Freya Marske is one of the co-hosts of Be the Serpent, a Hugo Award-nominated podcast about SFF, fandom, and literary tropes, and her work has sold to Analog and been shortlisted for Best Fantasy Short Story in the Aurealis Awards. She lives in Australia. Her debut novel is A Marvellous Light and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for A Marvellous Light?
The very first loose thread of a question that seemed promising when I tugged on it was about a civil service liaison to a magical bureaucracy, and what sort of person would be interesting in that position (someone who has no idea magic exists, obviously). The next question was: what sort of person would they immediately clash with, and then fall in love with?
And boom. There you are. The beginnings of a story!
Are Edwin, Robin, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Edwin and Robin are my own version of character archetypes that I love: the bookish intellectual, and the sunshine-hearted jock. Both of them are more complex than that, of course. But I find that if you give readers a familiar shape of character to latch onto, early in the book, then they'll stick with you and trust you to slowly unfold the layers of personality that make these specific people unique.
There is also a minor character called Catherine Amrit Kaur, and her name is an homage to the Indian politician Amrit Kaur, who was educated in England at around the time the novel is set—and who then became India's first Health Minister!
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
Robin had a younger brother in the first draft—I can't regret the loss of him too much, as he didn't serve any narrative purpose, and getting rid of him allowed his sister Maud more space to come into her own as a character. And I'm actually quite a clean drafter, so I can't think of any scenes that were cut wholesale, but I definitely had to take a ruthless editing knife to the word count of several!
What drew you to set A Marvellous Light in Edwardian England (as opposed to other possibilities)?
Due to the nature of the story the trilogy is telling, it was always going to be in England. But the reason I picked the Edwardian era is because of book 2, the idea for which popped into my head very early during the planning stage. I always knew it would be set on an ocean liner around the era of the Titanic; and so I did some reading about the Edwardian era, realized there were certain aspects of the UK's social and political history at the time that made it thematically perfect for the plot, and that was that.
I'm also a huge admirer of EM Forster, who in Maurice wrote one of the earliest English gay romances to have a happy ending, and I'm pleased to be paying him homage by setting my books at a time contemporaneous with his.
Have you ever visited England? London? Do you have any favorite places in or outside of the city?
Yes, many times! I love the mixture of old and new that you can stumble over just wandering around central London, and I will always spend time at the galleries—the National Portrait Gallery especially. But if I'm going to recommend anywhere in England, I have to shout out the place that inspired the interior décor of Penhallick House, Edwin's family abode: Wightwick Manor, in the West Midlands. The interior is a wild, glorious example of the height of the Arts & Crafts movement.
A Marvellous Light ends with quite the cliff-hanger! And the book is described as the first of The Last Binding novels. What are your plans for the series?
This question knows I am in the early stages of drafting book 3 of the trilogy and is taunting me. Honestly, this series is doing something very deliberate which I stole from the romance genre, which is: slowly building an ensemble cast partaking of a fantasy plot while using each book to tell the love story of a different couple. If you like Robin and Edwin, fear not! You'll see them again. But books 2 and 3 have different narrators, and so a different style of story apiece, even though the overarching plot is one coherent thing.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Far, far too many books, some of which, like the upcoming queer Iliad retelling Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane, I'm partway through. A handful of those patiently waiting their turn: On Shakespeare by the great Australian actor & director John Bell. Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge. The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox. An advance copy of The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian. And the fourth book in the Niccolò series by Dorothy Dunnett, which I'm making my very slow way through in order to make it last as long as possible.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Dorothy Dunnett is definitely up there. In terms of science fiction and fantasy, I owe huge amounts of enjoyment and influence to Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, and Lois McMaster Bujold. And my favourite historical romance author of all time is KJ Charles.
As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?
Time will have no meaning anymore. Everything in publishing happens at the speed of light and also takes five million years. All you can do is make sure you're celebrating even the smallest milestones as they arise, and holding fast to reality by working on the next book. There's nothing to keep you humble after the highs of a starred review like staring once more into the abyss of a first draft.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Then as now, I was fundamentally incapable of naming a single favourite. Three that I reread endlessly: The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, Pagan's Crusade by Catherine Jinks and Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
They weren't too impressed at all the Babysitter's Club books I brought home from the library, but I devoured them—they were a glimpse into a foreign culture (America) full of unfamiliar holidays, strange desserts, weird school activities, and upside-down seasons.
Is there a book you've faked reading?
Never! I have zero shame about the books I have and haven't read, and no patience for 'should'. Plus, one of the great joys of life is watching someone's face light up as they try to sell you on a book that they've read and you haven't.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
That's a hard one. I'm usually buying based on recommendation or having already read it. But I think even if I hadn't read it already, I'd be sold by the cover of Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki; the combination of that incredible title with the koi floating gently in space, the splash of colour in the dark, tells you instantly that it's science fiction full of hope.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Discovering Georgette Heyer was how I learned just how clever, funny and outright joyful the genre of romance can be, after two decades spent turning my nose up at it. The first book of hers that I read was Cotillon, which remains one of my favourites.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Again, I think 'should' is the enemy of a joyful reading life. There's no one book that's perfect for everyone. But I do believe there's a Terry Pratchett book out there for every person; the Discworld series covers such a wide range of subgenres and story-shapes. Pratchett's brand of fiercely intelligent humanism and social conscience, delivered via humorous fantasy fiction, is something that I wish everyone could be exposed to.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
I recently finished The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley, who's one of my favourite authors writing today, and despite how agonisingly stressed I was during the reading process—damn, she can do narrative tension like nobody's business!—I instantly wanted to forget all the twists so I could experience them again.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
I've been watching a lot of Korean crime dramas and thrillers recently, and some of them are a real masterclass in the building and release of tension. I especially love the slow, character-heavy shape of the show Stranger, which manages to make a story about stubborn morality in the face of absolute corruption incredibly compelling.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
This is a dangerous question to wave in front of someone who's been prevented from traveling by a pandemic. I'm going to imagine a writing retreat in Barcelona, in a house, stuffed full of all my author friends from around the globe who I hardly ever get to see. A morning of writing, an afternoon trip to the Sagrada Família followed by a few hours of reading, and then a long late tapas dinner with a lot of food, even more wine, and a creative conversation full of laughter.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
One of the major non-book things I can ramble about endlessly is food and drink, so there's a part of me always hoping to be asked for gin recommendations or what I've been baking recently. (The Botanist, Raku, or Four Pillars Modern Australian gin; pumpkin and sultana muffins, and my mother's famous prune cake with brandy icing.)
What are you working on now?
Book 3 of the Last Binding trilogy is taking slow, grinding shape at the moment. I'm always tentative in the early stages of a book when I'm learning more about my narrators and getting a grip on their voices, but I'm also excited for the shiny, beautiful version of the book that exists in my head. Let's hope I can do it justice.