Lorina Stephens sat down virtually with D.G. Valdron recently to discuss his forthcoming novel, The Mermaid’s Tale. We think you’ll find the discussion as fascinating as the novel, set to release August 1, 2016.
Q: Tell me about the inspiration for The Mermaid’s Tale. What was it that informed this complex and brutal story?
DGV: It started a throwaway bit of writing—the first scene at the Mermaid’s dock, where the Arukh, fearsome, scarred, battered, terrifying but secretly afraid goes to see the Mermaids, beautiful, innocent, fearless and a little dumb. It was played for comedy. It was a bit of fun, creatures of light and darkness, and carefully subverting expectations, all the way up to a punchline. Four or five pages, an interesting character, an interesting situation, not even a full short story. Just a throwaway bit.
It sat for a few years. Then it turned into this thing, all of a sudden. Like a seed that had been sitting in a corner, minding its own business and suddenly decided to grow into a tree.
Q: You chose to have your protagonist a female. Was that a conscious decision? And why, when the world of SF&F, even horror, is so dominated by male figures?
DGV: Very much so. Part of it was subversion. Monsters and protagonists are stereotypically male. I wanted to undermine that. When I was doing the original piece on the Mermaid’s dock, I portrayed the Mermaids (Mermen?) as sexually…if not aggressive, then enthusiastic and casual. It just seemed to work better to make the Arukh female, and emotionally closed.
Honestly, the thing is, it shouldn’t matter. If something is trying to kill you, you’re not really interested in checking between its legs—that’s not going to make a difference to whether you live or die in the next five minutes. If something is trying to save you, gender isn’t an issue in whether you accept that help or not—or it shouldn’t be.
So if doesn’t matter, it can go either way. What’s important about our Arukh is her willingness to kill, and her inclination to talk instead.
I came back to the character, wrote more about her, and wrote a couple of stories about her—or about characters that were essentially her. Her gender became more important in defining the character—early sexual violence and abuse, early sexual exploration, barrenness and longing.
As I built up the world, and the biology, the female Arukhs just ended up larger and more dangerous. Arukhs are a hybrid species. Peculiar things come out of hybrid matches.
Ligers are crosses between male lions and female tigers. They’re gigantic. Something about the particular gender/species mix means that Ligers just grow huge. Tigons, between female Tigers and male lions are normal sized big cats. That seemed like an appealing idea.
Vampires in this world are essentially cattle parasites. They travel with the herds, feeding as they go. For that kind of lifestyle, not a lot of sexual dimorphism. Their evolution selects for certain kinds of strength, certain kinds of ability, that have to be universal. Everyone lives by riding with the herd.
Goblins on the other hand, have very strongly differentiated social and gender roles. They’re as small as hominid can get and still be functional. Normal humans are at the limits of what they can pass for an infant skull. As goblins reduced in size, that became a larger problem. Fewer and fewer females could successfully breed. Goblins selected for dimorphism—larger females with broad hips, and small wiry males, and organized a society resembling colonial insects—a relatively small caste of breeding females (the mothers), and a society built around caring for, sustaining and protecting the mothers at all costs.
Arukh are hybrids—universally male goblins and vampire females. The goblin heritage tends to select for massive, powerful females, relatively smaller males. They’re an inversion of the typical human pattern of larger males/smaller females. That opened up a few doors—the female Arukh are known as pejoratives Hagrik (Hags), Krohns (Crones), Hurrs (whores/horrors), sultz (sluts). I was playing with the idea that all these really negative descriptions of women in our language might be artifacts left over from different languages trying to describe these bestial hybrid women.
Part of it as well was exploring the issue of damage. The Arukh protagonist is a damaged individual. The entire race of the Arukh are, almost without exception, damaged and dysfunctional. They’re hurting, and they are blazing through life, hurting everything they come across.
But I think that there’s a paradox there—you don’t have to be damaged to be dangerous. A healthy, well adjusted, full grown tiger is incredibly dangerous and not at all damaged. The Prince in the novel is not damaged. If anything, he’s pretty well taken care of. Nothing bad ever happened to him, he’s lead a privileged, even comfortable life. It’s why he lacks empathy or the ability to see anyone around him as anything other than a toy to break.
Maybe the paradox is that we have to be damaged to be fully human. We have to experience pain and sadness to develop empathy.
Maybe its about the dodos. On Mauritius, the Island of the Dodos, they noticed that the trees were dying, and no seedlings were coming up. Eventually they realized what was happening. The seeds had to pass through the digestive tracts of the Dodos, they had to be scoured and scratched, before they could sprout. Maybe people are like that, maybe we need a certain amount of battering in life before we can become fully human.
I suppose that’s what the novel is really about. It’s about a damaged monster that goes on a journey, and becomes human through it, confronting a human being who is intrinsically a monster inside. What makes them what they are, how one changes and the other doesn’t.
Q: Was the writing of the novel something that happened quickly, or a work to which you returned over months, even years?
DGV: Hmmm. I wrote that throwaway piece, the scene on the dock, years before. I developed the world bit by bit, designed the races, even played with the character. So…years of development and thought. Mainly, it was playing with ideas, having fun.
Then, when it was the novel…. Well, that was one continuous project. I think I did it in less than a year, perhaps less than six months.
Q: Why tell this story in particular?
DGV: Maybe because the character interested me: This awful scarred monster, this creature so scraped and raw that she could casually watch a gang rape while eating lunch and feel nothing, or pretend to herself that she felt nothing. What are you, to be like that? Is there any redemption? Do we get to change? And if so, how? Or is it all predestined, its all gods and monsters, and never the twain shall meet. I wanted to explore a damaged person who could heal. I wanted to explore a creature of darkness struggling into the light.
Q: Were there authors who informed your work, or do you try to divest yourself of influence?
DGV: Honestly, I can’t think of any specific influence for The Mermaid’s Tale. I’m a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who in his best stuff goes into anthropological levels of detail and insight. I love Roger Zelazny, particularly for his character’s casual practicality and civility, the fact that they’ll have a conversation, rather than just try and hack each other up on sight.
I hated Tolkien. I’m bored with the cliché worlds of Tolkien imitators. What the hell people? If you’re going to cover this ground, don’t just do the same thing, but shallow. Dig deep, dig deeper! Have something to say. Do something with it. I think large parts of The Mermaid’s Tale may be an outright rejection of Tolkien and the ideas he played with.
I think I’m fundamentally lazy. If someone else had written something like The Mermaid’s Tale, and done it well enough, I’d have been happy to just read that instead and go write something else. I have to write, I’m compelled. But what I write often seems to be what I want to read, if only some bastard out there had done me the favour of writing it first.
Q: How much did the story evolve and change while you worked on it, or was that not the case?
The story itself evolved very organically. I didn’t have a blueprint or anything, but I did know where she was starting from, and some of what she would encounter. I had images, events, even emotional and personal moments I wanted to describe.
I didn’t really write it from start to finish. It was like Michelangelo (I’m being pretentious), going to work on a block of marble and seeming to see the shapes inside, carving his way towards those shapes. I did chapters all over the place, here and there, and they just seemed to grow together and connect up. It wasn’t so much telling the story, as the story being all there, and I was just writing different parts of it, until in the end, it was all written.
The world she lived in, that had a lot of background development, and some of that worked to shape the story. The ‘culture hidden inside another culture’ world of female dwarves is an example. Essentially, early on, one community overwhelmed and enslaved another. But instead of vanishing, the subordinated culture, and its language, mythology and tradition, survived by becoming the ‘women’s culture’, which eventually comes to secretly dominate dwarf communities.
The world became more complex, people became more complex, everyone had a story and a history and a point of view. Every character she encounters was the star of their own movie, and she’s this bit of local colour that moves through—they meet her, they chat, they live what’s important to them, and they keep living their life after she’s gone. That kept unfolding for me.
Q: You’ve drawn from some well-known legends and mythological creatures, but realized them in a fashion I’ve not seen before. Was that a conscious decision on your part? And if so, why?
DGV: Very much so. The big question for everyone in The Mermaid’s Tale is ‘how do we live?’ How do you get through the day without being killed? How do you get through the day and find something to eat? How do you raise a child that survives? More globally—how do we ensure a next generation?
I think that was something that bothered me about Tolkien’s Evil Races, about a lot of fantasy races: There is no second generation for them. They’ve made no arrangements for child care, for raising and teaching their children, for transmitting skills and culture. Well, news flash—if your species hasn’t dealt with this, then you have no species, only a big dead end. There’s all sorts of options, sure, but then those options shape who you are and what you are.
My background was history and anthropology, I was fascinated by ecology and biology. I wanted things to make sense.
You’re a giant? That means you’re a two or three-thousand-pound omnivore? What are you eating? You’re like a biological strip mine cruising the environment! How many of you can a local environment sustain? Bears are huge omnivores, they can’t afford to be social and eat regularly, mostly they spread themselves out thin. Giants essentially are essentially hominids with the ecological footprint of bears—but bears have all kinds of adaptations to survive in their niche and be as big as they are. Giants, like bears, are creatures of their environment. How do you build up enough food surplus to have and raise a child? How do you have a culture? How does that culture find the resources to invest in children?
How giants answer that question is not necessarily the way we do. How they answer that question has a lot to do with the culture that emerges, the priorities that emerge, with how they see the world. It governs how they marry and who they marry and how their society orders things and sets priorities, how they make bargains with each other.
So it was for Goblins and Vampires, Dwarves and Selk, even Arukh. How do you get through the day? We are all creatures of our environment, shaped by our environment, defined by the need to find a niche to survive, to get along without murdering or being murdered, to find love or at least sex, to raise a child that survives and pass on whatever we are. Each race has found a different solution, one that has made them physically what they are, and which shapes their culture and world view, which shapes their inner life.
It’s just more satisfying to me. I don’t think I’ve ever been satisfied with Dwarves who just like to dig holes in mountains, and Elves who live ethereal lives.
Q: Do you find the writing process something that has to be done in isolation, or amid the flow of events?
Never really thought about.
I don’t think that I’m one of these cloistered types who can only do it when everything is perfect—you have complete peace and isolation, the right kind of pen, twenty bond parchment paper, light coming through the eastern window. Honestly, I don’t think that any writer is like that. If you’re waiting for the perfect circumstance to write, then you’re probably never going to write.
For me, I can’t not write. I have to do something. Not necessarily a novel—it could be short stories, experimental throwaway stuff, articles, essays, ransom notes. I can’t really say what or why. I can leave it alone for a while, but at some point, I sit down and start playing with ideas and words. We are compelled.
Q: Share with us what a writing day might be like for you. Is there a specific place, or music, or touchstones?
DGV: Whenever and wherever I can. I write relaxed and happy. I write because I’m upset and angry. I write because I’m bored. I write because I’m busy and need a break.
Writing is my zen. I’m not interested in sports, I’m not social in the ‘needing people’ sort of way, I’ve always been a bit eccentric and reclusive. Writing is something that balances me. I can’t not do it.
Sometimes it strikes me that there’s too many things to do, and that I should be getting work done, or keeping up to date, or fixing things—doing something more conventionally productive than writing. But frankly, if I wasn’t doing it, I’d be pretty horrible to be around. Writing keeps me safe for the rest of you.
Also, for some reason, I like writing to Duran Duran. Go figure.
Q: Is there another novel in the works?
DGV: Oh there’s all sorts of things in the works. I can’t not write.
Not sure what will come out.
It might be fun to go back to the Arukh—in the novel, she’s already quietly famous. I have a story where she gambled with the high gnomes and won. I might expand that into a novel. The gnomes are interesting, and it’s such an opportunity to explore that world further.
The war that began when she came to the city, and her part in beginning and ending that war. It’s where she meets Forty Friends.
There’s a scene in my head where some time after the events of The Mermaid’s Tale the Trolls take her to meet the oldest Troll in the world, an ancient, ancient being. And he tells her the story of how, when he was young, of the war to exterminate the Arukh—of the first genocide. He tells her of how he found and killed the last Arukh, and says ‘that’s when the killing went out of me…. the way it’s going out of you.’ She attacks him at that point, animal fury, terrified, because she knows it’s true, and she’s terrified that she can’t survive in the world as what she is becoming. And hey, Bronze needs to take her name.
But hell, I might do a Polynesian Epic on the Lost Continent of Mu (turns out there really is a lost continent sunken in the Pacific).
Or I might just write ransom notes—I hear there’s money in those.