Women in SFF Author Spotlight – Jacey Bedford (EMPIRE OF DUST)
Jacey Bedford is a British writer of science fiction and historical fantasy. Her Psi-Tech and Rowankind trilogies are published by DAW in the USA, and she’s under contract for Amber Crown, a historical fantasy set in an analogue of the Baltic States. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, and have been translated into Estonian, Galician, Catalan and Polish. In another life she was a singer with vocal harmony trio, Artisan, and once sang live on BBC Radio4 accompanied by the Doctor (Who?) playing spoons.
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Welcome to the Hive, Jacey Bedford. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
I couldn’t pick just one. My friend Liz Williams has a marvellous new book out, called Comet Weather [Editor note: Jonathan wrote an excellent review]. Unusually for Liz, who writes both science fiction and fantasy, this is set in present day Somerset in an old house steeped in family lore and imbued with ghosts. It features four adult half-sisters who have more than a passing relationship with the supernatural. Also I just finished The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, by H.G. Parry. It’s set in Wellington, New Zealand, which is where I was supposed to be going for Worldcon 2020 until Covid 19 struck. This is an intriguing story featuring two adult brothers, Rob and Charley. Charley can summon literary characters to life, which in itself causes problems, but when other characters start appearing, summoned by someone else, Wellington is in deep trouble. It’s a love letter to literature, as well as a tense, exciting story.
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?
I’m not much of a gamer unless you count Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride. I’ve never played D&D, but I get the basic concept. I’m not much of a fighter, so my weapon would be a huge chunk of beefsteak with which to distract any marauding monster. Then I’d run like hell. Can you do that in D&D?
I’m sure you can try? Also, Ticket to Ride is a GREAT game!
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? Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
I’m involved in music in my other life so it might seem odd that I like to write in silence. I don’t get annoyed if there are general house noises happening outside my office. Yes I have an office. It’s crammed with books and paper, and looks pretty chaotic. I have an archaeological filing system. The longer I’ve had something, the lower down the strata it is, so I can usually find things when I need them. We live in a tiny village on the edge of the Pennines in West Yorkshire. It’s very peaceful here, so I don’t even get much traffic noise. I write using Scrivener on my desktop computer, with a 23 inch screen and a mechanical (clicky) keyboard. I always have a notebook on hand in case something pops into my brain that I can’t use right at that very moment. And when I’m jotting down notes I always use a fountain pen, usually my old Parker 51 which my dad bought in the mid 1950s, and eventually it came to me. I’m not quite a plotter or a pantser, but somewhere between the two. I usually get an idea and type madly for 10,000 or even 20,000 words. I always have an ending in my head, but when I write it out as a plot, the middle bit is usually covered by ‘stuff happens’.
What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
My biggest early influence was Andre Norton and I’ve made an effort to collect a lot of her books over the years, especially the Witch World ones. I’m almost afraid to re-read some of them in case the Sucks Fairy has visited in the intervening years. My current heroine is Lois McMaster Bujold. I’ll read everything she writes. Curse of Chalion is my absolute favourite book. It’s the one I would grab as I ran out of a burning building. I love the way she can juxtapose a serious plot line with sudden startling humour in her Miles Vorkosigan books. Miles is one of those characters I adore reading about, but if he was mine in real life I’d probably want to kill him most of the time. Would I like to work with another creator? I really don’t know how good I’d be at working with someone else on (say) writing a shared book, but if you’re talking about turning a book into a movie project then, yeah, how about one of the PJs – Patty Jenkins or Peter Jackson?
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’ve watched quite a few series on Amazon Prime and Netflix during C-19 lockdown. I loved Lucifer, and The Good Place. I also watched all the available seasons of The Last Kingdom without coming up for air. I’m not an avid TV watcher in real time. I tend to catch up with boxed sets via a streaming service. I love historicals, science fiction and fantasy. I’m much less keen on anything remotely like real life. I guess I watch TV for escape so I like it to be set as far away from the real world as possible. The last thing I watched was Picard. I’ve always loved Patrick Stewart right from the time he played Sejanus in I Claudius. I’ve seen him in theatre three times and he’s always compelling. His last outing as a demented Professor X in Logan was delightful.
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?
At the moment we’re still in lockdown because my mum is elderly and frail, so she wouldn’t be a very good candidate for surviving the virus. I know Boris says get out and spend money, but frankly I don’t think that’s wise yet. [Editor: absolutely agree with you Jacey.] If I had to keep well away from the computer for the day, I’d probably spend part of my time in the vegetable garden and the rest of the day catching up with my reading. Maybe I’d find a bit of time to do some drawing. If I could use the computer for non-writing activities, I’d probably skype my kids who are a long way from home. One is across the Atlantic, in Virginia, and the other is way down in the deep south, between London and Brighton. I’d also probably skype a couple of good friends, one is in Ontario and the other in Alaska.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
I’ve just signed a contract with DAW for my standalone novel Amber Crown. It’s a historical fantasy set in an analogue of the Baltic States in the mid 1600s. I’ve mucked about with history, of course. It kicks off with the assassination of the king. I have three viewpoint characters, Valdas, the bodyguard who failed to protect his monarch; Lind, the assassin who has more hang-ups than an average wardrobe; and Mirza, the witch/healer of a group of travelling refugees. They all begin separately, but eventually come together to try to prevent the country from imploding. It’s political, personal and magical. Publishing timetables being what they are, it won’t be out until January 2022. In the meantime I’m working on a quartet of planet-bound books set 1000 years after my Psi-Tech trilogy.
Congratulations! It sounds great!
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Least: Start by trying to write short stories and gradually work up to novels. That didn’t work for me at all. I’ve always preferred writing at novel length, even though I do occasionally write shorts.
Most: Apply your bottom to your chair and fingers to your keyboard and write. Finish what you write. Polish and submit. While you’re waiting for it to come bouncing back apply bottom to chair, fingers to keyboard and write something else. Rinse and repeat.
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?
If I really don’t want to write, then I don’t write. I know that probably sounds like sacrilege to a writer when the general advice is to write every day. But I don’t waste the day completely. Getting on with repetitive tasks, or sitting and daydreaming with a notepad and pen close to hand sometimes helps to catch those stray ideas as they float by. John Cleese advocates daydreaming in order to open up your mind to creativity, and I think he’s right. Sometimes you just need to invest in a little thinking time. If I’m ‘blocked’ it’s usually my hindbrain telling me that I’ve taken a misstep in whatever I’m working on. Once I’ve sorted that out I’m usually fine. I think we could all benefit from thinking time, writers and non-writers alike.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
That’s a tough one because I’d probably get myself killed the instant I stepped out of my time machine. If I could get over that hurdle, I’d like to experience Medieval England and in particular I’d like to see William the Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, for myself. He was born in 1146/47 and died in 1219 after a glittering career. He started out, very successfully, on the tourney field as the younger son of a minor nobleman, and ended up as statesman and regent for young king Henry III, having served five Plantagenet/English kings, starting with Henry II. He’s been called the greatest knight.
Either that or I’d like to see the Polish Winged Cavalry in action at the Siege of Vienna, 1683, from a very safe vantage point, of course. These guys went into battle with a set of iron and eagle-feather wings strapped to their backs. Their charge started out slowly as they rode side by side, but a little apart, towards the enemy. Then as they got closer they would close up, knee to knee and speed up to a mad gallop. The wind screamed through their wings as they roared down on to the opposition. Bonkers! Psychologically they were halfway to winning before they’d even struck a blow. They were the top cavalry in all of Europe for over a hundred years. It must be something in the Polish psyche. Polish fighter pilots were equally daring in the Second World 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?
I really like Max in Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s. She’s a time-travelling historian and (like the rest of the St Mary’s team) pretty disaster prone, but she sticks at it and gets there in the end. I like writing complex characters. No one is all hero/heroine or all villain. Cara in my Psi-Tech trilogy has made a mistake and is on the run at the beginning of the story, afraid to trust anyone. She develops and regains her confidence, learning to trust again. There’s romance in there, but a lot more besides. Ross (Rossalinde) Tremayne in my Rowankind trilogy is a cross-dressing, female privateer who (in Winterwood, the first book) likes her life on the high seas in the company of her crew of barely reformed pirates and the jealous ghost of her late husband. She’s independent and gutsy, but immensely loyal to her crew and her friends. I like writing women who stand up for what they believe in. They don’t have to be physically kick-ass but they have to be resilient and resolute, and they have to move the story forward by their own actions.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
I love Swordheart by T Kingfisher. I don’t know whether it’s underappreciated or obscure, but I do know I talk about it to my friends and they haven’t read it yet. T. Kingfisher is Ursula Vernon’s pen name for her adult books. (Many people know her children’s books, of course.) In Swordheart, Halla is a widow who has kept house for her miserable great uncle. When he dies, she is the sole beneficiary of his will. This doesn’t please his (closer) relatives, so they lock her in her room so that she will agree to marry her odious cousin. After he’s got his sticky paws on the inheritance they plan to kill her. Enter Sarkis, an immortal barbarian swordsman trapped in an enchanted sword and doomed to protect wielder after wielder – for eternity. Sparks fly between Halla and Sarkis, who is a grim barbarian type with more of a heart than he realises, despite being – you know – dead and immortal at the same time. Halla and Sarkis are simply fabulous characters. I couldn’t stop reading. I raced to finish it, and at the same time didn’t want it to end.
Those are the best kinds of books!
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
I write science fiction and historical fantasy with complex characters and twisty plots. My Psi-Tech trilogy (Empire of Dust, Crossways and Nimbus) is a space opera with evil megacorporations, telepaths, betrayals, space battles, void dragons and an alien intelligence called the Nimbus, plus a space station full of rogues and criminals. My Rowankind trilogy (Winterwood, Silverwolf, and Rowankind) is set in 1800 in a Britain with magic. When Ross makes a deathbed visit to her estranged mother she gains a task she doesn’t want and a half brother she didn’t know she had. She’s unable to chart a course to her future until she sorts out secrets from the past. Expect a female captain, pirates, Fae, mad King George and a handsome but annoying wolf shapechanger. Has the elevator reached the top floor yet? If so there’s more on my website at www.jaceybedford.co.uk
That’s great! Thank you so much for joining us today, Jacey.