A Conversation with Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith has written both science fiction and fantasy, but her heart and most of her work is in her fantasy world of Sartorias-deles. Her newest book, Once a Princess, has just come out, and I thought I’d ask her some questions about that book and the other books set in that fascinating and detailed world.

Jo: Is it true you’ve been working on the worldbuilding for the worlds in your books since you were a kid? How many detailed worlds do you have in your head, and when did you start working on them?

Sherwood: Yes. I started when I was eight. Started mapping when I was twelve or so, realized I needed the right proportions and the right time zones when I was nineteen, so I had my single brilliant idea: beach ball! Instant time zones, collapses, and easily packs and travels. I painted the world on the beach ball, and that thing has been to Europe twice, and across the country several times.

Most of the stories, and therefore the worldbuilding, is about that world, but I know some things about the other worlds in that system (there are six, four of which are habitable, to which humans spread and adapted in different ways. I mapped one, the island one, but that map vanished on one of my 17 moves during the seventies.)

I tried to mess with the languages when I was thirteen or so, and then again when I was fourteen, after I’d read Tolkien and got briefly inspired by his ravishing linguistic pyrotechnics. I didn’t get far—my dyslexic, visually oriented brain did not really ‘get’ the structure of language until years later, like math—so I mostly confined myself to alphabets, so I could illustrate the stories and use proper orthography. There were some words and phrases, especially for things that we didn’t have in English, that I came up with, or just, you know, blinked into my brain the way stories do.

If I thought about the world itself, it was mostly its history, how things changed. Why things changed. I asked myself questions that it might (and did) take years to answer.

I did come up with other worlds for other stories, but the most detailed is really S-d lite, for a series of stories I wrote for “them”—for publication—when I was a teen, which later came out as Wren to the Rescue.

Jo: Do you keep a detailed timeline of all the history and how it connects together?

Sherwood: Yes—that is, it was all scattered through notebooks. I began the laborious process of consolidating it a couple of decades back, and poke at it now and again; there is one main timeline, which has bunches of breakouts—like for regions, or individuals, and those have breakouts in more detail. When I was a kid I could envision hypertext, but there wasn’t any way to make it all connect up the way I wanted, with index cards (though I tried, still have them) or notebooks. All extremely haphazard—it was always about the people.

Jo: How much about the stories do you know before you write them?

Sherwood: In the early days, they pretty much wrote themselves—I was just the physical conduit. This was great in that I lived it along with the characters, and bad in that I had this huge mess of connected storylines, about fifty percent of which actually made it onto the page. And that in rotten prose, because I saw the images, not the words. It took many decades before I made that excruciating discovery.

Some stories would halt me in the middle so I could figure out what occurred when, and sometimes—especially in the early days, when there would be several threads (storylines) mixed—I had to write down a timeline or outline. I ended up with these connected cartoon balloons scrambling all over a page. I did keep these to a page, figuring that I could keep control of the shape of a story if I could confine the notes to a page. But that went out the window when I turned 20 and the next one turned out to be a series arc.

Some ended up being story scraps. Especially when an event hinged on the thinking of adults. I knew I couldn’t get inside the heads of adults, so I reported their actions—or halted to wait until I understood their actions—and eventually got the “all clear” signal from the brain, and shot ahead.

They all begin with images. There was one image I really hated, but I couldn’t get rid of it, and when I saw events resulting, knew I’d have to write it. I wrote around it for years. It took 25 years before I could deal with a first draft, then ten years before I could type it. It’s waiting for a last go-through—there is one last scene that isn’t right.

Three years ago, when I turned 55, Clueless here woke and realized, hey wait. I’m 55! I don’t have any more 25-year waits left! I hate that! But there was no Customer Service Complaint email issued with the paracosm-brain manual.

Jo: Do you ever paint yourself into a corner with historical events mentioned in one book and then turning out needing to be different in another?

Sherwood: No—partly because so few of the stories have actually been locked into print. Though already I have made number mistakes—I have such bad number dyslexia that I can look at a number and see the wrong one. I can’t remember them worth beans.

But aside from tripping on dates and ages or distances, I actually have stuff that turns on memories of events that aren’t what happened. Memory and perception being so tricky. There is a tangential issue which is ‘getting it right’— sometimes I don’t see all of an event, just the results of the event. So I have to go back and write it, and rewrite it, and redo it yet again, until the itch of ‘not right yet’ goes away. Those can be frustrating—take years and years, for some.

I just looked at the question again, and I think you are asking something different than I answered above. I thought you were asking if I had made continuity errors. If you are asking if I willfully change events as needed, no, I never do that. To avoid the eye-rolling accusation of woo, I put it this way: this paracosm is like a house of cards. If I were to decide I want an ace down there on level two, instead of a five of clubs, the entire thing would come crashing down. I can’t ‘make’ anything happen consciously, or it all just falls apart. Things happened, and my job (so my subconscious tells my conscious mind) is just to report it as best I can: my role is not god but watcher at the window.

Jo: Why did you choose to write such different types of stories in that world?

Sherwood: The easy answer is “I don’t—they choose me,” but that probably just sounds affected.

The answer has two sides to it: one, things just sort of bubble up and catch my eye and I have to dive into the story. Like, currently being printed by DAW is a series called Inda, after the main character. When I made my first continental map, back when I was fourteen or fifteen, places just sort of named themselves. There was this narrowing strait between two continents that was the Elgar Strait. I don’t know why the word Elgar appeared, it just did—but when I looked at it (I can still see that drawing on school notebook paper, and my yellow Bic pen in my hand) I thought, “Elgar was a person—called a pirate but not a pirate, called Elgar but that wasn’t his name—it’s a he, not a she—and said to be from a bunch of different countries, but no one actually gets the right one until way later.” I didn’t do anything with that for years and years, but I was thinking about something different, and, oh, again with the images: when light hits murky water at a certain angle, and suddenly you can see all the way down. I saw that Elgar was among the ancestors of three different family branches, and once I saw that, the images started flooding in and I had to leap back 800 years and write that series of stories.

Second side of the question: some of the stories are ones I wrote back when I was young. When I rewrite them now, I will nail down place and time more thoroughly than I did, and I will provide motivation, especially for adults that I didn’t at the time, but I try as hard as I can to keep the same emotional tone and the same age POV. Like, I have one called Crown Duel. I was twenty when I wrote the first half. When I went to type it up in my forties, I really worked hard to keep it in the character’s POV (always easier in first person). If I’d scrapped the story to write the events from someone else’s POV, that person would scarcely have been in it, except at three or four turning points. The events don’t change, but how I present them does. Sometimes I have to look at events from several angles to get inside better. So I end up writing and scrapping, writing and scrapping.

Jo: That sounds like a long slow process! I’ve been loving the Inda books. You even made me read something that had pirates in, and I’m looking forward to the fourth one. How do they connect to Once a Princess?

Sherwood: The connections to Once a Princess are very tenuous . . . if you have read Inda, then it will make sense if I say that Jehan was sent to the Marloven academy (modern version—he was sent just before all the changes that shape the story in A Stranger To Command). And the visitors at the end, well, that ancestral connection is also a part. Then there is the overarcing storyline, and there are three tiny but significant connectors in this story, all of which are played out heavily in the arc that starts immediately after this story, which is light-hearted and skimming the surface of bigger events.

Jo: Was it fun to write?

Sherwood: It was GREAT fun to write! One of those ones that really did just write itself, once I got back to it. (I started it back in ’74, but the mother’s story, which stuttered to a stop and shifted to the daughter’s, as the mother’s was both tragic and unfinished, but that was blurry, so I put it away, until three or four years ago I took it out and there it was, ready to be dashed down.)

Jo: It’s being published in two volumes (Once a Princess and Twice a Prince), is that how you wrote it, or was it broken up afterwards?

Sherwood: It was broken by Samhain, whose print arm is very new (still no distribution for bookstores, but you can buy it on Amazon or directly from Samhain) and they could not handle the length as one book. But it was meant to be one story—though the events fall into two parts, the reason for the POV swaps is not made clear until the end of the second part.

Jo: How many novels have you already written set in Sartorias-deles?

Sherwood: That’s kind of hard to answer, because so many of them are varying lengths, and a few are groups of short stories. Call it just under a hundred discrete story units, some of those with shorter stories within, and some of them short stories themselves. Some pretty long. (The one in a book dummy, that traveled all over Europe twice, is written in such a minuscule handwriting that it will probably be a couple thousand pages when typed and smoothed, which means one book splitting into a story arc.) As they get typed, some are recombining into different form (same events, told from another angle).

Jo: In Once A Princess there’s travel between this world and Sartorias-deles. (The cover made it look like an urban fantasy so it surprised me when it turned out to be a “people go from our world to
another world” kind of fantasy.) Has communication between the worlds happened before?

Sherwood: Yes—a bunch of times. Humans crossed long ago in three groups: a slave ship from off what is now Senegal, with Portuguese crew; ancient China; and a fleet of Viking ships going east. The latter didn’t know they’d crossed worlds in a storm, so when they discovered no people, just land, they headed back and northward toward home, to discover . . . nothing. But with winter coming, settled.

A couple of characters have crossed back and forth several times. Some groups have, too.

The indigenous beings thought the humans were vermin, and were going to extirpate them, so some vast changes got made. (I put all that stuff in a glossary thingie.)

A lot of the background stuff is up on a wiki some readers made.

Jo: Who were your influences? And has that changed over the process of working on the world, and if so, has that changed the world?

Sherwood: I think it’s sometimes hard to spot influences, especially if they . . . oh, boomerang. Like, I always thought that the influence I took from Tolkien (read at fourteen, when I was nine notebooks into my world) was how to approach organizing my messy notes on orthography, but actually I think LOTR influenced my sense of history. Yet not in isolation. I reflected on S-d’s history clear back in fourth grade or so, when I was nine, and discovered historical novels. Mara, Daughter of the Nile, I know was an influence, yet I never saw anything remotely Egyptian-like in any story. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that the weight of historical influence really hit me hard after I read LOTR, though it was all in emotion and image, and took years to translate out into conscious thought.

Still, looking back, I think the most profound thing I took from Tolkien was permission to take myself seriously as a writer. As a kid, I pretty much got nothing but scorn, and occasionally active animus, for writing fantasy, and squirreling it away in my closet, and later under the mattress supports in my bed. (Teachers in those days seemed to feel that fantasy was at best frivolous, and I think my parents were afraid that I was going to turn out like my schizophrenic uncle. The problem, I discovered, with having your mind run on a parallel track is that your body still exists in real-time, and looking back, I’m sure the reason my dad occasionally knocked me right off my chair at the dinner table was because I was staring slack-jawed at my food, the way my uncle looked when he heard voices in the static on the radio, telling him the FBI was searching for him, so he needed to cut the mattresses up to look for the bugs.) The fact that an adult had a world, and seemed to behave as if that world existed, well, that was gratifying right down to cellular level.

I never set out to directly adopt something from what I read into what I wrote—there was no Egypt on S-d, and no Tolkienian elves (actually I liked the dwarves a lot, but I never saw dwarves in my world, I already knew that the underground inhabitants who’d fled an earlier cataclysm were worm-pale, their hair bleached to white over the centuries)—but of course our passions in reading, as well as experience, inform what we do. I think my subconscious just took an extra step or two to shake it all together. I can say that my discovery of Hornblower and other sea-faring stories prompted me to look for the shorelines of my maps, and fed the story images of ships that appeared.

I think anti-influences also worked. Like, I’d end up thinking about story possibilities that were against something I’d read and hated. Not that I set out deliberately to tell a story that worked against another story—I’d try, and it just never worked. But there was a connection, like seeing Disney’s Peter Pan at age five, and crying so hard at the tragic ending that I got yelled at for it, and three years later my seeing a girl walk out of a dream into my life, at times flying alongside the car as we mentally exchanged talk. And yet she wasn’t wrapped around my life—she had a life of her own, and all I had to do was get to paper and crayons and I could draw out her stories, then hastily destroy them because I’d learned in first grade that fantasy was frowned on. (I already knew how to read when I went to school, so for the first few weeks in first grade, I was permitted to draw quietly while the other kids were learning the alphabet and phonics. But the teacher gently discouraged my drawings of children flying from swingsets to great, reaching and branching trees, and encouraged me to make proper boys and girls playing real games like ball for boys and jump rope for girls.) Anyway, there were three things I knew: that Clair had a group of girls she had rescued from terrible situations, and that those girls did not have to grow up, and the ones from Earth were not forced to go back.

Another influence: early reading showing up later. I knew from the start that Clair’s name was Sherwood, but it had nothing to do with Robin Hood! Sher was the name of where she had come from, and it had to do with her hair being white, and ‘wood’ of course was for the forest central to the kingdom. I secretly adopted myself into the group as their chronicler when I was about ten, and shifted from drawing the stories and ripping them up to writing them and hiding them, because I wanted to keep them. So I wondered how I could trigger the magic to get them to come for me, and one way (I thought, as my brain doesn’t do logic) was to read everything that had ‘Sherwood’ in it, because maybe there would be a code left for me to trigger the magic for Clair to come and get me.

Anyway, one of the books I discovered was Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Sherwood Ring, which I absolutely adored—it had codes, spies, fancy dresses, a beautiful garden, ghosts, and a house with a secret passageway. And it had wit. I checked it out over and over again when I was ten. Then I passed on to other passions. But thirty years later, I reread it again, and then, when I was typing up a story, there was a whole passage that could have been taken straight out of that book. How embarrassing was that! But totally unconscious. There’ve been a few other instances where I rediscovered a childhood favorite, and then noticed how scrips and scraps showed up in my stuff, again, unconscious borrowings.

I discovered Patrick O’Brian just after I’d begun Inda—in fact I think I agreed to read it because my mother in law, who recommended the novels to me, said the ship life scenes were so real—and I am certain that the vivid images I got from those books informed my writing about ship life, even though I knew that gunpowder did not work on my world, and so ship design would be different, as well as strategy and tactics. But I’d learned when I was a teen to read for how things worked, though mentally reserving the differences; when I tracked down O’Brian’s primary sources, I got an even better idea of shipboard life.

Jo: How many more stories do you have planned for this world?

Sherwood: Some of it is rewriting what exists, and finishing two that are almost done. Things with story shapes: Banner of the Damned, which comes between the Inda ones and the modern times. (Partly written.) Three shaping out future events, but while I know the events, I haven’t seen the way in yet, that will give me a story shape. I never stop working on S-d, bouncing from one thing to another. I was doing this thirty years before I ever thought of actually trying to publish any of it.


Back to the top of the page


Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.