By Carl Slaughter: Kelly Robson’s fantasy alternate history short story, “Waters of Versailles,” edited by Ellen Datlow and published by Tor, was nominated for a Nebula Award, World Fantasy Award, and Aurora Award. In this interview, she shares insight into the story’s appeal.
CARL SLAUGHTER: Who is the main character in ”Waters of Versailles,” what makes him tick, and what is he trying to accomplish?
KELLY ROBSON: Sylvain de Guilherand is a womanizer and social climber working his way up the social ladder at the Palace of Versailles in 1738. Sylvain is from a noble family in the southern Alps. He’s always been a man of action — a hunter at home and an officer in the French army — so the enforced elegant idleness of Versailles is maddening to him. He’s pursuing wealth and influence by upgrading the palace’s failing water systems and offering the nobility the latest status symbol — the flush toilet.
CS: Who is the fantasy character, how does she enter the story, and what part does she play in the plot?
KR: Sylvain’s water system is powered by an incredibly powerful young nixie. Sylvain caught her in a glacier lake when she was just a tadpole, brought her to the palace, and installed her in an underground cistern. Now she’s the size of a six-year-old child, and has an irrepressibly playful and mischievous personality to match.
CS: What kind of dynamic do these 2 characters have?
KR: Sylvain has been relying on an elderly manservant to take care of the nixie, and he’s been rather snotty about it because doesn’t regard taking care of children as a proper use of a man’s time. The nixie, on the other had, thinks of Sylvain as her father. This is a recipe for trouble, because Sylvain has no idea how to care for a magical child and no particular desire to do so, and the nixie is easily bored. She’s perfectly capable of springing leaks all around the palace for fun.
CS: How does the main character evolve — or does he? — and what is the catalyst for that evolution?
KR: To save his reputation, Sylvain has to negotiate his relationship with the nixie. He has to nurture her, entertain her, and teach her — in essence, he becomes her parent. And parenthood comes with an emotional bond that Sylvain certainly wasn’t expecting.
CS: Same question for the fantasy character?
KR: The nixie is a sweet, good-hearted child, but like all children she craves attention and entertainment. She’s wants to please Sylvain — she’s imprinted on him — but doesn’t like being ignored. She’s demanding. She needs much more attention than Sylvain’s willing to give her, and she’s growing more powerful every day.
CS: How do the various other characters make things complicated for these 2 characters?
KR: I’ve always been interested in characters who have it all but find out how little it does for them. Sylvain has it all: a beautiful and charming lover, a steadfast best friend, a position of power and influence in the richest nation in the world, the admiration of the king and court, and the loyalty of an extremely powerful magical creature. Where it starts to go wrong for Sylvain is when he tries to be all things to all people — a man with no limits.
CS: What do we take away from this story?
KR: First, that the act of taking nurturing creates love, and love changes you. And second, that trying to be please everyone is a recipe for disaster. In the end, it’s only the people you love who matter.
CS: First the Nebula, then the World Fantasy, now the Aurora. Meanwhile, inclusion in Jonathan Strahan’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. What’s the appeal of this story?
KR: I think the story hits the mark with a lot of people simply because it’s about love. Not romantic love, but the simple uncomplicated bond between a parent and a child — which is universal.
Read Carl’s profile of Kelly at SF Signal.