When I introduced myself to Seanan McGuire at this year’s Superstars Writing Seminar’s VIP dinner in Colorado Springs and asked if I could interview her, she agreed, saying, “I’d love to be interviewed, but you will have to PM me, because I don’t remember this sort of thing.” I didn’t understand her then, but I believe I may understand the reason behind her answer now. I don’t believe she could have written Middlegame, her most recent work, were she grounded in the banal, in things like appointments and schedules and remembering to contact people who are better left to contact her.
It’s not without good reason so many readers have become enamored of her work. I was off balance and shaken the moment I read Middlegame’s opening sentences. After the first chapter, I settled in. Just when I’d grown comfortable with the story’s direction and thought I understood its characters, Seanan reached into my chest and tore out a piece of my heart, causing me to put down the book and gather myself before plunging in again, this time with a renewed need to know and a degree of desperation behind that need. Writers rarely move me to that extent, but then most storylines don’t resemble a stroll through a mine field.
This is what TOR.COM Publishing has to say about it:
New York Times bestselling and Alex, Nebula, and Hugo-Award-winning author Seanan McGuire introduces readers to a world of amoral alchemy, shadowy organizations, and impossible cities in the standalone fantasy, Middlegame.
Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.
Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.
Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.
Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.
Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.
Thank you, Seanan, for agreeing to participate in my author interview series, The Write Stuff. Good books arise from an author’s soul and personal experiences, and Middlegame is an exceptional book. Whenever I feature an author of note, I try to determine how the book in question did so. I also like to put my website’s visitors in touch with the author’s heart. The questions that follow should reflect that.
The book felt, in many ways, autobiographical. At one point, you write, “Smart kids get put on a pedestal by parents and teachers alike, and the rest of the class gather around the base of it throwing rocks, trying to knock them down.” Was this assertion based on personal experience, and, if so, would you care to elaborate?
It was a bit, but it’s not really something I want to talk about. The book is my talking about it. That’s all I can handle.
You’re quite the wordsmith, but I suspect you’re more well-rounded than Roger. How much of Roger are you? How much Dodger?
I’m more Erin than either one of them. I don’t have any connections to profound cosmic forces (that I’m aware of, anyway).
A well-written book touches the writer as much as it does the reader. When you were writing the passage that’s intended to break people’s hearts, were you able to push through, to keep on writing to its conclusion, or did you have to take breaks in order to regain your composure?
That part came very much from life. I wrote that whole sequence in a day. I had to. If I’d stopped, I’m not sure I would have been able to start back up again.
Next, I have to ask if you cried when you were writing how things got mended.
Middlegame kept me running to the Internet to find the meaning of terms like alkahest and haruspicy. Have you read any books related to alchemy, theosophy or perhaps Helena Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine, possibly the works of Aleister Crowly for some of your inspiration? How much time have you spent studying the Tarot?
Quite a lot of time. I used to do readings, but for this book, I studied an enormous amount of material on and about alchemy, and focused on the contents of my folklore library to the exclusion of all else.
You suggest that L. Frank Baum’s Oz books are allegories somehow tied to alchemy, rather than being political in nature as has been traditionally accepted. This is the first time I’ve heard this assertion. Would you care to elaborate?
I feel like Middlegame is me elaborating, at great length, on this assertion, which is made by fictional people in the context of a work of fiction.
From the title, which imparts a theme, through the first several chapters, chess and chess competitions play a major role. Do you play? If so, do you compete or have you competed?
Will you be taking readers farther down the Improbable Road any time soon?
That depends entirely on how well Middlegame is received. If people enjoy it, I would very much like to continue down the road.
Despite the fact you’re so well suited to writing fantasy and sci-fi, have you ever considered writing something radically different in order to stretch yourself?
I really thought that this book was me doing something radically different in order to stretch myself. It’s not like anything else I’ve done before.
How excited are you that the Wayward Children series is coming to television?
How much a part of its production are you allowed to be, or do you care to be?
Not much. This isn’t my job. I need to focus on writing books and getting stuff done.
Would you care to elaborate on what Wikipedia describes as your “affinity for poisonous reptiles”? Are there poisonous reptiles you’re especially drawn to? What about your website’s claim that you enjoy “long walks through swamps”?
I’m a big fan of vipers and poisonous toads, which are often found in swamps. I wrote my website, so that claim is entirely correct. I like walking through swamps. It’s soothing.
Someone posted about your performance of “Saving Ourselves” with the filk group, Wicked Girls, on YouTube: “I have a friend obsessed with Seanan’s books who linked me this song and I find it absolutely beautiful. Seanan has a very lovely voice. If she had an album I would pay for it.” I was surprised to learn you have produced several. Are they selling well? Do you have plans to market them more widely?
The sound is called “Wicked Girls Saving Ourselves”; I’m part of two filk groups, Lady Mondegreen and Dead Sexy. I have five albums out so far, and they’ve all sold so well that they’re currently out of print. I’m not really planning to market them more widely than I already have, since there’s no record label involved, and we’re already at the limit of what I can handle on my own.
Thank you, Seanan, for taking the time to share with us. I always conclude my interviews with a Lightning Round because of the unexpected insights the answers provide. Before I provide our visitors with an excerpt, as well as a link where they can follow you and purchase your books, in as few words as possible, please answer the following:
My best friend would tell you I’m a: lot.
The one thing I cannot do without is: Diet Dr Pepper.
The one thing I would change about my life: I want a new spine.
My biggest peeve is: the patriarchy.
The thing I’m most satisfied with is: the existence of cats.
Do you have a parting thought you would like to leave us with?
I should probably sleep more.
TIMELINE: FIVE MINUTES TOO LATE, THIRTY SECONDS FROM THE END OF THE WORLD.
There is so much blood.
Roger didn’t know there was this much blood in the human body. It seems impossible, ridiculous, a profligate waste of something that should be precious and rare—and most importantly, contained. This blood belongs inside the body where it began, and yet here it is, and here he is, and everything is going so wrong.
Dodger isn’t dead yet, despite the blood, despite everything. Her chest rises and falls in tiny hitches, barely visible to the eye. Each breath is a clear struggle, but she keeps fighting for the next one. She’s still breathing. She’s still bleeding.
She’s not going to bleed for long. She doesn’t, no pun intended, have it in her. And when she stops breathing, so does he.
If Dodger were awake, she’d happily tell him exactly how much of her blood is on the floor. She’d look at the mess around them. She’d calculate the surface area and volume of the liquid as easily as taking a breath, and she’d turn it into a concrete number, something accurate to the quarter ounce. She’d think she was being comforting, even if the number she came up with meant “I’m leaving you.” Even if it meant “there is no coming back from this.”
Even if it meant goodbye.
Maybe it would be comforting, to her. The math would be true, and that’s all she’s ever asked from the world. He knows the words that apply to this situation—exsanguination, hypovolemia, hemorrhage—but they don’t reassure him the way the numbers reassure her. They never have. Numbers are simple, obedient things, as long as you understand the rules they live by. Words are trickier. They twist and bite and require too much attention. He has to think to change the world. His sister just does it.
Not without consequences. That’s how they wound up here, on the other side of the garden wall, at the end of the improbable road, at the end of everything. They never got to the Impossible City, and now they never will. The King of Cups wins again.
The King of Cups always wins. Anyone who tries to say he doesn’t is lying.
The gunfire from outside is louder and less dramatic than he expected, like the sound of someone setting off firecrackers inside a tin can. Firecrackers never did this sort of damage. The walls are thin and getting thinner. The bullets are chewing the concrete away, and the people who followed them down the improbable road will be inside soon. Erin can’t hold them off forever, no matter how hard she tries.
Dimly, he realizes he doesn’t want her to hold them off forever. If this is where it ends for one of them, let this be where it ends for both of them. Let this be where it ends for good. No one—not even him—walks the improbable road alone.
He grasps Dodger’s shoulder, feeling the solidity of her, the vital, concrete reality of her, and shakes as gently as he can. “Dodger. Hey, Dodge. Hey. I need you to wake up. I need you to help me stop the bleeding.”
Her eyes stay closed. Her chest rises and falls, her breathing getting shallower all the time.
There’s so much blood.
He knows the words. Shock; fatality; the brutally simple, brutally accurate death. She’s leaving him again, forever this time. Going. Going. Gone.
“Don’t do this to me.” His own injuries aren’t as bad as hers. He took a single bullet to the upper thigh early on in the battle. It was through and through, missing the major arteries, and Dodger was still alert enough to help him with the tourniquet. There’s still a chance he could lose the leg if he doesn’t get proper medical attention soon. Right now, that doesn’t seem important. Maybe he’s in shock too. Maybe he deserves to be. “You can’t. You can’t go. We’ve come too far. Are you listening? You can’t go. I need you.”
Her eyes are closed. There’s so much blood.
There’s one thing he can do. Maybe the only thing. Maybe it was always the only thing, and they’ve been building toward this the whole time. It feels like failure, like running back to the garden, and he doesn’t care, because her chest is barely moving, and there’s so much blood, there’s so much blood, and it doesn’t matter that he knows the words, all the words, for everything. The numbers are taking her away. He can’t reach them without her.
“I can’t do this alone. I’m sorry. I can’t.”
He leans in until his lips brush the seashell curve of her ear. There’s blood in her hair, turning it tacky and clinging. It sticks to his skin, and he doesn’t try to wipe it off.
“Dodger,” he whispers. “Don’t die. This is an order. This is a command. This is an adjuration. Do whatever you have to do, break whatever you have to break, but don’t you die. This is an order. This is—”
This is her eyes opening, pupils reduced to black pinpricks against the gray of her irises, until she looks like she’s suffered a massive opiate overdose. This is gold sparking in the gray, brief and bright, as the Impossible City tries to call her home. He feels the gold in his own bones respond, reaching for the gold in Dodger’s, yearning to reunite.
This is the sound of gunfire going silent. Not tapering off; just stopping, like the world has been muted.
This is the world going white.
This is the end.
We got it wrong we got it wrong we got it wrong we got it wrong we
You can find all of Seanan’s social links, as well as links to purchase her books here:
You can find Middlegame on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07HF2ZK75/