Carolyn Ives Gilman, twice a finalist for the Nebula Award, has been publishing fantasy and science fiction for twenty years. Her first novel, Halfway Human, was called “one of the most compelling explorations of gender and power in recent SF” by Locus magazine. Carolyn published Isles of the Forsaken with ChiZine Publications in 2011 and her upcoming novel Ison of the Isles will be released in April, 21. Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Bending the Landscape, Interzone, and others.
How did you get started with your writing?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be on stage. I loved live theater, but since no one was offering to make me a star, I took matters into my own hands and founded a theater company. But then I wasn’t content with the scripts available. I read lots of fantasy and science fiction in those days, so I started adapting my favorite books for the stage. My theater troupe of teenage potheads, born-again Christians, and Black activists staged the first musical version of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, years before the film. In our version, Prince Lir was a guy with a big Afro. We also did Evangeline Walton’s Island of the Mighty, The Hobbit, and The Thirteen Clocks. In the process, I learned some valuable skills. There is nothing like sifting a book for the crucial dramatic moments to teach you how a story is structured. And there’s nothing like seeing an audience start to snooze to tell you when you’ve done it wrong.
How would you describe your writing?
Genre-wise, my writing is a little hard to pin down. My latest books, Isles of the Forsaken and its sequel Ison of the Isles, are fantasies with a hard enough edge that they feel like science fiction or horror. My first novel, Halfway Human, was science fiction. My short fiction is all over the map, from surreal to satire. I also write historical nonfiction, and it bleeds over into my fiction, especially in the Forsaken books, which have an 18th-century feel. This is because the 18th century is the era I’m most familiar with as a historian, so it cut way down on the research. I already knew how you fire an 18th-century cannon, so I didn’t have to look it up.
The things that tie my writing together are strong plot lines and characters I like to spend a lot of time with. I really enjoy plotting (as do some of my characters), and I can’t write about characters that don’t fascinate me. Not that my characters are all nice—some of them are shockingly despicable—but they’re still interesting, at least to me. I also tend to write with a certain concern for real-world issues. Life is too short to spend time writing books that don’t matter.
There are too many to name, and I get more all the time. Anyone who reads Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles will be able to see that I’m the bastard child of Patrick O’Brian and C. S. Forester married to Ursula Le Guin and Lois McMaster Bujold. Not to mention a little bit of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott thrown in. People ask me if I’m influenced by George R.R. Martin, but I think that is more a case of convergent evolution. In future, I look forward to being influenced by China Miéville and Susannah Clarke, and in my dreams I’m influenced by David Mitchell. But at the same time, I’d have to say I get just as much inspiration from nonfiction and the real world as I do from fiction. A lot of the events in the Forsaken books are taken straight from North American history—even when supernatural beings show up.
Why do you write horror?
The best horror plays with fundamental issues. It’s about facing what terrifies us, what makes us queasy, what we hope isn’t so. Our world has gotten so full of things that unfortunately are so, we need some way to cope. One way is by facing evil unflinchingly, and affirming that it can be beaten, even if it’s only within the covers of a book. Another way is by ridiculing it, which acknowledges its reality, but steals its power to incapacitate us with terror. What we don’t want to do—and what a lot of TV and media horror unfortunately does—is to trivialize evil by making it cartoonish, or to desensitize everyone to it. Then people start denying its reality or its power. Those of us who actually believe in evil need to write about it, even if we do it in a coded or symbolic way, because it gives readers the tools to recognize it, and the hope to fight it.
I’m sorry to be so serious, but my answer comes from the fact that some of the most chilling things I’ve ever written have been nonfiction.
Are you suggesting that date, marry, and kill is the natural progression of a relationship? Are you sure you don’t need some relationship counseling?
Seriously, I’d have to go with the zombies for all three, because they’d love me for my brains.
In fantasy novels, we hope for many things—vivid and unfamiliar landscapes, complicated and compelling characters, unexpected plot twists, high stakes and huge risks. Gilman delivers all of the above and more. This is a smart and engrossing political novel about imperialism and the clash of cultures in a fascinating new world. The best news? Apparently there will be more. Write like the wind, Gilman!
–Karen Joy Fowler, Nebula and World Fantasy Award-winning author of What I Didn't See
Preorder Ison of the Isles Here
Buy Isles of the Forsaken Here