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In the end, oddly enough, the final books show very little similarity to the original storyline we sketched out. But that marathon plotting session gave me a starting point, and it enabled me to refine the plan as I went along. Having said all of that, I hope readers find the trilogy hangs together.
Why this flashforward in the second book? Back when I thought I would write just a single book in this setting, the original idea was for a story set during the Cold War. Perhaps inspired a little by John LeCarre, I wanted to tell the story about a retired spy who gets dragged back into a secret world against his will. Are you crazy? In your heart, in your mind, do you consider the Milkweed books as the story of Raybould Marsh or the story of Gretel? Another good question! Gretel is the axis around which the entire story spins.
But Marsh is the poor guy who has to deal with her…. And how you got the idea of this kind of magic. That was my first exposure to the concept of demonology, the idea that magicians could petition malevolent supernatural beings to violate the laws of nature. I always found that intriguing. In theory. Not in practice!
Interview with Ian Tregillis (VO) - Tannhauser's Gate
One of my friends is a linguistic anthropologist. The story goes that a very long time ago, the ancient Greeks started to wonder about the oldest culture in the world.
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They reasoned, fairly logically, that the oldest culture in the world would be the culture that spoke the oldest language. So if they could figure out which language was the oldest, they could identify the oldest culture, and thus find the origin of mankind. Or something like that.
But how to find the oldest language? Well, they decided that the oldest language would be the language that people spoke naturally, in the absence of other influences. So, according to legend, they took some newborn children out into the country so that they were raised without hearing any language at all. I immediately knew the basis of my magic system. And what if it worked? How did you write the three books? Did you make a lot of research? Thank you for saying that. I tried very, very hard to do as much research as I could.
Whether I succeeded, of course, is not for me to say. I would never claim to be an expert in history, not by any stretch of the imagination. But in the course of writing the books I amassed an entire bookshelf worth of research materials. Much harder to research were details of everyday life in London in : how did people dress, how did they talk to each other, how did they laugh and cry and eat? That took a lot of digging, but I did find some invaluable reference works. I am a huge Tim Powers fan. As I always tell people, if magic really worked, it would work like it does in a Tim Powers novel!
I know many of his fans prefer some of his other books, but that one pressed all of my buttons. It could have been written for me. I figured I was safe by that point because the storyline of the final book was pretty tightly locked down by the previous two novels! Did you ever think about writing some hard-science-fiction books, like Kim Stanley Robinson, or Greg Egan, you being a physicist?
I would write a hard-SF story or novel if I had an idea that really grabbed me. Or, maybe I should say that the writing part of my imagination leans in that direction. As a reader, I love straight-up science fiction and will gladly read as much as I can get my hands on. I love good space opera, for instance. Hard SF, in particular, is something I tend to avoid in my brainstorming. So if I were to start working on a writing project that required making everything scientifically rigorous, with calculations and so forth, it would quickly begin to feel like I had taken my job home with me.
My writing life and my day job are totally separate halves of my life and I try to keep it that way. Writing magic is hard in its own way, because it has to be internally self-consistent or appear that way to the reader. Can you tell us about your new book, his genesis? For me, ideas slowly accumulate over a long period of time. Little random bits of trivia, interesting words, cool ideas I come across while reading… They all get jotted down on scraps of paper, and the scraps go into a file.