10 Questions for Seth Dickinson, author of The Traitor Baru Cormorant (Tor Books, September 2015).
Your debut novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, recently hit the bookshelves. Can you tell us a bit about your publishing journey?
I feel like I haven't done anything romantic enough to make it a journey! I began writing short stories with intent to publish in college. For a few years, everything I wrote got rejected, and then one year I guess I'd figured out how to word and everything I wrote started selling.
That was in 2012. In 2013, after polishing prose style with short stories, I decided I'd try a novel. I finished it up and found in agent in late 2013, the book sold in 2014, and a year later here we are!
I guess I had some excitement along the way: I spent 2012-2013 in graduate school studying social neuroscience (specifically racial bias in police shootings), and I took a job at Bungie Studios in 2014 to write lore for Destiny.
And I did drop out of grad school to write the novel! I guess that's pretty romantic.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant delves into many political themes, such as oppression, colonization, and revolution. What inspired you to write about these?
They're the themes that people I cared about were discussing, they were themes that explained how the world got so broken and how we might repair it, and they rhymed with my own work in psychology — a lot of study of prejudice and power.
I guess, from a different angle, I was inspired by the conversation the Internet's been having over the past decade. People would say 'I want more people of color in books, I want more women, I want more queer people,' and others would reply, 'We can't write about those people in fantasy, they'd be too oppressed to be interesting.'
I hate that argument. For a lot of reasons, one of them being that Earth's history was a lot more complicated and crazy than 'white guys did stuff', but another...it just drove me mad, this presumption that someone facing oppression couldn't be a compelling protagonist. People always find a way to push back.
So I decided to write about a protagonist targeted by intersecting homophobia, racism, and sexism, one who refuses to ever be bound — and who always finds a way, no matter how cruel the situation, to fight back.
While your book is a fantasy, in many ways it reads almost like historical fiction set in a different world. Can you tell us a bit about the world-building in your novel? How did you create the rich cultures your story’s set in? What drew you to the fantasy genre?
I do think it's fantasy, I think that's really important — because one of the core missions of fantasy is creating secondary worlds, right? And every time we do that, we have a chance to pick up Earth's own history and say, look, see this thing? It didn't have to happen that way. It could've been different. It wasn't a necessary part of human existence.
I had a lot of fun world-building for this book! I guess I was guided by three tensions, each one pulling me away from the others —
I wanted a world that felt as rich, complex, lively, interconnected, and surprising as our own. History's nuts. Civilizations rise and crash, people hit fortune or disaster with incredible schemes, ideas spread and die and live again. I wanted a naturalistic sense of length and breadth.
I wanted a world that you could understand, something with the clean, intuitive logic of a game board. I wanted all the economic intrigue, all the piracy and rebellion, to feel as sharp and powerful as swords or sex. So the world had to be readable. It had to offer the reader affordance.
And I wanted a world where nothing mapped exactly to Earth — no people, no cultures, no languages, no races. I didn't want to suggest that anything was biologically or historically inevitable.
I wanted it to be compelling! I wanted everything to hum with tension.
Baru Cormorant joins the oppressive Empire’s service in hopes of infiltrating their top ranks and using her power to free her people. What was it like developing her character? How did you get into her head?
The first thing I knew about the story was the ending, so I had to have a character with both the means and motivation to make those choices.
I knew she would be pragmatic, driven, ruthless, and very contained. I think her containment and discipline was really the key to writing her: whenever she wanted to feel or say something, I had to make her elide it, or let it out in code, or just pretend she didn't care.
It was tricky to figure out how to use the negative space around what she didn't say to describe her emotions. I hope it worked!
I really treasure the moments when she gets to be an ordinary person — gets drunk, hangs out, laughs at a joke. It's important to see the human being peeking out from the armor.
Your plot is full of unexpected twists and turns. Did you ever surprise yourself when you were writing your book? Characters who took on lives of their own? Plot elements that went in unexpected directions?
I was really confident of the book's operating principle — it would be about sacrificing human warmth and connection in the name of a greater good. Because the plot largely plays by that rule, none of the twists really surprised me, exactly.
But I was absolutely startled by the characters! I really love it when a character begins to claim space on the page and drive action. Duke Oathsfire's halting personal growth, Duke Unuxekome's charisma on the page, the man who'd left something down a well, the woman pretending to be an actress — all surprises. Tain Hu's a magnetic force, of course, but I knew she would be.
I was worried all the Dukes and Duchesses would get confusing, so I tried very hard to be sure all of them got a scene that was their own. I hope it worked!
What was the hardest part about writing The Traitor Baru Cormorant? What were the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
It was a fairly smooth book to write, all in all, because the protagonist drove it so ably, and I knew where she was going. One big challenge was teaching all the socioeconomic complexity and intrigue in a way that was thrilling. I really wanted the book to be fast-paced and gripping, which meant no lectures.
I tend to think that if the reader cares about a character, they'll care about what that character cares about. I don't give a damn about Catholic theology, for instance, but Hilary Mantel makes me care about Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, and he cares. So I tried to attach important parts of the world to characters who cared about them.
We're all really good at keeping track of gossip and social relationships, right? I think you can tap into that power when writing.
|THIS. COVER. *swoon*|
The cover and title of your book really caught my eye. Can you tell us a bit about them? Is there a story behind Baru Cormorant’s distinctive name?
The cover is entirely to the credit of Marco Palmieri, my editor, Irene Gallo, Tor's art director, and Sam Weber, the artist. Marco had an idea and Irene and Sam made it happen. (I'm assuming you mean the US cover — if you're in the UK it was another crew!)
The name was right for the character, it had a good shape and good presence on the page. But it's really hard to say at parties! A lot of time I get 'The Traitor what? Broom cormorant? Like the bird?'
Can you take us behind-the-scenes of what it takes to bring a book from manuscript to published novel? What was the editing process like for you?
So, the first thing you do is try to get an agent. I think that's probably the most nerve-wracking part, because of query letters! You need to write a query letter that sells your book in about three paragraphs. If that letter doesn't sing, the agent will never even look at your manuscript. (I'm sure you know this if you've been through the query process yourself.)
Wrapping up months of work into a couple paragraphs is really tense.
Once an agent offers you representation, you get to do something cool: write to all the other agents who are planning to read your book and tell them 'hey, I have an offer, can you get back to me within two weeks?' And then they all have to scramble to read it (or reject you right there).
The agent you sign with then sends your book out to publishers. Mine went pretty swiftly, since Tor offered a generous pre-emptive deal for Baru Cormorant and two more books (a deal in which you're required to withdraw the book from all other publishers — so hopefully it's a good one).
The editing process itself went very smoothly. My agent and editor had only a few suggestions, and they weren't hard to implement. Almost all the holdup was on my end, actually! I wanted to restructure the Act 2 — Act 3 bridge and the Act 3 opening, punch up the character work, and revisit a few scenes I thought were weak.
What’s been the most rewarding part of being a published author?
Talking to people who've read the book and who have fascinating, engaging things to say about it! And meeting other authors.
Are you working on anything new? What does the path forward look like for you?
Right now I'm working on a sequel and counterargument to this novel — a story that looks at the things Baru derogated or passed over in this story, like friendship, warmth, and the possibility of trust.
I've also got a lot of fiction in Bungie's Destiny, and I hope that'll continue through next year and years to come!
Thank you for having me!
Thanks for stopping by!
Visit Seth's website: http://www.sethdickinson.com/
Follow Seth on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sethjdickinson