Better than Gold: An Interview with Naomi Novik


Photo by Beth Gwinn
Photo by Beth Gwinn

Naomi Novik, New York Times best-selling author of the Temeraire series, appears at Dragon Con 2014 just as news spreads about Uprooted, her new stand-alone fantasy novel from Del Rey Books. Novik’s Temeraire series, beginning with His Majesty’s Dragon, flew dragons as a sentient air force during an alternative history version of the Napoleonic Wars. Its enchanting brew of rich character studies and aerial acrobatics earned an international following of devoted fans. We met with Novik online to discuss the Temeraire series and the magical world of Uprooted as well as her support of fair use protection for fan fiction writers.

Daily Dragon (DD): The Battle of Waterloo, the deciding victory over Napoleon, occurred a quarter of a century before Queen Victoria ascended to the throne of England. With so much recent emphasis on the Steampunk genre and the Victorian period, what inspired you to place your Temeraire series during the Napoleonic Wars with ships still principally propelled by wind and not boilers and steam?

Naomi Novik (NN): Actually, Temeraire started the other way around — I was having a fannish moment at the time around the Napoleonic era after the Master and Commander movie came out, and I was reading Patrick O’Brian for the first time, and re-reading Jane Austen. So I was really wanting to write in that particular period, which has always been one of my favorites to study and read about and within. The dragons came after.

Also, I don’t think Temeraire would particularly like wearing goggles, which as I understand it are de rigueur for steampunk dragons.

DD: Lovable and sometimes exasperating, the dragon Temeraire stars with his heroic captain Will Laurence in your alternative history series. Almost from the moment of hatching, Temeraire and Laurence are inseparable. Laurence soon realizes that his dedication to and affection for the dragon equals or exceeds Temeraire’s for him. “I should rather have you than a heap of gold, even if it were very comfortable to sleep on,” Temeraire tells Laurence. A former Navy captain who gave up his career to name, harness, and care for the newly hatched dragonet, Laurence replies later, “I would rather have you than any ship in the Navy.” How do the very personal relationships between and among the dragons and their captains (and crews) both color and influence the epic scope of international war within the series?

NN: The dragons and their captains are both the lens through which we experience the war, and, because of the still quite large impact individual dragons can have, also often the instruments of changing the course of the war. Which makes for an interesting perspective on what is otherwise a war that is so large it’s difficult for any one protagonist to significantly affect (unless you’re writing about Napoleon or Wellington).

DD: Temeraire descends from a rare breed and is an extremely valuable dragon.  How did you create the different breeds of dragons for your series?

NN: There are a lot of influences from regional myths and legends as you might imagine (the Celestial dragons were inspired by the Imperial Chinese practice of having five-clawed dragons as a symbol for the Emperor), and I get many of the breed names and coloration by finding butterflies and birds specific to the region the dragons come from, and going off of that. Possibly my own favorite breed (name, anyway) is the French lightweight Pou de Ciel, which means louse of the sky, which is named after an early French aircraft.

DD: When will Temeraire’s and the flamboyant fire-breather Iskierka’s offspring choose to be hatched? Will you describe any details for those of us waiting anxiously to learn if the parents’ abilities will be transferred and/or combined in the new dragon? Please, just a few hints?

NN: Wait for it. 🙂

DD:  In Temeraire’s alternate universe, Tecumseh, a Native American, is President of the United States of America and dragons are U.S. citizens who might seek higher attainments including membership in Congress. Will Temeraire visit North America? And, if so, what further advances in his already rebellious spirit will exposure to citizen dragons cause?

NN: Alas, no! I really wanted to get to North America and to India in the Temeraire series, but I couldn’t work it out. Perhaps in short stories in the future.

DD: What can you reveal about the remaining Temeraire books not yet released?

NN: The last volume of the Temeraire series, League of Dragons, is currently in progress and should be coming out next year, and it will see the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars.

DD: Simon Vance, who reads the Temeraire novels for audio books, is a masterful reader who gives personality and unique voice to each of your dragon and human characters. We’re looking forward to more fabulous adventures in the series as well as more  superb performances. What other factors make your series an outstanding choice for audio rendition and, we hope soon, for a movie?

NN: Simon’s work is just so great, and I’m so thrilled that he’s done all the books in the series so far—I hope very much he’ll do League of Dragons as well. As for what makes the Temeraire books suited, I can only say that I do my best to give the characters distinct voices, and to have a clear point of view for each piece of description and restrict what is seen to that perspective.

DD: In Random House’s 2014 Free Sampler, your new novel Uprooted is described as Beauty and the Beast meets Frozen. Other than the tempting excerpt included, the stand-alone book will be not released until February 2015. Please tell us more about the magical world of the human-appearing Dragon lord and Agnieska’s indenture to him.

NN: Uprooted actually started with my wanting to tell a story about a completely different kind of dragon, and banged into my favorite Polish fairy tale that my mother used to read me growing up, about “Agnieszka Piece of the Sky,” a girl who defeats a wizard who has enchanted the wood near her home. It gathered a whole lot of other influences from Polish and Russian history and folk tales, other classic fairy tales as well.  

DD: You testified before a Congressional subcommittee defending fair use protections. (Written Testimony.) What practical lessons did you learn from your own experience as a fan fiction writer?

NN: Too many to list, but if I had to pick the most important one, to write for myself and from my own joy, first and foremost, before writing for an audience.

Visit Novik online at Naomi Novik.

Author of the article

Amy L. Herring (Louise Herring-Jones) writes speculative fiction, with a preference for historical fantasy and alternate mystery. Her stories, appearing in fourteen anthologies, include “The Poulterer’s Tale” in God Bless Us, Every One—Christmas Carols beyond Dickens (Voodoo Rumors Media, 2019). Amy is a NaNoWriMo co-municipal liaison. She also coordinates the Huntsville (Alabama) Literary Association’s writers’ group. Visit her online at