Women in SFF Author Spotlight – Tiffani Angus (THREADING THE LABYRINTH)
Dr Tiffani Angus is a Senior Lecturer in Publishing and Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, where she is also the General Director of the Anglia Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. A Clarion graduate, she has published short fiction in a variety of genres but feels most at home with historical fantasy. More information about her writing can be found at http://www.tiffani-angus.com/
Welcome to the Hive, Tiffani. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
The most recent book I finished was The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow and it was so good! It was the perfect amount of magical for me—that kind where you are waiting for it to show up in a glance or a sigh and then BOOM it’s there. I am nearly finished with Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and it is making me so happy: women *doing things*!
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
Well, had I had any similar friends when I was 12 and learned how to play D&D in real life (I had the book but no one to learn/play with) I could answer this question specifically. How’s that for sad? But I am ridiculously practical: I always have lip balm and tissues and tampons and ibuprofen on me—and a small sewing kit and safety pins—so I’m whatever character that is with a backpack full of “just in case” who wields snark and a raised eyebrow and isn’t afraid to yell bigger people down (yay the “I don’t give a f**k” of middle age!).
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (In silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit?)
Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
First, I am equating my day job a bit to trawling through dungeons and it’s not far off!
I definitely type—I can’t hand write fast enough to keep up with things when I get going. And I wear whatever is comfy, which, since lockdown began, is pretty much pyjama bottoms or sweats and t-shirts, and sometimes (if it’s cold) my pyjama cape (Yes, I have a fleece pyjama CAPE complete with pockets and a hood—like a giant blanket poncho but nifty-er).
I guess to be on brand with what I write lately I should say I’m a gardener, but I’m actually a bit of the opposite, too. I go in with a vague plan in general, write to see what happens, and then go back and do an outline to see what has happened and figure out how to get to the end.
Music-wise it depends. When I was writing Threading the Labyrinth I would listen to music that matched the time period I was writing about. Or Christmas music (I am a giant Christmas music nerd). I have a hard time writing to music with words because I’ll sing and write at the same time, which isn’t the best way to concentrate!
Basically, though, I don’t have any writing rituals: no coffee or tea addiction, no specific pens, no must-have anything. But I write best if I don’t have anything else “on deck”: no chores or work or even food prep. I love having solo weekend retreats at home, where I can be slovenly and eat microwaved food and not shower, and so write as much as possible with no interruptions.
What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Elizabeth Hand, absolutely. She was a huge influence before I even realised that I was a SFF writer. And she’s the reason I applied to Clarion. Some of her work is never really fully one genre or another, and I love how she melds together history and magic and sometimes doesn’t ever really address it—or explain it—as such. I’d also add Connie Willis to that list for her time-travel stories.
I wrote my first ever novel (which will likely never see the light of day) with one of my best friends; weirdly, I was never much good at short stories until after I finished that novel, so my earliest writing experience was with a writing partner. The idea of doing it again, however, hasn’t crossed my mind. But if anyone wanted to try to write together, I’d be open to the idea. It all depends on how well your creative practices match.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
I finished Unorthodox on Netflix a few nights ago. I’m fascinated by cultures that have such strict rules for women and sex, so I liked the flashback scenes the best (but I found the show’s ending unsatisfactory).
Asking me about games is like asking me about D&D. We own PlayStation and a Wii, but I don’t really play them. I mean, back when I was a kid I had an Atari when they first came out, but in the past couple of decades or so I haven’t been into games; I bought The Last of Us five years ago and then never took it out of the plastic! I suppose I’m just trying to keep myself from getting too distracted. We play gin rummy a lot, though—I win most of the time! And when we get together with friends (when will that ever happen again?) we like to play Exploding Kittens and other silly card games like that.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
I like to be crafty, so I’d maybe sew something (I’ve made a LOT of masks lately—geeky ones like Doctor Who, Wonder Woman, etc.). Or rearrange my books because organising things is calming. Or bake. Or have a total duvet day and lie on the couch and watch old movies. I rarely get to do that, and sometimes it’s necessary to do *nothing* and recharge.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
I am trying hard to finish a draft of a novel I started back before Threading. It’s apocalyptic (which might be a rather hard sell soon—although it is not a pandemic-based apocalypse). I call it (for fun) Little House at the End of the World, and it’s about how women and children cope with the end of things as they try to build something new, and it’s closely related to my research into the estrangement of women’s bodies in apocalyptic fiction. I’m also considering a small collection of historical fantasy stories related to gardening and horticultural history; I’ve published some and have ideas for others, including at least one new one set in the Threading garden.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
One of the most helpful, which I teach to my own students, was an altered Freytag pyramid that Holly Black taught us at Clarion: to take the pyramid shape of a plot and add a second, parallel but shifted-to-one-side line from the conflict up to the climactic moment and then down to the resolution. One path is the SFF story, and the other is the “human” story. This helps to chip away at the ridiculous myth of SFF as being plot-driven instead of character-driven because in genre there are often two stories going on at the same time. It also helps me as a writer really focus on the story that I want to tell that is there beneath the magic and worldbuilding and novum.
The worst advice? That to be a “real” writer you have to write every day. That’s pure BS.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I don’t get a lot of chances to write because of my schedule, so I have to take advantage of the time when I have it. But there is this thing that happens when you do the thing instead of believing that you have to wait until you feel like doing the thing: when you do the action, your brain changes and the action becomes easier. I try to get my students to follow this, to just start writing and see what happens instead of waiting for the “muse” and pursuing perfection.
I tend to leave a writing session at a spot in the draft where I know what the next thing is that happens, so when I start back up I know where to go with it. If I’m stuck, though, I’ll outline what’s there so that I can see what I’ve done and figure out where I’ve gone off into the weeds. I also remind myself not to ask, “why me?” in relation to a story or other piece when I’m questioning my worth. Instead I ask, “why NOT me?” I’m just as worthy as anyone else and, damnit, I have my moments when I write good stuff. It’s too easy to let that inner critic drown you out. Plus, fortune favours the fearless.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
Oh, this speaks to my time-travel story loving heart! I would love to go back to see a couple of lost gardens. Elizabeth I was notoriously cheap—part of that had to do with the ridiculous amount of money her father spent on things, so the treasury wasn’t terribly robust. Anyway, she played courtiers against each other, and one way they’d try to get her attention was via huge parties in lavish surroundings. I’d go back to the summer of 1575 to see Kenilworth Castle and its gardens; Robert Dudley built the gardens in honour of his Queen, to try to woo her (because remember, she wasn’t married). William Cecil did the same at his home, Theobalds Palace, to try to undermine Dudley. Unfortunately, both gardens were destroyed a century later during or after the Civil War.
Who are your favourite female characters in literature or pop culture? And do you have a favourite type of female character you enjoy writing?
My favourite female characters include Imperator Furiosa because she’s *amazing* and I love the legend of the Vuvalini; Melanie in The Girl With All the Gifts because she’s just a kid and has to deal with being something “new” but she’s really smart and does what needs to be done; Fanny Hackabout-Jones from the Erica Jong novel because she lives life by her own rules (I read that book way too young but ended up, during my undergrad years, writing a paper about it as a grimoire of all things); and Claire from the Outlander series because she’s practical and gets things done.
My favourite ones to write are the “regular” women: the women who have to get up and work each day and do all the stuff they have to do and are expected to do and just get on with it, but do it the way they want to because it’s *their* work. We can’t all be Lara Croft or Captain Marvel—but we can be the hero of our own life. I also like to write about the women who haven’t been heard from much, be they real women who lived long ago or an amalgam of them: Joan the weeding woman or Maria Sibylla Merian the etymologist or Mama Leaf, who makes a lousy choice and pays for it but then makes a better choice the next time around. I also like to write women who encounter odd things but don’t scream and deny and act all damsel-in-distress but instead say “Ok, this is here, this is happening, and now how do I deal with it?”
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
I’m not sure how underappreciated it was—because it’s not really obscure—but I loved Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre, which came out in 2014. When I first read it, I didn’t know what to think; a friend (who has sadly since died) and I were talking at a book event and we both had just read it and both had the same “What the hell was that?” response. So we both read it again and decided that we loved it and loved what it was doing. It’s historical fiction but with these odd anachronisms that pop up. I’ve kept that idea in my head and am thinking about trying it out on a book I have started to consider writing after my current WIP is finished.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
Threading the Labyrinth is The Children of Green Knowe or Tom’s Midnight Garden but for adults. It’s the story of 400 years in a haunted garden that holds on to time, where the women who work in the garden come face to face with the past and the future via disembodied voices and unexplainable images as they deal with the quiet tragedies in their own lives. To thread a labyrinth is to follow its twists and turns to the centre and back out, and in Threading the reader walks this path along the novel’s non-chronological structure, discovering the secrets that the place has held on to for centuries and understanding the inevitability of the traces that we all leave behind.
Threading the Labyrinth is available TODAY!
Thank you for joining us today Tiffani, and good luck with your book release!