The two-year postdoc in Text and Narrative in Byzantium at Uppsala University is over, and Annalinden Weller is leaving Sweden after two productive years that were concluded with a conference on Reception Histories of the Future in August 2017. As the title of the conference indicates, Annalinden is, in fact, not only a Byzantinist but also a prolific writer of science fiction under the pen name of Arkady Martine. The NBN has managed to catch her for a quick interview on the topic.
After a little more than two years in Uppsala you now have contracts for both a monograph and a novel – how did that happen? Was Sweden that stimulating or was it, in fact, really boring?
It turns out that fiction influences academic work and the other way around! My academic passions – looking at community formation and identity on borderlands in the Byzantine East, a topic I have been exploring in one way or another since my dissertation – easily blended with my life-long love of science fiction, and I found myself writing a space opera about empire, identity, and literature at the same time as I was working on a project about Byzantine empire, identity, and literature. I never felt like the two projects were in conflict: the ideas I encountered and the data I wrestled with in my academic work would show up, transformed or reused, in my fiction.
In terms of getting a monograph and a novel written at the same time in Sweden – well, I was really lucky to have a lot of time devoted to research as part of my postdoctoral position, plus a lot of stimulating conversation about rhetoric, narrative, identity-formation, Byzantium in general … so I had both the space to get this work done and an environment conducive to it. And in addition, I use fiction writing as a break from academic writing – and vice versa! If I’m stuck on one, working on the other for a day or even a week can feel really refreshing.
You’re a historian and a writer of fiction – how do you combine these two personas?
I write fiction under an open pen name – ‘Arkady Martine’ – so that people who are primarily interested in my fiction can find it easily, and people who are primarily interested in my work as a historian can google my legal name and find what they’re looking for, too. But despite this I feel like there’s very little difference between being a good historian and being a good writer – I am telling a story both ways. I am describing a narrative and making my audience pay attention, both ways. I simply use different tools. And because my fiction has always been inspired by my academic research, writing science fiction often feels like an extension of, or a development of, the theories I’ve worked out and the beliefs I have about societies and cultures as a historian.
Can you tell us something about the novel without giving away too much?
I got the idea for the novel from thinking about the Armenian Catholicos Petros I Getadarj, who in 1044 CE was involved with turning over the Armenian kingdom of Ani to the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachos. I kept wondering – what would it be like to be that person? The person who decided to give over sovereignty to a culturally oppressive and invasive empire, in hopes of preserving some kind of autonomy?
So at first my main character in the novel was someone who did just that. In the course of writing, though, I ended up switching protagonists – my protagonist now is the successor of the man who betrayed her country to the empire, and I’m more interested in thinking about what happens afterward…
Also there are spaceships, mind-sharing, and plot-bearing poetry contests.