Episode 9: Worldbuilding with Sofia Samatar
Olondria is a wonderfully complex and beautifully crafted fictional world created by Sofia Samatar, who was kind enough to answer all of Moiya's burning questions about her creative process.
Sofia Samatar is a professor of English at James Madison University and the author of award-winning books like A Stranger in Olondria, The Winged Histories, and Tender. She's also written several short stories and poems. You can learn more about her and her work on her website: http://www.sofiasamatar.com/
Hey there, and welcome to Exolore, the show about facts based fictional world building. I'm your host Moiya McTier. And I'm really bad at making decisions. You see, I'm an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system. Those are called exoplanets. And I'm also a folklorist who specializes in creating imaginary worlds. This podcast is my way of sharing those worlds with you. Before I get started, I want to thank my new patrons this month Gabrielle, Kathryn, Simona, Cecilia, and Divya. And I want to give an extra thanks to my merfolk and centaur level patrons. Okay, there's only one right now and his name is Michael but wow, do I appreciate him! Head on over to patreon.com/goastromo to support the show and keep Michael company. It's two good deeds for the price of one. All right friends. If you've been listening to the show for a while, you've probably become accustomed to a certain type of episode where I interview experts and together we build a fictional world. Well, I am so excited to tell you that I'm adding a new episode format to the mix. I know that every fictional world builder has their own process, and I want to hear about them. But more than that, I want you to hear about them too. So I'll be interviewing world builders think authors, game designers, even museum exhibit curators about how they do what they do. My first world builder is Sofia Samatar. And I've got to tell you that I was so shocked when she actually responded to my interview request email. The closest comparison I can think of is that feeling when you were a kid and you got a letter from Santa about your wish list, except this time, I knew the response was real and not secretly from my mom who wished I would grow up already. Sofia is an English professor at James Madison University and a widely acclaimed author, her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria won the British fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award. Her novels short stories and poems have been nominated for Nebula awards, Hugo Awards, and so many others that I can't possibly list them all here. And when, hopefully not if you read her work, you'll understand why. In this interview, we talked about Sofia's love of language and its power and constructing a world. We talked about how building fictional worlds can change the way you view your own. And I get really excited about a heavenly blur that may or may not be the Milky Way. So let's get started.
Do you want to introduce yourself?
Sure. My name is Sofia Samatar. And I'm the author of four books. Two of them are a fantasy duology that's A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories which are set in the same world. And then Tender is a collection of short stories. And my most recent book is Monster Portraits, which is a book that I did with my brother Del, who's an artist who draws monsters.
That's so cool. Were most of the monsters ones that you made up, or did you draw from mythology at all?
They well, both in a way. And there's a lot of my brother works a lot with mythology, and so do I. So there's a lot of that in the monsters, but they are all creatures really have his own invention. Because the way the process for that book worked was that he would draw these amazing ink drawings of monsters and send them to me. And then I would write to them. So I was sort of imagining names, histories, ways of living for all of these different creatures. So there aren't any that are, you know, a known monster. But like all monsters, they're combinations, right? So they're mixtures of different things and they kind of take from different traditions or riff on them and improvise.
Awesome. Is this something that you and your brother have been doing for a long time? Or was this like you, your brother wanted to... Or you and your brother wanted to do this as a book specifically?
That's a good question. Um, at, at one point, I would have said, you know, this was a project. The way I had it in my head, when we decided to do the book was that I know that my brother is extremely talented. And it just so happened that I published a novel. And that was in 2013, when my first novel came out, and I immediately was like, "Okay, if I could ever get my foot in the door with publishing," which took me a really long time, it was a very difficult process, but I thought, "if I can ever pull that off, I want to do a book with Del." So we started working on it at that time, and at one point, I would have said, that was where it all started, but then My mom cleaned out her house and sent me some old stuff, including like folders of like old drawing and writing. And here I found something we did when we were like seven, he would have been around seven, and I was like nine. And it was this book that we had made where I had written it, and he had done the pictures. So clearly, it was a much longer, you know, kind of artistic working relationship than I had even remembered.
That's incredible. Yeah, do you remember the first fictional worlds you built? Was it was it one of those collaborations with your brother when you were nine?
That one I had completely forgotten. And my memory is bad. Actually. It's not good. Well, I should qualify that and say my memory for events is very bad. My memory for words and vocabulary is very good. My memory for stuff that's actually happened to me is terrible.
I think if I had to choose one or the other, I would choose memory for stuff. And like, like words and facts and things like that
Really? I go back and forth. Sometimes it's really it's just awkward when you're like, you know, "oh, that movie looks interesting." And, you know, then my family is like, "we all watched it together." You know. But it is great to, to have, you know, to be able to keep words in your head is very good as well. So I don't really, you know, I don't remember working collaboratively with my brother as a kid very often. I remember that I had a lot of, I mean, because I've been writing really since I was capable of doing so. So around five, six years old.
And all through life. middle school, I was always writing a novel. Of course, none of these were ever finished. But it was always like, I was always writing a novel. I was always writing a fantasy novel. So there were different kinds of sort of characters, settings, worlds that I would make up. But they weren't. They weren't what I would call a world building project.
And I would say the only real world building project that I have done is the world of Olondria.
And it's a beautifully built world.
Yeah, I picked up The Winged Histories a couple weeks ago, and while reading it, I was just blown away at how well the world building was integrated into the storytelling and I just really loved it.
Thank you for creating it. As I was reading, and as I was struck by how well done it was, I really wanted to ask you, if you haven't process because it seems too well done to just be kind of haphazard. So do you have a process, a series of steps that you follow?
I did. Yeah. I mean, the Olondria project was was Oh, so fun. I just I remember working on it and and thinking like, "why isn't everyone doing this? I don't understand why nobody... who's stopping you?" You know, anybody could do this. And yet not everyone does make up their own world. I worked for, I would say maybe about three months. It wasn't a super long time. But there were a few months there that I was working on setting up this world before I started writing. And I would say, you know, that kind of pre novel stage. It could have gone a lot longer. I just got too impatient. I was like, I want to get into this world and like start making people walk around and do stuff. But I think, you know, I would say if it had been you know, if it had been three years, it would have been even more amazing, you know. But it was just a few months during which I worked on, first of all a map, so that I would know where I was and know where the characters were. And then I also wrote about 100 pages of the religious texts of Olondria, because I knew that I was writing this book that was going to be very much about religion and about different religions coming into conflict. And I felt like I need I need to understand the Olondrian Pantheon. I need to know who these gods and goddesses are that they're referring to. I need to know the... I need to know the holidays. You know, these people are living their lives. I need to know what is this celebration that we're having right now? What characterizes it? What deity is devoted to? And all that kind of stuff, which was super, super fun.
It shows in the writing. I've heard you talk before in some interviews that I've listened to about your love of language and world building. And I'm wondering if there's a part of world building that you don't like at all? Is there a part that you avoid or always leave to the end to figure out?
Um, that's an interesting question. I would if I look at the world of Olondria, I would say, you know, the place where... I'm trying, I guess I'm coming at this question by trying to think of where are the gaps?
And because that would sort of indicate what I was avoiding.
And I definitely you know, language I loved. Landscape. Literary history I was great on. I had whole artistic movements and things. I had a chronology of the royal family going back like to basically to the dawn of time. And I knew kind of major historical events that had happened. I think maybe actually, I'll say this: at one point Gavin Grant, my wonderful publisher at Small Beer, asked me, "is this world... does this world work like ours in terms of like, where the sun rises and where the sun sets and sort of astral bodies and so on?" And that was something I realized I had not... I mean, I just had this assumption that it's, yeah, there's a sun. T here is a moon. This is you know, those things basically work the same as, as they do in our world. And I also had, they, they there's mention of constellations, but they're different, you know, but that could be doesn't mean they're stars are different, right? It could mean they just have different you know, they've organized it in a different way. They have different constellations. Um, and yet, you know, so I had kind of made all of those assumptions. But I don't have a reason for those assumptions. You know, it's not like, like with Tolkien with Middle Earth, that is actually our world in a way. And so...
It says Earth in the name.
Right. So it makes sense that it's going to be kind of a physical copy in a lot of ways of what we're familiar with. Olondria, that's not the case I make absolutely... you know, it's a completely alternate world. So, you know, why not think about, like, is it another planet that was not in my mind at all? It was another world. It was another space. As far as anybody there knows, it's flat. Like the map is flat, and they have kind of, you know, beyond the edges of the map, they don't know what's out there. So whatever their planet is, they're not... they don't know. And so neither do I. But there's a lot of other things that, you know, different people in Olondria don't know that I do know. So, so I guess that would be... And maybe that's, you know, maybe that's something interesting to think about for other fantasy writers who do these kind of alternate world fantasies, like where is this? And then does it have the same sun and moon and stars? And if so, why?
Right. Yeah. Is it supposed to be earth with an alternate history and maybe slightly different physics or is it supposed to be a completely different planet?
I do want to point out though, that I, as I was reading Winged Histories, I came across a quote that made me as an astrophysicist really excited. I'm gonna read it here because I highlighted it and it says, "T here was a curl of whiteness in the dark sky, what the feredhai..." Is that how you say it?
You can however you want because it's made up.
We'll get into that for sure. "...what the feredhai call the track of the goddess Roun, the wake of her boat in the sea of the heavens." And I highlighted it and in a note in all caps went the Milky Way?!
So, so thanks for that. Yeah, let's let's get into some specifics about The Winged Histories and the world building that went into that and A Stranger in Olondria. One question that I always had when I was really young, was how do fantasy authors come up with names for things? It seems like the hardest thing because names are so important. And maybe you could also talk a bit about that, because I know that you really love the power of language and how it can shape a world.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Well, this was one of the most... This was one of the funnest parts of, of creating this alternate world, for me was creating another language. Not fully formed. It's not like Elvish. You're not gonna run around talking it. Unfortunately. I don't think, you know. There's not enough there I don't think to have like conferences of Olondrian studies with papers given in Olondrian. That would be that would be great. But there's there's certainly an Olondrian language that I worked on. And then there's also Kideti, which is which only shows up really in the first book, which is, which is another language spoken in some islands, south of Olondria. And so I am somebody who really, really loves languages. I have a PhD in Arabic literature. I lived in Egypt and Sudan for 12 years. One of the things I really loved about being there was living in Arabic and, and and speaking a foreign language every day. I also speak and read French. I have Swahili that's very, very rusty. And I'm currently studying German. I've just taken like three years of German because I'm a college professor, so I can take classes for free. So I just kind of started in German 101, and I'm really enjoying that as well. So so this is something that I think of it for me it's like the way some people are, like hooked on crossword puzzles or different kinds of word games. For me studying the language, kind of like scratches that itch like it's my something that engages my brain but in a different way from other things that I do. And when I came to looking at at Olondria, in terms of coming up with names for things, I began with sound, just sounds that I liked. So the first few names that I would come up with, I would just kind of come up with those names based on the way that they sounded. But then very quickly, I would break them down and ask myself "Okay, so now what are what are the different parts of these of this word?"
And so if we take I mean like Tialon, who is a character in A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories. Her name means the reverence for Lon, who is one of the gods of Olondria. And so then once you've got those pieces, then you go, oh, okay, so now I can play with Tia and I can play with Lon and I can put them in different places. So Lon is actually in the word Olondria. And Tia shows up in other places. And so what I wound up with was not, again, a full grammar, but certainly a lexicon. I do have, you know, a vocabulary list that I kept, where I would write down these different pieces of words that I could then combine in different ways. Which one of the things I like about that is that it gives a sense of... it gives a sense of coherence, and fullness to the world when you look at that map, and you can see that, you know, every time there's a forest, there's this piece of a word. Just like you might have different places that are called something wood, you know, in English. Those are things that we don't necessarily notice. But they're everywhere in the names of our cities and, and different landmarks. And no matter where you are in the world, that is going to be the case, you know that there's kind of a harmony to place names. And that's something that I wanted to create for this world as well. And then that extends into the names of people as well.
That's brilliant. I have never read a book so closely to figure out if there is that tiny little prefix or suffix that matches all of the oceans or the beaches or the forests, but I'm definitely going to be looking for it. And it really shows that you did that work of thinking of the history of the world. Because in a coherent history of the world, they would have these words that are associated with different places.
I kept getting confused when I was reading the names of characters because I would read a name for the first time, like Dasya, for example. And in my mind, I just assumed that the character was a woman. And there were many other examples of me reading a name and assigning a gender to it, and then being wrong. And I was wondering if that was intentional on your part, or were you just drawing from sounds from other languages where the like, like the gendered sounds are different. Does that make any sense?
Yeah, it does. That's very, very interesting. Well, yeah. To think about sound having a gender is is really interesting, I think. And yeah, I was definitely influenced by other languages. The name Dasya actually, you know, I was very influenced by Russian, which is a language that I don't know, but I really love Tolstoy and I was reading War and Peace and you know, so so that kind of infected the world of Olondria in lots of ways, actually.
I did get a very Russian vibe when I was reading.
There definitely is. And that that's a purely literary I mean, I've never been there. It's it's completely literary influence. And so was it deliberate? I don't know. It wasn't deliberate in this sense of making a statement or or wanting to sort of prove something or catch readers out on on gender. But it was deliberate in the sense that this is something that I enjoy. I just think it's, it's interesting and fun when you realize, you know, that sound doesn't have to be attached to gender in a in a certain way and that it's much more it's much more open than that.
I love that. Absolutely. And I I'm glad that it caught me up because it made me ask myself some questions about why I was attaching gender to random phonemes, so thanks for that. Another question I had about the world building and Winged Histories was about the calendar. I kept noticing that you didn't use month names in our calendar like January or February, but you have the month of lamps. And the month of plenty and my personal favorite, the month of mur in the season of Earth ringing. And maybe first, you could tell me why you chose to use a different calendar and not use our months?
Yeah, first of all, I think that our months are really complicated. Like the whole solar situation that months don't have the same, you know, they don't have the same number of days. And it's just like, this is really confusing. And the two, you know, the two calendars that I'm familiar with are, of course, that one and then, you know, having lived for so long for nine years in Egypt in a Muslim country where there's also like a lunar calendar going on at the same time and those so those, you know, holidays are like, keep on changing and keep coming into different time and circulating throughout the year. And honestly, I find that really complicated as well. So I was like, I don't, I can't. So what I did, was have a and I read about this, I should probably know this, I don't know off the top of my head, which culture does or has done this. But I know that I didn't make this up like I had read references to it, that you have your you have a 360 days and you have all your months even. And then you have this extra five days. And so that's what they have in Olondria and those extra five days are like Carnival time. Like everything is upside down and people act ridiculous. Masters and servants are switching places. And it's just a time of being absolutely wild because it's almost as though you're you're outside of time, like you've stepped outside of the calendar.
Is that something that if I read more of the book, or when I read more of the book, I'll find or is that just something that you know, because you created this world?
There is there are references says to I think, I believe in The Winged History's there is a reference to Tanbrivaud Night and Tanbrivaud Night is the first nig ht of this wildness. And it's a night when, you know, people dress up and the servants can come up and dance in the hall with the masters. And and yeah, so there's a reference to it, but it's never explained. It's never explained that this is how the calendar works. Yeah, I would say that that is is one of those things that's like, I know it. The characters know it, but they don't need to talk about it in the same way that you know, I wouldn't be explaining to you, you know, that February comes after January because you'd be like, why are you... That's not a that's not a natural conversation for us to have.
And something that I'm very committed to in world building is, look, if it's going if it's going to come across as real, if it's going to have that sense of immersion that I as a reader am looking for, then you can't have people running around explaining stuff that already that everybody already knows. That's just gonna kill it.
Yeah, absolutely. I really appreciated that. I was just totally immersed in your book because you didn't do weird, clunky exposition about your world building and it was like I felt a little left out at first, but then I like that's how you feel when you meet a group of people for the first time. I really felt like I was meeting them for the first time.
Yeah, thank you. I, I would say in that case, you're my ideal reader. You don't always get those there are definitely people who are like, "this is, you know, this is this is just way too much. Like I don't have enough Information and I don't have a handle on everything that's going on." Um, one of my... at a former job my boss really kindly, you know, got the book and read it and, and he was somebody who doesn't have the experience with reading fantasy. He just doesn't. It's not something that he does and you know, so it was like, you know very much a friend thing. And he just really struggled with it. He said for about 50 pages in the first book, because he didn't know what he was supposed to remember. There were all of these names floating around and all these names of, you know, plants and stuff and, and foods and there's so much made up stuff. And he was just like, what is going to be important later and what do I need to remember? And I thought that comment was really interesting because I realized that that is not how I read when I read a fantasy novel. I'm in no way like trying to take notes and quit. I'm my feeling is that all of those things that I don't quite know what they are, that's part of the pleasure for me. And I really enjoy that sense. That's what gives me the sense of entering another world. If I know, if I get everything, then it's kind of like, you know, then then something is is lost for me and I and I trust that, hey, if there's something important that I'm supposed to know, it's gonna float back up, like it's gonna be repeated. And you know, I will, I will develop an understanding of it.
Yeah, I also think it's, in some ways a gift to the reader to leave some things unexplained. When I read a mention of the month of lamps, in my head, I created images of people carrying around lamps because it was the darkest time of year and I added in that backstory, and it was fun for me to do that. I don't know if he did that on purpose, but
I think that was in my head as well. And I and I that you did that. But I also think that, yeah, I just love the sense of kind of co-creation that I think you're talking about there where, you know, it doesn't have to be the same thing that's in my head. And there have certainly been readers who have, you know, come up with all kinds of stuff that I'm like, wow, that I had... That was not in my head at all. But that's super interesting. And there's nothing preventing it. You know, it could be.
I think it also takes a special type of writer to give up that type of iron fisted control where you'll let other people create or add their own thoughts to the world.
Yeah, I guess for me, I would not describe it as as a as relinquishing control just because it is so much my my natural direction with writing. I'm always I'm always my fear is of hitting readers over the head with something. That's always my fear. And I would always rather you know, if you have to kind of choose your mistake, right, like either you're going to make the mistake of being too obvious. Or you're going to make the mistake of being too obscure and confusing. I will pick obscure every time.
And many of my editors, you know, stories, usually what they come back with when people are asking me for revision is like question mark, question mark. We don't understand what's going on here. We don't get it. You need to make you need to help us make this a little bit clearer and so on.
To recap, here are some of the awesome things I've learned so far from listening to Sophia. One. when constructing a fictional language, it might help to just start with sounds that you like. Two, your world doesn't have to be based on a culture or concept that you're deeply passionate about. If you're enjoying a Russian novel, when you start constructing your world, why not add some Russian elements and three, when it comes to the amount of world building detail you include in your story, err on the side of being obscure instead of including too much information. I know from experience that it's a lot easier to add in detail when people say they need it than it is to take stuff away. I get very attached to my words once they're on the page, so much so that I want my next tattoo to say "kill your darlings" as a helpful reminder that some things just don't make the final cut. And that's okay. You heard it here first, folks. I am speaking that tattoo into existence. If this is your first episode of Exolore, congratulations! You've found something awesome. You can follow the show on twitter at @ExolorePod. You can follow for show updates and a list of all the guests I've had on the show. Well, at least all the guests who are on Twitter. But don't leave yet. We still have plenty more to cover in this episode. And if you stay til the end, you'll hear a fun creative prompt.
Could you tell us one of the things that you created about the world but left out because you wanted to keep it more obscure, maybe one of those literary histories or a holiday that never made it into the book.
Yeah, let's see. Oh, you know, as I said, there is this this religious text, which it gets referred to in the books, but there's there's a lot in there that certainly never really comes into the books or doesn't come in, in any kind of direct way. In Olondria you have, you know, these gods and goddesses that, that are depicted with human shapes and, and they have all of these different attributes, but there's an older deity that's hard to talk about in English because it's kind of an entity that is singular and plural at the same time.
So this daddy is called Nyeb and I believe that shows up somewhere but this is the older deity. And in the religious text speaks in first person plural. So it's always "we" and and I just I remember this one, you know really key line of the dialogue in that in that religious book was "We are Nyeb and we are the law." And this was like the old and not an entity that could really be in connection with humans like just too strange and too beyond human imagining and without those human attributes that the that the kind of everyday Olondrian and gods and goddesses have. So there's a sense in my mind of this kind of layering of these spiritual presences where you have the ones that, yeah, you can kind of like humans can kind of interact with them and did and there's lots of stories of things that have happened between the gods and the humans and lots of interaction, but beyond them and behind them and before them is this older, you know, just super, unbelievably weird something that people don't even really have a lot of writing about. There are just these bits and pieces.
Is Olondria a world where the gods exist independent of humans, or do gods only exist because humans believe in them isn't? Like is Nyeb from a time before humans existed and could worship them?
Now, that really gets us into some interesting haha into some interesting discussion because, because my take on it would be that all deities are sort of metaphorical. They're all you know, a human effort to kind of describe and understand something that is unexplicable and understand the universe. So, in the Olondrian... so somebody wrote those Olondrian books, you know, in my head. Obviously, okay, on on one level I wrote them, but also I'm imagining these like, you know, scribes or priests or somebody who has written down this text. So now what do Olondrian theologians say about Nyeb I think is really the question that we want to be asking. And, and that would be I, you know, I'd have to go back to the books in check.
Okay. All right. Well, I would love to hear that answer. If you want to reach back out at some point. I don't just want to talk about Olondria because you've created so many other worlds and so many other stories. And I'm wondering if, when you look back at all of the work that you've done, do you see any commonalities between the worlds you've created? A thread that's carried through all of them?
A thread that's carried through all of them. You know, I think, for me, I still have trouble. So I the first thing I was going to say when you asked the question was that for me writing comes first, like writing is before anything else. And writing is before the world. And the world exists through writing, which is obvious, but it is also, you know, not necessarily the way that it has to be, I think, for writers who are really committed fantasy writers, where everything they write involves that particular kind of very explicit, deliberate world building that you have to do for an alternate world fantasy. You know, I could imagine that the writing and the world building would be very, very deeply entangled probably, more so than they are for me. Because I'm interested first and foremost in, you know, the language and the images and the world that I'm creating is, in some sense, a means to get to what I'm trying to do with the writing and as a writer, so there are things that I want to do that require, you know, imagining life on another planet, but I'm, it's not necessarily... And I'm thinking there of a short story. Well, kind of long story, novella, I guess, that I wrote called Fallow, which is in Tender, which takes place on a very inhospitable planet where these people have run off to start a kind of utopia and then, you know, terrible things. Terrible things follow as they do.
Um, but it's not the living on another planet that interests me as much as it is in that story, kind of the social problem and the ethical question of when your world -- because these people came from Earth, which is destroyed -- when your world is completely on fire, do you do you leave? And these people have decided, yes, we do leave and we survive. And we basically wait for that Earth to kind of, you know, burn up and restore itself. And we're going to have generations out here. And we're going to go back when everybody there is dead and the earth has renewed itself. And so the creation of the world is what enables me to kind of get into what it, what would it be like to live on a daily basis with having made that ethical choice? And so that's what that's what I'm in pursuit of as a writer. And it happens that I kind of, you know, that this was the this was the means that I found in order to reach that end, if that makes sense.
It does make sense. Is, is that the type of thinking that you hope your reader does when they are immersed in your worlds? Is it specific to that world in Fallow?
Yeah, I would say, yeah, I would say, because each each piece of writing sort of has its own. It has its own aims and its own preoccupations and problems. And so I would say that that is specific to that story. I certainly hope that people reading that story would, yeah, would be prompted to consider those questions. Yeah.
Do you think that all world building should prompt deep philosophical thinking? Is that what makes a good world for you?
I never like should. So I'm always like, mmm! Because I don't react well to it. Like if somebody else, you know, is talking about something in is talking about writing anything really and tells me this should be like the... you know, I'm I definitely don't take that well, so I wouldn't want to put that on others. I would say that I enjoy that experience. I enjoy the experience of looking and I think it's an opportunity, I do think it's an opportunity that this kind of world building affords, which is that it does have sort of the quality of a thought experiment. And it it can it's it's a it's a form of it's a creative practice that is very much open to helping you explore philosophical problems. So I guess I might say, I might not say sure, but I might say why not?
Yeah, I I totally agree with you. I've always thought of world building as a really introspective process where to build a world that feels real to other people, you have to understand how our world works and why it feels real to us.
I'm glad that I'm not alone in that, like an accomplished builder also thinks that so thanks for that. Do you feel like building fictional worlds has changed the way you view Earth?
Oh, that's a good question. Um, I think that it's not so much that it has changed the way I look at the world. Or if it has, it's done so in the sense that it's made me more aware of how the world is built. It's made me more aware of the process of world building and that this is something we also do, you know. We we make our world. And so, um, yeah, in that sense, I guess maybe it it has made me certainly apt to question the way that the world is and to recognize that, you know, very, very rarely is there a situation where it's like, well, it has to be like this. Well, you know, mmm usually not. Usually we we've made it like that, you know, that's why it's like that. And it's not like that somewhere else on the same planet. And so, yeah, I think about those because we use those are those are world building strategies that we actually use every day.
Yeah. Could you give an example of a strategy that we use every day? Like is, has there ever been a time when you were going through life and you either noticed yourself doing something world building or you notice someone else crafting the world around them?
I think one great example is gender. I mean, we've already referred to kind of the gender of sound and what we assume, you know, names mean, but read Judith Butler, who knows more about this than I do, and then has written wonderfully about this idea of gender performativity. But, but gender is something that you have to make. And you have to make it every day. You can't stop with gender. Like you can't you, you have to keep doing those things. You have to keep, you know, behaving in those kind of culturally sanctioned ways every day in order to keep your gender fixed and recognizable within a certain context. And I think that's really, really interesting.
Not only in a way have like, Oh, you know what drudgery to get up and make gender every day. But but also the ways in which, you know, the ways in which we want to do it the ways in which it's pleasurable in which it's fun in which it, you know, becomes so entwined with who we are that we are, we are building the world, and we are, we are building ourselves. And that is, that's something that's that I find really fascinating.
Yeah, absolutely. Of course, there are some people for whom gender isn't fixed or for whom gender expression isn't the most important part of building themselves. But do you feel like it's a drudgery?
No, I don't feel like it's a drudgery except when I look at it from from the outside, like, as long as I'm within my gendered self that I make so nicely every day, I'm sort of like, yeah, this is you know, I love being like this, so on and doing all of these things. But if I step outside of it, and I look at it from the perspective of that alien who's just dropped down from another planet, right? And the alien is like, why? Like, you know, this is completely you know, this is... this is like extra stuff that you're doing that you you know, you you don't have to do. And then maybe you know, and then I think it kind of takes on a different a different charge or a different energy.
Yeah, I feel like that alien touching down would have so many questions about why we're doing things the way we are. Absolutely. Do you have any fictional worlds that you're living in that aren't your own right now?
Oh, fictional worlds I'm living that are my own. I am... Okay, I'm, you might be talking about like books and movies, or you might be talking about kind of delusions which are you...?
Either worse, but I take a broad approach to fictional worlds. It could be a video game or like, if you have a backyard that you have constructed to feel like a fairy glen or something?
That would be nice. We do have over our gate to the backyard, my husband painted in Tolkien's like Elvish lettering, "Speak friend and enter." So we do have that, which we get every once in a while somebody walking by and it's like, "What language is that?" But um, but so, so fictional worlds I'm living with I'm reading Angela Carter's book of fairy tales, which is amazing. It's so good and weird. She, it's actually a big fat collection which combines two fairy tale collections that she edited during her life. And they are from all over the world and there are, you know, I've read maybe about 100 pages of it. And fairy tales, this is something that I teach a class on fairy tales. I'm read a lot of fairy tales. But there's stuff in here that I've never read before. And it's so interesting. That's so good and so weird. And then I'm also watching for the German because I'm studying German, so I'm watching Dark on Netflix, which is a German series that deals with time travel, and has now I am in season three. These writers have tangled themselves up so severely in the paradoxes.
I'm just how are you going to struggle through to the end of this show? So I'm very interested to see what happens because everybody is like their own grandfather in this show. Like by the time you get to season three, you're just like, Oh, no, how, you know, how is any of this going to... Yeah. How is it going to work out? So that's pretty fascinating.
Do you ever find that it feels like work to watch things like that, where you're just like picking it apart and trying to figure out if it works and is good?
I would say, back in season one, there was a time when I was kind of doing that. Because the first the first kind of loop is cool, right? You're like, Oh, that's so interesting because if this hadn't happened, that guy wouldn't exist and so and so forth. But then once they like pile a whole bunch of those in there, it just starts to become outrageous and sort of funny. So at this point, I'm like, you have all lost yourself. And I if they pull it together, it will be amazing. But I'm just like, no, this is this is this is now you know, you've just really created a complete... They do there is a kind of, I think there's a they might use this, this kind of giant nuclear explosion as like a failsafe device to get out of everything that they've done. And just I blow everything up. That's the only way that I can see for them. And they've referred to the apocalypse several times. So I'm like, you're just, you know, you're finna just blow this thing up at the end and just escape.
Sometimes you have to just blow everything up and and let the weeds grow from the ashes.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think Yeah, okay, so there was probably a moment when it was work, but I am not going to do that kind of work for very long. Because when I see that, you know, then it now it's just kind of like, some it's just like a weird roller coaster right now.
I read in another interview -- because you're awesome and you do a lot of things --
...that you were going to take a break from epic fantasy worlds, or at least writing epic fantasy. And is that because there are other types of worlds that you would rather spend time with?
Yeah, I think um, yeah, that's definitely true. And when I say that, you know, I'm talking about a very specific thing, which is what I did in making the world of Olondria, which is where you sit down and you are very carefully crafting all of these different elements of a world that is as fully realized as you can make it. And that is, the fact that I'm not doing that now is, you know, it doesn't have anything to do with the genre. It has to do with the fact that as a writer, I'm always I'm always experimenting, and I'm always interested in doing the next thing and the new thing. So I've been writing more nonfiction, and I've been writing more kind of short, experimental pieces. I've been working more with memoir. And that's because again, since I see I don't really I don't define myself as a fantasy writer, except insofar as that is what I have published. But as a writer, I would say again, that that that genre is a means to an end. For me, it's it allows me to explore and do things that I want to do. But I wouldn't say that I'm defined by that as a writer, and therefore, you know, I, I want to do other things because I have done that thing,
Right. Do you think that you can take the skills of world building in this very specific fantasy world context and apply it to memoirs and other nonfiction work?
That is an interesting question. I think that certainly there are skills as a writer that I definitely, you know, I have developed through writing those books. Because, well, certainly when I read the first one, I just really didn't know how this was done at all. And I learned by doing, which I think is a great way to learn. But it took a really, really long time. And I do find that there are things that I can recognize now. I think a big one is pacing. Like I kind of have a better sense of the feel of a piece. And no matter what you're writing, there is a pace. And you don't want it to drag, and that doesn't matter, you know, it doesn't matter whether it's epic fantasy, or it's an essay or whatever it is. You want to kind of keep that interest. And that was something that when I wrote my first novel, I just had no idea. I was just like, wandering around writing the pages, and I didn't have a sense of flow. And I feel like now I have more of a sense of flow and I'll catch myself and I'll be like, "this is the time for this section to end." Or like "this chapter ends here." Like I can feel that that's what is supposed to happen. It's like those cooks that are really experienced and will be like "the cake is done." And they didn't, you know, there's no, they didn't set any timer or anything. They're just like, "It's done. Now I'm taking it out."
And it's done and it's perfect. So, you know, I wouldn't say my chapters are always done and perfect, but I do have a sense, I have a better sense of timing. But that's not a skill that comes specifically from writing epic fantasy, right. I mean, that could have been I could have written, written a novel about anything. I could have written any kind of, you know, 300 page book, and I believe that, you know, with any luck, I would have developed or started developing that kind of sense. It's hard for me to think about a skill that comes specifically from epic fantasy that I then go and apply to other things. I might say that there is... and maybe this goes back to something we talked about earlier and that feeling that you get if you are someone who loves fantasy from all of those weird names that you're surrounded by and from being in this context that you don't completely recognize... To give any a reader that experience, you have to have the ability to create a certain kind of mood and to create atmosphere. And I do think that that, that skill, the ability to create atmosphere can be honed by that kind of world building because you are creating something that's so... you're creating such a specific and particular kind of experience that is found nowhere else because this world only exists inside this book. So that's maybe something I would say certainly that I would hope to be able to achieve in other kinds of writing as well, is the creation of very specific atmospheres that with any luck, a reader would want to return to.
Yeah. And especially for nonfiction work, I think your ability, like you said that creating fictional worlds gave you the ability to see world building in action. I think that that has to be so helpful. I can imagine that the ability to connect the dots and see how things work together and influence each other would would at least yield interesting angles for nonfiction stories.
Yeah, I think that that's true. And I would say there's also, you know, there's feedback between the two, because of course, it's the world that I live in that gives me you know, certain, you know, notions of like what imperialism looks like that get played out in the world of Olondria. And then, you know, coming back to nonfiction, then I'm looking at, you know, seeing some of those looking again at those dynamics and in the world that I live in.
Awesome. We are almost at the top of the hour. So I just have two questions left. One is: do you have any advice for aspiring world builders?
Advice for aspiring world builders. You know how I told you I don't like should.
And I do get asked, you know, I should have like a nice pat answer prepared because I do get asked for advice. And I'm always like, I don't want to tell anybody to do something. I want people to just experiment and, and have fun,
I think that's great advice.
Yeah, it is. It is. I mean, it is good advice, I think. Although you also kind of hope that people don't have to be told that right? Like, what are you doing? If you're hating your you know like, stop. If you don't like it, go do something else. So here is maybe a piece of advice that comes from the fact that I recently re-read the Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, which I hadn't read since I was a kid. And it's five books. And they are riddled with problems, and really, really good. And what I noticed as I was, as I was reading them was that when she... So the problems come from the fact that, you know, really, things don't make sense at all. And she's, every time she runs into a problem, she's like, let's make a new prophecy. And then they find a poem somewhere and then they have to go fulfill the thing, but it gets very... it doesn't, it doesn't connect and it doesn't it doesn't come together in what is to me a satisfying way. But the reason that the books are still good is because she is great with images. With kind of these dreamlike images, much of them, many of them drawn from mythology of suddenly, you know, this flowering Hawthorn tree that's like on top of a building or something. And the, the images and the vision works, even when the explanations don't. So I guess I would say, at least if you want to write a book that I like, be, be, um, be passionate and true to your vision and trust those dreamlike images because they will carry you an awful long way, even when maybe all of your threads are not completely tied up.
That's beautiful. Although I will say I was and probably still am a sucker for a prophecy. It doesn't even have to be a good prophecy. I will eat that up.
That's what I'm saying. It works. It's a good strategy. You know, maybe that's advice too. Maybe that's a simpler version of the advice. Like if you have, if you run into troubles, throw in a prophesy. Maybe this, you know, this German TV show could use, you know, use some some prophecies to just kind of get them out of some of their difficulties.
If only I had a prophecy to get me out of my difficulties and the difficulties in the world right now. Oh, I wish. My final question is how can our listeners learn more about you and what you're up to?
Um, that's pretty difficult because I am a bit reclusive. I'm not on any form of social media. I gave it up in, when was it? I know it was 2016. It was before the election. And I was like, Hmm, I, I have too many. I have too many questions. I have too many questions about social media and what it does and its role in my life and in the lives of others. And until I have more satisfactory answers to these questions, I don't want to be involved in this. And so then I left them and it's amazing.
It's so good. And so that makes me kind of hard to find. I do have a website, which I and it has a news page, which I update at long intervals.
So I think that's really the only place people can look, but my email is on there.
It is. That's how I got in touch with you.
Yeah. So So and I'm and I'm and I do respond. I'm, I'm very I'm available in that way.
Do you have anything coming up that people should be on the lookout for?
There is a book, which I think should be interesting. I have a short story in it that I like quite a lot. It's called the New Book of the Dead. And it's a story that is it's a science fiction story inspired by the Egyptian Book of the Dead. And it's coming out in an anthology called Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories, which is supposed to be out I believe in January of 2021.
Yeah, be on the lookout for that. And I will post the links to your website. And and some of my favorite books and stories in the description below so people can read those as they should read your words. They're great words.
Thank you so much.
Yeah. Any last thoughts before we sign off?
Just a big thank you for all the great questions.
Thanks for I learned so much. So thank you for your wisdom and insight.
One thing that I really took away from that discussion, and that I hope you take away too, is that if you're creating a fictional world, you have to be deliberate about separating your beliefs from the beliefs of people in your world. Sure, they can overlap, but I really respected that Sofia could divorce her thoughts on religion from the centuries of work that Olondrian philosophers and theologians would have produced. Are you looking to start a creative project but need a little inspiration? Here's a prompt: Imagine a new calendar system either for our world or one you've seen in a movie or book and have an explanation for how and why the calendar was created. Where are the month names from? Was there a big meeting where the calendar was officially designed? Was there pushback from the public? Whatever you do, have fun with it. And don't be afraid to throw in a prophecy or two. Share your work on Twitter and tag @ExolorePod, or you can send your work to the email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to support my worldbuilding work, you can head on over to patreon.com/goastromo. Or, if money's tight, you can rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. It really does make a difference. If you liked this episode, be sure to share it with your friends and subscribe to the show. That way you can catch me next time on another world.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai