Dark fantasy author Jacqueline Carey chats with WEIRD TALES correspondent Elizabeth Genco. Find out what exactly the woman behind the bestselling Kushiel’s Dart series has to say about “smutty military cadences sung by Julius Caesar’s men.”
Carey’s big risk paid off, winning her the 2002 Locus Award for Best First Novel and a legion of earnest, passionate fans who ink the book’s message into their own lives like — well, a tattoo (quite literally, as the galleries on Carey’s website can attest). She treats her readers to a feast of intricately drawn worlds and some of the tightest plotting on the fantasy market today. She is hard at work finishing up the second Kushiel trilogy; its second volume, Kushiel’s Justice, is out now.
WEIRD TALES: Your world-building skills are, frankly, out of this world. How do you do it?
JACQUELINE CAREY: Research, research, research! Because I’m predominately writing alternate historical fantasy, there’s a wealth of material out there on which to draw. I always have a good idea of what my “itinerary” for a book is going to be, so I’m able to do a lot of research before I start. Once I start, I scramble along the way to fill in any gaps. I like to use the earliest source material I can find to describe a culture or a place, as it often feels more immediate and fantastic than more contemporary resources. And I have a certain amount of latitude, since I’m held to a standard of plausibility rather than accuracy.
WT: Do people ever write to complain that you got this or that detail “wrong?”
JC: Not often — maybe because I play so fast and loose with history that there wouldn’t be much point in it. I did have a reader write me to complain that Phèdre’s Boys’ marching chants was so anachronistic that it threw him out of the book. I politely informed him that there are records of smutty military cadences sung by Julius Caesar’s men.
WT: Do you have a system to keep it all together? Notebooks, flowcharts, whatever?
JC: Nope. Just a very crowded brain. . . . For me, one of the keys to good worldbuilding is finding just the right details to bring a setting to life. Too much detail can overwhelm the reader and drag down the narrative, but a few descriptive touches here and there engage the imagination. When readers’ imaginations are engaged, they tend to paint a more vivid portrait in their minds than when the writer is doing all the work for them.
WT: You worked in an art center while writing the first Kushiel book. Are you ever inspired by the visual arts?
JC: Definitely. Sometimes it’s in a very direct and specific way. I recall listening to a candidate for an art history professorship give a lecture on a Greek temple I wasn’t familiar with and feeling this “click” as the solution to a creative problem lurking in the back of my mind fell into place. The climactic scene in the Temple of Asherat in Kushiel’s Chosen was the result. Sometimes it’s in a more general sense. I recently saw an exhibition of Treasures of the Sacred Maya Kings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and stored that one away for future reference.
I think about my writing in very visual terms, and the visual arts feeds that creativity. It has a visceral impact it’s hard to capture in language. But just contemplating a piece like Goya’s “Third of May” can be a great object lesson in how to articulate a single moment of drama, horror and transcendence.
WT: I was very moved by the tattoo, art and picture galleries on your website — you seem to have some of the coolest fans around. Why do you think your work resonates with them the way it does?
JC: Yeah, my fans are awesome! I think the books resonate for all kinds of reasons – they’re hefty tomes and there’s a lot in them — but I’m guessing the primary reason, at least for the Kushiel series, is the theme of love as a redemptive force capable of effecting change in the world that runs through them. It’s a simple but powerful notion, and one I think most of us would like to believe.
Also, Phèdre, the heroine of the original trilogy, is a fairly unique character in the annals of epic fantasy. Her refusal to be victimized by her own nature and her ability to turn vulnerability into strength seems to strike a chord with a lot of readers.
WT: How many unpublished novels do you have sitting in a drawer somewhere?
JC: Like a lot of authors, I think it’s good for people, especially aspiring writers, to know what it can take to succeed in this business. I’ve got three languishing-in-a-drawer novels that will never see the light of day. I never thought I’d be grateful for the rejections, but with each one, I pushed myself to become a better writer.
WT: You’re a big traveler. What are some of your favorite haunts?
JC: Well, I have to cite the south of France, since a trip there inspired the setting of Terre d’Ange! And I love the island of Crete, where I once spent a summer. I can find something to love almost anywhere.
WT: Any suggestions for travel on the cheap?
JC: My best suggestion is to do it while you’re young. In my early twenties, I traveled across Europe on a rail pass, crashing with friends or relatives whenever possible, staying at youth hostels otherwise, poring over my guidebook for the best cheap food available. The last time I went to Amsterdam, the sight of all the grungy young wanderers in the train station made me (a) glad I did it when I had the chance, and (b) glad I wasn’t doing it now! After a while, the prospect of sleeping three to a double bed just for the sake of free lodging isn’t as palatable as it used to be.
WT: Name a guilty pleasure. Or maybe two.
JC: People magazine and Breyer’s strawberry ice cream.
Weird Tales correspondent Elizabeth Genco is a frequent contributor to the Endicott Studio’s online Journal of Mythic Arts. Over the past year she’s interviewed a host of speculative-fiction authors and comic-book creators for the website Chemistry Set, which also hosts her own original comic series Scheherezade. Her interest in the mythic and fantastic extends as well to study of the tarot, and she was a featured writer in the 2007 Tarot Reader. With her husband, artist Leland Purvis, she also produces original illustrated storytelling at www.streetfables.com.