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Interview: R.A. MacAvoy

R.A. MacAvoy’s first novel won the Locus Poll’s First Novel Award and hooked her the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Tea With the Black Dragon (1983, Bantam) is a contemporary fantasy, a hard-boiled detective mystery, and a love story. Its protagonists are a middle-aged musician and a centuries-old dragon now in human form. Tea was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Compton Crook, World Fantasy, and Philip K. Dick Awards and received a special citation from the Philip K. Dick jury. It was selected for David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, An English-Language Selection, 1946-1987. In this genre, that is what’s known as a “good start.”

Damiano started one of her two fantasy trilogies, followed by Twisting the Rope (sequel to Tea With the Black Dragon). She followed that with three other stand-alone novels, The Book of Kells, The Grey Horse, and her one foray into science fiction, The Third Eagle. Then came Nazhuret of Sordaling, the protagonist of her second fantasy trilogy, the last of which, The Belly of the Wolf, was published in 1993. Nazhuret is an orphan, philosopher, scientist, lens grinder, and deadly martial artist who mostly just wants to be left alone. He is a rationalist in an irrational world. In the words of Powl, Nazhuret’s teacher in The Lens of the World, he is “the lens of the world: the lens through which the world may become aware of itself.”

In December, Prime Books will publish Death and Resurrection, her first novel-length work in eighteen years. This book’s main protagonist is Ewen Young, an artist and reluctant teacher of kung fu who finds himself able to enter the Bardo, the realm that the dead pass through on their way to death or reincarnation. Like Tea With the Black Dragon, it is a fantasy set in our world where mysteries are both mundane and fantastic.

I talked to her about Death and Resurrection and why it’s been eighteen years since her last novel.

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Death and Resurrection by R.A. MacAvoyWhen John Joseph Adams asked (on Twitter) if there were any R.A. MacAvoy fans out there I responded by saying, “Me. I reread The Grey Horse every year or so.” He said I could read your next book (a full four months before it was scheduled) if I’d do an interview with you.

Your most recent trilogy was published between 1990 and 1993. Could you describe these novels and what happened with them?

They are the Nazhuret trilogy: Lens of the World, King of the Dead and Belly of the Wolf. They were done through Morrow, and were actually about the history of science taking place in a different world, though it was published as fantasy. Like most of my books, they fell in between genres.

A lot of folks missed them, as they had the promotion worthy of a private chapbook. Morrow makes (made?) lovely editions, but treated them with all the protestant theology that was their first field of publication. The three were first person and in epistolary form, which isn’t exactly directed to the seventeen-year-old market, but Lens is my favorite book. I think its promotion problem was mostly that my hero had a self-image of being very ugly, and said so frequently. I did not intend for the reader to believe him, but evidently Nazhuret was too persuasive, as the cover was an out-and-out horror.

The series dealt heavily with gender confusion, racial identity and other stuff I think is neat, but it still had lots of market-acceptable sex and violence. Lots. I still think if they were reissued with better covers, they’d find audiences equal to Book of Kells or The Grey Horse—though I’m grateful that you like Grey Horse. It’s one of my favorites, too. I raised Connemara ponies for many years, and Rory was actually a character portrait of a small stallion I had, who was really named Emmett. He has a lot of descendents over California. All in pony form.

It’s been eighteen years since The Belly of the Wolf (also published as Winter of the Wolf), your last novel-length work, was published. In this period you published a novella-length work, “In Between,” with Subterranean Press. The work is the first part of your upcoming novel, Death and Resurrection (Dec. 2011, Prime Books). The fan in me screams out, what have you been doing with yourself? In other words, why have you been depriving me of your books these last two decades!? (This question is asked with the full understanding that it takes writers months to years to write books that are read in a single day.)

As for why nothing came between The Belly of the Wolf and the Ewen stories, well, Dystonia came between them. It’s a rare neuromuscular disease characterized by paralysis and pain. Or vice versa. There was (and still is) almost no research as to the cause of it. My own guess is that I came off too many bucking horses in the mountains and landed on the back of my head, or that I took too many spectacular falls on the kung fu mat, with similar results. For about ten years they threw one set of pills after another into me, just to see what would happen. Of five of those years I have little or no memory. I finally decided to stop taking all those nasty things and just endure it. Meanwhile, some doctors who usually deal with Parkinson’s (not related, except for being a neuro-muscular disease and also progressive) developed a treatment for cervical and spinal muscles which had gone into permanent charley-horse by a Very Careful series of injections of Botox into the muscles right along the spinal column, to partially paralyze them. The idea is to find a mid-position between spasm and paralysis that approaches normality. This takes a real artist with the needle, and a repeated series of eighteen injections of poison right next to the vital muscles which involve breathing and swallowing as well as holding the head up and other good things. I tried a number of doctors and survived them, before I found one that really did some good. Now that the evil pills have worn off, I can run and jump and play again (and actually walk and drive some).

And write! Quite honestly, I expected to be dead by now, not productive. I’m a very grateful old kid. Much of the pain is still there—Botox doesn’t stop that part—but I can look straight at you for at least two out of three months in my Botox cycle. I’ve learned a lot about life in an unexpected manner. I’m especially grateful to Paula from Prime for taking a chance on someone so many people believe to be long passed on.

Interesting that martial arts ties together Death and Resurrection and the Nazhuret books and, oddly enough, your Dystonia. I did karate in my youth, but for the last sixteen and a half years I’ve been doing aikido and iaido. Early on in my studies, I found myself including techniques in my books, but as I’ve gone on, I’m far more interested in writing about the student/teacher relationship and dojo culture. How did your (pre-Dystonia) martial arts progress affect your writing, both in content and practice?

I have been sooo careful to write clean, do-able and easy-to-understand techniques in all my books, and in Death and Resurrection I had my teacher (last teacher, as I was a fair-to-middlin’ wreck by that time) help me invent them and drag advanced students over to make them happen so I could observe and take notes, and ya know what? I find serious martial arts students don’t read adventure fantasy, and serious readers of fantasy don’t bother to work out the moves in their heads. Bummer!

Regarding master/student relationship—that was half the emotional centre of Lens, down to the moment Powl tells Nazhuret that he was the stone (or arrow. I don’t remember and my husband thinks I should find a copy and look it up. Well, I won’t!) Anyway, Nazhuret was the implement of some sort that Powl threw to places he could not reach himself. Of course there was also the moment Nazhuret’s devotion for his teacher got so heavy Powl threw him a gold coin and told him to hire a whore and get it out of his system. Both are, I guess, aspects of the student/teacher relationship. Perhaps you shouldn’t quote me on the second one, though. I don’t know who you’re writing for. Evidently you do. I sure hope you’ve not let me offend a bunch of people, Steven.

We try to avoid that.

Death and Resurrection is about the head of a garage-front kwoon, so we get to see things from the other end. Ewen Young is Dictator-against-his-will, Brow-beaten-mystic-master. It’s a much lighter-hearted book despite (or because) of the title. Actually, there is quite a bit of Death, but Resurrection is the name of a cadaver dog. We had one in this bleak area, home of Bundy and Ridgeway, and her name was Sorrow. I thought that was so perfect I had to find a meaningful name for mine, leading to the book’s title.

As far as dojo culture, I must have studied in eight different schools in my life, from Tai-Chi to Rip-out-your-opponent’s-vocal-chords-in-the-Puerto-Rican-Style (my favorite), and never found the dedication and fellowship I hoped for. Or at least not that lasted more than three years, before the management would turn over, or my teacher would join the police, or his teacher would decide to change the style utterly. I guess all that is good training for life as it is, however. I hope you’ve had better luck.

Since you mention this, one of the things that greatly interested me in the Nazhuret series is the bisexual nature of Nazhuret. Besides the incident you mention between him and Powl, his early experience with sexuality was in boys’ school and apparently not always consensual. There is also his attraction to Powl, then his “traditional” family relations with his wife Arlin, then, in The Belly of the Wolf, ending with a new relationship with Count Dinaos of Lowcanton. This was an early time in the world of fantasy for examinations of bisexuality. Did this come naturally to you in the writing? Was there much editorial or reader opposition to it?

In regards to the sexuality in the Nazhuret series, I have two things to say—very different things. First, the seventies and eighties were roiling pots of sexual experimentation (on paper as well as in life). It makes me want to ask if you are young, Steven. [Alas, not that young.] Beginning (arbitrarily) with the great The Left Hand of Darkness, the relationships of male to female and different explorations of either seemed to be the central interest of SF and fantasy, mostly written by women. Maybe the reason these stood out to you was that I had always written so conservatively until this. In fact, when I wrote Book of Kells, which was actually a collaboration, (although Sharon was not permitted by Bantam to have her name on the binding,) I got a lot of letters from my older fans saying (for example), “Agatha Christie never had to use language like that!” Oh my!

And Nazhuret’s “bisexuality”? Well, the military school stuff is just what I gleaned from studying military school writings of the eighteenth century and beyond. The Arlin-Charlan thing was simple Shakespeare. Updated and with some purposeful stench added for realism, and the student/teacher sexuality was not invented by me. Just watch the faces of high-ranking students being blissfully put into submission by revered “masters.” I have. Since I am female and most of my teachers were male, I could only be an observer in this (teachers aren’t fools!) and I doubt it often goes past momentary flashes of feeling between young, strong and physically heated guys—but remember Nazhuret was alone in that abandoned observatory for years. Powl had all the power. That created a physical bond, even if only the sort based on the Stockholm Syndrome.

The other thing I have to mention is that Nazhuret was as close to a self-portrait as I have ever created. Not an autobiography; nothing in my life happened that way except the moment with the raindrop, but writing myself into a male character had certain unavoidable side-effects. I admit without much shame that I’m attracted to guys. There. I said it.

Why did he go off with a man in the end? Well, an old friend of ours read my first two books and the first draft of the third and said “You are rather homophobic, you know.”

I did not know and was shamed and disturbed to think it might be true. Especially, since this friend had just told us he had AIDS. He said Nazhuret was obviously gay, and if I were honest I’d write him that way. So I changed the ending. I am now sorry I did, but I did not want our friend to die thinking I despised him.

Our friend is now doing very well. Last I heard, he was in the martial arts! How things change.

That’s the story of the peculiar sexuality of Nazhuret. I’d be sorry to know that’s what stayed with people about the books, though. They were supposed to be about the history of science as people really did discover it, floundering about, and the nature of reality, as best I know it. I am weary of writing about such ponderous things, though. I think I liked the ol’ sex and violence better.

Besides characters with sexual diversity, you have also been good about persons of color in your works. I am thinking particularly of the Berber woman, Djoura in Raphael, but obviously we have Asiatics as well, and, in Death and Resurrection, Rez’s handler/owner/partner Susan Sundown is Nez Perce, a Native American. My own second novel is awfully white-washed American (though there is sexual diversity). Do you have any thoughts on race in our genre?

Though a faded blonde, I don’t particularly identify as white. I’ve been told by an orthopedist and by a physical anthropologist that my skeleton is Asiatic, and that if discovered in the ultimate state of undress, I would be misclassified in a museum’s dusty storage. It’s all because my mother was genetically Sami, (or Lappish, to the impolite), and I’m actually one of Santa’s reindeer tenders. You don’t wanna mess with me lest the little sleigh misses your roof!

No offense to the real, not just “genetic” Sami, who have had a lot to endure over the years.

Those two small conversations, plus growing up in a neighborhood where I was a minority, set me thinking. Now I live in a region (outside Seattle) where there are no majorities. All interesting minority groups. Some are Indians from New Delhi. Some are Indians from the Rez outside Walla-Walla. I love different cultures and ways of life. I especially love them when they begin to dance together.

The structure of Death and Resurrection is episodic, and that makes sense now that I know the first section was published separately. There was an excerpt from The Book of Kells published separately, but that book’s structure doesn’t have that episodic feeling. Have any of your other works grown from short works? I think of you primarily as a novelist, but this last book is making me reexamine that assumption. 

Death and Resurrection was originally meant to be connected novellas, to be sold (I hoped) in one of the new zines or e-zines. That was an idea my agent Richard and I came up with. Then he shipped the beginning around and found that anyone who was interested was interested in it only as a novel. So, I rewrote, and reconstructed, but I didn’t want to lose the idea of it being divided into seasonal sections, because they have four different moods and four different emotional directions.

Another interesting thing about the progression of Death and Resurrection is that the use of Ewen’s talents actually decreases as the book goes along. They are used the least in the last section, the investigation of some gnawed remains near the hospice. Yet, at the same time there is another form of “magic” introduced. Without going into specific details, this is the magic that grows out of loving relationships and an appreciation of renewal in everyday life. In particular it contrasts quite a bit with the first and second sections of the book in a way that first made me say, “Where’s the magic?” then made me go, “Oh, there’s the magic.” Am I way off-base here? Can you answer the question in a way that doesn’t spoil the book for someone who hasn’t read it yet?

As far as Ewen’s magic—remember, it came to him involuntarily, and he did his best to avoid it always. So I shared it out. The fourth episode is definitely Lynn and Susan’s. I did not want to have the continuing light-hearted adventures of Ewen the Bardo-hopper.

Why do I keep changing things? I get embarrassed repeating myself. I am now writing more about the same basic people, in case it turns out folks are interested in my Washington Woods characters, but this one will not focus so much on Ewen. What’s coming out so far is mostly Petersen’s book. It occurred to me only after completion that I repeatedly describe the man as a poet and never include a blessed line of his poetry. Mea Culpa.

Tea With the Black Dragon and its sequel have contemporary American settings. The Book of Kells goes from contemporary to seventh-century Ireland. The Grey Horse is set in Ireland during the struggle for Irish independence, the Damiano trilogy is set during the Renaissance (Italy, then Moorish Spain), the Nazhuret of Sordaling trilogy, while dealing with a roughly cavalier period in technology, is set outside of our world altogether, and finally, with Death and Resurrection, you come full circle to contemporary America. I’d love for you to contrast the work required for your two trilogies, one specifically anchored in history and one definitely not. Also, do contemporary settings help or hinder a tale that depends on the fantastic?

As for all the different settings and types of plots—again, I don’t like to repeat myself. I always feel I’m cheating when I do. Though I’m very happy to read other peoples’ serial novels. Very happy. I just can’t myself. And one setting is no easier or harder than another. My choice has mostly to do with what period, place or activity is interesting me at the moment, whether it’s horse training or my own environment. I throw in the kitchen sink.

I’m grateful to you, Steven, for finding time to prod me back out into public attention again. As a very successful twenty-first-century writer, it was kind of you to help me get my rhetorical feet under me again. I’m not that old, but haven’t been playing the “public person” game for some years now. It’s been fun!

It has indeed.

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Steven Gould

Steven GouldSteven Gould is the SF writer best known for his novels Jumper and Reflex (which were the source materials for the 2008 feature film Jumper starring Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Bell, and Rachel Bilson.)  His most recently published novel is 7th Sigma (July 2011) and he has just turned in Impulse (the sequel to Reflex) to be published in 2012. He is the winner of the Hal Clement Award for YA Science Fiction (for Wildside, 1995), and has been on the Hugo ballot twice, and the Nebula Ballot once for his short fiction.  Several of his novels were chosen as Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association. He lives in Albuqueruqe, New Mexico with SF writer Laura J. Mixon (aka M.J. Locke), two daughters, two dogs, and five chickens. He blogs infrequently at http://eatourbrains.com/steve and tweets too often as @StevenGould.