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By KatG (2005-12-07)SFFWorld's own KatG got the chance to talk with Canadian writer Caitlin Sweet, the author of the fantasy novels, A Telling of Stars and The Silences of Home. In this interview Caitlin discusses her current works and what we can expect from her next.
KatG: In your first fantasy novel, A Telling of Stars, a young woman witnesses the senseless slaughter of her family, sending her on a journey of loss, vengeance, and ultimately, hope. You’ve mentioned that this novel is in some ways a very personal story for you. Can you talk a little about how different aspects of your life may have influenced this particular work?
Caitlin Sweet: Thankfully, the senseless-slaughter-of-family part of the tale was entirely fictional; it was the underlying theme of loss and grieving that was extremely personal. When I started the book, I was 21 and attempting to deal with my first serious case of heartbreak, and nothing I was reading in fantasy seemed to reflect what I was feeling. There's always a lot of talk, in genre circles, about how fantasy isn't escapist, but in fact deals with The Human Condition - but I wasn't reading anything about relationships that seemed real or resonant. I scribbled something in my journal like, "I want to write something frustrating," and then I wrote "Jaele was six when she met Dorin", and that was it: the beginning of the novel (though I had no idea it was going to be a novel). I wanted to try and capture the often ambiguous relationships we can all have: the ones in which one person never finds out exactly what went wrong, in which there are issues that are never fully understood, let alone resolved. So a difficult love, and the loss of it, was the first autobiographical element I wanted and needed to incorporate into the story.
It took me six years to write the book and three more to get back to editing it. During that time two of my closest friends became very sick and died: one of AIDS, in 1992, and the other of cancer, in 2000 (both of them were 30 when they died). That first death became central to the unfolding of Telling, and my friend became the character of Ilario in the story. It was an odd feeling: I'd been grappling with Jaele's grief for years, and it had always felt very personal to me, but now I had my own, death-related grappling to do. Her needs and mine seemed to dovetail. I was working on the last draft of the book when my best friend died. She was already in the book, as Nossi, the graceful, passionate Alilan dancer. Again, there was a great deal of strangeness in this layering of fiction and autobiography, and it felt horrible, meaningful, redemptive, necessary, and sometimes distressingly self-indulgent.
So the novel was born and grew because of various events and relationships in my own life, and it was an incredible thing, to transform them into fiction - but that's the point: there was a transformation. I stopped thinking, "Jaele's me, and this is how I'd react to this situation" and "Ilario's Brent, and Nossi's Alison, and here's how they'd deal with this" - because these characters had become their own people. I think it took a few years to get them lives of their own, but it did happen, and I'm sure that's a good thing. It can be cathartic to write about your own life - but it can also make for an unsatisfying story for those who aren't in your own life!
KatG: You can’t talk about A Telling of Stars without of course bringing up the language, with its poetic, vivid imagery and almost musical rhythms. This very vocal style reinforces one of the story’s main themes – the power, literal and symbolic, that storytelling can have to cause change. (The Alilan Tellers in the novel have the ability to tell a story and cause the listeners to experience the story as if they are in it, with all the corresponding emotions.) Was that a conscious choice, to make the language such a big part of the story, or did it just sort of evolve from the creation of the tale?
CS: This might sound disingenuous, somehow, but the language surprised me. The other two novels I'd written, as a teenager, were young adult fantasies told in a fairly "normal" voice. But once I realized that Telling was going to be a more narratively lush story, it did seem to fit with my thematic concerns. One of my earliest bits of first-draft marginalia (around page 26, handwritten) was "all you need is wonder." I'd been so disappointed by much of the adult fantasy I'd been reading: the stories seemed like pure stereotype, related in careless, graceless prose. I wanted to try and recapture some of the wonder I'd felt reading the young adult fantasy I'd so loved. So I guess Telling's language sprang directly (if unconsciously) from this fairly vague intention.
Another point: I didn't know until many, many months after I'd begun the book that it would have anything to do with storytelling. The Alilan didn't appear until I was well into the story, and I hadn't planned for them, really. The whole book grew very organically; I felt as if I was discovering Jaele's world right along with her (I know this will horrify staunch worldbuilders, but there it is!). The prologue, which makes direct reference to the power of storytelling, wasn't written until years later, when I was nearly finished. So the language may have been determined by a desire to evoke wonder, but it preceded the birth of the narrative-as-power theme. Perhaps my prose style was actually directly responsible for the evolution of this theme. After I figured out how poetic it was, I started reading each section I wrote aloud - either to myself or to my very patient and supportive sister.