Happy release day to R.B. Lemberg and their collection, Geometries of Belonging. As I mentioned in my review, the Birdverse is among the richest worlds I have ever been given the gift of visiting. There’s magic, there’s normalized queerness, there’s a variety of fantasy roles and occupations that aren’t rebel and ruler and mercenary, plus so much more.
I’m thrilled to have R.B. on the blog to chat about the origins of this secondary world fantasy, how they come up with stories and poems, plus a little bit of what they’re working on now.
Buy Link: Bookshop.org | Unabridged Books
Crafting the Birdverse
I want to hear about the origins of the Birdverse. Where did this rich world come from? How did you land on the name?
I think I was in high school when I thought it would be interesting to create a fantasy world that began with a bird deity. I was reading a lot of mythology and folklore (a perennial interest of mine), and was interested in creation myths where the world is created from an egg. The World Egg is an idea present in some Indo-European mythologies, as well as in Finnish lore, and in other traditions. I kept wondering where the egg came from, and from there I got to a Bird deity (there is no egg in Birdverse creation mythology, it is all Bird). I also vaguely remember reading, around the same time, an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin, again, I am actually not sure if it was her or not, or if I imagined the whole thing – but the interview featured a childhood story in which “in the beginning, there was Bird.” I carried these ideas around me for a long time. Birdverse itself began as an image in my mind. This was a snippet of a story, a scene, about a linguist, Ulín, who travels the landmass in search of new languages to study. In this image, she is in a wood. It is deep and lush and green; she is feeling out of place and excited. She is about to meet some new people there, and begin to study their language. I knew little about her. I knew that most scholars in this world were magical people, but she herself had no magic. She is not in any of my published stories (yet), but her story is central to Birdverse and to everything I’ve written since then.
When you approach telling a story within the Birdverse, who needs to be present first? Is the characters, the conflict, or something else entirely?
I always start with a character or characters, and a vivid image involving this character. My imagination is very visual. Often I see a kind of snapshot of something happening, and I try to figure out what it means; at that point, usually, my characters begin to tell me the story. My characters are people to me, and my process of creating a story is interactive between myself and my characters.
With the level of detail and sense of ritual and history, what kind of research did you do or inspiration did you draw from?
In my daily life I am an academic – the bulk of my research is in sociolinguistics, but I’m also very interested in folklore and cultural history. I wanted to become a scholar since I was a teen – and I’ve started out in historical linguistics. In high school I began studying medieval and ancient languages on my own, and this continued through college. Folkloristics was my PhD minor at UC Berkeley. The questions that occupy me in my academic life often translate into fiction as stories. This is not to say that I don’t need to do any additional research – often I read more as I develop a piece of writing. For example, for my stories featuring weaving magic I had to do some additional reading, even though I already knew a whole lot about folk weaving practices. But mostly, by the time I sit down to write, much of my research has already been done.
What was your favorite scene or moment to write?
I genuinely enjoy writing many scenes. In The Unbalancing, my favorite scene is towards the end – I don’t want to spoil it, but it involves Semberí, and there was something really powerful in writing that one. It felt like flying. In “Geometries of Belonging,” which remains one of the favorite things I’ve ever written, I wrote the last 7k words in one sitting, in a state of flow – my hands were falling off, I was in pain, but I could not stop until I got the words out. I don’t think I’ve ever before or since written that much in a day. In my contracted but yet unannounced new Birdverse project, a character encounters someone who gives them a gift with absolutely no strings attached, and that changes that character’s life. I loved writing that.
How do you decide on the story’s format?
Usually the format just comes to me. I let my brain do its magic without my input.
In terms of the volume of stories within the Birdverse, how different is the order in which they were published versus the order of writing?
Most of my stories were published in the order of writing. Some I had to revise repeatedly to get right. Some of my older stories, even though I felt they worked at that particular moment, did not sell and with time, I came to accept that they were simply not done, and needed to significantly change in order to work with the greater tapestry I am creating. The first story I ever wrote in Birdverse was back in 2008. It did not sell, and over the years I rewrote it a number of times, trying to figure out where I went wrong. Where I went wrong was basically everywhere – I did not yet understand the world I was creating, I did not know the characters well, I was still closeted and could not embrace the queer/trans core of Birdverse, I had no idea what the story was really about, I knew I wanted to write about very heavy themes, but I did not yet have the skill and the emotional bandwidth to carry it off. In 2021, I wrote a novella that kind of, sort of went back to that original story’s linguistic worldbuilding and did something with it. The novella is completely new, and now it does what I need it to do. That’s the unannounced new Birdverse project I mentioned above. I am so glad that first story did not sell. Which is to say, in terms of chronology, I am mostly satisfied with the publication order.
How did you decide which stories went into Geometries of Belonging?
Most of the stories made it into the collection. I excluded novellas and one old piece which needs a significant rewrite.
What are you working on now?
I am always working on a Birdverse novel, but at this very moment I am working on something completely different – a science fiction project about a person who used to be a key advisor and activist in a revolutionary movement, and has been continuously cloned since then to serve an increasingly corrupt post-revolutionary government. It’s very grim, so it’s slow going.
What books out now or coming soon are you looking forward to?
Sofia Samatar’s The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain (Tor.com, 2023). Izzy Wasserstein’s upcoming novella that is still under wraps. Anything Naseem Jamnia may write in the future (hope you check out their 2022 novella The Bruising of Qilwa). Tlotlo Tsamaase’s Womb City, which is forthcoming from Erewhon. My partner Bogi Takács will soon be shopping a novella that I personally love, and I hope to see it in print.
R.B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Ukraine, Russia, and Israel to the US. Their stories and poems have appeared in Lightspeed‘s Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny Magazine, Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, and more. R.B.’s work has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, Ignyte, Crawford, and other awards. Many of R.B.’s stories and poems are set in Birdverse, an LGBTQIA+-focused secondary world. Their Birdverse novella The Four Profound Weaves released from Tachyon Press in 2020. You can find R.B. on Twitter at @rb_lemberg, on Patreon at http://patreon.com/rblemberg, and at rblemberg.net
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