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Writer on the Verge: Mary Victoria

Fantasy literature is written the world over, but many readers—including me—tend to pick up only books written by our compatriots. That made sense in the past; a dead-tree book needs to catch our eye in the local (and I hope independent) bookseller. I suspect that Americans are particularly guilty in this regard: reading mostly contemporary American authors and perhaps a few British authors when delving into classic fantasy.

Cheer it or fear it, epublishing in particular and the internet in general have the potential to bring the world’s literature onto your screen. Recently I was the beneficiary of the world-via-the-internets when I crossed paths with Mary Victoria (LiveJournal, Facebook, GoodReads), a new voice in fantasy fiction with an interesting background that ranges as far afield as Serria Leone to a cloistered as an animator’s desk on the Lord of the Rings movies.

Mary’s first novel Tymon’s Flight will be published this August in New Zealand and Australia by Voyager of HarperCollins-Australia. Given than Spellwright is also carried by HC, I managed to talk my way into an advance reading copy. Tymon’s Flight is a charming fantasy of the neoclassical persuasion. If you appreciated that persuasion (and I count myself as an author of such, so I hope so) you should check out Tymon’s Flight as a summer read to be pored over under a maple tree or on a lawn after a dip in the pool. Well, that is if you’re in the northern hemisphere.

Welcome, Mary, it’s wonderful to have you over. Because you’ve worked on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies, I have to ask: Did you ever rub elbows with the Jackson himself, and isn’t it true that he has hair growing on the tops of his feet and lives in a very comfortable and well furnished hole in New Zealand?

Hi Blake, it’s a great pleasure to be here!

Regarding PJ, I can indeed confirm that he never wears shoes, lives in New Zealand and smokes a very strange brand of tobacco that he has specially imported from somewhere named Longbottom. I’ve seen the barrels myself. (Alright, so only one of those statements was true, take your pick.)

You probably want better gossip than that, don’t you? To be fair, I was an animator stuck behind a computer screen most of the day and only got to see Peter Jackson when he came by to check my work. When he liked it, he said: “Yip!” That’s about all I know about the great and wonderful PJ! One of my best memories of that time at Weta was visiting some of the shooting sets. I saw the room in Moria where they battle the cave troll in ‘Fellowship’, some of Rivendell, and a gorgeous set of Minas Tirith. It was a treat for a geek like me to be able to wander through the fantasy world I had loved since childhood. There’s something very touching about a film set: it’s only painted boards, sure, but the artistry that goes into productions like Lord of the Rings is breathtaking. There’s nothing better than actually being ‘on stage’, smelling that smell of dust on the lighting equipment. You get to see each and every beautiful detail that went into the design. Even the finished film itself is second to that experience in my mind. Nothing virtual comes close. Maybe I should have been a gaffer.

When I first got my mind around your world, I laughed out loud with pleasure and then wondered why no one else had thought of it first. First up, can you give us an intro in your own words to the world of TF?

Certainly (glad to give you the giggles, Blake.) ‘Tymon’s Flight’ is essentially a coming-of-age fantasy tale set in a giant tree, though there are some underlying sf-nal or steampunk themes to the story. When visualizing the World Tree, don’t think “great big oak or elm”, think mind-bogglingly immense baobab the size of a continent: a massive spreading agglomeration of trunk and branches that might cover an area equivalent to the Himalayan mountain range. About that high, too, at its topmost point. It’s messy, it’s wide, and who knows—it might not even be one tree, but many all grown together. Although that sort of statement might get you tried for heresy in Argos city, the place where Tymon, the lead character of my story comes from. The priests there tend to be a bit fussy about definitions.

One delightful aspect of reading about your world tree and its inhabitant’s understanding of science is making connections to the many images of trees and knowledge in many different religions and folklores: the ‘tree of knowledge’ in the Old Testament, the cross as a transformed-tree in the New Testament, and the ‘world tree’ of the ancient Nordic traditions. To what extent, if at all, did you intend to invoke these comparisons? Are there other references in religion and folklore you wish to invoke?

Yes yes yes. I admit everything, you’re onto me. I have borrowed ideas and images from the sacred myths and scriptures of several religions to create my world. A scriptural odyssey, if you will. I was of course inspired by the Yggdrasil of Norse myth, the World Tree, which is a relatively well-known story. There’s also a world-tree in Siberian stories whose crown is connected to heaven and whose roots descend into hell. The Bible and Koran gave me the trees of Knowledge and Life – there are two sorts of mythical trees in Eden, and that’s important for the second book of my trilogy, so I won’t spoil. Otherwise the Christian cross/Sacred Rood and the Bo-tree under which the Buddha sat also influenced me in different ways. The Baha’i scripture I was brought up on is full of references to the Tree of Life, again drawing on the Biblical and Koranic traditions. Samaya Buddhism organizes its teachings into systems of roots and branches, which I find delightful. Another great source of inspiration is the Tree of Life in the Jewish Kabbalah. I was fascinated by iconic trees and worlds within trees, whether physical or spiritual.

I set out specifically to ring that gong, so I’m glad you picked up on the references!

Well, I do like being right, and that is a wonderful elaboration. I’m positive that discovering those resonances will delight your readers. As a Unitarian, I’ve heard many admiring descriptions of the Baha’i faith, which emphasizes the spiritual unity of humanity. I find it interesting that you’ve created a mythological world that brings together so many different spiritual traditions. Do you see your upbringing having fostered this world?”

Neat, you’re a Unitarian? Yay for ecumenists of all stripes! We need more of you guys in this crazy world. Yes, absolutely, my upbringing fostered a pluralistic view of religion and therefore a tendency to look for what is similar in belief systems, instead of focusing on the things that keep us apart. That has certainly influenced my writing. ‘Tymon’s Flight’ is in part a story about a society in the grip of exclusive, intolerant beliefs that lead people to hold onto modes of thought contrary to good sense, scientific truth and even self-preservation in the end. At the same time, it’s ultimately a story about having faith – you can read that as having faith in yourself, if you’re of an atheistic bent.

Basically, religion is an expression of humanity at its best and worst, and creating a fantasy religion is a great way of exploring that problem.

I loved how into the mythological and religious connections you placed Science Fictionally and Steampunk-ish notes. Could you give us a quick view of the state of technology in the world tree and remark on if you intentionally blended technology and mythology so?

I modeled the Argosians, the dominant culture in the Tree at the time of this tale, on a various different peoples and nations, including Persian (Iranian), European, Arab and Indian cultures. Argosians are at a fifteenth-century level of technology if we compare them to Europeans and perhaps a tenth or twelfth-century level compared to the Muslim world of Rumi or Al-Khawarizmi. (It’s scholars in Baghdad and other places who came up with the algebra and medicine and translated the ancient Greek texts that were so influential in kick-starting the European Renaissance.) There is wind power and Tree-ether to float dirigibles, but steam power has only been dreamed up so far by a few isolated thinkers… as an aside, did you know the Romans had steam power, but never made anything of it? I find that fascinating. Imagine SPQR on steam.

Of course what’s happening now in the Tree is not the whole story. There are glimpses in book one of a far older and stranger civilization than any currently flourishing in the world. The ‘Old Ones,’ or simply ‘the Ancients’ have acquired the status of myth by Tymon’s era. They are credited with amazing powers and a quasi-magical technology which is now lost. Accounts of the demise of their civilization have been mixed together with all sorts of cautionary tales and moralizing on the part of the Argosian priests. Also, as tends to happen, several episodes of ancient history have been scrambled together to make one improbable fable. The truth lies between the lines…

Though I was struck by how charming your world is, I became engrossed in the book because of the characters. Tymon in particular is a fellow I’d like to hang out with. On the strength of his role alone I can recommend Tymon’s Flight to anyone who enjoyed Spellwright. Could you briefly introduce Tymon and tell us what inspired his character, maybe how you found his voice?

You’re very kind to say so. Actually, I feel the same way about Nicodemus!

It’s one of those annoying truisms to say a writer uses himself or herself as a template for characters, but I’m afraid in this case that’s the bottom line. Tymon is me. I am a fifteen year old boy… No, wait, that came out wrong. 😉 Tymon has all the characteristics I would have had at his age, had I been a boy growing up in a restrictive religious institution. To wit: he is rebellious, curious, and a dreamer. He has an idealistic streak that comes out as naivety and a chip on his shoulder a mile wide about being less worthy than everyone else. Basically he’s a good person in a tough situation. He needs to loosen up a bit and acquire a sense of humour. He has to figure out who he is: he is not his upbringing, his ethnic background, his talent or occupation. I find it interesting that coming-of-age stories so often include a trip to the other side of the world, to another planet or undiscovered country. (Huzzah Joseph Campbell!) This story is no exception. Tymon finds himself by experiencing a culture vastly different to his own. In that sense I’d say the closest fantasy inspiration for this tale is ‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert. There are many other inspirations of course… the myth of Theseus provides some of the main story points, and I’ve always loved Mary Renault’s rendering of that tale in ‘The King Must Die.’

So let’s change gears a bit and talk about you. A little bird once told me that you didn’t learn to drive until you were 35. How’d that come about?
Good grief, I was flying high in some kind of rarified space and now I’ve tumbled right back down to earth. Thank you, I probably needed that. Well, I didn’t learn to drive till then because I suck, as they say, at real life. You have no idea how much. Or maybe you do: you’re a writer of fantasy, too. Do you find the ‘real world’ baffling? I know I do. It’s all taxes this, groceries that, misplace that form and boom, you’re fired. Meh. Who says that’s real? I like to look at things and people and wonder what they’d be like if they were freed of all that so-called reality. Imagine if people actually resembled what was going on in their heads. You’d have doormat people, shiny escalator people, chewy styrofoam coffee-cup people… There would be such a howling whirlwind of dragonish power around the Pentagon that I think the whole DC area would turn into a singularity. OK, your eyes are glazing over, I’ll stop now.

No. No. That look is me remembering a blind date I had with a chew Styrofoam coffee-cup woman. Bad, non-biodegradable, times. Anyway, you were born in Turners Falls, Mass., but have since lived most of your life around the world: Canada, France, England, Cyprus, and Sierra Leone being just some of the places you called home. What kept you on the move and what made you finally decide to set down roots (forgive the pun) in New Zealand.

My family are incurable globetrotters. We can’t stay put if we try, and haven’t done so for generations. I blame it on all the incompatible genetics pulling us in different directions: Iranian, Azeri, Jewish, English, all the major monotheistic religions and a few minor ones battling it out in our DNA. Everyone probably clamouring for a different God-given homeland. Well, they won’t get it. They’ll just have to make do with New Zealand. I ask forgiveness of whatever long-suffering spirits were here in this country before me, because I’ve dragged along a lot of my own gods in the family suitcase.

Why put down roots in NZ? To quote the late great Angela Carter: “The earth is so rich. And the air is so sweet.” (‘Miss Z, the dark young lady’)

So let’s go, circle like, back to the books. What are you working on now, and what can we look forward to from Mary Victoria?

‘Tymon’s Flight’ is the first installment of a trilogy. It’s available from August 1st in Australia and will be in stores in NZ around the 13th, I believe. I’ve completed the second book, due out in February 2011, and am working on the third title now for publication in August 2011. After book three is finished, who knows… the sky’s the limit.

For those out there in or outside of Australia/New Zealand wanted to get their hands on a copy of Tymon’s Flight. How could they do so?

The book will be available at good independent bookshops, as well as stores like Borders and Dymocks:

…and Angus Robertson, though I haven’t got a direct link yet (hey Aussies, check out these guys closer to the release date, they’re a great bookseller):

HarperCollins also has a direct buy link.

The book should be available with Whitcoolls and other high street retailers in NZ a little later and of course… if you happen to be in Wellington on August 14th, don’t forget to drop by the WETA CAVE to buy your signed copy of ‘Tymon’s Flight’… at the launch party! (I’ll be posting details on my blog.)

In addition, people in the USA and Europe will be able to get their hands on an e-book from Amazon and other ebook retailers from August 1st.

Mary, it’s been wonderful chatting. Here’s to a wonderful book launch in August.

Thanks so much, Blake!

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