Is It Better to Reinvent Fantasy Tropes or Pay Homage to Them?

Three up-and-coming speculative fiction authors talk Dungeons & Dragons, homage, and how to name a book in Part 2 of this exclusive conversation.

The book covers for Drowned Country, The Unspoken Name, and Winter's Orbit
Photo: Tor Books

In August, we brought you the first part of this roundtable conversation between three of speculative fiction’s most exciting up-and-coming authors: Emily Tesh (Silver in the Wood and its sequel Drowned Country), A.K. Larkwood (The Unspoken Name), and Everina Maxwell. In honor of today’s publication of Maxwell’s queer space opera Winter’s Orbit, we’re publishing the second part of their conversation. In it, the writers and IRL friends have a funny and insightful conversation about elves and the value of a homage, the difficulties of writing sequels, and how to name a book.

Q: EVERINA MAXWELL: Fantasy as a genre is constantly reinventing elements it’s had since forever. Both The Unspoken Name and Drowned Country contain elves, for example, or at least something that looks like elves if you squint at them sideways. What inspires you to take a familiar concept and put a new spin on it?

EMILY TESH: Oh thank you, you know I love to talk about elves. For me part of the joy of creating genre fiction is working with the constraints and expectations of that genre, whether you’re running with them or pushing against them–borrowing from what Kass said earlier about reusing characters, it’s helpful to have a paintbox rather than mixing your paint from scratch! I especially love having a starting point for what your readers think is going on; in many ways writing a book is an exercise in mind control–what is your reader imagining right now? What have they guessed? What do they know that the characters don’t? What elements of the story are holding their attention? Sometimes one feels a bit of pressure to subvert, to do an original take that no one has done before. But I don’t think that’s always necessary or even interesting. A boring subversion (you thought… X! But actually… the opposite of that!) can’t carry a story by itself, while the familiar tracks of reader expectation can lead you to interesting places. It’s also the case that having your expectations fulfilled can be a satisfying experience as a reader; personally I love to guess the murderer, to solve the lore mystery, to watch characters who are clearly perfect for each other realise they’re in love. 

Anyway my point is: I find it impossible to talk elves in the fantastic without finding myself in conversation with Tolkien, who just wrote so much elf bullshit. I say this from a place of deep love, as a person who has read all of it multiple times including the obscure stuff that didn’t even make it into the Silmarillion. And while “this isn’t like Tolkien!” is something I’ve heard often as a shorthand for “this fantasy is new and fun and subverts those old familiar tropes you know!,” I knew when I started writing Drowned Country that I wanted to do the opposite of that: I wanted to lean right into Tolkienesque elves–immortals who have outlived their own apocalypse, remnants of a civilization unimaginably older than the human world, and also the cool thing where as they get older and older they start to turn invisible. I think there’s a lot to be said for the homage, the anti-subversion. What is a genre without the echoes and reimaginings, the game of expectations, the mutual understanding between author and reader that what we are reading now is built–for better or worse–on what we’ve read before?

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Also elves are cool and great and that’s just facts.

A.K. LARKWOOD: I can’t believe everyone spotted the elves in my book, I thought I hid them so well. Anyway my excuse is because I just think it’s cute to give people pointy ears.

TESH: This is also valid.

Q: TESH: Speaking of sources for fantasy tropes: can someone just like… explain Dungeons and Dragons to me? From a writing perspective, I mean. I know that for some people roleplay can be a hugely productive story-generating engine and I am curious about how that goes because it has never worked for me!

LARKWOOD: D&D as I have played it is good for telling exactly one story, which is “some people who are good at fighting explore a mysterious location.” At its best this is really all you need! God knows I have got multiple huge chunks of book out of this very mechanism! But I don’t think it’s good for generating plot so much as it encourages you to think about character. The role of DM and player are not the same as the roles of author and reader, the axis of authority over what happens to this fictional person is very different, so it gives you a different perspective on… what is it that endears you to a character so much that you get very sad when they are eaten by bugs in a random encounter? What makes it fun to spend time in a certain persona, until they are eaten by bugs in a random encounter? Why do some character deaths feel important and meaningful and others feel frustrating and pointless, such as, when you are eaten by bugs in a random encounter? (This was in 2014. I will neither forgive nor forget.)

Fun fact: many years ago I DMed a game which featured some of the locations in The Unspoken Name as playable dungeons. In this game my future wife played a professional wrestler named Roxanne, which honestly makes me think the whole book would have been better if she’d been at the wheel throughout.

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Q: MAXWELL: Both The Unspoken Name and Silver in the Wood have sequels. How did you find the process of writing the second book? How does your approach to character and plot change when you know the reader has probably already met them?

TESH: It’s both great fun and the absolute worst! Fun because you already have a world to play in and some character dynamics to play with, and you don’t have to do nearly as much work establishing things either for the readers or for yourself. The worst for almost exactly the same reasons. Writing Silver in the Wood took me a long time for how short it is, because I was figuring out the mysteries along with the characters. Drowned Country, conversely, was written fairly quickly, but it was much harder. This despite knowing up front almost everything I needed to know (beach episode, goffic ruins, sad vampire, mysterious young lady, elves!)–having to tell a story within an established character framework threw me, because it limited my options for what those characters would plausibly do and feel. The two-year timeskip that I ended up building into the book is mostly there to give me breathing room and shake up the character dynamics a bit–my original concept for it followed hard on the heels of the first book’s plot, and I wrote about six thousand words of that before realizing it was hurtling towards being a sad story about a couple having a bad breakup, which I didn’t want to write! I think it was Kass who suggested “just set it two years later” and it worked like a charm.

LARKWOOD: I had heard all about The Difficult Second Novel and had blithely been like “but I would simply have no problems with this,” and I was extremely wrong! I wrote The Unspoken Name over several years with infinite latitude to rethink and rewrite, and no expectation that anyone was ever going to read it. “Do the same thing again, but different and better, in approximately a quarter of the time, with more people watching” is always a bit of a daunting prospect. My top tip is: don’t be in your final year of law school, or if you must, try to ensure that a global health crisis doesn’t also happen at the same time. That said, I think it was a productive struggle, and knowing that some people are already invested in the characters does mean you can skip straight to being very nasty to them.

Q: TESH: How do you come up with a good title for a book? (Yes this question is here to torment you.)


LARKWOOD: HA HA HA. The Unspoken Name was my working title! I made a list of about 30 alternative options and thought very hard about it for several weeks and – of course – reverted to the original. (but the title of the sequel I got right away – you win some you lose some)

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MAXWELL: You title your first draft five minutes before you post it on the internet, then you discover the title you picked has been used by several other books, then you go through dozens and dozens of titles until words no longer have any meaning, then someone else (hi, Ali!) suggests something thoughtful based on some imagery and you’re like yes! That one! Please never make me title a book again.

TESH: Since I HAVE to answer–I don’t see what the problem is, guys! You just say literally what the book is about: e.g. Silver in the Wood is about a guy named Silver who goes into a wood, and Drowned Country is about some country which is underwater. Simple!

MAXWELL: Petition to retitle both Emily’s books Some Trees And A Sad Man.

TESH: Some Trees And A Sad Man and its sequel Same Trees, Different Sad Man.

LARKWOOD: I can’t believe we’ve solved the title problem for all time! Really looking forward to Ev’s upcoming masterwork, Two Boys In Space (Who Kiss), and mine, Too Many God Damn Things Happen In This Book.

TESH: I think our publicists will shout at us if we do not end with: that’s Drowned Country by Emily Tesh for gay disaster folklore and gothic seasides, out August 2020; Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell for space princes stuck in an arranged marriage, coming February 2021, and The Unspoken Name + 2021’s upcoming highly mysterious sequel by A.K. Larkwood for haunted snake goddesses and orcs with dating problems. If you have enjoyed our conversation, you may also enjoy our books!

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Winter’s Orbit, Drowned Country, and The Unspoken Name are available wherever books are soldThe paperback edition of The Unspoken Name is also now out!