Interview with Rachel Aaron–East of the Sun

latest-novelThis week, please welcome author Rachel Aaron for a discussion of how she uses North and South American mythology in her urban fantasy series about anthropomorphic feathered dragons. It’s sounds adorable, but has nearly Jim Butcher levels of intensity and pain. “No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished” is the third book in the series, and comes out on August 5th.

So I’m going to start out by repeating the question I asked on Twitter: To what extent is the mythology of the Heartstriker series based on actual traditions from North and South America, and what made you decide to use those traditions rather than the typical Celtic European influences?

I’m going to be honest here: I’m not actually a huge fan of research for my books. I prefer to make what I want for the story and then find a way to fit that into the actual mythology/history/whatever I’m using. That said, though, I knew from the beginning that I wanted the Heartstrikers to be American dragons, partially because I just wanted to do something new (European dragons are everywhere!), and partially because I’m American, and I wanted a dragon of my own. I was in love with the idea of feathered serpents, which I’d encountered years before reading about Mesoamerican myths, so it was a match made in heaven. Once I’d decided they would be feathered, I started looking around for ways to incorporate more native myths into my world building, which was how the Quetzalcoatl got involved.

For the spirits in the story, I was far more direct about taking elements from Native American myths. I’ve always found the idea of a “living land” fascinating, which is probably why it appears in so many of my books. In the Eli Monpress series, for example, the land is literally alive. As in you can talk to it. In Heartstrikers, I have spirits of the land who act like gods, but the core concept is the same. I chose Algonquin when I decided to set the series in a future version of post-magical-apocalypse Detroit and needed a local spirit. A little bit of research turned up not just an Algonquin lake, which all the Great Lakes were once part of, but an entire Algonquin culture. After that, she was the obvious choice to be my spirit for the area.

2000px-Quetzalcoatl.svgYou incorporate both North and South American myth—Raven is a trickster figure from the traditions of the Pacific Northwest, and Quetzalcoatl is feathered serpent from the Maya culture. Are you drawn to one set of cultures over the other? Are there noticeable similarities or differences between North and South America?

This is really a matter of “what was cool to Rachel at the time.” I’m an idea magpie, and this is my first book set anywhere close to the real world, so I basically took whatever I thought was cool from the incredible wealth of American (North and South) stories and just sort of mashed it together. But this mix up also fits with the modern theme of the books. The story mostly takes place in the DFZ, a futuristic Detroit filled with immigrants from all over the world, not just the Americas. Any story set here would have to be a mashup because the city itself is so diverse, and I found that both incredibly interesting and incredibly freeing.

Raven vs. Coyote. What are the differences, what are the similarities? What else can you say about trickster figures in mythology?

I actually seriously considered bringing Coyote in as one of my spirits, but I held off because 1) the series has a lot of trickster characters already, and 2) I didn’t want to copy Patricia Briggs’ amazing Mercy Thompson series any more than I already had. I also liked how, while Coyote is more of a general trickster who likes to fool everyone, the Raven stories I’ve read focused much more on him tricking and helping humans. He also just seems a tiny bit nicer than Coyote, which was important for the role he’ll be playing in the books.

Overall, though, I am a GIANT fan of trickster characters. Bob, my dragon seer and fan favorite of the Heartstriker series, is one, as is Eli Monpress, the titular main character of my first Fantasy series. They’re enormous fun to write and provide a great vehicle for relieving the tension from all the super dramatic plot stuff I love to do. Without my tricksters, my books would get very dark indeed! Mostly, though, I love the tricksters because they can say what other characters can’t. The fact that they’re always joking around gives them the freedom to be uncommonly truthful when they want to be. The trickster is a mask they can put on and take off as needed, and that’s very important in a novel where everyone has to suffer before the book is done even the pranksters have tragic pasts.

Wow, that came out dark. My books are 90% lighthearted and funny, I promise! It’s just sometimes you have to buckle down and save the world, you know?

Aaron-EliMonpressWhat are some common misconceptions you’ve noticed people have about American mythology?

That it’s somehow “less Fantasy” than European mythology. Put elves and dragons in your story and you’re instantly classic-bordering-on-stereotype Fantasy, but stick in animal spirits or shamans or skinwalkers and suddenly you’re “ethnic,” which is so stupid. It’s a fantasy. It’s supposed to be made up! Who’s to say what kind of made up fairy land is more correct than any other?

I think our genre has done itself a great disservice by focusing so heavily on the Euro-centric, D&D style of Fantasy when there is so much more out there to explore. Thankfully, the Fantasy genre is getting wider every year in terms of the diversity of its stories and authors. Urban Fantasy in particular has been extremely open to bringing in different mythologies and cultures with several of the most popular series focusing on Native America myths. The Mercy Thompson series I mentioned earlier is a particularly good example of this. Patricia Briggs really knows her Native American mythology and does a marvelous job bringing in new elements to her stories.

What was the most unexpected thing or interesting thing you’ve discovered during your research?

One of the biggest and most unexpected problems I’ve run into with my dragon series is that dragons live a long freaking time. This means I have to know what was going on 1000, 1500, or even 2000 years ago in any particular place, because they were alive to see it. Let me tell you, balancing my dragon history around actual history, especially in the Americas, very tricky. It’s easy to say “oh, magic vanished a thousand years ago,” but when I’ve got Bethesda in the Yucatan Peninsula around 1400, suddenly I wind up with “how did she handle the Conquistadores?” And while this is a very interesting question, it’s not one I want to deal with in these books, which are focused on modern times.

So yeah, the mythology part was easy. The biggest problem I’ve had is fitting these incredibly powerful, immortal dragons into actual history without having to make real historical figures into dragons or having them be uncommonly inactive, because sneaky, meddling, political dragons would never be inactive.

What are some of the resources you’ve used when researching Native American myth? Besides the internet, do you have any recommended books or sources?

You’re going to hate me for this, but I’ve mostly used Google and Wikipedia. As I said at the top, I play very loose and fast with the mythology because this is first and foremost my world. What’s most important to me is the story I’m telling right now, but since I don’t want to be inaccurate, I only use the actual myths sparingly without giving too many details. This way, I can reference the myth enough to ground the story in reality, but I don’t tie myself down to what actually happened. For this level of usage, I’ve found the bigger, more general sources very useful because they tell me the parts of the story that are most known, which are the ones I gravitate to for the books.

Can you tell us about one of your favorite myths from either North or South America?

It’s not a specific myth so much, but I’ve always loved the Thunderbird. The idea of a bird who both is and brings the storm is just the coolest thing ever to me. This was actually the inspiration for the Lord of Storms character in my Eli Monpress books and a spirit version of the Thunderbird makes an appearance in my third Heartstriker novel, No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished, which comes out in August. What can I say? I love a good personified storm!

cropped-cropped-sarah-hans-27-of-49-27Rachel Aaron is the author of 10 novels, including the Fantasy fan favorites THE LEGEND OF ELI MONPRESS and NICE DRAGONS FINISH LAST. She also writes romantic Science Fiction under the name Rachel Bach, starting with FORTUNE’S PAWN, a high octane romantic adventure about a powered armor mercenary who gets in way over her head, published by Orbit Books.

In addition to her fiction, Rachel is also known for her bestselling writing efficiency book 2K TO 10K: WRITING BETTER, WRITING FASTER, AND WRITING MORE OF WHAT YOU LOVE. To learn more about Rachel and all her titles, visist www.rachelaaron.net!


Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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