PEN VS. SWORD
ILANA MYER with Nancy Hightower
Ilana C. Myer
Last Song Before Night
(Tor Books, 2015)
Epic fantasy generally doesn’t conjure up images of rival poets battling for literary power and a chance to save the world from evil plagues. However, Ilana Myer’s debut novel, Last Song Before Night, might change your mind: it brings a refreshing twist to a genre most normally associated with swords and sorcery. In a world where poetry and stories have lost their ancient, magic power, an exiled woman poet known only as Lin attempts to join the male-only Poet’s Academy. As if that weren’t ambitious enough for a no-name writer, she is challenged by a mysterious visionary to rediscover the ancient magic that poets once possessed. The novel explores poetry’s complex relationship with healing and rage, devastation and desire. While a part of the fantasy and science-fiction genre, Myer is no stranger to the literary world, having written book reviews and articles for the Huffington Post, Salon, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. It is perhaps her ability to be a part of so many writing communities that allows for such a nuanced layering in her depiction of the power struggle among the court poets.
Nancy Hightower (Rail): Poetry and the spoken word are central themes of the book. Did poetry have a strong influence on your growing up? Were there any particular poems or poets you had in mind when writing the novel?
Ilana Myer: I love this question, because while Last Song Before Night is about art in general, it is mostly, for me, about writing. About how words and narratives are a power we wield—or alternately, one that ensnares us.
I was fortunate when very young to discover a tattered, yellowing paperback of verses in my parents’ attic. Tennyson and Poe, in particular, drew me in, as they would at that age—poems like “The Lady of Shalott” and “Annabel Lee,” with their romance and inherent music. That collection of poems, long since disintegrated, opened a world to me that became essential. I came of age before the Internet, so I memorized the poems I loved. Childhood fantasy books like those of Tolkien, Susan Cooper, and Lloyd Alexander all utilized verse in the service of enchantment. This seemed exactly right.
If any work of poetry can be said to have directly influenced the novel—or inspired it—it is probably Seamus Heaney’s magnificent Sweeney Astray, with its lament for a vanishing world.
Rail: The novel has several themes, one of which focuses on who is allowed into the Academy to be a professional poet and who is left out. Of course gender plays into it, as only males are eligible, but then we come to see that a woman is eventually accepted. The more subtle issues in the novel seem to center around class and education, and I wonder if you feel these themes are somewhat analogous to the debates today about the MFA and Creative Writing programs?
Myer: There’s this irony at the heart of creative life that it is absolutely—in every possible way—dependent on access to funds and education. We don’t often talk about this, or we crown certain artists as kings and queens of the field as if, like royalty, they were born into it. It was their destiny.
The reality is quite different, of course. Inner drive is necessary, but at least some of that drive must be channeled to acquiring education and opportunity if one has not been born to them. Great art comes from cultivation. And cultivation costs. I spent years living in a basement apartment with two other women to save money for travel, because I was convinced I needed that for my writing. People thought I was crazy, to live in a basement. I don’t regret it for a moment.
That is the idea behind characters like Darien and Marlen, the greatest poets of their year, who are also beneficiaries of innumerable personal advantages. The students around them are jealous, and of course that is petty—but they are not exactly wrong, either. These advantages matter. The question then becomes: how much of their art is actually artifice, made more attractive by the sparkle and allure of these privileged, handsome men? And what happens, later on, when their power is stripped away?
Rail: I noticed that there is also a profound sense of loss over the magic that poetry used to have in this world. Much like in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, that kind of magic found in poetry and song has also been diminished in your world. Did you consciously create that as a theme, and if so, did any cultural, academic, or political trends inspire you?
Myer: Last Song Before Night is, in a way, the reverse of Tolkien. Here, the enchantments are already gone, and the task is to restore them, by contrast to Tolkien’s Middle-earth, where the magic vanishes at the end.
There is no doubt that I thought of Tolkien, who is important to literature in often un-articulated ways. (Ursula Le Guin’s essay collection, The Language of the Night, contains some indispensable defenses of Tolkien.) But I was also thinking of something much more personal. When Last Song opens, poets are celebrated in their culture, but largely for the wrong reasons. They are figures of glamour and sexiness, their songs devoid of the enchantments that were once their raison d’être. They caper in the limelight but lack a purpose.
Writing this book was a personal journey, and sometimes I’m amazed that, with a genesis like that, it was published at all. I wrote it to discover for myself what art means to me, since I was willing to sacrifice so much—money, sanity, social status—to produce it. To do all that so you can steal some time to sit alone in a chair and put down one word after the next—what does that mean? Why on earth go to all that hassle? The external journey of the characters is, by the end, mirrored with an interior journey of discovery. That, for me, is the heart of the novel.
Rail: Do you think that writers often struggle with having to perform in the limelight as well when trying to carve a path for themselves? Between the networking, reading, blogging, and working part-time jobs or putting their life on hold for grad school, it might be pretty easy to find oneself capering now and then.
Myer: Absolutely. I’ve written about the challenges of self-promotion for writers and the paradox it represents: we work in solitude, but are often judged by our ability to sparkle in the public eye. And social media has only escalated that pressure. But I think the core concept has always been true: it’s rarely enough to produce good work. We also have to put on the performance of being an artist. In the past it was for salons or adoring crowds; now it’s book tours, Twitter, and blogs. Some of the most successful writers are those who can build an effective persona that attracts a devoted following.
Rail: While much of the setting is centered around court life and the island that houses the Poet’s Academy, the backdrop of the masque permeates the overall atmosphere for the first half of the novel. Had you researched carnival culture in Europe to create this sense of revelry and hidden agendas?
Myer: While I’ve always been fascinated by the aesthetic and symbolism of Carnivale, I more or less hijacked it here for my own purpose. One thing I was exploring in Last Song was the way certain stories can shape or define us. The characters wear masks not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves. All of them, even the most well-intentioned, is in the dark about their true identities. Some are better people than they believe themselves to be. Others are capable of darkness they would never have before imagined.
This intertwines with the idea that while art enriches our experience of the world, it also gives us narratives that are dangerously hypnotic or reductive, that allow us to recline too much in their shadows.
Rail: Can you expand a bit more about “the dark side of art”?
Myer: Take, for example, Rianna, who is both sheltered and imprisoned in the role of romantic heroine. The benefits she accrues from it are significant—she is idealized and protected—but these evaporate when life confronts her with deadly challenges. Another consequence is that to allow oneself to be framed by such a narrative is antithetical to achieving self-knowledge. And knowledge of the self is a value in this book.
Rail: Characters like Lin, Valanir, Rianna, and even Marlen, and Marilla deal with a sense of exile—of never quite being “home.” While the genre of epic fantasy often deals with exile, this displacement often felt cultural and psychological as well.
Myer: There’s a simple answer to this, really—a character who is comfortable in their own skin and their place in the world has a more limited story potential. (This even turns out to be true of literary fiction set in suburbia!) It’s when a character’s sense of equanimity, their certainty of what the world holds, is disturbed that a story begins.
NANCY HIGHTOWER has published short fiction and poetry in journals such as storySouth, Sundog Lit, Gargoyle, A capella Zoo, and Word Riot, and her novel, Elementarí Rising (2013) received a starred review in Library Journal. In October 2015, Port Yonder Press published The Acolyte, her first collection of poetry that rediscovers myth and ritual through a surreal, feminist interpretation of biblical narratives. She reviews science fiction and fantasy for The Washington Post, and is collaborating with Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) on a book about digital fictions.