Folks, please welcome Shauna Roberts to the blog. I thoroughly enjoyed her historical fiction, Claimed by the Enemy, which is set in ancient Mesopotamia. Today we chat about ancient cultures, modern SFF writers, the importance of loss in shaping people and characters, and so much more. Please join us and enjoy!
Themes of culture clashes, duty, and loss feature in your works. As you write in multiple genres (scifi, fantasy, historical fiction, romance) do you feel one genre or the other lends itself better to one theme over the others?
I think these themes can be used in any genre. Most historical periods require consideration of culture clash, duty, and loss, if only in the background of the story. After all, in many past cultures, childbirth was the leading cause of death of women, and many children died in their early years. Infections and broken bones were often fatal. Invasions and wars were common in many periods, and these often involved people and cultures that were hard to understand.
I was trained as an anthropologist, so I find culture clash fascinating and use it when I can. In Like Mayflies in a Stream, I oppose city and wilderness, which the Sumerians themselves contrasted again and again. In Claimed by the Enemy, the clashing cultures are Sumerian, Akkadian, and Elamite. And in my alternate history novelette “The Measure of a Man,” the three protagonists are a patronizing Portuguese sailor, a lazy Indonesian farmer, and a stubborn Homo floresiensis teenager—that’s close to the ultimate in culture clash in a story set on Earth, I suspect.
Often various historical aspects (people, locations, events) are used in fantasy and sometimes rehashed in a far-flung future. Are there examples of such historical aspects being used well in the SF/F genre? Examples of what didn’t work for you?
Guy Gavriel Kay, one of my favorite authors, often bases his fantasy novels on real history. Even though the names and many facts are changed, his novels give an excellent perspective of what it was like to live in those times and what issues you might face.
Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is clearly fantasy, drawing on Yiddish and Arab mythology for its main characters. Yet it seems to be accurate to its time and place (the immigrant districts of New York City around 1900) and can be enjoyed as a historical novel as well.
What usually doesn’t work for me is the kneejerk use of a faux Medieval or Renaissance England as the default fantasy landscape, whether it suits the story or not. A story can take place in a rural countryside or in a rigid hierarchical society ruled by a king or queen without using England as a model . . . or Europe, for that matter.
And some kinds of stories really annoy me—those that assume that the values, morals, sense of beauty, food preferences, and thinking patterns of people of today’s mainstream U.S. culture were basically the same in the distant past and will be the same in the distant future. That’s not even always true for Americans from different states or different age groups, for heaven’s sake!
It would be wonderful if every writer of sf and fantasy read about other cultures and times and learned how incredibly flexible human behavior really is. A basic knowledge of anthropology, history, and psychology will help a writer create realistic characters. Spec fic writers should also read about geography, geology, and biology, because they determine many or most features of a culture in real life, and they should in fiction as well.
Interesting question! My heroes and heroines sometimes redeem themselves, but my villains usually strongly believe they are in the right and have the moral high ground, that they are making the best of a bad situation. My bad guys usually have a combination of good and bad traits, just as my heroes do. I want my readers to identify with both the heroes and the villains, even while rooting for the heroes to win.
For example, in Claimed by the Enemy, I slowly reveal that one of the villains is behaving, well, villainously because she is likely to die otherwise. I want readers to feel the discomfort of knowing that they might make the same choices as that villain even though her choices hurt many people.
I do occasionally have antagonists that some readers may hate instead of empathizing with. In my forthcoming fantasy novel Ice Magic, Fire Magic, the secondary villain has narcissistic personality disorder. She betrays her best friend without any guilt, even though she loves her.
If I couldn’t continue to be a writer—although it would take a law to stop me from writing—I would return to my original ambition of being an archaeologist of ancient Sumer.
That’s quite a dangerous job nowadays, with ISIS taking time out from killing modern-day people of the Middle East to destroy evidence of the world’s first cultures as well as important cultural sites such as churches and mosques.
I much prefer writing about ancient Mesopotamia safely from my office. It also lets me research far and wide instead of focusing on a narrow topic, as academics must do.
If you could sit down and have dinner with 5 dead authors, who would you invite to the table? What would they order?
Enheduanna (world’s earliest poet of either sex known by name; earliest known woman writer; and a powerful political figure in the Akkadian Empire)
Sîn-lēqi-unninni (Babylonian compiler of the “Epic of Gilgamesh”)
Marcus Aurelius (Roman emperor whose diary became a renowned philosophical work)
Christine de Pisan (French-Italian author of Le Livre de la Cité des Dames)
Janet Louise Roberts (American romance writer and my aunt)
I don’t know what they’d order to eat. But after they finished being shocked by each other’s deities (“What? You have only one god and he’s invisible?” “That’s better than your promiscuous, trouble-making goddess, I think!”) and arguing about women’s role in society, I hope they would discuss how best to live; how to juggle one’s duty to oneself and one’s duty to society; and how to fix the modern world.
I rarely go fangirl. Before I retired, I wrote for health magazines and journals, and I interviewed some of the top scientists, doctors, and government officials in the country. I became blasé to fame and famous people.
However, there are exceptions to every rule. Once, while attending a World Fantasy Convention, I was eating in a restaurant with other conventioneers, and we saw Guy Gavriel Kay dining in the same restaurant. Someone else at my table was also a fan, and we worked up our nerve to stop at his table on our way out, where we blathered incoherently about how much we liked his books.
Back at the convention hotel, I waited and waited for an elevator. Then Guy Gavriel Kay walked up and joined the crowd waiting for the elevator. I felt terrible. It’s one thing to fangirl as an anonymous doofus in a dark restaurant; it’s quite another matter to be revealed as a fellow professional writer in the bright light of the elevator waiting area. I pretended not to notice him. He acted as if he didn’t notice me, and perhaps he didn’t. I promised myself never to go all fangirl over anyone again.
In the first novel I wrote (never published), I had a character disabled by debilitating osteoarthritis. Writing her character helped make it clear to me that the personal experience I wanted to share through fiction was not pain, but loss.
Pain is common. Even severe pain is common, unfortunately. What is uncommon about my life are losses that make ordinary life impossible and the experience of loss piled upon loss. For me, the worst part of birth defects and many chronic illnesses hasn’t been the pain but the losses. The loss of normal social interactions, particularly in childhood, when any difference scares others away. The loss of the ability to do some physical activities. The loss of not having children. The loss of time—time to be useful, the time to have fun, the time to write more—all the time I lose because I run out of energy early in the day, because I have so many doctor appointments, because it sometimes takes me longer to do things because of confusion or stiff joints, and because I probably won’t live as many years as actuarial tables predict.
Loss, then, is the theme of almost everything I write. Sometimes I write about loss consciously; sometimes I don’t notice it in a piece until I finish it and read it through. I write about all kinds of loss: loss of freedom, loss of a loved one, loss of personal independence, loss of one’s beloved home city, loss of one’s dreams for the future, loss of one’s native customs, even loss of one’s true self to the legends surrounding oneself.
Those stories always include hope. Hope and recovery from despair are the good news I’d like every reader to take away from my stories and novels. Nothing stays the same, not even depression or despair. Whatever loss one suffers, one can eventually learn to live with it. One can find ways around the limitations it causes. Sometimes the loss can even be reversed.
No matter what happens to you, no matter how limited you are, the Earth surrounds you with incredible beauty that can feed your soul and help heal it. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned after all my losses is that I can’t predict the future, so I should be happy in the moment I have right now and hope that the future will be better. A few times, though I could not imagine how the trajectory of my future life could be anything other than bad to worse, surprising things have happened, and my illogical hope was validated.
The importance of the Oxford comma! Besides being a medical and science writer before retirement, I also edited scholarly journals and books. Over the years, I developed strong opinions about many grammar matters. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve defended the Oxford comma (a comma put after every item in a series of three items or more) as if my arguments could save the bees or the wolves.
Side characters can make or break a story. What side characters have you enjoyed in other works? What side characters in your own work have caught more attention than you expected?
Charles Dickens, of course, was the master of entertaining, memorable side characters. Almost too much so for my taste. An English teacher in high school assigned Great Expectations, and forty years later I’m still creeped out by Miss Havisham.
P.G. Wodehouse created a great character in Jeeves, the supercilious valet who knows more about being a gentleman than gentleman Wooster himself does.
Many romance authors take advantage of the freedom one has writing side characters to make them wacky, funny, pathetic, or otherwise interesting, a nice relief from the tension of the romance and all the obstacles in its way.
I recently read K.J. Parker’s fantasy novel Shadow, whose main character has lost his memory. Many side characters appear again and again in the book, each time revealing that what I thought I knew about them before was incomplete or completely wrong. That was really cool, and I admire the skill involved.
Of my own works, I think Gilgamesh in Like Mayflies in a Stream has attracted the most attention and variety of opinions, probably due to his complex personality. However, I’m not sure he counts as a side character. I have to admit that people who start out as side characters in my books often get promoted, sometimes to major point-of-view characters. I conceived of Like Mayflies in a Stream as the “Epic of Gilgamesh” as seen through a woman’s eyes (those of the priestess Shamhat), but King Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu ended up almost as main characters.
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Like Mayflies in a Stream
In the great city of Uruk, there is no peace when Gilgamesh is restless, and he is never at rest. Shamhat, a priestess of Inanna, goes into the wilderness to find and civilize a match for Uruk’s violently active God-King. Like Mayflies in a Stream brings new life to the Epic of Gilgamesh, diving into one of the earliest conflicts between civilization and wilderness, civic order and freedom, romance and sexuality. A book of the Hadley Rille Books Archaeology Series.
In a run-down spaceport, assassin Thadow hunts for a bag of stolen pearls to prove his worth to the head of the Guild of Transmuters. Meanwhile, two spoiled teenagers, Trilia and Lateron, pass the time while their mothers’ spaceship is in port by harassing the locals and stealing things from them as part of a scavenger hunt. Then their paths cross, and life will never be the same again for either Thadow or Trilia and Lateron.