Books: Fantasy author Naomi Novik on dragons, fairytales and fans taking over her stories

Writer Naomi Novik, who started out writing fanfiction, wrote her first novel after it was suggested by a friend.
Writer Naomi Novik, who started out writing fanfiction, wrote her first novel after it was suggested by a friend.PHOTO: BETH GWINN

Best-selling fantasy novelist Naomi Novik started out writing fanfiction - stories based on the characters of existing works. Now, others write fanfiction about her books - though she says she reads none of it.

"What I love about fanfiction is that it is a peer community where all of you are telling stories about characters that none of you owns," she says over the phone from New York, where she lives. "Nobody has the right to authority, and because of that, everybody has a right to tell whatever story they want, and they are all equally probable."

In a sense, she has applied that knack of the fanfiction writer - to argue with and add to the canon - to her own work, whether it is rewriting fairytales with a feminist bent or reimagining world history with dragons.

Novik, 45, made her name with the New York Times best-selling Temeraire series, set in an alternate history during the 19th-century Napoleonic wars where dragons exist. A British Royal Navy captain accidentally finds an egg, from which hatches a rare Chinese dragon that he becomes bonded to.

They travel the world, which gave Novik the chance to explore how dragons would affect different cultures - from China, where they are venerated and often hold high positions in government, to the Tswana tribe in southern Africa, who worship dragons as reincarnated ancestors, a connection which enables them to wage war upon the slave trade.

Novik wrapped up the series of nine books in 2016. It was once optioned for the screen by The Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson, although the rights have since reverted to Novik, who declines to say if an adaptation is still in the works. "Dealing with Hollywood as an author is a good way to get your heart broken."

She has a master's in computer science from Columbia University and worked on the computer game Neverwinter Nights: Shadows Of Undrentide. It was fascinating, she says, but involved working 100-hour weeks. "The career I thought I was working towards was not the career I found humanly liveable."

At this point, she had been writing fanfiction for 10 years - having got into the Star Trek fandom in college - but after working on the game, she discovered she was able to write much longer pieces with complex plots. A friend suggested she try to write a novel, and Temeraire was born.

She has since moved on to standalone novels. The first of these, the Polish folklore-inspired Uprooted (2015), about a girl with magic who tries to save her community from a dangerous forest, won the Nebula for best novel, a top award in the science fiction and fantasy genre.

 

Warner Bros won the movie rights to the book after a three-way bidding war, according to The Hollywood Reporter, with celebrity host Ellen DeGeneres as a producer.

Last month, she published Spinning Silver, in which a moneylender's daughter earns a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold and inadvertently draws the attention of a race of gold-obsessed ice-fairies, who take her boast literally.

It riffs on the Rumpelstiltskin tale, which Novik thinks lacks the sense of justice common to fairytales - in it, a girl promises an imp her firstborn if he will help her spin straw into gold, but later evades the bargain by guessing his name.

"It's problematic - the stealing of children and hoarding of gold are common mediaeval anti-Semitic tropes," says Novik, who is Jewish.

Spinning Silver was written for her father, whose family were Lithuanian Jews, a persecuted minority in a small country that was itself menaced by its larger neighbours.

In the same way, Uprooted was written for her Polish mother, who had been deeply rooted in her community but had to defect from Poland - then behind the Iron Curtain - in order to stay in the US with her husband. "It was a very painful and bittersweet choice for her, because she felt like she'd betrayed her community."

Novik is married to entrepreneur and writer Charles Ardai, the founder of Internet company Juno and Hard Case Crime, a line of pulp-style paperback crime novels. They have a daughter, aged 71/2.

In her spare time, she continues to write fanfiction for fun. She is a founder of the non-profit Organisation for Transformative Works and Archive Of Our Own, a fanfiction archive of more than four million works.

Under a pseudonym, she has written for more than 50 fandoms, but avoids those based on her own works. "The term 'author' invokes a sense of authority, someone who tells you how it is. If the author starts visiting, it's not a peer community any more," she says.

"But it makes me happy that people write fanfiction about my books. I want to write worlds that feel real to people, and when my stories are done I would not want the characters to just live happily ever after. The stories are living on in these readers, and that's what I love."