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Author Spotlight: Sean McMullen

As a co-founder of the Society for Creative Anachronism in Melbourne, how has immersing yourself in a playful historical re-enactment society fed your creative processes? Was it challenging at times to balance the creativity of the SCA with the creativity of prose?

I was not new to medieval reenactment when I joined the SCA. I had sung in early music groups, spent years as a folk singer, and fought in a medieval metal weapons group (I have scars to prove it). While in the SCA I became the first seneschal for Melbourne and won four sword and shield tournaments, but was never really into the costumes, heraldry, and protocols. Overall I was a bit like Bron in Game of Thrones — a fairly good fighter who liked to party and knew a lot of good songs, but I did not want a crown anywhere near my head.

The SCA fed my creative processes to the point of medical danger, but not in the way you might think. It actually filled in a huge number of small gaps in my background knowledge: what it was like to be a medieval leader, how hard it is to get into armour without help, the relationship between romance and fighting, how easy it is to ignore injuries during a tournament, toleration for wildlife in the food, and the use of grass as toilet paper.

Put another way, I got no epic plots from my time in the SCA, but I gained an immense amount of background, which then provided the details that readers really like to see in fiction. The S in SCA was the important bit: It gave me a mockup medieval society in which to live, which is a great way to do research.

With feudal norms thrown up in the air in ways reminiscent of longbow men beaten by uncouth gunpowder in Europe, what do you think the lands of the fae be like 100 years from the story’s conclusion? Will the “highborn” need to deal with an emergent goblin middle class? Will there be rebellion? How will caste systems be maintained?

Funny you should ask that, because I have just been revising a story called “Crossing Boundarie,” where a couple of teenagers cross into Faerie in 1901. They discover that it has evolved into a Victorianesque, steampunk sort of society. There certainly is a powerful goblin middle class, but they have retained the elves as a beautiful ruling elite. Elves have been given a role as living artworks, like our world’s movie stars. They entertain the goblins and other lowborns by having royal scandals, going on heroic adventures, and generally being glamourous, but their word is no longer law.

In “Crossing Boundarie,” there is an elf rebellion in 1901, but it ends badly. This extract is from the end of the story, and provides some images of the industrialization of Faerie. Here, a very old elf is speaking to a human engineering student from our world:

“Faerie has become all soot and machines,” said the old elf. “Steam is their magic, their dragons are metal, and voidfaring elves even defile the face of the moon with their hobnail boots and vessels of steel and crystal. In Earthlie, they still have dreams of Faerie as a beautiful, enchanted place. Why spoil those dreams?”

In the weak light of the smog-filtered dawn, Daniel looked about in fascination at the strange city crammed with mechanical wonders. Let other humans keep their dreams of Faerie, he thought. To me, this sort of Faerie is a beautiful, enchanted place.

In “The Ninth Seduction,” we start with a nominal utopia that is soaked in elegant blood and violations that are rendered beautiful. For your Ph.D., you explored Medieval Arcadianism in Fantasy Literature; how does this story connect to the utopian theories you explored in your dissertation?

Before my Ph.D., I had not realized what a powerful effect the romance literature of the mid-twelfth century had on the medieval aristocracy. Until then, epics called the chansons de geste (songs of deeds) were in vogue, with mighty warriors giving heroic speeches, shouting insults at the opposition, then hacking at each other for way too many pages.

The new roman courtoise (courtly romance) introduced such innovations as significant female characters, romance, adultery, going on quests, and fighting in the name of your lady instead of some boring king. The magic used in the roman courtoise also had a glittering, exotic quality, doubtless derived from the Moorish culture that was trickling out of what is now Spain. Religion was ignored if it got between the characters and a good party.

The roman courtoise was a sensation. Real-life courtiers found the fictional lifestyle so appealing that they used the books as templates for their own behaviour. Real kings, queens, knights, and ladies even staged tournaments and revels as King Arthur and his courtiers. As for adultery, apparently analysis of Richard III’s DNA has revealed genetic contributions that were definitely not from some of his male ancestors. I suspect that the trend will continue when royal DNA is extracted from other medieval graves.

Ulrich von Lichtenstein is a good example of a roman courtoise lifestyler, although he was definitely a weirdo. Early in the thirteenth century, he acted out a real life quest to honour his lady — who was married to someone else. Having dressed himself as Venus in armour and assembled an entourage, he traveled from Venice to Vienna, challenging the hundreds of knights he met to a joust. When one of his ladies doubted that he had nearly lost a finger in some fight, he cut off what was left and sent it to her. A few years later he and a few friends dressed up as King Arthur and his knights of the round table and did a tour of the tournaments in the Germanic states, trouncing the locals.

The utopian scenarios in literature really were converted into real life during the Middle Ages, so that fiction became reality. Rather like when George R. R. Martin wrote Game of Thrones, I just read the real history for my Ph.D., then toned down the sex, violence, cruelty, and general weirdness when I wrote fiction — including “The Ninth Seduction.”

What is your definition of beauty?

I think that beauty, allure, and seductiveness are very closely related. To me, beauty is something that one cannot help being attracted to. I remember a pacifist friend of mine at university who thought fighter aircraft were really beautiful and elegant, and he was genuinely distressed because he felt that way. Beauty can also have subjective foundations. Ask anyone in the fashion industry.

That said, it’s important to distinguish between beauty and desire. I desire big sales and large royalty cheques, but they are not beautiful. I am sure we all know people who are genuinely beautiful, but have serious attitude problems. People like that can have loads of allure, yet not even score one out of ten when it comes to being desirable.

To understand how Raksar appreciates beauty, one should look at the rat Remy in the animated movie Ratatouille. Remy is a fantastic cook, and loves to create wonderful food that people will really appreciate, but he knows better than to leave the kitchen. Having a rat on the dinner table would distract people from his meals. He is a rat, and one does not do dinner with rats.

Similarly, in “The Ninth Seduction,” the goblin Raksar is allured by beautiful things and has enormous talent as a jeweler, but finds the idea of dating an elf princess quite offensive. She is beautiful, he is definitely not, so even being in the same room as her violates his sense of aesthetics.

As the first goblin with a telescope, do you think Raskar will turn his eyes to the heavens as his world turns to chaos? Will he be the goblin Galileo? Or make the lenses for further telescopes that lead to the first goblin Galileo?

Well done, splendid point. As a teenager, when I got my first telescope and pointed it to the night sky, I was enchanted by the beauty of the sights that it presented to me. The aesthetics of astronomy became nearly as important to me as the science. I remembered this when writing “The Ninth Seduction,” and toyed with the idea of having Raksar become a brilliant painter of starscapes, a sort of goblin combination of Michelangelo and Galileo. However, this would have doubled the length of what was meant to be a tight, streamlined story, so I cut that bit out. Just checking the archive file about what Raksar builds for his new master in the Faerie version of Persia . . . actually I could do a really cool story about that. I think I shall.

Do you listen to music while writing? And if so what was the sound track for “The Ninth Seduction”?

I cannot write without music. Anything medieval and played on a harp brings “The Ninth Seduction” alive for me, but I do have some favourites.

Castellerine Lynder’s theme is from the late fourteenth century, Landino’s “Angelica Belta,” played on a wire-strung harp. Raksar can be heard, beating away delicately with his jeweler’s hammer, in a thirteenth century piece by Gautier de Coincy called “Las, Las, Las, Las.” My harpist friend Ann Poore recorded it for my reading of another story, “Shadow of the King,” which is on my website. [http://bit.ly/gautier_mp3]

The CD that I played most while writing “The Ninth Seduction” was La Domna Savorousa by the Ensemble in Courtezia, which features songs of love by troubadours and trouveres. Another CD I played a lot was the sound track of the 1973 Wicker Man movie, which is highly evocative but seriously creepy.

If you had to choose one animated gif to represent yourself (or your work) what would it be?

It would have to be my Stirling cycle heat engine sitting on my coffee mug. [http://bit.ly/stirling-cycle] Just as coffee drives me along, the heat from the coffee can power the engine. The engine also symbolizes my writing. I like to have things that really work alongside the romance, magic, and speculation in my fiction.

What are you working on now? Do you have any exciting news to share with us?

Breaking news (I just found out tonight) is that a movie script based on my 2002 novelette “Voice of Steel” has been shortlisted in an Australian script development competition. The novelette version reached the BSFA Awards shortlist but was up against Coraline, so . . .

I am nearly finished a novel set in 1891 London. While it does feature a detective, it has more in common with Neuromancer than Sherlock Holmes. It started out as a story called “Stirling,” about a ghost that could power a heat engine. I then expanded it into a novel full of fantastic Victorian devices that are used to give ghosts bodies and bring them back to life — after a fashion. Currently I’m rewriting bits of “Stirling” because the novel went off in a different direction.

My latest published work is a six-book fantasy series for older children called The Warlock’s Child, written with Paul Collins. The covers are by the Deltora Quest artist Marc McBride, and they feature his wild and iconic dragons. The books are being released monthly and the first two have already gone into reprint, so I can see the tax man rubbing his hands with glee. The galleys for book six arrived this morning.

Other recent news is that I have been made a judge for the Norma K. Hemming Award for speculative fiction dealing with race, gender, sexuality, class, or disability. Hemming wrote Australia’s first SF plays, had a couple of dozen stories published, and was on the way to becoming this country’s Ursula Le Guin when she died of cancer in 1960. I directed a revival of one of her plays for the 2010 Worldcon, which may be why I was chosen to be a judge. I am looking forward to doing the reading for the award, because I find that being a judge makes me read works that I might not bother with otherwise, and leads my own writing in new directions.

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Liz Argall

Liz Argall (photo credit Right Stage Photography)

Liz Argall’s short stories can be found in places like Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and This is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death. She creates the webcomic Things Without Arms and Without Legs and writes love songs to inanimate objects. Her previous incarnations include circus manager, refuge worker, artists’ model, research officer for the Order of Australia Awards, farm girl, and extensive work in the not–for–profit sector.