The Magic of Wine

Today, we welcome Laura Anne Gilman, whose Retrievers series from Luna utterly captivated Jeanne and me. Laura Anne’s celebrating the release of her first hardcover fantasy, Flesh and Fire, from Pocket Books. Welcome to the Lair, Laura Anne!

Thanks for having me! Hrmmm, that’s a nice sofa. Mind if I take that back to my own burrow? Someone spilled tequila on ours during the last party….

You can try to take it, but the gladiators may object. They’re fond of it. You have experience on both sides of the editor’s desk. Can you tell us a little about your background?

Summing up fifteen years in a paragraph or less… I started in publishing right out of college – worked as the assistant to Neil Nyren, publisher/editor-in-chief at Putnam. My love was always with genre, though, and when a friend told me that there was an opening at Berkley, the mass market arm of Putnam Berkley, working for the science fiction imprint… with Neil’s blessing, I jumped at it. Worked my way up to editor, and then about seven years later I was offered the job of executive editor at NAL, heading up the Roc science fiction/fantasy/horror imprint. I did that for another six+ years.

I love editing, and I got to work with some wonderful writers, and had the joy of seeing many of them go on to very successful, long-term (and NYT best-selling!) careers. Eventually, though, trying to balance an increasingly corporate day job with my own writing… I had to choose, and the writing won.

Having been an editor at major NYC houses gave me a very pragmatic, practical view of the industry – I know what is possible, what isn’t possible, and when I should just throw my hands up in the air and say “oy.” My agent, however, will be the first to tell everyone that this makes me no less neurotic than any other writer. *grin*

Flesh and Fire is the first book in a trilogy, The Vineart War, with a magic system based around wine. What inspired you to create this world?

Oh, that’s one of those “you’re not going to believe this” stories. I’m a foodie and a wine nerd. So is my agent, Jennifer Jackson of the Don Maass Agency. We were on the phone one day talking about a food expo we wanted to go to that weekend, but finally decided the ticket price was too high. “It needs to be a work deduction, somehow,” I said – a common plaint among writers, who are used to thinking of everything as somehow business-related, because almost everything is inspiration, one way or another). “So,” Jennifer says, “write me a food or wine based fantasy.” And she meant it as a joke, but when we ended the conversation ad I went back to sit at the computer – working on one of the Retriever books… something clicked. And I grabbed my pad and pen and started jotting notes, and the next day I e-mailed her to say “I know you were kidding, but…”

Winemaking has always fascinated me, from my very first trip to the California wine country region back in the early 90’s. The idea of a winemaker as magician… it was completely natural. And the fact that wine is both an intoxicant and a shared social event [we generally drink it with meals, not sitting alone in the dark] made it an interesting thing to base a civilization on.

It seemed as though everything—my love of epic fantasy, my interest and experiences with wine, the things I wanted to say, story-wise, at that moment… all came together in what I referred to as ‘the project that ate my brain.”

I had the pleasure of hearing you read at Dragon*Con and noticed that you have several point of view characters. Who are they?

The Vineart War trilogy is the story of an entire culture in flux, so I decided to go with a 3rd person limited narrative in order to showcase that change. Mainly, we follow Jerzy (pronounced Yehr-zee), who is the pivotal character around whom the action moves. He’s a student of the Vineart Malech, a former slave being trained to use magic – but he’s also a teenager, trying to figure out his place in a world that’s changing even as he discovers it.

Master Vineart Malech, Jerzy’s owner/teacher, has the counterpoint in this book – age and experience to Jerzy’s raw fascination and turmoil. We’ll also meet Kainam, a young man dealing with terrible losses, Ao and Mahault, Jerzy’s companions along the way, and of course, The Guardian. You’ll have to read the book to find out about the Guardian.

You blog about wine on your LiveJournal page, and it’s clear you know a lot about it. For those interested in branching out beyond chardonnay, white zinfandel, and merlot, what do you recommend?

I used to work at a wine store, and the first thing I’d tell everyone is that the best wine is the wine that you like the best. Too many people are intimidated by all the Big Names and magazines saying what’s good and what’s hot…ratings and reviews should only be a guide, not a command.

There are so many different grapes, and different styles, it could take a lifetime to taste them all. Finding a good local wine store, one with trained staff, is a good short-cut. Tastings are a good way to dip your toe in, but really, in order to learn a wine, you need to sit there with a glass and consider it. Good wine rewards thought.

For someone who prefers white wine, I am a big fan of Sauvignon Blanc, especially from New Zealand, and German Rieslings (I tend toward the dryer “Kabinett” or Trocken, but they have a range from dry to sweet)

On the reds… oh, the choices are so many I’d take up the entire blog with my answers. Pinot Noir, if you want something smooth and sexy and not too heavy. Zinfandel for big mouth-filling spice (Zinfandel is a red grape, yes. ‘white’ Zinfandel is just…wrong!) Tannat or Shiraz, for something that was made to be drunk with red meat…. Okay, there’s a start.

Can we have a peek inside Flesh and Fire?

“For the next two weeks the mustus will wait in these giant vats, stirred twice daily to ensure a flow from top to bottom, forcing the flesh and juice to mingle. That will be your task, to attune yourself to the feel of each vat, to learn its temperament, and what it would be best suited for.” It was a deceptively simple step, for such important results, and a Vineart needed to know every one of them the way he knew his own heartbeat.

Jerzy’s eyes flicked to the vats again, clearly measuring them against his own height, and just as clearly remembering the fate of the slave killed for overturning the vat. Good. It would keep him alert and careful.

“You will use those rakes,” and Malech pointed to the four long instruments racked along the wall behind them. “Twice a day. And yes, there will be more vats added as the rest of the yields are brought in. You’ll wish you were back in the field by the time you’re done.”

The look the boy gave him suggested that he highly doubted that, and Malech almost laughed. He, for one, was thankful to have someone else to pass this chore along to. Not only would it free his time for more advanced work, but his arms would ache considerably less this year. A few weeks of this and Detta’s cooking, and the boy would bulk up to better match his height and stop looking quite so fragile.

“When it is ready, we will transfer it to smaller barrels, and from there the final transformation.” Some of it would be bottled immediately as vin ordinaire, sold to those with coin who desired the intoxication of near-magic, without the risks—or costs—of spellwine. Only then would the final, most important touches be put on each spellwine, refining and finishing each for specific results.

“But that will not be for at least a month, and there is much you must learn in the meantime.”

“More magic?” Jerzy asked hopefully.

Malech laughed, if a trifle ruefully. “Nothing so simple, I fear. You, boy, must be civilized.”

© Laura Anne Gilman, 2009

Also, you can go to the Pocket website and read a larger excerpt

As you know, Jeanne and I love the Retrievers with their mix of action and romance. Don’t you have a new book coming out this Spring that’s set in that universe?

Ahhh, Bonnie and the PUPs. Yes – when I determined that Wren and Sergei needed to take a bit of a vacation – mainly because I wasn’t sure where they were going to go, next – Bonnie Torres, the paranormal investigator introduced early in the series, piped up and demanded her own story. She’s pushy that way. So I suggested it to my editor, who thought it would be a great idea, and in May we have the first of the Paranormal Scene Investigations books, HARD MAGIC, coming out.

The PUPS are taking modern magic a step further, using it not as an art but a science, in order to investigate crimes that involve the Cosa Nostradamus, the magical/supernatural community. It seems like an idea whose time has come…but not everyone in the Cosa agrees…

Bonnie is very different from Wren – she’s an educated, sassy 20-something with a very strict code – she tells the truth, she doesn’t hurt anyone, and she has a good time, because life’s too short to be miserable. But then she’s recruited to join PUPI (Private, Unaffiliated Paranormal Investigations), and she has to grow up in a hurry. But since this is Bonnie, she’s going to do it her way. And God help the criminal who tries to cross these PUPs…

I had a lot of fun working with Bonnie – especially when she finds the one person whom she can’t charm her way around….



Any chance we’ll see Wren and Sergei (the Retrievers, for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of diving into that world; the cover of Book 1, Staying Dead, is pictured at left) again?

I hope so! I have several proposals on my editor’s desk, so we’ll see what happens…

Have you ever been to a vineyard?

Oh yes. My first visit was in the early 1990’s, in California, but since then I’ve been to vineyards along the East Coast, in Italy, in France… I’m hoping to get to Argentina and Australia as well, someday soon. Grapes take on the characteristics of the soil they’re grown in (terroir, in French) and I find it fascinating to compare soil and taste differences. Plus, vineyards? Are amazingly pretty.

When doing research for FLESH AND FIRE, I spent ten days in Burgundy, walking and riding a bike around the countryside, visiting with winemakers and getting my hands dirty in the vineyards, and looking at a lot of the old – 14th century – equipment they still have on-hand. Fascinating stuff! [At left is one of the photos from that trip, which is, naturally, copyright Laura Anne Gilman, 2008]

What’s your favorite world in a science fiction, fantasy, or paranormal romance series, and why?

Oh… that’s almost impossible for me to answer. A lifetime of reading, and almost two decades editing… I’ve read and loved a lot of books! If you want to know my favorite genre novel, though, it’s Peter Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place. Two ghosts, one raven, one old man, and some of the loveliest, most heartbreaking prose ever. It’s proof that people who say that SF/F is somehow less worthy of respect than “literary fiction” don’t have any idea what they’re talking about.

What about you? Have you ever been to a vineyard? What’s your favorite paranormal or fantasy series world? Do you have a favorite wine? If you were going to create a magic system based on a food or beverage, what would it be?

Laura Anne is giving one commenter today a chance to appear as a character in one of her books. this is her explanation:

A Tuckerization, named for the man who first started it as a ‘gift’ to family and friends – I will take the name of the winner and work it into Book 2 of THE VINEART WAR. I’ll also use as much physical description or a personal characteristic as possible, so you can show it to your friends and family and prove the name wasn’t just a fluke.

For more about Laura Anne and her work, visit her website.

Upcoming signings:

October 17 – Mysterious Galaxy, San Diego, CA, 2-4 pm
October 25 – Clayton Books, Clayton, CA, 3-5 pm
October 28 – Haight Street Library, San Francisco, CA, 7-9 pm
November 7 – Barnes & Noble, Ledgewood, NJ, 12:00 – 4 pm

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