Monday, March 16, 2015

Interview: Carrie Patel and THE BURIED LIFE

Okay, so you know how we have all those cute expressions about how "books take you places" or about how you can "get lost" in them? 

Well, I'm kind of especially excited about this one, because The Buried Life doesn't so much 'take you somewhere' as gas you, drag you a couple miles underground, slap you awake, spin you around, and maybe arrest you if you start asking too many questions.  There's a strange setting here, and lurking in its shadows is a story that will unhinge its jaw and eat your face.  Metaphorically speaking.  Anyway, here to share in my enthusiasm is the author, Carrie Patel!

TT: Well, so let's start by catching up all these poor deprived souls who don't know you as well as I do.  How would you describe THE BURIED LIFE to the uninitiated?

CP: It's a murder mystery about lies, politics, and dead historians set in an underground city. It's part science fantasy, part mystery, and all intrigue and fancy manners.

TT: Haha, and you know what they say - the only good historian...!

CP: one with fancy manners?

TT: Well, I was going to say "is a dead historian", but that's a bit morbid - let's go with your version :) Actually, though, I'm glad you mentioned the fancy manners, because I'm given to understand that that's actually Your Favorite Bit of the story!  Here's a question, then: what are the challenges of establishing those social conventions in a fantasy world like this one?  How do you clue your readers in without bogging down the story?

CP: The challenge is to make those social conventions relatable to the reader, to the point that when she sees them played out on the page, she understands the implications, knows what they mean for the relationship between two characters, and feels any tension that they're supposed to generate. In the case of The Buried Life, it helps that Recoletta has something of an analogue in Victorian society, so many of the conventions of a class-based society will make sense very quickly. In other situations, a character's reaction can go a long way toward establishing the context for particular social conventions. When one of your characters (particularly a perspective character) reacts to something with surprise, discomfort, or embarrassment, you get the sense very quickly that some sort of line has been crossed. And because all of us have experienced similar emotions over different circumstances, those reactions help personalize those social conventions.

(with a big tip o' the hat to The Pandora Society)
TT: Absolutely!  And that's such an effective way to make use of those little pattern-hungry parts of our brain - you know, the bits that light up whenever we think "ooh, it's like Egypt, but in space" or "cool, they're Pokemon-collecting fantasy-Romans!"  But you mentioned how hard it was to nail down a genre for THE BURIED LIFE, which got me thinking about the other side of the coin.  For example, as soon as you say "Victorian-flavored fantasy", some people will immediately think "steampunk", and maybe be disappointed when there is neither steam nor punks.  What kind of work did you and Angry Robot do to help calibrate reader expectations?

CP: It helps that Angry Robot's mantra is "SF, F, and WTF," because The Buried Life really skews toward the WTF end of the spectrum. We tried to avoid leaning too heavily on "steampunk" as a label, and the back-of-the-book summary doesn't contain any steampunky buzzwords (except maybe "gaslight"). But between the Victorian manners and the regressed technology, I don't think anyone who ventures in expecting steampunk will really find themselves in hostile territory.

TT: Hey, way to reclaim WTF!  Seriously: I'm sorta biased here, but I think it's so awesome/important to have cool genre-bending books like this one - having a little mystery, a little history, a little fantasy and a huge, glorious brain-dazzling setting can make it so enticing for us to leave our comfort-zones and try something new.  Have you been surprised by reader response so far?

CP: Coming from the author of a kick-ass Weird Western, I will take that as quite the high-five, indeed! I'd say I've been surprised by quite a bit of the response. I probably avoid reading a whole lot of it, because it would be too easy for me to fixate on the praise or the criticism, both of which would likely leave me curled up and unproductive for entirely different reasons. That said, I have read a lot of really positive feedback, and I think what's surprised me is how much readers have loved the book and its characters for the same reasons I did when I started writing. When you spend so much time on a book, you fall in love with various parts of it for your own reasons, and it's easy to stop at the end and wonder if anyone's going to feel the same way about it you did. So it's been a wonderful surprise to see that many people do!

TT: Isn't that just the best?!  It's so hard to believe that there could be so many other people out there whose brains operate on your same frequency - and such a wonderful thing to realize that there are, and they do!  So since you mentioned characters, let's talk about that for a bit - because I want to shout from the rooftops about Jane and Malone, but it's not like they're Thelma and Louise.  In fact, I think you mentioned something about how your original proto-protagonist actually needed to be two different people.  Was that primarily a logistical, plot-forwarding decision (different characters with access to different social spaces, as we said), or were you more interested in establishing a sharp contrast between their personalities?

CP: It was definitely a bit of both. I wanted to set up and solve some murders, but I didn't want to be a pure murder mystery, and I wanted to explore the social setting without turning this into Downton Abbey Underground. Jane and Malone provide a lot of nice contrasts to each other, and their perspectives give readers some rather different views of Recoletta. I don't think I could have explored the city with the same nuance without writing both of them, and to the extent that The Buried Life is really about the transformation of a city, I think we needed both of their viewpoints.

TT: ABSOLUTELY, madam, and let's get serious about the city for a second here, because to me that is just the best, neatest, coolest thing about this whole enterprise.  Some stories are born from a character, or a big high-concept premise, but yours seemed to bloom out of this one strange, beautiful, slightly-twisted place.  And I love how it's neither a timeless, static backdrop, nor the dystopian result of that One Thing that happened that One Time.  So since Recoletta is such a layered place - history piled on top of history - let me ask:  what was it like designing all those layers?  Did you start with the end result and work your way backwards?

The Wieliczska salt mine - one of several real-world inspirations for Recoletta
CP: It was more like starting with a quick impression and sharpening the focus from there. At the outset, I got excited about The Buried Life the same way a lot of people get excited about movie trailers--you hear the music, you see the fast cuts, and you think you know what you're going to like about it before you even know what it's about. You get a particular feeling, and you just hope that the actual movie is going to leave you with the same feeling once you see it. It was the same way with Recoletta and The Buried Life. There was this feeling of mystery, spoiled glamor, and secrets, and building Recoletta (and sketching the characters and filling out the plot) was about creating something that would ultimately deliver that weird melange of feelings. Once the basics were defined--an underground city with a strong class system--then figuring out the details was largely about supporting this crazy world so that the whole thing felt cohesive and didn't come crashing down. That's where particulars about the history of the whitenails, the relative independence between the Council and the Municipal Police, and the specifics of farming communes came into play.

TT: Ahh, I love it, and I know exactly what you mean - start with the feeling, and then build backwards so that you can support it!  Oh, but speaking of building backwards, let me finish here by asking you about building upwards.  Since I am one of the lucky few to have gotten to read a bit of the next book, help me get these other folks as pumped as I am.  (People, there is a qadi!  An honest-to-god qadi!!)  What should we look forward to in the sequel?  What's new and exciting and awesome in CITIES AND THRONES?

CP: More characters, more intrigue, and more underground cities! Without giving away anything, I'll say that CITIES AND THRONES brings a lot of big developments and changes for the characters of THE BURIED LIFE and the city of Recoletta, and many of them are things even I didn't expect when I first sat down to write it! You'll see another city that has developed very differently from Recoletta, and many of the characters will face the consequences for the decisions that they made--rightly or wrongly--in the first book.

TT: See, THAT's what I like to hear - I'd call it the Mass Effect effect, except that authors were bringing the narrative chickens home to roost WAY before it was cool.  

So there you have it, people: if you're a little tired of mainstream same-old same-old, take a page from Carrie and the Jam and go underground!  (And do it quick, too, cuz THE BURIED LIFE is already out, and CITIES AND THRONES is dropping this summer!)

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