Meena sprawls on the overstuffed green chair in my living room and eyes me with irises that very nearly match her choice of seats.
“You ready?” she asks, in a voice that indicates she won’t wait if I’m not. This interview about my fantasy novel series, The Legend of the Shanallar, will proceed at her pace, not mine.
I smirk. She hasn’t changed a bit. “Bring it on.”
“First up, then: why did you pick the name Meena, for all the stars’ sake? Out of all the other, more interesting names I’ve had, I get stuck with 'Meena' everywhere but the flashbacks!”
“Are you sure you want this as one of your fourteen questions?”
“No backtalk; answer the question,” she growls, crossing her arms.
Ah, yes. I recall her difficulty with myopic authority figures from when she challenged the Temple Masters early in The Wicked Heroine. At least she acknowledges that I am an authority.
“I chose the name ‘Meena’ because it’s one of a set of names similar to mine that I like: Jasmine (my pen name, chosen after I wrote you, and for another reason, so set aside the Mary Sue-themed pitchfork), Yasmina, Azmeena, and Meena. Yours is just the shortest one, and the most prosaic, and I gave those to you on purpose to help you blend in. If I’d given you a fancier name, people would have remembered that about you when you passed through. So, as I wildly invent backstory here on the spot, it was actually you who gave yourself the name ‘Meena’.”
A slight tilt of her head is the only indication I have that she’s considering my words. Her long brown braid shifts on her shoulder and she sighs, perhaps in defeat, perhaps in frustration at my hopeless insanity.
“Two,” she continues. “For all your love of the fantasy genre, and the adventure sub-genre, you sure don’t give us many fantasy creatures in our novel. What’s up with that?”
I tsk. “Fantasy creatures are a dime a dozen, unless I go out of my way to invent new ones. I’ve done that before, and it’s fun, but they don’t figure largely in this plot. I’ve written about elves and dwarves and dragons, and everyone has expectations about them; they’ll be this way or that way. I like new concepts and creatures as much as I like the tried and true, and for an adventure story, I didn’t want to populate the world with trite little bad guys and helpful little good guys that show up for five pages and then disappear. This isn’t a Who’s Who of Fantasy Creatures.”
“Well that’s good. That sea monster was enough of a hassle.” Meena cracks a real grin at me. “Let’s see, question three: did you intend for the Vinten nation to be perceived as atheist? Because you know fantasy-loving atheists are gonna jump all over that one.”
I laughed. “I didn’t intend the Vintens to be atheistic, no. But I do see your point. A fantasy nation that worships no gods at all? Yeah. That’s not a large leap. But everyone who ever wrote a fantasy story seems to populate it with weak copies of the Greek or Roman or Egyptian or Scandinavian pantheon. Borrrring. I don’t particularly like learning a whole new pantheon of gods every time I want to read a single book. I’m sure there are stories out there I’ve read that have no mention of religion, or which feature only one god, or something. But for the purposes of this novel, I needed a heroine--not you, I mean Sanych--who was raised in a culture that emphasized knowledge and wisdom. I took away the distraction of gods just for a change of pace. As I said, I like the different.”
“Well, Sanych sure is different.” Meena grins fondly. “And on that topic, why did you think it would make a good story to write about an adventure that takes place largely at sea? Didn’t you think it would be interesting to explore by land? There could have been a dozen nations that you’d get to create exciting cultures for, but instead you sailed right past them.”
“Again, it’s the novelty of it. There’s a sea adventure in the middle of an enormous quest that spans three continents. It’s the scope of the thing. You all crossed two oceans and a sea to reach your destination. It was Far, Far Away. That was the point. But I did put in adventures on land in the middle of the sea: Salience? The Aldib island in Oathen? I see you recall them well. I knew too much sea would be boring, but some sea brings in that fresh breeze of excitement!”
“’Fresh breeze of excitement’? You are a writer, aren’t you?” Meena wrinkles her nose at me. “Do you have any idea how bad it smells aboard a ship after five weeks of storms, when your cabin-mate pukes after nearly every meal?”
“Is that the next question?”
“No, no, never mind. I really wish you’d given Sanych some other flaw than seasickness, though. Or a different cabin-mate.” She makes a moue of distaste. “Let’s see, where was I? Question five: How did you pick the physical appearances of Geret and Salvor?” Her eyes gleam at me knowingly.
“There was this one nerdy guy on Stargate: Atlantis. Just a minor character. He had black hair pulled back into a braid. It was so sleek and shiny! But he was kind of an arrogant jerk. I snagged his hair for Salvor, and I gave him hazel eyes because I just love to say ‘hazel gaze’. No, just kidding. I wanted his eyes to be a bit on the exotic side, yet not too much so. I made him a bit shorter than Geret: my brother’s height.
“For Geret, I went with the tried and true brown over brown, because that’s standard in Vint: dark colors. And for a relative of the Magister, it’s important that he maintain some sort of genetic continuity. To make up for his possibly boring appearance, I made him pretty tall. In fact, he’s the height of my husband, while Sanych is my height.”
“Rawr,” she growls at me, waggling her eyebrows.
“Stop that; I didn’t intend that as an indicator of future romance and you know it.”
“Mmhmm, sure.” She smirks again. “Then why did you make Sanych your height?”
“She’s only fifteen during the story. I wanted to emphasize that she wasn’t all grown up. Making her so much shorter than the others, even you, helped emphasize her childlike innocence, and contrasted well with her incredible mental capacity. I gave her the pale hair and big blue eyes not only to make her slightly more doll-like, but also as a contrast to Geret and Salvor. It was a very subtle hint as to her origins, or more accurately, where she wasn't from. Of course, in the denouement, she’s not any taller, but that’s beside the point. It’s the mental image I was trying to create in the minds of my readers.”
“All right, you might have a point,” Meena concedes. “Here’s another for you then: do you think it detracts from the storyline to have a grumpy heroine like myself in the story?”
“Ah, nice one,” I murmur. “It might, in spots, but I really tried to keep your bitterness to one or two words at a time. Small doses, you know. I did make up for it by giving you excellent fighting skills and a good memory for names and faces from your past. Overall, though, you’re the heart of this novel. It revolves around your past, and your present, and all the secrets you slowly reveal to your companions. This quest everyone’s on, it’s not really Geret’s. It’s yours. And you know there at the end, you gave a perfectly good explanation for your constant grumpiness. No one wants to go through what you did. You’re not only the ultimate heroine, you’re the ultimate scapegoat. The victim and the conqueror all in one. Your attitude is essential to the plot, and the novel wouldn’t be the same without that; not at all.”
Meena preens a bit. “I’m pretty used to being important; it’s true. All right, question eight: What in the deeps happened with Rhona? You totally lost it with her, didn’t you?”
I lower my head in embarrassment. “I so lost it with her in the rough draft. She took control of me and off we went! But it was good for the plot, I think. You know how tangled the interpersonal relationships got there at the end.”
“Not to mention limbs, sheets, fistfuls of hair--”
“Stop that. I don’t write erotica, and it’s not fair for you to start.”
Meena chortles; I clear my throat.
“Back to Rhona: initially she was just a brief character. When I decided she needed a larger role to play, I was excited about the continuity that would provide. And then, after the Aldib island chapter, I tossed off those last lines about the champagne case in her cabin, and then I felt I had to go on with that storyline. It mushroomed so fast it caught me by surprise.”
“Maybe a little unresolved issue, there?” Meena eyes me, her expression clever.
I glare at her. “No. A writer’s unresolved issues get edited out for being stupid and conflicting with the plot. Rhona’s plotline with Geret was my subconscious trying to tell me I needed more tension as the story drew toward the final act. And I think it worked out well in the end, after a whole lot of editing. That champagne case stays on deck, now. Although Rhona kinda got the short end of the stick.”
Meena taps her chin with a finger. “Question nine, then: you say you think Rhona’s end is less satisfying than the others', yet you gave it to her with the events that preceded the final conflict. Isn’t it you that’s less satisfied with the outcome?”
“Oh, that’s a sneaky question!” I say. “I think you’re right, though. I'm all about the happy ending when I read books. But when I realized I wanted to take her through to the end, I knew immediately that she couldn’t have everything she wanted; something had to give. And from that moment on, she became a bittersweet character to me. She’s so passionate; she fights, she loves, she’s loyal to her clan and crew--and yet she’s fatally flawed, as I wrote her. Her own imbalance does her in. No matter what perfect ending I wrote for her, she’d screw it up because of that flaw.”
“But it makes for good reading," I say, nodding wisely.
Meena nods. “You got me there. Let me switch topics for the tenth question. What’s with the detail in the fighting? Can’t you just say my arrow hit the guy, or that Geret and Salvor dueled excitingly for ten minutes?”
I laugh. “Not at all! Fights are fun! You know I took jujitsu for seven years. Our sensei required us to write up a notebook with exacting details on every art we learned: every throw, pin, punch, block and arm bar. Though I’m not an expert with a bow or a sword, I had to ‘dumb down’ my description level to make it less technical and more interesting. The fight sections are definitely geared to those who enjoy visualizing their fights when they read them. I know I’m one of those people. When you shoot your arrows, you have to feel what you’re doing. When the young bucks duel, where are their feet? What can they do next from where they’re at now? The fights have to flow naturally, while still sounding dramatic and interesting.”
“So you’re a realist when it comes to detail, even here in an adventurous fantasy novel?” Meena chuckles. “You’re nearly as full of contradictions as I am!”
“Well, it helped me build you convincingly,” I say, laughing.
“Convincingly, in what way? What do you try to make ‘realistic’, and what do you just pull out of your arse?”
“Is that the next question?”
“Ah. Then the answer is, it varies. The things I usually like to get right are technology, geological features, ships, poisons--you know, things that can be proven to be as they are here in our world. Google is SO my friend when it comes to researching something I know nothing about. What I like to make up is the big picture. The maps, the countries, the cultures. Sometimes it seems so sad that so much is the same in fantasy worlds. A yellow sun, beef for dinner, shingles on roofs...yet I do that too; if it’s too fantastic, no one will identify with it. There’s a boundary there, between exotic and the wrong side of an inside-out galaxy slushee.”
“Well that’s a pleasant image,” Meena says.
“You think so?” I ask eagerly.
“No. That was sarcasm. Next question. What is, this, number twelve? Yes. All right, what is your favorite point in the story, and your least favorite?”
“Ooh. Let me think.” I pause, letting my mind flash over the entire plot. “I think my least favorite is the voyage between Yaren Fel and Ha’Hril. I basically entertained myself by making crap up while enough time passed to get to the next plot point. I didn’t feel I should leave it blank, but you know, I don’t think I’d miss much if I removed that entire chapter or two.
“As for my favorite...I honestly can’t pick. I love all the flashbacks. They are the second layer of chocolates in the box that contains your plot contributions. But there are a few scenes I really enjoy envisioning as well. No, I can’t list many of them; it gives away the plot. I’ll have to say the alley fight. That one point in the story begins a sea change in the way things go, and from that point on, there’s no turning back. I love points of no return.”
“Okay, here’s a geeky question: how do you think your sentence structure aids or hampers the telling of your story? Because I know you’re all into the compound-complex stuff.”
I laugh. “I admit it, I do love the long sentences. But I also know the power of the very short ones. I’d say I tend to over-connect my sentences, with commas, semicolons, and subordinate clauses galore. I know how to use all that stuff, so I do. It’s not always easy to read, though. That’s the problem. I get so into my description and flowing from one thought to the next, that the ease of reading is lost. And once I’ve lost my audience, what’s the point? I do try to edit the most monstrous sentences into smaller sections when I see them. I mean, if I get lost reading it, I know it’s too long. But really, anything over, what, three independent clauses, and I’ve probably gotten a little too strung out on my own awesomeness, there. Ahaha.”
“Ahaha,” Meena echoes, rolling her eyes. “I’m not saying I’m not awesome, as a product of your mind, but you’ve certainly got a good handle on subtle bragging, if I ever saw it.”
“You think so?” I ask, blinking my eyes innocently.
“I ought to swat you. If you were anyone but my creator, I would.”
I grin. “I know. Come on, what’s the last question?”
“What was the best part about this whole create-your-own-tales experience?”
“There you go again, with the hard ones,” I say. “Honestly, I have to say the anticipation. I’d think up these amazing scenes that I hadn’t gotten to yet, and with two in particular--Sanych at the farmhouse, and your attack by the waterfall--I was nowhere near to writing those scenes. I imagined them for weeks ahead of time, honing the details, literally vibrating in excitement; they felt so awesome in my head! The letdown came when I actually wrote them out; my fingers had ten little contradicting minds of their own, and those sections didn’t come out nearly as awesome as they appeared in my mind’s eye. Of course, that’s the magic of editing: I can change reality with a flick of my fingers. Both those scenes have been edited many times now. And while possibly not quite awesome, they at least make more sense than a green-wattled frabjous lizard burping in Old Kroilen.”
“A what?” Meena raises an eyebrow at me.
Meena lets her face fall into her hands. “Stars and darkness. How did someone as fabulous as myself ever emerge from that bizarre mucousy cavern you call a cranium?”
Far from insulted, I lift my chin in pride. “That’s my girl.”