Interview With M. J. Engh (ARSLAN)
M. J. Engh is an author of science fiction and fantasy. She is most famous for her iconic debut novel Arslan (1976), a chilling novel about a charismatic dictator invading a small town in the US. She was named Author Emerita by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2009. Her novel Rainbow Man (1993) explores ideas around fanaticism and gender, and was nominated for both the James Tiptree, Jr Award (now the Otherwise Award) and the Prometheus Award. She has further written the lyrical Fantasy novel Wheel of the Winds (1988) and a novel for children, The House of Snow (1987). She is also an independent scholar of Roman history, and has written the nonfiction In The Name Of Heaven: 3000 Years of Religious Persecution (2006).
M. J. Engh was kind enough to talk to The Fantasy Hive via email.
Arslan, your first novel, remains the work you are most well-known for. Would you be able to tell us a bit about it?
Sometime in the 1960s, I was living in my hometown in southern Illinois, after a long absence, and substitute teaching at the local elementary school. One day it occurred to me to wonder, “How would this town react to a totally unexpected catastrophe, like a major earthquake—or an invading army rolling in?” That clicked, and I spent the next eight years writing the novel, many times stopping in despair because I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew.
Given the resurgence of authoritarianism across the world right now, Arslan’s explorations of the dangerous charisma of dictators feels incredibly pertinent. How does the novel resonate with today’s political landscape?
For a long time, I had wondered how nations could voluntarily accept dictatorship, as they seemed to do often and easily. Then came the American response to 9/11—the Department of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, the “war on terror”—and I saw it demonstrated. No, we haven’t achieved dictatorship here, but we’ve chosen to teeter on the edge. It seems that most people will eagerly give up actual liberty for promised security.
Arslan is an idealistic dictator, more like Pol Pot than the current crop of dictators and would-be dictators, whose only ideal is to keep themselves in power. But dictatorship is dictatorship, so it does resonate.
Much of the power of the novel comes through the interactions between Arslan and the other two central characters, Franklin L. Bond and Hunt Morgan. How did you set about writing the ambiguous relationships between these three characters?
I think of Arslan as a novel about fathers and sons. The ambiguities flowed naturally.
The characters are particularly important given how much of the book is about how political interactions and individual social interactions overlap. What drew you to this idea?
History. Aeons ago, when I was a college history student, historians seriously argued about whether history was driven by “great men” or by “social/environmental forces.” The Annales school gave me the answer; individuals make society, society makes individuals. Politics are not separate from religion and food preferences and how you wash your hands.
Arslan starts off with an explicit scene of sexual violence, which is intentionally horrifying. The story is very much invested in exploring violence and its consequences. How do you feel about how violence is handled in SF, and the writer’s responsibility towards portraying violence?
I was, and still am, grimly amused by how some SF readers are shocked or repulsed by the violence of Arslan, while they accept quite casually the destruction of whole planets and species. I wanted to add a small drop of reality to the wholesale white-bread violence and destruction that science fiction and fantasy have so often promoted. I do think that writers have a responsibility to stay true to the reality of the worlds they create.
The novel is also very much about growing up, particularly Hunt’s storyline, and the sometimes-forced transition from childhood to adulthood. What drew you to this particular theme?
Please don’t misunderstand if I say that Hunt’s character is largely autobiographical. (In various ways, almost all my characters are autobiographical.) None of the events of Hunt’s story ever happened to me, but I used his character as a sort of avatar to exorcise some of my own demons. (It worked pretty well.) I matured Hunt only to the level I had achieved when I wrote the book.
Your next novel for adults, Wheel of the Winds, tells the story of Captain Repnomar and Lethgro as they help the Exile circumnavigate a strange world. Where did the inspiration for it come from?
Absurdly enough, it began as a reaction to reading a rather charming fantasy novel that happened to be the last straw for me—I was sick and tired of sexism and battles between Good and Evil. So I tried to write a non-sexist adventure story with no bad guys and no absolutes.
You call Wheel of the Winds your “just for fun” novel. Was it a release to write something lighter in between Arslan and Rainbow Man?
Very much so.
Wheel of the Winds combines tropes and ideas from both science fiction and fantasy. How do you feel your work sits in relation to the genre?
When I started Wheel I didn’t know whether it was going to be fantasy or SF. More broadly, I think genres—like most (perhaps all) classifications—are artificial labels that we stick on arbitrary segments of an almost infinite diversity.
Rainbow Man explores ideas around religious fanaticism and gender. Where did the idea for this come from?
Probably from my distrust of people who are perfectly certain of anything. I started with the religious questions, which I’ve been mulling since childhood, and added gender to flesh out the characters.
The novel also explores how a society with space travel would work in the absence of faster than light travel. How do the hard science themes tie into the novel’s social science themes?
I get impatient with all the warp drives and such, which simply allow us to write fantasy in the guise of science fiction. (Not that there aren’t great stories written that way.) If we want to talk about the real possibilities of space exploration, why not try to do it realistically? Is Rainbow Man’s world realistically possible? Probably not—but at least I tried.
Hard science is done by humans, and therefore springs from and functions within human societies. And isn’t social science just studying how people behave?
Rainbow Man was nominated for the Tiptree and Prometheus Awards. What about the book made it appeal to such disparate audiences?
Tiptree for the gender issue, Prometheus for the apparently anarchic society. Both those aspects were secondary for me in this story. It’s about religion.
You were named Author Emerita by the SFWA in 2009, what was that like?
It was great fun, and totally unexpected. I don’t much care for the term “emerita,” which seems to imply that I’m over the hill, but I think some people felt I should get some kind of belated award for Arslan.
You’ve also written a children’s book, The House in the Snow. How does writing for children differ from writing for adults?
Hardly at all. It’s just a matter of putting yourself into a character’s viewpoint. What would a child notice, feel, think, know, want to know? As my children have taught me, you don’t have to dumb it down or whitewash it; children can deal with reality and are better adapted than adults to learning new things.
You’ve also written short fiction across a range of styles. How do you find writing shorter fiction different from writing novels, and do you always know how long a story will be when you have the idea for it?
I think short stories are technically more difficult than novels. In a novel you have plenty of room to build your characterizations and settings, filling in backgrounds and adding details. You can also get away with more mistakes; readers will forgive you if they like most of the work. With a short story, every line needs to be perfect.
I can usually tell if a story will be short. Anything longer than that, from novelette on up—no, I have no idea how long it will be.
On your website, you talk about Triptych, a book that would have republished three of your linked fairytale-eqsue stories, ‘We Serve the Star of Freedom’, ‘Lord Moon’ and ‘Aurin Tree’. Can you tell us a bit about these stories? Are there currently any plans to revive Triptych?
“Lord Moon” was the first written, as an escape from a particularly boring college class. After that, I wanted to explore this newly born world a little more, hence “We Serve the Star of Freedom.” Long years afterward, faithful readers wanted the two heroes to meet, so I wrote “Aurin Tree.” I think of the three stories as satires on three kinds of hubris: scientific, commercial, and military. No, I don’t expect Triptych to be revived.
As well as writing fiction, you also write academic work about history, such as In the Name of Heaven: 3,000 Years of Religious Persecution, which engages with many of the same themes and concerns as some of your fiction. What do you see as the overlaps between your fiction and academic writing, and how do they feed into each other?
My writing is generally a response to questions that trouble me. I’m a lifelong student of history, which includes everything human and provides a perspective on what’s happening now. In the Name of Heaven was my response to the amazingly ignorant American reaction to 9/11.
What’s next for M. J. Engh?
I’m totally out of the SF-fantasy loop. Too bad; I would have liked to do more. But I’m 87 years old, I write very slowly at the best of times, and I have two large history projects to finish. One is Femina Habilis, a biographical dictionary of active women in the ancient Roman world. My historian friend Kathy Meyer and I have been working on this for decades, have written thousands of entries, and are finally beginning to see a stopping point within a few years. The other project is a novel (two novels, actually) on Galla Placidia. This is also something I started decades ago, when nobody outside history departments had heard of Galla Placidia. Since then she seems to have become fashionable, and there have been several novels and a couple of serious books about her. But it takes at least two volumes to do her justice. Wish me luck.