Tamsyn Muir Interview: “There is a lot of blood on my dance floor.”
TAMSYN MUIR is the bestselling author of the Locked Tomb Trilogy, which begins with Gideon the Ninth, continues with Harrow the Ninth, and concludes with Alecto the Ninth.
Her short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Eugie Foster Memorial Award.
Tamsyn talked with our editor Olivia Hofer about Gideon the Ninth, dark fanfiction, and writing a book for your seventeen-year-old self.
Let’s start with yourself: who is Tamsyn Muir?
This is the most difficult question ever. In desperation, I googled “who is Tamsyn Muir” in case anyone had any ideas, and found by dint of some mechanical translation error somewhere —
TAMSYN MUIR is a loathsomeness
— which I love more than life and need to print on all my letterheads. I mean, it’s not wrong, although it removes some nuance. Who am I? I kind of cast around desperately looking around the room to see if it had some hints, and I ended up fixating on the fact that on my current music playlist I still have a three-minute-long techno remix of the Hamster Dance. It’s been there since, like, 2005. Am I wildly lazy, or yearning for early-noughties nostalgia?
I just listened to it and it segues into “Cotton Eye Joe” in the middle so I’m just wildly lazy. This is terrible. It’s not a good remix. It is ugly to the ear.
How was it to grow up as a creative lesbian woman? What difficulties did you face?
I grew up in a fairly conservative community with the shadows of lesbian family deaths and trauma hanging over me. My great-aunt was an old-school horse butch who lived through deeply unhappy circumstances and her story kept being passed down in the family circle as a proof of gay tragedy. Another cousin committed suicide around the time I was coming out. My own coming-out was difficult in a way that I haven’t found the words to talk about yet, although my older brother, who I came out of the closet to first in like 2001, was so charming and so loving and so sweet about it that anyone watching got tooth decay. But I knew I was gay by the time the millennium turned, and the late nineties were more gruesome to young queers than I think we remember. I also came out at school, and it was terrible, and the one time I shot my mouth in response to being bullied I got the absolute shit kicked out of me — the teacher had left the room briefly, and everyone in my class watched as I got my head rammed into my desk for like a minute. There were kids in there I’d known since I was eight years old. Nobody said a word during, nobody moved, nobody said a word to me after. And I didn’t say a goddamned word about it to anyone, because I had my pride, and probably also a minor concussion.
What this has to do with being a creative lesbian woman is that I was not creative in public, is what I am saying. I wrote a bit of public-consumption poetry for the school magazine. I went online and I wrote, a lot, and I wasn’t even queer there. I was terribly frightened. I only wrote lesbian stories in a coven of other queer girls behind locked Livejournal walls. It would be years before I wrote f/f publicly in fanfiction, and it took me until 2015 to submit an actual lesbian story for publication.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you’ve been writing your entire life, and that, like many others, you wrote a lot of fanfiction. I remember the times when writers wouldn’t (or couldn’t) admit they wrote fanfiction. On top of that, many authors wish for their work not to be used by fanfiction writers. You, however, said that you’re excited to hear there’s Gideon the Ninth fanfiction out there. What’s your opinion on fanfiction now that your novel has been out for a while?
Ha! This makes me feel old, because I remember the times when loads of writers admitted they wrote fanfiction! Back on the ancient Star Wars fanfic sites, people wrote under their real names, and the gender split was pretty even — Star Wars might’ve been special because those were Timothy Zahn days, I think lots of people were vaguely hoping they might become ascended fans and that their Mara Jade epic might actually see the light of day in published format. Many people also wrote under their real names for Gargoyles, too — that was the mid-nineties. I used to browse Station 8 and read some unbelievably high-brow stuff that I was frankly too young to read, but these were good and nuanced and tightly plotted epic stories, things to be really proud of. And then fanfic became synonymous with ‘women’s writing’, and synonymous with ‘pornography’ and, worse still, ‘women’s pornography’, and for some reason its stock is at rock bottom.
I mentioned shortly after the book came out that the greatest tragedy of my life was that I couldn’t read any Gideon the Ninth fanfiction for legal reasons. I seem to have a small and extraordinarily talented fanbase. How could I be anything other than delighted? I hope to God they find any joy in it whatsoever. I know lots of people don’t wish for their work to be used by fanfiction writers. I think that should be respected. I mean, I think their reasons are wrongheaded and that they totally misunderstand what is going on, but the fanfiction community is generally generous with people who say they don’t want stuff written about their property. I hope my fandom is writing long serious epics, and writing parody pieces that make me look stupid, and weird porn, and ships I never saw coming.
I say I never read any but one of my oldest friends sent me a few paragraphs of his Gideon the Ninth fanfiction masterpiece. It was mean as. He coined the term ‘bonemerang’, and made fun of there being too many characters. He is banned from writing fanfiction, and my opinion on his fanfiction is that it is offensive to me, and bad. Everyone else is fine.
Recently, people stumbled over some of your darker fanfiction. Do you think writers should be allowed to explore the darker sides of humanity? Or is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed?
There are no lines that should not be crossed. There is nothing that should not be written about. This is not to say that all Art with a capital A is beyond critique, but all works, whether fanfiction or professionally published, need to be taken on a case-by-case basis. There can be no bright lines, not even with abhorrent words or concepts. I am currently playing a video game with some of the best writing I’ve read in the last ten years — not ‘best video game writing’, but best writing, full stop. It’s called Disco Elysium, and it’s written by the Estonian novelist Robert Kurvitz. Kurvitz is my age and English isn’t even his first language, so he just ought to be banned for making the rest of us look bad.
One of the game’s conceits is that the ‘f-ggot’ slur is thrown around, a lot, though whenever it’s spoken in voice acting it is censored, which I think is genius. The games uses ‘f-ggot’ as this almost transformational identity, and I think the reason it’s bleeped is because what the word and concept is differs wildly from person to person, and even what the person thinks can differ wildly day to day. It is some of the most refreshing and exciting queer writing I have read in an age. There are wildly homophobic characters, there are subtly homophobic characters, you as the protagonist get a say. I have not played anything so radical in a while, and I’ve played a lot of radical queer games. I’ve also played a lot of games that were numinously and kind of limply queer-positive that would have honestly rather sat themselves in the garbage can than used a word so unkind as f-ggot, and most of them did not exhilarate me like Disco Elysium does. And the game is not even a game advertised with queer concerns at its heart! And yet, and yet.
Back to me. I raised comment because I wrote a fanfic where a thirteen-year-old girl is groomed and sexually abused by, and I’m fumbling for context here, a much older iteration of her best male friend. Think of the girl and her best male friend as clones, and the older man in this case the genetic original; she herself is a clone of someone the man was unrequitedly in love with. This is all sounding pretty SFF; I should’ve tried to rewrite it and flog it. The rapist is the POV protagonist: he explicitly and with intent grooms and abuses his quarry, which is perhaps a little heavy for source material where the running joke is that we don’t know where a pumpkin is. The story ends with him being murdered by his teenage clone in revenge.
The accusation was that the story was intended to titillate, as it was written on a kinkmeme. (For the uninitiated: a ‘kink meme’ is where people anonymously request porn fanfiction, or ‘fills’, but oftentimes a kink meme sags away from porn and becomes a place for funny-story fills, for gen fills, for romance or shippy fills. In my time there I ended up writing one piece of mild pornography, four ‘gen’ stories with nary a kiss, the sexual-grooming story I mentioned up there, and a sonnet sequence.) The story was written because someone had requested ‘age gap kink’. I put it up on AO3 rated E for Explicit (you have to click a little box that says you are not under 18 when you try to read it). It is also tagged as ‘child abuse’, ‘rape’, and ‘underage’. I apologise in the author’s note for writing a darker story than requested by the requestor: they were so kind about it, and it was not intended as a kind of “take this, pervert” comeback. I thought the request was really interesting. I wanted to write about the complications of an alien race who have, in their canon work, been separated from the younger members of their race on account of the adults being physically overpowering and violent; I wanted to write the interaction of an older out-of-time predator with a much younger, idealistic girl with big ideas of revolution and no actual concept of the kind of monsters she’s dealing with. I also definitely wanted to write about a thirteen-year-old boy who sees himself reflected in his much older predecessor, watches his best friend get taken in and abused by the same, and violently rejects it. It’s a nasty story. The end revenge is, at best, pyrrhic, and it is certainly not the girl’s revenge. The title is taken from Lolita, from the final couplet of Humbert Humbert’s Wanted poem: And I shall be dumped where the weed decays/And the rest is rust and stardust.
In a very real way I am the wrong person to discuss dark fanfiction with, because I have not written age-gap/underage stories to titillate. I’ve written loads of stories about grooming and sexual abuse, although sometimes it is metaphorical (The Magician’s Apprentice, first published in Weird Tales and edited by the wonderful Ann VanderMeer, is a story that sets up sexual grooming as a throughline but the grooming is for… something else) and sometimes it is not metaphorical (Chew, first published in Nightmare Magazine, edited by the excellent John Joseph Adams — a teenage girl is raped and murdered in post-WWII Stuttgart, and her story begins there). I don’t think anyone talked about my pro fiction in the Tamsyn Muir PSA.
Maybe they didn’t know it was there, but I have a sense that the problem for some people was the fanfiction part: because all fanfic is obviously porn, then if you’re writing fanfic with child abuse, it’s got to be child porn by definition. Like, why would you put anything in a fanfic unless it was to gratify the deepest and most secret desires of yourself and/or your audience. Why would you bake something into a cake unless it was something you wanted to eat? But fanfic doesn’t have to be cake any more than pro fiction does, and I think we’re undervaluing a huge amount of incredible work by assuming it was all done as a kind of baroque variation on jacking off.
It’s also not as easy as “If you’re writing from a place of personal damage, maybe you get to write this.” People have written brilliantly about personal damages they have not suffered. People have personal damage they don’t, can’t, or won’t disclose. Living cheek-by-jowl with rape culture and teen sexualisation, and total dismissal of teenage girls period, is more than enough of an ‘excuse’ to write about sexual abuse one has not suffered physically but has arguably suffered spiritually. Some people are going to write about the topic with the intent to do it in a thorny and damning and complicated way. Some of them are going to write about it with the intent to titillate. Some of them are going to write about it intending both, trying to start a specific conversation with the reader, going for a deliberate effect. For some readers, their hard line is that they don’t want to see any of this stuff, they want to protect teenagers at all costs, they want to stop the people who would use this material to groom and abuse teenagers. However, the community policing seems to start with often-queer, often-female-identified creators, doesn’t interrogate the work itself, and seems to… not leave the community. A critique that begins with soft targets and never rages against hard targets stops looking like any critique at all. Author as leading moral light is a lovely idea, but it was always one that bore down hardest on women and fiction for women. Ladies and their novels, you know? Read Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl. It has some befuddling fucking sermonizing. Know what’s naughty? Fringes
I was not naughty about fringes; I was naughty about paedophilia. It’s not the first time I’ve been accused of being a paedophile. I grew up gay in the nineties. Homosexuality and paedophilia were enmeshed in society’s minds. When I came out, I got told that I shouldn’t be around children. I was used to that because it was common discourse, and it hurt like all hell, but it didn’t shock me. When I got called a paedophile by Twitter I got clotheslined. My support network had to get in pronto. I was very ready to have a hot date with a length of rope, a date I have arranged and cancelled multiple times over my life. I have had lots and lots of therapy over the years for various conditions, some of them lifelong and some not, but when that Twitter call-out happened it was hard to want to live. I thought I knew so intimately what I was doing with my fiction; my therapist was always so supportive of me writing about it. I have not been open about being a CSA survivor because, again, I grew up in the ‘90s. ‘Lesbian’ and ‘CSA survivor’ is just carte blanche so a whole queue of people can tell you, I HOPE ONE DAY, WITH LOVE AND SUPPORT, YOU CAN BE STRAIGHT. It was like, right this way to the invalidation booth.I didn’t even tell most of my girlfriends! I told one! It’s not a topic of discussion between me and my family; I am relying on them not reading my interviews so it can remain where it belongs: thoroughly undiscussed!
In conclusion, I think writers should be allowed to write anything they want, and it is the death of art, especially women’s and queer art, if they can’t. People should simultaneously be allowed to critique all art. Art is there to be critiqued. At the same time, critique does require conversation and analysis, or it isn’t critique. It’s just noise. And for everyone who in full earnest called me out, even though I imagine they are not reading this, I want them to know: let’s be cool. I’m here. I am imperfect, and I have a lot of love for you. I care about the same things you do, and our injuries are alike. Let us weep in each other’s arms like we are in a fucking Midsommar live performance.
For everyone who just played a game of Telephone like “i hate to tell you but i heard all her past fanfic was trash paedo porn”, or was popcorn.gif giggling about how my career was over: not today, Megatron.
You’ve attended Clarion. How did this experience help shape you as a writer?
Clarion helped me take myself seriously. It was my first ‘professional’ workshop — I’d never been to a workshop in New Zealand, I’d never done any creative writing studies. This was an atmosphere where everyone carried themselves as a future professional. We were being taught by some of the luminaries of the business. I got taught by Delia Sherman, and Ellen Kushner, who was there as a plus one and stealth taught us anyway. I got taught by horror master Dale Bailey, and by Samuel R. Delany, and by George R.R. Martin and Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. For a naive Kiwi kid in her twenties, it was like getting to summer camp at Hogwarts.
I was finishing up my teacher training and was about to put my dreams of writing professionally to bed, and then I got to Clarion. It also helped shape me as a technical writer — I spent the next few years doing nothing but short stories, and it improved my craft immensely — and motivated me by putting me in a room with seventeen other people who were very and scarily good. Everyone comments about how good a year 2010 was. Not all of my companions have published or blown up yet, and I expect them to emerge from the earth like very talented locusts and destroy all in sight. But among my less stealthy fellow Clarionites are names like John Chu, Kai Ashante Wilson, Leah Thomas, Kali Wallace, Karin Tidbeck, Greg Bossert. Imagine being at Clarion for the first time and you’re handed your first ream of paper and told it’s a Kai Ashante Wilson story. You just dissolve. Your ego dies.
Gideon the Ninth is your first novel. Did the experience of finding an agent, a publisher, getting your book published meet your expectations? What was different than you expected? What surprised you?
I went a very trad-publishing route and spent a lot of time doing short stories and writing for magazines. I didn’t set out to write a novel, and I got to bypass the whole agent search thing at first when I got approached after one of my novelettes was nominated for the Nebula. I ended up not being in that agent’s wheelhouse and I did have to do the look for an agent thing, and nobody tells you that it is like queuing up to be beaten (announcement: it is like queuing up to be beaten). I didn’t expect that. I ended up getting a really wonderful agent, and a really wonderful publisher, and I am a poster boy for The Positive Queer Experience. I was surprised when Tor.com just straight-up said “We’re leaning into the lesbian thing.” I expected for the gay thing to be crypto, especially as the first Gideon the Ninth is very lesbian but arguably does not contain lesbian romance. Tor.com went straight with Charlie Stross’s wonderful blurb of “Lesbian necromancers!”. Some people have argued that this is misleading (Gideon, the protagonist, is lesbian but not a necromancer) but this is not fair. Gideon sucks all the attention away from the actual, more deserving lesbian necromancers. If she stopped flexing, you’d notice them.
Queer women and women in general (among other groups, of course) are underrepresented in the publishing world. Have you ever felt you struggled more because of your sexual orientation?
Not with publishing Gideon, as seen above, although I think that the genre suffers for being so nascent. I think we forget that. When I say excitedly that I read a bunch of f/f SFF last year, and that so much got published, I mean that like five books got published that I know about. There’s loads of stuff out of the mainstream, in queer imprints and self-pub — and I’ve been enormously grateful to be published in queer presses like Steve Berman’s Lethe Press — but the stuff that’s being advertised in genre, that you DON’T have to go deep-sea diving for, there’s actually not much of it once all is said and done. Queer books are still associated with pornography in a lot of people’s minds. I’ve seen some people recommend Gideon saying earnestly, “don’t worry, it’s not actually erotica!”. They hear lesbian necromancers, they hear pulp. And Gideon does owe a lot to pulp — but it’s not some kind of lurid lesbian sexploration. That’s Book 2.*
* It’s not Book 2.
Tell us about Gideon the Ninth and why we should read it?
I guess I just turned everyone off by revealing that it is not a lurid lesbian sexploration.
You should read Gideon the Ninth because Amal El-Mohtar said this about it in the New York Times:
“… meticulous and moody, full of anguish, haunted by difficult and complex feelings in a wasted universe.”
Talk about the most wonderful compliment to get, ever. I wrote this book for my seventeen-year-old self, and she felt like that all the time.
You’ve mashed up genres and created an exciting science fantasy and topped it with a queer protagonist. Have you encountered people telling you this wouldn’t work?
No. I have been delighted by lots of people telling me it shouldn’t have worked afterwards. I am dazzled by how hidebound publishing is; I marvel at how difficult it is for them to market things that don’t fit into specific slots. Tor.com rolled up its sleeves and asked someone to hold its handbag. I had no idea I had done anything out of the ordinary until people started saying the book was original and difficult and a mash-up. If I’d known how hard it was, I might not have tried.
The moral of the story is to never educate yourself.
Some of the older science fiction works feel dated nowadays, not only when it comes to moral aspects but also because of cultural references. You’ve used memes and slang in Gideon the Ninth. Were you afraid to date your novel? Or was it a conscious attempt at creating a snapshot of the times we live in?
The novel is already dated. There are memes in there that were dated five years ago. I do hope that the novel does create a snapshot, because that’s something I love — I love reading old books that are eras frozen in amber; I love timeless books too, but I love books with hip references that we don’t get any more. I love all the utterly impenetrable references to things that were hip at the time in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. The novel will date; it will date horribly; then it will at some point go all the way around to “What a wonderful period piece,” unless we have all died due to climate change.
In your world there is no homophobia. “Bury your Gays” is a well-known trope, do you think writers have a responsibility to provide positive representation and happy endings?
No! See above. I feel there is a kind of terrible onus on queer authors at the moment to provide hope, namely because nobody else is goddamn bothering to, and I have been seduced like everyone else into loving it when I am provided with beautiful and positive and wonderful stories where people like me actually get to be happy for once — but I don’t think the flip side of that should be that queer authors writing homophobia, writing unhappy endings, burying our gays should be awful choices we are visiting on our gay audience. I talked with Kiwi SFF author Sascha Stronach, who wrote the wonderful queer noir fever dream The Dawnhounds last year, about how guilty we both felt about this. I hate that we felt guilty, but the only cure is for there to be so much queer fiction that one can find anything one desires — catharsis or reassurance; our best selves or our worst selves.
Gideon the Ninth is lesbian epic. There is a lot of blood on my dance floor. I have been party to a lot of gay tragedy in my life and I understand the argument that we should provide something different, but I don’t agree with it. We so rarely got to be the ones writing the gay tragedies.
How did you approach the world-building and keeping the magic consistent across the nine houses?
It has not been very difficult. Once I had thanergy (death energy) and thalergy (life energy) rules down, as well as rules regarding spirits, ghosts and the afterworld, there wasn’t much to keep consistent. The rules are pretty clear. I don’t find magic systems that hard to keep consistent in general, though I fail to write good notes to myself and sometimes I panic thinking I’m breaching my own system: my first reader, though, is an endlessly longsuffering individual, and does all the reading-for-loopholes. God, I’m lucky. I have much more problem with my mysteries — who’s doing what and when and how — so that my puzzles make sense. I think we should get a lot more mystery authors into the SFF game. They have organised minds.
Any tips on how to tap into your creativity when the day job is draining?
I think the main thing is to not kick your own ass when you feel as though you are not ‘currently creating’. The truth is that we percolate a lot of ideas when we’re just sitting on the couch reading. It is a nice thing to take yourself seriously as a creative even if your day job is not one spent writing stories, but that doesn’t have to look like “I get up at four AM to write for two hours.” A colleague at my old job told me that they had a writing friend who did that. I expressed deep grief and shock. They said, “Oh, well, I think you have to do that, if you want to be a writer.” Fool! I am only up at four AM if I have not gone to bed yet!
Reading is work. Watching movies is work. Doodling is work. All these things contribute to one’s creative inner life. Sure, one can procrastinate with all these things to the point of producing nothing — but like most things, it’s about balance: if you’re not letting yourself think about nice cool things and consuming stuff that inspires you, you’re not going to get anything good done. Give yourself space to write, but don’t punish yourself if it has been a long day, you’re very tired, and you’re not feeling it.
Also, experiment. If you’ve been struggling with that fantasy novel brick you’ve been writing for five years, put it down. Write something else. Do a haiku. You do not have to train for the marathon by doing a marathon.
What are your biggest influences? And what other authors do you recommend fans of Gideon the Ninth read?
It is hard to say my biggest influences because I am influenced by everything. I’m influenced by Joseph Keller, Dorothy Sayers and Zero Time Dilemma. I’m influenced by Mervyn Peake and Alison Bechdel. I am influenced by my early exposure to the Care Bears movies. I think that I am unusually propelled by gaming influences as well as writing-media influences, but I think I’m not alone: we are going to see a marvellous surge of people writing science fiction and fantasy who played Terranigma as kids.
If you want a novel that I think is a wonderful read with all the things I found cool and exciting that I poured into Gideon, A.K. Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name is fantastic. Lesbian orc priestess-turned-assassin goes henchman to an evil wizard! Uptight magicians who have been bred for bad ends! Beautiful gay swordsmen with fashion hair! Larkwood’s writing is also exquisite: her worldbuilding is supreme.
What can you tell us about the sequel, Harrow the Ninth?
If Gideon the Ninth was “lesbian necromancers explore a haunted palace in space”, Harrow the Ninth is “lesbian necromancers study for their necromancer finals! In the liminal space between life and death! More skeletons!!”. It’s much more of a school story than I parodied in Gideon: you can read the prologue online. The stakes are high. The food is bad.
Harrow the Ninth is a book very dear to my heart. In many ways it is a book where I am not kind to the reader — it is one long puzzle, told out of order, and two stories running alongside each other, and Gideon the Ninth has very little bearing on it — but it is very much for anyone who came out of Gideon having a soft spot for Harrowhark Nonagesimus. It’s a book that is very frank about mental illness, trauma and grief. It is also a book with an extended makeover scene and some awful set-pieces involving dinner parties. There is a lot in there I put in just to amuse myself. A lot of loose ends from Gideon are tied up — and I unravel a whole bunch more.