I was lucky enough to be on a panel with the fabulous Jeannette Ng at FantasyCon 2017, where her debut novel Under the Pendulum Sun had its launch. The panel involved a kind of crowd-sourced Dungeons and Dragons that was both insane and incredibly fun. I’m not sure we will ever be able to live up to the awesomeness of that panel at subsequent conventions, but we will try.
After that epic introduction, I knew I wanted to impose upon my new acquaintance and get her onto the BtGS blog. Thankfully, Jeannette is as kind as she is hilarious at DnD improv.
You are clearly a fan of gothic literature, what is it that you love about the genre?
In all honesty, I’m an absolute wuss when it comes to full-blown gore-and-guts horror. I hide behind the sofa for episodes of Doctor Who. But despite all that, I love all aspect of horror that explores messy, repressed desires, ingrained prejudices and the ugly side of society. The thematic underpinnings of horror fascinate me, but the actually scary, stabby bits put me off. Gothic is for me, a chance to indulge in the creeping dread and quiet unease side of horror. The dark secrets and shocking revelations, but not as obliged to provide any guts-and-gore.
Within gothic fiction, the woman is often either the damsel in distress or the evil villain. In Under the Pendulum Sun, your protagonist is neither one or the other. Did you deliberately set out to make her a ‘stronger’ female character than might be considered traditional in the genre?
PENDULUM SUN’s immediate points of reference within the gothic tradition are JANE EYRE and WUTHERING HEIGHTS, both of which contain within themselves subversions of that dichotomy. Jane is the perfect angel except for all the times she was sassing her superiors and harbouring self-described blasphemous romantic love in her heart. Catherine Earnshaw is demanding and wilful and finds herself torn between incompatible desires.
It was Gilbert and Gubar who first proposed the idea of double-voiced readings of 19thC literature. The idea that underneath the conventional reading of there being this dichotomy of angel and monster, there is a literary palimpsest. One of their ideas is to read the villain as the damsel’s dark counterpart and literary projection. I can’t say I find that all entirely satisfying as literary theory goes, but in the context of all that, Cathy aims to be that synthesis. She is her own shadow and her own dark projection in PENDULUM SUN, with her own repressed desires and frustrations, bringing that purported subtext and duality of gothic female characters into the text itself.
You’ve spoken before about not being a naturally creative person. How do you go about idea generation?
I really don’t believe that I have the ability to create things ex nihilo and if I try I’ll just be subconsciously regurgitating something I’d read rather than consciously. So I just lean into that and do a lot of research. The real world is far more interesting and weird and wonderful than anything I can dream up.
I like the term having a magpie mind, just collecting interesting nuggets of information. I like to listen to a lot of videos and podcasts about science and history and philosophy. If something intrigues, I scribble it down and connect the dots later. I can’t make up things like the Byzantine Emperor being held in a debtor’s prison in Venice because of the money he owed them. His mother had pawned the crown jewels to fund the civil war, you see. And that whole incident is amazing and it is just full of little story hooks. The idea of a patriot trying to steal back the jewels, for example, could make a really cool short story.
Many of the epigraphs of PENDULUM SUN are collected from real Victorian texts and nudged to fit the world setting. It all started because I was reading a missionary manual and was struck by how incredibly othered the Chinese were in it. That passage itemising the fae as having two eyes and two ears, etc, I first encountered referring to humans. And it got me thinking, what if these missionaries were to actually meet people who aren’t people? What if they got what they seemingly desired, an opportunity to talk to actually devious inhumans?
The other thing I’m fond of doing is looking at something I love or hate, and just pull it apart. I examine of the pieces of why I like or dislike them and put it back together again. I think mashing stories up and remixing them, teasing out themes and commonalities that were always there but wasn’t always articulated fully. And then I dial it all up to eleven.[[N.B. You can read a full breakdown of Jeannette’s methodology in this blog post: HOW TO IDEA]]
What female characters in science fiction, fantasy, and horror do you love most and what is it that intrigues you?
Hands down, Lada from Kiesten White’s AND I DARKEN and NOW I RISE is my current favourite character. She is unrepentant and ruthless and just brilliant. It is incredibly cathartic to read after having encountered so many purported badass heroines be anything but when we hit the plot. And it’s not even that I object to them having change of hearts or feeling guilt or anything like that. There are many kinds of strength, after all, but Lada is an awful, brilliant, bloody person in a way that feels very unique to me.
I love scholars and fantastical academics, especially when that knowledge itself is used in the context of the plot. This goes hand in hand with my love of mysteries and revelations. Lady Trent, the dragon naturalist from Marie Brenna’s A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS is just magnificent and I adore her.
I also have a massive soft spot for fictional con artists. That too is quite a male trope in the sense that a charismatic male liar can apparently be a hero and a protagonist in the way that a female character cannot be. Imposter stories and double lives are always thrilling. Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR is excellent as is its unreliable narrator, Micah. Shallan from Brandon Sanderson’s WAY OF KINGS and WORDS OF RADIANCE comes to mind as someone who is both an academic and a con artist. I’ve often jokingly called her my Mary Sue as a result. Karen Maitland’s THE OWL KILLERS and COMPANY OF LIARS also come to mind.
As is evident in my love for Lada, I do like female anti-heroes. XiFeng from Julie C. Dao’s FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS comes to mind as a recent example I’ve been fond of.
Finally, I love ambiguous messiahs and prophets due to having played one in live roleplay games over the last few years. I have substantial frustrations about Naomi Alderman’s THE POWER but I absolutely loved Mother Eve within it.
Why should we be reading Under the Pendulum Sun?
You should read it if you are intrigued by the idea of creepy theology. If you’ve looked at the obligatory priest that lurks as a background character in every other horror story and wondered what they’re making of this whole supernatural business and how they’re squaring these new revelations with their own faith. I love mixing theology with the fantastical, and you might too.
You should read it if you like the idea of a trippy fairy-filled remix of the Victorian Gothic. It’s been described as Jane Eyre on LSD, but in a good way.
Jeannette Ng was born in Hong Kong and now lives in Durham. She designs and plays live roleplaying games, braids hair, makes costumes and writes speculative fiction. Her debut novel about missionaries in fairyland, Under The Pendulum Sun, was published in October 2017.