Dragons! Magic! The Very Blood of Fantasy
Mari LaRoche often answers questions emailed to her by students about her fiction. In 2020, she answered more than 300 questions on topics ranging from her characters’ names to her choice of the genre of fantasy fiction. These questions, about LaRoche’s stories “Secrets and Gold” and “Witches and Kings,” were addressed to her across several semesters by students of Karin Hooks, who has collected many of them for use in her OER textbook, Taradiddles: An Anthology of Short Fiction (2020).
Power, Perspective, and Pathos in “Secrets and Gold” and “Witches and Kings”
Interviewer: I have a question about Emelyne. What made you decide to give this character the scars on her face? I am wondering because often people choose to make the characters in their story have some otherworldly beauty, especially when they are royalty. I was wondering if it could be related to the idea that her scars are not ugly but rather empowering and a reminder of her kindness.
LaRoche: Actually, the thought behind it was that people generally associate those with scars to be the villains. I wanted people to stop making snap judgements on a character based on their appearances and read the story to find out who the character is and how they act before they decide anything about them. As someone who lives with invisible scars of her own, it's important to me that people not make decisions based on what they think they know.
Interviewer: Is the relationship between Cerdreq and Emelyne just friendly or is it more romanticized?
LaRoche: Cerdreq and Emelyne view each other very differently. Cerdreq, who is a father and has young ones of his own, views her as a foster daughter of sorts, and very much wants to protect her, even from his mate. Emelyne, on the other hand, views Cerdreq as a friend and an equal. She despises what her father has done to the dragon and she works in secret to learn to wield her power enough to be able to help free Cerdreq. . . . So while she started off just wanting to heal him, she became his friend over time.
Interviewer: What were the King’s views on the witch before he was killed? Did he like her as a person? Was he just using her for the gold?
LaRoche: I'm working on turning these two short stories into a longer, novel-length book, which is going through the editing process right now. In it, I'm able to better explore the characters and what they want/like/etc. One of the things we find out more is that King Amaury actually despises magic and goes to great lengths to eradicate it before pivoting and embracing its power, at least for his purposes. Nostrea (in another form, which I won't spoil here) gains influence over Amaury through the use of spells that make him more inclined to like her. So, to answer your question, he doesn't like her - and he did realize she was a means to getting more gold once he realized she could control the dragon for him.
Interviewer: What was Nostrea’s appearance like?
LaRoche: Nostrea isn't really described in these stories because I want people to imagine her on their own. In the book, she's described a little more, but still not in great detail. We know she has dark hair, and that she's good at blending in.
Interviewer: Was Queen Isolt nice or was she like the witch and just craved power?
LaRoche: She's worse than Nostrea, she doesn't want the power, she doesn't want the position. She just wants the high life, and the jewels and gowns that go along with it.
Interviewer: What were Isolt’s views?
LaRoche: I'm not sure what you mean by this. Isolt was meant to be just a minor, or flat, character. She's a farm-girl turned queen because she's pretty and caught the king's eye. She's vapid, vain, and incredibly vacuous.
Interviewer: I would like to know why you chose the title of "Witches and Kings"? What is the theme in this one?
LaRoche: "Witches and Kings" is referring directly to both Nostrea (the witch) and Amaury (the king). But I wanted it to fit with "Secrets and Gold," and since “secrets” is plural, I made “witches” and “kings” plural also. And Emelyne is also a witch - although she's a good witch - so we have two witches. This story was originally written for the last book in an anthology set. Since we had to keep the stories young adult, it's hard to write about lust and know exactly where the line is for "too much." I opted to play with Nostrea's lust for power and the lengths she would go to get more and more of it under her control.
Interviewer: Also, do you ever tell how Nostrea and King Armaury ever came in contact with each other? How did their relationship start?
LaRoche: I do explain how Nostrea and Amaury meet in the novelized version of the story. It's a little bit of a spoiler, but they knew each other when Nostrea was in a different form. He does not recognize her in this new form, but feels a type of attachment to her and thus keeps her around. (As a witch, she has certain magical abilities at her disposal, which are visited in more detail in the novel. But one of the things I hint at in "Witches and Kings" is that Nostrea can literally enter another body, leaving hers behind. Taking control of Cerdreq is the first time she has moved into a dragon, but that's not the first time she's moved into a new body. And you can know this because she knows it's possible to even try to do it with Cerdreq.)
Interviewer: I was curious about your intentions in "Witches and Kings." Was the story meant only to elucidate what happens after "Secrets and Gold" and to simply offer a more complete understanding of Nostrea's actions and thus the story as a whole?
LaRoche: "Witches and Kings" was only supposed to tell the events of "Secrets and Gold" from another perspective, in an effort to play with the idea of Nostrea's lust for power. The fact that I ended up being able to add some new details and further develop this world a little more was a bonus for me.
Interviewer: Or was it also your intention to illustrate Nostrea in a more sympathetic manner and perhaps lead the reader to desire redemption for her?
LaRoche: Oh no, I never meant for people to be sympathetic to Nostrea at all! In fact, in the longer, novelized version of the story that I'm working on, you feel connected to her for exactly one chapter, before we realize she's not a good person. Nostrea has been a lot of fun to write, simply because she's NOT likeable. It's been really interesting to write a character with her perspective and work out why she would do the things she does.
Interviewer: If you were indeed trying to have the reader empathize more with Nostrea, did you have any narrational techniques in mind as you were doing so?
LaRoche: Since it was never in my mind to make people empathize with her more, I didn't use any techniques intentionally. If someone reads the story and does relate to her or feel for her in some way, then I've done my job as a writer and created a "real" person that has flaws but the reader can see past those flaws and hope the character will redeem him or herself. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was "write your villain as you would your hero." Villains think they are the hero. They think they're the ones in the right, and that the hero is wrong.
Interviewer: In "Witches and Kings," the king is seen in a different light than he was in "Secrets and Gold." Did you want the king to be portrayed as less powerful in "Witches and Kings" than in "Secrets and Gold?"
LaRoche: It wasn't that I wanted him to be portrayed as less powerful, but I was trying to show that he didn't have as much power as it may have initially seemed. He doesn't have power over the dragon without Nostrea. He doesn't have the gold and treasure without both of them. He's a greedy, selfish man who will use whatever he can in order to get what he wants, and what he wants is all the gold and all the glory and all the power.
Interviewer: I could see how people might feel bad for the king and for Nostrea in "Witches and Kings" because the king was being taken advantage of by Nostrea and Nostrea was being starved as she was running for Cedreq throughout the story.
LaRoche: Actually, Nostrea and Amaury are using each other in equal measure. She wants his power, and he wants her magic. They're really made for each other. As far as her being starved, this is something anyone who is “on-the-run” will experience. They'll find it hard to find food, shelter, and friends. I wouldn't let that be the sole reason you feel for her if you did feel anything for her at all.
Interviewer: How were you able to determine which character to focus on in “Witches and Kings?”
LaRoche: Ok, so the real answer here is that there was no doubt in my mind who should be the main character of "Witches and Kings." But if you want a deeper answer, it was because I was looking for the most directly opposite view to Cerdreq's that I could find. Who would be better to tell the story, but Cerdreq's number one enemy?
Interviewer: After all, after reading “Secrets and Gold,” one may have been led to think the main antagonist of the story was King Amuary. However, reading “Witches and Kings” changed that idea completely, whereas now I see Nostrea as the main antagonist in both stories. How did you determine that Nostrea would be the focus?
LaRoche: There's a number of reasons for this, but mainly it has to do with the fact that I'm more comfortable writing strong female characters, even if that strong female is on the wrong side of the argument. And I think fantasy needs more strong female characters (protagonists and antagonists).
Interviewer: How do you think these characters view King Amaury as a person?
LaRoche: This is a really good question. When I was writing the short stories, I did want to create this impression that the king may not be as strong as he appears when you look at him from another angle. The reason I did this is because we all have our strengths and our weaknesses. Even those “in power.” So, I did want to make him seem more human (or more 'real') by giving him some realistic flaws. In the longer novel [about these characters], it's been fun to find out that Amaury is just tired. He's tired of being king, he's tired of being pushed and pulled from all different sides. It's made him greedy for more wealth and more power, because he feels he's owed these things. He's tired of dealing with his daughter, who is anything but a normal princess. As a result, he is an angry person, set in his ways, and distrustful of people that aren't close to him. He feels let down by others. However, Cerdreq doesn't know all of this. He only sees the king's "formal" presence, the one he presents to the general public - creating an illusion that he's strong, in control, and confident. Of course, Nostrea knows Amaury already (I won't spoil how or why here, I'll only say that not everyone retains the same form throughout this book, so while this version of her has never met him, she knows how he thinks and acts when out of the public eye.) She's also more powerful than he is because she has the magical ability. She knows she can manipulate someone who doesn't have magic, and she realizes that she can use that to her benefit.
Interviewer: Do you think the King has a kind of duality where he is seen as weak and powerful at the same time?
LaRoche: Oh definitely! But I also think all of the characters can be viewed that way. Cerdreq is seen as weak or 'tamed' by the king because Nostrea controls him with the collar. However, in "Witches and Kings," Nostrea fears Cerdreq at first because she doesn't have that control and he's more powerful than she is. So, we see a duality in these two characters where their roles are reversed and the power balance is flipped.
Interviewer: What does this say about his character?
LaRoche: I'd like to hope it shows that he's flawed, just like most people. He has strengths, he has weaknesses, and he's just a man. He may be the king, but he's no better than any of the rest of us.
Interviewer: What inspired you to write these stories?
LaRoche: Scribophile, an online writing group that I'm a part of, regularly has contests being held, and some of those contests lead into opportunities to be published in anthologies. I had not been aware of the earlier contests but did join for Volume 6: Avarice and Volume 7: Lust in a series of anthologies revolving around the Seven Deadly Sins. As I say in my blurb for "Secrets and Gold," what's greedier than a dragon guarding his hoard? I immediately knew I wanted to write a story where something or someone WAS greedier than the dragon.
Interviewer: What made you end "Secrets of Gold" the way you did?
LaRoche: I'm a fan of all kinds of books and movies - but I especially love the endings to western movies. I love how at least one character ends by riding off into the sunset. Flying off in search of Nostrea is Cerdreq's sunset. At least for that story. (Same thing with Nostrea “learning to fly” at the end of "Witches and Kings," that's her riding off into the sunset moment for that story.)
Interviewer: Did you always plan on writing "Witches and Kings" to give insight through Notsrea’s perspective?
LaRoche: No. I only knew that I wanted to leave the possibility open for writing more stories in this universe. A lot of work goes into creating a new world and characters and making it come to life. Using it for only a simple short story felt wrong somehow. I really thought the next person I focused on would be Emelyne, but when I got the opportunity to submit a story for Volume 7, I realized I would need to use a character who lusted for something that I could create a story around. And really, Emelyne was just too pure for me to use her that way.
Interviewer: I want to hear what you want to say about the contrast between the way you portray your characters in the two stories.
LaRoche: Part of the contrast has to do with how the POV character views the other characters. For example, in "Secrets and Gold," Cerdeq only sees the 'public-facing' side of King Amaury, and thinks he's the one with all the power and control. But in "Witches and Kings," Nostrea (who has previous knowledge about Amaury when she was in another form) sees him as easily manipulated and controllable, because she's the one with the magical power. The same holds true for both Cerdreq and Nostrea and Emelyne. They both view her differently, and so she's going to be portrayed slightly differently in each story. (And the same is also true for how Cerdreq and Nostrea view each other.)
Interviewer: I was mainly curious about the sorceress, Nostrea, and your thought process between writing her in “Secrets and Gold” and “Witches and Kings.” I would love to hear what brought in the idea of using it to make her look decidedly more weak and vulnerable in comparison to the heroes of the story and how it contributed to the sudden and unexpected ending all the better to help allow the reader to underestimate her and let your guard down before striking.
LaRoche: This idea of Nostrea being weaker and more vulnerable has been WAY more popular than I thought it would be! I never intended for people to view her that way. In all honesty, I was writing her as 'running from justice' rather than as a sympathetic character. But I love that so many people are having this other interpretation. As a writer, one of the main things we try to do is create characters that have flaws like real people do, that the readers will connect with. It's not always the characters we expect - and that's certainly the case here!
As far as the ending, the way I wrote it (with Nostrea running to escape punishment for her crimes) was originally that she realizes she's still got a way to control Cerdreq without the collar, but it's going to take a much larger sacrifice (herself).
Interviewer: In our class discussion, we were discussing the genre of fantasy fiction and what classifies it as a fantasy story. Would you classify these under fantasy fiction? What gave you the idea for the medieval themes? LaRoche: Would you classify them as anything else? :) I would definitely call them Fantasy. Dragons! Magic! Those things are the very blood of fantasy (to me). I have done a lot of research on 15th and 16th century medieval life, warfare, weapons, armor, medical practices, etc. I love the medieval period and for me it's what embodies the fantasy genre since so many of them are set in similar settings.
Interviewer: How did you come up with the names for the characters? I thought the name Cerdreq was pretty unique yet easy to remember.
LaRoche: Cerdreq is the only name created for this story. It's literally a play on the words "Sir Drake." All the other names are real names that I either like, thought fit the story and the character, or that I changed the spelling slightly to make it fit.
Interviewer: Is Emelyne and Cerdreq's relationship intended to be one of companionship and friendship or romantic feelings?
LaRoche: Friendship. They're cross-species friends. I do not, and will not, write cross-species romance. I also don't read it, it does nothing for me. I don't like thinking about people having “relations” with animals.
Interviewer: What is Nostrea's purpose in taking over Cerdreq's body?
LaRoche: Power. The dragon has more power than she does, and he's been hunting her and leaving her scared. She doesn't want to be scared anymore.
Survival. She's been unsuccessfully outrunning him for quite some time, and this is her only way out if she wants to stay alive.
Interviewer: My question is not to ask if there are any hidden meanings within the text, but to ask if you have thought or perhaps have designed some plot details to echo events or perhaps add your own commentary to your work, especially within the world you have created in "Secrets and Gold" & "Witches and Kings".
LaRoche: With stories it is always common to find people digging for secret meanings or allusions to real life events. Most often, I see authors enjoy that, yet when posed with a question or theory regarding the source material, they refuse to answer it. David Lynch's obscure work comes to mind as something that continually puzzles viewers and when people pose questions to what the works mean, he essentially denies to answer and refutes all theories simply with a “No.” So, to quote David Lynch: “No.” Sometimes it's not that authors or other creatives are refusing to answer. It's that sometimes the simple answer IS the answer. Another quote from David Lynch (which I adore): “To me, a story can be both concrete and abstract, or a concrete story can hold abstractions. And abstractions are things that really can’t be said so well with words.” Writing is, in all seriousness, 80% planning and research and 20% actual writing. When looking for ways to portray my worlds and characters, I also have to look at historical reasons for uprisings, wars, revolts, etc. I've researched armor, weapons, rites of succession, poisons, medical practices of the 15th and 16th century, etc. Sometimes, you can really get bogged down in the research. History affects a lot of what writers write.
And then there's the Sociological answer: We're affected by things around us every day. So, while I may not mean for something to mirror current events, it's very possible that they will.
Then, there's this wonderful thing called the death of the author. Once I write a story and share it with the world, it stops being “just” mine. I could show it to twelve different readers and they could have twelve different ways of interpreting it. Even if I don't mean anything by it at all, people are going to see or read what they want to in the story. (Which David Lynch has also addressed in interviews before as the reason for why he won't discuss the meanings of things he creates.) Going back to David Lynch, he also said: “Stories hold conflict and contrast, highs and lows, life and death, and the human struggle and all kinds of things.” These are things we can't escape, and sometimes, they're going to overlap with real life, no matter how hard we try.