Today, Serial Box kicks off Season 3 of Tremontaine, a wildly lush, queer, gorgeous fantasy told in a serialized format through their app. I’m a fan of the work and especially the writers who’ve come through the series like Malinda Lo and Tessa Gratton. So when Serial Box reached out to us about doing something for the launch of season 3, we absolutely jumped at the chance!
We’re thrilled to have Tessa Gratton here with us today to talk about writing for Serial Box and writing queer characters, especially!
How did you get involved in Serial Box?
I met Ellen Kushner, the creator of the Riverside series, in the fall of 2014 at the Louisiana Book Festival, and we hit it off immediately—it helped, I think, that I was a huge fan of Swordspoint and nearly melted when I realized I was talking to her. We kept in touch through social media, and in December 2015 she emailed me out of the blue to ask if she could call me to discuss something mysterious. I obviously said yes, and we talked about my career and my writing, and then she just asked me right on the phone if I wanted to join Tremontaine season 2. It would require I join the writing team in NYC in just over a month for the Story Summit. I leapt at the chance. It felt very once-in-a-lifetime, not only because I’d be working with someone I admired on a series I’d love since I was about 14 years old, but because of how exciting I found (and continue to find) Serial Box Publishing in general.
What’s been the hardest about working on a story with other people?
Oh, I am not great at group work. I knew it would be a challenge—and I remember telling Ellen as much on that very first phone call. She didn’t believe me! I’d had a successful group fiction blog for 3 years (merryfates.com) and collaborated on two books about writing for teens. But I really, truly, have never liked relying on other people to create stories. I feel very wild when I’m drafting, and chaotic, and introducing other people’s ideas throws me even more. So I knew going in I was going to have to be brave and find the right kind of structure to allow myself creative space but also flexibility. Two things really worked in my favor: 1) my co-writers are all smart, talented, and don’t mind arguing with me, and 2) Tremontaine is based on an already living series, so I wasn’t bringing my own, intensely personal creation or story to be touched by other people. I was the dabbler, I was the one approaching another wild animal in order to try and get along.
I was sick to my stomach with nerves at the first story summit, because I wanted everybody to like me, to think I was smart and creative, and also I wanted to find a way to put my own mark on the series. It was a stressful balance, but it also seemed like what I wanted was what everybody wanted: to create something awesome and come out the other side friends.
Were you intimidated to come into something in its second season?
I joined for season 2, so this season 3 is my second full year working on Tremontaine. But as I indicated in the previous question, I was extremely intimidated. I was sleeping on the sofa in SFF legends Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman’s NYC apartment in order to create backstories for characters I’d loved and hated for twenty years. That was my life! I had a lot to live up to, regarding the cult classic status of Swordspoint and my own expectations for myself.
How does this differ from what you normally write?
Oooof, besides the obvious things, like solo work verses collaboration, the serial aspect and incredibly speedy editorial and publishing schedule, there are creative things. I have never written something without magic in some form, so although technically the Riverside series is fantasy, it feels more like alternate historical to me. Everybody in the stories is queer and it’s built into the world so there’s no real structural homophobia (though as we expand the world to other nations and continents we’re playing with different forms of structural oppression based on gender and sexuality, as well as class). All my novels so far have been analogs for our world in some way that include most of our Western systemic oppressions, so it’s very freeing to not worry about homophobia.
Do you think it makes a difference being a queer author writing queer characters?
I do! It always makes a difference to write about a marginalization from the experience of that marginalization—even though queer folk aren’t marginalized in Tremontaine (for the most part—like I mentioned, we’re bringing in some complicating factors including the Chartil characters, who come from a nation that is homophobic, and introducing genderfluid characters). The most intense way it makes a difference to me is that there are things I write about that I feel so deeply, because I’ve experienced it, because I remember what that epiphany or that heartbreak feels like exactly. There’s a moment in season 3 when our Chartil character is reflecting on how when he was in Chartil he never was allowed to be open about his lover, but in Riverside he could have been. It’s too late for them, so even though it’s a wondrous realization, it’s also bittersweet. And it’s such a small moment, just a couple of lines, but I barely could write them without being overwhelmed because I remember the first time I was in a space where I wasn’t afraid at all just to hold my lover’s hand. That’s the sort of moment I can write in Tremontaine and it feels cathartic to me as a queer writer.
But along with that catharsis comes a particular vulnerability that I only associate with writing about a marginalization from that marginalization. You know the danger and hope, and you know the truth of that moment, and it can be terrifying to put that on a page in bald, plain words. It’s nice to be on a team when you hit a moment like that.
What’s been your favorite part about writing Tremontaine?
Those moments when everything comes together. I love this part of working alone, too, when you’ve been holding a story in your head for a long time, picking at it, reworking, trying to find the right expression… and then boom, it comes together at a point, and you see the entire story spool out in front of you, behind you, in every spiraling direction the story has gone to and come from. When that happens in a group it’s even better, because it’s harder when the pieces are coming from different imaginations. You can’t touch other people’s vision, no matter how clearly you discuss it together. So when one of the other writers’ vision aligns perfectly with mine, or when all of us slam together and have that yes yes yes moment, it’s shockingly satisfying.
Who’s been your favorite character to write?
Oh, this is hard! Of the characters present when I joined, I think Rafe—he’s so melodramatic and makes bad choices, but from this place of genuinely wanting to make the world better. I see my younger self in him to an almost embarrassing level. When I was in grad school I was impossible to shut up, and I’d argue anything for hours if I believed in it; anytime, anywhere. I was determined to change the world, and be wildly in love, and I also was not good at diplomacy. I enjoy writing Rafe’s thought process, his trying to reign himself in, but also when he lets himself get flirtatious or just resort to ridiculous, flowery language.
But this season I’ve also really gotten invested in Reza, our Chartil ambassador. I sort of took over Chartil and Reza in season 2—we needed somebody to be point on the world building and the Reza/Vincent backstory, and I was happy to do it (Vincent was one of my favorite characcters in Swordspoint). So with Reza I have a close, possessive understanding of who he is and what he needs as a characters. Luckily, everybody else is really into him, too, and all the writers bring unique insight into him. I’ve loved how Karen Lord has worked to draw out the nuance of Reza’s relationship with sword-fighting, and with the character of Esha in particular, and Joel Derfner gives such great dialogue when Reza and Rafe are together, especially regarding their education and philosophies. Reza wouldn’t be the character he is without all the writers.
We’re so excited for Tremontaine, and you can check out Season 3 here!