Thursday, March 27, 2014

Getting to Know Generation V & M.L. Brennan

When I first read M.L. Brennan's GENERATION V, I thought it was very good and also different from my usual Urban Fantasy. Messed up, but different. Different take on vampires, on powerful heroes, it worked for me. Then I read the second book, IRON NIGHT, and this series and author went on my auto-buy list. Action-packed, with an expanding world, lots of character progression and complicated relationships (and I'm not just talking of the romantic variety), it was a roller coaster that I want to experience again. 

I also knew that I wanted to get Brennan here on Stellar Four to talk about this series. Luckily, in between visits to cons and work and writing, she had time to answer some questions. This is a slightly spoilery discussion, but we had a ton of fun discussing these books, and I have many feels about this series, so enjoy!

KF: Usually when you meet an Urban Fantasy lead, he or she is in the middle of kicking someone's ass, or is about to, or is at least fighting in some way. Fortitude Scott, however, is pretty much a doormat. Did you start off thinking about the story as trying to get a character as different from the norm as possible?

MLB: Definitely. I like an ass-kicking protagonist as much as anyone else, but it has become almost a cliche at this point. We've all seen the scene where the quiet, normal-looking guy is surrounded by nefarious punks intent on his wallet -- until suddenly it is revealed that the predator in the scene is *not* the punks, it's the normal-looking guy.

We've come to expect that, and I think that it can potentially lose some of its resonance because of that. I wanted to make Fort a different kind of vampire as well as a different kind of Urban Fantasy protagonist -- so one of the first things I really wanted to do was have him get mugged, and have him be completely at the mercy of his muggers.

KF: Did you have to fight to keep Fort as non-confrontational as he starts?

MLB: It definitely wasn't an easy sell. A few publishers passed on it because they didn't really think that it would work for readers. And if you look through the reviews on Goodreads, the stand-out complaint from people who didn't like Generation V was that they hated that Fort was so non-confrontational. So those publishers weren't exactly wrong, per se. I was fortunate that when Roc bought it, it was because of the interest of Anne Sowards, and she *completely* got what I was going for.

Because Anne is also my editor, I never really had to fight in the editing process to keep Fort the way he is. However, Fort is actually a little more proactive in Generation V than he'd been in my original draft (I know, just imagine!). Anne pointed out a few areas where I'd kept Fort just a bit *too* passive, so those were adjusted to give him a few more moments of strength. I'm really happy with the way that Generation V turned out after the edit -- Anne respected what I was trying to do with the character, but she also helped me make the book better overall.

KF: What resonated with me was how for Fort (beginning book 1 Fort), any confrontation is equated with violence and becoming the thing he fears most. I see this often, in a way, with people who will do just about anything to get out of a confrontation. Like most of my coworkers at my former job. Did real life influence this?

MLB: To a degree, yes. I think it's a tendency of people who have a scarring experience growing up to set up their adult life in a way that massively overcorrects for what they felt when they were young. I've seen that happen in the decisions my friends have made, and also in myself. I also had the benefit of going through an MFA program, and believe me, there's no window into people's childhood trauma like reading their short stories for two years. Fort's very internalized fear and self-hatred felt extremely human to me.

KF: I have called this world wonderfully and magnificently effed up, and it is. The creation of new vampires alone, I mean, how, what, (see, I'm sputtering). It is the most messed up origin I think I've ever read, but as much as it icked me out, you did it in a way that didn't put me off. Probably because Fort is just as bothered as I was, more so. WHERE DID THIS COME FROM?

MLB: "Wonderfully and magnificently effed up" is still one of my favorite descriptions of the world -- I wish they'd blurb it on the third book! :)

Anyway, the origin came from a simple desire: I wanted vampires to make sense.

That's a little oversimplified, but that's what it came from. Vampires in the usual way bother me as characters because they're completely in stasis. They aren't growing older, they aren't going to die, and presumably in 5,000 years they'll be sitting around in spacesuits doing the same things they are doing at the moment. If they want to reproduce, they just out to find someone, take a nip, give a sip, and BAM -- new vampire. Those are characters have have absolutely no stresses on them -- there's none of the worry about doing the things they want to do before their time on earth is over, there's none of the change and maturing that happens as we get older, and there isn't even any stress regarding whether to have a kid or if that can happen. (plus, can we talk about a population problem? eternal life, youth, and a completely unlimited reproductive ceiling? the whole damn world would be nothing but vampires!)

It started as a bit of a thought experiment -- how could vampires function according to real-world rules? I needed a functional life-cycle from birth to reproduction to death, which turned my attention into two useful places -- apex predators and parasites. Apex predators gave me a good start on lifespan and reproductive ceiling -- basically, if humans were the prey, then that would be my start. I imagined that humans were seals and the vampires were Great White sharks -- the prey live shorter lives and have more offspring that mature much faster, while the predator has a much longer maturation period, reproduces *years* after the prey, and produces fewer offspring that are vulnerable for longer periods. The shark will (barring accident) live much longer than the seal, but on a species level is actually much more precariously perched, since they can't recover their numbers quickly. That also gave me the idea for making vampires into a species perched on the edge of extinction.

And once you start researching parasites, believe me, nothing looks effed up anymore. Or at least the effed up starts to look completely tame.

KF: Talking about parasites reminds me of one of my favorite YA vamp books - Scott Westerfeld's PEEPS. Vampirism is a parasite that can be carried by people and cats and the book has chapters interspersed with examples of parasites in nature. It's enough to make anyone a hypochondriac. It also shows how necessary parasites are, and that though they can be destructive, living without them has its own problems.

From Demons to Dracula by Matthew Beresford
MLB: Oh, that is SO COOL. Now I'm definitely going to have to go check that out.

I've been reading a very fun book lately: FROM DEMONS TO DRACULA: THE CREATION OF THE MODERN VAMPIRE MYTH, by Matthew Beresford. Apparently there was one legend of vampirism that involved gourds -- watermelons and pumpkins. If a watermelon or pumpkin was left outside for more than ten days, it became a vampire. This is so insanely fantastic that I just love it. Also, pregnant women should also be cautious about removing salt from their diets -- if a pregnant woman does not eat salt, her baby will become a vampire. As creative as writers are these days with the vampire myth, we should remember that we have got *nothing* on bored and possibly intoxicated villagers.

KF: Makes you wonder how much more dangerous life would be for the humans without the Scotts...

MLB: You don't want to know what Detroit is like in the world. :)

KF: The family dynamic - it is easy to see Chiv as the elder, wiser brother who is looking out for his younger sib and wants to help him but doesn't quite know how. The relationship with Prudence is something else. Fort spends much of the first 2 books thinking Pru hates him and being terrified of her. However, the last bit of book 2, just DAMN. Did you have this mapped out from the beginning? Just in the last part, when Pru drags herself off, I just felt like I totally got her. She is still a monster, but I got her, and how she wants to protect her family. How did her character come about?

MLB: I wrote the entirety of Generation V without knowing whether it would sell, so I didn't think about sequels at all. I left myself a couple of threads at the end that I could build into something else, but I didn't plan anything else. I just didn't know whether anyone would be interested in the direction I was going, so I didn't want to commit the kind of time that a multiple-book plan would take.

That all changed the moment that Generation V sold, and it was a lot of fun going back to that book and deciding on directions and major themes. I'd always had a few ideas in my back pocket, but one of the things that was the most fun was working with Prudence. In the first book, Fort views her in a very simple way -- she's a monster. But there was always a lot under the surface with her -- one thing that I always knew was that one undying truth that Chivalry and Prudence both loved Fort -- *equally*. But Prudence's love for Fort is all wrapped up with anger and the fact that she's really just completely inhuman -- that moment where she encourages him to go into what both she and he view as certain death in the first book is something that he takes as confirmation that she hates him. But from her perspective, she's doing that because she loves him -- but views him as so utterly flawed and broken that death is the best option. Things change in the second book, and that scene that you're talking about --- that DROVE the entire book. It was the first image that I had in mind when I sat down to come up with Iron Night, and everything is constructed to get us to that moment, where something very real and true is revealed about Prudence. Chivalry's love for Fort is easy to see -- it's always right at the surface. But Prudence's love is darker and nastier -- but terrifyingly real. That moment where Fort has to call for his sister for help, and she *immediately* responds -- that's their relationship in its truest moment.

For Fort, the most terrifying moment is realizing that his sister loves him, because that means that everything she's ever done in his life has been from a place of love. This is a person who murdered his foster parents *and made him watch* -- which is scarier, for that to come out of hatred, or for it to come out of love?

KF: Also, how much fun was it to write Fort & Pru teaming up?

MLB: SO fun. Definitely one of my favorite decisions. I loved showing the scariness of Prudence being a supportive older sister, and I especially loved Fort having to figure out how to deal with her effectively -- and how him learning how to reason in a way that appeals to her frightens him because it shows him just what he's capable of.

Honestly, Fort and Prudence are one of my favorite pairs. They are people who would never ever choose to be in the same room together, but they are tied together by blood and an unwilling love -- really, they're where I really get to play with the concept of family relationships.

KF: I really dig the dig, as it were, to the "immortal lover" trope, with Chiv being completely chivalrous and faithful to all of his wives. That he kills and is basically signing their death warrant when he starts with them. Influenced by anything in particular? ;)

MLB: Maaaaaaaaybe..... :)

There's that old immortal lover trope where the dude is all, "I'm dangerous, I'll hurt you, I love you, but if we're together horrible things will happen to you!" And the chick (usually in her teens) says, "No, I love you! I want to be with you!"

Chivalry's relationships are basically with the next line being him saying, "Oh, okay then. Don't say I didn't warn you." And then everything goes down EXACTLY AS HE SAID IT WOULD. No deviation, no sudden convenient magical "out" or special saving --- no, this woman believes that being with the guy she loves is worth sacrificing everything? Well, okay. Just be sure you were certain, 'cuz there won't be an out on this one.

There were definitely a few things, books, shows, enormous blockbuster movies, that I had in mind when I decided on this. So there is a portion of this setup that's a bit of a response to those, but there's also a greater chunk where I was also thinking about human nature. Fort is talking to Chivalry's wife, Bhumika, and she is upfront about two things -- one, that Chivalry hid nothing about how bad things would get. But the second one was that on a fundamental level, *she didn't believe him*. She was sure that somehow history would be different for her, that she'd be stronger, or just special, and somehow would be spared. That's something I've definitely seen people do -- no matter what proof or truth there is, or the examples of others, there's a stubborn individual belief that "well, it will be different for me -- because I'm a positive thinker, or smarter, or whatever."

KF: Suze is freaking fantastic. Should come as no surprise that I love her completely. I also love how Fort & Suze strike a friendship. It could have easily gone down the insta-romance slope. For the two of them, the pace felt right. How did you negotiate that?

MLB: I think the big thing was that when I wrote Generation V, my intention was for the two of them to *not* end in a relationship. I wanted a kind of Gal Friday kind of thing. So the first book is me trying to move them from strangers into friends -- a real, mutual friendship. We see a lot of examples of insta-love, but fewer of insta-friendship.

Now, that plan was what motivated me for the first draft. What became *immediately* clear the moment that draft hit a beta-reader was that people wanted Fort & Suze as a couple. I thought about it, and decided that I'd be okay with that direction -- but only if it felt natural. After all, insta-romance makes me tear out my hair as well. But it had to be a relationship where they both came in as equals, and with a real sense of who the other person was. And that relationship couldn't diminish either of them. It means a lot of second-guessing myself, and adjusting pace. When I originally planned the draft of Iron Night, I actually ended the book with Fort and Suze in a relationship. In the course of writing the book, though, I didn't like that direction -- it didn't feel right. My beta-readers loved that direction, and my agent *really* argued for it. But I ended up cutting that out, and I think it was the right call.

Again, this is a place where I'm extremely lucky that the series was bought by Roc, and that I'm working with my editor. There were a few editors who looked at the original book draft and ended up passing on it because of the lack of romance between Fort and Suze (I mean, in addition to Fort's inability to take a punch). Again, Anne got where I was going, and she has really supported me.

KF: I did like the "OK, we'll try this out" part of Fort & Suze. They have lots of things to work through. It did make it seem more real and more human.

MLB: That's what I wanted with the two of them. They're not all Our Fated Love Must Overcome Mighty Odds -- I wanted it to be more about two people who are extremely different, yet become real friends despite those differences. And then any relationship aspect wasn't about them just collapsing into each others' arms, but kind of looking out of the corner of the eye and thinking, "Hmmm." But to me that friendship was the most critical aspect.

KF: Did you do a lot of kitsune research?

MLB: LOTS. I read as many Japanese fairy tales as I could get my hands on in English translations. Only a small portion of the stories were about kitsune, but it gave me a sense of where they fit in as well as the general cultural elements. I researched foxes themselves as well -- some biology books have tidbits about the kitsune, plus I needed to know how Suze would function in her furrier form. (how far could she jump? what would she eat? and, my god, WHAT DOES THE FOX SAY?)

I really hit the jackpot when I found this amazing graduate thesis by Michael Bathgate called The Fox's Craft in Japanese Religion and Folklore. It's a truly thoughtful text that not only looks at the myths and stories of the kitsune, but also what it said about the place of women in Japanese society and how it fit in with cultural values. Monsters and stories always come down to what we're afraid of and what we value, and this was a wonderful research aid when I was putting together my version of the kitsune. (the book is also freakishly expensive, so I was lucky that I was able to get a hold of a copy through a university college library, and then I photocopied whole chunks of it). One of the things that appealed to me so much about the kitsune was that they were a non-Western creature that you don't see too often in Western fantasy writing. That was also one of the reasons why I tried to do the best research I could -- I was using a creature that wasn't from my own cultural backyard, so to speak, so I felt some pressure to do it right.

KF: How about research into the other creatures?

MLB: The kitsune were my biggest research focus in the first book. I did a very light amount of vampire research -- mostly I used what I knew from my own cultural experience, then did months of biological research into predators and parasites. On the second book I did a bit of research on elves, but that was actually fairly similar to my approach with the vampires, since elves are one of those creatures (like vampires) that are so classic to fantasy that even casual readers of the genre know most of the rules and background. Same with the witches. I did more research on what I was using to biologically ground the species (in the case of elves, lizards) than the myths.
In terms of the skinwalkers, I did do more research there, but overall the heaviest research I've done for the series to this point has been for the kitsune.

KF: Fort has had quite the character progression, from being completely outside the supernatural world to being neck-deep in shit. The big question is, where will he go next. Any hints?

MLB: Oh, he's definitely stuck in the shit from now on. The question is, will it go over his head? :)

I'm really excited about where things go in the third book. The world gets significantly more complicated for Fort -- suddenly he's in the middle of a big political situation, and there are people who are looking to him as a player in that situation. For a guy who really dreams of nothing except how to get away from it all, it's a hard realization to find out that people in his mother's territory might be relying on him for protection.

There are also changes going on in the Scott family. At the end of the second book, I really emphasized how vulnerable certain members of that family were -- well, I'm going to be acting on it.

And then there's also the delight of Fort's aversion to his own biology. Well, transition waits for no man, or vampire. There are definitely big things going on in Tainted Blood. (being published November 2014).

KF: A couple more questions - Firefly, Doctor Who, Buffy or Sherlock?

MLB: Geez, let's start the morning off with Sophie's Choice! (I think I've referenced ALL of these in the books at various points! coincidence or plan?)

Hm. Buffy was a pretty huge influence on me. One of my favorite episodes of any show of all time is "A Scandal In Belgravia." Doctor Who is clearly utterly beloved to me....

Sorry, it's got to be Firefly. So good, so tragically cut short, so full of the awesomeness that is Zoe. Like Fort, I consider my Firefly DVDs to be one of the necessities of living.

KF: Any other projects you are working on?

MLB: The third Fort Scott book, TAINTED BLOOD, is with my copyeditor right now, so I'm a bit in the planning phase. Obviously I would love to write more Fort Scott books, and I'm laying out the plans for that, but there's also a big part of me that would like to try my hand at sci-fi. So things are very exciting and busy around here!

KF: Thank you so much for joining us!

MLB: Thank YOU for the amazing and fun questions!

GENERATION V  Amazon | B&N | Kobo | Indiebound

IRON NIGHT  Amazon | B&N | Kobo | Indiebound

 M.L. Brennan
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