Jacqueline Carey is currently best known for her Kushiel Trilogy (Kushiel's Dart, Kushiel's Chosen, and Kushiel's Avatar), based in the fictional country of Terre d'Ange in a period similar to 14th-15th century Provence. Her style is a cross between alternate history and magical realism that delights readers everywhere and has inspired a "Cult of Phèdre" of book-lovers who have gotten tattoos based on the books to show their fandom; some even dream of living their life as the main characters. Ms. Carey was nice enough to take time out of writing her upcoming duology, Banewreaker and Godslayer, and the much-anticipated Imriel Trilogy to answer a few of our questions. For more information on upcoming releases, and the author herself, visit her website.
Beth Oing: Which authors, if any, have influenced your work? Or, if none, which authors do you like to read?
Jacqueline Carey: I'm a lifelong voracious reader and every author I admire has probably influenced my work, whether I realize it on a conscious level or not. The one I cite the most is Mary Renault, who wrote historical fiction set in ancient Greece. When I was ten years old, I read The Persian Boy. It was the first 'grown-up' work of fiction I read and I loved it . . . in fact, the first sentence of Kushiel's Dart is a deliberate homage. Among fantasy authors, some favorites are Patricia McKillip, Guy Gavriel Kay, Richard Adams. But I read across the board. My all-time favorite is a fairly obscure work by an Irish author, Juanita Casey, called The Horse of Selene. I discovered it when I was working in a bookstore in London after college, and I never get tired of it.
BO: What made you decide to use a slightly altered version of Christianity, and risk controversy, especially with the large amount of sexuality, rather than creating an entirely new religion with entirely new gods and goddesses, like most fantasy writers?
JC: Inspiration doesn't care whether or not it's convenient for the artist. It's not a matter of waking up and thinking, "Hm, I'm going to develop a potentially controversial revisionist theology today!" Ideas come unbidden -- the decision is whether or not to pursue them. This one derived from some reading I was doing in apocryphal literature, and it simply wouldn't go away. In the end, it proved too creatively compelling not to pursue.
BO: Would you consider your work more fantasy, or more historical fiction of a history that never happened?
JC: The latter is pretty apt, actually. In some ways, the books are more rooted in historical fiction than fantasy. There's very little magic, and what there is all derives from the governing mythos. But the story arcs definitely come from the epic scope of fantasy, as do the larger-than-life characters. Equal parts of both, maybe?
BO: What made you decide to create a character who feels pleasure in pain?
JC: I didn't have a choice. From the merest glimmer of her inception, Phèdre was what she was. That was her nature, take it or leave it. Again, the decision was whether or not to pursue the idea. And frankly, this one scared me. It was a big risk, and I wasn't even sure it could be done without being exploitative. An openly masochistic epic heroine? Yeah, right. I told one fellow writer about it, and she told me I was crazy. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to try. I saw a potential to take the woman-as-victim trope and stand it on its head, to create an ongoing exploration of the nature of strength and weakness, will and desire, cruelty and compassion. In the end, I think it's a big part of what makes the books compelling, and it's a risk I'm glad I took.
BO: What would you think of a Kushiel Trilogy movie/miniseries?
JC: It could be magnificent, gorgeous and provocative . . . or it could be a disaster. It would be a tricky book to film, in part because the sensual aspects would have to be handled with a very delicate touch, and in part because first-person POV is notoriously difficult to adapt. But I'd certainly be interested in seeing the attempt made and would want to be involved in the process if at all possible.
BO: Have you received many letters from people who feel your work is obscene, or because of your including Christian references?
JC: No, I've been very fortunate. Almost all the correspondence I've received has been overwhelmingly positive. I suspect offended readers don't bother to write hate mail any more -- they go to Amazon.com instead and post scathing reviews. I have my share of those.
BO: What does your family think of your work?
JC: They're very supportive . . . although they do admit to having to skim parts on occasion!
BO: What do you think of that fantasy genre as a whole?
JC: It's hard to speak of it as a monolithic whole; there's a tremendous range of work under the fantasy umbrella. And there's a lot going on right now -- new voices emerging, the rise of graphic novels, cross-pollination with romance. All in all, the genre is in a dynamic state. The audience is growing, which is good for all of us, readers and writers alike.
BO: I know as a writer there are parts of you in all your characters, but if you could step into one character's shoes -- who would it be?
JC: I've got to go with Joscelin, simply because it's the furthest thing from my experience. Granted, I've never been a courtesan or a spy, either, but it's easier to imagine, say, climbing into bed with an enemy warlord than it is climbing the underside of a hanging bridge and assailing a fortress with a pair of daggers. Only for a day or so, though! I'm way too indolent for all that Cassiline discipline. Plus, he gets put through hell on a regular basis, the poor guy.
BO: Have any characters "grown in the telling" to become something different from what you originally conceived? Which ones and how?
JC: I can't say they have. That's a phenomenon I hear other writers mention, but I haven't experienced it myself. Though I was struck, writing Kushiel's Avatar, by the way Phèdre and Joscelin had grown and matured, both as individuals and in their relationship, during the ten years I left them in peace.
BO: Has your culture (religion) or family influenced your work in any way?
JC: Not in a direct or specific fashion, but in a nebulous one. I grew up in an agnostic household, so religion always had a certain exotic allure for me and all manifestations of faith seemed equally fascinating. It's fair to call that a significant influence, I think.
BO: What is your long-term goal? What would you like people to say you did for the genre or literature in general?
JC: Wow, tough question. I'm not sure I have an answer. Like all writers, I hope my best work lies before me. But if I never wrote another word, I'd hope people would recognize that in my own way, I tried to contribute something new to the genre. That I took risks and didn't play it safe. Phèdre is a unique heroine, and it was a privilege to give voice to her. I'd hope she got her due. In the upcoming duology, Banewreaker and Godslayer (formerly Elegy for Darkness), I'm trying to pull off epic tragedy, which is a challenge!
But in the end, I'd be happy if they said I wrote a few good stories. I've heard from readers whose lives they've touched, and that's enough for me.
BO: How do you feel about the "cult" that has sprung up as a result of your writing? The tattoo craze is, as shown by your web site, spreading far and wide. How does the evidence of your work's popularity make you feel?
JC: Weird and wonderful. A lot of people share their reasons with me and they run a wide gamut, from the very personal and touching to "Hey, cool design!" But everyone brings something different to the books, and I'm just grateful to have written something that strikes a resonant chord with a diverse readership. As a writer, I don't think anyone ever forgets the first time a fan sends a letter that moves you to tears; or the second and third. Some of mine just happen to come with tattoo photos.
BO: Your somewhat . . . controversial characters and attitudes have been raising much conversation in and out of the community and probably breaking more than a few conceptions. Did you intend to do this when you started writing or did it just happen?
JC: Once I committed to the idea, yeah, I did hope it would provide an impetus for conversation. I'm all for healthy dialogue. And although there are controversial elements, I made a serious effort to treat them in a responsible manner; eg. making consensuality a sacred tenet in D'Angeline culture. There are a lot of negative preconceived notions about sex in our society, and there's nothing wrong with challenging them in a positive and affirming manner.
BO: Not many writers have objets d'art based on their inspiration. How did it make you feel to make Earth Begotten (now sold out and out of print)? What was the experience like? Were you very involved in the process?
JC: It was very cool. I loved working with Chad Johnson, who's one of the sweetest guys I know. Every aesthetic choice in the creation of Earth Begotten has an involved rationale behind it relating to the history of theology and the printing press. I was consulted at every step, but I basically deferred to Chad and the printers, since this is their area of expertise.
BO: What have been your biggest challenges in writing?
JC: Hands down, it's the struggling years. I spent a solid ten years writing without a significant break, working a day job to support myself. It's discouraging. Not at first, but after a while, rejection wears on you. In the end, it made me a better writer, because I continued to keep pushing myself, but there were definitely times when I thought, "Maybe it's time to give up, go back to school and get a real career." In fact, Kushiel's Dart was my make-it-or-break-it book, because I knew it was by far and away the best thing I'd ever written.
BO: Writers have often commented on the battles they face with their editors. Have there been any bits that editors wanted to cut out but you stood your ground and they stayed in? Or are there any scenes/concepts/moments you wished had been left in but ended up on the editing room floor?
JC: My editor wanted me to make Phèdre older at the outset -- to have Delaunay buy her marque at age sixteen, not ten. I argued against that one, because I wanted the symmetry that would emerge later in Kushiel's Avatar with a ten-year-old Imriel. We came up with ways of making it clear that there was no unsavory element in the relationship, so it was a good compromise, and one I was glad we struck.
The only scene I regret allowing to be cut was a funny, sweet one with Phèdre and Remy (one of Phèdre's Boys) singing in a wineshop in Kushiel's Chosen. It was expendable, but it didn't take up much space and I was fond of it.
BO: You've written both fiction and non-fiction in your career. Which do you prefer? Which is easier?
JC: Fiction is my true love, no question. I enjoy the craftsmanship involved in writing non-fiction, but the experience doesn't have the same all-encompassing magic. Both have their own unique challenges, and both are difficult to do well. One big difference, for me, is that it's easier to be objective about non-fiction. With fiction, there's always the emotional rollercoaster between "Oh yay, this is brilliant!" and "Oh no, this is dreck!" (Which, by the way, is perfectly normal and very common.)
BO: Are there any authors you would like to collaborate with?
JC: Honestly, it's not something I've ever thought about. I tend to work in relative isolation. . . . I'm not sure I'd be a very good collaborator.
BO: Do you have any advice for new authors?
JC: It's hard to give advice on writing, because the best way to learn is through doing. No two writers work in the same manner, and everyone has to find their own path. So . . . write. Write a lot. Let yourself have fun. Build a world and explore it. Create characters and break their hearts. Take risks, and don't be afraid to make mistakes. It's okay -- that's how you learn. Experiment with methods. All the methodology -- whether to outline in advance, write in a linear fashion or skip around, follow a rigid schedule or go with the flow of inspiration, edit as you write or worry about it later -- emerges with experience. As you write, you'll discover what works for you.
It's important to love the process. This is a tough business, and if writing isn't its own reward, there's not much point in doing it. Don't get all knotted up about submitting your work, just do it. Be professional and courteous, research the market and follow guidelines. Your work is going to stand or fall on its own.
Rejection sucks, but it's an inevitability, so be prepared and don't take it personally. The best way I found of dealing with it is to never sit around waiting. I would always start another project, so by the time bad news arrived, I'd already moved on and could think, "Yeah, but THIS is the one!" Eventually, I was right.
Persistence is everything.
BO: Do you have any thoughts on future projects (beyond the Elegy of Darkness duology and the new Imriel trilogy)?
JC: Oh, I have a few ideas tickling the back of my brain, but nothing I'm ready to divulge! Imriel's going to keep me busy for a while yet, so there's time to let them simmer.
Copyright © 2004 Beth Oing
Beth Oing is a soon-to-be high school English teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Bookstore Manager as well as Author Focus Coordinator for Strange Horizons. She has been working behind the scenes for over two years now and this is her first publication.