- nrlymrtl, 05/05/11
The Shadow of the Sun, book one of the series The Way of the Gods, published by Mercury Retrograde Press, is an engrossing novel. Author Barbara Friend Ish weaves together a delicate mix of two main cultures, the Taanan and humans. The reader will pick up on the use of the ancient Irish tale, The Tain, or sometimes referred to as The Cattle Raid of Cooley. As one can imagine, with references to the Tain, there are also various other Gaelic words. This gives the book a rich feel of an ancient culture, of stories that have come long before the one the reader is currently engrossed in. What follows here are four questions that focus on the authors philosophy on writing and her engagement of the craft in The Shadow of the Sun. Also, check out the excerpt from War-Lord of the Gods, the second book in the series The Way of the Gods, at the end of the interview.
Q: The Tain features throughout your first book. Tell us about your love-affair with the Tain.
A: I stumbled on The Tain through happy accident: while searching for background sources in the course of developing an early draft of the novel, I began reading references to the ancient Celtic god Lugh and the Irish hero CuChulainn. I was instantly enchanted with both of them.
Well, actually, that’s an understatement. What actually happened is that I realized I had backed up my subconscious to that area of what Jung calls “the collective unconscious”and had already loaded the story I was developing with the types and sensibilities of Irish myth. Because I am, like most writers, a natural-born obsessive, this was a clear indication to me that I needed to learn all of it; and both Lugh and CuChulainn feature in The Tain, which scholars agree is the centerpiece of Irish myth. It seemed the only place to start.
It was even richer than I had hoped. I fell in love with all the women in those tales,who rule men and gods, not by trying to imitate the strengths and behaviors of men, but by being powerfully, even terrifyingly, female. I adored watching the heroes and gods against whom they played scramble to keep up—and then take the conflicts in which those women and goddesses embroiled them back to the maleheroic framework Western culture trains us to understand. The reader of The Tain quickly understands that the heroes to whom a reader steeped in traditional story would give all their attention, who seem on the surface to be the ones in control of everything, are in fact constantly buffeted by the influences of gods, women, and personal concerns. The battles we’re taught to glorify are just the inevitable outgrowths of the more important things at work in the tale.
By the time I began work on The Way of the Gods, of which The Shadow of the Sun is the first installment, I was already thoroughly bored by both the endless rehashing of the male-dominated heroic tradition and feminist reactions to it. I wanted stories about powerful people whose roles and conflicts couldn’t ultimately be reduced to the assignments of gender,whose conflicts couldn’t be instantly mapped onto good vs. evil. TheTain was a source of indescribable joy to me in that regard.
Q: The clash of cultures is apparent throughout the book. In writing how these two cultures, the Taanan and the humans, specifically Ellion, how did you craft the various misunderstandings? I am thinking specifically of the wonderful scene where Ellion is explaining the fine art of “cutting in” at a dance to the males of the Taanan, specifying no blood shed.
A: Stuff like this is one of the blessings of world-building, which is one of my great obsessions as a writer. (There seems to be a lot of talk of obsession around here, all of a sudden…) Many of the culture-clash moments in this novel arose naturally from the action of the tale, because I had developed both cultures to a level of detail some might think overkill. The scene you mention was one such moment; I didn’t plan it in advance, but I enjoyed what developed.
The conflict in that moment arose from two centrally important facts about the Tanaan: the Tanaan have a matriarchal society in which gender roles for men are very circumscribed; and while very similar to humans, in fact similar enough to interbreed, Tanaan women have only one period of estrus each year. During that window, Tanaan, both male and female, are very much driven by their own biology, which sets them up for a great deal of internal conflict with their ideas of civilized behavior. When they are at home, they cope with this stress because they have agreed, as a society, on certain rules of behavior for sexual conduct, and staying within the rules allows everyone to get through these high-tension periods without bloodshed.
But by this point in the story, Ellion and his companions have ventured into human territories, and the rules that keep things relatively sane during this period in the Tanaanlands aren’t in effect. The men in the party are falling back on their culturally agreed-upon rules and trying to hang onto their composure while a group of human men, oblivious to the situation, are dancing with a bunch of these suddenly-fertile Tanaan women. Of course what the Tanaan men would really like to do is kill the humans; it’s a service to everyone in the place when Ellion explains the human rules for handling the situation to them. And by this point he’s broken through enough of the nonsense he was taught about the Tanaan to begin seeing how things really are for them.
That’s actually one of the most interesting things about culture clash to me: the way it blinds everyone involved to the truth. When we meet people from other cultures, not only do we carry our own cultural norms with us, more or less unconscious of these lenses through which we see life; we also add new layers of confusion with our own prejudices or superficial understanding of the other’s culture. As a writer I know story is driven by conflict—but any good story has far more than one conflict at work. Some are big enough to drive entire books; others only drive a beat or a scene. And I believe that the job of any plot is ultimately to reveal and develop character. Culture clash probably isn’t the engine of an entire plot; but because all the different cultures in which any given person is involved provides a unique set of lenses through which to distort the truth, culture clash is one of my favorite tools for developing characters and scenes.
Q: As a reader and a female I especially appreciated that some of the females in the story are warriors. They are on the quest with the same hardships and duties as the males, they carry swords, and some have the role as bodyguards. This is not questioned by the Taanan, but is by some humans. Did you intend, when crafting this story, for this to somewhat subtly point out the gender differences of modern society?
A: Yes—and also our unquestioning acceptance of the roles into which traditional storytelling forces characters. I’m not a feminist in the traditional sense: I think all assumptions about the limitations imposed by gender should be suspended pending much further investigation, because those limitations are not just imposed on women, and they diminish all of us.
As storytellers, when we just accept that roles have certain gender assignments and genders impose certain rules on who characters are, we condemn our stories to never find their ways beyond a certain depth. Neurological research demonstrates that the presence of the unexpected causes humans to engage their sharpest attention; conversely, when things are exactly what we expect, we grow lazy—both as writers and as readers. Even if it’s not the writer’s objective to attack issues of gender (and we’ve seen more than enough self-conscious treatment of that topic, in my opinion), allowing ourselves to simply fall into the well-worn patterns shuts off not only paths of possible plot but avenues for engagement. As a thinker, I try to remember to question things that seem obvious to me, because the seemingly obvious and settled often hides the greatest fallacies and lies. Gender is only one area where I think we could all do with a bit more fresh and attentive thought.
Q: The themes of a quest, of a man who walked away from his power and must needs take it up again – Tolkienesque?
A: (Laughing.) Isn’t everything we do in fantasy fiction ultimately a reaction, on some level, to Tolkien? Trying to read or write in this genre without being familiar with at least Tolkien’s core works is like trying to study the canon of English literature without being familiar with the Bible. It’s in the air we breathe; we only get to choose how we’re going to engage with it, because it’s present whether we invite it or not.
The quest theme, of which Tolkien was an undisputed master, actually comes down to us from much earlier in the heroic tradition; some of my favorite examples come to us from the traditions of myth. The argument could be made that anytime we use a journey in a story, we’re drawing on that tradition. For my part, I actually did want to treat with the received assumptions Tolkien brings us as readers and writers, but the things I had set my sights on were his notions of good and evil and views on feudalism. Some of the original driving forces behind this series were questions about gods and the nature of power, which is in some ways even older. Going back to the millennia-old tradition of a quest whose stakes are nothing less than life, death, and the fate of the world felt very natural, and the fact that it reinforced the Tolkien connection seemed useful to me, too.
While I will say that I don’t agree with a lot of Tolkien’s ideas on good and evil, we seem to share a fascination with the corruption of power. Ellion, my primary lens on the nature of gods and power in this story, is both a victim and a perpetrator of that corruption—and what’s more, he’s a poweraddict. Like so many addicts trying to be functioning, ethical beings, he’s sworn off the stuff—but it’s still got it’s claws in him, and he knows it. He lives with the guilt of the things he’s done and terror of what he might do, and while he doesn’t hold out hope for a cure he’d give his very life for redemption. The only way he knows to keep the guilt and terror at bay is to shut off all the parts of himself having to do with either religion or magic. But it is the task of any story, whether in fiction or real life, to challenge people in the places they feel least prepared to handle: he backs into an opportunity for redemption, but its price may be re-engaging with power. The ultimate story questions are whether he can do what’s necessary without succumbing to corruption again, and how many pieces of his soul he’ll give up to protect the people he loves.
I suppose the reasons you catch echoes of Tolkien in my work are that we’re thinking about some of the same core questions and I’m specifically choosing to dialogue with his answers. But beyond those similarities, the differences in our works can be traced to our philosophical stances. Tolkien believed in black hats and white hats, though he was well aware of the potential for corruption in the greatest of us. I think that, despite the depth and beauty of the work he did, in some ways he didn’t think deeply enough; and if we put on a black hat or a white one, we can change it or find the wind removing it without notice—and it is how we respond when those things happen that fascinate me most. I want to dig past the designations of hero and villain and explore their essential similarity, because in acknowledging the evil in the hero, we bring into sharper relief the miracle of what he accomplishes despite it; and through him we see the possibility of the hero in ourselves.
Here follows an excerpt from War-Lord of the Gods, the second book in the series The Way of the Gods, currently scheduled for publication in Spring 2012.
I hung in the midst of darkness, looking down on the world from among the stars. Somewhere fire ranged across a body that might be mine, burning away silk and traces of Bealtan love and a façade of humanity that had been ten years in the building. But that was a distant thing; the part of me that saw turned its gaze on the Presence Who watched me from His prison across the void. And He began to show me things of which I had never dared dream.
I saw all the people of the world spread out across the lands like stars across the sky: thousands upon thousands of discrete points of light and energy sparkling amid all the lush greens and blues and browns in which life cloaks itself; saw, with a slight shifting of focus, their lives blending into a delightful river of energy, invisible to mundane senses, that swirled and circled around the world. I knew not where my body was, and yet I thirsted for a taste.
A single taste would never be enough, of course. It never was.
Beal chuckled at that: a deep, knowing rumble that cast uneven ripples across the universe. My vision shifted, though I had no sense of moving–and I saw, in the places His rumbling laughter had troubled and beyond, the myriad suns strewn across the expanse and all the myriad upon myriad worlds circling around them, each of which sparkled with those energies that made my nonexistent throat fold and ache with thirst. So many spread around me, stretching away to such incomprehensible distance, that I could no longer remember which world belonged to me. But I sensed that if there were a center to all that beautiful mayhem, it lay someplace beyond even this expanded sight. I hung in some remote corner, some half-forgotten attic of the universe. The true riches lay somewhere else.
For the moment these worlds full of sparkling energy seemed riches enough to me. They should all be mine to enjoy, just as a man might drink from any clean-running stream on a summer’s day. But Beal looked at me again, and I understood: all those worlds, all those delightful energies, had been claimed already: by the gods Who had bound Him in the Abyss. Beings such as ourselves would never be free to drink until the Abyss was opened and Their usurped hedgemony came to an end. Until I turned the key.
I was thirsty. It seemed only reasonable to take this step. But I understood, though I couldn’t have said how or why, that to do this thing would be to declare myself an enemy of the true gods on a scale that defied comprehension; and I wrenched myself back from that vision of glory, reaching for the parched and steaming body that lay in the midst of fire. But instead I found myself standing in the Keep of a castle I knew from dreams: unattainable stars sparkling in the darkness above and casting reflections of blossoming cherry trees across the surface of the Well of Tílimya.
Well, this was it, then: I was doomed to the Abyss, after all.