The Conscious Interview of A.M. Dellamonica




A.M. Del­la­m­on­i­ca can con­sid­er her­self one of Canada’s bright new spots, espe­cial­ly in the fan­ta­sy genre. Her sto­ries and nov­els thus far are wide­ly admired, and Child of a Hid­den Sea can only increase her fan base. I’ve reviewed it for a nation­al pub­li­ca­tion, so no review is avail­able yet to link to, but I think I can get away with say­ing its com­pli­men­ta­ry.

The offi­cial bio:

A.M. Del­la­m­on­i­ca is the author of Indi­go Springs, which won the Sun­burst Award for Cana­di­an Lit­er­a­ture of the Fan­tas­tic. Her short fic­tion has appeared in Asimov’sRealms of Fan­ta­sySci­Fic­tion and Strange Hori­zons, and in numer­ous antholo­gies; her 2005 alter­nate-his­to­ry Joan of Arc sto­ry, “A Key to the Illu­mi­nat­ed Heretic,”w was short­list­ed for the Side­ways Award and the Neb­u­la Award. Del­la­m­on­i­ca lives in Van­cou­ver, British Colum­bia.

Describe your lat­est nov­el in a tweet.

Sail­ing ships and mag­ic spells! A San Fran­cis­co video­g­ra­ph­er falls into a strange new world. Child of a Hid­den Sea by @AlyxDellamonica

Now, as a movie pitch.

Girl meets plan­et. Girl los­es plan­et. Girl goes home, fetch­es her broth­er and recharges her cam­era bat­ter­ies, packs some aspirin, finds plan­et again, and embarks on a quest to dis­cov­er its ori­gins. Then: girl meets boy, mon­sters, vol­cano, pirates and her birth father, all in rapid suc­ces­sion. Every­thing would be per­fect if only the pirates hadn’t sprayed… (Who? No spoil­ers! OMG!) all over the drapes.

Hmm, there may be a rea­son I don’t have a film deal yet.

Now, as an episode of The Simp­sons.

Bart reads A.M. Del­la­m­on­i­ca!

The last human alive to have nev­er seen an episode of The Simp­sons is a fan­ta­sy writer from Toron­to. Now it’s com­ing back to bite her on the ass. Can she catch up with Bart fast enough to earn a place on the NYT Best­seller list? D’oh!

I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by lit­er­ary world build­ing. For the alter­nate real­i­ty of Stormwrack, how did you go about craft­ing it?

I start­ed with the bio­di­ver­si­ty of the Gala­pa­gos Islands and a worst-case sce­nario for cli­mate-change induced ocean rise. That prob­a­bly makes it sound pret­ty dry. The point was to have tall ships sail­ing enor­mous oceans, with numer­ous tiny island nations with incred­i­bly diverse micro­cli­mates. Wait, no, that sounds dry too. Look, Peter Watts told me to bom­bard the earth with aster­oids.

Did you start with a sol­id base of its own real­i­ty? How much of it changed as you walked through the plot?

The thing that changed most as I wrote the pre­quel sto­ries and then the first nov­el, Child of A Hid­den Sea, was my approach to mag­ic. I had this very clear idea that seemed sim­ple. Once I start­ed explor­ing it, I real­ized there had to be a few changes.


The orig­i­nal thought was this: write an inscrip­tion using the unique mate­ri­als avail­able on your island, and you would cre­ate a work­ing mag­ic spell. Tear up the inscription—the phys­i­cal arti­fact that allowed excep­tions to the laws of physics—and the spell would be bro­ken. That could mean, for exam­ple, that if you were preg­nant and used mag­ic to make it so that the con­cep­tion had nev­er hap­pened, twen­ty years lat­er some­one could tear up the spell…and boom! You would be preg­nant again! Or, pos­si­bly, you might just sud­den­ly have a 20-year-old child.

I just kind of loved the awful­ness of that idea: twen­ty years lat­er, you’re sud­den­ly nine months along, and you’re fifty.

One of the things I had to add into this sys­tem was the con­cept of load, the idea that a per­son or object could only take so much mag­i­cal tweak­ing before their mind and body snapped under the strain.

Why did you decide to present Stormwrack through the eyes of an out­sider (Sophie Hansa, a 21st cen­tu­ry woman mag­i­cal­ly trans­port­ed to its shores), rather than from whol­ly with­in its own real­i­ty?

The pre­quel sto­ries are whol­ly from the point of view of Stormwrack­ers, but for this book, I want­ed to give read­ers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to play tourist in a new land. There’s no bet­ter guide to a new world than some­one from your own time and place.

One of the first things I thought about when I came to cre­ate a new series after Blue Mag­icwhich has a lot of death and loss in it—was what would be fun? I also knew that I am always drawn to por­tal fan­ta­sy. Bub­ble uni­vers­es and alter­nate worlds end up in books I didn’t expect to have them at all. This time, I thought I would just sur­ren­der: start with the por­tal, and go from there.

Por­tal fan­tasies are usu­al­ly about chil­dren: think Alice in Won­der­land, or the Nar­nia kids. They’re light­ly par­ent­ed fer­al beings, and nobody even notices when they’re gone. So I asked myself: what hap­pens when a grown-up, with a rea­son­ably adult lifestyle and nor­mal oblig­a­tions, is the one who finds the new world?

What’s the process for fig­ur­ing out what is and is not allowed when it comes to the mys­ti­cal? One of my pet peeves of less­er fan­ta­sy nov­els is the Dun­geons & Drag­ons approach, where­in it feels like the author writes her­self into a cor­ner and then rolls dice to see if a par­tic­u­lar spell can be used. Oh, no, a hydra! I’m doomed! Hey, invis­i­bil­i­ty! Who knew? That sort of thing.

This isn’t cov­ered in too much detail in Child of a Hid­den Sea, but inscrip­tions are devel­oped in a process that is some­thing like com­pos­ing poet­ry or music. Peo­ple exper­i­ment, and draft attempts, and fool around with both mate­ri­als and words. Once they have a spell per­fect, it’s set and oth­ers can repro­duce it. But the repro­duc­tion has to pre­cise­ly copy the orig­i­nal spell: every­thing has to be done just so, or it just doesn’t work.

The rare indi­vid­u­als who design inscrip­tions from scratch have to craft a per­fect inten­tion, some­thing they real­ly want. They set it to the cor­rect words, and envi­sion a rit­u­al man­ner of writ­ing it in the mate­ri­als they’ve cho­sen. Like a per­fect work of art, there is no imag­in­ing it any oth­er way once it is com­plete.

I know this because I explored it in detail, recent­ly, in a sto­ry called “Queen of the Flies.” That piece will be in the Exile anthol­o­gy: QUILTBAG: START A REVOLUTION next year.

Beyond mag­ic, you also go into great detail about Stormwrack’s unusu­al legal sys­tem, not some­thing fan­ta­sy nov­els often explore. In fact, Sophie’s adven­ture at times resem­bles a detec­tive nov­el. Did you dis­cov­er any pit­falls in bal­anc­ing the arcane with the legal? Why did you set your­self this twofold chal­lenge?

Even mag­ic has rules.

Again, this was about hav­ing a lot of fun. You might say my guid­ing artis­tic prin­ci­ple for devel­op­ing this series was If I’m hav­ing a good time, so will every­body else. And I like legal thrillers. The idea of a law­suit-choked legal sys­tem whose out of court set­tle­ment option is duelling…whee! How could I not get into Fleet law once my writer­brain had come up with that?

The peo­ple of Stormwrack are basi­cal­ly lan­guage nerds, much as lawyers and writ­ers are. I teach a lot of aspir­ing writ­ers who are cur­rent­ly lawyers look­ing for a career change. What I’ve learned? Lawyers love lan­guage. They love to parse the dou­ble mean­ings of words and fid­dle around with dou­ble enten­dres and dig into what a state­ment lit­er­al­ly says, as opposed to what the speak­er kin­da meant.

This isn’t as far removed from the mag­i­cal stuff as you might think. Stormwrack is a cul­ture with many lan­guages. The com­mon tongue is Fleet­s­peak, but then there’s inscrip­tion, which has its own con­ven­tions, words and alpha­bet. Writ­ing con­tracts and wran­gling end­less­ly over the lan­guage of those con­tracts is a huge part of Fleet cul­ture. Writ­ing mag­i­cal inten­tions whose lan­guage reshapes real­i­ty is the basis of the world’s mag­i­cal sys­tem.

(There are two oth­er alpha­bets, too, but telling you about that would def­i­nite­ly be putting hors­es before carts.)

Inten­tions are, essen­tial­ly, con­tracts with some unknown uni­ver­sal force that allows peo­ple to ignore or bend the laws of nature.

As with the best of fan­ta­sy, the alter­nate world you’ve cre­at­ed serves as com­men­tary on ele­ments of our own, par­tic­u­lar­ly some of the ugli­er aspects. Is genre writ­ing more effec­tive at bring­ing such sub­text to read­ers? Why (or why not)?

I think fan­ta­sy and SF are very effec­tive in their use of con­crete metaphors to high­light aspects of our social sys­tem. Is mine a bet­ter approach than writ­ing a more con­ven­tion­al nov­el that direct­ly crit­i­cizes, for exam­ple, our fla­grant waste of nat­ur­al resources or our law­suit-hap­py courts?

When it doubt, always bet on Gor­shin!

I’m not big on the idea that one thing is fun­da­men­tal­ly bet­ter than the oth­er. My book and that hypo­thet­i­cal main­stream nov­el would reach dif­fer­ent audi­ences. It is an incred­i­ble priv­i­lege to live in a world that has room for both the cheesy [ED: You mean clas­sic] Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Bat­tle­field,” and books like Harp­er Lee’s To Kill a Mock­ing­bird. (Bet nobody’s ever com­pared that par­tic­u­lar apple/orange set before!) The some­what clunky explo­ration of racism in the for­mer doesn’t in any way detract from the same explo­ration in the lat­ter. Both, I would argue, are a force for good.

What an ele­ment of the fan­tas­tic can offer read­ers is a bit of dis­tance from a polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion. You can read about a wacky alien cul­ture that’s kin­da racist, and feel supe­ri­or with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly hav­ing to dig into your own feel­ings about the same issues turn­ing up on page one of your local news­pa­per. That choice to engage with the polit­i­cal con­tent of a book can stay with the read­er; how com­fort­able or uncom­fort­able you want to be lies with­in your con­trol. It may be that with less metaphor­i­cal forms of lit­er­a­ture, that Lalala I can’t hear you option (as not­ed schol­ars have dubbed it) isn’t as read­i­ly avail­able.

What’s next for Sophie?

In Jan­u­ary I turned in the sec­ond book of the Hid­den Sea Tales. It’s called Daugh­ter of No Nation, and it picks up Sophie’s sto­ry six months after she’s deport­ed from the Fleet. She has been hop­ing to go back and prepar­ing for the jour­ney, and in the mean­time try­ing to be a lit­tle more grown up. We’ll see how peo­ple think she makes out with that. Of course, all the friends and ene­mies she made on her first vis­it are ready and wait­ing. Even the dead ones.

Learn more of A.M. Dellamonica’s books here.

Next up: The Sub­con­scious Inter­view!