The two authors discuss worldbuilding, the value of fiction, and everything that’s going on at Hart House this month.

Vikram Nijhawan, Staff Writer

“We’re not necessarily writing, you know, chicken soup for the Shale soul –”, said Avi Silver (they/them), upon which their partner Sienna Tristen (they/them, she/her) interjected, “More like lizard soup for the saoni soul!” Both erupted in laughter. 

Sienna was referring to the fictional reptilian creatures in Avi’s debut novel, Two Dark Moons. One of the three tenets of their fiction-writing collective, The Shale Project, is the notion of “Art as Medicine”, using fantasy and sci-fi to examine our own realities. 

Avi and Sienna co-created this multimedia storytelling platform, which is designed to bridge creators and their works into a fictional world that’s “roughly the size of a planet”, as they say. These award-winning authors have taught creative writing workshops at Hart House for three years, focusing on the aspects of worldbuilding for science fiction and fantasy stories. They have both published debut novels through their own Molewhale Press: Sienna with The Heretics’ Guide to Homecoming (2018), and Avi with Two Dark Moons (2019).

This year, Avi and Sienna will be hosting workshops throughout the entire month of October via Zoom, courtesy of the Hart House Literary and Library Committee. 

This month also marks their fourth anniversary of marriage. The two halves of this speculative fiction dream-team had the most fitting meet-cute imaginable. “We met in an online anime chat room,” Avi revealed with a smile. They bonded over their shared passions for fiction and creativity, and in that partnership laid the seeds for The Shale Project. 

“We were business partners first, and then lovers afterwards,” said Sienna, “I know, it’s a great trope.” 

The ethos behind their initiative was to take full advantage of secondary-world fiction. For most authors, once they’ve sketched out their fantasy world for the purpose of their stories, they simply abandon it. Sienna, an efficient person by nature, couldn’t wrap her head around wasting an immersive setting. In contrast, all of the duo’s stories are set in their single creation, the Bereni Supercontinent. Each of their creative endeavours allows them to explore this vast land in even greater detail. 

Avi and Sienna practically share a mind, but when asked about the value of a fleshed-out fictional world, they each provided different takes. 

“I think there’s a lot of nobility in escape,” Sienna revealed, “because it gives you time to process and percolate what’s going on so that you can come at it with a fresh perspective, instead of just being in crisis mode all the time. So the thing about having a fully fleshed out immersive world is that you can go there for a while, and just sit in that locus of space, instead of wherever you came from, where you are essentially stuck.”

Avi followed up on that. “I’m gonna give the exact opposite response.” While Sienna spoke to the value of art as escapism, her partner approached it from the lens of relatability. Having suffered a major family loss at the end of 2019, and then dealing with the drudgery of 2020 along with the rest of us, Avi takes comfort in fictional settings which reflect thematic struggles they can relate to. They delved into this aspect in a touching amount of detail. 

“Does that make sense? I feel like I said a lot,” Avi admitted. 

“You did. Mind if I distill your answer?” Sienna proposed. 

“Go ahead!” 

“It is by reading that we process,” Sienna stated definitively. The three of us shared a hearty laugh, while processing this insightful comment.

The two authors’ reading choices also revealed a lot about their expectations for a fictional world. Sienna touched upon Fonda Lee’s East Asian-inspired urban fantasy novel Jade City, which won the World Fantasy Book Award in 2017. 

“What I love most about [the fictional] world is that the author addresses the nitty-gritty. It’s not just, ‘what kind of currency do they use in their stores’”. 

The titular magical substance grants its users extraordinary powers, but Lee handles it in a realistic manner. “Within the first few pages of book one, you know that there is bioenergetic jade, only specific people are supposed to use it –  and other people definitely do use it. Because of course there would be a drug trade to enable this. That’s what a world is!” 

The other end of the spectrum is where Avi and Sienna note worldbuilding that feels unintentional, often found in the typical European-set sword-and-sorcery that casual readers have often associated with the genre for decades. Despite Avi’s appreciation for Leigh Bardugo’s richly built Grishaverse, they took issue with a line from the Shadow and Bone trilogy: “Well, it’s Sunday. Maybe everyone’s in church?”

After reciting this, Avi paused, their usually jovial expression frozen in a mix of shock and confusion. “Okay, so first of all, I’ve been led to believe this is a secondary world, and yet they still have the same days of the week as us. And then church on Sunday? Like that’s a universally-accepted norm? What we have then is a homogenous Christian society in this supposedly fictional world.”

Avi and Sienna’s partnership is magical in more ways than one. The Shale Project represents a new wave of diverse and subversive fantasy fiction. Hart House Lit and Lib is grateful to have these two as instructors impart their knowledge onto aspiring student writers. 

We all have the ability to pick up a pencil and sketch out our ideal fictional world. But it’s helpful to have someone to put it in your hand.

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