Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Heather Rose Jones

Heather Rose Jones is an interesting mix of modern and historical. Be it biotech or linguistics, she seems perfectly suited for whatever time period she lands in if a time machine were to show up on her doorstep and take her on a journey. Her early life was far flung, from the various corners of the continental United States to several European countries, though she currently calls the Bay Area home. Growing up in an academic family surly spurred her passions for research and teaching. She loves "to share my knowledge with anyone who will stand still long enough to listen." Though who knows how long that would be given her fascinating and diverse interests! Heather has a BS in zoology, after which she spent a decade in medical research, only to go back to school for a PhD in Linguistics from U.C. Berkley where she specialized in the semantics of Medieval Welsh prepositions. While she might have come to my attention due to her fiction writing, I'm amazed at the sheer scope and dedication to all her various interests.

Her "Skin Singer" series of short stories have appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress anthologies, but you can surly guess by now that she wouldn't limit her prodigious talents and interests to just one writing outlet. Heather has written for many non-fiction publications as well on topics ranging from biotech to historic costume to naming practices. As for her Alpennia books, think of them as historical fantasy with a detailed belief system with lesbians. In fact her passion project is the Lesbian Historic Motif Project she began to change the unexamined assumptions about the place and nature of lesbian-like characters in historic fact, literature, art and imaginations. She is also a total geek for historic textiles and clothing, making little doll reproductions of archaeological clothing finds. Is it any wonder with these passions coupled with geeking out over linguistics, historic cooking, and much more that she is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism? There she's known by a far more Welsh handle than Heather, she's Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn. I should just let Heather, or should I say Mistress Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn, take the wheel.

Question: When did you first discover Jane Austen?

Answer: I have a sheepish confession that I read her books well after I’d fallen in love with a number of movie treatments and with the Regency romance genre in general. I was certainly aware that she was the ur-text on which the genre was based. And it isn’t as if I had any aversion to reading novels of the era. (I read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair just for fun back in 1975, after all.) I’m still working on getting a complete collection of the works of Georgette Heyer.

But at some point about 15 years ago I realized I’d never actually read Austen herself, so I marched off to the bookstore and picked up a complete set and read them all straight through. I certainly have my favorites and my less preferred works. (I seem to be alone among my friends in liking Emma, but every time I re-read Mansfield Park, I want to throw it across the room.) I also have audio versions of my favorites in heavy rotation on my anti-insomnia program. (My favorites are the free recordings at, and my favorite narrator is Karen Savage.)

Question: What do you think Jane Austen would think of her impact with so many literary offshoots, from parody to pastiche?

Answer: I tend to be wary of trying to second-guess authors’ attitudes. Even the authors I know personally can surprise me in their take on questions like this. Given the circumstances of her life, I can guess that one of her reactions might be, “Gee, I wish I could have gotten a cut of the take!” I suspect she might be astonished that her work is remembered at all two centuries later. But I refuse to guess at what she might think of all the people re-purposing her stories in the vastly different ways we’ve seen. People have very individual and emotional reactions to that sort of thing, and all of them are valid.

Question: Where do you get your inspiration from?

Answer: My stories are, at heart, the stories I wish other people had written so that I’d have been able to read them at important points in my life. So I’m inspired by the echoing gaps in my literary life that are begging to be filled. I’ve spent most of my life searching through bookstore and library shelves for books that recognize and respect core aspects of my identity: being a woman, being a geek, being a lesbian, being an intellectual. One gets very tired of being told implicitly that one doesn’t exist, or at least, that one isn’t worthy of being included in stories.

On a more practical basis, I’m inspired by the life-long love of European history that began when I spent a year in Prague at the age of ten. (My father was a university professor on sabbatical.) I love immersing myself in the everyday material culture of places, times, and peoples different from my own.

Question: What makes the early 19th century mesh so well with magic?

Answer: Is is heresy for me to say that I don’t think there’s anything special about the early 19th century that makes it suited to magic? Every age, every culture, and every literary genre inspires particular flavors and approaches to magic. I think that the existing popularity of the Regency setting (and of the Regency romance genre in general) made it inevitable that fantasy writers who loved that setting would look for types of magic that fit into it well.

I think some of the key characteristics of Regency magic have to do with the eras and movements it balances between. The Industrial Revolution creates some major challenges for designing a magical world. Do you view it as a threat to pre-industrial magic or as a context for a new industrial-based magic? The social and political shifts in Europe from the remnants of old-style monarchy to more populist governments similarly present a challenge to motifs of magic as an echo of aristocracy or as the basis for a “everyman makes good” plot. To the extent that magic is viewed as anti-rational, any 19th century understanding of magic needs to be in dialog with the 18th century Age of Enlightenment and its consequences for philosophy and religion.

Questions of this sort exist for any historic setting. A Renaissance magic setting will similarly be driven by and need to deal with the social and technological changes in which it operates. The entire genre of Urban Fantasy asks the question of what magic can look like in our current world. So to return to my original answer, I don’t think magic necessarily meshes better with a Regency setting in comparison to other eras. But the setting will certainly generate a particular flavor of magic unique to that era.

Question: The world building and system of magic varies greatly in the regency fantasy genre, how did you go about creating yours?

Answer: I had the setting before I decided/realized it was going to include magic. (The very first ideas for the Alpennia books were much more along the lines of an ordinary historical romantic adventure.) I wanted a form of magic in which it would make sense that the existence of magic hadn’t created massive divergences from our own timeline and historic development. So I looked to existing mystical themes in history and asked, “What if, sometimes, for some people, this actually worked the way that people at the time believed it worked?”

In Daughter of Mystery, the main magical focus is religious in nature. I started with the proposition: what if aspects of folk religion, and especially the folk-religious aspects of the cults of the saints in Catholicism, were a bit more...functional than they are in our world? What if some people could work “miracles” fairly reliably? But what if the nature of those miracles was such that it was impossible to turn them into a science? It was also important to me to treat the religious basis of the magic in a respectful way. As an atheist, it meant the world to me when various of my Catholic friends told me I’d “gotten it right.”

In the world of Alpennia, people have varying levels of ability of magical causation. Some have none; some have so little that you’d need a lot of people working in concert to make anything happen; and very rarely some people have enough ability to produce “miracles” on their own. But alongside this, I imagined that the ability to detect miracles was similarly distributed. Some people can’t see anything unless it has a direct visible manifestation--and most often that could be explained away as chance or coincidence. Some people can perceive the workings of magic itself in sensory form: visions of the forces at work, auditory or tactile sensations. Very rarely, someone has both the ability to work magic and to see the mechanisms by which it works well enough to develop their talents into a reliable practice. If they have the proper guidance. And if society thinks it’s appropriate for them to do so. And if the results of their efforts don’t cause them fatal problems.

Channeling the understanding and practice of magic through religious ritual both created a context for passing along “effective” practices, but also for diluting them into mere rote ceremony. So I had my context in which there was the possibility of a particular individual having and developing significant magical skills, but where that possibility didn’t translate into the development of a “technology of magic”.

In later books, we see that religion isn’t the only context in which the magic in my world manifests. The Mystic Marriage centers around alchemy--a field that my characters treat as if it were purely scientific, but where it’s clear to the readers that the same mystical forces that lie behind miracles are driving the results of alchemical experiments. In my current work in progress, Mother of Souls, we see mystical forces being channeled through other practices such as music and art. But in all cases, the effects can range from barely perceptible to world-shaking, depending on the practitioners and the practice.

Question: If you had to choose between writing only period literature or only fantasy literature, which would win?

Answer: I’ve always refused to accept false dichotomies. I’ve spent most of my writing life feeling like I had to choose between writing characters like me and writing characters that I could sell stories about. Or between writing the stories I wanted to read and writing the stories other people wanted to read. When I had the finished manuscript of Daughter of Mystery in hand, I had to make the very important choice of whether to try to publish it as a mainstream fantasy novel or as a lesbian novel. I refuse to be boxed. I’ve sold purely historic stories (“Where My Heart Goes”, a historical romance short story set in 16th century Italy). I’ve sold purely fantasy stories (the “Skinsinger” series in the Sword and Sorceress anthology series). And I’ve sold historic fantasy set in both the Regency and medieval periods. I will not erase any part of my writing self, not even just for fun in a quiz.

Question: Be honest, have you ever dressed up in Regency clothes just to pretend for a moment you are in the past?

Answer: I’ve been deeply involved in historic re-creation for the last 40 years. In terms of organized events, it’s been mostly in the Society for Creative Anachronism, but I’ve worn costumes from Bronze Age Denmark and pharaonic Egypt all the way up through the 1930s. I love participating in historic themed “set pieces”, especially dinners and similarly structured events. I’ve prepared historic meals scattered over several millennia. (You should see my historic culinary library!) At Worldcon last year, I brought some Alpennian pastries as refreshments for my author’s kaffee klatch, based on a French cookbook of the same era. But I confess, I haven’t yet made a specifically Regency-era outfit. I have the fabric sitting in my stash and I know exactly which dress from my books I want to make. It’s just a matter of time and of having the excuse of what to wear it for.


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