Please welcome Rjurik Davidson to The Qwillery as part of the 2014 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Unwrapped Sky was published on April 15, 2014 by Tor.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Rjurik: Back in the mists of time, when creatures first dragged themselves from the primordial sludge. Which is to say, I can’t remember. I certainly recall writing when I was about ten. Then I took off with grandiose Tolkien-esque fantasies. I remember handing one of these to a teacher when I was about twelve. I’d stolen the word ‘fell’ (meaning inhumanly cruel or nasty) - as in ‘the creature was tall and fell’ – from Tolkien. The teacher circled it in red pen and explained it wasn’t a word. I was profoundly disappointed that the teacher didn’t understand what I was doing. But I soldiered on. It’s a good lesson (especially when you’re dealing with some reviewers). Soldier on. Not everyone knows the word ‘fell.’
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Rjurik: I do a kind of skeletal plot, which gives me some direction, though it’s nowhere near a full-length plan. This allows for spontaneity and surprise: the most enjoyable moments of writing when something just comes pouring out of your unconscious and you think, ‘Woah, where did that come from!?’ But it also saves me from flailing around in the dark. Of course, maybe that’s the positive way of saying I know just enough about the plot to cause myself problems. I’ve started to do a little more planning recently, because my books are turning out to be so complex that it’s impossible to keep it all in your head. I’m also planning to write simpler books. For the good of my head.
TQ: You are an associate editor at a magazine. How has being an editor affected your writing? What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Rjurik: First, it’s taught me to appreciate editors and to have an understanding of the process on that side of the industry. It’s also taught me that though we’re all ‘experts’, it’s pretty hard to predict which pieces will resonate with readers. Yes, we generally know the good pieces from the bad, but every now and then we’re really surprised by the things readers love and unnerved by the things they hate. It’s hard to predict.
For me, the most challenging thing about writing is making the time to do it. This is partly the nature of life (there are always lots of demands, including day-jobs, which I try to avoid) and partly my own personality, which is interested in lots of things. Sometimes I think I should just retire to the country to limit my choices. I’d have to cut myself off from the internet, of course. The path to hell is paved with good connections.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Rjurik: My influences span genres. Though my novels are New Weird, I think it’s essential to read outside the field. Partly, it’s good to know what else is happening, but it also gives you important non-genre influences. So I try to read the classics, modern literary novels, novels from other genres. My favourite writers include Hilary Mantel, Anton Chekov, Jorge Luis Borges, Peter Carey, Jean Paul Sartre, Virginia Woolf, James Ellroy. Inside SF, I tend to like the New Wave writers: Thomas Disch, J. G Ballard, M. John Harrison (who’s really a post-New Waver writer nowadays and whose recent work is brilliant), Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ.
TQ: Describe Unwrapped Sky in 140 characters or less.
Rjurik: A revolution is brewing in a fantastical city of dark magic and mythic creatures. Three Houses fight to keep their control. Three people struggle to survive.
TQ: Tell us something about Unwrapped Sky that is not in the book description.
Rjurik: The city of Caeli-Amur – and the world around it – has just come out of a dark age. Almost a thousand years earlier, a great war broke out between what the Caeli-Amurian people know as ‘gods’. The world-destroying forces unleashed by the war destroyed the utopia. Cities sunk beneath the sea, coastlines changed, knowledge was lost and the gods fled the world. But in the last few hundred years Caeli-Amur has been emerging from this dark age, industrialization has begun. So while you have a great loss – of knowledge, of a utopia – you also have some sense of progress. Ancient technologies are more powerful than current ones, but the current ones are more powerful than the ones between the cataclysm and now. I guess there’s a little reflection on progress and regress.
TQ: What inspired you to write Unwrapped Sky? Why did you choose to write SF/Weird? Do you want to write in any other genres or sub-genres? What is "New Weird?"
Rjurik: The first idea came to me when I was about twenty. I wanted to write a novel where magicians were an oppressed class. But the New Weird hadn’t happened and I don’t think I had the skill to write it anyway. In fact, I began the novel before I read any of the New Weird or even any steampunk. I was deep in a PhD on the New Wave science fiction and hadn’t really had a chance to read anything that had been happening in the genre. The initial impulse came from reading a New Wave writer, Samuel R. Delany. There’s a scene in The Einstein Intersection, one of his ‘science fantasy’ books, with an underground ruined bunker of some sort. The opening of the novel read like fantasy, then suddenly there was this ancient ruined technology and I thought, “Whoah, what’s this?” I then went to Clarion South writers’ workshop and wrote a broken story set in Caeli-Amur, which emerged in a white-hot week. Michael Swanwick was the tutor that week and gave it a ‘Swanwicking’, which I was all the better for. When I returned to Caeli-Amur, it was waiting for me. Suddenly I knew how to write that novel about the oppressed magicians, though it turned our quite different from how I imagined as a twenty-year-old.
I write SF out of some strange psychological defect. I simply can’t write realism. I’ve tried, but it comes out flat. All I need is a single non-realist element and it comes alive. Though Unwrapped Sky is New Weird, I write all forms of non-realism. I’ve a science fiction story I’m particularly proud of called ‘Domine’, in the recently released The Time Traveler’s Almanac by Anne and Jeff Vandermeer. I’ve written magic realism, science fiction, straight fantasy, and surrealism. I’ve also co-written (with Ben Chessell) a time-travel film called The Uncertainty Principle that had been optioned by two film companies, but recently the option expired. Hopefully we can get that up again soon.
The New Weird, what is it? The traditional answer is it’s a refusal to distinguish between science fiction and fantasy, that it’s a merging of the two. The original weird writers were from the 1930s. The New Weird supposedly rediscovered their approach about ten or fifteen years ago. Of course, such a chronology is all too clear-cut. As I’ve mentioned, Delany was doing science fantasy in the 1960s. Since writing Unwrapped Sky, people have pointed me to Gene Wolfe, who was doing the same in the 1970s and is still doing it. But there is something to the definition, because what we saw ten or so years ago was a wave of writers with the same aesthetic. Once more than one person is doing something, it becomes particularly interesting because it means social forces are being refracted through the writers. I first wrote about Caeli-Amur in 2005, so I guess I’m on the tail end of that wave.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Unwrapped Sky?
Rjurik: Lot’s of tedious things, really. Like: How far can you walk in an hour? I’m sure there were more interesting things too, but alas I can’t recall. It does showcase my love of ancient Rome, though. Sometimes I think I should have been an archeologist or an ancient historian.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why? Who is your favorite character in Unwrapped Sky?
Rjurik: The easiest was the character Kata, who is probably the hero of the story. She’s a philosopher-assassin working for the dictatorial Houses. She’s clearly caught, she’s morally compromised, she’s trying to survive in a harsh world. She’s knows that the Houses are uncaring, but what else can she do?
Maximilian the seditionist was the most difficult to write. He’s a man with high ideals and who believes the ends justify the means. Though he wants to world where everyone is free, he treats others as pawns in his plans. Politics dominates his personality. As someone says in the novel, politics is not an affair for the virtuous. It was difficult to make him likeable, actually, but he becomes more likeable as it goes on, I think.
I love them all, in their own way, but my favourite character to write – though obviously not the nicest one – was the House official Boris. Boris was once a former tram-worker and now has become a middle manager. He too wants things to become better, but ambition and self-delusion get the better of him. He wants someone to love him, and this particular someone is a magical Siren, captured and forced to work for the Opera as a singer. The disjunction between Boris’s view of the world and reality is vast. It was hard to write, but his story really gripped me.
TQ: Give us one of your favorite lines from Unwrapped Sky.
Rjurik: “We cannot be representations of the new world. We are only here to usher it in.”
TQ: What's next?
Rjurik: The sequel to Unwrapped Sky is called The Stars Askew. The first draft is done and has been handed to my editor, so that should be out in a year or so. Though much is set in Caeli-Amur, it also takes to the Imperial city of Varenis and into the ruined landscape to the south. We spend a lot more time outdoors. It follows more-or-less directly from the first book, but I won’t give too much away. There will be a third book too, which will wrap up the story of the city of Caeli-Amur, jewel of the south. The third is called The Black Sun.
In the meantime, I’m writing a steampunk novel set in a fantastic Australia. The main character is a suffragette librarian – Eugenie Healy – who works at the National Museum in Melbourne. In this alternate Australia, there is still an inland sea and much of the megafauna – giant lizards and diprotodons (giant wombat-like mammals) – still survives. Readers of my story ‘Int. Morgue. Night.’ (from my collection The Library of Forgotten Books) might recognize this setting, though the action in the novel takes place in the 1890s, not the 1950s. As a result of the sea, there has been a massive influx of migrants. Readers can expect to encounter opium dealers and spiritualists, Chinese junks sitting in the harbour, industrialists in the halls of a powerful men’s club, a rural utopian community who have rejected the modern technologies, the hideout of one of the last bushrangers, a ruined ancient city in the desert – and automatons, of course.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Rjurik: Thanks for having me.
Tor Books, April 15, 2014
Hardcover and eBook, 432 pages
A hundred years ago, the Minotaurs saved Caeli-Amur from conquest. Now, three very different people may hold the keys to the city's survival.
Once, it is said, gods used magic to create reality, with powers that defied explanation. But the magic—or science, if one believes those who try to master the dangers of thaumaturgy—now seems more like a dream. Industrial workers for House Technis, farmers for House Arbor, and fisher folk of House Marin eke out a living and hope for a better future. But the philosopher-assassin Kata plots a betrayal that will cost the lives of godlike Minotaurs; the ambitious bureaucrat Boris Autec rises through the ranks as his private life turns to ashes; and the idealistic seditionist Maximilian hatches a mad plot to unlock the vaunted secrets of the Great Library of Caeli-Enas, drowned in the fabled city at the bottom of the sea, its strangeness visible from the skies above.
In a novel of startling originality and riveting suspense, these three people, reflecting all the hopes and dreams of the ancient city, risk everything for a future that they can create only by throwing off the shackles of tradition and superstition, as their destinies collide at ground zero of a conflagration that will transform the world . . . or destroy it.
Unwrapped Sky is a stunningly original debut by Rjurik Davidson, a young master of the New Weird.
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Nightime in Caeli-Amur
A Tor.Com Original
Tor Books, January 15, 2014
eBook, 32 pages
Caeli-Amur is a city-state where magic and technology are interchangeable; where minotaurs and sirens are real; where philosopher-assassins and seditionists are not the most dangerous elements in a city alive with threat. During the day, the ordinary citizens do what they must to get along. But at night, the spirit of the ancient city comes alive, to haunt the old places.
“Nighttime in Caeli-Amur” is not about minotaurs or sirens, but about a family whose lives in this place are fated in the ways of families everywhere . . . only not quite the same.
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Photo by Leena Kärkkäinen
Rjurik Davidson has been an Associate Editor of Overland magazine, as well as a writer of short stories, essays, screenplays and reviews. His fiction has been published in Postscripts, Years Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volumes One, Two and Four, Australian Dark Fantasy and Horror 2006, SciFiction, Aurealis, Borderlands and elsewhere. PS Publishing published a collection of short stories, The Library of Forgotten Books, in 2010. He has been short-listed and won a number of awards.
Website ~ Blog ~ Twitter @RjurikDavidson
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