Interview with Aliette de Bodard (A FIRE BORN OF EXILE)
Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris. She has won three Nebula Awards, an Ignyte Award, a Locus Award, a British Fantasy Award and five British Science Fiction Association Awards.
She is the author of the lesbian space pirates romance The Red Scholar’s Wake (Gollancz/JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc, 2022), and of the upcoming A Fire Born of Exile ( (Gollancz/JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc, 2023).
She also wrote the BSFA-award winning Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances (JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc), a fantasy of manners and murders set in an alternate 19th Century Vietnamese court.She lives in Paris.
Welcome to the Hive, Aliette. Your novel The Red Scholar’s Wake has just been nominated for the Clarke award. Congratulations! What’s that like?
Thanks for having me! It’s a bit of a shock, to be honest. I’ve always dreamt of being up for the Clarke, and I didn’t really expect it to happen. I am still pinching myself.
The novel is set in the Xuya universe, where many of your short stories and novellas have been set. How long have you been writing for this world? What keeps drawing you back to it?
I’ve been writing in the Xuya Universe since 2007. I guess I keep being drawn to it because it’s such a good sandbox. It’s a universe where the stories I grew up with–the Vietnamese myths, legends and history–are the basis for science fiction. It’s also a universe where family is paramount, and where very different people–sentient spaceships and humans, with different ideas of embodiment as well as different ideas of the passage of time–have to learn to live side by side, and compose with each other.
The Red Scholar’s Wake combines space opera with sapphic romance. What can we expect from the sequel, A Fire Born of Exile?
More of the same, to be honest! A Fire Born of Exile is a sapphic story based on Nirvana in Fire/The Count of Monte Cristo: a scholar, betrayed and left for dead, returns in disguise for revenge. She plans to bring the entire opulent, decadent society of the habitats crashing down. Except that falling in love wasn’t part of the plan.
It’s basically a novel about the wounds of the past, how far one would go for revenge, and a pair of disaster lesbians trying to do the right thing, with very different ideas of what constitutes the right thing.
If you were transported into your own fictional world, how do you think you would fare?
Not terribly well, I think! It’s a very unequal world and I’m pretty sure I don’t have anywhere near the skills I would need to survive: I can’t write decent poetry to save my life and I don’t think I could sit for the imperial examinations (they require a lot of classical culture and language mastery and I’m not that good at either of these). I guess I could always get a job as a person who tinkered with bots/a data scientist–that’s something I’m pretty good at.
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?
Honestly, it really depends on the book, but I generally find the editing process fairly restful. First drafting is exhausting, but editing is just a bullet point list of problems, and then solving them one by one. I guess it makes me feel like, no matter how broken the book might be, there’s a roadmap to fixing it–whereas first drafting always feels like a leap into the unknown to me.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped the artist would portray?
I was consulted at several times during the process. I was hoping that the artist would lean into the Vietnamese elements of the book, and I’m really glad Alyssa did such vivid and bright colours–they’re just so distinctive and memorable.
Just for fun, how would you pitch your book as a 1-star review?
“Too much food, too much pining and too many disaster lesbians.”
Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects? Or can you tell us a few teasers for your sequel?
For sure! I’m very proud of the sequel–which is a completely standalone story, so you don’t need to have read The Red Scholar’s Wake in order for it to make sense. I’ve always been fascinated by revenge/disguise stories. I wanted to tell this one from three different points of view: Quỳnh, the wronged scholar; Minh, the daughter of one of Quỳnh’s tormentors, who has to come to terms with her mother’s past; and Hoà, the technologist who wants nothing to do with anything. I also wanted to give women pride of place, so most of the major characters, villains and (anti)heroes are women.
Who are the most significant women in SFF who have shaped and influenced your work?
I remain very indebted to Ursula K Le Guin: Earthsea was a foundational text for me, as well as The Dispossessed. Also, Andre Norton’s Witch World, which I read at a very young age and never forgot. More recently, Kate Elliott, Martha Wells, Judith Tarr, Nghi Vo, Stephanie Burgis, Fran Wilde, Zen Cho, …
Who is a great woman in SFF who we should be reading? Any hidden gems?
Vida Cruz-Borja is a Filipina writer with a great voice and a great sense of worldbuilding. I really love the way she takes old myths and gives them new life, and her characters are very relatable, flaws and all. You can read some of her stories here and here.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
I hope I can pass on some of the sense of wonder I felt when I was reading SFF, as well as some of the stories that mattered to me–and to anyone with Vietnamese roots reading me, some sense that heroes don’t have to be white or male to matter.
Thank you so much for joining us for Women in SFF!
The Red Scholar’s Wake is coming out in paperback on 17th August, and A Fire Born of Exile is due for publication 12 October.
Follow the links below to order your copies from Bookshop.org: