Getting a chance to speak with author Ysabeau Wilce is especially delightful since we share a love of the foggy city-by-the-Bay, Girls of Spirit, Grand Adventures, and Great SHOES (!!!).
Ms. Wilce has a lot to be proud of with her inventive first novel. VOYA granted it a prestigious 5Q rating – meaning they thought it couldn’t have been written any better. Ms. Wilce is also one of the few children’s fantasy authors to have ever garnered a full-page review in the New York Times. (Annoying registration required, but only once.) Clearly, Flora is a character and Califa is a place which has caught a lot of imaginations around the country. We’re grateful that Ysabeau took time out of her scribbling schedule to fit us in.
FW: First of all, we have to ask the completely book-unrelated question of from where your first name is derived. It is lovely and unusual!
It's an archaic French version of "Isabel"....!
FW: You are described as having “trained” to be a military historian. Where and how does one train for that, and how has it influenced your writing interests? In which branch of the military has your family served?
My grandfather was a military historian and he started me off young: researching cannons at the National Archives, and volunteering at Fort Point National Historic Site (in San Francisco) during home leave. We lived overseas for most of my youth and my parents were big into history, too--many many castles, battlefields, palaces, and museums did we visit, and thus my interest in the past grew. Then later, I went to university and took many classes, designed to teach me to think critically, and then spent many months poking around in dusty archives.
Then, I wrote and defended a master's thesis, and ta-da--I was a trained historian! My specialty: The US Army on the Western Frontier. It was a lot more fun than it sounds; history books are often dull and boring--but history archives are full of interesting stuff: battles, plagues, murders, armies, intrigue, etc. This interesting stuff combines to make stories, and to me that is what history is all about: stories.Thus I tend to look at my stories as mini-histories that, if put all together, combine to make one great whole.
FW: Udo’s outfits in Flora Segunda are fantabulous, and seem to draw on actual historical costuming (aside from the guys wearing skirts). Do you have real costumes at home, or pictures of them which give you inspiration when you write? (I am envisioning you wearing a redingote while typing…)
I've done lots of research into historical fashion, because you can't understand a society without understanding its clothing--clothes really do make the man--and the woman, too! People think fashion is frivolous, but it's not--it's how we construct our public identity and how we tell the world who we are. No, I don't wear a redingote when typing, but I have worn clothing much like Flora and Udo's--stays and chemises, large hats and long skirts--and I've camped, ridden and done chores, in such clothing, too, which gave me a good perspective on how what you wear determines what actions you can do. As far as Udo goes--he's an old-fashioned dandy--poor men today are really constrained in their choice of clothing. They must be sober and boring, or they are thought effete. We can thank the revolutions of the 18th century for this; before then, men were as fashionable and garish as women, could wear make-up and jewels, and care about their hair-style. That's so much more fun than chinos and polo shirts, don't you think? Men in skirts: in lots of cultures men have worn skirts--China, Thailand, medieval Europe, Imperial Rome, just to name a few.
FW: Your short story about Springheel Jack is actually taken from (rather dubious) British history. Were any characters in Flora Segunda inspired by specific historical figures?
Not really. I liked the name Springheel Jack--so I borrowed it, but the only thing the two outlaws have in common is that they are both outlaws!
Of course, I also borrowed Hotspur's name, as well, but my Hotspur shares only a name and a choleric temperament with the historical Earl of Northumberland.
FW: All of the women in Flora’s life – Mama, her sister, Nini Mo - seem to be unavailable or at the level of myth, and Flora is left to cope with the men: Poppy, who is confused, Valefor/Fyrdraaca House, who is confusing, and Udo Landaðon, who is cheerfully vain, but comes out trumps in the end. Flora’s story seems to be, in some small part, about becoming a strong woman. Was this a deliberate angle to the story? How does the idea of “Dare, Win or Disappear” play into that?
I prefer to consider that Flora must learn how to be a strong *person*.
Her problems are not related to her gender--no one is trying to proscribe her into "female" behaviour. Her duty is to be a Fyrdraaca, not a girl. The struggles of a girl to rise above her girlness is a common trope in fantasy books--since it's a real-life issue that many girls still face today, alas, that's not surprising. But I didn't want to play with that trope--I wanted to move beyond it. In Califa, gender is mostly neutral--neither men or women are constrained in their choices because of their sex. Hence, Flora can be a soldier and Udo can care about his hair. I try hard to think of my characters as people first, and men and women second. And I don't agree that the qualities of absence or ineffectualness are drawn on gendered lines in FLORA SEGUNDA. Buck may not always be around, physically, but she is engaged in her family, just not as much or in the manner Flora would like. Lord Axacaya is neither ineffectual nor absent, and neither is the Dainty Pirate. Udo's supposed ineffectualness is in the eye of the beholder--Flora. Valefor isn't really a boy--or a girl--for that matter. Flora declares him male and he conforms to her declaration, but he's really genderless.
I think it's important to remember that Flora is the viewpoint character and we would be wise to be somewhat skeptical about her reliability! And from a writer's point of view, it's always more interesting in kidlit to have the adults be appear to be ineffectual in one way or another; otherwise they will interfere too much with the kid's activeness. That's why there are so many orphans in kidlit.
FW: More and more fantasy novels—Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge, to name just one—incorporate a level of technology that is arguably akin to an 18th- or 19th-century setting, including firearms. What drew you to this type of setting rather than a more traditional (i.e., Medieval or Renaissance) “high fantasy” setting?
I haven't read the book you refer to, so I can't speak to it. As far as my work goes, my specialty as a historian was the 19th century, so that's the technological era I know the most about, and am the most comfortable cribbing from. Though my stories are ultimately fantastic in nature, I try to make the details as realistic as possible to help anchor the fantasy and make it accessible to the reader. And I see my Califa stories as a type of Fantastic Western, and the most durable mythic era of the Western is the 19th century. I admit to having a personal thing against the generic medievally world that so many fantasies take place in--"Fantasyland" Diana Wynne Jones calls this place. I like medieval history well enough (go Richard of York!) but these fantasies have little in common with the actual medieval world. As far as a fantastical medieval world, Malory did it first and best. His imitators are superfluous.
FW: Huitzil is also the name of a mythical Aztec warrior who died in battle, turned into a hummingbird, and later became a god. Does the history of the word give us any hints about the Huitzil people, or their role in Califa history? (I am fishing, I know, but this book seems filled with hints on mythos and history, making me eager to puzzle out what it could all mean to Califa.)
Now that would be telling, eh? Stay tuned for FLORA REDUX, which shall answer some of these questions...
FW: The country of Califa appeared in your short story "Metal More Attractive," published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in February, 2004, and more recently last summer when you published "The Lineaments of Gratified Desire," which is being included in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, 2007. Congratulations, and can you tell us how long Califa has been in your mind?
A long time. When I was a historian, I would find myself constantly thinking: what if? What if California really was an island? What if people really could turn into coyotes? What if the Bear Flag Republic had endured? What if the Aztec Empire had melded with Spain rather than be consumed by her? What if men and women served in the Frontier Army equally? What if punk rock bands had praterhuman drummers? Truth was no longer a match for the shining lies of my imagination, and I started to put all these what ifs into one place: Califa.
FW: It is clear that Califa is modeled after California, and from other indications (a Gate Bridge, fog, etc.) we can safely assume that Califa is in fact the fabulous City by the Bay. What is your favorite thing about San Francisco, and the Bay Area in general? What has led you to Porkopolis (Illinois) from Califa?
I love the City’s wacky history—San Francisco is built on imagination and dreams, a place of reinvention. I love the weather—cold in the Sunset, hot in the Mission. I love the uncertainty—will the City still be there when I wake up in the morning? I love the City’s landscape—hills and sand, beaches and rocks, magnificent views. And the best coffee in the world! But alas, for the moment, my fabulous husband’s fabulous job is in Porkopolis, so here we are.
FW: Flora Segunda has left a few strings untied, leading us to a slightly bug-eyed anticipation of a future novel. Will you give us a … hint about anything? The Dainty Pirate? The real reason Lord Axacaya still wears Huitzil clothing? When we can expect the sequel to emerge?
FLORA REDUX will be out Spring 2008. In the meantime, here are a few hints:
Menacing outlaws in sparkly red boots. Loud punk rock bands. Revolutionary riots. Many chores. Flynn. A giant squid. Oubliettes. A demonic bouncer. Magickal vortices. Udo’s new hat. A Bear Headed Girl. A shootout on the 'bus. Many, many entities, including Virguix, Sucker of Souls. A crush. More rangers. An amusement park that turns dangerous after dark. Hotspur to the rescue. The Huitzil Ambassador. An indoor snowstorm. Phosphorescent bullets. The Warlord’s Birthday Party. Waffles.
And Flora, grounded.
We’re dying to know more, but Ysabeau is just smiling in that sort of Saintly Fashion, and not telling us another thing.
Having Califa withdrawal? Well, "The Biography of a Bouncing Boy Terror," the short story about Springheel Jack is included in the Bibliotheca of Crackpot Hall, where ghostly visitors, flickering lamps, and strange entertainments await. All of Crackpot Hall is a hoot to visit -- and do drop by Prophecies, Libels & Dreams: The Califa Police Gazette, Ysabeau’s blog. See Ysabeau in person -- sporting some really fierce shoes, trust me on this -- signing books at the upcoming ALA Annual Conference in Washington D.C., June 23rd from 3-4.
Thank you, Ysabeau, for your time ~ you've been great! We look forward to meeting you when next you’re in Califa!