An Interview With Greer Macallister – Chicago Review of Books


“Branding.” Authors hear that word a lot: what’s your brand, how are you branding yourself, does X fit with your brand? Over the course of a writing career, many authors focus on a particular genre, era, or setting to brand their work. But even when you’re perfectly happy in your genre and your brand—like Greer Macallister with her terrific backlist of historical fiction—the muse sometimes decides to throw you a curveball: an idea in a new genre, which you just can’t shake.

A departure from her previous four works of historical fiction, Macallister’s new novel Scorpica (published under the name G.R. Macallister) is a sprawling epic fantasy, vast in scale and jam-packed with action. In the five queendoms of this world, women are the monarchs, senators, priests, warriors, and magicians, but the 500-year peace between queendoms is jeopardized when the world’s mothers suddenly begin giving birth to only boys.

In discussing her exciting new novel, Macallister and I talked about the similarities of building worlds in historical fiction and fantasy, how male characters fit into this matriarchy, her current reading habits, and the future of the queendoms.

Kate Quinn

Ok, first things first! This book is a huge departure for you, after four historical novels all set in 19th-century America, including The Magician’s Lie and most recently, The Arctic Fury. How has writing epic fantasy been different from historical fiction? Has your background in historical fiction helped at all, or are they two different animals?

Greer Macallister

They’re different animals, but related; more like dog/wolf than dog/cat, if that makes sense. We talk a lot about world-building in fantasy and science fiction, but historical novelists are world-builders too—we’re just building worlds that used to exist on this timeline on this planet, or as close as we can get to those worlds based on a combination of extensive research and grounded speculation. But it’s been really freeing to know that I’m not going to get any emails telling me that, for example, the Scorpicae couldn’t possibly hunt red squirrels because that species isn’t native to Scorpica. I made up the entire country. They hunt what I say they hunt.

Kate Quinn

No judgy fact-checking emails? That officially makes me want to write fantasy.

Greer Macallister

Oh, I expect plenty of emails from angry men threatened by the entire concept of matriarchy to make up for it. But you’d be great at fantasy! As if you don’t have enough on your plate.

Kate Quinn

I’m actually playing with a fantasy/magic realism book idea right now, so I am not a stranger to the whole “muse throwing you a genre curveball” thing. But, back to you and to Scorpica. How does the fact-checking differ between writing historical fiction and historical fantasy?

Greer Macallister

On the fact-checking front, even though I’m not drawing on a specific time and place from history when I describe the Five Queendoms, I do have to keep really close track of the things I make up, so they’re consistent within this world. And I developed that kind of attention to detail writing historical fiction. What do people eat? What do they wear? When you walk down the street in a certain season at a certain time of day, what does it smell like? Again, it’s world-building.

Kate Quinn

I’ve always thought fantasy and sci-fi were sister genres to historical fiction for just that reason. World-building is key in all of them, whether you’re painting a world in the future, a world in the past, or an entirely made-up world. Also because all three genres examine the issues of the present, but through different kind of lenses: historical fiction uses the lens of the past, sci-fi the lens of the future . . .

Greer Macallister

Right, exactly! I often tell people historical fiction is never just about the past. I mean, at its core, my book Woman 99 was about a bunch of angry women banding together to challenge a system that was rigged against them. I set it in 1888, but I wrote it with my 2017 feelings. Sci-fi is famously useful for exploring today’s issues through a futuristic setting—I like that word you used, actually, lens—and fantasy can mix and match pretty much any elements of society to comment on those elements. Setting Scorpica in a matriarchy means that, on some level, I’m highlighting how patriarchal our current world is, not just in terms of who’s holding office but in every aspect of culture. The contrast is inescapable, although that’s not why I chose to write it that way. I just wanted to set something in a matriarchy.

Kate Quinn

Speaking of matriarchy, nearly all of the major characters in Scorpica are women. Men exist in this world—and they’re well-drawn characters with agency and sympathy; this might be a matriarchal story but you aren’t reducing the male characters to second-class treatment in their depiction, if anyone is worried! But though certain men play important roles in the plot, none are primary characters. Was that intentional?

Greer Macallister

Kind of? I certainly didn’t write the first draft muttering to myself, “Ha ha! I’ll show them what it’s like to have your entire half of the population left out!” But as the book evolved over time, I realized that even though there are a lot of men in this world – and, as you said, some playing very important roles – none had really stepped forward as key to understanding a particular event or scene. And I asked myself whether I wanted to prioritize making that happen, and the answer was no. I wasn’t going to force it. For those who are really feeling the lack, a big part of Book 2’s story is told through the eyes of a male character, if that helps. But if you can’t enjoy Scorpica because you’re always saying to yourself, “Wow, this just seems like a lot of women, maybe too many women,” well, you’re probably not going to enjoy Scorpica.

Kate Quinn

What was it like to write a female-default world, especially after years of writing stories set in the very real world of American history? Your historical novels have often centered on women who buck society’s expectations, but those expectations are still a big part of the story.

Greer Macallister

Same with yours, right? Writing historical fiction about women who stay in their place and do what they’re told isn’t generally sizzling stuff. So I’ve written about Arctic explorers and sane women in insane asylums and the first female detective in America, and you’ve written about codebreakers and spies and in your upcoming book, The Diamond Eye, the Russian woman who became history’s deadliest sniper. I haven’t read that one yet, but I imagine that given the WWII-era setting, Mila Pavlichenko was dealing with sexism and harsh attitudes about “correct” gender roles the whole time she was also, y’know, shooting three hundred Nazis.

Kate Quinn

See Also


Yep. On the Russian front, the woman who earned the nickname “Lady Death” was dodging belittling comments and physical harassment from some of her own officers; on her American goodwill tour, she was fielding questions like “Can you wear makeup on the front?” and “The uniform for women soldiers isn’t very flattering; do you mind that your skirt makes you look fat?”

Greer Macallister

Ugh. Exactly. These women were changing the world with their bravery, intelligence and skill, all while having to fight for their place every step of the way. To defy society. Which adds to the story, but in writing the world of the Five Queendoms, I was conscious the entire time that there wasn’t that kind of prejudice to push back against. No one is telling the women of the Five Queendoms they can’t do something because they’re women. It’s the reverse – the expectations are higher. They’re the queens, the senators, the most gifted magicians, the priests, everyone with serious power. And that was so refreshing. It opened up so many more directions I wasn’t able to explore in my previous books.

Kate Quinn

That whole take was so fascinating and fresh to me—I can’t wait to get more of it. Which is why I was happy-dancing when I learned that Scorpica is the first book in your series The Five Queendoms! I’m hoping for five books, one per queendom—because the action of the first book doesn’t cover the queendoms equally. We’re mostly in the warrior nation Scorpica (obviously) and the magicians’ queendom of Arca, with some attention devoted to the Rovers who are traveling the backroads of Paxim, nation of trading and diplomacy. Will future books give us a glimpse into the queendoms that get less attention here, the scholars’ fortress called the Bastion and religious, agrarian Sestia? 

Greer Macallister

For sure. I just couldn’t pack it all in—it was a deliberate choice to scale back. My first draft actually followed five different threads in five different nations over the 15 years, and the feedback I got was unanimously, “I enjoy each of these characters individually, but I absolutely cannot keep track of all this.” But because I did the work to build out all five queendoms for that initial draft, it’s all there waiting to be revealed. And some of those characters that were cut from Book 1 are absolutely getting woven into the rest of the books in the series as I write them. I can’t wait for you to meet the High Xara of Sestia. She’s terrible.

Kate Quinn

You write great bad girls, so I can’t wait! Ok, last question. As historical novelists, we both read a lot of historical fiction: reading to see what else is out there, reading manuscripts to blurb, and reading our friends’ books, on top of just reading what we enjoy. As you’ve shifted into writing epic fantasy, has your reading life changed? Any recent fantasy or science fiction you’d recommend to readers looking for other speculative fiction (besides Scorpica, of course) that puts women front and center?

Greer Macallister

You bet. I’d been an avid fantasy reader when I was younger and kind of fell away from it, especially when I started writing historical fiction, but as soon as I got the idea for the Five Queendoms, I started reading widely in current fantasy. I think it’s essential to understand the landscape of a particular genre. And while matriarchal worlds are pretty hard to come by, there is so much great stuff out there dominated by fabulous female characters.

I loved last year’s The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo’s fantastical riff on The Great Gatsby, which is great for historical fiction readers who want to dip a toe into fantasy. Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars is more sci-fi, since it literally has aliens in it, but it’s set in contemporary Southern California. It’s the story of a transgender runaway, Katrina Nguyen, who becomes the pupil of a cursed violin teacher who owes the Devil one more soul. It’s both madcap and heartbreakingly real, somehow. And I loved Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, set in a world inspired by the civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas, so I’m dying to read the next book in the series, Fevered Star, which comes out in April. There are matriarchal clans in the world Roanhorse has created for the Between Earth and Sky series, which I obviously find exciting. Nothing would make me happier than an explosion of speculative fiction set in matriarchies, to show how many different forms that could take.


FICTION
Scorpica
By G.R. Macallister
Gallery/Saga Press
Published February 22, 2022



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