Given that she has a Master’s degree in Writing & Rhetoric, a Bachelor’s degree in creative writing, and now teaches creative writing and science fiction & fantasy literature at the public school where she served as the chair of the English Department, it’s not surprising that one of the major plot elements of Tracy Townsend’s fantasy novel The Nine (paperback, Kindle) — the first part of her Thieves Of Fate trilogy — would be a book. Or that she’ll ding me for that run-on sentence. But in the following email interview about The Nine, Townsend admitted that the novel some think is an influence on hers is one she never finished reading.
I always like to start with a plot summary. So, what is The Nine about?
Black market courier Rowena Downshire lives in a world where science and faith are one and the same, and God is the keeper of the Grand Experiment of life itself. When discovery of a harried scholar’s mysterious, self-writing text — the key to the Grand Experiment itself — turns into a late-night delivery gone terribly wrong, Rowena finds herself entangled in a robbery, a murder, and a conspiracy to derail divine judgment. Survival will require the one thing she’s never had: trust in others, including two shadowy ex-mercenaries who have as much to run from as she.
Where did you get the original idea for The Nine, and how different is the finished novel from that initial idea?
The original idea for The Nine came from a combination of three things: the Talmudic legend of the lamed wufniks — see Jorge Luis Borges’ Book Of Imaginary Beings for my original source — a fascination with Enlightenment philosophy and theology, and a vision of a girl running through an alley, chased by an anatomically impossible monster, a creature I would later discover actually exists in African mythology: the aigamuxa. I didn’t know at first what that fleeing girl was carrying. I had that image years before reading Borges, and once I did, it all came together relatively quickly.
The Nine has been called a fantasy novel. But is there a subgenre of fantasy, or a combination of them, that you think fits The Nine best?
This is especially tricky because I don’t know that The Nine really sits comfortably in any singular genre. Really, that’s by design. I teach science fiction and fantasy literature, which means I know a lot about various subgenres, but it also means I’m a bit suspicious of them, because every author reshapes genre conventions as they go. I like to tell my students that every label is just an argument in disguise. Curtis Chen [author of Waypoint Kangaroo and Kangaroo Too] called The Nine a gaslamp fantasy. My critique partners have called it steampunk or clockpunk. There’s a lovely review of it on Goodreads [which you can read here] that calls it “pure fantasy/mystery/hard crime/action-adventure/(perhaps a bit steampunk) all rolled into one novel.” I’m comfortable with all these labels, because one of the things I selfishly enjoy most about The Nine and its world is that its relationship to technology, science, magic, politics, action, and even literary sensibility is complicated. This is a world that’s veered rather wildly off our present course, and a tidy genre category just wouldn’t suit.
Are there any writers, or specific novels, that had a big influence on The Nine, but are things that you don’t consider to be a big influence on your writing as a whole?
I borrowed the concept of co-dominant species as a core problem of world building from Robert Silverberg’s Downward To The Earth, and combined that with the gritty street savvy of Scott Lynch’s The Lies Of Locke Lamora, with a heavy helping of the machinations and treachery of Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence novels [Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, Full Fathom Five, Last First Snow, Four Roads Cross, and Ruin Of Angels].
Those last two [writer’s works] are funny to me, because while this book and this series can be dark and twisty, I’m by nature a bit of a Hufflepuff and a cock-eyed optimist. This is deeply influenced by some dark things, but it’s coming from a person who believes fundamentally in hope. I like to think that’s what makes it more than just a “dark fantasy.”
Speaking of darkness, I also keep running into comparisons of the world aesthetic to China Mieville. That’s fascinating because I didn’t actually finish Perdido Street Station, the book that’s usually brought up as a comparison. He must have worked his magic on me anyhow.
How about non-literary references; are there any movies or TV shows that you think had an impact on The Nine?
I’ve been known to describe the aesthetic of The Nine as “Ocean’s Eleven meets the His Dark Materials trilogy.” I adore Philip Pullman’s work, something that probably is clear in the writing. But, as much as there’s a scrappy team of misfits conducting a heist at the center of the action, I never paid much attention to the Ocean’s franchise. I’m much more a fan of other kinds of scrappy mercenary outfits; Joss Whedon’s Firefly, or Sneakers, for instance. This has a similar feel, overlaid with a kind of “choose-your-punk” aesthetic.
And what about video games? Because in your bio it says you were a “short-order cook for houses full of tired gamers.” Did watching other people play fantasy games give you ideas?
Actually, the “houses full of gamers” are peopled with board gamers and RPG groups. We do a lot of tabletop play in Chez Townsend, though folks who tabletop game are often into console and PC games, too, and we’re no exception. I grew up watching my older brother play video games the way other people watch favorite TV shows: Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, The Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear, and so on. Now I watch my husband’s games. My students are often alarmed at how much I know about the games they play, and the strategies surrounding them, even though I never pick up a controller myself.
The most inspiring storytelling I’ve seen in recent years probably came out the Mass Effect franchise; again, appealing to me because of all those races and all this layered complexity of backstory, personal and political.
Also, what does that mean, you were a “short-order cook for houses full of tired gamers”?
Hey, when the games run late enough, it’s much easier for people to just crash at our place and wake up to breakfast, especially when folks have had a few drinks. Between cooking dinners for our gaming friends and — often enough — breakfast for the die-hards who stay till dawn, making a weekend of it, I’ve spent enough hours over a stove making people happy and comfortable, I could probably have written two more novels already.
Speaking of interesting lines in your press materials, it has a quote from writer Sam J. Miller [The Art Of Starving] in which he says of The Nine, “George R. R. Martin and China Mieville have nothing on the audacious, intricate world-building, gritty politics, and compelling characters in this excellent debut.” Which is high praise indeed. But do you think fans of George R.R. Martin or China Mieville would enjoy The Nine?
I think Sam had Mieville in mind because of the book’s tense overlay of personal affairs and larger conspiracies and dramas. And of course, there’s a city of strange, nonhuman creatures that challenge the reader’s comfort, which is very New Crobuzon [a fictional city-state in Mieville’s novels Perdido Street Station, Iron Council, and The Scar]. My husband is still gloating over the blurb because he’s been comparing my work to Mieville for ages and I kept saying, “Really? I don’t see it!”
As for Martin — and wow, what a daunting comparison that is — I think his readers are used to large casts of characters with overlapping storylines and goals, something we see a lot of in The Nine, too. Also, Martin and I both love showing us a conflict brewing from multiple angles. Here’s how one of our nominal protagonists sees her interests tied up in the problem. Here’s a secondary character trapped in some situation that only we the reader recognize as related. Here’s an antagonist figure: what are they really in it for? Are they as dastardly as they seem? And here’s a different protagonist about to make a choice that’s going to really be a problem, because they don’t know what’s up on the other side of town.
Also, both Mieville and Martin offer their readers worlds that my agent would probably describe as “lived in.” There are moments where the world is explained in exposition or dialogue, sure. But, just as often, characters take the shape of their world and its features for granted. The reader gets plunged deep into a new environment and new visuals and absorbs it as part of the unexplored margins of this story.
Now, you have already said that The Nine is the first book in your Thieves Of Fate trilogy. Without spoiling anything, what can you tell us about the other two books?
Book two sees some of the key characters of The Nine pulled out of the city of Corma on a kind of mission abroad, while others remain behind to deal with the unraveling of the uneasy peace between human, the ogre-like aigamuxa, and lanyani; think “murder Ents” and you’re basically there. And, of course, since a book that writes itself is at the core of the whole series, recording the data that will prove to the Creator if this world is an experiment worth continuing, book three has to answer that question. Do we, as people, truly deserve the world? Have we earned our place in it?
Do you know when they’ll be out?
The plan seems to be to release each book a year after the first, so you can look for The Nine’s sequel in the fall of 2018, and — fingers crossed — the third book in 2019.
So do you think people should read The Nine now, book two when it comes out, and then book three when its released, or do you think this trilogy will work better if someone waits until all three are out and they read them in a row?
This is a hugely important question.
Let me answer first in practical terms, from a reader’s perspective: If people want to wait to buy so they don’t get confused in the story during the wait, take heart. I’m aware of how complicated my plot and characters are, and I’m writing what comes next with that in mind. You’ll be able to pick right up where you left off and hit the ground running, book by book, even with the wait between. If you’re the sort of reader with money to spare and no time just now, and prefer to take in a series in one fell swoop, by all means buy my books as they come out and horde them up for a binge read much later. I promise not to be offended, truly. But waiting for book two or book three before buying the first hurts me far more than it helps you. Besides, think of all the spoilers you’re likelier to run afoul of by waiting.
Now, here’s why your question is so important from a writer’s perspective, Paul. Publishing is a money-making business. Most writers get into it because they love creating things, but they stay in it and thrive in it because publishers see them as a good investment. Or, publishers don’t see that, and their opportunities begin to dry up. Most series aren’t sold in the whole package, especially early career. If the author plans five books, that’s fine and dandy, but the publisher is likelier to make their first contract for two or maybe three, especially when little is known about their chance for commercial success. Then, based on good sales of those first two or three books — or even based on the sales of the first alone, because publishing plans ahead far, far in advance — the publisher decides if they’ll bite on the rest or not. If well-intentioned readers see a cool-looking book and say “I’m adding that to my Goodreads TBR pile!” that’s awesome. I’d be honored if your readers did that with The Nine today. But that alone doesn’t lead to more books. If those TBRs don’t translate into sales, or library purchases and circulation, or Audible downloads, or whatever, then that’s really it.
Good point. Now, I asked you earlier if there were any movies, TV shows, or video games that influenced The Nine. But has there been any interest in adapting The Nine into a movie, show, or game?
If there’s any interest in an adaptation, I haven’t heard of it. But hey, if anybody’s interested? My agent is Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary and she is lovely. Give her a call.
In all seriousness, given the many different characters and points of view operating in The Nine, I think the episodic treatment of a television series — like a miniseries or serial — would suit very well. It’s a visually lush world with a lot of subplot and bursts of action that could powerfully punctuate individual episodes.
And, though you didn’t offer it as an option, I think a graphic novel of The Nine would be excellent. The whole idea of retired mercenaries dragged back into action, people who have hidden these parts of their lives and failed to really re-integrate into society, is an homage to Watchmen. The only part of the story that would lose something in a comics treatment is that self-writing book…none of that eerie experience of seeing the words take shape in real time.
If The Nine was to be adapted into a TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles and why them?
My agent and I got into a chat about this on Twitter a long time ago, just playing around, and we agreed that Laurence Fishburne [The Matrix] is The Alchemist, hands down. He’s a character with layers the audience needs to believe in, and Fishburne has that range. He can embody cold, aloof dignity, powerful menace, and breathtaking tenderness with equal credibility. Bridget suggested Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things for Rowena. She has exactly the right balance of vulnerability and edgy, wary ferocity, a kind of hard-won almost-maturity. But we found casting Anselm much, much harder. Partly it’s a physical thing; he’s not very tall or physically imposing. He’s not young, but he has the seeming agelessness of the Trickster figure. He has to be worldly, sensual, clever, ruthless, and venomous, the sort of character you could imagine being seduced by one minute and repulsed by another. I’d go with Ewan McGregor [Star Wars], but I think of him as too earnest and decent. If anybody has a suggestion of a fortysomething blonde actor around five foot eight, I’m ready for it.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Nine, and they’re looking for something to read while waiting for the second Thieves Of Fate book, what would you recommend and why that?
Here’s what I’ve read in the last year that I’ve absolutely adored. None are quite the same animal as the Thieves Of Fate, but that’s the glory of it. Read genre widely. The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis C. Chen. The entire Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin [The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky]. I’m re-reading Ellen Kushner’s original Riverside books; start where you like, but Swordspoint is still the best, in my opinion. Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence. I still love Three Parts Dead best of all.