Author Meg Howrey on incorporating history into fantasy with City of Lost Dreams

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Some novels take a while to get going, and some give you an immortal dwarf, a time-traveling corpse and an alchemical mystery before the end of the first chapter, as City of Lost Dreams does. The follow-up to the best-selling City of Dark Magic finds protagonist Sarah Weston in an adventure that weaves magic and alchemy with art, science and history for a different kind of fantasy. A collaborative effort between authors Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch, who work together under the name Magnus Flyte, the books incorporate the juicy parts of history -- the madmen, perverts, artists and prophets -- into rollicking stories full of humor and adventure. Howrey and Lynch will be in town to discuss and sign the books on Friday, January 17 at the Tattered Cover Colfax, and we caught up with Howrey in advance to find out how the collaboration came to be, how it differs from typical fantasy, and how you research books so rich with oddball historical details.

See also: Joe Hill on NOS4A2's reality-bending horror

Westword: You and your writing partner Christina Lynch met at a writer's retreat, correct? Did you just hit things off right away, or how did the partnership develop?

Meg Howrey: At these writer's retreats, most of the day the house would be in silence. You couldn't actually speak because everyone needed to work. We would have these morning sessions, then at night it would be cocktail hour and we'd workshop people's stuff. In these morning sessions, I'd keep turning around to hear this amazing writing coming from this woman sitting in the corner of the room. I thought her stuff was great, and she liked my stuff, too. So we became friends from that, we were fans of each others' work.

Then it turned out she lived in California, about four hours north of me, so I'd go up and hang out with her sometimes, and we'd write and talk and we just became very good friends. It was kind of a mutual admiration that turned into a good friendship.

Previous to your collaboration, what kind of writing were you each doing?

For myself, I have two novels under my name, so I've written literary fiction on my own. Nothing in the genre field. Chris has a television writing career and she's a journalist as well. She hasn't written any books, but she has a career in television and journalism.

What prompted the dive into genre fiction when you decided to collaborate?

We weren't even thinking genre. I don't think either one of us are exactly clear on what that is. When the book came out, people were saying, "Oh, it's such-and-such genre" and I'd turn to Chris and say, "I've never even heard of that. Is that a thing?" And she'd say, "I don't know, I've never heard of that, either." So we weren't thinking genre, we were just thinking,"Let's have fun. Let's put all of our weird, eccentric, esoteric, nerdy tastes for history and science and music and art and travel and weird historical trivia, let's just find a place for them and have some fun as writers while we write our serious stuff." [Laughs.] Let's just find a place to be as weird as we want to be, and as inventive as we want to be, with stuff that interests us.

Kind of naturally it became -- well, I think setting [City of Dark Magic] in Prague made it kind of fantastic because of that city. It dictated that element of the book. Then it was like, "Let's have Cold War shenanigans!" Popcorn movie stuff that we, as readers, love. Neither one of us are snobbish readers. If it was printed and handed to us, we would read it. So it came out of our eclectic tastes, I think.

That approach probably helped shape the books into the weird genre-mashup that they are, rather than sitting down with a write-by-numbers approach to filling in the expected blanks in whatever niche you're targeting. It's fantasy, but it's not in the continuum of what people think of when they say fantasy.

Right. It's not world-building in the way that I think a lot of genre-fiction is world-building. It's all this-world stuff, and all the "magic" and time-travel is all science-based. Weird science, but behind everything there is a sort of a rational explanation for what's going on, or pushes the boundaries of what that is. It's not fantasy in the sense of vampires, or alternative world sort of stuff. That's all great, but it's just not our thing. I think there's enough vampire books. We didn't feel called to add to that.

I think they kind of struggle with what to call it. There's been some confusion along the way, of people trying to figure out what it is. I think a lot of genre readers come with a lot of expectations of what they want. They look at the cover and they think, "This is going to give me my world of fairies and elves" or whatever they are coming to it with. Then it's all this stuff about musicology and history. It's taken a while for people to accept that it's not one thing or another, or find those people that don't mind that, who actually like that. They don't have one specific category that they read in.

Are there any authors that have inspired the creation of this book and its predecessor?

One of the reasons we have this pseudonym, Magnus Flyte, is that it felt like it was so it's own book, with its own style of writing. The way that we write this book is not how we write as individuals. We kind of found a third style. So we weren't thinking of any one writer in particular.

I have heard subsequently Christopher Moore, or Jasper Fforde, I think because of the funny elements of it. There's a lot of humor in the books.

The bit I've gotten through reminds me a bit of Tim Powers. He writes historical fantasy, and when he writes about alchemy, for example, it's grounded in how alchemists actually thought this stuff worked.

I don't know him. That's very much where we went too -- sort of what that meant to them [historically].

The first book in the series -- City of Dark Magic -- did very well, hitting the New York Times bestseller list. Were you anticipating it would be that well received?

We were shocked. It did really well. When we were writing it we would jokingly refer to it as "the biggest bestseller of all time," but we were completely joking. Neither one of us thought it would sell [laughs] because we thought it would be too weird for people. Then Penguin, our publisher, got behind the book and they were really enthusiastic about it. We thought, "Okay, this is very nice" and we were kind of hanging back. They were very enthusiastic about it, but we weren't too sure. We were pleasantly surprised that the book found its readers.

I think in large part it's due to independent booksellers. They kind of got behind the book and found the right readers for us, because they actually talk to their customers and know them. We got a lot of support from independent booksellers who liked the book and liked its mix of things. They found the right people for us. I think there was a lot of good word of mouth that happened.

The historical material in the book is largely true, right? You pulled from actual history and built your story around that, rather than making stuff up whole cloth to fit the story?

Right. All the stuff about Beethoven, all the stuff about John Dee, Edward Kelley, Elizabeth Weston, Tycho Brahe, Rudolf II, all the historical characters, we didn't invent [that stuff]. We invented their interactions with each other, to some extent, but a lot of it was drawn from history. All the historical things and places, every piece of art and music described in the book, it all exists. All of that was based on real stuff. We have a character that's a dwarf -- there's very little known about some of these seventeenth century characters, but Tycho Brahe did have a dwarf. He's mentioned several times in contemporary accounts of that astronomer. Apparently that dwarf was thought to be clairvoyant. We had to put him in the book, because who was that guy? You want to know about that guy.

You can't make up a lot of this stuff, about alchemists that were receiving angelic communications and one of the [communications] was "You should wife swap some weekend," and they did. Rudolf II had a pet lion, and he believed if the lion died he would die. He had the astrology of his lion cast. In fact, he did die three days after his lion died. You can't make this stuff up, so that all goes in.

You must have known a fair bit about the period and characters going in -- enough to know there was material to be mined, anyway -- but it must have been fun to really dive into these weird histories and learn all this stuff.

It was fun. We had an interest in a lot of this, but we went to Prague to do a lot of research for the first book, then back to Prague and Vienna for the second book [City of Lost Dreams], which is set in Vienna. We go on these mad research trips, where I do all these color-coded binders of research. It's location scouting, looking at things and going, "That would be a good place for someone to die" or standing in a museum pointing out what things a character would steal from that museum.

It's actually kind of an interesting way to travel, because it turns out if you're a grown-up standing in a museum with a notebook, you cause interest from museum guards and things. They'll ask "What are you doing? Are you researching something?" and then they'll give you all sorts of information and sometimes access to things because they're so happy to see someone curious about things [laughs] instead of just filing through the room glazed eyed, like tourists often do.

We had a lot of fun learning about stuff. Part of the fun for us about writing the books was learning this stuff that really turned us on. We write relay style. We don't really plot out the books too much. Chris writes a chapter, then sends it to me. I write a chapter and send it back to her. We do no rewriting until we get to the end, that's a big rule. You have to play the hand you're dealt.

That's an interesting approach.

[Laughs.] It wouldn't work for anyone else, but it works for us. Lots of times, I'll get sent something that has something in it that I haven't even really heard of, so it sends me on another research track to figure out, "Hey, what were you reading that got in there?" We have fun that way.

At your event, you'll be signing and discussing, right? That's a nice departure from the traditional sign-and-read formula.

We do read a bit, but I think when people see two people standing there, the obvious thing is "How does that work?" So we like to talk a little bit about how we work and how we met and what went into the novel before we read. You go to these author readings all the time, and we both feel a certain compunction to put on a show a little bit, to make it interesting or funny for people. We don't want to read for too long, and it's more fun when we're at these independent bookstores, where there is a community of writers, to just talk with people afterwards about what they're reading and what they're liking. We always meet these great people at these things. Discussion is more our style. We talk about the funny things we find on travel, or what weird stuff makes it in, or even about genre and what we thought about it and how we tried to find our own way in, how we play around with the sort of tropes of genre [writing] and if there's anything new we can do with that.

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