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Interview with C. J. Cherryh

18 MAY 1996

   To conduct interviews with authors, I almost invariably had to travel a considerable distance, but that distance was shortened to a mere ten-minute drive when C. J. Cherryh was invited to be Guest of Honour at a science fiction convention held near my home in Nova Scotia. When I heard she was coming I contacted her, and she kindly agreed to give me an interview on her use of Arthurian tradition in her novel Port Eternity (New York: DAW, 1982). When we sat down together, in May 1996, I did warn her that it might be a while before I got round to editing the results, but I little suspected that it would not be until December 2010! In terms of Arthurian tradition, fourteen years is but the blink of an eye of course, but science fiction is a relatively young genre and moves at a faster pace (warp speed?). When I finally contacted her to apologize for my tardiness and to ask if she would still be willing to check over the edited version, she good-humouredly agreed, however. Authors understand better than most how a project can be set aside in order to tackle others with more pressing deadlines.

RT: Arthurian legend is rarely paid much attention in science fiction. What drew you to it?

CC: There are certain myths that have persisted throughout the ages, and this one has remained very potent in modern culture. The Arthurian cycle involves numerous kinds of relationships, not only between men but also between men and women. In our rather less structured society nowadays defining these relationships can sometimes be difficult.

If you want to change a culture, you need to transform the role of women. Until fathers take over rearing children from the cradle up—the teaching of basic attitudes, the subtle hints through body language of approval and disapproval—it all comes from the female side. In the Arthurian cycle, women have a limited role. A few, like Morgan le Fay, hold power, but they are isolated and ultimately consumed by their attempts to flaunt the rules of their culture. None of them makes out very well except for Vivien. Others, like Guinevere, are trapped in a marriage that is not of their own choosing, and they too are isolated without friends. Guinevere's one friend outside of marriage becomes something else, because that was the expectation of male-female relationships in that cultural setting.

Modern interpretations often cast Lancelot in the role of betrayer in his relationship with Arthur, but many miss just how much he was influenced by the cultural attitudes of his time. He would be judged differently in an age of chivalry than in the modern world, which doesn't have the remotest concept of fealty.

When the legend is retold, it mirrors the reality of the time, and one can learn from studying how various authors have attempted to retell the story. I don't think we have an obligation to change it radically. I think that if we ever move too far from the basic story, we would lose something very precious. I don't, for instance, approve of fantasy that attempts to go back and rewrite the Middle Ages until it conforms to political correctness in the twentieth century. That removes all the benefit from reading the story. If you don't understand other people in their time and why they did what they did, then you don't understand your own past. And when you lose your past, you lose some potential for your own future.

I've seen how other writers have approached the relationships in the Arthurian cycle in this century, and it does seem to me that while some of the characters get treated fairly, others do not. And the point is, it's one of those kinds of legends in which no one is totally wrong, not even Modred. It presents a collision of necessities, and Modred has his own political reality. He is between a rock and a hard place. His birth put him in an unusual situation that forced him to take certain actions, and the fact that they had the effect they did was not entirely his fault.

RT: Obviously Tennyson's Idylls of Kings is the primary source for Port Eternity, but did you make use of others?

CC: I've read Malory and Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, as well as some of the early stories about Sir Kay.

RT: Did you reread them when you wrote the novel, or did you rely upon your memory?

CC: I relied upon memory mostly. I do have a background in the ancient world. I not only studied Latin and Greek: I taught them. My area of academic specialization, apart from Roman law, was the Bronze Age and its connections all over Europe. When you read, for instance, about Morgan le Fay as a user of magic—what was she? who was she?—it reads to me like a culture predating the one which told the Arthurian stories.

RT: So you brought a considerable knowledge of history as well as legend to this novel?

CC: Yes. I didn't go into it in depth; but there's a certain amount of that knowledge I carry around with me like a snail shell, and it is part of my understanding of the universe.

RT: Did you read any modern novels as well?

CC: I've read Mary Renault, and I respect Rosemary Sutcliff's writing. I'm aware that others exist, but I didn't really settle down and go through them.

RT: How did you go about integrating Arthurian legend into the Alliance/Union universe you had already created in earlier science fiction novels?

CC. One strategy I used was to remove them into a world which is outside that universe. It is in what I call 'subspace' or 'between': another dimension into which spacecraft shift in order to travel vast distances. It is not unlike the situation in Shakespeare's Tempest, where the characters are marooned on an island. They are uncertain whether it is a real island, but they do learn valuable lessons from their experience. In the depths of space, there is this very great chance of losing somebody rather effectively, and given the set of realities in my fictional universe it is easy to drop a group of people into a pocket in the universe out of which nothing can escape. This suffices to create my magical island.

RT: I was particularly impressed by your idea of combining Arthurian legend with the concept of 'made-people' whom you call azi in your other novels: people who are cloned and conditioned with tapes played on 'deep-teach' machines to serve 'born-people.' It struck me as a brilliant idea.

CC: One of my challenges was how to deal with the Arthurian models. In the economic structures of the far future a feudal system seems unlikely, not without bending really major things that would take an immense amount of work. But the azi can become what they are told to be. In a way, they are my players whom I have stranded on this mythical isle, and they become locked in a small-stage drama. One of the things that I do throughout the book is to question where reality is now. How real are these people? How real are their fears and their estimations of the sounds they are hearing? How human are they? And can they take one of the most basic myths of our culture and recreate it? And in the process create a reality of their own?

RT: Why did you select these particular Arthurian characters as the players in your drama?

CC: I assumed that Lady Dela, whom the azi serve, would not assign them major parts, nor any she would like to play herself. Nor would she set out to strand them. She happens to be on board her private spaceship with her staff and her current lover when they are drawn into this subspace, and the story lies in how they respond to the challenge. The azi of her household have been taught to behave as if they were in a medieval romance, and so they meet the challenge by acting out the roles they have been given. Now, as to which ones I chose, some seemed logical, others just my personal preference. Of course Lady Dela would include a Lancelot. My choice of Elaine as narrator was influenced by "The Lady of Shallot," which is one of my favourite poems and inspired one of my favourite paintings: the one by Waterhouse. It's a gorgeous thing, full of subtly incorporated symbols.

Since she herself chose Modred and Vivien, Lady Dela is herself responsible for the serpent within the nest. She had organised a certain amount of dramatic tension within the household because it amused her. But the question is, how far are these people bound by their programming? They can still make choices, so that for all of them there is a chance of either redemption or damnation in the personal sense. Will the play inevitably reach its original ending, or will the actions of the characters in this particular constellation of personalities make a difference?

RT: I can see why you'd have Modred and Vivien to create tension, and your Gawain is very much Tennyson's Gawain rather than the figure we know from Gawain and the Green Knight. Did you choose Lynette as the other pilot because you wanted a relatively strong woman in that role?

CC: Not really. I always liked the story of Lynette. I always thought she liked Gareth far better than she ever admitted. She has a sense of humour, and Lord knows if you're around Lancelot you need a sense of humour. Well, I figured she would be a good personality to add to the mix, because she has force of character, she does not make demands, and she doesn't ask too many questions. I figured if you were going to have certain people assigned to certain jobs, what kind of job would you want assigned to this personality? My answer was pilot.

RT: Did you have to make some adjustments to either the Arthurian material or the science fiction universe you had already created in order to integrate them successfully?

CC: Not really, because the azi can be just about anything, and it's very easy, given the dramatic essentials, to make things happen. Events are very malleable within a story. What you've got to control is the outcome, and to a certain extent the outcome is not under control because you have to allow things to happen. But if you can manoeuvre events toward a particular end, then you can get enough outcomes to keep the story moving in the direction you want. At a certain point in my writing I didn't know how far the traditional story might play itself out again. Given the circumstances the characters found themselves in, given the personal dynamics between them, and given that they were not in a feudal structure, I just turned them loose to see what would happen, right along with the reader.

RT: Were there any elements that you would have liked to retain, but couldn't because of the science fiction context?

CC: The only thing that I really regretted was that I didn't have more room. Because of the dictates of the fiction market of the day, I was more or less constrained in length since this was not supposed to be a major novel. I knew that I was writing something for my own pleasure and the pleasure of those who chanced to appreciate it, and that it would not be reviewed. It was just something for me.

RT: Was your publisher not interested in Arthurian material?

CC: I had a sort of understanding with my publisher that I would do larger novels that were right down the middle of what the science fiction field and market of the time would expect. Then now and again I would do a completely off-the-wall novel, something that my publisher wouldn't ask me about. We wouldn't discuss it, it would just land on his desk, and he would publish it. And this is one of those. In a certain sense it gave me absolute creative freedom to go out and play on my own time with the slot guaranteed by a major publisher, as opposed to writing for the market.

RT: Did you intend to portray the women you'd taken from the Arthurian legend in a way that would make them more relevant to women today by presenting them in a stronger role?

CC: I certainly regarded them as major players, which they are, I think, in the original story. Elaine is not exactly a banner-carrying warrior princess: that's just not her character. She is a very gentle soul, really; nor does she venture beyond her limitations in this novel. She will take up arms in defence of the ship, but wouldn't you if something was coming over the side? I don't care how gentle you may be: you grab an oar and whack it. It's a basic survival instinct. I'm sure that the original Elaine, had there been the need to do so, would have fought for her survival too, but her circumstances kept her well defended from everyone except her chief danger.

I made more changes in the character of Vivien. Why did the original Vivien do what she did? What was she fighting for? At the start of the novel, my Vivien is selfish, but when faced with challenges she becomes more connected to the world around her. The character of the azi, however, is dictated partly by their job and partly by the constellation of alliances they have available.

RT: Did you find that any of the characters developed in directions you hadn't anticipated when you started writing?

CC: I didn't know what Modred might do. He was a question mark. I also didn't know how sensible Lancelot would be. And Elaine: I had wanted her to be very much like the Elaine of the poem, but there were moments when she wanted to challenge her fate. She would go ahead and ask the next question even if she thought that it was not going to produce a good result. I discovered that one of the reasons the Elaine of the poem came to grief is that she wasn't asking questions: she just made assumptions. She built herself a fairy castle and has no one but herself to blame for what happened to her. By listening to a tape of the poem, accidentally or otherwise, my Elaine comes face to face with the truth, and the way she reacts to it, I think, is fully consistent with the Elaine of the poem. Had that first Elaine been lucky enough to stumble across the truth earlier, how might things have turned out differently? In her world, she would have a limited set of choices, but she would still have had some. I think that the real tragedy of the first Elaine is that she was too young and innocent; she was unable to confront her universe as an adult until it was too late. By then, she was out of options.

RT: Would you say that your characters were true to their sources in that had the originals been exposed to the environment and circumstances you create, they might well have responded the same way?

CC: Yes. One wonders, for example, if the first Elaine could read? I'm not sure. Had she access to information? I'm not sure. My Elaine is a chronicler, and the minute you settle down in order to keep a chronicle, you become interested in why things are. That is the essential difference between the two Elaines: one asked why.

RT: Vivien's a chronicler too, isn't she?

CC: They are mirrors of each other, in their way.

RT: What part of the legend did you feel was the most important to include in your story?

CC: My central interest was the relationship of Elaine to the Arthurian court. On a certain level she's a side issue, but one which has gained in importance over time. Had she stepped forward to meet the challenge, it might have made an enormous difference in what did happen, because it would have affected the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere and all its consequences. So in effect, Elaine is the person who at one point holds the fate of Camelot in her hands, and chooses not to tell what she knows. There are all sorts of things that could have happened if this initially naïve young lover, this quintessential romantic, had been other than what she was. Had she reacted differently, she might have become the Lucretia of the anti-Arthurian element, rallying the resources of an offended family in a feudal structure. It's an important turning point for Lancelot's character too and a hinge point of the entire mythos. Her answer, however, is a grieved silence, which is a cultural choice. I think there was an expectation in that age that some situations should be passed over in silence, even though everybody knew exactly what was going on, and it's not what we would call in the modern world hypocrisy. It is a knowing choice, which everybody is making in a vast conspiracy, to try to proceed as if an event has not happened; but it did happen, and it has meaning, and it never ceases to have meaning.

So in a way I am playing with the older story. What if Elaine, like Lynette, had made demands? Had found out the truth about Lancelot's feelings for her at an earlier point? Instead she chooses silence, which is a very revealing insight into her character and what is expected of women at that time. Guinevere is like Elaine: she denies, postpones, avoids. She, like so many women in Arthurian legend, builds air-castles. They fail to take responsibility for their actions.

RT: Who do you see taking personal responsibility?

CC: Vivien, though she is limited by her negative view of the world, just as Lynette is limited by her self-righteousness. Lynette could easily have admitted that she might be wrong about Gareth, but for the purposes of story at least, she never does.

RT: What about the born-people as opposed to the azi? Griffin is an Arthur figure, is he not?

CC: Yes, but he is deliberately not a perfect model of Arthur. After all, Dela didn't plan to lose the ship, nor to have the perfect Arthur figure on board. Everyone had failed her, in fact, and that was part of the disappointment of her life: she'd never quite managed to get her fantasies to be perfect, she was forever discontent. However Griffin does get better over the course of the story. He starts the voyage with no thought of having an adventure, nor is he influenced by lofty dreams like the azi. He is, in fact, somewhat overwhelmed by the unwanted gift of the devotion of the people around him, and he finds himself thrust into a leadership role. You might say he is an Arthur figure who is pushed into a spaceship.

The azi, in their quasi-feudal service to their lords, are perfect. They are perfectly what they were designed to be, and they rise to the challenge because they believe absolutely that they can fulfil the roles they have been given. The born-people, on the other hand, have imperfections and doubts. Elaine has doubts too, but not about her own incapacity, so much as about the outcome of the story.

RT: You mentioned that constraints of length prevented you from developing the story as fully as you would have liked. What might you have added had you been given the freedom?

CC: Once the novel is done, it's done, and it's very difficult to imagine it otherwise. In part change is difficult because of the structure that I chose. I almost wish that there had been an artistic structure within which I could have managed to include a narrator from amongst the men, and I think I would probably have chosen Percival. Elaine is a good narrator, but she is somewhat limited. Actually my Elaine is like Percival in many ways. She is the type of character who would go out searching for the Grail, if she had been a little wiser and a little younger. Having a male narrator as well as a female narrator would have been interesting. Since I use first-person narrative, it would be a challenge, but there are no impossibilities in narration, only technical difficulties.

RT: Do you plan to write anything else that involves the Arthurian legend, a sequel perhaps?

CC: I don't entirely rule it out. Of course Fortress in the Eye of Time has strong Arthurian echoes. In a way you could compare Tristen in that novel to Lancelot. Although it was only published in 1995, I wrote the beginning of Fortress a long time ago, and I had it somewhat in mind when I was writing Port Eternity.

RT: Well, thank you very much: you've been patient and I do appreciate your help.