On writing The Collarbound
In theory, I am all for the death of the author. Once I’ve written a book, I want it to belong to my readers, and become what they want it to become. I don’t think what I bring to the story is as interesting as what the readers bring to it.
This being said, I spend a third of my time writing, a third of my time reading, and a third of my time thinking about what I’ve written or read recently. And I love talking about the messy threads going through my mind as I work, the themes I see emerging, the patterns that tend to repeat themselves. None of the below is gospel truth. All of it can be discarded if it doesn’t fit your vision of the book.
But, for those who care, here are some thoughts on The Collarbound, which might be fun to read before or after reading the novel (I’m applying a strict no-spoilers policy). No need to read the books to understand them, either – they’re just articles on my writing, a bit more personal than those which concern my reading.
Sometimes people around us can see much more clearly into our work than ourselves. When I was working on The Collarbound, I remember not really knowing, at first, what I was trying to say, exactly, why I was so absorbed with these characters. After reading a first draft, my partner said it was obvious why this story was close to my heart. “Of course you wrote it. None of these characters belong.”
And it’s true – the main characters are all uprooted, with mixed identities.
In retrospect, it makes sense why I wrote a story of not-belonging. It also explains why I connected so strongly with Octavia Butler’s work. Her main characters and couples are nearly always mixed-raced, from the main couple in Kindred to the family in Clay’s Ark, to the fact that Parable of the Sower addresses the difficulty of not belonging clearly to one group face-on, when one character tells another: “Mixed couples catch hell whether people think they’re gay or straight. Harry’ll piss off all the blacks and you’ll piss off all the whites. Good luck.”
In The Collarbound, the two main POV characters are Tatters and Isha. Tatters is a man who’s fled his birthplace, who doesn’t currently live or work in his mother tongue, who has put a lot of distance between himself and his past. He’s White, but grew up on the Sunriser side of the Edge, which is inspired by East Asian culture and uses Sanskrit roots for its fantasy language (more about languages in fantasy in a further article, I promise!) And Isha is a mixed-heritage characters, who visibly doesn’t belong in the Duskdweller kingdom (which has a more traditional European fantasy setting, and a language more inspired by Proto-Germanic, for those of you who are curious about those things).
Aside from their backgrounds, these two characters are people who struggle to identify with only one faction. There is a lot of bickering between factions in the book, and a lot of underlying tensions between groups and cultures waiting for a spark to turn into a full-blown fight. Isha is part of the group of mages who rule over the land, or at least she is affiliated with them, but she is treated like a foreigner. She identifies with the people they treat as outcasts. At the same time, she can never truly belong to any of the outcast groups, not when she benefits from the privileges of being a mage.
Tatters is similar. He is involved with a lot of people – the mages who rule the city, the khers who live in the Pit, the ungifted people who simply manage the day-to-day chores the mages think they are too good for – but he belongs to none of these groups.
And delving into secondary characters, I find that the same themes keep appearing: I am most interested in people who live across two cultures, who have to strain to find balance between tribes. We meet a guardswoman at the Nest, who works as law enforcement for the mages, but is a kher, the species which the mages spit on most – and she spends the story torn between her family and her work. We also meet a man who is both a foreigner and a mage, who also has to manage this intersectional identity.
I remember discussing our work with my sister, and she noticed that she always created mixed-race couples in fiction. I pointed out that none of my characters managed to have one clean, clear label. Maybe that’s also why the graphic novel Saga by Brian Vaughan & Fiona Staples connected with us as much. Saga is entirely focused on star-crossed, Romeo and Juliet sort of lovers – but specifically, on their daughter. On their attempt at having a family which lives in that in-between space between two sides of a war. I suspect, as the world becomes more globalised and more people find themselves living at the intersection of several cultures, we will have even more need of these stories, which represent people in all their messy complexity.
When I was writing the novel, I remembered the question, or problem, which sparked the writing. What happens when the people who have the right ideals – by all accounts, the good guys – are using terrible violence to get what they want? Does the end really, truly justify the means?
So, I created a world where the power in place was, to some extent, evil. And I created rebels with the right ideals – and who were horrible in the way they implemented their solutions. And I created characters who existed somewhere across those lines, who believed in one thing, but didn’t want to succumb to the failings of either group.
Having dumped all those ingredients in, I let the pot simmer and boil, hoping for the best.
In The Collarbound, there are no easy allegiances. Coming from a mixed background, with heritage from three different countries, all of which have conflictual, not always positive legacies – from Britain’s and France’s colonies to Iran’s current position on women’s rights, there is a lot both positive and negative to take from all the countries which shaped me – I think it’s obvious, in retrospect, why I chose to tell a story where there was no easy way out. This great staple of fantasy (and most fiction), the loyal group of friends, the found family which one can always trust to make the good choices… just doesn’t exist.
There are no good guys. My characters cannot simply find their people, confident that as long as they are with the good guys they are doing the right thing.
They have to realise there is no ‘good guys’ team, and still find out how to do the right thing.
7 Dec. 21
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