Interviewing Tracy Townsend, Author of THE FALL (Thieves of Fate Trilogy, Book Two)

THE FALL (Thieves of Fate, Book Two) PYR — June 11, 2019 

“Townsend weaves an intricate tapestry of human motivations, nonhuman races, world-shattering conspiracies and simple awe. The scope of her worldbuilding leaves me breathless.” — Lawrence M. Schoen, author of The Moons of Barsk


Tracy Townsend is the author of The Nine and The Fall (books 1 and 2 in the Thieves of Fate series), a monthly columnist for the feminist sf magazine Luna Station Quarterly, and an essayist for Uncanny Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in writing and rhetoric from DePaul University and a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from DePauw University, a source of regular consternation when proofreading her credentials. She is the former chair of the English department at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, an elite public boarding school, where she teaches creative writing and science fiction and fantasy literature. She has been a martial arts instructor, a stage combat and action coach, and a short-order cook for houses full of tired gamers. Now she lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois with two bumptious hounds, two remarkable children, and one very patient husband.

Facebook: /tracey.townsend.980
Twitter: @TracyATownsend

Cathrin: The first two books prove that this trilogy is intricately plotted, with multiple characters and points of view. You make it seem effortless. What’s your secret?

Tracy: Wow, that’s so kind of you to say! The most honest answer is “it’s actually a lot of effort,” but where I put the effort in might come as a surprise. I’m actually not a natural-born plotter, nor am I quite a pantser. I tend to think of myself as a biographer. I love characters. I love knowing what they want, and what their backstories are (even if no one else will get to see the behind-the-scenes stuff). I love knowing what motivates them, both because I think people are interesting, and because (to borrow a line from Chuck Wendig) character IS plot. If I know what my characters will do when faced with certain circumstances, then plot just happens naturally. They’ll make the mistakes that make sense for them to make and stumble into the trouble I need them to. I do know where I want a story to end (both episodically and over the course of the series as a whole), and I know the things that need to happen along the way. Making it hang together, though, means paying attention to my characters and thinking about the paths they would take to reach that point.

Cathrin: Rowena Downshire is a child in The Nine and a young teen in The Fall. She’s part of a triad that includes the Alchemist and Anselm Meteron, two powerful men many years older than she. What is it about Rowena that makes her a partner rather than a mere dependent, or worse, a prop?

Tracy: The Fall picks up only eight months after The Nine, but I think Rowena comes off as much older primarily because she’s been with these baggage-laden murder-dads of hers for a bit and had to learn to deal with them on her own terms. She bosses the Alchemist around, and snarks at Anselm, and more or less herds Chalmers past his own ineptitudes. She’s a partner because she wouldn’t let herself become anything less than that. And, honestly, if you were in Ann or the Old Bear’s shoes, it would probably be all you could do to keep from getting bowled over by the sheer force of Rowena’s will. I think the group dynamic says as much about their temerity as hers.

But in all seriousness, this threesome is dependent on each other. They love each other. Maybe they’re too prideful to say the words, but it shows in how they think about each other the things they do. They’re the most stable family Rowena’s ever had. Maybe that’s the best kind of dependence.  

Cathrin: After the publication of The Nine, some astute readers identified Easter eggs, much to your delight. Did this influence your work on The Fall?

Tracy: Well, I was never not going to put some Easter Eggs in The Fall, but seeing people actually spot a few in the first book (there are still more out there unfound, by the way!) gave me a sense of how to adjust my game. Here’s one in particular: my critique partners and I have been exchanging manuscripts for about five years now. There was a line in The Nine they fell in love with and so, as a kind of running gag and homage, they borrowed it and slipped it into their own manuscripts. Of course, when Thieves of Fate became a series, I had to jump on the chance to do the same. Be on the lookout for a very distinctive phrase that showed up in a pivotal scene in The Nine that shows up again in The Fall. That’s one of many little treats for attentive readers.

Cathrin: I’m assuming you adore all of your characters, but which one from The Fall do you identify with the most? The least?

Tracy: Oh, lord, this is a nightmare question. My best answer is going to read as if I’m bucking the question, but I’m being totally honest. Every one of my characters is a pastiche of pieces of myself and pieces of the people around me. So it’s impossible for me not to identify with any of them, however incidental or strange or even loathsome some might seem.

The most fun character to write is Chalmers, because he’s just such an explosion of neuroses. The most personal characters for me to write — the ones that make me feel the most vulnerable, the most at risk — are Rowena, the Alchemist, and Gammon (each for very different reasons). The hardest character to write is often Anselm, but sinking into his brain is almost as much fun as Chalmers’. The character who will never stick to the plan is Rare, because of course she’s not interested in what anybody else wants, least of all me.

Cathrin: With respect to influences on this work, my guesses are Dickens and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Rowena reminds me of Oliver Twist. Books One and Two deal with ecclesiastical and scientific matters, reason and faith, logic and mysticism, all in a steampunk-y universe. Am I on the right track?

Tracy: You’re very much on the right track! My elevator pitch for the Thieves of Fate series is that it’s His Dark Materials meets Ocean’s Eleven as told by Charles Dickens. Other influences on my work include Roger Zelazny, for his constant genre-bending and politicking, Max Gladstone for his dry wit and attention to detail in world-building, and N.K. Jemisin, for writing deep, engrossing point of view characters that challenge your capacity for empathy.

Cathrin: Reason vs. magical/mystical thinking is a theme of these works. Is this meaningful to you in real life?

Tracy: Oh, absolutely. I teach at a public boarding school for gifted STEM students. My teaching is an endless conversation between the rationalism of what can be measured and taxonimized and the murky depths of the human experience. We humanities faculty like to joke that it’s our job to lure students to the Dark Side of the Force. In a way, though, that ineffable space inside ourselves really is the root of science.

Humanity’s seemingly rational desire to understand how the world works is really just a manifestation of magical thinking. This world, the universe that contains it, is so much more complex than we can ever fully comprehend, individually or as a species. In that sense, reason strives toward something that might very well be unattainable. And, like magic, just because the ultimate manifestation of something could be impossible doesn’t mean it’s not worth thinking about. Maybe this is why so many of the physicists I’ve known have been deeply religious people. Once you try to apply reason at a certain order of magnitude, you’re left with a vastness that reduces you to awe and wonder. Isn’t that what magic accomplishes?

Cathrin: Jane Ardai (also known as Resurrection Jane) is a character introduced in The Fall. She’s fascinating, a sort of lesbian Victor Frankenstein, but without the antisocial personality disorder. We only get glimpses of her. May we have more of her in Book Three? Or, perhaps a spinoff? (Please and thank you.)

Tracy: I’m glad you like her! And yes, Jane will most assuredly be in Book Three. There’s a lot of trouble brewing she has yet to sort out.

Cathrin: The world you’ve created is huge and detailed. The settings are rich in every scene. Did you have it all mapped out before writing, or did some of it evolve on the fly?

Tracy: For me, all world-building proceeds from an image or an aesthetic I’d like to play with, followed by a critical question: what would cause things to look this way? World-building fails to persuade me when I can’t figure out the whys of a world. What cultural or political forces shaped it? How would the environment play into it? Who has power and authority? What about technology, magic, industry, religion, economy, gender? It would be tedious to explain how all of those elements operate in any given SFnal setting, but the author needs to still know the answers and build them up to lead, logically and hopefully seamlessly, toward their desired aesthetic. So, it’s fair to say I both map things out and make them up on the fly, in that if I’ve mapped out the hows and whys of my world well enough, I have much less trouble running with an image that comes to mind and finding a way to make it fit. The Fabricated in Nippon are an example of that. I didn’t know until I was writing the scene in The Fall where the air galleon anchors that the yard below would be full of mechanical minions. But as soon as the image came to me, I knew it fit perfectly into the social order the Logicians have created.

Cathrin: You’ve peopled this world with humans, aigamuxa, and lanyani—three sapient species with various coalitions, disputes, misunderstandings, etc. The lanyani are trees, while the aigamuxa are…What the heck are they?

Tracy: The aigamuxa are real! Or, at least, they’re a piece of mythology from our own world, a creature I adapted from the stories of the Khoikhoi people of southwest Africa. They live largely in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. The aigamuxa are large, ogre-like humanoids with, yes, eyes on the soles of their feet. In Khoikhoi legends, they’re man-eaters and potentially extremely dangerous but very slow (on account of needing to stop frequently to raise a foot and look around themselves) and easily outwitted. The Khoikhoi people traditionally keep herds of cattle, so their native lands are broad, grassy, and generally poor going for such a creature. Thus, in our world, the aigamuxa are horrifying to behold, but not actually much of a threat. Some Khoikhoi legends even use them as figures of mockery for their stupidity.

I read about these creatures years ago and was drawn in by the straight-out-of-Pan’s Labyrinth horror of them. But I wasn’t interested in aigamuxa-as-pratfall. I wanted something that would trouble the reader deeply, at an Uncanny Valley level of discomfort. So, in a night of playing with the “how did things get to be this way?” question, I decided it would only make sense for such a creature to evolve with eyes in their feet if they dwelled in trees and descended on their prey from above. I watched videos of the brachiating movements of large apes and considered their postures and movements. The next thing you know, I was tweaking the aiga into clever, ruthless predators in the jungle, beings whose habitat would have been upset by colonizing humans and their drive for industrialization and territory control. That’s what my aigamuxa are: the “monsters” that humanity made.

Cathrin: The lanyani are mostly genderless, the aigamuxa have near gender equality, and the humans have a fair amount of gender bias. Is this intentional?

Tracy: Certainly it was intentional for each species.

Trees reproduce both sexually and asexually. Thus, having lanyani exist in a variety of states ranging from agender to femme- or masculine-presenting made sense. Gender is a construct they approach as a curiosity. They don’t really “need” it, but they’re quite content to use it when doing so presents them some advantage in working with sex-obsessed humans or the wary aigamuxa.

The facts of human reproduction have historically been used to support gender biases, and as an excuse for consolidating power away from women in many (though hardly all) cultural groups. Still, you’ll notice that The Fall is full of powerful women. We see no male leaders among the Literates of the Grand Library, and the driving “heroes” of the narrative back in Corma are also women. Each acknowledges some degree of difficulty in her position, but in a world where knowledge and competence are the primary drivers of power among humans, they’re no less qualified or capable than anyone else. Sometimes, the world just needs reminding of that.

As for the aigamuxa, the near-parity in gender roles — in the text there’s a female chief, a male who cares for the tribe’s children, and mated pairs of warriors — was important to me as a sign that the aigamuxa are not, for all their monstrosity of appearance, actually monsters. Indeed, in a lot of ways they’re more practical, reasonable, and egalitarian than the supposedly enlightened humans.

Cathrin: Without giving anything away, the end of The Fall hints at a female character who might play a significant role in Book Three. She is pirate-y and quite the spitfire. What say you?

Tracy: Yep, you’ll be seeing more of her.

Cathrin: In addition to writing fiction, you also teach creative writing at a private school and blog for Luna Station Quarterly. What else will you be up to in the coming days, weeks, months?

Tracy: If you’re interested in learning more about where I teach (not a private school, but a public boarding school for gifted high schoolers), you can check it out here. If you’re in the Chicago area on June 11, the day of The Fall’s release, you can join me at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville for a big release party (and you can also pre-order a copy of the book to be signed and sent to you!). This summer, I’ll be at Readercon (July 11-14) on panels about writing fiction with diverse characters, writing “hospitable” worlds, heist stories, and (of course) the dreaded “middle book syndrome” in series writing, and this fall I’ll be at WindyCon in the Chicago suburbs and the World Fantasy Convention in L.A. In terms of writing, I have a new novel manuscript (not in any way related to the Thieves of Fate series). I’m currently polishing it for submission to editors so, fingers crossed, you’ll be seeing words in a new world soon — a sort of Farscape meets Barbary Station science fiction novel.

Cathrin: The Fall is coming out June 11, 2019 (Pyr). How can we get our hands on a copy?

Tracy: Support your local bookstore, if you have one! Or, if you don’t, support one by making a purchase on Indiebound.

You’ll be able to find The Fall anywhere books are sold in brick-and-mortar, at your online vendors of choice (including B&N, Powells, and Amazon), in your local library if you request it, and in ebook and audio formats. Enjoy! But don’t forget to read The Nine first.

Cathrin: Thank you, Tracy, for sharing these fabulous insights about your wonderful stories!


One thought

  1. What an in-depth and thought-provoking article! Now, I will have to read The Nine again before my copy of The Fall arrives.

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