A Heroine Like No Other: An Interview with Mishell Baker, Author of The Arcadia Project Series

Mishell Baker’s first novel, Borderline, came out to a buzz of immediate acclaim. A work of electrical wit and intensity, Baker’s urban fantasy series blends the glamour of the Fae with the tinsel of Hollywood. In addition to supernatural demons, the protagonist Millie grapples with mental and physical disability. Millie’s hardbitten, humorous narrative voice serves a perfect counterpoint to the fast pace and high drama of the plot. Borderline and Phantom Pains, the first two novels of the Arcadia Project series, are out now.

I caught up with Mishell to talk about her inspirations—which include Nabakov and video games—urban fantasy, and more.

The centerpiece of this series, with all its magic and parallel worlds, is undoubtedly the multi-edged protagonist. Millie has Borderline Personality Disorder, prosthetic legs due to a suicide attempt, and an attitude. Can you talk about the centrality of Millie, and her highly individual challenges, to these novels?

It's a variation on a common theme, I think.  Often in urban fantasy and mystery, there is a single viewpoint character whose attitude and experiences serve as a filter for everything we see in the book.  That's true to some extent of any viewpoint, but in these genres the filter can really tighten the emotional color palette of a story, giving it a "noir" feel for example.  So the book really is the protagonist.

Millie has some of the characteristics of a standard noir protagonist, coloring the story with cynicism and badly-managed pain, but her filter can also be treacherous at times if you forget you're looking through it.  Her version of the facts is sometimes clear-eyed and sometimes very distorted.  It's not always obvious which is which, and I think trying to sort that out is part of the fun.

Setting the Fae amid the glitz of Hollywood makes so much sense! How did you come to know the ins and outs of the film industry? 

For a stretch in my twenties, I thought that maybe the best way to tell stories was through film.  So I moved out to Los Angeles and immersed myself in that world for a few years.  I went to screenwriting seminars, mingled at industry social events, worked as a background actor, was even a semifinalist for the Academy's Nicholl fellowship a couple of times.

But then I realized that people in the entertainment industry work long, punishing hours and get yelled at a lot, and so I decided that it probably wasn't for me.  My husband still works on the periphery of entertainment, though, and his stories keep me from drifting completely out of touch with the surreal and beautiful nightmare that is Hollywood.

Borderline and Phantom Pains are urban fantasy. In what ways do you think they are like, and unlike, urban fantasies that readers have come to expect?

Here's something I've never admitted in an interview before: I only read my first urban fantasy after I'd already finished the first draft of Borderline and realized what I'd written. 

This explains why I may have gone off the rails a bit here and there, but I think it also suggests that genres and subgenres aren't entirely artificial constructs.  I wrote a story that was about magic in a big city, and when I went to read other books that fell into that category, I found that I'd instinctively drawn on some common threads.  For example a certain sexiness, the first-person narrator, the mystery tropes, and the way the city becomes a character in its own right.

But after reading some of the best-selling examples of urban fantasy I realized that I had veered off genre in a few ways.  My protagonist wasn't particularly attractive, for example, and didn't have any special powers. She's a pretty banged-up mortal who's in over her head.  Also, there isn't an overt romance in the book.  But genre tendencies are just that, tendencies, and urban fantasy is pretty forgiving.  Look at Charlaine Harris, who stepped away from the "urban" part with the Sookie Stackhouse books, still managed to delight all kinds of die-hard UF fans, and still gets classified as urban fantasy.

Which works and/or writers have most inspired this series?

It's easier to cite appropriate inspirations for my traditional fantasy stories, because as I've confessed, urban fantasy is new to me.  The Arcadia Project series still has influences, of course; they just tend to be from outside the genre or even the medium.

For example, there is some absolutely terrific writing going on in gaming these days.  Games' focus on player choice has strongly affected the way I write fiction; I'm constantly thinking of the reader as a person who wants to take the wheel.  I can't give readers actual choices in such a linear form, but I can try to imagine what they'd choose, and I can decide at a given point in the story whether it's best to gratify their desires or frustrate them.  I always think of my stories as "interactive" even when they aren't, in the strictest sense.

I'm also influenced by fiction writers who have nothing to do with fantasy at all.  Every tiny side character in Dostoevsky's work is so real that you could swear it's based on someone you know.  I love that about his work and strive for it in mine.  I also adore Nabokov: the way he uses these lush, ecstatic sensory descriptions of everything and the way he restrains earth-shattering emotions behind erudite irony.  If I had to pick one writer to spend the rest of my reading life with, it would be Nabokov.

So it looks as though my urban fantasy is inspired by Russian literature and video games.  Makes perfect sense in some universe, I'm sure.

Can you tell us about your plans for the series? I know the highly-anticipated third installment, Impostor Syndrome, will be published next year. Any hints as to what it will bring to the table, without giving too much away?

I think it sort of goes into a rage and flips the table, to be honest.  All the pieces I set up in the first two books get flung every which way, and Millie has a roller coaster of a time trying to make something out of the mess.

The end of the second book gave a hint that chaos is about to break loose, so of course the third book is all about the repercussions.  It's a tangle of alliances and backstabbing and bizarre arcane lore, but of course there are also smaller, more intimate matters that will finally be addressed.  And you'll get to see more clearly than ever why Millie is the way she is, as more of her past comes to light.

My hope is that it will nicely conclude the storyline that began with a missing Viscount while at the same time firing up readers' imaginations about what the Arcadia Project might look like in the years to come.

Mishell Baker is the author of the Nebula Award finalist Borderline and Phantom Pains, the first two books in the Arcadia Project series. She is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop, and her short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Electric Velocipode.  She is represented by Russell Galen at Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children.

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Ilana Teitelbaum has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and other places. Her epic fantasy debut, Last Song Before Night, was released by Tor/Macmillan in 2015 under the pen name Ilana C. Myer. The sequel, Fire Dance, is forthcoming in 2018.

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