Lynne Bertrand is the author of City of the Uncommon Thief (Dutton Books, Penguin Random House, 2021). This novel for young readers takes place in a walled city of mile-high towers, quarantined from the rest of the world. Each tower is a cloistered home to a guild of craftspeople who specialize in making products of incredible artistry which are then exported outside the city in exchange for food and raw materials. There are no live animals anywhere in the city. Young people are briefly indentured as “Runners” who ply the high spaces above the towers as messengers and couriers until they are apprenticed to a guild for life, while “Foundlings” serve the city as an underclass of untouchables.
Book Page says the novel is “Not only a sprawling work of precise storytelling, but also a literary Rubik’s cube…genre-defying fiction at its finest.” Publishers Weekly calls it “a strange, fascinating adventure in a singular world.” The novel was named a Book Page Best Book of 2021, a Tor.com Reviewer’s Choice, and a 2021 Blue Ribbon from the BCCB. Lynne was the featured reader at the March Straw Dog Writers Guild Writers Night Out. She works for Signature Sounds, a live-music and festival presenter and a record label, and manages bands through Loudmouth Management. She lives with her family in Williamsburg.
SDWG: Could you say a little about your writing process? You noted in our first talk that it simply consists of “making something and then making something better.” Can you elaborate a little about how and when that happens? This seems really important given that over time you’ve created (and lived in, if you will) an entire world for this novel, and such a world needs very careful and intricate exposition in order to be recreated for the reader.
LB: First of all thank you, Mark and SDWG, for these extraordinary questions, which show such attention to detail and theme. Each one meant a great deal to me, and kept me thinking for a long while.
In going from a blank page to a full page, I can work for two or three hours before I fall asleep with my head on the desk from the sheer exhaustion of invention. In going from a full page to a finished one—adding humor, embellishing with conversation or details, correcting facts, and twisting the plot—I can usually write for many hours because I’m the second writer in the process. The other writer, that first one, did the heavy lifting. Night is my office: infinite and full of possibility. No one (except my beloved bands) calls me at 1 am. No meetings. Whatever chores the day required, the night doesn’t care. I can write forever.
SDWG: City of the Uncommon Thief is a novel in medias res, and as the story progresses some crucial information about characters and events is withheld from or delayed for the reader, and some given information is proven later to be false and mistaken by the narrator. The story has many elements of mystery and layers of narration. The process of discovering an unfamiliar world as a reader is one of the many joys of imaginative literature, but for the writer it’s a balancing act of keeping the reader engaged through a push/pull of giving and withholding information. I would guess this is largely a function of the revision and editing process, yes? Without a spoiler of course, can you describe an example of where you’ve managed this in City of the Uncommon Thief ?
LB: I work hard to remember the moment when I didn’t have an idea and then I did — in order to recreate that “not knowing” for the reader. That said, I had a lot of questions for my editor when he first came on board: Did you see that coming? Was that bit obvious already? In the end, you have to trust the reader to read, to find the things you hid all over the place. A good example of this in City is the presence throughout the novel of a discarded character who turns out to be someone else. I myself didn’t see that coming, until one day I sat at my desk and thought, Oh. Look at that … I tried to capture that moment, that epiphany, in the telling.
SDWG: There are flashes of magic realism in some scenes too, and applying the techniques of magic realism must also be a balancing act. How and where does magic realism work for you? Where do you find yourself avoiding it?
LB: For me, the answer begins with not having set out to write a fantasy. When an element of fantasy—the iron spikes with uncommon power—seemed necessary to the plot, I squared with it by treating the new element like I would as a journalist. This sleight of hand (see how that magic slipped in?) is one thing I love about magic realism. It was helpful (sizable understatement there) to read scenes from the magic realists, to watch a master like Gabriel Garcia Marquez treat magic and the surreal as if they are on equal narrative footing with a bit about metallurgy or a local festival. I kept a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude next to my desk and opened it to literally any page when I tired of my own voice and couldn’t find my way. Listening to another writer is such a relief when you’re trying something new.
SDWG: There are many variations of language at work in the novel: the specialized languages of the guilds, relationship languages between characters, idiomatic languages of particular characters and narrators, snippets of languages from all over our world, even near-spellings of relatively common English words and portmanteaus. Being multilingual is a necessity in the world of the towers, and being a translator of foreign or lost languages becomes a special and important skill in the story. How do you manage the accessibility of these languages for the reader and their ability to translate them?
LB: To make the languages accessible, to use them as fully as I wanted to, I gave the reader Odd Thebes to narrate the tale. Odd’s natural skill is languages and he translates most things accurately, and even tells his own story with a fair bit of honesty. When he starts to ride off the rails, to tell it wrong, I trust the reader to see it. Perhaps to go back and see it. There are two critical mistranslations buried in Odd’s narrative. One is about the city he loves too much to see. One is about a character whose true identity he doesn’t want to allow. He knows how to cover things up with language.
SDWG: Layered with all of the invented and borrowed language is a whole banquet of references to classical myths, legends and scripture from both western and non-western traditions, world geography, history, and science. Some are precise while others are “approximations,” and some of them seem directly allusive but others less so. How do you make choices about where and how to use these references which carry associations outside the novel to the reader?
LB: I treat epics, myth, and legends like we now treat TV and movies; the same way you and I might refer to a character in Bridgerton or the Queen’s Gambit or admire the full wow of the mind of Aaron Sorkin (or Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino). The characters in City have conversations and opinions about Parsival or the writers Ovid and Hesiod, and a familiarity with the only library they know. They don’t worry about whether their opinions are right, or whether they have a modern intellectual appreciation for the canon. These stories are their pop culture.
SDWG: Can you describe a little about where your sources for some of these variations come from and how you might apply some of these sources to a particular scene or voice of a character?
LB: I have a big wall of books in my office that includes most of the ones I reference. But more than that, I read a lot of these tales when I was growing up and have a clear memory of the obsessions I had with Athena or Robin Hood et al. At some moments in the writing I had to go online to read or reread books in the public domain.
An example of use in a particular scene: I let Odd argue with himself and with his friend, the foundling Jamila, about the character of the grail knight Parsival, who is the main wall Odd throws himself against. Odd knows he doesn’t measure up. Jamila also reads these tales and offers an interpretation Odd uses to find his way. By the way, Odd completely misses the other hero in the tale he’s narrating. That lack, that miss, could be interpreted in a lot of ways. Try to find a hero who is not male in classic literature. It takes a minute.
SDWG: With all of those source and reference texts in mind, can you tell us a little about a couple that you keep returning to, or that influence you the most as a writer, and why they do so?
LB: Huge question. I’d start with the writer Madeline Miller, for her retellings of the tales of Achilles and Circe. We can talk more.
SDWG: Early in the novel there are a couple of references to “plot” as a kind of life-sustaining story or sustenance, characters describe plot as “rising” (like bread) of its own agency. The implication seems to be that the plot is like the revealing of one’s destiny. What is “plot” for you as a writer? Where does it come from? It seems to be much more than a narrative element for you, and yet one that is not entirely under your control.
LB: Plot is both a life-sustaining force (imagine the pandemic without books, movies, TV) and a wild monster you set free and see where it runs and what trouble it causes. I had to work very hard, for the first 90% of the way, to stop controlling the monster. It’s hard to relinquish control. In life I generally avoid plot tension—I don’t want to fall off a tower, or ruin my love for someone, or fail my one chance to be heroic—but a manuscript without plot tension, without plot, dies in its cage. This is all new to me, but so far I’d say that plot comes from putting a group of people on stage and throwing a problem into the middle of them. The bigger the problem, and the more I don’t know the solution, the better the plot.
SDWG: The world of the novel and our day-to-day world share some of the same problems: class and caste-based hierarchy, material inequality, an exploitative production and consumption based economy, the destruction (or erasing) of the natural world, and even the divisive effects of a quarantined society. In this way, the novel isn’t really the “escape” that sometimes people assume imaginative fiction to be. If a work of imaginative fiction refracts or alludes to the problems of the real world, what is the aim in doing so?
LB: I wanted to answer some questions, and constructed the theater and stage and hired the cast to see where that went. I hope the details of the city, plus the extraordinary moments of humor, love, friendship, rescue, and heroism—and the way the plot resolves—will be a relief from the darkness. As in life.
SDWG: In our first talk you said something about heroism that seems really important in the context of this novel, its place among other stories about young heroes, and its intended audience: that heroism is really about how an individual chooses to use their power in the world. Could you elaborate on that a little? Maybe you could touch on how that works in the novel, and perhaps how we can interpret your definition for ourselves even if we don’t think of ourselves as overtly heroic.
LB: The heroes I write most about are the ones who use whatever power they have to save someone who is disregarded (or discarded) by almost everyone else. In City, it’s a question of who will step up. Who will use power (power they don’t always know they have) to save the people and animals living on the street, the foundlings living in the walls. Quite frequently the subjects and objects change—the heroes need to be rescued. The rescued are the heroes.
Heroism doesn’t just risk the loss of yourself, your safety, your life. It involves the risk of being mocked or questioned for standing beside someone the rest of the world says doesn’t matter.
Here’s an example from a world I care about: The world of animal rescue involves skilled investigators who risk their own safety to rescue abused dogs. A lot of people don’t think street dogs (or old dogs or injured dogs) are important enough to spend money on, or to put our own lives in danger. There are plenty of people who mock rescue efforts that help dogs who require thousands of dollars of medical attention after being shot or used in pit fights. They think it’s all right that thousands of dogs are abused and euthanized every day. I am a fan of the ones who stand in the way of this.
To return to your question about our own acts of heroism: sometimes it’s simple heroism. Maybe we have the power of being the groovy kid in our class (our class, our job, our band, our social mob) and all we need to do, to be heroic, is stand next to someone and say, this person’s idea is interesting. I’m listening.
SDWG: Along those lines I can think of many legends and myths in which being a thief is actually an act of heroism, and almost all literary heroes I can think of have something that makes them “uncommon”: something that sets them apart or diminishes them in the eyes of the “common” world. For both your characters and your audience, under what circumstances does being different or “uncommon” become a source of power—one that might be used for heroic acts? Under what circumstances is lawlessness actually a sign of virtue?
LB: The answer to your question of lawlessness depends on knowing when to act, and measuring values to know which is the most important. We’ve seen plenty of lawlessness this year that will ruin our country and our world if we don’t quit it. On the other hand, I know a good doctor who steals medicine when he knows poor people who need it. Whether we get called heroes, for correcting an injustice, or criminals, for endangering the world and ruining one another’s lives, depends on a powerful truth. In part it also depends upon the one who writes up our story. Regarding the idea of “uncommon” … As you noted, “uncommon” is the word this quarantined city uses to describe objects that would in other worlds be called supernatural or magic. The intensely tamped-down “uncommon” is meant to reduce drama in a city that’s overrun by chaos. The term—in its full meaning of magical—slips sideways to describe characters who make of themselves something extraordinary. The three characters who lead the cast in City all have uncommon skills—and they all steal something. Among the most skilled is Odd, who is a thief of many things, including people’s stories. I’m not sure he’s that different from me.
SDWG: Similarly, storytelling has always been imbued with power – even spiritual and magical power—which can likewise be used toward good or bad ends, and the role of the storyteller in the novel is morally ambiguous, or at least complex. Are a thief and a storyteller alike in other ways, or maybe diametrically opposed?
LB: Alike. And, Bingo.
SDWG: What inspires and challenges you to write for young people?
LB: If you could draw a graph of a human lifetime, with one line for vulnerability, the other for power, those two lines rise at the fastest rate and intersect around years 15, 16, 17. The full power of being human, the full vulnerability of being new at it. It is that unguarded time of saying and doing things involving love, sex, violence, addiction, loss, friendship, without first building a wall or explaining that you didn’t mean it that way. That intersection of power and vulnerability is the inspiration. The challenge for me is to avoid aiming for someone else’s target of what it should all sound like, and to return constantly to sincerity, to honoring the three 17-year-olds who lead the plot, to trust them, to trust the questions.
SDWG: City of the Uncommon Thief is not a comfortable book. It wrestles with dark parts of human behavior, our oppressive and unjust forms of social order. It doesn’t shy away from sex, or violence, or addiction. If I can play devil’s advocate here, why do you think young people should be exposed to characters, behaviors, and ideas which may be troubling or frightening? Shouldn’t they be protected or shielded from them instead? I’m asking this in the context of the current controversy surrounding what young people should or should not be allowed to read through schools and libraries.
LB: Narrative is our guide to the world, to other people’s troubles, their longings and their experiences. When we experience things on the page, we get bigger and more expansive and we stop trying to own all the turf. I could theoretically spend my time guarding against infiltrators, ideas I don’t like or don’t believe. Alternately, I could knock down the walls and be unafraid of who I will meet. Obviously I am working my hardest to knock down the walls. City isn’t for 8-year-olds. But someone who’s 15 is thinking about intense friendship, sex, violence, darkness, heroism, addiction, and a lot of the other important things I explored in this labyrinth. I have what I would consider to be a moral compass but I’m not a moralizer. I’m human, and I write from a place of asking, not telling. That said, it’s hard to both write a book and defend the importance of it. I have to trust my editor, publisher, librarians, book sellers, and readers to defend the work. We must all ask writers to be courageous, to take us to new places. Otherwise we could just look in the mirror all the time, and read our own diaries.
SDWG: I read an interview with (YA author) Jason Reynolds in the New York Times recently, and when asked about the difference between “Adult” and Young Adult” literature he suggested that the labels were exclusive and limiting. Can we make such a distinction? Do you think there’s a difference in works written for, or at least those read by, these two audiences? If so, what is it?
LB: I don’t intentionally write to an age, but as the casting director, I feel the effect on the plot, of the age and experience and vulnerability of the lead actors. They are very physical, by which I mean very action-oriented, and I find home in that kind of plot, too.
SDWG: With this first novel, you’ve created this intricately imagined world to explore as a writer. You’ve noted that it was a long process and it must have been tremendously hard work, so I can’t imagine that you’d stop after giving us only one story from it. Then again, I can also imagine that you might want to take a break from Gallia to work on other projects. Can you tell us a little about what’s ahead? What’s in the works?
LB: I’m writing the next one now. I can tell you, every single day, it’s not what I expected.
Purchase the novel: City of the Uncommon Thief by Lynne Bertrand
Interviewer: Mark Luebbers, Straw Dog Writers Guild member
Mark Luebbers is a teacher and writer living in Greenfield, Massachusetts. His work focuses on nature and the environment, the lives of eccentric and creative figures from history, and living in America. Mark has published poems in a number of journals and magazines in recent years, including The American Journal of Poetry, The Journal of Americana, Wayfarer Magazine, Apple Valley Review, Blue Line, and The Hopper. In 2018, Mark was nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. “Flat Light”, his first collection, was published in 2020 by Urban Farmhouse Press. “Citizens of Ordinary Time”, a collection of biographical and ekphrastic poems written in collaboration with Ben Goluboff, is forthcoming, also from UFP.