This week’s interview on Writers of Fantasy is with Juliet E McKenna, author of The Tales of Einarinn, The Aldabreshin Compass, The Hadrumal Crisis and the upcoming Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom, launching at BristolCon this October!
Juliet is an incredibly thoughtful and talented writer with countless books under her belt. We talked about the changing landscape of fantasy fiction, the rise of eBooks, politics, feminism, Doctor Who, and of course some good old fashioned writers’ advice. Take a listen below! You’ll also find some key quotes under the player for those who can’t listen right away.
On the new editions of The Alderbreshin Compass and working with Wizards Tower Press.
“This is one of the things that happens when you’re a writer who’s been around for quite a long time. When The Tales of Einarinn and The Aldabreshin Compass were written there was no mention of eBooks in my contracts. eBooks weren’t a thing. … So, basically, I retained all those rights. And, unsurprisingly, publishers have come along in recent years and said ‘Do let us do eBooks for you and we’ll give you a whole, oh, 15%!’ to which my response was ‘Thank you, but no!’ Because the returns on something like an eBook edition if you do it independently, obviously if you’re a writer, are very much higher. The trick is, of course, that you need somebody to do all the tech stuff!”
On working with Independent publishers vs bigger publishers.
“When it is one person working with one person on one specific project, we can have an exchange of emails in a morning and get umpteen things sorted out. An editor in a big publishing house is dealing with who knows how many writers, who knows how many books at different stages of publication … Again, a lot of people have to be involved in discussions and decisions and that inevitably builds a time lag into the process.”
“I’ve always been a writer who plans. I will start a book of whatever length – including a short story – with a pencil and a piece of paper and I will sketch out notes on plot, notes on character, notes on place. Those I will then develop more fully depending on the length of the piece of work.”
“If I’m putting together a novel or a fantasy series I will literally have ring binders and folders full of background material.”
“On several instances in my early books I would go down completely blind alleys trying desperately to cling to my initial vision of the story. As I’ve written more books, as I’ve dealt with more editors, as I’ve had more feedback from readers, one of the things I’ve learned is not to be so rigidly stuck to my outlines.”
“The other thing I’ve learned is to take the hard choices. There are points in a book – probably in every book I’ve written – where something, again, arising out of the natural evolution, the internal logic, of the story as it’s building, leads me to a point where ‘Ah! He’s got to die…’ or ‘Oh! It’s all going to go horribly wrong for her at this point, isn’t it? That’s not exactly what I had in mind and if that does all go horribly wrong then a massive chunk of my plot has to be rewritten.
“And, again, early on I would try and fudge these things. Ultimately, the book wouldn’t work, so what I’ve now learned when I reach those forks in the road is to roll up my sleeves and say ‘right, okay, this is where things get interesting.”
“One of the things I like increasingly to do with characters is to start – not with stereotypes because they’re boring – but with archetypes… The more I’ve written the more I’ve tried to explore and also play against those categories. In the most recent series, The Hadrumal Crisis, there’s a character called Corrain who is absolutely doing his damndest to be a hero. He tries to do the heroic thing time and time again and he does not learn that that is not going to work. Whereas, again in those books, people who learn not to be the people they’re expected to be, end up playing a much more important role in the story.”
“One of the interesting things about having been writing for twenty years … is to see the evolution of character right across the science fiction and fantasy spectrum. When we put out the eBook of Thief’s Gamble somebody reviewed it and said ‘A fairly standard, feisty central female character.’ And I thought that was brilliant because back in 1999 when the book first came out in print the reviews were saying things like ‘what a different and unusual heroine!’ ‘Such a change from the usual tepid mixture of victim and girlfriend.’!”
“One of the things that I really like when I’m reading other people’s fantasy is to see what different viewpoints / facets of the standard fantasy characters so many authors are finding at the moment.”
“I’ve described the process of handling story ideas as kicking them to see which ones fight back.”
“The ones that really fight back are the ones that end up as novels or series of novels. The ones that dance around and maybe get in one good punch, those are short stories.”
“I think these things go in cycles. I wasn’t writing in the 80s but I was certainly reading in the 80s and the big names in epic fantasy were Melanie Rawn, Anne McCaffrey, and Elizabeth Moon, and a lot of female writers who were at least on a par with Eddings and Gemmel and the other names. One of the things that we’ve had subsequently is we have had a fairly pernicious trend towards grim-dark with the assumption that girls can’t write gritty books. Which I can only assume is from people who’ve never read Robin Hobb or who think she’s a man!”
“One of the things that I found most depressing is the view of fantasy from the outside by people who aren’t reading it – who aren’t current in the broad range of writers that we have writing now – who just go for the headline names. They still seem to think it’s all written by men.”
“This is a wholly unintended consequence of the Game of Thrones TV series. Because the number of times I’ve gone into a bookshop and seen a display of George R R Martin’s books – excellent books as they are – with ‘if you like these, try these…’ And there will be a display of ten, twelve, fifteen epic fantasy books all written by men. Don’t get me wrong, they’re good books. These are nice blokes, they’re hard working, professional writers. There’s no disparaging going on here. But if someone from the outside looks at fantasy fiction and that is all that they see, then that is all they will buy, that is all that gets promoted. The female writers end up at the back of the shop and suffer as a consequence.”
“I’ve always had very strong, active, involved female characters in my books because that’s just reflecting my life.”
“One of the things that is changing in my writing is looking at issues around ability, disability and mental health. Because, again, this is one of those aspects of the growing push towards diversity where I think there’s a lot of work to be done. And some very interesting writing to be done. Not in the sense of ‘oh look at me, aren’t I virtuous?’ But actually you can do so many more interesting things the more complex you make your characters.”
“Again, if you look at the tradition that Tolkien was writing against in his own time. Magic items, heroes, great heroic quests, they’ve been the stuff of literature for thousands of years. But the central aim of the quest [in Lord of the Rings] was not to recover the magical item – the holy grail, the magic spear, the magic ring, which had always been the case in previous things – they were out to destroy it. I don’t think he necessarily gets sufficient credit these days for just how revolutionary that was.”
On Doctor Who
“I wrote a couple of Short Trip stories for Big Finish. But the second one got spiked because it was Doctor Who meets Charles Dickens. The anthology that was going to be in was when the first series came out. And of course Mark Gatiss had written a Doctor Who meets Charles Dickens story, so it got spiked, which is a real shame.”
“I can remember Patrick Troughton! I’m that old! But only just – the sort of snap shot memories you get when you’re a little kid.”
“But Jon Pertwee was my Doctor, as they say. And I think it’s probably fair to say that there’s a fair amount of the third Doctor in quite a few of my characters. He thinks things through, he solves problems with intelligence. And also you’ve got the companions, Jo and [Liz Shaw] and Sarah Jane came later. They’re all these strong independent women, certainly in terms of their time.”
“The Doctor was an expert in Venusian Aikido. And so, forty years plus on, I’m actually a third dan in traditional Aikido. So I feel that gives us a bond.”
On Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom
“This is a world where the magic comes from effectively a parallel dimension. And monsters and things can crossover from the unreal world – the intangible world – into this world. For a whole variety of reasons, and left to their own devices cause absolute mayhem. So who deals with them?”
“And I’ve got a map! By our mutual friend Sophie Tallis, who has done a fantastic job!”
“That’ll be launching at BristolCon in both eBook and physical copy.”