"Men in woman-suits do not women make, and the novel's purpose in the world is to create story to carry forth common values and shared ethos; when those values are deformed, and that deformation taken for true, we all suffer." Janet E. Morris - 2013
- Were you aiming to recast/redefine the definition of beauty at all in your work? If so, would the Silistra series be the most representative? Link to JEM's answer-1
- How exactly did you strategize writing fiction featuring a powerful woman without pandering to stereotypes (i.e. chic's in chainmail) or making her wear a "man-suit"? Link to JEM's answer-2
- Have you ever thought of your own fiction as beautiful art? Link to JEM's answer-3
Intro) JEM: Art is the process and Beauty the goalHerein we’ll briefly explore Art and Beauty in fantastical literature, which may include fantasy and horror for purposes of discussion, not only historically, but how this single core issue is changing today: is Art and its associated Beauty still a valid goal in modern fiction, despite the vast quantity of fiction written by those aiming to capture the lowest common denominator of readership?
JEM: When I wrote High Couch of Silistra, I was twenty-five and loved being female; my body and mind were my laboratory, and I wanted to write the book I couldn’t find to read: not a book that was a clumsy attempt to treat a woman as a man, or as an enemy or competitor of men, or as a victim of men, but as someone powerful in a different society for genetic and political reasons; a protagonist whose sensuality and sexuality are at the heart of her world, and whose travails are self-created, so that I could explore the genetics of behavior: Estri, protagonist, is a courtesan and an adventuress, but not a sword-swinging hero tougher than any man around her. The books explore the differences and complementarities between men and women and the exercise of power, both personal and societal; they aren’t about a man who happens to live in a woman’s body. The Silistra Quartet is well discussed by Kaler in The Picara, where she compares the Silistra Quartet to the Picara model, from which it does purposely diverge.
My strategy was simply to write a book that spoke for a unique viewpoint, not for the “woman’s movement” (who were offended that it diverged from their politics) or the conservative male-backlash audience. Like Disraeli, I always write the book I want to read. In Silistra, all stereotypes are turned on their heads; emotion rules; sexuality is sometimes graphic as it pertains to power among and between sexes: it’s a book about people balancing free will against their hard-wired natures, not about women in man-suits or men in woman-suits. At the end of Wind from the Abyss, the third in the series, Estri’s counterpart Sereth reminds us, “We are all bound, the highest no less than the meanest.” Human extravagances and limitations are what, for me, Silistra is about, but it is not a series for the erotically-averse, or the intellectually timid.
None of our heroines have ever worn chain mail: Estri's chains are on her wait and sometimes on her writs; Shebat Kerrion, our science fantasy heroine of the Dream Dancer/Kerrion Consortium trilogy, is a newcomer to the space-faring culture where she wanders and a catalyst for change; the various Sacred Band of Stepsons heroines include Jihan, who has scale armor and a few supernatural powers appropriate to the daughter of the god of wind and wave; Kama has leather and linen armor, just like the men she serves among (she wants to be a man so her father will respect her, but is a poet most of all); Cime wears god-forged armor or doeskin leathers, is a sorcerer-slayer by vocation, is also picaresque, and rules Tempus' heart and by extension, the Sacred Band at times. It's not their weapons or outfits or special powers that make them heroic, but their goals and deeds, hopes and dreams. When I saw the Boris High Couch cover for the first time, I was insulted that anyone could have derived the brass bra and Gucci boots image from my work.
Vallejo - High Couch of Silistra Cover Art
(this next paragraph is paraphrased from her Goodreads.com comment): I was a fine arts major in school. My first cover was the Boris High Couch, commissioned by Bantam for High Couch of Silistra. I didn't think it matched the description, so I got Bantam to arrange for me to talk to him and request changes (feathered wings to non-feathered, etc). He didn't like that. So we changed to someone else thereafter. I had always loved the Frazetta covers, and in Germany I had Chris Achilleos for the German versions of the Silistra series, then Frazetta for the German Tempus. But now that I have cover control, I'm choosing Rubens and ancient art that truly moves me. The new cover for Tempus, and The Sacred Band cover, and the Beyond sub-series with Rubens covera, are pleasing me because I can look at them for hours and always see something that evokes the heart of the stories within. Matching books to cover, when centuries separate book and cover creation, has been an adventure. Strangest experience was finding the three Rubens we're using for Beyond Sanctuary, Beyond the Veil, and Beyond Wizardwall and realizing that each of those three paintings fit one of the three books nearly perfectly.
SEL asks whether I’m aiming to recast/redefine the definition of beauty in my work and, if so, would the Silistra series be the most representative? The answer to that is simple: like everyone concerned with writing Art, I am always striving, always hoping to improve, always experimenting, pushing my limits, trying to reach Homeric heights – but for me in my time, not by copying him in his. What is most beautiful about literature as Art is its ability to transport, to materialize a vision, whole cloth, in the reader’s mind, and I’m still working on doing that. The most representative of my books is probably my most recent novel, written with Chris Morris, The Sacred Band, grappling as it does with what is common to all, and unique in some: taking hold of mythos and ethos, sexuality of every sort, and exploring power and emotion at their best and worst. My favorite of my books is I, the Sun, biographical novel of Suppiluliumas, Great King of Hatti, because his own words set my soul afire, and the task – flavoring my style with his writings, creating a relative chronology, and bringing so many historical people to life – was unparalleled in its demands on my ability. My favorite science fiction book, Outpassage, written with Chris Morris, is my greatest success so far with writing a group of futuristic, strong, heroic and villainous female characters.My female characters, no more or less than my male characters, speak for themselves, not for a grand plan to redress centuries of perceived grievances, or to be role models for a future of retributive bile, where men and women are retaught their roles, and those roles are precisely the same. If, indeed, Art is the process and Beauty the goal, and if ‘common values’ can still be transferred to future generations through literature, then only reality and its study can yield fantasy worth reading, and making women into men and men into women won’t have my desired result: a book that satisfies me, since I must go first into any adventure I write, and live there.
JEM: My answer is simple: Of course I do. And of course it is valid to consciously strive for greatness in any art-form, and literature most of all, since literature carries our culture forward, gives voice to our inner selves most directly, speaks for us in no uncertain terms to a future yet unformed. I think of my own work as a search for Art and strive for beauty in every line: for power, lyricism, brutality, mythos and ethos, and I do this by invoking character, not diatribe.
"Beauty requires that we breathe into our characters a unique view of the human condition, and show how that character experiences and suffers the world around him (her)." Janet E. Morris - 2013
"Today, the writer, be that author male or female, makes a choice, at the outset: to reach for greatness and challenge an audience, or even change them; or to please a common denominator of audience by writing a familiar tale told artlessly. It is rare to attempt both, even rarer to achieve both.
So why try for Art and Beauty, when what most people want is a short, easy read, simple and direct? For some, Art is its own reward, and Beauty brings Art to the life in the mind. Before these art-seeking souls today, a wilderness stretches: many more craftsmen exist than artists, and the good, invariably, is the enemy of the great." Janet E. Morris - 2013