Monday, September 9, 2013

Interview with M.L. Brennan

After my review of M.L. Brennan's Generation V, I was fortunate to enough to be granted an interview. The result is a fascinating look at the process of writing a vampire novel that doesn't sparkle, but shines with originality in a sub-genre that is all too rife with cliche. I found Brennan's answers to be surprising forthright and often out and out surprising. Hopefully you'll find them as enlightening as I did. 

52 Reviews: Tell us a little about the genesis of Generation V? Did the story idea come to you fully formed, or did it change significantly over time?

M.L. Brennan: This was definitely a story that developed. I began by thinking about vampires -- now, I really like vampires in fantasy, but when you look at them from the perspective of how they would fit into a real world ecosystem, they would be more devastating than rabbits in Australia. They live forever, they don't age, they can make more vampires with just a few drops of blood -- it's a population nightmare waiting to happen. So I was thinking about how I would adjust vampires to make them make sense -- how would they work? How would the population maintain a balance with their food supply (that is, humans)? I decided that my vampires would need to be born rather than turned, which meant that they needed to be a species, and that made me think about what a vampire family would be like.

It was once I started thinking about an actual vampire family that the idea for Generation V started developing. But I started with figuring out my characters first, and then I hunted for the actual problem that would set my plot in motion. All told, it took me about two years of just making some notes, doing some reading, and playing with the idea in the back of my mind while I worked on other projects. And the vampires and characters on the page in Generation V are *really* different than they started as!
52 Reviews: Tell us a little about how the cast of characters changed in the writing of the novel. What precipitated those changes and will anything that landed on the cutting room floor make an appearance in the next volume of the series?

M.L. Brennan: I'm a pretty dedicated (one might even say *overly* dedicated) plotter, so by the time I sat down to write the novel, the characters and the plot were pretty much set. The only major changes came during edits.

But during the plotting phase, a lot of things did get cut -- mostly in terms of appearances from other supernatural species that I had in mind as part of the larger world of the novel. But for a lot of them, it was turning out to be a case of just slapping the spotlight on something cool because I'd designed it and I could -- not for larger service to the story. So I ended up cutting most of that out before I even wrote it, and the majority of Generation V focuses on only on the vampires, with a secondary presence from the kitsune. There are near cameos from the elves and the witches, but that stayed in because it did serve the plot.

There's definitely more of the elves and witches in the second book, and the kitsune are also getting more fleshed out. But I find that it's an interesting balance to play -- in one regard, I do want to really show off the things I've come up with for the world, but I also have to avoid just showing for the sake of showing, because I've read books where I found that kind of thing incredibly annoying.

52 Reviews: Tell me a little bit about what led to your decision to have the kitsune play such a major role in the story as opposed to a more typically Eurocentric mythological element? What elements of their role in Japanese mythology influenced their presence and character in the world of The American Vampire series?

M.L. Brennan: Once I'd made the decision to use a vampire as my primary character, and for his family to also play a fairly important role in the book, I wanted to bring in a secondary character that was less typically used in urban fantasy.

My decision to use the kitsune was a confluence of a lot of different things. Firstly, I did very consciously want to use a creature that wasn't from a European tradition, so that opened up some really exciting venues there. I also wanted this creature to have some kind of shapeshifting element and be confident and comfortable with that duality of form, because I thought that that could offer a really strong contrast to Fort's fear of his own heritage and instincts. Finally, I wanted this character to be female -- my original intention was for her to serve as a bit of a Gal Friday kind of character, and for the two to develop a mutual respect and friendship rather than a traditional romance.

What I knew about the kitsune mythology during this time was pretty simple -- Japanese fox-women -- and almost all of that originated from reading Neil Gaiman's Sandman: The Dream Hunters, with the beautiful narrative and Yoshitaka Amano's hauntingly lovely artwork. I ended up doing a lot more research from that starting point -- I read translations of folk tales, plus an excellent graduate thesis on the subject -- and everything I learned about the place of the kitsune in Japanese tradition made them seem more perfect for me. The kitsune are changeable and unreliable, tricksters and occasional helpers. In one story they can be villains who must be cast out, and in another story they can be helpful if offered assistance or courtesy.

My kitsune are also of Japanese origin -- which meant that I spent some time seriously thinking about not only how the kitsune would end up in Providence, Rhode Island, in the territory of a vampire, but also how they would've fit into Japanese culture in a way that allowed them to keep their supernatural traits concealed. From the way that I'd designed my interpretation of kitsune, this meant a matrilineal society of mothers, sisters, daughters, and cousins that needed a certain privacy and distance from their neighbors, yet at the same time a solid link and place in the culture. If you look into the history of geisha in Japan, which I did as a small side-line of research, from about the early 1800s right up until World War II the geisha were entertainers (sex did have a role in this, of course, but not nearly at the level present in Western prostitution) who had a sphere that was almost entirely filled with women. There were the women in the geisha house who were the entertainers, but there were also the women who ran the household, the women who handled the business and monetary side, and there was a system in place wherein daughters were raised and trained. This seemed like a perfect fit for a kitsune family, and so I made this part of their history.

Suzume, my kitsune character, has a strong sense of heritage and family in this book. She has links to her grandmother, her sister, a veritable army of female cousins, and her dead mother. Her reasons for being with Fort are purely mercenary at the beginning of the book -- she's his paid bodyguard -- and she has a presence and political savvy that he is completely lacking. But there's nothing grim or dark about her -- she's a troublemaker, a prankster, and a joker, which helps pull Fort away from the emo places that his character can sometimes be drawn to. Once he starts engaging with her and the two start having fun together, Suzume's motives start getting more complicated. Not from romance, but because she honestly starts liking Fort. At the same time, however, under all of these playful and positive traits, she is more cut-throat and practical than Fort -- she'll let someone die if helping them would be inconvenient for her family, for instance, and that's where the two characters also clash on a fundamental worldview level. I wanted her loyalties to be potentially messy, and sometimes leading her in the opposite direction from Fort's objective.

52 Reviews: I found Suzume to be the perfect foil for Fort and applaud your decision not to go the easy route and immediately make her an obvious love interest. Can readers expect a shift in Fort and Suzume's relationship in the sequel? Or do intend to add a new member to Fortitude's rather short list of prospects?

M.L. Brennan: Firstly, thanks very much! It was actually really important to me as a writer the Suzume and Fort didn't just end up in bed together, or be dating at the end of the book. Firstly, poor Fort only just got out a horrible relationship, and Suzume Hollis is no sane person's rebound. Secondly, Suze meets Fort in Generation V and her first impression is completely dismissive -- here's this guy that she's being paid to guard, and (in her view) he's a complete loser. Over the course of the book that changes as she realizes that while he might not have physical strength, he has a moral strength. When he believes in something, he will put his life on the line for it -- which up until that point was something that Suze was unable to do. And for Fort, Suze has a confidence and assertiveness that he lacks. So each person sees something about the other that they admire -- and they also have a lot of fun together. By the end of the book, they understand and respect the other person's strengths. That mutual respect was my original writing goal for their relationship.

Iron Night picks up a few months later, so readers will see a shift in that relationship. For one thing, these are two people who now have been friends for several months, rather than just one intense week. There's more trust between them now -- of course, Suze is still a fox, so having Fort as her friend means that he's one of her favorite toys. Expect pranking. As for Fort and what he wants -- he's still figuring these things out. Accepting his place in the supernatural community has made his life more complicated, not less.
There *are* some new characters in Iron Night, and a few familiar faces as well. Fort isn't in the completely bottom-of-the-barrel position he was in the first book -- he's gotten a bit more confidence, and he's taken more control of his own life. I can't give too much away, but Fort's list of prospects gets a bit longer in Iron Night.

52 Reviews: Another aspect of your world building that I found intriguing is how you showcase the gradual erosion of a vampire's humanity through Fort's siblings. Given that his defining characteristic is his moral strength, can readers expect to see Fortitude struggle with his vampiric urges even more, now that he has begun his descent down the slippery slope of his heritage?

M.L. Brennan: Oh, definitely. Fortitude had a specific set of ways to cope with his vampire urges -- he avoided his family, he stretched the periods between feedings, and he became a vegetarian. All of these were working pretty well for him, and for the majority of Generation V, he's a decently normal guy with a bit of baggage. Things are definitely changing for Fort on a biological level in Iron Night, though, and he's not only dealing with how to suppress these more intense urges, but he's also having to start looking more long-term --- this transition is happening, and nothing is going to stop Fort's biological reality. Fort is going to have to start making compromises, and moral fudges, and he'll have to start figuring out where to give ground, and where to try to make a stand.

52 Reviews: Fortitude's strong connections to his mundane life made him a much more relatable character to me than if you had focused too much on his supernatural connections. However by the end of the novel, Fort has jettisoned a lot of the elements that made him most connected to his humanity in the reader's mind. No matter how gratifying it is to see our hero finally stand up to dead beat roommates, and cheating now-ex girlfriend's, it seems that Fort's day to day environment is now starting to skew much more to the fantastic. Was this intentionally done to mirror the beginning's of Fort's upcoming biological shift, or was that just the direction the story needed to follow? Can reader's expect that Fort will continue to find himself tied firmly to human struggles all while navigating the strange waters of the supernatural at large?

M.L. Brennan: That's a really great and awesome question! In terms of intention and story -- it was about 50/50. I had a few larger ideas and themes that I was playing with, but there was also a certain amount of following interesting plotlines and figuring out rational reactions based on the characters I'd built.

In terms of thematic elements, part of the answer is that Fort's strong connection to a normal human life was his way of separating himself from his family. I wanted to tell a story about a guy who is coming to terms with his heritage, and part of that does mean that Fort will be spending more time around the supernatural elements, and also being more upfront with himself about who (and *what*) he is.

But at the same time, accepting heritage doesn't mean abandoning ideals. And while Fort is going back into the family fold, to a certain extent, that won't mean jettisoning the morals and ethics that are part of who he is. Expect a lot of bumps and problems within the Scott family, because Fort spending more time around them will actually cause about as many problems as it actually solved.

Also -- nature is different than nurture, and neither has shown itself in this series (...yet) to be the ultimate trump. Fort might be getting a closer relationship to his nature, but his upbringing was still largely human, and his responses and desires will always be largely rooted in that.

52 Reviews: I'm wondering if we will see Fort's brother, Chivalry, featured more prominently in Iron Night? I find his embrasure of his vampirism while still clinging to his own code to be one of the most fascinating characterizations in the supporting cast. What can you tell us about Chivalry's creation and his future moving forward?

M.L. Brennan: Chivalry as a character originated directly from how much I loved Ender's Game when I was young. The balance of the siblings in Ender's Game was something I found fascinating -- Peter was the one with the soul of a jackal, Valentine was the loving one, and Ender was the one who was in the middle in terms of his nature. When it came to writing my own book, I wanted to play with that sibling balance a little, and one of my first ideas was a gender swap. So my vicious sibling is Prudence, a woman, and Chivalry became the more emotionally invested sibling.

The character traveled a bit since that inception point, but it made him an interesting character who was more visibly complicated than Prudence, and that made him both the sibling that Fortitude is closest to, and the one that Fortitude feels that he'll never truly understand.

Chivalry does have a strong place in Iron Night, and also going into the third book. Because his wife is dying, readers are going to be faced with a really up-close look at the contradictions and complications that Chivalry balances. I'm actually really curious to see the reader reaction on this one -- Chivalry is a character who I like a lot, and who readers also seemed to respond really positively to, but he's going to head to a pretty dark place.

52 Reviews: To take the discussion of vampiric family values a bit further, I found it interesting that Fort and his siblings fall into somewhat predictable models of abnormal psychology while their mother seems to be a completely different model all together. What can you tell us about your processes in creating the matriarch of this family of vampires?

M.L. Brennan: Primarily, I think of her as an adult crocodile. Crocodiles are a pretty interesting species -- when they are born, they are around ten inches long, and are preyed on by mammals, birds, and even big fish. They eat bugs, and spend most of their time hiding and trying to avoid being eaten. But you take that little creature, and (if nothing eats it) it is going to grow into this massive, tough, absolute apex predator that has pretty much no natural predators except other crocodiles.

If you could sit crocodiles down on a therapist's couch, and assuming a few factors, namely, a) The crocodiles didn't eat the therapist, b) The therapist had somehow found a way to communicate with the crocodiles, and c) That the crocodiles actually had a complex interior landscape, I think that would be pretty interesting. Because here's a creature that goes from pretty much being everything's dinner -- and not just for one or two seasons, but for a very serious number of years, and the mommy crocodile stops responding to its distress peeps after the first few weeks -- and in fear of everything to this absolute boss of the river with just about nothing being a real danger to it. That's kind of neat when you think about it. To me, it would suggest that as little as I think I would really be able to understand or empathize with a crocodile, even with a helpful translating therapist (mostly because of the reptile thing, to be honest), I think that it would be almost equally difficult for its offspring to understand or empathize with the adults of the species.

That is admittedly kind of a weird genesis for a character's psychology, but that's how I picture Madeline, the vampire matriarch, and it helps me write her.

52 Reviews: What an interesting way to approach an inhuman character. I can't say I've ever heard a similar example.

Switching gears, I was hoping you could share some of the lessons you've learned about the craft of writing. What was the most important lesson you learned in writing Generation V? And did the sequel produce a new unexpected lesson?

M.L. Brennan: That is the sweetest way of saying I'm nuts that I've ever heard. Kudos. :)

The best lessons I actually learned from Generation V were during the editing phase. I'm lucky enough to be working with editor extraordinaire Anne Sowards (she edits Jim Butcher, Anne Bishop, and Patricia Briggs -- among others!), and I learned so much from her about pacing and agency. In the original manuscript, for example, Suzume beats Larry up "offstage" so that when Fort comes back the the apartment in the end, his roommate problem has been solved for him. I'd gotten really caught up in a funny joke that I'd written for Suze, and I liked the idea that her way of cementing a friendship would be trying to clean up his life for him. The problem was, as Anne very rightly pointed out, was that I was letting one of Fort's big problems be solved *for* him. She suggested that I have Fort figure out a way to solve the problem for himself. It strengthened his character, and it also ended up helping to smooth out another problem, because in the initial draft, Fort's final confrontation with Luca was basically a hail-Mary suicide run. Anne pointed out that this made Fort seem pretty dumb, and that he at least needed some kind of plan, even if it didn't end up being a particularly good one.

Anne really helped me focus more on Fort's character, and also remembering at all times that the reader needs to have a certain level of respect for the main character's decision-making.

The sequel -- I learned a *lot* from the sequel, but I have to save *something* for our next interview, right? I'll give you a hint, though. In Iron Night, a few of my scenes actually went a little dark, and Anne had me tone a few elements back. I felt weirdly impressed with myself when I got that note!

52 Reviews: I believe that many hard core readers like myself have aspirations to be writers themselves. With that in mind, what piece of advice do you wish you'd heard (or followed) when you more aspirations than words on the page?

M.L. Brennan: I think I would've liked to be told that writing a book means that you can write one again. It can be hard at first to make big edits, or even let go of a large project, because there's that voice in your head that is terrified that you might not be able to get to this point again, so you have to hold onto this manuscript, even after the point when you are aware that there are some big problems with it. Everyone is always throwing around that old adage of "Everyone has one book in them," --- well, if you're a writer, you have more than a few. Sometimes you have to let go of a manuscript or a chunk of an idea if it is just not working, but that's okay, and it's part of the process. Not everything is ready to be shown or published, and that's just part of the learning process. Generation V wasn't my first book, but I think that it was the first book that was ready for people to see. If I'd kept trying to make my earlier manuscripts work, though, I might not have written Generation V when I did, and gotten the opportunity to be published.

No comments:

Post a Comment