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The cover for Baker Thief by Claudie Arsenault

Unconventional Romance: a Chat with Claudie Arsenault about Baker Thief

The cover for Baker Thief by Claudie ArsenaultClaudie Arsenault is an asexual and aromantic-spectrum writer hailing from the very-French Quebec City. A founding member of The Kraken Collective, she’s well-known for her involvement in solarpunk, her database of aro and ace characters, and her unending love of squids. Claudie’s latest release is Baker Thief, the start of a new series that examines and reframes various tropes of romantic fiction using aromantic characters.

I took some time to chat with her about Baker Thief, her focus on aro/ace characters in romantic fiction, worldbuilding, and more. Let’s take a look!

Note: The interview below has been lightly edited for length, flow, and clarity.


So, for those who are unfamiliar with Baker Thief or with your work in general, can you describe what it’s about?

I am a fantasy writer who sometimes dabbles in science-fiction and is particularly fond of platonic relationships —family, friendships, and queerplatonic partnerships. Baker Thief is an example of this. It’s fantasy that directly interrogates romantic tropes (enemies-to-lovers in this case) by reframing them around non-romantic relationships. I tend to write stories with hard moments but hopeful vibes and endings, and a lot of more fun, quirky things (croissants, hot air balloons, etc.).

I don’t read much romance myself, so it’s interesting to hear you talk about deconstructing the friends-to-lovers trope in a non-romantic context. Was that one of your main goals when you started writing?

Not quite. I started writing an actual romance! Aromantic characters tend to sneak back into my work on their own now, and I had only a fraction of my draft written when I decided I wanted to do something that could read like a romance, but wasn’t one. Romance does amazing things, but most of them could totally translate to so many other relationships, and I really needed to explore other ways to that HEA (Happily Ever After).

So Claude/Claire snuck in of their own accord? How very appropriate! What was that like?

I guess… kind of natural? This happens a lot with my first drafts. I plot some very basic plot points and character traits, but so much of it emerges naturally over the course of writing. I’m very much of a “first draft is telling yourself the story” kind of person, so I expect things like that.

At the time I hadn’t written a lot of aromantic characters yet, either, but I was questioning the label for myself, and writing an out and proud aro MC was such a great way to explore and affirm myself.

What was the inspiration behind making Claude/Claire genderfluid? Is this idea in conversation with certain other works or characters you’re familiar with?

It stems from several elements at once: a general desire to write several enby characters, a lack of bi-gender characters in stories I was picking up, and a random encounter of a gifset of Cybersix, a show I’d watched quite a lot as a kid, in which a masked woman passes as a male literature teacher during the day, and it kinda gets gay with his male chemist teacher friend? It’s an awesome show, but Cybersix doesn’t directly define its MC as genderfluid, so I thought… why not? It’s an interesting reversal of superhero tropes and trans-as-liars narratives that both of Claire’s identities are real.

In Baker Thief, many characters to state what pronouns they use when they introduce themselves to each other. I think the fact that it’s such a common social convention in your story says a lot about your setting. Can you talk about that aspect from a worldbuilding perspective?

When I build new worlds, one of my first question is often how accepted several queer identities are, and in what state the related normative systems (heteronormativity, cisnormativity, allonormativity, etc.) were. I wanted Baker Thief’s world to be one where various queer identities are well known and accepted, because I really wanted stories where those wouldn’t be the source of their problems. Yet I was also aiming to remodel romance tropes on platonic relationships, and that was easier without disassembling these normative structures, since many only exist within their boundaries. So that’s how I have a world in which people regularly introduce themselves with their pronouns, yet most narrators clearly gender those they encounter unless the presentation is erroneous. Similarly, monogamous romantic partners are still people’s first expectations. I’ve mostly erased the pushback against deviations, not the norm itself, but it’s been very interesting to note how big a difference that already makes for people.

I get the sense that your book was affirming to a lot of other people, judging by the acknowledgements section at the end.

I have received a lot of DMs, e-mails, and other messages of people who’d never felt that represented by an aromantic character before. So yeah, I think it resonated in others too, and that’s one of my favourite reader reactions. 🙂

What would you say were some of the challenges of writing a book that examines a lot of romance fiction tropes through the lens of an aromantic character?

The biggest challenge comes from choosing a queerplatonic relationship. People immediately think of it as “romance lite” and reviewers have called Baker Thief a romance. Making it clear that these characters were both deeply connected and yet *not* in a romantic relationship was … difficult, and I think somewhat impossible.

The other interesting challenge is that you cannot rely on romantic shortcuts. Your readers will follow them to their romantic conclusion.

There is a lot of unsaid things in relationships that need to become explicit when you write this kind of closeness with aromantic characters.

Speaking as someone who is allocishet, yeah, I found I had to consciously reprogram my brain in some parts. Because physical attraction, romantic attraction, and taking comfort in another person’s presence are all different things. Did you find that mixing in SF/F elements, like the witches and the exocores, was another way to indicate that your book’s goals were different?

There’s the taking comfort and all that, but also all the domestic aspects? Romantic relationships in romance novels often have very specific shape — living together, having sex, etc. With Claude/Claire and Adèle, I was pushed into reviewing all the assumptions we make about what the relationship will look like, and that was really interesting. And, in general, no, I don’t think the mixing does any of that. The romance I do read tends to be science-fiction and fantasy too.

So in my mind romance and fantasy overlap a lot. It’s just the focus that slides depending on the “main” genre.

Yeah. Do you have any recommendations for such overlapping works that you like?

Moon-Bright Tides by RoAnna Sylver is a fantasy novelette with an F/F witch/mermaid romance that I adore. Cheerleaders from Planet X by Lyssa Chiavari is a new-adult alien invasion story that centers the relationship between two girls. Help Wanted by J. Emery is a magical college romance novella with a gender-questioning protagonist.

Oh, and In Memoriam by ‘Nathan Burgoine was an amazing M/M story with second chances, time travel, and really dark but perfect humour. There’s just… a lot of them out there!

Also, full disclosure I guess, but two of these (the two first) are part of the Kraken Collective, my little alliance of indie authors. 🙂

One of the things I want to explore more in discussing Baker Thief is the idea of witches. They’re an underclass hated and feared for their abilities, yet also ruthlessly exploited because of them. Was that an element you included in your story from the beginning?

Yeah, right from the start. I rather love Soylent-Green-like tropes, and I think we collectively do not pay enough attention to whose labour and exploitation is needed for our society to function. We just prefer not to know, not to see, not to care.

When I think of contemporary SF/F examining those ideas, the one I think of right away is N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, especially the final volume.

Oh yeah, definitely! It’s much more central to Jemisin’s work than it is in mine, which makes a lot of sense. As a black woman she’s much better placed to speak of this cycle of exploitation than I could ever be, and did so masterfully. The Broken Earth series is just so powerful in that regard.

Is the exploitation of witches something that happens mostly in the home setting of Baker Thief, or does it happen elsewhere in the world the story is set in?

It’s happening in Val-de-mer and the country as a whole, but hasn’t spread everywhere. A lot of it stems from the fear-mongering that followed Val-de-mer’s magic-powered reactor and the destruction it caused, so it’s more powerful in this city than elsewhere.

What parts of Val-de-mer’s worldbuilding are you fondest of? Are there any secrets or Easter eggs that you know about that new readers don’t?

I love the way the city is split into quartiers and am really looking forward to the day I can make their yearly snow race tournament a part of a story. These are directly inspired from Siena in Italy, which I was lucky enough to visit.

Some of the streets and quartiers are directly inspired from Quebec City locations, too, and the way the different populations distributed themselves when the British conquered the territories.

Yes, one of the things I liked was that it wasn’t your typical pseudo-British fantasy setting.

Yeah, I tend to try and avoid going too close to that? Because then people expect a lot more … “accuracy”. (I put quotes around that word because somehow racial diversity is supposed to be inaccurate.) So you’ll catch flack for having potatoes, never mind that you’re in a completely different universe.

It was also just plain fun to have so much of my hometown in there.

I got a real sense of home-longing in your descriptions.

I’m glad! I love my city. Val-de-mer is a sort of magical, improved version of it. I would live there, for sure!

There’s a lot of joy built into certain descriptions/actions in the story, especially when it comes to food or other indicators of home/comfort. Is baking/cooking something you like to do personally? If not, are there other pastimes that have made their imprint on your work?

I love baking. It’s worth noting that I started after writing my first Baker Thief draft, but I sure haven’t been able to stop since. It’s an incredibly simple process, yet the slightest change in it has huge impact on your final bread, so it’s also incredibly hard to master. I have a lot of great memories of comfort around bread from my grandfather’s, but also in general with food and family. It shows in Adèle most of all, and everything that surrounds the Duclos family and their tourtière.

Do you think there will be any other stories set in the same universe?

Absolutely. I have the big lines of Baker Thief 2 planned already, and couldn’t resist writing 900 words of it. The next story will focus on Emmanuelle and Livia, friendship, science and magic. I love this universe and can’t see myself setting it aside anytime soon, but I do have a few other WIPs I want to finish before I seriously dive back into it. So, one day, yes, but it’s hard to know exactly when. In the meantime, though, there’s my Patreon where patrons get to vote on which short fiction they want to read, and Baker Thief is in the options on a regular basis.


And that’s that! I hope you enjoyed this taste of Arsenault’s work. You can check out her official website to learn more.

Kate Heartfield Talks About Her Debut “Armed in Her Fashion”

The book cover for "Armed in her Fashion"Kate Heartfield’s debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, was just released from ChiZine Publications last month. But that’s not all she’s had in the works in 2018: in April, Choice of Games released her interactive novel The Road to Canterbury. She’s also working on two time-travel novellas for Tor.com Publications, the first of which will be published in November 2018. She is the author of more than thirty published stories in venues like Daily Science Fiction and Lackington’s, and in multiple anthologies. A former newspaper journalist, she lives in Ottawa.

Kate was kind enough to send me a copy of Armed in Her Fashion, a historical fantasy set in medieval Belgium that involves the forces of Hell ravaging the countryside of Flanders, and the determination of one woman, Margriet de Vos, to return the favour. Last week, we chatted about her novel, including the historical research she did, and how medieval Europe was a lot more diverse than we’ve been led to believe.

Let’s take a look!

[Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.]


Me: Ok, I’m going to get a silly question out of the way first, then: how many of the people who you’ve talked to about this book start spouting out quotes from “In Bruges” at you? 😛

Kate Heartfield: Haha! I think…maybe one? Which is surprising. I really liked that movie. It gave me an appreciation for Colin Farrell I hadn’t had. And for Bruges. I haven’t been there myself so I relied on a LOT of primary and secondary research about what Bruges was like in the 14th century.

I had wondered if you had gone! The movie depicts it as this city almost frozen in time, but in your story it’s a much grittier, muddier, blasted place. What sort of research did you to get that sense of it? Also, for those who, like me, don’t know the history: was there actually a siege at Bruge in 1328?

There nearly was — the Battle of Cassel in 1328 has just happened, at the beginning of Armed in Her Fashion, and that was a real event. It was the culmination of something called the “peasant revolt” in Flanders and to modern ears that means “farmers/serfs” but in fact a lot of the participants were city people, merchants, etc.

The book A Plague of Insurrection: Popular Politics and Peasant Revolt in Flanders, 1323-1328 was a big source for me.

What was the reason for the revolt?

A lot of it was because the Count of Flanders had a pro-French policy, and this was the beginning of the Hundred Years War, so to be pro-French was to be anti-English, but the merchants and farmers of Flanders had a trade relationship with England. So basically it was the nobility being out of touch with the people. The mayor of Bruges was one of the leaders of the revolt, and imprisoned the Count, but the King of France intervened.

The backdrop for this is a looong antipathy between Flanders and France. There was a French invasion of Bruges in 1302, during which the townspeople killed the French invaders. I have a short story about that, about Margriet as a child, coming out in an anthology soon. (But I don’t think the anthology TOC has been announced yet so I’d better not say which one.)

A photo of Kate HeartfieldActually, let me back up a bit. Since people know a bit more about the setting now, can you give us a broad overview of what Armed in Her Fashion is about, for readers who are unfamiliar with it?

Sure! The inspiration came mainly from the painting Dulle Griet, by Pieter Bruegel. It shows a woman leading a raid on Hell, and is inspired by a figure in Flemish folklore: a woman so shrewish she could raid Hell. I wanted to tell that story, and I wanted to situate it in Flemish history, and the events of the early 14th century seemed like the perfect setting. But there was the question of the Hellmouth in the painting (and the Hellmouths that appear in medieval Christian art in general): if there’s a mouth, is there a beast? I started wondering what the appearance of a literal Hellbeast would do to the politics of France and Flanders, and so the book arose from that. Margriet de Vos (inspired by Dulle Griet) is a wet nurse whose city is under siege by the Chatelaine of Hell, who has wrested control of the Hellbeast and wants to gain power on the surface.

The next question I had to answer, of course, is “why is she raiding Hell?” In my research, I had discovered that the laws and customs of Flanders gave widows more rights to property and inheritance than we might think. (We tend to have a very monolithic understanding of women’s rights in medieval Europe.) So Margriet wants her inheritance, her due. She is the kind of woman who, if she lived today, would talk to the manager about a $5 coupon. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer.

Yes, I thought that there was something really compelling in that. She’s a shrew, but let’s face it, our society isn’t that sympathetic to shrewish women even if they have understandable reasons for behaving that way.

Yes, exactly. She’s not the prototypical “likeable protagonist” but I deliberately wanted to push back against notions about what makes a middle-aged woman “unlikeable.”

I also thought it was very interesting, the interplay between Margriet and her daughter, Beatrix. Beatrix is almost preternaturally kind and compassionate, like she’s a pendulum trying to swing as hard as she can away from Margriet. And in a weird way, Beatrix is the reason for Margriet’s shrewishness — it gives her something to live for.

I agree, yeah. Beatrix was hard to write, because she is a good, decent, ordinary person. But maybe she’s not as ordinary as she appears. And it’s her kindness that gives her the blessing, or the curse, of just a little bit of magical power.

I loved how you had so many women in your book, and how they were all so different from each other, yet interlocking: Margriet’s inner ferocity, Beatrix’s gentleness, Jacquemine’s practicality, Gertrude’s gregariousness and confidence.

Thank you! That was a very deliberate project, for sure.

And, of course, the Chatelaine! I found it REALLY interesting how the more you learn about her, the less villainous she seems. She wants power and autonomy, and no one is willing to give it to her, even though she literally has the keys to Hell.

Yes, I have a lot of secret (or maybe not so secret) sympathy for the Chatelaine.

Will you explore her in any other works?

I hadn’t planned to do any sequels, but I’ve heard from a few people that they’d like to know more about these characters. I would definitely like to follow up with Monoceros and with Claude. Claude goes through a lot at the beginning of the novel and I like to think he’s having a grand time, gallivanting around Europe.

Yes! I imagine you did a lot of research to depict Claude accurately as well. We’d consider Claude a trans man now, but the vocabulary we’re using wasn’t really around then. How common were people like Claude during that time period?

It’s very difficult to say, because as you say, the vocabulary didn’t exist in quite the same way it does now. We know that there were people who were assigned female at birth who donned armour and fought in probably every conflict in human history (Kameron Hurley’s classic essay “We Have Always Fought” is a great read on that), but it can be difficult to say how many of them were women disguised as men, and how many had a different understanding of their own gender. One reason I wanted to portray Claude as a trans man rather than as a Joan of Arc figure was to make sure that those people aren’t erased.

For research, I read a lot of history and essays by trans writers about that evolving vocabulary and about looking back at history: Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg was one. And the main thing I did was to read every essay I could get my hands on about damaging tropes when it comes to trans characters, so that I could try to avoid falling into any of those traps. (I’m a cisgender writer myself.)

I wanted to show how his culture would have misgendered him, and show how painfully wrong that would have been, but at the same time I wanted him to just be a trans character having adventures, without causing undue trauma to him or to trans readers, and I’m not sure I got that balance right. So I’d really like to revisit him in a setting where he isn’t being constantly misgendered. Sorry, long answer! Claude is close to my heart.

No no, I get it, and it’s important. To back up your point, I wasn’t sure how to phrase that question without misgendering him or using phrases like AFAB that aren’t contemporaneous to the period.

Definitely. Point of view was the main technique I used to try to get that across despite the lack of period vocabulary: I could show that in Claude’s mind, he’s definitely a he, while the other point-of-view characters think of him (at least at first) as “she.”

I worried that that would be confusing for readers, but it hasn’t been at all, that I’ve heard.

I think it’s also interesting that, like many trans people have experienced, what they consider important is how the roles they’re playing have changed, but cis people only want to ask about body stuff. Is being able to pee standing up really more fascinating to others than being able to fight and kill?

Right, that’s definitely one of the traps cis writers and readers can fall into, and so do the cis characters in Armed.

There are so many great trans, genderqueer and non-binary writers in SFF and their work is a great place for any readers who are looking for trans characters: the Transcendant anthologies are one great place to start.

Yes, thank you for that recommendation! I’ll make sure to include a few more at the end of the post. [Note: See the list at the end.]

There are a few other elements of the book that caught my attention. I don’t know how much time you have to discuss them all, but three in particular are the stories of Reynard and Ysengrim, Beatrix’s strange visions, and the fact that Jacquemine de Ooste is of Moorish descent.

Reynard is one of those stories that just gets under my skin, and I can’t say why, exactly. He is a trickster fox figure and the stories about him were very popular in Europe at the time. I read a great translation of the Middle Dutch Reynard epic poems.

That translation is by Bouwman and Besamusca, for anyone looking.

I think the Reynard stories shed a lot of light on the medieval understanding of people’s roles in society, which as I said at the beginning was part of the backdrop of this period (with the peasant revolt), so it seemed to fit.

Beatrix’s visions were sort of personal for me. She sees flashes of the future in the landscape they’re walking across, and of course that landscape, between Bruges and Ypres, saw so much war in the 20th century. My grandfather was one of the British Expeditionary Force soldiers evacuated at Dunkirk in WWII, so I had that in the back of my mind as I was writing this other story about a desperate journey across roughly the same part of the world.

I suppose the reason I included those visions is to try to shorten that gap between us and history, in some way.

Yes, it took me a few minutes to realize exactly what Beatrix was seeing in her visions. That act of finding 14th-century words to describe 20th-century artifacts — items that are capable of doing things that the people of the book (and even the Chatelaine) would consider somehow unholy.

Yes, that was a real challenge. There’s a great Doctor Who episode that uses a WWI gas mask (if I recall correctly) to similar effect. They are eerie.

Oh, the “are you my mummy?” one?

I think so! I just googled — it’s “The Empty Child“. Creepy.

As for Jacquemine’s heritage, I wanted to show Europe as it was, and to push back against the idea that medieval Europe was homogeneously white. The Twitter account MedievalPoC is a great resource for learning about that history. [Note: MedievalPoC also has a Patreon.]

Jacquemine is also wealthy, and that was definitely a possibility for people of colour in Europe as well — think about Othello a couple of centuries later, or Alessandro de Medici, whose mother was probably black. And as you said above, Jacquemine is a woman who has a different challenge than the other women in the story: she has living children she has to protect, and different choices to make. She might be another interesting character to revisit at some point.

Yes, I was thinking of the MedievalPoC tumblr when she appeared in the book. Considering how much research you did and how many elements you were trying to balance, how long did it take you to write Armed in Her Fashion?

Hmm! I wrote it in 2013 and 2014. I think it was roughly a year and a half. It took me about a year to write and revise enough that I could show it to my agent, and then another few months to revise it after my agent’s feedback. The eventual edit was very light but there was a lot of rewriting before that point.

That’s roughly around the same time you started submitting short stories to anthos and larger markets, from what I remember. I remember you started showing up in Daily Science Fiction 1-2 years after that.

Yes, it was! Good memory. I signed with my agent about a year before I handed it in to her — I signed with her on the strength of another novel, The Humours of Grub Street, which is coming out in about a year.

Who is publishing that?

ChiZine as well — they bought both!

Nice! What do you have coming out between now and then?

I’ll have two novellas coming out from Tor.com Publishing, both in a series. The first is Alice Payne Arrives in November 2018 and the second is Alice Payne Rides in March 2019. They are about a time-travelling highwaywoman and are lots of fun.

Very cool! I think that’s a good note to end on. Thanks so much for chatting tonight!


And that’s that! You can buy Armed in Her Fashion online or in bookstores.

Contemporary Non-Binary, Trans and Genderfluid Spec-Fic Authors

Kate mentioned the Transcendant anthologies above. Here’s a (far from complete) list of contemporary trans, non-binary and genderfluid SF/F authors you may want to read, in no particular order:

The cover for Witchmark, the debut novel of C.L. Polk

A Chat with C.L. Polk About Her Debut, “Witchmark”

C.L. Polk writes fiction and spots butterflies in Southern Alberta. She has an unreasonable fondness for knitting, single estate coffee, and the history of fashion. Her debut novel Witchmark, the first of a new series, will be released by Tor on June 19th. You can read an excerpt of the novel on Tor.com.

C.L. was kind enough to have a preview copy of Witchmark sent my way, and after I read it last month, I chatted with her about the themes of her novel, her future projects, and how her work responds to important contemporary social issues.

Let’s dive in!

Note: The following interview has been edited for structure and clarity.


The cover for Witchmark, the debut novel of C.L. Polk

Me: For people who are unfamiliar with the book, what is Witchmark about?

C.L. Polk: On the surface it’s a book about an ex-army doctor solving a murder mystery with a handsome and mysterious gentleman, but I found myself talking about other things in the middle of that. It’s about how the people who are supposed to love you the most often don’t seem to recognize who you are as a person — and how shocking it can be to them when you refuse to be who they think you are.

(It’s also a story that talks about a difficult thing about our society – that some people get to enjoy the most of the world’s plenty because hidden way down underneath the luxury and the convenience are people who are treated in the most horrific ways, and we let it happen,because that’s baked into just about everything we buy and consume. But that’s depressing and uncomfortable to face directly, so I tend to lead with the ex army doctor solving mysteries with his gentleman friend.)

I totally see both sides of the coin. At the risk of sounding spoiler-ish to readers, when I learned about the witch asylums were, and then when their true purpose is revealed, I saw a huge parallel between that and the residential school system.

Thinking about that, I think I agree. I don’t know the half of the horror of the residential school system, but I’ve learned some, partly as part of reading Allan Wade’s work surrounding trauma that concentrates on the survivors of the residential school system (Small Acts of Living: Everyday Resistance to Oppression and Other Forms of Violence).

I was aiming at institutionalization when I wrote about the asylums, with a big slice of criticism for prison labor and the glaring loophole in the 13th amendment of the [American] constitution which allows slave labor from those who are convicted of a crime.

But returning to the parallel to residential schools for a moment: I think there are stories there, but they shouldn’t be told by me. I can see the connections, but they weren’t intentional ones.

I don’t know very much about the 13th amendment, while I do know more about residential schools, so that was the connection my mind made more quickly. But yes — the whole issue of the prison-industrial complex is SO there. Considering the commentary you tried to weave in, what was your path to publication like?

My path to publication was pretty quick, honestly. I started querying the work to agents in the middle of February; I was signing the contract on the first week of December. I was extremely lucky to find people who connected to my book and the story I told, and the themes I poked with a stick.

Wow, that *is* pretty fast. Congratulations!

Thanks!

Were there any books you looked to as a model for how to weave that social commentary in with the more surface-friendly parts?

I think SFF is often very good at doing thematic heavy lifting while telling a story that entertains the reader. My friend Elizabeth Bear does it. Barbara Hambly and Jo Walton do it too, and short stories do this all the time. I didn’t look at any specific book; I just figured, “everyone else does, why can’t I?” and I just went for it.

Oh! I forgot Ursula K. Le Guin. specifically her story “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas“. That story got inside me and I’ve thought about it for years. I think it’s responsible for the thinking that led me to Witchmark.

Reading through Witchmark, one thing I noticed is that the narrator is intensely aware of status and class markers. The cut of someone’s coat, the quality of the fabric, their shoes, what they eat and drink, how people try to disguise themselves to varying degrees of success….was that something that came about organically as you wrote the book, or was that something you approached with more deliberation?

That was purposeful. Miles has spent years looking over his shoulder, fearing that someone from his family or one of his former peers would spot him. Since class is a strong social divide in Kingston life, Miles knew that he would be largely invisible to anyone who knew him before, simply because his dress and mannerisms would make him unimportant.

But he can’t really relax about the success of his disguise, so he’s always watching people. Noting the details of their appearance and the message they send that most everyone these days notices mostly without thinking about it. For him, it’s survival. if he spots a wrong detail on someone, he’s alarmed, and probably getting away from that person.

What sort of research did you do to get that level of authentic detail in your worldbuilding?

Well, I did a lot of looking stuff up in the moment, so when I wanted a particular detail, I did what the writing advice tells you not to do – I stopped right there and looked it up. there are a lot of fashion history websites and collections in museums — the Victoria and Albert Museum website has a lot of information, for example. I also did a lot of searching around looking for information on arsenic, as I knew nothing about it, and about how policing was done in England at the time, and how murder investigations were pursued. Whenever I got to a point where I didn’t know how something worked, I’d look it up, and then decide how I wanted it to work in my world.

Leah Bobet mentioned that you were part of a shared online project with her, and I think that’s the same one Elizabeth Bear was part of. Any insights into how that collaborative storytelling helped you during crafting Witchmark?

Ah yes, Shadow Unit! I only wrote a couple of episodes, but it taught me a lot about how much background there is going on behind the scenes. When I first joined I think it took me two weeks to read the whole series bible, and there was a wiki, and it really reinforced my love of digging in and getting to know the world, even if there’s stuff the audience will never see, because it helps the whole story in the end.

And honestly? The witches and mages in Witchmark have a lot in common with betas in Shadow Unit. I didn’t even notice until I was a few drafts in, but they have particular, specific talents that expend your personal metabolic energy to use, so they need to eat. And eat. And then look at your plate and ask if you’re gonna eat that.

That reminds me — one thing I wasn’t quite clear on was the social differences between mages and witches in the book. Witches are stigmatized and feared. But does the greater public know about mages and what they do?

No, they don’t. The fact that there’s a whole population of magicians sitting on top of the power structure — the people don’t know they’re magicians, or what they do, just that they’re wealthy and powerful and do pretty much as they please while running the government.

Witches have the same kind of magic mages do. There’s really no difference between them besides the part where mages really make an effort to produce children who have the talent to control the weather. It’s just that witches aren’t part of their class, so they suffer from systemic oppression.

I imagine that the sequel(s) will deal a lot with the fallout from when people learn the truth. Is that the case?

Yes. The story’s partly told from Miles’s sister Grace’s point of view, and she has a lot to do when it comes to trying to balance all the factions and forces that struggle against each other in the aftermath of the first book.

The other POV character is Avia Jessup, who appears briefly in Witchmark, and she’s dealing with struggles on the other side of the fight.

Ooh, neat! I got a definite sort of vamp/flapper vibe from her. How many books are you planning in the series?

I think I could go on with this setting and these characters for a while, if anyone let me, but realistically i’m hoping for a trilogy.

You mentioned that “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was an inspiration. What others were there? Did the story spring from any particular seed?

The story was sort of simmering along in the back of my head while I tried to figure out what it was trying to tell me, and little bits of what I read wound up influencing me. I read Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, and it directly influenced the boarding house where Miles lives in the book. I don’t want to overplay the connection because it might give people the wrong idea, but I spent some time reading and watching works connected to Sherlock Holmes. Another influence that people might notice is Fullmetal Alchemist, but that was an accident. I hadn’t seen the anime before I wrote the book. And I was also deeply into the television adaptation of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, for a little more in the way of setting and feel.

Actually, now that I think about it, Avia Jessup kind of gives off a Phryne Fisher vibe!

Exactly as intended!

How far along is the second book?

I am in the third act of a very drastic revision. I’m hoping to have it done in the next two weeks, so we can get down to the editing.

I think I’m winding down in terms of questions. Is there anything you wanted to share that I haven’t brought up?

We never got to talk about tea, whoops!

Oh my god, I forgot. THIS MUST BE REMEDIED. If you could describe some of the main characters of Witchmark as types/flavours of tea, what would you say?

Um. Tristan is an Assam. Very tippy, hand-gathered leaves, good for drinking with a little bit of cream and sugar. Miles is probably the herbal blend you drink when you’re sick with a virus and need some comfort. Grace is probably a black tea with some sugar and a slice of lemon, to keep the tongue sharp.

I had to think about Grace. She was hard.

Ooh, nice! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat tonight. Good luck with finishing the revisions to the sequel!

Thank you! And thank you so much for this lovely interview!

The cover to "Those Who Make Us", an anthology co-edited by Kelsi Morris

Kelsi Morris on Myths, Monsters, and Fighting Marginalization

Kelsi Morris is a queer and neurodivergent editor who has channeled her passion for books into the Canadian publishing industry, specializing in speculative fiction and comics. She focuses on work that prioritizes and promotes the voices of marginalized communities. Her first co-edited anthology, Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories, published by Exile Editions, was nominated for the 2016 Shirley Jackson Award.

Outside of books, she finds happiness in black coffee, red wine, and dragons.

Kelsi Morris and I chatted earlier about her work on this anthology, how it relates to CanLit, and how she’s working towards making the Canadian SF/F scene more inclusive. Let’s take a look!

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


The cover to "Those Who Make Us", an anthology co-edited by Kelsi MorrisMe: So, first question: What was the inspiration behind Those Who Make Us for you and your co-editor [Kaitlin Tremblay]?

Kelsi Morris: One of the earliest foundations of our friendship was our shared loved monsters! We both noticed that we tended to feel more connection to the monsters/kaiju/alien creatures than the human characters in most cases, and it was only through many (MANY) conversations (and bottles of wine) that we realized that this was not actually all that weird.

These characters are the literal embodiment of otherness, and the treatment they receive from the human world will often resonate far more strongly with folks with marginalized identities than the heroics of the protagonists.

Kaitlin and I were both coming at this from the perspective of queer people who struggle with various mental health issues, and we wanted to see more stories that had the same empathy for the outsiders that we did.

I totally see that. I noticed in particular that the opening story in the collection was really emblematic of that focus. The one where the main character, Melanie, chooses to undergo bodymods to turn into a chimera.

Would you say that sense of empathy was one of the most important things you were looking for in the stories you chose?

Absolutely! That story in particular was exciting, because it really touched on the way marginalized folks are treated by society, while keeping the story very much focused on Melanie’s own journey of self-discovery. It wasn’t about her trying to fit in, or save other people from their bigoted ways. This was something she was doing solely for herself.

We wanted this anthology to be a space for marginalized voices to celebrate and/or explore their identities, as well as criticize/highlight the abundance of ways in which they are mistreated or misrepresented by society.

One thing I also noticed is that the anthology is in dialogue with a lot of tropes/notable figures in CanLit and Canadian history. Like, when I think of Helen Marshall’s story, it feels like a story Margaret Atwood could have referred to in Survival. And Dominik Parisien’s story heavily refers to Peterborough and to Catharine Parr Traill.

I’ve spent my entire career working as an editor in Canadian genre fiction, and it is something I am deeply passionate about. A lot of times publishers and/or authors will shy away from publicizing being Canadian in order to appeal to a wider market, and I feel like that is doing everyone a disservice. I am equally passionate about how entirely fucked it is that so many people seem to buy into our national identity of being “a country at peace”, where we no longer accept racism, ableism, queerphobia, or are party to systemic and institutional violence.

Speculative fiction has always been at the forefront of social criticism, and so it was especially important to me that this project both celebrate excellence in Canadian genre fiction, at the same time it acknowledges and calls attention to the fact that many voices are silenced for the sake of this national myth.

Who else do you see challenging that myth in the Canadian SFF scene?

While neither exclusively focuses on Canadian authors, the Toronto-based literary spec fic magazines like Augur Magazine and Anathema Magazine both have mandates that focus on stories from intersectional marginalized communities, and have been doing an amazing job at celebrating the work of queer writers, writers of colour, and writers with disabilities.

These kind of markets only exist because we have to carve out the space for ourselves. The need for this is what proves that acceptance and visibility within the mainstream publishing industry really isn’t there yet.

[Note: You can read my interview with Anathema here.]

I’m going to be having Augur on the blog too!

Good! I’m so excited by the work that they do, and I can’t wait to watch them grow. 🙂

Has it been hard to carve out the space you’re describing?

As an editor, my experience is obviously quite a different one from the unique frustrations that writers have to deal with. I try to use my position to hold space for marginalized voices, and take on the brunt of any tensions that may arise between the writer and the publisher.

It can be challenging, especially for anthologies, to wholeheartedly believe in a project, and have to convince a publisher that a focus on intersectional voices doesn’t immediately make it any less interesting to “the rest of the market”.

Do you have any other anthologies or projects in progress?

Oh, I have several dream projects, and would dearly love to just work on all of them at once!

This is such an exciting time for Canadian SFF. There is so much excellent work being produced, and so many incredible emerging writers and markets. I love this field, and I’m so excited to continue contributing however I can.


And that’s that! You can check out Kelsi Morris online and buy Those Who Make Us on Amazon, Kobo, and in stores.

The cover to "Markswoman", the debut novel of Rati Mehrotra

Rati Mehrotra Talks about “Markswoman”, Math, and the Mahabharata

The cover to "Markswoman", the debut novel of Rati Mehrotra Speculative fiction has long imagined dystopias and post-apocalyptic worlds where the ruins of long-gone civilizations mingle with everyday elements of life that we more readily recognize. Today’s interview is with Rati Mehrotra, the author of Markswoman, a novel that takes these SFnal elements and plays with them in new ways.

Most notably, Markswoman takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of Central and South Asia. I’ve written about other books set in similar locations, but Mehrotra’s debut — the first book in a YA duology — takes readers down a road that may be less familiar than others.

Today’s interview, which was conducted over email, gives us a taste of the book and discusses her creative process. Markswoman was released by Harper Voyager on January 23, 2018.


Me: Can you give a quick summary of what Markswoman is about, for the uninitiated? What themes in the book resonate to you the most?

Rati Mehrotra: Markswoman is set in an alternative, post-apocalyptic version of Asia, 850 years after a Great War has destroyed a very advanced civilization. The only remnants of that civilization are the Transport Hubs, and the lore of the Ones — aliens that came to Earth and left, long before the war. Against this backdrop is the story of Kyra and Rustan: elite warriors tasked with upholding the peace and meteing out justice.

Me: What was the seed that inspired the story?

RM: Markswoman was born of my fascination with stories of the Goddess Kali. What if there was a group of women devoted to her worship, women who wielded the power of life and death over others in a post-apocalyptic world? And thinking of this, I had my world and my main character — Kyra Veer, the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, an orphan with a burning need for revenge.

Me: In a recent article published on Unbound Worlds, you talked about how the Ramayana and Mahabharata contain elements that today would be considered very SFnal, or predictive of today’s technology. How has that influenced the technology shown in Markswoman? For example, do the katari blades have a basis in Hindu lore?

RM: Not particularly. In form and shape, the kataris are inspired by the Jamdhar Katari of the Hindukush. The kalashiks are inspired by Kalashnikovs, the most common assault rifle in Asia. As for their being sentient, I have no clue where that came from. The world, as I have built it, reflects my multiple loves and influences — mythology, science fiction, secondary world fantasy, and post-apocalyptic literature.

That said, the Goddess Kali is almost always depicted with sword and dagger. The central cavern of the caves of Kali (home of the Order of Kali) is covered with ancient paintings of the Goddess vanquishing demons with various weapons. Hatha kala, the style of fighting unique to the Order, was inspired by these depictions.

Me: What was your path to publication like? Can you tell me more about the editorial team that you worked with?

RM: My path to publication was long and hard. I started writing this book eight years ago. While I knew my world and characters quite intimately, I did not yet know my craft. I revised my manuscript over and over again, based on feedback received from beta readers. At the same time, I started writing short fiction and joined a writing group. This helped me improve my writing no end. I queried many agents, and was rejected by dozens, before I found Mary C. Moore, who got me my book deal with Harper Voyager. They asked me to submit a revised version of Markswoman and turn my proposed trilogy into a duology. I then made significant changes based on feedback from my editor at Harper Voyager, Priyanka Krishnan, and all of them have made the book much stronger.

Me: I love the fact that math plays a role in Markswoman, particularly the use of prime numbers. What was the origin of that element in the story? Hell, where did you manage to find such a lovely set of prime numbers for your pyramid?

RM: Primes — numbers that are only divisible by 1 and themselves – are the most fundamental numbers. They are the building blocks of number theory. Every number greater than one can be expressed as a product of primes. Primality is independent of the numbering system, and mathematics is the universal language of the universe. My theory is that the Ones used Primes for their codes long before they came to Asiana. On Earth, they adapted to the numbering system used by humans – base of 10 – and our writing conventions.

I found the pyramid of primes at http://primes.utm.edu/ – a fascinating site run by Professor Chris Caldwell. He advised me that the correct reference is: G. L. Honaker, Jr. and C. Caldwell, “Palindromic prime pyramids,” J. Recreational Math., 30:3 (1999-2000)”

Me: What would you say is your favourite moment in the book, either to write or to read aloud?

RM: My favorite moment is when Kyra finally confronts Tamsyn. A lot of different threads come together at this point. I deeply enjoyed writing it. But I never read it aloud, because it comes near the end of the book and would be a total spoiler.

Me: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the Asiana books are a duology, What can readers expect in the sequel?

RM: Readers can expect their most burning questions to be answered! And some new surprises…


Way to leave us on a cliffhanger, Rati! Markswoman is available online as an eBook and in stores now.

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