Bone Towers and Sky Cows: 11 Things We Learned Talking With Fran Wilde About Updraft

wildeWe’ve already told you why you need to read Updraft, Fran Wilde’s debut fantasy; in brief: it’s an awesome teenage girl’s coming-of-age adventure, with a complex political undercurrent, set in an intriguing post-apocalyptic world in which society clings to life atop rising towers of living bone. It’s surprising, and scary, and fresh, and we can’t wait to read more.

We recently sat down with Fran during the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention in Spokane, Washington to talk about the book, and ended up learning a whole lot more than we bargained for. About, for example, the probability of high-altitude dairy farming. Here are but 11 takeaways from our conversation.

1. Fran has not one, but three elevator pitches for her book.
“If I’m talking to friends or publishers or people in genre, I will do one of two pitches,” she said. “’A city above the clouds, built of living bone. Songs in silence. Secrets and betrayal.’ Another one is ‘Giant, invisible, flying cephalopods. Giant, invisible carnivorous flying cephalopods.’” And then there’s number three, reserved for the literati: “Victor Hugo meets Italo Calvino, with squid. Everything has squid.”

2. The book went through a lot of titles, some more literal than others.
“When I read chapter one to an audience, I explain that when we were going through the process of choosing a title—because quite often, a book doesn’t get to keep its title, and mine certainly didn’t; we went through lots—for a while I was calling it Bob Gets Eaten on Page Two. because that is exactly what happens.”

3. Her book features giant, invisible, carnivorous flying cephalopods, but the “skymouths” aren’t the villains of the piece.
“In a lot of the short stories I write in the same world, [the skymouths] aren’t mentioned at all. People mention being unlucky, being afraid of the clouds, but they don’t talk about why. And quite often, that’s a superstitious thing that people do: they won’t talk about the real fear. But also, when your culture has assimilated something so much, you don’t necessarily mention the most obvious threat, because it’s so obvious. And people don’t talk about gravity, either, which is the biggest monster.”

4. The characters traverse her bone tower city by glider-like wings, but Fran hates heights.
“I went indoor skydiving up in New Hampshire [as research]. Which was terrifying for me, because of the vertigo and the fear of heights and the lack of control and the 27-page please-don’t-sue-us waiver. But at least I didn’t have to jump out of a plane. And the seven-year-old who went after me was perfectly fine.”

5. She has an assignment for fans of the book. 
“I definitely have some idea of how [the wings] look. But also, [Tor Books Art Director] Irene Gallo took a copy of Updraft to a master’s workshop in illustration, and gave a passage to a number of artists, and interpretations that are already coming back for what the wings look like, there is vast difference. I can’t wait to see the fan art on this. Hello, fan artists! Go!”

6. Updraft began as a series of short stories that accidentally became a novel.
This is the second novel I’ve written. I was challenged to write a novel in 90 days by someone at [a writers’ workshop]. That novel was built off of a short story that I had taken to the workshop, and it’s SF, it’s not fantasy. I wrote it to 90 days, and it was amazing to me that I could do this. I sent it off for some comments, and while I was waiting to hear, I started to write some short stories based on another short story that I had written while I was at the workshop, set in this world, but about different characters. I started writing more stories in that world, and one of [them] about a winged knife-fight in a wind tunnel. When I wrote that story, I was talking with my critique group, and they said, “I have some questions [about this world].” And I said, “I have some questions too.” And we started tossing questions back and forth, and it got bigger and bigger and bigger. The first draft was written in about six weeks.”

7. Like Paradise Lost, Updraft‘s world began as the story of a fall.
“I [wanted] to write a fall story—a story about a fall, which if you’re talking about Paradise Lost, that’s one of the major themes in the story. And that first short story was about 1,500 words, and it has the city of living bone in it, and it had a feature in it that I was fascinated with from the beginning: the towers grow up. And when they grow up, the core of the tower grows out, which is a support function of the bone. But it pushes the people who are living on them out, and they have to go up. This is also a society that associates safety with height, and so there is, for lack of better pun, social climbing going on [Editor’s note: Actually, that’s a pretty good pun]. This is also a scarcity society, because you can’t grow as much up there. There’s certainly no grazing lands. The food access is very interesting, but also, if you have a vertical society that’s living on towers of living bone, with no central dumping place or anything else, you’ve got a waste management problem, and it’s literally really s****y to be living at the bottom.”

8. No grazing lands, eh? 
“This is the story of the incredible missing cow: I was going through copy edits earlier this year, and I’m a food blogger, so I’m pretty careful about the food research that I do for every story. But I missed one. I missed a big one. I had a character drinking a cup of milk. My copy editor caught it. She was like, ‘Now where do you suppose that one would get a cup of milk above the clouds, on a tower? I don’t know any cows that climb.’”

9. She’s going to be exploring this world for a while.
“I do have a rationalization for this world. I know the history. In the second book, Cloudbound, the characters are going to explore the history and politics a little bit. The Singers [who control the city], among other things including providing laws, build bridges between towers, which improves commerce and relations, and people who are unable to fly can suddenly cross bridges, which is a big deal. But it also provides structural support for the towers. The thing that the singers are aware of, and some people in the city are aware of, is that not all of the towers have survived the rise. There are cracked towers, there are broken towers, there is one tower that has not been allowed to rise as high because it rebelled. The singers control when a tower rises—in some cases with bone, if you abrade the top of it, it will grow more bone, and these towers do that. The singers know exactly how to do that, and when they say, ‘You are not allowed to raise your tower any higher,’ the city grows past you. Your tower becomes the impoverished tower. Which is an interesting way to exert political control.”

10.You don’t want to visit the tower that makes silk.
“There’s a group of towers that we haven’t see yet—you’ll see them in book two—where all the silk is grown. And those are really scary towers, because there are spiders all over the place.”

11. Teenage Fran would have loved her book.
“The teenage me spent a lot of time on the Upper Eastern shore of Maryland hanging off of the cliffsides, waiting for the wind to pick me up, and there was always sort of this feeling that if there was just enough wind, I could lift right off my feet. The teenaged me was also a big sci-fi reader. Secretive sci-fi, mostly, but I was in love with books like The Dictionary of the Khazars, which is a book by Milorad Pavić, which is told in three different religions through definitions and the way that the definitions relate to each other; it’s a fascinating book. I was a huge William Gibson fan from way, way back—I was a cyberpunk, really into technology. I had a huge Ursula Le Guin phase; I had a huge Anne McCaffrey phase—not just the Dragonsong but Killashandra, Restoree, and The Ship Who Sang. Really powerful stuff. I liked the way that science and engineering were worked in with the fantastical elements. I think something like Updraft would have appealed to teenaged me.”

Updraft is available now.

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