Wednesday, January 27, 2016

“Witch Vs. Mad Scientist”: Charlie Jane Anders on Her Novel "All the Birds in the Sky"



I'm not being overly dramatic when I say that All the Birds in the Sky is one of the best novels I've read in months. It mixes magic and science, coming-of-age and truly growing up, talking cats and time machines, absurdity and philosophy, and love and fear in a stunning tale of a witch and a tech genius who grow up together, grow apart, and finally have to save the world.

All the Birds in the SkyAward-winning author Charlie Jane Anders answers our questions about her novel, how she seamlessly blended two genres together, and what books she's looking forward to reading.

 

Amazon Book Review: It's challenging to describe your new novel in a few sentences, partly because there's no box it easily fits in. Patricia is a witch (maybe fantasy?) and Laurence likes to build time machines (maybe science fiction?). What inspired you to meld these two genres together?

Charlie Jane Anders: I've always been fascinated by stories of people who come from very different worlds and learn to understand each other. I think that one of the coolest ways to build a story is to focus on one relationship and see how it changes as both of the people in it grow and evolve. Especially if there's some conflict between the two people that they need to work out—so originally, I thought of putting a witch and a mad scientist together as a way to generate some really exciting sparks, because they have such different ideas about the world. I loved the idea of watching them fight each other. Early on, my working title for the book was "Witch vs. Mad Scientist." I sort of thought they could be rivals, trying to defeat each other using magic and science. But then I realized it worked better if they were actually friends, and maybe more. I began to think of it as less of a straightforward conflict and more of a complicated bond between two people who care about each other. And that started to click.

Amazon Book Review: Books that are genre-bending like yours are frequently described as "A love child between [Book A] and [Book B]." Which two books would you like to consider your book the love child of? Be bold!

Charlie Jane Anders: I guess it's kind of Frankenstein meets Tiffany Aching—but then they go and get sandwiches together. 

Amazon Book Review: Magic and science are traditionally opposition forces, but you've chosen to make them more compatible, at least in the figures of Patricia and Laurence. Why?

CJA_Credit Tristan Crane-smCharlie Jane Anders: I think there's a lot of fertile ground in the opposition of magic and science—as I said earlier, the two naturally lend themselves to conflict. And they are opposing mindsets in some ways: magic is all about mysterious, unknowable forces that we underestimate at our peril, while science is about empiricism, control and replicable results. But having Laurence and Patricia actually be friends allowed me to get at the idea that even though they're very different in their approaches to problems, they still have a lot of very important stuff in common. They're sort of the two weird kids at their middle school, and they bond over being outcasts. But when we catch up with them again as adults, they just turn out to be the only ones who can really understand each other and see each other for who they really are. Once I stopped seeing Laurence as being defined by his role as a mad scientist, or Patricia as defined by her magic, I started to see all of the things that they actually have in common. And I started to see their relationship as more than just the meeting of two worlds—they each have a whole history that they bring to their relationship, which is just as much as part of them as their special gifts.

Amazon Book Review: As I was reading All the Birds in the Sky, I kept being pulled into mini philosophical moments, such as when Laurence and Patricia debate whether it's better to be able to control how you appear or to control how people perceive you, and Patricia says, "But you'd know what you really were. And that's all that matters." Did those moments naturally spring out of their dialogue as you were writing the book, or were those moments that you deliberately built scenes around?

Charlie Jane Anders: I wrote pages and pages of Laurence and Patricia geeking out together, and most of that stuff didn't make it into the book. I had a whole section where Laurence imagines what he would do if he had a time machine that could travel more than two seconds, and then he says that if he ever builds a time machine, he will come back in time and visit himself, and appear just a few feet away from where they're sitting at school. And then he sits and waits—in vain—for his future self to appear. One of the things I loved about writing the two of them, just talking to each other, was the way they geek out about stuff. I automatically buy into any relationship between people who geek out together. It just feels both real and exciting to me, as a reader. In the end, I whittled the stuff where they are geeking out down to just the parts that felt the most entertaining, or else the stuff that lays some track for things that happen later in the book. For Laurence, the question of being a shape-shifter versus being able to create illusions gets to the heart of some of the things he struggles with, because he really wants to have more control over how other people perceive him. So that conversation helps to set up some stuff with his character that keeps coming back later on. And the issue of trying to deal with all your relationships with other people, and your connections to the world, is a thing that becomes really important once Patricia and Laurence are grown-ups, dealing with all the many relationships and interactions that an adult has to cope with.

Amazon Book Review: Given the depth of the story, this doesn't seem like a book that got written in a few months. How long were you working on All the Birds in the Sky?

Charlie Jane Anders: Ha, thanks. I have been working on it for years and years. I was working on it feverishly for most of 2011. One of the things that really pushed All the Birds in the Sky in the direction of being a relationship story was that I wrote the novelette Six Months, Three Days about the relationship between two clairvoyants (one sees a single fixed future, the other sees a choice of many possible futures). And when I wrote that story, it changed my ideas about what I might be able to do with Laurence and Patricia, because I started to think of this novel as being a similar story of two people who have very different, maybe contradictory, viewpoints, but they still come together. Once I had written that story, I started looking at this novel in a new light.

Amazon Book Review: And finally, what books are you looking forward to reading this spring?

Charlie Jane Anders: I've heard amazing things about Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, and on the strength of his previous books, I'm inclined to expect greatness from him. After being wowed by V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic, I am freaking out with excitement about the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows. Peter Tieryas' United States of Japan sounds like an amazing take on Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Oh, and I've been waiting ages and ages for Madeline Ashby's warped post-singularity novel Company Town, and it's finally almost here!

 

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky, the Hugo Award-winning novelette Six Months, Three Days, and the Lambda Award-winning novel Choir Boy. Anders is also the editor-in-chief of i09.com, the Gawker Media site devoted to science fiction and fantasy.

 

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