Quill and Quire

Michelle Sagara

« Back to
Author Profiles

God in all worlds

Entire lands spring from the mind of SF writer Michelle Sagara, but her inspiration draws from Earth

Michelle Sagara is sitting in an absolutely average chair in what would appear to be, except for the hundreds of fantasy and science fiction novels on the bookshelves, an absolutely average study. But she’s not here. Not in the if-I’m-really-quiet-those-census-people-will-go-away kind of not here. Sagara is describing her next book and she is in another world, a dimension that breathes, for now, only in her mind.

The book, to be called Broken Crown, will be her seventh fantasy novel, the third using her married name, Michelle West. In addition to writing, Sagara, 33, is the manager of Bakka Book Shoppe, a science fiction specialty store in Toronto. And Sagara talks like someone who has watched thousands of would-be readers wander around, looking at covers, picking up books and thumbing through them. It has given her the ability to separate the writing and creation of books from their marketing and selling.

“Working in a bookstore has done a certain amount of things for the way that I view the other half of the business. There are actually three sides of the business – there is the publishing side, there is the selling side, and there is the writing side.

“I have a sense that nothing that happens in the business is personal. If this book doesn’t sell, it means the book didn’t sell. It doesn’t necessarily mean it was terrible, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t great.”

Which is why her approach to her own novels goes beyond the imagining of worlds, editor meetings, and revisions. When you choose books for an entire store, you learn the tricks, even if they are slightly clichéd and involve judging books by their covers.

Broken Crown will be released in a year’s time. It is partly based on some of the settings created for Sagara’s recent duology, Hunter’s Oath and Hunter’s Death. How the three books will be linked seems rather complicated – she holds her hands above her head and traces out a time line to frame the proceedings, jumping from one fictional land to another. Her voice, usually so soft it’s barely registered by the tape recorder on the table, gets even softer as she talks about her characters and the worlds they inhabit. These quiet periods, however, are often interrupted by bursts of fast-talking when she is inspired by a creation that either didn’t react quite the way it should or went especially well.

There is a lot of fast-talking when the subject is the Hunter novels, the latest published in early June by Daw Books. The duology concentrates on the “Hunter-born,” but there are other “borns” – entire races of people born to heal, born to adjudicate, like a whole land of royal families who can actually do something. Sagara places emphasis on the heroes’ values – overcoming the evil is one thing, being true to one’s oath is a more important other. She attempts to create, she says, an environment that embodies “honour, ethics, a sense of duty, things upon which worlds can be saved or new worlds can be built.”

The builder she mentions most is J.R.R. Tolkein. She credits him with providing the “imaginative pillar” of her writing life, beginning when she was quite young. As the other kids settled down with their Judy Blumes, Sagara opened C.S. Lewis to visit Narnia and hefted The Lord of the Rings around in her book bag.

“When we were kids and playing with imaginary friends,” she says, “mine were flying horses and things of that ilk.”

Describing the process behind turning those flying horses into novels, Sagara dispels a few misconceptions about the fantasy genre. For example, you might think the art in writing fantasy is in the rendering of a world – the more complex the social structure the better. Add a few maps, conjure up some wacky names that may or may not be your mother’s maiden name spelled backwards. Finally, create some characters to quest yonder and about in your manufactured land, being heroic, slaying monsters, and appeasing their gods.

Not exactly, according to Sagara. Like other writers, she takes some of her motivation from the real world, a newspaper story or scene witnessed on the way to work. She doesn’t recreate the events, she says, but the emotions of the people involved. She then divides what she writes into two categories: the intellectual – the planning of plot lines and the construction of her fictional world’s structure; and the emotional – a word she uses often in connection with the characters. The difference is apparent, as Julie Andrews sings it should be, right from the very beginning.

“Beginnings are interesting for me because they are probably the most intellectual part of a book,” she says. “I don’t write as well intellectually as I do emotionally. When you’re writing the beginning, you want a really good line, a really good place to start.”

Her best opening chapter, she says, is in Hunter’s Death. It’s her favourite because it started out as a later chapter but was given top billing when a prologue was thrown away – it is therefore more a study of the characters than an attempt at “a really good place to start.” Sometimes this reliance on her intuition, on what she thinks the characters might do once she gets to know them, changes what was originally planned in those time lines traced in the air.

“Intellectually, if I think I know what is going to happen, I still don’t know emotionally. You can have two characters interacting in a way you just didn’t expect at all. You get these incredible twists that you didn’t expect,” she says. “But they’re better than what you were thinking of doing by such a huge margin – there’s an element of truth to them.”