Friday, June 19, 2009

Patricia Wrede's thinking as she wrote THE THIRTEENTH CHILD

For some time now, I've wondered about the correspondence that takes place between a writer and his/her editor when the author's manuscript has Native content. It could be a main character, or a minor one. It could be setting, or, the story could reference Native history or culture. I cast a broad net. I want to know what they say about that content, if they say anything at all, if there's a pause about it or not. With the Internet, there are opportunties to access a writer's thinking.

Today's post is a look at Patricia Wrede's thoughts as she wrote The Thirteenth Child. Below are excerpts from rec.arts.sf.composition, a Google group about "the writing and publishing of speculative fiction."

The thread from which I'm excerpting the passages is called "Renaming Europe." It was started by Wrede. On rec.arts.sf.composition, Wrede's words are not in italics. I'm presenting them in italics here in order to distinguish them from my words.

Feb. 3, 2006, 10:09 PM
I'm currently in the middle of developing some alternate-history background, for a book set in a very alternate mid-1800s U.S.-equivalent-with-magic, and I find myself wanting very much to have plausible alternative names for "Europe," England/Britain," "France," "Holland/The Netherlands," "Spain," and possibly a few other major European countries, preferrably ones that haven't been over-used already (like "Albion" for England), but at least some of which are more-or-less recognizeable (like "Albion" and "Gaul" and "Hispania"). I don't have enough linguistic or historical background to get away from the really obvious myself, so...suggestions? Brian, Zeborah, anybody?

Someone asked her "is there also an important historical difference, like alternative origins of the first European settlers?" To this, she said:

Feb 3, 2006, 11:36 PM
The current plan is to have the primary difference before 1492 be that the various pre-historic attempts to colonize the Americas were unsuccessful; thus, no Mayans, Incas, Aztecs, Mississippi Valley civilization, or Native Americans of any sort. Up to that point, I expect differences in Europe, Africa, and Asia will be due mainly to this world having magic, and I expect to wiggle things so that things are moderately close to Real Life history. The absence of an indiginous population in the Americas is obviously going to have a significant impact on the way things develop during the exploration and colonization period, and I'm still feeling my way through how I'm going to finagle that to get to where I want.

Which is, basically: A North America in which the threat of Indians was replaced by the threat of un-extinct megafauna, both magical and non-magical in nature (mammoths, wooly rhinocerouses, terror birds, dire wolves, dragons [what else would prey on mammoths and wooly rhinos?]). The U.S. was settled and had a successful revolution and a civil war, but the westward expansion has been slower and stalled for a while at the Mississippi for various reasons. Nobody has yet mapped all the way to the Pacific (I'm thinking of making California an island, the way it was depicted on early maps, but I haven't decided yet); the Lewis and White expedition never came back (no Sacajawea, plus did I mention that the Rockies are a favorite nesting ground for dragons?) East of the Mississippi, the megafauna have mostly been cleared out, especially in settled areas, though the backwoods parts of the country are still pretty dangerous. (Suggestions for place names that can substitute for Indian-language-origin names like Ohio, Chicago, Mississippi, Michigan, etc. are also welcome...)

I know the "feel" I'm after; now I need to work out some plausible backstory
to get me there.

Did you catch that? She said, "A North America in which the threat of Indians was replaced by the threat of un-extinct megafauna." And see what she said in parens? She wanted suggestions for words like Chicago, which are Native words.

Feb 4, 2006, 9:14 AM
The trick, I'm finding, is coming up with names that are sufficiently different, but that don't cause a sort of cognitive dissonance when combined in the same story with names that *would*, very likely, be the same, like Washington and Virginia and Carolina. Of course, I can change those, too, but then I really start to lose the feel I want. It's a delicate balancing act.

Selective erasure! What "feel" is she after?! In the ensuing discussion, someone said "If you nudge history just a little bit in the right place, you'd still have an Angevin Empire." To this, she said:

Feb 4, 2006, 2:38 PM
I don't want to nudge European history until 1492. It's going to be enough trouble to figure out four centuries of alternate history; backing up *another* 500 years or so is more than I really want to do.

Hmmm.... note the use of word "trouble" --- what does that mean? She's willing to mess with our history, but not hers. There was discussion about food, like corn, potatoes, beans... Some angst expressed over not being able to have chocolate, because it was developed by indigenous people. Without indigenous people, no chocolate. As I read through the thread, participants (fellow writers?) in rec.arts.sf.composition were quite engaged with her premise, fleshing it out. So far, nobody saying 'HEY.' As the group talked about names for European countries, someone asked if she wanted the names anglicised, and, asked about the language she would use. She replied:

Feb 5, 2006, 10:32 AM
English, so yes, pretty much anglicised. The *plan* is for it to be a "settling the frontier" book, only without Indians (because I really hate both the older Indians-as-savages viewpoint that was common in that sort of book, *and* the modern Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint that seems to be so popular lately, and this seems the best way of eliminating the problem, plus it'll let me play with all sorts of cool megafauna). I'm not looking for wildly divergent history, because if it goes too far afield I won't get the right feel. Not that it'll be all that similar anyway; no writing plan survives contact with the characters, and it's already starting to morph.

I don't have to change *all* the European names, but I really, really, really want an alternative to "England." There are already too many people who want to force the Mairelon books and the Kate and Cecy books and even Caroline's "College of Magics" books to be in the same universe, and I'm *not* going to make it easy for them to stick this book in the same pile.

In that passage, she gives us evidence that she knows about problems with the ways that American Indians are presented. Rather than "trouble" (a word she used earlier in the discussion) herself with working through this, she decided to "eliminate" Indians. She's leery of where people will "stick" her book, but it is not Native readers she's worried about.

Early on, someone asked her about the Aleuts and Eskimos, and then someone said that they'd seen a "programme" (must be a Brit) that traced the Clovis people to France or northern Spain. That individual then said "Skin boats, Inuit technology, they would find the Atlantic no problem. Stone Age people were pretty impressive." To this, Wrede replied:

Feb 5, 2006, 10:44 AM
That's why I abandoned my original idea, which was just to have had no land bridge. There are too many other possible settlement routes for that to account for *no* human presence in the Americas prior to 1492. The current plan is to beef up the nastiness of some of the megafauna, to the point where all previous colonization attempts up to and including the Viking "Vinland" settlement failed because they got trampled or eaten or something. (From my research so far, this won't be all that tough to do...) By 1492+, the combination of magic and technology (i.e., guns) is good enough that people can make headway, though it's still not exactly easy. I may slow down technological development just a tad, on the grounds of that being a side-effect of having magic to do certain things (though I think I could just as easily use that as a justification for speeding up technological advances, if I wanted to. But for this story, I don't want to).

Then, again on the name for England, someone suggested "Angleterre", which is a French word for England, and, the individual said "...using the French name for England would be... _not very British!_ Wrede replied:

Feb 5, 2006, 11:00 AM
Well, yeah, there's that... And I *don't* want to have to change history very much just to get a name.

I take that to mean that she doesn't want to raise the ire of her Brit readers. There was some discussion about calling the Louisiana territory "New Egypt", and an "Alas, there wont [sic] be any Natchez nor mounds to really base an Egypt comparison on." and then, "...assuming that the Euro settlers still import african [sic] slaves, then I can imagine some explicitly Exodus-from-Egypt related gospel lyrics." Wrede's response to that is:

Feb 5, 2006, 11:15 AM
I'm currently assuming there will be African slaves, possibly even more (since there won't be any Native Americans to have already done a certain amount of prepping land for human occupation, nor to be exploited later). I'm speculating that South America (which is outside the scope of the story I'm doing, and therefore wide open for changes) will look *very* different. The Spanish seem to have been initially motivated by all the gold they swiped from the Aztecs; I'm not sure they'd have been as forward about claiming territory and establishing colonies without that. Which means there's room for all sorts of other nations (including maybe some that weren't quite so into seafaring, like the Ottoman Empire) to have New World colonies, which is in turn going to change things back home in Europe...

At this point in her thinking, she needs more African slaves to do the work that Indians had done, and, she needs them to exploit later since the people she's imagining will need to exploit SOMEONE. Someone of color, that is...

Somewhere along the thread, Wrede said that sea serpents make crossing the Pacific difficult for her Europeans, and someone suggested that those same sea serpents could be used to explain why Indians didn't get there via the land bridge. Wrede replies:

Feb 5, 2006, 2:14 pm
I definitely have to do something about migrations, but since they come from both directions (trans-Pacific *and* trans-Atlantic), I think I need to kill them off after they arrive. Unless I want to make Columbus' voyage (and subsequent Atlantic crossings) a whole lot more dangerous than they were, which would interfere *too* much with post-1492 colonization.

She will kill off her sea serpents so they don't interfere with Columbus...

Later, someone suggests having the Indians killed off by disease or parasite. Wrede replies:

Feb. 9, 2006, 4:00 PM
I'm not fond of the disease-or-parasite solution; it raises too many other questions (like why it didn't spread the *other* way across the Bering Straights and depopulate Asia and eventually Africa and Europe -- we're talking around 20,000 years here, remember). Being eaten on arrival is a nice, effective, tidy solution without much in the way of additional complications.

She rejects that suggestion because she wants to be effective and tidy, without complications, and revisits the sea creature possibility, saying:

Feb 9, 2006, 4:00 PM
What I really need, though, is a coastal-water predator, or possibly two, with limited range. One that sticks to cold water, to patrol the Alaska coastline and maybe part of the northern Russian coast, but that won't go far enough south to mess up the development of Japan and the Pacific Islanders; one that sticks to warmer waters, to patrol from about Vancouver down to South America without going around the tip and spreading into the Atlantic. At the least, I want *something* nasty in the California Channel.

A few hours later, she writes:

Feb 9, 2006, 10:08 PM
Of course, the Gold Rush is going to be considerably later and more dangerous in this world...

More dangerous? She must not know much about it and the lives of California's indigenous people during the mad rush of the rush.

From there, the group talked about research sources, discussing merits of Wikipedia, and sharing a lot of information and resources. The thread ended soon after that. Her book came out in the spring of 2009.

Reading through rec.arts.sf.composition, it is clear that Wrede is helpful to others there, participating in discussions, answering questions. It looks to me like a supportive space for writers to work through ideas. All of that is a plus for Wrede. She's a well-established writer helping other writers, and that is terrific.

Given her influence and standing, I wonder how much impact she'd have on the field if she reflected, publicly, on the controversy over her novel? I think there's a lot to learn from it. Learning that could shift the field forward in the United States and elsewhere, too. Her books are translated and sold around the world (an example from her website..." DEALING WITH DRAGONS, first volume in the Chronicles of the Enchanted Forest, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, September, 1990. Children's hardcover. Mass Market
paperback from Scholastic Books, July, 1992. Danish trade paperback edition, DRAGEPRINSESSEN, Gyldendal, 1991. British mass market paperback, DRAGONSBANE, from Scholastic publications, 1993. Swedish hardcover edition PRINSESSA SOKER DRAKE, Raben & Sjogren, 1995. Russian edition, 1996. Finnish edition, ICBS, 2001. French, CENDORINE ET LES DRAGONS, Beyard Jeunesse, 2004. Korean, Daekyo Publishing, 2004. Indonesian, Kaifa for Teens, 2004. Thai, Tuttle-Mori, 2004.
Russian, Azbuka, 2004."

See that? Impressive! There is obviously a huge market for her books. She could really make a difference...

(Note: At the top of this post is a hyperlink to the Google group discussion. I invite you to read the entire discussion. Words are always open to interpretation.)


Anonymous said...

I'm not the author of the post, but I thought you might like to know that Wrede has commented on the controversy.

Carole McDonnell said...

Did I see that clearly? Did she write "Lewis and White" expedition? Doesn't she mean "Lewis and Clark?" Why did she Freudian slip "white"?

Anonymous said...

I just want to scream every time I see that line about "prepping the land for human habitation." Because American Indians weren't living there, and weren't even really human! They were just helping out before the real colonists arrived!

Unknown said...

Apologies for necroposting, but I've wondered, ever since I read Thirteenth Child, what Wrede's thought process was behind eliminating indigenous peoples from her alternate US. I decided not to continue with the series after that first book, though I have wondered if maybe she reversed that decision as a second-book plot twist, letting the reader know that--surprise!--This continent IS inhabited after all! And the people are totally awesome, having had to carve out a culture that could coexist with megafauna! And now I know that not only did she not do that, but that her rationale behind the setup she used was....unfortunate, to put it lightly.

Which saddens me, because an alternate US where Native Americans have coexisted with Columbian sphinxes and dire wolves for centuries could have been AMAZING. Think about how cool that would have been. Instead, she took the more Eurocentric route.