Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Interview: C.L. Polk

C.L. Polk is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Witchmark, which was also nominated for the Nebula, Locus, Aurora, and Lambda Literary Awards. It was named one of the best books of 2018 according to NPR, Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed, the Chicago Review, BookPage, and the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog. Her newest novel, The Midnight Bargain, is upcoming in 2020 from Erehwon Books. She lives in Alberta, Canada.

It’s Bargaining Season in the seaside town of Bendleton, where Beatrice Clayborn has to find a suitor to marry to save her family from mounting debts. But she’s a sorceress who wants to prove herself as a Mage before anyone can propose to her. Her mastery of magic will make marriage unnecessary. However, she finds herself falling in love with the handsome and wealthy Ianthe Lavan while practicing magic in secret with his sister, Ysbeta. How did the premise come together for you?

It started with me simply wanting to write about stuff that I loved and was fascinated by. The story, originally, was just a bunch of things that I liked: extravagant Georgian-era fashions, the London social season, the lingering admiration of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories. It was all very frothy and diverting, but it wasn’t a story until I saw what was happening in the news in the spring of 2019 with state after state passing legislation that technically didn’t violate Roe v. Wade. Then I found the thing that I really needed to turn all these pretty dresses and summoning rituals into a story—a thing that makes me angry.

I wondered if Beatrice’s struggle to free herself from the limited roles and expectations of women were a little bit old-fashioned to be considered feminist. But honestly, the fight continues to this day. Some women may have the ability to pursue a career and raise a family without sacrificing too much, but other women do not, and the fight is not over yet.

In Beatrice’s world, sorceresses who marry are locked into warding collars that cut off their powers to protect their unborn children. Thus, they carry the entire burden of preventing spiritually transmitted infestations during pregnancy. Otherwise, babies become spiritborn, hosts to spirits who take over their bodies after about two years. Men, on the other hand, aren’t inconvenienced at all, except that they have to marry and are privileged to ignore their wives as they practice magic. This looks analogous to today’s fight over reproductive rights.

I think that covers it pretty well. Alongside all the ever more restrictive state legislation over abortion that happened last spring was my discovery of an extensive thread by Gabrielle Blair on Twitter (@designmom), a woman with half a dozen children of her own, spitting fire about reproductive rights (bit.ly/2D5WQZ7). I was sometimes completely floored by the way she laid it all out there, and it informed the way I wrote about how people capable of birthing children with sorcerous gifts were expected to bear children with no consideration given to what they wanted, that all the burden was on them.

One thing that struck me was the difference in attitudes of Beatrice’s country, Chasland, and the Lavans’ country, Llanandras, toward family planning. Llanandras is less restrictive for women than Chasland is. Beatrice finds out that Ianthe and Ysbeta’s mother never had to wear a warding collar full-time after getting married, only during pregnancy. Yet her own mother has to. Since the Lavans are well off, I was wondering if a country with greater wealth allows women more freedom to practice magic. Beatrice’s family, after all, is swimming in debts.

Maybe a little. But it’s not uncommon for any woman of Llanandras to use birth control and plan their pregnancies. It’s not a matter of wealth at all. I think it’s more a reflection of the measure of respect each society had for all of its people, and not just some of them.

Your Kingston Cycle books are set in a world reminiscent of Edwardian England. In The Midnight Bargain, you turn to Regency England for aesthetic inspiration. What drew you to write Beatrice’s story in this era?

The simplest reason ever—the fashion and the magic. I wanted to write a story where I got to describe big, extravagant dresses. Then I started thinking about what kind of worldbuilding I would need to make those dresses possible, and started eliminating things I didn’t want. I didn’t want Imperialist violence or colonization, so I decided that the people of this world respected each other as people, respected the sovereignty of their own nations, and just wanted to know if you had any cool stuff to trade.

The magic was kind of the same thing. In the Kingston Cycle, magic is the act of imposing your will on reality directly. This time around, I wanted something more ceremonial, more complicated and dependent on making a deal with an entity that can impose its will on reality. I thought about the European tradition of high ceremonial magic, did a little digging backwards into the traditions they borrowed from, and based my decisions on that.

Doing away with Imperialist violence and colonization made for an inclusive approach to make this society multicultural. This is probably the most diverse novel situated in this time period I’ve seen. Typically, you read Jane Austen, take what you’re taught about English society from that era as a given, and imagine a pretty homogeneous population.

I think it’s a natural result of deciding that I wasn’t interested in writing stories where people sailed off to distant countries, possessed that nation with violence, exploited its people and resources, and basically looted that land dry. And so I thought: “What do you get if you don’t do that?”

The answer is a world of nations that trade with each other. Chasland is a little bit behind but catching up technologically with nations that are happy to share their knowledge and innovations. There’s a lot of cultural exchange, and people are better educated about each other’s nations and cultures than a world that just unthinkingly adopts the behavior and beliefs that justify imperialism and colonialism. I wanted a country that valued people from all over the world as citizens and neighbors, so I just wrote that.

What kind of research went into creating this historically flavored worldbuilding? So many great details made me feel like I was there: the elderflower punch at the parties, the lavish flowers in the Lavans’ garden, to name a few . . .

I relied on sources on the Internet and took out a few books in libraries, and convinced friends with access to academic journals to smuggle me an article or two. I had already done a lot of the research because of my interest in historical romances, fashion history, the western occult tradition, the industrial revolution, and popular novels of the time. There were a number of nineteenth-century novels that were fascinated by the lifestyles and activities of the wealthy that haven’t the same prominence of, say, Jane Austen’s work. There are Regency reenactors who host dances today. If you’re actually writing historical England, you can look up the Hansard and read the notes of parliamentary activities on any given date right online. There’s a ton of information out there for the curious.

Nadi, the luck spirit that Beatrice summons throughout the novel, becomes her impish sidekick character. Is this spirit based on one you came across in your research?

There are familiar spirits and demons and patron devils and all sorts of spirits present in the manuals and legends of European magic and witchcraft. I don’t think any one of those spirits was a particularly strong influence. I let myself decide what I wanted the orders of spirits to be like. I knew they wanted the experience of the physical world. I knew they were amoral and didn’t really have a conscience. And I knew they would be charming but dangerous. I put all that together—and then Nadi showed up and started stealing the show.

She sure did! She starts stealing the show as early as the Assembly Dance scene where Beatrice has her first kiss with Ianthe. I read that one of your favorite tropes is the first dance of the springtime social season of London. Tell us a little about what you like about it.

The First Dance is my favorite historical romance trope. A dance is the inciting incident and meet cute/meet ugly of Pride and Prejudice. Dances were a popular social mixer, and with the legend of Wednesday night dances at Almack’s and the popularity of dances at the Bath Assembly rooms in the Georgian era, starting bargaining season with a dance was practically demanded.

Other occasions didn’t offer anywhere near as many opportunities for the young people looking for spouses to mix together without the rules and etiquette surrounding introductions. And if you didn’t know enough people to start mixing, there were organizers who could introduce you to dance partners so you could meet new people.

The whole season is glamorous but ultimately socially demanding. It wasn’t all a bunch of happy young gentry getting along nicely. Beatrice comes very close to complete social failure at the Assembly Dance. She should have danced her little feet off and talked to a hundred people. She actually did it all wrong.

She did it all wrong, but with Nadi’s help, she began her friendship with Ysbeta as well as stealing a kiss with Ianthe. At first, I expected Beatrice and Ysbeta to become rivals because they’re after the same grimoire when they first meet in the bookstore at the start of the novel, and Ysbeta swindles it from her. But then they become allies precisely because they want the same thing—to prove themselves as Mages. Their friendship was a pleasant surprise. Was that intentional, to flip that potential rivalry into friendship?

I never once thought of Beatrice and Ysbeta being rivals for the whole book. That would be a very different story, I think, and it would be a story where the ending wouldn’t be a happy one. Besides, why wouldn’t they become friends? They share a common interest, they can help each other achieve what they want, they feel for each other’s situation. They need each other in order to succeed and then they wind up genuinely liking each other. And I love stories about ride-or-die friends.

In anticipation of the release of The Midnight Bargain, a Choose Your Own Adventure minigame went live online to introduce people to the world of Bendleton (bit.ly/3hAwspb). How did you and the team at Erewhon Books come up with this? That’s so cool!

I was just messing around with Twine. I wanted to figure something out about interactive story structure and so I downloaded Twine and said, “Hmm. What should I write about?” and the idea of an interactive prologue that illustrates how hollow and illusionary Beatrice’s choices are just happened. I thought, “Oh, this is neat,” and showed my editor, my agent, and my publicist, and they thought it was great, so we decided to share it with everyone.

This being your third published novel, have you found more resistance to centering romance in genre from the publishing side rather than from readers?

Neither, actually. My publishers have been really excited about my romance-centered stories and in bringing them to readers who enjoy the melding of the fantasy and romance genres. I have a lot of fun writing them, and I’m glad there are readers out there who enjoy them. And I hope I can continue playing around with stories that balance both genres and continue bringing them to bookshelves.

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.