How did you choose Aztec culture as opposed to Mayan?
Because I like, I think it’s interesting. I’m really fascinated by the way that, in North America, Aztec culture was one of the closest things we had to an empire. Granted, the Mayans were similar too. This isn’t a good thing, but they were starting to be a colonial power in North America, they were just 100 years behind because, different people argue why. The argument of, they didn’t have good [not sure what he says here] animals like they had in Europe. Europe had access to horses and cows, and, particularly in North America, they didn’t have access to these beasts of burden. There’s also the argument that, through most of South America, the terrain was not really good for pulling carts and things like this. So no animals and not really good for the wheel makes communication between cultures difficult. Communications between cultures is what inspires technological progress most of the time. So suddenly, you have this, where they’re really advanced in some areas, like their mathematics and whatnot, but they don’t have the wheel. And that is so interesting, and the Aztec is really interesting. The idea that they came [...] they found Tenochitlan after leaving Aztlan and come to this place and they’re these people, and their god is the hummingbird and all this stuff and it’s just really cool mythology and culture, but all anyone knows about the Aztecs is, “Human sacrifice!”, right? That’s the thing everyone focuses on, when you’ve got this really deep and cool and rich culture as well. They didn’t even really sacrifice, according to most people, that many people, no more than in European wars, they would execute after you… but it’s got this really cool mythology around it. Anyway, it’s just a really cool culture, and being from North America it’s something I wanted to dig into and deal with. Plus you’ve got, this is kind of a minefield of stuff, but you’ve got this weird colonial thing going on that I wanted to play with. In the Rithmatist world, the Aztecs had unified into a colonial power and a lot of the North American tribes had unified beneath them. Some left happily, some not happily to fight against the chalkling threat. They got pushed all the way back, fighting and fighting and fighting, and then the Europeans come in, and they’re like, “Great, this continent that there’s nobody in!” and they’re like, “Hey no, that’s ours!”. So you’ve got this really, at least to me, interesting interaction between, cause there’s all these myths that perpetuated in the 1800’s that there weren’t that many people in North America when we came in. It was just basically empty. That was the myth they were telling themselves to justify the wholesale conquering and slaughter of the people. A lot of times I’m like, so what if they got there and these people had been killed in a big war? You’ve got this colonialism and this cool power to the south who’s like “No, you’re stealing our land” but they’re like “No, you guys weren’t here” and they’re like “No, we were fighting there”. It’s a really interesting thing to deal with, and it’s exciting to me, but boy is it a minefield. Let’s hope that I can do the second book without being too offensive to people. But that stuff is fascinating to me.
Do you think that the sensibility in terms of writing about Native American cultures has to do a lot with how times have changed, since you’ve written Rithmatist?
Oh yeah, definitely. Since I’ve written Rithmatist, my sensitivity to this has skyrocketed, I think everybody’s has. That’s a big part of when I went back to the book, and I thought in the sequel I was dealing with it sensitively and I’m like “Oh, no. I don’t think I’m approaching that sensitively at all”. That was part of the reason I had to drop it and revise it. Also, I just didn’t think it was doing cool enough things and whatnot. I’m glad I didn’t write it in 2008 when I’d been like“Aztecs are cool, let’s write a book that has Aztecs in it!”, instead of saying, “Let’s do more than Aztecs are cool, let’s make sure that we have actually done our research”, instead of just relying on it. There are some things you can rely on, like Kaladin in the Stormlight books. I know enough about field medicine and what it is like to be a surgeon in the pre-modern era that I could write a cool book where a guy was himself a surgeon in a pre-modern era, and then I just gave it to a field medic, someone who had actually been in battle, and said, “What did I get wrong?”. He’s like, “You got this, this, this wrong, fix those and it’s good”. I can do that. I can bluff my way through making Kaladin work and then find an expert to fix it. That’s what I would’ve done in 2008 if I’d written Rithmatist. I have a feeling it would’ve been so far off that I would’ve given it to them and they would’ve been like, “You can’t fix this. This is fundamental”. That’s a writing advice. There are a lot of things you can bluff your way through, if you get yourself like 50% of the way there and then find an expert to fix the really bad parts for you. But you have to be able to get far enough along that it’s fixable.