Monday, November 16, 2015

Mesopotamia in historical fiction - interview with author and anthropologist Shauna Roberts

Greetings, commies!
Welcome to the enchanting and perilous world of Mesopotamia fleshed out by Shauna Roberts, who incorporates her expertise in anthropology and science into her historical and speculative fiction.

MJN: You have a B.A. in anthropology from UPenn and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and worked as a science and medical writer. Your fiction covers many a genre, from sci-fi, to historical fiction, to fantasy, to romance. Given your professional background, do you feel that one genre comes you to more organically than another?

SR: Historical fiction seems to come most naturally. I’ve read a lot of history and biography and visited many historic places. Those experiences combined with my anthropology degrees make me aware of basic facts such when various things were invented, where foods were domesticated and when, what characteristics do most cultures share and what traits are particular to modern Western societies, and so on. As a grad student and again as a medical writer, I did a lot of research and learned how to dig up obscure data. As a result, getting the history and culture right is a lot easier for me than for people without my background.

MJN: One of your early novels, LikeMayflies in a Stream is a story of Gilgamesh. Several authors have tapped into one of the world's oldest myths. It's so timeless and can be adapted to suit any ideology. You've been commended on your strong female protagonist. At the same time, one of the reviewers pointed out that your protagonist is not a child of the 60s or a modern 2nd-wave feminist. So many authors make the anachronistic error of imposing 20th and 21st century ideas onto a character who lived thousands of years ago.

SR: Again, I credit my anthropological training and extensive reading in history and biography. I’m aware of many ways of being a man, a woman, a child, a human being. I try to get into the mindset of my characters based on what I know of their time period, social class, and expected roles, and I try not to assume anything (which is, of course, impossible, but it’s the right goal to aim for).

One problem with historical fiction from major publishers is that they underestimate readers’ ability to put themselves in someone else’s sandals/boots/sabots and discourage writers from giving main characters ancient or “foreign” attitudes. Publishers want to buy books with characters “readers can relate to”—code for characters that think and act like 21st-century Americans.

Meanwhile, historical fiction fans I’ve talked to read historical fiction precisely to experience life in another time and place. They’re intrigued or curious or shocked by people who enjoy eating bugs and girls who have to marry and run a household at age 13 or 14 and court ladies who pee in public in the hallways of the palace of Versailles. I suspect a lot of the appeal of Outlander and its sequels—besides Jamie, of course—is learning along with Clare just how different life and basic beliefs were only 250 years ago in Scotland.

Publishers’ timidity and underestimation of readers has been a boon for small presses. Many small science fiction and fantasy presses are turning out books that on average are better and more true to human nature than large presses. These presses tend to be more concerned with publishing excellent books and less concerned with publishing blockbusters.

One example is Hadley Rille Books, which published Like Mayflies in a Stream in 2009 and just published my fantasy novel Ice Magic, Fire Magic. HRB insists on archaeological and historical accuracy and scholarly extrapolation when facts aren’t available in its Archaeology Series novels, which are historical fiction, usually set in ancient times. HRB is also expanding its offerings of fantasy with women main characters because the women in sf/f books from large publishers represent such a small sampling of the many types of women there are and the many ways they can be heroic.

MJN: Mesopotamia is not a very common setting for historical novels, so I applaud you for venturing into the underexplored territory. There are so many cable shows set in Ancient Rome. Does that present a problem while pitching your work to publishers? On one hand, publishers don't want a topic that's already been done to death. But then they don't want something that's obscure.

SJ: I’ve loved ancient Mesopotamia since I read History Begins at Sumer by Samuel Noah Kramer back about 1972 or 1973. Why are there 60 minutes in an hour and eggs and other products are sold by the dozen? Why are sheep woolly? Why is the world’s first known literary writer and poet a woman? How could the first civilization start in a desert lacking almost every natural resource? Why do many Bible stories include elements of Mesopotamian stories of much earlier times?

It’s amazing to me how much we still depend on technology and practices developed thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia.

You are right; it would have been a problem to try to find a major publisher for my past and future Mesopotamia books. That’s why I was so glad to hook up with Hadley Rille Books for my first novel. My second Mesopotamia book, Claimed by the Enemy, was too long and relied too much on extrapolation for HRB’s Archaeology Series, so I self-published it. I never considered a large publisher. I wanted the characters to be true to their time and their time’s expectations for men and women, and I wanted to tell the story from a feminist perspective as I did with Like Mayflies in a Stream. (Men enjoy both books, by the way; they’re not stories solely for women.)

I assumed I would get cross-over readers from among fans of novels set in ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, and ancient Greece. So far that hasn’t happened. I still hope it will. The eras and places share many cultural elements, including interesting mythologies and practices that continue to the present day.

MJN: In your recent fantasy IceMagic, Fire Magic you have a land called Veridia. I imagine, the name could mean Green and Truthful. Do you rely on any particular language or folklore when coming up with fantasy names?

SR: Yes. For IMFM, every name is rooted (ha ha) in botany. Fila, the heroine’s name, is a shortened form of “filia,” meaning “daughter’ in Latin and “love" and “friendship" in Greek (φιλία). Her brother’s name, Urushi, came from “urushiol,” the allergenic substance in poison oak, poison ivy, and some other poisonous plants. Hero Celatu got his name from “celatus,” meaning hidden or concealed. Fila’s cousin Kassia was named for the genus Cassia, some of whose member species have poisonous seeds. Some names are completely obvious—Hyacinth and Astilbe, for example.

I wanted the name “Veridia”’ to represent greeness, fertility, youth, and lushness. It was inspired by “veriditas,” a word combining “green” and “truth” and often used by composer, poetess, and abbess St. Hildegard von Bingen to mean "green fire and energy" and to imply redemption, flourishing, knowledge of the world, and the divine as mainfested in the world in everything—every creature, every leaf, even every stone. For more about Hildegard and her concept of “veriditas,” start with these two blog posts:

Our age has lost its connection to the natural world. Some modern people don’t know the names of common trees or flowers; they don’t recognize the smell of a tomato plant leaf or a mint leaf; they’re afraid of all spiders and snakes, not just the harmful ones. In IMFM, I wanted to recreate what it was like when humans were integrated into their environment. So the characters know the names of the animals and plants they encounter and what the properties of different plants are. Some are at home in the woods. The weather reflects Veridia’s moods. For the world of IMFM, I used the plants, animals, and insects and some of the geology and geography of southwestern Ohio.

MJN: I'm intrigued by TheMeasure of a Man - a 57 page novella that combines elements of fantasy, history, sci-fi and horror. Zombies on a 16th century island? Is this novel considered a pilot? Have you considered turning it into a novel and launching a new brand of hybrid?

SR: "The Measure of a Man" started as a short story of 7000 words, but it felt too compressed. Too much was happening for the number of words, and it needed more room to breathe. So I expanded it considerably until it felt right. I’ve occasionally considered writing a sequel, but nothing yet has intrigued me into going further. I was interested in the intersection of the three men’s lives at this one moment, not in what came before or after, and I captured that moment.

Anthropologists had collected many stories from Flores Island about little hairy people who didn’t wear clothes, couldn’t talk well, and occasionally came down from their caves to trade for goods or to steal stuff from the villagers. The stories implied that these people had lived just a few generations before, although of course some stories can be passed down orally for hundreds or thousands of years. When bones of a new, tiny human species, Homo floresiensis, were discovered on Flores, many anthropologists thought they had found the little hairy people of legends. Part of the impetus of this story was the question, What if Homo floresiensis had survived into modern times?

The other impetus was my desire to examine the concepts of honor, duty, and manhood from the viewpoints of three very different men faced with the most important decisions of their lives. Will they do what is right or what is easy? How do their views of themselves as men affect their decisions? Are their concepts of manhood positive (these are principles I should follow to be a good man) or negative (if I do this, people will think I’m childish, a coward, a bad husband, a bad neighbor). Many societies place heavy burdens on men to live up to certain ideals, and I wanted to feel what that was like.

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