Interview with Patricia BriggsPosted by Goodreads on February 29, 2016
With the ninth Mercy Thompson novel, Fire Touched—in which the entire Tri-Cities area of Washington is put in danger by encroaching monstrosities—about to hit the shelves, Goodreads caught up with Briggs and asked her a few questions about her love of werewolves, the continued appeal of Mercy & Co., her take on the spectacular Dan Dos Santos covers that have graced all of her Mercy Thompson novels, and the fae walking stick that keeps coming back!
Southern Vampire mysteries, Hamilton's Anita Blake saga, Harrison's Hollows, Butcher's Dresden Files... Why do you think Mercy has resonated so powerfully with your readers for so long?
Patricia Briggs: Thank you! I'm so excited about this book—it was so much fun destroying my town. I just hope that the people of the Tri-Cities forgive me eventually.
I think the key to the series is Mercy. She's down-to-earth, funny, and resilient. She changes a lot throughout the series—there is no reset button on my characters at the end of the story—but the core of her remains the same. She is a fiercely loyal friend, tries her best to do the right thing, and never, ever lets anyone get the upper hand for long.
Like most of us, Mercy doesn't get to rely on an ever-increasing arsenal of superpowers. She has to use her wits to survive—and usually that means chaos ensues.
GR: Without spoiling anything for readers, I think it's safe to say that a major development in Fire Touched is Mercy's further acceptance (with the help of her Alpha husband, Adam) into the Columbia Basin werewolf pack. I love reading about these "pack dynamics"—there's an undeniable brutal honesty and simplicity in the way these werewolves live and love. I'm probably going way too deep with this question, but on some level are you subtly fusing existential enlightenment in your writing? Loyalty and having the courage to die for those you love, for example, are strong ideals throughout this entire saga.
PB: I love the werewolves. They are, by nature and by necessity, very straightforward beings at heart. I enjoy finding situations in which the nonhuman side of their natures comes out.
As far as existential enlightenment, what our purpose in life is, or should be...I try very hard to avoid soapboxes. It isn't that there isn't room for that sort of thing in fiction; it is just that I don't need everyone to think the same way I do about things. My characters have soapboxes upon which they stand to influence other characters, but when they are doing that, their soapboxes are rarely my own. I prefer to ask questions, present arguments, and then let the readers decide how they want to answer them. That's because in my version of the real world, big issues seldom have simple answers.
That said, a book that doesn't expose the raw nerves of its characters—and its writer—doesn't have much weight. It cannot affect the people reading it very deeply. Affecting our audience deeply is why we writers tell stories.
It is not so much that I am seeking a way to come to existential enlightenment in the novels, to finding the answers to the meaning of life. It is that my answers and my ongoing journey to why I'm here and what kind of person I want to be sneaks out here and there.
GR: Love that answer! Let's stay philosophical for a moment. At one point in Fire Touched, Bran Cornick (the most dominant werewolf in North America) says, "Let us be heroes as well as monsters..." That line struck me. It's the reason we read paranormal fantasy. From the relative safety of our comfy chairs, we can live vicariously through characters like Mercy, Adam, and Bran. Mercy lets us understand and, to some extent, embrace the monster inside us, but we also see the hero as well.
PB: I think that is, in many ways, the heart of urban fantasy. Why it is different from horror. Instead of the monsters destroying us, we explore them. We look in the mirror and see our reflection and see also the possibility that the monster might be redeemable. Because fundamentally, fantasy is the literature of hope.
I write stories about heroes because I find them interesting. Not just the Lancelots of the world, who wage war on evil with great fanfare and sacrifice, but also the father who goes to work for 30 years at a job he hates in order to support his family, the mother who stays up all night comforting her sick child, the child who stops a bully from tormenting his classmate.
GR: Kudos to you that in a novel filled with fantastical supernatural creatures—trolls, vampires, werewolves, Joel the "brimstone beast," etc.—one of my favorite characters was a walking stick! I loved that thing! Seriously, how much fun do you have coming up with these story lines and characters?
PB: Oh, that walking stick. It was supposed to be a minor...thing. Just a fun little something to provide some warmth in a book that had gone down some dark paths. And then...it just kept showing back up.
When I write, I tend to throw my characters into a room with their various motivations and a problem and see what happens. Each of the characters, but especially my main character, has a bag of tools to bring to the table.
When I create something for the series, whether a character or a magic object, I usually start with a few basic decisions about that object. As the story takes us (takes me and my imaginary friends) places, I refine those decisions with others in a semilogical pattern.
Iron Kissed one of the things I was trying to establish in Mercy's world was that nothing was truly black or white. She had been put into a very bad place with the help of fae artifacts; it only was fair to give her one that could help her. It maintained balance. And though the walking stick was, at its heart, a very small fae artifact, it had been created by the greatest of the fae builders a very long time ago as a reward to a human for helping a fae. To the fae, Mercy has so little magic of her own and is so fragile, she counts as human. I thought, "Let the walking stick come to her hand. What would be the harm?"
And it wouldn't leave me alone. Though my own logic trees and my weakness for interesting ideas, it haunted me even more doggedly than it ever had haunted Mercy. Worrying that it might destroy the story balance, might make Mercy dependent upon it, I let it be corrupted and then sent it away. It stayed away one whole book. Even Coyote couldn't contain it.
It isn't that I can't control my characters, it is that I am always seeking interesting twists—and the walking stick managed to be both interesting and twisted.
GR: The sequences set in Underhill (a magic realm that the power of the faeries is tied to) in Fire Touched were simply breathtaking. Do writing those surreal and enigmatic scenes present any particular problems?
PB: Oh, thank goodness they worked for you. I worried (still worry) over those scenes a lot. I've known a lot about Underhill ever since Mercy first crossed into her in Iron Kissed, but I needed the proper time and place to use the setting.
Putting something otherworldly into urban fantasy, where so much of the genre's appeal is in the juxtaposition of the real world with the fantastic, is risky. Essentially, for those scenes I am using my supernatural characters as the anchor of reality in Underhill, when usually they are the fantastical element.
I fussed and fussed over those scenes, trying to make Underhill, which can be pretty amorphous, not feel like a bad acid trip, trying to strike the Lewis Carroll balance between odd and indecipherable. I think I caught it—but that you enjoyed those scenes is a big relief.
Moon Called landed on my doorstep back in 2006. The first thing that struck me was the stunning cover art by Dan Dos Santos—and now, eight novels and ten years later, the cover art is still spectacular. The covers are archetypal urban fantasy and, with the Dos Santos covers to complement your story lines, Mercy Thompson has become an iconic character, arguably the most fully realized and recognizable heroine to ever grace the pages of an urban fantasy. Do you recall your reaction the first time you saw the cover art for Moon Called? And what have those covers meant to you over the years?
PB: Oh, you bet your booties I do.
I was about halfway through Moon Called when I saw the first sketch—and I'm not dumb, I recognize genius when I saw it. It wasn't just that it was such a stupendous piece of work, which it is. It was that it was such a good cover.
The job of a cover is to tell readers what kind of book it is—not just genre, but also tone and a dozen more subtle things—and this cover did all of that and was beautiful, too. I took one look at the cover, turned to my husband, and told him that Daniel Dos Santos had just doubled the sales of the book. I think now that I was wrong. It did a lot more than that.
When I think of Mercy now, I picture the woman on Dan's covers. When I'm floundering with a scene, I've been known to stare into Mercy's face and try to work out what such a woman would do to create the most havoc.
Bone Crossed, not just because it was my first hardcover, but because you know the woman on the cover of that book has been hit hard by life—but she hasn't been beaten, not by a long shot. I've had a number of people say that they started the series with that book because that image touched them, made them feel empowered.
GR: Agreed. I love that cover, too.
PB: Dan's covers, I think, have become irrevocably tied to Mercy's characters. I am not aware of any other fantasy series that isn't a graphic novel in which the story and the artwork are so tied together. Dan understands not just art, not just cover art, but how to combine the visual art with the story in a way that pulls readers into the story. I consider Dan's covers to be the opening scene in any Mercy or Alpha and Omega book.
GR: Mercy is known for her tattoos, particularly the coyote paw print just below her navel. During book signings and conventions, have you seen many Mercy-inspired tattoos, and if so, what was the most memorable?
PB: I've seen a lot of Mercy-inspired tattoos. The majority of them have been paw prints—which I think makes a terrific tattoo. But I've seen beautiful wolves, coyotes, and tribal art. People have tattooed names of their favorite characters.
Two of the tattoos stand out for me, though. There was a man at a book signing who had a werewolf tattoo in progress on his arm—it was drawn on in marker, not yet inked. He asked me if I would sign his arm so that his tattoo artist could make that part of the whole. (I did.) There was also a man who had (with permission) the cover of Bone Crossed on his arm. It was beautifully done.
That my imaginary friends have become so important to so many people is amazing and wonderful. It also reminds me to be careful of what I write. If words have the power to inspire people to permanently alter their skin, then words have the power to do more than that. I cannot soften the impact of my stories without betraying the truth of what I do. But it solidifies my determination that when any reader finishes the last line of one of my stories, no matter what hell I've put Mercy and that poor reader through, that reader will find themselves in a little better place than they were when they started the book.
GR: Two Goodreads members, Jamie H. and Stormy, asked essentially the same question: "When creating your world's mythos, what initially inspired your use of the skinwalker legend for Mercy?"
PB: One of the problems with a long-running series is that you have to live with decisions you made on impulse ten years ago.
I actually didn't base Mercy on skinwalkers at all. I wanted an underpowered (and thus more interesting) protagonist who was involved with werewolves. I'm from Montana. In Montana when you think underpowered wolf, you think coyote. I decided a coyote shape-shifter is what I needed. Native American lore lends itself quite well to the idea of a person who can become an animal (or an animal that can become a person). This is because that in general, Native Americans don't see a separation between humans and the rest of nature.
All this was well and good. Then I asked myself what white settlers encountering a creature like Mercy—or stories of someone who could change into an animal at will would be. That's when it all went wrong.
I am a history major from Montana. One of my pet peeves is the way that history books, movies, and even people who should know better treat all of the Native Americans as if they were one culture. I do it myself, right? I told you that Native Americans don't follow the European practice of trying to separate humans from the rest of nature. It's more practical to stick to generalities than to do the research to see which tribes might think of humans as superior to animals (or inferior). On a practical level, it is necessary to make generalities than to load down a very simple idea with four pages of explanation that might have nothing to do with the main idea a writer is trying to get across. But that practical lumping together has led to the perception that all Native Americans do share the same heritage, that they all feel the same way about things.
So I decided to show how misleading this practice could be. I decided that when confronted with a person who could change into an animal, the white settlers would just lump that person into a category that they already had a name for: skinwalkers. The settlers wouldn't, I reasoned, be aware of or even care that the skinwalkers are unique to the Southwestern tribes. They wouldn't care that skinwalkers cannot transform their too-human eyes, that skinwalkers are evil, selfish people.
Eventually I decided other people would see the difference and shorten the name to "walker."
Mercy is not a skinwalker. Not. She says so all the time, especially in the first chapter or two of most of the early books in the series.
But guess what? I was right. People confused the two, even when Mercy says that is not what she is, over and over. I just didn't think it through all the way. It certainly isn't the fault of the reader, many of whom are not familiar with skinwalkers (the original version) at all or at best as a dictionary-style entry: Native American shape-shifter.
It isn't the readers' fault. It is my job to maintain those separations, to help readers explore my world and feel comfortable in it. This is like the director who hires four dark-haired, tall, and very handsome-in-the-same-way actors—and then bangs his head into the wall afterward because his audience can't reliably tell one character from another until the last half of the movie.
Calling Mercy a walker isn't the only mistake I have made while writing the series. But it is the one I've had to live with the longest.
GR: The most frequently asked question by Goodreads members (like Edetha, Paula, Kacii, and Krystol) was some form of this: Will Mercy and Adam ever have a child?
PB: I am a mother. When I had my first child, I realized that I no longer had the right to endanger myself because my son needed me to take care of him. I cannot imagine that Mercy will not do the same. That makes it very difficult for me to use her as the protagonist in an urban fantasy series.
So my answer to this question is that in the world inside of my head (assuming Mercy and Adam both survive)—I think that they will have children. I also think that the only way they will have children (besides Jesse) within the pages of the series is if someday I decide that I really want to torture myself. I'm not ruling it out, just saying that it will make my job unbelievably difficult.
GR: Goodreads member Jamie asks, "How do you balance all of the demands of a successful writing career (writing, appearances, etc.) and the myriad personal life demands? (Hope to see you at RT2016—promise I won't cry at you in the hallway this time!)"
PB: Practice. Practice. Practice. I am so grateful that by the time the Mercy books went big, I'd been a writer for nearly 15 years. That gave me some experience with blocking out time to write without forgetting that the most important thing in my life is my family.
In addition to practice, I am pretty good at learning from my mistakes. There was a difficult year or two, as I learned that I had to say "no" to a large percentage of the invitations to science fiction conventions and personal appearances in order to save enough time to write.
And Jamie, friends of my imaginary friends can do no wrong. I am not expecting to make it to the RT 2016, mostly because it is in Las Vegas. There is nothing wrong with Las Vegas except that I am miserably, horribly allergic to cigarette smoke. After a day in Las Vegas, I sound like Marlene Dietrich and my eyes turn red and bulgy. After two days, I can't talk at all and my eyes open into little slits as long as the light isn't too bright. We're going to try for the 2017 convention, but watch my website before you count on me being somewhere.
GR: Before you published Masques in 1993, what novels most inspired you to write?
Andre Norton's Year of the Unicorn was one. All of Ms. Norton's work, really. She was my introduction into both science fiction and fantasy. Barbara Hambly's Windrose Chronicles taught me that my favorite books had characters who felt like real people. But if I had to pick just one book that made me want to tell my own stories, it would have to be Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown. She left me telling myself stories (which is what I did before I learned I could write them down) for months afterward.
GR: What are you reading now?
PB: I have in my possession the marvelous Carol Berg's Ash and Silver. I missed it when it came out in December—an oversight created when my yearling filly knocked me down and then accidently stepped on my face. (Don't worry, I'm fine and so is the yearling, who is a sweetheart.) Nothing less than a broken jaw would have kept a Carol Berg release out of my hands for this long.
GR: Patty, that's it! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. Now I can take interviewing you off of my bucket list—and good luck with Fire Touched!
PB: Thank you so very much for this opportunity. This has been an honor. I'm not sure I've ever been on someone's bucket list before. Hopefully this won't be the last time we chat!
Interview by Paul Goat Allen for Goodreads. Paul has been a genre fiction book reviewer for the last 20 years, working for companies like BN.com, PW, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus, and BlueInk, to name a few. He has written more than 8,000 reviews and interviewed hundreds of writers, including Anne McCaffrey, Michael Moorcock, Dean Koontz, Terry Goodkind, Laurell K. Hamilton, Patrick Rothfuss, and Charlaine Harris. He also works as an adjunct faculty member in Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction program.
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