by Rebekah Lunt
When I finished the last page of The City of Silk and Steel, and started to think about the review I would write, (which can be seen HERE) I quickly started to become distracted. I loved the book and it had been a very satisfying read, but once I was outside of it again, I began to wonder about its creation and the logistics of writing together with two other authors. As much as I was interested in the creation and foundations of the story, I became curious about the experience of creating it and working together to achieve such a seamless chorus of voices and tales.
So, it was with great pleasure that I was able to interview the writers of the book, Mike, Linda and Louise Carey, and I hope that the questions and answers therein will enable you to enjoy and engage with the book even more than previously.
N.B. Some of the information contained within the questions and answers might be considered by some to be spoilers, so if you haven’t already read the book then read on at your own risk…
I am aware that Mike and Louise have written together previously but what inspired you to write together as a unit of three?
Mike:Â It just sort of came together that way, with nothing so grand or glorious as a plan.Â I came up with an idea, which was the seed for what became Seraglio/City, and I pitched it â€“ but I pitched it as a comic book series, and it was very different back then from what it would eventually turn into.Â Prince Jamal was the main protagonist!Â Anyway, I couldnâ€™t get any interest in it as a comic book, and eventually I dropped it into the Basket of Dead Ideas.Â Then one night the three of us had a conversation about the 1001 Nights, and what we loved and hated about it, and somehow in the course of that conversation Seraglio got resurrected and dusted off.Â We decided to write it together, and to approach it from a very different perspective.Â And the inspiration, if I can call it that, was to use the Arabian Nights Entertainment as a formal model â€“ to borrow its radical shifts in style and content, its digressions, its nested stories.Â But we would do it entirely (or almost entirely) from the perspective of the female characters.Â Because what bugged us about the Arabian Nights, even allowing that Scheherazade is a somewhat empowered heroine, was the sexism.Â Thereâ€™s a lot of stuff in there about the unfaithfulness of women and there are a lot of bad women who get punished.Â We wanted to write a homage that would also be a riposte.
What drew you to this particular sub-category of the fantasy genre?
Lou:Â I donâ€™t think we really approached it with the sub-genre in mind.Â Weâ€™re all fascinated by stories, the ways in which they are told and how they interact with and fragment reality, and the Arabian Nights style structure of the book allowed us to explore this in some interesting ways.
Lin: Partly it was the huge scope of the Arabian Nights stories. In modern terms, they actually range over multiple genres: thereâ€™s romance, horror, adventure, even a whodunit, where two men confess to the same murder.Â We loved the idea of having that whole range to draw on.Â Then there was the chance to take on the djinni (or jinn as theyâ€™re called in some versions): terrifying, totally arbitrary creatures who could equally easily grant your dearest wish or reduce you to a smear on the ground. And just a bit, I suspect, it was the visuals.Â Mike and I both grew up with Arabian Nights picture books: no group of stories have been so gorgeously drawn by so many great illustrators.Â Vast desert sands, jewelled turbans, rocs and ifrits and the aforementioned jinnâ€¦Â So when the idea came up, we could visualise it straightaway.
Did you each have specific characters or voices that were more ‘yours’ than the others?
Mike:Â Oh yeah!Â Very much so.Â Once we had our three leads â€“ Gursoon, Rem and Zuleika â€“ it was immediately obvious that each of us had a favourite.Â Lou created Rem, and always had a very clear idea of who she was and where she was coming from.Â Lin liked Gursoon, the wily elder statewoman, and I wanted to write Zuleika.Â Yeah, I know.Â To hell with subtlety.Â I was tickled by the idea of this concubine whoâ€™s also a death machine.Â But also I had what I thought was a great idea for her backstory and I wanted to be the one who got to write her origin, as it were.Â So for those three, it was sort of a case of one of the three of us taking the lead and defining the territory.Â Other characters evolved in a more haphazard way.Â Anwar Das wasnâ€™t even a named character in the original outline.Â He just happened, and once we had him we decided to make full use of him.
Lou: â€˜Myâ€™ character was Rem.Â Although dad wrote her narrative sequences, The Tale of the Librarian of Bessa (Remâ€™s backstory) was mine.Â I think I related to her the most because, like her, I spend a lot of my time in very old libraries late at night (Oxford is great for that sort of thing).
What were the challenges of writing a multi-charactered, multi-layered, multi-storied text as a team of three? Did any of the struggles of the women to cohere as a group derive from any of the issues you faced together?
Mike:Â No, I donâ€™t think our art was imitating life in any significant way.Â But it was a more exacting process than writing alone, certainly.Â Writing always includes an element of triangulation, for me.Â You have a clear sense of some things, a much vaguer sense of others â€“ and for the vague ones, things will tend to get clearer as you approach them.Â So you reach a certain point and you finally know how this or that beat will play out.Â And then you go back and harmonise all the stuff thatâ€™s behind you, so it fits together smoothly.Â But if youâ€™re collaborating, it can never be that simple.Â You canâ€™t mess with your co-writersâ€™ beats, so every new insight leads to a summit conference and a new version of the plan.
Speaking of the struggles of the women – the harem which grows into a city – I found this aspect to be a really satisfying examination of the possibilities of a feminist/womanist type of utopia. I really enjoyed the realism within the fantasy, and that nothing was simple and often required significant sacrifice – even to the point that whilst utopia was not necessarily maintained (or achieved in some instances) each story and character achieved its own appropriate completion and didn’t result in complete entropy or dystopia. Is the woman-centred aspect of the story something you intended?
Lin: Very definitely. The Arabian Nights inspired us both in terms of setting and in the structure: the multiple-stories approach worked well for us, allowing for a lot of self-defined tales within the larger narrative so that we didnâ€™t have to meet up and harmonise every single chapter.Â But the stories in the Arabian Nights are mostly male-centred, with women seen as rescue-fodder or rewards for the heroes. And (as Mikeâ€™s said), the ones that show women with a bit more agency are often downright misogynistic: the woman uses her power to cheat on her man or betray him. So a huge focus in this story was the question: what would all these women do if they were set free from the men completely?Â What would they want for themselves?
There have been historical â€œCity of Womenâ€ stories before: the oldest one I know of was by the medieval writer Christine de Pisan, and there was also a Country of Women created by the fabulous Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, in the 17th century.Â Both of those showed the women running a rational, peaceful society, each living very much by the values of their own age.Â In our case we pretty much agreed on what our utopia would look like (eg it would still have men in it, just not running everything; and plumbing and nursery schools would be more important than palaces of justice).Â But as soon as you start thinking about how you might really build a utopia, you come up against the real-life problems youâ€™d face, and the fact that you have to keep on working endlessly to maintain what youâ€™ve built. This was a fantasy, so we allowed our women to achieve their utopia and to enjoy it for a while.
Lou: From the very beginning, I was drawn to the story by its strong female characters and reversal of patriarchal conventions.Â Initially, though, our cast of main characters was much smaller.Â In the earlier stages of planning, the only characters we had really fleshed out among the women of the harem were Rem, Zuleika and Gursoon.Â It was mum who first began developing the other women, like Farhat and Umayma, into characters, and we soon realised that this large cast was indispensable for conveying a sense of scale, of the growth of an entire city.Â I think this was when the novel really started to take off, and one of my favourite parts of the writing process was coming up with the back-stories and characters of all the women, trying to imagine how they had joined the harem, and why each one would decide to join in with the attempt to retake the city.
Did you find it difficult to keep the voices authentic?
Mike:Â Iâ€™m not sure what authentic means in this instance.Â We were writing in a modern idiom, but with shout-outs to more archaic forms of language, in an attempt to pastiche nineteenth century English translations of a text that had been compiled over centuries from folktales amassed in Arabia, India, Persia and probably half a dozen other countries.Â The 1001 Nights was already a palimpsest, and the time it referred to was a semi-mythical one, so it felt like it was enough to capture the flavour.
We did take voice very seriously, and we probably spent more time on that one thing than on anything else.Â We tried out several different approaches, one of which was a much more faithful copying of the narrative voice from the Richard Burton translation.Â But it really didnâ€™t fly.Â We needed something that would feel like that but would be a bit lighter on its feet.Â And the fact that Rem stands out of her time and looks directly at the modern reader, speaking to us partly as a contemporary, enabled us to have our cake and eat it.
Were there any issues of cultural belonging or ‘appropriate’ respect for a culture to which none of you belong? Or did you find that the cultural inheritance of One Thousand and One Nights has allowed this literary context (ancient eastern cultures) to become a substitute cradle for this genre? I am thinking of the effect the Grimms and the Shakespeares of the western world have had on our literature and comparing that to the effect the One Thousand and One Nights had on not just the eastern world but on ours too so that the context of The City of Silk and Steel is as familiar as gingerbread houses in the woods and witches gathered round a cauldron awaiting a king-to-be.
Mike:Â Well, indeed â€“ and see previous answer.Â We were writing within a cultural tradition, but itâ€™s a tradition that, by the time it reaches us, is at least twice removed from its own roots.Â The original core text, the Alf Layla, is eighth or ninth century.Â It probably originated in Persia, and with a different title, but once it got going it ricocheted around the Middle East like a rubber bullet.Â And everyone who got hold of it and translated it added in stories from their own culture, and changed the emphasis of some of the stories that were already there.Â Then when it came to the West, the best part of a millennium later, the same thing happened again in a more extreme way.Â The very first European translations, which I think were French, added vast amounts of material in â€“ and the new stuff was some of the most popular!Â Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, for example, is generally thought to have been a European addition.Â So that was the source material, and itâ€™s a glorious mish-mash of stuff.Â We certainly werenâ€™t aiming to strip away those layers of interpretation to get back to the truth of the original tales or the original historical era.Â If anything we were adding our own layer on top of what was there.
Now a question just for Louise! Writing with a partner is becoming more common but I believe this is the first instance I have come across of a whole family, or three people, writing together. For you, as the daughter in this team of three, and working with your parents, did it pose any particular challenges to you which were different from writing with a peer?
Lou:Â Iâ€™ve never actually co-written anything with someone who isnâ€™t my parent, so my experience of writing with mum and dad felt like the norm to me!Â There were some challenges which I think were unique to the experience though.Â Nagging, for example, was a bit of an issue.Â When â€˜have you finished that chapter yet?â€™ became as regular a refrain at home as â€˜did you remember to tidy your room/ hoover the carpet/ do the dishes?â€™, it made it difficult at times to work at my own pace.Â I suppose the gap in experience between me and my parents also made a difference.Â Since theyâ€™re both writers, I often felt that I should defer to their creative opinions.Â Luckily, they were always quick to remind me that the novel was a joint enterprise, and they never let me take a back seat in the planning process!
And finally, come on guys, are you a perfect family or what?! Having assumed no-one has ended up under the patio or disappeared in mysterious circumstances, how on earth have you managed to maintain the well being of your family dynamic at the same time as wrangling a book to completion?!
Lin: Well, just being in a family means you occasionally want to murder each other, right?Â I mean just the daily hassles, like the assault course to get to the cupboard and the vanishing keys which were there last night and the jamjar that someone put away empty, I mean, not even a SCRAPE! And I just did the shop! What kind of IDIOT?â€¦ So we long ago developed coping mechanisms.Â Mine is a time-out with a Terry Pratchett book and large quantities of chocolate: an hour of that and Iâ€™m quite civilised again.
[Mike unloads the tension by retro-gaming: he can slaughter Professor Robotnik in about six seconds, especially when Iâ€™ve just eaten the last biscuit in the pack. Louise is currently too overworked to unwind properly, so she has to make do with rolling her eyes and making a really cutting remark. Itâ€™s worked OK so far.]
The City of Silk and Steel is out now.