The study is crowded. Tanyana sits on the spare office chair with Kichlan behind her, hand on her shoulder. Lad’s bouncing happily on my Pilates ball. The rest of her debris collecting team huddle in front of the bookcases. Natasha’s flicking through a Sailor Moon manga… that seems like an odd choice for her. Tanyana’s old circle of nine are here too, looking awkward in their heavy blue jackets and shining bear-head crests. Valya leans on Yicor’s arm — Tanyana offered her the chair, but the old woman turned her down. Valya’s tough. There are even a few minor characters, loitering at the back. And Devich, out in the hallway.
“Right,” I say. “You guys wanted interview questions, well I’ve got you interview questions. These questions come from people who have read your stories. They want to know more, and they actually took the time to ask. So listen up, speak when you’re spoken to, and answer honestly.”
They’re not pleased with my little speech. Tanyana scowls, and the spinning bands of her suit glow strongly. The circle of nine are about ready to leave — they’re not accustomed to being spoken to this way. But Natasha chuckles, breaking the ice. She replaces the manga, and grins at me.
“Well hurry up then,” she says. “We haven’t got all day.”
I clear my throat. “Okay then, let’s start with some broad questions. Gillian asks “I would very much like to hear from any of the characters how they go about author-wrangling outside the kind of crisis situation they are in now. How do they ensure that you give them enough space and time and story so that they’re rounded and interesting?“”
For a moment all they do is stare back at me. Natasha finally answers. “We bully her,” she says. “It might seem like Jo’s the one pulling the strings, blithely ruining our lives for her own enjoyment. But actually, it’s the opposite. She does what we tell her. And if she’s not up to the job, if she doesn’t follow our instructions to the letter, we make her miserable.”
Well, it’s a start. “Thanks Natasha.” They’re all looking a little more confident now. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. “Ok, Bevan asks “Question of any character – probably best for a main character – what do you do when Jo insists on trying to make you do something you don’t want to do?””
“Oh,” Tanyana says, with an evil grin. “Now it’s my turn.”
Natasha snorts. “I just answered that! It’s basically the same question!”
“But this one was directed at me.” She stands. “Let me elaborate on Natasha’s answer. Bevan–” she’s pretending to look right at Bevan, which is scary because I actually like the guy, and Tanyana’s still wearing that evil grin “–it depends. If it’s something horrible that’s right for the story, then I grit my teeth and bear it. I won’t say I enjoy it, because I don’t. She’s made me do some pretty nasty things and forced me to make some pretty hard choices. But if it’s what the book demands, then I’ll do it. But if she’s going against the grain, if she’s trying to take the book in the wrong direction, then I have a whole arsenal at my disposal. First, I’ll stop her sleeping–” she starts ticking them off on her fingers “–and then I’ll ruin her confidence, and then–”
“That’s great!” I cut her off. “You can sit down now.”
“But this was just getting fun.” Tanyana sit down again, far too pleased with herself.
“Another from Bevan, directed to everyone this time. “Do you often fear for your life?””
“ALL THE TIME!” Comes the simultaneous and far too enthusiastic chorus from absolutely everyone in the room.
“Now, some questions for specific characters.” I power through. “You there!” I point to the poor guy hanging out in the corner, with no idea why I’ve dragged him here. “This one’s for you. From John. “You probably won’t be able to get him for an interview but I’ve got a few questions for the driver of the carriage Tanyana took on her first day of debris collecting. ”Do you always try to cheat people out of their kopeks? And why did you take more than the 200 you told Tanyana you would take? Did you think we wouldn’t notice?””
“Uh…” The coach driver gawks at me. “I… ah…”
“Wait!” Tanyana, scowling, jumps to her feet again. “You did what?”
“Never mind,” I call. “Moving on!”
“Oh no!” Tanyana spins, the suit around her right wrist sliding into a short silver blade. “I want to hear the answer to this one.”
Kichlan, eventually, manages to calm her down. “Are you sure this is such a good idea?” he asks me, one eyebrow raised.
“Oh yeah.” Who’s next? “Valya, this one’s for you. From Matta. They want to know “More about the secret guardians of the old knowledge, especially Tanyana’s housekeeper. I’d too get inside her head. Something odds keeping the hope alive in the horrible environment, in which she finds herself living!””
Valya pushes her way to the front. “Simple,” she says. “It’s truth. We–” she gestures to Yicor, standing patiently behind her “–are the only ones who remember it. The veche and the puppet men, they think they can make us forget. We won’t. We hold on, we pass it from generation to generation. We will resist them, and keep fighting for the truth, no matter the consequences.” Her tone hardens, and I feel a twinge of guilt.
As she turns away, I raise my voice. “From the Qwillery,” I call. “A question for Devich: “What would you do differently if you could change anything you did in Debris? I know your author probably won’t let you change anything, but…””
Silence settles over the room and, after a moment, Devich steps into the doorway. He doesn’t come any closer than that, and keeps his head down, but still Tanyana and Kichlan tense.
“What’s the point of wishing?” he whispers. “I did what I had to do. I can’t change that.” His gaze meets mine, only briefly. It still hurts. He and I know what happens to poor Devich in the end. “But if I could.” He heads back out into the hallway even as he speaks. “I would try not to care.”
Well, that was depressing. I clear my throat, and try for a lighter tone. “Next one is for… me! From Susan, “have your characters always talked in your head, and from where did the concept of the Veiled Worlds come?””
“Of course we have!” Mizra pipes up. “She’d be a normal person without us rambling in her brain 24/7. And we can’t have that, can we?”
“I think that question was for me,” I say.
He grins back at me. “But my answer was so much more interesting.”
“Fine then. I’ll answer the second part. The Veiled Worlds came from a strange combination of things. I wanted to see what a world with magic in it would look like if it went through an industrial revolution — because so many fantasy worlds are agrarian. Add to that a generous helping of anime influences, old-school fantasy story-telling tropes, and an interest in quantum physics and there you have it! The Veiled Worlds.”
“That’s great,” Sofia says, with a yawn. “Really. So, how much longer is this going on for?”
“Not long,” I answer, repressing a sigh. “The next few are… also for me! Bevan‘s asking about how the books themselves get written: “when you plan a novel, how tight is your planning? Do you map out everything at the start, or is there flexibility? If so, how much room to move is there?” And “how much physics study did you do about sub-atomic particles? Is the possible discovery of the Higgs boson going to impact on your created world?” Oh, these are good questions!”
Sofia, Mizra and Uzdal share a glance, and quickly leave the room. Devich is already long gone.
“I always leave room for flexibility when I plan a book. I tend to know a few key scenes — usually the beginning, a couple of events in the middle, and the end. But these often change as I write.”
No one’s listening any more. Tanyana’s old circle leave in a huff. Valya and Yicor soon follow. The minor characters mill about, not sure what’s expected of them. Natasha is reading Sailor Moon to Lad, while Kichlan and Tanyana whisper to each other, bodies close.
“And as for physics — well, I certainly read up on it, but more for inspiration for the pion based magic system. It’s fascinating stuff, and the Higgs boson is too. But the Veiled Worlds are their own worlds, with their own rules. They’re definitely more video-game than quantum mechanics, if you know what I mean.”
I glance up from my notes. The room is empty. Almost as if they’d never really been here. Like they’re figments of my imagination.
“Well then.” And now I’m talking to myself. “One final question, from Bevan too. A fitting one. “How about the ending? Do you know exactly how it will all end, or will it come as a surprise to you?””
I put my pen down. “Oh, I know. I always have.” I turn back to the computer. “But now it’s time to chose a winner…”