Like all genres, fantasy is full of tropes, ones that some writers embrace without ever asking if they hold up to scrutiny. But in the following email interview about her novel Unnatural Magic (paperback, Kindle), writer C.M. Waggoner discusses how reversing some of fantasy’s more common tropes as a way of exploring them led her to write this “fantasy of manners.”
I always like to begin with an overview of the plot. So, what is Unnatural Magic about, and what kind of world is it set in?
I’m terrible at coming up with decent summaries for anything, but basically it’s a story about three people who get pulled into investigating how and why someone has been murdering trolls and stealing their brains, hearts, livers, and blood. It’s a second-world fantasy, but the tech level is at somewhere around the real-world 19th century, and to create the culture I pulled pretty heavily from the Regency and Victorian eras in the U.S. and U.K. The one thing that makes it the most unusual in terms of worldbuilding is that in the country where we spend most of the book, trolls are a minority of the population with an outsized amount of influence on history, culture and politics.
Where did you get the original idea for Unnatural Magic and how did the story change as you wrote this book?
I started writing it mostly because I wanted an excuse to play around with some of the popular fantasy tropes I encountered over and over as a kid, like “woman falls in love with monster” or “outsider discovers that they’re the Chosen One.” The worldbuilding and plot came into being after that. One of the major changes is that I started out with pretty straightforward trope reversal, but ended up getting further and further away from that as I went along and tried to make my characters and world feel more like people and cultures that could actually exist.
Unnatural Magic has been called a historical fantasy tale. Is that how you see it? Because writer Chloe Neill of the Devil’s Isle series said your story has “cheeky wizards,” and that makes me wonder if there isn’t a bit of humor at work here.
I didn’t really think too much about what genre the book was until I finished writing it, and everyone seems to have a different opinion on what kind of book it is. I’ve heard “fantasy of manners,” which I think is kind of fun.
For accuracy I’d say it’s a mashup of murder mystery, low fantasy, and regency romance. I did try to make it funny in parts, but anyone picking it up hoping for something Pratchett-esque would probably be pretty disappointed.
So is the humor more situational then?
One of my huge goals as I was writing was to try to make the voices and personalities of the three protagonists so distinct that you’d be able to open to a random page, read a bit of description, and know immediately whose POV you were in just from the style of the narration. Since the characters each have their own distinct senses of humor, I tried to make sure that their dialog and narration reflect that. Jeckran — one of the three narrators — is very dry and self-deprecating, and Loga, another major character, is basically on a constant charm offensive for a variety of reasons, so both of those characters get a lot of jokes in their dialog. Tsira and Onna, the two other leads, tend to be funny more when they’re running up against societal expectations or social norms: Tsira is constantly baffled by what a neurotic goofball Jeckran is, while Onna is caught between doing her best to be a proper young lady and the reality of how ridiculous a lot of the people pushing those expectations on her are.
Who do you see as the biggest influences on the humor in Unnatural Magic?
P.G. Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde have been heroes of mine since I was a teenager, so definitely both of them.
Aside from Wodehouse and Wilde, are there any writers, or specific stories, that you think had a big influence on Unnatural Magic? And I mean just on this story, not on anything else you’ve written.
Diana Wynne Jones and the Chrestomanci novels definitely got into my head at an early age, and 100% influenced some of the stuff in this book. If I hadn’t read those I wouldn’t be so enamored with the idea of foppish wizards swanning around in silk dressing gowns, for one thing.
What about movies, TV shows, video games, and other non-literary influences; did any of those things influence either what you wrote in Unnatural Magic or how you wrote it?
Definitely the frankly kind of bizarre number of movies and TV shows in which women fall in love with non-human creatures without the implications of that being really dug into. Beauty And The Beast, Shrek, Hellboy — what are we supposed to think about these relationships? Is Liz Sherman supposed to be really, really into giant red monster-dudes with sawed-off horns on their heads (probably not), or are we just going with the idea that women are pure, spiritual creatures who reward men with love on the basis of how noble and deserving they are (probably)? I wanted to write something that did dig into that trope and resulted in something that was funny, made sense and made you want to root for the couple, instead of something that resists being thought about too deeply because of the yikes factor.
Now, you have said that Unnatural Magic is a stand-alone novel. Without spoiling anything, why did you make this decision, and how much of that decision was prompted by the fact that the title Practical Magic was already taken?
80% was the title Practical Magic being taken, obviously. 10% the fact that series are often dependent on either the characters getting into weirdly similar scrapes over and over again (one eventually starts to wonder whether Miss Marple might actually be a serial killer) or, in fantasy, the stakes being raised over several books until you’re at saving the world / ending the endless war / determining the One True King level. When I first started writing this book, I set a few ground rules for myself: I didn’t want to have any of my protagonists wield a sword, ride a horse, or save the world. I’m interested in writing more intimate stories with smaller stakes, and I don’t want to accidentally write myself into a corner where the only place left to go is preventing the apocalypse.
The last 10% is that I absolutely love the Tamora Pierce-style thing where you have different characters with different stories all running around in the same universe and occasionally bumping into each other, so I wanted to do that instead of a traditional series.
Speaking of which, you’re already hard at work at a second novel. Do you know what it’s about, what it’s called, and when it might be out?
It’s about a down-and-out petty con artist who somewhat accidentally ends up involved in taking down a violent high-society crime syndicate. There’s an almost all-female cast, murder and mayhem, dangerous wizard-made street drugs, and an undead possessed house mouse named Buttons. It’s going to be a lot funnier than the first book, and I’m having a great time writing it. No title or publication date yet, but I’m hoping that it will come out some time in 2020.
Earlier I asked if Unnatural Magic had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie, show, or game?
No, no interest in any of that stuff yet — though that would be pretty exciting! I think a movie would work the best out of all of those. Or can I go rogue and say that I think a graphic novel or comic book would be really cool?
You can. But even then people would want to see it as a movie or TV show. If that happened, who would you want them to cast in the main roles?
So I’ll be really honest and admit that I’m extremely bad at imagining, remembering, and describing human faces, to the point that I’ll sometimes not recognize people I’ve met several times before when I run into them on the street (if you’re a man with a beard, in particular, I’d like to apologize for this in advance). Because of that I don’t really have a strong sense of who I’d want to play most of the characters. The only exception is Loga — I think that Manny Jacinto [The Good Place] would be perfect for him, just because he’s an extremely funny guy who I think could also pull off the jaded high-society playboy thing.
Finally, if someone enjoys Unnatural Magic, what similar fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out while waiting for your next novel?
People started comparing Unnatural Magic to Sorcerer To The Crown by Zen Cho basically as soon as I finished writing it, and having finally read Sorcerer To The Crown last month I totally get why people make the comparison. Even if you hated Unnatural Magic you should definitely read Sorcerer To The Crown — it’s an absolutely delightful and charming book. The prose feels very convincingly “period” while still being fresh, funny, and readable, and I spent a big chunk of my time reading it with a gigantic dopey grin on my face. In the unlikely event that you’re a historic fantasy fan who hasn’t gotten around to it yet, you should really pick it up.