Interview: Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris. She has won three Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, a British Fantasy Award and four British Science Fiction Association Awards, and was a double Hugo finalist for 2019 (Best Series and Best Novella). Most recently she published The House of Sundering Flames, the conclusion to her Dominion of the Fallen trilogy, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which also comprises The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns. Her short story collection Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight is out from Subterranean Press, and her novella Seven of Infinities, a space heist, will be published in October 2020 from Subterranean. “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” is de Bodard’s fifth appearance in Uncanny, a compelling mystery featuring fallen angels, witches, and intrigue.

Uncanny Magazine: There is an element of mystery to “The Inaccessibility of Heaven,” which provides wonderful dramatic tension. Some of your longer works also combine mystery and speculative elements. What draws you to mysteries? What are some of your favorite books (or other media) from that genre?

Aliette de Bodard: Mysteries are a favourite genre for me: I read a lot of them as a child, so I think there’s an element of comfort to them. They are a reassurance that the questions asked by the main characters (who stole this thing, who killed this man) will have an answer, which isn’t always the case in real life, where many questions remain unanswered. One of the things they do is provide a great structure as well: to me they are a great way to explore characters and a world without having to worry too much about the plot, because the mystery itself is interesting to the reader and carries its own tension.

Things I’ve loved recently are Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley series, which is always a masterpiece of the impact of crime on different communities; Michelle Sagara’s Elantra books, which often have a mystery plot and have deliciously kind-hearted and memorable characters, and the TV series Lucifer, which is a cross between a mysteries and the disastrous relationships/love lives of immortals in Los Angeles, with terrific acting (it’s really hard to convey being an immortal on TV in a way that’s not cheesy or distancing, and I think most of the cast of Lucifer pulls it off amazingly).

Uncanny Magazine: The characters in this story are well-developed and complicated, and they often turn out to be not how they initially seem. What is your process for creating characters? To what degree do you draw inspiration from real life people?

Aliette de Bodard: I generally get a good sense of my characters through their past, and the events that have marked them, which is why many of my character sheets start with personal histories. I tend to have little cheat cards for them, which list what they love most/hate most/want most/fear most (a technique I got from Tim Powers). This enables me to make sure that everyone is distinctive enough, and also to keep straight the different ways they have of looking at the world, and what their underlying priorities are. I never draw inspiration from real life people unless they’re long-dead historical figures, because it doesn’t really seem fair!

Uncanny Magazine: “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” features many of the same elements as your Dominion of the Fallen novels—what is the relationship of this story to those longer works?

Aliette de Bodard: I wrote two stories in the same continuity as “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” a while back: this is the second one (the first one, the first meeting between Sam and Arvedai, is in the trunk, and I don’t think I’ll ever get it out of it, as it was very much a learning experience). I never finished “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” because it was growing too long and I despaired of ever selling it, so I set it aside and cannibalised some of the ideas in it for the Dominion of the Fallen: the Fallen angels, the drug made from their bones, Lucifer as a mentor. The actual Dominion of the Fallen series ended up being quite different: Dominion of the Fallen draws on the French 19th century, whereas the setting for “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” is a modern alternate-day city, and the mood is more noir than Gothic, the story more intimate instead of epic, and its codes and narratives have more to do with the golden age of mysteries.

Uncanny Magazine: If you were a character in this story, who would you want to be and why?

Aliette de Bodard: I think I’d actually be Sam: she’s this quite ordinary person (she is a witch, but she’s not a very good one, just an observant one) who’s also quite compassionate, and always driven by a desire to do some good.

(I am definitely not having drinks with Arvedai, because I’m not sure I’d ever make it out of the building.)

Uncanny Magazine: What elements of the story did you need to research? Were there any particularly interesting tidbits that you weren’t able to include?

Aliette de Bodard: I didn’t actually do a whole lot of active research for this, as it drew on a lot of Catholic lore, and on mystery tropes I was very familiar with. The layout of the city of Starhollow includes bits and pieces from history and mythology: the marsh District is a reference to Paris’s Le Marais (which translates as Marsh), the Tollbooth skyscraper to Denfert-Rochereau (a plaza in Paris which is named after the tollbooth that stood there). The other neighbourhoods are named after British mythology (Herne, Prester John, King Arthur…).

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Aliette de Bodard: I’m working on two projects: a space opera novel that’ll be a full-length book set in my Xuya continuity, where Vietnamese culture has become dominant and spaceships are part of families. The other one is a queer space pirates novella that’s based very loosely on the South China Coast pirates, and their troubled relationship with the Vietnam of that time period.

(and hum, other projects as well including short fiction, but these are the major ones).

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is the author of the 2017 Hugo and Nebula finalist short story “Carnival Nine.” Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Asimov’s, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out with Fairwood Press in 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

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