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Interview with Songs of the Earth author Elspeth Cooper

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Interview with Songs of the Earth author Elspeth Cooper

Today marks the United States release of Elspeth Cooper's highly anticipated debut, Songs of the Earth. Released in the UK last year, Songs garned a great deal of praise along with its fair share of skeptics. I read an early galley of the U.S. edition and reviewed it about a month ago. Long story short, it's a very solid debut novel that features great writing with some (not unexpected) first novel unevenness.

Over the last few months I've had a chance to chat with Cooper on Twitter and various literary forums. I've very much enjoyed her insightful and candid responses. After finishing the novel, I had some questions, which she was kind enough to answer. Enjoy!


Here's the blurb:
The Book of Eador, Abjurations 12:14, is very clear: Suffer ye not the life of a witch. For a thousand years, the Church Knights have obeyed that commandment, sending to the stake anyone who can hear the songs of the earth. There are no exceptions, not even for one of their own. 
Novice Knight Gair can hear music no one else can, beautiful, terrible music: music with power. In the Holy City, that can mean only one thing: death by fire—until an unlikely intervention gives him a chance to flee the city and escape the flames. 
With the Church Knights and their witchfinder hot on his heels, Gair hasn’t time to learn how to use the power growing inside him, but if he doesn’t master it, that power will tear him apart. His only hope is the secretive Guardians of the Veil, though centuries of persecution have almost destroyed their Order, and the few Guardians left have troubles of their own. 
For the Veil between worlds is weakening, and behind it, the Hidden Kingdom, ever-hungry for dominion over the daylight realm, is stirring. Though he is far from ready, Gair will find himself fighting for his own life, for everyone within the Order of the Veil, and for the woman he has come to love.

Justin: First off, it seems to me it would be difficult to have two major release dates so far apart. You've been out in the UK for something like 5 months. You saw all the reviews and critiques the first time around, and suffered whatever second thoughts about how you did this or that. Now, the same book is being released again to a whole new audience. It seems like double dipping anxiety. How have you handled that?

Cooper: There's a little bit of a double dip going on, I can't deny it, but I always knew there would be. Gollancz bought the trilogy in September 2009, but we didn't get a US deal until early 2011, by which time, publishing schedules being what they are, Tor couldn't shoehorn it into their calendar any sooner than February 2012.

I'm a lot more relaxed about it this time around, though. For the UK release I was pinging off the walls with excitement and therefore terribly vulnerable to anxiety; this time it's all happening way over there so it feels a bit more remote, and I've got a better idea of what to expect.

As for the second-guessing, well, I try not to do that. The book's written and in print; I can't change it now so I try not to get wound up about "Oh, I wish I'd fixed that/made that clearer" when a review comes in. It's done. Any missteps I made the first time around I've tried to avoid with the second book, but at the end of the day, no matter what I do, there will always be someone who doesn't like it, or thinks I should have done things differently. That's their prerogative, but it was my best effort at the time. No book is ever perfect.

Justin: You wrote three main POVs in the novel. Gair, Alden, and Masen. All men. In fact, there's only one female PoV, and it's only for a few pages. What compelled you to write so many male characters? Were you tempted to give us Aysha's POV?

Cooper: I was compelled by the story. You see, Songs came about because like many debut authors, I got an idea and I ran with it, figuring things out as I went. As E L Doctorow said, it was like driving at night in the fog, only able to see as far ahead as my headlights would let me. This was where the story led me; I just wrote it down.

A certain amount of maleness was predicated by Gair's origins as a member of a monastic military order - an absence of women in that environment is kind of a given - but mostly I didn't choose to have all-male POVs in Songs: I opened the tap, and that was what came out. By the same token, Trinity Moon wound up hip-deep in women with agency: Tanith has a larger role, there are two more terrific women in Ytha and Teia, and numerous other smaller roles.

I was tempted to give Aysha's POV in Songs, largely because she was so much fun to write and I knew it'd be a hoot to get inside her head and hear her take on things, but in the end I decided that doing so would have been pure indulgence on my part. She didn't have enough to add to the main story, and I was afraid that if I let her off the leash she'd end up trying to take over the book. She's a force of nature, that woman.

Justin: Speaking of the Church, the one in Songs feels very hypocritical, although led by a man who seems quite the opposite. Between you and me, were you raised Catholic?

Cooper: I've been asked that before - no, I wasn't.  My birth certificate says Presbyterian, I went to a Methodist Sunday school, I've attended a Catholic mass (as a non-combatant, as it were), and observed both Eastern Orthodox and western celebration of Easter.  I love ecclesiastical architecture, I can feel some kind of energy in sacred spaces, and have been known to light votive candles in great cathedrals in times of tragedy, but I am not a believer.

 I detect some very biblical themes though. Maybe even a little hint of Paradise Lost. Conscious influences?

Cooper: Really?  Well I never. People keep asking me about the themes in Songs, and all I can say is that any themes they find must have sneaked in whilst my back was turned, because I damn sure wasn't consciously introducing anything other than the story.

I've never read Paradise Lost (and me an English Literature student - shocker) but I have read widely and voraciously over the years. There could be all kinds of influences coming out in the wash that I'm not even aware of - from Beowulf to the Brontës to Blackadder.

I stand in awe of writers who actually decide what they're going to write about, and choose to explore such-and-such a theme by doing thus-and-so. How do they do that? That kind of thought process does not come naturally to me at all.

As you can probably tell, as a writer I am very much what George RR Martin called a gardener. I get an idea for a story, incubate it a bit to see if it's got what it takes, then I just let it go and try to keep up until it's done. During the edit phase I prune and trim and shape, bring some strands out and send others into the background, but mostly I'm just transcribing a movie playing in my head.

Justin: You also seem to have a thing for swords. The scenes where Gair is playing with his sword (not a euphemism) are really compelling. Any experience in that type of stuff or just good hard research?

Cooper: I've been in love with edged weapons for over thirty years. Longswords, falchions, cavalry sabres, katana - yum. I have no real experience, though. My MS was affecting my balance too much by the time I thought about getting some lessons, so without the technical knowledge to describe the action, I concentrated on writing about how it feels. This was the perfect excuse to buy myself a blade: a replica of a 15th century longsword, as close as I could get to what Gair uses without having one custom made. It's not one of those poncy fakes made of cheese designed to hang on the wall, either: it's functional, and it's sharp. How else am I going to know what a real sword feels like?

As for research, yes, I did a bit - there's plenty of WMA/HEMA (Western martial arts/historical European martial arts) videos on the internet, for instance - but mostly it was instinct, common sense, and watching a lot of historical and fantasy movies an awful lot of times . . . ahem. Sooner or later someone who actually knows what they're doing is going to come along and put me in my place, I'm sure.

Justin: You don't go into great depth with magic system. It's a song in the mind, but the mechanics aren't really delved into. Are you in the magic should be unknowable camp or will there be more exposition on that front moving forward? I find this to be one of the more interesting debates between fantasy authors. It's like the Jets and the Sharks.

Cooper: Interesting question. You're right, a lot of fantasy fans seem to get into quite a tizzy about this subject, insisting that it has to be one or the other. I sit more in the middle.

I'm not particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of how anyone's magic works, as long as it's consistent and enough is explained for me to understand it. That's one of the reasons why I didn't dwell on Gair's studies: I shouldn't need to write a primer on the use of the Song for a reader to enjoy the story. Besides, with Harry Potter et al the whole magical college thing has been done, and I didn't think I had anything new to add to that particular trope.

The way I see it, if you make your magic too hand-wavy and unknowable, you run the risk of it becoming a cop-out, a cheat, a way to cover up a deus ex machina. Analyse it to death and it becomes too much like science (don't you start quoting Clarke's Third Law at me!) and you lose a little bit of what made it magic in the first place.

Don't get me wrong, I admire the heck out of writers who have the patience, the imagination and the sheer dwarven cunning to come up with systems like allomancy and sympathy, but it's not my thing. So a magical thingummy doesn't obey the laws of thermodynamics? Dude, it's magic. If the author's managed to suspend my disbelief this far, I'll swallow almost anything. And no, we are *so* not going there ;o)

Justin: The primary story arc in Songs is Gair learning how to be a Guardian and, to a large degree, a man. There are quite a few other subplots, some more obscure than others. They certainly hint at a much wider world. Can we expect Trinity Moon to take us over the hills and through the woods?

Cooper: Oh Trinity's going to take you to all kinds of places. The deserts of Gimrael, to Astolar and Bregorin, north into Arennor and beyond the Archen mountains. There is also stepping through the Veil, and interaction with denizens from the Hidden Kingdom, to give you a teaser for when the lid really comes off in Book 3, The Dragon House.

Justin: So I understand you're working on edits for Trinity Moon, do you have an idea of when it might be out? 2012 in the UK, 2013 in the US?

Cooper: Middle of June for the UK, for the US I don't know yet. My editor at Tor did mention something recently about catching up with the UK release dates for subsequent books but I'm not sure whether that was just a fond hope on her part!

Justin: Thanks for joining me Elspeth! Get back to work.

Cooper: *rips off parade ground salute* Sir, yes, sir!

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At February 28, 2012 at 5:56 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Thanks, Justin.

Been looking forward to the US release, since before starting to talk to Elspeth online.

At February 28, 2012 at 8:34 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

T'riffic interview, Justin. And Elspeth... isn't she awesome? Songs of the Earth was certainly impressive, and I'm keen to read Trinity Moon too, but I'm more a fan of hers than the books, which is saying something. Lovely lady; I wish her the very best of success.

At February 28, 2012 at 1:56 PM , Anonymous Stefan (Far Beyond Reality) said...

Good stuff, Justin. I have to agree with Niall here - I wasn't a huge fan of the book, but Elspeth sounds like a nice person with a great attitude, even towards some of us reviewers who weren't 100% positive about the novel.

At March 11, 2012 at 5:52 PM , Blogger Bastard said...

I just got my copy, should be read soon.

At March 31, 2012 at 1:56 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have just finished lisening to the book and found myself
for the first time ever searching google to find out when I
could get the second book. I loved it and could't wait for
bedtime to start off were I left it. I must say I've had some
tired days at the office this week though lack of sleep.


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