Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Interview with Anne Lyle

Time for another interview here at I Will Read Books. Joining us today is novelist Anne Lyle whose first book The Alchemist of Souls was just released. You should take a look at my review, or just go and buy it straight away, as it was well worth reading.

For more information about Anne Lyle, visit her website and/or stalk her on Twitter (@AnneLyle).

First of all, many thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. To kick things off, could you tell me a little about yourself and your work, and why you chose fantasy as your genre?
I'm a zoology graduate and former non-fiction editor turned web developer, currently working in bioinformatics (computer analysis of the human genome and other species). Given my high-tech background, you might expect me to write SF rather than fantasy, but I also love history and mythology and languages  and all those things that go into fantasy world-building - and besides, writing SF would be too much like my day-job!

When did you start writing? Is it something you have always been doing? Were there any books you read as a child that inspired you to take up writing?
We did a lot of creative writing at school when I was young, and I think that satisfied my appetite for stories for a while, but by the time I hit my teens we were expected to mainly write serious essays, so it was around then that I started writing as a hobby. My main inspirations were the SF and fantasy I borrowed from the library: Andre Norton, Ursula Le Guin, Alexei Panshin, James White. Nowadays many of them would be classified as YA, but back then they were on the shelves with the other adult books, and I devoured them all.

Your first book, The Alchemist of Souls, is set in a London. Why did you choose London as your setting?
The setting was dictated by the story - I wanted to write about Elizabethan spies and actors, and London is where most of the action was.

Ned, one if the characters in The Alchemist of Souls, is openly gay, and since your book has a historical theme was that OK in Elizabethan times? Did you research this, and if you did, was it difficult to find information?

It's a complicated subject. Sodomy was illegal and punishable by death, but on the other hand any act committed in private is always going to be difficult to prove, and there aren't many surviving court cases. It's clear from reading the history of the period that a number of courtiers were known at the time to be gay, but were perhaps too powerful to be prosecuted.

It probably helped that lingering chivalric ideals of strong bonds between male comrades made the expression of affection between men less sexually loaded than it is nowadays, so that gay men could more easily "slip under the radar", so to speak. So whilst it might not have been OK to be gay in Elizabethan times, in certain circles - including the ones my characters move in - it was, perhaps, tolerated. That's the stance I took in my novel, at any rate.

One of the main characters of your book is forced to disguise herself as a man. So many professions and places in society were closed off to women during this time. Again, this is something I’m curious if you did any research on, maybe it was really common for women to dress up as men?

I did do some research, yes. More recent cases of women cross-dressing are much better documented, of course, but it certainly happened in the 16th century. Of course we can never know how many women successfully passed themselves off as men, but a few women wore men's clothing without intending disguise, for example Mary Frith, immortalised in several plays of the era as Moll Cutpurse.

It was also a not uncommon practice in the Netherlands, mainly for women travelling alone or trying to earn a living. I therefore felt it would be a very plausible stratagem for my Dutch orphan girl when she found herself stranded in a foreign country.

In The Alchemist of Souls you have introduced a new race to keep us humans company. Skraylings are humanoid, but quite obviously alien in appearance and culture. May I ask what, if anything, was the inspiration behind them?
As a biologist I'm interested in creating plausible creatures, even in fantasy. I originally created the skraylings for a secondary-world fantasy setting, drawing on my knowledge of animal behaviour to create a distinctly non-human culture. However when I came up with the idea of an Age of Discovery alternate history, I realised they would be a perfect fit for that. I made a few minor changes to make them fit better into the historical context, drawing on bits of Viking and Native American folklore.

You have more male than female characters in your book, was this a conscious decision, or did it just happen that way? Is it harder to write male characters?

It came out of the plot, really. Despite having a woman on the throne, the political scene was totally dominated by men, and of course the theatre business was men-only since women weren't allowed to act. This made it difficult to find active roles for female characters within the plot I had in mind.

Personally I don't find it difficult to write men - quite the reverse, in fact! I'm not at all girly, so getting into the head of a typical domestic-oriented Elizabethan woman felt like a bigger stretch. There are more female characters in the later books in the trilogy, however, as I began to get more comfortable with the setting and see opportunities to include them.

What books are you currently reading and are there any must reads you would like to recommend?
Right now I'm reading The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan - utterly brilliant, though it's pushing the envelope of my squeamishness! I wouldn't like to name any must-reads, as everyone has different tastes, but I strongly recommend The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham. Less gung-ho than your typical epic fantasy, but if you enjoy historical fiction, especially anything set in the Far East such as Shogun, I think you'll like it.

Most importantly, are you working on something at the moment?
I'm currently planning the third installment of my trilogy, titled The Prince of Lies. Just brainstorming and letting the ideas percolate for a bit, then I'll create a rough outline before settling down to write the first draft.

Thank you Anne

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