An Interview With Kate Elliot on COLD MAGIC
Where do you get your ideas?
I don’t know. Really, I have no idea where I get my ideas. I just think that way. My eldest sister recently asked me if I count things. She explained that when she’s sitting around, perhaps waiting for her order to come in a café or in a line at a store or to board at the airport, she counts things: the number of chairs, the window panes, tiles on the wall, bags, people, whatever. She called it a bit of a compulsion, and wondered how many other people did the same thing. I don’t count things, I told her; I make up stories in my head.
No, but seriously, where do you get your ideas?
I think different people have a knack for different skills and different ways of being creative, some of which we make a big fuss over and some of which we tend to ignore. For instance, think of shopping for clothes or shoes. Whether you go to a store or shop online, first you look at an item and imagine—in your mind—how it might look on you or how you wish it might look on you. Then you try it on to see how it looks, but at the same time you’re probably imagining scenarios in which you might wear it. That’s creative thinking.
In my case, almost everything I see, experience, read, and learn is like a piece of clothing or a pair of shoes. I am always “trying on” scenarios, events, actions, and reactions: Can I build a story out of this? Can I put it together with another thing? Is it exciting? Do I want to know more? Does it fit what I want to do? Every new story is kind of like an outfit, put together out of pieces that I hope work well together. As a writer, I am always observing, on the lookout for “pieces of story” that will add up into, say, a fabulous eye-catching evening ensemble, or the kind of tough, sleek gear you would go adventuring in.
What do you think is a major influence on your writing?
My mother immigrated to the USA in 1949. She had just married my father, himself the grandchild of immigrants on both sides of his family. I grew up in a household that was certainly American (small town, rural America), but it was also an ethnic household in that we had culture-specific ways of celebrating holidays, special foods that the other kids in my school didn’t eat and had never heard of, and we spoke a second language at home. As a child, I felt strongly a connection to the idea of there being other cultures and lands outside the one I was growing up in.
I think my interest in writing science fiction and fantasy, in writing about “other” cultures, in writing stories about moving between lands and worlds, and about being an outsider or a traveler, grew directly out of my experience as the child and great-grandchild of immigrants.
What interests do you look for in your reading?
My dad taught history. So in addition to my experience as a first generation American (first generation born on American soil), I also was raised in a house where a love for and discussion of history and current events was always present. I have pretty wide ranging reading interests, but in non-fiction I admit I am most interested in the social sciences, like history and anthropology and religion. I ended up married to an anthropologist—go figure (although he was a police officer first). As for fiction, I have just one rule: Don’t bore me. I love reading a good story that’s well told.
What is this outrigger canoe paddling you mention in your biography?
Outrigger canoes come from the Pacific; they are an adaptation invented by Pacific Islanders in the distant past. In the ocean, waves and wind will easily tip over a regular canoe. By adding the outrigger, you give the canoe more stability in offshore conditions. Polynesians reached the Hawaiian Islands by means of outrigger canoes, in one of–if not the most–daring voyages of exploration known to humankind. After settlement, outriggers were used throughout the islands for getting around, fishing, making war, and so on. These days, six-person outrigger canoe racing is the Official Team Sport of the State of Hawaii.
What is the Official Individual Sport of Hawaii?
I’ll give you one guess. I mean, Hawaii is where surfing was invented.
Do you surf?
No. I don’t do sports that involve balancing and moving at the same time. When I tried skiing as a teen, I couldn’t even get up the rope tow much less down the bunny slope.
How did you get into paddling?
We moved to Hawaii in 2002 when my spouse got a job there with the government. Within a month of arriving, I’d seen newspaper articles about outrigger canoe racing. I wanted to try it (my ancestors were Vikings, after all), but no one at my spouse’s work knew anyone who paddled. Anyway, because his work demanded a lot of travel, I had enough to do with writing and being the always-on-call parent. But the summer after our youngest (twins) graduated from high school, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. As we chatted, catching up, I mentioned that she looked great in her sleeveless dress. With the greatest enthusiasm, she told me that she had just completed her first season of paddling. She invited me to try it out, by paddling the “winter season” (the off-season, aka the recreational season) with her canoe club in Honolulu.
I fell in love with it from the first time I went out, although I guarantee that when you first start paddling, the main thing is that you are so sore the next day you can hardly move. But being out on the ocean more than compensates for the aches and pains. We saw dolphins. We saw turtles. We sat on the water off shore and drank in the green hills and the ever-shifting clouds that catch on the Ko’olau Range. The true beauty of the islands is, for me, most deeply experienced from the water. Oahu is an amazing emerald island rising from the middle of the world’s largest ocean. From out on the water, the Waimanalo-side cliffs stagger you, the remnants of the great crater that was once present on Oahu when it was a living volcano, now cut sheer and shaped in ridges and folds by water erosion. Even the high rises of Waikiki look beautiful, framed by the Ko’olau Mountains behind.
After that winter recreational season, I found a club closer to where I live, called Manu O Ke Kai (which means, approximately, bird of the shore). Now I paddle year round and race both short and long distance in a six seat canoe, and I also have a small one person outrigger for extra practice and fun. The great thing about paddling is that anyone can do it, young and old, big and small, male and female, experienced athlete or novice.
Sorry: I didn’t mean to go on for so long. I guess I got carried away by my enthusiasm.
Why, in the dedication, do you call The Chains of Binding Trilogy a “mash-up?”
A mash-up involves taking songs, or video clips, or bits of disparate media from different sources and “mashing” them up together to make a song or video or program or other content that is a new whole based on a bunch of different parts. So when I call COLD MAGIC an “Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendents of troödons” (which were a small, intelligent, and agile species of dinosaur), I’m thinking of the novel as a mash-up of disparate elements. Since I happen to really enjoy mash-ups, it made sense to me to try one.
What’s the most interesting and unexpected information you uncovered doing research for the books?
Mali. Mali is a country in West Africa, often described as “one of the poorest in the world.” Mali is best known these days for its utterly fabulous music, musicians like Ali Farka Touré, Habib Koite, Baba Salah, Toumani Diabate, Oumou Sangaré, Assan Kida, and the great singer Salif Keita. However, there is, as there always is, so much more to Mali than that. Historically, Mali birthed several rich and powerful empires before the arrival of Europeans and colonialism. One of the emperors of the Mali Empire, Mansa Muso, began a pilgrimage to Mecca in the year 1324 accompanied by a huge retinue. During his trip, he gave away as alms so much gold that his largesse caused regional Middle Eastern gold prices to drop precipitously for several years after. That’s quite a contrast to being “one of the poorest countries on earth.” Mali also has a fantastic textile tradition, ranging from embroidery (done by men), mudcloth (bogolanfini), bazin (very fine cotton damask dyed and tie-dyed and embroidered and starched and beaten & folded flat so that it is almost “crisp” – that is, it makes noise, like rustling, when you wear it), weaving, and so much more. Also, Mali is a multi-ethnic society, people from many different groups living together within a tradition of harmony and leavened by a really great sense of humor. In Mali, family, and the connections you have to other people, is central. It is a truly beautiful and wonderful country.
When you refer to the Celts and the Mande, who are you talking about?
In a novel, it is difficult to bring across the full complexity of any given town, much less a region or cultural group or multi-ethnic society. That’s especially true since many readers are not familiar, say, with the history of Celtic Iron Age Europe or the diversity of cultures in West Africa.
The Celts were people who probably spoke related languages in Europe before the Roman Empire; the Celtic people were not all the same, and there were many tribes or local populations with different names and different gods. Later, they were conquered by, absorbed into, intermarried with, or pushed to the margins of Europe by an influx of other population and language groups. That’s why we still have Irish and Welsh, for instance, which are modern descendants of older Celtic languages. But mostly in the novel I just say “Celts” and “Celtic” even though it’s not really accurate to suggest that the word is anything except a catch-all term for a very diverse group of peoples.
The same is true of Mande. Mande is a catch-all term for people who speak Mandan descended languages and who live in various places across West Africa (not all people who live in West Africa are Mande speakers). There are also some similar cultural traditions (like that of the djeliw, or griots) across the Mande speaking groups, although these groups are not at all the same. The Mali Empire was a Mande empire, as in the old phrase: “What built up the Mande? War! What broke down the Mande? War!”
So, basically, I am using Celtic and Mande as simplified terms for what in the real world are far more complex and diverse cultural and regional histories and traditions.
I think one treads a fine line as a writer. To deal with historical cultures I strove for as much accuracy as possible although I was always aware I was writing a fantasy world. At the same time, I worked to show respect for the deep cultural traditions of all the cultures mentioned in the book. However, I also accepted that there is simply too much for one person to know, especially when dealing with multiple cultural strands, and that there would be nuances I simply fail to grasp. I tried to draw my novel out of historical cultures; that is, I tried to speculate on what the Cold Magic world would look like if things had worked out differently in a “past” of an alternate and very magical Earth, so I am not trying to portray cultures as they are today in our world. Still, I always felt it was important for me to be aware of the limitations of interpreting other times, other places, and other cultures. I think, on the whole, I wanted to approach this novel with humility and respect, and I hope in that sense that I succeeded.
If every character in the book entered a flower arranging contest, who would win and why?
Andevai. Not because he has any special interest or aptitude for flower arranging, but because he can’t stand to do anything but the absolute best he can do. Also, he could cheat by using illusion, but he wouldn’t. Knowing he could cheat would make him work even harder to win by legitimate means. Also, I’m not sure how many of the other characters would have the patience to see the contest through. Cat certainly wouldn’t. But she might dredge up some interesting anecdotes about traditional meanings of different flowers—roses represent passion, lavender gives healing—from her father’s journals. Bee, of course, would rather draw the flowers than arrange them.
Did your children really help you write this book?
If you mean, did they write the sentences, and revise them, and so on? No. I wrote the entire book myself, although they read scenes and drafts multiple times and made many suggestions, and I often consulted them when I got stuck on some plot point. And it was their world to begin with, so any time I needed to think through some aspect of the world or the background (for example, if I had to answer the question “what exactly CAN the cold mages do?”), then I would usually talk things through with my children because they had interesting ideas, are good at the back and forth of discussion, and anyway it was really fun. So, yes, this world is a collaboration between us, and it’s been an awesomely cool experience so far. I mean, you raise your kids to be useful, right?