Friday, March 11, 2016

Kelly Robson and Waters of Versailles - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary (with spoilers!)

It was great to talk to author Kelly Robson, and to share her excitement about her Nebula nomination for Waters of Versailles. At 18,600 words, the piece qualifies as a novella (for anyone thinking about the Hugos). She told us she'd been hoping it would be shorter, because novellas are so hard to sell. It bounced at a couple of venues before Tor.com acquired it through a personal connection.

I asked her what the original kernel of the story had been. She told us that she'd been inspired by reading historical nonfiction for fun - specifically a book called The Sun King by Nancy Mitford. She followed that book up with the book Versailles by Tony Spaworth, which she described as less "juicy."

In these readings, she became fascinated by the water system of Versailles, which featured flush toilets in the year 1738. She said that thousands of people were living there, and this led to much squalor; water distribution was "a huge problem."

This interest of hers combined with her experience writing a wine column for Ch√Ętelaine magazine, where she learned the language of people passionate about wine and fine living - she says there's a bit of that in the story as well.

The main character, Sylvain, is a manly man from the southern Alps. He wants to be in Versailles to take power for himself, but can't respect the shallow, lazy people. In reading the story, I felt there was a sense of tension between the power of the rich aristocracy and the power of his home, which includes the power of nature as embodied in the nixie who appears in the story.

The historical context of the story, Kelly told us, was that Louis XV has returned to Versailles, which is not in good condition. Sylvain when he arrives takes the waterworks for his own by bringing a nixie from the glacial pools of the Alps, and getting her to force the water to flow. The nixie is a child - bored, mischeivous, and not wanting to do what she's told. Kelly told us that once she watched a two-year-old for 36 hours and it was utterly exhausting!

Sylvain puts a lot of energy into being a courtier, maintaining his social standing, and appearing where he needs to be (like attending the king's waking, keeping lovers, etc.). He also works to put pipes in to expand the plumbing, which runs from cisterns on the roof down to the toilets. The first toilet goes to the king, then one to his mistress, etc. Everyone wants them. Kelly chose to refer to these toilets as "thrones," a delightfully impudent word choice. Sylvain has to deal with the fact that the king's cat has taken over his "throne," and he needs a new one; also that the bored nixie keeps targeting him with drips.

We spoke about the sex scene that opens the story. A fun way to approach a sex scene, Kelly says, is to have something else going on. In Sylvain's case, this something else is getting away from the drips. I personally considered this opening scene to be something of a metaphor for his whole problem, as it concerns Sylvain's difficulty getting into privileged spaces while maintaining his plumbing!

Kelly told us about some advice she received at Orycon 2012 from the estimable Steven Barnes. He said when you get a story idea, you usually get either a character or a problem. If you get the problem first, you should ask, "Who is the absolute worst person to give this problem to?" And if you get a character first, then ask, "What is the worst thing that can happen to this person, and how can I make him do it to himself?"  According to Kelly, it was this advice that really changed the story and made everything about it work. It was also something that changed her writing generally. She says she now also puts quite a bit of work into scene craft, so every scene has its own hook, and conclusion, and she considers what the scene's role is in the story.

I asked her about the story's title, and she told me "the title was always there." So was the story arc. She knew about the beginning and the end, and a few points in between.

Louis XV, the king in the story, "had mistresses up the wazoo," so Kelly took advantage of this to add complication to the story. The way that the king maintains his relationships - all of which are tainted by power - disgusts Sylvain. Sylvain himself maintains a relationship with a lady-in-waiting named Annette, which starts as shallow but becomes a bit deeper. Kelly thinks it's unusual in that the two of them don't end up in a romantic relationship. The father-child relationship is more important in this particular story.

I asked Kelly about her choice of the Alps for Sylvain's origin, and she explained that she is from Jasper, near Jasper Park in Alberta, Canada, and loves the mountains. Her love informs Sylvain's yearnings.

Kelly would like to write more in this world. She is planning a novella about Annette. This is a world where magical creatures are known to exist, and people believe in human-animal hybrids. The nixie is part salamander and part human, and it's hinted that the king's lineage is not 100% human.

She told us that she made up the songs that Sylvain sings in the story. This brought us to the interesting question of how an author builds and maintains trust with the reader. The use of specific real details forms a strong foundation that is really important in speculative fiction, where readers are asked to believe many totally made-up things.

Kelly also mentioned the workshop Taos Toolbox and recommended it highly. As she said about writing, "It's a solitary pursuit, but you can't be solitary all the time."

Kelly, thank you so much for joining us, and good luck at the Nebulas! Next week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, March 16th at 10am Pacific, and we will take up the topic we had to cancel a week ago, Social Media. I hope you can join us!



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