“That’s why it’s called fantasy”: An Interview With Mercedes Lackey

Mercedes Lackey published her first novel, Arrows of the Queen, in 1987. Since then she’s published well over a hundred more books and an impressive quantity of short fiction both as a solo writer and in collaboration with others. At this point, it should surprise no one to hear that I’m a huge fan. So when I heard that Lackey and her partner and co-writer Larry Dixon would be Guests of Honor at this year’s WorldCon in New Zealand, I proposed that Tor.com send me there to interview her; Tor declined to buy me a plane ticket to New Zealand, even though it was 2019 and no one had even heard of coronavirus. But we decided to pursue the interview part of my proposal, which is how I wound up exchanging a series of emails with Mercedes Lackey while she was on a road trip over the winter holidays last year.

This interview has been waiting for publication since then so we could coordinate with the release of Spy, Spy Again, Lackey’s newest Valdemar story, on June 9th. And while we have been waiting, the world has changed in dramatic and unexpected ways. In early May, as I was making final revisions and updates, I sent Lackey more questions and she answered those too. Lackey was incredibly gracious and generous with her time, and I felt like I’d been let loose in a candy store.


Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer: You are one of the most prolific, productive writers in SFF, while also having avocations—like rehabilitating raptors—that require a great deal of time and energy. You have an incredibly badass attitude towards writers’ block. What other factors in your life have played important roles in facilitating your writing?

Mercedes Lackey: Well, Larry and I always say “My mortgage is my muse.” When you write for a living, you simply can’t take the time for “artistic crisis” so you just don’t have one. I started writing in part hoping to escape from a simply horrible day-job that entailed (sometimes multiple) middle of the night calls to fix things that generally were not only not my fault but more often than not were the fault of an entirely different department. It also frequently involved working on weekends. Not only was this not paid overtime, we weren’t even compensated with one-to-one time off. It was TEN hours worked for ONE hour off. So if I have a badass attitude it was because I started off writing under awful conditions, and the uncertainties of writing for a living are a lot less stressful than what I started out with.


ECM: Filk played a significant role in the beginning of your career. You wrote a lot of it, and you wrote filks about your books. For a number of fans, filk is a foreign country. Who are the filk artists we should all be listening to now?

ML: To be honest, I’ve been out of the filking community for so long that I actually don’t know anymore. The more I became known for prose instead of songs, the more I backed off from filk. The main reason is that I didn’t want to run over the top of people who were known only for their filk; it seems very discourteous of me to turn up at a filksing to have people calling out for me to sing something of mine out of turn in the circle when there are people sitting there, waiting patiently for their turn. And there I am, taking up time and spotlight that should rightfully be theirs.

A second reason I backed off is because the older I got, the less I was able to take the late nights. These days it’s “Filking starts at midnight!” “My bedtime starts at ten, enjoy!”

And a third reason is because I was never better than a not-horrible guitarist. I could continue to use my time to play not-horrible guitar, or I could do things I do well, like beadwork, and I made that conscious decision and have not regretted it.


ECM: Your books, the Valdemar series in particular, hit a lot of readers between the ages of twelve and fifteen. What were you reading when you were that age? Which of those books do you feel had the most impact for you?

ML: Andre Norton! Oh my god, I read every single book she ever wrote, and those were in the days when it was VERY difficult to get books. No internet, no big chain bookstores, usually the only books I got were those I mailed away for, usually the Ace books at a whopping 35 cents a pop, or the now-and-again additions to our public library. I even wrote Norton fanfic before I even knew there were such things, or zines, or conventions. I think I first heard of cons from one of the magazines—Amazing, maybe—that had an article about one of the Worldcons. That would have been about 1963ish. And all I could do was wish I had some way to get to one of these magical gatherings where there were people who loved the same books I did. To be fair, I read virtually everyone that was being published back then too, Bradbury, Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein. I’d say Heinlein was my second favorite after Norton, tied with Bradbury. I didn’t discover Sturgeon until I was about sixteen, otherwise he’d have been tied with Norton.


ECM: What are you reading right now?

ML: Aside from stuff for research, I found a wonderful writer in those BookBub free books—Charlotte English. She writes what I would call “Modern Dunsany.” Absolutely delightful, real “wonder tales.” She also has a “Modern Magick” series that makes me think of a magical John Steed and Emma Peel.

I also got the entire 13-book compilation of Theodore Sturgeon, which literally includes everything he ever wrote–Westerns, “modern magazine stories,” the works. It’s wonderful to have all of that at my fingertips because I missed so much of it when he was publishing.


ECM: What do you see as the most significant changes in the YA and fantasy genres in the past 10-20 years?

ML: For YA, it’s mostly that YA IS a genre now. It certainly never used to be, but that may be because of the literary crowd’s perception that all SF and fantasy were adolescent in nature. Certainly I remember vividly how indignant Margaret Atwood was at the idea that A Handmaid’s Tale could be lumped in with science fiction. Now she seems to have embraced it.

And that’s probably the other big change, thanks in no small part to A Song of Ice and Fire—nobody looks down their noses at fantasy anymore.


ECM: Over the years, the world of Valdemar and the kingdoms that surround it has become increasingly detailed and intricate. Books have described Haven’s sewage system, how the Palace recycles parchment, and the roads in addition to the political system and international relations. What aspects of worldbuilding do you find reveal the most about a fantasy world?

ML: I’m not all that fond of writing Epic Fantasy; that’s where my co-writer James Mallory shines. I prefer stories from the point of view of the not-so-important people; when you think about it, most of what a Herald does is being a glorified circuit-court-rider and newsboy. So I tend to think about the things that impact ordinary peoples’ lives the most. And I get an awful lot of that from history, so it’s less “worldbuilding” and more “recycling.” I read a lot of stuff about archeology, for instance. I get kind of impatient with people who have castles stuffed to the rafters with noble, wealthy people and never think about where they are going to sleep or who cleans out the latrines or where the crap goes once it’s been cleaned out. Not having that underpinning, bothers me. Even if I never show it, the underpinning is there, and more often than not it’s based on historical fact.


ECM: How has the pandemic affected your worldbuilding?

ML: The pandemic is not impacting my writing in any way except one. I am absolutely not writing anything with plague stories in it. I am fairly certain that people will be sick of the subject soon, if they are not already.


ECM: You’ve said, on a number of occasions, that it was natural for you to write Vanyel (and, I extrapolate, Keren, Sherrill, and Ylsa) as gay so it wasn’t ground-breaking from the perspective of your experience, but reading those stories broke ground for a bunch of young readers. Where do you think ground has yet to be broken in YA? Is there anyone who you see working on breaking it?

ML: There are honestly too many people doing groundbreaking things in YA for me to name at this point. Fantasy is reflecting how fast society around us is changing (for the most part, for the better) and that’s a good thing. Because there are still huge swaths of this and other countries where there are LGBT teens who are all alone in their little communities, where there is still stigma—hell, where you can still get beaten half to death—if you come out. And the books that are coming out now are so much more available now, and the e-readers make it so much easier for people to read them secretly, that those kids are being reached and comforted and supported at even earlier ages than when I wrote Arrows and Herald-Mage.


ECM: I want to focus a bit on the early Valdemar books here because I’ve had just over thirty years to scrutinize them. Orthallen is such a menacing, evil guy. He’s involved in child trafficking. He’s behind at least two plots to kill Talia (and I think at least three). He clearly wants power for himself. In later books, you shifted perspectives more and readers got to see through the villains’ eyes. What did Orthallen see when he looked at Valdemar as he knew it?

ML:He saw power and ultimate privilege that he wanted for himself, and he would do anything, say anything, to get it. I think you can infer who I would have modeled him after if I were writing those books today. Back when I was writing them, if I’d written him in the image of the God-Emperor Darth Cheetoh*, it would have been too over the top for my editor and she would have said, “Take it back a notch, that’s not realistic.”

*The “h” on the end is deliberate. He is not properly represented by the delicious, name-brand snack food. He is the bottom-shelf, phony-brand, whose toxic orange color is not derived from cheese, or even “cheez,” but some carcinogenic, addictive food coloring made from fracking waste.


ECM: Interview questions are supposed to be open-ended, but I am DYING to know:

  1. Vanyel’s Curse didn’t prevent the existence of Herald Mages in Valdemar, but for centuries, there wasn’t anyone to identify or train Heralds who had the Mage Gift those Heralds mostly thought they had the Mind Gift of Farsight. That was Kris’s Gift. Was Kris one of the Mages among the Heralds who didn’t know he was a Mage?

ML: Kris was indeed among the Heralds that didn’t know he was a Mage. There’s a clue in how those Heralds with Mage-Gift saw the world. If they look with their “inner eye” and see the glowing life-energy in living things (and I confess, I modeled that off “Kirlian Auras”) then they had Mage-Gift.

  1. Was Orthallen behind the attack on Hevenbeck in Arrow’s Flight?

ML: He certainly was, the rat-bastard. Pudgy fingers in every pie, that one.

  1. Do you meet a lot of readers who have a very specific interpretation of your work that they just really want you to affirm? AND how much of a pain is it when people do that?

ML: I’m fine with it with one exception, and thank God I don’t encounter it very much. Maybe once or twice in thirty years (though it might be because these people are not the sort that would turn up at a con). Neofascists like to co-opt everything, and because Valdemar is explicitly based on a Euro-centric model, there are some that would like very much to claim me for the Fascist Flag. Yeah, no, and if you come spouting that at me at best you’re going to get the stink-eye and at worst, I’ll call security on you.


ECM: The most recent book in the Valdemar epic, Eye Spy, took the very important central idea behind Valdemaran governance—“There is no One True Way”—and expanded it a little farther than the stories have previously done to suggest that Valdemar is not the right place for everyone. What do you think is the most important critique of Valdemar?

ML: It’s not a good place for the intolerant, and bear in mind that people can be intolerant because of what I call “hardening of the attitude” as they grow older and more inflexible and change frightens them, which is not entirely their fault. It’s also not a good place for anyone frightened by the new or by change; Valdemar tends to run right over people like that.

Which means there are people who don’t belong there. And people who live just outside of Valdemar who may be living in fear because they see these liberal weirdos in Valdemar who will put up with anything, and what’s next? Dogs and cats sleeping together?

And I deliberately put a system in place that will always guarantee that you have a monarch-for-life who puts the needs of the country way before his or her own needs, and it’s magical in nature, and that’s completely unrealistic. But hey, that’s why it’s called fantasy.


ECM: You’ve written about disease outbreaks in Valdemar before—for example, winter sickness on Talia’s internship circuit with Kris and with the northern tribes in Owlknight. How would a disease like COVID-19 play out in a city like Haven with Heralds in charge of it?

ML: As for how a disease like COVID-19 would play out in Haven, the Heralds absolutely would not be in charge of it. Everything to do with the disease, its treatment, and the orders to the population would be in the charge of the Healers. And most probably, since they do have a germ theory in Valdemar, the recommendations would be total isolation of the victims and a total lockdown of the city.


ECM: For no reason other than that I’m a total nerd, I get super-excited every time one of your stories deals with Menmellith. Can you explain one or two of the key cultural differences between Menmellith and Rethwellen?

ML: Rethwellen is based on Renaissance Italy. Menmellith is based on Medieval Germany. In Rethwellan, you get all the merchant-princes, and outright factional brawling, and city-states in a state of, if not actual war, certainly sniping. In Menmellith you get this steady, brick-by-brick hierarchy where This Is How Society Is and no one ever questions it. I cannot imagine a Peasant Revolt in Menmellith, for instance.


ECM: Has Valdemar ever had a peasant revolt? What would Valdemar’s peasants revolt over?

ML: I can’t imagine a peasant revolt against the crown in Valdemar. I can definitely imagine a peasant revolt against leaders who were conspiring against the crown.


ECM: Mags has now featured in more of the Valdemar stories than any other character. There always seems to be another story to tell about him. What aspects of his character and his story keep you coming back to him?

ML: Well Mags is really only ancillary to the Family Spies books; I had noticed there was a gaping hole in fantasy, which was that nobody ever writes about functional, loving, supportive families. And with Mags and Amily, I finally had a chance to fill that hole, so I did. Mags really only plays a “major” part in The Hills Have Spies, because that’s the first time he faces the thing every parent has to face—letting go and letting your kid do what he wants and needs to do without your guidance at every step. By the time you get to Abi in Eye Spy, he and Amily have made their peace with that, so Abi is much freer to go be herself. And in Spy, Spy Again, the training wheels are not only off Tory’s bike, they’re also off Prince Kee’s bike in a major way, so Mags scarcely does anything in that book.


ECM: What’s next for Valdemar after Mags’s story is done?

ML: Betsy Wollheim talked me into doing the Founding—the escape of Duke Valdemar and his entire duchy and the founding of a new home in a wild and distant place. And we’re going back to the “present” with a Gryphon book Larry and I are doing, Gryphon in Light about Kelvren (the Brave).


ECM: You’ve never written from the perspective of a Companion, which makes sense to me—I desperately want to know all the things they know but I think in most circumstances they would be total plot-killers. But what do they know at the Founding? Would you consider showing readers a Companion’s perspective in those books?

ML: I’d consider it, but remember, they’re essentially angels, and the Founding Three are archangels….I’ve done an angel in The Secret World Chronicles and like the Seraphym, what you’re likely to see is more the things they are constrained from doing or saying than anything else.


ECM: What’s one thing that you know about the world of Velgarth that hasn’t shown up in the books yet?

ML: The Sleepgivers! They’re going to be quite the surprise. They’ll be in Spy, Spy Again. You’ll be very surprised where they are and where they came from.


ECM: What has surprised you the most about the way fans see Valdemar?

ML: That it’s some place they’d like to live. Most people, once they think about it, probably wouldn’t want to live in most fantasy or science fiction worlds. But everyone I’ve talked to would like very much to live in Valdemar, and not just as a Herald, but as a perfectly ordinary person. They talk about rereading the books like it’s “coming home” and they see the books as a place where they could feel safe and wanted and appreciated. It’s certainly gratifying, because I felt the same way about Norton’s Witch World.


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