Today we’re joined by Melanie Rawn, who graciously agreed to answer a few small questions. Her most recent novel, Window Wall, came out earlier this year. Her earlier novels have been the subject of a reread series here by Judith Tarr, which I encourage you all to go and read.
If you haven’t read any of her work, there’s never been a better time to start. If you have?
Well then, you already know what a treat they are.
On to the questions!
Liz Bourke: Let me start rather generally, by asking your opinion of how women—whether as authors, as characters, or as fans and commenters—are received within the SFF genre community. Have you seen change over the time you’ve been involved in the field?
Melanie Rawn: Well, there are a lot more of us nowadays….
LB: You’ve written over a dozen fantasy novels in the last three decades, from epic second-world fantasy (like the Dragon Prince trilogy) to contemporary (like Spellbinder) and now back to second-world with the Glass Thorns series. What’s the appeal of fantasy for you?
MR: Part of the appeal of fantasy for me is that I don’t get bored. If I want to write quasi-Medieval, that’s what I write. If I feel like doing contemporary for a while, then I’ll do it. It’s the people that I’m interested in. The first fantasy novels I read were about kids in all these odd situations (very odd, to a kid growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley—yes, I am an authentic Valley Girl, though somewhat…um…shall we say, “vintage”?). I enjoy throwing characters against a wall to see how (or if!) they bounce. Granted, one can do the same sort of thing in mainstream fiction, but it’s so much more fun to add in dragons or magic.
My bachelor’s degree is in history, so that’s a part of it, as well: taking this and that from different cultures, raiding for plotlines and characters, trying (somewhat belatedly, to be sure) to convince the professors that I really was listening in class, and I really did read all the books, honest!
A lot of it, though, is that to write SF you really have to know things, write with authority, and be secure in your knowledge, because there are thousands of people out there who know at least as much about your subject as you do (and usually a whole lot more). That’s way more work than I’m willing to do!
But it turns out that in a way fantasy is just as much work. When Jennifer Roberson and Kate Elliott and I were noodling up The Golden Key, we had pages upon pages upon pages of notes about everything to do with our little universe. Much of this material was used; the rest was there if we needed it. But it all had to be consistent within itself, and adhere to its own logic. One of the few things I actually remember about Dragon Prince (hey, it was written nearly 30 years ago—gimme a break!) was a description of Rohan as someone who thinks that if he throws enough words at something, it will simply collapse from the weight of them and go away and not bother him anymore. That’s one reason my books tend to be long. But the thing about any created world is that it has to stay consistent, so once I’ve finished BS’ing my way through something, I’d better remember all the details of all those words so that I don’t do something completely opposite in the next chapter and ruin the whole thing. Which is why I take notes on my own books. Lots and lots of notes.
Another thought: Fantasy books aren’t fantasy books without a few odd words scattered here and there, right? For Glass Thorns, I used real English words that have fallen out of usage. (The book I got them from is There’s A Word for It!—well worth looking for, hours of amusement for language nerds and English teachers.) Whenever I use an uncommon word, I try to indicate its meaning within the text. Snarge, for example, is a lovely insult to fling at annoying persons (it begs to be said with a sneer), but if I include in the character’s tirade idiot and moron and fool besides, then even if the readers have no idea what the specific meaning of snarge is, they get the general idea. Swoophead, on the other hand, is self-explanatory (and such an infinitely better word than comb-over—Donald Trump, for instance, is its perfect embodiment, don’t you think?).
Names are a little trickier. I try to spell them phonetically; they sound the way they look. But if I suspect there might be some doubt, then I’ll include a hint within the text. Example: on first meeting Mieka in Glass Thorns, I have another character call him by the diminutive, “Miek”—and another character, who’s meeting him for the first time, thinks to himself that meek is precisely the wrong word to use in describing this guy. Thus the reader finds out how to pronounce the name, and there’s a tidbit of description into the bargain.
Naming people and things and places in fantasy novels can be a pain, anyway. When somebody hits on a really great one (Katniss is one I wish I’d thought up, dammit!), babies in the real world tend to get named after that character. I have six or seven “what to name the baby” books, the Oxford dictionary of names, and a fabulous tome that’s 26 languages in simultaneous translation—French, German, all the European majors, plus Esperanto, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, and so on. The book lists 1000 everyday words in English with all the translations below it. We used it extensively for Golden Key and I’ve dipped into it a few times for Glass Thorns. The name of one of the taverns, “Kiral Kellari,” translates from two different languages as “king’s cellar”; put it into German and it’s Kaiserkeller—which ought to ring a rock ‘n’ roll bell or two, yes?
LB: You implied there that your history degree is a significance influence on your writing. Are there other influences—other writers, perhaps?—that you think have had an impact on your work over the years, and would you like to tell us about them?
MR: Writers who have influenced me…perhaps more accurately, writers whose work I treasure. Joni Mitchell. Warren Zevon. John Lennon. Pete Townshend. Jackson Browne. Don Henley and Glenn Frey. I write novels that take a couple hundred thousands words to do (not always successfully) what any of them could do brilliantly in three-verses-and-a-chorus without breaking a sweat.
But what about people who write novels? you ask (I know you didn’t but you were about to!). Jane Austen and Dorothy L. Sayers for wit and elegance—again, I can’t do either very well, but boy howdy do I admire people who can!
LB: The Glass Thorns series involves magic and theatrical performance and visions of the future—among other exciting things. Can you tell us a little about what makes it different from your previous work, and how Window Wall, the latest volume, builds on the previous books in the series?
MR: Something that makes this series different from my other books, and a big reason I’ve particularly enjoyed writing it, is that these guys aren’t lords or princes or in positions of power. They’re working-class gits, using the talents they were born with to do work that excites and satisfies them (and also impresses girls). None of them is the long-lost heir to anything; none of them aspires to power. All they want is to be the best at what they do and make some money at it (and impress girls). The first four books (Touchstone, Elsewhens, Thornlost, and Window Wall; I’m about a chapter and a half away from finishing the fifth and final book, Playing to the Gods) follow them as they get better at their craft, grow up some, try to figure out lives for themselves offstage, learn interesting and sometimes scary things about the world they live in, and explore what it is to be creative. In the fifth book, they encounter circumstances that compel them to use everything they’ve learned to become everything they could and should be as performers and as people.
Also, Elves. Pikseys. Trolls. Goblins. Gnomes. Fae. All the stuff I’ve never written about before.
But no unicorns. Sorry.
LB: Playing to the Gods will be out next year. Do you have plans for what you’re going to be working on next after that?
MR: Yes, I have plans for my next book, but my agent won’t let me talk about them. Honest.