone quip. Plus, she’s blind.) Aaand, as it happens, my Cretan books, The Door in the Mountain and The Flame in the Maze are centred around a deeply unlikeable princess who twists everything she sets her twisted mind to. The royalty thing does seem to have stuck.
Beyond that, though: no Prydain.
Eilonwy was the person I wished I could be when I was seven, and certain that magic had to be real. My own female characters are the people who intrigue me, now that I know it isn’t.
When not working on her own books (which, sadly, is most of the time), Caitlin Sweet is a writer at the Ontario Government, and a genre writing workshop instructor at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. She lives in Toronto with her family, which includes a science fiction-writing husband, two teenagers, four cats, a hamster, a bunch of fish, and a passel of itinerant raccoons.
If this interview leaves you hungry for more about Caitlin Sweet, check out this post by Peter Watts, here, about the Sunburst nod.
About this post: The Heroine Question is my name for a series of short interviews with female writers about their favorite characters and literary influences. The link will take you to the other interviews, with awesome people like Martha Wells, Jane Lindskold, and Gemma Files.
Also about this post: A friend has recently asked about my use of the gendered word, heroine, in this series. I could have gone with hero, true, or female heroes. To be honest, my initial inspiration came from a desire to make puns: Gemma Files on Heroin! Oops! That kind of thing. I hope to get up a post that takes the answer further than “I pun, therefore I am.” And I have folded a question about this word into the later interviews; you’ll see other writers talking about it, too, in a few weeks’ time.
Former film critic and teacher turned award-winning horror author Gemma Files is probably best known for her Hexslinger series (A Book of Tongues, A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones, all from ChiZine Publications). She has also published two collections of short fiction (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart), two chapbooks of poetry and a story cycle (We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven). Her story “The Emperor’s Old Bones” won the International Horror Guild’s 1999 Best Short Fiction award. She’s since been nominated twice for the Shirley Jackson award, and won the Black Quill Award for her first novel.
I am insanely excited about Gemma’s next book Experimental Film, because like her horrifying, creepy, delightful, gut-wrenching Apex story “each thing i show you is a piece of my death” (co-written with Stephen J. Barringer) it’s about a haunted film.
I started with the question I’ve been asking my other interviewees. Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess? Who was she?
You know, I wish this was an easy question to answer, because it’s not, and that’s pretty sad. I mean…I started out with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, the first books I can remember re-reading for pleasure, and while there are some sort of contextually wonderful female characters in that, they often undergo a transition which leaves them in a far less great place by the end of their overall narratives.
Lucy Pevensie grows up in Narnia, for example, becomes a queen, then gets busted back down into a child “in real life,” and remains one every time she returns; Aravis Tarkheena from The Horse and His Boy learns a lesson about why her original culture sucks, then marries into and adopts another, “better” one; Jill Pole and Polly Plummer have interesting adventures in their respective youths, then literally end up dead and in Heaven post-apocalypse, along with Lucy—and the less said about Susan, as many have noted, the better.
So weirdly, the female character I imprinted on most strongly was Jadis of Charn, introduced in The Magician’s Nephew, who becomes The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s White Witch, and in hindsight that may be because while her personal journey takes her straight to hell, she at least drives it every step of the way herself. Just as the city-state of Charn itself crossbreeds Ancient Egypt, Rome, Byzantium, Babylon and Ur, Jadis is both a relic and the end-product of a far older, darker, more barbaric/decadent civilization, literally enormous (half jinn and half giant), highly-coloured and full of destructive energy, especially when juxtaposed with dull, rainy, “realistic” turn-of-the-20th-century England. She’s framed as a hybrid of Eve and Lucifer, scarfing down a magic apple and sacrificing what remains of her soul for knowledge and power—but then again, that decision makes total sense, considering that even in her imperious yet rudely innocent earlier form, she’s still the kind of person who boasts about using the atomic bomb-like Deplorable Word to exterminate every other person in her pocket dimension just to make sure her sister can never take the throne from her. When we first meet her Jadis is an evil Sleeping Beauty, undisputed empress of a dead planet, but she gets worse, and that’s her choice; she’s truly awesome, in the oldest sense of the word.
Looking back, however, I realize that what I’m skipping over in my brain is the fact that even then I was fascinated with archaeology and history, which means that my real first book of “female characters” might actually have been a coloring book called Notorious Women, the women in question running the gamut from Semiramis, Hatshepsut, Artemisia and Agrippina the Younger to Irene Basileus, Wu Zetian, Roxelana (also known as Hurrem Sultane), Lucrezia Borgia and Queen Mary Tudor. These were women who seized power by any means they deemed necessary and did whatever they felt they had to in order to keep it as long as possible, employing everything from poison, murder, sex and religious persecution to outright witchcraft in their struggle for dominance, while also dressing extremely well. Jadis had a lot in common with these ladies, so in a strange way, I think she felt more innately “realistic” to me than any of Lewis’s nicer, more Aslan-approved girls.
This attraction towards evil queens, witches, worshippers of dark forces and villains who didn’t think of themselves as such extended into the subsidiary influences of Arha/Tenar from Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan, Achren from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and Linda from Ruth Nichols’ The Marrow of the World, all of whom are singular, ill-fated and doubtful of their own capacity for goodness. Tenar is, I suppose, the most overtly heroic of the bunch, especially in the later books I wouldn’t read until I was in my forties, written when LeGuin started to intentionally dismantle the sexist undercurrents of Earthsea’s patriarchal motto “weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic”—but there’s a fight I remember in Marrow which has always stayed with me, especially so when Trina Schart Hyman’s illustration is added in on top: Linda squaring off against a demon that’s made itself look like a little girl, putting herself deliberately between it and two defenceless humans—one her long-forgotten half-brother, the other her “cousin” from our world, where her witch-mother sent her into exile—who both cheer her on, all the while wondering inside who’s the bigger threat in the fight.
So Jadis, obviously, had qualities that captured your affections and your imagination?
Well, I guess I’ve basically always seen myself as a monster: too loud, too angry, too physically overdeveloped and full of useless information, never comfortable, never liked. I looked at books like Harriet The Spy and thought: “Oh hey, she has glasses too, she makes up stories…” But then by the story’s climax I both despised Harriet and envied her, despised her because she got caught and punished and accepted the judgement of her peers, envied her because she was rewarded with genuine friendship and support at the end of her shaming. I felt a similar ambivalence towards April, the protagonist of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game, who had a glamourous but absent actress mother, who dressed up and told eccentric, gigantic lies about herself that never quite came off, yet managed to attract a set of likeminded co-conspirators after her out-of-control imagination intersected with that of Melanie, the girl downstairs.
I didn’t fantasize about either of them, though, because doing so felt ridiculous; I already knew what it was like to be larger-than-life in a tiny world, trapped by standards for social normalcy I knew I’d never be able to conform to, constantly policed by other people whose opinions I didn’t care about. No, it was much more interesting to think about blood and gold and human sacrifice, giant evil gods, shapeshifters, dynastic intermarriage, spasms of war and rape and murder—archaeology crossed with mythology, fairytales from one end of the globe to the other, the D’Aullaires’ books of Greek and Norse gods, Barbara Nynde Byfield’s Book of Weird and Georgess MacHarque’s The Impossible People. I wanted beauty and strangeness and danger, always danger. And I had no recourse to anything but my own badly-organized dreams along those lines, until I finally tripped across Tanith Lee.
I remember starting to go into second-hand bookstores when I was twelve and thirteen and buying up huge wads of DAW Fantasy, with that emblematic yellow spine. Lee’s stuff was always the best of the bunch, and though sometimes—often, actually—it didn’t end up going exactly where I wanted it to, I was always fascinated by where it did, especially in her Tales from the Flat Earth series. Again, the debatably evil goddess-witch queens (Oaive from The Winter Players, Zorayas daughter of Zorashad, Narasen of Merh, Azhriaz) were right at the forefront of my interests, but Lee soon added in a layer of sexually-ambiguous/borderline inhuman dudes on top: Cyrion, Deketon from East of Midnight, Azhrarn, Zhirem/Zhirek and Shell/Simmu. C.J. Cherryh was pretty good here and there, along with Elizabeth A. Lynn, but with Lee it was like she was channelling her stuff straight from id to the page.
How does these influences compare to the female characters in your work? Are they their literary ancestors? Do they rebel against all she stands for? What might your heroines owe her?
Definitely, the trend of terrible people coming to grips with their own terribleness is a backbone of my work, as is the general theme of monstrosity, particularly of the feminine variety; if I had to guess, that’s probably most visible thus far throughout my story cycle We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven, which is even structured like one of Lee’s Flat Earth books. But even in the otherwise dick-heavy Hexslinger series, I’ve still tried to consistently make room for characters like Yancey, Songbird, Yiska, Grandma, Oona Pargeter and Ixchel, who hopefully provide a spectrum of female-oriented weirdness. Power, with its rewards and its discontents, remains what I’m most attracted to, and seeing it channelled through a vaguely feminine form? That’s my crack, always was. Always will be.
In a lot of ways, my upcoming novel Experimental Film (out by November, from CZP) combines these formative fantasies and impulses in a story driven by three different female characters. First off, there’s Lois Cairns, the protagonist and narrator who often thinks she’s a monster of the sadly metaphorical RL kind; she’s literally my attempt to write myself-but-not-really and explore various problems from my adult life through fiction, such as the difficulties of balancing personal creativity with being the mother of a child with special needs. Mrs A. Macalla Whitcomb, on the other hand—the long-lost early Ontario filmmaker whose work Lois accidentally discovers—is more of a cautionary tale or a tragic figure, an artist possessed and destroyed by her own vision who comes off like either a witch or a martyr, depending on who you talk to. As for Lady Midday, meanwhile, the creature whose supernatural influence may lurk behind everything Lois experiences during her journey into Mrs Whitcomb’s world—she’s a legend, a myth, a not-so-dead goddess, able to exult, inspire and destroy at a whim. The main difference between her and the all-powerful witch-queens of my youth is that I’m now old enough to know that good and evil aren’t exactly concepts that apply, when you’re talking about something that was never really human.
About this post: The Heroine Question is an interview series where female authors answer questions about their artistic influences and fictional heroines. I’m planning to arrange for you all to see answers to these three questions, and variations on them, popping up throughout the summer from a number of terrific authors. Enjoy! (Or, better yet, comment, tweet, and repost!)
Kelly and I have been in our home near the Art Gallery of Ontario for 275 days as of today, and while we’re counting things I’ll add that we got the cats 252 days ago. (Yes, I derive insane amounts of pleasure from the Days Until app.) Obviously we settled in quite quickly, especially as it was such a small move compared to the one in 2013.
Still, it takes awhile to sort out all the little bits and pieces, to make everything cozy and satisfying. We had trips and company and more trips; it took awhile to nail down a bunch of little annoyances, like patching a hole in the counter, fixing the floor and getting the closet door fixed. Actually, we obliged a recent guest to do that last thing for us. Thank you, Bill!
Something that has helped lately was Kelly’s having discovered Posterjack, an Ontario company that makes it ludicrously easy to get nice framed prints of some of our favorite photos.
Last week we hung three photos we took while rambling around Italy… how many days ago did we leave? Oh, a mere 1139! The first is an earthquake-damaged fresco in the Palazzo dei Normanni, otherwise known as the Sicilian parliament. The second is on display at Il Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. The third is a bit of street art, also from Naples, that Kelly shot while we were wandering around on New Year’s Day.
Speaking of Naples, Italy, and the Archeological Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum is getting Pompeii artifacts this June. Witness their glee!
They’re excited. I’m excited. Are you excited? One hundred and thirty-nine sleeps!