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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Interview with M. L. Brennan (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Generation V

Generation V is a debut that I enjoyed because of its characterization, vampire mythology and central premise. M. L. Brennan made her debut with this book and it was one that differentiated itself among the urban fantasy genre. Here the author talks about how the series came to fruition, why she chose Providence, RI as the primary setting and what to expect next. So read on and find out why M. L. Brennan is an author you should definitely check out.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. For starters, could you please introduce yourself and what inspired you to write in the first place? 

MLB: Thanks for having me! I've always been a huge fan of speculative fiction – sci-fi and fantasy were basically my favorite things to read when I was young. I’m also pretty well steeped in a lot of the primary areas of geekery – growing up, one of the most important days of the week was when I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with my brother and mother. I vividly remember watching “Encounter At Farpoint,” (okay, mostly I remember Q’s bizarre judge hat) and those episodes really had a big influence on me. The finale aired when I was twelve, and while sometimes the ideas and themes behind Star Trek could be a little clunky, they really affected the way I looked at the world in terms of fairness and justice.

Writing Generation V really stemmed out of a lot of ideas that I was interested in writing about – the idea of heritage and family, of responsibility, of equality within relationships, and of morality. I wanted a character who was still struggling with a sense of self, and because I teach a lot of college first-years, I've sat through a lot of lectures about this idea of a more delayed adulthood. All of that really rolled together and became Generation V.

Q] Could you elaborate on the journey you underwent from first when the idea for the book germinated to ultimately finding a publisher for it, what were your initial thoughts when Roc signed you for writing it and what do you think the publisher saw in your book proposal? 

MLB: Sure. I probably spent about two years really batting the basic idea around – I had a pretty huge pile of notes that I’d written on scrap paper and things like that. What happened is that I’d been working on another book, which I was really excited by, but ultimately my agent and I had to agree that it just wasn’t showing any signs of selling. So it was time to sit down and write something else, and I had all of these notes and ideas that I’d been playing with. I wrote the first solid draft of what became Generation V in about a month. It was different than what I’d been working with before, but when I showed it to my agent she agreed that it was good stuff, and she got to work trying to sell it. A few places turned it down, but then we basically got the dream email from Anne Sowards at Roc.

My initial thoughts… well, you know those sounds that dolphins make when they’re playing? That was basically my inner monologue for the entire month that the book sold. Seriously, though – it was really an ideal fit. So many books and series that I love have come out of Roc, and working with an editor like Anne Sowards was really just about everything I could’ve hoped for when my agent started trying to sell Generation V. It was very Cinderella-esque – we’d been trying to sell Generation V for a few months, and I’d just started to put together the pieces to start a third new project, and one email just changed my entire career trajectory.

In terms of what Roc saw in it – funny enough, I think they saw the same things that had made a few other editors pass on it. It’s not a cookie-cutter urban fantasy novel – my main character is male, he’s really the opposite of powerful at the beginning of the book, my vampires are pretty different than anything else out there, and the first book doesn't have any sex in it. It’s different – and that doesn't mean that it’s any better or worse than other books in the genre, but it means that a few editors weren't quite sure if they wanted to take a chance on it (or I’d get notes like, “I wish it had been more gothic”). Every editor who turned it down was always complimentary about my writing, but it ultimately came down to content. I was just really lucky that Roc was interested in what I was working with.

Q] Your debut novel is the first volume in a series. Could you give us a progress report on the next book, offer any details about the sequel “Iron Night”, and outline your plans for the series as a whole? 

MLB: I’m currently finishing up the edits on Iron Night right now, and it will be published in January 2014. I've had a lot of fun with this book – at first I was really worried about writing a sequel, and the first 30,000 words were probably the hardest I've written, because I was so intimidated at the thought of re-introducing readers to characters. But once I got through that first chunk, everything else went really well – I was getting to explore the underbelly of my world a lot more than I had in the first book, plus the characters from the first book were getting to grow up and stretch from their first incarnations. I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s something – Fort’s sister Prudence will be making much more of an appearance in this book, and the reader will learn a lot more about her motivations.

For the series as a whole, I’m interested in the idea of a world that’s in the process of changing. Fort is a character who has to take ownership of his own life and accept his heritage in order to move forward, but once he does that I don’t want things to ever be easy for him.

When I think about book series that I loved over long period, or that I can still come back to years later and enjoy just as much as I did the first time, they are the ones where the author was willing to take the world and characters in new directions. Also, nothing drives me more nuts than an author who isn't willing to do damage to characters and worlds – one thing that always riveted me about watching Battlestar Galactica was the feeling I had every week that main characters were in potential danger, and might actually be killed. It makes consequences real, and the characters are forced in directions that challenge their established morality or worldview.

Q] Let’s talk about your Vampire mythology, while you have them in a UF setting, their background is absolutely different from most of the vampire fare I’ve read so far. The roots seemed to be grounded in horror and you pulled it off brilliantly. How did you go about re-structuring this mythos? 

MLB: Thanks so much! First, I was really fascinated to see vampires as I’d seen them portrayed as a teenager and young adult on Buffy the Vampire Slayer morph into the vampires that are seen on Twilight. I felt like the Meyers vampires had dropped a lot of the horror roots, and become more of a romantic… well, I don’t want to say “ideal,” because to me the Meyers vampires seem to have a lot more in common with Peter Pan’s Lost Boys with the rejection of aging and changing than they do with shows like Buffy or Angel, which ultimately were about the painful process of growing up.

So one of my first goals was that vampires had to be monsters. These weren't cuddly or sweet, and they definitely didn't have love or empathy for humans. Humans, to my vampires, are either conveniences or obstacles that need to be dealt with.

My other goal was to make my vampires less static characters. A creature that is immortal and ageless is fairly uninteresting to me – what pressures are really on this character? They have an eternity to do whatever they want. But a character with a lifecycle, and an aging process, and the prospect that they will someday die – that is a character who has a finite time to achieve their goals and desires. This was something interesting to me, so making vampires a separate species (and an endangered species, at that) was one of the first and most important changes that I made.

Q] Speaking about vampires, I was glad to see that you didn’t stop just there. You also introduced bits of Japanese mythology in your debut. So could you talk us through your decision and how did you happen upon Kitsunes amid all the creatures in Japanese mythology? 

MLB: I love shapeshifters in urban fiction, but it felt that just about everything I was reading had werewolves in it, and that there was almost an agreed-on pack structure and mythos concerning them. After making my vampires so different, I didn't want to have cookie-cutter werewolves, plus I wanted to avoid a sense of Eurocentrism in terms of what kinds of myths I was making use of. Once I decided that I didn't want to use wolves, the Kitsune really sprung to mind, and it was a perfect fit.

I first encountered the Kitsune myth when I was a teenager and I read a beautiful fantasy short story that was set in medieval Japan, and then later in college when I read Sandman: The Dream Hunters. Yoshitaka Amano’s amazing illustrations really stayed with me, as well as the loveliness of Neil Gaiman’s story. When I decided to use Kitsune in my writing, I reread both of those materials, but I also researched further. Since I don’t speak or read Japanese, I was restricted to translations of fairy tales and ghost stories rather than primary sources, but it’s a really fascinating mythos with so many layers and nuances. Probably my favorite source was a wonderful graduate thesis on the topic by Michael Bathgate called The Fox’s Craft in Japanese Religion and Folklore. I’m looking forward to building up my version of the Kitsune in future books.

Q] Titles are often crucial to a book, some authors choose them first before writing and some never know even after the book is finished. What about you, where do you fall in this regard? What made you choose this title? 

MLB: I always view my title as a very fluid thing – I have a working title that I start the project under, and that might change a few times during the process of writing if I come up with something I like better. I’m unfortunately one of those people who is absolutely horrible at choosing titles, so pretty invariably the comment after I deliver a manuscript is, “Could you please come up with some other title options?” Generation V as a title was the brain-child of Anne Sowards and her team over at Roc, and I absolutely love it. My title ideas are always painfully pedestrian, but Generation V really stands out on a crowded shelf, and it suggest family and age issues, along with this great idea of a changing world.

Q] In one of your interviews you mentioned Betty White as the actor to portray Madeleine Scot. That while seemingly oddball-ish, is a great choice. What’s the one quality that you think she has that makes her the best candidate to visually represent Fortitude’s mother? 

MLB: I sadly can’t take credit for that one – a friend of mine made the suggestion, but I do think that it’s perfect. The quality that Betty White has is the ability to project this fa├žade of a lovely, slightly dotty old woman, but you always get the sense that there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Q] I noticed that yours is a pseudonym. What sparked this move? 

MLB: I work in academia, teaching college writing, and that’s a fairly conservative field when it comes to speculative fiction. I’m an adjunct instructor, but ideally I’d someday like to have fulltime work, with all those cushy perks like job security and health insurance, so I wanted to make sure that if any of my employers knew about Generation V, it was because I’d chosen to disclose that to them. At the time Generation V was published, I was working at two colleges – I told one of my bosses, but not the other, and those choices were based on what I knew about those individuals’ outlooks and opinions.

I’m certainly hugely proud of Generation V, and it would be wonderful if enough people enjoyed my work that I was able to be one of those writers who is able to support themselves solely from writing, but after some serious consideration (as well as discussions with my agent and several of my colleagues) I made the decision to use a pseudonym.

Q] This is a general phenomenon I have noted in Urban Fantasy, that mostly female authors write about female protagonists, there are a few male protagonists however they are still in the minority, what made you decide to go along this route? 

MLB: Urban Fantasy is very full of take-charge kick-ass women, it is true. And I love reading those books, so I’m probably part of the reason that it’s become almost a trope (though a very positive one, I think). But I think when a new writer is trying to break in, it’s important to be aware of what the stereotypes and tropes of the genre are, and to make deliberate decisions about what you want your book to be. I really didn't want to be writing a book or a series that was almost interchangeable on the basic level with a lot of other work out there, which heavily influenced a lot of the fundamental elements of Generation V when I was first constructing it. One of those things was that I chose a male protagonist, and that I work entirely within his narrative voice – this series is first-person POV, and will remain that way.

Beyond what I see as a great desire to write awesome and powerful heroines, though, I think a lot of female writers might also feel a subtle pressure to stay within a female narrative voice. There can be pushback when a woman writes about a male protagonist, just as sometimes readers might complain when a man writes from a female POV – and I’m not talking about quality of writing, but about some people who fundamentally disagree about anyone hopping gender, and they can be extremely passionate about it.

It’s kind of funny, because no one ever argues that people shouldn't be writing from vampire POVs, or werewolf POVs, or whatever. But wouldn't those experiences be just as different as an opposite gender writer?

Q] What was the reason/s for you choosing Providence, Rhode Island as the primary setting for the books? 

MLB: Oh, that’s a great question! I actually spent a lot of time thinking about my setting – it was probably the last fundamental storytelling decision I made, because I kept going back and forth. I didn't want to write about a city that I personally associated with other writers – so that eliminated places like New York or Chicago. I also wanted a place that I had at least some familiarity with, because otherwise I would've been spending hours looking over maps and reading up on local history (and believe me, I spent enough time doing that as it was).

I seriously considered Pittsburgh, but even though it has the three rivers, I wanted to keep my long-term storytelling options a little more open if I wanted to bring in marine monsters. I then almost completely settled on Nashua, New Hampshire (friends of mine live there, and I really loved how some of the natives refer to Nashua as “Nash-Vegas”), but it wasn't completely working. I wanted what I was writing to have a city grittiness, but I also felt like I wanted to do something different and interesting with where my older vampires were living. Once I started playing with that line of thinking, it led me straight to Newport, RI.

My family has spent one week every summer in Newport since I was about four, and I actually lived there for an entire year on my own. It’s really an amazing and beautiful town, really distinctive, and I love how balanced it is between its own history and contemporary pressures. Once I put Fortitude’s mother in one of the amazing mansions on Ocean Drive, everything else fell into place. Thanks to how small Rhode Island is, I get to have every setting I could possibly want – the remnants of Gilded Age splendor, small-town New England, urban collegiate living, and all of the alleys and city convenience that Providence provides – all accessible within fifty minutes of driving. (I sound like a shill for the Rhode Island tourist bureau, but it’s true!)

Q] What do you do when you aren't writing, what hobbies and proclivities keep you engaged? 

MLB: It’s funny, because right now I have so many writing projects on my desk that it’s hard to actually answer that question. I feel like I’m having to think back to an older time, when I had free time! But I’m a fairly voracious reader, so that occupies quite a lot of my spare hours. I like playing tabletop games with my friends, and a friend recently showed me an episode of the animated series Archer, so I’m currently catching up on all the older seasons on DVD.

Q] In closing, do you have any last thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers? 

MLB: Just how very grateful I am for the wonderfully positive responses people have had about Generation V! Thanks so much for checking it out!

NOTE: Vampire picture courtesy of Filmweb. Betty White picture courtesy of Ikon Magazine. Providence picture courtesy of Boston Web Marketing.



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