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Interview with Sylvia Kelso, Feminist Speculative Fiction Novelist: One Year Later

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Sylvia Kelso is the author of many speculative fiction novels including Riversend, published in December 2008 by Juno Books The first chapter is excerpted at I recently got a chance to talk to her about her many novels and to catch up on her sequels.

Hello Sylvia, I recently saw a review of one of your novels, The Red Country, on SF Crowsnest and I thought I'd catch up with you one year later to see how life had changed for you since our last interview. You seem to be juggling series, standalones, websites, and sequels. Do you have time for an interview?

Of course I do.

Thanks. How was Amberlight received by critics? I tend to divide a book's readers into Critics, Normal folks who love reading, and Writers. How have these groups reacted to your book? Or is there no real difference?

There were definitely groups in the reception of Amberlight. In the Blogosphere, I think with a lot of younger readers and reviewers, most liked the story and characters, but had trouble with the style, though they usually finished the book. Au contraire, Harry Markov, on his blog Temple Library Reviews was intrigued by Amberlight as a “political fantasy,” and there were some other positive reader/reviewers. Also online, the received Critics, Library Journal — always a kick to attract — found the characters “tough and resilient.” Publishers Weekly fussed about the style but liked the “calculus of power” and the gender politics. The Washington Post, courtesy of Kathleen Goonan, probably hit closer than almost anyone else to the core of the book as I see it, when she wrote “this is a novel about economic forces, geopolitical supply and demand, and the human price an unfettered market extracts. It is also about trust and love.”

So, was there any marked difference between how men reviewed the book and how women reviewed it?

Male reviews were rare, but I haven’t found a bad one yet, interestingly. A couple put Amberlight on their list of 10 best for 2007, or listed it as a good Christmas present for 2007. But the strongest response came from what I’d probably call the feminist SF community, on and offline.

The book had some very good blog reviews, from Liz Henry’s Feminist SF blog to Aqueduct Press’s Ambling Along the Aqueduct. Cheryl Morgan also boosted Amberlight on her own blog, and recalled it in her list of the best for 2008 on Ambling. Cindy Ward at the end of ‘07 named Amberlight her book of the year on Ambling, gave it a Nebula recommendation, and reviewed it again on International Review of SF on the Web. And I nearly fainted from sheer shock when Eileen Gunn, to me a senior member of established SF, women’s SF, and feminist SF, congratulated me on Amberlight at WisCon, last year.

Wiscon. I better explain that to our readers. For those who don't know, WisCon is the annual alternative counter-cultural feminist science fiction speculative fiction convention. Okay, next question. What part of it seemed to intrigue the readers most?

Harry Markov was fascinated by the Intra-city politics. A number of the feminist SF readers and reviewers not surprisingly liked the gender politics, though largely because the novel is unblushingly heterosexual. But a couple of people also liked the reverse hierarchy that made the main male character have to appear at times like a slave toy-boy, grin. Most reviewers and readers liked the characters, though “intrigued” might not be quite the right word there. And they seemed to find the pull of the actual story — the what-happened-next, and what-happened-in-the-end elements — pretty good.

Were you aware of all the themes you were exploring in your novel? Or did some of them surprise you?

Not so many after publication. Most of them I’d already been able to work out when the two very good readers to whom the book is dedicated, Helen Merrick and Justine Larbalestier, talked about it earlier. A lot of themes, of course, I wasn’t aware of while actually writing it.

Helen Merrick? Is that the author of Women of Other Worlds: Excursions Through Science Fiction and Feminism?

Yes. And Justine Larbalestier is a science fiction historian.

Dang, Woman! You travel in very esteemed very academic circles! So, what themes are your fans clamoring for you to explore further?

(laughing) Well, one of the blog and probably feminist reviewers wanted more from the viewpoint of the men. Amberlight is told in intimate 3rd present tense by the main female character, the House-Head Tellurith. She'll get this in triplicate if she does read Riversend, the sequel. It’s told in 1st person from three viewpoints, Tellurith and the two men she, in her usual autocratic fashion, decides to marry — at least, she’s already married to one — when they leave Amberlight. So Two-thirds of Riversend is actually told from male points of view.

But I don’t know that many asked for other themes to be explored. There has been a small tendency to ask, "What happened next?" Always the most gratifying question for a writer. Not much about ongoing themes, though in fact, gender politics, and an attempt at gender equity, which was only foreshadowed in Amberlight, is almost the central focus of Riversend

Okay, the blurb is interesting. What’s Riversend about?

I guess Riversend IS about, What Came Next? What happens when the life you knew, and the world where you lived it, which has been accreted and in fact ossified for centuries, literally gets blown up under your feet? When you lose what seemed the centre of that world, even closer to you than family and kin and culture? What you’ll do then, and where and how do you start?

Amberlight was a matriarchy, in the strictest sense. Just as a patriarchy by definition deforms gender equity in favour of men, a strict matriarchy deforms it in favur of women, but both do the deforming in class specific ways. In Victorian England, patriarchy decreed that ideal women were secluded in the home. Which meant all women were excluded from the professions and the public world as well as Universities, but it also meant upper and middleclass women were left idle, while lower, working class and poor women were inferiour because they HAD to work, lowerclass men were inferior because they cdn’t keep their women home. So in Amberlight, upperclass men were kept in luxury and relative idleness, while the lower classes were scorned because the women couldn’t support their men.

So the first and most basic change Tellurith dreams of is achieving gender equity. Riversend is about realizing that dream. The struggles, compromises, political maneuvers, defeats and triumphs and disasters, on the way to founding a community not only equitable, but sustainable in the new world. Because that world contains not only old tradition and prejudice and simple physical threats, but also all of Amberlight’s old political enemies.

The blurb says: A dream. A mystery. A quest. So that’s the dream. The mystery is exactly what it was in Amberlight. The presence and/or nature of the qherrique, the proto-sentient all-purpose McGuffin whose functions upheld Amberlight. For most of Riversend, Tellurith’s House-people are learning to do without the qherrique. At the end, there’s a new mystery. A great deal of trial, some terrible grief. And then, out of all that, a new, mysterious hope. That hope is centred in the final element of the blurb. A quest.

Did you intend to have a sequel when you first began?

(grinning) I didn’t intend to have anything when I first began. When I finished paragraph one of Amberlight I was in much the same situation as Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings when he reached Weathertop in book one: he had no idea where Gandalf was, and he was starting to despair of living to find out. I wasn’t despairing, but I had no idea where I was, what qherrique was, even who Tellurith was. If you’d told me then that this was the start of a series of 4 books — two in print or about to be, one flapping at the moment, and one in the process of writing — I’d have been beyond belief.

Does it start up where the other left off? I don't know if you've ever delved into the Paris Balzac created for his Comedie Humaine. Do the same characters always appear as main characters or do characters who were major characters in one book take on a minor role in ensuing books?

The main characters from Amberlight are central again, that is, Alkhes and Tellurith, but a number of lesser to cameo characters from Amberlight become important, and of course new middle to minor characters appear, including one who makes a late but starring appearance and goes on to be a major voice in the third book. The most interesting developer in Riversend, though, is Tellurith’s first husband, Sarth.

I think we've got to tell those who haven't read the book that in the world of Amberlight, women marry two husbands. So when you say that Sarth is Tellurith's first husband, it's not as if they are divorced. He is still her husband when she marries the second husband.

Yes, yes, thanks! (laughing) In Amberlight he had only a couple of scenes. In Riversend he is one of the three pov characters and he developed in ways I never expected. He was also the hardest to write. Alkhes was fairly straightforward, even if male. He comes from your common or garden patriarchy and he’s trying to adjust to a community just leaving matriarchy. But Sarth was born, bred and raised in matriarchy. In a House Tower of Amberlight, which make Turkish seraglios seem like open thoroughfares. Tower men are the equivalent of Classical Greek courtesans. They are supremely well-educated – so they can talk back intelligently to the women who ran Amberlight. They are physically superb – they work out, they cultivate their looks, down to make-up and manicures – so they can be attractive to the women who run the society, etc.. Figuring out how Sarth would already think, let alone how he would change and challenge the new life, was the most exciting part of writing Riversend.

Tell me about Riversend. Is it standalone or should I read the first book to really understand the world?

Amberlight was a complete story, and Riversend is set up to give you some backstory at the very beginning — but you may find yourself, like one of my other early readers, getting a few chapters into Riversend and rushing out to get the prequel — or in her case, e-mail me urgently, going, Where’s the first book of this?

Riversend isn’t a complete standalone, because the end isn’t a cliffhanger, but the main narrative does head on into the third book, Source. When Source will see print is a large question at the moment, but it will be the capstone for these three books. The fourth one, Dragonfly, is set a few years later. It explores the consequences, political, emotional and physical, of the Amberlight sequence. I don’t say trilogy, because each story is a satisfying whole in itself.

You write paranormal romance. Why is romance important to you or to your stories? Heck, why is romance important to the writing world? Why use romance to tell a story?

Eh. In the very strict sense of the publishing category, paranormal romance requires an urban and/or contemporary setting and usually a bunch of werewolves and/or vampires and other “dark supernaturals” – as opposed to elves, giants, etc.

What I write, at least in this series according to the readers, is fantasy or SF of some sort. High fantasy, political fantasy, SF, feminist SF… whatever label you use, there’s a secondary non-contemporary — although partly urban — world, and no supernaturals in the orthodox sense. There are definitely “non-realist” happenings, but they are sourced less in something out of fantasy than out of SF.

But romance, yep. I write romance, though again, not in the proper category sense. That –as defined by Paula Guran, Juno, Amberlight and Riversend’s editor– is “centred round a male/ female relationship” and the end is positive if not happy ever after. Well, there certainly are “romantic” relationships in these books, though, not all of them are single male/female, and not all of them are actually heterosexual, especially in the later two books. But there are endings that count as happy, at least to me. Or rather, they are endings that look toward hope. Toward building, and achievement, and a realizable future that involves people in happy, solid relationships. If those are also “romantic,” in the sense of love and/or sex, so much the better, say I. So you could say romance is important to me in the widest sense of the word “romantic.” At the end of a novel, I want to see something through clear if not rose-coloured glasses, however dark the road to that end may be.

As for “romance’s” importance to the writing world, well, we may need to qualify the term. “Romance” in terms of publishing categories is of massive importance because it has the lion’s share of readers and book buyers. What more need I say?

“Romance” in the sense of sexual/love relationships is paramount to the Romance category, so there’s your answer in the second sense. And that such “romance” in the category sense, with the requirement of a heterosexual love relationship with an HEA as its centre, is the biggest fish in the publishing ocean, suggests to me at least that an awful lot of us like to indulge in fantasies — in the non-writing sense — of adventure: Hoottttt sex, and meeting, and keeping — which seems to be the bottom line in category romances — a dream-fantasy heterosexual mate.

Why use romance to tell a story, well, there again the answer lies above. Readers like the dream, the part about adventure and mystery and maybe an amazing man thrown in. They like connecting with characters, which goes right down to the level of TV soaps. They like hearing about other people’s love affairs, the good and the bad. And “romance,” with its overtones of rose-coloured fantasy, supplies something that’s not in large supply outside the book. It gives readers an image of someone to whom exciting things happen, someone who succeeded in her (usually) personal life. It gives them, again, hope.

Have you ever created a world you really wanted to live in? And why? Or do only escapist writers do that?

Not yet. Although parts of the world in the third book of this series do go close to where I’d have liked to live. If only there wasn’t quite so much rain… (very straight face, and, no, I am not putting in spoilers by explaining any further!)

You have had two books short-listed for the Aurealis Award , the highest award given to an Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy writer. Amberlight and The Moving Water How does that feel?

I never expected The Moving Water to get an Aurealis listing, since I’d tried out Everran’s Bane, its predecessor, for every prize or contest or award in Australia, and got nowhere. I was resigned to entering my stuff just as support for the award. When I had the notice about The Moving Water you could have knocked me down with a feather. When I heard about the Amberlight listing you wdn’t have needed the feather at all.

Hey, maybe The Red Country, the third in the series after Everran's Bane will also be award. Hey, you never know. Tell me, though, writing two different series, is it easy to go from one world to another? Do you have trouble separating the themes of your different stories or are they totally unalike?

These two series are in different worlds, and they were chronologically apart as well. The Everran Books, aka the Chronicles of Rihannar, were written earlier than Amberlight, and in fact, so was a second series in that world which has yet to see the light of print. But I was “finished” imaginatively with that world before Amberlight came along.

I do have three other books, set in a contemporary analogue of our world, that intervened between Source, the third book of the Amberlight series, and Dragonfly, the fourth. That was largely, I think now, because the novum with which Source closed was just so massive a leap that it took the Black Gang — the subconscious creative part of us that creates stories  — the four years or so until Dragonfly began to gel, just to get their imaginative calipers around it. However, I never had any trouble going from one of those worlds to the other while I was doing it. I just didn’t try to write novels in both at the same time, though there are writers who can do that.

The themes of my stories are usually quite different, so far as I can tell, though I have to take care, as more books proliferate, that I don’t get repeating situations or characters. When I say “situation,” I mean not so much specific incidents as narrative arcs or lines. But I do try to make my stories as unalike each other as is possible.

Do you leave a finished work feeling you have grown in any way? Creatively, emotionally, whatever? What does the act of creating a book do for you?

Mostly, I don’t feel “grown” in myself. Finishing a “work,” well, short stories do give me a sense of achievement. Or even excitement, heh, at least until the first rejection arrives. But if “work/book” means “novel,” it’s very different. The first novel I ever wrote, a massive historical that never saw more than a couple of agents’ desks, involved 10-18 years gestation, a couple of years overseas travel, and enormous quantities of research. And when it finished, what I felt was a gaping sense of loss. For the characters, for the story, for the whole gynormous event.

Though nothing since has taken that sheer amount of time and travel, the sense of loss remains, because, once you finish a novel, the characters are severed. However much chagrin, exasperation or just plain fury you may have felt at their shenanigans, as yet another carefully laid chapter plan went down in ruin, while you’re writing they’re as live and unpredictable as real people. Once you’re finished, you can re-read, but it’s like watching a video of an important event in your life. Everything’s there. It’s just no longer real time. You’re not bone-deep involved. Which sensation may be why readers of well-loved books demand sequels, and even without that demand, writers may feel impelled to produce sequels, just as I did for Amberlight. Those characters were not finished with me. They wanted the rest of their lives, and like, I hope, some of the Amberlight readers, I also wanted to have what happened next.

You're involved in other projects also, right?

Indeed. I do some work at the local University, currently supervising two and a half (one almost finished) PhD students, and some academic research. In 2008 I finished a two-year project as guest editor of an academic journal special volume on Ursula K. Le Guin. It was a great project, especially editing up the papers to the best I could imagine, but even with Dave Willingham, the general editor, as mentor and support and consulting referee, it was quite a job.

My other major project at the moment is as a member of BookView Cafe, a web-site writers’ group begun by SF and F writer Sarah Zettel, with some 20 professional writer members. We’re currently offering new short stories or novel chapters for (mostly) free reading and download daily, and we hope to be offering premium material — that is, whole novels, or other material users can actually pay for, to get, say, the whole work at once — very soon. That’s been a lot of work and a very steep learning curve about Web work, but worth it in every way. We now have over 480 registered users, we were site of the week on the Guardian Online in November, and some of our members are going to talk to the US Library of Congress sometime in May.

Wow!!! It's been great catching up with you and seeing how successful Amberlight has been. I wish you well. Thanks for the interview.

(laughing) Thank you for asking!

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