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Interview: Marie Brennan, Author of A Natural History of Dragons

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Marie Brennan is a former academic and the author of several fantasy novels, the latest of which, A Natural History of Dragons: a Memoir by Lady Trent, is due to be published by Tor on the 5th of February.

I had the opportunity to read and review the book and put some questions to Marie.

Are you as interested in dragons as your protagonist? What first drew you to them?

I like them as much as any fantasy reader might, but I’ve never been obsessed with them—not like Isabella! What drew me to them was a pair of things that both looked at dragons in a more analytical fashion: the Dragonology calendars (sadly discontinued now), and the third edition Dungeons & Dragons supplement Draconomicon. The former was done in the style of a natural historian, and the latter had lots of detailed line drawings by Todd Lockwood—the same artist, of course, who did both my book cover and the interior art. Getting him for those was one of the best moments of working on this series so far.

Marie BrennanI felt an echo of Anne McCaffrey in your story–not just because of the dragons but because of the strong central female character. Has McCaffrey influenced you in any way?

I read a lot of the Pern books growing up—basically up through All the Weyrs of Pern, maybe a couple after that. As far as formative dragon influences are concerned, she’s probably one of the top ones; I know I read other fantasy novels that had them, but none particularly stick in mind. Of course, there are a lot of differences here: my dragons aren’t sentient, much less telepathic, nor can they teleport, nor do they accept human riders. But the notion that dragons are cool? That probably does owe a fair bit to McCaffrey, yes.

As for the strong central female character goes, that’s the result of a lot of different authors inspiring me. I’ve heard a number of writers talk about how hard it was to find interesting female characters, much less protagonists, when they were growing up; I think for people my age and younger, the situation was a lot better. In later grade school and junior high, I read Diana Wynne Jones and Mercedes Lackey and Robin McKinley and an embarrassing amount of Forgotten Realms novels, and while not all of my reading was great on the gender front—epic fantasy in particular tended to be a lot weaker—I never absorbed the idea that there was something odd about having a strong heroine. It was just a normal story. I’ve only written two novels, neither of them published, where the book is dominated by a male point of view; in the Onyx Court series, it’s split roughly 50/50.

Why did you choose to write under a pseudonym?

Because my legal name is unmanageable. Nobody can spell or pronounce my last name (nor would my cover designers thank me for having to cram “Neuenschwander” on the front of a book); people often misspell my first name, too, and mistake me for a guy to boot. I chose my pen name when I was ten, because I knew even then that my legal name would be more trouble than it was worth.

(Ironically, I married a guy whose last name is eleven letters of Polish instead of fourteen of Swiss German. Three letters shorter, but even harder to spell. I stayed with the devil I knew.)

Were your own childhood hobbies in any way similar to Lady Trent’s?

Not at all, actually. I was a ballet dancer and a swimmer and a piano player. The only thing she and I really have in common is reading, and even then, I read more mythology (and fantasy novels!) than works of natural history.

There was a brief period of time when I was very young where I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian—largely because I liked cats—but then somebody told me I would have to cut animals open, and that was the end of that.

You describe yourself as an ex-academic and in this book you’ve charted the development of a budding scholar. Can you tell us how the life of a writer compares to that of the life of an academic.

When I sat down to write my senior thesis in college, I remarked to friends that after writing four novels, the word count of a thesis did not daunt me at all. The fact that I wasn’t just allowed to make stuff up to fill in the holes, however . . .

Of course, that was before I started writing the Onyx Court books, each of which has a research bibliography is roughly as long as that of my thesis! I think the skills of my academic background have come very much in handy for such matters. It’s a different relationship, though; you don’t directly cite your sources in a story, nor are you allowed to come out in the text itself and say you’re inspired by or cribbing from or arguing with something another person has written—even if it’s true. The conversation between people in your field takes a different form.

They’re differently social, too. Academics usually have to teach, which means you get out of the house and deal with other human beings. Writers are generally a pretty solitary bunch, though we do have crit meetings and such—and conventions, which are roughly analogous to academic conferences. (Our cons are more fun, though.)

Are you planning on setting any future works in this world?

Apart from the rest of the series? (There will be at least two more books, and possibly more than that, depending on how things go.)

I hope to write a few short stories in this setting, if I can cudgel my brain into doing short fiction again. Some of them might be about Isabella, covering smaller events than the expeditions the books focus on; others may step back to show other parts of the world, or bits of history. I don’t think I’m likely to do a separate series of novels, though, once Isabella’s memoirs are done.

Will you be appearing in any fantasy conventions in 2013?

I haven’t yet settled my travel plans for this year, but I do know I’ll be at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April and the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, England at the beginning of November, and I’m likely to be at the Sirens Conference outside Portland, Oregon during the second weekend of October. I may also make it back to Fourth Street Fantasy in June.

Much shorter notice, but I will be doing a small reading/signing tour to celebrate the release of A Natural History of Dragons; that’s taking me to Seattle’s University Bookstore on February 6th, the Beaverton Powell’s in Portland on the 7th, Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego on the 8th, and Borderland Books in San Francisco on the 10th. Full details can be found at: http://www.swantower.com/appearances.html

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About Nukapai

I learned to write before I could read and my first story was published when I was only 9 years old. I'm interested in a range of topics - particularly in science fiction, fantasy, horror, illustration, cosmetics industry, consumer psychology, marketing and perfumery. I keep a personal blog at http://www.volatilefiction.co.uk