Writing The Grass King's Concubine
One afternoon, in around 2002, I sat down at my desk and wrote a single line. That line read: "They were not witches". I had no idea where it had come from, or what it was about. I did have an idea about who "they" might be: not human, not mortal, not everyday. I sat and stared at the line, and after a while a second line appeared, and a third and a fourth, until I had a whole scene, and two astonishing (to me, anyway) characters. Their names were Yelena and Julana, and they were shapeshifters, ferrets who could, if they wished, appear as women. They were twins and they had been exiled to a place called The Stone House by the Grass King.
I knew who the Grass King was. He's one of the lords of the five elemental domains – earth, air, fire, water, darkness – of the world in which I set Living With Ghosts. The twins were his servants and pets, and they guarded a door – the Stone House itself – from possible human incursions. Over the next months – and, it transpired, years – I slowly discovered why the twins were there, and what they wanted.
Every book starts with a question, it seems. That was mine. Of course, for every one I answered, a new one appeared. Why was the Grass King worried? Who might want to pass through the door? And why would they want that? The answers came, some quickly, some slowly. Once before, someone had come in through that door, and their actions had had worrying consequences which involved the twins. That was Marcellan, the wanderer, the scholar, the man whose Books underpin the religion of the world, and whose legacy is one of the things Gracielis is dealing with in Ghosts. Hard on Marcellan's heels came the Cadre, the Grass King's supernatural bodyguard.
I already knew about the Cadre. They had started in a novel I'd abandoned in the nineties, when I realised I had characters but did not know their story. Now, with the twins and the Stone House, the story came, too.
The story was Aude, the heroine of the book. Born to wealth and power, Aude has everything she wants – apart from the right to choose who she marries, and the answers to her questions about the world in which she lives. Why are her family rich when so many others are poor? Why are the mill-owners and foundry-masters so harsh to their employees? And what – and where – is the strange shining place she glimpsed in her childhood, and what does it want with her? Her search for answers brings her to the great steppe, on which the Stone House stands and to the Rice Palace, home of the Grass King, dragged there by the Cadre, who blame her for the damage that has grown in their world. She is followed by Jehan, her soldier lover, who is led by the twins to find her.
My elevator pitch for The Grass King's Concubine became "it's Orpheus and Eurydice, with the French Revolution and ferrets and an astronomical water clock". It turned about to be about loss and treachery, about the power of printing and the strength of love, human and otherwise, about water and time and obsession. My research for it took me down some unexpected roads, to the history of printing and ways of mapping the sky, the daily water needs of steppe horses and the grooming habits of ferrets, the origins of industrial capitalism and the competing theories of property. I had a lot of fun – and I learnt a great deal writing it, though I sometimes looked at it, and thought "this book is very weird".
I still think it's weird, but in (I hope) a good way. Luckily for me, DAW thought so too. I hope readers find something to enjoy in it also.