An Unexpected Heroine: Interview with A. K. Larkwood, Author of ‘The Unspoken Name’

Before you read this email interview, I want to thank Tor Books for giving us the chance to partner with them and review books and interview their amazing writers. I had the opportunity to interview fantasy and science fiction writer A. K. Larkwood through email, a route I chose because we live on different continents and did not want her to have to wait for me. I hope I asked some great questions that you all will enjoy reading the answers to. I have included part of our greetings to help ease into the questions and answers and give a bit of an introduction. Without further ado, please enjoy.

Greetings, A. K. Larkwood,

I really enjoyed The Unspoken Name. It was an amazing debut novel with several unexpected turns that made for an enjoyable ride as I read your book. I was really drawn in by the main character and her world, the way you used “religion” and loyalty, and the image of giant snakes reading books in libraries.

Dear Kenneth,

Thank you very much for interviewing me, for your kind words about the book, and for asking such interesting questions! This was a lot of fun to think about. Here goes:

Kenneth: One thing I find interesting in terms of your main character is that she isn’t your typical heroine. While she is bad ass, she isn’t human. She isn’t just regular. How did you decide on the image of Csorwe, and was it important for you to make your main character so unexpected?

A. K.: This was actually one of the first things that came together for me. A lot of the fantasy canon is very normative about humanity –––humans are the baseline and orcs, elves, gnomes, etc, are rare and alien. Which makes some sense to begin with, since it’s probably a fair assumption that the reader is a human being, and when you’re diving into some wild fantasy world it can make sense to start with the familiar.

Obviously, the problem is what “baseline human” actually ends up meaning –––often a parade of straight white men running around with swords (although thank god we do seem to be moving on from that at this point). By comparison, non-humans are painted as ugly, dangerous, and difficult to understand –––and again it’s not difficult to see a parallel between that and the way the fantasy genre has tended to portray marginalized people as somehow not fully human. So when I approached this question I wanted to reject the idea of “humanity” as something almost to aspire to –––if nobody in the setting is a human, hopefully everyone can be a person.

(I admit Csorwe does do a lot of running around with swords, though.)

Kenneth: How would you describe your world? What were the important elements you felt made it great?

A. K.: Honestly, it’s hard to take credit for most of the cool stuff because I hardly ever do any of it intentionally. To quote a character from book two: “I always have a plan –––just, sometimes I make it up as I go along.” I sit down to write with excellent intentions and before I know it I have written twelve different worldbuilding checks I am eventually going to have to try and cash. Sometimes this works, and I get something cool like the ruined city of giant snakes. Sometimes it doesn’t, and I have to cut a very lengthy subplot about haunted moss.

Kenneth: During your worldbuilding, what do you feel informed you more? Did you let the inhabitants inform you on the world or did the world come first then the inhabitants?

A. K.: It’s always character-first –––all of the grand high-level worldbuilding comes together to make possible the character arc that I want. And then the trappings, the atmosphere, the day-to-day detail come from the point-of-view character and what they’re inclined to notice. That means a lot of the world was shaped by what Csorwe cares about –––which has made it really interesting to work on the second book, in which we have other characters’ points of view on those places.

Kenneth: You have a pretty extensive pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book that give me mythology vibes. What was the background, mythology, or lore you pulled from to create the names of these places and characters, and what drew you to that or those?

A. K.: So in fact there is no real-world source for most of the names! Because of what I mentioned earlier about not wanting to have any humans in the book, I also didn’t want to pull from any real-life human cultures. (Not to knock the technique, though, there are many great SFF books which do this –––Fonda Lee’s Jade City, Somaiya Daud’s Mirage and Kai Ashante Wilson’s fantasy novellas all do a wonderful job of using real-world culture and history to ground a rich and innovative second world, I highly recommend them all).

It also gave me a good excuse to indulge my dark passion for phonetics –––for each of the main cultures in the book, I came up with a set of phonetic rules and used them to generate a list of names to pick from. Which is funny because my approach to worldbuilding is absolutely not that systematic in any other area, I just like messing around with consonants.

Kenneth: Csorwe has a few defining moments in her life. For you, which one do you think is THE most defining moment; the moment where Csorwe is Csorwe?

A. K.: This is such a fun question, because the book is all about the different times that Csorwe is presented with the same question: will she stick with the world she knows, even if it’s stifling her, or will she take the risk of breaking away, even if she loses everything? And every time she makes that choice it’s saying something new about who she is.

If I had to pick one moment that isn’t too much of a spoiler, though, it’s when she takes the chance to save Shuthmili. It’s the first time in her life that she’s acted based on what she thinks is right rather than doing as she’s told, and it’s what ultimately gives her the opportunity to become her own person.

Kenneth: The book is written in four parts. What made you go with that style? Was it to show growth and change in Csorwe?

A. K.: Yes, pretty much exactly that! Early on I was kind of fascinated with the idea that there is some omni-structure that works for every story, so I used to read up on the Hero’s Journey, three-act structure, five-act structure, and so on. I would endlessly diagram everything to try and fit with some model. To be fair, writing is pretty hard, and finding some scaffolding to build on seems like it’ll make things easier. Sometimes the story just doesn’t have that shape, though, and there’s not much point trying to force it into one!

Kenneth: When you first introduce the travel system in the book, I immediately thought about stargates which is science fiction, but the book feels more fantasy everywhere else. Where do you see your book in the grand scheme of genres, and do you feel you were leaning any one way?

A. K.: You have discovered my terrible secret which is that I basically just stole my favorite part of space opera to use in my fantasy setting. I have no excuse for myself except that is there anything better than a spaceship with a cool name descending to a mysterious planet??? Honestly, I just really enjoy speculative fiction that doesn’t feel too constrained by genre boundaries –––for instance, Shelley Parker-Chan’s upcoming She Who Became The Sun is a fantastical retelling of real history and Jo Walton’s Among Others is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel with fantasy elements. I’d love to read (and write) more books like that.

Kenneth: After reading your book, I asked myself about the villains and who they were, because in the end the character we thought was good, or really more neutral, really may not be. Who would you say is the big bad of the book, or does that title not fit anyone?

A. K.: I always find this question really hard to answer without spoiling people. Let’s just say, it’s always really interesting to see people’s responses to the character I think of as the “main villain” (and I think we’re talking about the same person here!) because they range so widely.

I think this may be down to the difference between “villain”, in the sense of “the person whose values are most adverse to the protagonist” and “antagonist”, in the sense of “a person whose goals and plans get in the way of the protagonist”. An antagonist is structural, a villain is thematic. Very often these roles overlap, but they don’t have to. This guy we’re talking about is not an antagonist for most of the book, but I think if there’s one big villain, he’s it.

Having said all that, I’m not sure I really believe in “the villain” as anything other than a useful plot device. I adore the genre trappings of villainy –––please give me spiked pauldrons and a big cloak –––but I think evil is better defined as something someone does than something someone is. The book is about breaking away from exploitative relationships and re-establishing a sense of self outside those patterns of neglect and manipulation (I mean, also it’s about swordfights and skeletons and a talking snake, so don’t let that put you off). So I guess the “big bad” is the antagonists’ shared tendency to exploit and manipulate others for their own gain.

Kenneth: Besides your main character, Tal, her counterpart of sorts, is quite interesting. Can you talk about his creation as a character? Was he a character from the beginning of you creating this novel or was he added later? And why was he chosen to become such a prominent character?

A. K.: With every draft of the novel Tal got more and more screen time because he is just so much fun to write about. He started as a pure rival to Csorwe, ambitious and mean without many redeeming features –––and then almost immediately developed a sense of humor that made him one of my favorites. Tal and Csorwe’s relationship is really important to me because they’re both completely committed to this person who turns them against each other, and as they both get to understand how they’ve been exploited, they also start to have more compassion for one another.

Kenneth: While writing your novel, was your ending ever different? Did you always want to give Csorwe this “happy ending”, or did she go out in a blaze of glory in an earlier rough draft?

A. K.: Always a happy ending! Like, Csorwe’s story is about discovering that she’s an actual person with feelings, not just a weapon or a sacrifice for someone else, so I thought it was important for her to get the girl and have a chance to live her life. Also, when I started writing the book, I had never read a fantasy book with a queer protagonist who got a happy ending, so I thought I’d better do it myself.

Kenneth: I know that there will be a second novel, but will that be it for the series? Are there any other stories of any of the characters from your novel you would like or wish you could tell, maybe in a novella or short story collection?

A. K.: So the second novel is a direct sequel to The Unspoken Name with most of the same cast, which gave me some space to explore characters who only made brief appearances in the first book –––Tal’s terrible family, the giant snake Atharaisse, the new Prioress of the House of Silence, and so on.

The third novel will be set in the same world but as more of a standalone –––you could see it as kind of a prequel, but it’s meant to be its own thing.

If I get the chance there are lots of other characters whose stories I’d like to tell, some of whom didn’t even make it onto the page in the final edit –––for instance, the mercenary general Psamag originally had several children who were all at odds with each other, and sadly there just wasn’t room for them. This happens to me all the time! Every book has new characters and then I get interested in their histories and their perspectives, and it’s extremely distracting! I don’t know if I could write a proper series where each book follows the next chronologically, it’s more like a galaxy expanding outwards from the initial point. But I hope I do get the chance to do more books in this setting because I feel very at home here.

Kenneth: What is next for you overall and for this series?

A. K.: I’m both excited and apprehensive for people to read the second book, The Thousand Eyes (out February 15, 2022). I wanted to challenge myself with it, and my god it definitely was a challenge! But I’m really proud of it in the end, and I hope people will enjoy it.

I’m also really looking forward to getting deeper into writing the third book, and have no doubt it will take me to some strange places!

Once again, I enjoyed the book and diving into A.K.’s answers. Please checkout out the book and my review here. Thanks again as well to author A. K. Larkwood and Tor Books.

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