I got Celia Friedman.
For an Authorview.
Much excitement and fangirling ensued.
Friedman has been a longtime favourite author of mine and it was a real privilege to speak to the woman herself. Like many readers, I first encountered her through The Coldfire Trilogy, a science fiction series dark enough to make George R. R. Martin look like a wimp. I picked it out from the local library on a whim, with absolutely no idea what I was in for.
Dark. Dark was what I was in for.
“SFF is all about exploring what makes us human,” explains Friedman. “The happy stuff is easy to write, and for me, boring to read. Exploring the stuff we don’t want to talk about –don’t want to admit is part of our psyche—is what the best SFF is about.”
So, vivisection of family members all the way.
Friedman is an American originally hailing from New York, but now living in Washington DC with her much beloved cats. She started out in costume design, before making the decision to write fulltime. Her first novel, In Conquest Born, was published in 1987 and nominated for two Locus awards (Best Science Fiction Novel and Best First Novel) and the John W. Campbell Award.
“It will always have a warm place in my heart,” she admits, after I ask her to pick a favourite child. “Some of the writing still makes my toes tingle; I can’t believe I did it.”
She hastily adds that the Coldfire books are pretty important to her too. “They have been the most rewarding, partly because I love the character of Gerald Tarrant as a creation, partly because fans enjoy the series so much.”
Friedman is an odd writer, in that it’s very difficult to discern whether she belongs in the sci-fi or fantasy camp. She sort of just does what she likes.
“It’s not that I amalgamate the two, so much as I don’t recognize that the need to divide them. In each book I draw from science fiction, fantasy, and horror whatever elements I need to tell a great story. Some books are more genre-specific than others, but the underlying philosophy is the same.”
I guess you could call it science fantasy. Friedman is a world-building maestro; perhaps the difficulty in discerning her genre lies in the degree to which her fantastical universes seem plausible.
“A lot of details are never seen by readers,” she says. “Sometimes I come up with details that I intend to put into my books, but more often I develop ideas to flesh out my world and make it feel real, that never are directly relevant to the plot.”
“In the Dreamwalker series there are small hominids known as “abbies” that serves as slaves. I doubt my main characters will ever find out where that name is from, or who brought them to Terra Prime, or other details of the local slave market…but I need to know all that to keep the story consistent.”
“Characters have noted that the abbies have a strange, slightly awkward gait. It’s not an important story element, but it is because they were a hominid race snatched from their home world right at the time when they were evolving upright posture. All the evolutionary adjustments that the human foot underwent to support a permanent upright gait, they were still in the middle of.”
The Dreamwalker series is Friedman’s latest offering, her first specifically for the YA market.
“I just wanted to do something different,” she says. “My earlier books had a strong teen following, but the Magister Trilogy was a very adult-style work. I thought I’d like to write something that would appeal to my younger readers, while hopefully still being interesting to the older ones.”
Although marketing to a younger demographic, Friedman just can’t resist the call of the dark side. Dreamseeker, the sequel to Dreamwalker, will be released in November. Readers should be bracing themselves for a return to familiar territory.
“The second and third volumes in the series will be a bit darker and more adult in flavour,” she admits. “More typical ‘C. S. Friedman.’”
While the first book in the series (which is actually “officially a trilogy, BTW”) focussed mainly on the character of Jesse, Dreamseeker will also follow Isaac – a young necromancer attempting to reconcile with his family, while being drawn into the twisted mysteries of the Shadow Guild. At the same time, Jesse will return to Terra Prime on a quest of her own, only to face betrayal, manipulation and murder.
The net result of all of this was that I got to paint a brooding necromancer and this made me very happy.
Speaking of sexy vampirish sorts, I wanted to know about Friedman’s characters, including everyone’s favourite – Gerald Tarrant. The antihero of all antiheros. Friedman elaborates.
“I read once that evil characters were irresistibly compelling (at least for female readers) when they had three characteristics: absolute evil, good looks, and impeccable manners,” she says. “Tarrant is seduction incarnate, unspeakable evil dressed up in such attractive trappings that you are drawn to him like a moth to a flame. You want to believe he can be redeemed. You want to be there, reading, when it happens. You hunger for that transformation.”
And you have to work pretty hard to get it. Maybe. Read the Coldfire Trilogy.
“I had a reader write to me once,” Friedman quotes, “‘Usually you read about an evil character and you think, deep inside, there must surely be a spark of humanity. Some hint of potential goodness that can be awakened, to save him. You kept expecting it with Tarrant, because that’s the genre formula. But it’s really not there. So refreshing!’”
Yeah. Refreshing. Exactly the word I would have gone for, except perhaps “arghhh!” as an expression of general frustration. But she’s right about the compelling part. Friedman consistently makes interesting character choices, from Tarrant to Kamala, the protagonist of her Magister Trilogy. Kamala initially works as a prostitute, but is not at all defined by her sexuality.
I am fairly certain of the answer, but ask the question just to be sure.
“Of course I am a feminist,” Friedman replies, “in a traditional sense, if not what is currently passing for that term. I think that’s pretty obvious from my work.”
Just a little. Having said that, the character of Kamala posed some challenges and Friedman approached the task of representing her with care.
“One of my biggest concerns with Kamala was having a character with a history of sexual abuse and prostitution develop a sexual relationship with someone,” she says.
“Having not been through those things myself, I sought out a prostitute to help me understand that aspect, who gave me tremendous insight into the dynamics of the profession. One of the most interesting things she told me is that she felt a kind of power in having a man pay her for sex. That is something I would never have assumed. We tend to think of prostitutes as powerless and abused, since that’s how modern media usually portrays them, but there were many aspects of her job which Anna found a source of strength and an expression of her own feminist spirit. Her own spirit was a major inspiration in writing Kamala.”
Moving on to the slightly cheerier topic of death.
I recall reading an interview with Friedman where one of her answers made me laugh ridiculously hard. In response to the suggestion that fictional characters had any kind of personal agency, she told the interviewer something to the effect of “if a character ever tries to do their own thing, I’ll just kill them off.” I ask whether any rebellious characters had met unfortunate ends subsequently.
“No, my characters know better than to try that,” says Friedman. “The point of that comment was, I design my characters, I don’t ‘watch them do things’. Writing is a craft. I have a story to tell. I know what my characters need to do to drive that story. There’s never a point at which they are off doing their own thing and I’m watching.” She adds, “I will note that at the panel where I first made that comment, the other six authors had all been talking about how their characters ‘took over’ the story and went places they hadn’t expected.”
Which forcibly reminds me of the comments put forth by an author of very different vampire fiction, but let’s not go there. I don’t need an army of teenage girls and their moms hunting me down.
To round things up, here are some quick-fire questions.
Do you own a pair of writing pants?
“I have to wear pants while writing?”
Describe yourself in three words, all starting with the letter C.
“Creative, Crazy, and Catloving.”
Favourite book cover at the moment?
“It will always be Black Sun Rising for Michael Whelan’s amazing depiction of the fae.”
What can the world expect from you next (post Dreamseeker)?
“A sci-fi novel set in the universe of This Alien Shore, in the time period when Earth’s people first regained the stars, only to find that the galaxy was populated with abandoned semi-human colonies that were really pissed at them.”
What are the three things most important to you?
“Family, having creative outlet, and a stable and artistically pleasing home environment. Which includes cats, of course.”
If you could occupy any of your own fictional worlds, which one and why?
“This Alien Shore offers the chance to visit various planets, and that would be fun. Otherwise, I’ll take a pass. My worlds are pretty dark places.”