Nov 26

2018

Author Interview: Isabella Shaw, “Weyrwood”

Posted by: Mary Duffy | Comments (0)

Advance in society and bargain with creatures in the Wood in a Regency fantasy of manners, daring, and magic. Will you join your daemon overlords in destroying your hometown or will you defy them? Weyrwood is a 174,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Isabella Shaw, where you play a fledgling member of the shabby-genteel, returned from your education to disentangle your inheritance from your small town’s oblique magical property laws. I sat down with Isabella to talk about the inspirations for her game and the world of the creatures who inhabit it. Weyrwood releases this Thursday, November 29th. 

Your world is roughly analogous to Regency England, but with magic. Why did that time and place appeal to you? What aspects of the historical setting changed when you added supernatural elements?

So, actually, first I should say that Weyrwood came about in a rather mysterious, complete way: I had a dream that depicted a game of Prosper, complete with spina, Weyrs and daemons, feral cats, the pressure of an elite Society, the Fallen, and the overhanging shadow of the bargain. The world and most of its pinch-points arrived somehow, basically whole—and instead of building up, I ended up working backwards, finding the threads of the story from the fabric of the world itself. From the material of the dream I delved into things like etymology, questioning why certain details were as they were, and looking at the logic behind the patterns in the world, in order to make sense of it. So, for example, the system of spina—the concept and even the name, and its connection with the Weyrs and bargaining—arrived as a complete unit. It was only later when I was thinking about why it might have been called spina that I found some sense of its origin as something wild, something connected to the Weyrs (I think the name came from “thorn” in Latin or else from the ancient name “Despoina.”)

However, all of the things that arrived subconsciously had to come from somewhere, of course! As a pre-teen and teen, I ingested quite a lot of 18th and 19th century literature—Jane Austen, yes, but also Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, the Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc. At the same time, I was reading copious amounts of fantasy. I think I loved the language and the subtlety of the historical novels, and at the same time, magic and fantasy felt so true. The combination of these worlds felt inevitable. By the time I read Patricia C. Wrede and Susanna Clarke, who have Regency England-period magical worlds, it felt like coming home.

I think there is something about a setting that requires strict social rules that seems graft nicely with the threat of wild magic, of otherworldly rules that can align with and brush against these social requirements. Social rules in many ways can have a ritualistic, weighted meaning—something subtle might have been said or done that has a dramatic effect upon a person’s status or possibilities. This kind of subtlety and weighted consequence already can feel like magic—invisible currents, running through a room or situation, that can cause dramatic shifts in story. Magic, or fantastic elements, can add an extra shine, but the basis is in many ways already there, just in the way humans give weight to behavior, rules and ritual. It also is interesting to me to think about a society that has a certain level of technological advancement, in which magic is present. As you’ve mentioned, this world is tonally derived from Britain’s Regency-period literature, but it is meant to be a neutral place, somewhere else entirely. To me, what also came out was the feeling of a frontier town in Prosper (its history only goes back 200 years or so, after all), attempting to keep its gentility while faced with very real wilderness close at hand.

The main ways that Prosper’s setting differ from a historical one, I think, actually came about from the perspective of the social rules themselves, who they are meant to be protecting, and who oppressing. At least in my thinking, broadly speaking, most of the strict social rules and customs that give the historical tone were pointed towards preserving a woman’s “virtue” for marriage. And one thing I love about the COG interactive novels is that the player must be able to play as any gender without essential changes in the possibilities available to them. This meant, for Prosper and for Weyrwood, that the idea of virtue and who is protected and who limited needed to be about social class and not gender or “marriageability.” Therefore, the line needed to be drawn much more strongly between the landed Gentry and non-landed commoners, and the idea of the Gentry as semi-voluntary tribute became much more important.

Your descriptions of the daemons and weyrs, the two major types of supernatural creatures, are especially vivid. How did you go about designing these creatures? How did you get into the mindset of characters who think and act in such a nonhuman way?

Both creatures popped up from the dream basically fully-formed (including the name “Weyr”—my best guess as to where that came from is some kind of conflation of early medieval Anglo-Saxon “wyrd,” personal destiny, and “weir,” a dam—I get an image of branches from this word). I think at essence the Weyrs probably sprang from the concept of a wild, unknowable impulse that is the forest—and the very old human respect for and fear for what lives in the forests—and, on the other hand, an idea of a harder-edged, rule-bound instinct. In fairytales across cultures, the magical creatures always seem to follow their own rules; even if those rules do not seem fair or right to the human heroes, they have a logic of their own.

That the daemons living in the Wilds, living in these very (from a human perspective) chaotic lands, have more human courtly manners and customs, in some ways, felt very instinctive—as if representing an urge to carve out order from chaos in fine detail. To me, the daemons have a slightly more human instinct, in both negative and positive ways. Initially, I got glimpses of these spiky, somehow beautiful beings in elaborate, courtly dress with bright colors that humans wouldn’t dare use in this world—all flame, smoke and show, with substance being hidden; and always untouchable, riding in the chariots or carried in their palanquins, which were nice hard, practical, confusing lines against all that floaty, vivid fabric and manners. When it came to writing them, I took some inspiration from surrealist painters such as Anne Bachelier and Leonora Carrington.

Both sets of creatures have their logic, but it is just slightly skewed from the interests and logic of the human characters. Neither are intended to be bad or good—they are both amoral, ambivalent, with their own rules and goals.

You’re a poet as well as a novelist: your collection Songs of Remembrance draws on medieval lyric poetry. How did your experience as a poet influence your writing in Weyrwood? Is there anything medieval in Weyrwood?

One crucial thing that Weyrwood took from my background and interest in medieval literature and music is the feeling of the forest as this vast Other—you can find this theme repeated in so many early medieval stories across European traditions, especially in early medieval lyric poems and lais, such as Thomas the Rhymer, Sir Orfeo, Lais of Marie de France, much of the Arthurian canon, etc. Most of today’s remaining folklore about forest creatures, which survives in stories and in echoes in peoples’ imaginations, are very old, dating from times when most of Europe was forested. But there are also huge strains resting on the idea of woods as not only dangerous, but as magical as well, potentially transformative. The idea of some form of non-human forest guardian is also extremely old.

You also have a background in music. Did you have any musical inspirations in the creation of Weyrwood, or a particular writing soundtrack?

Oddly enough, I don’t feel like the music part of my life particularly influenced Weyrwood (with the exception of some very real bits about the feeling of being underprepared for performing for a soiree, and the opera sections)! If I listen to music when I write, it tends to be something more general, to help me to turn off the internal critic and type faster—when I’m not thinking too much is when the good stuff usually comes through. So if I was listening to something, it usually wasn’t specific to this project—usually something like Kayhan Kalhor or Ross Daly. Or else very fast Balkan music on repeat.

I will admit, though, that when I was in the planning stages, I was going through a phase of listening to Hamilton on repeat. So there may be a couple of nods to that in Weyrwood as well.

Which character did you most enjoy writing?

Hippolyta, I think. She kept knocking on the door with more to say.

What was the most challenging thing about writing your first interactive novel?

Working with the code, and planning in greater detail ahead of time, was the most challenging part for me. The way I normally work is very intuitive and slightly chaotic, plucking things from the sky and seeing how they knit together—dreaming things and doing subtle detective work to see how they unfold—which is not really possible with a project of this scale and intricacy. So, being more with planning and logic brain than creative-chaos brain was probably the best challenge, and I definitely learned a huge amount from the experience.

What is your next project?

At the moment, I’m working on a collection of short stories—some set in the same world as Weyrwood, others set in completely new worlds entirely. I also have a larger project in the works, concentrating on the figures of Merlin and Nimue from Arthurian legend, retold.

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