An Interview with Mary Victoria, Author of “Samiha’s Song”—with Giveaway
Last year, I was privileged to read an advanced reader copy of Tymon’s Flight, the first in Mary Victoria’s Chronicles of the Tree series, published by HarperVoyager. I subsequently interviewed Mary on Women on Air, Plains 96.9 FM—a fun and lively exchange. Having recently read the newly released Samiha’s Song, the second novel in the series, I was very keen to have Mary here for another interview on ” … Anything, Really”—an interview that I am very pleased to be able to bring to you today.
To celebrate the release of Samiha’s Song, Mary is giving away a signed book set of both Tymon’s Flight and Samiha’s Song, to be drawn from those who comment on the interview today. More giveaway details below the interview.
Mary Victoria was born in 1973 in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Despite this she managed to live most of her life in other places, including Cyprus, Canada, Sierra Leone, France and the UK. She studied art and film and worked as an animator for 10 years before turning to full time writing. She now lives in Wellington with her husband and daughter. Her first book, Tymon’s Flight, was released by HarperVoyager in August 2010. The sequel, Samiha’s Song, has just been launched on February 5 at the Weta Cave, in Wellington. You can visit Mary on her blog, here. In recent exciting news for Mary, Tymon’s Flight has been nominated for for three different Gemmell awards for fantasy: Morningstar (new talent), Legend (best fantasy) and Ravenheart (best cover.)
And now—to the interview!
Helen: Samiha’s Song is the second in your Chronicles of the Tree series, following on from Tymon’s Flight. I felt that the scope of the story really opened out in this second book—as the author, was that a deliberate plan on your part, or did the story evolve as you wrote it?
Mary: You’re kind to say so, Helen. Yes, it was a deliberate plan, though it did depend to some extent on matters outside my control. An interesting shift occurred just as I was beginning to write Samiha’s Song, in April 2009. My acquiring editor, Stephanie Smith, contacted me to let me know that Voyager had decided to market the Chronicles of the Tree as adult fantasy. The trilogy had originally been sold as a YA crossover, aimed at ages 12+.
The decision to market to a slightly older audience was a boon and freed me up creatively in many ways. With the shift to an adult market, I was no longer restricted to the classic, coming-of-age palette that defined Tymon’s Flight. Although stylistically, the trilogy is fairly unified – Samiha’s Song does not contain explicit language, for example – books two and three explore a wider range of themes and content, from self-discovery through to the hard choices involved in taking responsibility for your own life. There are several new characters introduced in Samiha’s Song, some of whom are on journeys far darker than Tymon’s. Tymon himself is no longer a child in the second story, having made that switch to adulthood in the first book. The characters can make scary mistakes or come to regret their decisions as people do. Nothing is sacred.
Helen: In terms of nothing being sacred, as well as introducing some new and important characters you have also allowed one central character from Tymon’s Flight to die. How important is it to you as an author, to have this sort of dramatic ebb and flow in your stories?
Mary: It’s incredibly important. I don’t think I’d be able to write well if someone said to me, ‘you must keep these five characters alive at all costs,’ or prevented me from introducing new protagonists where necessary, even at the end of a story. The characters arrive, like Bilbo’s uninvited dwarf guests in The Hobbit, when and where they must, in order to take us on an adventure. And they also die when they must, even if it’s painful to contemplate.
My husband, in the midst of reading Samiha’s Song for the first time, turned to me one evening with an expression of woe on his face. “I didn’t expect you to do that!” said he, referring to an event described in the book. “It had to happen,” I answered, and went on to explain why. He understood; the expression of woe did not go away, however. And I’m afraid to say I was glad, because woe is precisely the reaction that scene was meant to provoke. If it provoked satisfaction, we’d be in trouble.
That’s how it is with a story: it has its own internal logic. Horrible things happen, and wonderful things too, and it must all be allowed to follow its course or else the result feels stilted and artificial.
Helen: Mary, I think of you as being very much a “citizen of the world.” To what extent do you think your family background and your own life have influenced the ideas and world views at play in Samiha’s Song.
Mary: Thank you, I like the idea of being a citizen of the world, though it’s also a wonderful privilege to have a home in NZ. Neither one precludes the other, of course.
My upbringing and family background definitely influenced the ideas and themes at play in Samiha’s Song. My mother’s side of the family have been inveterate globetrotters for generations, both through force of circumstance and personal choice – because I must say, it does become a habit after a while. They came originally from Azerbaijan, Iran and Iraq. Some of them went into exile in Palestine in the nineteenth century because of their religious beliefs, seen as heretical by authorities at the time. Later generations moved away from Iran in search of an education and livelihood, married people from very different backgrounds and settled in far-off lands. Now, a century later, we’re in North America, Europe, South Africa, New Zealand. I spent part of my childhood in Cyprus, Canada and Sierra Leone, among other places.
A history of moving restlessly about does hone certain survival skills: the art of getting along with strangers, the art of suspending judgment. It’s hard to be a bigot, to consider oneself pure, right and marked out by manifest destiny when one’s ethnic and cultural background is frankly a mishmash. I like to say my left elbow thinks my heathen right ear is going to hell, and my big toe has a fatwa out on my pinkie. Unfortunately for them, they all belong to the same body and have to get along.
That, in a nutshell, is what Samiha’s Song is all about. The story deals with the artificial constraints we like to impose on ourselves, the walls we put up when we insist on ‘a clash of civilisations’ or ‘insurmountable differences’ between religions and cultures. Samiha doesn’t believe the differences are insurmountable and is willing to put her life on the line for that cause. She won’t play one side against another. In fact, she rejects the need for sides altogether. Naturally, her idealism gets her into trouble with pretty much everyone.
Helen: Given the book title, it is perhaps not surprising that this second book focuses more on the character of Samiha, and that the narrative point of view shifts between Samiha and Tymon. This is a change in focus from the first book so how did you find it? Was it easy, or challenging?
Mary: By the time I finished Book One, I was yearning to write from the point of view of Samiha. In that sense it was a natural transition, a logical step demanded by story. But then of course I had to listen hard, to find and define Samiha’s distinctive ‘voice’. I did that by writing her Testament – the passages we see her composing in the very first scene, in the prologue. I wanted to hear Samiha speaking to me through the words she would choose to write herself. (I use the word Testament here in its older form of course, meaning an explanation or statement of belief, rather than the modern legal usage of a will and testament.)
The experiment was a success – when Samiha sat down to write her story in that old fashioned, confessional form, I heard her clearly in my mind, and never stopped hearing her. I began to document her journey and the choices she made, and to understand why she made them. The whole of book two became in essence her Testament, whether told from her own point of view or Tymon’s.
That’s not to say the process was without hiccups. Samiha was challenging to write in that she has very high moral standards, a preoccupation with Truth with a capital ‘T’. It’s extraordinarily difficult to make characters like that come to life, as they can so easily slide into preachiness. I tried to keep her true to herself while showing her humanity – the fact that she has moments of self-doubt, or can be overly-critical of others and ‘difficult to live with.’
Helen: I think you succeeded very well with avoiding the preachiness and still keeping Samiha a very human character. But I didn’t find her overly critical of others—almost the opposite given the circumstances she is dealing with in the book. So can you expand on your earlier comment of “difficult to live with?”
Mary: It’s an old and hackneyed concept, not mine, but one I’ve used as a foil for Samiha’s development. It’s the noxious assumption that a woman who expresses her opinions clearly and dares to go against the common grain is a ‘shrew’ and unmarriageable, or worse yet a bad mother. Examples of this category of opinionated women in literature include Antigone and Medea in Greek myth, Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, etc. The notion that education and self-expression make a woman impossible to live with is of course standard fare in sex-segregated societies. Even Samiha is coloured by these concepts to an extent, shedding them one by one as she ‘awakens’ to her own potential.
That said, apparent rebelliousness or intractability defines Samiha more in the first book than the second. By the time the events in Samiha’s Song are playing out, she has left behind any judgmental attitudes and stands for something wider, freer, and infinitely more dangerous to the status quo. It’s one thing to rebel against a power structure and quite another to step outside the bounds of the confrontation altogether, suggesting an alternative advantageous to all. Samiha does not allow herself to be defined by the priests’ polemic and as such she is the ultimate threat to them.
Helen: To celebrate the release of Samiha’s Song you are hosting a guest author series on your blog on “Writing Strong Women.” I feel it would be fair to say that strong female characters, not just Samiha but also the Oracle, Jedda and Jocaste, take centre stage in this second book in the series. What made you take the story in that direction, having started with the focus on Tymon, and other—male—characters such as Oren, Laska and Solis in the first book?
Mary: The “Writing Strong Women” series was a natural extension of the themes in Samiha’s Song, and it’s great fun and very instructive to hear what everyone has to say on the subject.
As for me, after an entire book devoted to that very classic boy’s coming-of-age tale in Tymon’s Flight, I wanted to tell at least part of the next story from a female perspective. Although the character of Gardan, the very capable female Freehold judge, does exist in book one, I felt I needed to expand my palette of women characters. So I introduced two strong new contenders in Samiha’s Song: Tymon’s fellow Grafting student, Jedda, and his powerful and enigmatic teacher, the Oracle of Nur.
A rebel and a survivor, Jedda defies convention in every way. She’s a pragmatist, rather than an idealist like Samiha. And she possesses more raw talent for the Grafting than Tymon. How she uses that talent is a key story point and I think makes her a complex and believable person. She is also, with Samiha, the strongest supporting character in the overall story.
In developing the Oracle’s personality, I deliberately chose traits that would be highly disturbing to a raw or inexperienced person meeting her for the first time. The Oracle is hard to pin down. Is she good, or is she evil? Is she helping or hindering her students? I wanted a character who turned those easy notions on their heads. The Oracle ‘Sees’ the future all the time: as a result her attitude towards life is unusual, to say the least.
There are several other important female characters who make an appearance in Samiha’s Song. Gardan returns, along with Noni, Oren’s sister, who made a very brief appearance in Book One. And we meet Jocaste – but to say more about her would be a spoiler!
Helen: You also expand the “universe” of the Tree in this second book in the Chronicle of the Tree series. Can you tell us more about the “what” and “why” of that?
Mary: Tymon’s Flight introduces the concept of the World Tree and paints a picture of human life in the Central and Eastern Canopies. It’s very much a practical, physical world, thought out as if the events described were taking place in our own universe – the laws of physics remain unbroken, apart from a few notable exceptions to do with the Grafting, and care is taken to present life in a giant tree as more or less believable and possible. The ‘magic’ of the Grafting is there, but as yet unexplained. We don’t know whether it is sorcery in the classic sense, some form of meditation or spiritualism, or another phenomenon entirely.
In Samiha’s Song we, along with Tymon, discover some of the rules governing the Grafting, and the fact that the physical World Tree is not the be-all and end-all of the universe (or multiverse, a more accurate description in this case.) There are other worlds besides Tymon’s – mental worlds a Grafter can use to step outside his or her body and the bounds of space-time, effectively predicting aspects of the future. But these other worlds are not simply fancy divination tools or destinations devoid of life. There are creatures native to them and who meddle in turn with the physical world, for good or ill. And the mystic Sap, the force that gives both Grafters and sorcerers their power, may itself be alive …
As you can imagine, tackling all this metaphysics was no easy task in an adventure story. I didn’t want the Grafters’ trance to become a dry and cerebral affair, without sensual immediacy. So I worked hard to make the world of the Sap visceral. The parallel planes of existence Tymon steps into are just as ‘real’, tactile and dangerous as his own.
Helen: I really enjoyed the way the world widened out in Samiha’s Song and the fresh layers of understanding around the Tree ‘verse—you have definitely whetted my appetite for more! I know I will have to wait, but to be honest, I don’t mind waiting for ‘something good.’ I feel certain, too, that like me, a lot of readers out there are going to be enjoying Samiha’s Song in the meantime. So to finish, is there any one thought you’d like to leave with Chronicles of the Tree readers?
Mary: Expect the unexpected! As much as things are turned on their heads in Samiha’s Song, I believe they are punched inside out, shaken briskly and hung up to dry in book three – tentatively titled Oracle’s Fire, and due for publication in September.
Your kind words regarding Samiha are much appreciated… All I can hope for as an author is that others will enjoy reading the books as much as I enjoyed writing them. Which is to say, a great deal!
Helen: Mary, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed here on “ … Anything, Really.” It has been a pleasure working with you to put the interview together and I wish you all the very best for your continued success with The Chronicles of the Tree.
Mary: Thank you very much for inviting me, Helen, it’s a joy to be here.
To celebrate the release of Samiha’s Song, Mary is giving away a signed book set of both Tymon’s Flight and Samiha’s Song, to be drawn from those who comment on the interview before I post my Tuesday Poem at 6.30 am NZ time, tomorrow 15 February,(that’ll be ca. 12.30 pm on Monday 14, US Eastern Standard Time.) The winner will be drawn by Random Number Generator and posted at 6.30 am on Wednesday 16, NZ time.
Please don’t forget to check back after the closing date to see if you’ve won. If the prize has not been claimed by 6.30 am on Saturday 19, I will re-draw.