An Interview with Jenn Lyons

Coming off the massive (yes, literally) A Chorus of Dragons series, Jenn Lyons is back with the standalone dragon fantasy The Sky on Fire. She plays with expectations and tropes, giving us a rich and detailed world in which dragons are not creatures softened and turned loyal. She was twice-nominated for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer and is a geek through and through, having a background in graphic design and video games. Her new book The Sky on Fire is great fun to read – and it was great to catch up with Jenn ahead of publication and talk dragons, mature characters and writing.

Cover of The Sky on Fire[GdM] Can you give our readers an elevator pitch for The Sky on Fire, please?

[JL] It’s Dragonriders of Pern meets Ocean’s 11. Probably the easiest elevator pitch I’ve ever done.

[GdM] Dragons are having a huge moment. What’s your impression of the trend and where does your fascination with dragons stem from?

[JL] My obsession with dragons probably stems from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which I saw as a small child. I was very taken with Maleficent, and it’s a feeling that’s never gone away. I’ve been obsessed with dragons for my entire life. So for me, this is less of a ‘moment’ than ‘just normal.’ Dragons have always been part of fantasy, though, so I don’t really see the current popularity as anything special, except that it’s being labeled as such.

[GdM] One of the things that has really made The Sky on Fire stand out is how dragons are not tools for human power struggles. The dragons are those who lead society. Can you talk a bit more about your ideas behind this?

[JL] – When I sat down to write this book, I was thinking quite a lot about its inspiration, of which the Ann MacCaffery books were a large part, and themes of dragonrider books in general. And one of the things that struck me is how in most books where dragons have riders (as opposed to the ones who go terrorizing the countryside until one sacrifices a virgin to them) the dragons are so loyal. So incredibly loyal and subservient. Often, they’re downright dog-like in their loyalty, even if they’re intelligent. So, a thought occurred to me: what if that wasn’t true? In most depictions, dragons are more powerful than their riders by significant degrees, so what would happen if the dragons knew that? It would turn the dynamic on its head, and I found that appealed to me a great deal.

[GdM] One last dragon question, then I’ll pester you with a new topic, I promise. I wanted to know more about the naming conventions of dragons. There’s such a range, from Overbite to Neveranimas. Is there a logic to it?

[JL] I created a language for the dragons, although it is, by nature of being something that humans don’t have the vocal capacity to pronounce, incomplete. In the case of Overbite, well, she’s not a dragon. She is an animal, just as T-Rex would be an animal, and her name as such was given by the person who raised her—Anahrod. The other names are a combination of the conlang and me sounding out syllables until I had something that I felt sounded sufficiently draconic.

[GdM] You introduce the reader to the concept of status/identity rings that show others who they are – and with them a queer-norm society. I found these fascinating – can you tell us a bit more about them and their use?

[JL] I will admit that the garden rings partly from my own frustration with dating. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone just wore a little sign with their preferences? That way you’d know not to start flirting with someone who wasn’t interested, who was, or perhaps more significantly, be able to put a giant ‘keep away’ sign on oneself, no explanation required. As the ring concept developed, I was surprised to realize that I had, quite without meaning to, created a society that wasn’t heteronormative. That’s just another ring, after all.

Author photo of Jenn Lyons, credit Mike Lyons

(c) Mike Lyons

[GdM] I love a good heist, and so do these characters – and I expect you too. I’d love to hear about your ideas for the ideal heist you’d like to commit!

[JL] When I was a teenager, I used to concoct these rather elaborate fantasies about being a jewel thief. The problem, of course, is that the fantasy is very sexy, but the reality very different…

…which is not an admission. I’ve never committed a heist, just done a lot of research. In any event, the best heist…would probably need to have been committed forty years ago. They’ve gotten a lot harder to pull off in the 21st century. 

[GdM] I found Anahrod to be a great leading character – she’s complex, she’s villainized, she’s going on middle-aged. What drew you to write The Sky on Fire about her specifically?

[JL] I must protest: she’s not really going on middle-aged, is she? I mean, she was fifteen when everything went to hell and it’s seventeen years later, so you do the math. (Editor’s note: to my great shame I did not do the math!) It is interesting to me to see that comparison used, however, because I think it says quite a lot about how fantasy is fixated on youth. It’s like the way Hollywood likes to cast actresses as mothers to stars that are the same age (or older) or the way everyone assumes that a fantasy book written by a woman must by YA.

To answer the actual question, though, I didn’t know I wanted to write about Anahrod specifically. She developed with the plot. If I was going to create a story about a rejected dragonrider, and as the background evolved, I had to ask myself what her experiences would’ve done to her. What I ended up with was this delightfully bitter and surly woman who’d had her dreams shattered and had been betrayed by everyone she loved. And now, years later, was finally being forced to confront her ghosts…and maybe get a little revenge, as a treat.

[GdM] That feeds into my next question: what do you see as the appeal of writing about mature characters, of stepping away from the naïve young protagonist we see so often?

[JL] I think it’s lovely to be able to write a main character who isn’t the ingenue or the chosen one. Something who has some dirt (and blood) under their nails, knows what they like, has seen things. We need more adults in fantasy who exist to be something other than the villain or the mentor who dies at the end of Act 1.

[GdM] You’ve come to The Sky on Fire after completing a massive epic fantasy series. What’s been your experience writing in a completely new setting? And what have you perhaps learned from your first series?

[JL] What can I say? It was a delight. You have to understand: I adore worldbuilding. So the chance to develop a new world from the ground up (or the solar system up, in this case) was a real treat. Obviously, the worldbuilding on The Sky on Fire couldn’t be as complete as what I did for A Chorus of Dragons, but then again, I didn’t have thirty years this time.

I think probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I have an extraordinarily high tolerance for complexity, and so what is obvious to me is not obvious to virtually anyone else. I don’t have any regrets about how A Chorus of Dragons turned out, but if I had to do it again, I would have been a little more ruthless in eliminating some of the extraneous details that didn’t necessarily serve to further the main plot. I’ve learned to have a better appreciation for the negative spaces in my work.

[GdM] Romantasy is all the rage right now—but The Sky on Fire refuses to fit into the trend. Where do you see its role in the genre and how do you feel as an author who writes differently?

[JL] It’s like dragons: I think the only thing that’s new about romantasy is the label (and I know Jacqueline Carey has my back on this one) since romance has always been a commonly seen element of the fantasy genre. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have the label if it makes it easier for readers to find the sorts of books they want. Certainly ‘Romance’ as a category is so large that it can be extremely intimidating for people trying to just dip in a toe, so from that point of view, being able to tell that a given book sits on the venn diagram overlap between the two genres is helpful. I just didn’t write The Sky on Fire to be that (although it has plenty of romance in it).

[GdM] I’d love to end with a fun question. Given it’s Pride Month and The Sky on Fire is a queer book, do you have any queer book recommendations for our readers?

[JL] John Wiswell’s Someone to Build a Nest In is delightful and highly recommended. As is Alexandra Rowland’s Running Close to the Wind (which I think comes out on June 11th). Freya Marske also has a book coming out this Fall called Swordcrossed—that one probably qualifies solidly as romantasy, and it’s great.

Read The Sky on Fire by Jenn Lyons

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Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne can usually be found with her nose in a book or two. Most of her life revolves around words, be that reading, writing, or editing. You can find more of her ramblings over on www.libridraconis.com, where she also reviews YA books and more lighthearted Fantasy and Science Fiction, as @FLSchwizer on Twitter, and @libri_draconis on Instagram. If you're curious about what she is currently reading, check out www.goodreads.com/libridraconis.

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