The sequel to Seth Dickinson’s epic geopolitical fantasy debut The Traitor Baru Cormorantis out next week. The Monster Baru Cormorant will pick up where its predecessor ended, following Baru Cormorant in her quest to bring down the Empire of the Masks from the inside.
Ahead of its release, Den of Geek had a chance to talk to Dickinson about the challenges facing Baru Cormorant in the sequel, his prose style, writing about empire in a world still structured around imperialism, mental health, and advice for aspiring authors. Here’s what he had to say…
Den of Geek: Let’s talk first about Baru herself. How will readers see her change after the dark finale of The Traitor Baru Cormorant?
Seth Dickinson: She hits a wall which she didn’t anticipate, because for the entire first book she’s closed up and cold. Any time she meets an obstacle in Traitor she can sacrifice something, a person or a piece of herself, to get past it.
I wanted to complicate that logic in the new book. You can’t spend parts of your soul forever; you can’t, unless you’re a sociopath, go on alone, bottling up all that grief and anguish inside yourself.
Of course Baru won’t accept this, because she wants to remain utterly focused on her mission. And she also hates herself. She hates what she’s done, she doesn’t believe she can ever deserve kindness or love, and she’s afraid that if she starts to give herself any slack she’ll become selfish. So she fights really hard against the need to reach out, the need to heal.
That’s a huge part of her conflict in this book, and it’s really the heart of the book’s question. Isn’t some degree of human connection and compassion necessary? What happens when compassion clashes with tactical necessity?
The first book began with This is the truth. You will know because it hurts.
The second book begins with If something hurts, does that make it true?
So much of her life demands she layer her true self behind double-crosses and secrets. How did you approach writing a character who hides so much?
It’s really easy to get sucked into her head, and to noodle on for paragraphs following her calculations about what every gesture might mean, how it connects to the people she’s scheming against, how those people are influenced by global systems of power. So I try to avoid that!
I try to find external action that can hook Baru’s conflict and pull it out of her. I don’t just mean action, violence, confrontation. Cooking, cleaning, playing games; hunger, thirst, need for touch or sex. The way anxiety and isolation make the body feel.
She needs to get out of her head. She won’t quite accept it, but on some level she knows that she needs to have true things, true connections with other people, in order to live.
The series as a whole seems to focus on the idea of a person working to dismantle the empire from the inside and the extent to which that makes her morally complicit. Why did you find this important to explore?
Because it’s how most of us live. We’re all aware that the system we participate in enables vast evil; and yeah, sure, maybe that evil isn’t as bad as the evils of some past systems, but it’s still wrong.
Example: slavery is now illegal everywhere in the world, so fewer people per capita are slaves. And yet, because the world’s population has grown, in absolute terms more people are slaves now than ever before in history. And you can’t comfort one of those slaves by telling them, “don’t worry, there are a lot of free people now, you’re a very small minority!” It’s a solvable problem; slavery absolutely could be eradicated in the next century. But it’s not solved yet.
But we can’t eradicate slavery, ourselves, personally, you or I, because we don’t have the power. We can ask those in power to do it, but maybe they don’t listen, maybe they have other priorities or they can’t take the necessary actions without violating necessary truces, like national sovereignty. Or they fear they’ll lose their power through the action.
In order to get the power to do something about it, we need to seize that power from those who have the power. How do we do that? For most of us he answer is not ‘I get my sword and spear and I go kill the powerful,’ because the powerful maintain a monopoly on the use of force. So the only remaining path is ‘I work my way into power and I play the game until I can get what I want.’ Or you can quit the game entirely, bow out, refuse to participate: but then you’re leaving the game to be played by those who, maybe, don’t give a shit about right and wrong.
And, as everyone learns, the game of getting and keeping power will change you. A lot of very idealistic reformers have become monsters in the process. The question of the first book was ‘is Baru a traitor’, and now…
It’s really hard to make a clean change in this world. Particularly if you’re coming from a group that’s been deprived of access to power, where your every move towards power will be fought using words like ‘civility’, ‘patience’, ‘propriety’, ‘rationality,’ which are all code for ‘keeping things the same.’
If you play the good subject, and they let you have power, but they still retain the ability to grant or deny power to people like you…is it really power? Have you really won a victory?
You’re writing about colonialism and empire in a year where a lot of writers are publishing decolonizing works. Was there anything you learned or a change in perspective that occurred between the writing of the first book and the second that you particularly wanted to explore in regards to writing about empire?
Look, there’s incredible value in work that depicts a world where colonialism never happened, or where decolonization has been fully successful. Same with work that depicts worlds without sexism, racism, homophobia, genocide, or all the other evils of power. It’s important to have those works. And I do sometimes see people argue that this is the One True Way to write about oppression: to imagine worlds without it, so that we have a place to go to when everything’s too much.
But I think there’s also value in work that asks “starting in shitty world A, how do we get to less shitty world A-prime? What are the actual, difficult, winding, horribly imperfect paths we might have to walk to get to a slightly better place? Or, fuck, what are the straight-up apocalyptic catastrophes we might prefer to going on in shitty world A?”
You can’t only imagine that evil never existed; you also have to imagine how things can be fixed once evil has entered the world. Because our world’s got some evil in it and we have to believe it can be named and fixed.
If there was any change in perspective between the first and second book it was…I guess I did feel that I needed to bring some things out of subtext, and state them explicitly, to be sure they were communicated. People took some weird ideas from Traitor, like it was pro-gold standard, or that it took place in an alternate universe where women were really super-good at math (instead of that just being a cultural belief). A text is a negotiation between author and reader, and when you release a book you lose the power to define exactly what it means: but there were definitely readings I wanted to write against.
Your prose style is, like its subject matter, dark and complicated. How did you develop your style?
Haha, I’ll be curious to see whether that holds true when Exordia comes out — it has a very different tone, and I tried to use a different, more direct style there. Hopefully I’m capable of consciously altering how I write!
I guess it’s funny that Exordia is supposed to be my more fun book and yet the body count is orders of magnitude higher than Baru’s.
I guess I selected this prose style for Baru because it suited the way the character thought, and the way her story felt, slipping from one thought to another by ellipsis…a lot of complex clauses ending in semicolons; a lot of thoughts broken or shifted midsentence — often by a dash. Fragments, jagged, like this.
One rule that I maybe use too much in Baru’s novels is that it’s always better to give the reader the clues to an emotion, and to allow them to deduce that emotion themselves, than to just state the emotion flat out. So nobody says ‘I love you’, but they do things which powerfully indicate love, and the reader fills in the blank. If this trick isn’t working for the reader, if I’ve done it badly or it’s just not a good fit for them, it can leave the story feeling really sterile.
Another rule is that there are no twists. The things people talk about as twists — you know, the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones, Vader is Luke’s dad, Bruce Willis was dead the whole time — are actually things you’ve been told the whole time, but you didn’t quite believe they’d happen. Martin is a master at this: the reason his deaths often seem ‘shocking’ is that they’re perfectly logical, foreshadowed way in advance, but you expect him to swerve away, and he doesn’t. So Baru’s ‘twists’ are things that should be lurking in your mind, maybe unacknowledged, until they suddenly become real. You drive the car at the wall and you don’t swerve, that’s a good twist. (In these examples, a bad twist would be, say, Vader is Ben Kenobi in disguise, or Bruce Willis is a robot and they’re actually on a spaceship. Things that aren’t anticipated by the story.)
I almost always hate the prose I’m writing, so I keep scraps of other writers’ work nearby to try to inspire me. Hilary Mantel, Yoon Ha Lee, Iain Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Rachel Sobel, all people I’ve pulled a lot from. Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen of Attolia was a big influence on Baru, as was Bernard Cornwell’s Arthur series. When I was a teenager, I pretty much tried to write like Timothy Zahn and Alastair Reynolds, so I suspect a lot of that influence remains. A fanfiction writer named lionpyh, who has incredible prose.
I really do think there’s something missing from a lot of what I write, some secret sauce…but I have a really hard time pinning it down.
What were the major challenges in writing The Monster Baru Cormorant?
Depression. I was still on the downslope when the original Traitor came out, and for that year and two years afterward I wrote and threw about a million words of prose. I just couldn’t stand anything I was writing, I hated it all. And unfortunately I think that wasn’t just an illusion; I was genuinely doing bad work.
Eventually I found medicine that worked for me and got to a better place. The next Baru novel should only be a year after this one, since I’ve been able to work much more quickly.
Depression is a real, biochemical disease, and if you’ve suffered it for a long time you may not even realize the symptoms are unusual. Seek help, seek treatment. It is not something you can power through by will and grit, any more than you can hold the gas down on a car with a broken transmission and expect to get anywhere.
When it comes to building a fantasy world with complex politics and geography, which came first, the map or the story? Does plot dictate geography or vice versa for you?
The story came first, and nearly everything that came after was built to push down on Baru, to make her a sharper and more clearly defined character with harder choices to face.
But part of this particular story, Baru’s story, is the question of geographic determinism — to what extent does geography alter history? So the map has to make a rough kind of sense, and the people and civilizations on the map need to be influenced by that geography, and to alter it in turn, the way civilization has always altered the world.
I do try to keep things a little simpler than reality, kind of a board-game logic, so they’re easier to follow. The real world is just absurdly complicated, god damn. That goes for the economics, the trade, the number of civilizations in play, even the way the nations in Baru’s world are sort of arranged like the numbers on a clock.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers, particularly those struggling to organize a long, complex novel like yours?
Find a way to hold on to the joy. Listen, as you get better as a writer, something horrible’s going to happen to you. Your ability to criticize and take apart your own writing is going to grow REALLY fast, and your ability to fix those problems is just gonna grow sort of fast.
Do you know what you see when you’re on a helicopter going up pretty fast, and you look down at a helicopter that’s rising more slowly? It looks like it’s falling. As you become better at evaluating your skills as a writer, you will feel that you are becoming a worse writer. You’ll pine for the days when it was easy and fun.
Writing requires a kind of ego. When you’re writing, producing material, you have to believe that what you’re doing is worthwhile and good; you have to hold back that inner critic long enough to get the words down. You need to find a way to hold on to that space even as you open yourself to criticism.
You might – this is going to sound kind of catty, I swear I’m not talking shit about anyone in particular — you might see writers you think are just awful, truly bad at words: and yet they’re constantly productive and successful. Why? Because they never lost that blithe self-confidence. Their lack of self-criticism might keep them from improving, but they still have the joy, and that lets them keep working. You have to hold on to that joy.
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