What made you write Between Blades as a novella? Was it a conscious plan from the start, or something that naturally evolved through the process?
The main thing was finishing writing a novel and saying nope, not doing that again*. I wrote Between Blades years ago, before I knew I wanted to take writing more seriously - it was my first ever story submission of any kind! - and looking back, I'm surprised by how joyful the experience of writing it was. Writing a novel is daunting. I'm forever thinking about structure, which I hate. Short stories are hard in the other direction. I'm always worrying they'll spiral out of control. A novella is both at once: a long short story, or a short novel. There's something freeing about that - but strangely enough, I haven't written another one since. Maybe I'm worried the first time was a fluke. (I do have ideas for several, including both a prequel and a sequel to this one!)
*narrator voice: he did that again.
When you sit down to write a story, what's the thing you start with - worldbuilding, plot, characters, ideas, something else entirely? And how do you decide what comes next?
Usually a story accretes around the relationship between two characters; but usually, all the other elements have been bouncing around my head, looking for an outlet, so I'm not sure it's accurate to say I start there. It's more like, once I know I want to write a story about some characters, I rummage around to see if I've already got a world or a plot or a cool concept that would fit.
You've had a number of short stories published in various magazines - was there any difference in the process for this? Or anything you think you'd do differently if you did ever write another novella?
I'd say the biggest difference is I wrote my short stories with a much better understanding of the publishing industry! That's a pro and a con, and it probably ties into my wariness with writing more novellas. Short stories are (relatively) quick to write and there's a lot of markets for them. These days if I write a short I feel reasonably confident I can get it published. Novellas are different. Despite the popularity of the form (with readers AND writers!), novellas are paradoxically hard to get published. For unagented writers, there's a limited number of small presses and magazines that publish a handful of novellas a year, and it's a rare agent who'll take on a client on the strength of a novella alone. The same inbetween-ness that makes them a joy to write also makes them frustrating to find homes for. Don't get me wrong, I'm not out here minmaxing all my writing for optimal career advancement, but when I have lots of projects to work on, it's easy to defer the novella-sized ones until some nebulous future when the path to publishing them will be easier.
Given all that, how did Between Blades come to be published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies? Was it something you just sent for open submissions or something more directed?
It was the ol' "have a drink with the editor" that did it for me. I'd sold a few shorter stories to Scott but I didn't meet him in person until this year's Readercon, where I mentioned in passing I had this novella I was trying to place. He invited me to submit it to BCS, which was a pleasant surprise, because I actually hadn't realised he occasionally published novellas. Lest I feed the narrative that publishing is all about connections and bar-based networking, I think the real lesson here is to be enthusiastic about your work, even (especially) the unpublished stuff. Someone might be looking for just the story you've written, but they'll never know to ask if you don't talk about it!
Talk to people? Horrifying thought :P
Flipping back to novellas more generally, you talk about the joy of writing them, but what do you think are the strengths of the format from a reader's perspective?
They're the exact right length to read on a lazy weekend afternoon. They can linger like a novel but be focused like a short story. They're like Macbeth to a novel's Hamlet. I think these are all ways of saying the same thing.
I feel like there’s a whole essay in your thoughts about Macbeth and Hamlet there, but possibly not to the purpose of this discussion. We can take that offline, as the business people say.
Moving onto Between Blades more specifically, the setting draws on aspects of the Roman empire, both in the gladiatorial games as well as in the bureaucracy, as many stories have done before. Why did you choose to go there, and what do you think it's doing for the story?
Follow up question: I find it very interesting that you have two key figures in your story called Livia and Agrippa - were they specific choices, or conveniently Roman-sounding names, or something else/in between?
Part of it was the constraint of doing a lot of worldbuilding in a smallish space. I wasn't drawing on any one culture for Leshin and the archipelago in general, which is how I prefer my fantasy worldbuilding, but that does require a little more work. In the opening half, which is where all the archipelago scenes take place, the slower pace allowed for that depth to the worldbuilding. In the latter half, the plot and the character arcs are well in progress, so it was useful to have a setting that felt familiar - it let me focus on the details that really mattered to Leris while the reader sketched in the rest.
I went with Rome as my model because, I mean, yes, gladiators and bureaucracy, but once I started thinking about it, it felt right in other ways, too. I particularly wanted to evoke the sense of a large, complex, contradictory state - the sort of place where it's not entirely clear if everyone agrees they're part of the same empire. Emona and Traiti are at odds. Livia and Agrippa are at odds. There's strict class hierarchies, too, and a confusing religion. When Leris arrives, having only experienced the Empire as a looming, hegemonic presence in the archipelago, she's immediately put into friction with this reality. It was also a small opportunity to insert myself into the story! Fun fact time: Slovenia's only been an independent country slightly longer than I've been alive, which I think is responsible for a recurring contradiction in my writing, between belonging and not. Part of but not heart of, if you like. I knew right away that I wanted to take the story somewhere other than the heart of the Empire, and why not borrow the Roman name for Ljubljana, where I was born?
As for the characters - gosh, I can't pretend I remember exactly. Livia, I think, was a specific choice. I liked the idea of putting the first Roman Empress in her husband's place, and from there it made sense to borrow the name of one of his close friends for Livia's closest friend (slash enemy).
Incidentally, I was doing the edits for Between Blades right around the time the Roman Empire was making waves on social media. I can neither confirm nor deny the frequency with which I was thinking about the Roman Empire at that time.
Picking up on the belonging part of your answer - a lot of the centre of the narrative is about that, about fitting into boxes other people make for you. Or... well, not. As a story, it's extremely gender, in the best way possible. How do you go about writing something with that strong of a message at the heart without it overwhelming the rest of the story, or likewise being overwhelmed? Especially when you only have a novella length of time to fit it into?
I think of speculative fiction as a magnifying glass. Some people feel emotions very strongly and with great certainty, and maybe they don’t need a magnifying glass, but I do. Otherwise it’s like trying to sort sand with tweezers. I’ll know that there’s something in there, in that handful of sand, a feeling or an emotion, that’s worth writing a story about it. But I won’t really know what it is until I’ve teased it out and separated it from the rest, and for that I need a magnifying glass.
I don’t really think of those two things - the emotional core of the story and the fantastical elements that make up the plot - as being in opposition. Leris’s journey is my grain of sand. The rest is the magnifying glass. One can’t overwhelm the other because they do not compete for the same space but occupy it together, one laid over the other.
Speculative fiction is good at this because it is, by definition, larger than life.
In terms of that emotional core, are there any books or authors you think do it particularly well, or ones you draw inspiration from or look to when you're writing yourself? Bonus points if they're novellas.
They’re certainly not novellas, but I want to mention Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan books and CL Clark’s Magic of the Lost, which are very different series but share a knack for anchoring large-scale concepts of empire and identity in the emotions and relationships of their protagonists. I do love bonus points, though, so I’d be remiss not to mention Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey - a solid contender for the best love story I’ve ever read, with the sort of speculative twist that gently rearranges your understanding of the story.
A Taste of Honey is a masterpiece. I finished it then immediately wanted to bite it because reading it with my eyes simply wasn't sufficient.
Thinking in terms of novellas specifically, are there any trends you think might come up in the next few years, or changes you'd like to see in the format?
I have an interesting answer and a boring answer and I'll let you decide which is which. First, I'd like to see more series of novellas. I like the current trend in SFF of standalone novels that feel like they would have been trilogies back in the day - The Priory of the Orange Tree, Some Desperate Glory, and their ilk - but what if we experimented with trilogies where each installment is much shorter? (Half-Life 2 fans, avert your eyes.) In terms of total word count they'd stack up about the same, I think, so I'd be curious to see what changes when you draw sharper divides between sections of the story. Second, I'd like to see some reappraisal of the word count limits for award categories. I'm in the weeds here, I know, but those word limits are the reason we care about words like "novelette" and "novella" to begin with. At present there's an artificial gap between about forty and sixty thousands words where stories are too long for many novella publishers but too short to be marketed as a novel, so by and large they don't get published. (One exception is In the Vanisher's Palace by Aliette de Bodard, which is one of my favourite novellas.) Novellas have always been a bridge between short fiction and books, so perhaps a level of falling-through-the-cracks is inevitable, but the publishing landscape has changed massively since those limits were set. It's a good time for a rethink.
And then last question - can you tell us a bit more about Between Blades?
Between Blades (or ebook version) is a novella about gladiators who turn into weapons, the pervasive power of hegemony, and finding yourself in the spaces between cultures. It's about the friendship between the living embodiment of the term "spear queer" and a woman who mostly just wants to be left alone to chill with her twin brother. Ultimately, if you like stories where all the fight scenes are actually stand-ins for discussions of identity and belonging, this is for you.