A composite of two interviews, one conducted via email by T. Jackson King, and the other hosted by Brian Turner at SFF Chronicles. Since the interviews first appeared in 1999 and 2005 respectively, I have updated some of my answers here.
Q: What inspires you to write? That is to say why do you write, the actual reason?
That would be the story itself. The sheer excitement of seeing everything take form, the discoveries, the surprises. The satisfaction of turning an idea, an image, or a feeling into words. The thrill when all the words come together in just the right way. As opposed to those times when I sit there with knotted brow trying to find the right words and they just won’t come—or the obsessive niggling over a word or even a punctuation mark.
It’s an incredible mental high whenever I am writing “in the zone.” There are few pleasures in life that can even come close. (Better than chocolate, more long-lasting than sex.) Of course I’m not always IN the zone when I’m writing, but what keeps me going is the desire to get back there.
Also, just like any reader, I want to know what will happen next. Even though there is a certain amount of advance planning before I sit down to write, things still happen that astonish me, connections arise that I never expected, main characters will suddenly blurt out things that I never knew about them.
Q: What made you decide to be come an author?
In a sense, it would be accurate to say that being a writer—as in someone who makes up stories and writes them down—was never something I decided to be so much as something I just was. The stories were already there. I can’t remember a time when they weren’t there and just as soon as I could read and write I started putting them on paper.
But deciding on a career as a published writer as an actual goal or ambition, that was something that came later, and I can tell you exactly how it happened. I was nine or ten when I finally made the connection. The main character in my favorite books (someone that it seemed to me I knew and loved like a sister or a best friend) had grown up, in real life, to be the author of those same books. And it came to me that if she could become a published writer, I could, too.
But it was a long, long time before I finally got around to working at it seriously.
Q: Who first encouraged your writing?
My parents and my teachers always told me that I was good at it, but I really can’t say that anyone actively encouraged me to write. Not that I needed any encouragement.
My parents did, however, encourage my love of books. My father read to me, and my mother made up stories of her own and told them to me—so I undoubtedly inherited the storytelling gene—and together they made sure that I had plenty of books. As far back as I can remember, I had a wonderful collection of books, and we were always buying more.
Q: Where did the idea come from for your first novel?
There were two scenes, actually, that came into my mind at the very beginning: a vivid image of snow and blood in a castle courtyard, and a girl who was a witch and a boy who believed he was under a curse (this was partly based on a dream that I had) … and even though practically everything else changed as the story developed, and the novel eventually became not one book but three, both those scenes are still there in The Green Lion Trilogy, not much changed from the way I first imagined them.
Q: What writers have influenced you most? Are there specific writers, both fantasy and non-fantasy, that really stand out or have literally changed/influenced your life?
I’ll answer the second part first, because it’s the easiest. Hands down that would be J. R. R. Tolkien. I loved fantastic literature before reading The Lord of the Rings, but it never occurred to me that fantasy could have such scope. It was literally a revelation, and I was fired with a desire to produce an epic of my own. That was still in my lazy just-throw-it- on-the-page-and-then-lose-interest period, so nothing much came of that particular epic, but the impulse came back later and is still with me after more than forty years, so I’d call that a truly life-changing experience.
To answer the first part of your question …
In fantasy, all the usual suspects: C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, T.H. White, Peter S. Beagle, Andre Norton. Evangeline Walton was a huge influence. She influenced me directly without a doubt, and I believe she had an impact on High Fantasy in the 1970’s that was nearly as profound and lasting as Tolkien’s, though very few readers and writers know her name today. Though they might not know it, she inspired the writers who inspired the writers they are reading now. I sometimes wonder if the lack of recognition has something to do with the fact that women writing in the SF/Fantasy field don’t get the respect they deserve.
In terms of style, Charles Dickens, Patricia McKillip, Leon Garfield, Tanith Lee. In terms of plot and setting, Rafael Sabatini, Thomas B. Costain, Margaret Campbell Barnes, Gladys Malverne—and dozens of other writers of historical romances and adventures that I read as a teenager. Later on, I discovered Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen,.
But other influences have been many and varied over the years, and different writers have had a greater or lesser influence on different stories. But you probably want to know who has influenced what I’m doing now. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the actual influences are in the middle of a project, because a lot of it is subliminal. Except that I know what I’ve actually read, your guess is about as good as mine at this point.
I’ve always loved fairy tales, folklore, and mythology. There’s so much of that crowded into my brain, it’s always slipping out when I’m trying to access something else.
Q: Why have you chosen to write exclusively in the fantasy field?
It wasn’t a matter of choice. I’ve always thought that fantasy has chosen me. The ideas I have always seem to generate stories in the fantasy genre. Although, if you look at it another way, most of my books could be classified as science fiction—the only thing is, all the science is between two and six centuries out of date. And certainly my books have elements of other genres, along with the magic and adventure we associate with fantasy.
Q. The Hidden Stars is a complex novel, with different races and many characters in addition to a fully realized fantasy world. How did you keep track of it all while you were writing? Do you have some sort of organizational chart or system to help keep track of who is where, who is related to whom and what they should be thinking about at any given time?
There was a time when I used to draw up elaborate family trees and time lines and all the rest of it (I even went so far as to give my characters birthdays and do numerological charts based on their names and birth dates), as well as scribbling down notes in stenographers notebooks. Unfortunately, since I didn’t have a private writing space and my desk was inadequate for all the clutter, things tended to slip off and get permanently lost, sucked into that same vortex that swallows socks and other household items.
Now that the stenographers pads are a thing of the past, I tend to write down notes on random pieces of paper as I think of them, or type in and print up story fragments that I may or may not use later, and pop them into folders, so I can pull them out when it becomes necessary. Along with that, I have spiral binders, full of ideas written down in no particular order, which makes the information rather difficult to find!
As you can see, it’s very chaotic.
Q: As a writer, you are often mentioned as a stylist. How did you come to concentrate so much on this particular part of the writing process?
For years, I had no style at all. I kept trying to copy the writers I admired, with very unfortunate results, to say the least. Then one day, several years and several drafts into writing The Green Lion Trilogy, my style just suddenly arrived out of nowhere, whole and coherent. I can show you the exact passage, which is now at the very beginning of Child of Saturn. An idea of what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it came into my head, and when I sat down to write it, it was literally the best and the easiest bit of writing I had ever done up until then.
Up until that time, when other people were talking about style I had no idea what they meant. But when I finally began to understand, I realized that the books I loved the very most had all been written by writers who seemed to have a very precise and conscious control of their style; somehow, even though I didn’t understand what they were doing or why it was a good thing that they were doing it, those books and writers had an impact on me.
Q: Where and when do your Green Lion books and their sequels take place?
You might say that they take place in a parallel universe, though not in the same way that the Goblin Moon books do. What I did was create an island kingdom with a Celtic population, and I located it in the Atlantic ocean west of Ireland, but significantly farther from Ireland than Ireland is from England. In some ways, the history of Ynys Celydonn does show some slight resemblance to that of the British Isles, but in far more ways the history of Celydonn is unique.
Q: How important to you is historical accuracy?
Though I never write about real people, places, or events, I do try to get the small details right. When I read a book, I like to find a really concrete sense of time and place—how things taste and smell, what people eat and wear, what things are really called (like some of my wizardly characters, I’m very interested in the proper naming of things)—so of course that is also the kind of book that I try to write. Tad Williams once said that I have “an alchemist’s obsession with how things work,” and I think there’s a great deal of truth in that.
The more I know, the more I want to know, and research always leads to more research. The Queen’s Necklace is very heavily researched. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were really a fascinating period, full of oddities and whimsies—in many ways far more fantastical than the medieval period.
But another function of research is that it really helps me to generate ideas. I do love a plot that arises out of the setting and the characters, not a plot that has just been grafted on, or worse still, transplanted from another book. And the more I know about a setting, the more likely it is to suggest unexpected but (I hope) entirely plausible plot twists.
And I am very interested in the historical uses of magic. On my bookshelf now, I have books on ceremonial magic, fabulous beasts, the lore of precious stones and talismans, alchemy, Elizabethan magic, and much more. One of my favorite resources (which had a great influence on Goblin Moon) is The Magus by Francis Barrett, originally published in 1801.
Q: Your characters are known for their severe internal conflicts, in addition to the external conflicts they must face and overcome. Why do you like writing this way?
Because I find that internal conflicts engage me emotionally, and because—for me at least—the internal conflicts involved make the physical challenges more complex and interesting as well. A person in emotional turmoil is just inherently fascinating: someone caught between an over-mastering need or desire and an overwhelming situation.
Q: There seems to be some element of romance in all of your books. Are you aware of that, and is there some reason for it?
As with everything else that is in my books, romance is there for the very simple reason that it interests me. I don’t let it take over the plot, but somehow it always finds a way into the story somewhere. Of course I also hope it will be of interest to my readers. And I think if I do it right, then it will. Everyone has been in love, or thought they were in love, with someone at some point in their lives. So to write an epic, a story with a large cast of characters, taking place over a long stretch of time, it would be unrealistic not to include romance in some form.
Not everyone needs romantic love in their lives, or is the better for having it, but that’s a different thing. Of course, if it always worked out, it wouldn’t be very interesting to write about, would it?
Q: Will there be any more books in the Green Lion series? Will there be any more books in the Goblin Moon series?
No novels are planned at this time, though I do have plenty of ideas and would like to return to both worlds eventually. However, there is a short story about Francis Skelbrooke already ( “Rogue’s Moon”) and I am planning at least one more. Both will appear in the upcoming Hobgoblin Night, which will include in the same volume a reprint of The Gnome’s Engine.
Q: Tell us something about The Queen’s Necklace.
It is undoubtedly the strangest of all my books. The setting is somewhat similar to that of Goblin Moon, but even more fantastic. There is romance, of course, and adventure, and a great struggle between Men and Goblins for control of the entire world. There are also a number of bizarre gadgets and curious devices along the way. I hope and believe that it will be a really fun book to read, though it definitely has its more serious moments as well.
Q: It has been said that the female villains in your stories are generally more complex and interesting than the males. Do you know why that is?
Well, the most obvious reason is that they are far more interesting to me. I’m not sure about this, but I expect it’s because my most interesting characters at least in part represent bits and pieces of my own personality. I identify, on some level, with my female villains, and not so much with the males. Why that is I cannot say.
But I believe I have solved this problem in The Rune of Unmaking series Though there is a female villain, I am finding the male villain—who doesn’t come in until the second book—a fascinating character to write. Probably because he is actually a fallen hero—which is not so much different from a tormented hero. Tormented heroes I can do. In fact, the moment I began thinking of him in those terms, I became much more excited about him as a character than I have been about any of my villains before.
Q. When someone is published their work goes out for public consumption and peer review. Does that aspect make you nervous, and is there a point when you start to be concerned as to how people would view your work? And is it a consideration you generally try to address when constructing your story in the first place, or do you leave it out of your head until you’ve finished?
For years I just wrote whatever came into my head, and since I didn’t give it much advance thought or work very hard at writing it down, the results were so stunningly awful that even I quickly lost interest. Then, when I was about thirty and the story and characters that became the Green Lion books began to possess me so completely and obsessively that I worked at writing and improving the story through draft after draft—literally for years on that same project—and something vaguely resembling a skill eventually emerged.
From that point on, a lot more thought and work went into every story, but the reader I most want to please is always myself. (Or at least a reader so wise and discerning that her taste in books exactly matches my own!)
It’s only after the book is in print that the question of whether I’ve written something that other people will find worth their time comes up. Oops, too late—there’s not a thing that can be done about it, except agonize. Although that particular part I do rather well: the hindsight, the self torture, the anticipatory cringe before I read a review.
Q: What do you think is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
The importance of revision. I used to think if you were a truly talented writer you would get it right the first time, but that’s not always true. On the other hand, while I have learned a great many important lessons about plot and pacing and structure and characterization and style and clarity, I can’t let myself think about those things consciously while I’m working on the first draft, because that bogs me down when I need to let the ideas just flow.
The difference is that what I had to make right by trial and error (sometimes repeated errors) when I was first starting out, now, when I read over what I have written it is easier to identify my mistakes. Once I do that, it’s usually fairly easy to fix them. Identifying them is really the big thing. But this only works when it’s a problem with the writing mechanics. If the story is simply going off in the wrong direction, it can take me a long time to find the problems and solve them; that, I am sorry to say, has not changed so very much over the years.