....we all have this ability to ground into these forces in our genetic/cultural heritage--not even always on a conscious level--and if we donít thereís a price.

SFRevu Feature: Katya Reimann
Conducted by Ernest Lilley

Feature Review: Prince of Fire and Ashes by Katya Reimann

Amazon links:
Wind from a Foreign Sky
A Tremor in the Bitter Earth
Prince of Fire and Ashes

Katya Reimannís home page is: www.katyareimann.com


I had the chance to talk to Tielmaran Chronicles author Katya Reimann at Readercon. I first met her several years back when her first book, Wind of a Foreign Sky had been released, and was looking forward to seeing how the conclusion of a trilogy, along with having gotten married and produced twins, had changed her views. I caught up to her at a reading of "Codex Rex", a work in progress about 17th century England, magic and pirates, all of which this author knows quite a bit about. We found a bench outside the hotel in the July heat and talked.

 

SFRevu: I've now heard you read three short stories.

Katya Reimann: Which ones?

SFR:: Sam Peckinpaw's Royal Family picnic...

KR: That's not one of mine.

SFR: Yes, it was. It's about a bunch of royals having a picnic and everybody gets slaughtered.

KR: Oh. That was the prologue to A Tremor in the Bitter Earth. The violent, problematic prologue.

SFR: I found that painful.

KR: Many people have.

SFR: Then you read a story where a young man gets turned into a tree, and I think you've got some issues with guys as lovers.

KR: "Honeysuckle Flowers" came out in Realms of Fantasy this April.

SFR: and I liked this new one, "Codex Rex", a lot. It seems that this story about a pirate trying to sell a Mayan Codex is the first story that lets you use your academic background in 17th century piracy. But we'll get back to that.

Prince of Fire and Ashes came out this July 12th (2002), how do you feel about it?

KR: I feel great. It's the concluding book of the Tielmaran Chronicles, and the reception so far has not only been warm and favorable, people seem to be noticing some of the things I was consciously trying to accomplish with it.

With these three books I was attempting to write a real trilogy--three books and a story that arcs and completes itself in that space. This was difficult for a number of reasons. First, when I wrote book one (Wind from a Foreign Sky), I knew that there was more story there but it had effectively been written as a standalone--who knew Tor would buy it and contract two more books? So when I set myself to writing books two and three, I knew my big theme--Kingship--but I didn't have a firm outline in place. Also, I had to find a comfortable way to split what was left of the story in two complete pieces. With the second book I was particularly determined to write a real book, and not just a stretched out piece of connective tissue.

In the overall context, ďTremor in the Bitter EarthĒ was successful as an independent book, but as part II--without part III ready on the shelf there waiting for them--people had a lot of trouble with it because the scene dramatically shifts from Tielmark to the Bissanty Empire.

The things I did in book two were deliberate looking towards the ending, but itís not completely clear why until youíve read book three.

SFR: You could say the same thing about LeGuin's EarthSea triology.

KR: Sure. The second book there, The Tombs of Atuan, shifted character as well as scene. It left lots of readers thinking ďhuh?Ē, but by the third book that authorial decision made sense.

My additional challenge in writing the third book was to write a book that was independent, even with two volumes of story preceding it, since in the scary current world of publishing, you can't be sure the first and second book will be in available when it comes out. When Tremor in the Bitter Earth was printed in hardcover, the reprint of the first book hadn't come out yet--Tor was holding it for simultaneous release with the softcover. Tremor is its own book, so that was ok, but still--it made it very clear to me that the third book was going to have to be able to be read independently too.

SFR: So how did you deal with that?

KR: In Prince of Fire & Ashes? By creating a complete story arc within the book, and setting it up so that you found out who the characters were very quickly. The bookís prologue--I chose a scene that described events that occured fifty years before the action in any of the previous books. That way new readers got grounded fast, and old readers had a sense of reward rather than recap--seeing old friends from books one and two in their foolish, active youths.

It must have worked, because reviewers are saying that the book can stand alone.

But I also wanted Prince of Fire and Ashes to be a bigger book than the other two... and I wanted it to show everything I had learned, as well as not repeating the mistakes of the first books. So for me there was a lot riding on this book. I wanted to show how much my writing had matured, as well as to connect it to what had gone before.

SFR: How does that show up in the book?

KR: Probably in my control of the subplots, and taking more time with the characterization of the secondary characters. That I had the ability to weave those characters in and the finesse to guide them through the plot. That I could juggle all these things and at the end the reader would feel satisfied.

SFR: How consistent is the trilogy's central character, Gaultry Blas, through the three books? Has your vision of who she is changed?

KR: I can happily say that she has been a genuine character who has grown over the books, but has been consistent in who she is throughout. This hasn ít been easy--she wields very powerful magic, and I didnít want to write a character who was boringly all-powerful or simply just stupid about learning how to control her power.

SFR: The magic in this universe isn't canonical magic. You can't just open a spell book to page 34 and invoke the spell of the leaping toad. It's a personal magic.

KR: Yes. Although my magic definitely has a system. There are 12 major divinities. You choose your divinity, you worship it, and you get power back.

SFR: That seems like a very reasonable arrangement.

KR:  It's a classical model that goes back to the Greeks. The important thing is that itís not static: the gods--and humans--are constantly poaching on each otherís territories, and people in my world certainly find themselves worshipping different gods as they pass through different phases of their lives.

SFR: Is the end of the trilogy the end of the Saga, or will you come back to it later?

KR: What I want to do right now is show my legs as a writer. So I don't want the next book to be a Tielmaran book. Right now I'm working on two projects simultaneously--something new for me--one set in the 17th century, and the other set in... call it 2004, because the setting is ďnow.Ē

I very much enjoy writing in those different modes, historical and contemporary. Itís terrific to be able to integrate Ďrealí details--for example, being able to describe a painting by Vermeer or reference a book by someone who influenced me. So long as I feel itís justified to build the texture of the novel or its plot, I can do it.

It's really fascinating to me to try and create a specific place that is a real place after three books where I had to make everything up.

SFR: I really enjoyed hearing you read "Codex Rex", from the 17th century work. Is that going to be a novelette, or a full novel? Have you placed it with a publisher yet?

KR: Itís a short story, but itís also going to be a novel.

This is how I write short stories. Somebody who is doing an anthology asks me if I can write a story about something, and I go off and think about it for a while. Then I say (excitedly) "Yes! I can write a story about this!"

However, many proposed anthologies do not actually occur, so then you have this story that's a relic of a book that's not to be. So, it sits in the drawer for about a year and then after awhile I realize that I ought to do something with it really, and thatís when I start shopping it around. ďCodex RexĒ--I haven't started seriously shopping it around.

Iím not really a short story writer--Iím a novelist. The ideas I have tend to get complicated very quickly and itís hard to keep them short. So when I write short stories, I donít start putting any actual work in until Iím sure theyíre going to be really good. However, when I am finished with a story I usually have something that I know will find a home someplace. This makes me a lot slower about kicking it out the door. I know Iíve got something that will appear in print--itís just a question of time and place. I know that sounds arrogant, but if I'm taking a piece of writing to the point where I've formed a complete story, it's going to be sold at some point.

Iím not someone who does writing exercises. I'm writing to be published.

SFR: is this the first time you've used your academic expertise in 17th century piracy in a story?

KR: Yes. Seven years after the fact. Iíve always known I would do it, but itís taken me that long to find characters I wanted to write about--people who werenít completely corrupted and nasty. In England the 17th century was a rather unpleasant time when the powers that be were consolidating their imperial aspirations.

SFR: When I met you, just after you had published Wind from a Foreign Sky, you told me you had an SF story you wanted to get to after the trilogy. Something about clocks.

KR: That story is Pocketclock. Another novel. Eventually it should be the first SF story I finish, but it's a story that needs a little bit longer to develop. Itís a big concept story, exploring my ideas that the human mind is really unknowable, that even if we map the entire human genome, we still wonít have all the answers. The first half is written, and another bit as well, but I felt I was going off in the wrong direction, so I had to put it down.

I dislike big concept science fiction stories that devolve into action adventure tales. An author introduces a fabulous concept, then loses steam. Instead of continuing to draw the reader along on the strength of the ideas, she or he starts putting in car chases and explosions... With Pocketclock, at the very least I knew I was going to have to learn more as a writer before I completed it. Itís not really fit fodder for a first novel.

I wrote the first half in an incredible passion. Thatís a positive and a negative. There are a number of things that Iíll have to change or work out more completely why theyíre in there. Many are simply first-time novelist problems.

SFR: An example?

KR: One trope is that the central protagonist is wildly attractive to everyone they come in contact with. Iíve got some good reasons why this is true of Maria (the protagonist)--sheís a very desirable genetic type--but I know this area needs work.

I've also noticed that a number of women writers, when they come to write their first novel, somehow wind up with a scene where their heroine is tied spread-eagle to a bed, and then has her clothes stripped off, either by the villain, or maybe even by the hero, who they've managed to justify somehow in doing this. Keep your eyes open! Youíll see it, in varied and half-disguised forms, even in some of the best writers working today.

SFR: You managed to avoid that in your first novel. The hero barely escaped with his life and no bed or stripping were even involved.

KR: [grinning] Probably because I wrote ďPocketclockĒ first. Yes, in "Pocketclock" there is a scene where the heroine is tied to an examining table in a corrupt gene-engineering hospital and her guard, a handsome but nasty SS Officer type, comes in and opens up her clothes. I know I need to have the scene in the story, but I also know that by the time comes to publish, I need to be totally in control so the reader doesn't think this is some politically naive female novelist who didn't have time to work through her adolescent fantasies before she got to press.

SFR: No. No. Of course not.

KR: I should make you wait for the book! But ok, hereís why I need to have that scene in: the last time this particular guard had seen my heroineís body, heíd been torturing her with a flame thrower, and the last time he'd seen her he was looking at exposed guts and bones and blackened flesh. The people who set him up to do this--they thought that making him do this confirmed him as their tool. They even gave him a nice shiny medal. Itís pinned to the front of his tunic when he walks in to visit my heroine, barely recovered from the ordeal and tied down with medical restraints. But forcing him to commit that atrocity pushed him too far, and by the time he comes into that room to have a look at Mariaís body, heís no longer on the side of the devils. In Pocketclock my heroineís body has amazing regenerative powers--tested to their limit by the flamethrower as punishment for her lack of cooperation. So when Erik opens up Mariaís clothes for a look, the sexual element is highly complicated by his simple relieved appreciation that what heís looking at is unscarred human skin rather than a burnt out nightmare.

Maria herself enters the scene thinking ďOh shit, the monster has returned for another round!Ē and closes it with the realization that what she has endured--the flame-torture--has had a transformative purpose. So it's a very important scene, and yet. . .

SFR: I can see how a certain audience could get the wrong idea.

KR: Part of the challenge as a writer is to take an old idea that we are all familiar with and to do something unexpected and exciting with it. Sometimes this brings you onto uncomfortable ground. Iím not writing for the audience that relishes the inherent violence in my material while passing over the underlying message. I want the clues to be in place so my readers can work out that something much more complicated is going on.

SFR: What was the feminist buzz about your first novel?

KR: Publisher's Weekly labeled it a "ravening feminist novel". Or was it ďfrothingĒ?

SFR: So, was it? And are you?

KR: I am a ravening feminist, but not in the way the article suggested--it seemed to suggest that I was going around tearing off all my male characterí s testicles. I think the complaint was that all the villains in the first book were men. Iíd counter that--if it needs countering--by pointing out that a major villain from the third book (gender: female) is also present in book one, but that doesnít become obvious until later.

But as a feminist, I will say it is a point of pride to me that there is a coven of elderly women in the third book, and they run the gamut from heroic to insane. I donít want to live in a world where the old women all look and act alike.

SFR: After reading the first book I wondered about your issues with men.

KR: Which were?

SFR: The difficulty of trading control for affection, security for vulnerability.

KR: Sure--those are important issues.

...the colder and nastier and meaner I made Issachar Dan...the more my female readers found him attractive.

I will say--one of the problems I had with the first book while I was revising it for publication was that the colder and nastier and meaner I made Issachar Dan, one of the villains, the more my female readers seemed to find him attractive. On the other hand, Martin, the hero, has a moment where he kisses Gaultry in somewhat inappropriate circumstance (after a big fight where everyoneís adrenaline is up). Some readers had trouble accepting him as a hero after he "forced" himself on Gaultry.

That was a very interesting moment for me as a writer, discovering the standards a modern hero is held to. It's very hard to create a hero who is clearly good, but also a bit edgy. It's much easier to create an attractive villain. He can be kicking someone lying on the ground in the ribs (as Issachar does to Gaultry), and still be perceived as sexy. Creating Martin--a strong man who doesnít spend a lot of time explaining himself--as an acceptable partner for Gaultry was ridiculously difficult. The fact that Martin has a military background, is a Ďleader of mení rather than simply a lone-ranger type (he is used to giving orders and being responsible for keeping people other than himself alive) didnít help either!

It's easier to redeem a hero than to create a pristine one.

SFR: Bad men seem to have all the fun. But I wonder if that's what they're about.

KR: I think the biggest objection to my books is their realism. In time of war, or when under physical stress, even nice people donít always act very well.

SFR: You married in 1998, had twins in 99, and managed to get this book out somehow during that period. Which had the bigger impact on your writing?

KR: The marriage. Maybe you wonít believe this, but for me, the twins were much less of an impact.

SFR: Is it because you're a "bad mother"?

KR: (Laughs) Partly. They're learning language right now and one of the things they like to do is to go into the study and sit down at the computer and say, "Go away! Go Away! I'm working!," and they have a special mean voice they use.

It's very embarrassing. And yet it's not embarrassing, because I'm happy that they know they aren't supposed to interrupt me, and that my work is valuable.

SFR: Was that an easier lesson for them to learn than for Tim (Katya's husband)?

I always expected to partner myself with an artist, academic, or writer. Instead, I married a scientist.

KR: In as much that I expected to get married, I always expected to partner myself with an artist, academic, or writer. Instead, I married a scientist, a man who does product development of various display technologies. He's from a very different background than I am. He works a 40-hour week, he comes from a family that works 40-hour weeks. He was the first person from his family to go to college, let alone achieve a Chemistry Ph.D. from MIT. Iím very proud of him and all he has accomplished. It wasnít really Tim who was the problem.

My editor, Jim Frenkel (Tor), has said to me that writers are often afraid to ask for what they need, because if somebody says "No," what are you going to do? Asking becomes just too risky, so you clam up. In marriage, itís easy for a writer to be afraid to ask for things he or she really needs. I was very timid in the first year of my marriage. I didnít want to show Tim how far away from him I went when I was doing my writing, how little anything else mattered when I was in the throes.

All this doesn't mean that I'm not incredibly grateful when I open the door and my dinner is cooked for me, and the kids are changed and put into bed. I'm lucky that Tim is involved with the kids and does all these things for me. But it took a long time before I had the courage to ask for the amount of Ďnannyingí that I need as a writer to complete a book.

SFR: Is Fantasy the current wave? Is it continuing? How does your own work fit in the larger scheme of things?

KR: I write what I write, and for now, what I write are stories with magic in them. That's the simple answer. I do sense there is some change taking place in the field. The long series that tend to be disappointing after the sixth book seem to have at least some sub-set of readers disillusioned. And having stories that are complete in one book is more important than ever when booksellers arenít stocking every title in a series.

My roots are in central Europe, and like Steven Brust (The Paths of the Dead, The Book of Taltos, Issola), I consider myself Central-European. That adds a different twist or tone to my work. Insofar as my writing goes, my fantasy world is a sort of an alternate France, rather than alternate Wales/Ireland--personally I find that an overworked area.

SFR: Who influenced you when you were young? Who's strong now?

KR: My influences in fantasy, when I was very young, were Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T.H. White. That was when I was about 11. Then when I was about 14, Patricia McPhillip, Forgotten Beast of Eld and I love Anne McCaffery's short books. Dragonsinger continues to be a favorite. That was pretty much it for fantasy I read at that certain time when I was growing up and it locked into my brain. Then there was a dry period of about ten years when I wasn't reading any fantasy.

Currently, I really like Lois McMaster Bujold. Her "Curse of Chalion" is terrific.

SFR: What do you think of the progression of her Miles Vorkosigan character? I think sheís been kind of rough on him, and wonder if it's a Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes thing, where the audience won't let the character off the stage, no matter how tired the author is.

KR: Lois's most recent book I found thin. It was poorly constructed, and Miles never has a direct encounter with the villain. That's a problem in a novel of the kind she is so good at writing. [shrugging] I don't mind saying these things because I know Lois's next book will be fabulous.

SFR: Don't you think there's a lot of marrying against type?

Not one of them chose to say, ďThe hell with this marriage thingĒ.

KR: There I donít agree, though I will say that my least favorite part of A Civil Campaign was the marrying off of all the Koudelka girls. Not one of them chose to say, "The hell with this marriage thing".

SFR: Ah, you are a raving feminist! But I agree. There have been plenty of women in Bujoldís stories that made their own way. Suddenly they seem to be reverting.

KR: Lois is a smart writer. Iím sure her next one will shake things up. Who else do I read and admire? Terry Pratchett. Another author I really like is Sharon Shinn. I enjoyed The Shape-changer's Wife very much. I have yet to read the Archangel series, but I've heard wonderful things and am looking forward to reading them.

SFR: What do you think of the world as it is?

KR: Our world?

SFR: The one we think we live in.

KR: I think we need to come to some balance between Nationalism and Internationalism. The kind of Nationalism that makes people kill each other has obvious flaws, especially considering that we are all living on a single vulnerable planet, but internationalism that makes for a monolithic culture is obviously depressing and bad for us as human animals.

Right now one of the books I'm working on is centered around a Ukrainian teenager. Well, actually she's only half Ukrainian, but there you go--thatí s the typical American for you. My heroine thinks she's just an ordinary (if somewhat over-privileged) teenager, but one day she makes a wreath out of grass, just as her grandmother taught her. A mentor friend reveals to her that this wreath is a token of power from the old country--power that dates back to the Scythians. The story takes off from there.

Take all our technology away and weíre not far away at all from lives as sweating peasants breaking our backs in the fields. And our genes designed us to be sweating peasants, not air-conditioned couch potatoes.

For me, the whole thing is at least in some part a metaphor for how a grounding in the past helps us in our present lives. Take all our technology away and weíre not far away at all from lives as sweating peasants breaking our backs in the fields. And our genes designed us to be sweating peasants, not air-conditioned couch potatoes.

SFR: One of my favorite pieces about discovering magic is in In the Land of Winter, by Richard Grant. He does a terrific progression about a young woman who goes through the whole traditional series of power moves, fasting, killing an animal, going on retreat, but without knowing she's doing it, and only gradually realizes that she's unlocking power.

KR: Just so. Going out and having the physical experiences, even when youí re not sure exactly what it is or why youíre doing it. There's a lot of strength in not taking a computer program and having it repeat your stitches for you a thousand times, but doing every stitch by hand. It's just not the same if you have a computer repeat a character a thousand times: there is a power inherent in doing every repetition yourself.

SFR: In Arthur C. Clark's classic story, "The Nine Billion Names of God", a monastic order sets up a computer to perform the devotional task of writing down what they believe are the nine billion names of god. Your feeling is that it might not work because humans didn't sit down and do it.

KR: Yes, exactly.

What part of the computerized and asensual experience is good and what part is a loss, and how do you balance these things?

I think these are the issues we're all struggling with. What part of the computerized and asensual experience is good and what part is a loss, and how do you balance these things? In my fiction, I'm trying to make a road map--obviously less overtly and more symbolically in my heroic fantasy milieu than in the books I'm working on now--where my contention is that we all have this ability to ground into these forces in our genetic/cultural heritage--not even always on a conscious level--and if we donít thereís a price. At its least serious level we get headaches and tend be very depressed--and it gets worse from there.

SFR: So it becomes important to be human. To become a powerful machine isn't the same thing, and doesn't tap into the same things. So much for Lt. Cmdr. Data.

KR: If you look closely at the 18th century, which I know a fair amount about from my own Ph.D work, you get an image of people who are incredibly strong and robust. People who think nothing of walking from Cambridge to London overnight, then sitting down to chat at some sort of intellectual coffee house meeting the next morning to argue philosophical points. They would eat big meals, and be very physical, and yet these people regarded the human body as weak and frail, susceptible not just to disease, but to emotion. People fell down and fainted, not necessarily just because they were wearing corsets, but because their emotional reactions could be so unguarded and intense. It surprised no one when a person who had lost a parent or a child took to bed for weeks.

People were expected to have strong and sustained feelings. Now, with the institution of the forty hour work week, and taking vacations only for a week or two during the summer, we don't pay attention to ourselves or even allow ourselves that kind of Ďindulgentí emotion.

For me the ideal model for humanity acknowledges the physical world that we live in. Our bodies are a part of that physical world.

SFR: What did you think of the Lord of the Rings Movie?

KR: I loved it. A friend of mine said that he didn't like the Victorian Graveyard architecture of the Elves, and I agreed with that, but otherwise it was fabulous. An extra bonus for me was that the movie was set in New Zealand in these fabulous high limestone landscapes, and that was where I did my caving (with the Oxford University Cave Club), in places like that. Those were the places I spent five of the best years of my life, when I was in England.

SFR: Caving, rowing, and what else?

KR: Climbing. There was a certain period in my life when I was climbing and caving at a very high level.

SFR: I never had a period like that in my life.

KR: Mine didn't last long enough, and I was surrounded by people who were doing it at higher levels than me. Some of them died. Some kept going. It was fabulous and a real privilege to be a welcome member of a community like that.

SFR: This must have been just before you came back from the UK to publish your first book, because I remember that you were one buff chick.

KR: (wistfully) Yeah. But it was more complicated than that, because the period when I was in England fortuitously coincided with a mini ďGolden AgeĒ of caving over there. People were really pushing themselves, and the caves were so big and hard, you needed large teams of enthusiastic fools to get all the equipment down and in where it needed to be. We made some very exciting original discoveries in those years. Itís quieted down since then. I talk to my friends from that time now, and Iím not the only one looking back with rose-colored nostalgia.

As I writer I guess thatís what Iím striving for on some obscure level--trying to be part of some big, important thing that takes me up and makes me feel connected. At its best, itís intellectual and physical together. But it takes a lot of energy to sustain.

For a few more years Iíll settle for continuing to get books done and raising my twin babies--and be very happy that Iím doing that. Two big life projects. Iím a realist. I know thatís plenty to keep me busy for the moment.