Interview: Naomi Novik
by John Berlyne
Review by John Berlyne
SFRevu.com Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTNNovik07
Date: November 2007 /
John Berlyne, our Associate Editor UK, reviewed Naomi Novik's new book Temeraire and managed to interview the author for SFRevu in January 2006.
It's been a while and we're reviewing Novik's newest book in the series, Empire of Ivory (Temeraire, Book 4), so we thought we'd rerun the interview.
SFReu: HarperCollins made much of Temeraire in their presentation at Worldcon - how did that feel for you, being there with all that going on? And was it frustrating, given that the book was still four or five months away from publication? And now the novel has been published, are you nervous about how it will be received?
Naomi Novik: Oh, the wait for publication has been maddening since before the ink was dry on the contract. But I just received my very first copy of Temeraire in the mail from HarperCollins last week, and friends in Australia have been reporting sightings of the trade paper version in stores over there, which is finally making it seem real.
And I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. But the tremendous support that Del Rey and HarperCollins have given me is an enormous boost, and Worldcon was certainly a part of that -- just immensely gratifying to feel that kind of support behind you, and that kind of confidence in my work.
SFRevu: Why fantasy? What is it about the genre that attracts you and makes you want to tell these kinds of stories? Who did you grow up reading?
Novik: Fantasy -- speculative fiction in general -- gives you the freedom to pick and choose your constraints; there's something just tremendously fun about being able to put characters into a world and situations very unlike our own. Which is true of historical fiction, also -- one reason why I enjoy working in both genres and wanted to mix them together.
SFRevu: Who is your ideal reader?
Novik: I don't really write with a specific audience in mind, except myself -- I think if you aren't enjoying your own work, you don't have much hope of pleasing anyone else. My ideal reader is anyone who enjoys my work along with me.
SFRevu: Can you tell us some of the background to Temeraire? What made you want to set your story in this period? Would the story have worked just the same had you set it, say, during the First World War? And was it an easy path, finding a publisher for these novels?
Novik: Actually, in this case, I began with the Napoleonic era first -- I'd just recently been introduced to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels, just wonderful, this combination of swashbuckling adventure with the language and atmosphere of the period, the richness of historical detail. And I've loved Jane Austen for years, and been fascinated with the whole era even before that, since reading this tiny little simplified biography of Napoleon back in my elementary school library. The period really gives you all the excitement of epic battles and a grand world stage, joined to an everyday life that is beautifully suited to comedy of manners.
I was experimenting with historical fiction set in the time, and because I also love speculative fiction, I found it natural to play with the boundaries -- to wonder how this era might intersect with fantastical elements, like dragons!
Dragons are a more dramatic entry into this time period precisely because historically there was no air force. In WWI, on the other hand, you already have aerial combat already going on, and the mechanization of war, which would make dragons potentially a less decisive force. I do think it would be interesting to play with the introduction of dragons into other time periods, as well, but I do find this a particularly rewarding match of fantastical element and place.
SFRevu: What background reading/research did you do to learn about the period? And was this novel (and the subsequent two) plotted out? Are you a pathological plotter, or a writer who "goes with the flow"? Are you a disciplined writer?
Novik: I've been interested in this period for so long that I had a great deal of background knowledge to begin with. Some particularly useful works that I looked up specifically for the books included The Young Sea Officer's Sheet Anchor, which was a period text for naval officers and invaluable to anyone trying to make head or tail of some of the nautical terminology, along with the online version of William Falconer's Dictionary of the Marine. The Campaigns of Napoleon and A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars are my general sources for the battles; also John Keegan's work, and the anthology of first-person accounts from the era, Every Man Will Do His Duty, was very helpful in developing the narrative voice.
For China, all the work of Jonathan D. Spence, especially Kang H'si: Portrait of an Emperor; as well as literature of the era, especially the novel A Dream of Red Chambers, which is a pleasure to read in its own right. Sir Henry Ellis's journal of the 1815 British embassy to China is appallingly jingoistic to a modern reader, but useful as a window onto the contemporary British perspective.
For Istanbul, I relied on the excellent DK guidebook for an overview, and for detail on the work of John Freely, particularly Into The Seraglio.
I generally have a high-level plot sketched out, a synopsis that might fill about half a page, and a few specific set pieces in mind, which are my "carrots" -- those are scenes that I have so vividly in mind that I know they will almost write themselves when I get there, which makes them enticing goalposts, as I generally make myself write in order. So I have a general roadmap in mind as I go, but I do like to let the individual scenes grow organically out of one another along the way.
As far as discipline goes, when I am good, I am very very good, and when I am bad, I am shamefully lax. I have a hard time multi-tasking -- when I'm absorbed by my writing, I find it hard to do anything else at all; my ideal day becomes one where I roll out of bed, go straight to the computer, and stay there until late at night with only grudging breaks for meals. As long as I can get away with that kind of intense focus, I'm highly productive. But conversely, I have a hard time getting my writing done if something else is commanding most of my attention. I have ambitions of becoming a more regular, one-thousand-words-a-day writer, but my current feast-or-famine routine has been working for me so far, so maybe I shouldn't be fiddling with it.
SFRevu: Will there be further novels featuring Temeraire after this trilogy? What kind of novels can we expect to see from you in the future?
Novik: I really envision the Temeraire books as an ongoing set of adventures in the Aubrey/Maturin style, rather than as a trilogy or a longer series with a set start and finish. I'm always a little frustrated myself by very long series, so I feel strongly about wrapping up the main plot in each book, while leaving some interesting hooks behind for future adventures and to reward continuing readers without making it impossible for someone to come in fresh later on along the way. Book four of the series is already underway, with book five mostly plotted out and various other ideas brewing on the back burner.
I would like to branch out in other directions, but I've long since learned my lesson about predicting what I'll write in the future -- in between other things, I am currently playing with a dozen or so different ideas from straight historical fiction to sci-fi to urban fantasy to thrillers, and waiting to see what really grabs hold of my imagination.