Tuesday, June 25, 2019

My Accidental Trilogy

Today I am officially in print again! The Iron Dragon's Daughter is my tenth novel, and I'm here to tell you that it doesn't get old.

To celebrate this happy event, I've written an essay explaining how it all came about. As follows:

My Accidental Trilogy

A quarter century ago, I was driving to western Pennsylvania with my wife, Marianne Porter, and our young son Sean to visit family there. Sean was in the back seat, occupied in a book or handheld video game. Marianne and I were talking about fantasy literature and then about steam locomotives. I made a joke about the Baldwin Steam Dragon Works and Marianne laughed.

A mile or two down the road, I said, “Write that down for me, would you?”

Thus was born The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. Once I had the notion of dragons being built in a factory, like so many locomotives, it was a small step to imagining a changeling child laboring therein under Dickensian conditions. The child I named Jane, because that was a common name among Elizabethan English witches. Already, I had a situation and a protagonist. All I needed was a plot. Escape was the obvious choice and a dragon the obvious means for, unlike locomotives, dragons can fly.

By the time we got to Pittsburgh I had a good idea of the story.

Jane Alderberry was a great protagonist. She had all the weaknesses of the young. She let her friends mislead her, she fell in love too easily, she made every mistake she could possibly make. But she had grit. Every time life smashed her flat—and it did, repeatedly—she got right back up and tried something new. At the novel’s end, as a kind of reward for her service, I restored Jane to the world she came from, ours. I gave her the one thing she wanted more than anything else, the freedom to live her own life whatever way she wished.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter was a popular book. Inevitably, people asked me if there would be sequels.

The idea horrified me.

I had rescued Jane from a world where she did not belong and could find no place for herself and given her a life of her own. To have her wake up one morning to discover herself restored to Faerie seemed to me the essence of cruelty.

I just couldn’t do that to her.

Fast forward roughly fifteen years. An editor who was putting together an anthology of dragon stories asked me to contribute to it. Specifically, he wanted an iron dragon. Long ago, I realized that my imagination will not perform on command. “I’ve learned to ride the wind,” I would say. “But I can’t tell it where to go.” So I fobbed him off with a promise to write a story if I could, knowing it was extremely unlikely.

A day later, the image popped into my head of a boy running to the top of a hill to watch a squadron of dragons pass overhead. When I was young, a dirigible flew low over my neighborhood in Schenectady, engines thundering, and I ran after it, watching it dwindle, until I had to stop from exhaustion. So I knew how that felt.

I sat down to write the scene and the scene turned into a story which I realized was the first chapter of a novel. One of the dragons is brought down by a basilisk. Wounded and unable to fly, it crawls into the boy’s village and declares itself king. The events triggered by this act will send Will le Fey (for that is the boy’s name) into the outer world and, ultimately, to the Tower of Babel, where he might or might not be the rightful king.

When I began work on The Dragons of Babel, I had no idea whether it existed in the same universe as The Iron Dragon’s Daughter or not. The two books had no characters or locations in common. Even the names of the gods were different, though at the head of each pantheon was the Goddess. Only she and the dragons were the same. Ultimately, I decided that it did no harm for the books to be in the same world (though, presumably, on different continents) and would please those who had read The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. So I brought Jane back—not from our world but from an earlier period of her life, when she was behaving very badly—for a brief cameo appearance. Just as a small treat, an Easter egg, for those who had read the earlier novel.

To my surprise, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter had been characterized by reviewers as an “anti-fantasy” because it challenged many of the assumptions of genre fantasy. This had never been my intent. But, the idea having been placed into my head, in The Dragons of Babel I set out to upend the standard model of fantasy in as many ways as possible while still delivering its traditional pleasures. There is, for example, an absent king but, his absence being the basis of his country’s prosperity, a restoration is not to be desired. The helpful strangers who form a “family” around the questing protagonist turn out to have their own agendas. Above all, the naïve country boy is as smart as a whip. Will is forever seeing traps the author has set for him and refusing to fall for them. Which made more work for me but also, I hope, a more satisfying read.

I brought the novel to a conclusion, and that was that. 


One fantasy novel is a book. Two fantasy novels set in the same world are an unfinished trilogy. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have an idea for a third novel. In the first, Jane doesn’t belong in Faerie and can’t find a place in it. In the second, Will does belong and his task is to find that place. So I had thesis and antithesis (as they long ago taught me at the College of William and Mary). Where the hell could I find a synthesis?

Ten years passed. I grew older and, as a consequence, found myself more and more visiting friends and relatives in hospitals, physical rehab centers, and nursing homes. As a writer, I felt the obligation to observe and describe these venues. But the thing about such places is that they are deliberately bland. All the colors are vague, the sounds muted, the textures soft, the smells anodyne. There is nothing there to upset you or make you feel for an instant alive.

At last I thought of how my mother, who loved strong colors, painted all her house’s walls beige because she was a Sunday artist and needed a neutral background for her bright oils. All the color and character, I realized, would have to come from within a woman trapped in a hospital room by impending death and raging all the way down. An old woman. One who, like Jane in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, has a plan to escape.

During that same decade, I lectured to a class or two at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. (Such odd opportunities pop up occasionally if you’re a writer. Particularly if you don’t insist on being paid.)  I found myself seriously impressed by the female midshipmen. They appeared to be deadly-serious, fiercely-driven, near-humorless, and very, very tightly wound—which is to say, close to everything I am not. I found myself thinking that one of them would make an interesting protagonist for a story. A dragon pilot, perhaps.
It was only when I put the two women together that I realized I had the makings of a novel. Specifically, a novel about mothers and daughters.

All the women I have ever known have had complicated relationships with their mothers. Even those who think of their mother as their best friend—and I have known at least one such in my lifetime—would not describe the relationship as “simple.” Half the people in the world have been, at some point in their lives, mothers or daughters. So it seemed a logical subject for a novel. Particularly one with dragons.

So I began to write what was originally going to be called Mother of Dragons. (The success of a certain fantasy series and HBO show by George R. R. Martin, made the Khaleesi Daenerys’s title so well-known I had to retitle the book or else look like I was trying to catch a ride on George’s popularity.) The Iron Dragon’s Mother is a stand-alone novel. So are the other two books. 

People have asked me what order the books should be read in. The answer is that it all depends on where you want them to end. There certainly is no chronological order. Time is strange in Faerie. So far as I can tell, the novels occur pretty much simultaneously. So while Jane is busily flunking Alchemy 101 in college, Will is rescuing a little girl named Esme from a lubin and two stickfellas, and Caitlin of House Sans Merci has just stolen a motorcycle and is going dangerously fast down a road toward a destiny she cannot foresee.

There is a good reason the three novels are not sequential. Which is that it took me twenty-five years to write them. Imagine if, taken together, they had told one story, rather than exploring and expanding upon a single world. Picture to yourself the exasperation with which an early reader of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter would pick up a copy of The Iron Dragon’s Mother. “At last!” she would snort, and settle down grumpily to see if it had all been worth the wait. Which no book could possibly be. I couldn’t do that to her.

The Lord of the Rings, or rather its first volume, turned me into a writer in a single night, back when I was sixteen.  Tolkien finished it in a mere nineteen years—six less than mine took me. But, of course, he had the advantage of knowing he was writing something very long, a trilogy. 

Mine caught me by surprise.

And from the Image Book . . .

Above: For those who came in late, my latest novel, The Iron Dragon's Mother, is being published today. To draw attention to this fact, I'm serializing the Image Book I made to help me imagine a strange world for the novel.



bruce said...

Most excellent! Looking forward to get my talons on a copy. A modest request: slipcased limited editions with a bonus story from Faerie or otherwise - I'm thinking 'The Bordello in Faerie' would be a winner.

Neuman said...

So pumped! I happened across Dragons of Babel by chance about a month ago and was a big fan of 'Daughter' from a while back. Delighted that a new installment is coming out so soon after catching up! Cheers!

Douglas A. Anderson said...

You write: "Tolkien finished it in a mere nineteen years—six less than mine took me. But, of course, he had the advantage of knowing he was writing something very long, a trilogy."

Tolkien began his novel (it is a single story, not a trilogy) in December 1937 and finished it in 1949. So it took him twelve years, though he worked on various appendices until the whole was published (divided by the publisher into three volumes) in 1954-55.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

I'm so very glad the book is out - I've been anticipating this for a long time. It's been good getting a look into your image book also, and thus an insight into how the pieces came together

Lars said...

Glad to hear that you have a new one out, am looking forward to reading it.

I was under the impression that Babel was the Great Grey City - evidently not, if they're on different continents. Of course, things are fluid in Faerie...

Richard J. OBrien said...

Wonderful news. I’ll be sure to get a copy soon. As a young man I found your first book In the Drift and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Joe Stillman said...

Animal, mineral or vegetable? A perfectly ambiguous picture!