Thursday, March 17, 2011
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro on Why I Love Writing About Women in History
Like many young women, when I became interested in history — I was in third grade as I recall, and it was 1950 — I found it very frustrating: it really was his story the various books in our school library told. There were a few exceptions, such as Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I, but they were just that, exceptions; women in men’s jobs, doing their work among men, leading lives dramatically unlike the lives ordinary women led. So I took it upon my young self to find out more about women in history, a task that continues to this day. And since I was born hard-wired to be a writer, what I find out from studies ends up being written about.
In the 1960s there was the first flurry of books about everyday life in history, and I seized upon them with enthusiasm. By then I was writing short stories, often with women as main characters, though most of the stories were science fiction, fantasy, and mystery, not historical horror; that came along in 1971, when I began work on Hotel Transylvania, and which I kept at sporadically until 1975, when I sent the first half of it to my agent, and he set about selling it.
As I have discussed elsewhere, I had three goals with proposed five novels — one, to push the vampire as far to the positive and still have a recognizable vampire; two, to give some sense of what it was like to live in the setting of the story (to me, setting functions as a tertiary character in any story); and three, to emphasize the lives of women in the times the stories take place. Once I got the hang of the vampire question, it was simply a matter of research to take care of points two and three and I was in business. Luckily, I enjoy research.
For the latter half of the 1970s, I kept looking around for interesting places and times to set the Saint-Germain stories. I kept them in accord with the claims the actual man made as to where he had been and those he had known. In a couple of instances, this turned out to be more daunting than I had anticipated. Path of the Eclipse was a chore to research, but I was fortunate to find an associate who was selling off a portion of his library, which included some fifty books on China during the Mongol invasions, as well as books on foreign trade in that period. I bought them and set to reading them avidly. Finding information on India was a bit trickier, since regionalism was distinct and strong there. By inventing a small kingdom, I was able to select elements from several Indian cultures and make it possible to have a female heir to the throne, which forms the last third of the book. The hardest part of that book was the part set in Tibet: there turned out to be almost no information about the ordinary people, but a little about the lamaseries, so I opted for that setting by default.
In the seven years between the short story collection, The Saint-German Chronicles, and beginning the three Olivia novels, I continued to write about women as main characters in contemporary settings as well as historical ones. The historical fantasy To the High Redoubt was one of the books that came out of that time; it features an unlikely pair of main characters — a disgraced Polish soldier and a blind Tantric adept — and is as much about their efforts to understand one another as about the external trials they face. That was a yummy book to write, and balancing the solider against the adept was an engrossing experience for me. Another non-Saint-Germain historical horror novel that came out of that period is one of my favorites: A Mortal Glamour. The bulk of the action takes place in a convent in southern France in the latter part of the fourteenth century. Those nuns who have survived the three Black Plague epidemics and constitute the majority of the characters are in pretty rough emotional shape, and are constrained not only by religion but by the Medieval mind-set that personal change is the result of intervention in the life by God or Satan. Into this hothouse setting comes an incubus/succubus demon. This one wasn’t yummy to write, it was creepy, just as it should be. I loved all the characters, including the villains, as I do all my characters.
When I returned to Saint-Germain in the Madelaine de Montalia book, Out of the House of Life, although the story is hers, there are extensive footnotes in the form of letters from Saint-Germain that tell of his experiences in Pharaohnic Egypt for the eight hundred years he lived there. When I turned the book in, I told my editor that if I ever proposed to take on eight hundred years of a dead civilization again, to shoot me. Not that I didn’t find it fascinating, but there was so much of it, and so many conflicting opinions among many Egyptologists, that finding a way through the experience was truly amazing. One of the strengths of that book, at least from my point of view, was the contrast that the nineteenth century Madelaine provided to the various women of ancient Egypt with whom Saint-Germain interacts. I wish I had had another fifty thousand words to expand the ancient Egyptian portions of the book, but that was discouraged by Tor, and since I wanted to sell them more books, I kept the length down.
Almost all the women in the now-twenty-five-books-long series are outsiders, women who are unable or unwilling to lead the lives most women do, and because of that, are inclined to accept the intimacy Saint-Germain offers them. Randegonda in Better in the Dark and Tulsi Kil in A Feast in Exile come to mind as being at the extreme of those living beyond the usual women’s lives of the cultures. Rowena Saxon, in Writ in Blood and Midnight Harvest is a woman who has turned away from the comfortable world of privilege for the less certain but more rewarding life as an artist. In An Embarrassment of Riches, there are three women of Konige Kunigunde’s Court, each of whom handles her situation in accordance with her character and her culture.
It is always exciting to discover new characters and to coax their stories out of them, often including revelations about the time in which they exist. This often sets me hastening to my history books in pursuit of those telling details that bring a period and culture to life. I find that taking on someone with another way of understanding her/his own experience is one of the most enjoyable parts of this strange thing I do for a living. Having embraced feminism at an early age, I’ve found writing about women in history illuminating in many ways, and I expect that to continue as an intrinsic part of my story-telling. Oh, and one last thing: the Saint-Germain, Olivia, and Madelaine books are called historical horror novels not because vampires are horrifying, but because so much of history is.