Exclusive Interview: “Untethered Sky” Author Fonda Lee
There have been many novels in which someone has forged a friendship with an animal. Jack London’s classic Call Of The Wild comes to mind. But in her fantasy novella Untethered Sky (hardcover, Kindle), writer Fonda Lee takes the nature companionship genre into a different realm by having the befriended animal be a mythical creature. In the following email interview about it, Lee discusses why she went this route, as well as what classic nature novels inspired this story.
Photo Credit: Elena Rose Photography
To start, what is Untethered Sky about, and when and where does it take place?
Untethered Sky is the story of a young woman who trains rocs — giant birds of prey — to hunt man-eating manticores. I’ve pitched it as a wildlife memoir featuring monsters.
Where did you get the idea for Untethered Sky?
I’ve always had a soft spot for animal companionship stories such as Wilson Rawls’ Where The Red Fern Grows, Jean Craighead George’s My Side Of The Mountain, and George’s Julie Of The Wolves. The idea came to me many years ago to write a fantasy story with that vibe.
In Untethered Sky, Ester’s mom and baby brother were killed by a manticore, which, in our world, is a mythical beast, as are rocs, the giant birds people fly in this story when hunting manticores. Is there a reason you went for mythical creatures as opposed to real world ones that were unnaturally huge? Like maybe having people ride giant eagles while hunting gigantic tigers?
Mythical creatures have a certain mystique to them that makes them more than just animals. They’re often divine or magical in some way. I wanted to bring them down to earth by making rocs and manticores feel like real beasts.
Also, mythical creatures come with rich cultural heritage that’s irresistible to fantasy writers. When I say, “ogre,” you’re most likely going to think of a lumbering European giant, and you can’t hear “djinn” without picturing the Middle East. Telling a story about rocs and manticores led me to set the novella in a world that resembles the ancient Persia that they originated from.
As you said, Untethered Sky is a fantasy story. But are there other genres at work in this story?
It could be described as a low-magic or no-magic secondary world fantasy.
Untethered Sky is your eighth book after the Green Bone Saga trilogy and its prequel novella, The Jade Setter Of Janloon; the Exo duology; and Zeroboxer, and you’ve also written some short stories. Are there any writers, or stories, that you think had a big influence on Untethered Sky but not on anything else you’ve written?
Oh, definitely. The animal companionship stories that I enjoyed in my childhood and that I mentioned earlier haven’t influenced anything else I’ve written, but they were an inspiration for Untethered Sky. Also, the memoir H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald.
And what about non-literary influences; was Untethered Sky influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Yes: the documentary Eagle Huntress, about a Mongolian girl training her golden eagle.
As I mentioned a moment ago, you’ve written stand-alone novels and ones that are part of larger sagas. What is Untethered Sky?
Untethered Sky is a stand-alone novella. After writing an epic fantasy trilogy [the Green Bone Saga], I very much wanted to write a short stand-alone, and Untethered Sky fit the bill perfectly. It’s the sort of story that’s very contained and intimate.
Earlier I asked if Untethered Sky had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Untethered Sky could work as a movie, show, or game?
Personally, I don’t think so. It’s a story with a lot of emotional interiority that I think is best told through prose. Though it would be pretty cool to see rocs and manticores on screen.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Untethered Sky?
Fun fact: I had two master falconers beta read the manuscript for accuracy. It was really gratifying to have them tell me I’d accurately depicted not just the technical details, but the intangible emotional aspects of falconry.
I also received some great notes that contributed to some of the worldbuilding details in the book. For example, one of my beta readers questioned what kind of material would be strong and supple enough to be used for roc jesses, which is why, in the story, Ester mentions elephant hide.
Finally, if someone enjoys Untethered Sky, which of your other books would you suggest they read next?
That depends on whether they’re looking for another quick read, in which case I’d point them to my science fiction debut, Zeroboxer. Or, if they’d prefer another fantasy world, in which case, they should pick up Jade City [the first book of her Green Bone Saga trilogy].