Today Fantasy Literature welcomes Caighlan Smith, whose short fiction has been featured at Tor.com and whose full-length novel, Children of Icarus (which I reviewed here), is now available! Ms. Smith took some time to chat with me about malleable myths, academia, and ridiculously tasty drinks. And we’ve got a copy of Children of Icarus to give away to one lucky commenter with a U.S.-based mailing address!
Jana Nyman: Congratulations on your recent graduation from university! Was it hard to balance writing an internationally-published novel against your studies, or are you the type of person who revels in that kind of pressure? How did you manage the stress?
Caighlan Smith: Thank you! A part of me still can’t believe I’ve graduated. If not for the mortar board — currently gracing the top of my household gnome — I’d still think myself an undergrad. Alas, pressure and I do not revel in each other. To me, pressure’s like that annoying friend of a best friend. You’re not really friends with pressure, but pressure’s around all the time and your best friend likes pressure, so you have to put up with it.
Oh, I really like that analogy!
Luckily, my editor and publishers have been amazing to work with, and my profs were great, so even though it was stressful at times I managed to fit writing work and academic work snugly together. Plus I’m thrilled with how Children of Icarus turned out, and I completed my degree with no hitches. I’ll happily hang out with pressure a bit for results like that.
So long as pressure behaves itself in social situations, right?
The myth of Icarus and Daedalus is a familiar one, and I’m curious as to what inspired you to shift Icarus to an angel and Daedalus to Daedala, his savior and protector. How did you come to blend the re-working of that myth with the story of a walled city, the labyrinth surrounding it, and the children who are sent into that labyrinth every year?
I’ve always been a huge Greek mythology fan, but after studying Classics at university I’ve come to appreciate the myths in a whole new light. They’re all so malleable. Every ancient Greek source tells the same myth in a different way, sometimes only slightly, sometimes drastically. I absolutely adore that, the idea of no one version of a myth being the “real” version. So I wanted to try my own, modernized version of a pretty well-known myth. Icarus seemed the go-to myth, given that Daedalus built the labyrinth in ancient Greek mythology. I had the setting — and the monsters within — before I had the actual story, so the myth just sort of fell nicely into place. Since I was changing stuff up anyway, I decided to switch Daedalus from male to female, because that is my one complaint with ancient Greek mythology; given the time period, there aren’t exactly a plethora of powerful female characters in the myths (goddesses excluded). There’s other reasons for the change, but they might be spoilery, so for now I’ll leave it there.
When you began work on the novel, did you plan on featuring a nameless narrator who tries on different identities as events unfold, or was that something which emerged as you wrote? And while you were writing, did you have a name in mind for her, even though it isn’t used in the book?
Actually, when I first had the idea for the novel — back in middle school — she did have a name, and that name is featured in the book, but it isn’t hers. When I resurrected the idea and really got to know my protagonist, I realized the name didn’t belong to her. So yes, I did intend to feature a nameless protagonist when I first started writing, but I didn’t figure out why I felt she had to be nameless until the rest of the plot started to unfold. The different identities weren’t planned at all, which made them all the more exciting to write when they did happen. Despite the protagonist’s name not being featured in the story, there is something I called her for the duration, which might appear in book two. Aside from that nickname, I do know her real name, but I’ve only told one other person.
That’s pretty sneaky!
The narrator is quite resistant to participating in her new life early in the text, and understandably so, considering the circumstances. Was it difficult for you to write the scenes in which she observes people without engaging them? And which scene was the most rewarding for you to put together?
I wouldn’t say it was difficult to write the observation scenes, it was just very weird. On the one hand, I was so deep inside her head that at that point it felt very natural for her to hold back, to observe, because that’s the kind of character she was at that point. But as a writer and reader, used to the protagonist usually being directly involved in any given situation, it felt like I was breaking some kind of writing covenant; “one doth not mute thine protagonist, whether or not thine protagonist actually hath anything to sayeth.” As for most rewarding scene, that’s pretty tough. Probably something in the second half of the book, since that took way more editing than the first half, and I’m very pleased with how it came out.
There are so many tantalizingly unanswered questions at the end of Children of Icarus! Do you think you’ll expand it into a duology, or perhaps a series, at some point in the future?
Oh, definitely! The funny thing is, when I first started writing Children of Icarus (before it even had a title) I wasn’t intending to write a book one, or even a standalone. I just knew I had the story of this girl to tell, and it would take as long as it needed to take. Luckily, I got to a point in the story where I was like “Hey, this is a pretty natural end for a first book in a series” but then I kept writing past that point. So I’d already started the second book by the time I polished COI and found a publisher. And as I’m writing this, that second book is with my editor. We start editing soon and I can’t wait to dive back into the story!
That’s great news, and I’m looking forward to reading what comes next!
You’ve traveled to Norway, Iceland, Ireland, and so many other places. Can you talk a little about your work with Teachers Action for Girls in Uganda? How have the places you’ve seen and people you’ve met informed you as an author? Are there any experiences you’ve wanted to incorporate into your fiction?
Yeah, I’ve traveled a lot! Mostly as a kid, thanks to my mom’s work — forever grateful to you mom, and more-so by the day! I’m so glad I was able to work with Teachers Action for Girls (TAG). They’re an amazing organization, and they’ve helped a lot of people. I got involved with them in middle school and then, a couple of years ago, after my first novel publication (Hallow Hour), I had the privilege of reading live via Skype to a group of school girls in Uganda, on International Day of the Girl Child. The girls were absolutely amazing and I’m so honored to have gotten the chance to meet them and talk to them.
That does sound amazing.
As for how my travels and experiences have informed me as an author, I think the traveling had a big hand in forming how I interpret the world. There’s just so much out there, you know? Understanding that — and seeing it firsthand — at a young age impressed into me that what I see in my home-life, on a day-to-day basis, isn’t even 1%, or 0.001% of all there is in the world. It makes the idea of “infinite possibilities” feel tangible, and so makes it feel like infinite story ideas, infinite worlds and characters, are just as tangible.
As for whether or not I work real life experiences into my stories, my philosophy has always been that I have enough stories in my head, so I don’t need to tell the stories I experience in real life. Having said that, I’m sure on a subconscious level all of my experiences influence my writing, but I can’t point to a scene or character and say “that came from real life” because in a way it all does, yet none of it does.
What’s next in store for you? Are you already working on your next writing project, or do you have another goal in mind?
Yes to the writing project, and yes to another goal! This year coming I’ll be studying Fantasy Literature at the University of Glasgow, for my Master’s Degree. I can’t tell you how pumped I am for this program. It’s perfect for me! And it only started up last year, so the timing is also perfect. Thank you serendipity!
That is so cool!
After my Master’s, I intend to pursue a PhD, but my academic goals will in no way keep me from my writing. Throughout my BA, I’ve learned how to balance the two, and I’m dedicated enough to both goals to fight for them. Along with working on the sequel to Children of Icarus, I’ve been working on some short stories with Tor.com (one of which, “The Weather”, is already out). Aside from that, I’ve been toying around with a few other novel ideas and a couple of semi-polished manuscripts, so who knows where those will lead!
Finally, I’d like to ask if you have a favorite drink — either relating to your creative process (as a relaxation aid or a motivator while writing, for example) or something involved with your work. Are there any beverages which you particularly enjoyed while working on Children of Icarus, or which you drank to celebrate its publication?
To be honest I usually forget to drink while I’m writing. I just sit down and go at the story and then I’ll pop back to the real world a while later and be like “Huh, I’m so thirsty, why is that?” and it’s because I’ve been writing for five hours without hydrating myself. I’m actually glad you asked this question, because it’s forced me to analyze my drinking habits while writing, and now I have a new life goal: do not dehydrate self while writing. My celebration drink though? A Green Tea Frappuccino! A friend introduced them to me five years ago and they are now my favorite. It’s like someone liquefied pure magic, put it on ice for a while, and then whipped it up in a silky smooth beverage that is the friendliest shade of green.
I’ve had those, and they are deliciousness in a plastic cup. I also really like the Caramel Waffle Cone Frappuccino, since I’m a sucker for anything with caramel in it.
Thank you so much for your time, Ms. Smith! It was great to talk with you!
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a copy of Children of Icarus. U.S.-based addresses only, please. We’ve also got another chance to win this book. You can put your name in on both posts.