Naomi Novik is the author of the bestselling Temeraire series, beginning with His Majesty’s Dragon. In Tongues of Serpents – the sixth in the series – I recently had the chance to interview Naomi Novik and talk with her on how she got started writing, where the idea for Temeraire came from, and what else she’s working on.
Novik first got into writing during her college days at Brown, watching Star Trek the Next Generation each week with friends. Afterwards she would go online, in the early days of the Internet, and find mailing lists where everyone would be discussing the show. It was here she discovered fan fiction: fictional stories that were written by fans using the characters and parameters of the show. This was where Novik first started writing stories on a show she really enjoyed, and it was where she first began to use beta reading. In the world of fan fiction there are beta readers: those who read, edit and offer advice on your work; not because they want you to do the same to theirs, but because they enjoy reading your work and want it to be the best it can be. As the years went by, Novik’s writing improved, while her appreciation and skill at reading and writing improved as she wrote and beta read for other writers.
The concept for Temeraire didn’t just happen, but took a strategic series of events. It began with the movie Master and Commander the Far Side of the World, based on the popular naval series on the Napoleonic wars by the late Patrick O’Brian. After enjoying the movie, she read the books – all twenty in the series – and then proceeded to reread them and watch the movie repeatedly. Novik had always been a fan of the Napoleonic era, though wasn’t too familiar with the naval side, but reading Patrick O’Brian helped fix that. Novik also grew up a voracious fantasy reader and a big fan of Tolkien and Anne McCaffrey. These two worlds came together in what Novik professes to love doing: writing stories about things she likes that haven’t been written. Thus, Temeraire was born, as dragons became the missing Royal Aerial Corps of the Napoleonic wars. Laurence and Temeraire developed as distinctive characters, with Laurence being a classic, stalwart, upright, “by the book” Royal Navy man whose world is turned around when he becomes bonded to a giant dragon. Izkierka, however, is a smaller, feisty, fire-breathing dragon who serves as a “monkey wrench in the works” for Laurence and Temeraire, as she is impatient and determined, but not to be messed with (see above on fire breathing).
With each book in the series, Novik has a unique voice, creating a feel for the nineteenth century, which takes her some considerable rereading of the series with the start of each book. As for research, Novik is already pretty familiar with the historical period, but in each book Temeraire and Laurence travel throughout the complex world of dragons, visiting new cultures with new species. In Tongues of Serpents, the main characters find themselves in the penal colony of Australia but then travel inland and meet with the Aboriginal population and their own unusual type of dragons. Novik uses as many primary sources as possible to get a feel for this culture in that time period, as well as details like topography, flora and fauna. The result is an accurate setting for the nineteenth century where dragons reside.
Novik is clear that the series will come to a close with the ninth book, as well as bringing an end to the Napoleonic wars, though through a different series of events. Peter Jackson has optioned the series, but till has a number of projects still in the works – including The Hobbit – and it will be some time before (and if) Temeraire comes to the big screen or a potential TV series. Novik admits Jackson keeps in touch with her, updating her and asking questions, but she has full confidence in this award winning director and writer, being a big fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As for how Stephen King ended up reading Temeraire and providing a favorable quote, it begins with Novik’s husband, Charles Ardai, working for the Hard Case Crime publisher. When Ardai asked King for a quote on this mystery pulp series, King said he’d prefer to do his own book, which became Colorado Kid (and now the TV series Haven, which Ardai is working on). Ardai then sent King a copy of His Majesty’s Dragon, with a “if you have time” situation, and King responded with: “A terrifically entertaining novel. Is it hard to imagine a cross between Susanna Clarke, of Norrell and Strange fame, and the late Patrick O’Brian? Not if you’ve read this wonderful, arresting novel.”
Novik doesn’t have a set writing schedule for each day, but just writes and writes until she needs to eat, sleep, or do something else more demanding; she does admit that the Internet has a nasty habit of getting in the way and trying to steal her writing time. Novik is currently hard at work on the seventh Temeraire book, dealing with the Incan culture, with a hopeful release of summer 2011; however she also has a baby on the way, and is racing to have the book done before going into labor; she admits that the hormones are already messing with her, along with unavoidable and unpredictable mood swings, but the morning sickness is at least over. Novik is also working on a couple of other projects: one is a manga book due out next year; the other a young adult novel inspired by The Secret Garden.
In advice for writers looking to get published, Novik recommends to write and finish projects. It’s always important to write a lot, but even more important to finish your stories and manuscripts, even if they’re not perfect. The other important part to writing is your writing group, your readers, ideally your beta readers who are happy to critique your work not just in exchange for you doing the same as with theirs, but because they want to see your best work.
In her free time, Novik used to spend it writing while her day job was writing programming code; this has now switched around. Novik dedicates her extra minutes to writing code for the Organization of Transformative Works (OTW), which she is the head of the board for. OTW is a non-profit organization looking to preserve the body of fan fiction, including fan videos, fan fiction artwork, and real-person fiction. As for what Novik likes to read in her spare time, she likes genre, including Seanan McGuire and N. K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.