Please welcome Alyc Helms
to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge
Interviews. The Dragons of Heaven
is published on June 30th (North American print) by Angry Robot Books and is already available in digital format.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing? How does having a background in Anthropology affect (or not) your writing?
Alyc: Hello to all and sundry.
I could go with the old standard, which is that I've been writing for as long as I can remember. That's true after a fashion. My dad has a book I handmade when I was nine that has a few illustrated short stories, some very-dark-for-a-nine-year-old poetry, and some transcribed family folklore. I continued to noodle with writing throughout my teens and twenties, and I even sent a few short stories out. I just moved to a new home, and while I was unpacking I found a small stack of rejection letters from Shawna McCarthy at Realms of Fantasy from back in the *cough* 90s *cough*.
But the truth is that I didn't really get serious about writing – especially finishing things I'd started, which is my benchmark for 'serious' – until I was in graduate school. Writing fiction became my way of keeping sane when my coursework and dissertation research became too much to handle. With my fiction, I could have fun. Nobody cared if I was wrong. Nobody was judging me. I could be as ridiculous as I wanted to be.
I could also use all the things I'd learned about cultural structures, about representation and identity, about politics and economics and activism, to ground my writing. I sometimes joke that I really just write critical theory fanfic.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Alyc: I started out a pure pantser, and for a long time I thought I was more of a pantser than I probably actually am because I like structures. I love structures. I'm a big fan of using ritual and structures to trick myself into doing work that I'd rather avoid. And because of my background in folklore (and anthropology), I've got a pretty good grasp of how we structure stories. I tend to determine my structure early on in my drafting process (in terms of acts and beats and rising/falling action), and then I refine my upcoming framework and leave the further-off stuff fuzzy until I get closer to it. So in that way, I'm definitely a plotter.
With The Dragons of Heaven, I had written several self-contained story chunks before I decided to turn it into something novel-shaped, but in doing that, I had to figure out a shape for the novel. That birthed the palimpsest-like Now-and-Then structure that goes a good deal beyond your typical flashbacks. I wanted the 'Then' sections to inform and give added meaning and depth to the 'Now' sections, so that when readers meet a major character in a 'Now' section, they know why the character is important to Missy and the story because they just saw the same character in a 'Then' section. It wasn't something I'd often seen done in popular fiction, and I knew it'd be a weird structure for some readers and potentially a hard sell to publishers, but I thought it offered some interesting storytelling opportunities. And now I can point to the television version of The Arrow (which I love like whoa) to show that it's not as weird a device as all that.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Alyc: Butt-in-chair, because it pervades every aspect of the process. Need to write a first draft? You gotta get butt-in-chair. Research? Revisions? Butt-in-chair. Querying, marketing, all the business aspects also require you to show up and do the work. I know so many people who are super smart, who have fantastic ideas that I'd love to read, and who write beautiful or hilarious or profound snippets of prose. But none of that matters if you're not sitting down, finding the time, doing the work, getting it wrong, working toward making it right.
This is a challenge for me because (like many writers), I have what I call page-fear. Getting started is the hardest hurdle to get over because writers have excellent imaginations, and we're very good at turning them against ourselves. The game of 'what if?' becomes 'What if I get it wrong? What if it sucks? What if I'm not the right person to tell this story?' There's no right answer, so every word is a leap of faith. You have to be willing to be wrong. Writing is an alchemical process. A great idea transmutes into crap the moment it hits the page, and then you have to putrefy and purify it until it becomes gold. And that won't happen if you don't get butt-in-chair.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Alyc: I grew up reading Katherine Kurtz, Mercedes Lackey, Melanie Rawn, and (of course) Anne McCaffery. I was dragon-obsessed as only a girl weaned on McCaffery could be, and there were never enough non-McCaffery dragon books to satisfy me.
More recently, I've gobbled up everything Robin Hobb is willing to give me. The Fool is one of my favorite fictional characters for the way he skewers gender assumptions. Naomi Novak and Temeraire are up there, too. Marie Brennan is a good friend, but she's also one of my favorite authors, and I love her naturalist take on dragons. It makes me feel like I'm back in field school.
For The Dragons of Heaven, however, I had to wander outside of fantasy fiction for my inspiration. I drew from Chinese folklore and legends (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin/Outlaws of the Marsh were brilliant for this). I also drew inspiration from pulp and wuxia in other media: Indiana Jones, The Mummy movies, The Shadow (radio show), Big Trouble in Little China, K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces. Bunraku. I read literary pulp to get a good grounding in it, but it didn't quite have what I was looking for. Filmic pulp adventure/wuxia was the vibe I wanted.
TQ: Describe The Dragons of Heaven in 140 characters or less.
Alyc: Oh man. You guys are mean with these questions. Okay, I just yoinked my unsuccessful #PitMad entry from two years ago:
Pulp and wuxia collide when Missy Masters faces off against an ancient dragon to save China and get the guy.
TQ: Tell us something about The Dragons of Heaven that is not found in the book description.
Alyc: I'm a sucker for complicated, adult romances. Also, consent is sexy.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Dragons of Heaven? How would you describe into which genre(s) The Dragons of Heaven fit(s)? Having asked that, do you think that genre classifications are useful?
Dragons started as a side-adventure fic for a character I was playing in a tabletop game, and it lives in the intersection between pulp adventure and wuxia. About the time I hit 40k words, I realized I had the longest thing I’d ever written, the seed of a novel, and I still wasn’t bored. Of course, it was a character fic. It wasn’t novel-shaped at all. Missy was unfocused as a character, and the story was based in a world owned by a large corporate gaming company. I spent the next several years carving down, building up, reshaping, rewriting. The current iteration contains less than 10% of the original character fic.
Neither pulp adventure nor wuxia are what you would call well-known genre categories, especially in prose fiction. I keep expecting them to be better-known, but the consistently confused looks I get when I call Dragons a pulp adventure/wuxia mash-up indicate that I am mistaken in my expectations. I have three frivolous goals with Dragons: a) to bring back fedoras and tailored suits for men and women, b) to encourage demand for more cart-delivered dim sum restaurants, and c) to encourage more demand for pulp adventure wuxia, preferably including Eastern dragons.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Dragons of Heaven?
Alyc: I have an outdated and incomplete bibliography on my website that covers some of my research materials, but it only covers the things I read specifically for Dragons. It doesn't cover the years I spent studying world folklores, anthropology, representation and identity politics, etc.
Some of the most valuable texts are a little hard to come by (especially now that I don't have access to a university library ::sobs::). I've already mentioned The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin, which is a little like mainlining Aurthurian mythology and all the works of Shakespeare before writing a Western fantasy. Wasserstrom was my main source for contemporary Chinese history. Sheridan Prasso's The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient was a great starting point for considering problematic tropes and issues in representation. Booth's The Dragon Syndicates and Huston's Tongs, Gangs, and Triads formed my hopefully-a-little-more-nuanced portrayal of the Triads' role in Chinese diaspora communities. And I can't shower enough love on Kang's The Cult of the Fox, which is an obscure monograph about household fox worship in southern China, and why I decided my fox spirits would be called huxian rather than the more derogatory huli-jing.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Alyc: Easiest was Missy, definitely. If I've been away from her for a while then it can be a bit of work to get back into her voice, but once I'm in it, I'm in it. She says the things I wish I was quick enough to come up with on the fly.
Hardest was the dragons because I had to balance giving them the gravitas they deserved with making them personable to the reading audience. In addition, there are nine of them (though some get more screen time than others), each with their own concerns, personalities, and agendas, which meant that in addition to differentiating them from each other so readers didn't get confused, I had to do a lot of work figuring out their histories and relationships with each other, not just with Missy.
TQ: Which question about The Dragons of Heaven do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Alyc: Where can I go to get proper, cart-delivered dim-sum?
Sadly, my favorite cart-delivered dim-sum isn't in San Francisco at all. It's in Los Angeles. My go-to dim sum when I lived in L.A. was The Palace Seafood & Dim Sum on Wilshire on the Westside (I expect to get lots of hate-mail for this from San Gabriel Valley purists). For special occasions, though, we'd haul over to Chinatown to The Empress Pavilion. I understand The Empress Pavilion closed for a while and was recently re-opened under new ownership, so I can't say if it's as great as it used to be.
I've yet to find the right combination of carts, cost, and quality for dim sum in San Francisco, but this probably just means I need to go out for dim sum more often.
I'd love for readers to leave suggestions for good dim sum in the comments so I can try it if I ever visit wherever they are!
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from The Dragons of Heaven.
"Idealism is a series of compromises waiting to happen."
TQ: What's next?
Alyc: I'm deep in the weeds on writing The Conclave of Shadow, the sequel to Dragons. In it, Mr. Mystic teams up with Professor Abigail Trent, aka The Antiquarian. My original pitch on this one was 'Thelma and Louise take on 1,001 Nights.' It's high on adventures and escapades, but I do get to jump around on my soapbox for a bit regarding archaeological ethics, looting, and repatriation. Sorry Indiana Jones. That artifact may 'belong in a museum,' but without decent provenance, it's not much use to anyone!
I just turned in some freelance game writing for the Dragon Age tabletop RPG, and I'm putting final touches on the manuscript for an Italianate secondary-world fantasy full of politics and poisoners, courtiers and courtesans, rapiers and repartee. My elevator pitch for that one is 'Game of Thrones meets Queer as Folk,' though in truth, it owes a bit more to Dumas than to Martin.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Alyc: Thank you for having me!
The Dragons of Heaven
Dragons of Heaven 1
Angry Robot Books, June 30, 2015 (North America Print)
June 2, 2015 (eBook)
June 4, 2015 (UK Print)
Mass Market Paperback and eBook, 512 pages
Would you deal with the devil to save the world?
Street magician Missy Masters inherited more than the usual genetic cocktail from her estranged grandfather – she also got his preternatural control of shadow and his legacy as the vigilante hero, Mr Mystic. Problem is, being a pulp hero takes more than a good fedora and a knack for witty banter, and Missy lacks the one thing Mr. Mystic had: experience. Determined to live up to her birthright, Missy journeys to China to seek the aid of Lung Huang, the ancient master who once guided her grandfather.
Lung Huang isn’t quite as ancient as Missy expected, and she finds herself embroiled in the politics of Lung Huang and his siblings, the nine dragon-guardians of creation. When Lung Di, Lung Huang’s brother and mortal enemy, raises a magical barrier that cuts off China from the rest of the world, it falls to the new Mr Mystic to prove herself by taking down the barrier. But is it too great a task for a lone adventure hero?
File Under: Fantasy [ Sins of the Grandfather / Missy and Master / Geek Fu / Little Trouble in Big China ]
Alyc Helms fled her doctoral program in anthropology and folklore when she realized she preferred fiction to academic writing. She dabbles in corsetry and costuming, dances at Renaissance and Dickens fairs, gets her dander up about social justice issues, and games in all forms of media. She sometimes refers to her work as “critical theory fanfic,” which is a fancy way to say that she is obsessed with liminality, gender identity, and foxes.
She’s a freelance game writer and a graduate of Clarion West, and her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction
, Crossed Genres
, to name a few. Her first novel, The Dragons of Heaven
, will be published by Angry Robot Books in June 2015.
You can find Alyc online at http://www.alychelms.com
and follow her @alychelms on Twitter