Moth and Spark is your debut novel. Why did you set out to write a fantasy in your first go around? Are there particular aspects to the genre that you find inherently fascinating?
Moth and Spark is my debut, but not my first book – there’s a large manuscript stack of others. I’ve always written fantasy. It started because that was what I loved to read as a kid, and it continued because I like making up worlds and because I’m interested in the issues of societal power and justice that fantasy can engage with. Why do leaders make the choices that they do? What gets wars started? Does power corrupt? What about family dynamics in royal families? The unpublished book whose writing preceded Moth and Spark had a character trying to overcome his father’s legacy as a tyrant, and that’s certainly a question I want to explore more.
You have, to put it simply, a lot of degrees—a BA, an MFA, a PhD, and a Law degree. How has your background in higher education informed your writing? Is there one degree that influenced the conception of Moth and Spark?
None influenced the conception of Moth and Spark directly, but certainly my education played into my writing. My BA at St. John’s gave me a broad awareness of ideas and concepts about the world, both philosophical and scientific, and the lit Ph.D. built upon this with a narrower, deeper focus into how readers engage with stories. My MFA is in fiction, so I learned a lot of my craft there, and when I was revising Moth and Spark I kept remembering things I’d been told in workshops 20 years earlier. As for the law degree, one of the reasons I went to law school was that I realized my fantasy fiction was starting to have legal arguments about power and justice in it, and I decided that if that was what I was going to write, I should be paid accordingly. I started Moth and Spark the summer before law school, and then worked on it while in school and then in practice. I had to keep legal concepts from contaminating it (especially medieval property law). Reading cases is great for any writer, though, because they are stories of conflict and resolution laid bare.
Dragons play a large role in the book and, in many ways, have become a powerful symbol for the fantasy genre. What is it about dragons and other medieval creatures that appeal to you?
Well, everybody seems to love dragons! Sentient flying beasts that can breathe fire – how cool is that? I think the thing about dragons is that they seem more possible than other mythical creatures, such as hippogriffs, because we had the dinosaurs. When you go into a natural history museum and look at a T. rex skeleton, it’s scary and impressive and amazing, and it just seems like if that could exists dragons should too. (I suppose this thinking could apply to unicorns, but horses are just so ordinary and dinosaurs are not.) Also, dragons are bigger and smarter and more powerful than humans, but they have their dragonish ways that makes them different from humans, and it’s fun to play around with those differences.
From the visceral descriptions of Caithen to The Firekeepers, Seers, and the other magical characters inhabiting this book, the world you’ve created in Moth and Spark is lush with detail and wonderfully imaginative. How did you begin creating this world?
The book basically began as a book just for me – I’d thrown in the towel on trying to get published for a while and had decided to go to law school so I could make some money writing something more interesting than web copy. I realized I had this fantasy romance Cinderella-type story that had been trying so hard to get out that it was hijacking all my other fiction, so I should just write it. Therefore I went with a fairly traditional European style fantasy setting – the conventions were all part of the story. But I updated it to more or less the early 1800s, and then I pulled a lot of details from nineteenth century novels and other materials. Some stuff is based on Greek mythology and literature. Some is from my own observations. My hobby is photography, and I have an eye pretty well-trained to see details and notice patterns. I looked at pictures of things online when I wanted to describe something I didn’t know well, and I spent a fair amount of time on Wikipedia finding out about poisons and medicines and weaponry and horses and . . . The Internet definitely helped my research.
There are various magical powers or items in Moth and Spark that the characters wield or use. If you had to choose one magical power or item to have at your disposal, what would it be?
For good or for evil? The ability to cast illusions would be pretty great, and of course I’d like to play with fire, but I think the thing that I would really want is the ability to use visions to see the past. I’m a person who is more inclined toward finding things out than manipulating the world, so seeing the past, even just in snatches, would be amazing. This use of visions is more implied than spelled out in the book, because the characters are learning about it too, but that’s the underlying magic that could be tapped and used.
Name one fantasy writer and one non-fantasy writer that have influenced your own writing.
One fantasy writer is J.R.R. Tolkien, but not for the reasons most people have. When I go back to reread the Lord of the Rings, what I really pay attention to is his use of detail – it’s very plain language but extremely vivid, and I consciously used it as a model in writing this book. My favorite sentence in the Trilogy is this one from Fellowship: “The sky spoke of rain to come; but the light was broadening quickly, and the red flowers of the beans began to glow against the wet green leaves.” It’s so simple and vivid at the same time, and not bloated with adjectives at all. Without a really well-grounded normal world, strange and exotic things tend to just be confusing.
One non-fantasy writer would have to be W.B. Yeats, especially his earlier, more mythic poetry. Again, he is fabulous with detail and language. When I get stuck on something I’m writing, I pull out my Yeats and read through and usually it loosens a block. (I find that poetry does that generally, but Yeats is my favorite.) And there are some specific poems of his that I used for inspiration while writing Moth and Spark; one (“Byzantium”) is quoted at the beginning of the book.
Who would be in your dream book club?
This is actually a really tough question, because college and graduate school was like one long unending book club, and I’m not sure I want another one. But, dead people with whom it would be fun to talk books are E.B. White, Raymond Chandler, Mark Twain, George Eliot, and E. Nesbit. Among the living let’s have A.S. Byatt, Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Mary Doria Russell.
What are you working on now?
I don’t like to talk too much about anything I am currently writing, because there’s always the chance it will wither on the vine, but I am working on what is technically a sequel to Moth and Spark. Moth and Spark is a standalone, and lots of people seem thrilled by that (editors, are you listening?), and ideally this other book would be a standalone too, though chronologically about 6 months after the events of Moth and Spark. It’s a very different, darker story and I’m experimenting some with structure, so it’s not a carbon-copy by any means. After that I want to do an SF dystopia about drought, which I got the idea for in a California Water Law class. As a writer, I don’t want to keep telling the same story – I want to stretch and write as many different stories and worlds as I can.