Tod Davies on The Lizard Princess and The History of Arcadia series
You shouldn’t have any favorite children, I’m sure, and I’m equally sure you can’t help it when you do. So I have to ruefully confess that this third book in The History of Arcadia is my secret favorite, and that Sophia the Lizard Princess, she who becomes Sophia the Wise, is my favorite voice. Writers have control, and that only minimally so, over what they feel they should write, and no control at all over how what they do write is received. We have secret hopes, of course. Mine is that someone else, somewhere else, will love Sophia and find her as generous in spirit, as kind, and as wise as I do. For it’s really true, what I found myself writing in Sophia’s voice at the start of The Lizard Princess, that “there are stories you tell because you can, and stories you tell because you must.” This one, for me as for Sophia, was the latter. The tale of a girl finding that to become truly a queen, you need to be an animal, a human, and an angel all at once, was one I had to write, willy nilly, like it or not. Now it’s not up to me whether you, the reader, likes it or not. Needless to say, I do most fervently hope it’s “likes.” Or even “loves.” That would be best of all.
A Conversation with Tod Davies
Q: The Lizard Princess is the third book in The History of Arcadia series. Do you recommend that readers begin with Snotty Saves the Day, the first book in the series, followed by Lily the Silent, the second, or jump right in with The Lizard Princess?
A: Oh, they’re three very different stories, each standing separately, though from the same continuum . . . from the same world, asking many of the same questions confronting us in ours. So I have to give the same answer here that I did about Lily the Silent, the second book in the series. There’s going to be a different experience if you read them out of sequence, but I think that’s just like life—how you hear stories out of sequence, and have to track back to understand what really happened. It’s a kind of mental gymnastics that has always left me, as a reader, exhilarated, whether I’m reading Trollope’s Barchester novels, or Edward Eager’s Half Magic books for children (allegedly, I should say, since I think all books that are worth reading as a child are more than worth reading as an adult). As I said with Lily, Arcadia is revealing itself gradually—kind of coming up the literary evolutionary ladder as it were. Children’s story to start—that’s Snotty Saves the Day—but with a framework that says, well, wait a minute, maybe children’s stories have more to them than meets the eye? And then there’s Lily the Silent—which is a love story, really, about two teenagers. And now The Lizard Princess, which is about finding wisdom in the process of becoming a serious adult in a world filled with joy and sorrow, surrounded, always, by wonder: if only we can see it. Sophia does see it. I think the reader can see the wonder of her world quite clearly without starting with the other two books. Though I certainly hope the reader will want to read the other two when s/he is done!
Q: Why fantasy? Why write fairy tales?
A: My husband said something interesting after reading the second of The History of Arcadia books. He said he understood finally why I write fantasy: “It’s your way of engaging with how crazy the world has gotten.” Really, I loved when I read Walidah Imarisha, in Bitch magazine, saying that we need a new name for certain kinds of fantasy writing. The kind that imagines a world with the end in view of reimagining ours—for the better. “Visionary fiction,” she called it, and there’s a noble roll call of writers who contribute to the canon, Ursula K. LeGuin and Octavia Butler being among the noblest. The History of Arcadia is definitely in that tradition. Honestly, I don’t see any other reason to create any kind of art unless it’s an attempt to preserve and develop human values in aid of a more human world.
Also, I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase “fairy tales,” and I agree with Maria Tatar that we have to rebrand them. “Wonder tales” is a lot more accurate. Fairy tales have gotten a bad rap, completely undeserved since they are by no means just stories for children (although why that’s supposed to be a bad thing, I’ve never understood). Fairy tales, rightly considered, are concerned with questions of good and evil . . . and this is something we’ve lost in modern literature. Most of our present day literature (although not all of it, luckily) assumes that there are no real objective human values, that it’s all subjective, relative. Fairy tales, children’s stories, do not do this. They know better. And in the true Wonder Tale, you can consider the questions that are of true importance to any human being. Who am I? What am I meant to do? What world is out there that I have yet to see and understand? Those are really the only questions that matter. If art is going to matter, it has to grapple with them.
Q: So you don’t believe in “art for art’s sake”?
A: Certainly not! That’s just glorifying the means over the end. Whenever you put something a human does over what humans are made for, you’re looking at disaster—as in Megalopolis. Well, look at us now, having put technology ahead of the human uses it should be serving. We’ve made its development an absolute, instead of the tool for the fulfillment of human goals that it’s meant to be. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should feel compelled to do it. We have free will here. We can decide what’s best for us and our world—if we have the strength of character and mind to do it.
It’s the same with art. What is art for? It’s an expression of human creativity, and human creativity is capable of a lot of richer ends than just to be hung in a museum or celebrated with prizes at a banquet or two. It’s capable of making life better. It can name names when things go awry. It can explore new ways of seeing and being that might lead to a greater good. It can dance with reality. By that, I mean the larger reality, the one we’ll never be capable of seeing completely whole—not in this life, anyway. But the more reality we do see, the more effectively we can act. And the greater the joy in acting.
If you look at when “art for art’s sake” has been an influential movement in history, I think you’ll see it’s generally during a period of oppressive imperial consolidation of power. The Belle Epoque in France, during the reign of Napoleon III, is a case in point. All the patronage that artists need to support themselves goes toward supporting an art that doesn’t question the status quo. And then you have writers in the same periods, William Blake or Balzac for example, who spill over the barriers put up by the official discourse with so much joy and creativity that “art for art’s sake” seems, in comparison, like a constipated little dance at court. Or course, the courtiers tend to find art outside the minuet to be a rough-edged thing, vulgar, not worthy of consideration. I mean, you should read some of the insulting things the prominent authors of the day wrote about Blake! But time moves on, and “rougher” art frequently has more staying power, since its rough edges came from observing reality outside the officially allowed frame.
Q: Where does fantasy fit in? What kind of “art” is fantasy? Some would say by definition it doesn’t deal with our reality!
A: Fantasy of all kinds—fairy or wonder tales, folklore, legends, myths—really is proof that art is a biological human process. We are a story-telling species. We tell stories the same way, and from the same motives, that a spider builds a web, or a bee makes honey. That is what being human means. Story telling is not just our form of communication, of bonding with others in our own generation, it’s also a way of communicating retrospectively with those in the past, and, full of hope, with those in the future. It’s a building of the structure of human goals out of human choices and human desires in a universe that never stops developing with those thoughts and the acts that arise from those thoughts.
Fantasy preserves a record of those desires, and expresses, in story, what choices humans face, and what new choices arise from the choices already made. These desires and potential choices—and I must emphasize this—are not ours to invent or control. They are a given, a part of our biology, a part of who we are. A discovery rather than a creation. This might seem like a paradox, given that fantasy also takes free will as a given, but the paradox just points to a higher, more successfully integrated possibility. Rational thought aids us in seeing the reality of our biological situation more clearly, but it’s powerless to change the situation. It’s fantasy that envisions a new way—one that works with rational thought to develop new potentialities toward creating a world best suited to real human needs.
By the way, I hate sounding so pompous and serious here. But I can’t help feeling strongly—the most strongly—about these issues. Probably why I use fantasy; it’s kind of like transforming the ingredients into something more delicious for dinner.
Q: Speaking of which, you also write cookbooks in the Jam Today series. Why write in these two modes?
A: Those are the two things I like to share most: food and stories. Oh, and wine. Can’t forget wine. It goes so well with both.
Also, I suppose my idea is that cooking—food, eating, sharing—is an expression of human values, one that has the potential to preserve what’s best about us as human animals, giving us strength to become more human still.
I love what some scientist once said when he was asked if the Missing Link between human and animal had yet been discovered. “Oh yes,” he said. “It’s us.” I think about that comment a lot. And what I like to write about is how humans are still struggling to become more human. Food and stories are the basic nutrients we need.
Q: Are there still plans for an Arcadian cookbook?
A: Oh yeah. The plan right now is for it to be the fifth book in the collection. Right after my villain’s Report to Megalopolis. Jeff Baker, the arts editor of The Oregonian, suggested it one day, and I think it’s a stellar idea. So much fun for me. I’m envisioning something like a Megalopolitan cookbook, which when you flip it, the other side is an Arcadian cookbook. I’ve been tinkering around with it, so we’ll see what I come up with.
Q: Speaking of the form of the books in The History of Arcadia—even beyond the fact that the first three seem to “ascend” a hierarchy of literature—from children’s story to adult literature—each one has a specific form. Lily the Silent reads like an Arthurian tale your grandmother might tell you by some fireside. And The Lizard Princess reads like it’s formed from a series of encounters Sophia has that add to her wisdom. Is that true?
A: Yeah, reading back (I never know what I mean until I see what I say), I found that I was ignoring all the stuff that didn’t interest me and going for the emotional heart, so the book moves from emotionally important meeting for Sophia to emotionally important meeting. And of course, that’s a big theme of the book: that it’s the personal everyday encounters, and how they are met, that are the basis of either a good life or a bad one.
Q: The illustrations really reflect that. They’re by Mike Madrid, who also did the illustrations for Lily the Silent. But those were very different. More than one reviewer called those illustrations very like those of Arthur Rackham. These for The Lizard Princess look more modern somehow. What were you and Mike Madrid thinking?
A: Mike is the designer for all Exterminating Angel Press books, and so he not only designed the look for Snotty Saves the Day (which was beautifully illustrated by Gary Zaboly), but immediately began planning how to extend that design out to all the Arcadia books. It turned out to be natural for him to want to do the illustrations for Lily, especially since, where Snotty was based on fairy tales and children’s stories, Lily sprang more from Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, and the Welsh Mabinogion. He immediately began thinking in terms of Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham. But when we talked over The Lizard Princess, he leapt to the idea of doing portraits of key characters. Which of course is perfect for the way the book is structured. As usual.
Q: You and he seem to work well together.
A: Oh yes. We really have a collection of shared values, but we come from very different places—I mean emotionally, physically we’re both San Franciscans. We both think creative activity is one of the best ways to live a life. That said, he’s much more current than I am. I have to rely on him for all my news about popular culture. He curates it for me. Which I really need, since I have a tendency to stay back there with Proust and Trollope, and forget what’s happening in my own time. I’m very grateful to him, and not just for the obvious talents he puts at the service of Exterminating Angel Press.
We both think you should never bother complaining that the world isn’t the way you want to be, you should just get on doing the best you can to make it the way you would. He says the way you can tell if someone is like us, is to ask them which of the seven dwarves in “Snow White” they most relate to. For us, it’s always Doc. Because Doc is the only dwarf who actually has a job.
Q: What dwarf would Sophia the Wise say she was most like?
A: Oh, Doc. Doc definitely. And she’d say her mother was Snow White. But Sophia doesn’t see herself as a heroine princess. Which is probably why she’s surnamed “the Wise.”
Q: I don’t want to give anything away here, but there is an anti-heroic theme in the book. A key character is named Walter, which is hardly a heroic name. And the hero himself is not exactly a Handsome Prince.
A: You didn’t think he was handsome? Oh, that’s right, I say quite clearly that he’s funny looking. But he has a handsome soul. Questing and trying to be heroic. It’s not his fault that his culture’s idea of heroism isn’t the one called for. He truly does prove he’s a hero at the end, doesn’t he? By giving up his fantasy of what a hero is like for the reality of saving something worth saving. And that’s the kind of heroism I truly believe our culture desperately needs. The kind of heroism that Edward Snowden shows. The kind that says it’s not about the hero, it’s about the group working together for heroic ends.
Q: Besides that theme, there’s one that emphasizes how science actually can learn from story—that imagination is not just compatible with rational thought, but actually opens doors for it that can’t even be spotted otherwise.
A: Oh, I’m so glad you said that! Yes, I feel very strongly that science and imagination have gotten too separated in our technocratic culture. Not in the highest science, of course—Einstein had more imagination than most imaginative artists then or now. And Arcadian physicists explore the power of story as a power in the actual world. The Arcadian biologist Alan Fallaize even gives an equation that sums up everything the Lizard Princess discovers: symbol plus energy equals reality.
Megalopolis scorns works of imagination as being of no utility in conquering Nature. Needless to say, the Arcadian position is that conquering Nature is a futile, and in the end destructive, pursuit. It’s works of imagination that put us in partnership with Nature. And it’s story that explores and maps the inner world, in the same way as science explores and maps the outer. You need both. The human world is composed of both. One is not more important than the other.
Q: What story from the land of Arcadia can readers look forward to next?
A: I’m so enjoying this next one. It’s my villain, Aspern Grayling, the endlessly charming and sophisticated scientist who scorns the goals of Arcadia. He’s written a kind of NSA secret eyes only report to the Megalopolitan Council of Four (supported by grant money, of course), on all aspects of Arcadia and Arcadian culture. In revealing the details of Arcadian geography, literature, governance, society, he also tells his own story. It’s called Report to Megalopolis. I love writing in his voice. He hates wonder tales, thinks they’re actually pernicious. And he has a blind love for technology. Very un-Arcadian. Very much a piece of work of Megalopolis.
After that, I keep getting the strong message that Shanti Vale, Devindra’s great-granddaughter, has a lot to say about the Arcadia left to her generation by Sophia the Wise, and how they will manage to preserve and extend Arcadian values all through the present civil war. I keep hearing from her. So I expect readers will hear from her soon, as well.