An Interview with Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, authors of The Mask of Mirrors!
About the book:
- How did you come up with the story of Mask of Mirrors?
Alyc: We didn’t start out planning to write something together. We’ve been best writing buddies for years now because we think of story in similar ways, but we’d never contemplated co-writing something. But then I offered to run a tabletop RPG for Marie’s birthday (we’ve also been gaming together for years). That one-shot ended up becoming a campaign that’s still going on. Early in the game, Marie and I wanted to run a caper for her character — a con artist trying to trick her way into the nobility, sound familiar? It wasn’t the sort of thing that would work in a tabletop setting, especially since it didn’t include any of the other players, so we decided to write it up as a scene, with Marie writing Ren, and me providing the framework of the situation and the various people and problems she ran into. We had so much fun that we ended up writing another scene. And another. And… by the time we had around 50k words of game fiction, we went ‘you know, we could write something together’
What’s really embarrassing is how long it took us to realize we could expand on the story we’d already been writing!
Marie: Yeah, initially we were trying to brainstorm a novel concept we could write together, putting together a list of tropes each of us liked and so forth. Eventually I looked at that and thought, why are we trying to generate enthusiasm for something new, when we already have this thing we love so much? I finally asked Alyc whether we shouldn’t just do the obvious and file the serial numbers off what we had. Which wound up being a lot more than just serial numbers — in fact, for a while I called The Mask of Mirrors an “invertebrate novel,” because we had all this meat about the characters and their relationships, but no spine to hold it all together! But eventually we came up with a new setting and a new plot, to serve as a framework for the tasty bits we already had.
- Which of the characters are you the most similar to in Mask of Mirrors?
Alyc: Tess. No question. Marie will likely say Ren since that’s her character from the game, but she has more Oksana Ryvček in her than she lets on.
Marie: I’m not half as cool as Ryvček; she can flirt the pants off practically anybody, man or woman, all while dueling somebody with her free hand. I did practice fencing for a while, though. Ren . . . might be my character, but I like to think I’m not a pathological liar with a lifetime subscription of trust issues! (Ignore the part where writers are professional liars.)
- Which chapter was your favorite to write and why?
Alyc: It’s so hard to pick! I love pretty much anything with our morally-grey crime lord, Vargo, but the scenes where he has to do numinatria (our ritual magic based on sacred geometry) are actually pretty complicated to write, so I wouldn’t call them fun, necessarily. I think it comes down to any place with flirty banter — the duel at the canal where the Rook makes his first appearance, the dance lessons Ren has to fake her way through because dancing was not in the curriculum of her school of hard knocks, the time [spoiler] gets trapped in a closet with [spoiler] while breaking into someone’s study. Fun times!
Marie: The Rook’s first appearance is a good one, yeah — it’s got a lot of different aspects of the story packed into it (fencing, flirtation, class and ethnic conflict, Ren having to figure out how to be maximally manipulative). There’s a reason I’ve been using that scene as my performance reading at conventions.
- What part of the book was the hardest to write?
Alyc: As mentioned above, the numinatria passages are difficult because while we’ve worked out the entire system behind it, taking a system based on sacred geometry that is very visual and has a bunch of new terminology, and translating that onto the page in a way that is interesting, informative, and moves the plot… why did we do that to ourselves instead of hand swishes and sparkles? (Answer: because it fits the setting, the culture, and dammit ritual magic is awesome!)
Marie: There’s a bit in the middle that was really hard, because it has some significant emotional stuff, and you’ve always got the fear that it won’t hit the reader the way you want it to. But on the other hand, I love putting characters through the wringer, so it was also fun in a way.
- Where can readers purchase your book?
Our publisher’s page has links to all the major vendors for print, ebook, and audiobook. We’re also going to be in a few book boxes, but I don’t think that’s been revealed yet, so I can’t share 😀
But what we can share is that Mysterious Galaxy is hosting a virtual book launch for us, where we’ll be conversing with Christopher Paolini. If you order books from them, you can get them signed and even personalized. It might take a little while for your book to get to you because it has to bounce around the postal system for a while, but we promise it’ll be worth it!
- If you won a prize for something, what would it be and why?
Alyc: Passing the hard questions to Marie to answer (ducks and hides).
Marie: Um. Probably a writing prize? Because that’s what I do with most of my life? Unless there’s a prize for, like, “longest braid in the room” or something.
- If a director wanted to make Mask of Mirrors into a movie and wanted you to act in it, who would you be and why?
Alyc: Probably some walk-on, but I’d want to wear the clothing we designed for the men in the setting — waistcoats and swingy frock coats with high boots. Ooh, I’d love to be a hawk (one of the city guard). They have the loveliest dress uniforms.
Marie: God, not Ren. I do my best with the various accents she employs, but I’m not nearly chameleon enough to play her. I’d be happy with a bit part, too, especially if they would let me keep my costume.
- What are some of your favorite tv shows or movies?
Alyc: I’ve been watching a lot of Asian dramas over the past few years, so my list of faves is pretty exclusively from that. I’d say the C-drama Nirvana in Fire tops every list (I just did a rewatch and… it’s still so good), but I also really like Healer (contemporary romantic thriller K-drama), Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms (xianxia C-drama), Sungkyunkwan Scandal (saeguk romcom K-drama), You’re Beautiful (idol K-drama), and The Untamed (wuxia boylove C-drama). That last one is based on a book by Mò Xiāng Tóng Xiù and also has an ongoing donghua. There’s another fantastic donghua based on another one of her books, Heaven Official’s Blessing, and they just announced that they’re doing a live action version!
Marie: I mean, if we’re going old school, The Princess Bride — which keeps being my go-to for describing the novel to people (“fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles”). I also adore shows that manage to deal with serious stuff while still being bright and cheery, like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries or Pushing Daisies.