Interview with Lara Donnelly
If you’ve read our review of AMBERLOUGH (EBR Review) then you already know that we enjoyed Lara Elena Donnelly’s unconventional mix of spy/thriller/cabaret fantasy. While originally published as a standalone, Donnelly’s first novel was followed by ARMISTICE, which we also thought was well worth reading. After enjoying the first two books we knew we would love to ask Lara some questions and she was gracious enough to share her thoughts with us!
Elitist Book Reviews: Thanks for the opportunity for this interview. We want to start out by giving you a chance to introduce yourself, and tell our readers why they should be reading your stuff.
Lara Donnelly: Hi! I’m Lara. And while I clearly think you should be reading my stuff so that I earn out my advance, I also think you should read it because it is lush and sexy and will probably make you cry. Also, I want publishers to grok there’s a market for the weird stuff. Fantasy with no magic. Fantasy set any time other than the Middle Ages or Victorian England. Upended gender roles, deadly serious drag queen kingpins. You know. The good things. But because we live under the strictures of capitalism (says the writer who luxuriates in writing wealth porn), if we want to see it in the bookstore we have to convince them with sales figures.
EBR: You’ve called your writing historical speculative fiction/gaslamp fantasy. Can you talk a little bit about what this genre entails? What assumptions (either others or your own) of what fantasy ‘should’ be did you have to push against when writing this series?
LD: When it comes to pushing back against assumptions, I’m still getting side-eye about the lack of magic in a book marketed as fantasy. I have friends who ask me why it’s marketed as fantasy when it’s clearly a spy thriller. And the answers are: “I, the author, generally write SFF,” “it’s published by Tor,” and “bookstores want to know where they should shelve it.”
At home I shelve things by Fiction, Non-fiction, and author’s last name—down with the walls between genres!—but people want to know where they should go in the store for their comfort reading. Unfortunately for those folks, I didn’t have much intention of keeping them comfortable. I was writing something purely to satisfy my own desires. I wasn’t even particularly familiar with gaslamp fantasy as a genre. Or with dieselpunk, which is another genre I’ve seen applied to the Dossier. I just knew I liked glamor, bias cut gowns, and people stabbing each other in the back. With love.
People have also asked why AMBERLOUGH isn’t set in a real 1930s city—Berlin or Paris or New York or wherever else you like. And the answer to that is a tautology, I suppose. It isn’t set in a real city because it’s fantasy. And it’s only fantasy because the city isn’t real.
EBR: You mention in your June 2018 interview in “Lightspeed” that AMBERLOUGH “[…] started on the assumption that the characters would lose everything. Once I had that, it was a question of exactly what they’d had that destroyed them when they lost it.” Was ARMISTICE playing that assumption through, or were there other considerations that went into developing book two?
LD: ARMISTICE was born out of a suggestion that AMBERLOUGH might end differently. And out of a throwaway line about Cyril’s sister Lillian, a diplomat living abroad. And also, I suppose, out of the question of what to do once you have lost everything. How to keep going when it doesn’t seem like there’s any hope or any way out. What are the things you latch onto when so much has been stripped away, and you’re surrounded by the hostile, or at least the unfamiliar? Is there something that makes persistence worth it, or is it only booze and stubbornness that get you out of bed in the morning?
EBR: Amberlough City felt like a character in and of itself in the first novel. What was the biggest challenge of switching settings from Gedda to Porachis? Was there anything specific that inspired the matriarchal culture in Porachis?
LD: I think I was luxuriating less in the setting, when it came to Porachis, and also relying less on it as a gear in he plot machine. Amberlough’s existence and fall was integral to the plot of the first book, and for several characters their relationship to the city was a critical factor in their arc.
Because the three point-of-view characters in ARMISTICE aren’t Porachin, weren’t raised in Anadh, didn’t move to it seeing it as the city or the country of their dreams, none of them has the intense connection to the setting that they did in AMBERLOUGH. Aristide and Cordelia were both forced there by circumstance. Lillian was assigned to Myazbah by the state department—her love for Porachis is tied up more with her enthusiasm for her work, and at the opening of the book, thanks to the Ospies, that enthusiasm has waned to a sliver.
Nothing particular inspired the matriarchal culture of Porachis, except that I knew I wanted something different. I typed the words “The King of Porachis,” looked at it, and said “nahhhh.” Making Porachis a matriarchal society also added another layer of complication to Lillian and Jinadh’s affair.
I’m fascinated with modern monarchies, too: the practicalities and political realities of living in a modern world under an absolute or even figurehead ruler, and how modern monarchies interact with other political systems. Also, the fantasy genre so often defaults to monarchic systems in medieval settings that it felt interesting to say, “okay, fine, we’ll have a queen. But the court has to interact with the press and the tabloids and a 24-hour news cycle; her courtiers are part of pop-culture.” Monarchy is showbiz mixed with statecraft. This setting just leans into that harder, makes it more apparent.
EBR: As a teetotaler, I’ve never read a book before yours where I felt I could actually imagine what people were drinking. Your food and alcohol descriptions are beautifully specific. How does the importance of food play into your worldbuilding?
LD: Food tells us a lot about the people eating it and the world they live in. It gives hints about the economy, the trade routes, the cultures, the politics of the world you’re writing in. If I’m writing in a melting pot city, there had better be food from all over the world.
Also, I like food. I like to cook it, eat it, read about it…I listen to freaking podcasts about food. My biggest dream is to do some kind of author appearance on The Splendid Table.
Really, I’m just a hedonist. I want to put food, sex, perfume, cocktails, and couture in everything I write. Or at least two out of five.
EBR: At the heart of both AMBERLOUGH and ARMISTICE lies the DePauls siblings’ difficult/tragic relationships. Does writing relationship and character-driven fantasy change how you plan your novels?
LD: I wouldn’t say it changes how I plan my novels. I would say it has always been a fundamental part of my writing. People shape the stories of their lives through their personalities, their hang-ups, their relationships with others. Plot is built on the choices characters make when confronted with problems. I have a hard time imagining creating a plot without first understanding who my characters are. Whenever I’ve tried, I hit walls almost immediately.
My partner is a screenwriter, and a very plot-focused storyteller, which can lead to some interesting discussions when we’re brainstorming with each other. He’ll describe the characters’ actions, the arc of the story, and I’ll say, “But why did they act that way? What was their motivation?” and he’ll look kind of look at me blankly.
I can explain and give every detail of my characters’ nuanced emotional reactions to their situations, how they feel about one another, their Myers-Briggs scores and Harry Potter houses, and he’ll say, “But then what happens? How do they get from point A to point B? What’s the beginning, middle, and end?” and I’ll give him the same blank look and usually say, “I don’t know, I’m still working on that.”
EBR: Fantasy heavily favors younger characters, even when not specifically for a YA audience. The protagonists in AMBERLOUGH and ARMISTICE are ‘older’ (scare quotes necessary because 30s/40s is not that old…). What advantages do you see in writing about more mature characters?
LD: At the risk of sounding too much like a sommelier or a scotch snob—older characters are better aged. Their flavors are more complex. They’re distilled. Their lifetime of experience is all there in their decisions, their responses to stimuli. People over twenty-five thirty or fifty can still fall head-over-heels, still stand for idealistic causes, still make staggeringly bad decisions. But is it the same bad decision they’ve been making for years? If they’ve suddenly taken up a banner, why? Guilt, or trauma, or a change of heart? If they’re continuing a pattern, why? If they’re breaking from a pattern, why?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision to make the characters older in these books, but I definitely leaned into it as I wrote. In ARMISTICE, Aristide has a relationship with a much younger man and the age difference adds tensions beyond grief and intent and power. And Aristide is starting to feel his age and hates it. He has to make compromises and hates that, too. He changes his presentation and his behavior as he ages, according to some idea he has about what’s acceptable, despite deriding his younger lover for doing the same thing.
In AMNESTY, which takes place years after ARMISTICE, you’re going to see that even more. I mean, the first chapter opens with Aristide complaining about his new bifocals. There are discussions about the difficulties of parenting, there are older people having sex…there are people aging and still being people. Which is really what I think any character has to do. Exist in their fictional world as a fully-realized person.
EBR: Can you speak to A) the importance of seeing queer and non-binary characters in fantasy, including B) queer characters (like yours) who may be amoral or disagreeable?
LD: I mean, see above. Queer people are people. Not perfect shining examples of people, all the time. And certainly not constantly brimming with undiluted villainy. Showing queer characters as multi-dimensional human beings with relatable motivations should be a given. And when I say “relatable” I don’t mean likeable. I mean that if you have any sense of empathy, a character’s motivations should pluck some kind of string in you, strike a chord. And that’s whether they’re the protagonist, antagonist, or just Some Gremlin.
Which, I guess, answers B. Answering A is more like “because they exist in real life you cowards!” Or, with somewhat more decorum, I was on a panel the other day where someone brought up the idea that diversity doesn’t mean adding things, but uncovering what has been hidden, left out, excluded (they mentioned Mary Robinette Kowal’s great essay about this). The stories have always been there, but no one has been allowed to tell them. Or they’ve been relegated to special shelves or prescribed narratives. Or the characters stuffed into comic sidekick roles or the Tragic Queer fridge. When, in real life, people of all stripes are muddling through this wacky gameshow we call life in many different ways, loving many different people, using many different bathrooms.
EBR: What’s next in the pipeline for you?
LD: I am on strict orders from my handler at MI-6 to keep silent about upcoming projects. Just know that there’s a lot of interesting stuff bubbling on my mental stove, and hopefully you’ll hear all about it soon. One thing I can share is I will be teaching a craft class to MFA students at Sarah Lawrence this fall, titled The Domestic Monster: Horror in the Home. We’re going to be reading a lot of wonderful stuff and hopefully having even better conversations.
Lara’s next book, AMNESTY (Amazon), will come out in April of 2019.
See Jane’s reviews here:
AMBERLOUGH – EBR Review
ARMISTICE – EBR Review