I’ve very much enjoyed the first two volumes in Helen Lowe’s The Wall of Night series. The first volume is The Heir of Night. Nicely convoluted plot, well realized setting and complex characters. All written by an interesting person!
Recently Helen and I got together on line to chat about books, writing and fantasy in general.
Robin Hobb & Helen Lowe in Conversation
Helen: World building is integral to fantasy storytelling and you have created many fascinating and beloved worlds now, Robin. What are some of the key elements of good world building for you as a writer? Do you find those are the same qualities that enthuse you when reading other FSF authors?
Robin: Would the world work? That’s my first criteria. If I’m reading and there is a world with no visible economy, government, religion or culture, I tend to just set it aside. Obvious contradictions also frustrate me (A poor farmer in a tiny mountain village deep in a forest goes out to harvest his wheat field. What? Where?) As does writerly ignorance of simple ‘real world’ facts. Learning to wield a sword in two days is like picking up trigonometry in half an hour. Never mind the need to build the muscles. Oh, it’s so easy to rant about what doesn’t work. What does work for me wonderfully is when a world builder writes so compellingly of the underlayment of the world that I want to visit it. A story that makes me want to go see how iron is really worked in this world, or a magic so logical that I almost believe it must work. When writers put time and thought into world building, it really shows. The characters belong in that world rather than being people transplanted from our world into a fantasy.
The reason that your ‘wheels within wheels’ plotting in the Heir of Night books works for me is that every character is a product of your world. They are born into a world of varied cultures, castes and traditions. As a result, they are distinctive people far beyond just names and physical descriptions. This is one reason that despite a large cast of characters, I was able to keep everyone straight in my head without referring to the glossary; no mean feat for an author to maintain in such a nice fat book. Each culture and as a result, each character was clearly a product of the environment that surrounded them, whether River folk or people from the Winter lands. I enjoyed that you developed such a wide variety of settings and that the characters reflected the conditions of those lands.
Helen: Developing the world is a very intuitive process for me. There may be an initial “flash” of a vision or image, such as the twilit, wind blasted Wall, that sparks the whole process in my imagination, but after that the world tends to evolve through the characters’ experience of it—what they see, hear and touch, for example. And the world has to be real for the characters or otherwise it just won’t work. I know as a reader myself that while I love “fantastic” worlds, they only ‘work’ if that sense of the fantastic also feels real to me.
The Rain Wilds are one of my favorite of your worlds for that reason. From the beginning, with the Live Ships series, I loved the danger and mystery of the physical environment and its juxtaposition with the Trader culture. But as I’ve been reading the new Rain Wilds Chronicles, I have been wondering—do you feel your understanding of the world has changed at all in making the shift from the Live Ships to the dragons and dragon keepers of the Chronicles?
Robin: Oh, the focus is always on the characters, and so we see whatever part of the world they are in. In this case, we are seeing the Rain Wilds from the perspective of the people who live and work in the more hazardous parts of it. Someday I’d like to write from the POV of a digger in Trehaug, one who breaks through to a marvellously preserved room . . . Yeah!
But in my opinion, the view of a world changes whenever you change POV character, in my world or in any world. Your Jarna’s view of the tournament is vastly different from what the noble ladies get to experience. And if we talked to a CEO in New York and then to a wino living on the streets there, with no personal experience of New York City, we would leave with the impression that we had visited two different worlds. So the keepers of Trehaug have a whole different view of their world.
Helen: It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we both see our worlds very much as evolving through the characters’ experience… That is one reason I feel it’s important to have more than the one point-of-view character in a story, especially in the big epic stories we both write. Diverse points of view ensure the reader gets more than one slant on what’s happening—as well as on the world around them—which can illuminate key issues within the evolving story. For example, in The Heir of Night, the reader gets a range of points of view on the current situation of the Derai Alliance, particularly the divide between their warrior and priestly castes.
Having a number of points of view around contentious issues also means that the reader has to decide which narrators are reliable, or if they simply prefer a particular point of view. I really like the way the letters between the various Keepers of the Birds work in this way in the Rain Wilds Chronicles, for example, and enjoy getting Sintara and Thymara’s divergent views on their uneasy relationship—and the tension that creates in the story.
But are you ever torn between stories for longer established characters, such as Fitz and the Fool, and new ones jostling to be written? I wondered if you might be trying to resolve that kind of tension in City of Dragons by reintroducing Tintaglia and also bringing Malta and Reyn Khuprus, and Selden Vestrit—all Live Ship protagonists—more fully into the unfolding Chronicles story?
Robin: I’ve always felt that every book should end at the point where the next story would logically begin. And that, like some sort of spreading vine, every book puts out feelers along the way, and always culminates at a point where an infinite number of stories could begin. The writer’s task is to find the strongest shoots and the most compelling plot and follow it. Some readers may think they just want to hear about what happened next, but then it could turn into an endless tale of what the characters had for breakfast the next day and where they went shoe shopping . . . rather like being doomed to endlessly read the characters’ Twitter feed!
Helen: [holding out both arms in a warding-off gesture] Robin, no, stop—that’s a truly nightmare vision!
Robin: [smiling] So I’ve felt free to explore where I would, within the Realm of the Elderlings and other worlds as well. I do love my characters, even my villains. I think that if you are going to spend a year writing a character, it had best be someone that you find interesting.
Helen: Yes, I always find it impossible to say that I like a particular character more than another for that reason. As the writer I’m investing more in certain characters at different parts of the story, but that’s not the same as liking or disliking. And the villains are so vital to the story—so sure, I definitely wouldn’t like them if I met them in real life but I have to love the part they play in the story… But from your point of view, what makes characters engaging—what are the vital factors that contribute to that?
Robin: You know I’ve been enjoying watching the Heir of Night series unfold, and part of that enjoyment is that while your characters are compelling, there are many in the story who hold the reader at a distance. It’s not just that we wonder if the character is a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’ if I can use those simplistic appellations. It’s not initially obvious if Raven, for example, is someone to be trusted. He remains as much a mystery to the reader as he does to the other characters in the tale. And yet he is fascinating and while we are not sure if it is safe to like him, or if he will ultimately turn out to have some very dark secrets, we do remain engaged with him. I think it layers a depth of reality to the tale to have the same uncertainty about someone we’ve just met as we do in our regular lives.
Helen: The whole idea of masks and trust, what a protagonist knows on the surface and what is the actual reality is a big part of the whole Wall of Night story—and I think with Malian, and to a lesser extent Kalan, there’s that whole ancient Greek notion of “know thyself” as well…I feel it’s important to characters like Sintara and Thymara as well, only more tied into their journey around overcoming physical limitation. Whereas with Tintaglia I’m sensing the “know thyself” is emotional—she is realizing that perhaps she doesn’t; or at least, not as much as she should.
Talking about dragons and Elderlings though, does lead to magic—and I do get the sense that more may be ‘just around the corner’ with the Chronicles. (I do love a nice thread of magic through a story!) Is it an essential of fantastic storytelling, in your view, or is it possible to write a fantasy without it? Is there a balance between magic and realism that you strive for in your books?
Robin: Oh, dear, now we have to define fantasy, don’t we? I’ve always believed that all fiction is fantasy. It’s all made up people and events and even if the city is called San Francisco, it will be different from any San Francisco that I’ve ever known. So, yes, people write fantasy all the time without having any obvious magic to the tales. But Fantasy as it is sold on a shelf in a bookstore or under a genre umbrella in an e-store is expected to contain wonders and magic. When I first began writing fantasy, I had a rule for myself. In every chapter that had to be Something that clearly said to the reader, “This is Fantasy.” I felt that was what the readers were buying my stories for, and I wanted to deliver. Now I no longer pace the book to be sure that there is something ‘fantastic’ in each chapter, but I do want the fantasy flavour to be pervasive throughout the story. At no time do I want the reader to wonder, “Wait! Have I wandered back into Kansas?”
I’ve noticed that you achieve that effect with almost no apparent effort. In both volumes of The Wall of Night, your characters unfold in some rather astonishing ways. Without doing any spoilers, I want to say that you took me by surprise more than once. And yet when I looked back in the book, I could find no evidence of ‘cheating’. At no time did you tell me something that wasn’t so; it was just that you didn’t tell me everything that was so! I’d love some insight into how you plotted that layering!
Helen: Oh, I hope I don’t cheat! The clues are always there but that’s my challenge—to weave them into the story, but keep them subtle so that the element of surprise is there when the unveiling comes. And the straightforward clues are best I find: a simple sentence here, or an allusion there, but all adding up to something more when the reader looks back and suddenly joins the dots!
But you know, I am not really much of a conscious “plotter” except to the extent that I am always telling and retelling the story to myself in my head. Nobel Prize winner, Gerald Edelman, likened the brain to a rainforest and that’s how mores stories evolve, in my mind I see the colors and the layers and pursue the “what ifs” down the jungle trails to the “a-ha” moments of: “it could work like this … or like that!” So the stories evolve and the clues—and also the solutions—unfold themselves to me both in my imagination and as I write.
Is it the same for you, Robin, or are you more of a “plotter?”
Robin: I tend to follow what I think of as the Story Current. Once I’ve met the characters and understand what the problem is, I more or less follow where they lead. And more than once, they’ve led me to a dead end, I’m afraid. But I find if I outline the story in too much detail, I become bored as I’m writing it, and have a hard time finishing the story. So I always know where the story will start and where it will end and a few key points in between. It does feel to me as if Story is some sort of arcane force that directs where the tale will go. I think I do best when I trust it and follow it.
But now for a different question, one that writers often discuss when they gather: where and when do you write? Do you have a specific routine? An isolated bower where soft music plays or do you write anywhere and everywhere? This always fascinates me!
Helen: Like many writers I work from home and I do have a study, although depending on the season I frequently follow either sun or shade around the house—the joys of having a laptop! I also have a specific routine, which is that I like to start the day by writing three stream-of-consciousness pages longhand, and on “anything, really,” before switching to the keyboard. Once I do that, my rule is that I have to do a minimum of four hours work on my current writing project (writing related activities such as blogging or Q&As don’t count) or complete two hundred words—whichever takes longer. Two hundred is a small target, but it’s really about getting started. I find that if I can get through that first 200 words then I will probably write 2,000, or even more. But if it’s only 1,200 words, but they’re all ‘quality’ I don’t want to beat myself up–or keep writing just to hit a higher word count, even if they words are rubbish (and promptly get thrown out the next day.)
Although I don’t have to be in a specific room, I do need whatever space I am using to be free of distractions, so I like to be able to close the door and I don’t have music on. I love music and like to listen to it “actively,” so I leave that for my breaks.
Robin: Well, that’s a considerably more disciplined and organized writing life than mine, I’m ashamed to say. I turn on the computer when I turn on the coffee pot, and run in and out of the office all day. I use a tower computer with a large keyboard as it’s more comfortable for my hands. Laptops are not my friend in that regard! Writing alternates in no recognizable pattern with everything else I have to do that day: groceries, yard, grandkids, dogs to vet, etc But somehow the books do manage to get written on a reasonably regular schedule. So now it’s my turn for a question, and given my scattered approach to writing in general, I will further demonstrate my disorderly mind by asking something completely unrelated:
Who do you consider to be the top-notch villain in all the fantasy you’ve ever read? Oh, and let’s toss in SF for good measure. Books or movies, who would you most dread to encounter?
Helen: OK, let’s start with my most fearsome three, that I would be really afraid to meet. You know, I’m actually finding that rather tough … OK, the original Terminator in the first film. He was seriously scary. Ah, now the ball is rolling: George RR Martin’s ‘The Mountain Who Rides’ in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. In the “equal opportunity brutality” world of Westeros he is in a brutal league of his own. And to be honest, I think I would feel a lurking sense of dread at meeting your Live Ship, Paragon, as he was in the early stages of the Live Ship series—at least if I had to sail on him, given his track record and uncertain reputation. He may have been more mad than bad, but the end result in terms of his actions was the same for his victims.
That raises an interesting line of thought though—or interesting for me at any rate!—in terms of the difference between the personalities and dispositions of the dragons, even crippled ones, and the Live Ships. I know you alluded to it at the end of the Live Ship trilogy, but it also seems to be creeping into this current story through Tarman—or am I reading in another layer that isn’t necessarily part of this story?
Robin: Well, without giving away too much, the ancestry of the ship will definitely affect its personality. Just as the dragons are manifestations of the serpents they used to be, even if they have only shadowy memories of their serpent lives. I think all creatures and hence all characters are products of their experiences. Just as writer’s are! And speaking of writers and their experiences—what in your life led you to become a writer? And, if you were not allowed to be a writer, what would your second choice of a career be? (Nope, you can’t write non-fiction either.)
Helen: [protesting] I wasn’t going to say non fiction—unless of course I wrote a cook book, which probably falls under that heading! I do enjoy the radio interview work I do so might well pursue that professionally. Or alternatively find something based around my love of food—ccoking as well as eating it—and wine, although that does seem to be bringing me back to the cookbook again …
Robin: Cookbooks and cooking! So would you say that is your other addiction, writing being the first one? Or do you have other secret addictions like I do? Rituals or necessities that nourish your writing addiction? Such as a permanent cup of coffee and an orange cat on your desk? A secret bag of salt water taffy in your bottom desk drawer? Okay, so now you know my writerly failings. Do you have any?
Helen: Don’t forget the wine! Although I do very much like coffee, too—but I think my real writing addiction would have to be the internet: email and finding out what’s happening in the world via browsing, RSS feed, and now Twitter. I know a number of other writers who confess to a similar addiction and I wonder if it isn’t because we generally work in isolation and so the internet becomes our “office water cooler.” And I suppose when you’re locked into a novel-length project, email and blog posts provide the satisfaction of a quick turnaround with the attendant allure of a sense of achievement and completion.
In terms of other secret addictions of the writing life, chocolate does probably creep in there. It goes so well with the coffee, you see… And although not precisely an addiction, although he may count as a weakness, I do have an elderly cat buddy—very elderly in fact, he’s in his twentieth year. He likes to hang out with me when I’m writing, especially in winter when he gets to lie by the heater and becomes my justification for having it on more often than I might otherwise do!
Robin: Ah, the twenty-year old cat. Sam is the elder cat at my house. About 20 now, and possibly the most frequent interruption to the writing. He eats in very tiny meals, so he feels free to come and tap me on the arm 12 to 15 times a day for food!
And it’s about time for us to wind this up and get back to what actually pleases the readers most: writing more books. It has been wonderful to talk to you and get your slant on the writing process. Good luck and I wish you all the success you so obviously deserve!
Helen: Thank you, I’ve very much enjoyed our conversation.
And here’s a little “Easter Egg” from Helen!
Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer. She has won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for achievement in SFF for both Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009, and The Heir of Night (The Wall of Night Book One) in 2011. The Heir of Night has also just been shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award and Helen is currently the Ursula Bethell writer-in-residence at the University of Canterbury. She posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground, and occasionally on SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we.