Kate Elliott is my contemporary by age and my elder by career. Over the last decades, she’s been steadily producing a wide-ranging body of work in science fiction and fantasy, with brilliantly realized settings from the deep past to the far future, from steampunk worlds with magic and dinosaurs (the Spiritwalker trilogy) to a variety of space-opera futures. I reviewed a retrospective volume of her work here.
Active on Twitter, she’s an outspoken advocate for a broader, richer, and more inclusive vision of science fiction and fantasy. If we understand the unacknowledged range of human contributions in the past, we can build much more realistic visions for the possibilities of the future.
Kate Elliott took time from a very busy schedule of writing, revising, and promoting her work to grant this interview. As reader, I’m entertained; as writer, I’m taking notes.
Talk about your nonfictional obsessions! (could be academic training, stuff you like to read about, topics that pique your curiosity)
From childhood I’ve been fascinated by mythology, cosmology, religion, and the working of the heavens. As a child I wouldn’t have analyzed it the way I do now, but I think of it as asking questions about the world. What do people believe about how the universe came to be? How do stories explain us to ourselves?
I just always wanted to know things, and I remember as a teen having a conversation with my older brother in which he insisted that our knowing the scientific explanation for what stars are was by definition more awe-inspiring than the older stories–the myths, if you will–that people used to tell to explain what they saw in the sky and why the heavens acted as they did (the precession of the equinoxes, the movement of the planets, the rising and setting of sun and moon, etc). I argued that we do not have to create a hierarchy of awe, that awe is part of the human sensation of looking at the heavens, at the world, at nature.
I toyed for a while with majoring in astronomy but decided against it. I studied music for a while, including composition, but decided against pursuing it. Anthropology and history also exert a pull on me, and I’m doing reading on geography now that I wish I had done earlier. In general I wish I had read everything. My father once warned me against becoming a dilettante because my interests seemed to spread so widely rather than deeply but in retrospect I think wide interests help me as a writer. The depth is the time and skill I put into the writing itself.
How do they find their way into your fiction?
I think my interests shine all over my writing and are probably easy to trace.
For example, in each of my series I tend to explore the role religion plays in the societies my characters move through. In some cases, as with Crown of Stars, religion is literally part of the plot in that changes within the dominant religion is one of the major conflicts the story deals with. In others, such as the Spiritwalker Trilogy, religion is part of the cultural backdrop through which the characters move, as for example the narrator Cat Barahal often calls on or refers to or swears by the goddess Tanit. In the Crossroads Trilogy, the religion of the Hundred forms part of the structure of daily life and order, and in Black Wolves, which takes place decades after Crossroads, the intrusion of a foreign religion creates disruption in the indigenous traditions of the land.
The magic system in Crown of Stars is clearly influenced by my love for the history of astronomy and the workings of the heavens, with power literally drawn down from the stars by magicians who have studied for years to understand the movement of the stars and planets and how the weave and manipulate them.
The Jaran books display my interest in the Silk Road histories because they themselves take place in a continental setting with steppe nomad tribes, conquest, and trade routes.
Any story inspired by something interesting (nonfictonal) that you learned?
For the last five years my spouse has been co-director of an archaeological project in the Delta region of Egypt. The site, Tell Timai, is a Greco-Roman era site, and as I proofread some of his abstracts and articles on the dig I became interested in what a dynamic and interesting period it is, especially in the context of the greater Hellenistic period of that time across the Mediterranean and Near East.
As I began reading just for my own interest I realized what a great template Greco-Roman Egypt could be as a setting for a fantasy story, with its conquering upper class ruling over a much larger indigenous population and the genuinely fascinating interchange between the two as both Greeks and Egyptians began to absorb bits and pieces of influence from each other. Ultimately this setting, in much transmuted form, turned into Court of Fives.
What’s the interplay, for you, between project-specific research and writing?
I usually stumble onto a detail or culture or time period that interests me and read a bit about it. Later my unconscious mind will link it up with a character and that will morph into a story idea. At some point I will decide I need to get to better know the area (which might be history, culture, religion, architecture, etc) and will do general reading to build up my base of knowledge. Once I start writing, I will look for and research increasingly specific topics.
For example, while writing the Spiritwalker books I read E.C. Pielou’s After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America to familiarize myself with the process of how and at what speed vegetation re-establishes itself as ice sheets retreat.
I also read Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s Aspects of African Civilization (Person, Culture, Religion), translated from the French by Susan B. Hunt, which includes chapters on “Notes on the Notion of Person in the Fulani and Bambara Traditions” and “Remarks on Culture: Wisdom and the Linguistic Question in Black Africa.” This latter chapter includes the remark (which I believe is echoed in the Spiritwalker universe) “At this point it is useful to explain that in Africa, the side of things that is visible and apparent always corresponds to an invisible and hidden aspect which is like its source or principle.”
As I worked on the Jaran books I read some general books on the Mongols and slowly moved on into more specialized articles like Denis Sinor’s “Horse and Pasture in Inner Asian History,” published in Oriens Extremis in 1972.
Research for Crossroads found me reading articles on naphtha in Aramco World, a magazine published by the Saudi Arabia Oil Company.
The key in all of this is that I am genuinely curious about and engrossed by these details. I read this stuff because it interests me, and I suppose the best way of putting it is that the things that fascinate me flow through my mind and into the story, even if only as tiny details.
A nonfictional detail that saved your story/characters/setting from being boring/stereotypical or otherwise not up to your artistic standards?
When I was reading about the Mande language and culture area, and later when I traveled in Mali for three weeks, I learned about and observed the greeting ritual that is traditional in Malian culture. One of the best of the academic articles I read was on Maninka, a chapter by Charles Bird and Timothy Shopen from Languages and Their Speakers, Winthrop Publishers, 1979, ed. by T Shopen. Besides making the point that each language is “a unique cultural artifact” and going into detail on aspects of grammar and pronunciation, the chapter discusses how language is used within the society.
The co-authors spend an entire sub-chapter discussing the highly developed and extensive forms used for greetings and leave-takings, which reflect a cultural respect for and valuing of social ties. When I visited Mali I saw this in action and made an effort to learn the basics of the interchange (I was really bad at it, and it was really great that I tried because Malians have the best sense of humor). In terms of writing Spiritwalker, introducing this aspect of greeting into the story gives the setting a distinctness that sets it apart from a more generic 19th century European landscape and also suggests a culture with respect for social ties.
What kind of nonfictional info are you addicted to?
I never stop buying books about the Silk Road, even though I have yet to read all the ones I own. I have no idea why this subject compels me but I suspect it has something to do with the dream of traveling into endlessly shifting landscapes as well as the endless fascination of a history marked by change and flux.
What new topics are on your horizon for further reading?
I have just become infatuated with the story and life of naturalist Alexander von Humboldt so I imagine I will be reading his masterwork, Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, which was a worldwide bestseller in the mid 19th century. I don’t know if Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson were directly influenced by Humboldt’s work but they are definitely his inheritors. As Cosmos is a long book written in a more formal style this will doubtless take me a year or more. One of the many exciting things about this work is that he only started working on it when he was sixty-five. There is hope for older writers!