With The Iron Dragon’s Mother (hardcover, Kindle), writer Michael Swanwick is once again visiting the fantasy realm he originally imagined for 1993’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and then returned to in 2008’s The Dragons Of Babel. In the following email interview, Swanwick discusses what inspired and influenced this new tale, its connection to the other books, and whether you need to read Daughter and Babel to understand Mother.
To begin, what is The Iron Dragon’s Mother about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons Of Babel?
Caitlin is a half-human dragon pilot in Faerie who, after a botched mission, winds up with the soul of a difficult old woman lodged in her head and ready to offer advice on her actions and critiques of her taste in men. After she is framed for a crime she did not commit, she has to go on the run in Europa, searching for the one individual who can clear her name. She is in constant danger, but she has inner resources as well.
That’s the surface plot. Underneath, it’s all about mothers and daughters and their tangled relationships.
Narratively, the only strong connection between the three novels is the dragons, which are sentient and very evil war machines. Chronologically, The Iron Dragon’s Mother takes place a generation after the first two, chiefly so a character introduced at the end of Babel can play her part in the plot. But I don’t think the chronology is in any sense important. It’s the world and its inhabitants that matter.
Where did you get the idea for The Iron Dragon’s Mother and how did it change as you wrote the book?
When I finished The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, I thought that was it. Jane Alderberry had survived some terrible things and I was not about to fling her back into the cauldron again. But a decade or so later, the image of an injured dragon crawling into a village and declaring itself the ruler popped into my head, and I began writing a novel that would be an inversion of the first. Jane’s problem was that she didn’t belong in Faerie and so there was no way for her to make a place for herself in it. Will le Fey did belong, so his task was to find his proper calling.
A novel is just a novel but two novels set in the same world are an unfinished trilogy. So I spent years looking for an idea that would support a third book and round off the others in a satisfying manner. Then, when I was speaking to a class at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, I noticed how intense and tightly controlled the female midshipmen were and thought it would be interesting to write about a young woman very much like them, only with a foster mother who was trying to kill her.
The idea didn’t so much change in the writing as become deeper and more complicated. At one point, I realized that I had given Caitlin something like six mothers, all of them difficult in different ways. It did catch me by surprise that she was also, unconsciously, on a quest for a sister — I only caught on to that after several such relationships had gone sour. And when I came to the end, the resolution of Caitlin’s feelings toward the Dowager, her step-mother and the most troublesome of the lot, was completely unexpected. But absolutely necessary, as it turned out.
Oh, and Caitlin began the novel as a virgin, which was a requirement for all dragon pilots, men included. I assumed she’d lose that status somewhere along the line because that would disqualify her from ever returning to the Dragon Corps. But it turned out that when you’re running for your life, there’s not much time for romance. So this became the only novel I’ve ever written in which the protagonist doesn’t get laid. Not that she’s against the idea. But there’s just not the opportunity.
The Iron Dragon’s Mother has been called industrial fantasy. How do you see it?
I didn’t deliberately write any of the books to be any particular subgenre. But the image that inspired the first book — a changeling girl kidnapped by the elves and forced to work in a factory, building dragons — implied that Faerie, the magical land of wizards and dwarves and giants and such, had undergone industrialization, and everything else just flowed from that.
A lot of reviewers called The Iron Dragon’s Daughter an “anti-fantasy,” which shocked me because I love fantasy and certainly wasn’t trying to debunk it. So for The Dragons Of Babel, I decided to deliberately subvert the traditional structure of the fantasy novel while still providing a satisfying experience for the reader. Will is a fair-haired country boy, but he’s smart and he’s shrewd and he’s determined not to be made into a hero, though all the world expects that of him. Then, for the third and final book, I wanted to play it straight, hewing as close to the received formula as I could. Which wasn’t very close, as it turns out. But I tried.
Are there any writers or specific stories that were a big influence on The Iron Dragon’s Mother but not on The Iron Dragon’s Daughter or The Dragons Of Babel or anything else you’ve written?
A lifetime of reading went into all the books, all sort of mashed together. The only difference I can see is that since in this volume I was writing about women’s lives and experiences, I did a lot of thinking about the work of female fantasists: C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett in particular, but also writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Tanith Lee, Angela Carter, Susanna Clarke, Ellen Kushner…and on and on. I’d like to be able to claim A.S. Byatt as an influence, but I’m not sure that would be obvious to anybody but me. Come to think of it, it’s possible that none of the influences I cite will be obvious to anybody but me. But they’re there and I owe a great deal to those authors.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have a big influence on The Iron Dragon’s Mother?
Not really, I’m afraid. My influences are all literary. I don’t even play video games. Not that I’m a Luddite about them. But I’m afraid that if I let myself get sucked in, I’ll lose most of the time I now spend on writing.
I hear that a lot. Now, while The Iron Dragon’s Mother is connected to The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, and set in the same realm as The Dragons Of Babel, it’s a stand-alone story. Why was it important to you that people be able to read The Iron Dragon’s Mother without having read the other books?
I don’t much like series that require you read all the books and in the proper order. I much prefer open series like [Fritz Leiber’s] Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser books or C. S. Forester’s or Patrick O’Brien’s historical novels, which can be read in chronological order but don’t have to. Also, since it took me twenty-five years to write the trilogy, expecting someone to wait over a decade to find out how things worked out seemed to be asking rather a lot from the reader.
On the flipside, there are people who are just now learning about these books, and will want to read them in order, maybe even binge them. But is there any reason why you think someone shouldn’t?
I wrote the books to be proudly independent of each other. In fact, it was only when I was halfway through writing The Dragons Of Babel that I decided it was set in the same universe as the first novel. They had no characters or places in common. But I realized that since the dragons were identical, readers would naturally assume they were in the same world. So I gave Jane a brief cameo, to amuse those who had read the first one. The third book explains the origins of two of the characters in the second one and resolves with a major change in the way the world is run, so that’s a natural ending.
Also, if you binge-read, you should know beforehand that the three books don’t tell one continuous story.
Earlier I asked if any movies, TV shows, or video games had an influence on The Iron Dragon’s Mother. But has there been any interest in adapting it or the other books into a movie, show, or game?
I haven’t gotten any nibbles. Which is funny, given how many of my other works have been optioned. I think that The Iron Dragon’s Daughter would have made a great Studio Ghibli movie. In Spirited Away, there are several scenes that could have been lifted straight from my imagination. But Miyazaki doesn’t need me, alas. He can make great fantasy on his own.
If it did happen, though, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
I’ve never been much good at the casting game. But, based entirely on his TV miniseries of Gormenghast, I’d choose Andy Wilson to direct a live-action version of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. Or Toby Hanes, who did Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Or maybe somebody who could make a Merchant Ivory-style movie. I think it would be a hoot to see a fantasy film with those lush backgrounds and nuanced performances.
And if it was going to be made into a video game…?
I asked my son, who is a passionate gamer, and he said he’d like to see Wadjet Eye Games [Unavowed] do The Iron Dragon’s Mother. Because their work combines a sense of wonder and the fantastic with strange characters who have emotional depth. They’re a small company, with something like a dozen employees, but he believes they’d do a better job than the major studios.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Iron Dragon’s Mother, they’ll probably read The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons Of Babel if they haven’t already. But if they have, which of your other books would you suggest they read next?
It’s a toss-up between Stations Of The Tide and Chasing The Phoenix. Stations is a science fiction novel that feels like fantasy. It’s set on a world where, after a century as dry land, half the continents are about to be flooded by Jubilee tides and the trees are changing to kelp, the birds to fishes, and so on. A wizard has brought a piece of prohibited technology to the planet and a man known only as the Bureaucrat is sent to retrieve it. That book was heavily influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and has, I hope, a lot of the beauty that abounds in his work. It’s full of strange ideas. I like to tell people that it’s about sex, magic, and television.
Chasing The Phoenix continues the adventures of confidence artists Darger and Surplus as they conquer Post-Utopian China. They don’t intend to, but these things happen to them. I love China and its people and its ancient history, and I go there as often as I can. The world Darger and Surplus inhabit has a high level of bioengineering sophistication but, for very good reasons, no electronics and few machines. So places can be remote again and, when you get there, very different from your home country. Phoenix is probably the most fun novel I’ve ever written and the plot is full of surprises. Also, the two scoundrels are very personable.