In 2010, I was looking forward to the publication of my debut novel, Wolfborn. It was going to be out on time to be launched at the World SF Convention, Aussiecon 4 – and then it wasn’t. I asked my publishers at Random House if they would please, please send me something I could take to promote the book and they came through beautifully – posters, bookmarks, sample chapters. I got myself into a signing session and had to flirt with the people in the long queue at the next table. “Free sample? Bookmark?” to get them to wander over while they were waiting for the graphic artist next to me to sign their books. There was a lady at a nearby table, signing like anything – Mary Victoria, who writes this wonderful series set in a giant tree. That’s how we met. When Mythic Resonance came out, although Mary didn’t have a story in it, I thought the theme of a World Tree fitted in perfectly. I’ll let Mary tell you all about it. I’ve just discovered she did some of the animation for Lord of The Rings - wow! A lady of many talents and I’m proud to welcome her to my web site.
The World Tree
I feel like a fraud. When Sue asked me if I’d like to contribute a guest post about the origins of my World Tree in the context of the ‘Mythic Resonance’ release, I knew what I ought to write. What I ought to write, I thought to myself as I sat down at my computer, is a passably intelligent piece about where this idea of a world set in a tree may have come from. I should cite my debt to Norse myth (Yggdrasil, the original world tree, cradling Midguard in its branches,) to Kabbalistic metaphysics (the universe-containing Tree of Life,) and not least to the Japanese film director Hayao Miyazaki, who once put a city in a tree and made it fly, to my great delight. All these sources and many more played their part in forming the idea for the Chronicles of the Tree. If I were a proper thinker and not a total fraud, I would have written that article, made it highly informative and entertaining and included footnotes.
Alas, I’m not a proper thinker. Or at least, my thinking refuses to come when called, or else comes in silly disguises, doing cartwheels. I was indeed influenced, consciously and subconsciously, by myth, metaphysics and beautiful Japanese animation while writing the Chronicles of the Tree. But I didn’t remember Yggdrasil and say to myself, “hey, that would make a great fantasy setting.” That would be far too logical. I don’t think story ideas come about that way – stories are fickle, promiscuous things. They like to borrow, beg and steal from multiple sources. When you try and make them explain themselves and their antecedents, they refuse to meet your eye. They sidle off, mumbling something about poetic license. They don’t like to be pinned down.
The truth is, stories, and worlds, often come in the telling. No matter how much meticulous world-building you do in advance, some tales grow organically. Setting influences story, which in turn influences setting. The two are inseparable. Sometimes, the two are one.
If I had been able to ask my World Tree, back at the start of the writing process, why this story had to happen in a giant tree the size of a mountain range rather than, say, a Medieval-style city state, the conversation would have gone something like this.
AUTHOR: Dear fantasy world, why are you the way you are? Why aren’t you something else?
TREE: I think I’m quite old enough to be what I am without the likes of you questioning my motives.
AUTHOR: I’m not questioning your motives. No one is. We just want to know, ‘Why a Tree.’ Couldn’t you be a mountain? You behave a little like a mountain.
TREE: Well, I’m old…
AUTHOR: (Interrupting) What does that have to do with it? You sound like that poem about Father William. ‘You are old, Father William – ’
TREE: (offended) All right, I won’t tell you. I won’t say anything at all; I don’t see why I should, if you’re going to be so rude.
AUTHOR: I’m sorry. I’m sorry: I was being an idiot, the author getting in the way of her idea. Please go on.
TREE: (after a long pause to show how deeply offended she is) As I was saying, I’m old. Centuries – no, millennia old. I’m so old that I’ve grown into a sprawling, continent-sized mass. My trunk is a cliff-face hundreds of miles in circumference. My boughs are gigantic, like mountain ridges. Some of them can support human cities. Except that sometimes, they can’t. I’m so old that I’m growing infirm. My branches are hollow in places. There’s rot, and other problems besides. I’m not immortal: one whole side of me has dried up and died. There’s no more sap flowing there. Do you begin to see how that influences a story?
AUTHOR: Go on.
TREE: My physical condition affects my inhabitants, of course. Everything is made of wood or animal products. Everything depends on me. If I die, those living off my sap and skin will slowly die off too. Add climate change to the mix and you have an ecological disaster in the making. Those living on the dried up east side already have it tough, and it’s getting tougher every day. Perhaps it’s partly their own fault – perhaps it isn’t. But there are haves and have-nots in this world. There are the colonizers and the colonized.
AUTHOR: (retrieving a pen and paper for notes) Now I begin to see. Go on.
TREE: My nature also influences the human cultures that have flourished, and in some cases died out in my branches. People become conditioned by living over a void, high up in the clouds. They develop things like flying hot air balloons pretty quickly. They don’t trust empty space. Some go so far as to outlaw exploration: they become hidebound, or rather bark-bound. They live in rigid theocracies. They’ll destroy anyone who thinks differently. For them, it feels like a matter of survival.
(No answer from the author, who is now scribbling notes furiously.)
TREE: (softly) But there’s one more thing. You already noticed it, perhaps half-consciously. I’m a woman. I’m worshipped as a feminine deity by these priests. But they’ve forgotten the truth behind all that glib nonsense they keep repeating. God is a tree, and also a woman. God grows, flourishes and eventually dies. Find out the truth behind those symbols. Does your story begin to make sense to you now? Do you see why it had to be a Tree?
AUTHOR: (abject now) I do see. Yes, that makes sense. Perfect sense. Thank you.
TREE: Any time. Now go be a good little author and write.
Mary Victoria was born in 1973 in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Despite this she managed to live most of her life in other places, including Cyprus, Canada, Sierra Leone, France and the UK. She studied art and film and worked as an animator before turning to full time writing. She now lives in Wellington, New Zealand with her husband and daughter.
If you’d like to read more about the Chronicles of The Tree and what Mary is doing right now, her web site is here.