Reviewer, writer, judge, classicist, systems engineer, Australian author Jenny Blackford presents as a Jill-of-all-trades, a Never Never Land kind of woman who hasn’t ignored the question of what to do when she grows up; she just does it all. From her diverse science fiction and fantasy stories and reviews to her first book-length publication, The Priestess and the Slave, Blackford’s inspired journeys embrace the kind of literary magic that enchants her readers. She’s touring the U.S.A. this summer, with Dragon*Con as her last stop.
Daily Dragon (DD): You’ve attended conventions and festivals in Australia and the United States, not to mention your stint as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards 2009. What attracted you to Dragon*Con?
Jenny Blackford (JB): My husband, Russell, and I had heard about Dragon*Con for years. This year, when we were planning our trip to Worldcon in Montreal, he suggested that we stay on for Dragon*Con for various reasons, among them the Skeptics Track. (Some of the guests on that track have essays in the book that he has co-edited with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, out in October.) So, you can blame Russ—but I have to say I jumped at the idea. Dragon*Con sounds like a Real Experience.
DD: I’m always delighted to watch authors take daring leaps across genre boundaries. You’ve written science fiction and fantasy for adult, YA, and child readers, not to mention your most recent historical novel, The Priestess and the Slave. What genre do you find the most challenging and why?
JB: They’re all challenging, in their way. Children’s fiction has to be seriously compressed; it’s so hard to tell a significant story in 800 or 1000 words. Historical fiction (at least for me) requires intensive checking of primary and secondary references. I can’t bear to write about the past without attempting rigorous accuracy. Good science fiction involves fidelity to actual SCIENCE, even if some of the rules are systematically broken. And even fantasy must be consistent, and fresh and new, if it’s to be worthwhile.
DD: Do you find that so-called “genre rules” limit your creativity as an author?
JB: Writing genre fiction is so much more interesting than writing mainstream fiction. I tried mainstream for a while, but there’s only a certain amount of kitchen-sink navel-gazing that a character can do without boring both author and reader. How many stories can we take of a damaged character’s inner journey? Bring on the dancing balrogs!
DD: You’ve published stories in a number of Australian venues, both magazines and anthologies. Do Australian editors or readers view genre distinctions any differently from their American counterparts you’ve encountered?
JB: Not that I’ve noticed—but I’ll keep an eye out for that in future.
DD: You’ll be discussing both Australian SF and fantasy and YA literature around the world in panels at Dragon*Con. Have Australian writers made a distinct contribution to speculative genres that is tied to their heritage, lifestyle, or other distinctly national factors?
JB: At the moment, there seems to be a disproportionate number of excellent Australian writers: Margo Lanagan, Alison Goodman, Garth Nix, Sean Williams, Kaaron Warren, and many others. Maybe it’s the outward-looking character of Australians that attracts so many of us to speculative writing, or maybe it’s just some kind of historical thing that’s hard to nail down. On the other hand, perhaps it’s something in the water.
DD: You have the distinction of not only being a writer of speculative and historical fiction, but a classicist as well. How have your interests in the ancient world affected your own writing?
JB: Everything I do and think is shadowed by what I know about the ancient world, which I know more about than I know about the modern world. I was desperate to learn Latin and Greek, and I loved all the (many, many) units (language, literature, and history) in my Classics degree—especially “Greek Daily Life,” where I was even graded on a piece of weaving.
It took a few years of writing fiction before my classics background came out, but after I wrote a short story based on Perseus “rescuing” Andromeda, then one about Ariadne betraying her half-brother (and indeed the whole island of Crete) for a handsome stranger she’d met that afternoon, I haven’t looked back.
DD: Readers of fantastic literature are always looking for that next great story or book. Are there any standouts from your classics study that might especially appeal to modern readers of speculative fiction?
JB: There are major treasures in Greek literature for fantasy readers: the Iliad, the Odyssey, the plays (I particularly love Euripides and Aristophanes), even the historians (especially Herodotus and Thucydides). They’re all rich and complex works set in a culture which was more different from ours than people realize, but that means that they require quite a lot of concentration from the reader. Get the most modern translation you can find and try them! Euripides’ brilliantly shocking play Medea is a good starting point.
DD: You’ve had the opportunity to discuss your new book The Priestess and the Slave online, both at your own website and at the marvelous Specusphere interview you’ve mentioned. For me, the novel read like a fantasy novel in many respects. What aspects of ancient Greek culture featured in your novel lend it a fantasy, as well as historical, appeal?
JB: The mindset of the characters in The Priestess and the Slave is as accurately ancient Greek as I could make it. The fifth century BC human beings behind my characters certainly saw Apollo and the other ancient Greek gods and goddesses as totally real, though not necessarily friendly or helpful. My characters see the gods and their influence everywhere, for good or ill. For us, that does feel like fantasy. The reader is immersed in a world, or an experience of the world, that feels and seems very different from his or her own.
DD: What do you think current writers of fantasy can glean from studying history and cultures of past times?
JB: What I think it’s important to understand is that people were always people. The earliest scraps of Egyptian writing show human beings at least as complicated and sophisticated as us. Early epics—the Iliad, the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Beowulf—are startlingly complex. They can be primal, but never primitive.
DD: Do you think there’s room in genre-writing (and reading) for a fantasy based on historical events and real, both mundane and magical, cultures from the past?
JB: Certainly! My current work-in-progress is a life of Bronze Age princess Medea. She was a sorceress, devotee of the dark goddess Hekate, daughter of the king of Kolkhis—which was, for the Greeks, an almost fairy-tale realm at the ends of the earth.
DD: You have stated that your novel was a commissioned work. How difficult was it to write a book based on an editorial request?
JB: I’d been immersed in absorbing research into the Bronze Age Aegean, mostly Cretan and Mycenaean, which I’ve always loved. So when Eric T. Reynolds, the shadowy man behind Hadley Rille Books, asked me to write a historical novella set in classical Greece, I had to drag myself hundreds of years into the future to fifth century BC Athens and Delphi, and re-learn all the ancient history and politics that I’d forgotten while I was working in computers. Actually, I suspect I know the history rather better now that I did while I was studying it. I spent months tracking down obscure details in obscure books and academic articles to capture the look and feel of life in the Hellenic world. But living in the characters’ minds was relatively easy.
DD: The Priestess and the Slave features two woman protagonists in parallel stories taking place in what was clearly a male-dominated Greek society. Do you see your novel as contributing to the body of feminist literature?
JB: Well spotted! While I wasn’t making an overt feminist statement with the novella, I certainly wanted to redress the balance. Too many books set in ancient Greece deal with the male philosophers and the beautiful, aristocratic young men in their circle, and/or with the few women whose names we know.
I wanted to write about far more ordinary women, slave and free, not aristocrats: the women who did all the work. To some extent I cheated, using as one of my main characters a Pythia, a prophetic priestess of Apollo at Delphi, so that she could provide an overview of the politics of the time. All the same, Thrasulla the Pythia worked hard all her life. Until she was in her fifties and chosen as a Pythia, she was an ordinary farmer’s daughter then farmer’s wife, living on a small farm on the rocky slopes of Mount Parnassos, helping with the farm work and managing the female slaves. And, of course, weaving and spinning all day. Virtually all ancient Greek women worked hard—especially the slaves—but even middle-class housewives spent their days weaving and spinning. I wanted people to understand their limited opportunities, how hard their lives were, and so on.
DD: What traps await the unwitting would-be author of “historical fantasy?”
JB: Don’t just read one or two books by popular historians and rely on them. I’ve seen that too often. I’d advise anyone writing historical fantasy set in Greece or Rome to buy or borrow a copy of the Oxford Classical Dictionary (a wonderful book full of treasures), and look up anything you’re about to use: clothes, funeral practices, religious practices, and so on.
DD: Do you have any stories appearing in upcoming publications? What are your current writing projects?
JB: I’m delighted that Mark Deniz of Morrigan Books and Gilgamesh Press has recently accepted my longish story “Geshtinanna,” about Tammuz/Dumuzi’s less beautiful sister, for his 2010 anthology In the Footsteps of Gilgamesh. My creepy-kid story, “Adam,” will come out in Kaleidotrope late this year or sometime next year. I have two children’s stories forthcoming in the NSW School Magazine: “Nits!” (sf about alien spaceships as nits) and “Glukera” (historical fiction set during the plague of Athens). The School Magazine is also planning to reprint my ghost story “Bertie” which they published five or so years ago.
My ongoing writing project is the life of Medea, which I discussed earlier. She’s a wild character. I’ve loved her ever since I studied Euripides’ play Medea during my undergraduate degree. It was an amazing experience, starting off blaming her for doing something so utterly appalling as killing her own children, then coming to feel total sympathy for her.
DD: What do your duties as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards entail? How will you squeeze in time for your own writing?
JB: My duties as a WFA judge are almost over, now that we have produced the shortlist. The awards ceremony will be held as part of the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose at Halloween.
Since last Halloween, when I was announced as a judge, I have read at least a portion of pretty much every item (book, magazine, whatever) that came to me, plus stuff online, and the whole of a remarkable number of them. All along I checked best-of listings and agitated to get sent the relevant books. The categories that we all read for were Novel, Novella, Short Story, Collection, Anthology, Special Award—Professional, and Special Award—Non-Professional: basically pretty much everything. We also had to decide on Artist, and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. Couriers turned up with big boxes of books for me every week— especially on Monday mornings.
I’m afraid that, faced with a pile of books and magazines to read or writing my thousand words for the day, I almost always gave in to temptation and left the computer. My fiction output since last November has been a bit tragic, but my grasp of the field has improved a lot. I particularly enjoyed reading my way through all the 2008 magazines: a year’s-worth of F&SF, Weird Tales, Realms of Fantasy, and so on.
DD: Your fellow World Fantasy Award judges include Peter Heck, Ellen Klages, Chris Roberson, and Delia Sherman. That’s lofty company. What do you think might be your special and individual contribution to the judging process?
JB: It’s an honor being chosen as a World Fantasy judge, and it’s been great being in that exalted group. My specialty as a critic is perhaps that I’m a bit of a prose junky. I can’t really enjoy a story, however interesting, if the prose is awkward or thin or clunky. Then again, I don’t think any of the judges would have let through a ripping yarn told in merely adequate prose. I do demand a plot, and characters that I care about, as well.
I think we functioned extremely well as a Hive Mind, and people have generally said nice things about our choices.
DD: How hard is it to turn off your reviewer’s and judge’s perspectives when writing your own fiction? Does it tend to make your inner editor-critic more daunting?
JB: I’ve been a reviewer long before I was a writer, and I’ve always been seriously self-critical—perhaps too much so. It’s hard to start writing a story when you rewrite each sentence five or ten times. Being a WFA judge made no real difference there.
DD: What panel appearances will you be making at Dragon*Con 2009?
JB: On Friday at 5.30PM, I’ll be on the BRIT track panel “Dreamtime: The Worlds of Neil Gaiman,” Valdosta (S). And on Saturday at 11.30AM, I’ll be on the YA track panel “YA Around the World,”A707 (M), exploring the YA fiction of international authors. Just after that finishes, at 1PM, I’ll be on the SFLIT track panel “Y’all vs. You Guys: Regional SF and Fantasy,” Fairlie (and, of course, I’m planning to talk about our great Aussie writers on both of those panels). It should be fun!
Find more about Blackford and her work as an author, reviewer and judge at her website jennyblackford.com. More reviews of The Priestess and the Slave, the first of Hadley Rille Books series of short archaeologically-accurate novels, can be found at Hadley Rille’s website.