In Which Married Authors Arkady Martine and Vivian Shaw Discuss Inspiration, Influences, and Collaboration

Welcome to another installment of Other Halves, our irregular interview series in which authors are interviewed about their books, writing process, and the weirdness of the literary life by their spouse/partner/significant other. Today we’re joined by married authors Arkady Martine and Vivian Shaw, who interview each other…

Arkady Martine is a writer, a historian of the Byzantine Empire, and a city planner. She writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Her debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, was released in early 2019 to great acclaim, no small measure of it coming from this direction. Vivian Shaw wears way too many earrings and likes edged weapons and expensive ink. She writes about monsters, machines, disasters, and found family. Her short sci-fi/horror fiction has appeared in Uncanny and PseudoPod. She is the author of the Dr. Greta Van Helsing novel series, the final volume of which, Grave Importance, releases September 24.

Vivian Shaw: Let’s begin with that perennial author favorite:


Clearly the answer to this is “the idea store, you can order them on the internet and the shipping’s really reasonable,” but let’s explore further.

Arkady Martine: The obvious and sort of trite answer is at work, which is only interesting because my work has been either “Byzantine historian” or “city planner” or “climate change policy analyst.” It’s a true answer, though. I get my ideas from the intense questions I think about every day (we covet what we see every day, quoth Hannibal Lecter to Clarice Starling, and on this he is not as wrong as he is about anthropophagy). I obsess easily, and I obsess—holistically, I guess would be the word for it. Not just “the history of this one provincial governor on the eleventh-century Byzantine-Armenian-Arabic border,” but “what narrative structures allow people in liminal spaces to preserve their own sense of identity?” Not only “I really really love the NYC subway,” but “what does the ever-present difficulty of funding the NYC subway have to do with the idea of transit as a public good, or public goods being a thing at all, and also was Robert Moses actually possessed of a devil or just seemed like it to the people who lived where the Cross-Bronx is now?”

I think I get my ideas from being a person who likes big patterns. I’m a theme-first writer. A this story is about writer. Which, I know, drives you up the wall. 🙂

So that’s my first question to you: where do you start? What’s the seed of a story for you?

Vivian Shaw: It drives me up the wall because I can’t do it: it plays into a specific kind of impostor syndrome. I’m not actually a real or serious author because I don’t write books about themes, I just… write them, about events and characters and settings. I suppose you could say I write stories about questions, instead: what if. What if a certain premise were true, what if a set of conditions obtained, what if a specific lie were real, what would that mean to the people living in the subsequent world?

I am by nature if not by formal training a scientist, and to me that means constantly wanting to know: asking questions about how things work and why they work and what bearing that has on any or everything else. What if back in 2004 I stuffed most of the major characters from classic horror lit into one NaNoWriMo entry and shook it up with my abiding love of abandoned tunnels and obsolete electrical equipment? Turns out I’d get the bones of what became Strange Practice years later. I get images, snatches of imagination borne out of ingrained curiosity and obsessive research, and I use them to grow a story outward from like seed crystals in a supersaturated solution.

It’s what if combined with Stephen King’s can you, in effect, and that leads me to my next question: who would you say your main influences are, and in what way, and why?

AM: Aside from King, you mean? (Sowisa, babyluv.) Because King is surprisingly central. I think he’s one of the great prose stylists of American fiction, in sort of the same way Raymond Chandler is actually a great prose stylist—there’s a compulsive readability, an exquisite use of singular phrases which are in fact aesthetically beautiful (I mean, we speak the language of the unformed, what can I even say about that), an attention to character detail in voice and description.

Chandler does all that, too, in other ways. In The Big Sleep he has Marlowe tell us about the ocean, which is telling us about Marlowe more than anything else: “Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.” And then he’ll do this, which is the other half of that precision of language, the description pared down to only what is necessary, only what is character, and makes the audience do the other half of the work: “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” Which is from Farewell, My Lovely.

I think I’m dancing around influence here and talking about language because the writers I learn from and want to create like all tend to hit me on a linguistic level: King, and Chandler, and Peake—I love so much that you love Peake even more than I do—and Guy Gavriel Kay, who I read very early and pushed me toward lushness of prose, symbolic description, not being afraid to be intense with language and metaphor. Dorothy Dunnett can’t be an influence because you gave me the Lymond books as a gift when we were still courting over epistolary, but she might as well have been.

I have my list of science fiction influences, too, the stories I like reading which end up being the stories I want to tell in my own way—William Gibson, CJ Cherryh, Frank Herbert. And my contemporaries and colleagues ahead of me, who are the best challenge and goad and influence: I want to write about ethical complexity as well as Elizabeth Bear in Ancestral Night and The Stone in the Skull, I want to figure out how to be as gonzo-brilliant and risk-taking as Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever, I want to write short stories that hurt as cleanly as Seth Dickinson’s “Anna Saves Them All” and “Morrigan in the Sunglare,” I want to make other people feel as much as I felt when I read Amal el-Mohtar and Max’s collaboration This is How You Lose the Time War.

I think it really is ‘can you’, a lot of the time, with influences. For me. I love this, can I do it myself? How does it work and can I learn?

You tell me: what do you think you’ve learned the most, in terms of skill, as you’ve written? What did you have in the box, and what did you figure out, and from where?

VS: (Everything the same.)

All my embarrassing juvenilia can be organized in a kind of stratigraphy: you can tell exactly whom I was reading at the time. There is a definite sequence featuring Robin McKinley, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Peake, Dunnett, and Pratchett—and then I lurched off into the wilds of fanfic and also college, so there was little original work being done—but in that period, spanning roughly age 11 through 16-17, I think I was doing the thing you describe: how does this work and can I do it?

Threads of all those styles are still woven into the one I’ve ended up with now. I think I’ve always had voice, which comes easily, and describing things through dialogue, and lush description (trained myself out of overdoing that one: only Peake can do Peake convincingly, and no one else will ever come up with “cut out the woman in you with a jack-knife, God save the sweetness of your iron heart” or “her pupils gaped like well-heads or he drinks the red sky for his evening wine”) and these days I have a tendency to overuse a kind of dry, self-aware, blackly amused tone. I got it from McKinley and from Pratchett, both of whom (quite differently) play with deep emotional connection to the reader and then draw it back enough to cut some of the drama stone dead; it’s a way of editorializing about the narrative in the narrative, and it injects distance between reader and text. I do it very well, but I am noticing that I do it all the time, when what I really want is to keep that deep connection, that high drama, to commit fully to the emotions rather than dryly stepping aside, so I am consciously working on that. With your help.

You’ve talked about your influences: tell me what you are working on, what aspect needs attention?

AM: I think I’m working on range. I feel that, despite my own talents at description and point-of-view work, I actually have a relatively limited set of character-types and voices I feel comfortable writing. I want to push myself out of my comfort zone of poet-diplomats, basically. (Everyone is a poet-diplomat in the Teixcalaan books. Yes, even the ones who aren’t poets or diplomats.) I worry that I can’t write people who aren’t deeply attentive to nuance and language and imagery, who don’t overthink everything. And the Teixcalaan books are designed to let me not have to think about writing people who aren’t like that, because they’re all like that.

… so of course for my new project I picked a protagonist who is a detective, which I guess isn’t that far away from someone who overthinks everything. But I’m trying.

The other thing I’m working on is trusting myself more: trusting that I can tell good stories, that I’m not going to screw up because something is important to me, or difficult, or beautiful. Trusting that I’m allowed to enjoy myself. I think you taught me that. Or are teaching me that, especially now that we’re collaborating together, which is one of my favorite, most joyous experiences of writing I’ve ever had.

What’s collaboration like for you? In general, or in the specificity of us, and our space fantasy with geology in?

VS: It’s interesting for me because I’ve spent the past 17 years collaborating with other writers, one way and another: writing stories together, stringing words across space, building new worlds to play in, and in all that time with all those partners I have never, ever been able to forget which one of us wrote what—never until you. The first time I re-read something we’d written together and simply could not remember whether I’d written or read a certain passage, a particular line, was a strange kind of exquisite for me: a sense of twinning, like a crystal, of finally not being the only one inside the kind of weird mental tower-library that is my endless collection of cross-patched references.

(Here’s one: it’s a dream and it’s a bit of a dance, writing with you.)

I never have to self-censor, or slow down, or telegraph anything: you get exactly what I mean, and take what I write and add your sections and together we polish and edit the result. Even from the very beginning, when I was writing “all that you love will be carried away” more or less at you, you understood what I was doing, all the valences of it, all the ways in which I was playing with reference—and when you volunteered to write a remix of that fic I could not believe my luck, and I still can’t.

And that, I think, is a good place for a happy ending.

A Memory Called Empire is available now, with a sequel due in September 2020. Grave Importance arrives tomorrow.

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