Author of 6 books of fantastical fiction, H. Leighton Dickson leaped into publishing with her acclaimed Upper Kingdom trilogy, set in an alternate Imperial Asia. Given her background in zoology, it won’t surprise readers that her characters blend both human and animal traits. She’s dipped into Steampunk and soared with dragons, and written non-fiction as well.
Dragon of Ash & Stars: the Autobiography of a Night Dragon
"Stormfall is a dragon born with a coat the colour of a starry night. When a violent storm strikes his island aerie, he is carried on hurricane winds into the complicated and sometimes cruel world of men. There, his journey takes him from fisher dragon to farmer, pit-fighting dragon to warrior, each step leading him closer to a remarkable destiny."
What was the first complete story you remember ever writing? How much of it do you remember? Does it have anything in common with what you write nowadays?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. The first was a short chapter book I wrote in Grade 2 about a hamster who ‘accidentally’ goes to space and ends up saving a space station. It was read aloud by the principal over the PA system at school! (Naturally, I did the illustrations.) More seriously, when I was 13, I wrote a novel that was a knock off of Call of the Wild, and I actually got an offer of publication. My parents thought I was too young so we declined. There’s definitely a recurring theme of zoology and science running through my books.
You live on the Canadian Shield, a land of granite outcrops, dense forests, and quantities of wild creatures. Yet you set your stories in lands and cultures far away from your own experience. Why there? Why then?
I was penciling for DC Comics when I came up with the idea. The title was set - ‘To Journey in the Year of the Tiger’ right when I started the pencils, so it just couldn’t be a Tolkein/Lewis European high fantasy trope. It had to be different and with that title, it had to be Asian. The land and geography was oddly similar between Canadian Shield and the Himalayas – cold, mountainous and harsh. I could easily put myself there. It was ‘alien’ yet familiar at the same time.
The Upper Kingdom is populated by sentient felines whose culture blends elements of several Asian cultures. The characters’ personal styles are complex and often beautiful. What took you in this direction?
As I said, I’ve had this concept rattling around in my head for many, many years, so the characters have lived with me for many, many years as well. I know them intimately and have been able to add layer upon layer to their stories. And the polarized culture has always fascinated me – the beauty, the castes, the warfare, the elegance. So different from ours but maybe not so different – that’s the allure for me. Finding the commonalities in seeming opposites. And while the characters aren’t entirely human, they are very human in their thoughts, their motivations, their aspirations and their responses. I think everyone finds something about themselves in each of the characters. Race, culture and even species don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
Your new book centers not on cats but on dragons. Or a dragon, being The Autobiography of a Night Dragon. Dragons and cats are often portrayed as similar in style and attitude. Is there a continuity of your fascination with large cats in the character of Stormfall, or does he soar above such earthbound creatures?
Ooh, good question. I studied Zoology in the University of Guelph, and then worked in the Edinburgh Zoological Gardens, specializing in the predators physiology and psychology. I ‘get’ the predators – always have – so if you’re a fantasy writer, what is the biggest, baddest predator you can imagine? Naturally, a dragon! But is he bad? I wanted to portray a zoologically accurate creature. Stormfall is a noble killer but that’s the way life has made him. Nature vs nuture is a very basic premise and I wanted to explore that in a big way. In a big, bold, fire-breathing way…
What’s next for H. Leighton Dickson?
I’ve just signed with Podium Publishing (audiobooks) for DRAGON OF ASH & STARS, and they expect it to be released in Jan. 2017. And for new books? Sequels for the next 6 months! SNOW IN THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON by Christmas (I hope) and COLD STONE & IY 2: The Crown Prince in the spring. After that, another steampunk detective series, LOCKE & KEYES, and a steampunk midgrade series called THE STEAM TEAM. I have a very full slate, as you can see…
DRAGON OF ASH & STARS
TO JOURNEY IN THE YEAR OF THE TIGER
TO WALK IN THE WAY OF LIONS
SONGS IN THE YEAR OF THE CAT
SWALLOWTAIL & SWORD
COLD STONE & IVY: The Ghost Club