Today I’m chatting with Louise Spiegler, author of two great speculative books that aren’t traditional fantasy or science fiction. They’re—well, I’ll let her explain.
CE: Tell us about your books.
The Amethyst Road is a fantasy set in an alternative Pacific Northwest where Serena, a mixed-race girl, must fight hardship and racial hatred to find and reunite her scattered family. In this world, the Gorgios, a settled people, control the power and money. The Yulang are travellers who are regarded with contempt by the Gorgios. Within the Yulang, there are tribal divisions and strict rules and expectations. Serena is cast out of both groups when her sister Willow has a child out of wedlock. She ultimately succeeds in reuniting her family and discovering her own path in life, but not without a lot of struggle and heartbreak. The book was a Junior Library Book Club selection, and a finalist for the Andre Norton Award (Hugo-Nebula award scheme).
The Jewel and the Key (due out August 29) is set in the present day, as the U.S. is embarking on yet another war in the Middle East. Addie, a stage-struck girl, frustrated in her dream of becoming an actress, becomes deeply involved in saving a derelict theater called The Jewel from demolition. Her best friend Whaley has just been expelled from school and is obsessed with fighting in the war. An earthquake and the discovery of an antique mirror unleash forces that jolt Addie out of her time and into 1917 Seattle, just as America enters World War I. Here she finds a world in as much turmoil as her own. However, in this past era she finds fulfillment working at the Jewel in its hey-day, and in her relationship with its owner’s son, Reg, who in his own way is as much a trouble-magnet as Whaley. As she unravels the connection between the two times she discovers that in both, the Jewel is under threat, war is looming and someone she cares about is determined to fight. In the end, only Addie holds the key to saving the Jewel and her friends’ lives.
CE: Your first book, The Amethyst Road, was set in an alternate reality in the Pacific Northwest. Your new book, The Jewel and The Key, involves time travel between two realistic eras. What draws you to this type of almost-realistic speculative fiction?
I’m drawn to the imaginative and the fantastic—there’s nothing I love better than a good ghost story—but am also deeply involved with the world around me. When I was about seven or eight, I believed there was always something magical just out of reach, around the corner, in the other room, in the old house up the hill. You had to creep up on it and surprise it. I still can have that feeling, especially in places which are old and have a lot of history. So that’s the psychological, ‘it all goes back to my childhood’ explanation.
Nonetheless, I find the struggles of the real world completely compelling. I’m fascinated by the nitty-gritty of how people live, what they have in their pockets to pay for their food, what they do when they can’t pay, what stories they tell about themselves, what they dream about, what they do when the world they live in is dangerous or unjust. For me, fantasy needs to engage all of this. In fact, I think it’s the true substance of good fantasy, no matter how much it bends the rules of time and space.
CE: What inspires you? Do you start with character, plot, situation, or an issue you want to explore?
In The Amethyst Road, character came first. Serena was so real to me from the very start that I could almost feel her tapping me on the shoulder.
With The Jewel and the Key, I had a vague idea of a time travel novel set in a theater, but it never came together until the day the U.S. started bombing Iraq: “Shock and Awe”. I’d gone to demonstrations, talked to people, emailed my Congressional representatives, because I saw us hurtling towards this conflict I was sure could be avoided. I was convinced from the get-go that there were no weapons of mass destruction. And then, to see the bombs falling!
I’ve mentioned that I teach history. If you teach, you’re also learning all the time. So I’d been studying World War I—inspired by Pat Barker’s amazing novel Regeneration—and had developed a real empathy for the generation who fought in the First World War, a war with such horrifying casualties. The appalling sacrifice just didn’t seem justified by the reasons given for fighting. I saw my own students going off to fight. And then, later, I started having students in my class who were veterans, returning with PTSD—what my World War I characters would have called “shell shock”. Not to mention the effect on Iraqi civilians. I felt there was a powerful mirror between World War I and Iraq and I wanted to explore this in fiction.
I wanted the place that was the conduit between the two times to be a theater, because theaters are so magical in and of themselves, and because of the transformative power of the stage. And Seattle has gorgeous old theaters, many of which have been ‘brought back to life’ as the Jewel is in the story. I saw this theme of rebirth as a strong and positive counterweight to the theme of war.
From these starting points, the characters just started leaping out at me: Addie with her intense imagination and intoxication with the theater, her best pal Whaley, so troubled but so good-hearted, wanting to go off to war for all those idealistic reasons. And then the inhabitants of the Jewel in 1917: Reg, that intense and talented boy, who Addie falls for almost at once, Meg, the director, and the fugitive Wobbly, Gustav Peterson, on the run from the law after the Everett Massacre. I knew there would be a connection between two boys, Reg and Whaley, trying to go off and fight two different wars for their own reasons and there would be others seeing the war quite differently, and passionately trying to stop it.
CE: You started writing The Jewel and the Key shortly after the US invasion of Iraq, but because of publishing delays it’s just now coming out. Did you have to change the story because of the delays? Do you still feel this is a timely story?
As far as I know, we’re still at war. And even if the wars had ended, I would still feel that story was timely. We are a country which has enormous military might, many strategic and economic interests. War is endemic in our history. We need to think about it more, not just accept it as a natural part of our national life. I’d love to see people question if it has to be this way and be willing to stand up and be counted if they think we’re embarking on a war of aggression.
Another plot thread in the book has to with the Wobblies—the raucous, rip-roaring union whose real name was the Industrial Workers of the World. Part of the backdrop of the events at the Jewel in 1917 involve the conflicts between workers in the timber industry here in the Pacific Northwest who wanted to gain bargaining and free speech rights and the corporations and politicians tried their best to stop them. I.W.W. members were demonized, incarcerated and (if foreign-born) deported, in the Red Scares following the war. If you look at what’s happening right now in Wisconsin and other states, where the governors are attempting to strip unions of bargaining rights, the book couldn’t be more timely.
CE: Do you outline? How clearly do you know where your book is going before you start? Do you surprise yourself along the way?
I never outline! Or at least, not until I’m half-way through the book. At that point I might jot some notes for myself about where I’m going. The story is generated on the page. That’s why I end up with so many storylines and have to be ruthless about cutting. My process is messy. But you have to use what works for you. I love it. It’s like rummaging around in an attic full of boxes full of strange and wonderful objects.
CE: The Amethyst Road—your first book—was a finalist for The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. How did that feel?
CE: If you could live in a sci-fi or fantasy world, which would it be? Why?
One in which time travel is possible. Need you ask!?
CE: What would readers find surprising or interesting about you?
I’ve seen a ghost, attended a Korean shaman’s funeral and been arrested for civil disobedience. Even more astonishing, I don’t own a functioning television!
Thanks for visiting The Spectacle! The Jewel and the Key is due out from Clarion Books on August 29 . You can pre-order it now. Louise is currently constructing a new website. Until it’s functional, you can visit the Amethyst Road site, which will soon have a link on it to the new site.
Leave a comment to be entered in the ARC give-away for The Jewel and the Key. (U.S. and Canada only, please.)