Something new on the Virtual Sanctuary today: I’m interviewing the fantastic Helen Lowe!!!

Helen is a New Zealand-based writer and a fellow Orbit Books author. Her epic WALL OF NIGHT series began with THE HEIR OF NIGHT (2011) and continues in THE GATHERING OF THE LOST, which was released this month.

JOHN: Helen, if you had to live on a desert island for the rest of your life, what FIVE fantasy books would you take with you? Why? (A fancy way of asking who are your five biggest fantasy-writing influences!)

HELEN: Firstly, thank you very much for inviting me onto your blog, John. I have enjoyed our discussions, both as new FSF authors and enthusiasts for the epic-heroic quadrant of the Fantasy ‘verse, so it’s a great pleasure to do this interview with you.

Now to your question—restricting myself to five Fantasy novels is very hard but if it can indeed be only five, then:

-Patricia McKillip’s THE RIDDLEMASTER OF HED (Although I’d love to have the complete trilogy, with HEIR OF SEA AND FIRE and HARPIST IN THE WIND)
-And fifth place was a three-way toss up between Barbara Hambly’s DRAGONSBANE, Guy Gavriel Kay’s TIGANA, and Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts’ A DAUGHTER OF THE EMPIRE

But if absolutely forced to choose, I would probably pick TIGANA.

I’ve selected these titles because they are all enduring Fantasy loves and books I still re-read and enjoy—and feel I could continue to enjoy if they were all I had available.

In terms of influence on my work, I think I could point to all these authors in terms of their world building. They all have characters I love as well. But with Le Guin and McKillip I would also highlight their use of language in the books mentioned, which I find powerful and beautiful. Every time I re-read them I find myself saying: “Ah, yes!”

JOHN: Great choices. I am a huge fan of McKillip and her RIDDLEMASTER trilogy! I have the omnibus edition you mentioned that combines all three novels, but I love the original editions with the wonderful Darrell Sweet covers. I discovered this amazing series only a few years ago, after falling in love with McKillip’s FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD, which is another masterpiece. Her work is infused with a timeless beauty. So we share a tremendous love of McKillip and Tolkien. Very cool. (But my desert-island Tolkien book would be THE SILMARILLION. Beyond that I’d also take Tanith Lee’s TALES FROM THE FLAT EARTH collection and probably Clark Ashton Smith’s TALES OF ZOTHIQUE.)

But enough about me! Your novel HEIR OF NIGHT is an all-ages book, but with its young protagonists, some reviewers are saying it could’ve been marketed as a Young Adult novel. What do you think of this idea? More importantly why did you choose such young protagonists for your saga?

HELEN: History is a major influence on my writing and in the context of a medieval style world, such as Haarth and the Wall of Night, 13- and 14-year-olds (Malian and Kalan’s respective ages in THE HEIR OF NIGHT) would have been regarded as adult or near adult. (Shakespeare’s Juliet, for example, is fourteen; marriageable age at that time.) And like Elizabeth I of England, Malian has been trained from a very early age to rule. So I don’t think their age in and of itself necessarily makes the book YA, particularly as all the other central protagonists are adult. In this sense THE HEIR OF NIGHT is not unlike the first book in George RR Martin’s A GAME OF THRONES, where the pivotal characters, the Stark children, are all young—several of them far younger than Malian and Kalan in HEIR.

Overall, I believe the decision to publish THE WALL OF NIGHT series as adult fiction is the correct one, both for the reasons I’ve just discussed but also because the themes are dark and relatively complex—emotionally the story being told is an adult one. Having said that, I read adult books extensively when I was a teen and I do think the Wall of Night story will readily “cross over” between an adult and young adult readership.

JOHN: I agree—and those kids in Martin’s books end up being some of the most fascinating characters—even when compared to the rest of the cast which is adult. What was your initial inspiration(s) for HEIR OF NIGHT and its world? How did this huge story first begin taking root in your mind?

HELEN: Usually I say that the idea began with the world and my first vision of a twilit, wind-blasted environment, i.e. the Wall of Night itself, sparked when I was quite young—around the age of eight or nine when I was first reading the Norse myths and more Celtically influenced books such as Alan Garner’s ELIDOR. But you are right, THE WALL OF NIGHT series is a very big story—my initial optimism that it was going to be a standalone, albeit a “big” one, soon got short shrift from the muses!

I think the influences for that come from a variety of sources, not least my love of mythology and history which suggest that no story is told in isolation—there is always the texture and influence of the layered past at play. In terms of the stories I love reading, even deceptively straightforward tales like Ursula Le Guin’s A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA have that sense of history, legend, and continuity. And I do love big stories, regardless of the genre I’m reading in: MOBY DICK, LONESOME DOVE, DUNE, and THE LORD OF THE RINGS—they all speak to me, as do stories with emotional depth, the ones that capture that “ache” of our human existence. Some of my favourite books include Aldous Huxley’s EYLESS IN GAZA, Michael Cunningham’s THE HOURS, and Le Guin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. I feel that they all, in some way, speak to that “ache.”

JOHN: Totally agree with that. Remarque’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT had quite an impact on me as a writer, and it’s the furthest thing from a Fantasy. His language is so lyrical and poetic, even when he’s describing the horrors of war and the trenches. Great writing knows no genre or boundaries.

HELEN: In the end, as writers, I believe we are drawn to write what we love, which is why I feel all these diverse threads have influenced the sort of story I felt called to write—as well as shaping its ongoing evolution.

JOHN: Do you outline extensively, or take a more “write-as-you-go” approach to plotting?

HELEN: I always have the story arc in my head in terms of the beginning and end points, as well as the main route I intend using to get there—but the rest very much evolves as I write. In fact trying to plot in too much detail seems to have a negative effect on my writing. Rather than telling a story, which is what it’s all about “in my book”, the writing regresses into the dissemination of “terribly important plot points.” So I do feel it’s important to understand one’s own process and go with that.

JOHN: Well put indeed. What is your technique for evoking realistic, believable characters like Malian, Kalan, and Nhairin? Do you design characters before you write (as character sketches) or do you prefer to “discover” the characters as you write them?

HELEN: I definitely don’t design characters before I begin writing—in fact it would almost be fairer to say that the characters discover me. They tend to take form in a single moment, whether it’s Malian scaling the heights of the Old Keep in the opening scene of HEIR, or Kalan hiding out amongst the mops and brooms, or Nhairin with her limp and dry manner. The rest develops from that first understanding of each individual’s essential character, and also in relation to the evolving plot.

In general characters stay true to that first encounter, but the two who have changed most significantly are the Earl of Night and Asantir, the Honor Captain. Asantir was redefined in an instant, in personality as well as appearance and from minor character to major, when I changed her name. (I had decided there were too many similar sounding names and the logical decision was to rename a few of the more minor players. I learned to my cost, as Ursula Le Guin’s Ged and Barbara Hambly’s Jenny Waynest could have warned me, that names do indeed have power!)

The Earl of Night’s role in the story did not change, but as the book evolved I realised that I needed to understand his character better if I was to write him as a real person, rather than a cardboard cut-out “tyrannical father.” So I spent quite a lot of time over his back story. What I wrote will probably never make it directly into the WALL books, but I hope it will help his character ring true. I don’t know though, if I could have gotten to that point without first beginning to know his character through the dynamic of unfolding events.

JOHN: I like that you used the word “discover,” as I also experience writing as a process of discovery. What is your favorite part of the writing process: Pre-Writing, First Draft, or Revisions? If you have a preference, why? How do you “re-charge” yourself when you need writing inspiration?

HELEN: I think my very favorite part may be when the story is taking shape in my imagination—the colors and textures of the world and the nuances of character are always so subtle and rich. Striving to get all that onto the page for the first time always has its challenges so my second favorite stage is the subsequent drafts. That is when I not only have the opportunity to ensure that the nuts and bolts of character development and plot are “right,” but to really refine and mold the text to bring in the subtlety and richness of the story envisioned in my imagination.

In terms of recharging the creative batteries, any kind of time out seems to help with that. It can be getting away to either remote and beautiful places or big exciting cities, being inspired by workshops or performances around writing or other arts, or just hanging out with good friends and doing fun stuff together.

JOHN: As a female writer, are there certain tropes/themes of fantasy that you wanted to handle differently…or perhaps defy?

HELEN: You know, I don’t think I consciously set out to write strong women—the characters just evolved that way. I think, for me, it is really important to strive to write good characters and real people and gender will always be secondary to those considerations. On the other hand, one of the advantages of writing speculative fiction is that one can actually speculate: for example by writing a society where male and female are equal. Of course, that being so, naturally the characters simply take it for granted and there is no need to “explain.” And certainly not to justify.

I do feel—or hope, at any rate—that all the characters, male and female, are nuanced as well. For example, I would not describe either Rowan Birchmoon or Jehane Mor as particularly fierce, although they are both strong, one in her relatively gentle, the other in her quiet way. And with both Malian and Kalan I think we see their vulnerability as well as their power, while the male herald, Tarathan, is every bit as fierce as the Honor Captain, Asantir. Having said that, they live in a harsh world where you have to have strength of character, if not of arm, simply to survive.

In this second book, THE GATHERING OF THE LOST, I do look at alternates to Derai society, ones in which being female tends to mean having less physical strength than men, and where I explore the implications of that. In terms of writing protagonists, this also gave me opportunity to show that strength of character and courage can take different forms, beyond simply swinging a sword or wielding magical superpowers. The automatic equation of the latter with the former is definitely a trope I wish to steer clear of.

Mainly though, whether female or male, I want my characters to read as real people and not as stereotypes—regardless of whether that stereotype is regarded as “positive” or “negative.”

JOHN: I have to ask you about the mystical land of New Zealand: How does living in Peter Jackson’s “Middle Earth” influence/effect/inspire you as a writer? Or does it? What part does NZ itself play in your writing life?

HELEN: I suspect that because I live in Aotearoa-New Zealand (NZ) I don’t see it as mystical at all—a little like prophets and their own countries! But it does have great natural beauty and environmental diversity, which definitely came through in the Peter Jackson films. There is no question in my mind that environment is a strong influence in and on my writing—one that has been evolving far longer than NZ has been seen by others as Middle Earth. But although I’ve mainly lived here, I have also traveled and lived in other countries, so sometimes the environmental influence can be a melange—one that imagination uses as a springboard, particularly when bringing in places and times out of history. Or on seeing an astronomical photograph of something fabulous that exists in space and thinking: “Oh, but what if—!”

(Aotearoa means “land of the long white cloud” in Maori, the language of NZ’s indigenous people who are also known as Maori.)

JOHN: What’s your long-term strategy as a writer? Do you want to do several more volumes of WALL OF NIGHT and keep cranking them out, or do you plan to follow this series with another series, and another after that? Are you the kind of writer that will want to “re-invent” yourself after each series?

HELEN: THE WALL series is a quartet, effectively one story told in four parts, and I strongly want to keep it that way. I don’t rule out more stories being set in THE WALL OF NIGHT’s world of Haarth, because the more I write in it the more ideas spark—but they are ideas for new characters and new stories, not direct extensions of the one I am currently telling. Besides which, Haarth is not my only world—I have quite a few of them standing in the wings of my imagination’s stage. I would love to explore some of those other worlds and the characters that already inhabit them—and am not sure they would let me get away with doing otherwise. My experience has been, you see, that the stories nag at me, giving me no peace by night or by day until I tell them!

JOHN: Ha-ha! I totally get that. The unwritten stories do nag. Sometimes they run wild and go to rioting in the headspace. Do you listen to music as you write, or do you write in silence? If so, what music works for you?

HELEN: No, I am total focus gal when I write, so no music—but when I’m on my breaks music is an essential. The “music de jour” very much depends on my mood and can range through works as diverse as Led Zeppelin and Nina Simone, Tchaikovsky and Verdi.

JOHN: WALL OF NIGHT is a fantasy but has certain science fictional undertones (the cosmic history of the Derai and the Darkswarm, etc.). In your opinion is this actually a Science Fantasy book? Or do you see it more as a straight-up fantasy with a “cosmic” twist?

HELEN: I see THE WALL OF NIGHT series as predominantly epic fantasy but with slight elements of science fiction in the set up. In that sense I would compare it to CJ Cherryh’s MORGAINE series, where there are SF elements to the fundamental premise but the execution is almost pure high fantasy.

JOHN: What would you say is the biggest difference between HEIR OF NIGHT (Book 1) and GATHERING OF THE LOST (Book 2)? Were there any specific challenges in finishing the second book?

HELEN: Effectively one story evolved into the other, but the two central protagonists are five years older: that is probably the most significant leap in terms of the story arc. The locale of the story also shifts away from the Derai and their Wall to the other lands and peoples of Haarth—but both these elements felt like natural progressions in terms of my original vision of the story.

Getting it finished at all though, let alone in a relatively timely fashion, turned out to be my most significant challenge given the major and very destructive Christchurch earthquakes of September 4, 2010, February 22nd and June 13th 2011—not to mention the 10,000 odd aftershocks to date. But the book and I both got there in the end!

JOHN: Thank the gods for that! I’ll bet there’s a whole novel (or at least a story) in your earthquake experience. So glad you came through it intact and still writing. The stories, like Herbert’s spice, must flow. That says a lot about Helen Lowe, right there: Not even a natural disaster can stop her.

More Helen Lowe goodness can be found right here at her site: