A Game of Questions with Beth Bernobich

Beth Bernobich just came out with Passion Play, a romantic fantasy about politics, power, and reincarnation. Here, she talks about writing techniques, feminism, and emotional growth.

What authors do you consider yourself working in conversation with? (Here, I’m trying to get a sense of your authorial genealogy)

The three authors I’d name are Jane Austen, Ursula Leguin, and James Tiptree (Alice B. Sheldon).

I first read Jane Austen when I was nine, and what I love most about her work is how she works on the small and intimate scale. This might sound strange coming from someone who is currently writing an epic fantasy series, but what I care most about, both as a reader and a writer, are the people in the story.

Later, I came across Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and fell in love with the idea of gender-bending. I wrote my story “Poison” specifically as a riff off that novel.

More recently, I started reading the works of Tiptree, and the one story that burned itself into my brain was “The Women Men Don’t See.” I think what I learned from this author, and this particular story, is that stories don’t need to be polite. They can be angry.

What stories will you be writing reflecting that influence?

I don’t know yet. I have five more novels under contract, which will take up most of my brain space for the next few years, and while I will probably write more short stories during that time, I don’t know yet what these will be.

I have already written two stories that reflect that influence–“Air and Angels” is a direct riff off Tiptree’s story. In a less direct way, “Jump to Zion,” which I wrote last year for my collection, only came to life for me when I allowed my characters to become truly and dangerously angry.

I’m glad to see you mention Austen. When I was reading Passion Play, I really struggled with Ilse/Therez, and how she’s so passive.  The book feels like a kind of morality play — a steadfast heroine whose defining characteristic is her moral/ physical/spiritual goodness who finds that goodness constantly under assault in an imperfect world. TBH It made me think of Pamela or Tess of d’Urbervilles.

Ilse starts off passive, yes. She’s the product of her upbringing in a household where independence is punished. Even her first plans to escape–going to Duenne with her brother–depended on her father giving permission and, once there, finding someone else as her husband/protector. It was a (for her social circle) traditional route. If she had succeeded, she would have been free of her father’s household and she would gained a decent, normal home life. However, she might not have necessarily found a life that was completely fulfilling.

So my goal was to show her coming to her full potential in three stages. In Passion Play, she first achieves the necessary separation from her mother’s fate. (At a great cost, to be sure.) She also goes through what I see as her apprenticeship in independence–learning about the wider world and acquiring the skills to navigate in it. In the second book, Queen’s Hunt, she’s a journeyman. It’s in the final book of the trilogy that I hope to bring her to her full potential.

Can you talk about how gender and gender roles treat your creation of Therez/Ilse? Do you think Ilse would’ve been the same kind of character if she was a boy?

I think Ilse the boy would have been much the same: intellectually curious, naive about the world, and consumed with a sense of powerlessness in his father’s household. He would have been equally passive at home–like Ehren but with even less agency because of his age and his position in the family. I know he would have run away–though the reasons would be different, or at least on a different slant. I couldn’t tell exactly what the reasons would be unless I wrote that part out. Definitely they would include the sense of being trapped in an unwanted life. The subsequent events would have played out much the same, as well, but with different overtones. Once Ilse reaches Tiralien and Kosenmark’s household, the details start to diverge more. Certainly Kosenmark’s love remains in the story, but other details would change. Again, I’d have to write that part to see exactly how and how much.

How does the series’ emphasis on reincarnation impact the structure of the novel?

I don’t think it necessarily impacts the structure of the novel as much as it impacts the structure of the trilogy. In parallel to her growing from passive to active to taking a lead role, she goes from vaguely aware of her past lives, to discovering how those lives are connected throughout history, to acting on that knowledge, and finally taking the next steps beyond that past. Or at least, that’s my goal.

How does class play into your characterization of Ilse?

She’s upper middle class–privileged and with the leisure and opportunity to obtain a good education. It’s this same privilege that blinkered her to the danger she faced in running away, and though she had skills to potentially fend for herself (say, for example, if she had found work as a scribe), she didn’t have the skills or experience that might have helped when things really went south. Once she found a refuge, however, it was this education that allowed her to connect with Kosenmark, both personally and in his business of politics.

What role does friendship play in character development for your characters?

Its major role for Ilse is teaching her to trust again. She had good reason to stop trusting–her brother failed her, the two young men in the caravan befriended her, then betrayed her. It’s only when she becomes friends with Kathe, and then Nadine, that she begins to truly trust again. And her friendship with Raul is a necessary precursor to their love, or their love would be superficial thing.

What issues related to sexuality were you trying to explore in Passion Play?

Sexual healing. Ilse heals from rape and Raul is healing from the consequences of his castration. Both see themselves as damaged, which drives some of their behavior, and it’s only when they begin to heal that they can overcome this view of themselves.

I saw online that the caravan rape scene stuck in multiple drafts of Passion Play — can you talk about the work Ilse’s status as a survivor does for the book?

It serves a number of purposes. Certainly it underscores the danger she faces when she runs away. It demonstrates her determination to survive, even something that devastating.

But the main thing is that the caravan rape sequence mirrors what would certainly have been her fate with Theodr Galt. Alarick Brandt is Galt with the mask of refinement stripped away. Both would demand obedience from Ilse, both would treat her as an object. And like Brandt, Galt would take Ilse by force if she dared to refuse. The only difference would be that Galt would never allow someone else to infringe on his possession.

You’ve mentioned starting and stopping several different stories set in Passion Play’s world. Why did Ilse’s story stick, and the other five novels become absorbed into hers?

I think because, though I like all my other main characters, I cared the most about Ilse’s predicament and the paths (mental and emotional) that she travels.

Queen's Hunt will be released in early 2012. The lovely cover art you see above is an early draft featuring a bolder Ilse.

Who is the villain in Passion Play, and what “work” do they do in the story?

There are several despicable characters in the series, but the one who comes closest to being the Classic Villain is Markus Khandarr (I call him my Dick Cheney character). The “work” he performs is to oppose Raul Kosenmark. It’s their long-running battle that Ilse comes in contact with, and it’s not until she goes from pawn/lover to active and equal participant that she can grow into her potential.

What does the title Passion Play refer to? I’m familiar with it as a term presenting the trial and suffering of Jesus.

For me, the passion in my series refers to the various passions (or in some cases obsessions) that drive the set of characters. It’s these passions–passion for magic, for power, for justice, and sometimes, yes, passion for another person–that affect their choices throughout their multiple lives. In that sense, the world is their stage, and they are actors upon it.

(And yes, I’m aware of the Christian meaning of the phrase. I thought about changing the title to avoid confusion, but in the back of my mind, I thought, “Well, some of these characters are sacrificing themselves to save others.” )

In what ways does Passion Play respond to a genre seeped in rape culture?

What has always infuriated me about the depiction of rape in fiction is how many ways they get it wrong. And getting it wrong only perpetuates the myths about rape, myths that only strengthen the rape culture in our world.

They sensationalize the act. It’s sexy. (???) Or it’s there to spice up the action, like a car exploding.

Or it’s minimized. Rape? Oh, sure it’s not great, but the woman gets over the trauma in a day, or an hour. Because, y’know, we need her to be ready for the sex scene with The Main Guy. (*cue me getting out a large pointy stick to hit someone over the head for that one*)

Or it’s turned into a simple black-and-white subject, narrowed down and made to seem rare. Rape, in lots of fiction, is committed by slobbering scary strangers, not someone you know and trust.

And if the rape victim feels any confusion, the storyline goes, then it must not be rape.

I am a rape survivor, but you don’t need to go through rape to see how wrong these myths are. Except… For me, it *did* take years to see how wrong these myths were because everything I’d been fed through books and movies and television, through the people around me, said it wasn’t really rape, and I must be imagining it, and besides, it was probably my fault anyway.

For a while, it was easier to pretend it just hadn’t happened.

So among other things, I wanted to show rape for what it is: ugly and traumatizing and a danger that doesn’t restrict itself to a dark alleyway. And I wanted to show someone facing a more realistic road to recovery, in spite of the rape culture surrounding her. Ilse faces blame. And she blames herself at first. But she eventually finds friends who do understand. She meets a fellow survivor of sexual trauma (though of a different kind). And she comes to understand that this terrible thing was not her fault and she can overcome it. She can go on to love. To feel the true joy of passion. To live.

Thank you for your honesty. That was actually something I liked about Passion Play. To be honest, large portions of the world struck me as a little generic, particularly because this plot (extremely vulnerable girl, big dangerous world, RAPE, whomp whomp) happens a lot in fantasy. What really differentiated the novel for me was that moment where Ilse realizes that her gradual emotional recovery from having been brutally raped was being used against her, as though being traumatized is a permanent state.

What writing activities did you use to engage in world-building?

I have a hard time separating world building from character building, but both are an iterative process for me. My stories start with the image of a character in a situation. In some cases, a complete first paragraph falls into my head. From there I write a few chapters or scenes. The writing is completely free form, and it’s whatever comes to mind. At that point I stop to see what I have. That’s when I go off and research any immediate questions I might have about the tech level, the languages, the economics, the politics, and so forth. For a complicated series, I might write a couple pages to describe the current political setup, the history of the local setting and the relevant larger political entities, how the magic works (if there is magic), and what kinds of languages and religions the characters might come across.  As I get deeper into the story, I fill in more details, or change things that no longer make sense in the plot.

What writing activities did you use for character building?

Mostly my characters get built as I write the story–the more I write, the more details bubble up from my subconscious. If a character isn’t coming alive, though, I will stop and try to pin down more details outside the current text. These would be things such as, what friends or family do they have off-stage, what is their personal history leading up to the story, and most important, what kinds of things bother them, scare them, or drive them forward. Usually I prefer to let that come out in the writing, but sometimes I need to step away from the manuscript to sharpen those details.

What research went into your writing?

The kind and amount of research I do depends on what the particular project. If I’m writing alternate history, I need to find out as much as I can about the actual time period so I can bend and alter the events in a believable way. And it’s not just who did what when that I need to research–I need to know about art and culture, science, the clothing and food, the stuff of ordinary life. For my alternate Haiti story, “Jump to Zion,” I did all that, but I also read about the folktales in the real Haiti, I checked out the plants and animals–especially the plants, because my character was an herbalist–and I read books, dictionaries, and websites about the Creole language. For my fantasy series that starts with Passion Play, I was creating my own world, so I didn’t really have an existing world to research. I ended up doing less general research and concentrated on key details, whether it was how far a horse can travel in one day, what kinds of trees would grow in a climate similar to northern Canada, or how castration affects biological development and libido.

How do you plot out a long writing project?

Like my research, it’s an iterative process. I have an initial idea. I write–maybe part of a novel or even several novels–then step back and examine what I have. Then I find the bones of the story and cut and shape things to fit. From there, I might see how new stories branch off from the existing trunk. For example, I wrote five novels in the world before I wrote Passion Play. Once I had Ilse’s story, I could see the shape of the trilogy.  Sections of the original five made it into the trilogy. Other sections went into the scrap heap. Two are possible “branches” and involve secondary characters from the main story line.

What do your “notes” look like — do you have timelines for history or things like that?

My notes tend to be very messy when I start off. I write plot notes and worldbuilding notes all in the same file, adding whatever I think is necessary or whatever occurs to me at the time. Once I have a good hold on the story, however, I copy the backstory and worldbuilding notes into a separate file so I can refer to them later. I also organize them into sections (politics, geography, religion, magic, etc.) and flesh them out more. Here is one example of my notes, which I cleaned up for my website:


And yes, I do make timelines. With Passion Play, I have a list of important events from history; I also have a list of the main characters and what role they played in previous lives. I had an even more detailed timeline for my Eireann stories, down to the month, day, year and sometimes even the hour. Those stories were especially tricky, because they involved fractures in time, which later “healed,” so at one point, there were two different timelines to keep track of.

What is your favorite quality about yourself as a writer?

I like how I give my characters hope. Sometimes they achieve joy during the story, but even if they don’t by the end of a story or book, they can at least see it in their future.

(I have only one story where there’s no hope at the end–A Handful of Pearls–and while I think it’s well written, I don’t want to write another one like it again.)

What is your least favorite, and what do you do to compensate for that?

My least favorite quality about myself as a writer is my tendency to have my characters sit around and talk for far too long. I have to consciously add more active plot.

What is your “soundtrack” for writing?

It depends on the project. For the Passion Play series, I have a short list of classical music: Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major and some piano concerto pieces by Mozart. For my YA novel, I listened to a selection from the soundtrack for the movie Tsotsi. Sometimes I set my iTunes to an internet radio station, but I prefer a playlist so I can avoid any commercials or announcements.

What is a good writing circle like?

The key, I think, is having a group of writers with similar goals, and with a reasonably close range of experience.

By similar goals, I mean things such as: what kind of works are the member writing? Novels are very different from screenplays, which are very different from poetry. And what are their goals with the group itself? Are they all looking for a Clarion-style critique group? Or do they want a group with less structure–where they can brainstorm new ideas? This is not to say the circle has to all do the same thing, all the time, but if there’s a good overlap in goals, the members can do a better job of helping each other.

Same goes for the range of experience. Not everyone in the group needs to be at the same point in their writing path, but you want to have a good overlap so that everyone can both contribute to the group and get enough out of it. For people very new to writing, however, I’d suggest groups with experienced moderators or workshops led by pro writers.

What drew you into fandom?

Writing did.

No, really. For the longest time, I had no idea there was such a thing as fandom. Reading for me was a solitary business. Sometimes I’d talk with a friend about a particular book, but I never thought about seeking out other readers in large group. However, a writer friend suggested that if I wanted to meet more writers and learn about the wider world of publishing, I should try attending Readercon. I went and discovered a whole new world of SF conventions.

Here’s the biggie: How would you define feminist author?

Is it sufficient to write about women? (And by that, I mean placing them in central roles instead of relegating them to the sidelines, or worse, in a refrigerator.) Or does the term demand the writer directly and vigorously address gender issues and gender roles? Both kinds of stories are important, in my opinion, but whether both are feminist, I’m not sure it’s for me to define.

A feminist author is someone who foregrounds the concerns of women in their writing–concerns that encompass gender roles in society, the freedom to choose what our lives should be, and the opportunity to pursue those choices. Beyond that, I don’t think there is one true pattern for feminist writing. Feminist writing can be in your face (Tiptree), or it can be oblique, it can subversive. It can be all about a particular gender issue, or it can encompass women’s issues in general. It can show where we are, or where we’d like to be.  Ideally, it should also take interstitiality into account: issues such as race, religion, and physical ability. Even f it doesn’t directly address these issues, it should not step all over them with racist, classist, ableist assumptions.

The one very obvious thing it can’t be is about accepting or promoting limitations.

Do you consider yourself a feminist author?

I definitely consider myself a feminist. I do write mostly about women, and a reviewer recently pointed out that my female characters tend to start off powerless, but many of them end up acquiring freedom and influence, though sometimes the influence doesn’t come in an ordinary package. It can be on the smaller scale, it can be indirect, as well as large and looming.

Thanks to Beth for a great interview. Queen’s Hunt will be released early 2012.

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