Q&A selected from several interviews over the years
Why did you to choose to become a writer?
When someone asked Ursula Le Guin what she would be if she weren’t a writer, she answered succinctly, “Dead.” That’s also me.
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 – all 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 kind of life.
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.
What type of writer are you—one who experiences like Hemingway, or one who daydreams and fantasizes?
Well, I write mostly fantasy. If I experienced most of what I write, I would be a very unique human being indeed.
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, where nothing was inevitable, where anything could happen and usually did – and 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” 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, and how do you address that?
A fantasy world does not need to work according to the rules of our own world – but it absolutely has to follow its own rules, whatever those rules may be in context.
One of the hardest aspects of worldbuilding is to create a world which is utterly strange and yet utterly believable and self-consistent – the flowering of the idea that everything comes at a cost, and then having to work out what the cost of things is in the world that I have created and to make sure that the trade is fair, and sustainable.
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 thirty books before I write my one volume, thirty books that cover the spectrum of history, geography, memoir, biography, social customs, fashions, food, climate and related issues such as possible crops and livestock, economics, everything that makes a world tick.
90% of this won’t make it into the finished book, but because I know my material, it all informs the 10% that does make it in, and there is a real sense of stability and steadiness and verisimilitude – the sense that my worlds rest on solid ground, have deep roots, and even though they may not be real, they COULD be if they so choose.
This is important to me. My fiction may be fantasy but it is also TRUE, to itself, to its story, to its genre. I dive into world creation, head first, and let it close over my head; 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 a few hundred characters and they would not all relate well to the same otherwhere character.
But if I narrow this down to the intimate gathering of friends in one of my latest novels, “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 have very little control over this. I’ve been known to interrupt conversations to scurry off and grab the little notebook I always carry and scribble furiously as some new thought or wonderful story idea mugs me and won’t let go until it is at least recorded well enough to be recalled at a later stage when I’m actually at a keyboard and can do something about it.
Once in a while I have an idea in a dream, and at least once I dreamed a complete short story that was later published.
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 put it in a more graphically illustrative way. Once upon a time, two decades ago or so, I went through a truly rough emotional patch in my life – and somehow turned off the writing spigot. 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. I had just ground to a complete and utter linguistic HALT – there was nothing left.
The phase lasted almost a year, and by the tail end of it I was pretty nearly insane with it all. That was the moment 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 took the words that wouldn’t work and hammered onto a blank page with a metaphorical hammer. Even into places where they didn’t fit. Anything, anything to get the flow started again. And somehow, slowly, it did, and the stories returned.
But I *NEVER* want to go back to that place again. I know what I am, and that is what drives me – and I will always be writing, always be a writer, 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 am the ultimate so-called pantser, a writer who creates story literally by the seat of the pants, I sometimes find out what happens next in exactly the same way as a reader would – except that I am in the process of TYPING OUT AND CREATING that story that I am reading, and often freaking out about it, 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. My characters – 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! I figured it out!” 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.
Jin-shei sold to an Italian publisher before it sold to an American house, which blew my mind. 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 Secrets of Jin-shei’ was a runaway bestseller in Spain and the Spanish-speaking territories, with 30,000+ copies IN HARDCOVER sold within the first six months of first publication.
I still get notes from readers from scattered Spanish markets – Spain itself, Mexico, Chile. For some reason the Spanish speakers loved my Chinese girls. A lot.
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.
You state on your website that you are a Duchess by historical accident, can you expand on that?
Back in the 1100s, my family was of no real title but a reasonably wealthy landowner clan. In a very famous battle in 1389, one of my ancestors distinguished himself in battle and was rewarded by a Dukedom.
The original Dukedom is long since vanished, of course, under the weight of Balkan history – but the family is still around, and I’m a lineal descendant. Hence, Duchess.
My ancestor sustained a bad leg wound which gave him a nickname of Hromo (which literally means “gimpy”) and his family took a modified form of that as a surname from that day on, my own maiden name.
At certain conventions where my family history may be familiar to some, I get people who know me greeting me with “Your Grace” in the corridors, which can be great fun if it is done while some newbie who isn’t in on the “secret” happens to be wandering by. There have been some spectacularly wonderful double takes in the past.
What is the one, single food that you would never give up?
A three-way tie between coffee, cherries and chocolate.