On Melusine with Sarah Monette

My guest this week recently saw her debut novel Melusine released. A gifted short story writer who has forthcoming projects in an anthology by Ace in February titled The Queen of Winter with a story in the Melusine setting, and the sequel to Melusine, The Virtu, scheduled for July of 2006.

I really enjoyed reading Melusine and I want to thank Monette for accepting my invitation as we talk Melusine, a passion for short stories, Tolkien, her future work and more.

Jay Tomio — At the beginning of the month, your debut novel Melusine was released. The readers have seen my review, but I was wondering if you would mind giving the readers a brief synopsis of Melusine.

Sarah Monette- I’m terrible at synopses. Melusine is about a wizard, Felix Harrowgate, and a cat-burglar, Mildmay the Fox; both of them have their lives torn down around their ears, and the book is about them trying to figure out how they go on, how to build something new.

That’s not what most synopses of the book look like, of course, but it’s what the book is *about*, at least in my head.

Jay Tomio — One of my favorite elements in Melusine was your vivid depiction of the city (Melusine) itself. You took great care in describing the city, truly as a city is, a sum of separate and different parts, and most importantly how differently the view of the city is from different perspectives. Was there a model for Melusine?

Sarah Monette- There were several models for Melusine, some fictional, some real; as the nature of the city itself suggests, it is a patchwork of cities I’ve read about, cities I’ve visited, and some of it I just plain made up.

Vienna is probably the real city that influenced Melusine the most, with Paris, Athens, Seattle, and Rome contributing bits and pieces. The idea of the Arcane, of a city under the city, is definitely from Vienna, where I spent three weeks when I was fourteen. There’s an early medieval vigil chapel which they found entirely by accident when they were excavating for the subway. They preserved it, and there’s a window in one of the subway stations where you can look down at it. Rome, Seattle, and Paris also have extensive underground cities, and those inflected the catacombs in Melusine, but Vienna is the principal source.

Charles Dickens’ London is the other obvious and major influence. The whole idea of thief-keepers is lifted directly from Fagin in Oliver Twist and the city that we see through Mildmay’s eyes, with the thieves and prostitutes and factories, is highly Dickensian.

Jay Tomio — A major theme in Melusine is relationships, whether it’s between Mildmay/Felix, Felix/Malkar, Mildmay/Ginevra, Shannon/Felix, Mildmay/Cardenio, Margot/Mildmay bonds with “keepers”, and bonds to the city of Melusine itself, and almost every other character in your cast, and how past relationships mold our future relationships and actions. Which of the relationships in your book did you enjoy writing the most, and why? Which, if any, proved to be the most difficult?

Sarah Monette- All Felix’s relationships are difficult to write, because he himself is an extremely difficult character. Despite what the evidence of the novel suggests, I’m not particularly comfortable writing the sort of antagonism that Felix thrives on.

Mildmay’s relationship with Cardenio was hard to write, ironically, because friendship is actually really hard to convey. But that’s also one of my favorite relationships in the book, because it is just friendship, and because the two of them don’t have hidden agendas when they’re with each other, and they don’t have to defend themselves from each other.

Jay Tomio — Your second novel, The Virtu, is scheduled for release next year. What can you tell us about his forthcoming work? Is it a direct sequel to Melusine?

Sarah Monette- The Virtu is a direct sequel to Melusine, picking up about a month and a half after the end of the first book. It recounts Felix and Mildmay’s return to Melusine and the Mirador.

Jay Tomio — In many ways, I think of short stories as much more of a craft then full-length work these days, you are an award winning writer of short fiction, and I saw this comment by you on your journal:

“Novels, they’re just there. It’s what I do. If I’m not doing something else like eating or sleeping or running errands, I’m either writing a novel or I’m procrastinating on a novel. It’s my default setting. But short stories … It’s an intermittent, deep-seated, and frequently unscratchable itch. And it doesn’t necessarily have a thing in the world to do with having ideas for short stories. It’s just this urge. Something short, pithy, and with claws, please.”

I have to ask, what is it about the short story format that creates such passion for the craft? Do you mind giving us a heads up on where we may be seeing more examples of your short work in the future?

Sarah Monette- Short stories — or, at least, the kind of short story I aspire to write, although this is far from the only kind — are like a commando raid. They get in, do the damage, get out again. But you should keep reverberating to the note they strike for a long time after you put the book or magazine down. Okay, very mixed metaphor, but this is the sort of thing that’s difficult to articulate — probably, if we could articulate it, we wouldn’t need the stories.

I have a short story in TALES OF THE UNANTICIPATED 26, and one in ALCHEMY 3. ALL HALLOWS is planning to publish a novella of mine, although I don’t know when that’s going to happen. THE QUEEN IN WINTER, a fantasy/romance anthology from Ace, which includes my story, A Gift of Wings (set in the same world as Melusine and The Virtu, although unconnected to them), will be out in February 2006. And my short story Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland is going to be reprinted in SO FEY: QUEER FAERY FICTION, edited by Steve Berman and published by Haworth Press.

Jay Tomio — You won the Spectrum award in 2003 for your short story, Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland, what was you first professional sale?

Sarah Monette- That’s a slightly complicated question. The first short story I wrote that someone agreed to publish was a story called Bringing Helena Back, which appeared in _All Hallows_ 35. The first short story I wrote that I got paid for was Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland (‘Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 11’). The first short story I wrote that I sold at pro rates was The Wall of Clouds, which appeared in Alchemy 1.

Jay Tomio — You mention the short story A Gift of Wings, is the Virtu the end of the Mildmay and Felix story, or are there more subsequent novel length works planned with them or the setting? Because of your admitted passion for short stories, has a collection in the setting been discussed?

Sarah Monette- Melusine and The Virtu are the first two of four books about Felix and Mildmay — although I hasten to add, in reassurance, that Melusine and The Virtu do stand on their own. The third book exists in draft, but anything more than that is waiting to see whether Ace is interested in buying.

And I’m not sure I could write short stories in Felix and Mildmay’s world. My short stories tend to be horror, rather than fantasy. I find that, for me, horror works best in short form and fantasy in long form. I almost never write successful secondary-world fantasy short stories (as opposed to urban fantasy short stories, which I can occasionally manage), and I don’t think I’d have any better luck with horror novels.

Jay Tomio — I was reading your ’Doing Tolkien Wrong’ article, as the subject of Tolkien in various forms and from various sources has been a hot topic in recent years, and want to ask you since you follow your own advice given in the article, and are a fan of Tolkien as well, what is, if any, was the impact he had on your writing?

Sarah Monette- Well, once I learned to stop imitating him by rote (which took a while), I think the most important thing I got from Tolkien was the idea that the secondary world has a history just as much as the real world does. We, as readers, don’t know it all, and don’t need to, but we need to know it’s *there*. We need to have that feeling that there are stories all around the edges of the one we’re being told — and not just stories about the other characters, or about the social history of their culture. Stories about the setting, the buildings and landscapes and objects. Every landmark in Tolkien has at least three names and layer upon layer of history, and the sense of weight that gives his world I think is what makes Middle-Earth memorable in and of itself, rather than merely as a backdrop to a memorable story. And that’s something I strive for myself.

Jay Tomio — When reading Melusine, what influences do you think will be apparent to the reader?

Sarah Monette- I’ve said more than once, and only half-joking, that I want to be a cross between Ellen Kushner and Gene Wolfe. I find the influence of Swordspoint quite obvious in Melusine; Wolfe’s impact is more subtle, but equally pervasive, in that The Book of the New Sun taught me not to be afraid of being erudite and byzantine. The influence of my formal academic training — Ph.D. in English literature, specializing in Renaissance Drama, and I double-majored in Classics and Literature (a cross-departmental program between French, English, and Comparative Literature) in college — is also readily apparent. The world-building is a shameless, gleeful mishmash of things I learned from studying French history, Roman history, English history between the Battle of Bosworth and the Glorious Revolution, Ancient Greek, Old English, random bits of trivia …

Mildmay’s narrative voice owes quite a bit to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Felix’s existence can be traced back to my reading Joan D. Vinge’s Psion, when I was twelve or thirteen. That was the book that taught me about antiheroes, and I still remember how astonishing that experience was.

Jay Tomio — You noted your extensive studies in literature, and diverse influences. What drew you to choose fantasy as your mode of story telling?

Sarah Monette- What makes you think I had a choice?

Which is a very flip way of answering an excellent question, but the truth is that I don’t know. I don’t know why my imagination works the way it does. I just don’t write things that aren’t speculative fiction in one way or another. As a reader, I’m easily bored by realism; given the choice, I will *always* pick the story that promises to explore beyond the limits of the everyday. In that sense, my tastes as a writer merely reflects my tastes as a reader, but I still can’t explain why I’m drawn so strongly to that kind of story.

Realism — especially realism as it is practiced by contemporary writers — is a box, and a rather small box at that. I don’t like confining my imagination in a box. Which is not to say that excellent stories cannot be told in that box, or that there’s anything wrong with staying in the box. Just that I’m not comfortable there.

Jay Tomio — What authors or works do you, in-genre or not, contemporary or classic, you’d recommend to readers?

Sarah Monette- Ellen Kushner and Gene Wolfe, obviously. Emma Bull. Dorothy L. Sayers. Elizabeth Bear, who is a friend and sometimes co-author of mine, and who writes terrific books. I love old-fashioned horror like H. P. Lovecraft and M. R. James. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books. Arthur Conan Doyle.

If readers want to find other books like Melusine, Jacqueline Carey and Martha Wells are good places to start.