Official author website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Nine
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little bit about yourself. Feel free to brag ☺
Thanks for having me! I’m Tracy Townsend, author of the Thieves of Fate fantasy series, which began with The Nine in 2017 and now continues with The Fall (out June 11, 2019). I teach science fiction and fantasy literature and creative writing at a public boarding school for students gifted in STEM, so the intersection of humanism and rational study in my stories is no coincidence -- although I can confirm there aren’t anywhere near as many heists happening on my campus as happen in my books. I have a background teaching martial arts and coaching actors in both stage combat and accent performance, which doesn’t come in useful for much aside from being a very exciting bedtime story reader for my children.
When and why have you decided to become an author?
I’ve been writing stories ever since I was small. Becoming an author was just a way of making it official and slightly less weird to others.
The fantasy genre is broad—your writing seems to be more on the innovative, genre-blending end of the spectrum. You draw inspiration from different mythologies, periods and subgenres. One of reviewers called The Nine a Gaslamp New Weird. I find it fitting. Can you discuss this?
I’m fond of telling my students that when someone presents something under a particular genre label, they assume there’s been an argument that they’ve already won. I love the malleability of speculative fiction, so there was never any question of me writing sf that was “pure” anything, at least in terms of genre conventions. I’m fairly sure I understand what gaslamp fantasy is, but New Weird is. . . well. . . intentionally slippery. I’m glad you find the label fitting! It’s always a bit of a surprise to me, how people categorize my work -- dark fantasy, horror, literary fantasy, science fantasy. It’s been called a lot of stuff. In the end, I’m happiest when a reader is able to find a way of explaining the text to themselves. Whether or not I agree with the label they use to do it isn’t ultimately important.
Serious writing takes not only a story to tell, but the craft of writing to tell it well—can you comment on your journey as a writer?
Every writer has their own good and bad habits, which I suppose is how I’m distilling the vast question of “my journey” down. I think about character and setting in meticulous detail naturally, but I also tend to overwrite in my first and second drafts. Most of my revision process is taking things out -- being more coy with signals between characters, holding back a bit more. My journey as a writer has largely been about understanding what I do well enough to not let it get in the way of the rest of my storytelling.
Tell us a little bit about your writing process. When and where do you write? Do you start with a character, an image, or an idea? Talk a little bit about how a novel “grows” for you.
I tend to write things out of sequence -- scenes and images and encounters come to mind, and I hash them out as rough drafts, pieces of what will eventually become a larger whole. Then I review them and try to find the throughline. Which moment happened first? Are these two characters talking about the same thing, in different places and times? And so on. Once I do that, I have this extremely skeletal, impressionistic collection of scenes that lie at the core of the narrative. Then I go back to the beginning to figure out how my characters have navigated their way through this journey and fill in from there. Often I’ll stop to study images online or in books, look up historical context (mostly so I can figure out how to warp it to my own purposes), and otherwise do bits of inspiration-driven research that helps fuel the process as I go.
Do you give yourself mini-deadlines (e.g. must have chapters x-y written by January 1st) or do you progress with an ultimate deadline in mind?
I do all sorts of things to try to outsmart my own tendency to overschedule and fall behind in my work. Mini-deadlines, writing accountability buddies, NaNoWriMo, word sprints. In the end, it’s the ultimate deadline that looms largest and controls my process the most. Everything else I tend to adapt around it, as my brain is far too squirrelly to behave under the same system of supports for very long.
What’s the hardest thing for you during the whole “writing experience”?
Waiting. Professional writing is waiting. Realizing this draft will take longer than you thought, and waiting on yourself to finish. Waiting on critique partners or your agent to read and give feedback. Waiting on news from your editor or your publicist or somebody else in the publishing pipeline. Waiting for permission to announce big news, once you have it.
I hate waiting.
What are the reasons you decided to publish?
I’d written something that felt. . . good. And important. I wanted to know what the world would think of it, for good or ill.
What did you find easy, difficult, or surprising about the publishing process?
Waaaaaitinnnng is awfuuuuuuuul. . .
What was your initial inspiration for Thieves of Fate series?
Look up Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. He writes about a group of people he calls the lamed wufniks (more properly, the lamed vovniks). That’s where it all started. Something about God finding a kind of observational subset of humanity to use in order to judge our collective worthiness smacked of a kind of bizarre, almost scientific experiment. All the rest followed after.
Please, tell our readers what do your characters have to overcome in The Nine and its upcoming sequel The Fall? What challenge did you set before them?
Murder, political treachery, inter-species warfare, cultural absolutism, dark pasts, old scores, restless ghosts, Rowena’s exceptionally bad cooking, and the Alchemist’s tendency toward airsickness. Among other things.
What unique challenges did this book pose for you, if any?
In The Nine, I could do basically anything I wanted with my world and its characters. But The Fall exists in a world that’s at least partly exposed and understood already. There are rules now -- rules I made. You’d be amazed how many things there are to remember across 260,000 words of series and counting, and how being the one guilty of writing them doesn’t actually make it that much easier to keep it all straight.
The Nine was one of my top reads in 2017. I loved everything about it, but for the sake of this interview I’ll try to name these things. So, one thing I really enjoyed in The Nine was the relationship between religion and science. Tell me more about the idea of science serving to prove and record the existence of God?
If you think about it, there’s something almost faith-based at the core of scientific practice. That unwavering certainty that with fidelity to a process -- continuous observation, meticulous collection of data, and ongoing reflective practice -- we can achieve a more complete understanding of our world. It’s ritualistic. We tend to use the word “ritual” as if it indicates repetitive processes that are symbolic, or somehow negligible. But rituals can be practical. All science is, when you come down to it, is a ritual we have agreed achieves the desired result of greater comprehension of our universe, an understanding we strive to make objectively true and inviolate -- even if we must strive through our own imperfections to achieve that state. I mean, honestly. Doesn’t that sound a bit like religion to you, too?
Another thing that impressed me was the inclusion of unique creatures such as Aigamuxa and Lanyani. Please, tell us more about their origin and how they fit in the world of the Thieves of Fate?
The lanyani -- sentient, mobile trees whose outlook on the world is as alien to humanity as their bodies are different from ours -- were really a by-product of me being bored by the conventional high fantasy depictions of arboreal creatures. They’re either ethereal, gentle, and timid, or ravening savages. There’s no in-between. High elves are boring. Treants and Ents are ponderous and distant. I wanted beings that were of nature in a highly visible, highly literal way, and which were equal parts grace and murder. Hence, the lanyani.
The aigamuxa, I really can’t take credit for. They’re actual mythological creatures that appear in the stories of the Khoikhoi people of Africa. There are some key differences between their aigamuxa and mine, though. I made mine jungle-born brachiators and keen, organized predators, rather than clumsy, solitary ogres stumbling through savannah. I wanted a reason for their eyes to be in the soles of their feet, and making them tree-dwelling creatures who descend on their prey from above seemed the way to do it. To the Khoikhoi, aigamuxa are vicious, but dull-witted, easily tricked, and so badly hampered by their eye-feet that their man-eating ways don’t pose much of a threat to the well-prepared. I wanted creatures that had their own brutal dignity, instead: horrifying and dangerous and in their own way, deeply human.
The main characters in any book are commonly considered a reflection of the author. Is this true in Thieves of Fate series?
I tend to magpie little bits and pieces of people I know -- and of myself -- in making characters. So, in a sense, all of my characters are a reflection of me. I identify with Gammon’s struggle to balance cool pragmatism with Doing What Is Right on an emotional level. The Alchemist’s constant struggle to present his real feelings is partly me, too. Anselm’s snark and confidence are entirely my husband. Rowena’s struggle with her mother is rooted in my own struggles with my late mother’s prolonged, profound physical and mental illnesses. Even Rabbit is based on one of my dogs.
Who is your favorite character to write, and why? And least favorite?
I love writing Chalmers. So much. His various neuroses and priggish tendencies are such fun to play with. He’s also a playful amalgam of many actual academics and scientists I’ve worked with over the years, so putting things in his perspective is a kind of homage to them and all the ways they’ve driven me up the wall. The truth is, though, there’s no character in the mix I don’t love writing. If I didn’t love crawling around the inside of their heads, I wouldn’t give them a point of view in the first place.
I really like Anselm and his grey morality leaning toward blackish. It would be amazing to read a novella or a short story from his POV. Would you consider giving us a glimpse of his thinking process?
Funny. I tend to think that’s what the switches to close third person chapters in the different characters’ POVs already does. I try to embed the information needs to understand a character’s thinking process in the tone and focus of their POV chapters. If what you mean is, “Is there an Anselm-focused story in our future?” then the answer is, “Maybe.” I’ve certainly considered it.
You’ve created rich world with unique creatures, fairly advanced technology, and magic. What challenges did you face not just in making it accessible, but in incorporating all the information that needed to be conveyed to make the story work?
This may sound strange, but honestly, the way to work through world-building where you’re juggling so many disparate elements is to not incorporate too much information. I know the answers to lots of things I don’t put on the page, simply because getting lost in all the details doesn’t help the reader. Instead, I try to focus on what helps create the perspective necessary for this moment and build on that in successive chapters and scenes. Eventually, the partial information feels whole enough to satisfy readers without taking them out of the story itself.
If you would be given the chance to rewrite any of the scenes in The Nine before publication, would you do it? If yes, what and why? I ask because I’m sure you can’t sleep at nights after killing you know who.
Honestly? No. There are sentences I might tweak, but the arc of the story itself I’m proud of. I sleep just fine, where that book is concerned.
And if you’re upset with me about that part of The Nine. . . you might be really upset with me over The Fall.
Would you say that Thieves of Fate series follows tropes or kicks them?
I suppose the most honest answer is, “Yes, both.” I can’t think of a story that dismantles and rejects every trope you could think of, because there are so many. Indeed, I have a lot of favorite tropes, both in what I write and what I read. What matters to me most is that every piece of my story, from the characters through the setting and on to the plot, reflects my take on how the story needs to be told. Sometimes, winking at a trope helps make that happen; other times, I want to offer something more startling and less familiar. But absolute novelty for its own sake is likelier to make a text inhospitable to its reader than inviting.
Which question about the series do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Nobody ever asks about character names! I wish they would. There’s a story behind each and every one. Rowena, for example, is named for a character I played in a tabletop RPG many years ago, though she isn’t anything like that particular character. I started off using the name as a placeholder, fully intending to change it later, until I realized that it really did fit. Anselm Meteron’s name is a double Easter egg (and no, I won’t just give the answer; a little Googling should help you find your way). Resurrection Jane Ardai is named for a co-worker of my husband’s who also introduced himself with his full name, including middle initial. It was years before I realized his name was “[redacted] R. Dye,” and not “[something something] Ardai” or “Ardye,” as I’d always heard. And of course, there are many, many others.
What can we expect after The Fall? If I remember well Thieves of Fate is supposed to be a trilogy?
After The Fall, we wait. Pyr always knew I was writing a trilogy, but taking on a new author is a risk for all involved, and so the final book is what publishers call “an option” book. Based on the sales and reception of The Fall, they’ll decide what to do about concluding the series. So if you really want to give the Thieves of Fate the conclusion they deserve? Buy the book! Review it online! Talk it up to your friends! Spread the word on social media! Ask your local library to order a copy, or your local bookstore to carry it! Hell, see if your library or bookstore wants to have me over for a visit. The more Pyr sees the demand for the final chapter of the saga, the closer we get to making it a reality.
Do you have any other authorial goals that you are striving towards that you want to talk about?
I have another, entirely unrelated to the Thieves of Fate project I’m working on and looking forward to publishing. It’s a science fiction story set in space, perfect for anyone who has loved Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers books, Farscape, or Barbary Station: dark, character-driven, dangerous, tense, and sometimes shockingly heartwarming.
Can you name three books you adore as a reader, but that make you feel inadequate as a writer?
Max Gladstone’s entire Craft sequence of novels. I don’t care if that’s cheating, it’s just a fact.
N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. No one should be able to launch a series in second person, right? It’s not the done thing. Heh. Nora Jemisin does not care about your “done things.”
Fonda Lee’s Jade City. The world-building. The politics. The family drama. It’s a book so good, I was made I didn’t write it (not that I ever could have).
Thank you so much for agreeing to this conversation, Tracy! We greatly appreciate your time and thoughts.
You’re very welcome!