After having Laura Anne on the show to talk about Silver on the Road, and reading the book, I was keen to have her come back to discuss the sequel, The Cold Eye. So it was great when she agreed to join us!
These two books are part of The Devil's West, which includes this novel series and a number of other stories she has written. It's an alternate history with magic, in North America. The divergence point is that the Louisiana Purchase was never acquired by the United States because it was protected by a man (entity?) known to all as The Devil, who lives in the town of Flood and runs a saloon. The best description of the genre here is probably magical realism. Everyone in the book accepts that things are slightly magical.
The main character, Isobel, grew up as an indentured servant in the Devil's saloon, but at 16 years old, she got to decide what to do with her life, and because she's ambitious, she takes a job with the Devil. He sends her out into the Territory as his Left Hand - a sort of enforcer. The first trip, featured in Silver on the Road, is a learning experience. Isobel is helped by a companion and teacher named Gabriel. Of course, things go terribly wrong. In the second book, she has better learned to control her abilities and understands her responsibilities better. Laura Anne describes this as the heroine's journey. Isobel is not battling against external forces so much as learning to work with the world.
The magic in this world is unpredictable and organic. It's also not called magic. It's often tied to particular creatures that carry it, like buffalo and snakes, etc. The farther you go in the world, the more you learn about the different skills people and animals have, and how to react to them. There are people who have skills but don't want to be in the Territory. Whether you have skills often has to do with how many generations you have lived there. The Territory is under pressure from the United States, which is known as a place of street lights, technology, and universities.
Laura Anne told us that the whole thing was born out of a writing exercise. She discovered this world's outlines by writing a short story called Crossroads. She says that every time she writes a story in the world, it leads her to new discoveries, different aspects of the world and its magic. For example, there are people called Devil's Jacks, who have gambled with the Devil and lost everything, and ended up bound to him. He plays them like cards. They are here and there in the Territory, doing their jobs, miserable. What she learned about them revealed more about the characters.
She says there are still areas she hasn't visited yet.
She says she's working on a piece called Boots of Clay, which features a Portuguese Jewish community who live in the Territory because they were fleeing intolerance. They interact with the native people and there are some culture clashes. (It's a golem story). This story will appear in a successfully Kickstarter-backed anthology called Lawless Lands.
"The only story I think I'm never going to tell is how the Devil came to the Territory," Laura Anne says. She says that's because it feels very fluid in her head. The Devil changes what he looks like, sometimes from moment to moment, even with people he knows best. To write a story like that would tie it down in a way that feels wrong to her.
The agreement that allows everyone in the Territory to coexist is fluid. Laura Anne describes it as "Don't be shitty," but it's up to the Left Hand (Isobel) to decide if you are breaking it. It's not always logical. This is not a world that lends itself to a World Bible. Laura Anne says she has an idea of what powers the magic, but it's organic and resists identification. The magic/medicine has elasticity.
In fact, in this world, the word "magic" is a pejorative term used by outsiders. There is still a lot of superstition about "magic."
The time period featured here is between 1801 and 1803 during the term of President Jefferson. Laura Anne says she tries to keep all the politics outside the Territory as the exact politics of that time period.
Many people think Old West when they see her books, but this is earlier in history, before the invention of rifle barrels. The guns people carry are blunderbusses and flintlocks. Fights are much more likely to be conducted with fists than with knives or guns. When they were marketing the book, they tried to avoid the "Weird West" label even though it is weird, and west, because there are no gunslingers, hardly any prostitutes (she deliberately avoided them), and no railroads.
It's a very difficult period to research. History is well documented east of the Mississippi river, but the research on the west is "not in English." Native stories of the area are very different and nonlinear, with a different sense of time and a different storytelling logic.
I asked her whether there were any world-exploration spots where she had to push hard and maybe make up some things. She said that there were, and these occurred on Book 3 when the story moves to Louisiana. It's a very different region, and the Caddo confederacy occupied that region, but the confederacy was a lot of small tribes banded together over a large region, and some of them disappeared leaving no information. She had to use best guesses. Tribal names are not necessarily the ones that the tribes themselves used, because there is no record. She was frustrated because she had to use second person narratives, and other people's photos, rather than reading about these people in their own words.
Laura Anne says she wants to talk about Alaska also, and that there will be good research material there.
I asked her how she went about raising stakes across three books without blowing the top out of the story. Her answer was to keep survival as the basic stakes. This is the era of Manifest Destiny in the United states, so the threat to the Territory is consistent. She also keeps focused on Isobel's personal journey. In Book 2, Isobel must deal with what she's become. She has become adult and needs to make really hard decisions. Book 3 has her dealing with those decisions. Laura Anne insists that Isobel is not "getting darker," but that she has more weight on her from one book to the next.
Che asked whether she has plans beyond these three books. Laura Anne explained that Isobel's apprenticeship is done at the end of Book 3, and more material has yet to gel. She intends to keep writing in the world, however. She says she's intrigued by the question of how Marie became the Devil's Right Hand. There are many characters here, and many points of view.
I asked her specifically about the fascinating cultural clashes she deals with. She explained that they grow out of her background in American History. Western European settlers were not the full story. Spain and Portugal sent people. So did the French. The Native American peoples had thousands of communities with completely different cultures. There were Jewish people, and escaped slaves. There were Isolationists, or people who just wanted to move out into the wilderness and survive and maintain their lonely outposts. Then there were people who started cities because they wanted civilization where they were. There were cattle herders and farmers, who also had conflicts between them. Marrying outside one's own culture was a critical question. People were able to accept maybe one or two examples of this, but once it got to be 10 or 20 they felt threatened, as if their culture was being diluted.
One big question Laura Anne deals with is "Who gets to determine the future?" She told us she was really angry while writing the third book. None of the characters are bad people; they just want what they want and it leads to different good or bad outcomes. She says, "I know what happens to the Territory and when it happens. I'm not sure i want to write those stories. Nothing gets to stay the same, intact."
She tries to be faithful to the actuality of history in many ways. One of those is that there is no climactic battle. You realize after the fact that something has happened, and you have to deal with it. She says it's not a three-act narrative. It's about looking back at what people do and how they do it. History is key to storytelling. So is political science, anthropology - because they deal with people, cultures, and decision-making.
Laura Anne says that the best non-fiction books have a storytelling style. Liberal arts and sciences are very important. She says, "I'm not a science fiction writer [in her novels]. I just put a lot of science in my fantasy."
Last, we talked about suspension of disbelief. Laura Anne says there are two kinds. One is the suspension of disbelief of the reader, who says, "Okay, I'm going to trust you." The other is that of the writer, who bears an obligation to create a structure on which the reader can hang their suspension of disbelief. The Cold Eye starts because of an earthquake. If you take actual facts, and twist just slightly, it will still feel real.
The author has a great responsibility. Laura Anne observes that this is reflected in the way we talk about being "thrown out" of a story rather than "walking out" of it. It's the author's responsibility not to create ejection points.
Thank you so much for coming to talk to us, Laura Anne! I'm really excited to see what happens next in the series. Dive into Worldbuilding will meet this Wednesday, February 1 at 10am Pacific to talk about Colorism. I hope you can all join us!