Your book, A Natural History of Dragons, is a fictional memoir of a dragon naturalist. Why did you decide to tell this story in the style of a memoir?
It fit the setting, which is modeled after the real-world nineteenth century. But mostly, it was that I started writing in the first person, and it naturally fell into a retrospective mode — Isabella as an old woman, talking about what she did in her youth. Approaching it that way lets me play the two timelines off one another, taking advantage of her later perspective while also exploring the recklessness and energy that comes with being young.
Were any of the characters in your book inspired by historical figures?
Not directly, no, though I was definitely influenced by a variety of women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who distinguished themselves as scholars — Ada Lovelace, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Elizabeth Carter, and so on.
Ironically, there’s one person who should have been an inspiration, but I only became aware of her after I’d already started writing: Isabella Bird. She wasn’t a scientist, but she traveled all over the world and published a number of books about the places she visited, which included Hawai’i, Japan, Malaysia, and the American West. You might think my own Isabella is named after her, but the truth is that it’s just serendipity; my protagonist was originally going to be called Victoria. Very early on, though — possibly before I even started writing; I don’t quite remember — I decided that just didn’t feel right. On impulse, I changed it to Isabella . . . and then later learned about Isabella Bird, who bears so many similarities to my protagonist.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing this book?
Making the world work. I’m an anthropologist; I don’t mind researching cultures and so on, and I did a lot of period research for the Onyx Court books. But with my protagonist being a natural historian, I needed the natural environment to hang together. Which meant spending a lot of time with a climatology textbook, trying to figure out what kind of weather my geography would produce (and how to create geography for the weather I want), then looking up the animals that would be part of that ecology, and so on. It was enough to make me wonder from time to time whether I’d rather go back to writing in the real world after all . . . .
What is your favorite character or moment in A Natural History of Dragons?
Most of the answers to that would be spoilers! For those who have read the book, though, I’ll say my favorite moment is probably the bit in the cavern — that seems like a relatively discreet way to refer to it. For those who haven’t read the book, I’ll say that a close second is the menagerie scene early on, where she meets Jacob. That scene is the first point at which you really get a full-bore dragon showing up in the story, and back when I was first playing around with this idea, it really brought the whole world to life in my mind.
How do you spend your time when you are not writing?
I watch a fair amount of TV and movies — usually while doing other tasks that require less of my concentration — and recently I’ve started playing piano again. My main hobby, though, is role-playing games. Stories are my favorite form of entertainment, and that’s a way to enjoy them with friends. Which is important when you work from home, and can easily go all day without seeing anyone other than your husband!
Is there a historical era you are especially drawn to that you enjoy researching and reading about?
Several. Obviously I have a fair interest in English history, having covered the Elizabethan period up through the Victorian in the Onyx Court books, and then branching sideways into the pseudo-Victorian setting of Isabella’s memoirs. But I’m also very much interested in pre-Meiji Japan, and Republican/Imperial Rome, and Mesoamerica (the Mayans and the Aztecs), and Viking-era Scandinavia . . . I could keep going, but I won’t. I want to learn more about China and India, too, but haven’t gotten very far with those two yet.
What book(s) are you reading now?
Spirit’s Princess, by Esther Friesner, which is set in prehistoric Japan; Farah Mendlesohn’s excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy; the YA Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis; and Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver. Plus back issues of the online magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies (I fell behind while finishing the next book of Isabella’s memoirs), which makes for little bite-sized bits in between work sessions.
Would you care to share your favorite books from your childhood?
Diana Wynne Jones — very nearly everything she ever wrote, but especially The Lives of Christopher Chant, The Homeward Bounders, Eight Days of Luke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Fire and Hemlock, which is the book that inspired me to become a writer. Also The Secret Garden, which I sort of persistently read as fantasy even though it isn’t; I had that tendency a fair bit, with books like The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (another excellent children’s writer overall).
Do you have a current book obsession—one that you shove in the face of your friends and demand they read?
The same one I’ve had for a while now: Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. They’re historical fiction (set in mid-sixteenth-century Europe), but they’ve influenced a lot of fantasy writers — and they’re really just brilliant. Not easy to get into, mind you; Dunnett’s writing style is very dense and kind of opaque, and it took me a while to learn how to process it. But once I got the hang of it, she blew the top of my skull off.
Lastly, which dragon would you most like to hang out with: Elliot of Pete’s Dragon, Puff the Magic Dragon, or The Reluctant Dragon?
I’m going to have to go with the Reluctant Dragon. Apart from my fondness for English folklore (and the fact that I’ve been to the hill where George is said to have killed his dragon), who doesn’t love a dragon that likes to read books?
If you’re interested in learning more about Marie or her novel, see the links below! If you would like to download a copy of the book cover as wallpaper for your computer, you can click here.
Marie Brennan Bio: Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to many short stories and novellas, she is also the author of A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire (both from Tor Books), as well as Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, and Lies and Prophecy. You can find her online at SwanTower.comA NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS: A Memoir by Lady Trent By Marie Brennan (Website, Twitter, Goodreads) A Tor Hard Cover ISBN: 978-0-7653-3196-0 Available here: Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, BooksAMillion,Powells, Walmart, Overstock, Amazon