The Napoleonic Wars are historically fascinating in their own right, but 10 years ago, Naomi Novik added dragons. Her Majesty’s Dragon was nominted for a Hugo (back when that actually meant something), and went on to spawn eight sequels. In her spare time between Temeraire books—named after their draconic protagonist—Novik managed to write a standalone novel, Uprooted, that made my own best-of-2015 list, and will likely make my best-of-the-decade list as well.
The ninth and final Temeraire book League of Dragons pubs next month (June 14), and Novik is in Chicago this week for Book Expo America (BEA)’s BookCon, where she’ll sign autographs and appear on the panel “Unwritten: Stories You Haven’t Read (Yet)” on Saturday. I spoke with Novik about leaving Temeraire behind (sort of), how she wrote Uprooted, and what she’s looking forward to.
Adam Morgan: What made you decide to end the series with this ninth book and was that a hard decision to make?
Naomi Novik: I’ve known since the moment I sat down to write book six [Tongues of Serpents]. In the process of doing the research for that book, I nailed down where I wanted the series to end. I figured out the arc of books seven, eight, and nine, and I knew nine was going to be the end.
I believe very strongly in ending things. Which doesn’t mean the universe can never be explored again, either by me or someone else. I just think it’s good to finish a story and hopefully give readers a point of closure and satisfaction.
Adam Morgan: Was the experience of writing League of Dragons different from the previous books, since you knew this was going to be your last chance to explore this world?
Naomi Novik: It was harder. It was a lot harder. But it’s actually not my last chance. After I sent it off to my editor, I started working on a bunch of short stories for a fan art-inspired anthology. I’m doing a limited edition with Subterranean Press and I’m working on a proposal for a graphic novel. More things can happen in the Temeraire universe. I think it’s a universe that lends itself to playing around and exploration.
What I wanted to do was to end the story, to end the arc and the Napoleonic Wars. I wanted it to be a fun book that brought the entire series to a culmination and touched on all the characters we loved. I wanted to make sure every character got his or her due. And that was hard because there were so many threads that I was trying to tie up. It was tough, but I’m happy with the results.
Adam Morgan: What prompted you to switch to a first-person perspective with Uprooted as opposed to the third-person from the Temeraire books?
Naomi Novik: All I can tell you is that I sat down and wrote that first line, and it was a first-person line, and I was off and running. I didn’t even know her name until I had written about 10,000 words. I didn’t know who she was or where she was. She was telling me stuff and I was writing it down. Her voice was very clear to me. It feels very natural, actually, which surprised me, because I haven’t normally written first-person.
Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. –The first line of Uprooted.
I find first-person really nice for establishing a clear character voice and point of view, and letting it bring you into a world. I think that that’s the value of it, that it lets the character reveal the world to you with their emotions overlaid on top of it. You’re seeing it through a very specific pair of eyes.
That’s the intellectual explanation. The actual explanation is just that that’s what I did. That’s just what came out.
Adam Morgan: Yeah, it just felt right. As a follow up to that, when you heard that first line in your head and started writing that first chapter, did you just continue to write the book like you were playing jazz, improvisationally? Or did you have a clear idea of the overall story?
Naomi Novik: No, not at all. I’m very much a discovery writer. I find out what’s going on in a story—and where it’s set—as I write. That’s what keeps me engaged in the story. Then of course, I go back. Usually I would say the first 10-15,000 words are figuring out what the heck is going on and what story I want to tell.
Frequently, what I write in that first burst is contradictory, lots of different ideas and themes sort pulling each other in the wrong directions. But by the end, I figure out what I’m doing and I excise the stuff that doesn’t belong and rework what does. That’s definitely what happened with Uprooted.
Adam Morgan: I know Uprooted was based on Polish and Russian fairy tales from your youth, but you convey such a vivid sense of place. But did you do any traveling in Eastern Europe? Were any of the locations in the book based on real-life places?
Naomi Novik: Yes, I’ve visited Poland. I still have family there. My uncle was actually a forester and lived in a house right near a forest, so I’d gotten to visit Polish woods. Also, my mother feels very strongly about the woods and kind of communicated that to me indirectly. The capital in Uprooted is inspired by Krakow and the castle is very much Wawel Castle.
Adam Morgan: Your fans are clamoring for a sequel to Uprooted, but was it refreshing to write a standalone book for a change? Or was it more challenging to limit yourself to a single story?
Naomi Novik: You know when I was talking about believing in endings? I feel like a standalone story lets you write a better ending, without the interruption of publication. The whole publication process, the process of editing and revising and copy-editing … I find it very hard to have my flow interrupted that way, so I actually find it much easier to write standalones.
Adam Morgan: What can you tell us about your post-Temeraire plans?
Naomi Novik: Right now I’m finishing up these Temeraire-related projects. Uprooted actually got written because it was kind of a break from the Temeraire universe, it kind of was refreshing. It let me change gears. So I’ve got these two Temeraire-related projects that I’m really kind of trying to get out the door and put to bed. I am also working on some other projects as well. We’ll see which one of them turns out.
For fans of Uprooted, I recently wrote a long short story called “Spinning Silver,” which was another first-person narrator. It’s a much more direct fairy tale retelling of Rumpelstiltskin for an anthology called The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, which is coming out in October from Saga Press.
FICTION – FANTASY
League of Dragons by Naomi Novik
Del Rey Books
Published June 14, 2016
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.