For more than twenty-five years, Kate Elliott’s fantasy and science fiction has focused on (as she told us in Sleeps With Monsters) “how people function in the social space of the societies they live in.” That might range from crumbling empires rebuilding themselves to the immigrant experience and the culture clash experienced by two very different societies. Best known for her Crossroads and Spiritwalker trilogies and her Crown of Stars series, she has also just released a new short fiction collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott.
Recently, Elliott took to Reddit’s r/fantasy subreddit to answer all manner of reader questions. During the talk—scheduled around the Hawaii-based Elliott’s outrigger canoe practice—she explained how J.R.R. Tolkien made her love worldbuilding, gamely accepted the commentary from one reader who didn’t enjoy her books, and shared her best chocolate cake recipe. Check out the highlights!
On What’s Coming Up Next:
When asked about continuations of her Crossroads trilogy, Elliott explained that she had no intention of writing another book. However, a novelette from her collection The Very Best of Kate Elliott “contains a major outtake from a projected ’Crossroads 4’ and turns it into a self contained story.” What’s more, her forthcming book Black Wolves (out November 3, 2015) is set in the same universe.
Elliott also shared her thirty-second pitch for her next novel:
My forthcoming YA debut, Court of Fives. The publisher pitch is Little Women meets Game of Thrones meets Hunger Games. I call it Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior in a fantasy setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt, with brutal court politics and a girl who hates losing.
Elliott also says she is “determined” to complete her Jaran series, which she has been worldbuilding since she was a teenager.
Short-Form vs. Long-Form:
Luke_Matthews: What do you find are your biggest challenges when switching between writing short stories vs. long-form fiction? How do you overcome them?
KE: I guess I don’t feel I really switch between short vs long form. I write novels, and occasionally I get an idea that will work for short fiction. When that happens I make some notes on it and (sometimes) write 3-5 pages, and then when I have time I set aside a few days to finish it. But those ideas are small and finite, they focus on a single moment or a single change or a single event.
Even then I think I tend to write novelistically in terms of how I approach introducing the setting and the character. I feel like I don’t really get short fiction ideas, the kind that work to make the best short fiction really incandescent. I try to highlight a character or a situation that can be told tightly and dramatically, if that makes sense.
The Themes That Most Resonate With Her:
TFrohock asked which recurring themes Elliott has worked into her books—turns out the Spiritwalker trilogy includes all four!
1) Active, physical protagonist. Can be a fighter but doesn’t have to be, just someone who is comfortable in their body and strong and likes to move. This resonates with me because, um, it describes me. I hasten to add my characters are not “versions” of me, but I do enjoy writing that physical type.
2) Revolution. I’m just so interested in how societies work and how they fall apart and how they change, sometimes in violent ways and sometimes in quiet, subtle ways. I’m not sure why this theme resonates for me but I suspect that the whole American Revolution thing is a big deal in the USA so perhaps it’s partly an echo of that.
3) Family. I identify strongly with the idea that we are who we are in relationship to the people around us. I do not resonate so much with the “loner cut off from all relationship” type of character or the “orphan protagonist” in part because I find so fascinating the ways in which people can both feel close to and find annoying family members (whether blood or found family) and I think I examine that dichotomy a lot in Spiritwalker. We all constantly walk that balance.
4) A love story. I just enjoy writing these.
Her Favorite Characters to Write:
aMissingGlassEye: What characters have you particularly enjoyed writing?
KE: I’ve enjoyed writing ALL of my characters but if I had to highlight a couple who made it easy to write their scenes, I would mention Hugh, from Crown of Stars (he was always easy to write), Mai from Crossroads because her generosity and intelligence really shone, and Camjiata from Spiritwalker because I am sure in his mind he could not figure out why he wasn’t the main character of the trilogy and so kept trying to make himself the most important character.
Her Goals in Writing Female Friendship:
vegetablegroundbeef: In the Spiritwalker trilogy, Cat and Bee’s friendship is really central to the story. I find it so rare to see women’s friendships be a focal point in sci/fi. Did you set out to write it with that in mind or did that just happen organically?
KE: Thank you so much. I did set out deliberately to write a story in which the friendship/sisterhood between two women was the main relationship, and I knew that because there is a very vivid and important love story that it would be crucial to really highlight and emphasize Cat and Bee’s friendship/love so that readers wouldn’t see a story in which a friendship is pushed aside in favor of a romantic pairing.
Partly I did it because it’s really really important to me to write about bonds between women (often ignored or elided), and partly because in real life people are perfectly capable of having more than one strong relationship and we don’t have to choose between them. I wanted to show that in fiction.
Restrained vs. Unrestrained Romance:
As a self-described fan not of romance but of Elliott’s brand of romance, MazW asked how the author relayed her own romantic tendencies to the page—with restraint, or a lack thereof? Elliot answered:
That’s a hard question. I’m actually a fairly reserved person so I can also be too restrained at times when I’m writing about people’s emotions, but my feeling is the best method I can use to write a love story is a balance of restraint and lack of restraint, if that makes sense.
On the one hand, people who are infatuated or falling in love (not always quite the same thing) can become obsessive over the object of their desire (which is why young lovers are so annoying in public to everyone else while they don’t even notice). That lack of restraint is something I try to convey in the emotions of the budding lovers, regardless if they act on it.
But at the same time pretty much everyone, while falling in love, has to keep on about their regular lives. The world does not come to a halt in deference to their ecstatic love. They still have to go to work at the factory, or escape the siege, or do their homework, so the restraint comes about by making sure the characters still have to do what they have to do.
I think there is a tension between the often seemingly overwhelming emotional and physical desires and the pragmatic need to carry on with the world outside yourself. My goal is to make the love story seem natural for the characters and within the plot and world.
On Secret Projects and Lost Tomes:
aMissingGlassEye: Are there any secret projects or lost tomes you’re working on that you can share any details about?
KE: If I shared details about my secret projects then they wouldn’t be secret any more, but I do have them, things I work on in the dark of night or when I am supposed to be working on something else but am stuck. Sometimes those are my favorite things, and Crossroads, Spiritwalker, and Court of Fives all began as secret projects in a way, the thing I worked on while I wasn’t working on the thing I was supposed to be working on.
The only lost tomes will be those I didn’t have the time to complete, so here’s hoping I have enough time to complete even half the stories I have started or have outlined….!
On Her Top Three Books:
Elliott told rosiedokidoki and other Redditors that she coudn’t simply name three favorite books. However, she could recommend three that fit specific reading experiences:
A novel I read in 2014 that I really enjoyed on all levels?
Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor
A novel coming in 2015 that I’ve read and can highly recommend (there are others but I’ll just mention one):
Ken Liu’s debut fantasy, The Grace of Kings
A non fiction work that was super useful to be while worldbuilding:
Heinrich Fichtenau’s Living in the Tenth Century: Mentalities and Social Orders. A very influential book I read while doing research for the Crown of Stars novels.
How to Rise Above Setbacks:
Redditor kabang asked Elliott what advice she would give a writer who, dealt several daunting setbacks, is on the verge of giving up. Elliott’s inspiring answer:
This is a question I take very seriously because while I do not and cannot have had your experiences, I have gone through dark nights of the soul and have dealt with setbacks, depression, anxiety, and bouts of despair that led me to wonder if there is any point in continuing.
You have my deepest and most compassionate sympathies.
I would say a couple of things.
1. Major setbacks really are debilitating. I’m not one to say “oh you have to suck it up and keep on going” because I don’t know; maybe you don’t. Maybe you (“you” in the general, not YOU in the particular) can choose to do other things for a while and circle back to writing later. I just think it is important to acknowledge that this is tough, and that it takes a great deal of psychological energy to keep pressing on, and not everyone has that energy at every stage of their lives. The energy might be there tomorrow or next year even if it is not there today. We all face different drains on our resources, at different times, and we have to BE KIND TO OURSELVES.
2. That being said, the other thing I know is that no one ever really knows. I can name writers who were at the top of the game, with huge critical acclaim or bestsellers, whose careers collapsed suddenly and inexplicably. I can name writers who had the rug pulled out from under them and thought they would never publish again, who three years later had contracts and greater success than they had had before. WE JUST DON’T KNOW. Writing is so volatile. It’s impossible to predict. That’s why persistence matters.
3. Whatever happens, be true to your own creativity. It is an inextricable and valuable part of you. Cherish it.
4. I love this quote by Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille that I think goes to the heart of everything about creativity:
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU. Keep the channel open.”
Remember: whatever comes of it, no one else can write what you write.
On Her Most Worthy Opponent:
cymric: If you were to get into a Princess Bride-style duel of wits with another spec fiction author, who would you challange?
KE: Wes Chu.