Joan He was born and raised in Philadelphia but still will, on occasion, lose her way. At a young age, she received classical instruction in oil painting before discovering that storytelling was her favourite form of expression. She studied Psychology and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Pennsylvania and currently splits her time between Philly and Chicago.
She is the bestselling author of The Ones We’re Meant to Find, Descendant of the Crane, and Strike the Zither, the first in a duology, recently released by McMillan.
James Kennedy is the author of the speculative thriller Dare to Know, which the Guardian praised as “a fascinating, compulsively readable thriller” and SFX Magazine called a “superb piece of storytelling: vivid, thought-provoking and unsettling.”
James is also the author of the young-adult fantasy The Order of Odd-Fish and the founder of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, in which kid filmmakers create short movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery-winning books in about 90 seconds, which screens annually in a dozen cities nationwide. He also co-hosts the Secrets of Story podcast with Matt Bird. James lives in Chicago with his wife and two daughters.
An hour-long chat with Jess E. Owen, award-winning author of the Summer King Chronicles, short stories that have appeared in Cricket and various “furry” genre anthologies, and an upcoming contemporary young adult novel.
Jess Owen is the author of the Summer King Chronicles, a young adult fantasy adventure that she describes as Lion King meets Lord of the Rings. The first book in this debut series won a gold medal in the Global e-book awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Self Published Book Awards. The second book, Skyfire, won an Ursa Major from the Anthropomorphic Literature & Arts Association for best novel in 2013.
Her short fiction has appeared in Cricket Magazine and various “furry” genre anthologies. She continues to write in the world of the Summer King, and has also penned a contemporary young adult novel, due out in spring 2022, by Page Street Books.
An hour-long conversation with Sebastien de Castell, award-nominated author of the swashbuckling fantasy series The Greatcoats and YA fantasy series Spellslinger, whose latest book is Way of the Argosi.
Sebastien de Castell had just finished a degree in Archaeology when he started work on his first dig. Four hours later he realized how much he actually hated archaeology and left to pursue a very focused career as a musician, ombudsman, interaction designer, fight choreographer, teacher, project manager, actor, and product strategist. His only defence against the charge of unbridled dilettantism is that he genuinely likes doing these things and that, in one way or another, each of these fields plays a role in his writing. He sternly resists the accusation of being a Renaissance Man in the hopes that more people will label him that way.
Sebastien’s acclaimed swashbuckling fantasy series, The Greatcoats, was shortlisted for both the 2014 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy, the Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Debut, the Prix Imaginales for Best Foreign Work, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His YA fantasy series, Spellslinger, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and is published in more than a dozen languages.
Sebastien lives in Vancouver, Canada with his lovely wife and two belligerent cats.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Sebastien, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thanks so much for having me.
I should have practiced “dilettantism” before I tried to read that bio.
Yeah, that’s that’s one of those tricky words, isn’t it, where there’s just one too many syllables for what we kind of expect when our eyes go over the word
And all those Ts. It’s very confusing. But yeah. So, we are both in Canada, we haven’t met anywhere, but we do share a publicist in Mickey Mickkelsen from Creative Edge, and that’s kind of how I made connections with you. Also, you were mentioned by Chris Humphreys, whom I interviewed not that long ago, as somebody who was kind of a beta reader for his stuff. And I thought, hey, I should talk to Sebastien. So here we are.
Well, you know, I’ve only recently met Mickey and he seems lovely, but I think it’s important to get on the record that Chris Humphreys is a dastardly rogue. He’s too talented. He’s too good looking. And above all else, he’s far too British for anyone to trust.
Well, I enjoyed talking to him anyway, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy talking to you, too, as well. So, I’m going to start as I always start, which is to take my guests back into the mists of time—I’m going to put reverb on that any day now—and find out . . . well, you started in archaeology, you didn’t start in writing, but you must have been interested in reading and writing before that. So how did that all come together for you? How did you get interested in in the world of telling stories, and where did you grow up, that kind of thing?
Oh, all the all the good stuff. I grew up as a young man in a troubled small town far to the east where . . . no, I was never one of those what I think of, and perhaps inappropriately, as natural writers. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a natural writer now. But I often meet other writers who will talk about the fact that they were always writing, and I was not always writing. My first serious foray into writing was when I was 27. I was in a a beleaguered and failing rock and roll band making, you know, two hundred and fifty bucks a weekend playing cover tunes, being sued by the bass player for control of the band. And when you’re being sued over control of a of a group who fundamentally makes their living playing “Brown-Eyed Girl” in bars in the interior of British Columbia, you know, you’ve hit a creative low point in your life.
And so I did what I did, what I think I’ve always sort of done in my life when I felt like I was, you know, missing purpose and a plan, which is I went to the library. And, you know, like most writers, I’m a huge . . . not so much an advocate of libraries, but a huge user of libraries, someone whose entire existence to some degree relies on the fact that libraries are there and that at any point in your life, no matter what’s going on, no matter how confused or depressed you might be, you can walk into a library and all of a sudden there’s, you know, a million different possibilities to sort of explore.
And when I was there, I found a box of book tapes, which was a course by a guy named Ralph McInerny, and it was called Let’s Write a Mystery. And this was such a strange thing. It was a set of 24 tapes. Twelve tapes, 24 sides, cassette tapes, and an accompanying book, and the accompanying book was the draft of a novel that he writes as he’s dictating these tapes to you. And he talked in a sort of a 1960s professorial sort of voice, the kind you would have heard in science class in high school, where you would sort of say, you know, “And today we’re going to make our protagonist and he should be a guy you’d like to have a beer with.” And oddly, that kind of strange, soothing tone allowed me to do something I don’t think I’d ever been able to do before, ever would be able to do before, which is to write my way through a novel for the first time. And as it should be, as the universe demands, that novel was terrible. It’s called Skeletons in the Cloister. It’s an archaeological mystery that deeply reflects my love of archaeology, or lack thereof. But it taught me everything, you know, it suddenly changed the entire way that my mind worked, such that I was able to conceive of how to write a novel, like, nothing felt too big anymore.
And so, a few years after that. . . and I felt so good, like, it just changed my life in the sense that even having written this one terrible novel, I was just so much more confident and so much more interested in people and in the world around me. And a few years later, I decided to do what’s called the Three-Day Novel-Writing contest, which is an annual contest that’s been around forever, where you try and write, you know, something in three days. And I ended up writing 44,000 words of a novel in three days. All the while, I think I still went for runs. I slept more hours than I usually sleep. And I had a music gig where I had to learn to sing “The Lady in Red,” which is a rather painful song for me to sing for purely musical reasons. And so, somehow I ended up with this draft, which I was super happy with. And years later I decided, What the hell, I’ll give a shot at this. And I revised that novel and nearly tripled the length in the process. And that became Traitor’s Blade, which was the first book in the Greatcoats series, which launched my career. And, you know, it has gotten me to the lofty heights to which I ascend to this day.
Well, if we go back, way back, you must have been a reader. Nobody suddenly decides to write if they haven’t been a reader. What sorts of things did you read growing up?
Well, when I was . . .I came to reading actually through my sister, who when . . .I was a comic- book reader as a little kid. In fact, the first time I realized I could read in English was reading a comic, because I used to just look at the pictures. And then I went to French school, even though I only spoke English. Getting dumped into French school at six years of age when you only speak English is quite a trauma, I can tell you. And so, my first sort of actual exposure to learning to write any language was in French. And then one day, I suddenly noticed I could . . . I was looking at the same old comic books and realized I could read the words, which was a very strange experience to have. But from there, I sort of, you know . . . when I was about nine years old, my father was dying of cancer. And my mother asked my sister, who is about 15 years older than me, to take my brother and I on a trip to England and France to kind of get us out of the house, I guess. And I mean, we didn’t have much money. So, you know, how my mother and sister made that work is still baffling to this day. And she started reading to my brother and I from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And so, I became completely enthralled with Narnia and in that world for a while.
But it wasn’t until in my teens where I really started reading in English for myself. I read when I was in French school, I wasn’t always . . . I had a period of time where—I think lots of us do—where you get kind of disconnected from other people. And again, the library, the school library, was a sort of a place of refuge. And I read a little bit there, but it was when I was around 15, 16, where a friend of mine in an English high school by the name of Edward Swatchek (sp?) was kind enough to give me a copy of a book called Jhereg by Steven Brust. And I was just blown away by this book. I mean, I still think in many ways he’s not recognized—even though he’s widely admired. I don’t know if he’s recognized to the degree to which I think he helped inform some of the stylistic options available to fantasy writers, that we didn’t have to write everything in “thees” and “thous” and things like that.
I certainly remember my encounter with him when I was probably university age, when I ran into Steven Brust and I read everything I could get my hands on.
Yeah, me too. You know, To Reign in Hell is, like, such a deeply troubling book, actually, that I . . . I adored it but could never read it other than the one time, because there’s just so much for me. There was just so much emotional trauma tied to how well that story is told. But I so I kind of fell in love with that. And that kind of led me to other books, some of which are sort of forgotten sometimes, including Keith Taylor the wonderful Australian author’s Bard books about Felimid mac Fal He wrote a series of books about an Irish bard that were just so full of sort of verve and zest that they made me want to become a bard, which to one degree or another, for the rest of my life, I’ve been sort of trying to do that, which is partly how I got stuck being sued by the bass player . . .
I was going to say . . .
The bass player is a perfectly nice guy, by the way. We’re still friends. And, you know, and into some books that I think are now being sort of reconsidered to some degree, like Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books and things like that. So, my sort of, you know . . . which is, sorry, a very long-winded way of saying, like my sort of sense of fantasy, which is the domain in which I largely write—I also write sort of mysteries on the side, but not that I think anyone would really want to read—but my sort of sense of fantasy was really drawn from the ‘80s, which is a strange place to derive it from because it’s both too late to be the classics and sort of too out of date to entirely sit within the, kind of the present taste for fantasy.
Well, what actually then drew you into archaeology that you then found out you hated when you actually had to go on a dig?
At the time, I would have had a better answer. Positioned as I am sufficiently far away from it. I think it’s I can admit that it was Indiana Jones.
And the thought of adventure. You know, adventure is a very difficult thing to get these days. Right. You know, society isn’t really structured around adventure. The kinds of adventure that are largely available to us as human beings now involve either extreme sports, which, you know, doesn’t sort of have that kind of quest feeling to it unless you really like hiking up dangerous mountains, which is great, but not totally my thing. Or if people, you know, sort of want to join the military, which requires, you know, a sort of an ideology that not everyone necessarily shares. But there’s not all the sort of opportunities for adventure and archaeology. When I was in university, you know, I think, as many people did, I conflated it with the sort of adventurous side that’s presented in an Indiana Jones movie—which in my defense, because I realize this sounds pretty pathetic, but in my defense, the archaeology department at Simon Fraser University did once confirm to me that every time a new Indiana Jones movie came out, their enrollment shot up through the roof.
I’m pretty sure Indiana Jones’s approach to research and working in the field would not work in the real world.
But what’s absolutely fascinating about that to me now is, because I remember by the time the second or third movie was coming out, people were sort of saying, “Well, you know, that’s not proper archaeology.” And, you know, we now know that it’s not. But if you listen to or read the transcripts of the original conversations between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and I think Larry Kasdan, who actually wrote the script, they were very intentional about the fact that this was not a good-guy archeologist. He wasn’t doing archaeology. He was a kind of antiquarian thief. And that his sort of justification was, someone’s going to raid these temples anyway, someone’s going to steal this stuff. At least if I steal it, I’ll sell it to a museum rather than a collector. And so, there was a . . . there’s a stronger element of the anti-hero in Indiana Jones than there is in Han Solo, who is regrettably often quoted or listed as being an anti-hero, when, in fact, he’s nothing of the sort.
The archaeology thing and being on a dig and realizing you didn’t like it . . . I went through the phase like many kids do, thinking I might want to be a paleontologist because, you know, dinosaurs are cool. And then I’ve had the opportunity since then to be really into paleontology digs and all that bending over in the hot sun with a toothbrush, brushing away dirt, I realized . . . much as when I went out with a veterinarian, a farm-animal veterinarian, and had to see what they did with farm animals when I was in high school and I realized that veterinary medicine was not for me either.
Yeah. My goodness. You know, paleontology is archaeology magnified in the sense that . . . I often tell people that archaeology is an excellent—like, field archaeology specifically because obviously there’s many, many different kinds of many different branches of archaeology—is actually, by the way, a good career. People do earn good livings as archaeologists, strangely enough. But field archaeology is an excellent endeavor if you really like camping, because basically that’s what you’re doing. You’re camping and then you’re out in the hot sun and then you’re pulling out the toothbrush. And, you know, at night there’s the campfire and drinking and not tons of showers. And, you know, if that’s your thing, it’s fantastic. I’m really . . . probably no one’s going to quote me when they’re putting together posters to promote archaeology programs. But it is it is a wonderful field. I’m super glad that it exists. And I’m almost equally glad that I’m not in it anymore.
Well, the drinking and camps . . .we’re not far from here is the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, and it has a cast of Scotty, who’s the largest T-Rex found in North America. And I was at the dig when they were pulling him out of the ground out in the Frenchman River Valley. But the reason he’s called Scotty is because when they found him and realized what they had, they went back to camp and drank a bottle of scotch. That’s why he’s Scotty. And the paleontologist, Tim Tokaryk, who was working on it, said that it’s like when you have a find like that, it’s, “Yeah, this is exciting.” And then, “Well, now I know what I’m working on for the next multiple years of my career.” I also wanted to ask you about being a fight choreographer. You actually are somebody who knows how to use a sword, is that right?
I am, in as much as anyone sort of knows how to use a sword without ever having to actually risk their lives with one, because obviously that changes everything. But yeah, I used to fence quite a bit. Years and years ago. And then for a while I was doing sword choreography for the theater and that, you know, informed my writing in all the ways you can imagine. But so, there are other . . . there are many other writers in fantasy who have far better credentials on that particular front than I do. I think specifically of someone like Miles Cameron, who is genuinely a historian, both more broadly and specifically of arms and armor and things like that. But, you know, I have some game
And you’ve done some acting as well. And I always ask about that because I’m a stage actor and I have found that being an actor influences my writing as well in a beneficial way. So ,I’m just curious, all these things, the archaeology, the fight choreography, the the acting, the music, does that all fit into your stories, do you think?
Oh, absolutely. I think one of the beautiful things about writing, and something I’m very passionate about, just as a human being, is everyone writing a novel. I think everyone who wants to write a novel should write a novel. I think we all have a good book in us. It’s just varying levels of effort to get it out. And often, I meet people who are nervous about . . . they’re having trouble writing their novel and they get very stressed out and they’re worried that because they’re having trouble, they won’t do it. And I always say that one of the wonderful things about writing, and I think especially fiction, is that it feeds on everything you’ve experienced. And so, there’s always time to write your novel in the sense that, you know, if this isn’t the year, it might be next year or the year after. It might be that it’s the experience of going to a place or doing a particular job that’s going to unlock it for you. And all of it feeds into it.
For me, music is probably the element that influences my writing more than anything else, because music introduces that notion of the contrast between rhythm and melody and rhythm can very loosely be attached to pacing, for example, inside of a scene or inside of dialogue, and melody can kind of loosely be attached to the sort of emotional intensity and tonality of the writing. So ,everything influences it. But I’m often more conscious, I would say, of music as driving the feeling of a scene for me as I’m writing it. And, you know, very frequently when I go . . . I run quite a bit. I’m an absolutely terrible runner, but running has this weirdly perfect combination for me that . . . it’s hard on me because I’m not good at it, and so it makes me emotionally kind of vulnerable. And so, I’ll listen to music, which also tends to make me emotionally vulnerable, and I will have to conjure up scenes, and then I’ll have these profound emotional reactions to an idea for a scene. And so, people will be wondering why this pathetically slow runner going up a hill is crying.
I would cry running up a hill, but . . .
It’s just that thing that allows you to kind of, you know, put things together at that right moment. That’s so much . . . I think what the act of creation is from the standpoint of a novelist is, it’s this combination of you have to put your body and your brain into a particular state. For some people, that’s, you know, they burn incense and light a . . . and drink the right tea and sit at the right place at the right time of day. For me, it’s actually being somewhere. It’s doing something. It’s having an experience that’s outside of my normal day that that kind of drives it. So then, it’s that putting yourself in that state and then allowing those kind of emotions to run a little bit rampant and all your dark little secrets to kind of creep up from your subconscious. So, yeah, so all those sort of activities help, but they all help in different ways. You know, the fight choreography taught me a lot about the role of a character inside of a scene because, you know, you were mentioning . . .. you’ve been a theater actor, have you done any stage fighting?
Not with weapons. There’s been a couple of fistfight things, but that’s all.
Well, you know that typically . . . you know, there’s a famous sort of Shakespeare line, “They fight,” which is . . . you’ll have this massive script full of the world’s most amazing dialogue. And then it’ll be, you know, somewhere it’ll say Romeo and Paris confront each other in the fourth act or third act of Romeo and Juliet. And they have these lines, wonderful lines of dialogue. And then it just says, “They fight.” And so, what a fight choreographer has to do is somehow put in a piece o choreography in which that conversation continues, but without words. And so, the way a character fights . . .and then, this, I think, can be expanded to the way a character moves and can be expanded to the way a character does anything is a constant reflection of the sort of the narrative that they’re telling about themselves, right? I am the hero in this fight. And, you know, I’m much more devious than you think I am. You know, all of these sorts of things can play out inside of a swordfight, which is what makes those fun for me to write
I’m not someone who typically watches or aims to watch, you know, boatloads of action movies because often those are spectacle devoid of narrative. Not always. You know, if you watch . . . I think Jackie Chan is particularly wonderful at this putting kind of a story into his fight scenes. But a lot of fight scenes now tend to be spectacle without the need for narrative. But so, that’s what I learned from fight choreography. So, to round it out, all of that kind of informs the writing and sometimes in ways that you’re conscious of and sometimes in ways that you’re not.
Well, I think for me, it’s not the fight choreography so much, but just the acting and the fact that when you’re acting . . . I’ve also directed plays, and you’re always extremely conscious of where everybody is in relationship to each other within the space. And I think that that carries over when it comes to writing scenes and having that mental image of where everybody is in relation to each other. And when I mentor younger writers or do instruction, I will sometimes find scenes that seem to happen in just kind of this amorphous grey space and there’s no sense of place and they lose track of where characters are. And I just think that the acting and directing side is kind of helps with that and obviously fight choreography even more so when it comes to writing those fight scenes.
I just wanted to say, I think I always view the actor role slightly differently in this regard, that . . . the thing I didn’t understand about acting, even probably in the time when I was an actor properly, is that an actor’s job isn’t to perform a particular set, deliver a particular set, of words while making a particular set of actions, but that it’s a much more sophisticated process in that they’re creating all of these interpretations and layers that aren’t available in the script itself. And for me, that’s what the reader does, right, that when the reader picks up the book, they’re reading the script and they’re having to direct all of the action and produce all of those, a lot of those layers of subtext themselves, which is what’s so amazing about it. It’s also one of the reasons why I absolutely adore getting, hearing, the audio books of some of my books, because there you have an actor and often an extremely skilled actor who is suddenly taking your text and adding all of these layers to it that are, that just for me, just bring the story alive in a completely different way than I expected.
Yeah. I often say that although writing is a solitary act, it’s actually a collaborative art form and that you’re collaborating with the reader and you don’t actually know what the final art form is because it happens individually in each reader’s head. Each reader is constructing their own version of your story based on their own background and understanding of the words that you were using. And it’s really, really fascinating to think about that. When you write a book, you’re actually writing a whole bunch of books, because every reader is getting a different book out of it.
Absolutely, and yeah, and I’m philosophically I’m a believer in reader response theory, which argues that the only, that the true narrative act is, is when the reader reads the text, that s the author, our, you know, our intent becomes irrelevant the moment the words are fixed to the page because it doesn’t matter what I intended or what I was thinking. That’s not available to the reader. There’s only the text and they will, from that text, conjure up whatever they want to conjure.
It’s one of the reasons I also don’t take it too personally if sometimes someone will say, you know, “Oh, this this represents this, this scene represents something horrible or this character is vile,” or, you know, this book is about something that it’s not about for me because I always recognize well, it is about those things for that reader. And it’s why I think, you know, literary criticism is such a tricky area. You know, it’s expanded so much because, you know, everyone has a YouTube channel now or lots of book bloggers are out there. And there’s sometimes a sort of an attempt to kind of consolidate a sort of a definitive interpretation of a book, which to me is a pretty problematic effort at best. Whereas, you know, sometimes when people are just trying to share what they love or even what they hate about a book, that sort of to me always feels like a more personal expression. And therefore, it always aligns better with my own sense of, as I say, a reader response theory, that every reader is the one constructing the story from the text.
That’s interesting. I’m currently reading a collection of Robertson Davies essays published just after he died in the mid 90s, and he had a line in there to the effect that he hated it when a reader would say to him, “So what you’re trying to say in this is,” and he would always say, “No. I said what I’m saying to the, you know, to the best of my ability, your job is to figure out what I’m saying.” And I thought, I don’t quite buy that.
You know, that always feels like a very Canadian thing to me. I don’t know why, but I always feel like, when I hear kind of the Canadian literati talk about books, that there’s such a strong adherence to a very old-fashioned notion of literature as this thing created by great minds that the rest of us should struggle to interpret. And if you don’t enjoy a great book, it’s because you didn’t interpret it correctly. And if you didn’t get out of it what the author later informs you through their memoirs they intended, then it’s because, you know, you didn’t interpret it correctly. So, I’m not a big fan of that perspective, I would say, which is nice, because this is my first time explicitly contradicting Robertson Davis. I’m sure that will go down in the annals of literary history.
I mean, I loved his essays. I love reading good stuff, but I did kind of push back against that. Well, now let’s move on to your process for creating great literature. But you have a book that’s just coming out, Way of the Argosi. When does that come out?
That comes out on April 19th. It’s oming out in various languages in various parts of the world, but I’m not actually sure what it’s publish date for North America is going to be. So, it’ll be available in pretty much everywhere except Canada and the United States on April 19th. It may end up being available in Canada and the United States on that date. But it’s a little wishy-washy right now.
Well, this this, as it happens, unusually for these podcasts, we’re doing this just a few days before it comes out. We’re doing this interview on a Monday, or is it Tuesday? And it will be coming out this coming weekend. So, it’ll be out very, very promptly, so, before that comes out. So, let’s start by a synopsis of it, and then we’ll talk about how you created it as an example of your creative process.
Sure. So, Way of the Argosi is a young adult fantasy novel about a young refugee who is pursued and tormented by the mages who massacred her clan. And as she sort of struggles to survive in this world, she finds herself trying to adopt the kind of archetypes of different ways that people navigate the world ,of trying to behave like a knight and, you know, trying to, you know, value honor. And when that sort of fails for her, trying to be a thief and surviving that way, but then finding the limits of that, and ultimately coming to meet one of these rather strange and enigmatic kind of what I would call a cowboy gambler, monks who are called the Argosi, who sort of offer her a somewhat different path through the world. But it’s one that comes at great cost. And so, that’s what Way of the Argosi is about. It’s the . . . the main character is Ferius Parfax, who is a character who appears prominently in the Spellslinger series. But this is her story, told for the first time.
Well, I haven’t had a chance to read the entire thing, but it immediately gripped me with the opening scene with the 11-year-old girl hiding among the corpses, you know, going on from there. Very gripping reading and opening, I think. Greatcoats, your first one that made your career, as you said, that wasn’t YA, was it?
No, no. The Greatcoats is definitely adult fantasy. Although, you know, the dividing line between adult fantasy and young adult fantasy is blurry at best. It’s very much a sort of a marketing distinction at times. If you think to the classic fantasy that we probably read as kids at various points, it very often featured younger characters who might start, you know, Way of the Argosi only briefly has Ferius as sort of 11, and then it progresses into her teenage years. But lots and lots of, you know, the Belgariad by David Eddings, for example, I think the main character starts out very young and stays very young throughout pretty much the whole series. So, it’s an odd distinction. But The Greatcoats definitely sort of fits into that classification of adult fantasy, if only because it sort of features a trio of middl-eaged men.
So why did you start focusing on YA? Because your next series was YA, was it not?
That’s right. Spellslinger sort of fit into that Y.A. category. I think . . . my wife is a librarian and she, I think, gave me the best definition of her notion of YA at one point, which was that young adult stories are about first experiences. And so, what happened was . . . Spellslinger was kind of interesting. Originally ,I was going to write it with one of my best friends and I sometimes write with a guy by the name of Eric Torin (sp?), who’s a well-regarded video game person, but also a terrific writer. And we wanted to write something together and we were spit-balling various ideas. And then. his life got very busy and he said, “No, you go off and do it.” And so, I’d written this story about an exiled former mage, you know, wandering the desert like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu, which is a reference not everyone will get.
Yeah. And, you know, a more modern parallel is probably Jack Reacher in the sense that Jack Reacher is sort of like, you know, David Carradine in Kung Fu, but without the philosophy quite as much. And so, I had written this book and I I loved it and my agent loved it. And then it went through this sort of odd cycle of things where, all of a sudden, I was being asked by various publishers who are sort of saying,”Look, we would love to see a YA trilogy of prequels to this and would you be interested in doing that? And could you write a rough outline of what that would look like?” And I said, “OK,” which is always the first mistake I make when I’m asked to write a book proposal because they’re nightmarish, not so much in the process of making them, but in in the consequences where now you’ve basically given somebody nothing they can fall in love with, but something that they can critique.
And so, it kind of went through various cycles of that, where they say, “Well, now we need some chapters. Well, now we need some more chapters. Oh, this is looking really good. Can you write even more?” And I was like, I said, “You know, I’ve written almost half the novel now. I think you’re just asking me to write the novel.” But eventually, it sort of went back and forth between a couple of publishers. And I ended up with this very strange eight-book deal from Bonnier in the U.K. for world rights. And it was a really great deal. It basically meant for four years of my life, I had, you know, a ful-time, excellent income just writing those books. And so, we originally said we would do four books, would be Kellen as a young man, and four books would be Kellen as an adult. But then then an editor came on board who said, “Well, actually, I think we’d like six books, all telling the story of his youth,” which is what we did.
And then, that left two books on this contract. And I said at one point, “You know, what is it you want me to do with these other two books?” And they sort of said, “Well, you know, write whatever you want.” And I thought, Well, that’s like a really strange thing to do. And I didn’t have high hopes that doing so would result in a massive marketing push. But I was really delighted working with Bonnier and their imprint, HotKey Books. And so, as we were coming around the bend of wrapping up the six-book series about Kellie, I said, ”Look, you know, I’m if you want two more spells on your books, I’ll write two more Spellslinger books. If you want something different, I will, like, let’s talk about something that you could be passionate about.” And they were kind of interested in something that was set in that world but wasn’t just a continuation. And in the meantime, I was getting these letters. I get quite a bit of fan mail, or more than I sort of expected to get as a writer. And often the fanmail I get is from people who will say, “I read Spellslinger, I want to become an Argosi, tell me how to become at heart Argosi. And of course, you know, it’s a strange thing to try to sort of helpfully answer those letters because I am not an Argosi and there is no, you know, there’s no school of the Argosi.
But what I think people were sort of falling in love with was this notion of this system . . . the Argosi are a little bit like the Jedi, except rather than having basically magic, they kind of don’t revere magic, but they sort of mock magic. You know, in fantasy novels, magic is always this sort of moral superiority in a sense. You know, we all want to have it. And the Agosta are sort of like, “You know, that stuff’s all kind of children’s games. The real thing you need to learn how to do is dancing, you know, or singing, or learning languages.” And so, what the Argosi do is, they take very human phenomenon and, like, very human things, and they kind of elevate them almost to the level of magic. And the best example I can give is sort of martial arts, right? When you think of it, martial arts are pretty amazing, right? Like, the human body is a pretty crappy instrument for most forms of violence. We don’t have very good, you know, biting teeth. We don’t have very good claws. We’re sort of gangly-limbed. And somehow, humanity over the millennia has sort of created martial arts where all of a sudden these otherwise gangly bodies can become kind of amazing inwhat they can do. And so, I was sort of extending that with language and wit and even with something like swagger, like charisma and confidence.
And so, that’s what the Argosi kind of do. And so I . . . and because the Argosi are also an expression of my own philosophical bent towards existentialism, which, you know, of course, as with everything else, I’m not an expert on. But for anyone who’s completely confounded by what existentialism is supposed to mean, in its simplest form, it’s the idea that there’s no inherent meaning in the universe. There’s no natural purpose to anything. But humans, for whatever reason, can’t seem to live without a sense of meaning. And so, you know, existentialism is a philosophy that says, therefore, what you have to do is decide what is meaningful to you and live authentically to that. And so, the Argosi, rather than being a kind of an order of knights, as we’ve seen in the past, that have, you know, you must be this, this and this, or unlike the Jedi, let’s say, from Star Wars, the Argosi believe that every person has to find their own path and sort of take that on and embrace that and follow it where it leads. And so that seems to be, I think, very appealing for a lot of people these days who don’t feel like a lot of the traditional avenues that that, you know, our parents had or their parents had fit them very well. And so I, when it was time to deal with these last two books, I said, “You know, maybe I’ll write something that’s . . .” My original idea was was I’m going to write my own version of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, which really nobody should do. I’m not entirely sure Coelho should have done it, because The Alchemist is basically sort of a fantasy story that is him expounding on his personal philosophy and spirituality.
And so, that’s why this got called Way of the Argosi, because I thought, Oh, I’ll just expound on all of that. But, of course, you know, it became just a very personal story of of this character, various power facts. And along the way, we sort of, you know, pick up some of those things. But it’s not a sort of a guide to how to become an Argosi in that sense. It’s a tale in which in which some of those ideas are explored. And so, yeah, I’ve been absolutely delighted with it.
I, funnily enough, I received the audiobook. They sent me the audiobook to get to listen to and the performer, Kristin Atherton, is so amazing. And, you know, going back to what we were saying about acting, she just brings that whole story to life in this whole new way. And it’s absolutely captivating for me because even though I wrote the words, you know, she takes them and she’s made them her words. And, you know, it’s like I’m getting to hear various effects for the first time.
Well, I think in all of that, we’ve kind of covered some of my usual questions about where the idea came from and the development of it. What’s your actual writing process look like? Are you an everyday writer, do you do it in long stretches or snatches around other things? Do you write with parchment and the quill pen under a tree? How does it work for you?
I write exclusively in blood. Not mine, you understand, other people’s, because I would get tired if it was my blood. I’d run out of energy. So, my process is a giant mess. And to kind of give you a sense of how big a mess it is, I’ll put it this way. In January of 2020, so, January of last year, I called my editor at HotKey Books and they were just transitioning from Felicity Johnston, who was wonderful, to go to a new fellow, Maurice Lyon, who is also wonderful. And I had this chat with her and I said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to write Way of the Argosi. It’s not working. It’s really not working. I need to push back publication by a year,” which is not a nice thing to do to your publishers. She, of course, was wonderful and said, “No problem. You know, I understand. Do you want me to read some of what you’ve written?” And I said, “OK, but it’s a disaster.” And then she took it and she shared it with Maurice. And a few weeks later, we had this conversation and they said, well, no, the stuff . . . they loved what was there, but it wasn’t quite hanging together. And in the course of a sort of a 20-minute phone call or 30-minute phone call, you know, a couple of ideas were bounced around. And Maurice said something like, “You know, I feel like you’re rushing from the moment of her trauma in that opening chapter to later events,” and that it would be OK to explore some of the stuff in between.
And that doesn’t sound like a particularly profound insight. But 60 days later, two months later, I was turning in the manuscript of Way of the Argosi, and virtually nothing changed from that manuscript to the one that is dropping in reader’s hands in the book on April 19. You know, it was copyedited by the fabulous Talia Baker, who transforms my occasionally clumsy sentences into something closer to sublime narrative. But the story was all there.
And so, my process is so messed up that I can get to a point of literally thinking there’s no hope for a book. And then, someone will say something that will seem very, very basic to anybody else. And yet, all of a sudden, that unlocks things in more sort of tactical terms or pragmatic terms, which was probably where you were headed with the question. But I’m fabulous for derailing questions. But on a tactical level, look, there’s things that I’m always very cautious when I’m asked this question. And the reason I’m cautious is because I know that a lot of listeners are either writers themselves or thinking about writing. And I’m always terrified of imparting something that will sound like the rules for a field that you and I both know really has no rules.
It’s kind of the point of this podcast, is that everybody does it different.
No, absolutely. And so, it’s one of those things where I always feel like I have to keep saying, “But of course, this may work differently.” And in my own life, in fact, I have probably done every different kind of writing, every different approach, all within the bounds of the 11 books I have published so far. So, with something like Way of the Argosi, the way that it finally came out was in part by saying, “All right, I am going to write this draft, knowing that the story may not go where I want it to go may not be anything of any value. And I’m just going to write every single day.” And that’s what I did. So, for 30 days straight, all I did was write this book and I didn’t worry about whether it was going somewhere logical or not. And then, somehow, it did. But I’ve done that again recently with a different book, and it’s gone straight to hell. I mean, it’s gone into a book that makes no sense, that has, you know, no artistic merits or values whatsoever. And so, it’s always all over the map. You know, with Knight’s Shadow, the second Greatcoats book, I think I wrote a 45-page outline, and to some extent, I followed that outline. So, I sort of use everything. And that’s the big challenge for me when I’m writing a book, you know, and I’m actually kind of glad that you’re making me talk about it here, because it sort of forces me to remind myself of this.
The biggest challenge when I set out to write a book is to figure out what is the process by which this particular book is going to come to life, because I don’t know what process that’s going to be. So, it might be, sit down and write a big outline. It might be, have no outline and just explore. And even beyond those very tactical concerns, there’s often a mental game involved, which I don’t know if you encounter this because, you know, in your writings, maybe . . . I’d be interested in hearing how you deal with this. But it seems sometimes as if we have to program our own brains or deceive our own brains or tell ourselves something . . . like, I’ll have to trick myself by saying, “All right, I’ve decided that this book isn’t going to be published and I’m just going to write, I’m going to write a book that’s going to, that’s basically intended to irritate fans of fantasy, you know, that all these people that talk about what fantasy is and what it should be and what tropes are allowed and not allowed, I’m just going to, you know . . .”, and somehow that’ll get me to a book that doesn’t offend people necessarily, but it seems to work, whereas other times I have to tell myself some other thing. And so that whole internal process, I think that’s why I’m so sensitive to not wanting to ever make any writer feel like they’re doing something wrong, because I just never know what the process is going to be.
I think my usual trick is just telling myself that I’ll get this mess out and once I get to the end, I go back and fix it. The first person I interviewed here, Robert Sawyer, and he got the term from Edo van Belkom, I think he said, he calls his first draft the vomit draft, because you just vomit it out and, you know, it makes a huge mess that you have to clean up, but you feel better so you could get on with the cleaning it up. My next book for DAW Books, The Tangled Stars, is this big, sprawling space opera that turned out to be humorous, which I didn’t really know going in, necessarily. And I’m struggling with it a bit. But that’s really what I’m telling myself, is, I’ve just got to get the words out there and then I’m going to I’ve got to fix all this stuff I know it’s horribly wrong with it right now, but not until I get to the end. That’s kind of the way I tell myself.
It’s interesting, because I sometimes correspond with Dean Wesley Smith, who, you know, is the writer of any number of Star Trek and Men in Black novels and Marvel comics, superhero novels and things like that, as well as all of his own series, the Poker Game Series and things like that. And he has a very specific philosophy about writing, which is, you write one draft, you turn off the internal critic entirely. You allow your brain to take the story wherever it’s going to go. You can cycle back while you’re writing as many times as you need to clean things up. But once you hit the end, that’s it. It’s over. It may get a sort of a typo-cleaning pass, but that’s it. And he’s very firm about this notion that you have to trust what you write and if you keep second-guessing what you write that that you’re basically training your creative brain not to trust itself, so it’s . . . and I’ve had a couple of books recently where following that is sort of process really worked for me. I’ve had others where it didn’t. But it is interesting that that even that notion of the first draft, is that the first draft, this getting stuff out of yourself so that you’re more analytical brain can fix it, or is that first draft the true and genuine expression of the story your artistic self wants to tell you, therefore you have an obligation to it? That’s the question.
I would say with my . . . OK, we’ll talk about me for a minute. I would say with my writing, with my first draft that it is, I don’t change huge, huge things in these. You know, I have things to fix. But the overall story, I don’t, like, switch scenes around or move chapters here and there or anything like that. Once I have that something to the end, that is the shape of the story for sure. So, I guess I’m following a little bit into his way of thinking about it. So, it does get worked out in my head as I’m going. It’s just that I know at times that I’ve got I’ve got to do some foreshadowing back there because I didn’t really set this up and that sort of technical stuff. But the overall shape of the story, if I do run into trouble, which I did on my last one, The Moonlit World, I got to the middle of the book, realized that I could no longer get to where I thought I was going because my brain had changed things, and I had to go back and sort of take a fresh run at it from the beginning and read through it all and change a couple of things. And then, when I hit that stop spot in the middle, I was able to power through it and carry on to the end. So, it’s not . . . as you said and as this whole podcast is about, there’s no one way to do it.
And I think, yeah, it’s interesting, because I think the middle is the true book in a way, the true book that has to be followed in the strange sense that, you know, I will very frequently write an opening to a book that I think is terrific. And n fact, I almost never struggle to write a strong opening to a novel. But once you get into that second act, you know, however, one defines the second act, that’s where things get really, really fuzzy. And that’s where one of two things will happen, either for me, either I get lucky and I’m on the right track and that middle will carry me through that, you know, will carry me all the way through to the story itself, or I won’t be. And sometimes, I’ll do sort of what you described, which is I’ll cycle back to the beginning of the book, you know, right back, and all I’ll be doing is just changing a word here or there. It’s more just me reimmersing myself in where I started from and see if I can get to a better launching point in that second act.
The thing that appeals to me, I have to say, about Dean Wesley Smith’s model is the notion is it allows for the notion of a novel from the standpoint of a writer being a journey that you begin with the first word on the page and end with the last word at the end of the book. And that’s just, psychologically, for me is so appealing, right? The notion that today I will sit down and begin a book and then, you know, X number of days from now, I will end that book and it will be finished, I will have completed that journey, I will have climbed the mountain as opposed to what very frequently happens to me. And by the way, part of what informs this is, I am not kidding, I’ve turned in the tenth draft of Play of Shadows, which is the first book in the new Greatcoats series, the tenth draft. I’ve never done 10 drafts a book and that starts to feel like you go and you climb this mountain and you get to the top and discover that you took the wrong route. You get kicked off the mountain, you roll down to the bottom, dust yourself off and start climbing again.
That doesn’t sound like fun.
It’s so, you know, I think my wildest fantasy of writing is something along the lines of this. As I travel to an exotic location, or, not even that exotic, let’s say you got to go to Paris for a month and you write a fantasy novel that’s set in a fantasy sort of version of Paris. And you start it when you get there and your afternoons are spent in a cafe, you know, somewhere on the left bank of the center. And then when you get on the plane to fly back to Canada, you’re also hitting send on the manuscript to the editor who will then fall in love with it. You know, that’s the vision of being a writer that I think I’m always desperately trying to get towards. And so that’s why I write so much now. You know, I write so many books in a given year, a couple of which are meant for publication and a couple of which will literally just be me just trying to get better as a writer so that I can one day hit that point where I can be like, “Yes, I will fly off to Cambodia and I will write a wonderful novel while going on an adventure.”
Well, I think we’re kind of down to the end of the time here. And I think although this did not follow my usual formula of questions, I think you covered pretty much everything I normally ask as we as we chatted back and forth. So, thanks for that.
I apologize for the long answers. I’m a novelist, not a short-story writer.
No, it’s fine. It was great. What are you working on now?
Yeah. So right now, I’m waiting . . . so, soon I’ll be getting notes back on Play of Shadows. I’m going to be starting up the second novel in that series, which is called Our Lady of Blades, which I which is one of those books where I’ve done a lot of climbing up the mountain and then gone, “Wait a second. There’s a there’s a more interesting story to explore here.” I just finished up another mystery novel. I’ve never published a mystery novel, but I’ve written, like, four of them, which is kind of a weird thing to do. But I suppose it allows me to kind of, you know, stretch my writing muscles a little bit. And I’m about to start copyediting on Fall of the Argosi, which is the sequel to Way of the Argosi, which is the one that’s coming out on April 19th and which I hope everyone will enjoy as much as I do.
And where can people find you online?
They can find me at . . . the best way, generally, to find me is at my website, which is decastelle.com. I will see stuff on Twitter and try to respond to it. Facebook is notoriously bad for me. Someone will sent me an incredibly heartfelt message and I don’t see it until six months later. So, my website is usually the best. But, anyway, people try to reach out to me, I will try to respond.
OK well, thanks so much for the conversation. I really enjoyed that. I hope you did too.
Chris (C.C.) Humphreys has played Hamlet in Calgary, a gladiator in Tunisia, and a dead immortal in Highlander; he’s waltzed in London’s West End, conned the landlord of the Rovers Return in Coronation Street, commanded a star fleet in Andromeda, and voiced Salem the cat in the original Sabrina.
He has just published The Tapestry Trilogy, set around—and through—the fabulous medieval Unicorn Tapestries in New York’s Cloisters Museum.
He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Chris, welcome to The Worldshapers!
Thank you very much for having me.
We were just talking—we know we’ve been at the same place at the same time, but we didn’t actually talk to each other at the time, because we were both at When Worlds Collide, the great literary conference that’s held in Calgary every year, a few years ago.
That’s right. Well, we might have, though we might have been drunk, and that’s why we don’t.
Entirely possible. So, we’re going to talk about specifically the Tapestry trilogy as an example of your creative process. But first, I will take you back into the mists of time, which is getting further and further back for some of us, and ask you about—well, your biography, you have an interesting upbringing—and how you got into both the acting side, which really interests me because I’ve done, nothing on your level, but I’ve done some professional stage work over the years, and then how the writing came along. So, just take me through your life and how you got interested in writing and especially on the fantastical side of things.
Right. Well, so I always really defined myself as a storyteller because I do I tell stories in all these different ways. You know, I began telling other people’s stories as an actor. I was blessed, or cursed, depending on how you look at it, because my dad was an actor and all four grandparents were actors. They also wrote, some of them. Both grandfathers wrote. My Norwegian grandfather particularly wrote. He was quite a well-known writer in Norway. And I was avoiding all the acting thing. My mother, who was not an actor but obviously grown up with one, married to one, daughter of one, did not want her dewy lamb to be an actor with all the hassles that a career in an industry like that can bring. So, I was being steered away from that. I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do. And then, you know, when I was about seventeen, I got cast in the lead in the school play, and suddenly all those genes kicked in. And I thought, That’s it. And I went to drama school in London, the Guildhall School, and then embarked on a pretty healthy acting career.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of very . . . well, you listed some of them. You know, I’ve done a huge amount of screen and stage work. But the writing side began because I’d always wanted to write. I mean, you know, like a lot of people, I had a way of thinking, Oh, that’s what I really, really want to do. And I’d always had such a wild imagination. I was the kid telling stories. I was the five-year-old organizing all his friends into knights and Vikings and pirates and, you know, playing out these elaborate games, which everyone does on screen now, of course, but we didn’t have screens in my day. And so, that was me. And I always wanted to tell stories. And I particularly loved historical fiction. That’s where I lived. You know, I loved swordplay, especially. And I indeed ended up as a fencer at school, it was my main sport, and a fight choreographer later on, and essentially became an actor so I could jump around with bladed weaponry, which I managed to do an awful lot of, which was great.
But the writing side, you know, I knew that . . . you know, acting, I love acting as a pure essence of a craft, I absolutely love it. I still need to do it periodically. But the business of acting is a pain, you know, always submitting yourself for approval, you know, things so out of your own control. You can give the best performance but be an inch too tall or have the wrong colour hair, and you just don’t get the role. So, even though I did well and, you know, ended up in Hollywood at one stage and on the West End stage and played, as you said, played Hamlet, I was frustrated by the gaps, particularly the gaps between creativity. And I wanted to write, and I got into it the normal way, tried a few short stories. I didn’t understand something which I now teach, because I do quite a lot of teaching of writing now, and what I really teach is process. I thought things had to be good straight away and didn’t realize that it was a process of . . . you know, good and bad actually aren’t in my vocabulary, really, in any of the drafts I write. It’s just about what works and what doesn’t. So, a bit of craft there. I didn’t understand, but I gradually got into it, and then, I started—I actually won a twenty-four-hour playwriting competition in Vancouver, and they produced my play and gave me 500 bucks. And it was like, “Oh, I’m a professional writer now.” And so, I carried on writing plays because they felt, you know, like a small enough chunk. A novel, which is truly what I wanted to write, seemed like a mountain, whereas a play seemed like a hill to climb.
But then I had this idea for my first novel, The French Executioner, about the man who killed Anne Boleyn. And even though it’s historical fiction, it’s really got huge, fantastical elements, not least the ghost of Anne Boleyn wandering around without her head tucked under her arm, actually, which is as the old song goes. But I didn’t have the courage really to jump in, knowing I most wanted to do that. I found ways to avoid doing it, researched the absolute backside off the thing for six years, only then discovering that research is a form of procrastination, and finally jumped in and started writing it.
When I did, it just took off, and I wrote it in ten months, showed it to an agent. She took me on, she had it sold within a month, and suddenly I had a two-book deal. And then I was being published professionally by Orion in the UK. The fantastical side came a bit, actually came fairly early on, in that another agent who had taken me on my first agent lunch . . . of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, as they say. And she came up, she said to me, “Have you ever thought of writing young adult fiction?”
And I went, “No,” because I’d written three adult historical novels by that time. And anyway, she said, “This type of stuff, you write action-driven, character-driven family stuff. You know, it would work really well, if you’ve got any ideas.”
And I went away and thought about it and I thought, I only write what I love anyway. And I was very interested in the sort of Norwegian side of my family, which is, to put it mildly, a little spooky. It has a sort of ghostly/psychic element to it that I always found interesting. And so, I delved into that and I came up with this idea for a book called The Fetch, which is a term for, like, the doppelganger or that that sort of thing. You know, the other you that we all have inside and that can go out. Certain cultures have it. Corsicans have it. Italians have it. Indonesians have it, surprisingly, because they bought the books in the end. And I came up with this idea, dashed off a chapter and a very skimpy treatment. My agent took it to New York. They went, “Yep,” and had it sold in ten days. And suddenly I’m writing a trilogy for Knopf in New York called The Runestone Saga. So that began my fantastical journey. It’s more earth magic, I would say, than fantasy. It’s all about Runic magic and the fetch and time travel and all the stuff I love.
Before we get too far into what you’re writing now, I just want to go back a little bit back into your bio, because I did want to establish that . . .you’re thought of as British, I think. But of course, you’re actually from Canada originally, aren’t you?
I was born in Toronto, yeah. Born in Toronto. Left when I was two. Grew up in Los Angeles till I was seven because my dad was an actor having his shot in Hollywood. And then I moved to England when I was about seven. And hence the accent you’re hearing, which was laboriously crafted from years of English private school, followed by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, getting rid of my lazy Rs, my Canadian, my American, Rs that I still had. So, then I became quite the Brit actor. But I’m not—I mean, I am. And I played that. But I’m—but it’s funny. I’ve played so many different things and I play American and Canadian. I’m making quite a career at the moment, actually, my sort of pivot in these turbulent times is to be an audiobook narrator and I’m doing a lot of that and I’m doing that American, Canadian, whatever it’s called for, you know. So yeah. So, that’s the background on the accent.
And I wanted to talk a little bit more about the acting and how it ties into the writing. Now, you said you started writing, writing plays, and you actually—you know, I think people who are naturally novelists or short story writers would think a play is the daunting task as opposed to the novel. The novel would come easy; the play would be hard because you have to tell everything strictly through dialogue and action on the stage. But how did the two things tie together for you? I mean, I often try talking to people who are involved on the acting or directing or playwriting side, that one thing they bring to their fiction writing is a very solid sense of what’s happening in the scene in a physical sense, like where characters are in relationship to each other, and you don’t have the sort of amorphous space where people suddenly seem to teleport from one place to another, which I’ve run into in some people’s writing. How do you find that the two things tie together, the play side and the prose side, the novel side?
Well, yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, my books, people always say, “Oh, I can see the film,” you know, and I go, “Well, I wish you would because obviously, I’d be much wealthier if they did.” And a number of my books have been optioned for TV or movies, but none made so far. In answer to a question, the playwriting, it was a natural progression for me, having done so much theatre. I love dialogue. I love the use of dialogue. My books tend to have a lot of dialogue because I always find dialogue is very active, and I like to keep scenes active. Obviously, the opposite is passive, and who wants to read that? So, I like to move action. And I think dialogue is particularly useful for revealing character, concealing character in some ways, because people usually don’t say what they really mean or often don’t. And yes, that sense of dramatic action, I always say that what I write really is character in action. And obviously, that’s three words rather than two, because character inaction would be really boring, but character in action. So, you know, I don’t do a lot of interior monologue. I like my characters to reveal themselves by what they do and how they react to circumstances, which actually helps me in my writing because I, you know, I very rarely get stuck because something is able to happen. I can just take my character into some situation, and things will evolve.
And that’s kind of how I write things. I, I don’t know necessarily that much about the whole book. I don’t plot, really, I have an idea where I’m going. And then I let the characters take me there by doing stuff they need to do so. So, I think that’s the acting side. It’s almost, you know, Acting 101. You’ve done some of yourself, Ed, you know that when you as an actor, what you’re always taught and what you learn is that rather than dwell on, “Oh, do I remember my lines,” or whatever, you trust that they’re there and that you’re going to react spontaneously to what happens. “What do I want?” is the key question for me. “What does this character want?” And then take that character into a scene and run into an obstacle that prevents you getting what you want. So, how do you deal with that? So, I do that a lot. And that’s a definite, that’s the most direct correlation between my acting/playwriting side and my prose side.
Yeah. And that’s something else, when I’ve talked to other actors who are also writers, as an actor, you’re trying to inhabit a character and make that character come alive. And that’s exactly what you’re doing as a writer. The only difference is that as a writer, you have to make up the dialogue. It’s not given to you by somebody else.
This is true. This is true. And that can be both good and bad. You know, if you’re doing Shakespeare, you’re relishing the fact that you’ve been given this amazing dialogue. If you’re doing some terrible television show, you’re thinking, “How do I make this work? I can’t even begin—this makes no sense at all.” So, I’ve done both, obviously.
Well, now, let’s go back to the books you were going through, the ones that you have had written. You have this . . . I can’t remember where you left off when you were talking about that, but you have the fantasy novels from Gollancz that were coming along there somewhere, I think.
Yes. Well, I’m currently I’m in the midst of those right now. I’m doing something that’s quite interesting, and I think a lot of your listeners might relate to. I’ve become what they call the hybrid author because I’m both being published by the big houses still, but I’m also doing some self-publishing, getting my—
Yeah, of course, getting the backlist back, reissuing those because, as you know, often a writer will feel that they’ve laboured for a year over this, or a year or more over a book, and then it barely registers before the publisher has moved on to another book. You know, you’re hot for about three days, and then they’ve moved on, and you think, “Well, they didn’t really. . .” You know, they expect some magic to happen, you know, so you always get frustrated because, let’s face it, we write to be read. And if people aren’t aware of your books being out there, how the hell are they going to be read? So, I’m quite interested in the whole . . . I’m not the world’s greatest. I have to tell you, I’m not a great marketer or a publicist, but I’m doing OK. And my plan is just to get all the books out there again. And so, that with the . . . Gollancz, of course, you know, they’re doing whatever they do. I don’t think they’re making them as known as they could, but, you know, there’s very few writers that aren’t going to complain about their publishers pushing their books. However, it’s . . . to write epic fantasy like that is quite interesting to me, because my other fantasy, even though I don’t really believe in marking between YA and adult, I just write a good book. And a lot of adults have read my so-called YA fantasy and vice versa. But my epic fantasy is, you know, it was an agent who actually said, you know, “Epic fantasy is kind of big right now, have you got something?” And I just thought, No, but I did what I do, which is, I sat down with a notepad, I wrote a word in the middle of the first page, and the word was “immortality.” And then I just started riffing off that and within two hours had a five-page treatment
So, I’m sure that’s going to offend a lot of your listeners, I’m sorry. It sounds too pat, but it’s that feeling of which I was talking about before, about process, and that initial process of just letting your mind go and riff and relate and word association, and all that stuff helped me come up with the idea for the Immortals Blood series, which Gollancz then, after a few hoops I had to jump through, bought, and the two books, as you said, were already out. I think it’s very different. I mean, of course, I would say that. But it’s not . . . I mean, there are battles. There are swords. There are, you know, there’s all this. But there’s nary an elf maiden with a lost king in sight. You know, it’s about immortality, and it’s about the corruption of basically the one percent, what the elites can do to a world. And three very different worlds, one kind of Viking, one kind of Greco Roman, and one kind of Mesoamerican. And what has immortality done in those three respective cultures. So that’s . . . I’ve loved writing those. I’m just about to receive book three, which is called The Wars of Gods and Men, which is the concluding book of the trilogy, back from my editor. And then that’ll be out probably until early next year.
And then that brings us to the Tapestry trilogy, which, yes, we’re going to focus on a little bit more as an example of your process. We’ve talked quite a bit about your process already, but we’ll go through it anyway. So, tell me, first of all, before we start talking about it, tell me about it.
The Tapestry trilogy. So, this is a good example of how the hybrid world works. So, I wrote—when I’d written the Runestone saga, my editor asked me to write another book. I hadn’t thought of writing so-called YA fantasy fiction at all. So, I was a little bereft of ideas. And then, as you mentioned in the bio in the intro you gave, I suddenly looked at the ring on my finger, the rampant unicorn that I’ve worn since I was 18 years old. The family crest, no less, though, my horse-auctioneer great-grandfather was the one who came up with it. So, it’s . . . I’m not hidden nobility or anything like that. Anyway, and I thought, “What does a unicorn mean?” And I started delving, and various things happened. Unicorns could only be tamed by maidens. Unicorns are indomitable, unconquerable, apart from the maiden in the mirror, actually. And they could also cure illness and poisons and, dare I say, viruses, and heal and cure pollution as well. They calm a stream to make it drinkable, that sort of thing. I was fascinated by that.
And then I discovered the Unicorn Tapestries, these amazing medieval tapestries, which are in the Cloisters museum in New York. And the great thing about—-one of the great things about them, apart from their sheer stunning beauty and, you know, no one knows exactly who made them or when they were made, like, late fifteenth century is the best guest and Flanders is the best geographical get. But no one really knows anything about them, who they were made for, who made them—someone very rich because they’re very, very expensive to make, gold, red, and silver thread, but they are stunning, absolutely stunning, you know, this whole journey of a unicorn, the hunt of the unicorn in five tapestries.
And so, I immediately glommed onto that and came up with the idea that maybe a New York young lady called Elayne or, full name, Alice Elayne, is told by her father, who’s dying, actually, he’s got leukemia, that there’s a family history. And there’s this book he reads to her that tells of the original tapestry weaver, who was their ancestor, and who had woven a gateway for a unicorn to travel back to his world because unicorns, magical beasts, were in our world, but then basically it got too hot, man got too good at killing them, so they all went back to the place they were from, which is Goloth, the land of the fabulous beast.
And so, the tapestries became a portal, you know, kind of like the wardrobe in Narnia between our world and this medieval world, Goloth, where all our myths live. And she is summoned by a five-hundred-year-old unicorn called Moonspill through the tapestries because he needs her there, he needs her help. And it’s her adventures in Goloth and how they have a complete misunderstanding because she thinks, What do I know? Because he wants her to tame him because he needs to not go mad. He needs to rescue his mate, who’s held by the tyrant king. And she goes, you know, “I barely passed calculus. What do I know about unicorn-taming anyway?” I won’t tell you the story, but there’s a rapprochement and an adventure.
And then, I was asked to write this . . .I didn’t think of writing a sequel. I thought it was a pure one-off. But as you know, unless you actually kill the characters off, they’re there. And I started wondering, you know, after all the extraordinary and terrifying adventures, what would happen to someone like that? I mean, how do you go back to your normal life in New York? How do you go back to—two years later, she’s actually at Columbia—but how do you go back to a normal life when you’ve done all these incredible things? You know, there’s probably a touch of PTSD, you know. And so, I revisited. . . and then, of course, the other thing was, I really thought, Well, I’ve had a unicorn, I’ve got to do a dragon. So, I came up with this idea, The Hunt of the Dragon, and wrote that. And then, you know, that was only published in Canada. So, I thought, now I want to take this further. But then I thought, I know what I’ll do. I’ll write a third book, because, of course, there was more. And I discovered this thing about dragons. I decided not to stick to one sort of medieval European wyvern or something like that. I incorporated all various aspects of Eastern dragons as well. And Chinese dragons particularly are able to be shapeshifters. And I thought, Wow, that’s cool. A dragon that can actually turn into a human being for a couple of hours and then wreak unspeakable havoc when it does. Because my dragons are not cozy dragons, my dragons are killers. And so, I wrote The Hunt of the Shapeshifters, which is what happens when some dragons manage to get their way back to Earth and start killing. So, serial killer dragons, I thought, that’s going to be good. So, I wrote that as the conclusion of the trilogy, a completely new book for that whole saga, and then brought them out myself and called it all the Tapestry Trilogy.
Well, you talked a little bit about the Gollancz trilogy, starting with a single word and then building out around from that. In this case, it seems like you started with a ring, but did you use a similar process? And how much planning and outlining did you do? It sounds like you don’t do a lot.
I don’t do a lot. No, I. You know, with The Hunt of the Unicorn, I mean, I suppose . . . it’s a while ago since I wrote it, actually the first iteration of it, but it would be my normal process. I tend to . . . I mean, it depends how much research I needed.
There’s, you know, there’s a misconception that that fantasy doesn’t require research. You know, they say, “Oh, it must be so much easier for you now. You’re not writing historical fiction.” And I go, “You have no idea. I mean, you know, researching weaving for a start and tapestries and then and fabulous beasts, because, of course, it’s not just the unicorn and even the dragon. There’s griffins and manticores, and each has their own mythology around it and therefore their own way of behaving.
So, there was all that. But what I tend to do is, I take . . . you know, it’s, again, another misconception that I don’t plan anything. I just don’t write out a chart or a plan. I’ll have a rough idea where I’m going. What I do is . . . what I often say is I liken it to an alphabet. The book is an alphabet, A being the beginning and the Z being the end. And, you know, I’ll have an idea of both those things. You know, what will be the, “Well, what’s the start of this journey?” The summons basically, but the set up of her life and her ancestry, which she doesn’t believe in, and her father being ill and all that stuff in New York.
And then, I know she’s going to get summoned through, and I know the unicorn is going to be facing this. So, back to the alphabet. I’ll know A, and I’ll probably know D, the summons, and I’ll know G because that’s when she meets the unicorn, and I’ll know M and then T and then, you know, W or whatever. But I don’t know how I’m going to get between them necessarily and that’s what I then write you know how and then because, I really, I believe in the process of writing, that it actually happens while you’re writing and so that the ideas I come up with in my logical mind are probably not going to be as good as the ideas that I come up with when I’m actually writing the story, you know, physically sitting there writing it.
So, all sorts of things happen. You open yourself to serendipity. You open yourself to inspiration. You literally, I mean, without being too sort of, you know, you solicit the muse. You know, I don’t make it all sound super-mystical, but it’s you know, it’s that’s part of the process for me. And so, when I get to the end of the first draft, that’s when I do a plot. That’s when I become a little nerdy and get my pencil and ruler out and literally write out this chart on butcher’s paper, which I pin to a chalkboard, which has the chapters, the rough action, and then notes about, well, you know, if this happened in Chapter 24, I’ve got to plant that in Chapter 15, that sort of thing.
On the character side, because you described your fiction as characters in action . . .
Yes, yes. Well done.
. . . how do they develop for you? Like, do you have them clearly in your mind when you start? Do they also develop through the process of writing?
Oh, no. They very much develop through the process. Yes. You know, I always say that they’re, you know, I need them to tell me who they are. I will start out with an idea of who they are. But then by putting them through the action, I will then discover, you know, who they are, how they react to circumstance and what they say to people, and that way, when I go back into the second draft—because I’m very big on separating out the different needs of each draft, you know—by the time I got to the end of the first draft, I know them so much better. So then, I go back and start writing the second draft and some of the early stuff. I think, “Oh, no, because she’s proved to me that she is this. Therefore, she wouldn’t do this in the beginning.” And that’s when my rewriting comes in.
It’s a bit like the rehearsal process on stage. You start off with a rough idea of the character, but it develops as you as you play it and bounce off the other characters in the piece.
Yeah, that’s an interesting analogy, actually. Yes. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. But you’re right. That’s exactly right.
Because the character you end up with in performance is not the way you started when you were sitting around the table for the first time reading the script.
Yes. Well, I know. . . you hope. You hope. I mean, that’s the point of rehearsal. And often there are, you know, there are instinctive choices you make that are very good and will appear in the final performance. And there are others that you’ve gone, “Oh, that’s that,” and something one of the other actors gives you or director, you know, sometimes gives you, you know, gives you a different way of approaching and you rethink it. You rethink how you can do it, or you try something different, and you think, “Ah, that works.” So yes. So, it is similar. It’s a good analogy for the writing process as well.
What does your actual writing look like? Do you write, you know, longhand? Do you just tap on a laptop? Do you like to work in an office or out somewhere?
Yeah, no, quill and inkpot, you know, on old vellum . . . no. I’m not a very good typist, and I’ve often thought I should correct that and become a speed typist, but then I actually don’t mind because it sort of slows me down a bit, which I quite like. You know, I’m quick enough, but I do a lot of writing what I call off-piste. I have notebooks, I have these brown notebooks that I favor made by a French company called Clairefontaine. And I’m always writing stuff in there. Often, it’s research stuff. And then it’ll be, you know, I’ll say, oh, yeah, I’ll discover some interesting fact, and then I’ll put N.B. underneath it. The unicorn Moonspill could do this now because of that aspect of unicorn lore or whatever. And sometimes, though less often these days, sometimes I go off-piste entirely if it’s a particularly tricky passage and just write it longhand. I only ever wrote one book longhand, and that was Vlad – The Last Confession because the material was so dense and tough, and I tried to do what I do, which is essentially write thrillers, historical thrillers, fantastical thrillers, in a subject that was so layered and so complicated by politics and religion and myth. Actually, I thought now I need to connect the head in the heart and the hand here. So, I wrote longhand. Never do that again because it’s so bloody labour-intensive to then put it into the computer. And also, my writing is scribble. So, I go, “What’s that word? I can’t even read that anymore.”
I wrote longhand in high school, and I haven’t done it since. I still have . . . actually the first book I wrote is right here on my desk.
Yeah. I would never do that again. My writing is also really bad.
I love the feeling. I’ve got a great pen, but I keep that for sort of a bit of journaling or a bit of riffing, you know, but yeah, it’s not ideal. So, no, it goes in the computer, and then it gets revised.
OK, and that brings us to revision. What does that look like for you? Do you do start to finish? Do you do a rolling revision as you go along? It doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like you’re going start to finish
Absolutely. Yeah, I . . .one of the classes I teach is called “The Mountain.” I came up with this concept of the mountain, the novel as a series of accents. And so, you know, it’s three different climbs up the mountain. I mean, there’s more probably than that. You do some bits, you do more, you work hard and do more drafts on than others perhaps, which come more naturally. But so, the first ascent up the mountain for me is that free climb. It’s like climbing a mountain. You forget the summit. You need to reach that handhold there, that foothold there. And that . . .if you free climb up the first time, that’s the exploration for me. That’s finding the best way up the mountain. And so, you know, one of the rules of mountain climbing, apparently, I’m not really a climber, but is, “Don’t look down,” right, and so I don’t look back, very rarely will I go back. Sometimes I go back to check eye colour or something, but even then, I don’t because I know I’ll pick it up next time. And often, if I’m . . . especially with the historical fiction, if I hit a point where I go, yeah, well, you know, I’m writing World War Two at the moment, “How did the Heinkel bomber . . .” you know, I put a question mark in rather than actually go back and look it up at the time, because I don’t want to stop the flow of the inspiration.
So, yeah, no, I don’t revise as I go. I get to the end, and then I go back to the beginning, and then I read it and . . . well I do my chalk first, actually. And then I just start again. As I’ve done it more and more, I find that my first drafts have become cleaner and cleaner. There’s not a huge change now as there was before, probably. You know, when I started out, I overwrote, I think, and now I don’t do that nearly so much. I find that the first draft is pretty clean, some passages will need reworking, obviously, something I discovered will have to go in, but there’s not a huge amount of revision on the second climb up the mountain. And the second climb is much more, “Right. I’m going to fix a route that someone could follow me up.” And then the third draft is, you actually take the editor up with you, and they go, “Yeah, look at that. That really worked. But why did you go over there? Why didn’t . . .?” And that metaphorically and then literally becomes the third draft.
Do you use beta readers of any sort, or you just going straight to the editor once you’ve got it finished to your own satisfaction?
You know, I don’t normally use beta readers. I did for Shapeshifters because I was writing it entirely for myself. And so, I got five fantasy writers, no, three fantasy writers, to have a read of it and give me some notes, which was great. Sebastien de Castell, Kristi charish, another, more screenwriter, Beth Stewart, who’s a friend of mine. They all read it and gave me notes, and then I use their stuff. So, I didn’t, actually, apart from the copy edit, I didn’t run that by an editor. So, that’s the only time. But normally, no, I don’t. It goes straight to the editor because that’s the advantage, of course, of working with a big house.
Yeah., I’ve never used beta readers either, partly because when I started writing, there just wasn’t anybody else around who read the stuff that I was writing
And once I got to being published by DAW, well, I have one of the best editors in the business, so I’ll let her tell me what needs to be worked on.
Exactly. Exactly. You’ve got to trust your editor. Yeah.
So, what kind of notes do you typically get from your editors? Are there certain things that you always find yourself having to do?
No, not really. There’s nothing that springs to mind. You know, I mean, I always say . . . again, when I’m teaching this stuff about the different ascents up the mountain, you know, the editor’s job is not to write your novel for you—as they say in England, you don’t buy a dog and bark yourself, right? Their job is not to say to you, “Yeah, you should do this, you should do that.” Their job is, I think . . .it boils down to clarity. What is the writer’s vision? And is this passage of writing helping in making that vision clear? So, for me, it’s about clarity. You know, the best question an editor can ask really is—which applies to theatre as well, actually, you know, you can say to a director, if you’re assisting a director or whatever, “OK, so we’ve just watched that scene. This is what I see. Is that what you want?” And if an editor says that to me, I’ll go. “Ah, “because it might be clear to you as an author, but you might not have made it clear for a reader.
So, it’s getting you, know, those are the sort of notes I like from an editor, you know, and then being able to say, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right. That is unclear.” Or, “You know what, you’re not right because it’s ambiguous. “And I’m big on ambiguity. I like ambiguity in character. I don’t like lack of clarity. And there’s obviously a big difference between those two things.
But it’s interesting, and I often make the point, that writing and, for that matter acting, is actually a collaborative art form, but I mean between you and the audience, because what you . . . especially in writing, you’re putting something into their head. What they see in their head is not necessarily what you see in your head.
It doesn’t mean it’s not working. It just means they’re bringing themselves to it and getting something different out of it than perhaps you thought you were putting in there.
Totally. Totally. I mean, two people make a book. The writer and the reader. I mean, leaving aside the editors and all that. But, you know, you . . . and I was saying this just this morning to my girlfriend because a young lady in Russia has written to me. She loved the Runestone saga, which only the first two books of were translated into Russian. She now speaks very good English—and this is ten years ago—suddenly writing to me and saying, “My grandmother and I really want to know how that story ended. We can’t get that book.” And I said, “I’ll send you one.” So, I literally just sent off a copy of Possession, which is the third book of the Runestone saga, to her in Moscow today. And I said to my girlfriend, I said to her as well as in the inscription I wrote in the book, you know, this is, all books are a journey and a journey between, you know, we take it together. And that’s why I annoy people who are reading my books by saying, “Oh, where are you up to? Where are you up to?” You know, because I like to remember that journey then and I’m part of it and get their feelings of the journey, which, as you say, can be quite different from what you might have intended or whatever. But I think that’s an important thing to remember as an author. You know, you’ve got to leave space for the reader to be in your story. I think explaining everything is not necessarily the way to go.
You’ve talked about teaching writing, so I wanted to ask you about that. But first I wanted to ask you, because I often do with authors, did you have any formal training yourself on the writing side?
No. I mean, I know people will go, “Well, wait a second, you got an MFA. “But I got that after I’d already written nine novels, I decided I needed to get a . . . I’d never gone to university. I’d gone to drama school. And I kind of felt cheated of that experience. Plus, I thought, you know, anyone who’s trying to teach in Canada today needs a master’s degree. So, I thought maybe, you know, if I want to teach at university, which really, I did, but I thought maybe that’s an idea now. So that’s why I went and got my MFA, which would be another podcast to tell you what I actually think about creative writing training, and it’s not necessarily all good. But anyway.
I get that a lot from writers.
But I took, you know, I remember taking a short story class long before I was, you know, I was just a wannabe. And this is probably ten, twelve years before I even before I turn my hand to writing. But no, and I’m not a great manual reader either, though I’m actually considering writing one right now because of all the stuff I picked up along the way, the experiential stuff I like. But what got me writing was reading a book called Writing the Natural Way, and it was very much about left brain, right brain. And it was . . .I mean, it was maybe a little over-heavy on that side, but it really did emphasize the separation of the process. And I read that book, and that’s when I started. That’s when I wrote my first play.
Well, have you found now that you are teaching other people to write, do you find that that comes back to help you in your own writing? I certainly do. I’ve taught writing, and I’ve been a writer in residence at the public libraries in Regina in Saskatoon, working with a lot of writers, starting up writers. And I find that focusing on other people’s writing often makes me see my old work clearly. Is that your experience?
Yes, I would say that’s true. When I teach, I tend to teach in a fairly, you know, I’m not very rigid. I like to see, you know, I’ll have a series of bullet points that I’d like to work through. It’s kind of like my alphabet for writing the novel. I know I want to get from A to D, but I’m not sure where B and C are going to be or what. They’re good. So, you know, I’ll riff on stuff. Other things will come up, and I’ll come up with a phrase, something I’ll go, and I’ll stop, I’ll say, “Excuse me a second,” I’ll stop and write it down because it does apply to my writing, but, oh no, absolutely you do. You know, especially when you can clearly see someone who’s got talent but maybe doesn’t know, doesn’t have the craft and how to channel that talent. So yeah, that does definitely help.
Do you find it rewarding when people advance as a result of your teaching?
Yeah, absolutely, and I love it. I do love it. I mean, I’m you know, I never seek teaching work. I’m often asked. I’ve been doing quite a bit online this year, actually, of course. And I’m actually teaching—I don’t know if this podcast is going to go out by then, but you might want to share this.
Oh, right. OK, well, I’m teaching a fantasy writing workshop for a literary festival that’s starting on Salt Spring Island. And, of course, you know, terrible timing for the poor woman who’s tried to start this. So, it’s all online at the moment. But I’m going to be teaching a fantasy writing workshop a week on Saturday, March 6. And if people want to go to Paper Covers Rock, which is the website, they might even be able to join in if they want.
Well, unusually, we’re recording this like three days before it will go live. So that will work out. That’s a week in the future or thereabouts when this goes, so . . .
Fantastic. Well, Paper Covers Rock, which is clever because Salt Spring is known as the Rock. And so this and this woman deserves the support because she’s trying to do what had never been done before establisher a literary festival in Salt Spring, which is crazy, and then tried to do it during a pandemic. So, I’m going to be teaching that class and hopefully get a few people out. And I’ll talk very specifically about writing fantasy.
One of the things I found teaching and being a writer in residence, in particular, is telling somebody very strongly, you know, I think this is very important, and you should do this and thinking to myself, “Just don’t look in that book that I wrote where I didn’t actually do that.”
That’s what we’re getting into the last few minutes here. So, I want to . . .you thought it was a little early for big philosophical questions, but I’m going to ask you. OK, there are three, really. Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes, in the big picture of human experience? And then, why write fantastical stories in particular? You don’t just write that, but you have recently written quite a bit of that. So, those are the three questions. But the first one is, why do you personally write? You’ve been doing it for a long time.
Why, why, why? Why, why this madness? You know, yeah, I . . . there’s a wonderful . . . I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a book called The Unstrung Harp. It’s an Edward Gorey book. Mr. Earbrass writes the novel, and there’s one . . .it’s a fantastic book for writers because it’s all about the process. And at one point, there’s this gorgeous Edward Gorey picture of this man, his hand across his eyes holding a manuscript. He’s rashly decided to revisit an early draft, and he goes and he sees it for what it is, dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. Why does he go on writing when it all turns out rubbish? You know, why endure “the unexquisite agony?” Why didn’t he become a spy? “How does one become one?” he says, it’s just wonderful, you know, and sometimes you do feel that. Of course, I write because I need to tell stories. You know, I’ve done it since I was a child.
I’ve told stories, you know, just getting my mates playing games. I love stories. I think stories are important. I think that what makes us human. If you’ve read the book Sapiens by Uri Yuval Harari, he posits the theory that what allowed sapiens to become the dominant, in fact, the only hominid, was our ability to gossip, i.e., tell stories. And that’s what draws us together as humans. So, I suppose that that furthers into your other questions of why does anyone write. I think we’re trying to make sense of the world, we’re trying to share our little viewpoint. And I’ve often likened us to, we’re all little mushrooms, and we’re popping up and giving our little view of the world there. You know, there’s a wonderful Wim Wenders film called Wings of Desire. I don’t know if you have ever seen it, but it’s set in Berlin, and it’s about these two angels. And their job is to go down and listen to people. They literally just sort of fold into them. They can’t be seen. And they hear what the people are going through. Very mundane stuff often, but they kind of testify. And I like that image, the idea that one’s testifying to the world and to, you know.
Fantastical stories. Yeah, I don’t know why particularly. I know I always enjoyed fantasy without reading it exclusively. I think it can be in the right hands so imaginative. I think it can shed light on our current situation, I mean, you know, I don’t write message fiction per se, but I do, you know, I’m always aware, even with my historical novels, people say, “Oh, you are an historical novelist.” I go, “No, I’m a modern novelist. I just happened to write historical fiction. You know, the books are relevant to today, are being read today. My fantasy fiction, I mentioned before, particularly the Immortals Blood trilogy, does deal with the world as it is now. It does deal with climate change. It does deal with the elites, the one percent, without trying to spell out a big message. You know, I’m more a depicter than coming up with answers, but I love the fantasy fiction that really looks at the world in a very different way. I just recently read for the first time, shame on me, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. Have you read that, Ed?
Yes, I did a long time ago now, when it first came out.
Oh, my goodness. Reread it. But just that worldview, that ability to take something so different and yet make it also accessible to humans, I think it allows us to explore, yeah. Explore ourselves even when we think we’re reading something that’s so different from ourselves. So it’s, you know, a human wrote it. So, therefore . . . I started my book, Vlad, which I realized . . . I was writing about Vlad the Impaler, right? And I was worrying about, was I going to whitewash this guy? Was I going to excuse him? And I didn’t want to do either. And then I realized, no, that’s not my job at all. My job is to depict him. And I literally wrote a prologue that said, “I’s not up to me to decide. You decide. You’re the reader. You decide what you think of this guy.” And I came . . . I found this quote by a Latin writer called Terence, who said, “I am a man. Nothing human is alien to me. “And I think that’s a good sort of motto for the for us in the world. And perhaps particularly as fantasy writers, you know, let’s explore, and everyone is probably, if you do it well and with integrity, going to be able to find something that they can relate to or something that’s going to make them think about their world slightly differently.
And what are you working on now?
Well, switching hats entirely, I’m back into historical fiction, though, not my more medieval stuff, which is where I’m probably better known. I’m writing a World War Two saga. Fascinated by World War Two. It is loosely based on my parents’ story because, I mean, you wonder why I grew up a storyteller, my dad was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot. My mum was a spy. So . . . she was a spy in the Norwegian resistance. So, I’m writing a story about, it’s loosely based on them, about a pilot and a spy meeting and various times they meet during the war and what their different wars look like. You know, I’m not . . . given my you know, that I don’t set out knowing the huge amount, I’m not quite sure what it is yet. I’m just writing and having a hell of a time, actually, I’m really enjoying it. It’s very close to my heart in lots of ways. I feel I’m shaped by the people who shaped me, who were shaped by World War Two.
Did your parents tell stories of those times or write them down?
My dad was a storyteller, you know, being an actor and a writer himself, and, to a certain extent. My mum . . . my dad was very gregarious and, you know, one of the lesser-told stories of the war is that for many people, it was their best time, no matter how terrible it was. You know, how do you beat being a glory boy? You know, a fighter pilot? How do you beat . . . does the world ever come close to that again? My mum not so much. You know, Norwegian, you know, saw the Germans marching down her high street on April the 9th, 1940, lost a lot of friends to it all, just escaped with her life when they bust her cell. She didn’t talk about it much at all. But I’m finding out a lot more now.
With my little publishing company I started for my own publishing purposes, Shadowpaw Press, one of the first things I put out was the First World War memoirs of my grandfather-in-law, my wife’s grandfather. And he set out to write his memoirs very late in life, and he wrote very complete memoirs of the First World War. And then it kind of petered out. It’s like he intended to go on through his life, but the rest of his life just obviously wasn’t as vivid to him as that time he spent as a truck driver at Vimy Ridge and then as a navigator on a Handley Page bomber and prisoner of war and all that stuff. It was quite a little set of war memoirs. And I was very happy to be able to bring it into the world.
Yeah. Fantastic. Well done you.
So that brings us, I think, pretty close to the end here. Just let people know where they can find you on mine.
Well, my website is AuthorChrisHumphreys.com. Chris Humphreys. People often misspell Humphreys. You can follow me on Twitter @HumphreysCC. I’m on Instagram @CCHumphreys. I have a Facebook, professional Facebook page, Chris Humphreys. But the best place to start is my website for sure.
OK, well, thanks so much for doing this and for being on The Worldshapers. And yeah, unusually, this one’s going to go out almost right away, so it’ll be very fresh.
Great! Well, fantastic. I mean, obviously, send me all the links, and I’ll publicize.
An hour-and-twenty-minute interview with Patricia C. Wrede, award-winning author of more than twenty-two fantasy novels for readers of all ages, as well as two collections of short stories and one book on writing.
Patricia will be instructing the workshop “Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction” for Odyssey Writing Workshops in January and February. Register here by December 7, 2020.
Patricia Collins Wrede was born March 27, 1953, in Chicago. She and her siblings (she is the eldest of five) grew up in the Chicago suburbs. She attended Carleton College, where she earned an A.B. in Biology and took no English or writing courses at all. Following graduation, she earned a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Minnesota and worked for a number of years as a financial analyst and accountant. She married James Wrede in 1976; they divorced in 1991. She currently lives in Minneapolis with her cat, Karma.
She began writing fiction in seventh grade and continued off and on throughout high school and college. In 1974, she started work on Shadow Magic, which took her four and a half years to complete and another year and a half to sell. By the time the book was released in 1982, she had completed two more novels. In 1985, she left her day job to write full-time and has been making her living as a writer ever since.
To date, Patricia has published twenty-two novels, two collections of short stories, and one book on writing. Her work is available in twelve languages (including English) and has won a number of awards.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Patricia, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be here.
Well, it’s great to have you. I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths at conventions or anything. But the folks at Odyssey reached out to me and suggested you’d be a great one to talk to. And I certainly agreed with that. And we are going to talk about the workshop you have coming up with Odyssey later on. But I’ll start the way I always start, which is by taking you back into the mists of time to find out how you got started (probably you started as a reader—from what I’ve read of your interviews, that’s definitely the way you started)-and how you then became interested in writing and fantasy and in science-fiction-type stories in particular. So how did that all . . .and where you grew up and all that stuff. So, how did that all come about for you?
Well, I grew up with parents who adored reading. I shocked some of my college friends when I told them that the only room in the house that I grew up in . . . I grew up in a big house because we had, my folks had, five kids, so I had four siblings, and we were parceled out. And so, it was a pretty big house. The only room in the house that did not have books in it was the dining room. And the only reason it didn’t have books in it was because there was, like, one wall of glass windows and another wall of windows and an archway door, and then you had to put the whichajigger, the sideboard for the dishes, somewhere, and that took up the last wall, and so there was no wall to put bookcases on. That was the only reason there were no books in the dining room. Officially. There were always books lying around, but they weren’t there . . . they didn’t have a home. But we had books in the kitchen, we had books in the bathrooms, we had books in the linen closet, and we had books in the upstairs hallway. The entire hallway was lined with books along one side. So, I mean, this is where I grew up and the way I grew up. And I was always, I loved reading, when I was five and started going to school, I was so excited about—I remember this, this is one of my very earliest memories—I was so excited about learning to read, I went off to school on the first day, and I came home, and I sat my brother and sister down in the backyard in the sandbox and told them I was going to teach them how to read. I was five, my sister was three, and my brother was two. This did not go well, but that’s how excited I was that, you know, everybody should know how to read as soon as they possibly could. And it just never occurred to me that, you know, two is possibly a little young, especially when you couldn’t really talk clearly.
And you grew up in Chicago, right?
I grew up in Chicago, in the Chicago suburbs. And I started writing my first novel, my very first unfinished novel, when I was in seventh grade. And it was the only thing I’ve written that isn’t technically fantasy, although it probably would have been if I’d gotten more than seven chapters. It was a kids’ wish-fulfillment adventure kind of thing. You know, they just moved into a new house, and he discovers a secret passage, and . . .
As one does.
Yes, as one does, every time you move into a new house, there’s a secret passage and secret rooms, and, you know, all kinds of fun things. And they were just heading into having discovered the secret passage that used to belong to the pirates that led to the castle. How they had a castle and pirates in, like, the middle of the Midwest in America, I have no idea. But I was in seventh grade. I, you know . . . who cared? Plausibility was not my thing. I suppose that makes it fantasy right there.
Of all the books that were lying around, were there some that were particularly influential on you in those reading years?
I read everything, and probably what I loved the most was fairy tales. I went through the entire Andrew Lang fairy tale collection. When I was in seventh grade, my beloved aunt in Alaska sent me a copy of Beowulf as a birthday present, and my parents gave me Bullfinch’s Mythology. And it was . . . I loved mythology and, you know, all of those sorts of stories, the fantasy. Older fantasies, you know, and fairy tales were what I could get my hands on, but this was really before fantasy was its own genre. You really had to hunt to find anything that was fantasy. It wasn’t until I got to high school that Lord of the Rings hit big in the United States, and suddenly you started being able to get fantasy. But there still was just not enough of it.
Yeah, I remember that. I’m a little just a little bit younger than you, I think. I was born in ’59, and I remember that. I remember as a kid, you know, you just couldn’t find the stuff. If you found something that was really fantastical, it was a rare treat. There was more science fiction, I think, but the actual fantasy stuff . . .
There was a lot more science fiction. So in high school, I mean, I read all the fantasy I could get my hands on, but most of what I read was science fiction because that was what there was. It was also what my dad read, and so I didn’t have to buy it myself. I could, you know, I mean, I only had so much allowance, and books were cheaper, but they were still expensive when you were in seventh grade. But I, you know, I got books for my birthdays. I had, you know, the Oz books. If you wanted something that’s influential, those and the Narnia chronicles were probably the first. I have almost the complete set of Oz books. I’m still missing two or three of the Ruth Plumley Thompson volumes, but I have the others, and I loved those. Probably my other big influences were The Man from Uncle and Rocky and Bullwinkle.
I remember those, too.
I’m absolutely sure those were important influences. And I get in trouble with English teachers every time I say that because they’re just not respectable. But, you know, when I grew up, fantasy wasn’t respectable either.
When you started writing, like, that first unfinished book when you were seven, did you share it? I always ask this question because some people did, and some people didn’t. I did when I was writing stuff as a teenager and so forth, and it kind of helped me know I wanted to write because people actually enjoyed what I wrote. Did you have people who are reading the stories you were writing in those early years?
Only my mother. And she was probably the other huge influence because there I was in seventh grade, and I told her I was writing this story, and she said, “Really?” And I showed her the pages, and she took them away, and she typed them up on her typewriter in proper manuscript format. Because she also wrote. I never was allowed to read her stuff because she wrote for the confessions magazines.
And that was just not something that you . . . by modern standards, they’re extremely tame, but at the time, that was something you just didn’t even admit to, to your children. She didn’t even save any of her stuff when she passed away. The only thing she had kept was a manuscript for a children’s book based on the Mother Goose fairy tales, or rhymes, Mother Goose rhymes, that she had finished. She didn’t save any of her less-respectable stuff, but she wrote for the confession magazines for a while, for a couple of years, so she knew proper manuscript format, and she typed it all up for me. And I just thought it looked so professional. And she didn’t say a word about the fact that I must have written it during my classes because, you know, that was the only time that I could have produced this much. But she didn’t say a word. She just typed it all up and gave it back to me. And I got seven chapters before life happened, and I moved on to other things.
My mom was a prolific letter writer, but she was also a secretary, and she had an IBM Selectric at home, and she typed up my first short story in proper format.
And that really made me feel very professional. I was about the same age.
It was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” was my first complete short story, so . . .
Ah-ha! Yes. I didn’t have a title for mine. It was only seven chapters, and it was never finished, but it was a novel. The first thing I tried to write is a novel. And then I had a couple of, I guess you’d call them articles, they were humorous stuff, in the high school magazine that they had. I did do a couple of things, but they were all non-fictional kind of humorous high-school slice-of-life things. And in college, I didn’t really have a lot of time to write. What I produced in college, somewhere along in between high school and the end of college, I got the notion that the proper way to write was to start with short stories and learn your craft. And then, when you had finally gotten good enough, you would write a novel. And so, I created this life plan. And I also got the . . . it had never occurred to me that you could actually make a living writing. And so, I created this plan for myself, a life plan. I was going to write and, you know, really work on my short stories from time to time as kind of a hobby for the next 15, 20 years. And when I hit . . . that would give me enough time to get really good at it and start selling my short stories and have a real track record here so that when I hit 40 and had my midlife crisis, I could quit my day job and write a book and still have something for an income. I was very practical about this.
It didn’t work out quite the way I expected. You know, I did write quite a few short stories. It turns out I’m not really a short story writer; I’m a novelist. And I kept writing them and sending them out, and I did get better. And after a while, they started coming back with notes on them from the editor saying things like, “This sounds like Chapter 3 of a novel, and this sounds like the plot outline for a novel.” And you’d think I would have bought a clue at that point, but I didn’t. I kept writing short stories and having them rejected. And finally, I had an idea for something that I knew was not a short story. It was a novel. And I wasn’t at the point where I was supposed to . . . my plan said that I was supposed to sell a bunch of short stories first, but I really wanted to write it. And so, I said, “All right, fine, I’ll write it, and I will stick it in the bottom drawer because . . . I won’t tell anybody. I just won’t tell anybody that I cheated and did the novel now. So, I did write it. It took me a long time because I wasn’t really paying that much . . . I wasn’t really focused on it. I was still trying to write short stories. And when I eventually finished it, it was sort of like, “Well, I could put it in the drawer.” But by this time, I had internalized the idea that when you finish something, you sent it out because editors do not do house-to-house searches for manuscripts. You have to put it on their desk. And so, I went, “Well, it’s done. What the heck?” So, I started, I put it in the mail, and it got rejected from the first place, with a lovely encouraging rejection letter from Lester Del Ray. And then, you know, I sent it to a couple of other places, and it got rejected. And finally, I sent it to Ace Books, and they accepted it, and they bought it. And, I was like, “Well, hey, cool.” And I never looked back from there. And that was Shadow Magic.
All those years that you were writing short stories and so forth, you’d actually studied biology, and then you got your MBA . . .
. . . were you taking any formal writing, training of any sort? Did you ever do that during those years?
Nope. Nope, none at all. I had . . . I took no English classes at all in college. The high grammar school and high school that I went to both had excellent English programs in terms of the fundamentals. I mean, diagramming sentences. Remember, diagramming sentences?
My dad taught English, and he was big on that.
Nobody does that anymore. But diagramming sentences, that was a big thing. And so, I had a pretty good grasp of grammar and essay-writing structure and that sort of thing. But I, you know, once I passed high school, when I got to college, my philosophy was, I looked at the course requirements, I skipped out of the required . . . they required, like, the basic essay-writing class, and my AP exams were enough to let me skip that . . . and I looked at the classes, and I went, “OK, all of these English classes are about reading books. I know how to read books.” But the other things in that particular distribution requirement were things like history and art and, you know, those kinds of things. And I went, “You know, OK, I’m going to take stuff that I wouldn’t do by myself because I wouldn’t know where to start or I don’t know anything about it, and I want a little more guidance.” So, I took Art of the Far East, and I took History of India, and I took classes in subjects that I would not have explored or would have had a much harder time exploring on my own. And I did indeed, you know, read a lot of Shakespeare and other stuff. But no, I did not take any . . . Carlton didn’t offer creative writing, you know, formal creative writing. They may have had, like, one English class in it, but most of the English classes were more traditional English literature, study of English literature. And I figured I could read that on my own. So I did. And never, ever did take any creative writing classes.
And all of those other things you studied, have they fed into your writing over the years?
Oh, yeah. Everything always feeds into your writing. And, you know, people ask about sources, and really, writing, it’s kind of like making stone soup. You know, that folktale?
For listeners who might not, it’s a folk tale about a guy in the middle of the plague years who comes to a town, is begging, and they say we aren’t going to, you know, we have nothing. And he says, “Well, that’s fine. You’ve got a big pot. I can make stone soup for everybody.” And so, they give him a big pot, and he puts a stone in and a whole lot of water in and lights a fire under it and starts making soup and tastes it after a while and says, “Coming along great, but you know, some onions would be just the treat.” So somebody goes and gets some onions, and they put the onions in the pot. And then, a little while later, he checks it again. He said, “Yeah, yeah, I could use . . . a few carrots would be great.” And he keeps this up with each of the possible ingredients, and the villagers keep bringing him stuff. And finally, it’s all done, and it’s great soup, and everybody has some, and they just marvel at the fact that he made it out of nothing but a stone and some water. And writing is a lot like that. You know, people say, “Oh, you made it up all out of your head,” and it doesn’t occur to them that your head has had, you know, 20, 30, 40, 50 years’ worth of inputs of, you know, everything in the world, you know, from, you know, going fishing, going on a fishing trip to, you know, playing hopscotch in grade school, to everything you’ve ever read. You know, all writing is based on the writer’s life and in some sense or degree.
I often say when I’m teaching, writing, or talking to writers, the only person you really know well is yourself, and all your characters are going to some extent draw on what you know about yourself and what you’ve observed from the people around you. So, yeah, it’s al kind of, you know . . . “filling the tank” is the expression that sometimes used.
You didn’t take any formal writing courses, but you were a member of a writer’s workshop. And I often get asked about writers workshops . . .
A critique group.
A critique group. “Extremely productive,” it says in your bio here.
So, that would be the Scribblies. And that was a group that . . . originally I think it was six of us formed it and we added a seventh, one of our members moved out of town, and we wanted to stay six, and so we added a seventh and then she came back to town and so we just stayed at seven until everybody kind of went off in their own directions. But yeah, that was me, Steve Brust, Kara Dalkey, Nate Bucklin, Pamela Dean, Will Shetterly, and Emma Bull.
Pretty good collection of names there.
Yeah. Well, at the time, none of us was published, you know, we were all beginners. Will and Emma were, I think, the only ones who had taken a creative writing class, and Pamela had a Master’s in English, so she was our grammar maven. But it turned out to be a really great balance of people because everybody was really, really good at a different thing. And so, when you gave them a piece of writing to critique, everybody would spot something different, and the people who spotted it . . . you know, Pamela was really great at doing characters and dialogue, and when she said there was something wrong with the dialogue, there was something wrong with the dialogue. There were different people who had sort of different areas of expertise. It all flowed together really well, and it was enormously helpful. And critiquing other people’s stuff was almost more useful than having my own stuff critiqued. You know, your own stuff . . . when people give you advice about your own stuff, the tendency is to think in the back of your head, “What? You don’t know anything about that. That’s perfectly all right. That’s fine.” But when you see some other person’s stuff getting torn apart into tiny, tiny little pieces, you think to yourself, “Well, I’d better check and make sure I’m not doing that because I don’t want them to do that to me.” Tat’s really useful. It’s a really useful reaction. So, yeah, the right crit group can be—it can be, sometimes they’re destructive, but you just have to be aware of that, and it’s a matter of picking the right people and the people who are destructive in a constructive way, if that makes any sense.
Something like that. People are not afraid to point out your mistakes, but who don’t make you feel like you can’t correct them or that you’re smaller because you made the mistakes. You know, you don’t need people who are showing off how great they are; you need people who are trying to make your story better, honestly and truly, and that you can help them make their story better. That’s the, I think to me, the ultimate thing in a critique group. Now, you had another question?
I was going to say you’ve done quite a bit of teaching as well over the years.
And I have found, like, I just finished a term as writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, and I was at the Regina Public Library a few years ago doing the same thing. And I always find that looking at other people’s, sort of like what you’re just talking about, looking at students’ work or other writers’ work and trying to help them with it is very helpful to mine, as well. Do you find that, you know, by . . . what’s the line from The King and I, “If you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught”? Do you find that to be true?
Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s one of the most rewarding things to do, but it’s also really fun to see, just to see what other people come up with because one of the things about writing is everybody’s process is different. And after doing this for 35, 40 years, the one thing I’ve discovered is that every book, the process is different. You know, there’s something that I think of as my normal process, but I think that only works on about 50 percent of the books I write. The other ones just go off on their own. They do their own thing. And you can’t predict which ones are going to be like that and which ones aren’t. They just . . . it’s how it happens and watching what other people do just . . . it fascinates me, all the different ways that people work and, you know, how they take an idea and something that I thought was very straightforward and pointing to the left and this is exactly where this is going to go, and no, it veers off, and it goes totally to the right and, you know, upends itself, and it’s just fascinating.
And that’s also what this podcast is about, so that’s a perfect segue into your particular way of writing. And as you said when we were talking about this before we did the interview, you actually have different ways of working on different books. So instead of focusing on a single book, which I often do in the podcast, we’ll just talk about your process in general in the ways that it varies for different kinds of books. And the first one is a question that everybody asks, and it’s a cliché, I know, but it’s still a legitimate question: “Where do you get the ideas?”
Where do you get your ideas . . .
Or, I often like to say, rather, “What are the seeds from which your stories grow?” because that’s not quite the same.
That’s a little better question. But the thing is that ideas are the easy part. Ideas are all over the place. It’s like, how do you stop having ideas? A question I usually ask people is, “How do you not have ideas?” You know, for me, getting the ideas, like I said, it’s the easy part. They are all over the place. Emma Bull and I a couple of years ago were at an art gallery when they were living out in Los Angeles. I was out there for a convention, and the two of us went to, a lot of us, actually, went to an art gallery, and we were in a whole room, one of the rooms of portraits of people from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, and we said, “Well, look at that? Doesn’t she look like a ghost?” And for the next half-hour, we were going down the portraits, assigning them roles, you know, “Yes, she’s obviously the ghost. And this is obviously her husband. He must have killed her. He doesn’t look very nice. But, you know . . .”, and we had this whole thing just from looking at the portraits and looking at their faces and saying, “This is what he looks like, and this is what she looks like. And, you know, that’s the scullery maid who, you know, poisoned the soup.” I mean, it was just . . . neither one of us went there expecting that, but, you know, we came out with, I’d say, things that could have been ideas for probably two or three books or maybe a series, I don’t know. Neither one of us ever did anything with them as we were just, you know, sitting there having fun. It’s just, you know, ideas are all over the place. You look at pictures, you look at things out your window, you know, whatever.
So how do you decide which ideas are worth the time and effort to turn into a finished story?
The ones that won’t let me alone. There are always ideas that keep coming back. It’s you know, you think, “Well, that’s a good idea, but it’s not ready yet, it’s not finished.” And you put it away in . . . some of those sort of go to the great idea graveyard in the sky and nothing ever happens, and nothing ever comes of them, but other ones, you know, I finish a book, and I’m casting around for the next one, “Oh, hey, here’s that thing. Here’s that story, that idea about . . . that I was going to do . . . I’ve had that idea for ten years . . .” And some ideas, there’s one of them that I think I’ve started, I thought I was going to write that book three times. And the characters that I put into the idea didn’t go the way I thought that book would go. And so, I’ve got three books out of the same idea and never actually gotten that particular idea down on paper yet. My usual process in terms of writing is to start with all the prewriting and the outlining and the, you know, coming up with a plot, the plot outline, you know, somewhere usually between five pages and twenty-five pages of details about what’s going to happen and where. It’s usually about five to ten pages, I think it is . . . five single-spaced pages, which would be ten manuscript pages, and so I do this plot outline and then when I think I’m finally ready, I sit down, and I do the first chapter, and I look at the plot outline, and I look at the chapter. And the chapter has nothing to do with the plot outline except some of the names are the same. And so, I throw away the plot outline, and I write a new one based on the chapter that I actually wrote. And I write the second chapter, and I look at the plot outline, and the first paragraph’s fine because that describes the first chapter, which I had already written when I did this version of the plot outline. But the rest of it really is not right; it has nothing to do . . I mean, more of the names are the same. And so, I ditch that, and I write another plot, and I can continue doing this for about ten chapters, until I’m solidly in the middle of the book, at which point it takes so much psychic energy to plow through the middle of the book that I stop doing outlines and, you know, by then I usually know where I’m going. That’s kind of my standard . . . as I say, the one that works for about 50 percent of the books that I do.
It’s kind of an externalized thought process, where the thinking that would otherwise just stay in your head, you’re putting it down on paper as you go along. That’s what it sounds like to me.
Kind of. It’s . . . well, not really, because that, I mean, the plot outline, sometimes I use some of the incidents that I put in there. But more often it’s, I need the plot outline because it gives me a false sense of security. I have the plot outline, so it’s like I know where I’m going. This is going to be a book for sure. I’ve got a plot outline. I know where it’s going. I don’t know where it’s going, and it doesn’t go where I thought it was going, but I have a plot outline. And the other reason I need a plot outline is because it gives my back brain something to rebel against, which is very important for me. You know, the minute somebody tells you, you know, “Well, this is what happens,” the back brain goes, “No, it isn’t. No, it isn’t. I have this much cooler idea.” So, that’s kind of my normal process.
You said that’s for about 50 percent of your books. What would be some of the books that were written using that process?
The first three or four for sure. Shadow Magic, Daughter of Witches, Seven Towers, the first of the Frontier Magic Books, which didn’t end at all the way I thought it was going to be, it developed into a series. Mairelon the Magician. The ones that don’t work like that have other things going on. Snow White and Rose Red, it was a . . . that’s the fairy tale of “Snow White and Rose Red,” and basically, I was asked for Terri Windling’s fairy tale line to do a novel version, to do a novel adaptation of some kind, of my favorite fairy tale. A bunch of us were doing it because it was a series. And so, I started that one with the fairy tale, and it had to follow the fairy tale. So, I couldn’t let my back brain go too wild in terms of the plot. But it turns out that when you do that, fairy tales are so stripped down in terms of plot and everything else that your back brain has plenty of room to go in all kinds of interesting directions. And that was the first time I tried doing alternate history, or in that case, it wasn’t very alternate, it was more history with magic in the cracks. You know, I was setting it in Elizabethan England, and, you know, John Dee was a real character, he was the queen’s magician. So was Ned Kelly. And so, I had a lot of fun doing real history along with the Queen of Faerie and various other plot elements in there. Talking to Dragons was the first time I ever did an entire book totally pantsing. I had no plot outline, I had no plot, I had no idea who the characters were. I had, I started that book with a title and the first line. Actually, I started with the title. I got the first line on the way home, driving home from the party where I got the, was talking about the title. And I just started writing the first line when I got home. And by the time I finished writing the first line, I’d actually written a paragraph, and it’s like, “OK, fine, I’ll save that for when I figure out what this book is about.” And the next morning, I woke up. “I know what the second paragraph is!” And so I sat down to write it, and I wrote the second paragraph, and I ended up with a page and a half, and it’s like, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I really want to find out, and the only way I’m going to find out is to write the rest of this book.” So, I wrote Talking to Dragons that way. Totally, totally pantsing, I had no idea what was going on until almost the end of the book. And then, of course, the prequels to that were, to some extent, I had an outline that I was stuck with because Talking to Dragons is the fourth book in the series. So, you know, when I was asked to go back and do the first books, I kind of had to . . .I got to make a few changes, but I couldn’t change anything major. The Star Wars novelizations, of course, I had the script, and they were very strict about not making changes of any sort. About the best I could do was . . . I mean, there were things I certainly made up. I made . . . the script in that scene in The Phantom Menace, the scene at the end where the, uh, Obi-Wan and the Liam Neeson character, I can’t remember his name at the moment, anyway, they’re fighting Darth Maul, and they’re leaping over things and, you know, going around this whole space and everything is this big dramatic set-piece. All the script says is Scene 20, whatever it was, “The Jedi fight.” That was it. That was it. No description of the background, no description . . . I mean, I knew where they were because it said, you know, setting, the factory, whatever, but that was it. I had known . . .you knew that was going to be, like, a five-minute set piece. So I had to pick up a lot of that in ways that hopefully would not conflict with what they did in the final version of the film. So, that was a fun and interesting experience and very different from my usual way of working. So, yeah, different things work differently.
Clearly, with these books, I mean, you’ve had books set in the Regency, you’ve had, you mentioned, the Elizabethan era, you’ve got Ice Age, all these things, and Star Wars . . .clearly, you often end up doing quite a bit of research. What’s your research process?
I did . . . the research actually, frequently, again, it’s being life, the . . . back in the day, one of the things that I started doing on about my second or third book was I started keeping a list of questions because I kept running . . . in The Raven Ring I got to, like, the seventh chapter and the cops showed up, and I hadn’t made up the cops in that world. And so, I had to stop for, like, four weeks while I made up the cops. And it totally stalled my forward progress. And I found that very frustrating. So, I started keeping a list of questions to at least ask myself when I was getting, booting up, the story, like, you know, “OK, what are the police like here?” And since I mostly do fantasy, I had a lot of questions about how magic works and, you know, things like, “Does it need a license? Do you need a license to be a magician, or is it an inborn talent? Is it something you learn in schools, or is it more like driving a car, or is it more like getting a Ph.D.? You know, what’s the education?” You know, things like that. And at the request of some people on a newsgroup that I was on way, way, way back, they wanted to know what this was like. So, I put them up, and they got consolidated into the fantasy-worldbuilding questions, which I still have on my blog, on my website. But those were kind of, the genesis is, sort of looking through them. I don’t go through and answer all the questions, every book. But I look at them and I sort of go, you know, “Am I going to need to know this? Is this something that oh, hey, that gives me an interesting idea?” You know, “I hadn’t thought about what they do for art, but if I make that one character, they’re a painter, that would be really cool and interesting. Nobody’s done that kind of thing before. I’m going to do that.” So, it just . . . and that was really where I got interested in a lot of the aspects of worldbuilding that led me eventually to do this class for Odyssey that I’m going to be teaching in January.
Well, that seems like as good a point as any to talk about that class. What will that look like, and what’s the process if someone wants to be part of it?
Well, they would go to the Odyssey website and register, they’ve got, you know, all the details there. I don’t have . . . I should have copied that website. I think it’s Odyssey.com or Odyssey.org.
Yeah, I’ll put a link to it. I actually do have a description in front of me here somewhere . . .
Yeah. There’s . . . basically, what I want to do in the class is, there’s basically two parts to worldbuilding. There’s the part that everybody thinks of, which is the making it up part, where you’re . . . you know, the Tolkien appendices, where you’ve got massive amounts of information about, you know, what the pottery is like and what the artwork and the culture and the history and the battles and how magic works and all this other stuff. That’s the first part. And that’s important. You need to think about that. But the second part is really the key, and that’s getting it across to the reader in the text, because Tolkien is really the only one who can get away with putting a million appendices at the end of their book and having everybody actually read them. So, you know, all of the important things, getting across . . .and that worldbuilding is something that everybody has to do in every book, because whatever your characters are, wherever they are, whatever culture, even if you’re in 2020, there’s going to be a sizeable number . . if I’m writing a book set in 2020 in Minneapolis, there’s going to be a sizable portion of my readers who have never been to Minneapolis, who don’t know what it’s like, who have no idea what things . . . you know, who’ve never even seen it on television.
Even if you pick someplace like London or New York where you know what all the key buildings and such look like because everybody’s seen them on TV and the movies, there’s an awful lot of London that people just don’t know what it’s like unless they’ve been there and haven’t been there. And there’s going to be people still who haven’t seen it on TV because they just don’t watch those shows. You know, so, even when you’re looking at a real-life place and, of course, the further away it is from the experience of your initial set of readers, the harder or the clearer your presentation of that world has to be for it to be appealing. The Harry Potter books are a great example. I mean, they’re quintessentially British, you know, set in the British Isles, United Kingdom, England and Scotland. So much of it is very, very, very British, and yet she can . . you don’t have to know that to love the books because she does such a good job of getting the feel of what it’s like across, both in the Dursley’s, the real world and in the wizarding world. You know, there’s translations into Japanese and Indonesian, and all these different places and languages, and they’re appreciated by millions and millions of people all over the world who don’t need to have a cheat sheet of what this means because it’s British and they don’t, you know, they’ve never been to Britain, and they don’t really get how it works. You have to get it across to people, and that’s what I’m hoping to start with, sort of some of the basic aspects of worldbuilding, of the making-it- up part, and then talk more about the getting it across part towards the end.
Well, one of the things that’s mentioned in the description is how worldbuilding can affect the characters. And we’ve talked a bit about your plotting process. But where do you, how do you find your characters, and how much work do you do on them beforehand, and how much do they just grow during the process?
It depends on the book. It depends on the character. A lot of the times, a lot of the times, they just sort of walk into my head. If you’re starting with a character, you do the worldbuilding, and you can start anywhere. And sometimes it starts with character. You know, a character walks into your head, and you sort of look at them and go, “OK, what are they wearing? Swords and a kilt. That’s interesting. All right. We’re looking at maybe medieval Scotland or maybe some kind of roleplaying. Where is this person from? How did they get this sword? Is that a real sword, or is that just for show? Is that a kilt? You know, it’s not plaid. Why are they not wearing . . . OK, then it’s not Scotland. So, who else wears kilts? So, I’ve got a world that has . . . yeah.” And I’m just making this straight up out of, off the top of my head. This is how it works. You know, you dig into the characters, and a lot of it is digging into the character. As I write, I tend to write my way into the characters, as I usually start more with the plot, which is really kind of weird because a lot of the time, the characters are what drives the plot. But the world that you live in shapes the person in real life and in fiction, and it makes a difference. What the world is like is going to shape what the person is like. If you’re actually looking at a medieval peasantry, they’re not going to be literate, most of them. Which means they’re not going to have read books, but they will be oral storytelling, and that’s going to affect the way they see stories and process. You know, skills are going to be different. The kinds of things that they’re used to are going to be different. You take somebody from the 1100s, heck, even from the 1700s, bring them into a room and flip the light switch and they’re going to go, “Magic!”
You know, “Lights came on! Oh, my God. Magic!” It’s all in what you’re used to. There’s a wonderful book by Sylvia Louise Engdahl called Enchantress from the Stars, in which there are three different viewpoints.
I know that one!
Yeah. Where you’ve got the fairy tale version, which is the way the peasant, the native, sees it. And you’ve got the viewpoint of the highly technological aliens who are coming in a . . . to them, it’s all about the, you know, their technology and their machines, whereas, of course, to the native guy, it’s all magic. And then you have the gal from the super-advanced society that’s trying to keep these two very different cultures from clashing, to whom they’re both kind of childish. And it’s really the different views, which are predicated on the cultures and the worlds from which each of these characters come. And so, yeah, the world shapes the characters as much who the character is; if you’ve got a clear idea of the character, then that pretty much defines what the world has to be because that character came out of the world. And you can tell a lot about the world by looking at the character and understanding where they came from and how did they get these ideas or their these viewpoints or beliefs or, you know, this drive to, you know, save the world or destroy the world or whatever they’re going to do.
Once you have a plot and character and all of that, what does your actual writing process look like as far as the actual physical act? You started in typewriter days, as I did . . .
You started writing on a typewriter, I presume, as I did . . . or first, longhand, I suppose, to begin with . . .
I did. I did typing. I took typing in high school. And I’m forever grateful to my mother for making . . . it’s one of the fundamental things I think that I recommend to everybody is, if you want to be a writer, learn to type, learn to touch-type.
So, I have a very good friend who blew out several disks in her neck because she’s a hunt-and-peck typist, and she looks down at the keyboard as she types, and then she looks up at the screen to see what she typed, and she looks down at the keyboard as she types, looks up at the screen and she types, and after 40 years, she’s had several disks in her neck . . . and it’s extremely painful. And touch typing, you don’t have to worry about that.
But I presume you work on a computer now.
Yes, absolutely. As soon as practically as soon as they came out, I had one of the very first Apple II Plus’s, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Yeah, a Commodore 64 was my first one.
I was doing cut and paste when cut and paste meant . . .
Cut and paste.
Scissors and . . . scissors and tape. And yeah, that was exciting. I still remember that.
Do you write a certain number of hours a day, or how does that work for you? And do you work at home or do you like . . . well, everybody works at home now, but do you like to go out to other places to write or how does that all work?
A little bit of everything. Sometimes it helps to, you know, take the laptop to a coffee shop, now that I can do that. It’s been an evolution because, of course, back in the day, you didn’t take the typewriter any place because it was too heavy. And then the computer, of course, was desktops. It wasn’t until laptops came along that it was even a possibility to take your computer out to a coffee shop casually and, you know, out any place. And so, you know, where I write has been kind of an evolution. I’ve always had a desk, at least a desk someplace, and usually had an office. You know, there’s . . . sometimes the office was the spare room, to begin with. But I had an office, and I mostly work in the office, sometimes haul it out someplace else just to get a bit of, you know, change of scenery.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
I don’t know. I’m a plodder. I am not . . . most of the time, I’m a plodder. I’ve had a couple of books where I did a burst writing. But most of the time, it’s a, you know, if you write one page a day, every day without fail, at the end of the year, you’ll have three hundred pages, which is a book, and you can take Sundays and holidays off. And that’s what I do. That’s what I started doing. And that’s basically what I try and do. And it’s gotten harder over time as other life things keep interrupting and getting in the way. It’s been very difficult to concentrate in the past, oh, what is it now, eight, nine months?
Feels like forever.
But yeah, since about last February, it’s been really difficult to concentrate. That, too, depends on whether writing is more like a hobby or more like an escape or whether it is something that requires focus and mental energy, and really, for me, it’s kind of both those things. So, sometimes it works as an escape, and then it’s like, yeah, head down in the book because that lets me ignore all the horrible things. And sometimes, I’m so distracted by all these other things that are going on that I can’t get head down in the book. So, you know, it varies.
Once you have a finished draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you use beta readers, or do you just revise it yourself?
Oh, I use beta readers. I use beta readers everyplace. I am a rolling reviser. It’s one of the many things . . . I talked about this a lot on the blog. I also have a blog, at pcwrede.com, where I talk about writing and process and have been doing for . . . God, ten years now! That’s kind of scary. But I talk about the process, and I’m a rolling reviser. You know, some people have to do the whole book all the way through and then go back and write it. Some people have to have to get it right almost the first time because their stuff sets up like concrete after, you know, 24 hours, after they’ve let it alone for 24 hours, it’s practically impossible to change. I’m kind of . . . I need to have, what has been written, I really need to know somewhere in my back brain that it’s right, quote-unquote—picture me doing air quotes—in order to continue to make progress. I have learned over 40 years of doing this that I can at times put in a little note that says, “Fix this later,” and actually go back and fix much later. But most of the time, if I realize in Chapter 15 that I just had this brilliant idea, but for it to work, I need to plant something in Chapter 2 and remind people about it in Chapter 7 and 12, I have to stop and go back and plant it in Chapter 2 and do the reminding in Chapter 7 and in Chapter 12 before I can continue with Chapter 15 because when I do the plant, when I do the reminding, it changes what I’m having happened just a little, just enough that in order to get it right from here on out, I have to know what happened back in those places where I’m planting this thing. So, I tend to . . . and the other thing is that when I get really, really stuck, I’ll go back and I’ll start at the beginning, and I’ll just go through and fix things and revise things and reread things and fix them, and usually by the time I get back, I’m not stuck anymore, you know, because I’ve changed enough things or I’ve seen enough things where it’s like, I’ve got the ideas to move on with.
Who are your beta readers, and what do they do for you?
It’s varied a lot over the years. Lois McMaster Bujold and I trade manuscripts all the time.
Pretty good beta reader.
She was . . . I was one of her first, actually. I had . . . back when I sold Shadow Magic, I went to the Chicago WorldCon and met Lillian Stewart Carl, and we, I offered to trade manuscripts with her by mail, and she said, “Well, you know, I don’t I don’t really need that, I have a writers’ group.” This was before that, you know, when I was still hunting for more input. I was in the Scribblies, but I was still hunting for other input, outside input. And she said, “I don’t need that. I have a good writers’ group, but I have this friend in Ohio who doesn’t have anybody. She’s out in the wilds of Ohio. She doesn’t have anybody around who reads or writes science fiction fantasy. Can I give you her your contact?” And that was Lois. And so, you know, she and I started trading critique by mail. I ended up with, like, a four-inch stack of . . . this was before email. So, physical letters until we went, until we did go to email. Then eventually, she moved to town, which made it much easier. But anyway, she’s one of my beta readers. Pamela Dean still is. Caroline Stevermer frequently. Several non-writer friends . . . you know, Beth Friedman. God, I’m missing somebody . . .
That’s the trouble with starting to name names.
Yeah, yeah, it is. It’s well, especially, there’s a bunch of people that nobody would recognize that, you know, I could name the names, but, you know, it’s not going to mean anything to anybody. But, you know, sometimes the best beta readers are people who are not writers; they’re just readers who are really good at articulating what’s going, what is a problem here, or what they like about this or don’t like about this.
And what kind of feedback do you typically get from your readers that . . . what sorts of things do you find you need to work on?
It varies. Everyone . . . and sometimes it’s the same old things that you thought you had gotten rid of years ago. Sometimes it’s, you know, there’s character stuff, there’s stupid, stupid things like dialogue tags and repeated words, you know. One I remember specifically because it was so annoying was somebody who pointed out that I had used a very unusual phrasing like three times in the same chapter. And it’s like, “How did I not notice that?” You know, but I mean, it’s everything from really picky little details to questions about characters that are very enlightening, like, you know, things like, one asked, you know, “Are these two characters gay?” And I went, “Son of a gun. They are. I didn’t know that. OK.” You know, so it’s there for people who want to see it, but it’s not a big point. Mean, I didn’t know they were until somebody pointed it out. You know, it’s like, “Oh, yeah.” And so there’s things that are . . . things about the characters that I hadn’t even realized, things about the world, things about the plot. Just, you know, major things, and then, of course, the minor word dinks and nitpicks.
And then the manuscript will go to an editor. What kind of editorial feedback is typical for you? Do you find it’s pretty clean, you don’t have to do a lot, or there are occasionally some . . .
It depends on the book.
And the editor, I would presume.
And the editor. They’re very different. There is one editor that, it was always questions. She never made any recommendations; it was always questions about what was happening. I had another editor . . . Jane Yolen was lovely. I mean, she was fun. We were friends. She edited the Enchanted Forest books when she was at Harcourt. And she was . . . we were good friends. In fact, she kind of was the one who browbeat me into writing the prequels. And so, it’s all her fault. But I turned in the first one, and I got back two pages of editorial comments that started with, “Does your husband know about your love affair with a semicolon? Seventeen on one page is too many.” You know, and she was absolutely right.
I like a good semicolon, but that does seem excessive.
It was excessive. It was, like, a manuscript page was about, I think I had my printer set to do 25 lines, and 17 of them had semicolons. It was just way too much. So, yeah, it varies. And then I had one editor who basically . . . had two different editors, in two different places, I had ask for scenes, where I had not put in a particular scene the character . . . in one instance, the character wasn’t there, and in another instance, I was skating very quickly over that part, and it just didn’t seem . . . and the one where I was skating over it wanted the set-piece with that particular scene and the other one, the character wasn’t there, and the editor said, “This seems like a really important scene, and I think you should write it.” So, I had to write ten thousand words to, you know, instead of having the character told about it in a three-paragraph summary, I had to figure out how to get her to go along so she could watch it. And it took about ten thousand words to interpolate that into the book.
But it made the book better.
Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. I’m very pleased with how it came out, but it was a lot of work. So, it really depends. A lot of the time it is pretty clean, I think, but I don’t have anything to judge by except my own stuff, really. So how would I know? I don’t know what the editor sees all the time.
Yeah. They see a lot more stuff than the authors do. My editor is Sheila Gilbert at DAW. And, of course, she’s been doing this for a very long time.
She’s seen a lot of manuscripts. And she notes . . . she just sees things that I don’t see..
Yes. Yeah, yeah. They see things you don’t see.
And now we’ve actually gone past the hour, but nobody’s counting, so . . but I should wrap it up here.
Well, I should have warned you upfront, I can talk about writing for hours, literally. I thought . . . I was supposed to have a one-hour interview with somebody at my alma mater, and we ended up talking for five hours, until I got hoarse. So, yeah, I can talk for a long time about writing.
My record is still Orson Scott Card, who went for two hours by the time we were done. So, you know . . .
We’re not there yet. But just to wrap it up with the big philosophical question, really, three: Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? And why stories of the fantastic, specifically?
Let’s start backwards. Stories of the fantastic is because I can’t seem to write anything else. I tried to write a mystery once, and it had wizards in it by the second chapter, so I gave up. I was like, that’s what I write. That’s what my back brain hands me, so that’s what I write. Why I write is, again, I just, I mean, I love reading, I love writing, I love telling stories, I’ve always loved telling stories, and writing is a way of doing that. I mean, I think I would write stuff even if I wasn’t selling it and nobody was reading it. It would not be as easy, and it would be very disappointing. Certainly, at this point, it would be very difficult since this is how I make my living. But really, I like the process. I like it even though it’s frustrating and annoying as all get out and, you know, can drive you just absolutely mad at times. It’s still . . . I love the feeling that I get when I know I nailed it, when it’s like, “Yes, there’s that scene, and this is that thing.” And I have this cool thing going, and I got it. And there it is. “Yes, that’s what I wanted.” I don’t know if anybody else is seeing it, what I saw, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes I end up having to fiddle with it. But there’s still that moment when there it is down on paper, that scene I’ve been waiting to write for so long.
And I also love the analytical side of it, you know, figuring out why things work, why using this viewpoint is more effective than using that viewpoint, you know, what’s going to work best for this story, how . . . I love doing that. I love it. I mean, that’s mostly what the blog is, is different angles of a view on everything from . . . well, just pretty much every aspect of writing, I mean, I’ve been doing it for ten years, I think I’ve covered pretty much everything, and I’m still talking about it, which tells you how long I could go on about writing. That’s me, you know, I just . . . the other thing is I do it so that the voices in my head will shut up.
I’ve heard that from a lot of authors. A lot of authors put it that way.
And it’s not necessarily the characters’ voices, it’s the stories themselves. You know, it’s . . . I’ve shot past my exit numerous times on the freeway because I’m sitting there going, “And then they go, right? No, no, no, no, they’ll go left, left. And there there’s . . . yes. And the bridge is out. And the . . .” You know, if I don’t put it down on paper, it keeps changing in my head, and it won’t leave me alone. And so, I have to go home, and I have to write the scene where the bridge is out. And then I’m done with the damn bridge. It’ll leave me alone. But I have shot past the exit multiple times doing, you know, telling myself stories in my head.
Why do you think on the bigger scale, why do any of us write? Why do you think we do this? As a species, I guess.
As a species? I think it’s to explain ourselves to ourselves. You know, it’s . . . stories are a way of transmitting life lessons and teaching people about things that are going on in a wider world. One of . . . I think I heard this bit from Jane Yolen. She had been reading about an anthropologist. She’s very big in fairy tales. And the anthropologist had been collecting fairy tales from native cultures in the north. I think the Inuit was one, but there are several others, and one of . . . and their fairy tales, their stories, are really grim, and they have this custom of, in the wintertime, when it’s dark for 24 hours or very nearly a day, everybody gathers in a hut. And, you know, the children are all there, and they tell these horrible, horrible ghost stories, creepy, scary, nightmare-inducing stories. And at the worst part of it, somebody, one of the adults, sneaks out and they beat on the outside of the tent, you know, to make the scary parts even scarier. And the woman said, “Why do you do this? Why do you do this to your children?” And the person she was interviewing said, “Because they need to be scared. They need to learn how to be scared in a safe place so that they won’t freeze up when it’s a real emergency.” Because if you freeze up when it’s 50 below zero, and you’ve just gone through the ice, you are a dead person. You have to be able to continue to function, and that’s the kind of things that stories do. Most of us are not in that dire of an environment, that we’re under those kinds of threats, but there’s still. . . they are ways of conveying lessons about people, about what is right and what is wrong about dealing with other people, about living in the world, you know, about what kinds of things are mistakes and what kinds of things, you know, you might not recognize as a mistake right now. But in 20 years or 40 years, you will. And sometimes those things are buried really, really deeply entrenched, and they are ways of explaining to ourselves what we’ve learned about ourselves and about other people and about the world. I think that’s kind of as deeply philosophical as I can possibly get on this.
Well, it certainly seems like a good answer to me. OK, let’s wrap it up by finding out what are you working on now? What’s coming up next from you?
OK, I am in the process of doing what I hope will be final revisions to another children’s book called The Dark Lord’s Daughter. It’s about a 14-year-old girl who is, uh, you know, she knows she’s been adopted, and her family has, her adopted family, has kind of fallen on . . . they’ve been having some difficulties, and she and her adopted mother and her little brother are off at the state fair, and they are approached by a gentleman in what looks sort of like a Darth Vader outfit who says, you know, “My lady, I have found you!”, and the next thing they know, the three of them have been transported to an alternate universe. And she finds out that she is the daughter of the former dark lord and is expected to come and take over his kingdom.
That’s a great setup.
And it is nothing like what either side is expecting. She is not what they were expecting to get, and they are, you know, the dark lord’s kingdom is not at all . . . well, let’s put it this way, they had ten years to deteriorate, and it’s deteriorated pretty darn bad. So, she’s got a lot of work to do. And, of course, she’s got her mother and her little brother along to make life interesting.
That sounds fun.
So I’m working on that. And, I don’t have a pub date yet because I’m way behind, and I don’t get to know when it’ll come out until I actually turn it in.
Publishers are annoying like that.
And where can people find you online?
PCWrede.com. And that’s my Web site and the blog and a lot of other useful information if you poke around on it a bit.
Any social media accounts to mention?
The blog is really the only place where I spend a lot of time. I do have a Twitter account where I mostly make announcements, and there is a Facebook business page, which again is . . . that’s not really run by me, but it also has a lot of announcements about, you know, what’s coming up with my books. Every once in a while, I post something to Twitter, but I’m not really super active there. I have too much else going on.
And once again, of course, you’re teaching the World Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction workshop for Odyssey Workshop.
Yes, I think that’ll be fun.
And that runs January 7 to February 4. And the deadline, I believe, is December 9, if anybody’s listening and wants to register.
Yeah. And it’ll be, it’s three classes with about two weeks between. So, you’ve got time to actually apply some of this stuff in between and hopefully come up with new and interesting questions to ask.
OK, well, I guess that wraps it up, then. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.
Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing like breathing, keeps her alive. As a child in rural Oregon, she made up stories because she longed to escape to a world of lurid adventure fiction. Her most recent is Unconquerable Sun, “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space.”
She is also known for her Crown of Stars epic fantasy series, the Afro-Celtic post-Roman alt-history fantasy with lawyer-dinosaurs, Cold Magic, and sequels, the science fiction novels of the Jaran and the YA fantasy Court of Fives, and the epic- fantasy Crossroads Trilogy, with giant justice eagles. Her particular focus is immersive world-building and centering women in epic stories of adventure and transformative cultural change.
She lives in Hawaii, where she paddles outrigger canoes and spoils her schnauzer.
So, Kate, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Ed, thank you so much. I want to say that at the moment, the usual club outrigger canoe practice has been cancelled or suspended, I’ll say, due to the pandemic. So, that’s the one thing that I’m not paddling my usual six-man six-feet canoe three to four times a week.
Well, here in the middle of the continent, we don’t have a lot of that anyway. So, I hadn’t really noticed that that was one of the things that had been cancelled. Well, we have met because we’ve both been published by DAW and we met at one of the lovely DAW dinners. For your DAW books is Sheila your editor, Sheila Gilbert?
And she’s mine, as well. So, we share that.
She’s a fantastic editor.
Yes, she certainly is. So, I’m going to start, as I always do, by taking you—this has become a cliche on the program, “back into the mists of time,z’ and I’m going to put reverb on it. One of these days, I’m going to do that, “back into the mists of time,” to find out…well, I know from your little bio that you’ve been writing since you were very young. So, how did you get interested in writing and…well, reading and writing and all that kind of stuff? What led you down the garden path to being a writer?
You know, this is the big question, isn’t it? And I think there’s an even deeper question that goes even below that, which is like, why do human beings create at all? What is the, let’s say, the evolutionary advantage of the way our minds work, which is sometimes in amazing ways and sometimes it really debilitating ways. I think they’re all kind of linked. Why? I guess I would say is that I believe that human beings, part of what makes us who we are, is pattern making and creativity. And there would be survival mechanism in that, in, like, seeing that we could eat this food, right, or seeing that if these seeds dropped here, in the next season, when I came back, there was stuff here I could eat. So, that then develops to language and to all the other ways that we think about, not just art, but about science and about religion, all the ways that we understand the world.
So really, the question I would ask is, why do some people not feel they’re creative, which to me is a tragedy and something I think that is imposed on people from the outside, not part of who people are, really, kind of at root? But then, the other question is, why did I decide to write? Why did I want to tell stories as opposed to designing clothes or playing music or woodworking and building furniture? And I don’t know. I could say maybe why I didn’t do some of the other things. So, it’s easier to define that negatively, in a way. But I just know, from a very early age, I liked to draw maps, and I liked to draw large underground domiciles where, you know, where thousands of people were living. And I was doing that at age 10, 11. I don’t know why. It just intrigued me. I would tape pieces of paper together and then draw these just huge architectural things that had nothing to do with how anything would really be built. But I enjoyed it. And that went to maps, and then I guess, partly because I grew up in rural Oregon and I loved being outdoors, but it was also kind of boring. So, when I started reading science fiction and fantasy, then, of course, as a teenager, I was like, “Oh, I want to live science fiction and fantasy.” And since I couldn’t figure out a portal, I couldn’t figure out where the portal was to that other world that I really wanted to be in, the best portal I had was to write stories.
Yeah, kids in stories are always stumbling these things, and I was never able to find one either. It seemed totally unfair.
I know, right?
My wardrobe, I didn’t have a wardrobe, but my closet didn’t lead anywhere. And, you know, there wasn’t any hole in the backyard that led to the world of Óg or whatever. Yeah, it’s very unfair. And tornadoes are a terrible means of transportation.
I haven’t, yeah. I’ve actually not experienced a tornado yet. Who knows? But I would like one, like, if I would go out hiking…my family camped a lot when I was a kid. We would go on camping trips…and I would always look for those two trees growing close together whose branches intertwine, and I would say, “Maybe this is the one. I’ll step through, and it will be the portal into that other world.” But, yeah.
What were some of the books that kind of woke you up to science fiction and fantasy when you started reading them?
The earliest chapter books I remember reading are ones…they were these editions of books that my father had read as a child that we still had, and they were by Thornton Burgess, the Mother West Wind stories. And most people my age aren’t aware of them. And I only knew them because they were in the house. And I think today he’s probably mostly forgotten. But back in the day, when my dad was young, these were stories written, set in the…I can’t even remember…the Wild Woods. Anyway, they were in the woods, and everything was anthropomorphized, so that Mother West Wind was…she had thoughts, and she had the merry little breezes, and then all the animals, and they all had these little adventures. And I read those obsessively when I was very, very young. And I always feel like they were my gateway into this idea that there could be this fantastic other world of things that I wasn’t aware of.
And from there, I would say, I read Scholastic Book Fair books that had fantasy in them or science fiction. I couldn’t give you any particular titles now. The big one for me was reading Lord of the Rings at 13, and that kind of kicked me onto the path that I then never left. Also, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, that was…those were two in what was then called junior high school, now would be called middle school. And then, you know, in high school, I began to read Le Guin and just…
Yeah, I think we’re almost exactly the same age, and that’s a very familiar set of books and pathway. It’s almost the same ages at which I was reading those things, as well.
But you started writing stories, as well, very early. Did you share those stories with other people, or was it just kind of a solitary thing you did to entertain yourself?
Um, when I was in ninth grade, I think it was, my best friend and I wrote kind of a shared set of stories. We drew a map and then wrote a shared set of stories. And interestingly, that set of stories, there were these two main characters, one was hers and one was mine, and they were both men. And that’s like…because when I was 14, that’s who was in those stories. So, if you were going to write a fantasy story, it had to be about men. But by the next year, I had switched over and started writing stories about women. And I wrote a lot in high school, and I’m not sure that anybody read it.
I always ask that question because I wrote in high school, three novels in high school, and I did share them with my classmates, and it was one of the things that actually told me maybe I could tell stories. So, I always like to ask that question, and I get differing answers from different authors. Some people say, “Oh, I would never have shared anything at that level.” Have you…well, OK, here’s another question. Have you shared it since? Has anybody read your juvenilia?
No, not a chance. Not a chance. Although I have recently…I’m actually really intrigued that you shared the books with your friends, which I think is fantastic. And they read them all, and they asked for more and wanted to read the next one?
Yeah. Well, they weren’t a series, but I had a teacher—I had more than one teacher!—but I had one particular teacher, we were required to keep a writing book, so you had to write a page of something every day. And most kids were copying stuff or, you know, not doing much with it. But I started writing The Golden Sword when I was 14 years old, and it was only for one semester that we had that class. And it’s all dated in the book I was writing it. And so, you get to December and the dates at the top stop, but the story just keeps going because I was way ahead and going on to the end. And I learned to type in Grade 10, and as soon as I learned to type—I was just dying to learn to type—and as soon as I learnt how to type, I would type these things up, and I bound them up, and I handed them out to my classmates. And people really seemed to enjoy them. So, it was kind of a thing for me to kind of help point me in the direction of being a writer.
That’s…I just think that’s fantastic. I also remember learning to type in high school and how great it was because I could type so fast. You know, it’s interesting. I didn’t share as much. I wouldn’t have shared it. I think a lot of it was too personal to me. I did find, some years ago, I hunted down and found the journal I kept when I was 16, which was not a normal journal because it was me pretending to be a person going…I had drawn this map, it was like my special map, my, like, the map that the portal would take me to, right?. And then this journal was me going to different places on the map and describing them and describing the journey, and then whatever else a 16-year-old would put in there. And before I wrote Court of Fives, or maybe in the early stages of writing Court of Fives, which of course is a young adult novel, I thought, “Oh, you know what? I’m going to go back and see if I can gain some inspiration and insight into my 16-year-old self.” I could not get through two pages of it, not because it was badly written, but because I was 16 when I wrote it. And it wasn’t bad. I’m not saying that in any way to criticize myself, but I was just like, “Whoa, whoa, man!” That mindset was, like, so much for me. It was so intense. But it was interesting to realize how intense being a teenager is.
As they say, the past is a different country, and it’s true of your own past as well as some of the world’s past, I think.
Well, I could see me. I mean, it was me. I recognized me. And I recognized things that are very much still me in it. But, wow. Yeah. It was enlightening. And then, another thing that happened recently is…my first full novel, I wrote in high school, and I was talking to my editor about it, and she said, “Oh, you should put that up on Wattpad.” So, I again dug down, down deep, deep, and I found it. And I’ve been looking at it and thinking, “I wonder if this would be worth cleaning up a little and putting on Wattpad just for the fun of it.”
It’s funny you should say that because I’ve been looking at my magnum opus from high school, which I wrote when I was sixteen.
Which is called?
Slavers of Thok.
It’s a big fantasy novel. It has a map because, of course, as you know very well, maps are essential to a true fantasy novel.
With really terrible place names. And I typed it, so I was able to do an optical character recognition, kind of, because my ribbon was dim in a lot of places, and I have been thinking the same thing. I might just throw it up somewhere and see what comes of it. It’s not horrible in some places. It’s a pretty good story, actually. So, we’ll see.
I think we’re probably better. I didn’t actually start reading mine. I just found it. And there was a lot of it, single-spaced on legal-size paper. A lot of it. Both sides. So, but yeah, I, I think we’re better, and also inexperienced, as teenage writers, better than we perhaps think we are and not as good as we think we are. So, it kind of goes hand in hand, right?
I think that describes it exactly. So, you left Oregon to go to university in California, I believe.
Ed, I have to say, sorry, it’s Oregon.
So, what am I saying?
You’re saying OreGON.
Sorry. No, no, I don’t…I hate to be pedantic about it, but…
No, no. It’s hilarious, because I live in Saskatchewan and nobody can pronounce Saskatchewan.
So, people say SaskatcheWAN, just like I’m saying, OreGON. Oregon. There you go.
Oregon. Perfect. It’s just kind of like….yeah.
And the other one is Newfoundland. NewfoundLAND. You have to emphasize the land. So, yeah, there’s a lot of things like that. OK, Oregon. So, you left Oregon and went to California. What did you study in college? Did you study writing or something completely different?
Well, college was strange for me. I went to Mills College in Oakland, California. I only actually went there two years. My senior year in high school, I took enough college class credit classes at the local community college that I came in with a full year already. And then I went one year to Mills, and I didn’t love it. So, the next year I did my, what was by then my junior year, abroad at the University of Wales in Wales, at Bangor, Wales. Then I worked for a year at the BBC in the radio division on a student work visa. And then I came back and finished my degree at Mills. So, I had kind of an eclectic…I did some history, I did some anthropology, and I ended up majoring in English, mostly because that was what I had enough credits to do. So…and I did get a…I think I got like a minor or a…I didn’t call it a minor, but a minor in creative writing, which frankly was kind of a waste of time.
That was my next question.
Well, they were so full of, you know, why are…these were literally the people saying to me, “Why are you writing science fiction and fantasy? You should be writing real literature.” So, it wasn’t…you know, it’s just not useful to take courses from people like that.
I’ve asked that question of a lot of the writers I’ve interviewed, and of those who have taken formal writing classes, I would say there are more that say that than say that they were really helpful to them, which I always find interesting.
Well, I think it could have been helpful if people hadn’t been so dismissive of science fiction and fantasy.
Now, I also wanted to mention, because I’ve seen, in things I’ve read about you, that you were active in Society for Creative Anachronism, and I dabbled in that. But it not very active where I am here now. And that’s where you met your husband, isn’t it?
Well, I’m no longer married, but yeah, yeah. But what I loved about the SCA, I wasn’t that interested in the re-creation aspects. I’m an athlete. So, I was really what they called in the ACA in those days, they called a stick jock. I just went there to fight, to put on armor and fight, so that’s what…I did that, and actually, that was pretty great. And it was useful as a fantasy writer, not because we were actually, you know…well, I did get a broken arm once…but it was useful because it gave me a sense of how it feels to have people around you, how it feels to be lying wounded on a battlefield, not that I was really wounded, but how space worked, the physical function of space, people nearby, people far away, what you could hear, what the sun might feel like, you know, how skirmishes might act, how they would run. So, that was useful information for me to have, especially when I wrote Crown of Stars, which is a seven-volume epic fantasy series set in a…well, it’s really inspired by early medieval Germany. So, smaller units, you didn’t have big armies. And I really got a lot of use out of that, in that series, of that experience of fighting in the SCA. So, I’m glad I did it.
Has the history and anthropology you studied also come in useful in your writing? I would expect they would.
Well, I still read a lot of…I mean, history is my main reading. The thing I read most is history. My dad was a history teacher, and so I’m very much still reading history and anthropology. I consider myself still a student of it, I guess I would say.
And that figures into your worldbuilding and everything?
Well, let’s talk about how you broke in, then. How did you go from being, you know, writing, but then writing professionally? How did that all work for you?
So, you know, when I broke in back in the day, things were very different. Social media didn’t exist. The Internet was in it…even in its early days, you could get together. I got on, like, bulletin boards like Genie, back in the late eighties. And it was very much a query culture. You would write to agents and hope someone would want to represent you, and then they would send, you know, your work to editors. Some publishers still had slush piles. So, I did what a lot of people did. I wrote around until I finally got an agent who was willing to represent me and then they eventually sold something of mine, and then it just proceeded from there. I later switched agents. So…does that explain enough? I don’t know that it’s a particularly relevant story in terms of what people can know today. It just…you just have to be persistent.
Yeah. And I’m from the same era, but I didn’t break in as early as you did, but I was certainly going through that whole process as well. So, yeah,
And I also wanted to say that I didn’t come up come in through the science fiction/fantasy community. I know a fair number of people who were fans first, which is another way. I mean, there’s no, like…there is no one right way or better way to do it. So, I know people who came in through fandom. And they were in fandom and then they got published. And that’s another way to do it. I’d never attended a science fiction/fantasy convention until after I was published. So, they weren’t anything I really knew about until then.
We didn’t have a lot of them around Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where I was growing up. I think the first one I was at was when WorldCon was in Winnipeg. That was the first major convention I was at.
Yeah, yeah. So, I didn’t…I just wasn’t aware of things like that. And I was probably a little too reserved to ever have gone just on my own anyway.
Well, let’s talk about your making of books, which is what this podcast is about. And also, you know, you already mentioned that everybody does it differently. And that’s one thing I’ve certainly found out in talking to…I think you’ll be like my sixtieth author or something like that I’ve interviewed.
Everybody does it differently. But let’s find out how you do it, and we’ll focus on Unconquerable Sun, which is the new one. And I’ve delved into it. I haven’t finished it, which is fine because I’m going to get you to give a synopsis of it without giving any spoilers.
Well, I just say what the pitch is, which is it is gender-bent Alexander the Great in space.
That’s pretty much a perfect elevator pitch.
It is. And I’m not even good at elevator pitches, but that is literally what it is. So, the first book is what I would call young Alexander. So, it takes place in a set period of time. It takes place…there’s an opening sequence of things and then a time skip, and then the rest of the book takes place in about two weeks. Based on our understanding of a week, not on theirs. Right?
That’s a fast pace.
For a big space-opera type story.
Yeah. So, it’s…yeah. I’m not good at describing plots, that’s why I…
Well, I think the pitch does a good job of presenting an intriguing set-up, that’s for sure. And I have enjoyed what I’ve read of it, delving into it. How many…well, it’s obviously more than one book. How many books do you envision in this?
Well, I do want to say that the first book is a complete story. It doesn’t end on a cliff-hanger, it’s a complete story. Which I did on purpose because I think if one is going to use…I’ve written…let me just backtrack a moment to say that I have, of course, written trilogies that had cliff-hangers at the end of every volume. And with this one, I wanted to try to give people the chance to read a book, feel really satisfied at the end that they had read a complete story, things had been resolved, but that there were other threads now that they would want to follow. And that was my intention all along with book one, and that’s why I call it Young Alexander, because it takes place at what would have been the Court of Macedon, more or less. Yeah. So…where were we going with this question?
How many books do you envision eventually?
All right, so we have our elevator pitch here, which almost sounds like the idea that came to you to start this whole process. But what was the genesis of this and the kernel that this grew from? And is that typical of the way that you start growing stories?
It isn’t, because actually, it did kind of come from the, “What if I did gender-bend Alexander the Great in space?” And normally, my stories start with, like, an image or a moment, as if almost as if seen in a motion-picture sense. So, for example, Crown of Stars, which is seven volumes, the seed of the idea for that was me, in my head, seeing a young man who’s walking between the village where he was born and grew up, as far as he knows, walking over…it’s on the ocean, and he’s walking up and over a ridge pathway that leads, on the other side of the ridge, to a monastery, where he’s taking something for the monks that his aunt is sending him with. And as he’s walking up over them, he sees this massive storm coming in, way too fast, off the sea, and as it overtakes him on the ridge, a woman, a middle-aged woman wearing battered armor, with a sword, rides out of the storm toward him. That’s the beginning of that book. That’s the seed image of that book. Everything else grows out of that.
Or Cold Magic, the Spirit Walker trilogy, the first book is called Cold Magic. This is the afro-Celtic post-Roman lawyer-dinosaur book. So with that one, it’s similar, in the sense that, in my mind, I saw these two young women sitting in a paned, p.a.n.e.d, like windowpane, window seat, looking out over a courtyard as a carriage arrives, and they know that something unpleasant or something that means something bad for them…they have a bad feeling about that carriage and what or who is coming in with that carriage. So that again…and that’s the whole seed of that story. And in both of those cases, what you see is, you have a person with something about to meet them. You know, there’s your conflict, right?
And then, but also in my mind’s eye, what I see also tells me something about the kind of the general historical era it’s going to be in. So, on the one hand, the armor she’s wearing is chainmail, it’s not plate. So now we’re going earlier, and it’s there’s a medieval sense because there’s a monastery. So, now I know that I’m in a more early medieval period. And the other one there is a carriage and the way they’re dressed, and I could see that it was kind of a late 18th-, early 19th-century setting.
But with gender-bent Alexander the Great in space, that’s a very concept-driven idea. And I’m not, in that sense, concept driven. I’m more like emotional-moment, meeting-a-landscape, meeting-a-conflict driven. That’s where most of my stories come out of. So, for me, with that concept—and there’s, in a way, more to it than that, but I won’t…you know, I had just written Court of…well, first of all, I have a son named Alexander, you know, so I’ve been interested in the story. And he is named after Alexander the Great. And so, I’ve been interested in the story of Alexander the Great for a long time, just in general. But then when I wrote the young adult fantasy trilogy, Court of Fives, that…I drew a lot of inspiration from the Hellenistic-era Egypt, in which people from Macedonia, Macedonians, came and established themselves as the rulers of Egypt over this large indigenous population. And I…and the last Ptolemaic, the last of those rulers, was Cleopatra, who we…she was actually the seventh Cleopatra of that lineage, but she’s the Cleopatra we all know, right?
So, writing that…and I did so much reading about the Hellenistic era, which is that period…it’s the period basically from Alexander to Cleopatra. And that’s called the Hellenistic period, when the Hellenic, the Greek, culture was spread throughout the Mediterranean. And it was kind of, it was kind of the multinational American pop Hollywood culture of its day. That’s a terrible, terrible simplification, but there’s a similar sense. So…and I think that kind of rolled me toward gender-bent Alexander the Great in space, if you see what I mean.
But conceptually, what I had to do then was to say, “OK, I’m going to do it like this. I want to do this concept. But now, what do I want it to mean? What do I want to do with that concept?” And that’s, for me, a different direction to build a universe from than what I’m used to, because in the other cases it’s more like, “Oh, I see, I’m in this place already. Now I need to discover it by writing it and deciding what aspects I want to see. And where does this road go to, right?” But in this case, I could have done anything because I didn’t have that visual seed image already in it.
So, what was your approach to planning it out, and how does that match up with the usual approach? Do you do a lot of outlining, or how does that work for you?
Well, I’m not really a…I outline, and I don’t outline. So, I kind of do both. But I can actually. I can. So, what I had to do was to ask myself specific questions. And there’s two main questions I had to ask. So, the first one is, if I’m going to make the Alexander character a woman, the first question I have to ask myself is, “How does this princess…?” Well, actually, let me step back to a third question. So, the first thing I have to do is I have to say, “OK, Alexander the Great as a story only works if I have a kind of a monarchy, and I have a lot of war.” So, either you’re going to want to write that story or not, right? And, you know, I get tired of writing about monarchies. I’ve written stories that weren’t about monarchies because I was like, “I’m done with writing about monarchy.” So, that was partly an issue for me. It was like, “Do I really want to go back to…do I really want to do this again?” But I really wanted to do it. I really loved the concept. So, that was my first thing, was to accept that it’s not that story if you don’t have those things. So…do you see what I’m saying? It’s like, “I want to write a Sherlock Holmes story, but he doesn’t solve any of the mysteries.” Then it’s not a Sherlock Holmes story.
Or if he’s super well-adjusted about everything, well, then it’s not really a Sherlock Holmes story, you know, and he doesn’t have his sidekick, Watson. Well, I mean, part of that…that story is based also on their relationship. So, when you’re taking something, a concept like that, that has a relationship to things that readers know, but that, you know, there’s a—for me, and I’m not saying anybody has to do this—but for me, there is…I have to decide what essential things are absolutely necessary to make it still that story or to be a Sherlock Holmes retelling, right? What do I have to have for that? So, what would I have to have for it to be an Alexander the Great retelling? So, that was stage one.
Stage two was, “What am I going to do with the princess?” Is she going to be the…because, you know, Macedon, like the ancient Greece of its time, was a patriarchal society, where men ruled. Now, women had more scope, in Macedon especially, and women had more scope in the Hellenistic era. It’s quite interesting. And for those who are interested in this issue, please read Elizabeth Carney. I highly recommend her book, Women and Monarchy in Macedonia. It’s an easy read. She really knows her stuff.
I’ll put a link to it in the transcript when I do this.
Yeah, do. Because there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on than one is generally taught in school and then, you know, and the stereotype of what it was like. But nevertheless, it was a patriarchal society. So, this question two is, “Is she the scrappy princess who proves that she’s worth ruling even though she has to fight against misogyny and sexism?” Or…one of the most important things about the story of Alexander is that he was raised as heir in a society where it was absolutely assumed that he was worthy of being heir, right? He had to prove his competency to lead troops in battle because it was, Macedonia, at that time, was very focused on war. The reason that Alexander’s father, Philip, became king was because his older brother died with a, like, a three-year-old son, and a three-year-old son can’t lead an army. So, Philip became king.
And this is actually common. And this is true in, like, Anglo-Saxon England as well. Alfred the Great, whom many of us have heard of, became King because he was like the fifth or sixth of six brothers. And the other ones all died one by one, killed in wars with the Vikings. And any children they left were too young to lead armies. And so, it passed down the brother line, not father-to-son line. And that’s an important difference in how rulership is seen. So…and that’s where the history comes in useful, right/ Just to know that that exists, that it doesn’t have to go father to infant son. It can go father to brother, or it can go adult to adult.
But anyway, one of the things about Alexander—sorry I’m so geeky about history—but one of the things about Alexander is he was made for the moment, everything about his life, who he was, his capabilities, made him for that moment. He didn’t make that moment. He was there, the right person at the right time. And when I looked at the story, I thought, “You know, if the scrappy princess fights against sexism to prove her worth, it’s not that story anymore, is it?” So, that was the first thing, the first decision, the first worldbuilding thing that fell into place was, it’s absolutely commonplace. They don’t care in this society. Gender doesn’t matter in that sense.
So…and, in fact, I swap a lot of, you know, I spin a lot of gender. So, the Phillip character is…so the Alexander character’s name Sun, like the sun in the Sky, and her mother, Eirini, which means peace, by the way, it’s an ironic name, is the Philip analogue. So…but Eirini in the book has three older brothers. And, in fact, Philip had two older brothers and they had a sister, these three brothers. So that’s kind of borrowed from history, as well. And they were all…they all ruled before her but were killed in war, and it came to her down that line. So, deciding that that aspect of it was that rulership wasn’t based on gender, it wasn’t that only women ruled or only men ruled, it was, you know, the most competent person ruled if they were part of the royal house. So, that made that decision for me.
And then, the third question I asked myself was, “Am I going to create a setting, a space opera setting, that is completely unattached to Earth?” It’s kind of like Star Wars, right? There’s nothing in Star—I mean, except for the fact that it’s written by us and we see it—it’s not—there’s no references to Earth that I know of in the Star Wars universe.
So, I could either do that, or I could do that thing where there are connections to Earth. And for my own purposes, mostly because, in large part because I thought it would be more fun because I really like Easter eggs and stories, I decided to go for a connection with Earth and then I had to decide how I wanted that connection to be. Did I want it to be a close connection or a very, very distant connection? And my decision was to make, to set this, in the far, far future, very far away, you know, an unfathomable distance away, that the people, that humans, had settled it via generation ships and that the separation between this place, where they have spread out now into a rich network of worlds, their relationship to Earth is that for them, Earth is the mythic celestial empire. And their understanding…and because the archives that came on the ships, this isn’t really a spoiler, it’s referenced, people reference it, kind of, in the story, but it’s never explained because they wouldn’t think to explain it. So, all the archives that came with the ships were contaminated and broken down.
So, it’s basically, when we look at ancient Sumeria or when we look at the Harapan civilizations of the Indus Valley of four, five, six thousand years ago, we have fragments, and we try to build an understanding of their past by looking at these fragments and by filtering them through our understanding. And that was the core worldbuilding principle I chose to use, which is they have fragments of the past, but they don’t even know Earth is…they wouldn’t even call Earth, Earth. They call it the Celestial Empire, you know, the world…so, they have fragments of it, and how they put that together into their own society is the way…is the foundation on which I built the world. And I did it partly for the Easter eggs, partly so I could use familiar names and not have to use made-up names. And then, it just allows me to play a lot…both with expectations, it allows me to make references that the reader will get, but that the people in the world don’t know is a reference to that thing. It just allows me…it allowed me a lot of leeway to make commentary and also to have fun. And I think space opera should be fun.
I agree. Did you then…doing all this worldbuilding, at what point does the actual plotting come in? Do you work out a detailed plot, or do you write and then use the revision to pull everything together?
Well, again, this story is a little different because it comes with a plot. And it’s not that I use that plot exactly. But I drew heavily, heavily from the actual history of Alexander the Great. And I changed things up and moved stuff around, and that’s ongoing as I work on the subsequent books, right?
But, for example, and this, again, isn’t really a spoiler, the plot kind of works outward. Like, the first scene I specifically had in mind that I knew I wanted to use is a famous incident from the life of Alexander when he was…he would have been, I guess, at this point, 20…his father, Philip—Philip had like, I don’t know, six, seven wives. Not—and in those days, the king would marry for alliances, alliance purposes, and so you could, you would have more than one wife at once, it just wasn’t the same concept of what marriage was for—but his father, having…Philip was actually an amazing character who accomplished an incredible amount, which I won’t go into here, but he kind of had a festival celebrating himself. He was not a man of small ego. He had a festival celebrating himself, at which he also married Alexander’s full sister—so Alexander had one full sister, Cleopatra—he married Cleopatra to…their mother, Alexander and Cleopatra’s mother, was the famous Olympias. She had two children by Philip. Her brother was king of Epirus, which was a neighboring kingdom. And that’s…you used alliances to link those things…so, Philip had a festival to celebrate himself and to marry his daughter, Cleopatra, to her uncle. Because that’s what you did in those days and…
No, I’m wrong. Never mind. OK. Sorry, that’s a different episode. Let me step back. Let me step back a moment. I’m still with the banquet. No, it’s because what I’m writing right now has me in that headspace. This is, see, this is the difficulty of writing history.
OK, when Alexander was 18, move back two years…I knew I was on the right road when I talked about the six wives. Anyway, Phillip had married all these women for alliance purposes, and now he’s in his mid-forties or late forties, and he marries a young Macedonian—oh, and all the wives he had married were not Macedonian. They were Illyrian. They were Epirote, like Olympias. They were…I think there was one from Thalassia. I don’t know. Anyway. So, but they were alliance marriages, right? And now he’s older, and he decides to…evidently he actually fell in love with this young, probably 18, 17, 18-year-old, young Macedonian woman who was highborn and whose uncle was one of Philip’s companions, one of his intimate friends who were his supporters and the people he trusted most, right? So, this man was her guardian. And he, Philip, decided to marry her to, to marry Cleopatra, which angered Alexander’s mother, because, you know, there’s always more rivals, right? Especially if there’s someone in court who can be pushing for this woman. And Philip is still young at this point, mid-forties was still, he wasn’t an old man, he was still young. There was no reason to think he could live easily another twenty years as long as he didn’t die in battle or whatever, right?
So, at the banquet, which Olympias did not attend because of the insult to her, even though she was the fourth of six wives, at the banquet, everyone got drunk. And there were no women at the banquet, I should say. Besides the fact Olympias wasn’t at the palace, there were no women at these banquets. Everyone gets drunk, and the uncle of the new bride stands up. So, remember, Alexander’s mother is Epirote. So, she’s not Macedonian. She’s Epirote, from the neighboring kingdom.
The uncle of the bride, the young bride, stands up and toasts her and says, “Now, at last, we can have a true Macedonian heir.” Right? Well, Alexander was quick to take offense to this. He was drunk and he was eighteen. He jumps up, and he threw a cup at this man, right? And hit him in the head, which, of course, is a horrible, horrible insult in guest terms since Philip was hosting the party. So, Philip, who was also drunk, jumps up and he’s like…I won’t use bad words…anyway, he uses the equivalent of an “eff you, you!” to his own son, right? Grabs a spear and makes to throw the spear at his own son, who has already proven himself in battle at this point, by the way, as a competent war leader. But he trips and falls, and it all goes…and then Alexander says something like, “Well, look, there’s the man who says he’s going to conquer Asia. He can’t even stand upright, you know, because he’s so drunk.” So, then Alexander leaves court for a while, while things cool off, you know. But, of course… and then, the new wife gives birth to a girl baby. So, Alexander comes back, right? So, we’re all good, right. Anyway, that scene is so great on so many levels. That’s the scene, like, that I built the book out from.
What does your actual writing process look like? Are you…I think you’ve said somewhere that you think you’re a fairly slow writer? Do you write with parchment under a tree somewhere or do you go out, do you write in your own office? How do you like to work?
Oh, I write in my own office. I’m fortunate. A back…I know this happened…this was like, a thousand years ago, I also would sometimes go to, like, the library or to the coffee shop to work for a change of scene.
I work in coffee shops. Well, not right now, but I work in the coffee shops some myself.
Sometimes I just want the change, you know, to kind of shake things up a bit. I have a book that I mostly wrote at the library because I found that if I was at home, I wasn’t working on it. But if I went to the library—and this was back when the library, it was hard, it was so hard to get on the Internet at the library, or maybe there were only, like, two limited slots, I think it was before wi-fi, that it was really great or before this whole library had…yeah. So, I was like, I had nothing to do but write there. But yeah, I work at home.
Do you work sequentially, just start the beginning and write to the end of the story, or do you do it scenes and then stitch them together later? How does that work for you?
I am a sequential writer. I know people who stitch, which I find fascinating. It’s not something I can do.
Me, either. So, I always ask.
No, but I know people who do it, who will, like, write out of order. Katherine Kerr, for example, who wrote the Deverry series. She writes scenes…well, you should ask her, but she just had a book out in February called Sword of Fire, a standalone Deverry novel, in fact.
She’d be a good guest. I should definitely reach out.
She would. She would be she’d be a great guest. But, yeah, I tend to…I both outline and don’t outline, so I’m kind of a major-points outliner. I need to know where my endpoint is. I know some of the major scenes along the way. And then…but then I discover. So, it’s kind of like islands, the Hawaiian Islands, for example. So, I can see the point I want to get to, but I’ve got to go underwater to get there. And underwater is the stuff I don’t quite know. But I’ve also…I said before that I’m an athlete. One of the interesting things to me about writing is, I’ve heard of people who can plot everything in their head before they start writing. But I have to…like, literally physically for me, I swear, the act of going from my head through my arms, through my hands onto that motion. I think that’s part of the process for me.
Yeah, I’m not much of an athlete, but I feel that myself as well. There’s something about the actual process of typing that makes it happen.
Yeah. There’s a kinesthetic thing there. And I feel like, if it doesn’t go through my hands, I’m losing a step.
And I have talked to, well, David Weber, for example, because of an accident, dictates most of his work. And I have done that once for a nonfiction book. And it wasn’t too bad for nonfiction, but I’m not sure, I don’t know what would come out if I tried to dictate a story. I may try it sometime just to see what happens.
I know Kevin Anderson dictates his first drafts, I believe.
Because to me, it seems like it’s just such a completely different way of translating what’s in your head into words than the typing process. So, anyway…
Yeah, yeah, yeah,
Everybody does it different, as we said. And that brings us around to the revision process. Once you have that draft…and I know you’ve written extensively about this on your website, so I should point people to that, that you have a three-part, the revision process in three parts on your website, which goes, I think it’s about eleven pages when I printed it out. But, in brief, what’s your revision process look like?
Well, one of the things that happens to me is, when I say I write sequentially, I do, but I don’t. Often, I will write forward to a certain point, and then I’ll say, “Ooh, wait, now I’ve moved myself off onto this other path. I need to go back and fix some of the things that were pointing me to a different path,” because I somehow just can’t, I can’t keep going till the end if stuff is pointing the wrong direction. So, I revise…it’s not that I…I try to write straight through to get a complete draft because I can’t really understand the book until I have a complete draft. But at the same time, often there’s a couple of pause points where I’ll often stop and go back and revise forward and then go on.
But my revision process has a lot to do with structure. I need my books to be structured, like, the framework needs to be right. So, the first thing I always do is, look, “Do these scenes lead to each other? Have I set up the…not the mystery, but I have set up like the character journey or the plot way that I’m presenting?” Like, I might be presenting ideas that and foreshadowing and set up, so that, you know, at three-quarters of the way through the book, the reader will suddenly go, “Oh, my gosh, these two people are going to meet, aren’t they?” Right? And so, that’s kind of my first thing, is to see, “Are these things set up the right way for the ending I want.” Once I’ve done that—and sometimes revising the structural aspects can be a major, major task. My novel Black Wolves, I must have restructured it three times before I settled on the structure that I wanted.
Then I’ll go back…and I would call that a structural revision…then I would go back and do large scene revisions, where I have to ask myself, “Does this scene even need to be here? What do I need this scene to do? Is it helping? Is it helping the larger story? Is it pointed the right way? Are they saying the things they need to say to get me…and, does it lead into the next scene? Maybe I need to flip two chapters because they make more sense.” So, that’s kind of that level. So, it’s kind of like the big level, the broad camera level, the widescreen level, and then the kind of the medium-screen level.
And then, after I’ve done that revision, then I’ll go in and kind of fine-tune the scenes, you know, “Can I cut out any of this dialogue? Can I collapse these two sentences into one? Can I cut out some details that I don’t need? What’s the one detail I need for this scene to pop out?”, you know.
And then the last revision stage for me would be what I would call line edit, where I would just go through and close read it, to cut what I can and to make sure that the language is good and the sentences make sense and, you know, are most felicitous to read.
I think you’ve said in something that I read that you do use beta readers. Where do you find those people, and what do they do for you?
Well…the beta readers I use are just, they’re really just other writers I know. So, I don’t, like, go looking for them. I just build…as I have built community, I have people who will beta read for me. Does that make sense?
And another thing that happens is that you may go through a phase where, like, I’ll have, like, you know, I might have one series that one person beta read a lot of it, but then, the next series they were doing stuff and couldn’t read it and so they haven’t read anything of some other series. So, sometimes it’s just…I go through phases where one person might do a lot of beta reading for me for a couple-of-years period and then maybe none after that, or, you know. So, it comes and goes, what people have time for. I’m the same. I’ve beta read for people as well and, you know. Like, right now, there’s a couple of people who I’ve done a fair bit of reading for. And in ten years, maybe I won’t have, you know, I mean, I just don’t know. It’s just kind of cyclical.
What do you find as a benefit of having beta readers?
The benefit of just, different eyes. They’re looking at it in a way I’m not. And one of the important things about beta readers…it’s useful to have what I call alpha readers, and those are people who just pat you on the back? Sometimes you just need someone to say, “Hey, this is great. Hey, can I have something more? Hey, I love this. Hey, keep writing!” if you maybe are struggling or aren’t sure. But a beta reader is supposed to be there to say, “Hey, I didn’t understand this.” I just read a science fiction novel, beta-read it, and I said, “I don’t understand how this spaceship is laid out. And a lot of the story, the story has a kind of a mystery-thriller aspect. And so, they would say, “Well, I went down to the X,” and I’m like, “I have no idea where the X is.” So, they ended up just dropping in early in. There’s this, like, three-sentence description, and it’s done in a way that the main character is talking about it or thinking about it, where it just lays out how the ship works, how the ship is laid out physically, in very clear terms. Because to the writer, he knew it in his head. He could see it. And he thought that his two words using, I think he used cylinder and torus, well, that should be enough. Right? And I’m like, “I don’t understand where I am.”
That’s actually something I often mention when I work with new writers is yes, you understand everything that’s going on. It’s all very clear in your head, but you have to put enough on the page for the reader to be able to make that jump and get some sense. Yeah, that’s a…it’s a common thing.
But I still struggle with that all the time. Every book.
Yeah, me too.
I mean, do we ever get this fully right?
And this is something…we’re getting up to the editor stage now, where you send it in, and the editor takes a look at it. That’s often something that I’ve found that the editor will come back and say, “You didn’t explain enough of this, or there’s a connection here that’s missing or something.” Do you get that same kind of feedback?
Well, that’s what a good editor does, right? So, there’s for me, a…I’m going to say, bad editor. I hate using that word bad…a bad editor wants you to write the story that they think it should be. A good editor says, “What’s the story you want to tell here? And how can we make sure that you’ve told that in the clearest, most engaging and most accessible way possible?” Accessible based on what your goal is. I mean, if your goal is to write a very dense inaccessible tome, that’s fine. I mean, seriously, that’s fine. But you want it to be that. So, a good editor will look at what you’re doing, and they’ll be able to get what you’re doing, and they’ll be able to dig into you and say, “Is this what you want? What are you trying to get here? How can you bring this out more clearly?”
And we mentioned that we both worked with Sheila Gilbert at DAW.
And one of the things I’d like to point out about editors, and Sheila is a great example, is they have seen so much. So many stories and so many ways of telling stories. They’ve seen all the mistakes and they….yeah. And I always really appreciate the feedback I get from Sheila for that reason.
Well, and the other thing about an experienced editor is that an experienced editor is patient for that reason, because they love books. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t love books. And they’re patient with your flaws. So, sometimes…some people will go over and over and over a book because they want to turn in something that could be immediately typeset. And sometimes it’s because they don’t want other people, other hands in it, which is fine, I mean, we all get to process how we do that. And others, I think it’s because they’re uncomfortable with people reading something flawed. But I’m a youngest child. I do not care. I want to ultimately write, I ultimately want published, the best book I can. And so, I’m happy for my editor to see it at a little earlier stage if that means that she can help me with some of the places that I might not be seeing, you know, and then that allows me to to get my fingers in there at an earlier stage when the narrative is more elastic, because I find for me that as I do each stage of revision, you know, down to the line edit, by the time at the line edit stage, things are less elastic now, I can’t make big changes without having to rip apart the whole book. But I can make larger changes earlier on. It’s not solidified yet. So, I would, you know, I would rather…I like getting feedback at that earlier stage and then in the other stages as well.
Well, we are kind of at the end of the time here. So, I do want to ask you…you kind of touched on part of what I usually ask at this point, why people create and write. You mentioned that right off the top. But to bring it down to you…and this is sort of in the bio, breathing and writing, right? Why do you write? Why do you do this? What do you get out of it, and what do you hope that your readers get out of what you present to them?
It’s a particularly interesting question, because what I…I still get out of it what I got out when I was young, which is just the joy of telling stories and kind of the amazement of telling stories about people who don’t exist, you know, doing things that never happened. Why do we enjoy these things? It’s kind of bizarre when you think about it, but it’s also really cool. So, I still have that. But then, as you spend decades doing it, as I have, and as you have, right, then other things happen.
I mean, partly for me, it’s like, I have no other skill at this point. You know, it’s like this is my marketable skill. This is what I know how to do. I have a habit. I’m used to doing this. But the other reason is that I just want to do, I want to keep getting better. So, part of it for me is just that I want to write, I want to do better with my next book. I want to do something that I couldn’t do ten books ago, but now I can do it. Now, I know, because for me the process is just this, the excitement of challenging myself. So, I can continually challenge myself at something that I like to think I have gained skill at, that I am no longer an apprentice, but a master at doing. And I just love that sense of challenge and of getting closer to, you know, having that product and…not product, but that story at the end where I say, “Yes, yes, this was it. This was what I wanted to write. This matches more closely than ever before that thing I had in my head.”
I’ve sometimes used the metaphor of writing is, when you first have the idea and the concept, it’s like this beautiful Christmas tree ornament, and it’s shiny and it’s perfect, and then you smash it, and you try to glue it back together with words.
That’s great. Yeah.
And what are you working…oh, the other part of that there was, what do you hope your readers get from your writing?
Well, you know, I hope that they feel immersed in the world and that it gives them that…I hope that while they’re reading it, they really feel that they are in that other place, you know, living with these people through whatever they’re going through. That’s really my goal as a writer, is that immersion.
So, you’re offering them that portal that you never found when you were a kid?
That’s right. That’s right, Ed.
And what are you working on now? I mean, obviously, the next book in this series, but…
Yeah. Yeah, I am.
Does it have a title?
Yes. Book two is called Furious Heaven.
And anything else in the works?
Yes, but nothing I can talk about at the moment.
OK. And where can people find you online?
I am on Twitter @Kate ElliottSFF. That’s Sam Frank Frank. On Twitter. Did I say that, Twitter, already? And I do have a website called I Make Up Worlds, which I haven’t been posting on recently. So mostly it’s Twitter these days for me. I’ve backed off on other things. It’s just too much.
Yes. So often, social media seems like too much.
Yeah. Yeah. And I…yeah. And I’ll be backing off online quite a bit for the rest of the year to just really focus on writing.
All right. Well, thank you so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did too.
I did, Ed. And I’m sorry I went so history geeky. I just can’t…I just love history. And I want to say one last thing about worldshaping and about worldbuilding and how much I recommend to people that they read widely about human culture and human experience. I think that is really the best foundation any of us can have as writers.
An excellent recommendation. OK, well, thanks so much.
An hour-long conversation New York Times bestselling novelist Garth Nix, author of the Old Kingdom series, the Keys to the Kingdom series, Frogkisser, and many others: his books have sold more than six million copies around the world and been translated into 42 languages.
New York Times bestselling novelist Garth Nix has been a full-time writer since 2001, but has also worked as a literary agent, marketing consultant, book editor, book publicist, book sales representative, and bookseller, and as a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve. He has written numerous books, including the Old Kingdom series, beginning with Sabriel, the Keys to the Kingdom series, Frogkisser, and many others. He also writes short fiction, with more than 60 stories published in anthologies and magazines. More than six million copies of his books have been sold around the world, and his work has been translated into 42 languages.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Garth.
Thank you, Edward, it’s great to be talking to you.
We’ve only met once. I think that was at a world fantasy convention in Toronto. Well, actually, technically, I think it was in Richmond Hill. But you could see Toronto in the distance.
You could see it very vaguely in the distance. It was a shock, I think, to quite a few international persons such as myself to discover that it was not quite in Toronto, despite being called Toronto.
It was a bit of a shock to me, even though I live in Canada, I was expecting it to be a little closer to downtown, as well.
Well, I think we did have the misfortune that the railway was being worked on and the other public transport. So I think if everything had been up and running it wouldn’t have felt quite so far away. But, of course, we were just talking about how with World Fantasy, it doesn’t really matter. That convention is a travelling community that pops up, and you tend to spend all your time with all the other writers and publishers and editors and agents all hanging out anyway. So maybe it doesn’t really matter so much.
It was still a fun convention, even though…
Yeah, it was great. Yeah, it was very good.
...though it wasn’t right downtown. And the other thing I always like to mention, you know, when I’m looking for connections…this is not exactly a connection with you, but I wrote a fantasy trilogy called The Masks of Aygrima as E.C. Blake, and some reviewer said that they liked my fifteen-year-old female protagonist, she was their favorite female heroine since Sabriel.
Oh, that’s a nice thing to say. That is a connection. Yeah.
I considered that a great, great compliment because I really love those books, so…
We’re going to start, as I always start with my guests, by taking you back in time. How…well, first of all, where did you grow up and all that sort of thing, but how did you become interested in writing and fantasy, and which came first? Were you interested in the fantastical and science fiction before you started writing, or did the writing come first and then you migrated into it? How did that all work out for you?
Sure, it’s a good question. I grew up in Canberra, which is the federal capital of Australia. It’s still a very small city, but it was a very small city when I was growing up there in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Canberra is kind of like the Washington, D.C., equivalent, except that it’s a planned city. It really was only built from the, sort of, 1930s onwards. When I was growing up there, it only had about 200,000 people. It’s quite a small city, and it’s also in the middle…it’s in the bush, the Australian bush. It’s sometimes called the bush capital because it’s got so many trees. So it was kind of like a country town, but then it had the weird extra layer of all the federal government stuff and also all the things like Washington, D.C. has, on a smaller scale, like the National Library and the National Museum and Parliament House and all that sort of stuff as well. So it was an unusual city. It had a very, very good public education system then—it still does, perhaps not quite as good—which I benefited from, and a very good library system, which I also benefited from.
And my parents are readers. Both my parents were science fiction and fantasy readers, amongst many other things. My father is a scientist and my mother is an artist. So, from a very early age, I was exposed to all kinds of books. Our house was full of books. There was a library between my home and my school, which I stopped at every afternoon–a children’s library, a specialist children’s library. And I read everything. I love all kinds of books. I do love fantasy and science fiction, but I also love historical novels and thrillers and contemporary literature and classics, all kinds of stuff. And non-fiction as well. I’ve always been fascinated with all kinds of non-fiction.
I actually noticed, Edward, that you’ve written a lot of non-fiction, looking at your bio before I started to talk to you.
Anything for a buck, basically. But also, I do love that stuff. I love learning about things and writing about them.
And I think it’s good for writers, too. You need to read non-fiction as well as fiction to fill your mind with all kinds of information you can draw upon to create fiction. And non-fiction is very, very good fuel for that.
So, I was always reading, there were books everywhere. My parents read science fiction and fantasy. I probably had more than most people, in part because my father used to spend quite a lot of time in the U.S. working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the United Nations and a few other…lots of international programs, some of which were run out of the U.S. (One mysteriously always had to meet in Hawaii every year. I wonder why that was.) But he would bring back American paperbacks, which we would not otherwise get, because Australia, particularly in that period, most of the books came from the U.K. So, I was actually exposed to many American authors that not all Australians would necessarily have been and would not have been known in the U.K. So, I guess in a way I had a perfect environment to become a writer of fantasy and science fiction because of that reading.
And I was always very keen on making up stories. I’ve always loved making stuff up and trying to get people to believe it. Sometimes I joke that if I wasn’t a writer, I’d probably be in jail as a confidence trickster, because I like to make people believe in stuff. I like to write stories that feel real. I like to tell stories that feel real. And there’s not a big step, I think, from making up those kinds of fictions to getting to some kind of complex scam making people believe things. But luckily, I haven’t gone down that road as yet. I’m sticking to the fiction.
So, you started writing pretty young then, as a child?
Yeah, I did actually start…I loved the idea of my own books. I made little books of my own from a very young age. In fact, I have one from when I was about six. Well, I actually do have one when I’m about six. I don’t take it with me. I have a sort of little replica that I bring with me I use in talks sometimes to demonstrate how far I’ve come in my writing since I was six years old. At least I hope I have.
So, yeah, I was making little books. I was writing stories. I wrote stories in school. But I didn’t actually plan to be a writer. I loved books. I loved writing. But actually, right up until the end of high school, when I was thinking about what I am going to do, in the last few years, I was thinking I would actually join the regular Australian army and go to our equivalent of West Point. But I actually joined the Army Reserve and I was a part-time soldier for about five years, and that convinced me I didn’t want to be a regular soldier. It was actually…it was a very good experience and I really mostly enjoyed it, with some reservations. But I also realized that the life that I would lead as a regular Army soldier would be more contained and closed, the environment would be more closed, than if I did something else.
So, for a few years, I was thinking that’s what I would do. I would go to what was then the Royal Australian Military College and be an officer and learn, and do a university degree, and become a commissioned officer. But then I realized that, “Hang on, I actually don’t want to do that. What am I going to do instead?
And I worked…I got a job after I left school, I worked in a government job for a year, and I saved my money. Then I went travelling in the U.K. and Europe. And while I was doing that, I re-read lots of my favourite books, particularly children’s books and particularly English ones, and I read them in the places where they were set. So a lot of classic fantasy like Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.
Yeah, it’s a fantastic book, in Cheshire. I read other children’s classics, like Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons in the Lake District.
Oh, thank you so much for mentioning that one.
Well, they’re wonderful books. I mean, I still re-read them. That also…I mean, those books made me interested in sailing.
You know, you get so much from those books. And then Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth, you know, historical novels, children’s historical novels, were also very much part of my reading. I read The Eagle of the Ninth while I was visiting Hadrian’s Wall and so on. And I while I was doing that, I also started to seriously write, whereas before I’d written stories off and on. I wrote a couple of stories and sent them out, and I also started a novel. I wrote half a novel while I was travelling around. And of course, this is back in the day. So, I had a portable typewriter, a Silver Reed typewriter, and I would type away in the various places that I was I was staying, or actually often not in the places, the youth hostels I was staying, because it would annoy people. So, I would actually go and type just, you know, by the side of the road or whatever, because I bought a little car. Terrible, terrible old car that…once the wheel literally did fall off and I also caught a light once. But it also got me around about 10,000 miles of travelling. And yeah, in the course of that time, I thought, I do want to be a writer. This is what I want to do.
But I also, because I was a reader and I loved nonfiction, one of the areas of non-fiction I read about was publishing and writers and writers’ biographies. And even back then, I realized that a writer’s…economically, a writer’s life is generally very difficult and you need a day job. So…and I’m actually kind of astonished, looking back, that even at nineteen I did have enough common sense to realize I would need a job. That was probably one of the few areas where I had sufficient common sense, but I did. And so, I made a plan to come back to Australia, go to university, get a degree, because that would enable me to get a better day job, and also just to continue writing, which is pretty much what I did.
And when I got back to Australia, I had great encouragement, very early encouragement, because I got a telegram—this was shortly before telegrams were completely phased out, and, in fact, I didn’t even know they still existed at that point until I got one—which was from Penguin Books in the U.K., saying, “We want to publish your story, ‘Sam, Cars and the Cuckoo,’ and we’ll pay ninety pounds.” Prepaid telegram, reply yes or no. And I hadn’t even sent it to them, so I was extremely puzzled, but also very happy. I unraveled this mystery many years later. I’d sent the story to the gaming magazine White Dwarf, because I also wrote, I had a little bit of a success, right, writing gaming articles about Dungeons and Dragons and Traveller and so on. And they, at that point, they did occasionally publish fiction. This is, again, a long way back, the magazine was very different. And so, I’d sent it to White Dwarf, so it was a great surprise to get this telegram from Penguin Books saying, “We want it for our magazine, called Warlock.” And, anyway, as it transpired, I discovered much later, an editor from White Dwarf had left to join Penguin, to work on their magazine Warlock, which was for their Fighting Fantasy books, was in support of their Fighting Fantasy books. And he’d actually just taken…I don’t know, I guess his submission inventory from White Dwarf with him, including my story. I met him years later and he said that he’d just taken his whole folder with him and bought some of the stuff for Warlock.
But I thought, “Wow, this is fantastic.” Ninety pounds, this is in 19…this was in 1982, I think, it was quite a lot of money, particularly in Australian dollars at the time. And I thought, “Wow, I can write a short story every couple of weeks and get this money and, you know, it’ll be brilliant.” But, of course, I couldn’t actually sell a short story for about another five years after that. I wrote about forty without being able to sell any of them. Which is, again, of course, a very common experience. But at least I had the early encouragement of that first short story sale.
I reacted to the Arthur Ransome reference because they were books that were very important to me when I was growing up and I spent my…in Canada, we got a family allowance. I think it was $10 a month per kid. And my parents gave that to me as my allowance and I saved that up and bought all the Arthur Ransome books.
And in my last book before this, my current one is Master of the World, book two in the series, but in the first one, Worldshaper, there is an occasion in which there is a…they get on to a sailing yacht, and I named the yacht Amazon and there’s some reference in there. So, I do try to reference those books when I can.
Yeah, well. These things, books, your childhood books are so important for what you do later. And I think whether you even consciously reference them, they’re there, they’re deeply embedded in the reservoir you call upon to write. So, they’re always present. And sometimes there’s conscious references and sometimes there’s conscious resonance and sometimes it’s unconscious. But having read them is the necessary is the necessary part of the equation.
Now, you got your B.A. in Professional Writing. What kind of a course was that? Is that a creative writing course or is it more of a journalism course or what? I haven’t quite seen that phrase before.
Yeah, well, it’s very old. They don’t actually offer that anymore. But at the time, that was the only writing degree offered in Australia. Again, a very different time. Of course, everywhere offers creative writing or writing degrees now. But at the time, what was then the Canberra College of Advanced Education, that’s now the University of Canberra, it was the only place in Australia that offered any kind of writing degree. And principally, it actually was a journalism school. And most people there were majoring in journalism, but they also had a screenwriting stream, which included a small element of prose writing, fiction writing. So, when I was looking at what I could do, I wanted to get a degree mainly as a kind of ticket to show at door to get a better day job. I thought, “Well, I might as well do a writing degree.” And it was luckily in my home city, Canberra. so it was just much more doable in terms of, you know, I could stay with my parents, which I did most of the time, and…you know, it was just logistically easy. So I was very lucky it was there.
And it was actually a really good experience. I majored in screenwriting, and I guess it’s like a lot of those writing degrees, in the sense that someone once said, “You can’t be taught writing, but you can learn.” And really, I think the most valuable thing for me was that it set up an environment in which you’re expected to do a lot of writing and you were in the company of other people who were very keen to write. So, I met some very good friends there and reconnected with some old friends who coincidentally just happened to be there, I had no idea, old school friends who also wanted to be writers, and being in the company of those people and also having the workshop experience, which is he typical one of where you pass work around in a, you know, tutorial group or workshop group and discuss it, very much as many workshops do now, that was very valuable. To be honest, most of the actual lectures and so forth were not particularly useful. But being in an environment where you need to create work all the time and it has to be on time…because they treated it like a…the journalism strain was very strong…it was treated as if it was a job at a newspaper. If you didn’t file on time, you got zero. That was it. There was no, “I’m sorry, I’ve been ill,” or whatever, it was just zero, because they said, “This is what will happen at the newspaper.” You have to…if you’re told to write something, that’s your job, you’ve got to write it. So that was all very, very useful. So, it was a good three years.
And I started theatre there as well and did some productions. I ended up directing a production of The Crucible in my last year. And it was all…it was fun and it was good experience. And…I think I probably would have kept writing anyway. But it really did help shape some of the discipline to do that. And I wrote probably half my first published novel, The Ragwitch, while I was doing that course, for that course, too. So that was also a good thing.
I’m interested in the theater experience. I’ve talked to a number of writers who have some theater experience and I’m a theater guy myself—I’ve written plays and I’m a professional actor and I’ve directed—and I always like to ask if you find that the theater experience helps you in your fiction writing. Orson Scott Card is one who says it does, and I just talked to James Alan Gardner, and he said it does. What was your experience?
Well, I think it all helps, to be honest. I think all the cross-media stuff helps. The screenwriting experience is also very helpful. I mean, to be honest, I think everything helps. The experience of life helps. Reading books helps. Strange knowledge of rock formations might help. You know, anything can help, but particularly in terms of writing. I think experience of different ways to tell stories and convey stories to people, whether it’s visually or aurally or, you know, using different senses…and theater in particular is often very good for experimental ways to communicate stories. People are always looking at different ways to stage and perform. And that makes you think about, well, “Hang on, maybe I could do something different just on a page, as well.” So, it was very useful. And, I mean, I directed a play, I performed in plays. I’m a terrible actor, but it was probably useful experience and useful for, again, also useful for something that’s very much part of a modern author’s life, which is, of course, talking about your work, because we’re all expected to do that nowadays and need to do that, whether it’s in person at bookshop events or it’s on YouTube or even in a podcast like this. I’m sure some of that early actor training, even though I was a terrible actor on stage or screen, it probably helps me play myself, as it were, and to get across what I want to get across. And it was just interesting. It was just a good thing to do.
I also worked as a stagehand after, briefly, after university, as an additional job. I worked in a bookshop, but also I worked as a stagehand on a couple of different productions with a very good friend of mine, also a writer. And that was a good experience, too, which I’ve not drawn upon directly for a story, but I think some of the conversations we had working on that show and the sort of cynical realism of backstage people, it was an exposure to characters you might not otherwise have been exposed to, and, as with anything somewhat out of what you normally do, was very useful. And some of the old, literally old, as in they would probably be in their 60s, people who worked in the theater, and had done for forever, were such interesting characters and had some very interesting stories to tell. So things like that. I think everything’s useful.
Yeah, theatre people have lots of interesting stories to tell if they’ve been in it for a while.
Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.
Now you mentioned The Ragwitch, which was your first published novel. When did that come about? You went on to work in publishing. How did that all line up?
Well, as I said, I realised I would need a day job, and I was at university and thinking about what I could do. I did actually think about journalism for a while. Many of my friends were journalists.
I did it!
Yeah, well it’s…and of course, again, it’s a very sort of standard sort of thing. So I toyed with that, but I found that I didn’t…while I could adequately write everything, I could write whatever was required, I actually didn’t particularly like having to stick to the facts, which is a bit of a drawback in journalism, or it should be a drawback. And so I was thinking, “What else can I do?” And I was still fascinated with books and really interested in publishing, so I thought, “OK, well, that’s what I’ll do. My day job will be publishing, and” (I was still, you know, I was writing all the time) “I can continue to write.” And those would feed off each other. And one of the classic ways—and then looking around to see how I could do that, of course, one of the classic ways, and it’s still one of the best ways to get into publishing, is to get a job in a bookshop. So that’s what I did, and I worked in a wonderful bookshop where quite a number of my friends also worked in Canberra, and that then led to…I got a job as a sales representative for a very small publisher, which was in Sydney, so I moved to a much bigger city, but all the time I was writing and at that time I was finishing The Ragwitch.
So, from that small publisher, which was a small trade publisher, I then moved to an academic press on the production side as an editorial assistant. And while I was there, and I was sort of working my way—I worked my way up there to be an editor and then actually the publications manager there—but during that time, when I was at that academic publisher, I got The Ragwitch published. But in the usual way. I researched publishers. I looked at who was publishing that kind of novel. I submitted it to seven publishers, most of whom rejected it. Two, I think, never replied at all. And then one day I came home and there was a message on my answering machine, again back in the old days, a cassette answering machine, from a publisher saying, “Can you come and talk to us about it?” And so it was picked up and published in 1991. Which is a long time ago.
But there’s been several since then.
More than several. Yes. Yes, I’ve managed to keep going, which is basically the whole secret, really, as I often say to people. The answer to any publishing problem is to write another book, you know, whether it’s problems of success or failure or things not working out as you would hope. Write another book. It gives you another chance. Another spin of the wheel.
Yeah, I think it was maybe Stephen King that said…it’s usually either Stephen King or Ray Bradbury who says these things…
That the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is that the published writer didn’t give up.
They probably both said that in different ways, actually. And it’s true. Though it can be extraordinarily difficult to keep going because of all kinds of factors. And I’ve been very fortunate across the board, really, in terms of who I am and my background and where I live and even such things as, you know, the fact that we have essentially free health care here in Australia makes a massive difference. I’m very well aware of many of my American friends who are successful authors, but they can’t give up their day jobs to write more because they need the day job for the medical insurance. So there’s, like, those kinds of factors. And I’ve been very lucky.
Well, we’re going to talk about your creative process and we’re going to focus on your latest, which is Angel Mage, which unfortunately I have not had a chance to read. But that’s OK, because I’m going to get you to synopsize it for people who haven’t read it, like me.
I’ll just read it to you on the podcast, Edward. It’s only going to take about eighteen hours. That’s all right, isn’t it?
Oh, sure, I’ll just release it as multi-part podcast.
I wouldn’t dare do that because it’s actually, the audiobook has been read far, far better, anyway. I actually, I recently distilled the sort of elevator pitch for the book, even though I don’t really believe in elevator pitches. But with the help of various people who’ve already reviewed it and commented about the book, the sort of simple summary is that it’s The Three Musketeers crossed with Joan of Arc, crossed with angelic magic, crossed with kick-ass woman heroes. And that kind of sums it up on a variety of levels. But, yeah, Angel Mage is very much inspired by Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and the Richard Lester 1973-1974 films of The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers.
I love those movies.
I love those movies, too. I mean, they’re brilliant movies and brilliant adaptations of the book. Very much inspired by that, but it’s not a retelling. Angel Mage is the story of Liliath, who is an angel mage. She’s able to summon angels using icons that she makes. And she, Liliath, is perhaps the most pre-eminent angelic mage who’s ever lived. Unfortunately, she has already destroyed one kingdom in an effort to do something, which is unclear, involving an archangel, the archangel of that kingdom. And this all happens before the book begins. She did something which caused a terrible plague that killed most people or turned them into monsters. She was thought to be killed by it as well, or something to have happened to her. But, in fact, she wasn’t. She just went into a long sleep to have another go. And the book is actually about her awakening from her long rest to try and put in motion once again and so successfully carry out whatever her plan is to get closer to her beloved Archangel Palleniel. And this is in the new kingdom of Sarance, which is pretty much an analog of 17th-century France, but with some important key differences. And to do so, Liliath needs to gather to her and direct four key individuals who are young people who are just embarking on their careers in the capital of Sarance, which is a sort of Paris equivalent. So, she is setting up her plan again. She is manipulating these four characters who are brought together. They don’t know why, you know, what their connection is. They feel a connection and they, Dorotea, who is also an angelic mage and a very gifted maker of icons, Simeon, who’s a medical student at the hospital, Henri, who’s a clerk of the cardinal–the cardinal is a woman, incidentally, and one of the, I guess the key differences in Sarance is that it’s an equal-opportunity kingdom, as such, as most of my fantasy worlds are. Women can be all the things that men can be as well, as of course they can be in reality if they’re not constrained by social barriers. And…who have I forgotten?…oh, and Agnez, who’s a musketeer, a cadet of the musketeers. And so it’s an adventure story, it’s set in that alternate 17th century, influenced by Dumas, and I hope it’s just a great, enjoyable adventure that really takes you to another world, as Worldshapers is all about. I hope it takes readers to somewhere that feels real and they can go along for the ride.
Most of your books, and this one included, are classified as young adult. What has drawn you to the young adult side of the spectrum?
Well, classifications are funny things. And in fact, Angel Mage is published as an adult fantasy in the UK and Australia.
Amazon shows it as young adult…
Well, in America it is published as young adult. It really, I guess, demonstrates the fluidity, particularly, of young adult as a category. I guess what I would say is that the clue is all there in the name “young adult.” It’s young adult, not all children. So, to my mind, you know, YA…and it’s confusing to people, because YA covers such a broad range of books from very young YA, as it were, to older books. And, you know, categories in publishing are about publishers trying to find the sweet spot to connect core readers to a book. They always hope that the book will go beyond those, that core group. And you always hope that that’s just the kindling that starts the fire to reach everywhere, as it does with the really big bestselling books. They always go far wider than whatever their categorization is. But, of course, to make that happen, you do need to connect with the people most likely to read the book. And that’s partly about genre classification as well, which is why if you try and categorize a book as something that it doesn’t really fit, which happens occasionally where publishers want to try and position a book somewhere else, but it doesn’t…you know, readers are put off from it because it doesn’t match their expectation. That’s probably the cardinal problem. (Cardinals on my mind, obviously, too many cardinals.) That’s the biggest mistake you can make in publishing, because if you try and sell a book as something t isn’t, you know, the people who would love it don’t buy it, and the people who you’re hoping to try and get to love it typically don’t buy it either. So the safe method is always trying to connect to a core audience.
And partly, of course, what happens is, if you’re known for a particular genre or category, if your book can even halfway fit into that category, that’s where publishers will try and put it. In the case of Angel Mage, I’m absolutely fine with calling it a young adult book. I do think it’s a young adult book, but at the same time, I think it’s important to be aware that doesn’t mean it isn’t for older adults as well. And, in fact, all the data shows that most of YA is in fact being read by 18-to-35-year-olds, anyway, and older. It’s not actually being read by teenagers, which is a whole other discussion, because there’s a whole discussion of how teenagers are actually being marginalized out of a genre that’s out of…not a genre, a category…which is meant to be for them. But, so, it’s not as straightforward as it may seem.
I just write the stories. I mean, going back to answer your question more directly, I just write. I write for myself, and I guess I write for myself as I am now and as I was at 20 or 15 or even a bit younger, where I would have read a book like Angel Mage with no problems whatsoever, in the same way I was reading completely adult titles with no problem whatsoever. But I also, I do write children’s fiction as well, and when I am writing the children’s books, I’m really writing for myself as I was at 10 or 11 or 12. But again, good children’s books work for all ages as well. And they work for all the readers, as well. It’s not the primary audience, but in my view, all the best children’s books will also work for an adult reader because they’ll be, there’s just more to them. There’ll be multiple layers of story and meaning which make them work, and a child reader who may not be as practiced or experienced will just take that top layer of story and meaning, and they will love it and be carried along by it. And later you can come back to it. They’ll come back to it later maybe and get some more of the subtext and more of the other layers of story. And an adult reader, a sophisticated adult reader, will, you know, we’ll get all of that straight away.
Getting the balance of all those things right is the difficult part, except that most writers, I think, do it by instinct. So I think if you start thinking about it, it won’t work. But if you’ve equipped yourself by reading, certainly, lots and lots of the right books, and by the right books, actually I just mean any books ,really, except that you probably should have read lots and lots of books in the area in which you want to work as well as everything else. Then you will have equipped your storytelling and writing instincts to be able to do that without having to think about it too greatly. And, of course, then the editorial process helps as well.
I’ve kind of run into the classification thing myself with the aforementioned Masks of Aygrima trilogy with a 15-year-old protagonist. It was published by DAW Books, which does not have a young adult line, and so it was published in the adult market. And I got people who said, well, you know, “This is really a young adult book.” And then there were young adult reviewers who said, “Well, this is too grown-up a book, but it has a 15-year-old protagonist. So, yeah, the whole genre classification thing, can…
And, well, it’s important not to get too hung up on it, I think. I mean, that’s…when people start thinking, “Oh, I can’t read this because it’s YA” or “I can’t read this because it’s adult” or “I’m not going to read this because it’s science fiction and all science fiction is terrible.” You know, those preconceptions just cut you off from reading good books. I think it’s very important to look at books on their own merits. The whole categorization, the labels that are put on books, are all about how to sell them. They’re not actually about what the qualities are, literary qualities or narrative qualities or whatever, they’re labels to help you find a book, but they are not exclusive labels. So I do think it’s very important for people to…reading about a book that sounds interesting, it probably is interesting. Have a look at it. Read some pages. Don’t think, “Oh, it sounds really interesting, but it’s YA, so it’s not for me, or “It’s children, so it’s not for me,” or “Dang, I didn’t realize it was romance, so I’m not going to read it,” because it could be absolutely the best book for you to read. It could be a wonderful book to read. Just because of some selling labels on it…I think preconception of genre and category just really narrows people’s reading habits, sometimes. Though, many people, of course, don’t care, which is good.
So, going back to Angel Mage, you talked about the elevator pitch, but that came after the fact. So, how did the original seed for this all come together? And is that typical of…the way that Angel Magecame together, is that typical of the way that your stories generally germinate?
That’s a good question. The way I typically develop stories is that I will have an idea for something. And often, it’s just about a character in a situation. And I really don’t know anything about it. I know, I have a…it’s like having a still cut out of a section of film. And I can look at it in my head and think, “Oh, well, there’s this person in this situation and this appears to be the setting,” but I really don’t know any more than that. And then I will start writing something about that. And often, these little fragments I don’t end up using, but that has helped me work out what the story is or what the story might be. And sometimes they become full-on prologues or opening chapters, which, again, I might not, but it does help me set the scene. And I work out, you know, who that character is and what part they play, and if they’re going to be the main character. And I also work out the feel of the setting, the sort of tone of the setting, even if I don’t know many details. And after I’ve written a little section like that, typically I don’t do anything on it for a while, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months. And my subconscious is working on it, and every now and again, I might make a few notes about that particular idea.
And if it is going to come to something, then at some point, the next thing I usually do is write an outline, which I won’t actually follow. That’s one of those Zen outlines, the act of doing the outline is more important than what it’s going to be used for. I will write an outline and then probably will write the beginning, which I may have already written, and I’ll just rewrite it, or it will be something completely different, but I will get that first chapter or prologue or prologue and first chapter down, and I will then revise the outline again. And at that point, I will have something which I will think, “Well, okay, that’s gonna be my next book, or is going to be the one I’m going to write after the one I’m writing now.” And that’s when I’ll share it with my agent and so on and start talking about it being the next book. And I should say, sometimes when I’m writing these, I begin this process where I have a little idea and I write a little bit, it becomes a short story and I will write it, and then, usually within a few weeks, it’ll be complete in itself. And then I know, “OK, well, that’s done. That is a story. It’s not going to be a novel, it’s not going to be anything else. And then I’ll try and do something with that story.
So, once you…if you decide to go on and write a novel…what does your actual writing process look like? Do you write, you know, 24 hours a day?
Do you sit under a tree with parchment and quill? How does that work for you?
Well, I actually did…I wrote many of my early novels longhand first, so I would write a chapter in longhand, pen on paper, in my favorite black-and-red notebooks. So I’d write a chapter longhand and then I would type it up on various computers over the years and then I would print it out and I would correct the printout and take in those corrections to the electronic file, and then I would write the next chapter longhand and then just repeat the process. I stopped doing that probably about fifteen years ago, except that I still do write some sections longhand first. So, I still write difficult chapters.
What does writing longhand do for you or for your prose?
It just seemed to be a good process. I mean, I think I started it because, when I was traveling, and I first started writing when I was traveling, I could just write in my notebook wherever. And this is long before, you know, laptops or, actually, I mean, it was really the early days of personal computers. I mean, when I came back from that trip, I got a TRS-80.
Not portable, no, at all. I got my first Mac maybe the year often. And it was actually one of the very first Macs, the Mac 512K. It was…which was a miraculous thing. I mean, what you see is what you get on the screen. And printing out was astonishing compared to what I’d been using. But yes, not at all portable. So, I think it stemmed from that ability to write in a notebook wherever I was. And on that trip and then later on another trip 10 years later, in the early ‘90s, I mean, Sabriel, I wrote part of, I wrote chapters, you know, I wrote a chapter sitting on the wall of a Crusader castle in Syria, I wrote in a Roman amphitheater in Jordan, under a medieval bridge in Isfahan, in Iran, in the Khyber Pass, and so on. And so, being able to write anywhere, it was, I think, what drove that. I just got into the habit of it and it worked.
But I think also, writing longhand and then typing my longhand, and as I typed, I would correct, as well, did give me an extra layer of revision, which wasn’t just reading, a sort of tactile revision, not just looking at it on screen and going through. But that said, I always wrote short stories pretty much straight on screen, all my short fiction. And then later I did just start to write just, you know, on the computer. But I still write longhand. I still write notes longhand. And I will occasionally, particularly if I’m having difficulty, I will take my notebook and pen and go and write a chapter, often somewhere outside, somewhere in some sort of natural environment, not to sit at my desk. So I mix it up.
And once you get to the end of the book, the first time through, what does your revision process look like?
Well, I revise all the way through. Typically, what I do, in fact, is…say I’ve written Chapter 1. Before I write Chapter 2, I actually will revise…in my writing session, say I finish writing Chapter 1 on Monday, and I would have done minor revision at the time, just going backwards and forwards with every writing session, on Tuesday I will read Chapter 1, revise it and then write Chapter 2, and then when I come to write Chapter 3, I’ll revise Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 before writing Chapter 3. So I’m constantly revising all the way through. But of course, what that means is Chapter 1 will have been…say the book’s got 40 chapters. As part of my normal process, Chapter 1 will have been revised 40 times, by the time I get to the end of it, but Chapter 40 will have been revised, notionally, once, but in actual fact at least two or three times. And then, when I have a complete manuscript, I will go through it again, usually two or three times before it goes to the publisher, with a little bit, as much fallow time as possible between revisions, which in practice normally means only two or three days, because of, just, time constraints and needing to deliver it. But then, I also typically don’t look at it again until I get the edit back from, when I get the top-level edit letter back from my editor, I just won’t look at it at all. So, I’ll normally have at least a month or six weeks of having totally forgotten about it, with luck, before it comes back again.
And in that time, I’ll be writing other things. I’m always writing something. And I usually am writing a couple of short stories or sometimes a screenplay at the same time as writing the novel. The novel will take 80 percent of the time, but I will spend 20 percent of the time working on other projects, and then, once the novel is off my plate temporarily, I’ll be working on those other things and of course also starting the next one. So, it’s always…there’s always the shuffling, short-order-cook-type shuffling of things around on the stove.
Every once in a while, as a full-time freelancer, I remember the song from My Fair Lady, where Eliza sings, “Words, words, words. I’m so sick of words.”
Well, you do get sick of, absolutely, you occasionally do get sick of words, like Eliza. And then when that happens, it’s time to do something else for a while. Go for a walk, watch a movie, you know, anything that refills…or perhaps leeches the chamber of loathing for words.
What…you mentioned the editorial letter that comes back…what sorts of things do you usually find yourself having to work on when the editor gets a look at them?
Well, it varies very much from book to book. I guess…I mean, I’ve always felt greatly complimented by editors who tell me that my books don’t need much revision. And they usually credit that to the fact that I do a lot of revision myself and I do pride myself on delivering a very clean and…you know, a manuscript that’s been revised as much as possible. So, it varies from book to book. Usually, they’re things like tightening up particular sections, which…you know, the pace may have dragged or, very occasionally…one famous editorial letter pointed out that I had a character who could be completely deleted from the book without making any difference whatsoever. And therefore should be. Which…and of course, as always, you know, your initial reaction is, “Oh, ridiculous nonsense. What are they talking about?” And then after calm reflection and looking at the examples cited, I realized that, yes, that character was, in fact, completely extraneous and did absolutely nothing. And so I did get rid of them, and the book was all the better for it. So, occasionally, there’s things like that, but generally speaking, they’re mostly fine-tuning things.
But not always. Again, this is going a long way back. I benefited greatly from the editorial advice from my then editor…at HarperCollins. Because I delivered Lirael and Abhorsen actually as one giant book. And that’s how I write it, as one very large book. And she pointed out that it probably needed to be two. And it wasn’t just a matter of cutting them, cutting it in half. I actually needed to expand upon some aspects of Lirael’s early life, which I’d alluded to without going into. And so, I took the book apart, I broke it in two, and I rewrote both halves, adding and subtracting. And so that was quite a big task. But it was the right advice. It was very, very useful. So, yeah, every now and again, there’s big things, and there’s small things.
I always like to talk about what the editors contribute because there are beginning writers or wannabe writers who are scared that editors will somehow destroy their precious prose or something. And in my experience, they almost always make it better. Almost always.
Almost always, because you can unfortunately get bad editors who just don’t understand the book or who want to remake it in, you know, remake it into something that it’s not. That does occasionally happen. But of course, you deal with that. And I’ve actually been very lucky. I’ve not had that really at all myself, ever. But I was an editor and I did…while I don’t think I’m guilty of doing this myself either, I did work with many other editors and I do know of…and I also, just from being in this business for a long time and knowing lots of other authors, I do know of a very few examples where just the wrong editor was working on a book with someone and it was not a good fit. But that, as you say, that is not the norm at all. Usually, a good editor is very helpful and makes a big difference.
Well, we’re close to the end of the time here, so I want to move on to the big philosophical questions…
Well, I gotta go. Sorry. Time’s…oh, no, hit me. Hit me with a question.
It’s only one, really.
Oh, good. Okay.
With multiple parts, but…why do you write? Why do you write stories of the fantastic, specifically, and on a slightly broader level, why do you think anybody writes? Why do we tell stories? Why do you tell stories and why does anybody tell stories?
That is quite a tough question. Why do I write? Why do I tell stories? I think it’s because I have to, on one level, I’ve always told stories, I’ve always had them bubbling up inside me, and I feel like they need to come out, I guess. I did allude to this earlier when I said that possibly, if I didn’t write stories, I’d be in jail as a confidence trickster, because I do have all these stories in me and I have to get them out. Maybe this is how I make sense of the world, is by telling stories and by writing, or make sense of my world. But I do derive an enormous satisfaction when a story works out. I love it when I can successfully tell a story.
And I should say that never…nothing is ever as good as it is in my head. When I’m thinking up a story, it’s always truly amazing. And then when I write it, it goes from truly amazing to, if I’m lucky, kind of amazing. And I look at it and I think, “Wow, that’s great. I would like to read…if I came to this as a reader, I would like to read this. I would love this.” And that’s what I’m always trying to aim for. So I think it is that innate desire to tell stories just coming up inside me. Also, matched with that, the satisfaction of telling a good story and of making people…making people happy is perhaps not quite the right description, because, in fact, stories might not make people happy, they might make them feel all kinds of different things…but successfully transmitting a story from my head into a reader’s via the medium of text, I guess, is something that gives me great satisfaction.
As to why I write mostly fantastical stuff, that is also quite a tricky question. And possibly the best way to answer it is to say that, whenever I do try to write something that is contemporary and entirely realistic in terms of our contemporary world, it hardly ever works out. I mean, the story might work out perfectly well, but it will end up having some element of the fantastic, even a very slight one. It just seems to be something I do whether I plan to or not. I have set out to write entirely contemporary or historical stories and nearly always some element of the fantastic…I just suddenly get part of the way through, and I think, “This would be so much better if the supernatural intrudes or there’s magic,” or “Wouldn’t this be more interesting if that person is not, in fact, a human?” It just seems to be something, again, inside me that introduces these things. Though I have occasionally written things that do not have elements of the fantastic, my natural bent seems to be to want to include them.
And that sounds very familiar to me because that’s exactly what happens to me.
Yeah, I think it’s very…absolutely, I think it’s a, quite a shared trait of most fantasy writers. But not all, of course, everyone is different. There’s so many different ways to write, and write novels. And that’s also part of the fascination.
And the idea of having the amazing image in your head and then trying to get it…I’ve sometimes used the image of, it’s like you have a Christmas tree ornament and it’s beautiful and perfect and you can see it so clearly and then you smash it with a hammer and try to glue it back together with words.
Yes. And they might still be very impressed, but it’s not quite what you wanted to give them. Yes. Yeah.
So, what are you working on now?
Well, I’ve actually just finished my next book, which is kind of ahead of schedule for me for once, which is good. I’m revising it in response to the editorial letter at the moment. And that book is called The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. It’s set in 1983, and it’s set in a slightly alternative London, London with a…a United Kingdom with a slightly different 20th-century history. And it’s about a young woman, Susan, who comes to London. She’s an art student who will be starting art school later, but she’s come early to London to try and find her father, who she doesn’t know anything about, she just has some clues from her mother to follow up—her very vague mother. And she almost instantly falls in with one of the left-handed booksellers, called Merlin, who saves her from…well, they save each other, actually…from an intrusion of the mythic. And Susan is drawn into this world where the left-handed booksellers and the right-handed booksellers have a kind of secret organization that not only runs a couple of bookshops, but also works to keep the mythic and legendary elements of Britain under control and stop them from intruding disastrously into the contemporary world. And Susan’s quest to discover her father is connected very much with Merlin. Merlin also has a quest, to try and find out what happened to his mother, who was apparently killed by criminals, but there seems to be some connection with the mythic world as well. So that’s The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, which will be out, hopefully, this time next year.
And anything else that you’re currently in process on?
I’ve got some short stories. I’ve actually got a bunch of stories coming out in different venues over the next twelve months. I had a quite a little short-story writing frenzy earlier this year. So I think I’ve got five stories coming out in various places over the next twelve months or so, which range from science fiction to fantasy, different kinds of fantasy…well, actually, one horror, one is just straight-out horror, which I don’t write that often, but every now and again…and some fantasy stories and science fiction. And I’m also outlining a new novel and notes for other stories. And I’m working on a screenplay with a friend of mine, as well, who’s a very experienced, and has had many things produced, screenwriter. So, lots and lots of things on that stove top, as I mentioned before, I’m shuffling those pans around.
And where can people find you online?
They can find me at garthnix.com, on Facebook, it’s just facebook/garthnix, and /garthnixauthor. I actually have my very old personal Facebook, which I always just use to connect with readers, but it’s generally full up with the 5,000-friend limit. And then later I started the author page, which is just the /garthinix one. So Facebook, I’m there, but actually where I’m most likely to respond to people, and I’m much more likely to post, in fact is Twitter, where I’m also just @GarthNix. And if you want to ask me a question, Twitter is generally the place where I’m most likely to be able to respond in a sort of timely fashion. Far more than that anywhere else already.
All right! Well, thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers, Garth. I really appreciate it.
It’s fun to talk about writing, isn’t it? You know, writing and publishing.
Kendare Blake grew up in the small city of Cambridge, Minnesota. She’s a graduate of Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, and received a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Middlesex University in London, England. Her bio notes: “Adopted from South Korea at the age of seven months, she arrived with the following instruction: feed her chocolate. Though not medically advisable, she and her parents are eternally grateful for this advice.”
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Now, we met at C2E2 in Chicago, I guess that’s Comic Con and Entertainment Expo in Chicago. When was that? Four or five years ago now?
Yeah. It was such a long time. You sent me that photo of us and I opened it and I was like, “Oh, yep, yep, that is where it was.” And my second thought was, “Wow, what a long time ago, like where does the time go? It seems like yesterday.”
Yeah, it was a few years and, of course, at the time you actually thought that we shared a last name because I was there in my capacity as E.C. Blake, which is a pseudonym of mine. So, we do kind of share a last name.
As E.C. Blake, I wrote a fantasy trilogy for DAW Books called the Masks of Aygrima. So, that was current at the time, and so that’s what I was…that’s who I was pretending to be, or however that works with pseudonyms, but we had a great panel there and I enjoyed getting to know everybody that was on it, so you came to mind but I was thinking of possible guests, and here you are.
Well, thank you. Thanks for reaching out.
We’re going to focus primarily on Three Dark Crowns, which started off a new series for you. I have read the first book, so I’m prepared. I literally finished reading it about 15 minutes before I called you up here. So, it’s fresh in my mind.
But first I’d like to go back in…I always say this…into the mists of time (speaking of going back a long ways). How did you become, well, first of all, interested in, I presume, reading science fiction and fantasy, that’s where we all kind of start, it seems like, and then how did you get interested in writing it? What was the…your story that led you into this?
I think a love of reading, it oftentimes just progresses into a love of storytelling and then it naturally lends itself to wanting to live a life of stories and write your own stories. My mom largely was the one who got me into reading. She…when we were growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, but the library was always free, so we were frequent visitors to the library, We had one of those big canvas sacks that we would frequently fill with probably about the same twenty unicorn picture books just on repeat, and the poor woman just read them to me over and over again without ever once expressing the boredom and annoyance that she must have been feeling about the same twenty unicorn picture books. So, I was reading voraciously…like, I could read before I went to kindergarten because of her, because she just really immersed me in words. And my Dad, too. We would sit around and read the Sunday paper together and I would, he would read me the Garfield comic strips, and then I would read him back the Garfield comic strips, just by memory, and eventually, that’s kind of how I learned to read. So, that kind of kept on. They always kept my nose in books. So, thanks, parents!
Now, the town of Cambridge, Minnesota…although I live in Saskatchewan, so it’s relatively close to Minnesota, I’m not familiar with Cambridge. How small a town is it?
It’s like…man. I mean, you know, you always pass the population sign, and you wonder, “Well, how often are they updating that?” But I believe the population sign, when I was there, was something like 7,000 people.
Very close to…I grew up in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and the population signed for years said 10,000 but they were rounding up, and then…I think they have finally passed 10,000. But for most of the time it was more like 6,000 and something, I think, officially, but they rounded it up to 10,000.
Oh, wow, they really rounded. They went for it.
I spent a lot of time in the library there as well and I also learned to read before I went into Grade 1. So, kind of a similar story there. Well, once you started reading things other than unicorn picture books, did you gravitate to the fantastical at that time or were you reading other stuff?
It was a pretty fast switch, actually. I went straight from you know, unicorns and The Black Stallion right into Stephen King and Anne Rice. Just a hard turnabout, God, I must have been like ten or so, when my mom and I or somebody and I, probably my mom and I, were walking through Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club or something and adult novels caught my eye, and, yeah. That was the end of Black Beauty for me.
My other library story is similar, in that my mom got called in by the librarian, and she said, “You know that your son is reading stuff from the adult side of the library,” because it was split into the kids’ side and the adults’ side. And my mom said, “Oh, it’s okay. He only read science fiction and fantasy.” And I thought, “Mom, you don’t actually know what’s in science fiction and fantasy.” But I was glad for her for standing up for me anyway.
Yeah. I spent so long dragging my mom through bookstores and, you know, trying to pick out the one book that I was gonna get that day, that it didn’t matter what I’d pick up, and, like, “Hey, can I get this?” By the time I asked her, she was so just fed up with waiting, she’d say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, yeah. Let’s go.” So, I probably got away with a lot.
So, when did you get interested in trying to write your own stories?
Well, the earliest fledgling attempt I can remember to actually write anything of length, it was kind of a length challenge. I wanted to know if I could write something that was as long as a book, like a book-length something. So, I started writing this horse story when I was in seventh grade. And it took up, like, three spiral-bound notebooks by hand. I don’t know if…I don’t remember how serious I was about it. or if it was just an experiment. but that was. that’s the earliest thing I can remember. I’m sure it was terrible.
So, as you went on through high school, did you write more and more stuff. Did you share it with other people to read, at some point?
I didn’t share much. I’m pretty private…a private writer. But whenever, you know, there’s those word problems in math and they kind of let you go on and on? I was…whenever you gave me an option in homework to use words instead of numbers, or to have, like a more than just a simple answer, I always took it. So, my teachers would often say, like, “Hey, you know, you think you might be a writer or something?” I’m like, “Maybe.” But I…it was kind of a far-off dream at that point. Authors were like…that was like becoming an actor or something, you know, like, “Sure, I’ll run away to New York and become a writer. Right. That’ll happen.” So, I didn’t really think about it seriously. I wrote a couple of…well. quite a few. actually…short horror stories. I love writing short fiction. and when you’re in school. you know. that’s oftentimes what you have time to do. So, I wrote a collection of short fiction with my then-boyfriend, like, he wrote a bunch, and I wrote a bunch, and so I shared them with him. But that’s about it. And then I wrote another novel in high school that was also terrible. And I think that was when I first thought, “You know, maybe, maybe I could try to get something published, you know, someday.”
Well, just the act of writing something long, you know, just putting that many words on paper, is an important part of becoming a writer. I mean…
It is. Yeah. Learning to finish is important.
You mentioned Stephen King. I think he’s famously said that everybody writes half a million words of unpublishable stuff before they write anything publishable, and I think he may be on the low end of that.
I know! I agree.
So, when you did to university, though, you didn’t go into writing right away. You went to Ithaca College, but it was a business degree, wasn’t it?
It was, yeah. I always loved books, I always loved writing, but I also…I just wasn’t…I also wanted to be able to make my own way, you know, and um…I’m pretty practical. I’m a pretty practical person. So, I wanted to have something where if, you know, I couldn’t live my dream of being an author, then at least I wanted to be able to make some money. So, I went into finance and was going to be, you know, I’m not sure what at that point, like a stock analyst or an investment banker, I don’t know…I like foreign currencies, maybe foreign currency trader or something like that. But by the time I finished the degree, I hated it, so…I didn’t really figure out that I hated it until senior year. They actually brought in a speaker who I think was supposed to be inspiring to us as the senior class, but all I heard the whole time he was talking about how he had a Lambo and worked for Merrill Lynch and had this great office and…but all I heard was. “Yeah, my friends go skiing in Aspen and I stay and work, and I never get to drive the Lambo because I’m always at work, and I’m a little bit bald now because I’m always at work, and I haven’t…” It was really, really kind of upsetting, all the things he was saying in between the other things that were supposed to be inspiring, and those things were what I clung onto him, like, “So, you’re telling me I’m going to have no time, I’m going to be stressed out, I’m gonna be bald and miserable. OK. I’m not…I’m going to change. I’m not using his degree.”
Well, maybe it was…maybe he was the perfect speaker. then. from your point of view.
For me, yeah, I’m very grateful. And I’m pretty sure that my classmates already knew that going in and they were ready, but I was not.
So, did you then immediately…you went on and got a master’s in creative writing in England, so how did you make the leap from here to there and from that to that?
It was a year or two of working kind of horrible jobs. I sold garbage at one point. Literally. I sold people trash service, like, “Who do you want to pick up your garbage? Let’s just decide, you know, who has the best garbage truck that goes around your neighborhood?” And I just…I kind of knew I had to go back to school for something, and at the same time I just knew that I wasn’t…by then I’d figured out, like, I wasn’t going to be happy if I didn’t give this writing thing a try. So that was my chance. I said I’d give myself this degree and I’d take this time and I’d just put everything into it, and if it worked out it worked out and if it didn’t, well, at least I would know that I gave it a shot. So, I asked my parents if they were cool if I moved back in with them. They said, “Of course,” because they’re those kind of clingy parents that you want but don’t want but you’re lucky you have them. And, yeah, I took out just massive student loans and went to London–with a friend! So, I wasn’t by myself. That helped.
I always wanted to live abroad. I’ve always loved, you know, British culture. One of the first classics I read was Jane Eyre, and I like…I’m kind of like an Austen head. So, I really wanted to go over there, I’ve always wanted to travel there, and really I’ve always wanted to live there, so I figured the language barrier was okay, I could discern the accents, and that was probably the safest bet if I wanted to go overseas.
So how long a program was that Master of Arts in Creative Writing?
It was only a year, which was another selling point, which I still…I still give that piece of advice to young writers who come up to me and ask about, “You know, should I get an MA, should I not get an MA.” Well, you know, in London it only takes a year instead of, you know, oftentimes it’s two years in the States. So, when you even it out, it’s about the same cost, despite the exchange rate, and it’s less time. So, yeah, it was only…it was a thirteen-month program, I think? That’s how long we were over there? And it was wonderful. Just really relaxed. Laid back.
So, I’ve talked to a number of authors at this point and many of them had no formal training at all and others have had formal creative-writing training. I think you’re the first Master’s I’ve encountered, though I have another one coming up, I know, in a future episode. So, I get varying degrees of was it worth it or not, depending on who you talk to. Some of the ones who took creative writing said that they ran into professors who, you know, said, “You can’t write that crap,” meaning science fiction or fantasy, and so they found it a very negative experience. What was your experience doing it formally?
Oh, well, they…my professors were wonderful. It was a really small class. Like I said. it was extremely laid back. I don’t know if it’s just they have a different view of that over there, or what, but small class sizes…I’m talking, my graduating, my actual graduating class, was probably about six of us. It was just a very small program. And so, it made the workshop aspect of it extremely effective because we all got to know each other’s work very well. And it was a supportive and collaborative kind of environment. But they were very open to whatever our natural voices and our natural inclinations were. Most of the writers on the course were of a more literary and sometimes even journalistic bent, but…and that’s what I tried to do. I mean, I love literary fiction, and I do write it occasionally, so I was trying to do that. But my love of fantasy and just the weirdness kept kind of creeping in and eventually I started writing stories about, you know, a girl who is suicidal and then accidentally, when she’s like cutting wrist, she finds that, you know, she unlocks, like, a portal to the Greek underworld and, you know, just weird stuff like that kept coming out in my stories and they never…they really embraced it. I was, I told them immediately, like, you know, I’d really like to give this a go, I really, I’m hoping for some kind of literary life, for life in Book World, just to carve that out for myself, and they were very quick to hook me up with every resource they had. They got me an internship with a literary agency in London, so I had some work experience and got to see things from the other side of the desk, and they just embraced my voice. They’re like, “You know, it’s…you’ve got a nice commercial voice.” So, I never ran into that kind of snobbishness, I guess. So, I’m lucky.
It’s nice to hear, because I’ve had more of the other than I’ve had that from the authors I’ve talked to. So, I’m glad it does work out sometimes. I’m actually…I have…my training was in journalism. I never had a…I took one creative writing course in university. But the funny thing is I’m currently mentoring an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan. So, I’ve actually just sort of jumped straight up to teaching people who are getting a masters in a way.
How’s it going?
Good. But he’s writing young adult fantasy and so clearly, you know, the university up there did have a problem with that. They just found him a mentor who could, who could help him with that. So, obviously it just depends on the program. So, you went on from there. Your first book, Anna Dressed in Blood. That was the first published one, wasn’t it?
Well, actually, a literary novel called Sleepwalk Society was released by a small press the year before, and I had actually written that one before my Master’s course. And it was such a small press…I’m talking a micro press. Really wonderful people and I’m so glad that I got to work with them and met them, but I do consider Anna Dressed in Blood to be my first mainstream majorly published novel. So, yeah, that’s usually what I talk about.
Were you actually working on that while you were still doing your masters? Did that sort of start during that time or did it start afterwards?
No, it definitely started afterwards. Probably about six months afterwards was when I started writing? And I was…I worked on a different novel during my, for my dissertation, and I completed it. It was also literary, but it didn’t, you know, it just, it wasn’t there. But when I switched to write…when I switched gears and kind of really embraced the fantasy side and my horror-loving side, which maybe I had been fighting because I thought, you know, you’re supposed to write literary, that’s when everything kind of changed. Like, all the short stories I’d been selling prior to that, I’d sold maybe one or two literary ones but most of them had a horror or a fantasy bent.
Well, and we’re going to talk specifically now about Three Dark Crowns, which started a new…is it a series? A trilogy? What would you call it?
It’s a quartet. The final book comes out in September.
It’s a quartet. Okay. And we’ll talk about…use that as an example of your writing process on everything that you’ve written, but maybe the first thing to do is to get you to give a synopsis of it, so I don’t give something away that you don’t want me to give away.
Sure! So, the Three Dark Crowns series is set on an island. It’s a magical island, where a person can be born with a number of different gifts. So, you can be like an elemental, for example, so you can control one or more of the elements. You can be a naturalist, so you can make things grow, like crops and flowers, and you can also commune with nature and the animals, and you have a little animal companion, called a familiar, who kind of knows what you’re thinking and feeling and vice versa. You can also be a poisoner, so poisoners really like to ingest poison, because it has no effect and it kind of gives them a rush, actually, to ingest poison, and they really like poisoning other people. So, on this island, it’s always been ruled by a queen, and in every generation that queen gives birth to a set of triplets, triplet queens, who all have a particular magical gift, and they are raised, and when they turn sixteen they have a year, essentially, in which to just kill the crap out of each other, and whichever one survives gets to be the new queen, and then bear the next triplets, and so on and so forth. So, Three Dark Crowns is the story of one such generation of these sisters and how they deal with their battle to the death.
Now, you mentioned, that you, you know, your fantasy often also dips into the horror side. That certainly seems to be the case in Three Dark Crowns. Is that common in all of your fantasy? Do you…does it always have that kind of dark edge to it?
I would say so. And I don’t know why but it always tends to be a little bit violent. Someone pointed out to me about two years ago that every single one of my books has intestines, like, intestines somehow end up always on the outside of someone’s body. And I went through and, like, sure enough, yes, every single book that I’ve written has intestines on the outside, so now I make sure that I always put intestines on the outside at some point.
Well I certainly noticed them making their appearance in Three Dark Crowns. So, what are the…what is the seed for you for a book? I mean, this one, specifically, but also any of your books. How do the ideas come to you that you then develop into a book?
I’m not sure it’s the same for you, but for me it’s always different and random. Three Dark Crowns, with its triplet sisters who have to kill each other, actually came from a ball of bees, like a swarm of bees? Are you familiar with beekeeping at all?
Ok. So I was not, and I was at a book event in 2013 and they had like a hot-dog truck outside and it was a lovely day and people were going in and out through the bookstore, but there was a swarm of bees, a big ball of them about the size of a human head, stuck to the tree, like the fork of the tree, right next to the hot-dog truck and everybody was afraid to go and get the hotdogs and maybe we should cancel the event because there were kids there and we didn’t want anybody to die, but there happened to be a beekeeper there, and she said, “You know, when they form a ball like that, their only concern is protecting their queen, who is at the center of the ball. They’re on their way to a new hive. And if she dies, you know, that’s the end of them. So, really, they’re kind of docile when they’re in that state, as long as you don’t poke the ball or annoy it in any way, you can go right up to the hot-dog truck. And everybody was fine and that was true, but since there was a beekeeper there–I mean, what have I ever met a beekeeper? So, I just followed this poor woman around all day asking her bee questions, and I wanted to know, like, “Why does she have to travel in the middle of the ball? That seems very inconvenient. Does she do this a lot?”, and she told me a bunch of stuff about bees and keeping bees and how she gets her hive, but she also told me that a queen bee will leave her hive for a number of reasons, but before she does she’ll lay four or five baby queen eggs, before that she is only laying worker eggs, and she takes off with half the hive and then the baby queens hatch out and they just spite and sting each other to death, and whichever one lives is the strongest queen and she gets to take over the old hive. So, I just really liked that idea and I wanted to do it to people, so on the way home that’s what I started to do, I started to develop the idea of Three Dark Crowns. But that is the only time–the only time–that I can pinpoint exactly when an idea arrived. Do your ideas…can you can you distill them down and go back and find out, like, “Ah, that was the seed of the idea,” because Three Dark Crowns, that’s the only one for me, I have no idea where the rest of them came from.
It depends very much on the on the particular story. Some of them I can and some of them…I was doing an interview recently on an older book that I reissued, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember why I wrote it.
Exactly! Yeah, it’s by the time you…you know, it seems like it’s kind of a compilation of ideas? Like, you get a spark of something, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s kind of an interesting thought.” And then you push it away and if it comes back you know it’s a worthy idea. But it may be has gained something in the time that it was gone.
Well, so once you had this this initial idea of this case–this is good, because at least you remember this one–how do you go about fleshing it out and developing it into a story? Do you do a detailed outlined, do you do kind of just a sketch, what’s your process there?
I do not. You know, there was something going around on Twitter yesterday, like, one of those square, you know, tables, like a chart, and you could kind of..it had different definitions for, like, “Are you a lawful pantser?” And you know the pantser versus plotter…
So, “Are you a lawful pantser? Are you a lawful plotter? Are you a chaotic pantser?”, and it had all these different levels of plotting versus panting, and different definitions for each. And I read through it and I was very surprised to find that…I thought I’d be a combination of a couple. like. you know. whenever those things come out most people are a combination of a couple. But I’m actually quite a lawful pantser. I don’t outline, unless I’m really deep in a series and kind of in over my head as far as the plot lines are going, I never outline. I had the idea in 2013, spring of 2013. I didn’t start writing it until…late 2014, I want to say?” So, it had been sitting there for at least a year, which I like to do because I want it to prove itself to me that I really want to write it. I don’t want it to be one of those ideas where you’re like, “Well, that’s neat,” and then two months later, like, “No, it isn’t.” I don’t, I don’t want to work on this for as long as it takes to finish it. So, if it’s a novel, I make it wait for at least a year and percolate, and it kind of just develops in my subconscious, I think?
So, initially I met the three queens, you know, the three sisters kind of introduced themselves to me and told me what their names were, which I love, because I hate naming characters. Please just introduce yourself to me! And I knew what their gifts were. And I kind of knew…over time, I grew to knew what their situation was, you know, what their culture was like in the different cities, because on the island different cities foster different gifts. So, the poisoners have a city, the naturalists have a city, the elementals have a city, and each one has a different culture because each gift values different things and are raising these girls differently. all of them trying to win. And so, by the time I started writing I had a pretty good sense of who these girls were and where they were coming from. But I had no idea what would happen once I threw them together. And that is the ultimate joy that I have as a writer, is I love my characters, and they are real people to me. That sounds weird, but they’re real, living in another dimension, and I just want to take them and shove them in a room together and see what happens. So that’s what I do.
So, you didn’t write down anything before you just started writing the actual narrative?
Right. I usually like to…as soon as I start, like, I’ll start hearing snippets of conversations and I’ll start hearing snippets of scenes, and as soon as that starts happening with enough frequency that I’ll actually write down a paragraph or two by hand, just to keep it, I’ll know that it’s almost time to start. And when I start I like to have a good idea of where I’m opening and maybe an idea of where the first three chapters might go. And then after that I just depend on it to fill itself in.
So, you don’t even have the ending in mind when you start?
Usually not. I like to be surprised.
You are a lawful pantser!
Yeah. I did have…with Three Dark Crowns, I did know the secret. So, I did know that that is what would be revealed at the end. But I didn’t know how she was gonna get there, I didn’t know how anybody was gonna get there, and I didn’t know…like, yeah, that’s all I knew. I knew these girls were gonna have to fight, I knew there was ceremony involved, and tradition, and…but I didn’t know anything. It was very going in blind, and it usually is, as far as my books are concerned.
So, you must write completely sequentially then, you don’t do scenes and then move them around later? Or do you?
I don’t. I write from start to finish. That’s just…I’m finding…I’m just throwing words out into the void and following them and hoping that there is, you know, like something to catch them on the other side.
So, what is your actual physical writing process? Do you write by hand, do you write in an office, do you go off to a coffee shop, do you sit under a tree, how do you like to work?
Oh, except for those very brief notes I never do anything by hand because my handwriting is just bad.
Exactly. That’s how I feel about it!
It’s just bad. I really envy people with pretty handwriting. And I have an office, I have a home office, so I write here pretty exclusively. There’s a writing group around where I live and sometimes a bunch of us will meet up at a coffeehouse and write for a day just so, you know, we’ll write, and then we’ll have lunch and chat about it and just kind of commiserate, but that’s only once every few months. It’s so…by and large, yeah, I’m that stereotypical writer by myself in an office in a room, sometimes in the dark…no, not usually in the dark, but yeah.
How fast a writer are you?
Slow. I mean, I think I’m slow. I’m slow by young adult standards. Probably fast by adult standards. So…young adult. I mean. we all like to keep to a book a year, which, when you think about it, is tough. Some of us write three books a year, which just makes my brain hurt and wish for sleep. But I probably…left to my own devices, I would love to have eight…seven to nine months…to do a first draft. I love it. Love it! Haven’t had it in years, but that’s, like, my natural writing habitat.
Publishers tend to want you to keep producing books.
So, when you have a first draft, then what? What’s your revision process? Do you have beta readers? You mentioned a writing group, but that sounds like it’s a very infrequent thing. Do you show to other people or do you just go back to the beginning and…what’s your process?
Well, lately my process has been, “This has to go to my editor, so it goes.” And…
That also sounds familiar!
I don’t…I’ve never had critique partners. I’ve never had beta readers. I kind of wish that I did. I’ve just never…I have writing friends, but we don’t have that kind of environment. I think it takes a particular kind of trust, a particular kind of friendship to have…to be able to do that back-and-forth beta reading and I’ve just never come across that. Maybe it’s just not my nature. So, and when it hangs out with my editor, while it’s hanging out with my editor, I do like to cool drafts off for a number of months, because when I finish it I’m like, “Well, this isn’t so bad. That went pretty well.” And then two months later I’ll say, “Well, that was a garbage fire. Let me just take that back from you and do it all over again.” So, that’s, yeah. Good process.
Do you do revision before you send it to your editor, or does it…are you done when you get to the end of the first draft? Like, do you publish it as you go, or do you go back and start from the beginning and work your way through it again? How does that work for you?
Well, lately…it’s been different with every with every series,. With the Three Dark Crowns series, I’d say I rewrote Three Dark Crowns from top to tails about three times, and I wrote the first hundred pages maybe three times before that. So, yeah, it was hard, it was a lot. Each book has gotten a little bit better. The final book in the series I only had to rewrite, like, once, which was nice, but everything else has been like two times, a full rewrite, just full rewrite, because I just…it’s not that necessarily all of the beats in the plot were wrong but the way that I was telling them were wrong and the writing was not very good. And I just…I really need those few months of just letting it cool off so I can gain some perspective. so I can step back and look at it with. you know. actual eyes and say, “Yeah, this is really, really bad, and I’m sorry that I made my editor read it, but, you know, what’s done is done, now I get to fix it.”
What kind of feedback do you typically get from your editor? Have you had the same editor all along?
I haven’t. I had the same editor at Tor, Tor Teen, for the first five books, so Anna Dressed in Blood series and The Goddess War trilogy, I had the same editor, she’s wonderful, love her. I have a new editor for the Three Dark Crowns series because I moved from Tor to Harper teen and I also love my new editor. I’ve been really, really lucky with editors. And the kind of feedback that I get from her is I think fairly standard. I don’t know about, I mean, you know, you can tell me a little bit about your editors, too, if they give you, like, the shit sandwich? That’s what I call it. So, there’s like bread…it’s like a, about a sixteen-page, single-spaced, one page of bread where they tell you what’s great about it and then like, and then like fourteen pages just of shit, like everything that needs to be fixed and reworked. And then they’ll, you know, finish it off with another slice of bread that’s like, “Oh, yeah, but it’s still so wonderful and let’s have lunch when you’re in town,” and all that stuff. So, yeah, it’s…she’s very, very detail oriented. She really has a strong handle on worldbuilding. She has a really good sense of character. So there was a lot of that, a lot of tracking through the arcs, and the further you get, the further we get, into the series, the more the feedback has to do with, like, the arc of the character and making sure that all the beats are coming through with the proper dramatic hits and that I’m making motivations very clear for the readers. I can’t really the early feedback for Three Dark Crowns, because I would have been about four years ago now, but, yeah, that’s the long and short of it.
Well, my editor at DAW, which is my major publisher, is Sheila Gilbert, and she’s been doing this for a long time, and Sheila actually doesn’t send us, us being her authors, doesn’t send us a written editorial letter, we do it all by phone. So, it’s a two-hour phone call, and after the first fifteen minutes of talking about cats, then it’s talking about the book and…and she’s, yeah, it’s much the same thing. You know, I have gotten to the end of one of those conversations..and sometimes it’s done in person, if I happen to be at a convention or her see her in person, and you get to the end of it…I got to the end of one and I actually said to her, “But I am a good writer?” And basically, she said, “I’m by buying your book, aren’t I?” Yeah, so there can be some of that, but at the same time it’s, you know, it’s all necessary and it’s done from a knowledgeable place, from somebody who has seen an awful lot of this stuff and knows what works and what doesn’t.
Yeah. That’s why they’re there and that’s why, when you’re, you know, when we’re deciding on who to work with, you know, you definitely want to have an editor who shares your vision for the project. And I do the phone calls, too, so she’ll send me the letter and I’ll read it, and I’ll just, you know, weep, and then we’ll jump on the phone and we’ll have this, you know, like a really long two-hour conversation about it. And by the time I’m finished I know exactly what I need to do and I’m very energized. So, I guess that is our process, our process is kind of a combo, like, the letter just like land the blow, and then the phone call to really soften it out and get things moving.
Are there any specific writing tics that you have to watch out for? I mean aside from the entrails thing, which apparently you have fully embraced?
Things that I think…
You know, we all, or I do, anyway. I have these, you know, and it doesn’t necessarily come from the editor, I find it in my own rewriting. My characters, for example, I have a tendency to have people make animal noises when they’re speaking, they’ll growl dialogue or they’ll snarl something, and I have to watch out for that. Anything like that for you?
It differs by book. Like, if one book she’s like, “They’re frowning too much,” then I take out all the frowns and then the next book they’ll be, like, smirking too much. So, it’s…yeah, there’s definitely stuff like that. I will catch myself slipping into passive voice a lot more than I appreciate, but I’m pretty decent about going through and picking that up.
Yeah, that’s something I check on all the time, too. I find that more than I would like.
Yeah, and I don’t know…but, yeah, it’s always there and sometimes you just…even through, like, the line edits. So, you’ve been through major revisions probably a couple of times by that point, and then you go through the line edits and you realize, “Man, a lot of your paragraphs are just totally structured very poorly,” so you have to, you know, change the sentences around or, yeah, there’s definitely a lot of it. It seems like I was more naturally talented in the beginning and there’s a lot more heavy lifting to fix, you know, just the crap that comes out in the first draft. My first, Anna Dressed in Blood, had almost no revisions, like it just, there it was, like it felts like most of them were additions, story smoothing, but as far as sentence-level rewrites there were practically none. And that’s definitely not the case anymore.
One thing I did want to comment on in this book…and I don’t know if it’s your common choice…but it is written in present tense. Is that something you often choose for your stories?
It depends on the story. It felt right for this, third-person present, which I know really, really bugs some people, but third-person present felt right for this. I usually write…unless…if I’m working with a first-person narrator, unless I want them to be an unreliable narrator, I almost always go present tense because of the immediacy. I don’t want to give my narrator time to color things with their own recollection. I really want it just to stream right through, so it adds a little bit more authenticity to the voice, a little more believability. But if I do want, you know…because nobody…we never remember things how they really happened, you know, even things that just happened to us, it’s always colored by experience and the passage of time. So, if I’m writing in past tense that’s always, I’m always very aware of that, as far as if I’m working with a first-person narration. My Goddess War series was told in third past, so it’s…and I think my next fantasy series will be in third past as well, and my next stand-alone is going to be in in first past. So, I don’t know. Maybe I just need a break from present tense.
Well, I admit, I was…I don’t know, I was maybe four or five chapters in and it suddenly twigged on me that it was in present tense, which is interesting, that it didn’t immediately…I was reading it in past tense even though it was written in present tense. That’s something weird in my brain, I guess, but I didn’t immediately notice, which is interesting. Probably more to do with me than you, though. So, you mentioned going through all these stages of rewrites, and line edits, and it is something I like to point out to readers, sometimes, who, you know, say, “Well, you must be so excited your book is out,” and it’s like, “Yeah, but I’ve seen that thing so much at this point.” Do you feel that way a little bit when it comes out, that you’ve read it way too many times already and you don’t have to look at it again after it’s published?
Oh, exactly. Like, that’s…yeah, I remember, you know…more so in the early books. You know, people say, like, “Oh my God, your book is out and you can hold it in your hands and are you so excited to just bring it home and read it?” And it was very exciting to see an on a shelf and to hold it in my hands. And it is still very exciting to see my books on shelves and be able to hold them as physical books because books are so, you know, such a big, monumental part of my life. But I never want to crack my book open and actually read it because I have read it like ten times from cover to cover within the last six months or so. And, I mean, even my favorite books I haven’t reread ten times. So, yeah, I think I’ve had enough…and yet. I will sometimes now…it’s been about ten years since Anna Dressed in Blood…I will pick it up and if I need to reference something, like, “Oh, what did I say then?”, I’ll read it and then I’ll catch myself, like, reading a little more and going, “Well, that’s not bad, that’s OK,” but it’s taken ten years for me to do that, and as far as Three Dark Crowns goes, it’s still so fresh that the only reason I’ll crack one open is if I need to reference something that I said before, just to make sure, like, I’m in the right area of the castle or the right hair color or eye color, et cetera, et cetera.
I presume there are audiobooks of your work. Have you ever listened to those?
No, I can’t. I just…I think it’s too weird to listen to somebody else read my, you know…do you think that’s weird? Do you like…I mean, I’ve chose the audiobook narrator for the Three Dark Crowns series, which is my first time doing that, and she’s wonderful, she’s fantastic, and I do listen to enough of it so that I’m like, “Oh, yeah, Amy Landon, you knocked it out of the park again,” so I can, you know, really appreciate that. But then I stop. Do you do the same thing or can you…?
Well, I did one young adult fantasy series, I retained the audiobook rights, it’s from a smaller publisher here in Regina called Coteau Books, and it’s an Arthurian, modern-day Arthurian series called The Shards of Excalibur. So, I actually found the narrator,, but I was also the publisher because I was doing it through ACX–audio book exchange or whatever that stands for–Audiobook Creation Exchange or something like that. So, I had to listen to them all because I had to do the proof listening, And actually, I kind of enjoyed it. It’d had been a while. She did such a great job. It was…she did… there’s a teen girl and that was great but there’s a teen boy and she made him believable and Merlin’s like a computer guy like Bill Gates or something in my story and she gave him this obnoxious English accent. And, yeah, I actually quite enjoyed listening to my own stuff, but I’ve never listened to the ones that are done…like, my latest one, Worldshaper, has one out and I’ve listened to the opening of it and I can’t quite bring myself to listen to anymore because it’s just too soon since that came out and I just want to hear it again right now. Also, I read it out loud to my wife, so I feel like…
Yeah. That’s another thing I do. I do the same thing, I read them all out loud to my husband. So, yeah. He’s an audiobook guy. Is your wife an audiobook listener?
No, but we have this thing where…our kitchen’s not big enough for both of us to work side by side, it’s an old house, so she…I pour wine and she cooks and I read to her. That’s kind of our suppertime ritual.
Oh, that’s nice.
We’re currently reading Life of Johnson by Boswell. So, it says it takes fifty hours, so apparently it’s a long book…I’m reading it on e-book. Anyway, that’s what we do. So, you’ve got the last book coming out…and it’s called Three Dark Crowns, is the name for the overall quartet, is it, as well as the first book?
Yes. So, yeah, the series doesn’t have a special name, it’s just the Three Dark Crowns series and it will be comprised of four main novels, and then I also released a short bind-up of novellas. They’re prequel novellas, so they take place before the start of the series, when the queens were children, and then one of a queen from 500 years before. And that one’s called Queens of Fennbirn. But the last book will be called Five Dark Fates. So, completely out of numerical order, which is really bugging people.
What are the two middle books called?
So, the order of the series is Three Dark Crowns, One Dark Throne, Two Dark Reigns, and Five Dark Fates.
They don’t even add up!
They don’t even add up. They totally skip…I totally skipped number four. Originally, the series was designed to be a two-book series. It was just a duo. So, the story…it completes an arc at the end of One Dark Throne, and then, the next two books…I like to think of them almost as separate duologies, because the first is, like, the story of the Ascension and then the second is like the story of the reign. Yeah, so, when it was just going to be Three Dark Crowns and One Dark Throne, well that wouldn’t have been too confusing, that would have been OK. And then I started adding more numbers and it just got out of control.
Well, now we’re at the point where I’m going to ask you the big philosophical questions. Why do you write and why do you think any of us write? In particular, why do you write this kind of stuff, and why do you think any of us write this kind of stuff? What do you think is the impetus?
I think escapism has so much to do with it as far as why we write fantasy, and even horror, in particular. I don’t know about you, but I find there’s something soothing about being extremely frightened of something that can’t actually hurt me. There’s enough to be afraid of for real when you’re just walking around living your life. So, if I can be afraid of, like, a guy with Butterfinger knives on his hands, that’s wonderful to me. I love, I have Freddy nightmares every now and again and they’re my favorites, just waking up just terrified and knowing, “Well, he’s not real,” and hoping someday he will be. So, there’s a lot of…at least, for me I think that’s where it is. I always used to try to find, you know, magic when I was a kid, in the real world. I always thought, like, “Man, our world is so dull, it’s so boring, like, my horse doesn’t have a horn, not a single horn on that horse whatsoever. Not even an invisible one. She never grew one. I waited… And so, yeah, escapism. And…what was the other question? Kind of starting to ramble here.
Well, that’s sort of one reason we read it and maybe why you write it, but, like, do you enjoy it? I mean, is it fun?
Oh, yeah. I don’t know what it is about…I don’t know, for me, since I’m a hard-core pantser, when I’m drafting, it’s very much living the story. Like, I’m very Bastian Balthazar Bux about that. I don’t insert myself, you know–that might be fun at some point, but–I’m just living, I’m finding things out along with my characters, and I’m really along for the ride, and I start to get inklings about what might happen, and it’s not always what happens, and that’s exciting. So, for me the act of writing has always been a little bit magical. It’s…I mean, there’s no reason why it should work out. There’s no reason why I should be able to just sit down with these threads of story and just plop down and write, and they’ll, like, twine themselves into some kind of a sensible arc and reach a, you know, a conclusion that makes sense, like, without planning it out. But it does. Every time it does, and that is just magic. So, for me, yeah, the act of writing is…just, writing anything, it doesn’t even have to be fantasy. Just the fact that you…there’s a story out there and it’s waiting to be discovered is very, very magical.
Have you found that the writing process, where you are drawing all these plot threads together and bringing the story out, has that gotten easier the more you do it or does it…has it changed for you? You’ve done many books now.
I have, and I’ve done standalones, and I’ve done series, duos…I actually realized the other day…well, I realized this about a year and a half ago…that Sleepwalk Society was a standalone, then Anna was a duo, then The Goddess War was a trilogy, and now Three Dark Crowns is a quartet, so I would either forge ahead and go for five or I should reset and go back to one, and I did. I reset and I went back to one. Probably the best, for the best, because…it’s really hard sometimes to get real deep into a series and you’re coming up on the conclusion and you’ve got a whole bunch of things just stretched out there waiting to be resolved and at the outset of that final book you’re looking at them flapping in the wind wondering, “How am I going to catch you?” Like how are you going to braid together to, you know, work yourselves out. And they do, I suppose, but it’s a little bit nerve racking. It hasn’t really changed, though, over the course of…the writing process, over the course of these books. The revision process has changed a lot, but the actual drafting has remained the same. It’s just very much getting to know the characters, letting the characters make their choices, and following the story wherever it wants to go.
Since you mentioned series, something I often ask series writers…the last interview that just went live was Kevin Hearne, who has like a ten-book series, the Iron Druid series…do you find any issues with continuity and remembering what you put in the previous books so you don’t contradict yourself in the current book?
Well, it’s always…I always think about that when I’m starting out, because I’m a pantser, and whenever I put something to paper, every once in a while I’ll think, “Man, I hope I’m not just writing myself into a corner,” you know, just making it so that there’s no way that I can get out of here, and then the last book just has to have a meteor strike and just take out everybody because that’s the only way. Which I suppose is always an option. But, no, I haven’t yet. It’s been OK, despite not having all of the rules in place and not knowing…like, I don’t know, often I don’t know the ins and outs of a locale until I bring a character there and walk around with them. I don’t know the ins and outs of a culture before I have a character’s excuse to go and learn about it, or a character’s…yeah, so, but it’s worked out OK so far. I will have just plain old flubs. A reader pointed out that in Two Dark Reigns, one of the characters…so there’s a line of queens, right, in these books, and the last three queens have been poisoner queens, which is unprecedented. Usually there’s not the same type. Nobody, like, three in a row just don’t win. So, the poisoners are kind of experiencing this dynasty of sorts and they’re kind of going mad with power and the three poisoner queens directly before this are Camille,, Nicola and Sylvia…or Camille, Sylvia, and Nicola, in that order…and in Two Dark Reigns they’re referred to as Camille, Sandrine, and Nicola, because in the very early timeline, which apparently I mistakenly worked off of, the second poisoner Queen’s name was Sandrine,. and then we changed it to Sylvia. I don’t even know why. So, that’s actually in print in Two Dark Reigns, and I’m thinking that we’re gonna have it fixed, but that was embarrassing. So, stuff like that does happen, yeah.
And it doesn’t seem to matter how many eyes look at it in the publishing side, ultimately it’s a reader that always seems to find these.
Isn’t it? Those readers. They’re good!
And speaking of readers, what do you hope readers get from your work? You mentioned escapism, are you looking for any other impact on their way of thinking or their life. I guess it sounds a bit grand, but this is called The Worldshapers, so, are you trying to shape the world with your fiction?
I’m not. I really want readers to enjoy it. I hope they care about the characters and I hope they care about the story and I hope they enjoy it. I’m…if. you know. Three Dark Crowns is set in a matriarchy, where women are in power, and they’re the heads of households, and that’s the way it’s always been, and nobody seems to bat an eye about that, I mean, if that leads some people to go, like, “Oh, yeah, why should we bat an eye about that,” well, that’s great. But I didn’t set out to do that.
I don’t think I’d recommend the system of government that has built up…
Oh, no, no. By no means do I mean to say that a matriarchy would be without flaw, because women are still humans and we just mess things up no matter what, no matter what gender we are we will mess it up, guaranteed, but…
That’s where stories come from!
Exactly. But, no, I often…sometimes folks ask me to, like, do keynote speeches, and I always caution them, because I love keynote speeches–I’ve listened to quite a few, just going to conventions and things, and they’re always so inspiring and just uplifting and, you know, all these great personal stories of things they’ve overcome or mentors that have affected them, and I just make it very clear that I’m …I don’t have those kind of stories and I’m not that kind of change-the-world, you know, writer. It’ll be mostly dick jokes and, yeah, just a lot of court-jestering for however long you want to have me up there. So, no. Like, I…I don’t want to say that I don’t take my work seriously, because I really, really do, but…and I hope that it has, for that rare reader I think, you know, maybe it does…you know, a really good book can change your world. It doesn’t really matter what it’s about. So, I hope that does happen for some people but I…I don’t think…you know, I’m not like a, I’m not like a Jason Reynolds or an Andy Thomas or a, just…yeah. I’m not that.
Well, when I think of the books that really had an impact on me, I don’t think, in most cases, they had any sort of impact that the author thought they might have. It just happened to be the right book and the right character hitting me at the right time to really make an impression on me.
Exactly. Yeah. And that’s true for me, too, as a reader. So, I don’t know, maybe that’s why I don’t have that hope, is you know…I hope that it will happen, but I don’t I don’t set out for that for sure. When I’m writing, it’s really just…honestly, I don’t think about audience much at all, I just want to serve the characters and tell the story as best I can.
Well, it seems like the readers are coming along for the ride, so that’s good. And speaking of that, what are you working on now? I mean, we know the fourth book is coming out in September, I think you said?
Yes. September 3rd. And I just finished it. We got a little behind. They…well, they asked me to do the novellas shortly after, I think, One Dark Throne was published. And at the time I was like, “Sure, yeah, what are they, like 25,000 words apiece? No problem, I can knock them out,” and no, that took a while. So, ever since then we’ve kind of been working from behind and so, we’re very late. Normally, I would be…they would all be wrapped up by now. We’d be through pass pages, everything would be set. And I just turned in another edit, like another decent-sized edit, and we tried to combine the line edits and the copy edits into that edit and I only had four days to turn it around.
So, it was tight. I’m still pretty happy with where it’s ending up. And…but, yeah. So that immediately was what I was working on. I’m going to be starting my next standalone, which hasn’t really been announced yet, but it’s kind of like a, kind of like a YA In Cold Blood mixed with Natural Born Killers. Are you familiar with the serial killer…he’s not a serial killer, he’s a spree killer…Charlie Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate?
The names vaguely ring a bell but that’s all I could say.
There’ve been a couple movies, like, based off of them, Badlands, and they were…they were teenagers and they just went on a killing spree that lasted several days, possibly a couple weeks, into…they just shot up the heartland and it was just very, very shocking, you know, just like In Cold Blood, the Clutter murders were shocking, things like that just didn’t happen in the heartland at that point in time. And Caril Ann Fugate was only thirteen when this happened, and she was tried as an accomplice, and she went to prison, and Charlie Starkweather, I think, was only fifteen or sixteen. I mean, these were kids. So, that story has always really interested me, and…it’s not going to be exactly like a retelling or based on them really at all, that’s just the inspiration. So, it’s gonna be kind of a twisty crime thriller. In a sense, that’s what I’m going to be working on next, and then I’ll go back to fantasy after that, but it will, I mean true to form, it will have kind of a horrifying fantasy-like spin because of the nature of the murders and the possibility of some supernatural involvement.
Does it have a title yet?
It doesn’t have…it has a working title, but it doesn’t have a title that I think is going to stick. Right now I’m just calling it…like the full title in my brain was, like, All These Bodies Without Blood, but I think…then we shortened it to All These Bodies, and I don’t know if All These Bodies will stay or if it’ll be something else by the time it comes out. I’m taking a year off, though. I need time to shift gears, and I really…I’m afraid of this book. I know what it needs to be and it’s one that I’ve had in my head long enough that I kind of know most of the beats. So, you could almost say that I’m plotting this one. And I haven’t felt up to it as a writer so far. I think I’m ready to try it now. But I need a lot of time.
Well, it certainly sounds intriguing. Well, we’re just about out of time here. So, where can people who want to keep up with your writing exploits, where can they find you online?
Well, my website is a good place to start, just KendareBlake.com. I try to keep the events updated. I’m not as good about keeping the blog updated. Maybe I’ll blog like once a year. I’m on Twitter, and if you @ me I will definitely do my best to reply. I’m on Instagram, ditto, if you tag me or something I’ll do my best to reply. And I’m also on Facebook. And those are all just my name. I’m not very creative with the handles, it’s just Kendare Blake. I don’t do Snapchat because I don’t get it and the filters scare me. But uh, yeah, you can definitely find me there.
All right, well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshup…Worldshapers, I can’t even pronounce the name of my own podcast…and I think I mispronounced your name in the introduction. You said…how do you pronounce it?
I say Kendar-ah but I don’t care. Whatever you say is fine.
I think I said Ken-dare off the top.
That’s fine. I get…if it starts with a K and you’re looking at me, I’ll answer to it.
Well, thanks so much for being on the podcast. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.
Well thanks for having me. It was it was great to talk to you again after all these years.
Arthur Slade was raised on a ranch in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan. In addition to the award-winning novels mentioned above, he co-created the graphic novel Modo: Ember’s End. An interesting fact that the Art likes to point out is that he does all of his writing on a treadmill desk while listening to heavy metal, and the strangest thing of all is he does it in a place called Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which, I can assure you is not as fictional as it sounds.
Art says he was inspired to write fantasy by The Hobbit. His Grade 4 teacher read it out loud to his class, and he says it was the first book read to them that he really “fell into.” In fact, he was so “agog” at it that when his parents took him away from school for a week to go on a family trip to Disneyland he actually felt kind of sad he was going to miss a whole week of the The Hobbit.
He was a creative kid who always wrote “bits and pieces,” but it wasn’t until Grade 11 that writing really took hold: “I love to blame my English teacher for my career,” he says. She had the class write a short story, and Art wrote, “Under Heaven, Over Hell” (“If you want to get your teacher’s attention, make sure you put a swear word in there!”). He got a grade of 100, which he found “kind of astounding.” That was his “first big reward” as a writer, and he carried on from there.
Art wrote six novels that were never published. His sixth, a novel for adults, he sent to the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, which offers a manuscript evaluation service. The reader wrote that Art had written an amazing novel for young adults, which incensed him: he felt insulted that he’d been accused of writing for young adults. And yet, that was a moment that changed the direction of his career.
Art notes that he has a kind of “sparse style,” perfect for writing for young adults and for children, so once he got over the “insult,” he decided to try it, and the next book he wrote, the seventh, was accepted right away. “So I’m really glad that that reader insulted me so deeply, because it really opened up all these doors for me that I might not have thought about.”
One reason he likes to write for young readers is that he loved books the most between the ages of eight to thirteen. “Back then, I could just disappear into a book. It was really an amazing immersive experience.” So now, when he’s writing, he’s often thinking about that younger version of himself, and it’s natural to make the characters that age.
The other reason he likes writing for young readers is that “everything is fresh to them, they’re learning everything for the first time, even if they’re sixteen or seventeen and they believe they know everything—and believe me, the real teenagers do—it’s all new. They seem to have this new energy.”
As part of his ongoing experimentation with self-publishing, Art has written a novel called Amber Fang with characters a little bit older, twenty or twenty-one, still young, but a bit more knowledgeable about the world, so they can make jokes about Shakespeare and other references that wouldn’t work for a thirteen-year-old.
Art says he had the original idea for Crimson (and even wrote a novel based on it) when he was seventeen. He threw out all of that original book except for one character, Mansren, who, although bound at the beginning of the story, was “almost a God,” a being of pure magic, completely malevolent and yet capable of being charming. What would happen, he wondered, when someone like that was suddenly unleashed?
Crimsonis about Fen, who is thirteen when the book starts, and fifteen a couple of chapters in. In the very first scene, she loses her hand because she has stolen something, leaving her able to perform only odd jobs around her village.
Fen lives in a world that has been controlled by a Queen for a thousand years. The Queen uses magic that she mines from the ground, in the form of red dust, to control everyone. She can make people into whatever shape she wants, so she has soldiers who look just like her, and she can also control what people think.
Every once in a while, there are people who go “crimson”: their hair suddenly turns red and they acquire magical ability. This happens to Fen: her hair suddenly goes red, which means she has an immediate death sentence. She has to flee the village before the Queen’s guards come after her. What she gradually learns is that there is something new growing where her hand was, and that’s the magic that she has. Eventually she runs into Mansren.
Art notes that he’s never really tackled a full-fledged fantasy novel until now: he’d mostly moved into dark fantasy, real-life stories where fantasy squeezes itself in. He found writing a full-blown fantasy challenging. “It was so hard to think about the magic and think about how you make everything feel real. I can write a book set in 1930s and do all this research and really make that feel real, but when I’m making this other world, how do I make people believe that they are someplace entirely different? That was kind of a major step for me.”
Art says if he’s going to spend a year on a story, there has to be something in it he really cares about. “Part of that the idea behind Crimson is this queen, because she’s so powerful, has basically destroyed all the cultures and is trying to reshape everything to her. She has even made it so that people only have first names, because it’s too complicated to have last name.”
The Queen wants the world to be perfect and simple. As a result, all the world’s cultures are being lost. It’s against the law for people to speak any languages than the language the Queen has decreed.
“When I was thinking about character Fen,” Art notes, “I was also thinking about my own daughter. My wife and I adopted from China in 2010, so it’s a while ago now, and I realized I’d never written anything where she could go, ‘You know, that’s me in the story. That’s someone just like me.’”
So Fen is a character who comes from a Chinese-like culture. (Although he made sure to say to his daughter that Fen was not her, “because some horrible things happen to the character.”) That feeling of doing something that his daughter would read and that would reflect her culture was really important to Art, and helped energize him while he was doing the research.
Some of that research, he says with a laugh, “is in my house all the time, walking around.” He’d also read about China for a long time because of adopting from that country, and in fact, the place where the book begins is based on the part of China where his daughter comes from, and where he spent a week. “I really wanted to re-create what it felt like there….to be a reflection of my daughter’s character.”
Art says he writes very much by the seat of the pants, rather than plotting things out in detail. He knows the basic story, but a lot of his process begins with the first chapter. “I sit down and start writing it.” He says it takes forever because he’s thinking about what the world will look like, and he’s trying to put everything together in that first chapter. “It’s like my brain is unlocking all these little kind of mysteries about what could happen next. I follow the breadcrumbs, in a way, that that I’ve left or that I’ve discovered just by the process of going through that the first chapter.”
After that, he tends to write a few little scenes that he know will appear somewhere further along. Getting to a scene he’d first thought about three months earlier is like a reward, although the reward is, “Now you have to make it to the next place that you dreamed about sixmonths ago!”
Eventually, he says, after many words and often many mistakes, he gets to the ending, which usually comes to him about the halfway point, once he has a lot of the characters and events in play. He says he’s learned it’s okay to have a wrong ending: you can fix it later.
The only time he tried to do a really details synopsis was for his novel Flickers, and he says he found that book the hardest to write: working like that seemed to mess up his process, so he’s kind of scared of it now, even though, “I’d love to do it. That seems to make more sense to me. Everything is all laid out and you just write this much every day, but that’s not how my brain works so far.”
Everyone works differently, Art agrees, and when he teaches writing, he always starts by saying, “This is what works for me, take whatever is helpful for you, but it’s not necessarily going to work for you.”
The magic system in Crimson unfolded as he wrote, and solved problems—like the magical armour of the Queen’s guards, a kind of second skin that they never take off. He had to figure out how that worked. In the process, he wrote some 30,000 or 40,000 words that ended up cut from the novel, from the point of view of one of the Queen’s guards. While writing that helped him understand how the process worked and its effect on the men involved, in the end, he didn’t need all that detail. “It was really kind of exploring.”
Another problem: Fen has lost her hand, and something new is growing there—what is it? It’s magical, but what kind of magic. “It’s that whole process of finding the words that make it sound real, finding a way to make himself and the reader believe that the magic is real, and indicate what the limits are, and how uncontrollable it can be. “It’s someone who is learning, not sure if the magic is even part of her or if it’s something else working through her, partly because it just doesn’t work when she wants it to.”
Waking up one morning and find you’re a completely different person is a terrifying idea for young people, Ed suggests, and Art agrees: “In some ways it’s like puberty, except overnight, and people are going to kill you.”
One reason so many words were cut was that originally the book was going to be a back-and-forth between Fen and Marcus, but when his editor read it, she said, “Oh, this is amazing, this is great…and by the way, we should cut out that character, you know, the one that takes up half the novel.”
Art likes stories that “just don’t slow down,” and realized the editor was right. The actual rewriting didn’t take that long: he likened it to a woodcarver cutting a sculpture out of wood. He says he could quickly see, “This is how the book was meant to be.”
“I’m just really thankful, because that’s what editors can do. A good editor will look at it and go, ‘You know, this is actually what you meant to do,’ and you go, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right, I am that smart.’”
Art notes that when you’re self-publishing, you have to pay for an editor, and they’ll typically only take one pass through the book. He notes that working with an editor from a traditional publisher can be extremely frustrating if they don’t “get” your work, but a lot of the time, they’ll actually find out what’s missing, something to do with a character, maybe, or the overall tone. “That’s what a really good editor does.”
He adds sometimes editors will say something mysterious (he thinks maybe they take a course in how to say mysterious things to authors to motivate them). For his novel Dust, the editor said, “You know, there just seems to be something missing from that second last chapter.” He looked at it, trying to figure out what she was talking about, and suddenly a new aspect of the chapter came clear to him, a whole scene that wouldn’t have appeared if she hadn’t made that comment.
Art says he tries to make his submitted manuscript “as clean as possible” so his editor doesn’t have to do a lot of work, but he doesn’t do the really fine line-by-line polishing until after the editor has seen a draft. He says he’s sometimes amazed by the themes editors find in his work, though afterwards he says, “Oh, yeah, that is what it’s about, that’s exactlywhat I was thinking.”
Writing is a collaborative art, a conversation with readers, in a way, Art says. Rather like editors, “They’re bringing all their own experiences to the book, so they will see things in a different way.”
He likes the term used for his podcast, worldshaping, rather than the more commonly used term worldbuilding.”It’s a process of taking what you already have, the clay of this world we live in, and shaping it into something else.” He notes that in Crimson, the Queen’s realm is based on the Roman Empire, and his main character has a Chinese-like background. “I’m not building something new, I’m taking something that already was there and shaping it so that it can fit into this other world that I’m imagining.”
Art says the reason for writing these kinds of stories ultimately boils down to “Because it’s there…because I can, or you can.” He says when the first image of a story comes to him, like that of Fen knowing she’s about to have her hand cut off, “there’s a kind of rush to it…It’s not a real event in terms of a memory, but it feels almost as real as a memory, and so I want to create it and make it as real as a memory of something that has really happened.
Creating a novel, and feeling like it worked out, “that you made this new thing,” he says, is the real pay-off for him. (Although he’s not averse to “cold, hard cash,” either.)
“I like that whole experience, and I get a high from it,” he says. “I can’t imagine not doing it. I can’t imagine just watching movies, I have to create my own movies. I can’t imagine just reading books, I have to create my own books.”
He thinks one reason people like his books is because they often include characters who are fighting against something larger than themselves, while coping with a disability or something else that holds them back. “People respond to that.”
They also respond to his style of writing: it moves ahead quickly, but still has emotion in it.
Art says is first and main goal is to entertain, but, he adds, “I guess I like making people think of different things, or perhaps getting to them to look at the story or the characters in a different way.”
He gives as an example the hunchbacked main character from The Hunchback Assignments. “I really loved the idea of him not being this beautiful handsome prince who conquers all the dragons. I love that idea because it kind of twists the normal Disney version on its head, and says, ‘You can be unattractive and you can be a powerful, thoughtful, intelligent character, too. To make it more interesting, he does have this ability to change his shape and look like other people, so he can become beautiful, and is always trying to, not only just battle the outside forces, but the forces that are inside him, saying, ‘You kow you’re not good enough, you’re not attractive.’”
Art says it’s important for him to crate characters that are different in some way. “Anybody who’s a geek or a nerd like me, you always felt a little different growing up, and you felt like you were in a different place, and so that’s why I enjoy that process. And if that makes somebody who feels like they’re on the outside a little bit better, then that’s great.”
Ed notes that it’s quite common for people interested in science fiction and fantasy to feel like that, and Art wonders if that will continue to be true in, say, twenty years, since it seems like nerd culture is so much stronger now, and so much more normal, than wen he was a kid. “You can find your tribe a lot faster.”
Art is playing with an idea for a sequel for Crimson, which he hadn’t expected. He’s also continuing on with his Amber Fang series, and just finished writing a shorter piece of fantasy, currently called Dragon Assassin.
Those interested in his ongoing experiments with self-publishing can follow along on his blog at arthurslade.com.