Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Julie Czerneda and The Gossamer Mage

We had a delightful visit today from author Julie Czerneda, who came on the show to talk about The Gossamer Mage, her twentieth (20th!!!) novel, which is coming out on August 6, 2019.

I asked her where the idea for the book started, and she said it started with a pen - and proceeded to show us the pen in question! She brought a lot of cool props to show us, so I encourage you all to check out the video if you're curious about them.

One of the things that Julie explored while writing this was the history of ink. Battles were fought over areas of the world that provided good ink ingredients, and pirates stole ink as well as other things.

I've always found constrained magic systems very interesting, so I asked her to tell us about the magic system she used in The Gossamer Mage. Julie said she agreed with me that she liked constrained systems. She said she liked it when everyone knows how to use the magic, but wait, it's not so simple. This particular magic system is constrained in part because it requires writing, which means it requires a particular type of scholarship. You have to be able to write words that are not human words, and to intend them. Further, this magic can only be done in the one place in the world where magic remains. One important ingredient here is that magic used to be in more of the world, but is no longer present except in one region, ringed with mountains.

Thus, magic is constrained physically, and it is constrained to scholars. The other important ingredient here is that you almost feel sorry for the mages. Every time you use magic, the Deathless Goddess (source of magic) takes a part of your life. If you meet a very old mage, it doesn't mean that person is necessarily particularly old, but will depend on how much magic that person has used. Each time you use magic, you get a bell that you can put in your hair or on a wig or hat. Julie told us the bells are "good advertising." If you have twenty bells, you're a student. If you have 100, you know what you're doing. If you have 300, why are you still alive? I asked Julie if mages lived to a hypothetical fated life length, or just as long as the Deathless Goddess wanted them around, but her answer was more interesting: "You are around as long as you have the will power to be around."

One of the very tricky aspects of being a mage is that if you have this power, you have a lust to use it, so it's difficult - particularly for young mages - to stop themselves from using it again and again. The mage school is "a home for those who are helpless against magic." It sends its students out to do magic and earn money for the school.

I really appreciate when authors consider social implications of their systems, and Julie is doing a great job of this in this book. She told us about families whose sons become mages, and what it means to them. One family is just really happy and sends their son off, but another considers this a family loss, because it means their son will die so much earlier.

Julie told us about how much she likes to describe real objects. She showed us a Murano glass pen that was the inspiration for one of the important pens in the book. She also showed us a 100 year old ink pot that was designed so it could be screwed down and attached to a surface.

I asked Julie how she reconciled working with objects from our world in the context of a created world. She says she wants to create a world that is seamless for readers. The world of The Gossamer Mage has some medieval aspects, but is more like 18th century England.  The Murano glass comes from a place that is foreign, a nearby island. The ink pot also plays a critical role in the story. Julie says tying real things into the fantasy makes it more concrete.

Julie told us that this book is a bit unusual in that it has no chapters. It started as a series of novellas. Before each of the novellas is something called a Fundamental Lexicon, a 1-2 page history that gives context for the piece that follows it.

The Lady (the Deathless Goddess) does not allow travel.

Once, non-humans ruled the magical land of Tananen. When humans came, they interpreted what they found. What would we do if we came across a fount of magic?

Many people in Tananen live in Holds. Though each hold is ruled by a Holder, the land is held by the Hold Daughter, and she has the power to eradicate the entire population of the Hold if she feels like it.

The use of magic is gendered in a really interesting way. Men become mages, and women become Hold Daughters. Julie told us she looked to matriarchal societies from Earth history, where women owned and controlled property. In the society of Tananen, women are the tenders of magic, and men are the users.

Cliff mentioned that it seems as though Julie often visits themes of longevity and gender in her work. He asked if this was a conscious decision on her part. Julie said "It's more that they've collided." She described herself as always being an educator, and wanting to portray strong women. She's also a biologist, so she uses the definition "if it reproduces, it's a female." She says that she doesn't pull punches in The Gossamer Mage.

This book has a gorgeous cover, in a different style from those of her previous books. DAW was looking to produce more iconic covers. Julie said her husband made the original concept art using the pen that they had. Once he turned in that art, the art department came back with the cover art in less than a day!

I asked Julie about what she'd previously said about how the people of Tananen don't travel. Tananen is ringed by mountains referred to as Her Fist, and has one port, and a waterfall known as Her Veil. Any animal created by magic within Tananen turns to dust if it passes through Her Veil, and strangers who try to enter exhale, and then can't inhale again. This is a pretty effective deterrent to travel, especially given that the people of Tananen aren't sure they won't also turn to dust if they leave their home.

Julie then announced she couldn't go on without talking about the beards. The beards in the story are an example of the trivial use of magic (thus, the trivial use of people's lives). People put ornaments in their beards that sing, or have a smell, or have other magical properties. Women will glue beards to their faces in order to be able to participate in this fashion. It's a fashion of the rich, since most people in the country are working people who don't bother with much ornament. It's a fascinating view on how magic and its users are trivialized in some contexts.

I asked Julie about the language she uses in the story. She told me first about the different dialects of Tananen. In the lowlands is where you find people who are wealthier and speak a high-class "civilized" dialect. Up nearer to the ring of mountains, you find a different dialect. Then, in the mountains themselves, you have still another dialect. Sometimes people in the story use their native dialect to be obscure, even to insult someone without them entirely understanding and being able to take offense. Julie said she wanted a sense of the difference in how we speak when we travel vs. when we speak with our families. I always love to see code-switching in a book!

In fantasy, language is very important. Julie said it's important to recognize how quickly language changes for isolated groups.

I then asked her about the name suffixes. These are fascinating pieces of language that acknowledge a mage or Hold Daughter's relationship to the Deathless Goddess. The suffix -eonarial is for mages, and means "Debtor to the Lady."  The suffix -ealyon is for Hold Daughters and means "Promised to the Lady."

Julie told us that when she was working on the three main Tananen dialects, she consulted with her son, who is a linguist. Mostly people throw in different words, or drop letters. As for the untranslated pieces of language, these she termed "echoes of the past." A lot of these names are names that were already there when people first arrived in Tananen. She said it would be like calling a place Thor's Hammer if you didn't know what a hammer was, or who Thor was.

One of the really interesting pieces of the story is a character who believes that they can't have the magic continue, because he doesn't want to see young men's lives sacrificed to fashion and horses with night vision.

I asked Julie about the "made animals," and she said one of the things that people do with magic is create horses who don't have the limitations of real horses, i.e. they function like machines and can go without eating or doing all the normal things horses do. Another interesting made creature is called a "maul." It looks like a dog, but stands like a man, and mauls often serve as guards. Magic can also be used for subtle things, like changing the seeds of a crop so that it will be immune in the next generation to a disease it is currently suffering from.

The language of magic is only spoken by Hold Daughters, but even for them it's painful, because it's not really being spoken by them; instead, they are being spoken through by the Deathless Goddess herself.

Julie offered to show us "something else that's real," and showed us a picture of buildings in the Cotswolds region of England. This was the architectural inspiration for the Mage school. Julie also showed us the original map of the Mage school. I asked her for a moment about the hedges at the mage school. She said they were useful because they were cheap, sturdy fencing, and had wildlife in them. They also allow for eavesdropping or peeking through. In the story they have a key role as wind breaks to stop the students at the school while they fish for carp!

Julie told us she likes practical things.

The main door of the Mage school is a made swan whose wings are the doors. (Such a cool image!)

She said that most of her research was into ink and pens, particularly into the question of how to make in. She also researched the speed of barges so she could gauge the scale of her map on the basis of how long it took people to travel from one place to another.

I asked her about whether her training as a biologist had applied directly to this book. She said that mostly, it influenced the way she observes the natural world. As an example, she told us about a scene in which there are rings of ice around the base of the cattails, suggesting that there was a freeze the night before. This kind of detail is a wonderful way of simply conveying that this is a climate with extremes. She also has a character who travels from the sea coast to the interior, finds gulls there, and considers them inferior because they are smaller and have other slight differences. It is quite common to find gulls inland, however!

She says this book stands alone, because "there can't be" further books. Julie described it saying that in this book, "I ask a question, and I answer it to my satisfaction." The book is meant to linger with a reader.

Julie also showed us the original version of the map of Tananen, both right side-up and upside-down.

Morgan passed on a question from her daughter, which was "Why do you keep making me cry?" Julie couldn't answer that, but did tell us that she considers emotional catharsis important. She never sets out to manipulate people. As she describes it, "My emotions go through the wringer first."

This was a delightful and fascinating conversation. Thank you so much, Julie, for coming on the show!

Please be aware that Dive into Worldbuilding is going into its summer hiatus between now and August 20th. I will let you know on August 19th whether we will start meeting again on the 20th or the 27th. Thank you so much for your support, and please visit my Patreon to support the show more directly!




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