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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Anne Leonard and Moth and Spark

It was a pleasure to have author Anne Leonard come on the show to talk about her worldbuilding! She told us that her favorite thing about worldbuilding is that she doesn't have to worry about plot when she's doing it. She said ever since she was a kid playing Dungeons and Dragons, she thought coming up with backstories was more interesting than the play itself.

Anne describes Moth and Spark as a "literary fantasy." She started out thinking she was writing a cheesy romance story to "get it out of my system," a Pride and Prejudice with dragons in a secondary world. She says she put in a lot of stuff, most of which had to come out.

She did a lot of research. One part of that was that when she was looking for a suitably epic ending, four years after starting the book, she took a geology field trip to Yosemite. It turned out to be exactly what she needed. It gave her a better mental image, she explained, and a better sense of scope. Those mountains are huge, and appropriate to the experience of writing about dragons.

When she was writing about dragons, she researched reptiles to make them as much as possible like real reptiles. She also did historical research about past wars, about historical cultures, etc. She looked at maps of ancient Mediterranean Greece and Asia. She studied how people moved between Asia and Greece, and how the Roman Empire worked.

The empire in Anne's book wants to control the dragons. The kingdom where the story takes place wants to break free from the Empire. The empire is based in part on the Roman empire and part on the Ottoman empire. Anne said she had Greek myths and the Iliad in the back of her head while she wrote.

In Moth and Spark's backstory, a powerful country crossed the sea 500 years ago and conquered Caithan. They stole dragons and took them south. The dragons are kept under control by magic, but the dragons are intelligent and have manipulated things so that someone will break the spell that keeps them controlled.

I asked Anne about the magic system in this world. She said there were not a lot of tools, or schools. It's a more mystical environment, with ghosts and hexes. She carefully defines what the people believe, but it's not necessarily exactly what is going on. The people in the "rational" upper classes think hexes don't do anything. However, there are real effects caused by the intrusion of dragon presences into this world. Carousel horses will "come alive," and people will have visions. This is because the dragons are trying to tell their story using susceptible people.

Anne told us she likes the supernatural, and elements of horror. Her focus is definitely character-driven. She is interested in what happens in people's heads. She wrote a ball scene inspired by, and full of easter eggs for, Pride and Prejudice. She wrote a line referencing Cinderella because a character says she won't lose her shoe.

I asked Anne about the distinction between dragon riders and others, which is clear from the very beginning of the story. She said she had taken inspiration from Anne McCaffrey's Pern books in that the dragons choose who they want. The difference is that dragons are the physical manifestations of something outside the world. How dragons appear is not how dragons are; they operate on another plane. What the magical curse on them has done is confine them, and keep them from expanding into other dimensions where they might be. They exist in a multi-world universe where time is not necessarily constant. Their existence outside of our concept of time allows them to give future visions. They resemble some representations of gods.

Anne told us that when she was in college she knew someone who had snakes as pets. She got to touch and hold a ball python, and it was totally unlike what she had imagined. She says, "scales are the smoothest, silkiest things." To feel it moving and constricting was amazing. "Snakes are all muscle and I just love it."

This was one of the inspirations for making her dragons very snakelike. They only eat once a week. She said they are kind of like a combination of snakes and cats. The cat part is the attitude, and the pointy face. They are like European dragons with four limbs and big wings, and lots of impressive claws. The claws can leave scratches on stone. You don't look into a dragon's eyes because "you'll go mad." They can mesmerize you so you just watch them as they are coming down to eat you.

I asked Anne about the significance of her title, "Moth and Spark." She says moths are a symbol in the book, and a harbinger of magic. They are a metaphor of how people behave compared to dragons. The dragons are the "spark," and moths are attracted to a bright light as people are attracted to dragons.

At this point in the hangout we shifted gears and I asked Anne about what she's currently working on. She said she's just finished a book manuscript; it was intended to be about a quest, but the quest kept dropping out. It takes place in a secondary world, and is narrated in two different time periods.

The story features a tyrannical king and his wife. One point of view is the queen's during the period between when she has her first child and her second. The other is after the queen's disappearance, people are trying to determine whether the king killed her or she vanished in a war. The king's sons are also rebelling against their father.

One of the characters is a woman whose father was killed and who joined the resistance. Anne says that writing this part was hard, because though it was an old idea, she found it was influenced by current events. There is real evil in the world of this story. The wife's decisions, and domestic abuse. Anne told us she had tried to write this story but it hadn't gone anywhere at first.

The chronological setting for the story is the gas lamp era. They have rudimentary electricity. Access to technology is very dependent on class. The rich have plumbing, but the poor use chamber pots. The amount of money you have controls how much technology you can use.

Anne told us that she was inspired by a trip to Mexico. She visited a tiny village which had no reliable septic system, and where the electricity was such that if you used too many heaters you could blow a fuse. People would use satellite dishes to dry their laundry. What impressed her was the coexistence of low and high technology. Most of the world doesn't have it all. In fact, even some homes in the US weren't electrified until the 1940's.

The way she handles technology in this world affects how people move, how they communicate and how they use transportation. When you have to physically go see someone in order to talk to them, and mail service is poor, everything happens more slowly. You have to make arrangements to meet someone, then walk three miles, and that slows everything down.

Anne says that when you are on the cusp, the borderline between magic and technology, it's really interesting because boundaries are places where interesting things happen.

Anne said that she really enjoyed working with her protagonist in this manuscript because she's a middle-aged woman, not a hot-blooded twenty-one-year-old. She's the leader of the Resistance. She's made her choices, and she's not impassioned about every cause. Her priorities are clear to her.

Che asked what Anne's favorite books were and what had influenced her. She told us she's a language junkie. She reads Victorian novels, Dorothy Dunnett, Steven King and Peter Straub. She loved Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell and said she wished she'd written it! She liked the academic feel of the footnotes. She also likes Austen and Dickens, and finds it interesting how modern their language sounds, not as distant as we think.

Thank you so much, Anne, for coming on the show! It was a pleasure to speak with you. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Thursday, October 19th at 10am Pacific. We'll be talking about what we do at different times of day. I hope you can join us!


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