Dancing in the Fire: An Interview with Ilana C. Myer, author of Last Song Before Night

lastsongUpon completing Last Song Before Night, Ilana C. Myer’s terrific 2015 debut novel, I was reminded of another fantasy novelist I place on the highest possible pedestal: Guy Gavriel Kay. Myer is an admitted fan of Kay’s, and his influence shows through nearly every facet of her novel. Often when a debut novelist attempts to emulate a master fantasist, it is a recipe for disaster, but Last Song Before Night is anything but—it’s sure and steady, remarkably confident, and more than competent.

One of the things I admire most about the novel the depth and strength of her characters. It’s not terribly long (at least by the standards of epic fantasy—but 416 pages is no novella, either), but it’s stuffed full of interesting world-building, and a core cast of characters who grow tremendously strong by the time it’s all over.

Less sophisticated authors often conflate “strength” with physical prowess, washboard abs, and rippling muscles—attributes more commonly found at your local gym. (In terms I understand: you know, a D&D character with 18 STR.) Sure, that counts—Conan’s a “strong” character, but it’s just scratching the surface. Myer finds strength in so many different facets of her characters’ personalities and actions.

On the occasion of the paperback release of her debut, I caught up with Myer to chat about Last Song Before Night and its forthcoming sequel, Fire Dance.

“Depth and complexity are hallmarks of a strong character,” she told me, identifying two of most important tools available to an author looking to write a character who’s not only strong, but also interesting. “It’s not enough if they keep me turning pages. The true test is whether, when the book is done and put away, the character remains imprinted in my mind. This happens rarely, as even some of the books I love most don’t reach this level of characterization. When it comes to fictional characters, my ideal is for them to haunt me for the rest of my life, like ghosts. But, in a non-creepy way.”

Myer believes strong characters should be flawed. “It doesn’t have to be a grimdark thing, but everyone has darker shadings—and like shadows, these lend contour, depth, contrast. From here we could veer off-topic into the whole ‘likeable’ issue, which is a big one, and difficult (and perhaps dangerous) to navigate. Genre writers don’t have much leeway towards creating unlikable protagonists. I think the greatest sin of a character is to be uninteresting.”

The cast of Last Song Before Night is small, but the relationships between the characters are intricate and layered. They all see each other in different lights. These filters, Myer says, help to develop the characters as individuals and as an overall group.

“These layered relationships are vital, because they involve the characters striking sparks off one another. Not specifically romantic sparks; sparks that give us insight into who they are, and sometimes—crucially—give the characters insight into one another and themselves. Self-awareness is probably a prevailing thread in my work. What we imagine we know about ourselves can be shattered, or at least gradually eroded, in contact with another person.”

For inspiration, Myer looks to authors like, yes, Guy Gavriel Kay, whose fingerprints are all over Last Song Before Night, and Jane Gardam, whom she admires for writing characters whose strengths rise above obvious physiological gifts.

“Ever since I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana I’ve been haunted by Dianora. And she’s an example of a character who doesn’t quite fit with the rules of the strong female character being promulgated today—her agency is limited. But the actions she does take have profound repercussions, and the intertwined ‘twin snakes’ in her heart break my heart. She is brilliant and talented, and it is ultimately these qualities that place her in an untenable position. Depth and complexity there, in spades.

“And if I may depart the genre for a moment, a truly remarkable character in fiction is Jane Gardam’s Sir Edward Feathers in Old Filth and The Man with the Wooden Hat. There are so many facets to this protagonist that even in the last scene of the second book there is a revelation about him that takes the breath away. And on the surface, he is unassuming, passionless, equable. These books are a master class in characterization.”

Last Song Before Night is full to the brim with engaging and varied characters—but Myer has a bone to pick with the idea that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to writing strong characters (no matter their gender.) Each of her characters is strong in their own way, and, similarly, their flaws are genuine and different from one another. I asked Myer how she sees the concept of “strength” being applied to characters of different genders.

“The discourse around the ‘strong female character’ is one that wearies me, because what I see happening is a prescriptive attitude for writers—a How to Write approach that renders certain depictions of women ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’

“There absolutely are depictions of women that are poor, and they usually stem from lack of insight and limited imagination. They tend to be a consequence of an author projecting qualities he imagines as ‘feminine’ onto the hapless character. A weak female character is the result of an author failing to imagine the complexity of her inner life to the same degree as he would a male character. Even wonderful writers fall prey to this. I suppose that’s why we continue to have this conversation.”

Myer has a plea to writers who want to write strong, interesting, and rich women: “Forget everything you think you know about women. What is most weakening to a female character is knee-jerk cliché—and this includes the cliché of the kickass beauty. Empathy and imagination are key to creating a strong character of any kind.”

Myer heaped praise on Tor Books, her publisher, for its large (and growing) library of inspirational fantasy. “They’ve been a beacon of feminist fantasy in recent years. And I’m obviously not just talking about myself! Tor gives a platform to a wide range of authors whose work is politically cutting edge and important.”

Last Song Before Night is a standalone story, with a satisfying ending, but Myer has big plans for the series, and is determined not to let her fans down when the sequel hits bookshelves in 2018. Don’t expect a retread: “Fire Dance will expand the world and test the surviving characters within an inch of their lives. Last Song Before Night is focused on inspirations from Western culture—the Celtic poets and medieval troubadours. In Fire Dance I was inspired by Islamic Spain, Middle Eastern mythology, and flamenco. It meant switching back and forth in my reading between the Arabian Nights and the Mabinogi, Andalusian poetry and Seamus Heaney, among numerous other things.”

Last Song Before Night is available now in paperback from Tor Books.

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