Beauty and Nightmares on Aliens Worlds: Interviewing C. S. Friedman
We have an ongoing series at Black Gate on the topic of “Beauty in Weird Fiction” where we corner an author and query them about their muses and methods to make ‘repulsive’ things ‘attractive to readers.’ Previous subjects have included Darrell Schweitzer, Anna Smith Spark, Carol Berg, Stephen Leigh, Jason Ray Carney, and John C. Hocking (see the full list at the end of this post).
Inspired by the release of Nightborn: Coldfire Rising (July 2023, see Black Gate’s review for more information), we are delighted to interview C.S. Freidman! Since the late 1990’s she has established herself as a master of dark fantasy and science fiction, being a John W. Campbell award finalist and author of the highly acclaimed Coldfire trilogy and This Alien Shore (New York Times Notable Book of the Year 1998).
Let’s learn about C. S. Friedman’s muses & fears, her experience with art, and tease a future TV series!
SEL: Tell us about your fascination with Human vs Alien Colonization, and the struggle over shared souls/minds/psyches. That foundation resonates across This Alien Shore, The Madness Season (the Tyr’s gestalt-mind), the Coldfire series (via the ethereal fae), and the Magister Trilogy (consumable souls!).
CSF: Science fiction and fantasy offer an opportunity for us to step outside of our normal human perspective, questioning things we normally take for granted. What better vehicle could there be for this than to have humans confront a non-human being or force? Or to have two souls battle over a single identity? Such stories invite us to question what ‘identity’ really means, and whether the assumptions we make about the world are rooted in some kind of universal reality, or are simply a human construct.
One of my favorite creations is the first story I decided to publish, which wound up being chapter 11 in my first book, In Conquest Born. Stranded on an alien world, a human telepath is forced to seek mental communion with an alien race. In doing so, she must surrender her human identity, because the manner in which these aliens perceive the world is not something a human psyche can comprehend. One must see reality through their eyes to understand them. That is a repeated theme in my work.
One of my favorite stories that someone else wrote was published many years ago in Asimov’s SF magazine. It was Nancy Kress’s “A Delicate Shade of Kipley.” It takes place on a world where constant fog makes everything appear gray, so that the entire world is drained of color. The humans who landed there desperately hunger for color and treasure the few colorful pictures of Earth that they have managed to salvage. To their child who was born there, however, the grey world has its own kind of beauty, and she relishes fine gradations of gray as her parents once relished the brilliant colors of a rainbow. (“A Delicate Shade of Kipley” can be found in Isaac Asimov: Science Fiction Masterpieces)
Jeszika Le Vye’s cover for Nightborn prominently features the fae even more so than the striking trilogy covers by Whelan (more on those below); we learn in the novella Dominion (bundled with Nightborn) that the fae has colors (to those blessed to see them). The alien energy seems to be both muse and nightmare, and we’d love to learn your take on them. Do you envision your own nightmares and muses this way?
No, my nightmares are much more mundane. The most terrifying ones involve the American Health Care system 😊.
The fae is described: Earth-fae is a luminescent blue, dark fae the intense purplish glow of a UV lamp, solar fae gold. One of the opening scenes in Jaggonath takes place when an earthquake hits, and the wards on buildings pulse with visible blue power. The fae is beautiful and energizing and terrifying, all at once.
I was thrilled to find some pictures of bioluminescent ocean waves while I was working on Nightborn. No doubt my cry of “Oh my God, it’s the fae!” could be heard for miles. The eerie beauty of rippling blue light as it ebbed and flowed with the waves was mesmerizing, and that will be my image of it forever, now that I have found those videos (here’s a link to sample them).
What scares you? Is it beautiful?
“I was afraid that if I became a happier person I would not be able to write dark fiction” — C.S. Friedman
What scares me most is the darkness in my own soul, the capacity for depression that can cause me to sabotage my own life and undermine my own spirit. The only thing positive I will say about it is that I drew upon my experience with depression in my early books when I depicted psychological darkness. In fact, I recall when I was first diagnosed and offered anti-depressants, I was afraid that if I became a happier person I would not be able to write dark fiction. And it is harder now, to be sure.
There is a song by the band Renaissance, Black Flame. It tells the story of someone struggling against inner darkness, in powerfully evocative poetry. For me it has always reflected that terrible inner seduction, the darkness that can drive a human soul to lose sight of its path, and ultimately destroy itself. Here is the song on Youtube, and here are the lyrics.
Here is another piece they did in which psychological darkness becomes hauntingly beautiful. (A radio contest declared it “the most depressing song ever.”). I believe the original music is by Bach.
There is a dark beauty in such songs, and I hope in my writing.
Do you detect beauty in art/fiction that appears to be repulsive (weird/ horror)? Any advice for writers on how to strike the right balance to keep readers engaged?
What is beauty? Is it something that is “pretty?” or a deeper, more visceral quality? Classically beautiful things transfix us, but we will also stop at the site of a road accident, mesmerized by its horror. Against our will, we want to see it.
Gerald Tarrant is the essence of human beauty, described as nearly angelic in appearance. When he walks through a room, everyone notices him, and women are magnetically drawn to him. But it is the horror of that appearance being wedded to pure evil that makes us want to read about him — that makes it impossible for us to look away. It is when the nature of something horrific fascinates us that we cannot turn our eyes away, no matter how much we want to.
“… it is the horror of that appearance being wedded to pure evil that makes us want to read about [Tarrant].” – C. S. Friedman
Fashion Muse: You were formerly trained in Costume Design [link]), creating for professional theater, PBS, and all sorts of productions; you even were a lecturer on the topic for years. Do you still dabble in fashion arts, and how does that influence your prose and/or character design?
Not really. I was in an abusive job situation for 13 years and I burned out pretty badly. Knowledge of aesthetic principles and fashion history inform my descriptions, of course, but I have left that field behind in favor of writing and teaching. Sometimes I miss it, but what I miss is the pleasure I originally took in it, not what it became. There are too many bad memories now. I sew when I have to, not for pleasure.
What other muses inspire you (i.e., for your bead jewelry [link]), and does that creativity spill over to writing?
I took up glasswork because it was different from my writing, using different parts of the brain, explorations of color and texture rather than language. It speaks to a different side of my creativity, which is why I enjoy it.
Do you identify with your protagonists?
No, and sometimes I feel like I am unique among writers in not having a personal connection to my characters. I have been on writing panels where writers talk about how they talk to their characters, or sense what their characters want to do…I just write them. They are my creations. I relate to them as I would relate to clay I was molding into a sculpture, or glass I was wrapping around a mandrel. I am deeply invested in them as creations, but not as people.
Let’s talk about covers & how artists depict your characters via illustrations. Gerald Tarrant was famously adapted in the Michael Whelan cover for the Coldfire trilogy) and Kamala from the Magister Series depicted by the renowned John Jude Palencar. Traditionally, authors have no say in the cover art design, but I’m curious about your experience. Did the costume designer in you have any influence or comment on those?
I have been permitted to offer input into my covers, to varying degrees. This is something that evolved over time. I studied graphic art in college, and of course I spent years as a theatrical designer, so I have enough understanding of graphic design to offer meaningful input, and I have always understood that the purpose of a cover is to help market the book. Over time, my editor learned that I could offer meaningful suggestions in that context, so I have been allowed to do so.
Any current or future endeavors we can pitch? More Coldfire? In August 2022, Deadline reported The Coldfire Trilogy may become a TV series; also according to Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, you have plans for another Coldfire novella will be focused on Gerald Tarrant bringing faith to his world, even as darkness begins to take root within his own soul.
The most exciting news right now is my novel Nightborn, which is coming out in July. It tells the story of the founding of Erna and mankind’s discovery of the fae, and is one of the most intense things I have ever written. That volume will also include Dominion, a novella dealing with Tarrant’s transformation from a simple creature of the night into the Hunter. Both are compelling works that I know Coldfire fans will enjoy, but also accessible to new readers.
And yes, we are attempting to market a TV series based on Coldfire, so fingers are crossed on that. I want to see the fae in visual media! The next novel will probably be in my Outworlds series (This Alien Shore, etc.) but I am considering shorter works in the Coldfire series. There are so many interesting time periods and events in Ernan history! I am working on a timeline that will enable me to offer many different stories, all in the context of the greater setting. It’s all very exciting, and the enthusiasm my fans have shown for all my Coldfire stories has been downright inspiring.
“And yes, we are attempting to market a TV series based on Coldfire, so fingers are crossed on that. I want to see the fae in visual media! ” – C. S. Friedman
Lots of updates are forthcoming! How do we stay in touch with the latest?
Please join me on Facebook, and/or Patreon for news, essays, project excerpts, and of course conversations with my readers.
An acknowledged master of dark fantasy and science fiction alike, C.S. Friedman is a John W. Campbell award finalist, and the author of the highly acclaimed Coldfire trilogy, This Alien Shore (New York Times Notable Book of the Year 1998), In Conquest Born, The Madness Season, The Wilding, The Magister Trilogy, and the Dreamwalker series. Friedman worked for twenty years as a professional costume designer, but retired from that career in 1996 to focus on her writing. She lives in Virginia, and can be contacted via her website, www.csfriedman.com, Facebook, or Patreon.
#Weird Beauty Interviews on Black Gate
- Darrel Schweitzer THE BEAUTY IN HORROR AND SADNESS: AN INTERVIEW WITH DARRELL SCHWEITZER 2018
- Sebastian Jones THE BEAUTY IN LIFE AND DEATH: AN INTERVIEW WITH SEBASTIAN JONES 2018
- Charles Gramlich THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE REPELLENT: AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES A. GRAMLICH 2019
- Anna Smith Spark DISGUST AND DESIRE: AN INTERVIEW WITH ANNA SMITH SPARK 2019
- Carol Berg ACCESSIBLE DARK FANTASY: AN INTERVIEW WITH CAROL BERG 2019
- Byron Leavitt GOD, DARKNESS, & WONDER: AN INTERVIEW WITH BYRON LEAVITT 2021
- Philip Emery THE AESTHETICS OF SWORD & SORCERY: AN INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP EMERY 2021
- C. Dean Andersson DEAN ANDERSSON TRIBUTE INTERVIEW AND TOUR GUIDE OF HEL: BLOODSONG AND FREEDOM! (2021 repost of 2014)
- Jason Ray Carney SUBLIME, CRUEL BEAUTY: AN INTERVIEW WITH JASON RAY CARNEY (2021)
- Stephen Leigh IMMORTAL MUSE BY STEPHEN LEIGH: REVIEW, INTERVIEW, AND PRELUDE TO A SECRET CHAPTER (2021)
- John C. Hocking BEAUTIFUL PLAGUES: AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN C. HOCKING (2022)
- Matt Stern BEAUTIFUL AND REPULSIVE BUTTERFLIES: AN INTERVIEW WITH M. STERN (2022)
- Joe Bonadonna MAKING WEIRD FICTION FUN: GRILLING DORGO THE DOWSER! 2022
- S. Friedman. Beauty and Nightmares on Aliens Worlds 2023
- interviews prior 2018 (i.e., with John R. Fultz, Janet E. Morris, Richard Lee Byers, Aliya Whitely …and many more) are on S.E. Lindberg’s website
S.E. Lindberg is a Managing Editor at Black Gate, regularly reviewing books and interviewing authors on the topic of “Beauty & Art in Weird-Fantasy Fiction.” He is also the lead moderator of the Goodreads Sword & Sorcery Group and an intern for Tales from the Magician’s Skull magazine. As for crafting stories, he has contributed six entries across Perseid Press’s Heroes in Hell and Heroika series, has an entry in Weirdbook Annual #3: Zombies He independently publishes novels under the banner Dyscrasia Fiction; short stories of Dyscrasia Fiction have appeared in Whetstone, Swords & Sorcery online magazine, Rogues In the House Podcast’s A Book of Blades, DMR’s Terra Incognita, and the 9th issue of Tales From the Magician’s Skull.
Great interview, Seth! I’m a tad jealous – I love Friedman’s work. In Conquest is one of my favorite sci-fi novels, and my favorite of all her novels. Good job, my friend. Keep on rocking!
I haven’t read Conquest yet, but devoured the Magister and Coldfire trilogies. I’m overjoyed about the new Coldfire works and honored CS Friedman fielded these questions.
Seth, thanks for a great interview of an author I really like. I consider “In Conquest Born” to be a masterpiece. I am also very fond of “The Madness Season”. I do have one question. The interview mentions that the first story Friedman decided to publish wound up as Chapter 11 of “In Conquest Born”. Was that first Friedman story ever published before or separately from “In Conquest Born”? Thanks!
Dave, I pinged CS Friedman and she responded by email:
No, it wasn’t.
Unlike most (possibly all) other writers, I never planned to be published or particularly desired it. I just wrote for my own pleasure. One freezing cold night when I lived in the Snow Belt, when the world was shrouded in snow and I was recovering from a very stressful workday, I sat down and started writing a story set on a frozen planet. I got caught up in it and just kept writing, until I realized dawn was coming. I had written thirty pages. As I reread my work and realized how powerful the story was, and how good the writing was, I thought “This is publishable quality. I could start publishing my work if I wanted.”
Over the next few days I thought about it, and decided to give it a try, so I took a summer to assemble all the stories I had set in my universe and shaping them into a novel. The rest is history 🙂
Seth and CS Friedman, thanks for answering my question. That all makes sense to me. It’s great to close the loop on this question. I’ve seen all too often stories and novels listed in ISFDB where the connection is not noted but actually present and evident with research.