Sunday, March 20, 2011

Interview with Mary Victoria: Author of The Chronicles of the Tree

Mary Victoria was born in Massachusetts and has lived in Cyprus, Canada, Sierra Leone, France and the UK. Her career in animation took her to Wellington, New Zealand, where she began her first novel, Tymon's Flight: Book One of the Chronicles of the Tree, released in August 2010. Book Two, Samiha's Song, was released in February this year, and Book Three, Oracle's Fire, will be released in September.

1. How would you describe The Chronicles of the Tree to someone who has not read any of your novels?

Chronicles of the Tree is one tale told in three distinct parts, rather than three standalone novels. I was interested in exploring moments of great change in the story, whether personal or societal; it seemed to me that all the fantasy tales I loved most - Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels, the Lord of the Rings and many others - combined those elements of personal change with a sweeping, world-paradigm shift. I accordingly included elements of the classic coming of age tale in the first story, the hero's sacrifice in the second and apocalyptic 'End Times' myths as a basis for the third.

I was also interested in exploring changes propelled by environmental collapse. The world of COT, as the name indicates, is a giant tree, a huge continent of tangled vegetation hundreds of miles wide. The World Tree is the limit of the known universe for its inhabitants. All else is legend, a nightmare lurking beneath the Storm at the Tree's foot. But this world has a lifespan: half the Tree is already dying. Rainfall is scarce in the east, and whether through their own past mistakes or just plain bad luck, the easterners have a rougher time of it all round.

But don't be put off by all the intellectual explorations going on in the background. Chronicles of the Tree is also a good, old-fashioned adventure yarn. In fact, you could read it that way and ignore the underlying philosophy entirely. Many people do.

2. The gorgeous cover of Tymon's flight shows an engine-powered dirigible, hinting at the steampunk elements that appear now and then throughout. Do these carry on into novels two are three and if so, can you give us some teasers?

Technology is a theme underlying all three books. In the story of 'Tymon's Flight', the westerners, the Argosians, live in a society at about a 15th century level of technological development, which is just discovering steam power for the first time. Science is viewed with distrust and there is very much a religion vs. science divide fostered by the ruling priestly caste. The steam-powered flying machine one protagonist invents is accordingly considered 'demonic' (though as it turns out, the priests' dislike of the inventor's work is more due to his egalitarian philosophy than his scientific breakthroughs.)

At the same time, other, older technologies have persisted in this society, for the Argosians are certainly not the first civilization to develop and flourish in the Tree. Despite an earlier ban on its use, the priests do possess the secret of 'blast poison', a Tree equivalent of dynamite. And there are other, more ancient inventions in existence the elite keep secret, and use to maintain their hold over society. Those availing themselves of this forgotten technology have no idea how it actually works, employing it as one would 'magic'.

Those themes of technological innovation, the discovery or re-discovery of ancient civilizations and hidden powers are a theme running through the books, culminating in the third.

3. On your website, you write that inspiration for Samiha came from your great-grandmother, Samiheh, "the beloved matriarch of a family that still somehow manages to maintain contact over four continents". Where does Tymon come from?

Tymon is based on Timon of Athens, the story of the misanthrope. Timon is a rich man whose fair weather friends abuse his generosity; when he's cheated out of his money and has none left to give, no one wants to know him any more. He swears off society as a result and becomes bitter about humanity in general, living in a cave. Although my Tymon does not end up bitter, he certainly finds himself on the outskirts of society and questioning the truth of everything he has been taught by the priests.

Tymon starts off as a typical youthful rebel, rejecting social norms in an unthinking way and dreaming of personal freedom and glory. He receives a rather rude awakening from these daydreams and comes face to face with the deep injustices of his society. Thereafter, he realises he has to broaden his dreams - he can't live for himself alone. When he meets Samiha, he begins to learn what it means to live for a larger cause.

4. Tymon's Flight is not only your first published novel, but also the first novel you have written. What were your most memorable highs and lows on your six-year journey from beginner to published novelist?

Oh lord! There were some roller-coaster rides along the way, and still are. Just to reassure anyone whose jaw dropped to the ground at the mention of six years, the first novel didn't take that long to write. It took two years to write a first draft of 'Tymon's Flight'. And then another two to write it again, from scratch, when I realised it could not be sold in its current form. Let me explain.

Novel-writing - particularly plot-driven, adventure novel-writing - is not a 'gift' bestowed on talented writers from birth. It is a learned craft, 99% perspiration, as Edison used to say. I had to learn the process of fleshing out a story arc, creating believable characters and an engaging world. That took time, especially as the mother of a young child. I simply didn't have longer than a two-hour nap period to work in, until my child was old enough to go to kindy for a few hours a day.

So the lows over those six years involved the feeling that I would never get it done. The writing was slow, the learning curve was steep. I had no idea whether I was kidding myself: would all this be a waste of time? And yet I couldn't stop. I had to write.

The highs were, as you'd expect, specific moments: suddenly 'getting' a scene. Enjoying the revelations of a character. Being taken on by my agent. Receiving a publishing contract from Voyager, at long last, in 2009...

5. How do you manage your time between motherhood and writing?

Things are a little easier now than in those first few years. I write when my daughter is at school. That still only adds up to a grand maximum of 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, by the way. I have no idea how I wrote over 250000 words in twenty months for books two and three. I believe a minor miracle may have occurred.

It's quite hard to separate out the 'writing life' from the 'mother life.' They tend to wrestle with each other. But it can be done, and I have done it - though you can ask my daughter to tell you in a decade or two whether I did it well. Who knows, maybe I'm setting her up for years of expensive psychotherapy!

...And that, in a nutshell, is what it's like to be an author who is also the mother of a young child. Guilt-riddled.

6. You've worked as an animator for the Lord of the Rings Movies. In what ways does this artistic background inform your writing?

There are surprising similarities between animation and story-writing. Animated frames tell a tale, just as novels do: they describe character, emotions, certain events which develop over time. The main difference is in scale and medium. An animator is generally describing, in meticulous visual detail, the events befalling a character during the space of a single scene. That might last all of a few seconds - weeks of work for a minute of film. A writer on the other hand must conjure up many characters, many scenes, a whole world in fact, using the more abstract medium of language. An animated film is a cathedral built by a thousand workers, each in charge of a single gargoyle, or one part of a stained glass window. A fantasy novel is a cathedral built primarily by one person, using a great many mechanized tools called 'words'.

But those three fundamentals - character, emotion, development over time - are common to both disciplines. There are more similarities between animation and storytelling than between painting and storytelling, for example.

7. What parts of the Lord of the Rings movies did you work on?

I worked on some wonderful, iconic moments. Some of my favourites involve the Nazgul and fell beast - those scenes in Osgiliath in the Two Towers, when the fell beast almost snatches the ring from Frodo, and quite a bit more of the witch king and general fell-beastery in Return of the King. I liked animating that big, impossible beast. I also worked on a smattering of other interesting characters - Gollum, the balrog...

8. Right now you are finishing off Book Three, Oracle's Fire. What are your plans for the next trilogy?

I don't have plans for another fantasy trilogy right now. I'm a bit trilogy-ed out! I have plans for a standalone novel which I will begin to flesh out later on this year, when the proofs for 'Oracle's Fire' are done. The novel will have fantastical elements but will not be epic fantasy, per se. I'd like to try something quite different.

That doesn't mean I won't one day return to the world of COT, given the opportunity!

Thank you for the interview, Mary. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

Thank you so much for having me here, Carol!

Mary Victoria will be at Swancon 36, Hyatt, Perth, 21-25 April, 2011. Her website is here, which includes an amazing picture gallery of scenes from The Chronicles of the Tree.

'Tymon's Flight' can be purchased from Dymocks here and 'Samiha's Song' from here.



  1. Mary, I think you have done very well to get a book finished and published in six years! I have been working on a trilogy since 2003 and am only just finishing book one! I wish I had a dollar for every hour I've spent on the durned thang.

  2. Thanks Satima... the journey is particularly interesting while juggling pregnancy and babies. (If you picture me throwing a baby, several fresh packets of nappies, a computer and some hospital visits in the air, you wouldn't be far wrong.)

    It DOES get better. 20 months of work for books two and three combined is certainly faster... though to be honest, I wouldn't want to keep that manic rate up indefinitely.