Interview with R. B. Lemberg (THE UNBALANCING)
R.B. Lemberg is a poet and fantasist living in Lawrence, Kansas.R.B.’s debut novella THE FOUR PROFOUND WEAVES was shortlisted for the Nebula, Locus, Ignyte, and World Fantasy awards; it was also an Otherwise Award honoree. R.B.’s novel THE UNBALANCING is forthcoming from Tachyon in September 2022. R.B. was born in L’viv, Ukraine.
Follow them on twitter at @rb_lemberg or visit their website
Welcome to the Hive, RB. This September you’ll be taking readers back to the Birdverse in your first full-length novel in the series, The Unbalancing. What can readers expect?
The Unbalancing is a lyrical mix of queer romance, nonbinary-centric worldbuilding, a disaster story, and explorations of magic, queer community, friendships, loss, and hope. Readers should also expect a grumpy ancestral ghost and a very determined ginger cat.
More books need cat in them we feel.
Tell us more about starkeeper Ranra and poet Erígra!
The two alternating narrators of The Unbalancing couldn’t be more different – Erígra Lilún is a dreamy poet who loves to spend their days in solitude pruning trees in the ancient quince grove and scribbling in their notebook. Ranra cannot stand still, and in fact, can often be spotted running around and making things happen extremely fast. The two are brought together, perhaps, by their mutual fascination with the Star of the Tides, an unruly mass of magic asleep in the sea, whose restless tossing and turning is about to become more desperate. But I think, in the end of the day, Ranra and Lilún are brought together by a kind of irresistible mix of mutual fascination and bewilderment that could keep them circling each other for a long time if things weren’t exploding. Things are exploding.
Give us a glimpse into the Birdverse – is your world building inspired by anything specific?
Birdverse is very large, and the stories set in this world are loosely connected, but not sequential in order. You do not need to read them in any particular order, but the more you read, the more immersed you hopefully become, and the more you perceive this world as a tapestry rather than a line. Birdverse is named after the goddess Bird, who brought twelve stars to the landmass at the dawn of time. She keeps showing up since then, mostly to collect the souls of the dead, but sometimes for other reasons. The world is inspired by my fascination with historical linguistics, ancient and medieval trade routes, medieval and early modern Jewish history, and literally anything associated with the linguistics of gender. It’s also inspired by a few specific characters who decided to camp out in my head, but I believe that’s common to writers.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover and we were thrilled to host the cover reveal! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
I was not involved with the cover at all! It’s all the magic of Elizabeth Story, the Tachyon designer, and the Tachyon office. I loved it when I saw it, I think it perfectly conveys the feel of the book. Of course, since this is the second Birdverse title Tachyon is publishing, the good folks at the office already know that there must be a bird on it, and they know how the bird should look like.
Let’s talk about the writing process; do you have a process? Tell us a little something about how your story comes together.
I have to feel the shape of the story before I sit down to write. I daydream about each story for a long time, focusing on the key emotional scenes. I don’t need to imagine each scene, but I daydream through the most emotionally hard-hitting ones. I have to know where a book is headed, where the last big scenes will be, before I can draft. I knew how The Unbalancing ended for many years, but I was not sure exactly how the story would get there. So I was in this daydreaming process for a while when I was driving to downtown Lawrence (I live there) and suddenly this big, hard-hitting scene unfolded before my eyes, and this vast wave of emotion came over me and I somehow still needed to keep driving the car. I remember yelling, “Semberí, damn, Semberí!!!” mostly because I was fairly sure Semberí would NOT want me to have a car accident before I could put pen to paper; it’s pretty hilarious in retrospect. And I did not crash the car! It took me about a week to recover from that, but then I began writing, and did not stop until it was done.
In terms of drafting, I use a hybrid method which involves handwriting and typing. I handwrite pointers for each scene in fountain pen (what happens, key thematic points, often specific phrases), and I draft on my laptop. The notebook and my pens are always to the right of the keyboard.
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
Editing can be fraught for a lot of authors, I feel, and it’s really important to have a relationship of trust and respect with your editor. I love working with my Tachyon editor Jaymee Goh. She gets my work very deeply, she understands what I am trying to do with all the complexity that often comes into my works, and she helps me get to a deeper, better, and clearer version of my vision. I love working with editors and I have heavily revised most of my accepted pieces and feel they benefited from it. That said, I always worry about edits.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy/sci-fi influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Ursula K. Le Guin – I think that’s obvious to everybody who reads my work, and my work is often compared to hers. It’s not accidental – I’ve done a lot of linguistics and cultural history on my academic side, and I trained some in anthropology; these are also things that influenced Ursula’s work. I actually knew her a bit and published her poetry when I was editing Stone Telling Magazine (which I named after one of Le Guin’s characters from Always Coming Home). Patricia McKillip, who just passed away, has been a major influence on me. The Unbalancing, in particular, is inspired by the writing of early 20th century Russian fantasist Aleksandr Grin, who is not much known in the West. In contemporary SFF, I’ve been most inspired by Amal El-Mohtar, Sofia Samatar, Rivers Solomon, and Malka Older, and I am so happy to know them. Sofia just sold a new book to Tor.com – The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain. I can’t wait! In terms of collaboration… it’s hard to say – I’m married to Bogi Takács and it’s an everyday literary salon in here. We read each other’s work, and it’s the best kind of collaboration.
As for creators outside of my wonderful circle of writers – I would love to have a TV show based on my work someday. My favorite TV show at the moment is Our Flag Means Death, which is quite far from the things I usually write, but that’s where my mind is those days.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
It’s tempting to say that I would ride a dragon, even though it’s a fantasy cliché. I would definitely not ride a bird – Birdverse birds don’t like it, and the goddess Bird in particular is not a big fan of battles – they are a lot of work for her. So I think I’m riding into battle on a traditional Slavic three-headed dragon. Each head regrows when/if it’s cut off, which is pretty handy in a fight. I’m originally from Ukraine and Russia, so these three-headed dragons are a big part of my childhood. There are also nine-headed and twelve-headed versions, but I feel they would be too unbalanced in flight.
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate the release in September? Do you have any upcoming virtual events our readers may be interested in?
I am going to have a launch at the Raven Bookstore, an excellent independent bookstore in Lawrence, KS! It’s a wonderful place, and they expanded during the pandemic, so now they are in a new and gorgeous spot in downtown Lawrence. I can’t wait. I am also planning a virtual event at the Texas A&M University.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
I hope my LGBTQIA+ readers will feel affirmed and seen. I hope they feel that they are deserving of story, deserving of all the stories – the stories of friendship and love and adventure and loss and hope and perhaps especially stories of cats. And I hope all my readers, regardless of their particular identities, take pleasure in the incredible variety of experience that my world – and our world – has to offer. Not just loneliness, but community. Not just utopia, but failure. Not just pain, but hope.
Thank you so much for joining us today!