Kate Elliott is a helluva fantasy writer. If you’re not familiar with her work, I want to say up front that you should familiarize yourself. Kate is an excellent worldbuilder, and writes crisp, compelling prose. Her work has been nominated for both the World Fantasy and Nebula awards. Whether it’s her Crossroads, Crown of Stars, or current Spiritwalker series, Kate is top drawer.
I’ve had the pleasure in the past of meeting and corresponding with Kate and I finally asked if I could interview her, since I like to get writers talking about things. I find interviews with fantasy greats to informative and typically entertaining reading. Kate hits both qualities in spades.
Peter Orullian: So, Kate, let’s start this way. I had an interesting conversation once with David Morrell about the degree to which all fiction is autobiographical. Not as a way of therapy or any such thing; but more, perhaps, like the state of one’s life and feelings and impressions has subtle influence over what a writer puts into his or her work. And that going back, you can often see these things more clearly with hindsight. Do you find any of that true with your own fiction?
Kate Elliott: My fiction isn’t at all autobiographical in the memoir sense; I’m not writing a thinly disguised retelling of my own life. Nor is it autobiographical in the sense of a roman à clef; I don’t transform events from my own life through the lens of fiction. So in that sense I would say an emphatic no.
But “the state of one’s life and feelings and impressions” surely has an influence. I can only write out of the place where my life is at any given moment. What’s going on around me and my state of mind and impressions about the world will color my choice of narrative.
By that I don’t mean I will write an autobiographical restatement of my personal inner turmoil, or that any given book will have a direct narrative relationship to what was going on in my life when I wrote it. It’s not as if my back is hurting so then my character’s back is hurting. And while it’s true that I gave the heroine of the Highroad Trilogy martial arts skills because I had studied Shotokan karate so it was something I could use and wanted to depict, I think there’s a deeper level in which the life we are living interpenetrates what we are writing.
For instance, my approach toward the events I want to write about and my reaction to what I’m writing definitely shift from book to book. Reading about rape as a weapon of war and terror in the Balkans wars and in the Congo, as well as studies of sex workers in other parts of the world, had a big influence on some of the decisions I made in writing Shadow Gate (Crossroads 2). A long path of thinking about the nature of power led to the spine of the narrative in the Crossroads Trilogy, which is thematically about the nature of power.
The elements I’m most interested in emphasizing within the narrative, and the ones I ignore, also shift from year to year. Partly that’s due to the changing nature and needs of each story. But it is also partly due to how I may highlight or respond to different interactions and details within the books. As I live, I see things differently, or I’m exposed to new information, or I have experiences that change the focus of what I want to explore in my stories.
For instance, I wrote part of my (first published although not first completed) novel The Labyrinth Gate while pregnant with my first child. At the end of the novel, all four of the major women characters in the story are pregnant. My editor wondered if me being pregnant had caused me to decide to make them all pregnant (perhaps as some kind of massive authorial narcissistic moment in which all my female characters were only iterations of myself, which they are not). I replied that me knowing they were having sex without contraception decided me that it was likely they would become pregnant. However, it is possible I might not have thought as much about the possibilities and likelihood of pregnancy if I had not myself been going through a pregnancy at that time. So while I would not say that was in any way autobiographical, it was certainly influenced by my own experience. Being pregnant made me think about pregnancy: that is, not in the sense that I thought all the women in the story would want to be or ought to be pregnant pregnant, but that I thought about how and why pregnancy would be an outcome for them in the setting I had written. And, in addition, that I thought it was a narrative element that ought to matter in the story, rather than be ignored.
That last point brings up another. Being female in the time and place I grew up has certainly influenced what I focus on and how I write. I grew up as a tomboy in a time when the term was commonly used. In those days, girls were constantly reminded of the things they couldn’t and ought not to do and enjoy except within a narrowly proscribed range of activities. Fortunately, I had a stubborn streak and decided early on to forge my own path insofar as I could (I also had supportive parents, which is a huge advantage).
I developed a strong sense that it matters to write about female characters being engaged in a wide range of activities. I say this not in the sense of amazon warriors (aka women doing “manly” things to prove they are as good as men) but in the larger sense of seeing female characters fully engaged in the narrative in a diverse set of roles and actions and in more than token numbers.
My experience as a girl growing up in a sexist society has clearly made me more sensitive to the need to include as many female as male characters in my books. I’ve become leery of worlds in which 75-90% of the named, speaking roles are male (not uncommon in epic fantasy, as well as being very common in Hollywood films these days). In an intersectional way, I think my sense of being placed outside what was considered culturally “normal” also made me to some degree more sensitive to the need to write about cultures outside of the fantasy-England and faux-medieval-Europe template and to include characters of color not just as sidekicks but as protagonists and agents of change. It’s not that I’m more “enlightened” or less privileged, because I’m not, but rather that I’m marginally more aware of which stories have been ignored or left invisible. Because of my own experiences, it matters to me that the things typically ignored or left invisible be brought into the light.
PO: There are a lot of opinions on what constitutes epic fantasy. Some feel it’s a thick book. Others believe it’s warring nations. I’m interested in your own personal take.
KE: I must start by saying I don’t think there is one definition that trumps all others. Different writers and readers brings different things to the mix. Instead of trying to define epic fantasy I’ll say what I enjoy most about epic fantasy.
I like the sense that you’re getting a wide lens view of a world, one that is punctuated by closeups and medium shots. The word I would probably use to describe what I’m looking for in an epic is “sweep,” defined in my American Heritage Dictionary as (variously) “to move or unbalance emotionally; to cause to depart, remove or destroy; to traverse with speed or intensity; to extend gracefully or majestically.”
Epic fantasy can unsettle you, change you, alter the way you look at things. It can destroy what seems solid and bring grace what to what seems dark; it can be intense and grim or fast and brutal. It can be as awe-inspiring as the ocean as a storm moves in or as majestic as a snow-clad mountain range glittering under a bright sun.
What that means is that for me at the heart of epic fantasy is the emotional response it engenders in the reader. That emotional response is going to be something different for each reader rather than a static characteristic required for all but it should be deep and it should be big. For me it’s a teenage girl standing on a wind-swept promontory overlooking a vast landscape and distant ocean; she’s got a bow and arrows slung over her back and a falcata at her hip, a faithful dog and horse at her side, sturdy boots and a cloak, and a long journey ahead of her. By which I don’t mean that any story not even mine has to have that scene in it to be epic fantasy. I mean that when I read epic fantasy, I want to feel a sense of discovery and adventure and anticipation and vista. I want to feel unbalanced, destroyed, and remade.
PO: I’m totally stealing the “want to feel unbalanced, destroyed, and remade” thing.” Thanks for that. Now, magic. Does it need an insanely detailed set of rules, or is it enough that it works with some semblance of the mechanics, without chapter after chapter of what might amount to a Dungeon Master’s Guide?
KE: Some readers love the detailed breakdown of the mechanics of magic. I’m not that reader. I don’t read a book for insanely detailed rules of magic; I don’t get geeked out over that. As with descriptions of tech which is essentially what magic has become in such scenarios, it seems to me I would probably skim those parts. As a reader I prefer the magic to be integrated within the story as a necessary part of the world and the characters’ journey. In that case, the level of detail matters only in so far as it reveals things I need to know about the world and characters in order to keep being gripped by the narrative. Having said that, I hasten to add that I think it’s great that other readers love the details. Readers don’t all have to like the same things.
As a writer, I personally need to know what is going on so there is consistency. I don’t necessarily need to know everything and in fact I don’t know everything before I start writing a story. For me as a writer some of the best details and awesome cool things in my novels have emerged out of the story (and my unconscious mind) as I’m writing rather than from me sitting down and “thinking them up.” So I need to leave room for that form of story development. At the same time, I think basic “rules” of some kind are necessary because if the world is always altering as the writer changes up things to fit what is needed for the story at any given moment, then I start losing my “willing suspension of disbelief” in the narrative.
For me personally, it’s the balance. Enough for consistency and belief; not so much that I feel I’m getting a D&D Manual.
PO: You make a good distinction on writer vs. reader. I agree the writer needs to understand how it works. I often wonder how much of that makes for good fiction, though, you know? I suspect it varies by reader, in any case. Okay, now on to good and evil. Is fantasy any better at exploring such dichotomies than other genres? And related to that, is there a point at which moral ambiguity in a book and its characters makes it harder to cheer for anyone?
KE: Short answer: No. And no, depending on how you’re defining moral ambiguity.
Here’s a problem I have with the issue of good and evil as I have at times seen it used in fantasy.
Good and evil are too often used to divide the world up into Us (and those who agree with the way we do things and who come from the same place we do) and Them (who don’t do things the way we do them or who we have some reason to need to dehumanize). Such definitions are usually by definition culturally determined and arbitrary. What that means is that historically in fantasy characteristics as diverse as nationality, religion, skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, looks, weight, even the presence of acne, have at one time or another been set up as intrinsic markers of evil or evil minions or lack of goodness. I still occasionally see this done today. And I don’t like it. I might go so far as to say that I find this kind of essentialist and dehumanizing thinking to be at the root of much evil behavior in the world. It’s a way of labeling others as inhuman, inferior, or evil so it is thereby okay to dominate, exploit, enslave, or kill them.
So I’m a bit skeptical about the idea that fantasy can explore good and evil by setting up a confrontation between The Good Side and The Evil Side. Because I’m cautious about who is doing the defining and why.
If good and evil are depicted as essentialist elements of the players involved that is, if the good and the evil in those characters and/or creatures is literally an essential element in their make-up, as though it is literally present in their blood and bones then I lose my willing suspension of disbelief and will likely stop reading. Because not only do I find it unrealistic, I also think it’s a dangerous statement.
There are clearly things people do that are wicked, criminal, reprehensible, and cruel; one might even call them evil. But for me these are choices people (and characters) make, not choices their “evil” or “good” nature makes for them or that forces beyond them make on their behalf, as it were. As a reader and writer I’m far more interested in reading about how characters make choices, and whether those choices make the world a worse place or a better place. Does an individual listen to the “evil inclination” or the “good inclination” in her heart? How do our flaws and strengths affect how we make decisions, and whether those decisions are constructive or destructive? And all too often people try to do one thing and it has the opposite and quite unexpected consequence, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
A cosmology of essentialist good and evil suggests we don’t have to think about and grapple with the world and our place in it. It is, I note, not the idea underlying Tolkien. His Dark Lords were not “essentially evil” from the beginning. They fell into evil through a series of choices that led them into actions that led them into further choices. As soon as “Good” is given to us because of where we were born or who we were born to or because we belong to a certain group, then who we are or who we were born to becomes more important than what we do.
So, to answer your question in a different way: Yes, I think fantasy can explore the nature of how people behave ethically and morally in the world just as any fiction can do so. But I don’t think it’s any better or worse than other genres.
PO: Completely agree with your comments on choice. These are the things that make me want to write fiction. I think, too (and obviously), that this must be done well, else at the end of the day, it’s hard to have someone to cheer for. I don’t want caricatures; I do want flawed characters making heartbreaking choices. But I often stop reading when a novel is little more than a series of choices so ambiguous that I simply stop caring about the outcome. Anyway, enough of that. Onward. What, then, in your opinion, is fantasy as a genre particularly good at exploring? Not that writers need to start with a theme or agendas, but you get the point.
KE: A thing I think epic fantasy can do well is to analyze and examine power and how power corrupts and how people avoid corruption or learn to wield power as responsibly as possible. As well, I like epic fantasy best when it also examines who gets to wield power, who is excluded, who invisible, and how the order of society may change over time.
PO: George R.R. Martin has a nifty way of describing the writing process: architects and gardeners. The former have it all built and charted out before they begin; the later discovers at they go. Do either of these apply to you?
KE: In other circles, people ask “are you a pantser or a plotter?” by which they mean work it all out in advance via outlining or write “by the seat of your pants.” I’m neither, really, because I’m both.
The term I like best I stole from Tad Williams. It’s particularly appropriate to my situation because I now happen to live there:
The Hawaiian Islands Method.
In this method, the writer knows certain main events or points that will occur in the story. These are the islands that show above the water. But of course the seamounts themselves extend beneath the waves down to the sea floor far below. So you have to write “under water” through topography you can’t see from above to link up the parts you can see. That’s the best description of my process I know.
Oddly, I also sometimes call myself an “architectural writer,” but by that term I mean something different than what Martin seems to mean by it. I mean that all my novels, and my series taken as multivolume novels, have a narrative and thematic scaffolding beneath what I call the “surface plot.” I define the surface plot as the actual physical events (one thing after another) that draw the reader along. I deliberately set out to write stories that can be re-read, that is, that a second reading will illuminate things that weren’t necessarily visible in the first reading.
PO: Oooh, I like that, since it describes what I’ve set out to do with my own work. Appreciate the “thematic scaffolding” thing. Now let me ask, how has your own writing evolved since your first published work?
KE: I hope I am a better writer on all fronts: my writing is cleaner and more purposeful and effective, my characterization is tighter, my worldbuilding is, I think, more sophisticated and careful, and I’m getting better at trimming out the details and verbiage that don’t need to be there, although that aspect of writing is still a struggle I’m still trying to write shorter books and less convoluted plots, although it could be argued that a certain loyal percentage of my readers like my work for exactly those qualities.
I suspect my greater thematic concerns today resemble those I had twenty years ago. What may have changed is the addition of some experience and possible wisdom with which I may be able to examine them in more depth and breadth.
PO: On the topic of themes, then, do you find particular themes in your work, if not as part of your design going in, perhaps afterward as you review the story.
KE: Always, and always not the ones I expected. By which I mean, I do have thematic concerns going into a book, and I weave those into the plot. But typically, as I write, I’ll discover about halfway or more through the first draft that certain themes and patterns and repeated imagery have crept onto the page which I did not consciously plan for or anticipate.
For instance, in Cold Magic, Cat is always hungry or thinking about food. I didn’t plan that; it just turned out that way. But one could argue that her “hunger” is also a larger psychological or spiritual issue as she seeks answers to unanswered questions and tries to fill the void in her emotional life that comes from being an orphan. As it happens, food plays an important role in book two as well, and it’s clearly partially as a reflection of her situation from book one but also as part of another thematic element which to mention here would constitute a spoiler.
For me, this is one of the most rewarding parts of writing: seeing what my unconscious mind churns up onto the page. I never quite know what to expect.
PO: Okay, a favorite topic of mine, and one a few have called “deep.“ But nevermind that. There’s this idea of semantic contagion: That some ideas shouldn’t be written down and shared, because their introduction to the world suggests undesirable behavior that beforehand wouldn’t have been widely considered. An example of this is apotemnophalia the desire to have a healthy limb amputated; while an extreme example, it illustrates the point. So, my question is, do you censor yourself at all? Are there simply things you find it better not to write about? Is there a measure of responsibility a fiction writer has not to introduce ideas to readers; I know Stephen King has pulled his short story entitled “Cain Rose Up” about a teenager who ascended a tower with a high power rifle. Or is everything fair game?
KE: I absolutely censor myself, and I don’t say that because I’m proud of it. I say that because it bothers me that I do. But I don’t do it because I believe things written down can insinuate themselves into the world as a form of contagion. I propose that the opposite is more often true: Our silence about some of the most provoking and terrible things allows injustice to fester and even grow.
PO: Hadn’t thought as much about the inverse corollary. Now you’ve got me thinking… As I do, let’s talk about Cold Fire. It’s book two in your Spiritwalker series, and due out in September 2011. Share with us the most challenging (and the most rewarding) parts of writing this book.
KE: I’ll mention two things that, by being so challenging, were also therefore immensely rewarding because once I was satisfied with the outcome I could also appreciate how hard I worked to achieve that outcome (assuming, of course, that I did achieve the effect I wanted for a sufficient number of readers).
One: Getting the male protagonist right.
The character Andevai (Vai) is 24 years old in Cold Fire. I wanted to capture a personality who is proud, intelligent, sensitive, determined, arrogant yet insecure, and capable of being both an unkind asshole and a polite charmer. He’s caught between the provincial traditionalism of his village childhood, the privilege and status granted him because of his exceptional powers as a cold mage, and a growing desire to embrace risk and change. All that without losing sight of the pride and self-consciousness that such a young man would have, and without descending into cliché or a flat two-dimensional portrayal. Meanwhile, this is all seen not from his internal point of view but through outside eyes (those of a young woman) not quite experienced enough to fully understand or analyze him wisely. Which meant I had to get all these qualities across to the reader without my point of view character necessarily seeing them explicitly. In some ways he’s been the most difficult characterization I’ve ever undertaken.
Two: The balance between unfolding the world and unfolding the plot and characters.
A common complaintbut also a common piece of praisefor Cold Magic (volume one) focuses on the complexity and density of the world-building. Introducing a new world is tricky, especially if the world at first glimpse resembles the Anglo-European world we commonly see in fantasy while meanwhile not in fact being that world. As a writer, you want to ease readers into a fantasy world that has familiar elements but let them know fairly quickly that it doesn’t look quite as they might otherwise assume it looks. You want them to start noticing how things are different, without making things so different from the opening that they are overcome by the strangeness. I note that this is a problem specifically oriented to U.S., Canada, U.K., and (to a somewhat lesser extent) European readers, because so much of fantasy is written not just to that market but with a mindset that assumes that the reader is bringing that background and sensibility to their reading of the work.
I specifically built the Cold Magic world to be a multicultural world that draws from but looks different from our world. It matters that the reader understand that things are different in the Spiritwalker universe, that the population in the city of Adurnam is a mix of Celtic, West African, Roman, and Phoenician (Carthaginian) ethnicities and cultures, that the people the reader meets along the way not only aren’t all white but can’t be assumed to be white unless I specify that they are; that the default is mixed race and the culture is a tartan of several cultures that have grown together; that people’s expectations about who is high status and who is not are different from our own cultural expectations.
Because I was trying to both set up and subvert expectations, I had a challenging time in Cold Magic balancing the introduction of the world with the unfolding of the plot. For many readers it wasn’t a problem or they accepted that they had to spend some effort figuring things out. For other readers, the opening section while fast moving got a bit difficult or confusing because the world-building takes a lot of attention. For some readers, the opening dragged.
So when I wrote Cold Fire (#2) I worked tremendously hard on the way in which I introduced new information and setting. I tried to make all newly introduced information and setting fit seamlessly with the plot, and I specifically tried to identify and explain new elements as they appeared without bogging down the flow of the narrative.
PO: As both a writer and reader I appreciate your efforts to balance these things. I find I spend a lot of time on that very thing myself, in part because it often bothers me to read out-and-out worldbuilding in a book. Now, I want to ask the old tried and true: Who do you read? Not casually. I mean, who do you preorder or run out to get on pub day?
KE: We’re living in a period with so much good writing I simply can’t keep up with it all. So I’ll simply say how sad I am I won’t be getting any new Diana Wynne Jones novels.
PO: Similarly, do you have a favorite non-genre writer?
KE: No. I read fairly widely as I do research. There are a number of fabulous academic writers and scholars whose work I cherish, far too many to name here. I’m referring to non-fiction, of which my favorite subjects are history, anthropology, and religious studies I’m very social sciences oriented. I don’t read all that much non-genre fiction, but two recent non genre novels I’ve really enjoyed recently are both older classics: Minty Alley by C.L.R. James and God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembene.
PO: Because I’m a musician, and it fascinates me, tell us what artists and bands you adore? Do you listen to music while you write?
KE: I love and rely on music; it’s a real emotional connector for me. For that reason, I do listen to music when I write. Sometimes I can’t start writing until I start the music.
I have fairly eclectic tastes, but my preferences also run in cycles when I’m working. Each book tends to accumulate a sort of playlist which I use as a kind of writing-trance-inducing soundscape. Some of those pieces and songs will hang on into the next book or books while others will drop off, either never to return (I get sick of them) or eventually to work their way back into the rotation.
I grew up on folk music as my dad would play the guitar and we would sing, so I know quite a few of the classic American folk tunes, some of the British ones as well, and in addition because I grew up in a Danish American household a variety of Danish or Danish-American songs.
When I was in early elementary school my older sisters played the Beatles constantly; as a consequence, almost all the Beatles’ songs are hard-wired into my brain. In fact, my brother and I would stand on pillows while the music was on and pretend to be the Beatles as we sang along. That, along with folk music, is the influential soundtrack of my very early childhood.
In high school I loved Led Zeppelin, Santana, and Dmitri Shostakovich, as well as the usual rock and pop of the time, and also classical music (I played piano and particularly loved Bach, Chopin, and Satie) and the folk music I grew up with. I lived in the U.K. for two years during my college years and got into punk (I even pogoed to Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex, so I can totally label my Cold Magic books as “icepunk” without any feelings of inauthenticity). Back in the U.S., I listened to New Wave (yes, even Duran Duran, people, and I’m not ashamed to admit it not much, anyway because I have no shame except that The Carpenters’ “Superstar” still brings tears to my eyes). My (not yet husband) and I used to get frozen yogurt at a shop showed the then brand new MTV. I loved music videos. Loved Tears for Fears and early Janet Jackson, but also Depeche Mode and (although I never liked the Eagles all that much) what may be the most perfect pop song ever written, Don Henley’s ”The Boys of Summer” (feel free to disagree, but it is a sublimely great song). This barely scrapes the surface.
As I got older and it got easier to range farther afield with the changing technologies of distribution, I got more into world music. For years I would use cassette tapes to tape singles off the radio. When the first iPod came out, I realized it was the single piece of technology I had been waiting for my entire life, musically speaking, of course. It allows me to listen to music the way that is most natural for me: by jumping around to whatever takes my fancy on any given hour or day.
These days, my passions run in cycles. Steady favorites over the years in rock/pop include Kate Bush and U2 (I’ve been listening to both from their first singles), Linkin Park, Seal, and Madonna. And Shostakovich and Bach in classical.
About eight years ago I was listening heavily to bhangra: You can’t go wrong with the great Malkit Singh. At that same time I had most of Dead Can Dance’s albums, Lorena McKennitt, and Enya’s solo work and her albums with Clannad. Then I moved on to Yoko Kanno (the Japanese composer who scores a lot of anime) on heavy rotation.
More recently, I’ve added world music dance and trance by the likes of Arjunabeats and Marcus Schulz and many others; I’m going through a phase of really loving remixes and I often have multiple versions of songs (I recently bought Ralphi’s Jurty Club Vox remix of Jennifer Lopez’s “On The Floor,” which I like better than the single in part because there’s no annoying Pitbull). When I was drafting Traitors’ Gate (2008), I reached a point where I had the Gabriel & Dresden Unplugged Mix of Andain’s “Beautiful Things” (the 10+ minute version) on constant repeat. I swear I listened to that remix 500 times or more.
Because I live in Hawaii I’ve been exposed to many of the great musicians here; many people are familiar with Bruddah Iz (Israel Kamakawiwo’ole) of “Over the Rainbow” fame, although you really must hear his version of “Hawaii ’78”), but I’ll highlight the not very well known but absolutely astonishing young singer and composer Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole.
With Cold Magic (Spiritwalker #1), because of the West African cultural elements, I began familiarizing myself with Malian music by the likes of Habib Koite (who is one of my favorite artists; start with his album Afriki), Issa Bagayogo, Djeneba Seck, Toumani Diabate, and the transcendent singer Salif Keita.
Cold Fire‘s playlist (Spiritwalker #2) for some reason gravitated more to Top 40 pop and hip-hop (I even have the Justin Bieber/Usher single “Somebody to Love” although I thought long and hard about admitting to it especially after my son said, “Mom, no, really, not Bieber!”), as well as lesser known musicians like Portuguese-born, Cape Verdean-influenced singer/songerwriter Sara Tavares and singer Azam Ali’s various solo and group projects. With some A.R. Rahman (Bollywood songs and soundtracks) thrown in for good measure.
As of this writing, my current project’s playlist continues to expand, shift, and evolve (I’m working on Cold Steel, Spiritwalker #3). The last four iTunes singles purchases I’ve made were New Zealand singer Maisey Rika’s “Reconnect,” Rihanna’s “Man Down,” Janet Jackson’s “Runaway,” and four remixes of Super 8 & Tab (feat. Julie Thompson)’s “My Enemy.”
PO: I’m not going to tease you over Duran Duran and Tears for Fears; I’m a guy who painted his bedroom red and grey flying the TFF colors, so to speak. And love that you spin Linkin Park, among others. Thanks for the peek behind your musical veil. Love it! It’s clear the next time we meet we’ll have a long music conversation. For now, let me move on to: Best concert you ever attended?
KE: Great performances can’t be placed into a hierarchy. Every great concert is like a piece of magic, or a bit of sacred space. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear some pretty phenomenal musicians in concert at their best. I can’t even attempt to list them all.
PO: Fair enough, lots of great performances one might see in a lifetime. I want to move back to fantasy fiction for a moment. How do you feel the genre has changed since you got in the game?
KE: The internet has made communication faster. This means conversations can blow up into flame wars or propagate memes or create community very quickly among an increasingly large number of people. Additionally, in the last five years, the rise of book blogging has created a widespread excitement among readers because they can talk to each over long distances. I think there is more book chat available than ever.
Additionally, of course, we are going through a time of great change within publishing itself. The rise of ebooks will continue to expand and alter the marketplace. Bookstores and points of sale for paper books have evolved over the last two decades. Independent bookstores suffered with the rise of the big chain bookstores, while the chains have suffered (and Borders recently closed) with the rise Amazon and other mail order stores and now of course with the explosion of ereaders and ebooks. I have no prediction except that things will continue to change.
In terms of genre, I think the biggest change I’ve seen is the current success of YA (a genre that scarcely existed 20 years ago) in the fiction marketplace, as well as the expansion of urban fantasy and paranormal from a subgenre that lived within either the romance or science fiction/fantasy genres into what is a genre of its own with a huge presence in the commercial marketplace. Fiction that we would now identify as urban fantasy was published in the 1980s and 1990s, but I’ve heard it said that the combined effect of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (the Joss Whedon TV show) and the bestselling Laurel Hamilton novels paved the way for the new genre. YA seems an outgrowth of the J.K. Rowling phenomenon tied together with the growth of female readers who weren’t willing to settle for reading “juvenile” stories that focused on boys the way I mostly had to as a teen when most “juvenile” novels had male heroes.
Is science fiction dying? I’m doubtful; this conversation (that less worthy fantasy is pushing out more worthy science fiction) has been going on for a couple of decades, and it doesn’t seem to have changed much over that time since it mostly involves (I’m sorry to say) men complaining that they aren’t appreciated enough. Also, science fiction is now to all intents and purposes a daily part of our life as well as such a standard setting in tv and film that we scarcely notice it. More than anything, I think SF has gone mainstream.
Which brings me to my final point. There have been more changes than the ones I’m listing here, but I can only list a few. Meanwhile, compared to what I had available to read when I was a teen, I see a lot more diversity in fiction these days. I also see readers willing to speak out in general, not just in ways related to the YA field. We still have a long way to go, but I’m heartened.
PO: Is there a book or idea that you loved so much, that in a totally healthy way, of course, you thought, “Damn, I wish I’d written that!”
KE: No. The best thing about reading other writers, especially ones whose work I love, is that I couldn’t have written it. If I could have, I guess I would have, and then it wouldn’t be the thing I love in that particular way. What I love about books that I fall in love with, is exactly that I couldn’t have written them. They’re a story I wouldn’t have told, and therefore could not have encountered if there hadn’t been another writer there to write it. For instance, I’m currently reading Tricia Sullivan’s Clarke-finalist SF novel Lightborn. What a pleasure it is to read a novel so orthogonal to the way I write and plot novels. It’s fascinating. You should read it, too.
However, what I might say to myself as I’m reading is “damn, I want to be able to write that well.” But that’s a different statement.
PO: Thanks for the tip on Lightborn. And your last statement is a good one, around reading writers who inspire you to want to stretch and grow. In that vein, what’s the simplest thing aspiring writers overlook that you think they could do to make a positive impact on their success?
KE: Thinking that publication is the only goal of writing, and therefore focusing on publication in the early stages of learning how to write rather than focusing on learning how to write. I don’t think all aspiring writers do this, but these days especially with the rise of ebooks I think it is worth repeating:
1) You’re not a writer because you publish; you’re a writer because you write.
2) Just because you can epublish your novel doesn’t necessarily mean the novel is as good as it could be, or that it is necessarily ready for publication in whatever venue. The key to success is persistence, which also means writing, writing more, rewriting, and continuing to learn how to revise while writing yet more. Many aspiring writers need to work on improving their writing in all elements: the mechanics of writing, plot, character, setting, and knowing how and when to revise.
3) Write what you love to to write, and tell a story you are genuinely excited to tell without regard to where it would fit in the marketplace.
4) Keep writing.
PO: What can we look forward to in your future writing endeavors?
KE: Sharks! Kisses! Sword fights! Also, a telepathic schnauzer.
PO: Okay, then… Thanks, Kate for the immensely thoughtful replies. And folks, I’m hoping that somewhere in your read of this interview you’ve hit an online bookseller and ordered a Kate Elliott book. If you haven’t, do so now, and thank me later.
Peter Orullian is the author of the recently released epic fantasy novel The Unremembered, the first in the Vault of Heaven series. You can find his interview series with popular fantasy authors of the day both here on Tor.com and at this site.