Unlocking The Tomb: An Interview With Tamsyn Muir
It’s no wonder The Locked Tomb series has gained a cult following. The first book, Gideon the Ninth, blasted through the book world with an attention-grabbing tagline—lesbian necromancers in space—and a jaw-dropping cover. But it was Gideon’s snarky attitude woven into highly literary prose that pierced reader’s hearts and made them devout acolytes to the Ninth House.
In the same way that Tamsyn Muir shocked readers with the absolutely unexpected in Gideon, she upended their world with Harrow the Ninth. Where Gideon was as piercing as the blades she wielded, Harrow was a tangled drawer of barbed wire and razor blades. Both cut, but not the same way. Muir’s writing is a sword fight. With sharp jabs and clever feints, the reader is hypnotized as the dread builds and the tension mounts. We know Muir is going to strike, but we don’t know when, and honestly, we yearn for the pain we know the end will bring.
Now, we’re about to encounter yet another upheaval with Nona the Ninth, a perky plain-faced girl—no skeleton paint, here—wearing a hamburger t-shirt trying to plan a birthday party. Too bad the universe has other plans.
We were delighted to sit and talk with Muir about her writing process, the best writing advice she was given, and three books she’d spontaneously recommend.
Hi! Thank you so much for chatting with us today. Can you start by introducing yourself to our readers and tell us when you started writing?
I’m Tamsyn Muir and I’m from New Zealand. Apparently when I was seven years old I turned out a pretty lengthy Samurai Pizza Cats fanfiction by writing the whole thing on Post-It notes. So, circa 1992, I guess. I do not recall this story and the Post-It notes have not survived, but based on leitmotifs in my subsequent work I’m going to guess that Polly Esther got a wasting disease and expired tragically.
That is a tragic but a fitting origin writing story. When did you decide to pursue writing as a career?
I attended the Clarion Workshop in 2010 when I was starting to think about writing as a career. It was a huge financial outlay for me, and I was, in fact, financed by my hardworking brother as I had zero dollars. I had to get all the way over from Auckland to San Diego and I could never have taken the risk if it were just a ‘hey, this might be fun’-type deal. There was a very real sense that I was scraping together all the chips I had and betting everything on red.
I’d had a couple of stories I was working on already, but I didn’t know any other writers or anyone in the industry, I didn’t have any connections, and I didn’t think I was good enough to get published simply on the strength of my work. I hoped Clarion would get my skills up to a point where I could just send a story to a magazine and at least not be met with a gale of disbelieving laughter.
As it turned out, Clarion ended up giving me two important things I hadn’t predicted. First off, it gave me the confidence to start saying "Hey, I’ve written this, would you be at all interested in printing it?" Second, when I got a reply and the reply turned out to be "Nope" — which happens to everyone sometimes — I now knew a bunch of people who were also trying to be writers, people like Karin Tidbeck and Kai Ashante Wilson, and we could all sit in long email chains together and gnash our teeth.
What is your writing process like? Does your process change depending on the type of fiction you’re writing?
I don’t know if I’d exactly call it a process. I start with the plot — I have to know where a story begins and ends before I can start writing it. I don’t mind if stuff in the middle remains fluid at first, you need some room to maneuver, but the beginning and the end have to be nailed down. Then I just… type. I don’t draft, ever. When I write I’m writing the final version. If I write something and it doesn’t work, I chop it out and dump it. Obviously, I go back sometimes and tweak an individual sentence, but I never do the thing of writing a rough version and then coming back the next day and polishing it. I don’t know why — it just doesn’t work for me.
Snacks, no. Tea, yes. Music, yes, but usually the same song on repeat, and a lot of the time that song is an ultra-slowed-down version of the Jurassic Park theme.
What does your typical writing day look like?
Oh, how I wish I was one of these cool writers who’s like, "8:30am: warm-up stretches. 9:15am sharp: enter my heavily-soundproofed Writing Womb." Sometimes my "writing day" involves me sitting down with good intentions after breakfast and then achieving absolutely nothing because I can’t get a scene to work. Sometimes it involves me not doing anything useful until 4pm and then sitting down and writing 3,000 words straight off. Sometimes I get an infuriating email and have to spend the next hour lying on the floor and psychically transmitting my hatred across space and time. You never know!!
What was the best writing advice you were given?
Two very good pieces of advice, both of which I have entirely failed to act on, were "marry someone rich" — to be clear, this was advice being given to a large mixed-gender group of wannabe writers, not specifically to me — and "write romance." I just know if I tried to write romance it would come out like the Williams-Sonoma tie-in novels Cornelius Bear writes in Achewood. "His whippet-like frame could deliver pleasure as assuredly as the corner of a gently agitating, freestanding cabbage corer."
Do you have any books you’d recommend to your readers and aspiring writers?
Picking three books off my bookshelf in a frenzy of spontaneity: Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate is a masterclass in building a very large amount of tension about a very small thing that doesn’t actually matter much. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is probably my favourite example of how to do spec-fic without accidentally becoming an RPG sourcebook. And Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is my go-to for writing a book where everyone is basically a huge pill at all times and yet also intensely believable and sympathetic. I will spend my whole life trying to produce a paragraph worthy of touching the hem of Austen’s garment.
This has been such a delight. Can you tell us what’s next?
I have two novellas and a project I’m writing, but I can’t talk about them yet. I do have a couple of short stories coming out soon. One of them is a story set in the Diablo universe, which felt sweetly full-circle because I think the Necromancer in Diablo II was probably the first protein chain or whatever in Harrow’s DNA. So, look out for that if you like art, because it has some great art.
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