While writer R.B. Lemberg is not alone in creating their own fictional fantasy universe, the one they’ve created – the Birdverse — is quite unique. In the following email interview, Lemberg not only discusses the creation of this universe, but also the first novel they’ve set in it, The Unbalancing (paperback, Kindle).
I’d like to start with some background: What is the Birdverse, what kind of a world is it?
Birdverse is my secondary world which is inspired by Jewish history and Judaic learning, by ancient, medieval, and early modern trade routes, by universities (of all kinds) and by my fascination with material culture, folklore, and historical linguistics. Birdverse is a world of the Goddess Bird, who brought twelve stars to the landmass at the dawn of time; the stars are embedded in the very fabric of the land and guarantee its magic and its safety. The Birdverse has many kinds of magic, but one I’ve written about the most is the magic of deepnames. Most people in this land do not have any magic, but in countries which have special and deep connections to their stars, magic is more commonplace. Many of my protagonists are magically powerful, but it is not the norm. Some of my stories focus on people who do not have magic at all.
Did you model the Birdverse after any other writer’s fictional universe? And I don’t mean in terms of what kind of world it is, but in the sense of how you’d tell stories in it.
Birdverse is all my own. There’s no room in my brain for anybody else’s imagination, it is crowded as is. In terms of how I tell stories, my work is closest to Le Guin, and is often compared to her writing. We are both inspired by anthropology and linguistics, and I think Ursula’s work has the kind of compassionate gaze that mine has as well.
Yes — there’s been quite a bit of writing in Birdverse, but The Four Profound Weaves is the most recent and the best known, I feel. I am glad the book had a wide appeal — it was my fiction debut, the first Birdverse work between covers.
So then what is The Unbalancing about, and when and where in relation to the other books does it take place?
Everything in Birdverse is interconnected, and if I keep publishing, the stories will eventually form a tapestry. It is already a tapestry. The Unbalancing is one of the earliest works on the timeline, happening about a thousand years before the events of Weaves. It is about one of the twelve stars Bird has brought — but instead of providing stability, this star, the Star Of The Tides, is ailing. The star is asleep and yet seems to be deeply disturbed, more and more as time passes; it is unbalancing the archipelago, threatening everything the islanders hold dear — and they are trying to find a way of dealing with it. Except that generations of people kind of already screwed this up, mostly by inaction. There’s still hope, and the protagonists act on this hope, bringing the community together in a brilliant and desperate attempt to fix everything — but “fix” is not the right word. It’s a story about queer community, ultimately — about hopes and faultlines and inspiration and failure. About survival. Also there’s a cat, and people fall in love.
Where did you get the idea for The Unbalancing, what inspired it?
A ghost yelled at me. To Semberí’s defense they’re often grumpy and / or yelling, so I don’t hold it against them.
In The Unbalancing, the character Erígra Lilún writes poetry. Is there a reason you made them a poet instead of a novelist or short story writer? Or, for that matter, a painter, a dancer, or some other kind of non-verbal artist?
I’ve written a lot about various artists. My work is full of weavers and glassmakers and jewelers, and one person makes rather astounding wine (actually two people, a parent and a child, each separately in their separate vineyards). My future work will feature a lot of musicians. There are assassins and tilemakers, professors, and university dropouts. Lilún sees themself as a tree-tender, and poetry “just happens”; certainly they are not responsible for it — and neither am I.
(Honestly, after years and years of their poetry rattling in my brain, I am glad they at least are willing to perform it, unlike the Old Royal who writes poetry endlessly but then hides it because of something something gravitas).
It sounds to me like The Unbalancing is a fantasy story. Is that how you think of it?
Fantasy is perfect for Birdverse. But it has many other elements. I once wrote a tiny slipstream story about the great Burri desert, which is basically about the starship stuck in the sands without any hope of escaping the strange reality caleidoscope which is Burri, but we won’t worry about that. It’s fantasy.
As I mentioned, The Unbalancing is your first novel, but you’ve written novellas, short stories, and poems. Are there any writers who you feel had a particularly big influence on The Unbalancing but not on anything else you’ve written?
Aleksandr Grin. He is a Russian-language writer and revolutionary from the turn of the 20th century who wrote stories about fantastical Crimea. I am from Ukraine, and my grandmother’s best friend Raya lived in Crimea. We used to go there in the summers when I was very young. Grin’s writing resonates with me both because of my childhood and how fantastical those places were, and because of the strange, fragile lyricism of his work, his unapologetic imagination which is often described as “romantic” — I don’t describe it as romantic necessarily, it’s rather like sea glass to me — muted and varied and lyrical and strange. It’s just very dear to me. The name Gelle-Geu is inspired by one of his fantastical cities, adjusted for archipelago phonology.
The Russian Federation’s violent wars have brutalized the landscapes of my childhood and caused so much suffering to Ukrainian people. It is a source of endless pain and rage for me.
How about poets; are there any poets who you think had a big influence on how you wrote The Unbalancing?
Not necessarily. I read a lot of poetry and I write poetry endlessly, it’s all a big tangle in my mind. I can’t point out a single poetic influence.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a particularly big influence on The Unbalancing?
I’m not a big movie or TV viewer, although I’ve recently fallen hard for Our Flag Means Death (like many other people in my queer community of writers). This was when the book was already an ARC [advanced reading copy, the early version sent to reviewers]. No games, either, although I am a fan of the Tales game series (a Japanese RPG series) — but that’s not connected to The Unbalancing at all. I am not as influenced by popular culture as I am by very old stories.
We’ve been discussing how The Unbalancing is part of your Birdverse series. But within that series, is it a stand-alone story or the first book of a sub-series, like a trilogy?
It’s a stand-alone story (which is a part of a larger world), but I could write a sequel if there’s interest. The sequel would be a stand-alone (there is a thread in this) about a bunch of people trying to get to a place of safety while dealing with trauma and an influx of uncomfortable magic, and then there are sentient and extremely unfriendly sea dragons and…it’s not pretty. I know how it ends, but I have no idea how they get there. I suspect that someone very dear to me will need to die. I don’t want them to.
There’s been a lot of fantasy movies, TV shows, and games in recent years. Do you think The Unbalancing could work as a movie, show, or game?
It would make a very cool movie. I hope there’s interest. I think a movie would be fantastic.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about The Unbalancing and the Birdverse?
There is no good reason why, ultimately, the cat is not called Egg Pocket. I am very sorry. If I took it to Twitter, Egg Pocket would win the cat naming poll, but there was no such poll. Perhaps at some other point some other cat can be named Egg Pocket. There are other Birdverse cats.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Unbalancing, what similar kind of fantasy novel or novella of someone else would you suggest they read next?
I recommend the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Sofia Samatar, and Patricia McKillip.