Sarah Micklem bioMicklem calendar of appearancesAbout the websiteAbout the bookAbout Firethorn's worldThe divining compassAbout the authorFirethorn home page
Go to Firethorn home page


Chronogram profile of Sarah and her husband Cornelius Eady, July 2009, by Nina Shengold

A little bit of audio: Weekend America interview with Eady and Micklem, August 2008, by Charlie Schroeder

Writer Unboxed interview, November 2006, by Katherine Bolton

Video interview for Fast Forward: Contemporary Science Fiction, a cable show from Arlington Virginia. Host Mike Zipser; interview aired in 2006. Check out Fast Forward's website for its extensive archive of video interviews with writers.

Q & A with K.J. Bishop and Sarah Micklem
Spectra (a division of Bantam Dell/Random House) published both the paperback edition of Firethorn and a remarkable novel called The Etched City, by K.J. Bishop. K.J. and I interviewed each other by email, and Spectra included an abbreviated version of the exchange in their newsletter. Here is the full text, starting with K.J. asking about Firethorn. To jump ahead to Bishop on The Etched City, click here.
K.J. Bishop's web site
See interview with Micklem

K. J. Bishop: Firethorn is full of remarkable realistic detail, not only in the descriptions of the world but also in action scenes. There's one battle, in particular, that made me feel I was watching a movie. From my own admittedly limited experience, physical fights of all kinds are hard to write; the choreography's a challenge, if you've made the stylistic decision to describe the goings on in detail. How did you go about writing the action scenes in Firethorn?

Sarah Micklem: First of all, I wrote myself into a corner. My narrator is a spectator, not a participant. She’s up on a hill watching the action. It’s chaos down there and she can’t tell what’s going on. Besides that, her lover, Galan, has to fight on foot when everyone else is on horseback, for reasons I won’t go into here. I had no idea how he could survive the fight, but I knew he must. Then there was my ignorance: I’ve never studied martial arts or been in combat or a fight.

So I bought a lot of books on medieval and renaissance fighting, and sword-fighting in general, and worked my way through them. I read first-person accounts of battle in oral histories and novels, trying to get at the experience of being in combat. After I figured out the choreography, I found it hard to describe all those nearly simultaneous actions without pages of blow-by-blow description that I wrote and then cut. Movies have it all over fiction in that regard. On the other hand, in a book you can depict different states of consciousness more easily than on film. In the end I resorted to magic (no more about that, it’s a spoiler). I wrote my way out of the corner, but it took months, a whole summer in fact.

KJB: The divining compass in Firethorn, with the twelve gods and their avatars, is fascinating and quite unusual. Some of the names of the gods and avatars sound like personal entities—Queen of the Dead, Hunter, Sailor—while others seem elemental or abstract, such as Plenty, Foresight, and Iron. Can you say something about how you developed this system?

SM: I wanted to set the book within a moral universe that wasn’t based on a dualism. As in Greek mythology, the gods do not line up on an axis of good and evil. They form a wheel, the circle of the divining compass, and between them all they divide and rule the cosmos. But the divisions aren’t neat and simple. There are overlaps, conflicts, and shifting alliances.

The people of Firethorn’s society certainly have ideas about proper and improper, good and bad behavior. Bad behavior is dangerous, not because it is sinful and you’ll go to hell, but because you might offend and anger a god, not to mention other people, living and dead. Sometimes you can’t please one god without offending another—tough luck.

It intrigued me that in some religions a god has different manifestations or avatars, thereby offering different paths for human understanding; in Christianity there is father, son, and holy ghost. I decided each god would be a trinity of male, female, and disembodied (or elemental) avatars. Twelve seemed a good number of gods. So I had twelve gods times three avatars—36 avatars in all—way too many to be convenient for fiction. This is a cautionary tale for those of you inventing your own cosmos.

I finished the divining compass after I finished Firethorn. Some of the avatars were nameless until then. They weren’t involved in the story so I hadn’t given them much thought. I’m working on the sequel now, and I am still finding out about the gods. Firethorn is a believer, and I try to think like her. Everything she looks at is in the domain of one god or another; anything can be a sign.

KJB: The Booklist review of Firethorn calls it “Feminist fiction.” Do you agree? If so, given that “feminism” is really an umbrella term for various different feminisms, how would you describe the feminism of Firethorn?

SM: I’m happy that Firethorn is considered feminist fiction. I’m not up on various kinds of feminism, so I don’t know what label I’d apply to the book. Science fiction and fantasy can be utopian, interested in what has never existed; I admire that about the genre(s), but I looked in the other direction. The more research I did, the more I was led to imagine my way into a society of a sort that has been all too common. It’s a patriarchy in which the role of the warrior is exalted, and it has a rigid caste system maintained by violence and the threat of violence.

Firethorn is a woman among soldiers, a camp follower. She’s at the bottom of the heap, being female and low caste. So how does she resist the notion that she’s inferior? How does she cope with violence directed against her? How does she get what she wants, or take what she can get? I guess the feminism of the book is directed toward asking those sorts of questions and attempting an answer.

Micklem Interviews K.J. Bishop about The Etched City

Sarah Micklem: You have many wonderful characters in The Etched City, but the one who bothered me the most, the one I loved and hated, was Gwynn, the gunslinger and slaver’s henchman. You made us so intimate with him that we are in collusion as he goes about his horrible business. He doesn’t want God to exist, but he does desire magic; he wants the intrusion of the impossible. Is he the character who fascinated you the most? Did your ideas about him change as you wrote your way into his head?

K. J. Bishop: Gwynn has been in my mind for a long time, and I'd have to say that yes, he was the character who fascinated me the most. I've always been attracted to antiheroes and glamorous "dark gentleman" figures, and Gwynn was always a glamorous character in my mind, but as I wrote him I gradually saw him as less of an aristocrat and more of a vulgar middle-class cad—which somehow further endeared him to me. I discovered his ordinariness. Originally I thought that in the process of writing the book I'd find out the reason for his being the way he is, but nothing came to light. I realized that he doesn't have any excuses, and doesn't want them. Going back to the modern and the primitive, I initially thought of him as a very modern antihero but came to understand that despite having a modern intellect, he's a primitive creature, and he knows it, and he isn't ashamed. He actually is the savage of the colonial imagination, ironically working for the colonial side. His psyche isn't divided against itself in the way that makes us moral beings—and neurotic beings, too. In modern parlance I guess you could say he suffers from arrested development, but described in another way, he lives in a state of grace with himself, if not with the world. I always felt that Gwynn existed on two levels, the human and the archetypal, or godlike—not just metaphorically, but literally, within the metaphysical environment of the world in the book. And gods are like animals, they simply "am what they am."

SM: In The Etched City, the city of Ashamoil encompasses a whole colonial history: the barbarism of civilization, wealth built on slaving and gun-running and children laboring in factories until their bones turn hollow. It’s an old tropical city on the edge of a jungle, full of organic burgeoning and rotting and at the same time sooty with industry. I felt as though you had mapped it thoroughly, and could, if you wished, walk us from the quays on the Skamander up the Crane Stair to mansions in the hills. I wondered if you’d spent a lot of time wandering around the postcolonial cities of our world. What draws you to explore this edge where “modern” and “primitive”—which you reference explicitly—meet and transform each other?

KJB: The colonial past is a recent layer of Australian history, so my imagination is saturated with a sort of dye from that age, when the "modern" was completing its invention of the "primitive" and developing a love-hate relationship with it. I'm also interested in the nineteenth-century construction of femininity, which is tied to ideas about the primitive. Aside from that intellectual interest, at a gut level I think the fascination, for me, is what it was for the Victorians: it's all about fear and desire. On the one hand, there's the fear that the modern mind, the most precious possession of the modern being, rational, free (it likes to think) from superstition, packed with useful facts, having the qualities we identify with adulthood, can be lost, like any other possession; and the fear that, in fact, the modern mind is a sham covering a Conradian "heart of darkness." On the other hand, there's the temptation to let the feared event occur, to drop the bundle of one's modern subjecthood, to "go native"—an idea which is possible only because of our own fanciful notions of the primitive (it's why modern man needs tiki bars!) And presumably the natives have their own ideas of the primitive, the wild, the Other.

SM: There is daring in the way you write. At a time when so many books seem to be crafted for people whose attention span is about the length of a commercial, you describe lavishly, you take excursions into stories and dreams, and you include philosophical disputations, all in such beautiful prose that I was happy to follow you anywhere. I loved that you made room for all these things; it made me feel too much of fiction—not just genre fiction—is cramped and puny, because we don’t trust readers (or possibly editors). Do you feel that being pegged as a genre writer constrains or liberates you?

KJB: I've only written the one novel so far, so I hope I haven't been pegged as any sort of writer yet, and hope I never will be. If I write a mainstream social novel, or a magical realist novel, or something completely surreal, I hope people will have enough common sense not to throw their arms up and say, "Oh, but she's a genre writer, she can't do that!" It's completely natural for an artist to change styles and explore different subject matter. So I don't feel any constraints. I'm just the horse: whichever way the loa wants to ride, I'll go that way.

Back to top