No Such Thing as One Myth: An Interview with Ilana C. Myer
We talked to author Ilana C. Myer about The Poet King, sexism in fantasy, and ending the Harp and Ring Sequence.
At a key point in Ilana C. Myer’s The Poet King, two poets recall the restorative power of the poetry woven into the land of Eivar: “The idea is that for art we need, more than anything, to see the world as we did when we were just beginning. With wonder and surprise.” It’s a useful perspective for anyone concluding their epic fantasy series, as Myer has with the Harp and Ring Sequence: returning to that state of wonder. However, the second half of the quote speaks even more keenly to the fantasy world that Myer has grounded in real-life issues: “Until the wear and toll of our lives take us from that enchantment.”
Myer has always imbued Eivar with our own reality’s ingrained sexism, especially as concerns the young women who must prove themselves as noble poets and Seers—or just break out of oppressive female archetypes. It’s not necessarily a happily ever after, but it is a satisfying journey. Den of Geek spoke with Myer about making some cracks in Eivar’s glass ceiling, and putting her own unique spin on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Den of Geek: It would seem that a different art defines each book in the Harp and Ring Sequence (Last Song Before Night, Fire Dance, The Poet King): song, dance, and poetry. Was that intentional?
Ilana C. Myer: So in my mind, because I came to this series by way of the Celtic poets, poetry and song were always, in a way, one artistic medium, because it was based on the tradition of poets either singing or reciting their poetry with the accompaniment of a harp. So in a way, song and poetry are interchangeable in the series. But in Fire Dance, the addition of dance as one of the art forms was really because I was inspired by a trip to Spain. When I came home from Spain I read everything I could, and suddenly I realized I had an idea for a sequel when I thought that Last Song was actually a standalone. One of the things that really captured my imagination in Seville was the flamenco, so I really wanted to work that into Fire Dance, to that setting.
What was it like writing that poetry and song that exists in the world of the series?
Every time you shorten the artistic medium, the words matter more and more. In a novel, I try to make every word count, even moreso in a short story. And then by the time you get to poetry, I just feel this intense responsibility to really have an impact with even the small fragments that are there. I try not to do it too often, because I also know that readers are not crazy about lots of poetry in their fantasy, but I also try to only do it when it’s in the service of a greater theme or character’s story.
This final book builds to an epic battle the likes of which Eivar’s poets have only ever sung about. It brings to mind Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, in which Teixcalaanli citizens similarly face their cultural epics brought to life. Did you always intend the series to build to such an epic ending as this?
Once I knew there was going to be a series, I knew that the ending really matters. And then it was a question of, what is it going to mean? Just to have a clash of kingdoms, a clash of empires—that never interested me very much. There has to be something more numinous about what was going on, especially because that’s really what the poets are all about, coming from this tradition that deals with these unseen, primal forces. So it just seemed natural to engage with that, and especially I was reading so many different old texts and sources, like the [Celtic] myth of Taliesin [the bard]. There’s just so much in that story, the poetry, that brings to mind the primal forces of nature, and I was drawn more and more to that idea.
Something really striking about the women in this series is how they lift one another up: Lin, Rianna, and Julien pass on training, mentorship, and a helping hand to one another. Was this important to you to show?
All of my work is inherently very feminist. I have noticed that that is sometimes not picked up on, because there is a lot of sexism in the world I created. But that’s because I wanted through my work to grapple with the real-life sexism that exists in our world. And so everything about the female characters in my story comes from the feminism that ultimately informs the whole series.
Speaking of mirroring the real world: You started this series, with The Last Song Before Night establishing Eivar’s gender discrimination around poetry, in 2015. Even relatively successful characters like Lin and Julien suffer derision or belief that they didn’t properly “earn” their powers as Seers and/or Court Poet, that their achievements “don’t count.” How does it feel to be completing the series as we approach a presidential race in which all of the major female candidates have dropped out?
I was just heartbroken months ago by the way women and people of color were forced to drop out of the primary, leaving us with mostly white men at the end. And of course now it’s just down to two white men. I got through that grieving process fairly early, because my favorites dropped out so long ago that no one even remembers anymore. By the time we got to this point, I was just feeling resigned.
Rianna in particular has had a very fascinating, Sansa Stark-esque journey, insofar as learning how to weaponize her beauty, being a lady-in-waiting and listening for information—those softer arts that nonetheless impact The Poet King’s story. Once you knew you had a whole series, did you always know how she would grow and change, or was any of that a surprise to you?
I struggled with what to do with Rianna after the first book because I felt really guilty that I had saddled her with a baby. [laughs] I was like, “Oh god, what have I done to her! That’s terrible.” And so I wanted to do something with her, but in the second book any scenes I tried to write with her just didn’t work. So I ended up not including her in the plot. It was really around the time of the presidential inauguration [in 2017] that I started writing the third book. I think there was a certain mood in the air in general about women and what women needed to do, and the first chapter of Rianna in the palace with her plan just came to me in a rush of inspiration. Then it all went from there.
It’s very interesting that you mention Sansa Stark because for me, at least the way she was in the first [Song of Ice and Fire] book, which is all most of us had access to for many years, was always a cautionary tale for me in terms of what not to do with Rianna. I did not want at any point for her to end up being the hapless victim; I just wanted to really not have her end the way Sansa does in the early books. I figured she becomes something else, but that wasn’t relevant for many years.
I was relieved to see that her path does branch from Sansa’s. I remember when I first read Last Song Before Night, I as a reader was a little dismissive of Rianna. Maybe that wasn’t intentional, but you had characters like Lin…
It was intentional! Absolutely. I started [writing] the first book in 2005 and one of my formative influences was George Martin, and when I wrote Rianna I was reacting to George Martin in some ways. I just wanted to take that archetype of the beautiful, sheltered, idealized woman—and she herself internalizes that image because that’s how her romantic partner sees her himself—and I wanted that to be completely upended. I wanted her to come to terms with the oppressiveness of that archetype for herself.
Speaking of how your female characters observe themselves: Lin and Julien often describe themselves as shadows, observers or otherwise disconnected from other people. Can you speak more to how these women see themselves and how they move through the world?
They are very similar in the sense that—you know, women who are more ordinary-looking tend to be very overlooked. Lin and Julien both have dealt with being on the fringes of wherever they were in some way or another, and have an extra challenge of asserting their value. Lin overcomes that with a little less difficulty because she has a certain training from her upbringing, which gives her some confidence. But Julien is not there yet at all. And so that was something I was thinking about—the ways the two of them are, and in some ways always will be, outsiders.
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld (albeit by different names) recurs significantly in The Poet King. What drew you to that particular myth, to bringing that myth into the world of Eivar and weaving it into the story?
I realized […] that a plot point involving the Underworld in Fire Dance was not resolved, and so it was left to be resolved in The Poet King. From there, it wasn’t far to thinking about the myth, especially since for years at that point I had been going back and reading a lot of Greek mythology and Homer. And so it seemed like a really great opportunity both to use the evocative myth for my own purposes but also to make use of a certain truth about mythology itself, about how there is no such thing as one version of a myth. Therefore, there are so many different iterations of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, so why not get my own, where Orpheus is a woman instead? And that in itself can be a valid version of the myth since there are already so many that we don’t have.
Speaking of other versions of the myth, have you seen Hadestown?
Yes, I did! I was really excited to see it, as you can imagine, since I was working so closely with this myth. Being that it’s an anticapitalist fable, it actually had no resemblance at all to anything I had done. [laughs]
What lessons did you learn from this, your first series, that you’ll carry to future series?
The way I have felt writing each of these books is that I have felt unprepared for each of them because they were all so different. I felt like I had to learn how to write a novel again with each of these books. Maybe less so with the third because there was so much story built up that it was a little less of a challenge to bring it all forward. But even so, it took me two years, which is considered a lot in the genre. So, I don’t know. I think every book is a new challenge, and every book is kind of another instance of the author having to face whether they can really produce something great out of nothing. We’ll see how things go going forward!
Are you working on any future projects?
At the moment, I can’t talk about what I’m doing because it’s such early stages and there’s no contract. I certainly am not done.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Poet King is available March 24 from Tor Books.