LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Naomi Novik is a world builder. She creates realms filled with dragons and witches and elves in books and in computer games.
NAOMI NOVIK: I'm an engineer and a writer. And I find that those two things are not uncomplementary
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's the author of the best-selling "Temeraire" series. Her latest work is the fantasy novel "Uprooted." NPR's Ravenna Koenig has this profile.
RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: Naomi Novik's career as a writer and as a programmer started in the same place - her sophomore college dorm.
NOVIK: I ended up rooming in a dorm that was basically a solid wall of female scientists. And every Wednesday, we would all watch "Star Trek: Next Generation."
KOENIG: It was the early days of the Internet, and Novik found her way to a discussion list for Trekkers (ph). She became interested in two things - coding and fan fiction. She completed her Master's degree in computer science but continued to write fan fiction on the side. Almost a decade after she first went online, she was working as a programmer for computer games.
NOVIK: Something about that whole process of building the structure of that game turned into a real kind of lightbulb moment for me as a writer.
KOENIG: Her fan fiction that time was inspired by swashbuckling adventure novels set in the Napoleonic era. Something started to happen to her stories. They got longer and more complex.
NOVIK: And then all of a sudden, I sort of started to feel that I was constrained by the characters as opposed to enjoying them. And that remains for me to this day the line that I know where it's like, OK, you're not writing fan fiction anymore
KOENIG: She also had an idea she wanted to run with.
NOVIK: What could make the Napoleonic Wars more exciting? Dragons.
KOENIG: One dragon in particular - Temeraire. He's a central character in her nine-book series. Through a twist of fate, he becomes the responsibility of Will Laurence, a naval captain fighting for the British against Napoleon. Laurence is chivalrous, with a keen sense of duty, but he embraces the 19th century conventions that Novik paints in faithful detail - even some that are distasteful to 21st-century readers, like class hierarchies and the role of women. The dragon Temeraire, on the other hand, is newly hatched, and he provides a critical, more modern voice.
NOVIK: Temeraire comes out talking, thinking for himself and immediately starts overturning all of Laurence's assumptions because he doesn't take things for granted.
KOENIG: Novik says that combining fantasy and historical fiction allows you to have a conversation with the past that you might not get with a straightforward historical novel.
NOVIK: You can actually muck with history and think about what if, why not. What if there were dragons in the Incan Empire that allowed them to resist colonization? What if there were a massive dragon empire in the middle of the interior of southern Africa that decided to take objection to the slave trade?
KOENIG: Novik's attraction to characters who provide an outsider's perspective comes from her own experience. Her parents are immigrants who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe before she was born. Her grandmother was executed for her role in the Polish resistance during World War II. And her mother defected from Communist Poland and was separated from her family for many years. The book that Novik created from these fragments of her family history is called "Uprooted." It takes place in the Poland of her mother's bedtime stories, and it follows a young witch unraveling the mystery that lies at the edge of her village in a dark wood.
NOVIK: It's a place that should be nurturing, that should be positive and beautiful and have wild magic to it. And it has all been twisted inward by rage, by hatred and by the severing of connections.
KOENIG: "Uprooted" is a finalist for one of the highest awards in American science fiction and fantasy, the Nebula Award. And the last installment in the "Temeraire" series is due out this summer. These days, Novik's coding work is mostly volunteer. She likes the idea of designing games again, but she's happy where she is.
NOVIK: As a novelist you have just unlimited budget, total creative control. You really get to have your cake - all the cake - and then you can have a second cake if you wanted to.
KOENIG: She still writes fan fiction though - 450 stories and counting. And when she sits down to write, about half of it is fan fiction - until, of course, her characters chafe against their boundaries and a new story is born. Ravenna Koenig, NPR News.
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