What was the inception of “Fireborn”?
I was invited by Gardner Dozois to contribute to an audiobook anthology he was editing called Rip-Off! The conceit was that authors could steal a first line from any work of fiction or nonfiction (as long it was safely in the public domain and out of copyright) and build a science fiction story around it. I liked the idea—it seemed like an interesting challenge.
On your website (robertcharleswilson.com) you stated that “Fireborn” borrows indirectly from Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories. Could you explain more about this?
I’ve had an off-and-on fascination with Sandburg’s cycle of designedly American fairy tales for years. They occupy such a strange and interesting literary space—part fable, part poetry, silly and curiously affecting at once. Fragments of phrases from the Rootabaga Stories are permanently lodged in my head. “Only the fireborn understand blue” was one of those cryptic, incredibly suggestive lines. So when Gardner approached me about a story for Rip-Off!, Sandburg’s stories immediately came to mind. I didn’t want to write an imitation Sandburg story, but I did want to let his gorgeous, playful language and democratic populism infuse the story I did write.
Lead us through the worldbuilding for “Fireborn.” Were there any real-world inspirations for locations like Buttercup County, or the idea of skydancing?
Buttercup County is a kind of science-fictional embodiment of Sandburg’s fanciful rural landscapes. Skydancing—an artform in which dancers are embodied inside huge virtual airborne avatars—was an idea I’d been carrying around for a while: It started as a daydream when I was staring out the window of an airplane during a long overseas trip.
I placed all this in a future in which the world has recovered from an unexplained but probably man-made disaster—a “hemoclysm” that drastically reduced the human population and is associated with the construction of “the Eye of the Moon,” a lunar structure visible from Earth. Humanity is divided into a technologically advanced and quasi-immortal class of aristocrats and a well-fed but mortal and largely ignorant peasantry. The predominant religion in Buttercup County is a kind of syncretic Christianity that incorporates elements of Tibetan mythology.
Jasper, Onyx, or Anna Tingri Five—which one borrowed most from your own personality, and which was the most difficult to understand in terms of character?
Jasper and Onyx are folks I would happily spend time with. The aristocratic Anna Tingri Five was harder to write—she’s on her fifth lifetime, she lives an existence that is in some regards almost godlike, but she’s as self-centered and vulgarly ambitious as a child.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
My novel Burning Paradise was released last month, and I’m about to hand in a new book called The Affinities. After that, I’m under contract for a time-travel novel tentatively titled The Last Year.
Spread the word!