Talking Fiction with Rjurik Davidson, author of Unwrapped Sky.
Rjurik Davidson has released his debut novel, Unwrapped Sky, with both TOR US and TOR UK. The novel, like the author, is both perceptive and thoughtful, intelligent and with a conscience. The writing is lyrical and immersive, with care taken to create an innovative world once as strange as it is familiar.
Rju and I met at Clarion South 2005 where both Unwrapped Sky and my Echoes of Empire books had their birth in short stories written there. Rju is a genuinely nice guy, well read, well-travelled, and with a personality that can be irrepressible. We did this interview as a series of emails with me in Sydney, and Rju either in Finland, or Paris, depending upon what question was being asked at the time. A university lecturer and associate editor for Overland magazine, Rju is also an award winning author of screen plays, and short stories including The Library of Forgotten Books collection, and Nighttime in Caeli-Amur which is available here.
Q1: You’ve been an award winning writer of short stories, and have worked on film scripts. Writing long form fiction is a very different endeavour. Can you share with us what motivated you to write Unwrapped Sky, and how you found the process different to your previous work?
Writing a novel was one of my first ambitions, going back to my early teenage years. Back then I used to read omnivorously, anything I could get my hands on. You’d find me with absurdist plays, Tolstoy, Yeats’ poems and a massive fantasy book. I’m still like that, actually, though keeping up with the field means I read a lot more fantasy and SF than anything else. Somewhere in the back of my mind, as a teenager, I always thought of the novel as the pinnacle of things. And in some ways I still do, though it’s a purely subjective judgment.
The process – as you know – is considerably different to short work. The scale of a novel can be intimidating, and I seem to have a habit of writing complicated ones, with multiple characters and story lines. I want my novels to be rich and complex. I want readers to be able to return to them, if they want. When writing, this means there are all kinds of logistical/plot issues that need to be worked out. That can be complex, and I’m not the most patient guy. I like to jump in and create problems for myself later. And I do, believe me. I do. But when I feel overwhelmed, I spare a thought for George R. R. Martin. Five books in and he’s still going. Bring it home George! Bring it home!
Q2: You mentioned how you tend towards writing complex stories, and that you have a broad reading list. Unwrapped Sky veers away from a lot of standard fantasy tropes and delivers something quite different from most work in the genre. What was the pitch that got your agent interested in such an innovative project.
Well, the pitch was something like this: “There’s a publisher interested in my book and I’m looking for an agent. Would you like to see it?” So there wasn’t anything specific about my book in the actual pitch (my superlative agent, John Jarrold, liked the book so we went from there). In fact, I think a lot of publicity-type stuff, “pitching” and so on, is overstated. An intelligent editor (or reader) is going to know that a well-pitched book might be rubbish, and a poorly-pitched book might be brilliant. There isn’t much correlation between the two.
Still, marketing is a modern reality and we can’t just step out of the world so, if I were to pitch my book (and it’s sequels), I’d say that it’s the story of a revolution taking place in a strange, beautiful city, something like ancient Athens or Rome, and something like London in the 1890s or Turin in the 1920s. If you’re intelligent and interested in reading something different from the usual fare, you’ll like it.
Q3: I remember your two Caeli-Amur stories from when we were both at Clarion South 2005, and the seeds of the world we’re reading now. The world you’ve built is innovative and haunting, bubbles of disparate histories all floating together towards the surface into a unique whole. Trying something new can be risky. What was your process in building your world, and the people and races that inhabit it?
World-building is a process of combinations, of matching various things – often surprising things – together. In the case of Caeli-Amur, it was an industrial city with Ancient Greek mythology. When you do that, you have all these questions thrown out, like lines floating in the wind. You wrap those up one by one. Others you leave for a while and wrap them up later. For example, where does this world come from? What’s it’s history? Why are there only male minotaurs? Where do they come from? We’ll find out some of these answers in the next two books, The Stars Askew and The Black Sun. Though some questions are answered in Unwrapped Sky.
You were there when Caeli-Amur was first conceived, both in the story which later became Maximilian’s underwater section, then a few weeks later Kata’s opening section. So you saw a bit of its construction. Over time, it became weirder, more science-fictional. Partly that came because I was reading a bit about physics and realised how weird it was, how strange and magical – and so ‘thaumaturgy’ (magic) in the novel is a kind of weird science. It all happens over time as you work on it. It doesn’t happen right at the beginning. Writing is a process of discovery. In terms of the mythic creatures: I wanted to make the them creatures recognisable but also strange and unusual. I want my readers to be surprised at times, to not know what to expect when they meet a Siren, or an Augurer, or a Nymph. I think just writing about plain, obvious versions of them would have been a bit boring. I also have a lost golden age, but I didn’t want this to be some kind of conservative rural utopia – like in Tolkien – so I made it a more advanced civilisation, which had suffered a catastrophe. The cry for the golden age is also a desire to move forward in science and technology, into a lost future.
Q4: The concepts you cover in Unwrapped Sky are unlike what you’ll find in most fantasy novels. Seditionism, industry, ties to business, the rights of people to live the way they want . . . some of these are touched on in fantasy, but rarely with such a demonstration of social conscience. Tell us about your point of view characters, how they fit into your world, and how they fit into your story.
Well, we have three characters. There’s Boris, a former tram-worker who is moving up the echelons of House Technis. Initially he joined the House because his wife was sick, and when strikes begin at his former frameworks he is given the task of resolving it. One of his agents is Kata, a philosopher-assassin who is just struggling to survive. She grew up on the streets and that has made her hard. Then there’s Maximilian, a seditionist who wants to overthrow the cruel House system, but he’s also ambitious and egotistical.
The three characters are from three different ‘levels’ of society, then. Here the book works a bit like the old realist novels, where the characters are ‘typical’ of social forces. They come to embody groups, to some extent: the House bureaucrats, the oppositionists, the swaying masses in between. Though the House system is unjust, the seditionists are themselves compromised. They tend to reflect the cruelty of the system – as many revolutionary groups are forced to in the real world. A dictatorial system creates violent opposition, and even when right is on your side – think of the Resistance movements to the Nazis – a cruel system is going to be reflected in the opposition to it, to some degree. Still, I think it’s pretty clear, in the end, whose side we’re on (just as it’s pretty clear that we would be on the side of the World War Two Resistance movements).
Q5: What did you find the most challenging aspect of your journey in producing Unwrapped Sky?
The most challenging aspect was making the time to get the thing finished. Somehow I got myself into a position where I was working crappy jobs, mostly teaching at universities, which didn’t pay enough to buy the time to write. In order to buy that time, I’d work more, and so it went on. The university system is one of the most exploitative places in Australia, and sessional staff do the bulk of the teaching and essay marking. At one point, a friend of mine worked out she was earning something like $10-15 an hour. And of course that kind of work – highly skilled, totally undervalued – requires a lot of take-home work. You write lectures, prepare tutorials, mark assignments. Luckily I liked teaching and liked the students, so there was at least some reward, but it meant that one had to really fight for time to write.
Q6: You mentioned that you gone back and looked at Unwrapped Sky as the kind of book that you’d want to read, and that it was interesting. Was there any pressure to write something that was going to be commercially appealing, rather than personally satisfying?
I think there’s always pressure to write something commercially appealing. But first and foremost, I want to write original things, to make a contribution, if you like. That’s also what I want to read: something I’ve never read before, something which makes you think new ways, see the world slightly differently. I want to be surprised, delighted, shocked – things which don’t happen when you’re reading the ‘same old stuff’. I’m often surprised that in the writing world – this goes for genre as well as literary fiction – there’s so little discussion about having something to say. I don’t mean something to say in some crude didactic way, but in terms of writing about things that matter, presenting a perspective that’s of value.
So I want to write books which are original and have something to say. I also like to try to push the form, though this happens more in my short fiction, I think. Having said that, there’s always a sliding scale of commerciality, and you have to accept that the more avant-garde you get, the smaller readership you’re likely to enjoy. I think, for example, I could write action-fantasy, descending from Robert E. Howard, say, pretty well (I’ve done it before). I think it’d be quite commercially appealing. But if I did that, I’d still want it to be original. Otherwise, I wonder, why write it?
Q7: You’ve certainly created something original, with an innovative world and a story we don’t see often in the genre. What more can we expect to see in Caeli-Amur, and what other projects are you working on that people need to keep an eye out for?
The Stars Askew is due out in a year. It’s a sequel to Unwrapped Sky and starts a few weeks after the end of the first book. Things aren’t going well in Caeli-Amur. I won’t give away too much about it now, but if the tagline of the first is, ‘The Revolutions is Coming’, then the tagline of the second is ‘The Revolution is Broken’. It features more of the world surrounding Caeli-Amur, especially Varenis. There are more mythical creatures. I’m quite pleased with how it’s turned out. Otherwise, I’ve got an Australian steampunk novel, in which the inland sea still exists and the continent is still populated by megafauna. I’m happy with that too.
Q8: What’s the best way for readers to know more about your work, and what’s coming next?
Best way is to follow me on twitter @RjurikDavidson and check out my website and blog: rjurik.com.
Q9: What advice do you have to any aspiring writer, or writer starting their journey? You and I both know that the reality can be somewhat different to the expectation.
The clichés are all true: do it for the love of it; develop a thick skin; etc. But most important, I think, is to keep writing, even in the slow or hard patches and remember that you are the person who cares most about your work, so don’t rely on anyone else.
Q10: If you had the chance to do it all over again, is there anything you’d change? And if so, how would you change it?
That’s one of those impossible questions, I think. I mean, it I changes something, I wouldn’t be where I am. I wouldn’t be the person I am. I wouldn’t be writing the things I am. So I wouldn’t change anything. The future, however, is a different question. In the future, I’d make sure that books are flourishing and that people know about my own work. I’m make sure that people know about good work that’s ignored and forget average work which is popular. I might give myself slightly better contracts too, if I’m allowed to do that.