Guest Interview: Philip Reeve on Gender and Romance in Fantasy

By Laini Bostian

Librarian Laini Bostian blogs at The Made Up Librarian. Today she talks to Philip Reeve about gender and romance in fantastical fiction.  

Laini: I’m curious about is the choice to have a male or female narrator for a book and if authors writing for a high school audience (as opposed to fifth-to-eighth grade) feel that romance is essential to making a book for that age group marketable.

Philip: I’ll start with the question of male or female narrators (or main characters, I guess, since most of my books are written in third person).

To be honest, it’s not one to which I give a lot of conscious thought. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything with the intention of making a book more marketable, apart from maybe speeding up the pace a bit in some of them. I tend to just write the ideas that come to me, in the vague hope that somebody else might be interested in them.

But I think a good book needs a romance in it; I’m never completely satisfied by stories with an all-male cast, of which of course there used to be many when I was younger – war and adventure stories where women never got a look-in. And I used to read a lot of my sister’s books; Anne of Green Gables and things like that, so as a child I was perfectly happy reading about girls.

 So I’ve always tended to try and have a strong female and male character, who sort of balance each other, and then it kind of makes sense to have them fall in love. The Mortal Engines books had some quite strong girls in them, so when I did Larklight:A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space  I thought I’d turn the tables a bit.

The narrator is a young boy and he’s always complaining about his sister Myrtle, who is older, and very prim and prudish and snobby.

But to my surprise there came a point when Myrtle seized control of the narration – they get split up, so I had to put some pages from her diary in to carry her side of the story – and although she’s still prim and prudish she does have a certain ridiculous strength.

In Here Lies Arthur, I made the narrator a girl because books set in that kind of Dark Ages setting are generally about boys – there’s a British author called Rosemary Sutcliff whose work I’ve always loved, and her books are always about boys in Roman and early medieval times growing up, becoming warriors or whatever: I just thought I might be able to step out of her shadow a bit if I made my main character a girl.

But then my whole view of the Dark Ages was that this was a society
where girls weren’t really allowed to do anything, which would have been
a dull story, so she ends up being disguised as a boy, which allowed me
to play about with all sorts of gender stuff.

And of course she meets a
boy whose mother keeps him disguised as a girl to save him from being
called up to fight in the endless wars, and a strange sort of romance
springs up there!

In Scrivener’s Moon, the most recent of the Fever Crumb books, I tried something a bit different, because it seemed to me that I was always writing about teenagers falling in love and having these satisfying relationships, and that’s not something that really happens to many teenagers.

When I was a teenager I was always falling in love with some girl or other, but I never had the nerve to ask any of them out!

So I wanted to write about that sort of teenage crush, instead, which goes nowhere and is never even spoken of, but can still feel profoundly important – I still think back to my teenage years in terms of whichever unattainable girl I was in love with at the time – 1980-82 was Helen T., 1983-4 Louise C., etc.

So I wanted Fever to have a crush on someone, but since she’s rather a rational, straightforward person I couldn’t picture her being too shy to tell a boy she fancied him, so I had her fall in love with a girl instead. Which is still a taboo, even in the far future, sadly, so she keeps it entirely to herself, and my plan was that she would never speak of it, that it should just be her secret, which she carries right through the book. But I found that made the book feel kind of unfinished, in some way; it was as if there was a loose connection in there that stopped the story from lighting up.

So when I was going through the proofs for the final time I added this little moment right at the end where she does explain how she feels, or at least the other girl starts to understand – we don’t know how she feels about it, whether Fever’s feelings will be returned, it just kind of hangs there – but it seemed to finish the story. Unlike real life, stories have to have some kind of closure, I think; feelings need to lead somewhere, where in reality they often just fade away.

I generally don’t have a target age group in mind when I write. I don’t think my tastes have developed very far since I was about 13, and I just try to entertain myself.

My new book, Goblins, was aimed slightly younger, because I wanted something I could read to my son. He was only 9 when I wrote it, and I did leave out romance, because I’d noticed how much it embarrasses him if we’re watching a film or something and a love scene comes on.

I let him watch “Avatar,” despite being a bit worried that all the monsters and violence would frighten him.

He didn’t mind them at all – he loved all that stuff! – but when the hero and heroine had their very brief, chaste little kiss he hid his face and went, “Euuuurrgh!’ and I remember thinking, right, no lovey-dovey stuff in books for that age group.

So there’s a friendship at the heart of Goblins instead; a friendship between a human boy and a goblin, and it takes the place that a boy/girl romance might have had if I’d been writing for older readers.

As for the book I most felt I needed to write, I suppose that would the Mortal Engines quartet, and Here Lies Arthur.

Laini: Romance is not the only major experience teenagers have; so
why does it have to be included in books for older readers? Friendship
is a much stronger and prevalent issue I think. 

Philip: That’s true, but of course most authors are working in a tradition which tends to demand that there’s some sort of love interest in a story.

And I think most people like to get a male and a female character in, so that readers of both sexes will have someone to identify with, and perhaps that pushes us to write more about romance than friendship. Though a non-romantic friendship between a boy and girl might be interesting in a book.

I think books about friendship are more common in the children’s field, which is really where a lot of my stuff fits – there was really no such thing as YA when I started.

One thought on “Guest Interview: Philip Reeve on Gender and Romance in Fantasy

  1. Lovely interview with Philip! I enjoyed hearing the male point of view about the inclusion of romance in books. Mostly all of my writer friends are female. (My writer guy friends don't email as often. :-)) So, whenever I can learn the male point of view, I'm all ears.

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