October 12, 2013
Sophia McDougall has announced the publication of a new novelette, entitled ‘Through Wylmere Woods’. It’s part of the anthology The End of the Road, published by Solaris Books, and is a prequel to Sophia’s previous novelette ‘MailerDaemon’.
End of the Road will be released in December in the UK and the US, although advance copies will be available at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton (October 31-November 2). The following post will have more details about the convention.
April 27, 2013
Commentary: Romanitas Chapter 5, ‘White and Silver’
‘That family I worked for,’ Una said carefully, ‘they sold me on because one day I realised they couldn’t make me do anything. Do you understand? I thought, they can do anything they like to me, but still those stairs or whatever won’t get cleaned, not by me, unless I decide to do it. They said, you have to, but I didn’t have to. So I decided I wouldn’t. They were so angry with me. But I was almost … pleased.’
That’s one of my favourite Una quotes from the entire series. So brave and bleak and revealing. Una’s an odd character. She’s so unbelievably closed off and introverted, and cannot bear to have a connection with most people, and yet because she lives in her own mind so much, and because her power means she lives in the minds of every person with whom she comes into contact, she’s extremely articulate about her own thoughts and feelings almost in spite of herself. She reveals so little of herself, but what scraps she does let slip give you an incredible insight into her personality and history. This is the chapter where Una and Sulien try to get to know each other after having been parted for almost a decade, and because of their separation, the reader is able to get to know them too.
The first few pages of the chapter deal with the practicalities of Una and Sulien’s existence as fugitive slaves trying to hide after a very high-profile escape. Una is practiced at blending in, but Sulien, up until his arrest, was pampered and privileged and so had more experience at feeling safe and confident in public. Both characters are coloured to a certain extent by their different experiences, and it’s interesting to see how that plays out in terms of how they approach the situation.
Una has stolen identity papers for both of them. Sulien’s is of a man much older, but Una’s powers mean she’ll be able to convince anyone looking at the documents that they are genuine. Her papers, poignantly, are those of her long-lost mother, for whom Una has nothing but contempt. Sulien is more understanding, and notes that the document shows that their mother was only 15 years old when she gave birth to him. We never find out what happened to their mother, but her sad story hovers in the background, shaping Una and Sulien in different ways.
This chapter is also the first occasion where the siblings discuss their supernatural abilities. Una already knew about Sulien’s – his power was the reason that he was sold on to another owner – but he was unaware of hers. It’s interesting that both of them find the other’s abilities rather disturbing. Una hates that Sulien healed her without her knowledge, an act she views as using her body without her consent. (As you can see from the above quote, she is especially sensitive to this particular issue, which to her is the essence of slavery.) Sulien, meanwhile, views her power as no less a violation. So on top of getting to know one another after so many years apart, they have to negotiate the additional challenges of their respective powers.
The final, heartbreaking pages of the chapter make it clear what terrible luck they both had. Una knew where Sulien’s new owners had lived, and she’d even stood at the door, but chickened out before she was able to make herself known. Sulien, for his part, had urged his owner to scour the city for Una, with no success. By a cruel twist of fate, they only found each other when Sulien was about to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit. Una bravely states that she’s glad it happened this way (‘I didn’t want a nice man to buy me and look after me!’ she says contemptuously). This is a recurring theme throughout the series. Freedom is not something that can be handed down from on high. Only slaves can take it for themselves, through their actions – because, morally, it was always theirs to begin with. It makes for a good, tense, dramatic story if two of the protagonists are fleeing for their lives, but there’s a serious, underlying ideological point there too. Una and Sulien freed themselves because living as slaves was intolerable.
In the next chapter, we’ll see how freedom is working out for them.
June 4, 2011
This is the second part of my interview with Sophia McDougall. In it she discusses her love of drawing her characters and invented world, speaks about her characters in greater detail and lets us know what she’s working on now. Be warned that there are more heavy spoilers for Savage City, so if you haven’t read it yet, proceed with caution. You can find the first part of the interview here.
6. You’re obviously quite a visual writer (by which I mean you seem to need to create visual representations of the things you write about). Could you say something about the process of creating the maps, architecture, fashions and so on of the world of Romanitas?
I don’t need to. I can stop any time I like!
But yes, I do tend to see the characters and scenes very vividly in my mind – indeed, one thing I’ve had to learn as a writer is not to try and capture everything I can see, much as it pains me to leave stuff out. I found a sketchpad recently that I’d been writing notes and rough drafts in back in the very early days of Romanitas and all the pages are covered with doodles and sketches of the characters’ faces.
I didn’t have all that much choice about doing the maps for Romanitas, at least not to begin with. The books clearly needed them – you need somewhere you can look and see that Nionia = Japan, and obviously no one in the universe of the story is going to tell you. While I was writing the book I had worked with Encarta maps of the continents, onto which I drew new borders (sometimes along geographical features like mountain ranges, sometimes straight, featureless “administrative” divisions). And there was an artist who was supposed to take these and turn them into something presentable – but it kept coming back wrong, with borders shifting thousands of miles, which would have had rather serious geopolitical effects! I mean, it’s really quite important that Nionia and Rome don’t have a boundary in Asia! So eventually I got to the “want something done, do it yourself” place. And then there was a very painful weekend with Photoshop which kept continually crashing and destroying my work, and that was when I found myself saying aloud to a computer, “If you can’t do it then say so, please don’t lie to me.” But after that I just took it for granted that there would be maps and I would make them. I wrote a little about how the process of making maps worked, and how very long it went on, here.
The pictures of the characters which I now post on my blog sometimes are rather different, though they did begin in a similar way – doodles of faces for fun, and rough “fashion designs” to help me work. Then, when Romanitas was finished, there was a period where I was waiting for notes from my editor. So I refined those rough sketches, and then refined them some more, getting more and more nuttily detailed each time. And that tended to be the pattern – finish the book, then draw after. There’s one exception – there’s an outfit worn by a character towards the end of Rome Burning which is a (spoilery) plot point in itself, and I just could not write that scene until I had a picture. I was downloading images of Japanese silks and everything.
The architecture remains mostly made of words. I drew a picture of the Palace, but I don’t like it all that much. I did do some cars, though. Oh, I should post pictures of the Roman cars! They’re fancy. And very big.
Ultimately, though, I just like drawing and messing about in Photoshop. And when I’m telling a story, I am obsessed with it – what else am I going to make pictures of?
7. Why did you decide to include supernatural/fantasy elements in your story (eg Una, Sulien and Dama’s powers)?
I wanted to access the tradition of writing the Roman supernatural. Sybilline prophecies which come true, healers, (I, Claudius has both these things) Caesar’s ghost, all that. I wanted to see how that would work in a modern context. I also wanted to give my most disenfranchised characters an advantage, “cheat” just once, on their behalf, so as not to have to employ lots of little cheats to keep them alive and fighting when they’ve got the might of the Roman Empire against them.
I have to say, if I’d started the trilogy when I was, say, thirty rather than twenty-three, I might not have included the supernatural elements. But when I said this to my editor she was all, “How dare you! The powers have to be there! If they weren’t, I would MAKE YOU PUT THEM IN!” and her first note on Savage City was “NEEDS MORE MIND READING”.
I made her re-spell it “MOAR.” And then I endeavoured to follow her instructions.
8. There are obviously big chunks of backstory that we don’t know (eg Una’s life as a slave). Do YOU know these things, and why did you choose to keep them offstage?
I … could know. But I prefer to think of it as “suspecting”. I could, if I had a gun to my head, tell you a story about Una’s past life that would fit all the hints that are dropped through the series (some of which I think are fairly blatant), I mean, yes I have that story already there, for me it’s probably what happened. But there could be other explanations for other people, and I think they’re just as valid. In a way, because we don’t know exactly what happened, because even I won’t allow myself to fully “know,” all possibilities about her past are equally true, she hasn’t just got one traumatic backstory of slavery, she has all of them, without it being overwhelming and without wallowing in misery-porn that isn’t part of the story. And I felt it was what the character herself wanted—this ruthless break with her past, even though it’s clearly shaped who she is, and I wanted the narrative itself to reflect her choice and her very considerable will-power.
9. One of the things I love about the story is how in touch we are with everyone’s emotional life (the heroes and the villains). How difficult was it to keep everyone’s interior life in your head, and which character’s headspace did you enjoy occupying the most?
Thank you. And it wasn’t difficult. It’s my favourite thing. Of course there were some characters over whom I had to make more of an effort – Sulien, for example. I love him, but I find open-hearted extroverts harder to write. It’s not only because I’m introverted myself, though that’s certainly part of it – I think characters who are naturally prone to form a lot of relationships rather than just a few, intense ones are inherently more difficult to incorporate into fiction. But not that difficult. And sometimes I worried intensely before I introduced somebody, like “oh God I have to start writing this new character and I only know a couple of things about them and they’ll be terrible” and “Oh No it’s all going to go to pieces right now”. But then, my default approach to more or less everything is “worry my head off about it” and it’s one of the pleasures of writing that it feels as much like discovery as creation. So, I fretted terribly that I didn’t know all that much about what, say, Noriko was going to be like. But as soon as I worked out how I was going to introduce her, there she was, and from then on it was quite easy.
As for who I enjoyed most – maybe it’s not what you’d expect, but writing Drusus was such fun. He’s very nearly without any principles at all – in fact I was rather appalled at how he came out even worse than I intended — and I suppose there is something liberating in occupying the mind of someone who cares almost exclusively about himself. Yet I still find it hard to pin down exactly why I liked writing him so much. There are villains who are always one step ahead of the goodies, villains we love because they’re witty and suave and get to say the unsayable — and Drusus isn’t really like that at all. He’s very manipulative and he’s not stupid, he’s a talented liar and he does have occasional insights the other characters don’t have – but he’s not smooth and unflappable, and if anything he’s trying to catch up with the heroes; he does awful things and a great deal of it comes from this terrible striving for a place of contentment that he’s constitutionally incapable of ever reaching. Wicked as he is, I do feel sorry for him. And yet he’s quite funny to me– especially in his occasional cheerful, ebullient moments. He gets so hopelessly enthusiastic when he thinks things might be going well. I love Drusus in a good mood.
I also enjoy Makaria and Jun Shen a lot. Makaria for her harrumphing, head-tossing surliness, and the Empress Jun Shen because she’s both a skilled, highly experienced politician and someone who takes great glee in messing with people, (especially Noriko, who honestly is quite messable-with) just because she can. And does it all while encrusted up to the gunnels in jewels.
10. Could you say something about the role of family in the trilogy?
There’s the Imperial Family, who are of course terribly dysfunctional, yet they have quite a deep sense of connectedness, and a weird kind of loyalty even when they’re trying to murder each other. They can’t get away from each other, they can’t stop seeing themselves in each other, whether or not they want to. And there’s the curse on the whole family, which places a pressure on the relationships while at the same time keeping them together. There’s always that fear as common ground. And Marcus is introduced as part of that family while also being very isolated from it by the deaths of his parents.
At the other extreme are Una and Sulien, who are a very embattled, very close-knit, tiny family of two. And there is this gradual formation of a new family where the blood ties aren’t the only ones.
It’s an issue Sulien thinks a lot about – he becomes increasingly aware of needing connections of both kinds, to stand up against such a difficult world.
11. In some ways, the series is a reflection on the nature of power. Would you say a little bit more about this?
You’re quite right, that’s just what it is, and… three rather hefty books about the nature of power are quite difficult to sum up! I suppose I was interested in the effect power has on an individual – you see that in Marcus, for whom it’s a pleasure and a burden and corrupting and ennobling all at once, and Drusus, who hangs almost his entire selfhood on getting and keeping it. But I was also interested in how characters without such ready-made sources of power could find ways to it, and what they’d do when they got it.
12. The Sibyl’s prophecy is obviously key to working out how the story will unfold. How difficult was it to write the prophecy in such a way as to keep it misleading and confusing?
I suppose it helped to write it in that rather impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style: much as I’ve loved stately rhymed prophecies in a lot of other books, (like I, Claudius or The Dark is Rising) I wanted it to sound like something someone in a trance might actually say. So it’s not that obvious where the emphases are – she talks about the future and the recent past in much the same way, for example. Otherwise I guess it’s less about the prophecy than about the plot – try to write something surprising, and then people’s expectations will stay locked to the patterns set by other stories, even with a prophecy there predicting what’ll happen. But then, you can’t let it matter too much – you also have to trust that you can write something that’s still gripping even if someone does figure out what’s going to happen. If you don’t trust yourself to do that you’ll start trying to deceive the reader for deception’s sake and that doesn’t produce good books. Actually, I really thought that everyone would probably guess where the story was going – but so far it seems I was wrong.
13. What’s next for you?
For now I’m writing a sci-fi novel for children. It’s pretty quirky and light compared to Romanitas, but you can’t entirely escape the kind of writer you are, so it does feature the line “I think that’s actually a war crime” said by an eleven-year-old.
14. Is Goshu Australia? [Note that this question is asked out of purely personal interest. I myself am an Australian and wanted to know about the Australian equivalent in the world of Romanitas.]
Yes it is, and those are two Australian Aborigines we briefly see working as Nionian secret agents near the end of Savage City.
15. The Sibyl’s prophecy (and the end of Savage City) heavily implies that Drusus will be the last Roman Emperor. Is this true, and will the Empire dissolve?
Hmm. I think it’s practically impossible that the Roman Empire will remain unchanged, and I think it’s clear that certain of the characters who are left standing at the end will play a significant role in whatever happens, but there are several possible futures. As with the “what happened in the backstory”, I think this is more a question for the reader than the writer.
June 3, 2011
Sophia McDougall was kind enough to answer some questions for Longvision. This is the first half of the interview. The second will appear later on in the weekend. In this first section, she talks about the process of creating the alternative world in the Romanitas trilogy, as well as some of her narrative, thematic and characterisation choices. It’s got some fairly minor spoilers for Savage City and larger ones for the two first books, so consider yourselves warned.
1. Why Rome? (That is, why did Rome appeal as a counterfactual story?)
Because even before I started monkeying around with it, Rome was beautiful and horrible and strange and terribly familiar. Where better to set a story?
2. You created your alternate history by changing one tiny detail of Roman history. How did you decide which one, and how did you plot out how history would then unfold?
Well, for Rome, the third century was where it all started to go wrong (…hmm, there’s a Torchwood joke to be made there). But you have to go back some time before the crisis if you’re going to credibly avert it. And I wanted the divergence point to be somewhere before Constantine and the rise of Christianity anyway – a Christian Roman Empire just doesn’t feel like the same culture. So I narrowed it down to somewhere around the death of Commodus and the accession of Severus, who achieved short-term stability at the cost of shoring up longterm problems. Gibbon called him “the principal author of the decline of the Roman Empire,” so I thought, okay, if it’s good enough for Gibbon, it’s good enough for me. So then I was looking for ways to keep Severus from ending up on the throne and place someone more far-sighted there instead and amazingly, (because I can’t pretend I’d heard of Pertinax before I started to research the book) there was this perfect candidate right there who’d been Emperor for eighty-seven days before getting murdered. So I unmurdered him.
To be honest, then history unfolded the way I wanted to to get where I needed to to go, though I did start off with some of Pertinax’s attempted reforms. Spend a weekend nursing a cold and
conquering Germany some time, I recommend it.
3. Why did you choose Japan as the other superpower/empire?
I think I saw real-world Japan as being both very old and very modern, so I thought it would lend itself well to comparisons with a Roman Empire that had survived all that time. And I thought the compare-and-contrast would work well both ways. I hoped that while an alternate Japan would be different enough from Rome to keep the world from feeling homogenous, there are similarities enough between Roman and Japanese history (and Japanese and British culture, come to that) that there would also be interesting moments of recognition, for characters on both sides and for the reader. And through Romanitas we get used to living vicariously in the modern Roman Empire – we only see it from the point of view of people who for good or ill, it’s normal. Through the Japanese characters’ eyes, we get to see it as strange.
And it was simply an ancient imperialist power with a formidable military tradition, that was far enough away from Rome that it was unlikely to have been absorbed even by a greatly expanded Roman Empire.
4. Rome Burning deals with two powers trying desperately to avoid war. I couldn’t help seeing parallels with Iraq, or possibly the Cold War. How influenced were you by contemporary politics?
I think most writers of alternate worlds are reluctant to commit themselves to such specific parallels, and I’m no different. Applicability rather than allegory, and all that. I hope the conflict in the trilogy is both specific to that world while echoing a number of real and potential conflicts in this one. Still, I don’t want to be too coy either. There’s a long arms race between two largely symmetrical power blocs, so from an external perspective I think the comparison with the Cold War is closer – and yes, I researched that period, I watched Thirteen Days, and so on. And I also think anyone who reads the novels would be massively unsurprised to learn that I planned them during the sabre-rattling period of 2002, just after the end of the “end of history” and then wrote them during the course of the Iraq War. Some of the way the international conversation about war goes – inevitably that was shaped by the times we’ve lived through. I don’t think it would be possible for anyone writing about war at this particular time not to do that. There’s a point in Rome Burning where Sulien overhears an older man in a bar saying “I think this generation needs a war.” You used to hear things like that. It seems a long time ago now.
But to come back to where I started, sometimes I deliberately wrote away from parallels with the real world as it was at that moment, so as to maintain the “alternate” in the “history”.
5. You have an extremely diverse cast of characters, but this never feels like tokenism. How conscious were you of doing this, and do you think it’s important that authors are aware of issues of representation?
I was very conscious of it. It’s sometimes said, “but self-consciousness is inimical to creativity!” and yes, that is somewhat true; a time comes to stop scrutinising the implications of every idea you have and just immerse yourself in the story and the characters. But I think that time is not at the very beginning when you’re working out what your cast is going to look like. If you want a future where fiction doesn’t routinely perpetuate harmful stereotypes and ignore everyone except the white people, (especially if you are white yourself) you probably cannot assume your unexamined muse and your good intentions are going to do all the work for you.
All that said, I feel it’s hard to answer this question without sounding self-congratulatory:– there have been, as there should be, a lot of conversations on and offline about representation. In that context, I don’t want to jump in and say, “why yes, this is how I went about getting this right.” After all, the first book does mostly focus on three white kids. There were reasons why I felt those three had to be white, and there are a number of important, point-of-view characters characters who are P.O.C, (Varius, Delir, Lal, Ziye) but still, the names you’ll probably use when summarising the plot of Romanitas belong to white people. However, through Rome Burning and Savage City, more characters come in and existing ones become more prominent, the focus expands beyond Europe, and I think by the end the ranks of the good guys are only about 20 per cent white. And it mattered to me that it ended up that way – as well as all the other reasons, this is a novel about a whole world, with a very cosmopolitan city at its heart. To populate the narrative with characters from a very narrow range of backgrounds just wouldn’t have made any sense.
I realise I’ve been answering this question mostly in terms of race but of course there are issues of gender and sexuality too. This was a long project, and my thinking on all these topics evolved through it. For example, there’s a character who’s revealed to be gay in the final book. I always knew that character was gay, but in the early days I was going to do a bit of a Dumbledore and just know the character’s sexuality in my own head and not mention it in the text. I can’t remember at what point I thought, wait, that’s stupid. And there’s a particular conversation between two women in Savage City which I planned from the very beginning and which is utterly crucial to that book. But it became increasingly important to me to show women having complicated and interesting relationships with each other.
May 11, 2011
I’ve got my review copy of Savage City in my hands. I’ve just finished rereading Rome Burning so as to have the series’ plot fresh in my mind. Before I plunge into the final book in the trilogy, though, I thought I’d pause to make a few predictions. They’re probably all wrong. This post will not be particularly coherent because, honestly, Rome Burning is so emotionally raw (oh, my poor Una, how sad you are) and ends on such a cliffhanger that I’m drained and unable to think clearly.
This post will contain spoilers for the first two books.
1. So, we’ve been left with a cliffhanger in which just about everyone could possibly be dead. I am willing McDougall not to have killed off Marcus, because if he and Una don’t get a happy ending, I may turn into a complete wreck. However, It is entirely possible he’s just been killed in Dama’s attack on the Colosseum. If he hasn’t, however,
2. Drusus may use the possibility of Marcus’ death to take over control. Either Marcus is dead, and the Sibyl’s prophecy make him Emperor of Rome (‘there’s glass on the ground’), or Marcus can be got out of the way/goes missing and Drusus uses the confusion to claim power. However,
3. As we saw in Rome Burning, Salvius was ultimately disgusted with Drusus and was unwilling to continue throwing the might of the army behind Drusus’ scheming. With both the Novians out of the way, Salvius himself might make a play for power. Or there could be some sordid civil war between the three of them. However,
3. My feeling is that McDougall wants to get us further in her imagined world in this book. The first book was so tightly-focused on Marcus, Una and Sulien, and the second stepped out into Sina and the dramas of Roman-Nionian politics. I feel sure that in the third book some of the action will take place outside Rome, possibly in Terranova/Tokogane, or in Africa. (And I’m still holding out to know what an Australia under Nionian control would look like!)
4. I am positive that Dama is alive and will play a major role in whatever unfolds. What I’m less certain about is whether the series will end on a happy note, with slavery abolished, Marcus in control of a (much less dictatorial) Rome and tensions between Nionia and Rome diffused. My money is on a bittersweet ending, possibly a diminished or destroyed Roman Empire, and a solution to the Marcus-Una-Noriko situation that satisfies no one. (This is of course if Marcus and Noriko are still alive.)
5. Someone major is going to have to die. I feel so awful saying this, but if it’s Marcus, Una or Sulien, I won’t be able to bear it. I love the three of them so much. If McDougall wrote a more conventional story, my money would be on either Varius or Delir, but I’m pretty sure this won’t be the case. I doubt that Noriko will die simply to resolve the situation with Marcus and Una (that’s lazy writing), and I don’t even think Drusus will die, because that will be too easy. Faustus, though, is a dead man.
6. To reiterate, PLEASE DON’T LET UNA DIE! AND PLEASE LET HER BE HAPPY!
7. Uh, this is a crazy, cracky theory, but is Una pregnant? I’m thinking both of the Sibyl’s prophecy (‘the newest branch of the Novian stem’) and of the parallels between her and the regent of Sina, Jun Shen (who got power through her son, being only a concubine herself).