Your home is where your heart is — and today’s story is waiting for you there after the long, cold journey back.
The Old Country
[Adventure] • 18,673 words
Spike’s fed up of Outer Yakyakistan, a perpetually frigid land of biting wind, blinding snow, and little else. No one actually lives here, not even the yaks themselves. Twilight’s company is the only silver lining, but even she can only lift Spike’s spirits in short bursts. He wants to go home to Ponyville.
But as they clamber up the final mountain in Outer Yakyakistan, the wind changes. Spike becomes sure that he’s been here before. Except … he hasn’t. Not in living memory. So why does it feel like he’s already home?
FROM THE CURATORS: As long-time readers of ponyfic, all of the Library’s curators appreciate when a story tackles a heavily covered topic in a way that brings something truly new to the table — and that’s where this fic shines. “I’ve seen many ‘Spike finds his origins’ stories, and they tend to just slap your average fantasy dragon over the top of him,” Present Perfect said. “But The Old Country keeps in mind what kind of a place Equestria is; the friend aspect of the dragon he finds thus keeps the world-building in line with the greater setting.”
What’s remarkable is that, while we agreed this was feature-worthy, we all loved (and disliked) very different things about the story. “The first half is a slog, the second half does everything right,” Present Perfect said, while AugieDog’s praise was the reverse: “The first two chapters really set things up nicely — Spike comes across as full of ‘teen angst,’ and that serves the story’s purposes quite well.” Chris found elements to like throughout: “The author builds crisp, vivid visuals of windswept tundra, of claustrophobic caverns, and more. This could have just been a travelogue and I’d still have enjoyed it; the descriptions are that strong.” There, Horizon agreed: “The sense of place in this one is amazing.”
Another thing we agreed on was the exemplary work put into the depiction of the story’s supporting characters. “As something of a dragon expert, I can tell you that there’s something unique in Ormr’s portrayal here,” Horizon said. “Everything about it, from its psychology and physiology to the little details like its lack of gendering, make it almost a force of nature at the same time as it’s characterized deeply and effectively.” And Chris found something equally unique in the yaks. “This is the first story I’ve read to date which uses Prince Rutherford and his yaks effectively in an otherwise serious story,” Chris said. “They’re gruff, quick to violence, and as perfection-obsessed as ever, yet they never turn the larger tale into a joke.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Astrarian discusses username faff, immersion-breaking actors, and the ‘wow’ factor of butterflies.
Give us the standard biography.
Ey up! I’m a British lass (gasp!) in my mid-twenties. My Northern accent is actually not strong enough for my own liking unless I’m with friends from home, so sometimes I compensate by deliberately using Northern phrases while wearing my flat-cap and saying, “That’s champion!” Nah, I’m having a laugh; the flat-cap’s my dad’s.
The rest of this interview will be in normal/pretentious English, promise.
Before I started writing ponyfic last year, I’d spent about 10 years writing by myself and can count on one hand the number of people I let see my work. These days I have two hobbies: writing and caving. They’re jealous mistresses. Online, I talk about writing and try to keep quiet about caving. Offline, I rarely talk about my writing, and natter about caving instead.
I always feel like I have too much to do, but that’s because most of the time I wish I was asleep, and I wilt under pressure. Hence, I produce very little content.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
Teen-me wrote original stories about a group of aliens on Earth. However, they were only masquerading as original fiction. It’s appallingly obvious to me now that those stories were actually bastard fanfic for Roswell, a WB teen and soft (very soft) sci-fi drama I discovered on DVD years after it was cancelled.
In one episode, Roswell’s alien characters are referred to as Czechoslovakians. It’s a deliberately terrible codename and played for laughs, yet I treated the joke as a serious way to create a species name. Using the pronunciation of the word Hungarian and the Latin plurals astra/astris (which I liked thanks to Latin mottos in general but especially because of Star Trek, NASA, and the RAF), I came up with the term Astrarians to use to refer to my alien characters.
I don’t think I realised at the time how silly it sounds. I stopped using the name in-story once I recognised it was based on an idea I nicked from someone else. I used variants for the few fanfiction forays that followed, though. Seemed apt, and still does.
The story without sentimental gibberish is that I couldn’t be bothered with the faff of creating a brand new username.
Who’s your favorite pony?
I like to tell myself I don’t play favourites, but it’s obviously Rarity! Other people have written eloquent essays about why Rarity is a wonderful character, and an important one, so I’ll just say I agree with them.
What’s your favorite episode?
“Sisterhooves Social,” I think. I’ve been there, done that: I’m basically the Sweetie Belle of that set-up. The episode portrays both sides of a conflict between sisters separated by a substantial age gap masterfully, without making either into an unforgivable twat, and bonus! — it reminds me to treasure the friendship I have with my sister. The episode has a couple more outstanding morals besides that, as well as being hilarious and sweet and fun.
What do you get from the show?
I find the ponies cute, their facial expressions funny, and their voices entertaining. I like that the majority of the main characters are female. That’s really all I want, and the show keeps delivering that for me.
I also get inspiration for stories, and a much-needed outlet for honing my writing skills.
Finally — this might sound contradictory at first — I find the fact that it’s a cartoon much better for my immersion. I’ve now seen so many actors in so many roles that none of them fully convince me that they’re actually the character they’re playing. I end up thinking about what else they’ve done, who else they’ve portrayed, and behind-the-scenes aspects of making telly, which is sometimes fine, but sometimes I just want to enjoy a story. The ponies, meanwhile, don’t look or sound like anything other than who they are.
What do you want from life?
I hope to keep learning new things, and to always spend time with people who I find interesting. Just once I’d love to feel like I know where I’m going in my life and actually be happy with the answer.
Same old, same old. Oh, I’d like to live with a cat someday. The world feels better with a cat to love.
Why do you write?
Sometimes I don’t know the answer to this question.
With reflection, I think it’s because in the end, even during the times when I read my own words and can’t quite understand how past-me did it, I feel much worse when I don’t try to write than when I do. Writing is hard nowadays, exquisitely so, but it’s a trial that I’ll pick above all else. I feel incomplete if I don’t try.
When I manage to get into the flow of writing or editing, or just thinking about a story I could write, it’s utterly immersive and cathartic. Hours pass by in which I miss out on precisely nothing. Writing is self-sustaining: I write on my own terms, for my own entertainment and health, and for 15 years I’ve been engrossed in the process, whereas every other interest waxes and wanes.
I’d fall apart without jotting my histrionic sentiments and flights of fancy and idle musings on paper/screen. So it’s a relief and a delight that I’ll never have to be without it, unless I’m ready to let it go, which doesn’t seem likely.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
This is actually a piece of advice I’m rehashing from ponyfic author Viking ZX, but it really helped me, because I was in exactly this situation. Maybe it can help someone else.
If you spend a long time on a story, and it bothers you that you don’t seem to be making much progress in completing it — it doesn’t flow, or you’re eternally editing rather than finishing it, or it doesn’t have a point, or you just keep doing other things instead and it hangs over you, casting a shadow of vague failure and guilt — then you should consider stopping.
You probably don’t want to, right? But if the reason you don’t want to is because stopping makes it feel like the whole project was a massive waste of time … I want to tell you it wasn’t. Time spent writing isn’t worthless. You had fun, right? (Until you stopped having fun.) Well, that’s worthwhile. And in all likelihood you’ve learned a lot about writing along the way. You can take everything you don’t even know you’ve learned into your next story.
Who knows, you might just end up writing something that people not only get a chance to read, but that they even like. They could like it a lot. You might like it, too. That’s a good feeling worth pursuing.
What were some of your inspirations, especially for Ormr?
Aside from FiM itself? :p
The dragons from the “Dragonriders of Pern” series by Anne McCaffrey are my favourite fantasy dragons. They provided the main basis for Ormr, both in general and with some specifics like their whirling eyes. When they hatch, in a big sand-filled cavern no less, they empathically and telepathically ‘impress’ with a human who then becomes their rider, best friend, life partner, et cetera; the two complete one another. As far as I’m concerned, that relationship is a perfect fit for Equestria. Friendship is magic, after all.
Mythology had some influence, which is most obvious in Ormr’s Norse name, but there are other sprinklings throughout the story. In my initial musings, Ormr was going to spin destiny with its saliva/silk underground, rather like the Fates in Greek mythology, and Spike would learn that he had his own important destiny. It seemed a bit cheesy, however, and I wasn’t sure how to write it, so I didn’t use the idea. But I kept the silken saliva.
Butterflies are also inspirations, probably obvious. They deserve a mention regardless. I’m enthralled by nature. The sheet variety of life on this planet amazes me. ‘Wow’ doesn’t cover it.
The other two main inspirations for the story are my experiences as a caver (what a shock), and last but definitely not least, a conversation in an old children’s TV show called Noggin the Nog. In an episode called “The Ice Dragon,” there’s an exchange between two characters including the following line: “For it may be your egg remembers what it never saw, and there you will find your home.” I think it’s a lovely quote and I tend to use it in conversation every few months. I was also musing on pony fic when it surfaced one time. In that mysterious way, my mind linked it to Spike. It seemed a wonderfully appropriate sentiment for the little guy.
What is necessary to keep in mind when approaching a society like the yaks, meant for comedy in the show, in a serious fashion?
I’m rubbish at writing comedy, so it was a breeze to think about the yaks seriously. However, I think characters feel real when they see themselves as real, not as one-note jokes or simple plot devices. Real people have reasons for why they do things, regardless of whether they can articulate them or if they’re simple reasons. Characters have to have reasons too.
Perfection is important in a harsh world. It matters that you have a proper sleeping bag and shelter and the right food if you’re camping in a cold place. The idea of a society entrenched in the harsh reality of a wild landscape — and natural enemies — grew out of that.
Did they ever find the lost yaks? And is there such a thing as musk deer?
Cheeky question! I plan to tackle those questions in The Old Country’s sequel. Once I’ve written it. Hopefully I’ll do that at some point this year. Eek. But in case I don’t manage it (spoiler alert): Yes and yes.
You’ll have to wait for the sequel to find out more. Or just come up with your own ideas.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I reckon I’ve rambled too much already …
Just as any good acceptance speech should, I’d like to thank my editor, Ceffyl Dwr, for all his help and encouragement. I couldn’t have done it without him, and owe him a drink!
I used to hope that my words would one day be liked somewhat by total strangers, and now I’ve managed that, I’m dead chuffed. Now I need a new goal …
I’d best get on with that sequel, hadn’t I!