Bill Chats with Rachel Hartman

Rachel HartmanRachel Hartman is the author of Seraphina, which my review called “nuanced,” “layered,” and marked by “complex characterization matched by depth of theme.” Ms. Hartman was kind enough to take out time from working on the sequel to answer a few questions for us. You’ll see right away that complexity and depth I was talking about; enjoy the interview and then pick up Seraphina. We’ll be giving away one copy (with an autographed bookplate) to one commenter.

Bill Capossere: Two major subjects of Seraphina, related somewhat to each other, seemed to be empathy and how one responds to “the other.” We see these ideas explored most obviously in the gulf between dragon and human, but we also are presented a variety of characters who span class, ethnicity, sexuality, religiosity, etc. How deliberate were you in creating such diversity and focusing on the idea of empathy and the Other, and if deliberate, were you worried about overdoing it at all or having it appear a bit trite, having it be reduced to the “be nice to everybody” lesson?

Rachel Hartman: One of my favourite things about writing – about all art, really – is that it’s a wonderful mixture of intention and accident. I set out to explore one set of questions, but other preoccupations seep into the work whether I will it or not. This is one of those cases. Empathy and tolerance are not topics I meant to examine, particularly – and I suspect that is part of what saves the book from feeling like a “be nice” lesson. However, empathy is one of my principal ways of approaching both characterization and worldbuilding, so I suspect that’s why it echoes throughout the text.

When I create characters, I try to understand them as individuals on a deep level, their faults and prejudices as well as their good traits. Even a fairly noxious individual like Josef needs to be understandable, or he’d fall flat. He has reasons for being such a jerk; I owe it to him to learn exactly what those are and to recognize that there but for the grace of circumstances go I. Maybe I can’t fully understand everyone, but it’s important to me to set aside ego and try.

Similarly, I wanted to create a world that reflects its many inhabitants in all their variation. I require a world to be full – of languages, ethnicities, belief systems, politics, architecture, you name it – because I find that variety beautiful. A world where everyone has the same values and comes to the same conclusions is sterile. The world is hardier and better off with more diversity, even if it also leads to conflicts. But again, all this is background. It’s felt in the text, rather than spoken.

Bill Capossere: I felt that Seraphina did a nice job of investigating the idea of truth versus deception. There are conspiracies, secrets, lies, cover-ups, characters pretending to be what they are not, characters deceiving not only other characters but perhaps even themselves, lies that necessitate more lies, and so on. Was this just a natural outgrowth of plot and character (the plot is a mystery, your main character has a big secret) or were you purposely exploring this topic?

Rachel Hartman: Lying is an idea I deliberately set out to explore, and it’s treated differently within the book. Seraphina mulls it over explicitly; she’s conscious of how lying can be a defense, a nuisance, an evil, and a balm. She compares it with playing the flute, the thing she loves best in the world, but also notices that it prevents her doing the right thing sometimes.

My first idea for this novel was a question about deception: what if you married someone with a terrible secret, and only learned it after your spouse had died? That’s Claude’s torment in a nutshell. His wife is dead, and he can’t ask her why she never trusted him with the truth. Her lie is Seraphina’s inheritance.

It’s crucial to keep a light touch, though, and not get too ham-fisted in demanding an answer or (even worse) imposing a solution. It’s the questioning that’s important, presenting many sides to the argument and letting things play out naturally. I think of fiction, especially fantasy, as a laboratory for thought experiments. The author, like any good scientist, shouldn’t step in and dictate the outcome.

Bill: For some reason, despite how many fantasy novels are set in a quasi-medieval world somewhat analogous to our own, where religion was such a dominant force for so long, few (Katherine Kurtz’s DERYNI novels being one such exception) seem to invoke religion much beyond an occasional throwaway line or two. Religion, in Seraphina, however, is richly detailed and plays a major role. Why do you think so many authors eschew religion and why did you choose to incorporate it in such detail? How did you settle on the details of the religion itself?

Rachel: I don’t understand why fantasy writers avoid religion. Is it because the subject is so fraught, or they’re worried about being preachy? As a closet Medievalist, I can’t imagine the Middle Ages without religion. I love cathedrals; those were always going to feature in anything I wrote, and how to avoid the subject then? Architecture forced me to it! Seriously, though, religion permeated the lives and consciousness of Medieval people in ways we can only imagine. I enjoy trying to understand what that would have been like.

I am an atheist myself, but one of those peculiar atheists who has a certain sympathy for and fascination with belief. I think Terry Pratchett is of a similar bent. He explores ideas about belief in many of his books – Small Gods, Hogfather, Feet of Clay – and has even written what I consider to be the great YA atheist novel (Nation). His work has shown me what’s possible and given me permission, as it were, to explore this kind of thing.

Fantasy is a great place to talk about religion, I think. It’s the thought-experiment lab all over again: you can make up your own belief system and then turn it upside-down, shake it, or dissect it to your heart’s content without stepping on anyone’s real-world dogmatic toes. A novel that does this really well is The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold, where she has created the most interesting theology I’ve ever encountered, and she explores it thoroughly.

Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, The Hallowed HuntAnd again, part of creating a diverse world is including people with a variety of beliefs, not as tokens or to put forward some agenda, but as vital, real individuals. There’s an online review by a minister who said he couldn’t tell, from reading the book, what my own beliefs were. Good. That tells me I managed to keep from preaching.

Bill: Often in fantasy we get a quest kind of story or a character suddenly thrust out of their world kind of story, so that even in the made-up world of the story we’re outside of the day-to-day “reality” of the characters. One of the quieter aspects of Seraphina that I enjoyed was that so many characters are simply doing their job or learning how to do their job. So we see Seraphina in her role as assistant music director, and it is this that precipitates various acts and allows her access to various places and situations. We see the Prince enacting his role as head of security, the Princess trying to feel her way toward her role as an authority figure, another character who designs things, dragon soldiers who try to maintain skills supposedly no longer needed, students learning their lessons. All of this gives Seraphina a sort of domestic novel feel. I know describing it as “domestic” vs. “epic” might seem a criticism, but it’s another reason why I felt Seraphina stood out amongst so many novels. I wonder if you see that description as a criticism or overly simplistic and also if you had any problems with agents or editors who felt it was too domestic, too “quiet.”

Rachel: No, no, I think that description is wonderful! It pleases me that you noticed and appreciated that aspect of the book. It was very important to me to show characters not just working but finding meaning in work. That’s where I myself find meaning: love and work (not coincidentally, the title of a fictional philosophical book within the story). So many stories go straight for the love and ignore the work altogether.

Of course, fantasy novels often center around adventure, and adventure is a kind of work. I think the reverse is also true, however, that work can be a hero’s journey. We are the heroes of our own lives, at our own scale. Maybe we never literally save the world, but all of us are called to be brave, to face difficult truths, and to do things we don’t feel good or strong enough to do. I think the reason the monomyth moves us is that we recognize ourselves in it. We’ve all lived it, any time we had to set aside fears and do what needed to be done.

I just want to add quickly, in case anyone rolled their eyes at “hero’s journey” – back in ancient times, when I was a university student, I scoffed at the idea of monomyth myself. All good feminists knew it was a masculine construct, having nothing to do with women’s experience. Recently, though, a doula friend pointed out to me that the hero’s journey closely fits the experience of childbirth, from the call to adventure to the way the world is utterly changed afterwards. That blew my tiny mind, how perfect it was. Talk about epic and domestic all at once.

Writing a novel involves a similar journey, I’ve found.

Bill: Similarly, I said in my review that Seraphina was in my mind more character-driven than plot-driven, that “the storyline, the ‘this happens then this happens then this happens’ is not the reason to read this novel. The true pleasure in Seraphina comes first and foremost in the characters and their relationships.” Any objections to that description? I also appreciated how you took your time in having these characters bloom, either in their own right or in their relationships to one another, such as the romance or the relationship between Seraphina and Orma. Is this just how the characters naturally developed or did you find yourself tweaking things as you went through drafts — slowing things down or speeding them up? And did you have any concerns or hear any concerns that perhaps things were moving too slowly?

Rachel: Reader reactions have been mixed on the subject of pacing. Sometimes readers come to fantasy – to YA fantasy especially – expecting to dive right into heart-stopping action from the first page. This simply isn’t that sort of book.

That said, it’s a thousand times more fast-paced than it was in its original conception. The first draft of this book took place entirely in Seraphina’s father’s house; the plot consisted of Seraphina and her father… not getting along. It was dark and subtle psychodrama, like Ibsen with dragons. I submitted that draft to agents and they wrote me back saying, “You’re a very good writer, and if you ever figure out what a plot is, please do submit again!”

I’ve rewritten the entire book about four times, each iteration with a bigger, flashier plot, expanding outward to better fill the enormous world I had created. That was how my editor persuaded me to it, by saying the world was so magnificent that it deserved an equally grand plot. It was tough, though, because to my mind the real story is always internal, that moment of epiphany that makes the whole world look new. I was worried about losing that inner journey if the book became too plotty. It was quite a challenge to give the book the big, world-spanning plot that genre demands while staying true to the slow, quiet, internal things that are important to me. I did finally balance those elements to my own satisfaction, to my editor’s, and to many readers’ as well.

So yes, back to that charge of quiet, domestic fantasy: left to my own devices, it would have been even quieter and slower. I’m not sorry I had to change it, however. Every rewrite produced a better book than the last, something that never ceased to astonish me.

Bill: Thanks so much for spending time with us!

Readers, leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Seraphina with an autographed bookplate. We’ll announce a winner here next week, so make sure to check the notification box.


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BILL CAPOSSERE lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere

6 comments

  1. Great interview. I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m on the hold list at my library. It sounds fantastic.

  2. Good interview :)

  3. Sounds interesting! Looking forward to reading Seraphina.

  4. If I hadn’t already wanted to read this, this thoughtful interview would make me seek out the book. Thanks Bill and Rachel!

  5. sandyg265 /

    I enjoyed the interview. This isn’t a book I’d heard much about.

  6. Oops, forgot to choose a winner for this. Sandy, the book is coming your way.

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