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October, 2009 : Interview:

Ghosts and Demons

An Interview with Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard seems to be everywhere these days. Over the past couple of years she's had stories published in Interzone, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Shimmer, Abyss and Apex, and several other venues. Aliette was a 2007 Writers of the Future contest winner; this year she made the finals of the Campbell award, had a story reprinted in Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction, has a story forthcoming in Asimov's, and has just signed a three-book deal with the new HarperCollins imprint, Angry Robot. A resident of Paris, France, Aliette works for a French Defense company as a software engineer, teaching computers to process images. Her website URL is

Dario Ciriello: Aliette, thank you for allowing me to interview you for IROSF. When did you first encounter Science Fiction and Fantasy in print?

Aliette de Bodard: It depends. I read and loved a lot of it early on, in the form of children's books: McKillip's The Changeling Sea, Cormac MacRaois's The Battle Below Giltspur and Dance of the Midnight Fire, and even some of Asimov's robot stories. I don't think I was conscious of Science Fiction and Fantasy as a genre until much later, though—when I was sixteen, moved to London and discovered all those books I liked aligned under the same heading. That was when I started hitting the same shelves for my SF/F fix.

DC: What led you to begin writing?

AdB: Hmm. A series of convoluted coincidences. I'd done some early, embarrassingly bad attempts at producing written words, but I didn't try that again until I was 16 or 17. I was in London, in a binge phase where I would find an author I liked and borrow every one of this author's books from the library. One of the authors involved was Orson Scott Card, and, when I ran out of Science Fiction and Fantasy, I turned to his non-fiction—there wasn't much, but the library did have a small book called How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, which I devoured from cover to cover.

It was illuminating in several ways. First, that you could actually get a career in writing without being a respected polymath—some of the French writers, like Zola or Victor Hugo, are positively intimidating, being towering public figures in their own time period. And second, that writing actually had elements of craft that could be taught.

I started reading other non-fiction books about writing, and drafting several, still embarrassingly bad, fantasy novels. It still took me another five years or so before I screwed up my courage and started submitting short fiction regularly, though.

DC: Whom might you cite as your literary influences?

AdB: In genre, I learned a lot from Ursula Le Guin: her perspective on relationships, societies and the gender roles is always refreshing. A lot of people cite The Left Hand of Darkness as a seminal work, but personally, I remain blown away by the end of A Wizard of Earthsea, where Ged merges with the darkness he had unleashed—because it's as much part of him as the light. That was a moment I'd never seen in fantasy, where the darkness tends to be very much an external factor that has to be fought and eradicated, and I remain thankful to Le Guin for making me discover another point of view early on. I read Earthsea when I was 14 or 15, and to this day it remains one of my favorite fantasies.

In the same vein, I love Patricia McKillip, because she showed me, with books like The Changeling Sea and Winter Rose, that you could write a tremendously affecting fantasy that didn't have the fate of the universe hanging in the balance—and that, if anything, it was the small things like the fate of a son or a husband that ended up mattering more than the grand battles or sieges.

Out of genre, I was and still remain an avid consumer of mysteries and detective stories, and the way they explore the underbelly of the world. The interest isn't so much who committed the crime as the exploration of people's motivations, lies, and facades, and what makes them tick underneath. My favorites in that realm are Elizabeth George and Ian Rankin.

DC: How does the Vietnamese half of your ancestry inform your fiction?

AdB: I'd say in not-obvious ways. I received a French upper-class upbringing. But both my Vietnamese mother and my grandmother played a big part in bringing me up, which means I did end up picking some stuff that isn't strictly Western. It's mostly a subconscious thing, though I do have a few odds and ends: the cuisine, for instance—I'm a big consumer of rice and fish sauce, and have an unfortunate tendency to correct people if they don't cook their rice the right way.

At the writing level, I ended up fascinated by Asia in general, and I try to mirror that in my fiction, both in background and in characters' mindsets.

DC: You write—beautifully—in English, which is your second language. Do you think this flavors your prose differently?

AdB: I wasn't really aware that this was an issue until it was pointed out to me. I went through a lot of growing pains when trying to write in English, and I thought that I'd be doing fine as long as I stopped making embarrassing grammatical mistakes and having usage problems.

But I've recently noticed that I do have a different way of tackling the language than a native speaker: in particular, my sense of rhythm is a little skewed between English and French, which gives a particular "feel" to my prose. The fact that I keep getting published means that it just makes the prose distinctive, and not awkward—for which I'm eternally grateful. Writing in another language is an uphill climb: the kind I'd not have launched myself into, had I stopped to assess things in the light of reason when I was first starting out.

Of course, on a higher level, coming from a different language and especially a different culture means I won't have the same experience or point of view on a lot of things: a lot of the unconscious assumptions I make will not be made by an American or a Brit, and this also gives me a different voice. This is why I love reading people who come from a different background: there's this strong diversity, which wouldn't be possible if everything was written by, say, white male Americans or female Indians. Not that I have anything against either group, but I do like my Science Fiction/Fantasy to be varied. On that note, I urge you to check the World SF blog:, maintained by fellow Angry Robot author Lavie Tidhar, which focuses on SF around the world, whether it's from other countries or from non-native English speakers.

DC: Are you at all involved with the French SF scene?

AdB: Not much, I'm afraid. It's time-consuming to keep up with the English-speaking scene, and though I love the activity, there's only so much I can do with a full-time job.

DC: SF from outside the English-speaking world often comes with a large dose of politics, surrealism, or both. You write very strong female characters, yet your stories never feel as though you have an agenda. Where do you think the balance lies between a writer's work and their personal politics?

AdB: I do have strong beliefs, but very little inclination to preach them out to readers. You certainly can get away with it, but I don't have the impassioned eloquence that would make it effective. To me, telling a good story is what matters, and what the characters believe is what is important to driving the plot and the transformations they undergo. That said, I think that the personal beliefs of writers, whether they be political, religious or something else, will end up woven in the fabric of the story they're telling, whether they want it or not. It's a more subtle way to convey your belief system, but in the long run it's as effective—or perhaps more—than overt preaching.

DC: Many writers have a personal fascination or theme they return to over and over. For Borges, the fascination was a knife; in CJ Cherryh's work, coming-of-age stories are a recurring theme; and much of Charles Stross's oeuvre is preoccupied with totalitarian regimes of one stripe or another. Demons and ghosts feature prominently in your stories: is this what fascinates you, and why?

AdB: I'd start out with the caveat that it's perhaps a little premature for an analysis of themes in my work, given that my writing career only spans 3 years... That said, taking a stab at the exercise...

Currently—and I have no idea how stable this is going to be—I'm fascinated by the liminal: the people who, for one reason or another, stand a little apart, on the boundaries of two worlds. It can be because they have magical abilities, or happen to catch a glimpse of another world, or because they're displaced from their own worlds. I guess a lot of it comes from my being a child of two worlds, attempting to make a career in a third. Demons and ghosts are one instance of this, because they're the most obvious symbol of another world in fantasy, but there are a lot of other, covert ways I can tackle the theme. For instance, the characters in my alternate histories are all immigrants who attempt to make a life in their new country, and have different reactions to the country of their birth.

Demons, gods and ghosts also raise another question I'm interested in, which is that of faith. I don't broadcast my religion much, but it's an important part of my life, and in that light, it's not extraordinary that I have a lot of stories focusing on what it means to believe—in external beings, in causes in yourself. How much compromise can you accept on your beliefs—and what happens when you're forced to reconsider what used to be the backbone of your world? That's all stuff I find worth exploring, and returning to whenever I have an excuse.

DC: What other themes do you see yourself covering in the future?

AdB: I'm making tentative forays in gender roles—following the excellent lead of my friend Sara Genge, who has wonderfully-realized SF stories about what it means to be a man, a woman, or something in between. It's a vast and fascinating subject, especially when you consider how the roles shifted over time and space: women have had a very strong role in a lot of tribal areas and warrior cultures, like in Native America; in other places, like Ancient China, they were confined to their own households. And, of course, there's our modern, 20th-Century setting, where the dividing line between men and women seems to get blurrier and blurrier.

It's also a subject in which I have a personal stake, as I've been studying and later working in an environment of engineering and computer engineering, which is heavily skewed towards men.

DC: Your debut novel for Angry Robot is Servant of the Underworld, scheduled for publication next year. What's it about?

AdB: Servant of the Underworld mixes a lot of my preoccupations and influences: it's a detective story set in a the non-Western culture of the Aztecs, and with magic.

In line with Aztec mythology, the magic is based on blood offerings: it's the sacrifices of mortal creatures which keep the sun in the sky, and the earth fertile and generous. But the balance is a fragile one: any breaching of the boundaries between the heavens, the underworld and the Fifth World, the world of mortals, could be the one that shatters the equilibrium, and paves the way for bloodthirsty monsters to roam the universe.

My main character, Acatl, is High Priest for the Dead, responsible for the boundary between the Fifth World and the underworld—a harrowing work which involves facing blood-curdling creatures on a daily basis. But Acatl has some baggage of his own. And, when the latest transgression he has to investigate involves his estranged brother, it might just end up being too much for him—especially when what seems a simple investigation turns out to tie into large political and religious intrigues which could not only upset Acatl's life, but also the Fifth World...

DC: Can you tell us anything about the sequels?

AdB: I haven't yet started on the sequels; I have a fairly good idea of what they're going to be about, but since I haven't actually run them past my editor Marc Gascoigne, I'd best keep mum on the subject. What I can tell you is that each book will be in the same mold: a standalone fantasy-mystery with recurring characters.

I'll flesh out the world as we go, particularly the politics inside and outside the Aztec capital city—and, of course, put in more horrific monsters drawn from Aztec lore. We'll see how well that works out...

DC: Despite being an engineer, your work leans heavily toward the Fantasy end of the SF/F axis and away from anything technical. Why?

AdB: I guess it's classic displacement activity: for my day job, I do a lot of technical work already, and doing the same in my stories would give me the feeling that I have a hobby/passion/secondary career identical to my day job, which would take a lot of the interest out of it. Part of the fun of writing is that it seldom ends up feeling like a chore, and that it's also enough of a distraction that it feels like relaxation, even when the going gets rough.

What I hope to do with writing is explore things outside the scope of my work, and indulge in fields that I haven't had the time to explore: particularly history, mythology and anthropology, which I was interested in as a child but had to mostly give up in order to pursue a career in engineering.

DC: What genre authors do you read for pleasure today? What non-genre authors?

AdB: I try to read as much as possible today; in that respect, having a day job a 50-minute bus ride away is a boon. Recently, I enjoyed Ken Scholes' series The Psalms of Isaak which merges post-apocalyptic SF with epic fantasy, and takes a hard look at the way faith is built and used. Vol. 2, Canticle, has just been released, but I've been lucky enough to get an advance peek at Ken's stuff. I also liked Daniel Abraham's The Long Price Quartet: it's got awesome worldbuilding, a very intelligent magic system, and it's a deeply moving look on how horrifying consequences can come from seemingly good actions.

In non-genre, I'm catching up on Elizabeth George, who writes very intelligent mysteries with deep character work, and a look at how murder can touch and break ordinary lives, even when they're only peripherally involved. My latest read from her was Deception on His Mind, which also tackles some of the issues associated with Pakistani and Indian immigration to the UK—a theme that fits in well with my concerns.

DC: You've just returned from WorldCon in Montreal. What was the high spot of the convention for you? Whom were you most thrilled to meet?

AdB: I thought the high spot was going to be the Hugos, but to be honest I was so tired by then that I didn't get to enjoy it as much as I thought: I'm a day-bird, which makes partying until dawn rather difficult. The high spot was probably meeting up with other writers I only see sporadically, and having a quiet lunch or coffee to catch up with them. Otherwise, it would have to be my publisher Angry Robot's launch party on Friday, which had my name and picture prominently plastered across the room.

I was most thrilled by meeting Elizabeth Bear, whose writing I really enjoy, and who turned out to be a very sweet, smart and funny person. Later on, I was also very chuffed—and surprised—to get a thumbs-up on her blog for Golden Lilies, my Chinese dark fantasy published in Fantasy Magazine.

DC: Is there anything else you want to add?

AdB: Hmm. Ideally, I'd want to hypnotize you all to try out my stuff, but that's kind of hard to do in writing. Ah well. Nothing else, I suppose.

DC: Aliette, thank you so much for these insights into your thoughts and your writing. I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more of your work in the future.

Copyright © 2009, (same). All Rights Reserved.

About Dario Ciriello

Dario Ciriello is an expat European living in Concord, CA. Dario has published stories in a number of venues and is currently working on an SF/paranormal novel. He spent most of 2008 writing the tragi-comic memoir of the year he and his wife recently spent on a tiny Greek island, which is now in the hands of an agent and which will hopefully see print before long.

Dario is also the editor and owner of Panverse Publishing, a micro-press with macro ambitions (for more, see When not writing, editing, or doing freelance CAD design work, Dario can occasionally be seen at SF conventions, where he likes to wear ironed shirts and frequent the hotel gym.


Oct 8, 07:05 by IROSF
Comment below!
Oct 8, 17:50 by Keyan Bowes
Great interview with a great author! Really enjoyed the depth in this one.
Oct 8, 19:41 by Dario Ciriello
Thanks, Keyan :)
Oct 12, 23:41 by Dario Ciriello
(Weird - The editorial thread showed up here, and when I replied it was gone!)
Oct 24, 18:27 by Jerry Wright
Hi Dario. Its been a bit of a while. Sadly it will be some time until we meet up again, as I'm no longer traveling, but you did a terrific job in this interview with Aliette. Now I have to find her work.

Oct 26, 21:11 by Dario Ciriello
Glad you enjoyed it, Jerry :) I'll drop you an email...

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