“Chisel and Chime” returns to Borea, the setting of my previous F&SF stories “Wizard’s Six” and “Dragon’s Teeth.” It tells the story of Melandra Cordilena, an artist who is chosen to receive a great honor. She will sculpt the official statue of the Imperator of the city of Ie Fure. The only downside is that by tradition, every artist chosen for this honor dies once the work is completed. The story of her artistic work intertwines with the history of her guard, a young man by the name of Brant, and as she learns more about his troubled history, they begin to envision a new possible future that breaks free of the traditions that bind them both.
What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
I’ve been fiddling with new Borea ideas for a long time, which is unusual for me because I don’t usually write sequels or prequels. But something about that place draws me back. I’ve got a notebook full of Borea story seeds, and this one started to germinate as I filtered various things I see in the world around me through the sensibility of Borea: the boy becoming a soldier because his upbringing has left him no other choice, the artist whose ambitions collide with the ruthless ways power tries to channel and instrumentalize art, the way small acts of kindness can have life-changing results.
Was “Chisel and Chime” personal to you in any way? If so, how?
All of my stories are personal to me in some way. They begin with something I care about. In this case, it was Brant’s confusion and sense of helplessness, his desperate need to connect, which I think a lot of kids feel, especially when their family situations are chaotic or violent. I know a little about this, although I certainly never experienced anything like Brant does.
In another way, this story is a reflection on the benefits and perils of conditioning your art to meet mass expectations. I’m just coming out of a decade in which 95% of what I wrote was licensed work. In a lot of ways that was great, because I got to work in a ton of story universes I have loved since I was a kid, and I’ve made a decent living at it. Who could complain about writing Marvel stories, or Batman, or Transformers, etc.? It’s a blast, and I’ll keep doing it. On the other hand, once you start devoting all of your creative energy to projects set in someone else’s worlds, you can start to feel constrained. I wasn’t consciously thinking about this while I wrote Melandra’s story, but in hindsight, I guess some of that sentiment percolates through “Chisel and Chime.”
Can you tell us anything about your writing process for this story?
Usually I don’t start writing a story until I know the ending. “Chisel and Chime” was different because it came together over a period of a year or so, with various fits and starts, and I didn’t understand the ending until I had already written most of a first draft. The first glimmer of the story was the bit with the chimes in the river. It floated through my head while I was on a plane to Los Angeles, scribbling in a notebook. I listened to it for a while and then put together a story that I read at World Fantasy in San Antonio in 2017. Sometimes readings are great because they point out to you all the ways your story wasn’t really ready for an audience, and that certainly happened in this case. After that reading, I put the story down to think about why it wasn’t working. In parallel I had begun to think about Melandra’s story, and over the next few months I figured out the two stories belonged together. After that, everything came together pretty quickly.
Why do you write?
A large part of it is just the joy of telling a story. I love hearing stories, I love reading stories, I love telling stories. Mixed into that joy is a more serious compulsion, which is to be heard. I don’t have a TV show or a Youtube channel or a million followers on Instagram. Nobody cares if I write a letter to Congress. But sometimes (I hope) I can write a story that will get people thinking about things I think are important. Or perhaps a reader will connect with a story of mine in a personal way that helps them understand or process something in their own lives. It’s empathy at a distance, it’s me trying to figure out how to understand my own experience of the world, and hoping those efforts resonate with other people. Also I would like to get rich and be lionized after my death.
Who do you consider to be your influences?
A tricky question. There are writers who have shaped the way I understand stories, and writers who I admire on a technical level, and writers I find captivating because they come at the world from an angle I’d never thought of. I hope to assimilate some of all those influences—and of course like most writers I’m probably blind to other influences that seem plain to people reading my fiction.
More specifically: Whenever I’m working in a fantasy mode, as in “Chisel and Chime,” my lodestar is Ursula Le Guin. I would also like to have the visionary recklessness of Philip K. Dick and Franz Kafka, the sly humor of Elmore Leonard and Ring Lardner, the sentence-to-sentence richness of Toni Morrison, the ebullience of Salman Rushdie, the intensity of Virginia Woolf…but in the end, I’m just me, trying to figure out each story the best way I know how.
“Chisel and Chime” appears in the January/February 2020 issue of F&SF.
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Alex Irvine’s website, https://alex-irvine.com/, can also be accessed by clicking on his photo.