Friday, January 29, 2016

Conversation with Jane Lindskold—Part 2

And here is the second part of my interview with Jane Lindskold. Today we talk about inspiration, themes, and publishing in today’s world. My questions are in italics. For the first part of the interview, click here.

For more information on Jane and where to find her books, see her bio, below. And remember to follow her blog, which she updates each Wednesday, with additional weekly features on Thursdays and Fridays.

Several of your short stories play with words, especially words with multiple meanings (“Cheesecake,” from which I’m still recovering!) or customary usages that on reflection seem odd (“Good Boy”). Most writers love language, but would it be fair to say that for you words themselves act as sources of inspiration?  

Oh, yeah. Definitely! Glad “Cheesecake” had an impact. I read that one at our local con this past summer and really enjoyed the audience reaction. I love words on all sorts of levels. I deeply regret that I am pretty much monolingual, because the windows words provide into a culture and its values fascinate me.

I’m a long-time (as in long, long before the current fandom was even born) fan of Japanese anime. I prefer subtitled to dubbed because, while I don’t understand Japanese, I have picked up fragments of form of address, common usages, etc., and these let me get that tiny bit closer to understanding the cultural subtext.

Other than those mentioned above, what themes do you see running through your work? What questions perennially draw you?

Despite—or perhaps because of—my background in English literature (I hold a PhD from Fordham University), I am not interested in being deliberately “literary.” That some people have found my works such is lovely, but it’s not a goal. I see myself as a storyteller first and foremost.

Therefore, I actually go out of my way not to think about themes or suchlike. That’s for other people, if they care to do so. I shocked a couple of writer friends recently when I mentioned that I have deliberately destroyed the handwritten first draft manuscripts of some of my early novels. I’m not interested in leaving a literary heritage. I’m interested in telling a good story.

On your blog, you recently urged prospective authors to write for the love of it rather than in the expectation of being published. How do you see the current publishing climate, especially for debut authors? What changes, if any, would benefit writers and readers?

We both know the climate is terrible for writers. I think it’s actually easier to be a debut author than an established one. However, since an author can only keep that Wow Factor for one, maybe two books, that’s cold comfort.

Why the excitement about the New Flavor? Mostly because publishers seem less willing to cultivate what used to be called the “midlist”—those authors with a solid, non-bestselling but strong following—and are constantly looking for the next bestseller.

They don’t seem to have noticed that the Big Excitement of a few years ago, is no longer so.  Maybe they’ll figure out that people like George R. R. Martin were solid midlisters for a long, long time before becoming bestsellers. Maybe not.

Jane, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Best wishes to you and your writing!

Author Bio

Jane Lindskold has published twenty-five or so novels since Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls in 1994, as well as over seventy short stories and a nonfiction collection, Wanderings on Writing. Some of her best-known and most highly acclaimed books appear in four series: “Athanor,” “Breaking the Wall,” “The Firekeeper Saga,” and “Artemis Awakening.” She has also written two “Stephanie Harrington” novels in collaboration with David Weber. Learn more about her at her website and via her interview with New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Power of Myth

Go far enough back into history, and you find yourself in the land of myth. For some peoples, that line between the documented (history) and oral tradition (myth) appears later than for others. Empires leave records, as do organized states and religious institutions. But even where nomadic societies are literate, they tend to be best known through the descriptions of others—often biased descriptions written by the conquered, the fearful, or the hostile.

So it is with Attila the Hun. Even his name is a Latin form; probably the original was Atli. In my interview with  Joan Schweighardt, we discuss (among other things) the power of legends both Hunnic and Germanic, and how the novelist can blend mythology and history to create a powerful, compelling story.


As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Long before Genghis Khan set off to conquer the known world, the pattern of steppe warriors attacking—and often defeating—settled empires was well established. Only a few names of those who led these effective but mostly short-lived campaigns have become cultural references familiar to a general audience, but Attila the Hun looms large in that group—almost as large as Genghis himself. In the fifth century, the period covered by The Last Wife of Attila the Hun (Booktrope Editions, 2015), Attila kept both the eastern and the western Roman empires on their figurative toes, despite their vastly greater military and economic resources.

Into this charged atmosphere comes Gudrun, a young Burgundian noblewoman determined to exact vengeance for the destruction of her people at Attila’s hands. She offers him a golden sword of magical power that, according to legend, inflicts a curse on its owner. She hopes Attila will become its next victim. But as the days turn into weeks and Gudrun becomes first a prisoner, then a servant, in the Huns’ camp, she fears that even the sword’s magic may not be strong enough to defeat Attila. Then he decides to marry her …

Joan Schweighardt effortlessly interweaves the history surrounding the turbulent end of the western Roman Empire with the legends that sparked Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The result is a rich and complex tapestry that will draw readers into a long-forgotten world.

For Joan’s guest post, which also addresses this question, see “Dealing with the Dragon.”

Friday, January 15, 2016

Conversation with Jane Lindskold—Part 1

Today I’m delighted to welcome one of my favorite authors, Jane Lindskold, who was kind enough to agree to a Q&A and wrote such generous answers that I’m presenting them in two parts. Today we look at some of the elements that characterize her series. My questions are in italics.

For more information on Jane and where to find her books, see her bio, below. And make sure to follow her blog.

I came to your novels as many readers probably did, through “The Firekeeper Saga.” I picked up Through Wolf’s Eyes at the local bookstore and fell in love with it. What really drew me in was Firekeeper, who is a classic “wild child,” raised by animals in the woods. Even for fiction, which often portrays “fish out of water,” a girl who sees herself as a wolf is the ultimate outsider. Can you tell us, without giving away major plot points, something about how Firekeeper became a wolf and what insights that gives her into the human world she has to rejoin?

Firekeeper became a “wolf” by being the sole survivor of a colony that is destroyed by fire. She’s completely human biologically, but wolf by socialization. This means she comes to most issues from a completely different perspective. As someone commented at the time the first book came out, her wolfish mindset makes her amazingly adept at figuring out complex political problems—although her solutions can be terrifyingly weird.

Oh, just to clarify, Firekeeper doesn’t “have to” rejoin human society—not in the way Kipling forced Mowgli to do so, for example. She chooses to take a look at her birth heritage, but she is never rejected by her adoptive people—nor does she reject them.

Deep, complex relationships between animals and humans seem to be a theme running through your work. The Changer is a shapeshifter who can take both human and animal forms. Firekeeper travels with a male wolf, Blind Seer, and their relationship highlights Firekeeper’s simultaneous place in and alienation from both wolf and human societies. Adara the Huntress has a demiurge, the female puma Sand Shadow. Some of your short stories also explore this theme in various ways. What do these pairings make it possible for you, the author, to do that can’t be done by focusing entirely on human characters?

I don’t write about human/animal pairings from the point of view of “making possible” anything at all. I just like different perspectives. I like trying to think how events would look from an animal point of view.

Sex is a great example. Humans are rare in the animal kingdom in that they are effectively in heat all the time. Being in heat is a situation that skews human societies on so very many levels. Most animals, by contrast, are in heat only seasonally. Sex is a relatively small part of bonds. Therefore, those animal characters I write are fascinated by the human obsession with sex—they tend to see it as rather shallow.

In Curiosities, your recent short story collection, you mention your interest in mythology, folklore, and archeology. Even before I read that, I had noticed the importance of mythology in different contexts (the “Firekeeper,” “Athanor,” and now “Artemis Awakening” series) and wanted to ask you about it. How do you envision the role of mythology in your work? What does it offer you as a writer?

I’m a mythology junkie and have been so since I was in single digits. When I use myth and/or legend and/or folklore, I’m simply playing with something that I love. My folklore and mythology collection is a permanent fixture in my office.

Certainly, reading mythology from all around the world and from many time periods has shaped my mind. Even though I was reared in a monotheistic culture, I never really bought into it because I was aware how very many options there were and how many different shapes the search to define the divine and answer metaphysical questions has taken in human culture.

One thing I enjoy when writing fantasy not set on our world is working out what shape the religions will have taken. Unlike many writers, who simply take an existing religion and file off the serial numbers, I design from the ground up.

As a historical novelist, I strive to re-create a world that once existed, knowing that I can never really shed my modern perspective or master the many details of everyday life in a particular past. As a writer of science fiction, you need to create your own world with coherent rules. Where does Artemis come from? How did you go about developing it?

The “Artemis” books were in part inspired by a desire to look at a culture that knew—didn’t guess at or take on faith but knew—the answer to those perennial questions that are usually the foundation of religion: “Why were we created?” “Who created us?” “What is our purpose for existing?” even, “Why is there death?”

The two books I have written are set in a relatively small part of a planetary culture, so the impact of the slaughter of the seegnur and death of machines has not been as fully examined as I would have liked. However, I did try to hint that it created any number of fragmentations of belief and in the moral codes that evolve from belief systems.

  Author Bio

Jane Lindskold has published twenty-five or so novels since Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls in 1994, as well as over seventy short stories and a nonfiction collection, Wanderings on Writing. Some of her best-known and most highly acclaimed books appear in four series: “Athanor,” “Breaking the Wall,” “The Firekeeper Saga,” and “Artemis Awakening.” She has also written two “Stephanie Harrington” novels in collaboration with David Weber. Learn more about her at her website and via her interview with New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

You can find the rest of Jane’s answers in my January 29 post.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Sources That Aren’t

Contrary to plan, I spent little of my two-week Christmas vacation revising The Swan Princess. I thought about revisions. I made a list of points to address in the final draft. I entered minor corrections suggested by my beta readers. But what I actually did was research—lots and lots of research.

The shift came about by accident. As I put Swan Princess on the back burner while waiting for comments—always a good idea, because it takes a month or so of downtime to make the essential switch from writer to reader that reveals the flaws in a book—I turned to Legends 4, The Vermilion Bird, only to realize that I didn’t know enough about the political situation in Muscovy in 1537 to construct a plot free of major howlers. As I dug through chronicle variants and historical literature, I remembered seeing a review of a book devoted to the minority of Ivan the Terrible (1533–47). Figuring this book must have something to say about the dramatic events of 1537, I set out in search of it.

The usual sources proved disappointing. Prices were high, availability low. I turned to WorldCat, which listed a couple of nearby copies. Russia in 1533–47 is not most scholars’ cup of tea, so the chances of obtaining the book seemed promising. I trotted over to the local library and put in a request, causing hilarity among the staff (882 pages in Russian—is she nuts?). And within a week, I was holding a copy of Mikhail Krom’s The “Widowed Kingdom”:  The Political Crisis in Russia in the 1530s–40s, with a generous six-week loan period. Better yet, one of my colleagues made a brief trip to St. Petersburg, where at my request he secured a copy of Krom’s book for $10 plus US postage. It arrived at my door two days after my vacation began. At that point, I returned the library copy and could have left the book for later.

But I didn’t, because I was hooked. I realized within the first few pages that I had a treasure trove in my hands. Krom spent fifteen years of his life studying every document he could find on this short but troubled period in Russian history. If I’d had the book when I was plotting The Golden Lynx, it would have enriched that story. I saw information I could use in Swan Princess, as well as a detailed account of the 1537 events that had brought me to the book in the first place—and the repercussions of those events, which extended into 1538 and will form the background to Legends 5, The Shattered Drum. That’s why I put the revisions on hold while I took notes.

Krom’s book is a doorstop. I find it fascinating (although I’ve only made it through 300 of the 882 pages so far), but I’ll be the first to admit that people who don’t have a mad yen to know everything possible about the court during Ivan the Terrible’s childhood are unlikely to share my enthusiasm. Even if I had fifteen years to spare, there is no way I could duplicate the wealth of information and analysis here: it is the kind of topic that demands a scholar resident in the country being examined, not a visitor flitting in and out of the archives.

Yet for all the anticipated and unsuspected gems in this book, there are questions that it cannot answer, because of the nature of the sources. Chronicles are the premodern equivalent of Pravda: they present official history—with a strong religious bent, since they were often written by monks—and thus offer a snapshot of their world as those in power wanted that world to be seen. If a story is told one way and then another way, we can weigh the differing versions, read them against the grain while keeping in mind when they were written, test them against non-chronicle sources, and hope for a glimpse of the truth. But sometimes the story is too dangerous to tell, so the chronicler abbreviates it or eliminates it. These are the “sources that aren’t.”

For example, I wanted to know whether Prince Andrei of Staritsa attended the funeral of his older brother, Prince Yuri of Dmitrov, in August 1536. Seems like a simple enough question, right? One can assume, given the mores of the time, that the answer must be yes. Prince Andrei (and Prince Yuri, too) had been present for the deathbed farewells and the funeral of their oldest brother, Grand Prince Vasily III, in December 1533. The chronicler is all over that one—pages and pages describing every action taken and word said, some of it quite moving. But a week after Vasily’s death, the boyars imprisoned Yuri for plotting to put himself on the throne, and Yuri remained in a Kremlin cell until he died. The entire chronicle entry on his passing—in Krom and in every version available to me—says, “In that same year on 3 August, on Thursday at three o’clock in the afternoon, Prince Yuri Ivanovich died in suffering, of hunger, and was put in the Archangel [Michael Cathedral, where all male members of the dynasty were buried] in Moscow.” The next sentence talks about a fortress being built, and the one after that about improving the fortifications of Vologda earlier in the summer (which happens to be important for Swan Princess, although I won’t say why). But not a word about Yuri’s funeral and who presided over it or attended it, even though he was Ivan the Terrible’s uncle and heir to the throne from Vasily’s accession in 1505 to Ivan’s birth in 1530. And of course, no hint that Yuri’s belief in his right to become grand prince was justified, to a degree: succession in Russia had traditionally gone brother to brother, and while the royal house of Moscow had been moving away from that practice, this case was a textbook example of why the old ways might work better. Ivan was three years old when his father died and in no way comparable to an adult uncle in his capacity to rule. That was the very circumstance that made Yuri and his story so dangerous.

We can guess that Yuri—a prisoner who died of mistreatment if not deliberate murder and an embarrassment to the royal dynasty—received a hurried burial attended by no one except the officiating priest. Orthodox burials typically took place on the day of death or the next day, which didn’t leave much time to summon kinsfolk from other towns. But starvation is not a rapid death, and Yuri’s jailers in the Moscow Kremlin must have seen him weaken. If nothing else, one would expect them to have alerted the higher-ups. Certainly, members of the government headed by Grand Princess Elena Glinskaya could have notified Prince Andrei had they chosen to do so. Staritsa is about 100 miles from Moscow: a healthy rider on a series of good horses and unencumbered by baggage could cover that distance in two to three days. Yet either no message was sent, or Andrei did not respond, or he did respond but the chronicler chose not to mention his arrival. We don’t know which.

A month later, Grand Princess Elena, in the name of her son, summoned Andrei to military service against Kazan, and he refused. That tale the chronicler gives us in full, in a one-sided and tendentious presentation that nonetheless permits glimpses of the underlying story. Was Andrei sick, as he claimed? Was he angry at being denied the opportunity to see his dying brother? Did he fear ending up in the same Kremlin cell? The answers rest in part on whether Andrei had visited Moscow in August and returned unscathed to his own principality, but that information we do not have. What we have instead is a picture of a family in disarray, so riven with suspicion that it turns against its own members, to the point of letting them die in ignominy and want. For a novelist, that picture is, perhaps, compelling enough.

But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

Friday, January 1, 2016

And Hello, 2016!

New Year’s Day prompts most of us to think anew about how to make our lives better, more satisfying, more productive, and so on. Since I began this blog in June 2012, I have used the first post of the year to set goals and the last post to assess my progress or lack thereof. This is somewhat amusing, since in real life I never make resolutions. Either I do things or I don’t, and declaring goals in advance makes little difference to the outcome. But I do find it helpful to think a few times a year about my career as a writer and publisher and what I need to do to succeed.

The list for 2016 includes:

(1) finishing the final draft of The Swan Princess and seeing it in print and e-book formats;
(2) making significant progress on The Vermilion Bird, preferably to the point of a full rough draft (even if it’s very rough);
(3) chairing a round table on the uses of historical fiction in the classroom, scheduled for November 2016 but not yet approved by the sponsoring organization;
(4) upping the number of my New Books in Historical Fiction interviews to one every three weeks, yielding eighteen for the year;
(5) maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website—which means implementing the book recommendation posts, expanding the number of authors and titles available, filling out the More Books Worth Reading page, and keeping the news & events page up to date;
(6) posting to this blog every Friday;
(7) maintaining and strengthening my relationships with fellow writers; and
(8) continuing to improve my grasp of marketing, on both my own behalf and that of Five Directions Press.

Of course, I also have to keep making a living and finding time to write. And I have signed up for three GoodReads challenges for 2016, only because I can apply books to more than one category. These are the Read Women 2016 challenge (most of the books I read are by women, except for books associated with interviews, and living authors count for this one), the Dead Writers’ Society Genre Challenge (one book a month by a no-longer-with-us author in an assigned category), and the Birthday Challenge (one book a month by a deceased author born in that month).

Will I make it? Check back in December to find out. And between now and then, may you have a rich and rewarding 2016!

Image: Clipart no. 109546550.