A Conversation with Cecilia Dart-Thornton conducted by John Berlyne for SFRevu, London, 09/11/02 (photos by John Berlyne)
Also: Review - Ill-Made Mute by Cecilia Dart-Thornton (review by John Berlyne)
SFR: Australian fantasy is on the crest of a wave right now. It's almost as if there is something in the water over there. How do you account for the intensive attention that the industry is paying to Ozzie fantasy at the moment?
CDT: I cannot account for it - all I can tell you from my perspective is that before I was an embryo I was interested in fantasy! Because my mother was crazy about fantasy and science fiction and I was brought up on a diet of it. I agree there must be something in the water. Isn't there some theory about invisible fashion waves that flow through the world - some theory like that - that's why all those inventions happened in the nineteenth century because of these invisible vibes. Something like that must be happening in Australia!
SFR: You could also argue the practical view that there are fashions within the industry itself.
CDT: For my part I've always been interested in fantasy and I've always known I was going to write a book (whether it would be published or not, I didn't know) - and it took me twelve years to write! Whether it was something that happened twelve years ago, I really can't account for it, but it is happening. And not just Australia. I think it's worldwide - movies, Harry Potter. I mean just about every second movie is really basically fantasy, even if it is disguised as adventure. There's lots of sort of special effects things that are pure fantasy.
SFR: But isn't there a very "happening" scene in Australian fantasy at the moment?
CDT: Not that I know of. I'm rather a hermit crab!
SFR: Just look at the stuff that is hitting the markets over here … Sara Douglas, Juliet Marillier. The quality of these works is quite extraordinary. Streets ahead of a lot of the generic fantasy coming out of the US. It is really making an impression on the market.
CDT: That's true and I wonder if it's because - and this is just a theory - we're sort of isolated and we don't have to necessarily follow in any particular footsteps. We're free to be different. That's how I feel. I just want to listen to my own intuition. Perhaps other writers in other countries are subconsciously pervaded by the culture of that country and that makes their work come out the same as everyone else's. I don't know. I'm just guessing!
SFR: It is interesting you mention the culture of a country because your book The Ill-Made Mute is heavily influenced by folklore from the British Isles. You've chosen to embrace another culture in order to tell your story.
CDT: I have and I've done that from outside that culture which just gives it another perspective, I suppose. Why I chose that is because I was brought up in quite an anglophile household where "British was best" and that has pervaded me. That has been my cultural influence from as far back as I can remember.
SFR: So these are the tales you were brought up on?
CDT: Yes. Absolutely. When I look back on it, there was never a time when I didn't want to write. My mother saved a story I wrote when I was … it must have been when I had just gone to school because there are these painstakingly formed, very round letters. There are about five words per page and maybe six pages. It's illustrated; it's got the prints of the horse and princess. I've still got this story and when I look at it, it comes back to me that I remember I desperately wanted to write a story. I wanted to create something that wasn't in the real world but that had come from me. I have been writing ever since I could hold a pen! And when I look back on what I wrote, it was more of a kind of therapeutic outpouring than anything else. At the time I though "Oh, I'm writing such wonderful stuff" and when I look back, it's complete drivel! But it was my learning experience.
SFR: Has an element of that crept into The Ill-Made Mute? In so much as you have a character bound by this extraordinary handicap. I thought it such a brave choice to take a mute character and though you can express her thoughts through the narrative and have her use sign language, I wondered if you found that choice was limiting or liberating in the writing of it?
CDT: It was to a certain extent limiting - until she was able to really learn the language from Sianadh. But that was good because I wanted the reader to feel frustrated and limited as she did. And I felt frustrated and limited when she couldn't communicate because I wanted her to find out more, but there was no way she could do it. So yes, it was. But when she learnt the sign language - and she obviously has a lot of expressive body language as well in addition to the sign language and could communicate properly - it was wonderful. It wonderful for me as the author when that happened.
SFR: Was that a progression you had planned for in the plotting, or - it sounds ironic - did she find her own voice as you were writing?
CDT: This particular book was one that was not as planned as I'd have liked. I'd never write that that again because it didn't have enough planning in the foundation, I feel. So what happened was I had to keep having to go back to the foundations - and back and back and back! - until they were as strong as they should have been from the outset. I think the book greatly benefited from that because it's much richer now for having gone back so many times. So, she was always going to learn to speak through sign language. I studied sign language and leant the different gestures so I could describe them and I've always admired sign language. I think it's beautiful, like a dance of the hands. So yes, she had to learn like that and then eventually to get her voice back - which I know was predictable. I feel the reader must have predicted that, but on the other hand there are things that are unpredictable that are going to happen.
SFR: That's an interesting choice of words. As a reader I didn't feel it was a predictable plot element. Rather I think I was caught up with the desperate desire for that to happen, for this mute character to finally find her voice. Not only a cathartic event for her but also for your audience. She does speak by the end of the book doesn't she?
CDT: Yes. She just says, "Yes, I see." And for me, writing that, I just went on immediately and wrote the first chapter of the second book and didn't fully realize until The Ill-Made Mute was published, how frustrating a lot of readers would find that cliffhanger. Because to me it's all one story, it just happens to be broken up into three and I didn't know it would ever be published, much less that they'd publish it months apart and people were going, "Why did you leave us there?" It was rather cruel of me!!
SFR: I was particularly taken in this piece by the richness of the world you've created. You've already said the myth and folklore of the story are very much part of your own heritage and this is obviously something you are deeply fond of. Indeed your love and your knowledge of it and your fascination with it comes through. What tips and tricks do you have as far as this sort of world building goes?
CDT: For me, it comes from a whole lot of intuition. For example, flying horses - I did a bit of research and found out that in Earth's gravity, the largest animal that could support its' own weight and actually become airborne is only a few pounds in weight. Otherwise we would have flying horses and dogs and whatever! And I knew that the horses would either have to be miniature or that they couldn't fly. I don't care how big their wings are, the gravity of the earth won't let them fly and the gravity of the world I have created is the same as Earth. So that's why I decided to bring sildron, the anti-gravity metal into it, because it had to be possible - even though it's invented, it still had to be possible, psuedo-scientifically speaking. So having invented sildron, I'm thinking if this is an anti-gravity metal, it's going to be floating around the sky so then there has to be another metal that is the antithesis of it. I couldn't have had flying horses unless I had those two metals. That's an example. In my mind it has to be at least psuedo-scientifically possible, otherwise the world just doesn't ring true. Really, dragons couldn't fly unless you're in a very low gravity situation. Full size dragons couldn't.
Spinning wheels. I went and found out how they worked, even though there is kind of about one mention of them in the whole trilogy. But I wanted to know how they worked just because I felt the reader would somehow get an intimation of the fact that I knew what I was talking about. From some throw away line or the way I described something. I think for world building it is really important that you know how your machinery works and how your people make a living. I can't stand it when you have heroes journeying through an amazing land and suddenly there's a house in the middle of nowhere. People just living. And they've got bread and they've got cream and all the rest of it and no visible means of support. I can't have that. I have to stop writing and figure out that they have a gold mine under their house or something.
SFR: Is it fraught with danger though, creating a fantasyscape? Are you aware of the potential for slipping into cliché?
CDT: I try now not to read fantasy in case I do slip into someone else's cliché. Although I am aware that I have been influenced by Tanith Lee. She's a friend of mine and we've talked about this, as I'm sure the beginning of The Ill-Made Mute was somehow subconsciously influenced by her beginning of The Birth Grave. And she's quite happy about that - they are completely different beginnings. I mean even Shakespeare ripped off Romeo and Juliet from someone! There's nothing truly original, though there is an original way of putting it!
SFR: I'm thinking in more generic terms with the question though. It's not so much adopting someone else's creation that I'm interested in - whether consciously or subconsciously. I'm wondering more about established fantasy tropes. In most standard genre works you have horses, a sprinkling of magic, perhaps a few dwarves - it all goes back to Tolkein. As a fantasy writer do you consciously avoid these standards (in an effort to make your story unique) or is it possible to pay homage to them?
CDT: That's a good question! I consciously avoid them, I think. I feel nobody can do elves like Tolkein, so I'm not even going to try!
SFR: But you've very much avoided Tolkeinesque cliché where your magic is concerned. The magic of The Ill-Made Mute is earthy …
CDT: … yes. It is very much tied up with the landscape. That was all there and if there was such a thing as "racial memory" that would be there in it. I don't know if there is or not but those stories have been passed down through the generations for hundreds of years merely by word of mouth and in order for them to have survived that long there must be a power in them that appeals to the human psyche. It certainly appeals to mine. There is a strangeness and a thrill about them that I love and in weaving them in I have tried to do two things; I have tried to bring them into the 21st century so that other people can love them too and also not to destroy them, not to touch them too much, not to destroy the thing about them which gives you a chill down the spine, the inexplicability of them.
SFR: Anyone reading this interview who hasn't yet read your book should probably jump to the end now as I want to ask you about one of the central plot elements but it would be a shame to give it away. Assuming if they've read this far, they've also read the novel, let's touch upon the central revelation that takes place. For most of the early part of the book your protagonist believes itself to be male but this turns out not to be the case.
CDT: Did that not work for you?
SFR: It brought to my mind a TV documentary that I saw some months ago about nature versus nurture. There was case in the early 60's in the US in which there were two male twin babies. One these had some problem that could only be solved by surgical circumcision but appallingly, the surgeon's knife slipped and resulted in removal of the entire genitals. The upshot of this was it was decided to rear this male child as a female, and this is just what they did. However the documentary showed how disturbed the child was, forced to live in this unnatural way. It wasn't until the child was well into its teens that they were told the truth and immediately the child reverted back to the male role. Clearly he preferred being albeit an "incomplete" male. It's a long-winded, relating all this, but this was in my mind as I read your book. The whole nature versus nurture thing.
CDT: What you're actually saying is backing up what I wrote - what I was trying to say was that it is possible to believe that it was to opposite sex to what it was. The child was very disturbed but it believed it.
SFR: I don't know. I think that the child may have believed what it was told, but what about the matter of self-belief? You can take someone's word for such a thing but it doesn't alter how you may feel inside.
CDT: Imrhien knows that there is something knocking at the doors of her memory, even before she is revealed as a woman and I do remember reading about a case - I think it was in England actually - where a little boy was brought up by his grandmother because his parents went off somewhere or died or something, and the grandmother was a bit weird because she didn't like boys so she brought him up as a girl. And he was disturbed, I agree that deep down he must have just been totally confused but he didn't know he was a boy until he was in his early teens. He hadn't been surgically altered or anything but he was told he was a girl, dressed as a girl. And this stayed with me and I though, yes, it is possible for someone who is complete, for them to be brainwashed enough for them to believe that they're something else. Especially if they're in a vulnerable state, like a child might be.
SFR: So this is the nurture argument?
CDT: Yeah, but eventually what will happen is the truth will out, but it is possible, for a certain amount of time, for someone to believe the exact opposite of what it true about themselves.
SFR: I felt in your story that Imrhien, when she was told she was a girl, just kind of went "Oh, I'm a girl, right!" whereas I really wanted her to say something like "Oh, well, that explains it. I knew there was something funny going on! Now it all makes sense!"
CDT: There is a part where it says something like, "There was knocking at the doors of memory and then suddenly they opened" - so I think I did put some kind of niggling doubt in her mind. But, of course, she is an amnesiac, unlike the twin and unlike the child brought up by his grandmother. She's an amnesiac and I'll have to use that as the excuse!
SFR: It was certainly an interesting and brilliant thing to do with a character.
CDT: Some people have told me that they have been very interested in their own reactions, because their whole attitude towards the protagonist changed when that revelation was made.
SFR: The language used in the writing of this book is very rich - the whole experience is like eating a very rich meal. There is great enjoyment in the digestion. Is this something you employ in all your general style writing or something you've used specifically to tell this story?
CDT: It's my general writing style - not my general speaking style though! And also, I'm interested in art and I don't know if it's synthesis or not but I kind of equate words with colors and I want to use as many colors as are available in the English language palette, because I just love the sound and the look of words, even written down. Some of them look just fabulous written down.
SFR: Thanks Cecilia. It's been wonderful talking to you.
© 2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu