Interview: Naomi Novik
By Rose Fox
14 August 2006
Naomi Novik is a first-generation American who was born in New York in 1973. She received a BA in English Literature from Brown University and a Masters degree in Computer Science from Columbia University before working on the design and development of the computer game Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide. While at BioWare in Edmonton, Canada, she realized she preferred writing to programming, and, after returning to New York, she decided to try her hand at novels. She met success with her Temeraire series, which introduced dragons into the events of the Napoleonic wars, taking the bloody battles of sea and land into the air. His Majesty's Dragon, the first in the series, was released in the US in March 2006 by Del Rey. It was rapidly followed by Throne of Jade (April 2006) and Black Powder War (May 2006).
Naomi lives in New York City with her husband and six computers.
Rose Fox: I'm going to resist the temptation to ask you to spoil the next few books for me, but I'm very curious about the research you've been doing overseas.
Naomi Novik: Ireland was a personal trip, entirely for fun, although I am hoping one day to have Laurence and Temeraire stop by Dublin and Trinity College. But my trip to Africa was research for book four, of which a substantial portion will take place in southern Africa. We started out in Cape Town because in 1806—I haven't finalized the exact schedule, so they may arrive in 1807 depending on the prevailing winds—but in 1806 the British took Cape Town back, historically, from the Dutch. That's why Laurence and Temeraire were able to visit there on their way to China in book two. They're going to be arriving in Cape Town again. The other location I visited, without spoiling what's going to happen, is the Victoria Falls area, which covers Zambia and Zimbabwe, and which, as you can imagine, is just a spectacular location. As you look down over these massive gorges that have been carved over the years, you can imagine dragons hollowing homes out in the cliff walls and using the plains for hunting and so forth.
After that I also had the most extraordinary experience of going to Botswana for a week for safari. The amazing thing about Botswana is that they restrict tourism pretty heavily, so there are a fairly limited number of places you can go. That means it's very much unspoiled and you can really get a sense that the landscape and the environment there are in many ways unchanged from the way it was in the 1800s and even before then. It's escaped development and the encroachment of human populations on the wilderness to some extent. I expected it to be extremely valuable in a specific way, in that it would let me really get a feeling for the settings, the way that the place feels, the way that people lived, and it was very useful in that respect. But I was taken very happily by surprise by how useful it was to have the experience of living in a time before electrical light. You don't really realize this, but it basically never gets dark where I live, in Manhattan. In the middle of the night, all the lights are off and you can still look out the window and see everything. You go to Times Square and it literally is as bright as daylight, just slightly tinted! It was a really extraordinary experience to get away from modern civilization in that way and try and get a sense of what it would be like. I don't want to make it sound like I was living it rough in the wilderness; there are opportunities to do it that way, but I was treading this narrow path. It was the first time that I've visited anything other than modern cities and areas, so partly not knowing what to expect made me a little more cautious, and partly I needed to be able to recharge my laptop every day so that I could take notes and upload pictures and recharge the camcorder batteries and so forth.
Still, all the lights went out at night, and when you went out hiking, it was still you on foot in a basically completely wild area with one guide with a gun. That was it. There were some exciting experiences along the way. The animals are quite nervous about people on foot. They aren't nervous about people in Jeeps, which is another way you can travel around: they put you in these open 4x4s and drive you literally ten feet away from an elephant, and the elephant's just standing there chewing leaves, looking at you, mildly interested, not particularly bothered. But if you're on foot, the animals perceive you as something they understand, another animal and potentially a threat, so for various reasons you don't get very close to animals when hiking. Also, they didn't take you where the lions were roaming about that day. So all right, you're perfectly safe, and you're trudging along through the tall grass, and the sun's beating down, and the soil in many places is quite sandy, so it's uncertain under your feet, and then your guide says, "Oh boy!" And you look over and there across the ridge you see a tree, and under the tree there are five little heads, and those are lions that were supposed to be all the way on the other side of the area. And they're watching you, and you're on foot in your hiking shoes and your hat, and there's your guide who has this gun with only one bullet in it because they're not in the business of shooting the animals; they use the guns just to fire warning shots. There's nothing between you and the lions. Even though the lions are very far away, there's no comparison between that and the experience of being at the zoo. If you're at the zoo and you're looking at the lion through a pane of glass and it's right on the other side, it's a completely different feeling from being several hundred yards away from lions with nothing in between you and them. Quite an adrenaline-producing experience, I have to say! That gives me a lot more sympathy for people who would be afraid of dragons, because you really can understand that visceral reaction that someone would get. You're like, "Yes, that is a predator over there that could kill me and eat me!"—however unlikely that is. Nothing happened, of course; we came back to the camp and they said that lions never hunt people on two legs, lions don't attack people, and that's all well and good, but you don't really know whether the lions have been told this. Sometimes you want to be a little cautious. And when you're looking at them, you really don't have the sense that the lions are not going to come after you. They were very clearly watching us, following us as we trudged along.
RF: And dragons are a lot bigger than lions. How big are they, exactly? I've had some trouble getting a sense of scale.
NN: My dragons vary in size very widely between the different breeds. Envision the range as from a chihuahua to a Great Dane. If you look at dog breeds, the variety of size there is just vast. That's what I envisioned in dragon breeds. A dragon like Maximus is essentially like a brontosaurus, the largest land animals. And of course, I'm playing a little bit fast and loose with the sizes in terms of what would be biologically realistic. My rule of thumb is, I don't want things to feel completely ridiculous. That's why I use dinosaur sizes as kind of a gauge, even though brontosaurs were herbivores and so could get bigger than a predator like a Regal Copper. But also I do envision that part of the reason some dragon breeds have been able to get so large is because they have been bred that way by humans who compensate for the fact that the dragon doesn't have to spend all its time hunting because the humans herd animals and provide for the dragons.
RF: So you end up with a brontosaurus with the head of a T-Rex.
NN: Yes, in many ways.
RF: I just went to the Museum of Natural History with some friends from out of town, so those comparisons are very straightforward in my mind.
NN: The American Museum of Natural History here in New York? I love the update they did there, when they recently overhauled all the dinosaur exhibits. But I have to admit that when I was little, I grew up out on Long Island and we would come in pretty frequently because I would constantly nag to be brought in to see the dinosaurs, and the way they had them set up in the old days. . . . Now it feels much more accurate and scientific, and you get a wonderful sense of where they fit into the evolutionary record and the history of the development of species, but you used to get a really kind of magical feeling, a sort of shiver of horror, as you walked through those halls and you saw the tyrannosaur—this dark looming thing overhead. The halls were much darker and sort of grimmer, and I don't miss them in a sort of intellectual sense, but I kind of miss that frisson of excitement. That memory is part of what I draw on for trying to think about the dragon sizes and how they would feel to people looking at them.
RF: Have you thought about prehistoric dragons and where they would fit in on the evolutionary chain?
NN: For my own purposes, as far back as I've gone in thinking about it is early China and Rome.
RF: Dragons in Rome is a wonderful idea.
NN: Yes, that's sort of a throwaway line in, I think, His Majesty's Dragon: the Romans are the ones who first domesticated dragons in the west, and that's part of how they became dominant. One issue is that when doing alternate history in this way, I'm adding something as big as "Dragons exist and they've been around all this time," and at the same time I really wanted to start in a recognizable Napoleonic era. To some extent you have to hand-wave it and say, "Look, reader, I'm asking you to go with me on this," although when you think about it, if dragons had really existed all along, of course history would have changed in radical ways throughout. Important historical personages would have gotten eaten, or their ancestors ten times removed would have gotten eaten, and so the history of the world would have been different in many ways. So I do feel like to some extent I hand-wave it.
I wanted Europe to be fairly recognizable, partly to take advantage of the fact that that's kind of the most familiar setting to my readers—Regency and Napoleonic Era England is something that a lot of readers have a lot of familiarity with from literature—so I wanted to keep that much the same so that when I ventured further afield, like going to China, going to Africa, going eventually, as I hope to, to South America and the Incas, and to North America as well, that I can make more changes there and explore more of the differences that might have happened. These are differences that we might see in history and human development with dragons in other locations that already start out being less familiar to the reader, so that the reader doesn't feel like I'm constantly stomping on their expectations of the setting. The way that I rationalize that to myself is that I feel that in Europe, Western Europe in particular, people very deliberately tried to keep dragons out of their lives. They would use them as aerial forces, but they settled the dragons away, they didn't have dragons in cities, they didn't have dragons nearby. Before the Romans I would imagine that dragons were aggressively hunted as dangerous predators and obviously many of the dangerous predators of Europe are extinct now precisely because humans hunted them. So that's my reasoning for why Europe's history is affected less than many other parts of the world.
RF: In Black Powder War, Laurence and Temeraire end up in Istanbul to acquire dragon eggs the British have purchased. There's this big flurry of activity around the building of armaments by the waterfront and no one quite knows why. What's going on there?
NN: What actually happened historically around this time is that the British were very fond of sailing their ships into people's harbors and bombarding them until they capitulated, which for Istanbul—Constantinople—was an extremely dangerous move because the city relied so heavily on port traffic, and they didn't have a modern defense for the harbor. So historically at this time period, the Turks did build a defensive emplacement that was then able to hold off a British attack. I would have to look up exactly when it happened, but they actually held off a British attempt at bombarding Istanbul. So what's going on in that period of time in Black Powder War—and this is not a spoiler, feel free to include it—is that the Turks are building this emplacement using the money that the British paid them for the dragon eggs, and using supplies from the French. The reason that the Turks have betrayed the British is not because they were bribed by the French; in fact, they're keeping the British gold. The reason they're betraying the British is because they're convinced that Napoleon is going to win. Lien, the Chinese dragon, and DeGuignes, the French ambassador, have persuaded the Sultan—who in fact was a French sympathizer himself and did have good relations with Napoleon, historically—to go along with him. There are many political undercurrents (which I didn't put into the book) that were going on historically at the time, which encouraged the Turks to align themselves with the French. The Russians, who were British allies, were threatening the Ottoman Empire from the north at this time. The Turks actually had very good sensible reasons for aligning themselves with the French. The unscrupulous part of it, of course, is that they kept the gold and refused to hand over the eggs. This was a deliberate political choice on their part because they really saw Napoleon as being about to sweep the board, which in fact they were quite correct about because he proceeded to do so in the rest of Black Powder War.
RF: So pretty much everyone at the time thought Napoleon was the better bet.
NN: Yes. It's hard now, because hindsight is always 20/20, so when you read a lot of historical analyses of the time period, many of them sort of say, "Well, the seeds of Napoleon's defeat were already present." After Trafalgar, the British Navy was entirely dominant and there was no chance for Napoleon to invade England anymore. So the British could essentially defy him with impunity, and the British were vastly more wealthy and industrialized than virtually any of the other nations on the continent, and they were pouring money into the fight against Napoleon. In a way, as long as the British were willing to keep going, they could just keep the fight going against Napoleon. Emotionally, at the time, the way it feels is that here's Napoleon, who's rolling up every army he comes across. You really have to understand that all the news, every time you picked up a newspaper, was about Napoleon winning another battle and seeming completely invincible. You really can't envision people at the time not feeling that he was just unstoppable, even though many British politicians did not feel that way and really did take the long view.
NN: I think that's a fair description. If you take the things I love from Anne McCaffrey and Master and Commander, certainly those are two direct lines of descent. If you draw the family tree of the book, you can see Patrick O'Brian and C. S. Forrester and Anne McCaffrey are sort of the first set of godparents, and then there are all of the slightly more distant relatives around it in a cloud. Certainly I am very flattered by that comparison and would be very happy if people felt that way, since those are some of the books that I have loved.
RF: Are there any influences that you think are less apparent but have been very important to you?
NN: Let me think. Actually, one thing that I think is less apparent is Robin McKinley's Damar books, The Hero and The Crown and The Blue Sword. The Blue Sword in particular is just wonderful as having this colonial character—not exactly British, but there's this historical flavor to it—and just wonderful characters that you're excited by and you want to know what's going on. The feel of those books certainly has enchanted me, I would say, and that kind of feeling is something that I definitely have tried to capture myself to some extent. I do think that's not necessarily as obvious an influence.
RF: There's obviously the fourth book in the works. Where are you going from there?
NN: I do take as my model, in terms of the structure of the series, the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, which basically went for twenty books and the twenty-first was published posthumously, not quite complete; and really, each individual book—although sometimes he spread a plot over a couple of books—but each book would have its own plot, its own adventure, and then of course all of them together formed the arc of the lives of these two characters, Aubrey and Maturin, through the whole series of events. In many ways I wanted to emulate that partly because for myself, when I'm rereading them, I can pick up one book out from anywhere in the series and sit down and read it and enjoy it as a whole. As I was reading them the first time, I actually read them out of order and still enjoyed them tremendously and didn't feel lost. I feel that that's a good way to do it, because otherwise, if you have a really long ongoing series, if you're ending each book with a cliffhanger and you have this plot that just keeps stretching out, I feel like the plot ends up being unwieldy and the readers can get lost and it's kind of unfair to be constantly leaving your reader hanging with your characters by their fingernails off the edge of a cliff.
I have ideas through the next three books, pretty concrete ideas of what I want to do, and that's what we've agreed on with Del Rey, that we're doing another three-book deal. Those are going to be coming out a little more slowly, one a year for the next three years, so that I have time to write something else in between.
RF: That was going to be my next question, whether this is the project you're married to for the rest of your life.
NN: No, not at all! I do want to explore other projects. I love Laurence and Temeraire and want to stay with them as long as I keep getting story ideas, but partly I don't want to get pigeonholed and partly I do tend to write quickly and I do find that it refreshes me to turn to other things in between, so I'd like to try writing either stand-alone novels or another series interwoven in between the Temeraire books.
RF: Is it also going to be fantasy or are you branching out?
NN: I don't have a contract for the next thing yet, but currently the idea that's at the top of my mental stack is an urban fantasy set in New York, and then there's another, more science fiction story that I'd like to tell. Those are two different ideas that are currently high on the list.
RF: Has the quick fame gone to your head at all?
NN: Thankfully, I have friends who are under instructions to hit me with things if my head starts getting too big to fit through the doorway! But I have to say, it's been amazing to have this kind of response to the books. One thing that I try to do for myself is just keep my LiveJournal open, and that allows anybody to come and post there, so I really feel like I still have a pipeline to individual readers, because many people do just come and give me their comments.
Really, it's just been an amazing ride. I'm having a ton of fun. It still kind of seems improbable and wonderful to me that I'm getting paid to tell these stories. To me, the wonderful thing about this success is that it means Del Rey wants to publish more of my books, that I can keep doing this, because really I haven't enjoyed doing anything half as much as this.
RF: Are there any questions you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do, or anything you want to put out there for the people who will be reading this?
NN: As you know, I'm a big fan of fan fiction and a big fan of seeing people engage with the source, so I totally encourage readers to check out the communities on LiveJournal and the Internet, and enjoy imagining their own versions of adventures in these worlds.
RF: That's remarkably generous of you, given that you can't actually read the fan fiction yourself.
NN: That's true. I actually keep meaning to—I haven't had time—to get in touch with some of the people at the Creative Commons to figure out if there's some way that I could use a Creative Commons license to allow people to write fanfiction which I could then read without jeopardy. 99% of fans are going to be perfectly reasonable and understand that if I happen to write about something that they wrote about in their fanfic story, it's really not that I was stealing their idea; it's just one of those things that happens coincidentally. The fact is, people have the same idea constantly, and it really is about execution. The problem is, of course, that the cost of getting involved in the legal issues is such a tremendous cost in time and money and personal stress that you're not going to risk it. I can read fanfic about other people's stuff instead.
And in many ways, I have to say, I don't necessarily want to read fanfiction for my own universe because if I did read something that I thought was a great idea, I would then feel uncomfortable about using it even if I would have come up with the idea on my own. I would feel inhibited about it and I don't want that. So in many ways I don't mind that I can't read it. I'm perfectly happy for other people to read it and enjoy it and have fun with it.