I was honored by the chance to chat with Naomi Novik about her new novel Blood of Tyrants. Since I took notes while we talked and transcribed them, much of the phrasing is probably mine. But Naomi took a great deal of time to answer my questions with a lot of details and fascinating insights into her books and characters.
When it comes to writing, Naomi’s style is fluid and changes with every book. Brand new ideas tend to come up in conversation…she’ll ramble out a plot while talking to friends. But she once she starts writing, she finds outlining valuable for constructing individual books. Particularly as the Temeraire series progressed, it helped her plan out all the theories she wanted to include and to make certain they came into play at the right times.
How she goes about the everyday writing also changes with each book. For Naomi, changing the ambient atmosphere helps keep her focused on her work. She often varies the program she uses to write, and even the place she writes in. Sometimes she picks a café. Sometimes, she sets up at a museum.
Things have changed for her since she had a child. Before, she had been able to work whenever and wherever the ideas came, striking while the iron was hot. Now, she has to keep eight hour days and to write regardless of whether or not she feels enthusiastic about the story at the time. As much as she prefers being able to seize the moments of inspiration, she doesn’t feel that either process changes the output. The one is just more fun.
Unlike other fantasy novelists, you’ve grounded your series firmly in our world. Between the amount of actual history you use to the very fact that you use dragons at all, do you feel readers bring more personal preconceptions to your books than other completely made up stories?
Starting out with known history gives readers the pleasure of coming to a book with an understanding of how the world works. They can see and enjoy the changes more. And the changes she does make are made deliberately instead of just being different for the sake of different. Part of using the real world involves finding out constraints. For Naomi, she sees it as setting to work on a big block of marble. She gets to craft the story out of a preexisting substance instead of trying to build it out of thin air.
Not only are your books adding an entire sentient race to our world, huge and well known historical events are being altered. How do you go about the researching all the historical details and deciding what to keep and what to change?
One of the things Naomi tries to do while playing with history is to ground the changes. Up until His Majesty’s Dragon, the events in her world have remained very close to our actually history. Then by complete accident, Temeraire comes to the west. Why is so much so similar? Her “hand wavy explanation” is that the conceit of the books is the dragons make the world smaller. But not that much smaller. There is definitely increased mobility, but by not making the dragons able to cruise around the Earth ten times in a minute, she keeps her creation limited. At the time, ships were advancing to the point that the different cultures were starting to interact and learn to deal with each other. Up to this point, people had only known the world based on how far dragons could fly leaving the two histories fairly compatible.
As far how to work within existing history, the key, she says, is to know all details. Blood of Tyrants for example, centers around the War of 1812 in Russia. She tries to know a great deal about the battles of time period, but she focuses particularly on the ones Laurence and Temeraire are present for and tries to get those as accurate as possible. When she researches, she studies both the primary sources and recent analysis, thereby gaining insight into what was being perceived to happen and what hindsight has shown us was really going on. She relies heavily on Wikipedia for an initial high-level survey and it’s invaluable for basic facts like timelines and dates, but for details and atmosphere, she hits the books and especially primary sources. At the moment, there is a stack of 40 books waiting on her desk to start the research for the next story.
As she changes history, she looks to see which of the forces moving around would be affected by her main characters and what the repercussions would be. However, she always tries to remain faithful to the core truth of history. She wants her characters to be accurate representations of the past so that her readers can have the pleasure of looking through the eyes and mind of someone whose culture and times are different to ours.
In addition to making a far more unforgettable account of the Napoleonic Wars, your books give a much more memorable geography lesson than many text books. And once again, you capture each culture as it was a couple hundred years ago. Was the world travel always a part of your master plan, or did it develop along the way?
The travel became part of the master plan quite quickly. Naomi had written three books before the first even came out, so from the beginning she knew she wanted Temeraire and Laurence to go to China. Once there, she realize she liked having the contrasting societies. Her vision for the series expanded to include a book for each continent. Obviously, at this point the duo have given Antarctica a miss. And technically they haven’t actually landed in North America, though that culture was explored through interaction with other characters. But despite that, the travel has let Naomi explore a lot of different dragon societies. One of the things she enjoyed about her setting was the fact that people and dragons had evolved together in many different climates and cultures. She feels this makes her stories more different and interesting and makes the dragons seem more like people. In most science fiction, the planets the aliens come from only have one habitat leading to a very one dimensional race. With her books, she strove to mimic the diversity present in the real world. And giving the dragons the same variety as people sets them apart as a truly separate sentient species.
While the pictures you draw of opposing political ideas and other cultures are truly amazing, perhaps the most engage part of your stories is how not-human you’ve made your dragons, especially Temeraire. Even though they are able to converse with us, there is something about how they think that’s very foreign and, in the setting of your novels, very modern. How did you go about crafting a species the reader could relate to, but would still come across as somewhat alien?
Naomi found it important hit on a particular fixed aspect of her dragons to help emphasis how different they were from people. The key difference lays in the fact that they are predators – apex predators at that. Not much attacks a dragon. And since they are completely self sufficient and independent from the time they hatch, the only time they aren’t safe is while they are in the egg. So for starters, it was important for the dragons to be hyper vigilant about their eggs. Buy beyond that, dragons wouldn’t generally be motivated by fear. Particular the larger dragons like Temeraire. So they are pretty safe, though obviously not completely without caution. Additionally, the pecking order based on size and strength and agility is something that’s alien to humans.
For her as the writer, she constantly kept in mind that the dragons are not human. One of the areas this became most obvious was the way dragons reacted compared to humans. She would set up events and moments that had an obvious appropriate or clichéd response for the humans. Then the dragon wouldn’t have the appropriate or expected reaction– for either the time period or for people – at all. This helped give a visceral sense the dragons were different.
Frequently, Temeraire’s thoughts and ideas act a new lens for Laurence to see his world through. While polite and cultured, the dragon borders on revolutionary, and frequently his casual observations make others uneasy…they are too close to uncomfortable truths. Was this a pleasant side effect of having a different species, or did you always hope to craft Temeraire into something of catalyst for Laurence?
Temeraire was always a deliberate foil and catalyst for Laurence. He proves not only an alien voice, but the voice of a more modern reader…certainly a more liberal minded reader than Laurence. And it’s satisfying having someone in that era who can call out what we see as different and problematic.
Naomi has always loved history though not in the sense that she would actually want to live in the 19th century. For her, writing a history book that simply repeated the assumptions of the day without giving the writer and reader the chance to see them challenged and changing wouldn’t be much fun. She prefers looking back on history and not feeling like it’s hermetically sealed. Temeraire’s revolutionary thinking, backed by his actual power, is what changes the world. And she hopes reader get a pleasure out of watching the worldview’s shift.
Speaking of Laurence, he had to relearn quite a bit about his prejudices and preconceptions since he starts Blood of Tyrants with amnesia. It was a clever way of bring new readers up to speed, and a nicely timed refresher for old fans. But what will the long term repercussions be? There’s a new edge to the bond between dragon and captain, and I can’t help wondering if it won’t affect Japan’s involvement too.
The amnesia was a vital part of the story. Naomi recognizes it’s a wonderful trope she pushed the boundaries of by having Laurence get his memories back in an unusual way. She wanted to really focus on the fact that even with his memory gone, Laurence didn’t lose the emotional and mental connection to Temeraire and to his present life. She felt it was important to take the time to show Laurence reconciling with the enormous changes in his life by viscerally packing all the information into much smaller moments. Up until now, he has changed in small ways over a long period of time, and to some degree he could feel he had changed without noticing. The amnesia gave him a chance to look back at events and what has changed and say, “I’m still me. I’m still connected to the person I was.” And to realize, even while confronted with the all of the years at once, he has made the right choices. But yes, there is one more major repercussion from the amnesia for Laurence and Temeraire to face.
The other game changer you introduced was Temeraire’s egg. While the importance of his rare breed to the British has been thoroughly stressed, we’re starting to see how this one dragon’s actions could ripple though the entire world. Do have big plans for his offspring?
For this question, Naomi had no comment other than the fact we can rely on an egg by Temeraire and Iskierka to be an interesting character.
I’ve heard that this new book is the second to last of the series. Is that correct? And if so, do you have plans for what comes next?
Yes, the next book will the ninth and last. It is probably going to be called League of Dragons, and she’s finished the detailed outline. She also has another book, Dragon Born in process but it has nothing to do with Temeraire. She has struggled a bit over whether that’s a good title since it might create an expectation of being connected with her other books. But right now the story wants to keep that title.
There’s also a lot of rumors and theories about Peter Jackson’s interest in turning the books into movies. Can you fill us in on the official details there?
Peter Jackson has optioned the movie and TV rights. But he has lots of other things going on right now, and she isn’t going to speculate on if or where this might go.
Thanks Naomi! Check out Naomi and her other books on her website. And don’t forget to enter the giveaway below!
Giveaway: One hardback copy of Naomi Novik’s ‘Blood of Tyrants’ .
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