Not long ago, I went to a reading for Blake Charlton—cool guy, him (we’ve bonded over shared-editor-itis). Afterward, I wound up at a small pizza joint with Blake and a few others. Among the “others” was Megan Lindholm, aka Robin Hobb. I sat right across from her, kind of, y’know, freaking out.
Because here’s the deal: Megan is one of the giants of the fantasy field. And here’s what I learned: She’s also one of the kindest most unassuming women I’ve ever met. In a world of bluster, it was one of the coolest moments I’ve had in a long time to meet such a talented and meaningful writer who was so unpretentious.
Anyway, we connected afterward, and she graciously agreed to field a few questions. So, there you have it. Enjoy!
Peter Orullian: You’ve a long and distinguished career. I’m curious. In your body of work, is there a book or character that shines a little brighter for you, for whatever reason?
Robin Hobb: There are actually two books that are most fondly remembered. The first would be Wizard of the Pigeons, written as Megan Lindholm. I went into Seattle to research that and spent a great deal of time wandering the city and taking notes and photos. It was a great experience for writing urban fantasy. The second one would be Assassin’s Apprentice, written as Robin Hobb. It was my first sojourn with Fitz and the Fool. Over the many years of writing them, they remain my best fictional friends. So I remember that first encounter fondly.
PO: I’ve a soft spot Assassin’s Apprentice, myself. But, of course, you’ve published many books, and have, obviously, some current work. So, your forthcoming novel (out today!) City of Dragons: What was the most challenging part of writing the book?
RB: The biggest challenge was keeping all the facts straight. There are so many books and characters to remember. So it’s a challenge to recall how old they are in relation to each other, what the precise family relationships are, and the rules of the magic. So I spend time doing background research on my own world sometimes.
PO: I can relate. Let’s shift gears, a little. I’m fascinated by the notion of fiction as autobiography. Not as some thinly disguised personal diary, but more like: “Looking back, with some hindsight, I can kind of see how the world or who I was at the time informed the work in some way.” Any of that ring true for you?
RB: Oh, I can definitely relate to that. I look back at some of my Lindholm books and I can see where I was working something out in my brain. Sometimes people ask if my books have morals or lessons for readers, and I shudder at that thought. I always say that I have more questions than answers. So sometimes I write a story or even a book that tries out a possible answer to a moral question, as if I were certain that was the answer, just to see how it would play out. Then later, I write another story in which the answer is different, to see what that does to that tale. Writing and reading fiction is, I think, a human effort to make sense of the world.
PO: I really like that last bit. Thanks. Now, you’ve been at this fantasy thing for a while. How do you feel the genre has changed (if at all) since you began publishing?
RB: Book and story size has changed a great deal. I remember being told that I had to really watch the word length, as paperback binding could only support so many pages. Then Robert Jordan came along and blew that up! I greatly admire what SF and fantasy writers of the previous generation did, in that in a much shorter length than I have, they had to set up a world, create characters and tell a story with a plot. That’s fine if you are writing in our real world, but if you are setting up a fantasy world, you are sacrificing a lot of plot and character words to world-building. In our current crop of fantasy books we are allowed the word length to make world building just as important as character growth and plot implementation. I love having the room.
PO: Following up on the last question (and with all that room): Are there things you feel the genre could or should do more of? Less of?
RB: Well, I don’t think “the genre” is particularly guilty of any set of transgressions, or particularly good at any style of writing. To me, it’s all about the individual writers and the stories that each one is telling. So there are writers that I think are atrocious (but I’ll never name names!) and writers that astonish me (and I’ll freely sing their praises!) But I don’t think the legions of writers who make up the genre feel especially bound to stay with a norm. Yes, there has been a wave of vampire books, and a wave of urban fantasies and a wave of steampunk books. But if you look, beneath the crest of that wave are the writers who are still single-mindedly writing the story that they woke up with that morning, with no regard as to what is currently hot or sexy. I think the beauty of our genre is that it is more inclusive than exclusive. I love nothing better than having my favorite book seller hand me a book saying, “You’ve never read anything like this before!” And our genre does that better than any other.
PO: I’ve not heard it put that way before, but I like it! So, then, in the vein of having a book seller do that with your books: How has your own writing evolved since your first published work?
RB: Oh, so many ways. I think I write a better story now. I slow down and put in the small details that all add up to that moment of exhilaration or panic. I’ve stopped worrying about what people will think of me because of something I wrote in my book. Here’s an example, not from my own writing. “If I write a racist character sympathetically, will people assume I’m a racist?” I think writers have to let go of all that and let their characters be who they are, politically correct or not. And when you write from the character’s POV, the author has to stop making judgments and let the character talk. Kennit was like that for me. The man was perfectly capable of justifying horrible acts. And I had to let him be that way, and love him all the same.
PO: Okay, so now let’s talk worldbuilding. All kinds of approaches, with no correct way, of course. But I’m always interested in how writers tackle this. Do you figure it all out up front? Or do you do some, and allow the writing to unveil the rest? Or do you leap first and ask questions later?
RB: Oh, I’m going to fall back on the metaphor I always use for this type of question. I look through a camera lens and a character steps out into the center of it (or a spotlight on a stage, if you will.) As the character talks and moves, the world around him is slowly revealed, just like dollying a camera back for a wider look at things. So all my stories start with a character and that character introduces setting, culture, conflict, government, economy . . . . all of it, through his or her eyes.
PO: Okay, you knew it was coming? What makes a fantasy “epic?” And of all the subgenres (which, I know, can be a tiresome topic), is there one that you like best for describing your fiction?
RB: A fantasy or any story is “epic” when something that matters on a large scale happens in the story. A tea-cozy mystery is not epic. A man who discovers a plot to poison a water supply and prevents it can be epic. A fantasy about three wishes granted to a silly woman is not going to be as epic as the old hermit getting the same three wishes and deciding that she will bring peace to the world. That isn’t to say that I prefer epic to cozy. Sometimes cozy speaks to us more intimately and that story may stay with us a lot longer. My favorite books are the ones in which the protagonist may participate in great events that also impact the little lives very strongly. It’s why I love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so much. The chapters at the end are just as significant as the moment in which the Ring is tossed.
PO: How do you think about the blend/balance of what is entirely strange vs. what is familiar in your work?
RB: When we blend the strange into a story, the familiar is what invites the reader in and makes it real to him or her. It’s exactly what Stephen King does so well. You know the car, the cereal on the table and the cartoon on the tv in the story. Then out of the closet comes the Bogey-man, and he’s stepping right into your own real world. It’s brilliant.
PO: Taking a bit of a detour here, tell us a little about your experience with going to conventions.
RB: I think I see cons a bit differently from other writers. I didn’t know they existed until I was 30 and had my first book published. I attended a little Moscon then, followed by Norwescon, and loved both. But I was a parent of small children as well as a writer, and my husband’s career as a commercial fisherman meant that I often functioned as a single parent, but one in a committed relationship. So over the next decade, when I attended cons, I brought my kids. Which meant that the panels I went to were the ones they were interested in, and if I was on a panel, I might have a four year old behind the panel table sitting on the floor reading a comic or coloring. I couldn’t go to the bars where the cool anthologies were being pitched, or stay late for the room parties. (Couldn’t afford a hotel room, and if I had, I wouldn’t have left my kids alone in one.) So the conventions were not a networking opportunity for me at all. Instead, I went to cons to have a good time, then went home and went back into my writing closet and wrote all alone. I think I can say with certainty that the lack of networking was a contributing factor in why I stayed a midlist writer for so long. But I was happy, I was doing what I wanted, writing the stories I wanted to tell, and I got to be home most days when the kids got home from school.
Nowadays, Robin Hobb does get invited to conventions, often as a guest or even a guest of honor, and that’s very nice. I enjoy going to them in much the same way I used to. I still can’t do the room parties, but now it has more to do with not being able to take the noise level than with having kids with me.
PO: I had an interesting exchange recently with Lev Grossman on: What does fantasy do particularly well? So, let me ask you the same. Some feel it’s a good playground for safely exploring topics that are quite polarizing in our own world. Would love your thoughts.
RB: Fantasy allows us to drop all our baggage and look at the big questions in the world with no preconceived loyalties. If I invent a world with two battling religions and neither one is yours or your friend’s, you can look at the conflict and think about it in an unbiased way. If we look at slavery in a way that has nothing to do with race or racial guilt or U.S. history, I think we can perceive more about what it does to both a slave and the ‘owner’ of the slave and the world it creates. Sweep the stage clear and set out the conflict anew, and you may end up surprised with who you are rooting for. Sort of like taking two football teams, and stealing all their jerseys and team equipment, and sending them out to play against each other as unidentified teams. Imagine a big bowl game in which you didn’t know who was playing or who you would normally root for. That’s what fantasy does to life.
PO: Do you ever think about thematic underpinning in your fiction? Either going in, or with the benefit of hindsight? Or is that incidental?
RB: I write stories. I don’t think about foreshadowing or symbolism or themes. Someone much more clever than I am can attach all that afterwards. I just want to tell a really good story that looks at the questions that fascinate me.
PO: Okay, self-censorship: Do you do it? Meaning, are there things that you won’t write about, feeling that you’d rather not perpetuate a particular notion? I ask, as there’s a notion termed “semantic contagion,” which suggests that the expressing/sharing of particular ideas encourages their adoption.
RB: I think all writers do it. There were some horrific examples early in my writing career of what you call semantic contagion. The one I recall had to do with a TV show that presented a horrific act of violence; IF I RECALL CORRECTLY (and it’s possible I don’t) the show as about a group of teenage girls who rape a pre-teen girl with a bottle. A short time after it aired, the identical thing happened, and I believe there was a lawsuit about it.
Now, if we all stopped writing horrific scenes because we feared copycat violence or lawsuits, then fantasy and literature as a whole would become considerably duller. But we all think of the ideas we don’t really want to put out there, such as crashing a plane into a skyscraper. I had an idea for a story about a person who simply wanted to unobtrusively kill as many people as possible. I came up with three very plausible scenarios, laughably easy to carry out, and then decided to never write that story.
PO: Are you that lone “normal” writer out there, or do you have a quirk or two you can share? Could be process, lucky charm, type of food, place you write, etc. Give us some color!
RB: I think I’m a really boring person. I have a very busy but ordinary life outside of writing that includes a yard, a garden, and various grandchildren who always need rides to ballet or judo. My house is untidy. My bookshelves are messy. I don’t jump out of helicopters or ride award winning Arabian horses in steeplechase or collect prehistoric skulls. My house is indistinguishable from the other houses in the neighborhood. The only thing different about my living room is that there’s no television set in it and a lot of tall book cases. All my “being a writer” happens inside my head. Other writers are a decided minority among my friends. So I live in a mostly blue-collar world. Maybe that’s why a lot of my characters come from there.
PO: Whose books do you greatly anticipate? Don’t confine yourself to genre, either. I’m interested in your non-genre, and even nonfiction tastes.
RB: George R. R. Martin. Enough said there. I’m still mourning Robert Parker, as there will be no more new Parker books. Michael Marshall Smith (just Michael Marshall now, I think) as he always startles me. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books for a quick bedtime read. Jane Johnson is rapidly turning into a favorite, too.
PO: Love that you included Parker. A lot of writers in your short list there that aspiring writers would do well to read. Along that line, what’s the simplest thing an aspiring writer overlooks, that could most impact/help their future success?
RB: Sit down and write. Don’t buy any more books about it, don’t go to any more seminars or pay a book doctor. Don’t join any more writers’ clubs on line or endlessly read online writing advice about how to write. The trick to writing? Sit at a keyboard and push down one key after another until you have written the story. There is no avoiding this work. That is the part that has to happen, no matter how fast you tap dance all around it. If you have seventeen maps, a genealogy going back six generations, sketches of your characters and wardrobes, their horoscopes, and a detailed history of what led to the war that just broke out, you STILL need to sit down and write the story. Or it will never be a book.
PO: No interview of mine ends without some music chat. I’m a musician, so I have to know a few things. First: Do you listen to music when you write?
PO: Do you have some favorite artists you love listening to when you’re away from your computer?
RB: Oh, depends on my mood or what I’m writing. Sometimes it’s just a radio station that is playing in the background.
PO: What was the best concert you ever attended?
RB: There have been many. Johnny Cash. Gordon Lightfoot. Paul Simon. Chubby Checker! He was playing a benefit and I took my kids to that one. I think it was the first rock concert experience for all of them. And local singers that you’ve never heard of, most likely. At First Night in Tacoma, I stopped to listen to Uncle Banzai for instance. There are some not so local musicians that know they are free to use my guest room, such as Tanya Opland, or William Pint and Felicia Dale. Having musicians visit is like having an exotic species of bird descend into my backyard for awhile!
PO: Finally, what can we expect over the next few years from you? Take us into the future and give us something to look forward to.
RB: Well, I’m writing another book. And after that, I think I’ll probably write another book. And then another. Until my hands and eyes give out (They’re in a race to see what fails first.) I think that’s all I can say with certainty. I’ll be writing more books. No spoilers!
PO: Awesome! Keep writing! Ladies and gentleman, it’s hardly possible that you don’t know who Robin Hobb (Megan Lindholm) is. But whether you’re a long time fan, or someone who’s heard the name but never tried the books, I can genuinely say: Read (or keep reading) her work. In my view, Megan’s fiction is essential (as in, it should be required reading for fantasy fans).
Thanks, Megan, for your time, and for writing!
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 his site.