Q&A with Tamsyn Muir!

In which the author of Gideon the Ninth tells us why she is fascinated with swords, how she pitched this crazy trilogy for the publisher, and how does she write her lesbians.

Last September Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir’s first, bestselling novel was published in Hungary. In November we tried to reach out to the author with our questions, but we were not succesful. But at last, we managed to establish contact and ask all the questions we were interested in!

The Locked Tomb Trilogy seems like a pretty hard one to pitch to a publisher. How have you pitched it?

I never really pitched the trilogy as a trilogy. I pitched Gideon as more or less a murder mystery, because to me that's still its most fundamental DNA: it's the classic And Then There Were None set-up, a group of people in an isolated location start getting killed off one by one. I think I said it was a locked-room murder mystery with necromancers. But I was also deeply confused about a lot of things and thought it might be a Young Adult book, because I understood 'young adult' as a tag to mean 'older teenagers would enjoy it' and I firmly believed that older teenagers would enjoy Gideon! Someone I showed the story to at an early stage had to break it to me gently that this was not a Young Adult book, and never would be without very major re-writing and taking out 90% of the swearwords.

Gideon the Ninth became a massive success. How do you manage to deal with being a world-famous author?

I don't. I realise that on one level I'm 'world-famous' because there exist people who have read my novel in various different parts of the world, and that is a lovely feeling -- for example, I'm very excited to be getting interviewed for a Hungarian newsletter! But I cannot cope at all with 'fame' in its modern sense of people talking about me on the Internet. I avoid anywhere I think my name might be mentioned. Twitter is no-go. I gather I have a lovely fan community on Tumblr, and friends occasionally try and lure me into looking at art or jokes they've found there, but I can't. I just don't think the human brain was designed to ensure the experience of being talked about outside one's immediate circle of friends and acquaintances. When I try to imagine the life of someone genuinely famous, like Angelina Jolie or something, my mind just crumples under the weight. How does she go anywhere or do anything?? Why is she not hiding in a special sensory deprivation coffin, like Daredevil? I have to keep my focus really tightly on me, my laptop, cups of tea, and occasional emails from my editor saying 'no-one even remembers the Ate My Balls meme any more'. 

So dark fantasy, sci-fi and mystery are all present in Gideon. Which of these traditions had the biggest impact on you as an author?

I suppose I've sort of given away the answer to that one above -- I actually think there's much more of the mystery in Gideon than there is of classic fantasy or sci-fi. Growing up I read quite a lot of sword 'n' sorcery fantasy, but it's never been a genre I've wanted to try my hand at, other than indirectly. And sci-fi is such a broad church -- I was a big Star Wars fan as a kid, but as many people have pointed out, Star Wars is really as close to fantasy as it is to science fiction. But the works I was consciously trying to evoke when I wrote Gideon are all mysteries.

As I think of ‘The Deepwater Bride’, your award-nominated novellette, I see clear thematic connections between that and the Locked Tomb Trilogy. How long ago did you start toying with these ideas?

The most obvious thematic connection between 'Deepwater' and the Locked Tomb is probably lesbianism -- which I've certainly been thinking about for a while! To go a bit deeper than that, I guess the relationship between lesbianism and the weird: Hester is interested in Rainbow because Rainbow is so completely weird, so utterly unlike her, and in the novels both Gideon and Harrow find themselves attracted to other women who are very strange to them for a variety of reasons. I've never yet written a sort of soulmate-type lesbian relationship where two girls meet and immediately feel a very strong kinship or connection: my lesbians tend to start out regarding each other with a kind of baffled or even appalled fascination. But that wasn't really an Idea I wanted to bring to the fore, it's something that developed organically from the stories I wanted to tell in each case. Maybe my next book will have two girls who do a classic meet-cute and fall for each other on sight. That sounds quite nice, actually.

You have roots in the fanfiction community. How did fanfiction help you to become a writer?

It gave me practice. The only way to be a good writer is to practice, but it's very hard to practice something in a complete vacuum. If you're trying to learn the piano but no-one else knows or cares that you're learning, you're often going to end up not bothering to practice, because other stuff gets in the way. If you're writing fanfiction for an audience, even a very small audience, you have positive and negative incentives to keep going: if you post that new chapter, people are going to be pleased and excited; if you abandon the story and never finish it, people are going to be sad and disappointed. So it gives you a reason other than sheer solitary willpower to keep getting words down on the page.

Swords are prominent in these books, but as I know, you do not practice swordfighting. Why did you choose swords as the primary weapon of your heroes and villains?

Swords are cool! They have a much bigger cultural freight than basically any other weapon: swordfighter immediately invokes ideas of skill, of honour, of courage, of tradition, of all that stuff that I wanted sloshing around in the mix for both good and ill. Someone holding a sword gains this very specific aura of heroism and nobility which you wouldn't get if they were holding an axe or an assault rifle. Of course several of my swordfighters are complete dickheads, but that's all the more reason to make them swordfighters: the sword confers a glamour on its user which may or may not be deserved.

Also, swords are very good for duels, and I knew early on that duelling -- as in formal, sem-ritualised one-on-one fights -- were going to be important to the story. You can duel with other weapons, but no other weapon carries the kind of expectation of duelling that you get with a sword. If a character is a swordfighter, it's almost inevitable that they're going to end up meeting another similarly skilled swordfighter and having to fight them, otherwise what's the point?

Harrow the Ninth introduced an exciting shift in the narration: after the quippy Gideon, the reader is presented with the amazingly unreliable narration of Harrow, and a whole different retelling of the events of the first book. Did you choose this path because it was more of a challenge?

Yes and no. I didn't choose it simply to make my life harder -- if I'd wanted that, I'd have done the whole book as a very long sonnet sequence, or not allowed any character to use any word with more than six letters. But I did want to do something new. I didn't want Harrow to be Gideon II. If my second book had followed the POV of a completely different character to the first book, and yet had sounded... exactly like the first book, that would have been a pretty serious failure of writerly imagination on my part. 

Did you plan to surprise your readers in such way in Alecto the Ninth? What can you tell us about that book?

Again, I don't want to make it sound like pure surprise is the goal. It would be very easy to surprise my readers in Alecto -- I could just start Chapter 1 with Gideon and Harrow arguing about what to order in a McDonald's. No-one would see THAT coming. But I do want the same feeling of newness, the same feeling that Alecto is not just Harrow continued into another volume. Some very great trilogies have essentially been one enormous novel split across three books -- Lord of the Rings being the defining example -- but the Locked Tomb is meant to be three different novels that belong together.

This year’s virtual WorldCon was held in New Zealand. Can you inform us about Kiwi speculative fiction and recommend some authors who are not internationally recognized?

Living in the UK since 2014 has had the unexpected and painful side-effect of cutting me off quite badly from the New Zealand SFF community. Because my books were published by a US publisher, I'm not really regarded as a New Zealand author -- my family like to remind me that bookshops over there generally still don't stock my work -- and I'm not very plugged in to the Kiwi scene. I've read some great stuff: I've gone on record before with my admiration of The Dawnhounds by Sascha Stronach -- but I feel very keenly that I don't know half as much as I'd like to about what's going on in SFF back home.

You signed a six-figure deal with Tordotcom Publishing. What will you work on after finishing Alecto the Ninth?

Lots of stuff. Next up is a novella about a gunslinger in a near-future dystopia, which is going to be a massive relief to write as it contains neither swords nor bones, thank God. Then I've got to start on the next full-length novel, which will probably have some swords and some bones but not at anywhere near the concentration Locked Tomb did, and will leaven the mixture by also having some motorbikes. And at some point I need to fit in the sequel to Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower, my novella from last year, which I've decided I'm not quite done with. Now if I could just get an extra four or five months added in to the year, maybe in summer when the weather's OK, that would be fantastic.

You can find the Hungarian version of this interview here.