Wen Spencer in the Baen Free Radio Hour, August 29, 2014.
Published on LiveJournal with permission by Baen.
Copyright 2014 Baen Books.
Starting at 8 minutes.
[Tony] I want to welcome Wen Spencer to the podcast. Hi, Wen.
[Wen] Hi, Tony. Thanks for having me.
[Tony] Wen Spencer is the creator of the contemporary fantasy science fiction hybrid, I guess, the Elfhome series. She's the author of science fiction novel Endless Blue. Tinker, the first novel in the Elfhome series, garnered a Joseph W. Campbell award for Wen and a Sapphire award for best science fiction romance. She's also the author of contemporary fantasy novel 8 Million Gods, which is a great book, by the way, and out in mass-market right now. The Elfhome series includes Tinker, Wolf Who Rules, Elfhome, and the latest intriguing Wood Sprites which is now out in hardcover at booksellers everywhere.
[Tony] Wen, you've taken a different tack on Wood Sprites. We start well outside of magical Pittsburgh, as where we are in the other books. We're in Astoria, Queens, in New York City. What led you to dive into the story here in the mundane world?
[Wen] Tinker's a wonderful character, but she tends to be laser focused on what's happening to her and only what's interesting to her. She's fairly ignorant of the big world. She's learning to see the big world, but it means that the first one or two books, I've missed out on what was happening on Earth. Then communication got cut off from Pittsburgh to Earth, so I lost the whole arc there of what's happening. To me, the story's much more than just Elfhome and the elves. It's the human relationship to this completely alien world. I felt like I was missing half the equation on the series so since I had cut the connection between the two worlds, I really needed a character on Earth to carry the story line. I knew it was going to be kind of risky. Because you know what people are reading a fantasy for is magic and elves and everything. So I had to be sure that those elements are front and center in the story. So while it is on Earth, there is elves and magic and such so...
[Tony] Where are we in the Elfhome series? Timewise in the book? Is this after Elfhome or is it...?
[Wen] Basically, Tinker starts a week before Midsummer's eve in June. Elfhome ends the first week of September. So the three books run from June to September. I decided to do, to get the reactions of Earth to all these events, I decided to start before June. So the book really starts, Wood Sprites really starts in May. Or maybe even earlier than that. But they overlap all the other books. Not something I would recommend anyone ever try to write. But...
[Tony] Had a lot to keep in mind at one time.
[Wen] Oh, God, yes. Where people are, what's happening. Lot of cross-referencing, reading what I had set up. But I didn't really want to just simply recap the events of the other books, so the twins had to have their own compelling story. It's just their lives interweave with what was going on with Tinker.
[Tony] Our main characters are nine-year-old twins. They're wonderful protagonists named Jillian and Louise Meyer or Mayer. What can you tell us about the girls, and did I get the names right? Pronunciation?
[Wen] I actually never pronounce my character's names out loud, so... When people ask me how it's pronounced, I'm like, "I guess?" I always thought it was Mayer. The twins are very smart, but they're in that kind of geeky antisocial way. They understand rocket science, but they don't really get their classmates. They don't understand what makes them tick. Because of that, they're both really shy. Jillian wants to be a script writer, an actress, and a director. Her goal is to be the youngest director ever to win the Oscar. Louise loves animals and she would like to be an animal trainer or make nature films like the Meerkat TV show by the BBC. They're really working hard towards this goal by making videos that they post online.
[Tony] They're incredibly creative kids, even if they aren't socially adept when the book starts. The main viewpoint character is Louise. Jillian's only occasionally separated from her, but she's sort of the reader or writer viewpoint character that... Whose head we're inside.
[Wen] I'd considered giving them both point of views, but as you said, they're always together. When you're doing a point of view, you want to have the character have their own story line. Then it ends up being, when they're in this together, you're trying to figure out who gets the scene and why they get that scene. It has to be very important to their storyline for them to have the scene. It's one of the reasons why when you do read books, the characters go off and have totally different lives and then come together now and then. I thought since they're going to be together so much, because as twins... Nine-year-olds, they don't have a whole lot of choices day-to-day as to where they go. They're in class together. They have to be in class together. They have to commute together. They have to eat lunch together and dinner together. So I decided just not to have that hurdle by just taking the one point of view. But also, it puts into question whether or not the non-point of view character survives. It kind of builds in a little bit more worry about their survival.
[Tony] So what kind of experience did you draw on to create these twins?
[Wen] My own sister is 18 months older than I am. She was always on the small size. So we were always the same size. People thought we were twins. I built a lot on that relationship I had with my sister for Louise. The idea that she's the pretty one, she's the one everybody likes, everyone pays attention to. Growing up, I had realized that 18 months is actually a huge difference. So she was always developmentally ahead of me. So I always thought she was smarter than I was. Faster, stronger, and all that. It was an age difference there that I wasn't aware of. So I used that a lot with Louise when I was writing her.
[Tony] She shares everything with Jillian except her own self-doubts.
[Tony] The twins are smart, but their intelligence is within bounds of what a very gifted child might be able to accomplish. Although they do work quadratic equations, much to the chagrin of some of their teachers. Mostly what they do is make this video project. What is this about? This YouTube channel they've created?
[Wen] basically, my household has gone very My Little Pony. If you're into that kind of thing, you realize there's a huge amount of fan generated stuff which is at a very professional level. It just inspired me to... If you took somebody who... I wanted them to have a lot of knowledge about Elfhome and particularly, I wanted them to be fluent in Elvish. It was hard for me to justify them to have that kind of knowledge base without a good reason. I decided what it was is that they decided to do these videos. They went whole hog wild in the only way that geeks can. And of course, did massive research says they could get all the details right. Then they produced these videos where it's animated and they have the entire orchestra soundtrack and everything. It's a parody on the court life of the elves and how humans interact with them.
[Tony] That's what they're videos become about. So did you watch some of these My Little Pony and My Littlest Pet Shop videos, because some of them are really bizarre. My 10-year-old is fascinated by them, and she's even made some.
[Wen] Yeah. Oh, God, yes. Not because I wanted to. But they're actually very good. One of them is instead of friendship is magic, it's witchcraft is magic. It basically takes the supposition that the ponies are worshiping Cthulhu, and just really twists the whole story line. It's mostly fan animated with some clips from the show. But it's interwoven so well, you can't tell what's been animated by the fans and what was from the show. Voice actors and everything that are just professional level quality.
[Tony] You do a good job of communicating that with Louise and Jillian. It really comes across. Because people don't know that they're kids. They assume that they're adults.
[Wen] I tend not to use the Internet the way other people do. So I tend to be oblivious to a lot of what's going on on the net, where people are like, "Well, have you been to Goodreads?" I'm aware it exists, but I don't like spend a whole lot of time on it. There's a lot of things that my husband does this, "Well, that's a meme." I'm like, "It is?" Like I've never been rick rolled. I know what it is, because my husband has shown it to me. But it was five years after the phenomena that I actually found out about it..
[Tony] You'll be dumping an ice bucket on your head five years from now?
[Wen] [laughter] Yeah. But it's that kind of level... I'm unaware of what's going on. So I gave the twins that come so that they don't really realize how famous they are. But they've gone super viral.
[Tony] After Louise and Jillian discover that their parents aren't their natural parents, which they do in true genius kid fashion at the start of the book -- It's a great opening chapter -- they begin to look for their origins. They make several startling discoveries. The first is about their own ancestry. It stretched back to France and to a very peculiar ancestor. Can you give us a hint of what this portends?
[Wen] That's... A lot of that is canon. I set up, in the first book, that Tinker has a book of spells, the Codex. In the second book, she finds out that the Codex is actually Stone clan. Windwolf is the Wind clan. In the third book, the capstone clan start showing up and making claims on Tinker and Oilcan. So the future is going to be kind of complicated by the fact that there's going to be these children who are Stone clan. And the Stone clan aren't necessarily friendly with everybody else in the books, so there's this big political ramification of the twins and their siblings.
[Tony] They also discover something else, that they are not alone. There may be siblings. They run into the major problem that they're trying to solve throughout the book, Wood Sprites. Can you tell us a little bit about the embryos and the consequences of the twins' discovery? I haven't... It's a really wonderful character motivation that I haven't seen before.
[Wen] I had set up, in the very first book, that Tinker was created by in vitro fertilization using the sperm of her father who had been dead for a couple of years. It turns out that... I didn't realize it, but I had been talking to a friend after writing Elfhome. She had gone through in vitro fertilization and she had twin boys. But when that happens, they actually make more embryos than they actually use, and they store part of that, part of the creation, so she had actually had 17 embryos created and she used three of them. She had twin boys. She had been carrying triplets and lost one. She told me that years after she had the twins, she got a call from the clinic wanting to know what to do with these frozen embryos. Since she lost the little girl when she was carrying her boys, she considered having a child that would be twin to their... Her already existing children. She decided not to, so she donated the embryos. She knows at least one child was born from the donated material. So there's a full sister to her twins somewhere out there in the world that she has no knowledge of, other than it was a girl child. A few days after I had this discussion with her, I actually dreamed about Louise trying to save her baby siblings. I woke up realizing, "Oh my God. Tinker has siblings!" Because the in vitro fertilization automatically creates more material than you actually use. So I started trying to think of what Louise would be like. That's when I decided to make her a twin, because I thought you would have to have a really close relationship with an existing sibling to try to move heaven and earth to save another sibling. I also wanted to make her young, because the idea of getting these frozen embryos is so impractical that it only needs that kind of naïve innocence of a child of "we just have to do this, and it will be fine." That kind of created my start point.
[Tony] It's cool to think about a twin that is 10 years, 20 years younger than another twin and what the family implications of that will be.
[Wen] It's going to be interesting when I bring them all together.
[Tony] At one point, you write... You have one of your characters say... I believe it's Louise, "Yes, but this isn't driving across the river to New Jersey. This is going to another planet, Elfhome, the world of the elves. Different stars, different moons... Well, looks the same but it's not the same moon. Totally different sun. Not our world." So what world is this, Elfhome Pittsburgh? Can you give us a bit of an overview of how this wonderfully intricate world you've built fits together?
[Wen] Yeah. Basically...
[Tony] Crash course.
[Wen] I've set up... Yeah. In 100 words or less. Basically, I've set up that there's four worlds that are known. They're kind of like pearls on a string where they're all linked together, but they're all individual. They're mirrored geologically, so that they look on the surface to be the same. They're in the same orbit around the sun, but they're all different universes. So our sun and moon is not the sun and moon of Elfhome. They have their own. So I guess another way of thinking of it is they're like sheets of paper with each paper having a photograph of a planet with a moon and a sun. They all look the same, but they're all separate. While theologically...
[Tony] What happened that brought Pittsburgh and Elfhome together?
[Wen] I had set up that at one point there was all these passages through caves where a magic resonance had been set up between the planets that you could actually travel like in a wormhole to the other planet. But there was this big political war and those were destroyed by various parties. But the memory of them existed, so that Tinker's father actually took the book of magic that he had inherited from his family, that Tinker also has a copy of, and decided to use technological means to re-create it. But he also was aware that there was this war and there was conflict and this could be dangerous. So he set it up in space, thinking that he could... With the distance of space, that he could control the access to this. So it was a great big gate floating in orbit, that you're supposed to put spaceships through and they would jump between the universes. But it didn't work right. How it didn't work right was it projected a field of magic down onto the planet and basically kidnapped Pittsburgh off the face of Earth and put it on Elfhome. At first they were really mystified at what had happened, because they couldn't figure out the connection between the gate and Pittsburgh disappearing, but once they figured it out, they're like, "Cool. A whole 'nother planet. We've got to take advantage of this. It has intelligent species and everything. We've got to do this." So they couldn't figure out how to change the gate, so they decided just, well, what the hell. We would just turn it on and off. When it's off, Pittsburgh's on Earth, and it's called Shutdown. But when it's on, which is Startup, it's on Elfhome. So they started up this cycle that they turn it off and they turn it on and turn it off and turn it on. They would basically trade back and forth between Earth and Elfhome.
[Tony] Elfhome is a dangerous place for humans. You wrote that wonderful story last year, Pittsburgh Backyard and Garden, that we had on the baen.com page. This is a place that's dangerous for humans. The flora itself will get you. And the fauna's pretty dangerous, too.
[Wen] Magic doesn't affect geological features. But it affects living matter. So the plants and animals and people all evolved differently. Magic tends to supercharge plants and animals. So while Earth has plants that move and trap food like the Venus fly trap, they're tiny and they go after little flies. On Elfhome, the magic just ramps it up to extremes, so the plants are like trees walking and they eat people. So, yeah, they tend... Elfhome is much more dangerous than Earth.
[Tony] And it has elves!
[Wen] Elves are very much like humans, but they've been supercharged by magic so that they're immortal and they heal faster and they're taller and they're stronger. So we're a little bit intimidated by them.
[Tony] Back on earth, while Louise and Jillian are going about these adventures, they also have school. We have a rather delightful subplot of the story that takes place there. Jillian and Louise have had trouble fitting in before, but now they're going to give it a try by putting on a play. But it's a play done the twins' special way.
[Wen] The part... This is kind of coming out of my own childhood, but the point in my life where I could shine was in fourth grade, where I put on a play. Wrote a play and put it on. I ended up being the director. But for the twins, I decided what it was is that Jillian has this desire to be an actress and director and famous. She's kind of blocked by the fact that she's short and she's dark and she just... That she isn't princess material. She keeps on losing the lead to this tall, beautiful, blonde girl who really knows how to work people. Jillian ends up being the villain, and she really hates this. Well, they decide to be preemptive and get the boys in the class on their side, because it's a class vote as to what play they put on. But this forces them to actually talk to their classmates, and make friends. It takes them out of their comfort zone. Once they start into the play, they're doing Peter Pan, they realize it... This gives them an excuse to have a cover-up story for everything they're doing, so it's, "We have to go to school on Saturdays because of the play." "We have to stay late at school because of the play." "We're going to make this because we're going to use it in the play." Then they of course embellish Peter Pan to extremes.
[Tony] Now, in addition to those rather bad schoolgirls, and there's some others that they make friends with over the course of the book, and, well, we have some truly evil villains. These threaten Elfhome as well as Earth. How can elves in Pittsburgh be threatened? I mean, they're immortal and timeless and such, right?
[Wen] I've set up... Why they're immortal is that the originally they were a nomadic tribe society. Then one tribe learned how to use magic to do bioengineering. They were the Skin clan. They quickly figured out how to do things like making animals weapons of war. The walking trees is actually a result of their tinkering. They used these to enslave all the other tribes on the planet, and then they started messing around with the basic structure of the race. They bioengineered a lot of things into the elves, one of which is the immortality. Once they had figured out the immortality, they started doing some really awful genetic experiments with their slaves. At that point, the slaves revolted. All the elves the humans know are the basically the slaves. The master race, the Skin clan as they were called, fled from the planet and used the caves pathways to get to Earth and some of the other planets that are connected. So they were scattered. But they still were immortal and they still had knowledge of bioengineering. They basically fit in with the humans and wherever they happened to be, and started plotting how they could come back and take over their planet. But they had the big problem of their planet is now super-weaponized against them, because in the course of the rebellion, the slaves picked up the spell stones, which lets the noble caste cast very powerful spells, just with by moving their hands and saying words. They can call down lightning storms and fire strikes and put up impenetrable shields. It makes them nearly invincible. So the Skin clan have been taking their immortality in coming up with a plan to take back their planet.
[Tony] So the Elven magic that the twins are trying to understand and maybe wield throughout the book... How does it work? What are the rules?
[Wen] Anybody can cast magic. Magic is kind of like circuit boards in which you can draw a certain design with metal... Some kind of metal ink. Tinker uses crayons that have metal filings melted into the wax. She also uses a metal ink which has buckyballs of metal in them. She... It's very complex to break this down. So basically, anybody who draws the design can actually cast a spell. The twins actually get the spell book... A copy of the spell book and start casting spells by printing them on printers and then casting them using generators they create... Magic generators they create. But the noble caste, the domana, they have something linked into their genetic code that lets them be kind of like telephones. In that way out there someplace, there's a huge rock that has a spell embedded on it. Basically, what the noble caste person does is call in and say, "Send me a lightning strike." The magic jumps to them, and then they can direct it. The stones are sitting on top of this massive pool of magic, so they have a huge amount of power to pull from instead of just the ambient level magic where the caster happens to be standing. So it's kind of like being able to call in a nuclear strike.
[Tony] So are these the nactka that we see in the book?
[Wen] The spell stones are the spell stones. But anything you draw a spell on can become magical. The nactka basically have a spell inscribed on them. What this spell does is it stops time for the thing that's inside the nactka. So it looks like this giant ostrich egg or Faberge egg, because it actually has hinges on it, and the spell for time stop is inscribed on the outside. When it's closed up and sealed by magic, it stops time until the seal is broken. So you put something in it and you seal it, and basically it kind of moves the object to when the item's opened.
[Tony] So what about Earth? Earth-Elfhome politics get a little complicated, given that Elfhome doesn't always exist in our universe. On Earth, there's this quarantine zone. Why have humans set this up?
[Wen] The United States wasn't very happy about losing one of its major cities, and having this giant hole in the middle of it. When it happened... First started happening, there was almost a war over it. But they managed to come up with a way around everything, the political strife, by having the Chinese, who were the ones who built the space gate in orbit, basically paying for the damages of losing an entire city. Then they have... The United States also has the benefit of... You have all the riches of another world funneled through it. But it also has the dangers of... Well, it's got these walking trees, and it's got these dinosaurs, and it's got these giant wolves. There's a lot of dangerous things in it. So they've come up with a mile wide quarantine zone where it's basically a dead man's land with Berlin wall kind of fortifications on the very edge so that you can't usually get in or out. Get in, because the elves have set up limits as to who gets to immigrate. They don't want the riffraff of humanity cluttering up their planet. They've been to Earth in their past. They know that humans have this tendency of moving into an area with a lesser developed native land and just railroading over the native... And taking over the land. So they're very on guard from that, so they're like, "We want to limit your numbers coming in and we want only your good people. We don't want the crazy people and criminals and such." So they have... The treaty has set up that only a certain number of people can come in. So that's what the quarantine zone is. It's to keep Elfhome dangerous stuff from coming out, and then the huge numbers, the billions of humans who see a nearly empty planet is ripe for the picking to come in.
[Tony] There's another wonderful character in the book, one that I particularly enjoyed, which is Tesla. Who's sort of the robo-nanny dog of the girls. He was meant to be a kind of nanny, but the girls have turned the tables on their parents with that. Tell us about Tesla.
[Wen] Tesla is... Starts out as a nanny bot. Basically, the girls commute from the Queens into Manhattan area because they have a scholarship at this very prestigious gifted school. It's New York City, so their parents are nervous about them commuting back and forth, so they get this giant dog. It's actually an American Akita. It's the size of a Saint Bernard, but it looks more like a spitz. It has all this advanced technology on it so that... It's got spy cameras and recording materials and GPS. You even can buy these special attachment feet so that it can walk on walls. Gecko feet. The girls are kind of horrified by this, because they're just starting into this whole we're going to run around and do all this illegal, dangerous stuff to try to save our siblings. So they're not very happy about this. So they come up with ways to get around it. But then there's...
[Tony] Cramps their style.
[Wen] Yeah. It really cramps their style. So there's...
[Tony] What about the voice? Where does that... The Christopher Robin's voice? It's impossible not to have that playing in your head once you hear that they're doing that. I'm sorry. Go ahead.
[Wen] The dog can talk and answer questions and answer... You can call it on a phone and ask it questions. So the parents can actually call it and go, "Where are you?" And the dog could go, "I'm at this museum. It's after hours and we're stealing something." So... American Akitas are actually an Americanized version of a Japanese dog. So when they first get it, the preprogrammed lan... A voice for it is, "Konnichiwa. Boku wa Akita da." You know, the very deep down male voice. They're like, "Oh, that sucks." So they're cycling... Cycle through the voices and they come upon the Welsh Corgi voice actually sounds like Christopher Robin. So they set that as the default voice. But later on, they make a mistake and the dog develops a personality. It's a very young boy personality. So the Christopher Robin voice actually works very well for it. He's very confused about life. Of course, he becomes aware just as the twins are doing insane, crazy things. So he's not very aware of what's normal and then he has to deal with this craziness on top of it.
[Tony] He's really a great character. A sort of great outside in viewpoint for the craziness that these twins are up to.
[Wen] "Why are we doing this? Is it really good?"
[Tony] So, what are you working on now, Wen?
[Wen] I'm trying to finish the short story for you. I've got a steam punk book that I've... I have under contract. It's set in the 1870s. It has lots and lots of cool things, and I haven't quite figured out how to talk about it yet. Because it has zombies and angels and dragons and airships and pirates and... It's a romp. I haven't quite figured out how to explain it yet. I'm supposed to have it done this month and that didn't happen. I also have a project... Project Elfhome, which is an anthology that I'm working on, which will have Pittsburgh Backyard And Garden, and all the other short stories that I've done, and follow-up short stories for several of them. There will be a sequel to Pittsburgh Backyard And Garden called Chased by Monsters. Peace Offering with Olivia will have a sequel. I have little bits from Stormsong and Pony and Lain. A lot of fun things. It's all Elfhome stories.
[Tony] The book is Wood Sprites by Wen Spencer. It's a wonderful and intricate tapestry of an adventure with some characters who are really fun to follow along. Wood Sprites is now at booksellers everywhere. Wen, thank you so much for being with us.
[Wen] Thank you for having me, Tony. I really enjoyed it.
Published on LiveJournal with permission by Baen.
Copyright 2014 Baen Books.