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Rachel Hartman: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Rachel Hartman's first fantasy novel Seraphina, was published this summer by Random House. Rachel lives in Vancouver, British Columbia (with, according to her bio, a zombie-fighting salamander and frog!)

Give us, if you would, the nutshell summary of Seraphina, for those who might not have had a chance to read it yet.

In the kingdom of Goredd, where dragons can take human form, humans and dragons have kept a tenuous peace for forty years. As the anniversary of the treaty approaches, however, tensions are mounting. A prince of the realm is murdered in a suspiciously draconian manner. Seraphina, a court musician with a secret of her own, has unique insights into dragonkind, but can she risk helping dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs with the murder investigation? The price of peace could easily be her own life.

Do you recall which part of the story came to you first?

I do indeed. This story was born from a question: what if you married someone with a terrible secret, and you didn't learn what it was until they died? Seraphina's father, Claude, only learned the truth about his wife when she died in childbirth. The first draft of the novel was much quieter, an exploration of grief played out through generations. Although Claude's story is merely background to the novel in its current form, it's still the origin of everything that came later.

Your dragons are quite different from those created by other authors; tell us a bit about them, and how you came up with the idea to portray them as you have.

My dragons can take human form, but they rigidly suppress their human emotions, which they find distastefully overwhelming and undragonlike. They've been called "scaly Vulcans" by some reviewers: not a perfect analogy, but close enough to give the right idea.

The idea of dragons struggling with being human came to me a few years ago when I learned about a condition called Sensory Processing Disorder. Our brains filter out sensory information so we aren't overwhelmed by it, and different people's filters work differently well. It occurred to me that dragons in dragon form would be accustomed to one set of senses: excellent eyesight and smell, indifferent hearing, poor touch and taste. What would it be like to go from those senses to ours, to taste sweetness for the first time or feel with our sensitive skin? From contemplating their senses, it wasn't much of a stretch to start thinking about emotions. Would dragons in their natural state even have emotions? In my conception, it's not that they don’t have them at all but that they're very reflexive and physical. "Fight or flight" is as close as they get to anger and fear, but surely the softer emotions are a messy mammalian thing, for parent-child bonding and social cohesion.

We aren't born knowing what to do with emotions; I've learned this from raising a child. How well are dragons going to be able to cope? They would need some rules for how to keep themselves from being overwhelmed. In my world, they've taken a pretty repressive—draconian, even—approach to maintaining their essential dragon-ness. Dragons who "lose" themselves to emotion are sent home and lobotomized. It's harsh, but they think it's necessary.

You've written about the long path to publication you followed with this book; any advice for other writers out there based on your experiences?

Be patient and persistent. Be willing to take criticism, change, and grow. And above all, love what you do. There are no guarantees in this business; at some level, the work has to be its own reward.

Music plays a major role in the book: are you a musician yourself? Has anyone written or recorded any of the music described in Seraphina?

I come from a musical family. We all played string instruments and sang together for fun. I played cello all the way through college, but at some point life got in the way and I gave it up. I have recently joined a choir, however, which I am finding deeply satisfying. I listen to a lot of music, but hadn't realized how much I missed making it.

Most of the songs in Seraphina are lyrics without tunes, although I understand Mandy Williams sings the songs in the audiobook. She may have made up the tunes herself, I'm not sure, but lot of people have enjoyed that part of the listening experience. In fact, I did make up a melody for one of the songs, "Peaches and Cheese," which predates the novel by a few years. I probably shouldn't admit to that, though, or people will start asking me to sing it.

Do you have a favorite part of the writing process? A part you particularly don't like?

I love what a challenge it is, that writing requires intelligence, diligence, effort, and grit. Ridiculously, that's the same thing I hate about it: it's hard work and I can never get it right on the first try. I suppose my answer depends on whether you've caught me on a good or a bad day.

When and where do you do most of your writing?

I do all my writing at home. I have a terrible time writing in any kind of public place; I'm just too interested in what's going on around me. Also, I am prone to repetitive stress injuries, so writing on the laptop is not optimal. At home, we have a split keyboard for my poor wrists and an exercise ball I sit on for my finnicky back.

As for the time of day, I'm one of those obnoxious morning people. I like to get up before the rest of my household, make a cup of tea, and wake up at my own pace. My brain works better then. An hour in the morning is worth two in the evening.

What's your own library like? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?

I have a large collection of books on various Medieval subjects: architecture, costume, musical instruments, military history, women's history, material culture. The jewel of my collection is a three-volume work, The Plan of St. Gall, about a Medieval monastery that was designed but never built. I also have a lot of graphic novels, shelves of classical Greek (which I studied for four years in college), and all my favourite fiction. My husband's books overlap with mine, so there's philosophy, science, and many books in Irish.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

Code Name Verity. It's set in World War II, which is normally not something I seek out in fiction. The two protagonists are compelling, however, and it's a deep, moving exploration of friendship. I have a group of friends I go out to dinner with once a month, we've all read it now, and we still can't talk about it without somebody needing a hankie.

I'm also reading Snuff, by Terry Pratchett, but I've been reading it for many months now, extremely slowly. I dearly love Pratchett, but I'm such a sentimental fool that I want to savour each one of his books. I can't bring myself to read one until there's a new one out, otherwise the book feels like goodbye to me. I realize that's silly, but I don't want to have to say goodbye.

Can you tell us a bit about your next project? Is another Seraphina book in the works?

Yes! I am working on the sequel as we speak (typing with my toes, of course). We're aiming for it to come out next fall. I'm only under contract for the two, and I think the second book will wrap up Seraphina's story. After that, though, I would love to write more books set in the same world. This world has been with me so long, and I know its people so very well, that I don't expect I'll run out of stories for a long time to come.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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About author interviews

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