The Muse of Research: Interview with Aliette de Bodard

In the last few years, Aliette de Bodard has become one of my favorite science fiction and fantasy writers. Her settings are impeccably realized, from an AU Aztec Empire where the magic works as advertised (the Obsidian and Blood detective trilogy, soon to be re-released) to a Vietnamese space empire where AIs are respected elders (On a Red Station, Drifting, reviewed here). Her most recent world-building tour de force is The House of Shattered Wings, set in a post-apocalyptic magical Belle Époque Paris where fallen angels are both powers and prey.

All of these fictional worlds come to life as a result of wide-ranging research. Not coincidentally, de Bodard is also an accomplished essayist and commentator on topics as various as the political mechanism of colonialism, the world-wide diversity of story forms, tokenism in literary history, and alternate models for science-fiction and fantasy in a world that encompasses the entire globe.

Both as reader and writer I found her thoughts on the Muse of Research both fascinating and immediately useful. I hope that my readers will as well.

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Talk about your nonfictional obsessions! (could be academic training, stuff you like to read about, topics that pique your curiosity).

I’m a big nonfiction reader–I tend to be very curious and to accumulate books on things that catch my fancy even outside of writerly research. I admit to a fondness for history and science, and particularly history and science of cooking, which means I own a bunch heavy books on why bread rises and how we got there in the first place! (I will also quite happily devour anything related to folklore and mythology, though I admit that’s borderline nonfiction).

How do they find their way into your fiction?

Meals are pretty important in my fiction, so all that reading up on how to prepare them has paid off! I use food as a cultural signifier, an indication of the state of the world (who can afford what food and what foods are known/unknown/commonly consumed), a way to group people in the same room (meals are the first thing that come to mind for many people when you say this, but actually I find the act of preparing the food a more interesting thing to look into–I set a lot of scenes from my latest novel, The House of Shattered Wings, in a kitchen, and bread-making was an essential component of creating a bond between two characters).

Any story inspired by something interesting (nonfictonal) that you learned?

All the time! I generally put together stories by smashing together two or more disparate ideas: a lot of the time both come from research, or else I’d be running in closed circles. Most recently, I wrote, “Crossing the Midday Gate” (for Athena Andreadis’s To Shape the Dark) was directly inspired by 19th Century medicine and the race to develop vaccines, in particular with the life of Waldemar Haffkine (who discovered the vaccine against cholera and was later dismissed following a scandal in the vaccination campaigns he ran in India). I learnt a lot about plagues and epidemics, as well as medical research and the shortcuts one is tempted to make; and then applied that to an intergalactic plague that struck both humans and mindships.

What’s the interplay, for you, between project-specific research and writing?

It depends how you define “project-specific”? I tend to make a difference between: a. the stuff I read purely for pleasure, b. the stuff I read before starting on a particular book, which is a lot of groundwork, brainstorming and idea generations more than it is project-specific (and what I don’t use in a given book will often get recycled elsewhere), and c. the fine-tuning I do when actually writing a book or a story, for instance when a scene requires me to, say, know how a particular planet orbits its sun and how scientists would go about studying it.

A nonfictional detail that saved your story/characters/setting from being boring/stereotypical or otherwise not up to your artistic standards?

When I wrote The House of Shattered Wings, I was all set to do a “classic” Gothic 19th Century novel (except with added magic and Fallen angels): mostly everyone was French, and I hadn’t really given conscious thought to diversity. I then read an article on Vietnamese immigrants during WWI and WWII, which was a salutary reminder that there had been POCs everywhere, even in 19th Century France–and that there was no reason why my setting couldn’t have some of these, too!

What kind of nonfictional info are you addicted to?

Anything that catches my fancy!

What new topics are on your horizon for further reading?

Currently I’m doing a lot of work for the follow-up to The House of Shattered Wings, The House of Binding Thorns: I’m reading a lot on the history of immigrant communities and their ties with local communities (and in particular on the history of Vietnamese people in France and French people in Vietnam, though both are not easy to find documentation on). I’m also reading up on the history and practice of medicine in France, and on the practice of Chinese/Vietnamese traditional medicine, as I’m intending to have a main character who is a doctor. Also, as usual for the series, on the history of Paris and the French administrative system, and on nifty hidden spots in famous monuments, which make for great set-pieces!

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