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Monday, April 14, 2008

Interview with Kate Elliott

Official Kate Elliott Website
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Read Fantasy Book Critic’s REVIEW of “Shadow Gate

One of my favorite fantasy series of all time is the Crown of Stars saga by Kate Elliott—pen name for Alis A. Rasmussen—so when she agreed to participate in an interview supporting the release of her new book “Shadow Gate”, I couldn’t have been happier :) And whether you’re familiar with the author or not, I think you’re in for a real treat because Kate goes over and beyond in answering the following questions which offers incredible insight into the kind of writer she is, her goals & inspirations behind the new Crossroads series, her thoughts on the Crown of Stars saga, and future projects including four more books set in the Crown of Stars milieu:

Q: You’ve been a published writer since the late 80s, first under your own name Alis A. Rasmussen (The Labyrinth Gate, The Highroad Trilogy), and then as Kate Elliott including the Jaran books, the Crown of Stars series, the Golden Key collaboration (w/Melanie Rawn & Jennifer Roberson), several short stories, and your current series Crossroads. For someone who hasn’t read any of your titles, how would you describe your writing style and where would you recommend they start?

Kate: I write lurid adventure fiction.

I write historical novels set in imaginary worlds.

I write HBO-style fantasy and SF, heavy on the characterization and detail with a big canvas and complex narrative.

Take your pick, or ask me to come up with a different description.

While there are many “traditional” elements to the novels I write, I also work to bring stories and characters into the epic fantasy (and epic space opera, when I’ve written it) that are normally not considered to be part of “the tradition”. Whose lives are “worth” examining? Whose stories get neglected or overlooked because they aren’t deemed “important enough”? Who decides what matters? As a writer, I get to decide for my own books, and I always try to challenge my own expectations and assumptions about who needs, and gets, a voice.

As for where to start, I think it depends on what any given person likes to read.

Jaran” (1992) can be read as a standalone adventure novel with a love story, steppe nomads, alien overlords, light cavalry inspired battle scenes, and a young woman trying to figure out her place in the world. The subsequent Novels of the Jaran (1993-94) follow up by expanding the field of play from a single region on a single planet to the larger conflict among humankind and their alien masters, but there are still lots of horse-riding nomads, big battle set-pieces contrasted with more intimate scenes, actors, colonialism, and more characters trying to figure out who they are and where they fit into the cosmos. I might call it anthropological SF, with sabers.

The Labyrinth Gate” was published (1988) before I had heard the term steampunk. It’s set in the early Industrial Revolution in a world in which factories are powered by magic and ancient powers still work in the land. Also, there is a magical tarot-like deck (of my own devising) as well as a sub-plot about universal suffrage and the early development of unions. It’s a “through-the-looking-glass” novel in which two people from our world accidentally cross into another world.

The Highroad Trilogy (1990) is space opera, set in an isolated region of space colonized by cryo-ships that has long been cut off from the main inhabited systems of the galaxy. I borrowed elements of the plot from the story of the Russian Revolution because I was interested in the mechanisms of revolution and also because any Stalin analogue makes a great villain. The heroine’s sidekick is a little robot called Bach, who communicates in—as you might expect—music. Looking back, I realize that the majority of the characters in this trilogy are PoC for reasons embedded in the way I set up the colonization of Reft Space. By the way, this trilogy and “The Labyrinth Gate” were written under my real name, Alis A Rasmussen, and are currently out of print. Everything else is under Kate Elliott—and if it isn’t in print, it should be!

The Golden Key” (1996): magic and art set in an Italo-Spanish-Mediterranean alternate world setting, with a villain so fabulous (if I must say so myself) that the amazing cover artist Michael Whelan used himself as the model for the cover art, which portrays the antagonist. Working with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson was an exceptional experience; we clicked on this thing and wrote something no one of us could have managed alone.

Crown of Stars (1997-2006): if you like long convoluted fantasy narratives set in an alternate medieval world with lots of dirt and plenty of battles and magic and drama, this is the series for you.

At the heart of everything I write lies character and landscape. Having studied martial arts and fought in the SCA back in my youth, I enjoy writing a good fight scene. I’m particularly interested in the historical process and in examining the ways cultures change over time and how they meet—with resistance, with conflict, with cooperation and curiosity—and interact with other cultures.

Q: “Shadow Gate”, the follow-up to last year’s “Spirit Gate” and second volume in your new Crossroads series, is set to drop in the UK on April 3, 2008 (
Orbit) and April 15, 2008 in the US (Tor). What can you tell us about the new book?

Kate: First of all, I want to say that I write multi-volume novels not because publishers tell me to do so but because my mind works that way: that is, all my books to a greater or lesser degree explore the nature of unfolding, and often unexpected, consequences.

As a digression on this subject, with each book I identify an aspect of craft I want to specifically work on for that book. With “Shadow Gate” I chose two things: 1) use of detail and 2) trimming words. I made a couple of passes through the manuscript purely for cutting words, phrases, sentences, and sometimes entire paragraphs. Once or twice I was able to cut whole pages of text. On those days I was scarcely able to contain my excitement.

Additionally, I worked hard to make every detail in the book (and it’s a long book) work not just as a narrative detail for “local color” but to perform at least one other duty, whether as characterization (it’s the kind of detail this character would notice that another character would not), foreshadowing (that’ll be important later), backshadowing (recalling an earlier incident), targeted world-building, cultural contrast, and so on.

Oh—the plot? As befits the title, I think this is a darker book than “Spirit Gate” because I highlight consequences of social breakdown, war, and systemic slavery, although it’s also very much a book about how people find the strength to adapt, survive, and fight back.

Q: As with your previous series, Crossroads looks to feature excellent worldbuilding. What is it about worldbuilding that you love, and what are the keys to successfully crafting such a believable, yet fantastical world like that of the Hundred?

Kate: I don’t believe in keys or secret handshakes—different approaches will work for different people or for the same people but at different times—but two things I use for world-building are:

ordinary life + immersion.

I try to conceptualize, comprehend, and construct the ordinary lives of ordinary people.

Ordinary life goes like this: Where do we (in this world) get our food? How often are we likely to be hungry? What songs do we sing? What festivals do we observe? What clothes do we wear and why? What technology do we take for granted? How do we relate to our family groupings and to larger social groupings? How do they relate to us? And so on. That gives me some insight into the kind of attitudes and expectations the characters will have.

I then work to write from inside their perspective, not outside it from my perspective, so the characters’ views of the world are embedded within the culture they are “living” in rather than being viewed as by an outsider. For instance, obviously we are embedded in our own cultural views of the world. We often don’t really think much about it, but if I am writing in a secondary world that is not this world I am always thinking about how my view of their world is not meant to be their view of their world. This is the part I call immersion. (As a footnote I would reference Farah Mendlesohn’s argument for “four categories within the fantastic: the intrusive, the estranged, the portal, and the immersive fantasy,” [from her article “Toward a Taxonomy of Fantasy”] but if I understand her argument correctly—see her forthcoming book Rhetorics of Fantasy—my secondary world fantasies use elements of both portal and immersive fantasy as she defines them; that discussion is beyond the purview of my comments here.)

In order to write this way, I have to craft both the world and the characters, and that takes more text time than, say, urban fantasy set in a modern—usually familiar suburban-urban USA lifestyle—setting in which the writer can take for granted that a lot of the setting and expectations are understood by the reader. I also try to avoid writing second world fantasy in which some bad exists which is not seen as bad in the context of the society being portrayed (let’s use slavery as an example) but in which one “enlightened” character—who stands in for our own modern attitudes—parades around self-righteously for us to identify with. Note my use of the word “try” since, as with pretty much every other trick known to writers, I have employed this my own self although I’ll leave you to judge whether I did it on purpose or accidentally.

But in general, and preferably, if I write about a society in which, say, slavery is part and parcel of the cultural and economic landscape, I may well write characters who either approve of it or who never question it, not because I approve of slavery but because they function within the context of their society. I may also write characters who disapprove of slavery within the context of their own situation, where appropriate. In Crossroads I do in fact deal with the some of the ramifications of slavery, and if you read closely I hope you will see my critique of that institution through the cruelties it imposes on people who are enslaved, even if certain of my most sympathetic characters never question slavery’s existence or immorality.

Having said that, do I think every writer of secondary world fantasy or SF ought to write as I do, with intensive world-building? Not at all. This isn’t a manifesto, just an exploration of how I work. I have enjoyed novels with modern characters in fancy dress; I have enjoyed stories that employed modern settings where I don’t have to work to figure out the landscape. I’ve enjoyed sff that skimmed over the landscape to focus on character interaction or prose style.

I think the strength of our field is that we have so many disparate voices writing so many different kinds of narrative. Why on earth would I want everyone else to write like me? I can write like me. I need writers to write like them, so I can read something I couldn’t or wouldn’t write. Indeed, we could use more inclusion, not less. Celebrate diversity. If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Sorry. I’m dating myself.

Q: Speaking of the diverse cultures and mythologies explored in Crossroads, what were some of your influences?

Kate: The instigation for Crossroads was an online comment made years ago by a person who stated that no polytheistic religion could be moral. Of course then I had to write one. I ended up getting interested in how justice is conceptualized, which inevitably meant that the story-line was destined to spend most of its time dealing with injustice.

Add the eagle reeves, courtesy of my spouse, a former police officer.

Toss in the nine cloaked guardians who are out-takes from my first completed (never published) novel, written when I was 19; all that is really left from the original conception is the different colored cloaks. I have no idea why I then found or still find this bit of business (cloaks of many colors) appealing.

Stir with the law code of medieval Danish king Vladimir II, in whose reign was promulgated the Jyske Lov (Jutland Code), whose first statement can be translated as “with law shall the land be built.” (Yes, reader, I stole the phrase. And I was proud to do it, being of Danish-American heritage.)

Construct an Asia-Pacific inspired setting courtesy of my exposure to the Asia-Pacific culture of Hawaii, where I now live.

Place in a sub-tropical physical landscape because I didn’t want to have to write about snow.

That’s the short version. I’m not sure you really want the long one.

Q: Crossroads was originally conceived as three trilogies with “each trilogy telling a complete story but with one larger narrative strand that will link all three together (over three generations)”. While the first and third trilogies would each have three volumes, I believe your plan was to tell the middle trilogy in a single volume. So, with “Shadow Gate” on the way, is your overall concept still progressing the way you wanted it to, and how far along are you with the other books in the series?

Kate: Crossroads is not a seven volume novel.

If all goes well, the book I am writing now will close off several major plot lines and thematic explorations so that the first three books will function as a trilogy. If I can pull it off, the middle story would not even be a trilogy, it would just be a standalone novel. What a challenge!

The “second trilogy” is actually the original story I wanted to tell, but as I was writing the prologue for that story, the prologue got longer and longer and longer and finally my husband suggested I separate it off and turn it into a (single) book. Next time he suggests that I might just, um, shoot him. Or me. Or something.

Maybe I should also state that (at this point in time) I do not want to ever again write a seven volume novel as long and complex as Crown of Stars. It was exhausting, for one thing, and honestly—in purely economic terms it does not benefit a writer to write 300,000 words over two and a half years and have a single volume appear on the shelves almost three years after their last book while another writer has written 300,000 words and had three volumes appear in the same period of time. Not that I would ever reduce things to purely economic terms, mind you, but I do have to eat.

I have no quarrel with myself for what I did in the sense that I wrote what I had to (and was able to and wanted to) write at the time. I hope I am a better writer for what I did well, that I learned from my mistakes, and that over the long haul I can build on my strengths and mitigate my weaknesses in order to write stronger, leaner, but equally powerful and in-depth books in the future.

Q: You’ve always maintained a close relationship with your readers which I think is fantastic. Why is this important to you?

Kate: If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? As a writer, my career doesn’t exist without readers (I note parenthetically that I don’t think writers need an audience to be writers; people who write are writers). Therefore, I have a profound appreciation for my readership. I mean, they read my books! How amazing is that!

Q: This leads me to another question: how much do you let readers’ feedback inform your writing? For instance, one major complaint against the Crown of Stars was that the series ‘rambled’ too much and could have been condensed into fewer volumes. Is this something you’re addressing with Crossroads?

Kate: That’s a tricky question, to which the answer is yes and no. I do keep an eye on reader reaction, partly out of vanity but mostly because it helps to know what readers are responding to and how. That helps me figure out what is working, and what isn’t.

For example, from reader reaction I could tell that the character of Hugh in Crown of Stars was evoking exactly the emotional response I had written for.

If some element was clearly not getting across, I might then try to adapt how I was approaching it. For instance, in “Shadow Gate” I worked very hard to make every detail count and to make the pacing run quickly and smoothly because I recognize that for some readers the later Crown of Stars books bogged down a bit.

On the other hand, I have to write the books and characters as I conceive them. As a writer, I can’t substitute another person’s wishes or wants or ways of seeing for my own; otherwise—to make the obvious point—they wouldn’t be my books.

I do bring a particular and specific point of view to everything I write. Sure, there are universally only three stories, or seven stories, or whatever ancient and modern writing pundits like to say, but any storyteller can put their unique spin on the tale s/he is telling, so that it isn’t a story anyone else could have told. In fact, as a reader that’s what I look for. I’m happy to read nifty clever new concepts but I don’t privilege them; I’m more interested as a reader in feeling that the approach, the angle, the way detail is used, the insight into character, and/or the development of cultures and landscapes—whatever—is something this particular author is bringing to me regardless of how “novel” the main plot line is.

There is a thing I want to clarify: I often read the complaint that publishers force writers to pad their books in order to give them “epic length” (or some such variation on this complaint). Let me state for the record that I have never been asked to make my books longer in order to give them the magical “heft” to be marketed as a certain kind of fat fantasy novel. So if you need to blame someone for, say, Crown of Stars being too long and convoluted, blame me.

No, never mind, don’t even blame me. Blame John Hamby, who came to one of my signings years ago and assured me that it was FINE that I write as many volumes as it took because he would happily read them all. So it’s all his fault, and I’m sure he’s man enough to accept responsibility.

Q: On the topic of the Crown of Stars, what are your thoughts on the series as a whole and will there be any further stories set in that world or are you done with it?

Kate: Can I write a seven volume trilogy as an answer? Wow, big question.

Here’s the short answer: I am satisfied that I wrote the ending as I had envisioned it all along. Getting to that end took me the long way round.

The long answer follows:

First of all, the basic stories—Alain, Liath, and Sanglant—fell out as I had planned, although there were numerous detours along the way as is obvious to anyone who read the series.

Detours can be both good and bad.

They are problematic if, as happened to me at times, they end up going off on a tangent and diffusing the story to the point where it gets too complex, too tangled, too spread out in too many directions. Did I do that with Crown of Stars? Well. Probably. It’s very tempting when a new path opens up to go charging down it. Sometimes the well worn paths get boring because you know them, and the unknown track has a sense of mystery that makes you want to explore that way: should I write another scene with a well known character in a well known setting working through an issue I’ve already dealt with even if it’s not quite yet resolved? Or launch someone into a new culture or up against a new obstacle? I did not always say ‘no, not that way’ when maybe I should have.

On the other hand, the question of what I could have done differently with the complexity and letting some of the sub plots get away from me is a tricky one. Looking back on it from this side, I’m not sure which plot lines I would cut (as opposed to trim); I’m not sure I would cut any of the plot lines because they do all actually contain plot elements that feed into the larger narrative as I specifically conceived it, which may not be exactly the narrative some readers thought they were getting. Anyway, I’m continually learning as I go, so there remains a question of how much I learned from writing Crown of Stars that allows me to look back on it with hindsight, as opposed to how much I could really have changed what I did knowing what I did at the time.

The one thing I definitely had trouble doing and which needed to be done was cutting excess verbiage, extraneous description, and in general just trimming back the undergrowth to make the whole thing leaner. So while I don’t think there could or should have been fewer volumes (with the exception of volumes six and seven which were originally written as a single novel but split in half because of length), the individual volumes could, with better cutting, have been shorter. Was I capable of doing that cutting at that time? I don’t know. I did my best. I labored mightily over those books. I’m still learning.

To go back to main narrative: when would detours be good, you may ask?

As a writer I have learned to trust that oftentimes my subconscious works better than my conscious. Through the process of writing first draft and revising later drafts, I stumble across scenes, places, interactions, details, characters and etc. that work far better than anything I could have plotted out in advance. There is for me something in the movement and development of a first draft in its forward motion that triggers a kind of subconscious hyperlinking.

For instance, in “King’s Dragon”, in the chapter in which I introduce Liath and her situation, I quote from a rather dumb little poem I made up which seemed like a good idea at the time but which I later was kind of embarrassed by. Until I hit the end of “The Burning Stone”. Then, while shaping the basic plots of volume four, “Child of Flame”, I realized that my dumb little poem was the architecture on which the entirety of Liath’s plot in “Child of Flame” would be built. It was as if I had planted it without knowing what I was planting.

Likewise, in my current work in progress (Traitors’ Gate, the third Crossroads novel), I was slowly working my way through a section with character M which I had outlined to cover all the things I knew needed to happen, an open and shut case. As part of this section, I had to write a paragraph travel sequence in which M travels over many many days into isolated country, and at one point she halts for a night, a break from traveling on a beach where, I thought, no human lived. Only one did. In fact, many more than one. Several isolated villages caught, in a way, in the past because the big events of recent decades had passed them by. And suddenly an entire scene flowered into being that illuminates aspects of what society used to look like in, I think, a way that really matters both for the character’s journey and for the reader to understand what has been lost. I could not have planned out that scene in advance; it came alive, as it were, out of the act of writing.

Looking back over the seven volumes of Crown of Stars, there are parts I can still read back through and really enjoy – scenes, interactions, or descriptions that caught as well as I am capable of the emotion or color or movement I wanted to get across. I could do a tour of “my favorite scenes and lines” in the books. Also, I really like the chapter titles. I’m pretty much entirely satisfied with all the Alain chapters, although I admit I became too emotionally attached to the Bronze Age segments in “Child of Flame” and did not trim them down as I should have. And in the larger narrative sense, with the big questions I attempted to tackle and the big canvas on which it was all painted, I feel I achieved epic scope.

Finally (I told you it would be a seven part answer), in terms of my original vision of creating a world of a certain technological level and a certain set of cultures in conflict, I think overall that I accomplished what I set out to do. I feel the world comes across as having a sense of grittiness and mud and physical hardship, unfairness due to the social system, distances made difficult by lack of good transportation and roads, and diversity of cultures explored. I also worked hard to evoke a kind of depth of field so that the reader gets the sense that if s/he were to “read off the page” into something going on at the same time elsewhere, there would be such a place; that characters walk off the scene and keep going rather than folding up until they’re deployed later; that there is another village over the hill. But this is an important part of why I write: I do like to world build.

As for reader and critical reaction, naturally I am chuffed when people like the books, and crushed when they don’t like them. However, I recognize that once I have released the finished manuscript into the world, it’s out of my hands and people will (and should) respond to it according to their own tastes. I do get annoyed by people who insist on judging my work by what they think must be in it rather than what is in it (I’ve had people tell me to my face what kind of fantasy I write—they’re usually wrong—and then in the next breath as good as admit they haven’t read it yet), but beyond that, part of being a writer is giving up control over reader reactions.

Q: What about Jaran and “The Golden Key”? Can you update readers with any news pertaining to possible sequels to these books? How about other writing projects that you might be involved in?

Kate: At this point in time I think it unlikely I will write another novel in “The Golden Key” universe.

I do have more to say about the Jaran universe, but I don’t currently have a timetable for completion of additional novels.

I have a plot set in the Crown of Stars world about five hundred years after the events in “Crown of Stars” (characters from the first series will be long dead). It will most likely be a Young Adult-style quartet of shorter books in which each novel functions with its own complete plot but the larger quartet follows a longer narrative arc as well. It will, among other things, answer the question of what exactly happened to Count Lavastine.

Related to the YA-style fantasy series mentioned above, I am writing a short story for
Subterranean Press. Look again at those words—short story—and wish me luck.

As always, I have other things stewing but nothing I can discuss at the moment.

Q: One of the things that most impresses me about you as a writer, is your ability to produce novels at a regular, almost yearly rate. What’s your secret?

Kate: Desperation.

On a material level, in terms of earning a living, a person might write and produce because s/he needs the money. I am currently able to write full-time, but I also have a spouse whose work provides lower-cost health insurance for our family. Obviously if I had to work another job and write, I would not be able to write as much.

On a career level, perhaps one is driven to produce regularly in order to maintain the momentum of a building career, or at least not to lose too much momentum. Big gaps between books can hurt shelf life, can cause an author to fall out of the public eye, can hurt sales. In some cases, a big gap between books might throw the much awaited novel of a writer into high relief (e.g.
George R. R. Martin’s forthcoming fantasy), but it’s just as likely to set back a writer’s career.

When my children were little—and given that I was home all the time with them—I often wrote in order to get mental space for myself, in my own world where others did not, for five minutes or an hour or two, intrude. Writing at that time was a form of sanity.

In the larger sense, I have difficulty conceiving of existing without writing, so in that sense I write and continue to write because it’s like breathing. It’s not that I’m desperate to breathe; it’s that I have to in order to be alive.

Also, I am aware that we cannot predict what will happen tomorrow: my career or my life could be over next week (although obviously I hope not!), or I could (as I devoutly hope) be churning along still writing and publishing in my 90s like the late
Jack Williamson. I have a lot of stories I want to tell, and boy will they be pissed if they don’t get their chance to be told. That’s desperation.

Q: Are there any preconceived notions that you’d like to dispel about being a female speculative fiction author?

Kate: I don’t own or lease any cats. Nor am I owned by any cats. Other than that I’d be interested to hear what your readers think are the preconceived notions relating to female spec fic authors.

Q: After everything you’ve accomplished so far as a writer, what still challenges you?

Kate: Writing short.

Q: LOL :) Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to say to your fans?

Kate: I’d like to say: Thank you. I am continually amazed (but in a good way!) by what smart and interesting people you lot turn out to be. You all are the best.


karenmiller said...

Fabulous interview, Robert! Thank you!

Catie said...

Wow, what an utterly fantastic interview!


Robert said...

Thanks Karen and Catie! I'm glad you liked the interview :) It was all Alis of course. She really went all out in answering the questions :D

Kerry said...

Great interview. Thank you.

Dark Wolf said...

Very nice interview. And very interesting cover art.

Sara J. said...

Great interview, and from an author I really enjoy :)

Robert said...

Thanks again everyone!

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