I first met Tansy Rayner Roberts at Melbourne World Con in 1999. Tansy had just won the Inaugural George Turner $10,000 fiction prize with a book she had written when she was 19. (She was 20). Tansy and I have kept in touch. We’re both member of the ROR writing group. Since then Tansy has married had two children, completed her PHD, won more awards for her writing and currently has a fantasy series Creature Court, published with Voyager Australia.
Watch out for the give-away question at the end.
The best thing about fantasy is that you can pour anything into it. When I was teaching creative writing to teenagers, I would encourage them to write a ‘list of awesome’ – bullet points about things they loved or were interested in or obsessed with. Then to put as much of that into their writing, because if you’re writing about things you adore, it’s so much easier to get words on the page.
I think the shades of Tolkien and Lewis and the similar grand old scholars of the genres make new writers feel like the only inspirational sources they should be thinking are those of the academic variety: historical battles, medieval poetry, linguistics, cartography, and other Terribly Serious things. I’m not knocking history – I have a PhD in Classics and am deeply steeped in academic traditions – but I also think you can learn a lot from writing in reaction to modern pop culture.
My Creature Court trilogy, (Book one:Power and Majesty), was inspired by my obsessive attachment to the Ancient Roman festival calendar, by my visit to the city of Rome, and my interest in what life was like for ordinary people during the Blitz, when you never knew when the sky would next open up and let bombs fall on your street, or the one next to yours. But it was also pushed along by the important question that came to me: what if Buffy had a job? Not just a little part time job. What if the ‘chosen one’ wasn’t a 15 year old farmboy or 16 year old cheerleader, but a woman who already had her life settled. How do you balance slaying (or insert other save-the-world type activity here) with an actual career?
Then there was the House of Eliot. I like to say that my books were inspired by my love of the 1920’s, which is true, but my love of the 1920’s came from the TV costume drama about two young women who found independence by starting their own fashion house. I haven’t watched it for years, of course, but just as I based the city of Aufleur on my sketchy memories of tramping around Rome with my honey, I took what I loved from The House of Eliot (women working together, costume detail, flappers and beads) and made it my own.
I had a theory about fanfic once, that the reason a medium like TV produces so much, whereas only a few books inspire a serious fan writing community, is that fanfic comes from the empty places between stories – from the parts a reader finds unsatisfactory, but also from the gaps where they can see the story they want waiting to be told. (the biggest exception to this, Harry Potter, was a perfect breeding ground for fanfic because Rowling created such an inspiring and enchanting world, and then firmly kept her readers from seeing more than a thin slice of it in every book) TV and movies are already lacking something that books give us: that personal touch of being inside a character’s head. They also often confine themselves to a format, so that it’s easy to be inspired towards fanfic simply by wondering what is happening over there, just out of sight, or after the credits have rolled.
Of course, if TV or movies or any other form of pop culture inspires you, you don’t HAVE to write fanfic. You can pour your questions and responses into original fiction as well. Writing a short story which was sparked off by an episode of your favourite TV show can be as satisfying as one sparked off by a painting you saw in a gallery, or a song that turned up on the radio, or a view out an unexpected window.
The short story I am most proud of writing in recent years, “The Patrician,” was inspired by one of those gaps in story – a a question about a popular trope that started bothering me more and more, until I had to write about it. The trope in question was the love story between an eternal or incredibly long lived character (usually the man) and a teenage girl who is utterly special in some way but still, let’s face it, a teenage girl. Buffy and Angel, the Doctor and Rose, Edward and Bella…
Now, I’m in my early thirties and I already stare in alarm at today’s teenagers. They are not my people. So even though I… well okay I didn’t ship any of the above couples but I did enjoy two out of three stories involving them. But the idea of those couples only works if vampires, Time Lords and other eternals are as shallow and youth/beauty obsessed as Hollywood casting agents, and that’s the bit I don’t buy. They <em>have</em> eternal youth and beauty, so why would they value it, especially with the long historical perspective they have? Surely if you’ve been alive for several centuries, you’re more likely to be interested in someone you can have a decent conversation with, than someone who has barely outlived the mayflies.
So I wrote my own version of the story, which is not that story at all, but made sense to me, and it became “The Patrician,” about an eternal warrior from Roman times, ridding the world of monsters, and entirely failing to fall in love with a teenage girl until she had the sense to grow up and then some. In the same collection I wrote a story that reinvented certain female relatives of Roman emperors as something akin to superheroes, one which gave a Mary Shelley and her sister a far more dangerous poet to run away with, and one which put the vampire myth in togas and an airship over futuristic Sydney.
The downside of pop culture being a terribly inspirational thing, of course, is that I can’t watch anything awesome without thinking of ways to apply them to my work. I could natter for hours about the clever use of structure and unreliable narrators in How I Met Your Mother, or point of view in Skins, or pace in Downton Abbey or the all-important cliffhanger in Doctor Who. Television is totally my writing workshop!
Tansy is giving away a copy of book two of her Creature Court trilogy, Shattered City. The give-away question is:
When you were a kid growing up, what SF/Fantasy TV shows inspired you?
Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of the Creature Court trilogy (Harper Voyager). The first volume in the trilogy, Power and Majesty (2010), won the Ditmar for Best Novel, and Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel. The second volume, The Shattered City (2011) was released in April. Tansy also has a boutique collection of short stories, Love and Romanpunk, available from Twelfth Planet Press. You can hear her talk about industry news, gossip, pop culture and books at the Galactic Suburbia podcast.