Monday, February 3, 2020

Interview: A.K. Larkwood, author of The Unspoken Name

A.K. Larkwood's debut fantasy novel, The Unspoken Name, is already garnering rave reviews ahead of it's February release. A novel that offers Gods who may not have your best interests at heart, a sacrifice who becomes an assassin, witty dialog, complex relationships, and characters who have to deal with escaping their own destinies, this is the kind of story that pulls you right in from the first chapter. If that didn't get your attention, when Tor announced the deal with Larkwood last May, her quote was “The Unspoken Name grew out of my long-standing curiosity about villains’ sidekicks: what might it take to stay loyal to a boss who is clearly bad news? What do you owe to someone who saves your life, and what do they owe to you?” Consider my attention grabbed and owned!

The good news is that there is a lengthy excerpt available at The better news is that this is the first book in a series, so you'll get to spend more time in this world. I realize now, I am forcing you to choose between reading this interview first, or reading the excerpt first.

A.K. Larkwood lives in England with her wife and their cat. She's worked in media relations, higher education, and is now studying law. She was kind enough to answer my questions about what inspired her to write this series, her unique approach to developing magic systems, the joy of writing Csorwe and Tal's relationship, her favorite fantasy reads, and more.

Let's get to the interview!

A.K. Larkwood (photo credit Vicki Bailey / VHB Photography
NOAF: The Unspoken Name has some classic fantasy adventure trappings - old magics, watchful gods, assassins, warring wizards, and such. How did you know what classic fantasy elements to keep, which to ditch, and which to reinvent entirely?

A.K.L.: There was definitely a tension between my deep and abiding love of classic swords-and-sorcery, and my eagerness to do something new.

Before working on The Unspoken Name, I’d had the idea that a fantasy setting should be almost independent of its story, a place with predictable rules in which you could run a tabletop RPG if you so chose. I’d shelved a project which ran on desperately conventional lines, in a vaguely Medieval European setting. I was always looking up the origins of different plants to avoid the classic "why are there potatoes in Lord of the Rings" trap, which I saw at the time as an anachronistic gaffe. I’d had to rewrite a scene I really loved because, as it turns out, sunflowers didn’t arrive in Europe until the 16th century.

This all seemed really important and meaningful at the time for reasons which are now opaque to me - why should an invented world share the geography, botany and colonial history of our world, unless that’s something you want to meaningfully engage with?

In this book I wanted to rethink the idea of anachronism, to resist the idea of a fantasy setting as a fully-realised simulation, with a defined “tech level” and a little snowglobe of geopolitics. Plausibility is not a bad thing, but there are sometimes more interesting questions for a fantasy writer to ask than “could things happen like this in the real world?”

NOAF: How did you get the idea for The Unspoken Name?

I could probably come up with a different answer for this for every day of the week! But one of the first things I figured out was how magic was going to work. I’m not always keen on a defined “magic system” in which everything is known and casting a spell is a reliable transaction, but I do see that if you're going to give some characters access to vast cosmic power you need to find ways to make that a huge problem for them.

I’d been struck by the way divine magic works in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Interlacing magic with religion makes it feel less artificial, more embedded in the world, and gives you an opportunity to draw interesting contrasts between different cultures and practices. But it still left me with the problem of how to set limits on what you can actually do with magic.

The solution I eventually came up with is that a mage draws power from their patron deity, with whom they have a more-or-less personal relationship. I liked the idea of the major constraint on your magical power being emotional rather than technical, based on your lifelong dealings with this inhuman immortal being who may or may not have your best interests at heart.

NOAF: I am so intrigued by Csorwe's culture, and what she is expected to do in her life. How did you develop Csorwe's character and the culture she grows up in?

A.K.L.: I have to admit I’m not a very systematic worldbuilder. New facets of the world arise from a combination of what's needed for the story, and what feels intuitively like a good flavour. In the case of Csorwe’s upbringing at the House of Silence, the narrative called for a religious community with a commitment to sacrifice, and the aesthetic hook was that sense of austerity and isolation, things buried in the snow, the immense bleakness of the boreal forest.

After the initial concept I tend to develop setting as I go along, through characters’ experience. The House of Silence came into being through Csorwe’s eyes, and the details I invented are the things she would care about. So while in real life it’s probably the case that environment shapes personality, the reverse is true for me here. With another protagonist, it would have turned out very different.

NOAF: Without giving us too many spoilers, can you tell us which parts of the book were the most fun for you to write? What was the hardest scene to write?

A.K.L.: My favourite parts to write were any interactions between Csorwe and her colleague/rival Tal. I’m really interested in writing co-worker dynamics because they can be as complicated and hierarchical as family relationships - you don't have a lot of choice about these people being in your life, but you're all bound by a certain amount of common experience and in the end you're probably going to have to find a way to co-exist.

Csorwe and Tal feel they have a licence to be as nasty as possible to each other and nobody stops them, because they both work for a wizard whose approach to Human Resources… falls short of best practice.

Without spoiling it, one of the hardest parts to write was an interrogation scene. It’s supposed to be tense and unsettling, so I didn't want to pull the punch, but I’m really tired of reading voyeuristic depictions of women suffering as passive objects. So that was a challenge - trying to focus in on the character in a way that feels like we’re with her rather than looking in from outside.

NOAF: How different is the finished book from your early drafts? Did any of your early ideas change drastically?

A.K.L.: Definitely - the core dynamic between Csorwe and the wizard was there from the start but almost all the other characters have been developed beyond recognition.

Early drafts also included some vague background homophobia, I think from the same uninformed ideas about anachronism which had me frantically googling the global distribution of Helianthus back in 2012. I had no actual desire to write about anyone’s guilt or fear regarding their sexual orientation! But so many of the books I'd read that bothered to include queer characters at all did include some sad wrangling with the topic, so it somehow felt formally necessary. Realising there was no real reason to do any of that was very freeing.

NOAF: The Unspoken Name is the first in a trilogy. I'm always interested in how authors decide at which scene one book should end, and if the next book should pick up immediately afterward, or a few months or years afterward. How did you go about making those decisions?

A.K.L.: I wanted The Unspoken Name to stand alone as one story, so - without giving away too much about the ending - I aimed to tie up the loose ends as much as possible. I’m revising the sequel at the moment, and hope to build on that to tell another story that's complete in itself. It does start a few years after the events of Unspoken - the idea is to give it space to stand on its own, to be able to come at the characters from a fresh perspective.

NOAF: Did you read a lot of fantasy fiction growing up? Which books had an influence on the stories you are telling now?

A.K.L.: I’ve always been a sci-fi and fantasy fan. I used to think I was going to have to grow out of books about demons and witches someday, because my family aren’t SFF nerds and I didn’t really know these books existed for adults! I’m glad to have been wrong about that.

There are obviously dozens of influences I could name, but in terms of sheer technical impact the winner might be Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, which I read from age 8-12 or so.

These are, of course, adventure stories about talking mice with swords. There are dozens of them and they're all pretty identical - you can be sure there will be an epic journey, a prophetic riddle, an extravagantly evil supervillain, a lavishly-described feast - but it does mean that if that's your thing, you'll never be disappointed. Jacques’ storytelling craft is tremendous. I would have read a hundred of these books. I had a recurring dream about finding a new shelf of new Redwall books at the library. They hit me at just the moment when I was trying to write stories for the first time, and made my tiny brain explode with the sheer possibilities: I learned about using multiple narrative points of view, fleshing out the antagonists, and putting in a giant talking snake that eats people.

They're also a good example of how a book can be formative in what it doesn't give you. I was both enchanted and unsatisfied by the Redwall antagonists. I loved the baddies and I loved how often we got to see what was going on in their heads, but I remember thinking even then that it was weird how the rats and stoats were almost always evil (in fairness, this does get subverted somewhat in the later books). I’ve always been interested in the trappings of “villainy” and the kinds of characters who are pigeonholed as villainous - what their actual motivations and loyalties might actually be. My writings from around that time are full of plucky young goblins and demons who turn against the dark schemes of their bosses, so in some ways I’ve been writing the same book for 20 years.

(I met Brian Jacques when I was about 10 and, of course, piped up are you going to do more female villains???? proving that I’ve always been this person. He was very nice about it.)

NOAF: What have you read (or watched, or listened to) lately that you really enjoyed?

A.K.L.: I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune, which was a breath of fresh air in every sense - bracing and revitalising. It’s a novella about an exiled empress who devises a painstaking revenge, seen through the eyes of her loyal maidservant. It’s really remarkable to me for packing a novel’s amount of punch while also perfectly occupying the novella form.

NOAF: What kind of science fiction and/or fantasy is your favorite to read?

A.K.L.: I’m open to anything, but it’s especially easy to sell me on a fantasy book where the main character has a job that doesn’t map easily to a Dungeons and Dragons class - cook, detective, journalist, lawyer, musician… To name some recent favourites, Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead features a professional caver, Claire Bartlett’s We Rule The Night is about pilots, and the protagonist of Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey is the keeper of the palace animals. I think my favourite mundane profession made lively is in the video game Return of the Obra Dinn, which tells a fascinating fantasy-horror story through the eyes of an insurance adjuster. I’d love to see more of that.

NOAF: Thanks for joining us!

POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery.