SFF in Conversation

SFF in Conversation: Fran Wilde and Cindy Pon Talk Worldbuilding

SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.

SFF in Conversation

Today, it’s is our pleasure to host Fran Wilde and Cindy Pon, chatting about worldbuilding and their novels.


Cindy: I think both our worlds are unique in SFF? What inspired or drew you to the world that you built for the Updraft series?

Fran: I wrote a short story about a winged knife fight in a wind tunnel, set within the world of another short story that I’d written as a response to a writing challenge, and the collision of the two stories — one about action and character, and one much more focused on scene and setting — brought about the world of Updraft. That said, I think there are definitely external influences – everything from Calvino and Milton, to McCaffrey and Miéville. What about you? What inspired Sacrifice?


Cindy: I love that these books were inspired by a short story. That is the best! Who wouldn’t be inspired by a winged knife fight in a wind tunnel?? Sacrifice is the sequel to Serpentine. I do not outline as a writer, and it seems as if I naturally write in duologies. The inspirations behind this duology were twofold. I wanted to feature a strong female friendship. This was lacking in my first duology (Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix), and it was something I wanted to write about because my own female friendships are so core and important to me. I also felt that they were lacking in young adult books, particularly YA SFF. Visually, I was very inspired by Medusa from the old school Clash of the Titans. Like every other kid who grew up in the US, I learned Greek mythology. I’ve loved mythos since then. I remember being absolutely entranced by Clash of the Titans as a kid, and fascinated and repulsed in the climactic scene between Perseus and Medusa. She was so grotesque and monstrous, yet, I felt sympathy for her even as a kid. What was her story? It was only as an adult I observed how prevalent the idea of Monstrous Beauties is: women who are so beautiful and desirable that they cannot be trusted. They are the temptress, the seductress, who might literally turn into monsters and kill you.

Fran: When you have a unique setting, what impact does that have on the writing of book two?

Cindy: My fantasy books are set in the Kingdom of Xia, so much of the worldbuilding is in the details of that world, from architecture to clothing to furniture. In Serpentine and Sacrifice, my heroines live in the inner quarters, or the world of women. They are sequestered from men and reside in a wealthy manor. The details then, are of the domestic rituals that mark their lives, in an opulent and luxurious setting, yet still often oppressive in the way they are caged on multiple levels. I love writing about gods and demons (points back to Greek mythos), and when my girls set foot from their manor, anything can happen. Both the underworld and heavens are open to them, and both places are amazing and terrifying in their own ways. For me, book two is always about dealing with the choices that were made in book one. I think it’s why I love writing the second books so much. It’s time settle the score. What about you?


Fran: Updraft and Cloudbound are set on bone towers rising through the clouds, and book two continues to explore that world, going below the clouds for the first time. In Updraft, the clouds were the dividing line between what is known and what is not, and in Cloudbound, what Nat learns about the clouds — and who moves freely through them — informs the world and the action. Book two, for me, is a chance to see another side of the world as well as to continue the timeline begun in book one, and to deal with the consequences of book one. Doing that from a different point of view allowed me to reveal more than what Kirit would have seen on her own, which was important for both the story and the world.

Cindy: Did you find book two challenging or enjoyable in any surprising ways?

Fran: I did! In part because while I knew some of what was below the clouds, other things that developed during Cloudbound‘s writing process, especially connections between the distant past and the current beliefs of those above the clouds, surprised me. As well, I was able to look at the politics and people-engineering a lot more, whereas in Updraft the engineering was all structural and mechanical. What do you feel were the most important things you did in order to prepare to build a unique world? Can a world ever be entirely unique?


Cindy: To tell you the truth, it’s nothing that ever crossed my mind as a writer. For me, it’s a matter of creating a world that feels lived in and true, with characters that feel real to the reader. I think that fantasy writers will often create worlds that interest them, whether it is politics, agriculture, geography, magic systems, war, religion or class. My world-building, other than being heavily influenced by ancient China, is almost entirely sensory. As a writer, I instinctively am drawn to the senses to describe my world, be it the cool feel of silk clutched between nervous fingers, a magnificent sunset reflected in the waters of a tiered-rice field, or the horns jutting out of a demon’s head like gnarled tree roots. My themes are decidedly about coming of age, finding your place in the world, sexual awakenings, family and loyalty. I want to show strong girls and how they navigate a patriarchal society. I think it’s absolutely possible to create a fantasy world that feels fresh, but entirely unique? Probably not. I think every type of story has already been told and written, it is our perspective and voice that are unique.

Cindy: What are your thoughts about unique worlds and original stories? I was just at a book festival where the moderator brought up tropes, which is almost always raised in a negative light. Personally, I think tropes exist for good reason, and it’s a matter of making the familiar (which we can love as readers, and that is okay) not feel stale. Never mind that fact that we as creators, we are informed by everything we have read and seen and loved. It’s what it means to be “inspired by” …

Fran: I have layered opinions about tropes. I think some people can sometimes get them confused with clichés — especially the more overused ones. And there exist absolutely harmful tropes (and stereotypes and lazy writing) that should be questioned and abandoned. But grouping familiar themes and patterns along with clichés, etc. beneath an overarching label like “tropes” and then going on a seek-and-destroy mission for all of them at once isn’t something that I think will necessarily always serve a story or a set of literature best. I don’t like things to feel old, and I don’t like to be bored. I love inverting things and taking things apart to see how they work. And I absolutely think that certain traditional storytelling structures and familiar concepts — though not all — have value, especially if they are examined in a new light. With Updraft and Cloudbound both, I worked on a lot of upending and unpacking of the familiar for that reason.

Cindy & Fran: Thanks to the Book Smugglers for having us!



Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009?s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. Serpentine (Month9Books, 2015), is a Junior Library Guild Selection and received starred reviews from School Library Journal and VOYA. The sequel, Sacrifice, is also a Junior Library Guild Selection title and received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. WANT, a near-future thriller set in Taipei, will be published by Simon Pulse in June 2017. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Learn more about her books and art at http://cindypon.com. Follow her on twitter @cindypon.


Fran Wilde is the author of the Andre Norton-, and Compton Crook Award-winning and Nebula-nominated novel Updraft (Tor 2015), its sequel,Cloudbound, publishing from Tor in September 2016, and the novella The Jewel and Her Lapidary (Tor.com Publishing). Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Nature. She writes for publications including The Washington Post, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, iO9.com, and GeekMom.com. You can find her on twitter @fran_wilde, Facebook @franwildewrites and at franwilde.net.

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