Monday, October 28, 2013

Cat Hellisen's House of Sand and Secrets

As far as bookish folk go, I'm really blessed to know Cat Hellisen and get to work with her professionally. She's been an invaluable member of the Adamastor Writers' Guild here in Cape Town, and from time to time we also have write-ins here in my Treehaus where a few of us get together to throw words around. Her fantasy novel When the Sea is Rising Red made me cry, not once, but twice. Her world-building is tangible, and her characters are prickly and authentic. 

When she offered me the chance to throw a hairy eyeball at House of Sand and Secrets, the sequel to When the Sea is Rising Red, I just about had a palpitations. Felicita and Jannik's hesitant relationship is one of my favourites. They are delightfully awkward, and there are times when I want to shake sense into them and others where they are just so *right* together.

But I get ahead of myself. Go add the book to your TBR pile... And I have Cat here today for a little Q&A.

For the completely uninitiated, tell us a little about Felicita and her world. What has brought her to this point?

Felicita began as the poor little rich girl in my debut novel When the Sea is Rising Red. I was happy with the growth she'd made but I wanted to push her a little more and see how she developed when she had to actually live the life she ended up in. She arranged her own marriage for political purposes – to salvage what she could of her future – but she's telling herself that's all she did it for. The truth is a lot more complicated. House of Sand and Secrets begins with her trying to ignore her feelings, to sublimate them under her attempts to regain some power within the social hierarchy of her new city.

For all that she's a person who lies to herself, who has been brought up to be intolerant, racist, and classist, there's a part of Felicita I like – her refusal to give in, and her genuine attempts to break herself out of her indoctrination. She makes terrible choices sometimes, but almost always with a good reason driving them.

We've talked about your bats before, but they're central to the plot in this case. Mostly, we're looking at the uneasiness of cross-cultural relationships. Can you elaborate a little?

The vampires in my Oreyn books are not immortal, shape-shifting bloodsuckers, but they are treated like animals – their rights taken from them, forced to live in ghettos or work as little more than slaves. Felicita's marriage to Jannik is a social misstep, one that she has to fight against at every moment. She has to deal with external pressure, but also her own feelings about marrying across castes. Jannik is one of my favourite characters to write. He's intensely conflicted by his marriage – aware that it's supposed to be a marriage of convenience while still being in love with his wife and unable to express it. 

Because the vampire culture is bisexual, there is also his inclination to try and find comfort from his apparently loveless marriage with other male vampires. So things can get layered and complicated.

What I particularly love about your writing as well is that your characters show a fluidity of sexuality. How do GLBTI issues reflect in your world-building with regard to culture? 

The world of Oreyn has several major cultural norms – some cultures are openly bisexual, others are okay with it "under cover", while the third is more conservative. In general though, the world is much more comfortable with gender-queering and homosexuality than our own world. Depending on what level of society we're dealing with, even within the major cultural groups there are things that are more, or less acceptable. What would be perfectly normal in a large, middle class family might be frowned on in a High House family where the customs are patriarchal, and inheriting and carrying on the family name is key to their survival.

As a writer, I have to think about what would be acceptable in each character's case – and how that would be reflected in their behaviour and thinking, and the attitudes of those around them. It can make for some delightfully cross-purpose conversations.

What to you are some of the most important elements to telling a good story? What do you look for in a good book?

Good writing is number one. I can forgive many things for good writing, but bad writing means I drop the book. I love character more than plot, and I'm sure it shows, but I want anything that happens within the plot to be logical, to be able to see where and why things are happening. But good writing and a character that fascinates – those are my main criteria. I particularly love fantasy that plays, that takes tropes and turns them inside out, that takes risks. I'd rather read a beautiful failure than a safe and easy plod-a-long.

What is the most rewarding thing for you about returning to your "Hobverse"? What do you love the most about this setting?

I have no idea. I love the world, I love the characters I've created. Coming back to them feels like dipping into the folk-lore of another country, with all its myths and strangeness. I've designed all the Hobverse books (more accurately – The Books of Oreyn) to be stand-alone, but part of a greater story – a little like what Terry Pratchett has done with his wonderful Discworld novels.

I am fascinated by the interplay of the magical and mundane, and that's why you have things like the unis, which are giant goats bred to have only one horn so that rich women could have their coaches pulled by "unicorns", and which later became contaminated by magical fall-out and became..well...unicorns. Where the magic of the upper classes can only be accessed if they take a particular drug, and true wild magic is destroyed as soon as it is discovered. Stuff like that amuses me. 

Thanks for visiting, Cat! And here's to the success of House of Sand and Secrets!

Buy House of Sand and Secrets on Kindle or DRM-free directly from the publisher. Add it on Goodreads... And remember to leave a review. Oh, and go stalk Cat on Twitter

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