By Steve Nagy
I met Cecilia Dart-Thornton at the Philadelphia Worldcon in 2001. We’d exchanged emails about her books and I’d expressed appreciation for the Paul Gregory cover for the Pan Macmillan/Tor edition of The Ill-Made Mute, which resembled a stone carving and displayed illustrations of an airship and aeotaur. We had mutual friends from the Del Rey Online Writing Workshop, and I was a fan of Cecilia’s after reading excerpts of her book when they were posted on the workshop back in 1999. She was gracious enough to bring a copy of the book with her from Australia to give me, which made me more a “fanatic” than fan ever since. What else would you do when a published author, whose writing you appreciate, goes out of their way to give you their book?
|While I was still at Philcon, I made sure to pick up the Warner Aspect hardcover of The Ill-Made Mute to complement the personalized copy. That edition boasts equally fantastic cover art by Daniel Craig, which along with the cover for The Lady of the Sorrows resembles “a Renaissance painting,” according to Warner Aspect editor Jaime Levine.
People tell you that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but good covers are one of the ways publishers reach a broader audience. I won’t go on about Cecilia’s Australian accent, even though I’ve a thing for women with accents (primarily English accents and their derivatives); she’s a married woman and so I’ll place her on a pedestal, instead lavishing my appreciation upon her kick-ass writing. Still, I hear her voice every time I look over her responses in the following question/answer exchange. It offers a glimpse at her “cover” — and the friendliness and sense of humor that’s underneath
STEVE NAGY: If I recall the scenario correctly, it’s possible that The Bitterbynde wouldn’t have seen the light of day if not for the online workshops. I know some of the background about how you had found an agent and became published, but could you recap it all?
CECILIA DART-THORNTON: I like to think my work would have found a publisher even if the amazing Internet discovery hadn’t happened! But it is an intriguing story, and uplifting, I hope, for unpublished writers.
In December 1999, I had posted a small part of Chapter One of The Ill-Made Mute, the first book of The Bitterbynde trilogy, to the Del Rey Online Writing Workshop. The workshop, dedicated to genre fiction, was sponsored by Del Rey books, one of the world’s best-known fantasy and science fiction publishers.
This online writers workshop was different from others at the time, in that real-life editors looked at the work posted by members — a huge draw card!
My partial chapter received encouraging critiques from other workshop members and won the Editors’ Choice Award for best fantasy piece, in January 2000. On receiving the news of this award, I proceeded to scream the house down. I was, as fairytale authors so often say, “overjoyed.” And in many ways, these events did unfold like a fairy tale.
The date, January 2000, was popularly (if erroneously) considered to mark the beginning of the twenty-first century. I hoped this would prove to be some kind of omen: I had won the Editors’ Choice award at the commencement of a new millennium and it felt like a new beginning.
Next month a selection from The Bitterbynde won a similar accolade, and subsequently one of the workshop editors contacted me privately by email.
He said he believed my work was of publishable standard, and gave me the details of a well-known literary agent in the USA. As soon as the agent saw my work, she signed me up — triggering another screaming session at my house. (By now the neighbours must have thought we were regularly torturing people.) From then, events moved quickly.
The agent showed the manuscript to Time-Warner Books in New York. Within a week, the phone rang in the early hours of the morning. It was my agent, letting me know that Warner Aspect had bought all three books in the trilogy, proposing to publish them in hardcover, which they had never done before with a new author. They would organize one of the top fantasy illustrators to create the covers. In addition, they advanced a considerable sum, to prove they meant it.
By now I was fully convinced I was dreaming. Either that or my husband was playing a practical joke, getting his friends to email me under false names, to phone using fake accents etc. This just could not be happening.
It took at least six months for the reality to sink in. Even now, I suspect that at some point early in 2000 I arrived at an anomalous time-node and accidentally took a turn into a parallel universe that branched off from the real one in absurdly wonderful ways. Meanwhile in the real universe, I’m writing my tenth novel and hoping to be published one day.
|STEVE: How has this experience (selling the trilogy, coming out in hardcover) changed you as a “newly discovered” author or as a person?
CECILIA: Extensively. Wonderfully. Amazingly.
It still astounds me that Warner Aspect, one of the world’s most highly esteemed publishers of genre fiction, saw fit to publish an untried author in hardcover.
|I have been a guest speaker at two festivals and am booked to speak at three more before the end of the year. My publishers are throwing a party at the Zoo to launch my third novel, The Battle of Evernight, and are hosting a National Publicity Tour in October.
As a person, I am experiencing a glow of happiness and contentment. I feel deeply grateful that the world not only appears to accept the outpourings of my imagination, but to actually enjoy them.
My joy springs from many sources, not least the fact that I am now meeting hordes of people who share my love of writing and reading. To mingle with crowds of them is paradise.
I feel fulfilled: My life-long (and I do mean life-long) ambition to be a writer has been achieved.
I feel no longer alone. So many readers have now walked through the world inside my mind, and they have walked so lightly, so blithely, that I have welcomed them all.
STEVE: Australian writers are popping up everywhere lately. How does it feel being identified with that particular “wave” or community of writers? How much of an influence is that making on you as a writer now? (I’m using “lately” loosely here; publishing cycles moving as slow as they do, Cecilia’s “discovery” and The Bitterbynde’s debut in May 2001 are still relatively current. Authors such as Sara Douglass, Sean McMullen, and Stephen Dedham have written for years, but are recent imports to a broader American audience.)
CECILIA: It’s just the most curiously serendipitous phenomenon! Here I was, scribbling away for years not knowing anything much about any other Australian science fiction/fantasy writers, and suddenly I’m a published author and other published SF/F authors are popping out all around me like koalas from eucalyptus trees. I mean, everywhere you walk around here, you’re tripping over some successful Aussie fantasy scribe. (The government is thinking they might have to cull us, you know. We’re starting to overrun the place in plague proportions. Personally, I’m keeping a sharp eye out for bounty hunters.)
It’s another question like “Why trilogies?” This time it’s “Why Australian SF/F Authors?”
Is it something in the air? The water? The lack of anything else to do except drink beer and watch the sun go down? Shrug. I don’t know.
Until you posed the question above, I had not considered I was identified with the Australian community of writers. I don’t know if I am, but I hope I am not.
I love my country with a profound and enduring passion, but one of the truest sayings I ever heard was “patriotism is the enemy of global peace.” I am not patriotic, in that I don’t go around waving flags and endeavouring to indicate that by some miraculous means, the place of my birth makes me better or more worthy in some way than human beings who were not born in the same vicinity.
I am a global citizen who loves the Blue Planet with a bone-deep, gut-wrenching ardency, and I would hope to be considered part of the global community of genre writers.
STEVE: Some reviewers make comparisons between The Bitterbynde books (specifically the first one, The Ill-Made Mute) and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The Bitterbynde was originally written as one long book. That seems another parallel with Tolkien. Were you consciously trying to write an epic on that scale and with that depth? Homage, if you will?
CECILIA: Yes. Ever since I read The Lord of the Rings at the age of nine, I have wanted to write a lengthy story set in a detailed alternative world. Like anyone else born to be a writer, I spent many hours, days, years of my life scribbling away, each time believing I was writing the Big One, every time eventually dissatisfied with what I had written, abandoning it, beginning the Big One over and over again. Anyone who did not understand the process of writing would have thought I was wasting my time.
All that time I was learning, practising, developing my own style. At last, some time in the late 1980s, I began writing about someone who woke up with no memory of their identity, or of how they came to be where they were. The story of The Ill-Made Mute had begun.
It really is one story split into three parts. And yes, it can be considered a nod to Tolkien, who, after all, wrote my favourite book of all time. The Lord of the Rings changed my inner life. Nobody will ever be able to replicate what Tolkien achieved, but his legacy continues in many ways.
STEVE: The main character Imrhien has a different identity through each book. It almost seems as if you’re following a pattern that shows personal growth — id (birth, or rebirth) in The Ill-Made Mute; ego in The Lady of the Sorrows; superego in the finale, The Battle of Evernight. What are you trying to achieve with that division?
CECILIA: The terms id, ego, and superego are as familiar to me as to anyone raised in post-Freud western culture. However, I’ve never studied their actual definitions! The Bitterbynde protagonist does experience personal growth throughout the entire narrative. From being powerless and lacking initiative in The Ill-Made Mute, she attains several abilities, physiological and psychological.
There does seem to be a theme of tripartition … in The Bitterbynde — a novel in three volumes, in which the main protagonist takes on a different name and identity in each volume, definitely suggests a three-way split.
One topic that recently came up during a panel discussion with some other fantasy authors was the fact that the number three permeates mythology, folklore, legend, Wicca, fairy tales, and fantasy. Three youths set out to seek their fortunes; two fail but the third succeeds. Three trials are set as tests for heroes. A king has three beautiful daughters: And so it goes on. It’s likely that during my years of reading folklore and fairy tales this “three-ness” has saturated my subconscious. (For example, I am currently writing a second trilogy. … Ah, how inventive.) I really cannot explain why The Bitterbynde, one long story, decided of its own volition to fall into three segments.
STEVE: What are you working on next? Something set in Erith? Another Tolkien homage or a completely different type of work? When can we expect to see it?
CECILIA: The trilogy that is currently obsessing me is set in the same universe as The Bitterbynde, a universe called the “Uille” which is the Irish Gaelic word for “All.” The setting, however, is not the world of Aia and Erith. There are new characters and new landscapes but my beloved eldritch wights are still milling in their millions, haunting the pools and wells, the high places, the abandoned buildings and woodlands. Readers of The Bitterbynde will find much that is familiar.
After the second trilogy, I plan to branch out and produce something a bit more “out of left field.” Still fantasy, though. Always fantasy — unless it’s science fiction!!!
I don’t expect the first book of the second trilogy to be ready to show my publishers until late next year, so there will probably be a drought of new stuff from me until around 2004. After that, there may well be a flood.
STEVE: I understand that The Ill-Made Mute was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. How do you feel about that?
CECILIA: I was over the moon until the short list appeared this month and Mute was not on it! But I have plenty of other reasons to be happy. The Ill-Made Mute was my first novel, and has done better than I had ever hoped. It was listed in Amazon.com’s top ten fantasy novels for 2001 and in Locus Magazine’s top ten first novels for the same year. Booktrack® (Australia’s computerized book sales system) counts it among the top ten bestsellers for 2001, and Good Reading Magazine voted it in the top 2 for the “Australia’s Favourite Read” award, 2001. It has been highly acclaimed in The Washington Post, The London Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Locus, The Australian, and The Age, to name but a few publications, and is now being published in Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Russia. The second book of the trilogy, The Lady of the Sorrows, was released in the antipodes in January 2002, and in the same month shot to #1 on the Sydney Morning Herald bestseller list.
STEVE: The Bitterbynde is set in the “known lands of Erith.” The maps show the countries as sitting below the equator. How much does being an Australian (being on the “bottom” of the world) influence your writing?
CECILIA: Actually, we are on the top of the world. Or we would have been, had the first mapmakers realised that there ought to be a continent at the North Pole, not just fathoms of water and ice swishing about. I mean, what kind of a pole is that? How can Santa Claus possibly live there? Sure, reindeer can live on lichen, but even lichen needs a few rocks to grow on. And what about the workshop elves? No wonder they keep disappearing, with all those bears about. If the South Pole were the North Pole, they’d only have a few penguins to contend with.
Like preferring VHS video to Beta, placing the Arctic at the top of the world was a hasty and erroneous move by early developers of a new technology.
The greatest influences on my writing have been writers such as Tolkien, Lee, CS Lewis, Bradbury, A.C. Clarke, and Asimov. None of them are Australian and I read them all because I loved their work — for no other reason! I think if anything about living in Australia has influenced me at all, it is a feeling (probably illusory) that I’m able to distance myself from popular culture and enjoy only the cream of it.
The reason I placed the lands of Erith in the southern hemisphere was twofold. 1) I wanted to see if I could get it out of my head that “north” was “cold” and “south” was “hot.” Seriously. Having been raised on a diet of books written in Europe, that is what had happened to me. 2) I wanted to present a reversed viewpoint to my readers, who were probably stuck in the same mindset.
Even though I’ve lived in the southern hemisphere all my life, it was strangely difficult for me to actually write about northern climes being hot! It just shows how intensively culture persists in the face of change.
(For example, on Christmas Day in Australia, usually a day of sizzling temperatures, most Aussies eat a hot roast dinner and steaming plum pudding.
Australia is a comparatively secular society, but keen on tradition. Whether you’re Christian or not, a huge, baked Christmas dinner is usually eaten, after which the diners have to go down to the beach to cool off. Some people even take their Christmas tree to the beach with them and stick it in the sand, decorations, and all, while they swim and sun bake.)
Wow, these answers are becoming quite festive, and it’s only August! Must be time to close….