Kate Elliott May 1st, 2008
What follows is two friends talking, via email, while Constance Ash is having the pleasure of reading Kate Elliott’s new novel, Shadow Gate, the second volume in Kate’s new series, Crossroads.
Since conversations, chats, discussions, exchanges between friends, are part of what keep writers writing, we thought maybe people who check in with DeepGenre would enjoy seeing this in action. For people who have not read the book, this is a discussion that might be deemed spoiler-ish, although we tried to stay away from recounting specific events and outcomes; however, if you are the kind of reader who hates knowing anything at all about a novel before you head in, be forewarned.
For an interview with Kate Elliott, or a review of her new novel, Shadow Gate, you can click the links at the end of this DeepGenre entry.
CA: The heart of story telling is conflict: external and internal, and how these conflicts are resolved. The potential scope of a novel provides a stage for more than one kind of conflict, just as it provides room for more than one character and even point of view. Constant subjects of the conversations we’ve shared are the effects of war and slavery upon women and children. So here we’re at it again, with Shadow Gate, talking about the conflicts brought by war, slavery and economics, and women plus children. In 2000, when Child of Flame was published in the U.K., I wrote a customer review that began like this:
“In Child of Flame, the fourth volume in Kate Elliott’s projected five-book epic [which ended up as seven books], CROWN OF STARS, the principal characters are caught up by war: prisoners of war; suffering from war; traveling to war; getting ready to go to war; denying that war is about to snare them with its implacable maw. Civil wars, cultural wars, wars of immigration, wars of religion. Everyone’s on the move: as part of an army, as a refugee, as a slave (part of the booty of war), leading an invasion.”
One of the elements of your books that have always interested me is how much you deal with war, which for some reason so many people still seem to think women who write Fantasy do not do.
Now, in 2008, would you agree that the reader almost can expect war to be a prime motivator of action in a Kate Elliott work?
KE: Hmm. I think that is true. The Labyrinth Gate and The Golden Key do not have wars in them, but they do have other forms of social conflict that involve significant social upheaval or change. Everything else has war and/or revolution.
CA: How is the war we’re seeing in Crossroads differing from that war in Crown? At least, it feels like a different kind of war to me.
KE: I started in on a glib answer but now I find it’s more complex than at first thought.
Yeah – it is different in terms of where war is coming from. The endless familiar jockeying for power and position among elites, movements of tribal peoples due to resource scarcity, cultural conflicts, defense of home, and so on all figure into the CoS wars.
In Crossroads there’s more of a sense that specific individuals greedy for more of what benefits them are willing to inflict misery on the many in order to achieve goals that specifically benefit them. It’s my disaster capitalism book! (I’m only being half facetious, I suppose, even if I can’t really style it that way as it’s not a good analogy culturally or economically). Obviously the economic system of the Crossroads world is not capitalism as we know it, nor is it manorialism. There are elements of merchant capitalism. That’s as far as I can go.
Anyway, I have always been interested in how war breaks down social systems. In how its repercussions spread over a larger area than the ground covered by the actual military units doing the fighting.
Obviously there’s a deliberate contrast in Shadow Gate between the destruction and social breakdown furthered by the Star of Life army and the social reconstruction being done by Mai elsewhere. As obviously (to me, anyway), the activities going on in much of the Mai sections are activities often overlooked or denigrated because they are deemed trivial or not exciting or not as deep and meaningful and profound as the activities we tend to valorize in our society.
Hers is a story about re-building, about setting up households and creating continuity. Now, I’m not trying to suggest that women ought to want to get married (any more than I am suggesting that men ought to want to get married); what I was trying to do is look at the reality of lives lived, both today and in the past, when the decision about setting up a household, the choice or accident of one’s partner, might perhaps become the biggest indicator of quality of adult life, especially for women in many traditional societies because of the way those societies are set up. Mostly, women married in those societies. Mostly, men married, too, if they could.
I can personally hold a modern view that women shouldn’t have to marry if they don’t want to or have children if they don’t want to (and time and again we see that women’s lives improve when they are given access to a measure of economic independence and if they can control the timing and spacing and number of children they give birth to) while at the same time I can want to show respect for all the lives lived and being lived in places where people did not (and do not) have the same amount of choice as we take for granted in our lives. I don’t want to forget those women and their struggles and triumphs and the immense amount of work done day in and day out, year in and year out. That’s the foundation on which we have all lived over the years. . I wanted to acknowledge those women’s lives, not erase them. I’ve written my share of kick-ass female characters, and in Crossroads I felt it was time to write a female lead who could speak to some degree to the lives so many women have lived historically.
CA: That’s Mai. She’s a fascinating character to find in a Big Fantasy series. You’ve got many interesting women in Shadow Gate. They’re all different from each other, they all face different personal challenges and have different roles to play in the larger scene of war, politics and money.
It’s quite a list, just starting with secondary female characters: the literate slave, Priya; Sheyshi, an insecure slave; pretty Avisha, who needs the right husband; her young stepmother, angry Nallo — who was so vivid, in the sense of having the most impact in fewer scenes – she gets chosen by an eagle and tries to run away from it – an angry woman who knows she’s angry; Eridit, a performer, who needs to exercise her erotic power as much as her other skills.
The female principals are all different too: Marit, a Guardian; Cornflower-Kirya, an unwilling Guardian; Zubaidit, a kick-ass fighter; Miravia of the Ri Amarah, who does not believe in slavery. Most of all, the universally well-liked Mai, beautiful, kind, curious, a skilled mercantilist, loves her husband, loved in return, profoundly a family woman — and a slave owner.
KE: I wanted to suggest a cross section of roles, to show that women aren’t only one thing or another. I have heard a few criticisms of Mai as a “traditional fantasy female character” which surprises me (especially if at the same time it is suggested I am somehow not a feminist because I wrote her) because I think of Mai as a very strong character struggling to make a life for herself coming out of a situation in which she had no power or authority.
I think it’s funny that Nallo is so vivid–precisely because she is so bad-tempered! I also used her behavior, and her expectations of what is appropriate, to contrast with Mai’s expectations. Mai was raised in a culture where to be obedient and compliant was a woman’s chief virtue; it’s a lesson she learned young. Nallo may be cranky and difficult, but there is never any suggestion in the Hundred that women ought not to be allowed to express anger. Whatever other problems there are in the Hundred, it is assumed that women, as well as men, have full access to emotion, to sexuality, to ownership (even if that ownership is slaves), and I hope that this series of contrasts about women’s roles (also touched on with the Ri Amarah and the empire) is of interest to readers.
CA: A staple of sex slavery is the ‘exotic.’ It’s certainly a favorite of historical fiction and movies. The eternal paradox of sex and slavery: the ‘other’ is a category of who is permitted to be slaved, and the ‘other’ is also an attractive erotic category. Both are fundamental to slavery and the sex industry, whether the sex worker is a slave or free. (The psychic culmination of this has always seemed to me to have come out of the slave states of the U.S. South into the all pervasive culture fetish of power-sex-slavery, where women raped in slavery by white owners through the generations produced the glory of the slave trade, the ultimate ‘fancy market’ of blue-eyed, blonde-haired, white-skinned sex slaves.) Rape is fundamental to both slavery and the sex industry.
KE: I poured a lot of my frustration and anger about the plight of women and our societal blind spots in dealing with slavery as it particularly affects females and the use of rape as a weapon in war/conflict. Then I had to tone it down in the revisions. Does that make this the bowdlerized version? I’m not sure. Overall I think it was better to tone it down because I think it was too grim in the wrong way. Certainly I worked as hard as I could to avoid writing the sexual violence in any kind of “sexy” carnographic way.
As for exotic and erotic and “the other”, which I totally agree with your assessment of “the eternal paradox of sex and slavery.” I don’t think I’m dealing with racism in Shadow Gate. The societies described may be a bit xenophobic, but they’re not racist as I think we would use the term in our society. I did try to portray Cornflower as an “other”– that is, that because of her pale skin and pale hair she is considered non-normative while people with black hair and dark skin are considered normative.
CA: I read Part Four last night. Is this a section the editors felt needing some softening?
As it is, it’s not soft. There is no way for a reader not to understand that what is happening to Cornflower is terrible, and there is no way for the reader not to wonder, “How can these people not know this, not care?” But in that world, as in ours, they do not care. How was it for you, writing this section?
When I wrote about the capture, and subsequent, nightly marriage-rape of one my characters in Stallion Queen it was as though I wasn’t even there — I was witnessing this endless succession of terrible days filled with hard work and drudgery, ending each night in rape, happen in real time, though from outside of myself. I also didn’t make it nearly as awful as it so easily could have been, only referencing the worse things happening to others off-stage, so to speak. But I wanted the character’s abortion to be seen entirely in the light of her experience. Plus, she gets rescued by women. Though her lover charges after her, and plays somewhat of a role, the strategy and most of the implementation is performed by women, and they are the ones in charge. Nevertheless it rolled out of me easily, though I felt feverish, as when you’re sick, during the period composing those chapters.
KE: It was probably the most emotionally grueling thing I have ever written, but I wanted to try to get at what actually happens to women. I’m so tired of the glamorization of brothels and sex work, the real conditions most girls and women work under and especially the phenomenon of girls going to the city thinking they are going to get other work and being forced into sex work. Not to mention the conditions under which their bodies are disposable and their personhood does not matter. You know.
I did not change this section at all; my editor asked if I could make it shorter and less graphic. I pointed out that it was not in fact graphic at all, moving parts are never mentioned, and that the worst part is very short, only a few pages. I think it’s because it’s written inside her head; I guess I wanted to try to get across how she loses her personhood, her conscious sense of who she is, because it is the only viable mechanism she has to survive: to obliterate herself. Some readers who are not aware of the conditions within sexual slavery work will maybe not be able to read between the lines as much as you do.
The section I softened comes later. You’ll know it when you get there, and it’s grim, too. Dang, what a grim book! Boy was I pissed off at the state of the world when I wrote it. Not that I’m not still pissed off, but I tried to say something, to give a voice to the kinds of people whose situation is often ignored or considered insignificant in the greater scheme of things. I tried to show how people survive–and they do survive. Human beings can be remarkably, astoundingly, courageously resilient.
Oh, and yes — the words of Part Four rolled out easily even as it was emotionally difficult, once I let myself go there.
In light of this, I worried that some readers would complain that the Avisha subplot did not “matter.” Of course I see that subplot as standing in clear counterpoint to the other stories–the greater story–of how women survive, adapt to or are destroyed by war and slavery, because their bodies are part of the landscape which is trampled over. So far I’ve had no complaints on Avisha’s score. My readers, as always, are better than I am!
CA: Serendipitously, re Avisha, I noted some places in Shadow Gate where we see Mai at work, using her abilities, in charge, making the arrangements according to her judgment, nobody else’s. If her choices are wrong, the consequences will be as disasterous as general’s bad strategy. She’s central to the parallel importance of women’s networks and women’s work without which you cannot create a whole society. In Mai’s case the work includes, as it does for so many women in cultures around the world, the mercantile foundation of wealth for her family, clan. Trained into this at home, she’s importing it to another society.
And the contrasts of the character pairings: brother-sister pairings, romantic ones, spousal pairings, that’s interesting. Some are successful despite the pair’s dissimilarities, some are not successful. So much conflict and so much potential for healing, for resolution, for making whole, in this story you are telling. Which is why it’s interesting. Sometimes, I kind of crowed, going, “Oh, she’s doing this!” with – well so many of the characters, things I wasn’t expecting, but worked because of who they are.
KE: I’ve reflected on how Mai’s work of building networks contrasts with how war and civil disruption tears down networks. The actions of the army in the north are continually being set against the work she is doing — as you have already noticed. Readers will tend to concentrate on Anji and Joss and Zubaidit as those who are fighting as soldiers against the enemy–and obviously in this context that is necessary– but the thematic contrast is not between the good fighting the evil, as you point out, but between those who build and those who destroy. So often we privilege the one and call the other unimportant, when it is the the work of countless toiling women and men that is the foundation on which we live our daily lives in what peace and comfort we have.
Late in the book there is an aside I threw in for you and Kit [Katharine Kerr, author of the Deverry novels among others], in which everyone in town is at a celebration–except for the women who are cooking. . .! It reminded me of stories both of you have told about big family get togethers or other celebrations, and the women who spend most of the celebration cooking so others can eat.
CA: Slavery pervades the book, the world. What about the characters who are not slaves, who take slavery for granted, and in one way or another benefit from it? How about the characters who begin to feel some soul prickings that slavery is spiritually wrong, while not violating the rules of the game as slavery operates in the world you’ve created?
KE: I’ve discussed elsewhere that if I’m going to write a story set in another world, I want to try to write characters who live in their world, not in our world; that is, that they see the world through the lens of their own understanding of the cosmos, not as a reflection of mine. That said, obviously as a writer I also wrestle with issues that trouble and vex me, as well as ones that amuse me (in different contexts), and so I try to strike a balance between not putting my words into my characters’ mouths while also trying to examine the effects different institutional structures have on societies and individuals based on a perspective that is very different than theirs.
I found that one way to examine slavery as an accepted and unexamined institution in a society was to unfold it as a series of contradictions.
For instance, in Spirit Gate I introduce different concepts of slavery. There are forms of slavery in which the individual loses his or her person-hood and identity. To quote from Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, “Slavery is the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.”
In Kartu Town, for example, the slave owners give their slaves new names, ignoring that these individuals already have names (this practice was, I believe, common in chattel slavery as practiced in the USA). I deliberately contrast Mai to everyone else in her family because even though she accepts the existence of slavery as a given in society and does not question its legitimacy or morality, she personally continues to address slaves by the personal names they had before they were enslaved. She sees the individual as a person even if no one else does, even if–legally–that personhood has been erased.
Debt slavery is practiced in the Hundred, although I must note that total slavery (the ownership of personhood) is also practiced in the Hundred with outlanders (primarily female) brought in to be slaves; only local people are subject to the marginally less onerous practice of debt slavery. In debt slavery you are selling your labor for a specified period of time, but while the legal codes (reflecting the “jubilee year” described in the Hebrew Bible) put limits on length of service, over time those who own debt slaves have figured out artificial and technically illegal but socially accepted ways to prolong the service of debtors, sometimes indefinitely.
Meanwhile, the character of Keshad buys his way out of debt slavery (as people in some circumstances have been able to do historically) by selling outlanders into an even worse form of slavery than the one he suffers under. Do people automatically learn better and change their way of thinking because of what they have endured? No.
Finally, the Ri Amarah (“the Silvers”) are entirely and morally opposed to all forms of slavery, and yet some of their customary practices regarding the status of women are similar to the markedly patriarchal and deeply sexist practices prevailing within the southern empire bordering the Hundred. These sit in sharp contrast to the looser and more casual (if still somewhat patriarchally defined) customary practices and rights (sexual and economic) of women in the Hundred.
In Shadow Gate I deal again specifically with slavery as a obliteration of person-hood (“natally alienated and generally dishonored”), how it can destroy a person’s identity and cast them adrift as a creature who is now “socially dead” (Patterson again). If we really face what that means, it’s monstrous.
CA: It’s another way of reflecting that no single culture ever gets all of it right, certainly not all the time.
So, some of the secondary characters introduced in this volume won’t be coming back?
KE: Some of the secondary characters do not come back in volume three. In one case it is because the character’s continuing story no longer specifically intersects with the larger narrative and so it was necessary to “draw the veil” and allow readers to imagine their own working out of the rest of the story. I learned by doing with Crown of Stars that as a writer I have be tough with myself and close off some paths, however attractive, if I want to write a wieldy multi-volume novel! Anyway, I still have so many fish to fry! And I introduce a few new point of view characters in volume three, because of the exigencies of the plot.
Your opinion of dropping characters met earlier in a trilogy or series, for later books?
CA: Well, I did exactly that in my one and only trilogy. In Book 3 we never see Glennys’s mad mother, who perhaps is even a shaman. But she’s referred to constantly by her daughters and the settlers, and so are her actions. Characters from Book 2 are referred to but don’t appear in Book 3, except the Queen-Mother, who comes on stage toward the end, who is about to be tortured — and then rescued and fallen in love with by Glennys’s brother, who is more than her right hand in the Company. Jonathan, from Book 2, the single true love and romance of Glennys’s life, is referred to in Book 3. She asks someone who knows Jonathan about him, once. Her great love seems to have become a primary comfort to that poor Queen-Mother, back when she was still in civilization. Moran, the tutor-historian, wasn’t in Book 2, but was a primary in Book 1 and returns as a significant character in Book 3.
I did that with each book — some characters return, others disappear from the primary character’s life. It ‘felt’ right to me. But it wasn’t until I was reading this second Crossroads book, and you telling me that you’re leaving some characters behind, that I thought about it as a technique. It seemed natural. We know who the primary characters are, and it is their stories that are opening up this greater world for us as the readers.
I also feel the writer can get lost, and lose the Big Story, if the writer persists in telling each character’s whole tale. That’s not good for the book. So that means the writer needs to be ruthless about every walk-on, because if the writer begins to let that walk-on’s backstory and future intrude into the Big Story, it becomes a tangle, not a labyrinth. May I say I learned this the hardest way possible. I had to cut entire sections of a novel because I’d gotten too interested in some new characters. I had to cut them out.
KE: But you know how it is these days: everyone wants to see their favorite characters again and again. As a reader, I do, too! And then characters are spun off into their own series. And etc. I’ve got nothing against this as a writing technique; in the case of Crossroads, I’m just already wrassling a huge story and am ruthlessly severing side stories that don’t add to the main plot threads.
CA: As long as you are faithful to the book, to the story that is being told, which you decided at the beginning was to be told primarily through following the cast of the principal characters, it will work just fine. Well, that’s my opinion, anyway, but I stand by it.
KE: Presumably we learn from what has gone before, make our mistakes, and hope to correct them if we can see our way through the morass. I think that’s one of the great and important elements in writing, too: that our conversations with other writers and people thinking about the same issues we each struggle with helps illuminate both issues of craft but also on the larger scale the human condition that is the subject of all novels. So much of what I write about now has been influenced by my discussions over the years with you and Kit and so many others, as well as what I’ve read both in books and magazines and now of course on the web. I can’t even keep track of it all, or how things wash together in my brain or settle into my unconscious to be fished out later. None of this is accomplished in isolation. And maybe that’s the story I’m trying to tell with Mai.
INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS, PURCHASE POINTS
Shadow Gate, the middle volume of Crossroads. It was preceded by Spirit Gate, and will be followed by Traitors’ Gate. Published yesterday, and can be ordered from these sites:
http://us.macmillan.com/shadowgate This site also provides an excerpt.
KE: I haven’t been a good record-keeper, so I can’t trace the many many articles in magazines and online I’ve read over the years that have informed my thinking. However, here (in no particular order) are several references I’ve used and read that deal with some of the issues discussed above:
Orlando Patterson: Slavery and Social Death (Harvard University Press, 1982)
Seymour Drescher & Stanley L. Engerman, eds: A Historical Guide to World Slavery (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Walter Johnson: Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Harvard University Press, 1999) [I'm pretty sure Constance told me about this book]
Zainab Salbi: The Other Side of War: Woman’s Stories of Survival and Hope (National Geographic) [This book highlights the lives of women who have survived war, as well as the work of NGO Women for Women International]
Kamala Kempadoo & Jo Doezema: Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition (Routledge, 1998)
Caroline Moorehead: Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees (Henry Holt & Co, 2005)
Kevin Bales: Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (University of California Press, 2nd edition 2004)