Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Interview: Lara Elena Donnelly

Lara Elena Donnelly is a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, as well as the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers, where she now volunteers as on-site staff and publicity coordinator. In her meager spare time she cooks, draws, sings, and swing dances. After an idyllic, small-town Ohio childhood, she spent time in Louisville, Kentucky. She currently resides in Harlem, in a tower named after Ella Fitzgerald. You can visit her online at laradonnelly.com and on Twitter as @larazontally.

The Amberlough Dossier is a glam spy thriller trilogy that takes place in an alternate Jazz Age where the rise of a fascist regime affects the lives of several characters—Cyril DePaul, a gay double agent who turns into a fascist collaborator; his cabaret emcee lover Aristide Makricosta; and their associate Cordelia Lehane, a stripper and small-time drug dealer. How did the premise come together for you?

In pieces, over long periods of time. It started with a setting—a desolate mountain pass with more sheep than people. Which, looking at the description you just gave, seems supremely odd. But I was in Ireland, on a drive through the Sheffrey Pass, and imagined two people meeting there after their world had fallen apart. This story started on the assumption that the characters would lose everything. Once I had that, it was a question of exactly what they’d had that destroyed them when they lost it.

What attracts you to the Jazz Age? Why did you want to set the novels in this time period?

I love the glamour and permissiveness of the 1920s; we get this idea that the past was more conservative just because it happened before our time, but ninety years ago, people were throwing themed sex parties and eating roses dipped in ether. And I guess I also really like how it’s bookended by horror. The Jazz Age came out of the War to End All Wars, and ended in a war that was even worse. It’s this brief flash of fevered energy, almost like everyone knew what was coming and wanted to live it up while they could. Also, the clothes were just great.

What kind of research went into the world building of Gedda, the country where Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia live, and creating an alternate Jazz Age?

A lot of weird Googling, and one involved conversation with a medical student about the pre-antibiotic treatment of peritonitis. Seriously. But also, setting myself parameters. Because Gedda isn’t our world, I could get away with cadging things from the twenties and thirties as I chose, which might not have co-existed otherwise. I had to have some rules and cutoffs. Like, I’d say the technology is more early- to mid-twenties, but fashion in Gedda is early thirties. This is mostly a product of my weakness for bias-cut gowns.

While Amberlough—book one—was fairly Gedda-centric, Armistice—book two—takes on international politics. I had to confront the fact that I hadn’t really considered globalization in book one, especially given that Aristide is now working in the booming film industry in Porachis in book two. If you think about movies, they’re a major avenue for exporting culture. So here I was creating a film industry in a southeast-Asian inspired culture, when my last book had been set in a country that had not a whiff of southeast Asia about it. Not to mention, Porachis has radio plays! Nobody in Amberlough was listening to radio plays!

Lucky for me, there’s a precedent for something like this in the real world. When talkies—movies with sound—first cropped up, a lot of people looked at them askance. They were viewed as tacky, a gimmick, an absolute blight on the face of film. It took them a while to catch on.

It wasn’t a huge stretch from there to “The intelligentsia in Gedda eschewed radio and film as culturally bankrupt, with no artistic merit!” Which in book three is morphing into “Radio and movies only flourished in Gedda under the Ospies—the fascist party that takes over—who leveraged both as tools to build their movement. Now, they’ve been mainstreamed, with a whiff of collaborationist guilt attached.”

This is something I love about writing; you leave yourself loose threads without even knowing it, and when you need to weave something new, there they are, waiting.

I’ve read that you love to cook. Your descriptions of the meals and drinks in both novels made me so hungry! More importantly, they situated me in the setting. Did you have to research 1920-30s cuisines to get the details? And have you made or had any of the dishes you describe in the novels?

I winged a lot of the street food, just cobbling together bites of portable victuals that felt like something you’d find in a cultural melting pot like Amberlough. For more formal meals—with more wealthy diners—the most helpful resource I had was interbellum ship’s menus.

As for eating the foods I invented, it’s my great good fortune to be friends (and erstwhile roommates) with Sunshine Flagg, giant nerd and incredible chef. I collaborated with her supper club, Culture Club Presents (facebook.com/thecultureclubeats), to create a tasting menu from descriptions of food in the book, including shirred eggs, pork skewers, and barley fritters stuffed with eel. Later, she created a recipe for the pumpernickel honey buns served at Antinou’s restaurant in Amberlough City, which you can still find on Fran Wilde’s Book Bites (bit.ly/2HTtSvP).

Your stories “Chopin’s Eyes” and “Making Us Monsters” (written with Sam J. Miller) are also historical. What’s your favorite part about writing historical fiction?

It’s like solving a puzzle, albeit one where the pieces fit together in myriad different ways. You’re given a set of facts: this person did these things in these places at these times. But no one really knows what was going on inside that person’s head, what really motivated them. Even when you have a diary, or a memoir, or personal letters, there’s a certain performative aspect to that writing. It’s not a true internal monologue.

Siegfried Sassoon, for instance, wrote fictionalized memoirs, nonfiction memoirs, daily diaries, and copious letters. There’s an indisputable series of events that appear in all of them—he did fox hunt, he did play golf, he fought in World War One, he had a disastrous affair with Stephen Tennant, and an equally disastrous marriage to Hester Gatty. But the way he addresses all of these events in his various writings tends to shift depending on what he wants his readers to believe about his or his characters’ motivations.

When you write historical fiction—especially historical speculative fiction—you have the freedom to place yourself in that other person’s context, inside their head, and create a narrative that explains those recorded facts in some new way. Why did this person do these things? What has history hidden? No matter how many documents we have, we’re never going to be there, which means we’re never going to truly understand history. And if you already have that freedom of invention, why not add fairies, or demons, or time travel, if you can weave it into the established narrative?

I’ve seen Amberlough described as Christopher Isherwood meets John le Carré. But you’ve mentioned Elizabeth Bear’s New Amsterdam as your favorite book, because it’s shown you what queer historical fantasy can do. How influential was New Amsterdam for your series?

I didn’t know there was a subgenre called Gaslamp fantasy until my editor name-checked it in a description of my book. But New Amsterdam was probably one of the first Gaslamp fantasies I read, and it blew my mind: fantasy that wasn’t set in knock-off Lord of the Rings-land. That was set in our world but slightly to the left, where magic flourished and history hadn’t followed quite the same course.

It was also one of the first fantasy novels I’d read that was incredibly character-centric. The structure of the book is a series of novelettes and novellas, all connected by character. The over-arching plot has a lot less to do with the action and much more to do with the development and evolution of relationships between the characters. There’s magic, and murder, and mayhem, and monsters, yes. But at the end of the book, it’s really about how people relate to one another, and how they cause each other pain and joy.

I think that’s what it showed me: that fantasy can dwell in that same literary bailiwick of character-centric fiction (like Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories), while still inhabiting a world created in the author’s imagination.

And the prose is just glorious. I love the merciless specificity of the language. This book taught me the words “chatoyant” and “leptodactylous” (possibly a neologism; I’ve never been able to find it in a dictionary). Books should broaden your vocabulary! I learned the world “celerious” reading a book in the car on the way to the SAT (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party, if you’re curious), and it was on the test. Bam!

I think an early and influential inoculation of Bear’s style gave me permission to use exactly the word I need, or even just the word I want for the rhythm of the sentence and the style of the story. If I want to use “smaragdine” to describe somebody’s eyes (and you’d better believe I have), readers can damn well look it up. They probably have their phone in their hand while they’re reading! They might even be reading on their phone. Google that new word! It’s good for you!

Who are some other writers who’ve influenced your work?

Holly Black molded my aesthetic early—her modern faerie tales had this glimmering, amoral elegance that got me good. The conflict wasn’t some universal struggle, but about what the characters wanted, and what they were willing to do to get it. Ellen Kushner is another big one. Privilege of the Sword was the first fantasy book I read that had not a trace of magic in it, and it blew my mind. And the Riverside books are full of those same kinds of characters as Holly’s modern faerie tales: people who want something so badly they’ll ruin everything else for it—their lives, their fortunes, their relationships.

Lately, Donna Tartt and Claire Messud have been near the top of my list, because they write stories that are so disconnected from reality—at least, my reality, and probably most people’s—that they feel like fantasy. The humans they write about remind me of the faeries in Holly Black’s books: cruel, capricious, with convictions and motivations that often seem totally outside the ordinary.

What has the overall reaction to Amberlough been from readers so far?

It’s interesting; some people really love it, and I think those are readers like me. Readers who latch onto character first and will let character carry them through any amount of impenetrable worldbuilding and plot. I read stuff I don’t understand on the regular, and as long as there’s at least one character I can connect with, I’ll coast on that until I get my bearings.

I readily admit that it’s confusing and disorienting to be dropped into the middle of a world that’s very different from more widely-accepted fantasy settings, that’s also in the middle of a political upheaval; even the characters don’t really have firm ground to stand on. And there are definitely readers who can’t get past that, or struggle with it. Which is fine; no book is for everybody.

You call Armistice “Golden Age of Hollywood-does-Bollywood,” with a side order of In the Loop. Tell us more about what you mean by that.

So I mentioned Aristide’s new career in the Porachin film industry earlier. Anadh, known as the Silver City, is like 1930s Hollywood, if 1930s Hollywood were on the Indian subcontinent. There’s your Bollywood.

Unfortunately for Aristide, Porachis is also embroiled in a difficult geopolitical situation: one of its close allies is gearing up to fight a proxy war with Gedda. That’s where In the Loop comes in: the sinister tightening of the political web, drawing everyone toward an unpleasant and inexorable conclusion.

I also name-checked In the Loop because if I had to dream-cast the villain of Armistice, Maddox Flagg (thanks for your surname, Sunshine), he’d be played by Peter Capaldi. He never swears, but he’s got Malcolm Tucker’s simmering anger, and the same strong conviction that he’s surrounded by idiots.

I noticed that stagecraft and political upheaval go hand-in-hand in your trilogy. Cordelia and Aristide do their share of playacting onstage as burlesque performers; when they playact off stage, it’s for survival—taking on new identities or aliases, for example. Sometimes their survival and playacting depends on manipulating or hurting others.

I guess this is where you can see the Black/Kushner/Tartt/Messud influences coming in: the idea that these people will do anything to get what they want. But I think it’s different for Cordelia than it is for Aristide.

Aristide is out for himself, and for the rare few who make it into his circle of protected friends, which is very small indeed. He will borrow and steal (and even, sometimes, beg), and his scruples are few and far between. He’ll do anything to get what he wants, and he wants just about everything.

Cordelia is someone who was pretty satisfied with her modest life before the Ospies came along and curb-stomped everything she cared about. Now that she has nothing left, all bets are off. She has the skill set, and no compunctions, because she grew up in a cutthroat environment. But to her, it’s not about rewarding herself. It’s about justice and revenge.

Cyril and his sister Lillian are quite the foils of each other. As a secret agent, Cyril isn’t really that good. He’s all panache and sass, but doesn’t deliver in execution. Lillian, who appears in book two, is such a good and loyal diplomat for the Ospies that she finds herself manipulated by the system. She even says she’s a very specialized piece of machinery. How did you approach dramatizing their involvement with the fascist regime? Did you always have their duality in mind?

I didn’t, really. Lillian and her son Stephen were a tossed-off line in book one, back when I imagined it as a standalone. It wasn’t until I finished Amberlough and started getting book hangover, wondering what had happened to all my children after the fact, that I asked myself any questions about her.

After that, though, it came together really quickly: she’s the elder child of a high-powered family. There are a lot of expectations resting on her shoulders, and she bears up under them with grace. She’s one of those dynastic thinkers, with a stake in how her family is perceived. Cyril is a romantic, whose priorities are totally different from hers. If he’d been born first, and been the heir, he wouldn’t have handled it as well. As it is, he’s the malingering younger son whose parents don’t know what to do with him. When he causes too much trouble, he gets packed off to have a “career” that will keep him out of his family’s hair.

When it comes to their involvement with the Ospies, they’re actually quite similar. They’re both backed into a corner by threats and blackmail. Lillian acquiesces and works within the system, taking pride in doing her job, because it’s the only thing that’s left to her. She keeps her misgivings deep inside, quietly hating everything about her situation but soldiering on because of what’s at stake: her son. Cyril does the same, albeit for himself and for Aristide. I think for both of them it betrays a certain lack of imagination. They’ve both been in some kind of system for so long—their upper-class family, their fancy schools, their government jobs—they aren’t sure how to extricate themselves or act outside the rules. Cyril tries, but he’s awful at it. Lillian only manages with help from lateral thinkers.

I think where they’re most different is that Cyril desperately wants someone to tell him what to do and is usually pretty good at following instructions, whereas Lillian has very clear goals in mind and resents outside interference with her plans. This gets both of them into trouble at various points, but can also be an asset, depending on the situation.

With its themes of the rise of fascism and resistance, what does it feel like working on the series during our current administration?

Boy, was it weird to sell Amberlough in January 2015 and then watch the world do what it did. On the one hand, I feel very lucky that my release date matched up perfectly with a grim but relevant shift in the zeitgeist. On the other hand…I’d really rather have written a book about the rise of fascism that didn’t, you know, coincide with the rise of fascism.

I signed the contract for Armistice in early 2017, and it felt really strange to write in the early days of the Trump administration. When the book opens, the Ospies have been in control of Gedda for three years already, and resistance is organized and mounting. In real life April 2017, pretty much the opposite was true. For instance, we didn’t have any domestic paramilitary groups bombing train tracks or making arms deals with foreign interests to mount an insurrection on US soil. In Gedda, all of that was going on.

I’m on book three right now, and, avoiding spoilers, the plot involves a campaign that pits a populist candidate against a more conservative industrialist, and it’s a struggle to craft something that doesn’t feel a little too much on-the-nose with regards to the 2016 US presidential election. On the bright side, when it comes to that old saw “write what you know,” at least the real world gave me a lot of material to draw on!

Also on the bright side, Amberlough was nominated as a finalist for this year’s Nebula and Lambda Literary Awards! Congratulations! You must’ve been through the roof!

I’m honored and astonished. This is my debut novel. It’s also a novel that’s maybe not exactly what you’d expect when cruising the Fantasy shelf in your bookstore. Before publication, we weren’t sure how it would do. It was kind of niche: a non-traditional fantasy setting, very queer, and there wasn’t any magic. So to have this weird book that doesn’t fit comfortably in the genre end up nominated for a Nebula and a Lambda is just incredible to me, and very encouraging. If my queer magicless political fantasy spy thriller can do this, I want to see who else’s “niche” books can make it onto those ballots.

I’m also incredibly grateful to everyone who’s helped me along the way: my workshop classmates from Alpha and Clarion, my parents, my friends, my amazing agent Connor Goldsmith, canny publicist Desirae Friesen, and insightful editor Diana Pho. Everyone who put up with my pissing and moaning through revision after revision, my panic about book release and book tour and book stuff in general. Having your first book come out is thrilling, but also terrifying. There’s no way to prepare yourself, because you’ve never done it before. Y’all got me through it in one piece.

When can we expect book three, Amnesty? And are there any other details you can tell us about?

Aside from the other things I’ve hinted at in this interview, there are complications!

If there’s one thing I really, really love, it’s making people second-guess everything they’ve assumed about characters, settings, themes, tropes, themselves. I even like confounding the logical and accepted march of narrative. You thought Y would follow X? Well, you thought wrong.

Also, there’s an off-brand English country house Christmas, a lot of fearsome ladies, an incredibly teenaged teenager, and what I hope is a satisfying number of explosions.

Do you have any other upcoming projects you can tell us about?

Once I turn in Amnesty, I plan to spend a lot of time lying on the sofa staring at a nice blank wall and not thinking too hard about anything. Also reading all of the books I’ve missed in the last year and a half. I’d like to finish up a couple of short stories that are languishing in my queue and then move on to a novel project that’s been simmering on the backburner for the last couple of years. I’m moving from Jazz Age fantasy world to Cold War America for a novel that’s somewhere between a Gender Studies thesis and Katheryn Bigelow’s The Loveless.

Is there anything you’d like your readers to know?

Boy, what a question. I like to talk about anything and everything. I guess just this: I’ve been toiling in the word mines for a while, on deadline and mildly crazed, and sometimes it gets grim and sloggy and exhausting. Whenever I see a note from someone on Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr saying they liked something I wrote, it lifts my heart and gives me the will to keep going.

I know it’s the same for other authors. Writing is a lonely business a lot of the time, and sometimes it feels like your story has just gone out into the void. I’m not fishing for compliments here; I just want to bridge a gap between readers and writers.

Some readers who reach out to me say things like “sorry to bother you,” or, “I hope it’s okay I messaged you.” You aren’t bothering! It’s definitely okay! Appreciate your authors. If there’s a book that touched you—any book! Comics, non-fiction, children’s book, whatever!—write that letter. Draw that art. Tweet that tweet. Don’t be shy. You will make an author very, very happy.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.