This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Harriet Arden Byrd (aka H.A. Byrd), author of the new fantasy novel Aru’s Realm. Like the novel itself, this “realm” is hard to shoe-horn into a category. A young girl who has caught the interest of a “master of magic,” Aru’s realm in some ways resembles the 19th century, including steam trains and horse-drawn carriages. In other ways, Aru’s realm is one we have never seen before, not only because it includes monsters and magic but also because it has many strong women and lacks the concept of war.
TZ: Your work has many roots in traditional epic fantasy but is distinct in having a pacifist bent–and also in centering on strong female characters. Do you think the militaristic spirit of so much classic fantasy is related to its typically male protagonists, or is this pure coincidence?
HAB: I don’t think it’s coincidence that the stories both explore the male psyche and glorify war. Throughout history, men have been disproportionately represented in our world. Is war a part of that male identity?
There is a difference in aggression between men and women. Across worldwide cultures, males tend to be more violent and destructive. Although society sends messages about behavior, biology, and evolution also affect levels of ferociousness.
I experienced these differences with my three sons, as compared to my two sisters growing up. As toddlers, my boys happily played with the toy vacuum as often as the toy lawn mower, but stuffed animals, even the much-loved ones, were used only as projectiles and weapons.
However there is no historical evidence, as far as I know, that a matriarchal society would be any less warlike. While not generally aggressive in ways that many men are (for instance to garner respect or to solve problems) women do typically respond to provocation with aggression. From the warrior queens of ancient Nubia to the long list of women warriors in history and folklore, women have been involved in battle. Popular contemporary novels feature sword-wielding women as an image of female strength.
“Magic is an important part of our lives, and it always will be. It coexists with and complements science, reminding us that more than one thing can be true at the same time.”H.A. Byrd
I think war may be largely a male construction. But over the centuries females have bought into it.
The militaristic nature of classic fantasy comes from the fact that we are, male and female, a warlike society. I hope that, as a species, we learn to govern ourselves better, without turning to war as the source of our power. Perhaps a start to this step in evolution could be to focus on something other than the thrill of battle for our entertainment.
TZ: Stories of “magical journals” and fantasy are often relegated to the young adult genre. Why do you think that is? And what is it about your work that also speaks to adults?
HAB: There is a special freedom in childhood which comes from protection and innocence. Those of us blessed with the safety of this protection have the ability to explore our world without the constraints of practicality. Western social convention is that when we begin to shoulder the burdens of adulthood we have no more room for magic and imaginary realms. This is not the case in indigenous traditions, nor in many countries of the world. As modern readers we are lucky that we can choose to be free from ideas of the past which are no longer useful to us.
Magic is an important part of our lives, and it always will be. It coexists with and complements science, reminding us that more than one thing can be true at the same time. Literary-style fantasy takes us deep into the magic of the human imagination, into forgotten places remembered in our DNA.
Aru’s Realm begins as what seems to be a simple story, but the attentive reader will notice hints about what is actually taking place and about the nature of the characters. Allegories and wordplay, sometimes subtle, add fun to a layered story which explores perspectives of reality. It’s the sort of book which can be read several times, always with a fresh “HA! I see what you did there!”
I didn’t give this novel a young adult designation because most teens will find the vocabulary and writing style to be too much. This is a coming-of-age story, but it’s meant for those with a bit of life experience under their belt. As a literary-style fantasy, it is a great book for discussions.
TZ: Compared to art forms such as film, theatre, painting, drawing, and sculpture, writing has a reputation for leaving relatively more to the reader’s visual imagination. But your writing is notably explicit about how things might look. Every chapter in Aru’s Realm centers on a different color, for example, integrating each with different emotions and events. How do you think this approach might affect the readers’ experience, and what relationship do you see between visual art and writing?
HAB: The detailed description in Aru’s Realm, while intended to effect the feeling of a particular color, carefully leaves some elements to the reader’s own vision. It casts no limits on imagination.
No two readers will experience Aru’s Realm the same way. We bring our life experience, all our perspectives and prejudices, with us into a book. A timber lodge on the edge of a pond will look somewhat like the one we saw in Poughkeepsie, no matter how it is described. That’s just the way we humans are.
“Having immersed myself in fiction stories, mostly fantasy, for over a decade, I couldn’t think of anything truly original. I made a vow not to read any more fiction until I had written my own story. “Harriet Arden Byrd
For me personally, as a writer and a visual artist, (and I imagine this is so for other writers) I find that writing is much like sculpting. I chip away at a story, to reveal what already exists in my mind. At the same time, I feel as though I am painting. This was especially the case with Aru’s Realm. I referred to the story as my “Color Book” or my “Painting” for much of the time I was writing it. I applied a dash of color here, scraped in a bit of texture there. It’s a tribute to this experience of mine that one of the primary characters is an artist.
TZ: You have had a lifelong interest in mythology and classic fantasy literature. What transformed you from a reader to a writer—or were you writing all along?
HAB: As a child I scribbled stories about mythical creatures, and about cowboys and knights (because both rode horses.) I never showed these to anyone, and it was probably just as well. As I grew I read a lot. I sat down to write my first novel when I was a teenager. To my dismay, all I could produce were scenarios involving Tolkien elves or George Macdonalad’s goblins. Having immersed myself in fiction stories, mostly fantasy, for over a decade, I couldn’t think of anything truly original. I made a vow not to read any more fiction until I had written my own story.
With a few exceptions, I kept this vow, and for many more years than I had intended. As a result my writing has an old-time feel but with a contemporary attitude. I went against conventional wisdom, but not in an arrogant way, I hope. I simply wanted to be original. And, readers agree, my work is refreshingly unique.
TZ: I saw that you are working on a sequel to Aru’s Realm. Can you tell me a little about that? Or anything new that you’re working on?
HAB: I do have a sequel in the works, and a third installment in mind. My writing flows better if I don’t share too much beforehand, but I can say that every chapter will have a theme, and it won’t be color this time.
“Similar to the way we seek to empower women by portraying them in aggressive roles, many writers legitimize writing in a capitalistic society by thinking of it as a business.”Harriet Arden Byrd
A short fiction about dogs is also on its way. Not a fantasy book, this one is inspired by Pippa, my shepherd who lays at my feet while I write. It is also an H.A.Byrd* novel. Self-expression and the pure joy of writing are more important to me than worrying about business considerations such as sticking to one genre or publishing under multiple names.
Similar to the way we seek to empower women by portraying them in aggressive roles, many writers legitimize writing in a capitalistic society by thinking of it as a business. We end up with too many talented writers giving us formulaic novels (and endless sequels of Hollywood films!).
I don’t feel that approach respects the art of writing. Art doesn’t need to fit our economic paradigm; our economic paradigm needs to make room for art.
Want to know more? Read Harriet Arden Byrd’s blog at habyrd.com.
*Harriet Arden Byrd and H.A. Byrd are both pen names for Catherine Wesley.