Why did you to choose to become a writer?
I made no conscious decision to “be a writer” – I was mugged, hauled off into a dark alley, and presented with a stark choice – write or die. I wrote my first poem at five. I wrote my first (unspeakably bad and thankfully deceased) novel when I was eleven, and my first reasonably GOOD and wholly original novel (which still exists, all 500-odd handwritten pages of it) at 15. I started winning writing awards at 12.
But while I always knew I was a writer, I realized I wanted to become an author – a writer who makes writing her sole career – when my then school brought in Lynne Reid Banks as a visiting author one rainy autumn evening.
As I watched her talk about all the furies of the writer’s life – the rejections, the writer’s-block, the constant revisions, the frustration, the bad reviews, the endless waiting, I saw the light of angels in her eyes. She was telling us the unvarnished truth, but also making it clear that she could not live any other way.
The hairs on the back of my neck lifted in nearly superstitious awe, and I thought, “Yes. That. I want THAT.”
That was the moment I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Why is storytelling so important?
There are truths that need to be spoken, internalized and understood. Many of them can be hurtful, even agonizing, if administered unadulterated. Wrap them in a layer of story, though, and they will slide down easier – and the truths they contain will be no less important for all that.
Stories awe us, entertain us, teach us, make us laugh, make us cry, make us believe in six impossible things before breakfast. Stories take us to Narnia, to the Syai Empire, and to worlds that might look a lot like the one we glimpse when we look out of the window but are somehow… somehow… different. Stories free the imagination and the mind. They make us stay up all night to finish a good book; they make our toddlers go to sleep.
Stories are quite simply the closest thing that the human race has ever come to something resembling real magic.
Why do you choose to work in the speculative genres?
Part of the answer could be that I cut my teeth on mythology and fairy tales when it came to early reading – but that isn’t really it, most children do, and for many the love affair with the fantastic does not endure past the age when poor Susan’s sudden attraction for cosmetics and nylons got her kicked out of Narnia.
For me, the never-worlds held a particular kind of magic – they were worlds which had their own rules. Nothing was inevitable, anything could happen, and usually did – it was a joy to delve into such a world and find out the secrets it held.
Part of that was the sheer danger of going into places where the only extant maps said Here Be Dragons… partly for the pure incandescent pleasure of the possibility that there might actually be dragons to see. Once I found out that I had the sort of wings that would let me soar in these rarefied airs… why would I ever be wholly content with just walking anywhere again?
The speculative genre is not a place where the “real” and the hard and the difficult do not exist – on the contrary, it is perhaps the place where such things exist in their purest form, and as ideas can get explored, discussed, gnawed at and even possibly defanged – all while “protected” by the “fantastic” (like in my Were Chronicles books) and therefore rendered invulnerable and powerful in ways that might then get translated back into our everyday reality.
Fantasy is the great power, the weapon that vanquishes anything, the knowledge that arms you against all folly and all misery. It gives of itself and of its wisdom, freely. And I am proud and humbled, all at once, to be called to call it my own.
What aspect of speculative writing do you find most challenging? How do you address that?
One of the hardest aspects of worldbuilding is to create a world which is utterly strange and yet believable and self-consistent – the flowering of the idea that everything comes at a cost, and then working out the cost of things is in the world that I have created and to make sure that the trade is fair.
I work hard at my worlds – if I am writing a work of alternative history, historical fiction such as “The Secrets of Jin Shei” or “Embers of Heaven”, I will read more than thirty books before I write my one volume. Research is fun – 90% of this won’t make it into the finished book, but it gives a real sense of stability and steadiness and verisimilitude, a feeling that even though my worlds may not be real they COULD be if they so choose – to the 10% that WILL.
This is important to me. My fiction may be fantasy but it is also TRUE, to itself, to its story, to its genre. I live in those other worlds, while creating their stories. There are times that our own reality seems dim and strange to me, when I come up for air.
If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I have created hundreds of characters in my time… but if I narrow this down to the intimate gathering of friends in “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, it might be Dianora from Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana.”
She is from a much more fantastical setting, to be sure, but she would be an amazing person to talk to about the power of choice for any one of my five friends in that café at midnight at the end of the world. And I would sure love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.
Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg gets his while driving. When do you get yours and why do you think this is?
For a writer, ideas are everywhere. Kudos to Christie and Spielberg for being able to nail down where and how they get theirs – but mine come at me from unexpected places and inconvenient times, leaving me to scribble them down on bits of paper or try to remember a single shorthand phrase which will be a trigger for the thing to unfold into a full-blown idea.
I’ve been known to interrupt conversations to scurry off and scribble furiously into the little notebook I always carry with me as I try to capture a thought…and once in a while (like, for instance, “The Second Star”) the idea comes from a dream…
What motivates you to keep writing?
The fact that I get cranky and miserable when I do not – creating stories is something that is as necessary for me, as necessary as breathing and coffee (and trust me, ask anyone who knows me, coffee is *necessary.*)
Let me give you a graphic example. At a point where I was going through a rough emotional patch in my life the writing spigot somehow… got turned off. The stories which coursed inside of me all of my life were simply… not there anymore. I did not have the words. I could not form them into sentences that made sense to me. This lasted nearly a year, and by the end of it I was pretty nearly insane. That was when one of the still small voices I had been ignoring for so long finally broke through for long enough to whisper, “If you don’t write… we all die.”
And so I hammered uncooperative words onto a blank page, even into places where they didn’t fit. Anything, anything to get the flow started again. And somehow, slowly, the stories returned.
But I *NEVER* want to go back to that place again. I know what I am – and I will always be writing, because that is quite simply a basic building block of what makes me… *me*.
What does your writing process look like?
Chaotic enough that I don’t know if you could call it “process” – I sometimes find out what happens next in exactly the same way as a reader would – except that I am in the process of CREATING that story that I am reading, often yelling at my characters not to be so stupid and how did they expect me to get them out of THIS mess? (They don’t of course. All the best characters have enough agency to deal with their own problems. Sometimes I feel I am just here to take dictation…)
Often I will have epiphanies while sitting in a restaurant eating breakfast with my husband – and he’s learned to recognize that sudden sitting up motion I do, the change of expression on my face, as some plot bunny hops into view – and usually, if I don’t whip out pen and paper myself, offers a paper napkin with a resigned little smile. Or I’ll wake up in the morning and assault him with, “I got it!” and then he has to sit back and listen to me babble about the solution which just came to me in a dream. And then I’ll pour myself a large cup of coffee, go down to my computer, and start typing.
On a good day, that’s all it takes – I open up a blank page and let my fingers fall on the keyboard and that’s the last conscious thing I do until I look up and see a couple of thousand words (once or twice 9,000 or 10,000 words on a single day…) staring back at me. I guess you can call it process.
When people who plan their writing, outline their novels and methodically work through things scene by scene, ask me how I write, I honestly cannot tell them. All I know is that I get a story seed – and then I stuff it into a pot of good black earth and wait for something to grow, and until it does not even I know if I have a cabbage or a redwood.
Your work has been translated into many languages; what was your reaction when that started to happen?
Disbelief, actually. And after that, increasingly, more disbelief.
‘The Secrets of Jin-shei’ is the prime example. The languages began to pile up, and they included some which absolutely astonished me. It was almost impossible to believe that my characters would be speaking all these varied and different languages many of which I would be lucky to be able to recognize the alphabet they use.
“The Secrets of Jin-shei” sold to an Italian publisher before it sold to an American house, and other foreign sales followed – Dutch, Lithuanian, Spanish (and Catalan!), Turkish… Each was an adventure. Hebrew completely threw me because to the Western-trained eye the books are UPSIDE DOWN and BACKWARDS. The book was a runaway bestseller in Spain and the Spanish-speaking territories (30,000+ copies IN HARDCOVER sold within the first six months of first publication!). I still get emails in Spanish about it.
The most interesting translation experience was when “Embers of Heaven”, written in English, was translated into my mother-tongue, Serb. The translator was in constant touch via email – in both languages, interchangeably – when she needed to pick my brain about how best to colloquially render something from one language into the other and make it all feel organic. That was just fun.
What is the one, single food that you would never give up?
A three-way tie between coffee, cherries and chocolate.