Ada Palmer is a historian, an author of science fiction and fantasy, and a composer. She teaches in the History Department at the University of Chicago.
JMW: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today is scholar, composer, anime expert, and soon-to-be first-time novelist, Ada Palmer. Welcome, Ada.
Ada Palmer: Thank you.
JMW: We’re so glad to have you. I’m fascinated by people who do multiple things, and you do so many.
Ada Palmer: It’s a lot.
JMW: Yeah. How does a scholar of the intellectual history of the Renaissance come to write and perform in a show about the death of the Norse gods?
Ada Palmer: For me, the kind of history that I do, which is intellectual and cultural history… the exciting part of it is getting into very different worldviews, people who believed in a different universe from the one we believe in, for whom truths were different. And so it’s not about names and ancient places. It’s about in here. It’s about the mind of the people from an alien period. And that’s exciting, whether it’s humanism in the Renaissance or whether it’s Vikings. And so one of the things that I find most exciting about Viking mythology is trying to not just use the characters and stories and repurpose them to our period, which is what a lot of people do when using Norse myth, and also not to use the characters and stories, but assume a sort of generic Pagan metaphysics, like Greco-Roman metaphysics, which is what most people tend to slot Vikings into.
I wanted to do something that would capture the mindset of Vikings. And a funny thing I like to compare it to is the TV show Mad Men, where for people who watch it for the first time especially, the really striking thing is how differently the characters behave from us and how their decisions are often crazy and bizarre. And we see them driving in a car without seatbelts and the kid’s about to come down and we cringe. And the reason that that show is so powerful is that it’s capturing a different time period’s mindset. So that’s what drew me to history. And that’s what drew me to want to explore Vikings is can I convey with my knowledge as a historian from having worked a lot with the primary sources what it was like to think as a Viking instead of just having the stories and characters.
JMW: Why Vikings in particular?
Ada Palmer: Vikings in particular I’ve loved since I was a teeny kid, because I had lots of mythology books when I was a teeny kid. The D’aulaires’ book, Norse Gods and Giants, was my favorite, which is now D’aulaires’ Norse Myths. And I found those stories really compelling as a kid, and then grew up and started reading the original primary sources as well.
I’m really excited by Viking moral metaphysics or Viking theodicy. Because in the History of Philosophy, when we’re looking at lots of different cultures, whether it’s Christianity or the Greeks, there’s always this question of why is there evil? Given that there are the gods and they’re powerful, why do they let there be evil? And you have stories like Pandora’s Box to explain it, or stories like Christian ideas of providence to explain it.
But for Vikings, who were living in an incredibly harsh world where everything is ice and monsters, and it’s incredibly difficult to even grow crops, and you have to sail to lands far away to just get wood because the area where you’re living is so barren, their question was backwards. It wasn’t why is there evil? It was given that the universe is so terrible, why is there good? And the myths are about explaining in a default bad cosmos why is there anything positive. How does life eke out its existence in this? And it’s such a different and backwards, big cultural question that I was really excited to try to capture and present that, and how it contrasts. And it’s so different not only from the myths and stories that we look at a lot, but from our own culture in which we’re pretty okay. And there are a lot of bad things in the world, but we don’t worry about the possibility of even surviving another month very often. We think about long-term apocalypses. So the stories are exciting for that way.
JMW: Let’s shift legends and mythologies here and go to the other side of the world. You’re an anime expert.
Ada Palmer: Yes.
JMW: For somebody who’s so imbued with Western cultures at all levels, what attracted you to anime?
Ada Palmer: I read comics since I was a kid, but what excites me most about anime and manga is in the fact that it’s so separated from Europe. And I find that switching sometimes to looking at an Eastern culture helps me break out of Euro-centric mindsets, which are so easy to slide into when you’re spending all day reading European sources. So every so often, I go over to Japan and say, actually, you could have a completely different idea of metaphysics, and the soul and what it’s made of, and culture, and gender, and all sorts of things.
Anime excites me, I think, in the sense that it excites a lot of people because it has so much rich variety of topic and setting. And I’m excited learning about the economics that underlie the anime and manga industries and what allow them to have that kind of breadth of subject matter that European comics and American comics have more narrowly.
And then I work in particular on Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy and Black Jack and Phoenix and other stuff, because I love metaphysics. Maybe I’ve mentioned it several times before, but I just love metaphysics. And I love stories that have a strong and interesting metaphysics, whatever it is. And his works have a very interesting critique of the Buddhist karmic reincarnation system in them that is not any traditional version of that. It’s his own interrogation of can we be comfortable with a kind of karmic justice in which we are never able to understand the system because we have to die and be reborn for it to work. And how do we reconcile accepting this system which will never allow us to understand it? And that’s a very interesting question that he explores in a really deep, rich, narratively complicated way. And so metaphysics is my catnip and I love it.
JMW: How do you find time to write music, and with all this going on? And we haven’t even gotten to the novel yet.
Ada Palmer: Each project is a break from the other projects. So when I know I’ve been in front of the screen too long, I’ll go work on a different project, and I find that they refresh me alternately. So most people will take a break from work to do something fun. But for me, they’re all fun. And I just take different funs from each other, except for grading papers. Grading papers is not fun.
JMW: I have never heard anyone say that grading papers was fun.
Ada Palmer: Actually, this week, grading papers was fun. Because in my Italian Renaissance class, we held a papal election in class.
Ada Palmer: And they all had to write letters to each other as their papal election characters about what the election was like. And they were all scheming behind each other’s backs and betraying each other. And the papers were so fun that the TF and I each graded half of them and then refused to give them back and traded them so that we could read the others because the students were so good. Because UChicago students are great.
JMW: Hey, it turned into fiction.
Ada Palmer: It did.
JMW: You could…
Ada Palmer: It’s practically an epistolary novel if you collected all these thoughts.
JMW: That’s what I was thinking. And what a great class project that would make.
Ada Palmer: Yeah, it’s an amazing project.
JMW: And probably some pretty amazing kids. But speaking of the music, aren’t you touring with Jo Walton this summer?
Ada Palmer: Yes. Yes, a bit. And we toured a bunch last summer as well.
JMW: How did that happen?
Ada Palmer: Jo and I met through mutual online friends and then in person, but she really loves my music. And then she also read… she was one of the first people to read my finished manuscript of the novel and was instrumental in pushing it at Patrick, who eventually bought it for Tor. So she’s a great partisan of both of those. And it’s really fun to do a reading with music. It adds variety and energy. And I have several songs that are very thematic for Jo’s more recent stuff. She quotes somebody. Will at the beginning of the Just City, for example. She also quotes Dogs of Peace actually. So it helps her get in the mood and it helps add variety to the thing. And it’s giving me a chance to learn about book touring in advance of my own book coming out and meeting all sorts of great bookstore people.
JMW: Very cool. Let’s talk about the book, Dogs of Peace, coming in 2016. What’s the genesis of it? Can you tell us something about it?
Ada Palmer: Here’s where I am bad at elevator pitching, ’cause I always give the meta instead of what’s the book about. It’s the first of a four-volume science fiction series, and it’s set in 2454. So middle future, a bit in the future of earth’s history. But it’s written in the style of an 18th century philosophical memoir with a very opinionated narrator whose comment… constantly interrupting, “Oh, dear reader,” blah blah blah, like Voltaire and Diderot do. And so my editor refers to it as future historical fiction, because it reads like historical fiction except it’s in a future instead of in the past.
It’s in a great science fictional classic flying cars, golden age-type SF future, but one of the fun things that I do is we’re used to seeing a future like that interrogated with traditional and science fictional questions about technology, humanity, heroism, what is the limit of the human, trans-humanism, political questions. And because I take a historical fiction approach, I am asking that same society questions. What is your religion like? What is your ethics like? How have social groups changed overtime? Sort of much more social historical questions, which the historical fiction genre makes easy.
So it starts with two simultaneous hooks. One is that there’s a place that controls this network of flying cars that flies all around the world. The flying cars have really changed human society because you can get from anywhere to anywhere in two hours. So everyone lives in Buenos Aires and then works in Tokyo and has lunch in Paris while their spouse works in the South Pole. And everyone mixes all over the world, which means you can’t have geographically based countries anymore. It doesn’t make any sense. So there’s a new social unit instead. And there’s a mystery in which somebody breaks into the headquarters where the flying cars for the whole planet are run and leaves a piece of paper that was stolen from a newspaper in Japan in the headquarters. And everyone’s very confused as to why someone would break into one of the most high-risk and high-security places on earth and just leave a piece of paper. So that’s the beginning of one question.
And then the other is we meet at the beginning a boy who has been raised in secret near this house, who has the inexplicable ability to touch toys and turn them into the real thing. To touch a toy apple and make it suddenly be a real apple, and to touch a little plastic toy army man and make him come to life. And the presence of that power is inexplicable and strange, and also brings history into conflict, because he’s bringing to life toys of people from past eras of human history. And so suddenly, in the middle of this golden age future, there are World War II veterans.
JMW: Or Genghis Khan.
Ada Palmer: Yeah, and that creates a cultural cross tension. So what’s up with his powers and then what’s up with this mystery? And of course, there’s metaphysics.
JMW: And it’s a series.
Ada Palmer: Yes, it’s a four-book series.
JMW: Are you working on Book Two?
Ada Palmer: Book Two is done. Book Three is done. I am working on Book Four. So no waiting when the first book comes out, and they have promised that the four will come out rapid fire.
JMW: Cool. And have they given you any idea of the date in 2016?
Ada Palmer: Well, yeah, the summer, so May, June, July. Somewhere in there will be Book One, and then the second one will probably be January, 2017, so not a very long wait.
JMW: So you’re wrapping up the series, and then you said something about a series on Loki.
Ada Palmer: Well, my method is to world-build for a very long time before outlining for a while and then writing a thing, so I have everything very, very, very planned before I’ve done… and it means that I also plan series well in advance. And so the project that I’m expecting to turn to when this one is done is the Hearthfire series, which is based on my work on Norse mythology. And I’ve written the first page.
JMW: Whoa. Okay. We’re just about coming up to the end. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Ada Palmer: It’s really exciting to get to do this and be here. There is an amazing feeling. The stage I’m at right now with the first novel is that I’m in the middle of doing the revisions based on the editor’s feedback, and I just finished the hard part. And I hadn’t anticipated how amazing that would feel. It feels like being over the last hump, and now it’s just going to come and be real. And there’s no feeling like it. It’s incredible.
JMW: Great. Well, thank you so much, Ada.
Ada Palmer: Oh, thank you. This is a great opportunity and you’re a really fun person to talk to.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.