Today Fantasy Literature welcomes Seth Dickinson for his second interview with us! (Woohoo!) We loved his first novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Mr. Dickinson was kind enough to talk to me about its sequel (The Monster Baru Cormorant), the complexities of world-building, and the thrill of a peaty single-malt whiskey. One randomly-chosen commenter will win a copy of The Monster Baru Cormorant from Tor Books!
Jana Nyman: Congratulations on the publication of your second novel! I know writing one book can be a stressful (but joyful) experience — writing the first follow-up has to be another thing entirely! How was writing The Monster Baru Cormorant different from The Traitor Baru Cormorant? Did the final version of this book differ from how you envisioned it as you were completing The Traitor Baru Cormorant and looking ahead to the MASQUERADE series as a whole?
Seth Dickinson: That is a very on-point question!
In Traitor I was writing towards an ending, and in Monster I was writing away from a beginning. The end of Traitor really changed Baru, and I realized pretty quickly that it wouldn’t be honest to just charge forward in Plot Mode with Baru playing politics and scheming. I had to find a way for her to confront (or, being Baru, avoid confronting until absolutely forced to) her grief, her depression and the fact that she simply cannot go on as she has; she wants to devote herself completely to her mission, and to deny herself any love or friendship, but she can’t do it. She’s not a sociopath, and she cannot live that way.
I knew that the second book needed a new operating logic. In the first book, Baru could overcome the obstacle she met through sacrifice — throwing away someone else, or a part of herself. But that logic doesn’t work any more in the second book. That’s why the first book begins with
This is the truth. You will know because it hurts, but the second book begins with If something hurts, does that make it true?
Unfortunately that’s easier said than done, because the other major change in writing the second book — and the reason it took me four years to write, instead of one — is that I was struggling with major depression. I couldn’t find a way to make a plot happen, given the depth of Baru’s suffering; either I wrote material that moved the plot forward, but felt meaningless because it didn’t grapple with Baru’s grief, or I would spend a hundred thousand words on Baru’s feelings but never get a plot going.
I threw out more than a million words of drafts — that’s about 7 novels the length of Traitor, plus a little change — before I finally found drugs that worked for me and, a little later, a plot that let me move forward. I really regret those wasted years. Depression’s an awful disease and if you’ve had it long enough it can be hard to tell it’s not normal. Talk to a doctor you trust!
My sincere sympathies, sir. I know major depression — that guy is a total jerk — so I’m very glad to hear that you’ve been able to find a treatment that works for you.
So many factors are at play in The Monster Baru Cormorant: science, myths, faith, economics, politics, language, personal/national identity, war, peace; even climate and technology have their parts to play in this global struggle. (And I get the strong feeling that readers are only seeing chips of granite rather than the entire mountain range.) How do you keep it all organized for yourself while you’re writing and planning, so as to keep individual cultures distinct despite Falcresti encroachment and influence (or lack thereof)?
Hey, thank you for reading the book before drafting these questions! That’s awesome. I don’t mean that facetiously, I really do appreciate the time and effort.
It’s … in a way it’s easy to keep track of everything, right? You just put it all down in notes for yourself. ‘These guys have horse-drawn plows, these guys have inoculations, these guys practice partible paternity.’ The hard part is teaching these details to the reader and making them give a shit.
Take flour — flour’s an incredible technology, because it can be stored dry and preserved, which allows your warships and trade fleets to extend their range. But flour’s also kind of boring. How do you teach the reader ‘oh, this evil empire dominates the seas because they’re so good at soap, citrus fruit, and flour?’ How do you make flour kind of sexy and interesting?
You’ve got to have a character who cares not just about flour but about flour’s use to an empire, and about where empires get their power. Baru cares about that because she wants to know how Falcrest took her home, and how she can steal their power. Baru’s got a really personal reason to care about flour, rigging, fiat currency, and all the rest of Falcrest’s tricks. And if you find Baru compelling (whether because you love her, or want to see her destroyed) hopefully you’ll find the things she cares about compelling too.
So the way I try to keep things organized in readers’ heads and hearts is to give them characters who care. People care about people and they learn to care about those peoples’ passions.
So if I want to say ‘it’s really shitty to grow up as a commoner in a premodern city!’, well, the powerful way to say that, the memorable way, is to give you a character like Xate Yawa and let her tell you how her father had noma and his mouth was just a hole; how she had to cut a piece out of her thigh because she picked up a flesh-eating rot from bad laundry water.
Xate Yawa’s recollections of those experiences are going to stay with me for a while. Yikes.
I found it fascinating that Baru’s “double consciousness,” which you introduced in The Traitor Baru Cormorant, takes on a very different cast and significance in The Monster Baru Cormorant. It’s especially crucial here, since she has to double down on the appearance of enacting and enforcing Incrastic policies while maneuvering herself into the best position to undermine them, and there are moments when she seems to be working against herself. Considering the literal and figurative headaches this causes Baru, how hard was it for you as the author to maintain the balance between, again, her literal and figurative mask of compliance and her inner rebellion — especially when there are instances when she doesn’t always recognize how deeply she’s been indoctrinated?
Y’know, as complex as that mask can be, I didn’t find it hard to write. And I can’t explain why! I’ve tried a lot of versions of this paragraph but I guess I just … look, inside Baru, there are the things she knows she wants, the things she doesn’t realize she wants, the things she thinks she doesn’t want but really does … and I guess whatever situation Baru’s in, I have a sense for what truths she’ll tell herself, what truths she’ll hide from herself, and how she’ll lie to herself.
Also there are the things she knows someone else wants her to want, and the things she doesn’t know someone else wants her to want, even though she wants them. And the things she knows someone else doesn’t want her to want, and the things she doesn’t know someone else doesn’t want her to want … oh, God, there’s really a lot going on in there, now that I think about it.
It is a lot!
I just have a sense of her, I guess. I know that’s not a satisfying answer! I wish I could explain it more analytically. She’s complicated, as tangled-up and twisted as the circumstances that made her.
But I know her, and I have to know her better than she knows herself, in order to show her discovering the ways in which she doesn’t know herself.
Honestly, the important thing is that you know her, because that knowledge definitely translates to the written novel for the reader to experience.
So do you hope that this questioning of dogma and pedagogy will inspire readers to examine their own lives, their own beliefs and prejudices, a little more closely?
Oh, yes, definitely! The lay psychology we develop about how our minds work is really tremendously inaccurate. We’re all deeply conditioned by our environments in ways that I think it frightens us to acknowledge.
Look at arguments. The arguments we have with each other over how to be good people. We like to think we’re all clear-eyed and rational, arguing from a coherent moral position. But really, our arguments are also about our personal pride, and about how our identities are tied up in the positions we take, and about how powerful we feel relative to those we’re arguing with, and about how many times we’ve had this arguments before, and about self-interests we don’t want to admit we’re protecting, and about our blood sugar and how well we slept last night, and so much else.
I hope that the way Baru thinks about the factors influencing her will encourage people to do that, sure. But I don’t know how much control we really have. It seems to me that in order to have any common ground we need to have a common morality too, an agreement on what’s right and what’s wrong. And it feels like we’re at a point where a lot of people take the “if our team does it, it’s okay” stance.
It’s telling that Falcresti elite, like Hesychast and Itinerant, speak of the Empire and Incrasticism as though it’s as natural and obvious as gravity, with the sense that this is how things have always been. That mindset lends authority and assumed rightness to their methods and policies, though the flashback chapters from Tau-indi’s point of view reveal much of the flaws and humanity of Hesychast and Itinerant, in particular. It’s an interesting way of questioning the legitimacy of this colonizing force. Will readers ever see a clear-ish view of how and when events unfolded to bring us to this point? Or is your focus more on how it must be stopped?
You’ll get to learn more about how Falcrest became Falcrest, definitely.
That process of implicit authority is kind of the trick with ideology, right? You don’t just say ‘this is how things should be,’ you say ‘this is how things always have been, this is Normal, and the rest has been a deviation.’ By changing perception of the past you create the illusion of determinism: things had to end up this way.
That’s how you get people who theorize that pink evolved as ‘the women’s color’ because women were gatherers and pink is the color of berries…when pink didn’t become gendered until the mid 20th century.
A lot of people pull this shit with evolution, ‘things had to end up the way they are.’ You’ll get people saying gay people don’t make evolutionary sense because they don’t have kids, or that men have more biological incentive to be promiscuous than women, without really understanding either the evolutionary science or the social constructions around these behaviors. (Both of those ‘facts’ are wrong.)
That was an inspiration for Incrasticism — the way simple, appealing ideas can become fixed in ideology. Lamarckian evolution is a big part of Incrasticism, the false belief that the way an organism acts can alter its offspring physically. That gives them the scientific rationalization for campaigns of mass sterilization — ‘We can’t let the criminals breed, they’ll make their kids into criminals too! All the pickpockets will have long-fingered sneaky kids!’
And, of course, in real life sterilization has been used exactly the same way, as a weapon against the disadvantaged.
Sure. Getting to decide who counts as human and who doesn’t is a huge weapon.
Can you give readers any spoiler-free hints as to what they might expect to see in the next book?
- A single character will experience four separate transorbital surgeries (that’s surgical access to the meninges and brain through the bone behind the eyeball).
- Baru will change her name in a very important way, without changing it at all.
- There will be, without confirming or denying the existence of magic in Baru’s world, a wizard duel.
- There will be at minimum, but not maximum, one act of genocide.
- Baru’s past will track her down on a volcanic mountainside.
A wizard duel? What?? How delightfully intriguing!
Finally, as you know, we like to ask authors about their preferred drinks — alcoholic or otherwise. Are you still a whiskey enthusiast? Have you discovered any new favorites since the publication of The Traitor Baru Cormorant?
I still love my single malts! I got to travel to Scotland recently and it was wonderful to try a few new distilleries we don’t have in the States. I remain a big fan of smoke and peat flavors.
I’ve also been drinking a lot of sour and gose beers, but now that winter’s on the way I expect I’ll switch to stouts.
For this time of year, in particular, I’d recommend some nice hearty stouts (and porters, when the weather’s cold enough to justify them). Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Mr. Dickinson! I’m very eager to see what happens in the next MASQUERADE story.
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a finished copy of The Monster Baru Cormorant! U.S.- and Canada-based mailing addresses only, please.
Traitor is so remarkable partly because it’s also a debut novel. So many times we see first published novels are a bit weaker than follow-up works, or don’t hold together as tightly. Traitor isn’t just an amazing work, it may be the best debut novel I’ve ever read.
Seth Dickinson deserves all the praise he gets for that. I’m eagerly awaiting Monster’s release.
Great interview, I loved some of the insights into the creative process! I really enjoyed THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT, can’t wait to read the sequel.
I was floored to read that Dickinson threw out a million words. I am so glad he has found medication that works for him and is able to continue creatively. Looking forward to reading this one.
I still haven’t read The Traitor, so winning a copy of The Monster could be a great opportunity to start from the beginning.
Thank you for the interview.
The first book is excellent.
I was late to the TRAITOR party and only read it this past summer, but I’m so eager for MONSTER!
Baru Cormorant has been on my radar for a long time, since I started frequenting Fantasy-Faction years ago.
Traitor, Monster, what’s next?
I’m interested in the worldbuilding in this series.
What a great interview. I love the insights into the book.
I’ve heard great things about these books! Definitely adding to my TBR list!
I have heard so many good things about this series!
I have heard that this series is very intense. I’d love to try it.
Can’t wait to start the series!
I can’t think of another follow-up title I’ve been as excited to read as this one.
Traitor really tore me apart in the best kind of way and my first read catapulted it into my favorite books. I’m so glad there’s more coming after Monster too.
I want to read this.
I would love to win this book!
Sorry for the delay on this one! I lost track of it.
Cass Morris, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of THE MONSTER BARU CORMORANT!
Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!