When I was nine or ten, my mother and I used to go to the local chain bookstore — Barnes & Noble? Borders? Walden’s? I don’t remember now — on about a weekly basis. I’d go stare at the science fiction and fantasy section and trawl for paperbacks. I discovered a lot of writers that way — Patricia Wrede, Tanith Lee; I had a David Eddings phase; I could go on. (My other major source of new author discovery was my parents’ science fiction bookshelves.)
One of my discoveries there was C. Dale Brittain‘s The Royal Wizard of Yurt series which begins with A Bad Spell in Yurt (link to Amazon), It’s a really light-hearted, charming epic fantasy series, in which the characters are by and large kind to each other and the author is kind to them. It would be many years before I learned about the concept of generosity to one’s characters, and more years before I intuitively understood why it felt precious to me, but these books are an example of it.
One thing I also liked about the series and its medieval world was its strong, political religious presence. As a child, I’m not sure I knew exactly what to make of it. Having been raised by atheist parents (though I did attend Bible study at about the age I was reading these books), I had a vague understanding of Catholicism. I think I felt intrigued because it was a different way of handling medieval settings, and also a little uncomfortable because coming from a Jewish-atheist family with a side of a-couple-generations-back Mormonism, I was well aware of the problems of mixing religion and government. I remember being a little worried about that in the setting of the world, despite the light tone.
Once I’d been to Europe though in my early twenties, I started to understand how much the history of medieval Europe was deeply influenced by Christianity, particularly Catholicism. It seems almost inconceivable to me now that one could write a medieval-inflected world that’s supposed to have a realistic edge — whether or not it’s light-hearted and funny — without incorporating that. Many books do, but Brittain takes a gentle approach; while the church is not perfect, by and large the priests who show up are well-meaning and acting in (literal) good faith. This is back to the generosity toward characters thing.
So anyway, I was flipping through my SFWA directory and I happened to see C. Dale Brittain’s name. At which point I squeaked. The author kindly agreed to answer some interview questions for me.
I hadn’t realized how far the Yurt series had come in my absence. There are 3 or 4 new books now that I haven’t yet read, including this new one, THE STARFLIGHT RAVEN (Amazon link), which tells the story of the generation who lives in Yurt’s castle after the characters in the original series.
1) One of the things that makes your books distinct is the role religion plays in them. I appreciated how the church has an impact on the world-building, as of course it did in the real world. I also appreciated that while the church isn’t perfect, the main character associated with it is truly devout and caring. Can you speak to the way you built the church into your world and your experience in writing it?
When I started writing “A Bad Spell in Yurt,” I don’t believe I made a deliberate decision, “This story will include religion.” Rather, as a medievalist writing a fantasy set in a vaguely-medieval world, it just made sense that the castle of Yurt have a chaplain. Romances and epics written in the twelfth century–the real origin of what we now consider the fantasy genre–all included Christianity. One of the major themes that keeps coming up in my stories, I think because I believe it myself, is that people who don’t agree on many issues still need to find a way to get along, and a rivalry between organized wizardry and the Church seemed like an excellent way to show this. I’ve also never liked stories in which all the priests are either scheming hypocrites or else prejudiced ignoramuses–ie, some weird combination of caricatures of the Spanish inquisition and of modern evangelicals. Sure, pompous ignoramuses certainly existed in the real Middle Ages (and in my “The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint,” a lot of the priests don’t come off real well), but so did extremely devout, sincere people, so I wanted to include that aspect. The religion in the Yurt series isn’t exactly real medieval Christianity, but it should remind one of it.
2) Have you always been a humorist? What do you like about writing humor?
Actually I originally wanted to write books where reviewers would say things like, “Searing,” and “Uncovers the failings of our society as a whole.” Instead I get, “Charming light fantasy,” and “Gave me a few chuckles.” Daimbert points out that this is what I should expect of a series where the title of the first book is a pun. In fact, I think I’ve always made people laugh–I used to entertain my family on long car trips–but it’s because I always see the humor in situations. I rarely tell jokes per se, but I like looking at things from a slightly different angle. There’s always a lot of laughter in my big Western Civ lecture classes–how could someone *not* laugh at Zeus chasing anything in a skirt, or anything not in a skirt? PG Wodehouse and Garrison Keillor are probably formative influences (I get the line about “Gave me a few chuckles” from Garrison, who has the same problem).
3) As a teenager, I didn’t know whether you were a man or a woman. I think I assumed you were a man (possibly because the main characters in your books are male) and didn’t really think about it again until I picked up your books as an adult. There are a lot of reasons why women writers decide to take on gender ambiguous bylines–including, of course, just preferring the sound. If you’re willing to talk about it, what were some of the reasons you decided to go by C. Dale Brittain?
C. Dale Brittain is indeed a part of my real name, but parts that I don’t use in my day-job as a professor. I always liked Dale (derived from Hinsdale, an ancestral name), and in my cowgirl phase around age 8 I was very excited to learn about Dale Evans. (Hey, I can’t rope a steer, but I bet she never published a fantasy novel.) Since “Bad Spell” is told by a first-person male wizard (Daimbert), it made sense to use a potentially-male name. I have a male narrator for the audio versions of my books, and when I first listened to him my initial thought was, “Hey, Daimbert doesn’t sound like that in *my* head,” because of course Daimbert sounded like me. I should add that I really like my narrator once I got over the initial shock! The other reason for writing my fantasies as C. Dale Brittain is to keep them separate from my scholarly books. I didn’t want a fantasy fan seeing the title, “Sword, Miter, and Cloister,” rushing out to buy it even though it was $60 in hardcover, and then being bitterly disappointed. I also didn’t want a professional colleague saying, “Oh, look, Connie’s published a new book called “The Witch and the Cathedral,” probably about gender issues in 12th-century religion, I think I’ll assign it in seminar.”
4) When I was reading your books, I was also reading a lot of other contemporary sword and sorcery. It felt like your books fit in with the zeitgeist of that moment–at least the zeitgeist I was reading as a teen. Did you feel like you were working in unison with other writers? Who were your influences, contemporary or past?
Oddly, I hadn’t read much fantasy recently when I wrote and published “Bad Spell.” Tolkien and CS Lewis had been early favorites, and I read a lot of SF and fantasy in the ’70s, when Ballantine first started their fantasy line (that became Del Rey). At the time I think there was more good YA fantasy than “adult” fantasy (for some reason that term still makes me think of things like peep-shows, we definitely need a better term), authors like Ursula LeGuin and Susan Cooper (of “The Dark is Rising”). In the ’80s however I probably read more mysteries than speculative fiction–in some ways “Bad Spell” is an English country-house murder mystery. Once I got published and joined SFWA and all those good things I started reading in the field again. I think my main knock on a lot of sword and sorcery is that–somehow, against all odds, can he do it?–the hero ends up whacking the Bad Guy into submission. My heroes win (happy endings and all that), but they do very little against-all-odds whacking of Bad Guys. I really like Tolkien’s point that he very deliberately did *not* have Frodo use the Ring to overpower the Dark Lord, and yet a lot of modern imitation-Tolkien has exactly that outcome.
5) The Starlight Raven came out in April 2015. Forgive me for not knowing, but is this the first book that takes place with the new Yurt generation? What made you feel like it was time to move on to them? Can you tell us a bit about the book?
Yes, “The Starlight Raven” is the first of the “Yurt, the Next Generation” series. (That is *not* the official name of the series.) I’d originally started writing it over 10 years ago, after the Yurt series wrapped up with “Is This Apocalypse Necessary?” I was figuring this would be a good way to relaunch my career, and fans were asking, “What happens to Antonia?” The problem, as it turned out, is that having teenage protagonists at a wizards’ school made all the publishers and agents pronounce, “This is too much like Harry Potter.” It was of course useless to point out that it was nothing like HP, or that “Bad Spell,” with its wizards’ school, appeared long before the first HP book. Then I got really busy with that pesky day job. But a few years ago, when the original Yurt series went out of print and I got the rights back from Baen, I decided them to re-publish them as ebooks, as an indie. And then this spring I figured, since no one (other than my fans!) seemed to want a story about a wizard’s daughter, that I’d publish “Starlight Raven” myself, both as an ebook and in paperback. Antonia, our heroine, is the daughter of a wizard (Daimbert) and a witch, and she wants to be the first female wizard, but the wizards’ school is not so sure a girl belongs there. Meanwhile the witches on her mother’s side of the family want to bring her into the Sisterhood of workers of *their* kind of magic, which the wizards have always looked down on. The story tells how Antonia tries to find her own way between competing claims of the right way to learn and practice magic, and has to deal along the way with some fairly scary creatures out of wild magic who have no use for either wizards or witches.