I’m thrilled to welcome the amazing Tracy Townsend to the blog today! Her debut The Nine was such a surprise for me, and it’s on track to be one of my favorite books of 2017. Tracy was kind enough to answer some of my questions, and I absolutely loved her answers, so I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I do! Please welcome Tracy to the blog! (Also, don’t forget to enter the giveaway at the end of the interview! Pyr Books is giving away three copies to international readers!)
Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel! Can you give us a quick rundown of what The Nine is about?
Thank you! Okay, here goes:
Black market courier Rowena Downshire lives in a world where science and faith are one and the same, and God is the keeper of the Grand Experiment of life itself. When discovery of a harried scholar’s mysterious, self-writing text – the key to the Grand Experiment itself – turns into a late-night delivery gone terribly wrong, Rowena finds herself entangled in a robbery, a murder, and a conspiracy to derail divine judgment. Survival will require the one thing she’s never had: trust in others, including two shadowy ex-mercenaries who have as much to run from as she.
The world of The Nine seems to be a combination of several different time periods and genres. Overall it feels very Victorian (and I got lots of Oliver Twist vibes myself!), yet there are also steampunk and flintlock fantasy elements as well. What were some of your inspirations for this intriguing world?
I’ve talked quite a bit on other interview spots about specific writers and texts that shaped my vision (Lynch, Gladstone, Dickens, Verne, Dumas) so here I think I should take this from a different angle: the overall aesthetic I wanted.
Years ago, the first time I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, I was struck by how outside a clear placeholder in time Lyra’s Oxford was. (Siderbar: I’m very nearly done with The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, the “equel” he wrote to the series, and I have THOUGHTS.) Pullman’s world included gas lamps and diesel engines, but also electric lights, horse-drawn carriages, and zeppelins aplenty. It’s not until further on in the series that you fully understand just how outside the world we know Lyra’s world truly is, but that glorious mash-up of technologies, weaponry, fashion, accents, and customs was the best and truest sign (no disrespect to daemons) that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, so to speak. I wanted readers of The Nine to be absolutely clear that this wasn’t their world, and to have more to pin that feeling to than the aigamuxa and lanyani (other sentient species living in the human world). From the moment of that decision onward, I felt this license to just include everything. A technological and stylistic hodgepodge seems totally suited to a world where the two greatest human inventions — scholarship and religion — have sent mankind careening down a path of unimpeded, problematic advancement.
I am dying to know your “thoughts” on La Belle Sauvage! One of the themes of the story is the relationship between religion and science, and I don’t think I’ve ever read such an intriguing concept. How did this idea that science’s main purpose is to prove and record the existence of God come about?
In a way, I’m following the example of Enlightenment philosophers and scholars with that move. Deism (a popular intellectual and theological framework in the 18th century) rejected “revealed” scriptural interpretations of literature in favor of considering God in rational terms. It was actually rather tightly bound to science, too, though not in any way as tightly as you see in the world of The Nine. The idea of God as an experimenter, too, worked really well with the mythology of the lamed wufniks, which is the root source of this idea of individual people being observed by God as litmus measures of humankind.
Let’s talk a bit about the creatures in The Nine. I’m so curious to hear more about how you came up with the aigamuxa and the lanyani.
I can’t take credit for inventing the aigamuxa, because I didn’t. They’re an actual monster out of the khoikhoi tribal mythology, an ancient bit of African lore. I did make some changes to them, however. The khoikhoi people are among the oldest hunter-gatherer tribes still known, and so the idea of a human-like being wandering the scrublands and dunes in search of humans to eat the way they themselves searched for edible plants and trackable prey has a kind of natural, terror-triggering symmetry. Mythology tends to do that — pair us up with nemeses we fear specifically because they are horrible, twisted versions of ourselves. The aigamuxa of khoikhoi legend, though, are at a serious disadvantage as predators because of their eyes being on the soles of their feet in a scrubland that forces them to trek over sand for long periods. I needed them to be scarier, smarter, and more dangerous, and so I turned them into jungle natives, brachiating with their eyes downward, and all of a sudden a deforming turned into a (literally) killer adaptation. I also wanted to give them a real emotional weight and identity, and so I crafted a backstory between their species and ours to better account for their hatred of mankind — and, in a lot of ways, to demonstrate that it’s well-founded.
The lanyani are the result of two questions I asked myself: first, when an entitled, technology-rich, resource-rich world expands itself, what’s one of the first non-human things to suffer? Answer: nature. Second, how can you turn nature from a blunt-force instrument in plot (useful for huge, symbolic gesture with practical effects like floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires) to something lying in wait, skulking in the shadows, waiting for its chance for revenge? Nature is patient. Nature is merciless. The lanyani, then, had to be the same: tree people who aren’t the Ents, dispassionately removed from conflict until you set them off, and who aren’t Groot, either. One of the last things to die even in the most poisoned environment is the weeds. The lanyani are a little that way: scrappy, silent, insinuating, and destructive in ways that humanity is only belatedly coming to appreciate.
Rowena is probably my favorite character, although I’m quite fond of Rare, the Alchemist and Anselm as well, as well as their relationships with each other. What do you feel are the most important things a character should have to be relatable to your readers?
So, a sidebar before I even get started: I find the idea of “relating” to characters problematic. It seems to suggest you have to be like a person in order to like them or get interested in them. There are characters in fiction I adore who are utter, flaming trash heaps. I adore them because they are who I hope I will never be, or because they’re so unlike me they’re marvelous ways to escape myself. Often, I take pleasure in something that seems like the exactly opposite of “relating” to characters. But as with all things, your mileage may vary.
Back to the question: At my book release party, a member of the audience asked why I sometimes cite Dickens as an influence on my work — why I like his stuff, basically. And I answered, “Because I can tell he loves his characters.”
What I mean is, even if the character in question is a horrible person, the reader should be able to tell that the author really cares about getting inside them and treating them as real. Before you can expect readers to relate to a characters or just find them engaging, you, the creator, should feel invested in them. I love all my characters, even the most incidental ones. The coroner William Knox is in just one chapter and he’s as vivid to my ears and eyes as any of the cover trio. I love slipping into Anselm’s elegant cynicism and Rowena’s wary hopefulness. I love Rare’s entitled preening and the Alchemist’s wounded stoicism. Each of them has something they want in any given moment, even if (to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut) it’s just a glass of water. But you can only believe the things they want are real if the author has treated the persons themselves as if they’re real, too. That takes love.
The Nine is your debut novel. How long have you been writing, and how was your path to publication?
I’ve been writing off and on ever since I was a child, but never sat down to do the long, hard work of writing a novel until 2012. That was when I succumbed to a colleague’s challenge to join him in supporting our students in NaNoWriMo. I cranked out the first, fragmentary draft of something that later became The Nine. I was querying in late summer of 2013, and signed with my agent in early fall of 2014. After that, I was on submission from January of 2015 until we got an offer in May of 2016. There was a four month period in between when the manuscript was sort of pulled from active submissions, as I did a revise and resubmit for another publisher. It turned out not to be for them (a bad time to be peddling something steampunk-y with Jim Butcher putting out The Aeronaut’s Windlass), but that revised manuscript ultimately caught my editor’s eye at Pyr.
When I share that story, it tends to surprise people. The Nine is not only my debut novel, it’s my first completed novel. I should stress, though, that while I’ve been very fortunate to see my work reach print relatively quickly, I’ve put in my time. I’ve got at least half a million words worth of short stories, character diaries from various role-playing games, flash pieces, and incomplete novellas cluttering up old hard drives and notebooks. Writing well takes time. I’m nowhere near the peak of my craft now, but I know I’ve put in the time to get where I am. It’s exciting to think how much farther I have yet to go.
I’m fascinated by the fact that you teach science fiction and fantasy at a private school! That’s got to be the best job ever (aside from being a published author, I guess!). How did you convince them to let you do that?
Actually, small correction: I teach at a PUBLIC boarding school for gifted kids. I know that’s especially odd, since the U.S. doesn’t generally go in for boarding schools, and boarding schools are almost never public. But this one is, and that’s what I love best about it. It’s a true melting pot, with kids from all over the state of Illinois who come in based on combined academic merit and demonstrated need, leaving behind under-resourced schools whose curricula they would have exhausted long before graduation. A lot of them come from communities without other options. No affordable private schools. No magnates, or magnates with lottery systems and waiting lists so deep, there’s not much hope of surfacing in them. No community colleges in drivable distance for taking additional coursework. The Illinois Math and Science Academy is a sort of safety net the state offers to students who need something more, but often can’t get it back at their home schools. Nit-picking between “public” and “private” probably reads as a nit-pick, but I think it’s a key difference. It’s about access and equity where it otherwise might not exist at all.
Anyway, you’re right: I do have the best job ever (which is important for me to remind myself of when the grading pile gets deep). As for how I convinced the school to let me teach an sff class? That was the easy part. We’re basically designed to attract sfnal people, or to train students to become them once they’ve arrived. The students love Doctor Who, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, Black Mirror, the works. My peer teachers knew this was exactly the kind of class our students would flock to, and they trusted me to do it right, because they knew me and had put up with my unapologetic geekery for years. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been teaching the sff course for eight years now, and creative writing for eleven years. Both are an absolute joy.
The Nine is the first in a series. Are you currently working on book #2, and do you have anything else in the works?
I am indeed at work on book 2, and the deadline is, um…. Soonish. Writing it has been an altogether different process than writing the first book, because now there’s an established narrative everything has to connect back to in some way. With book 1, if I decided something wasn’t working, or if my agent or editor suggested a change I was on board with, it was as simple as “tear the offending bit out and re-write it.” But now there are rails to stay on, so to speak. Some things have to stay, because now there’s a story canon that’s more than what I’ve privately decided. And there are some things you can’t just add with impunity without breaking the foundation you’ve laid.
As for other projects, I have a completed science fiction manuscript sitting in my files that probably won’t see a last round of edits and my agent’s desk until after the final book in the Thieves of Fate series hits production. It has lady spaceship mechanics and hostile aliens and unrequited love and no-win situations and a lot of other things I love. I hope it finds a good home someday so you can read it!
I hope so too! And finally a question I ask all my visiting authors: Please tell us three things about you that can’t be found on the internet.
My baptismal name is Catherine, for St. Catherine of Alexandria. When I was studying the saints before my Confirmation years ago and had to pick one, I learned about this scholar-librarian-noblewoman who debated fifty pagan philosophers back-to-back and smoked them all. Then for her presumption, she died on a torture device so heinous they actually named it for her (the Catherine Wheel). It was the most metal thing I ever heard. I mean, who wouldn’t want their Patronus to be the “Takes-No-Shit Scholar-Princess Killed By The First James Bond Villain Contraption”?
I have an extraordinary weakness for every kind of fuzzy creature and would probably live with a good deal more pets if my husband didn’t keep me in check. Perhaps the strangest “pet” I ever had was the baby racoon my brother, cousin, and I spent a summer raising after my grandfather’s bobcat digger unearthed a nest of orphaned cubs. There’s nothing quite like teaching a raccoon to fish by fetching crayfish and stones from the lake. We’d put them in a baking dish so she could get used to getting snapped at and snatching up rocks to do in her prey.
I have a birthmark shaped like a dog’s paw. You won’t find pictures of it anywhere, and you never will.
Ha ha, now we’re all curious:-) Thanks so much, Tracy!
About the author:
And now another special treat! Courtesy of Pyr Books, I have THREE COPIES of The Nine to give away internationally. This is a great opportunity to read this amazing book. And even if you aren’t the winner, please come back and hit one of the “buy” buttons up there, you won’t regret it:-D
To enter, simply fill in the Rafflecopter form below. Good luck!