Judith Tarr Brings Down the Sun
Bring Down the Sun by Judith Tarr is an intriguing historical fantasy about Alexander the Great's mother. This is stylized melodrama at its best. The novel is often sensual and erotic, but not in an embarrassing way--in part because Tarr's style is somewhat stripped down and tight and also because Tarr doesn't wink at the reader during those scenes. Somehow, also, Tarr manages to effectively convey the historical setting without long pages of description. I interviewed Tarr via email to find out more about the underpinnings of the novel and her approach to historical fantasy...
Amazon.com: Can you tell Amazon readers where you are as you’re answering these questions?
Judith Tarr: I'm sitting in the living room of my house outside of Tucson, Arizona, looking out at the horse barn and the hot and cold running Lipizzans.
Amazon.com: What is your background? Have you always been a writer? What other jobs have you held? Judith Tarr: I started off with ambitions to go into academia to help support my writing habit--Tolkien was my inspiration. However in the middle of the PhD program in Medieval Studies at Yale, I sold six fantasy novels in one swell swoop. I handed in the dissertation and the proofs of book 6 on the same day. I've done a fair bit of teaching--taught high-school Latin for a couple of years, and taught Latin and novel writing at Wesleyan in Connecticut. Otherwise I've been a full-time writer pretty much from the beginning.
Amazon.com: Your novel combines a historical (Greek/Macedonian) setting with a fantastical element, and yet doesn’t get bogged down in endless description. Is this a skill that comes naturally to you? How hard is it to get the “mix” right?
Judith Tarr: Oh, good question. The short answer is, I like writing spare--less is more--so if I can get a lot across in a few words, I'm there. Mixing historical and fantasy is more of a lifestyle choice. My personal rule is, if people of the time believed in it, it's real. I'll write accordingly. I think the academic background (aka combat training in research methods) helps quite a bit, but there's a substantial amount of seat of the pants to it, too. Probably the most important influence was the indomitable Betty Nye Quinn in the Classics Department at Mount Holyoke, who taught all her students to look at a historical era as it saw itself. We were trained to set aside our modern viewpoint and examine our assumptions, and to get inside the heads of the authors we read. Later on at Cambridge under Prof. Crook, I did a Tripos section on historiography that revisited this: we read Latin and Greek historians not only for what they had to say about the periods they wrote about, but for what their histories said about their own periods. While we did that, we are also encouraged to consider our own biases and the biases of our own era, and to take those into account when evaluating the works we read. If you're living inside the period, I think you describe less and feel more. Then there's the element of skill: what Harry Turtledove refers to as "knowing 500 details and mentioning five--and they have to be the right five." The more you know, the more likely you are to know which details to include. That takes practice, but it also takes something I call "period sense"--an in-depth sense of how people thought and felt and acted. Of course there's also the accessibility problem. Most historical and fantasy bestsellers have little or none. They write about modern Americans in fancy dress. This is successful because it speaks directly to the attitudes of the readers. They're not specialists; they don't know if it's wrong. They do know if the story works, and if there are characters they can identify with. For the writer who has more of a sense of period, there's a challenge to present period attitudes while also making them credible to the contemporary reader. I had my first exposure to this with my second novel, when my editor said, "No one will ever buy your medieval monk not getting it on with the sexy girl who's following him around." In fact, in period, he would have made a huge martyrdom out of it and never so much as touched her--but in order to sell the book, I had to compromise. I tried to do it believably in context, but I never was totally happy with that. Since then of course I've learned to cope better, and to find ways to juggle modern and historical without completely losing the latter. The "five salient details" rule is one of the ways.
Amazon.com: What drew you to this historical period?
Judith Tarr: Mary Renault. Love her Alexander books. Always wanted to play my own riff on the character and the period, and so I've been fortunate to do--in Lord of the Two Lands and Queen of the Amazons as well as Bring Down the Sun, but also, more obliquely, in the six books of the Avaryan high-fantasy series.
Amazon.com: How much is there in the historical record about Alexander’s mother?
Judith Tarr: Not a whole lot that isn't directly related to her son. Her early life is mostly hearsay and contradictory rumor. If it's not connected to a male in her life, it's not there.
Amazon.com: What part of the novel do you most enjoy in re-reading it?
Judith Tarr: I don't reread them for years after I send in the proofs, if ever. I'm kind of like an alligator that way. I take care of them until they hatch; after that they're on their own. I've moved on to the next clutch. With this one, I'm kind of partial to the maze spell. That was fun to do, and evil of me, too, to trap [SPOILER REDACTED] in it. Bringing down the mountain--good fun there, as well.
Amazon.com: What are you currently working on?
Judith Tarr: This week I'm revising a novel about magical horses for middle-grade readers (ages 8-12), for Tor. Total change of pace: it's contemporary, it's for kids, and it's set in Arizona. I'm enjoying it tremendously. It's like becoming a new writer all over again.