Talking to Pyr


Gillian Polack

My next interview is of three Pyr authors.

Why three authors from the same imprint? In the bookshop, we pick up a book and decide to buy it (or not). So much goes into the making of the books we take off the shelf. The single biggest thing that makes an imprint work is how it’s perceived by readers. We look at that cover or at that name and, if the imprint has been particularly clever, we have a bit of an understanding of the work that we’re likely to find in there. I’ll be exploring more imprints later on, I think, but Pyr is an outstanding one to start the ball rolling. It’s one of a very few publishers I know who have no bad books to their name (if they have one, I haven’t read it). Additionally, it not only has a very clear image of what it does, but it communicates that image to the world. If I were a sensible person, I would be asking the editor and management how they do what they do, but today I’m asking writers. Without the writers, an imprint is just a logo, after all, and it’s the nature of the authors and the selection of the authors that makes everything possible.

Of the Pyr covers I talked about way back when, only James Enge’s was in that marvelous bag of books. The other two writers are Kay Kenyon and Joel Shepherd. Without Joel’s immense kindness (and tolerance—when I asked him about the interviews I also accused him of defacing a poster of himself) there would not have been an interview. I’ll let all three introduce themselves:

Joel Shepherd: I was born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1974, but grew up in Perth, Western Australia. I have studied Film and Television, International Relations, has interned on Capitol Hill in Washington, and traveled widely in Asia. My first trilogy, the Cassandra Kresnov Series, consists of Crossover, Breakaway and Killswitch. My second, fantasy series is called ‘A Trial of Blood and Steel’, and consists of Sasha, Petrodor, Tracato and Haven.

Kay Kenyon: My best known work is my quartet The Entire and The Rose, beginning with Bright of the Sky. I was totally caught off guard by the critical response to Bright. I mean, hey, what about my other books? People started calling me things like “exciting new writer.” Bright was named one of the best books of 2007 by Publishers Weekly, and there were many nice reviews. Believe me, I was not used to this. I felt like I had been shot out of a cannon. I quite liked it, but I do have a facial tic as a result. (Right now Kindle readers can try out my series with a free download of Bright.) The cover art by Stephan Martiniere is splendid. You know, I’ve had a bad cover or two in my career. Authors love all their books, but when you get a bad cover, it’s kind of like having an ugly baby: you have to act proud anyway. Right now, along with everyone else in the world, I’m writing a fantasy. To keep me tethered, however lightly, to the real world, I chair a writers' conference, Write on the River (in Eastern Washington.) At my website, I hold forth on writing, publishing and other curious pursuits. Come by sometime?”

James Enge: If people have heard of me at all, it’s probably as the author of Blood of Ambrose, which was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award this year . . . although my story in the Anders/Strahan anthology Swords and Dark Magic has gotten some pretty good reviews, too. Blood of Ambrose now has two standalone sequels (This Crooked Way, which came out a year ago, and The Wolf Age, which is just out), and even before the novels I was publishing a scattered series of stories about this beat-up, dry drunk of a demi-mortal sorcerer, Morlock Ambrosius. (Most of those appeared in the fantasy magazine, Black Gate.) In the lively tradition of pixel-stained techno-peasantry, I’ve posted some of the stories as free stuff at my website. I keep a blog there, too, but I have to admit I update it very infrequently these days. I'm a little more active on and . My bio in both places is ‘Classics by day, sword-and-sorcery by night; the other way around sometimes,’ which gives all the relevant data, really.

The discussion:

Gillian Polack: Perhaps a good place to start is what brought you (and your books) to Pyr. What do you have in common as writers, and how much of that is because of the publisher and how much were you signed by Pyr because of traits you share as writers that Pyr felt were important? 

James Enge: In my case, it was luck. Pyr is the fiction imprint of a publisher that does mostly non-fiction of a skeptical and rationalist bent, and their original mandate was to do science fiction only—no fantasy. But the mandate was eventually eased, and Pyr had a big success with Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law” trilogy, and editorial director Lou Anders was actively looking for grittier, darker fantasy when my agent, Mike Kabongo, sent him Blood of Ambrose. Pretty quickly, in publishing terms, Lou signed us to a two-book deal. So it was a right-time, right-place sort of thing.

Actually, I was in the wrong place. I was with my university’s summer program in Italy while all this was going on, which significantly complicated the process of getting contracts and returning them. Signing the contract for my first novel in a garden in Rome had an oddly dreamlike feeling about it—a sensation that hasn’t really dissipated in the ensuing couple of years.

Kay Kenyon: Was going to say we three authors have a lot in common, except then James started talking about signing lucrative book contracts in Italy. So we part ways there, but on to the subject:

Looking at what the three of us write, I’m not surprised we’re all at Pyr. People who think they know what fantasy is and what science fiction is, and relegate them to some kind of pile of popcorn reads, have not read Enge and Shepherd, and most of the Pyr line-up. I absolutely love what is happening with fantasy these days, and Pyr is the go-to house for these reads. Maybe, as a Pyr author, it’s self-serving to say that Pyr does better fantasy (and science fiction) so I’ll step back and instead say that they publish what I like. Which is intellectually complex adventure set in magical (or futuristic) landscapes. All three of us write about morally compromised characters who have enough passion fuelling them to fight for what is lost or what might be preserved. That is the essence of adventure: someone picks up the gauntlet, the sword, the weapon of whatever sort and puts themselves on the line for something worthwhile. And in the new fashion, they might be unapologetic drunks, has-beens, or hopeless idealists—or they might not believe in the cause at all, or won’t admit it, but by their actions we see their hearts. The same is true of the individuals they oppose. It’s not your epic-style fantasy of good vs. evil. The opposition is now self-knowing and doubting, and at times we’re not sure they’re wrong.

As for me, I took Bright of the Sky to Pyr initially because of Lou Anders—his reputation, the way he engages with authors—and also the production quality. (Quite handsome books. Even after ten published novels, that’s still important to me.) It wasn’t until later that I realized that my quartet was firmly in the territory Lou was establishing for science fiction and fantasy. Of course, Lou chose my quartet because he’s one who loves a dark, complex story that still unabashedly celebrates the big tropes of our field: the magical and futuristic possibilities that stretch us a bit (or a lot) beyond the places we thought we could go.

I signed my four book contract in my little home office overlooking a garage.

Joel Shepherd: Well, I got involved with Pyr because first, all the other publishers rejected me. There’s no insult to Pyr in this, because when my Cassandra Kresnov series were first being shopped around the States, Pyr was just being formed and no one had heard of them. My first memories of e-mail conservations with Pyr editor Lou Anders was him expressing his pleasure and bafflement that no other publisher had taken that series. As it happened (and this does actually contribute to my point, and is not just me blowing my horn) Cassandra has since gone on to sell extremely well, is the only thing Pyr’s done thus far in mass market, and has received more than its share of curiosity from Hollywood.

So Pyr’s quite different to the other publishers, and perceives the market differently. I think there's a lot of formula publishing going on in SF and Fantasy, and you must conform to the formula because the marketing people say so. I think the one thing that all three authors here have in common is that we're not ‘formula writers’, we just write good stories, and let the formula fall where it may. And while a lot of publishers are looking for sub-genres, whether it’s ‘military SF’, or ‘steam punk’ or whatever, Lou just looks for good stories, and while he does publish the recognised sub-genres, he’s very happy for authors to push their boundaries, or blur them entirely. Which a lot of publishers hate, because their marketing people’s heads explode.

I mean, Cassandra Kresnov is part military SF, part cyberpunk, and part political thriller. And A Trial of Blood and Steel is a realist fantasy that reads a bit like historical fiction, only set in a world I invented. Pyr like to see authors doing new things with existing genres, not just repeating the same stuff we’ve all seen a thousand times before, which is probably one reason we three all ended up at Pyr.

GP: So the only thing we’re certain about at this stage is that you all write outside the box and that you came to Pyr through different routes. I’d like to explore both of those subjects. Firstly, can any of you point us to some good formula novels (bad formula novels are just not worth the effort) and maybe talk about how yours are different and why those differences are important? Secondly, how does your work with Pyr fit into your overall career as a writer so far? Just what paths have you travelled and where do you think they are taking you? 

KK: Well. “formula novels” is a harsh summary. A less loaded term might be traditional fantasy with its comfort structure. A subset is traditional epic fantasy. I’m trying to describe the comfortable, more predictable fantasies that Joel rightly says most publishers feel safe buying. These books are enormously popular. Witness Robert Jordan. I didn’t get past book one of his Wheel of Time series, The Eye of the World. He’s been praised for his characters, but I don’t see why. The world is complex, but the people aren’t. That’s where I think the Pyr line departs and fills a neat gap. If you want your fantasy with a quirky hero you won’t find him or her in most traditional fantasy novels. This may be because to counter the mythic Evil, one must be mythically Good. We don’t read the traditional story for complexity and ambiguity. Of course, we pick up different reads for different reasons, and sometimes Tolkien, Brooks, and Jordan are perfect. But I’m glad there's room in fantasy (and science fiction) for the cruel, deluded, screwed-up hero. As with watching House (the TV series), we’re not just perversely enjoying people being complete asses—we’re hoping for their redemption, waiting for some small crack of light to peek out so we can believe in humanity again. The traditional fantasy asks us to believe in that goodness from the get-go. But these days, who can? Well, the gazillion readers of traditional fantasy, they can! So Pyr is serving a niche audience, perhaps.

Am I saying that Pyr is not publishing escapism? I guess I am. They seem to me to be straddling a new ground where the stories have an exciting plot, unabashedly using wonders and sometimes brutality, but laced with a fair dose of literary sensibility. At the very least the characters startle us and break out of expectations. Besides Shepherd and Enge, I’m thinking of Justina Robson's Quantum Gravity books and Joe Abercrombie’s first series.

JE: Re the formula (or genre-establishing?) works: I write sword-and-sorcery, and at least one difference is clear between the books that set the pattern for S&S and the stuff I write. Classic S&S (Robert E Howard’s stories about Kane, Kull and Conan; Moore’s Jirel stories; Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories; Vance’s Dying Earth series; etc.) is mostly not book-length. And even the rare exceptions (like Howard’s Hour of the Dragon or Leiber’s Swords of Lankhmar) are very short by the standards of the modern fantasy novel.

So the plots need to be bigger and more complex. The danger is that the scope may become mere bloat . . . or that the book will just turn into an epic fantasy in faux-ragged clothes. I really don’t want that. If the final battle between good and evil is about to be staged again, I don’t want any part of it. Endless quests that never end are over too, I think. The epic fantasies worth reading nowadays (George RR Martin's Song of Ice & Fire is the archetypal example) are doing more interesting big-scale stuff with the histories of their worlds. But I still think there’s a place for sword and sorcery and its more personal stories and morally compromised characters. The answer to the scope problem seems to be: add more characters, but keep the primary stakes of the story personal. And, when in doubt, add more cow-bell.

On where my books with Pyr fit with my career so far: Blood of Ambrose, my first novel with Pyr (and current World Fantasy Award nominee, pluggity-plug-plug) was my first novel in print. Without Lou Anders at Pyr (and John O'Neill and Howard Jones at Black Gate), I wouldn’t have anything that could be called a career. I’m bound to think they’re doing a great job, but it seems like I’m not the only one who thinks so. Escapism, and even consolation, shouldn't be slurs in fantasy. A skillful escape is always worth watching, and skill is where art resides: the making of the thing made. Popular art, under its clown mask, has as much claim to that as higher art. It seems to me that what Pyr is after, under Lou’s direction, is genuine genre work ("”deep genre” in Judith Berman’s deathless phrase) executed with some literary skill. But maybe I”m prone to think that because it’s always been my target.

On the future: I expect that successful writers often have some sort of career plan or strategy. I’m sure this would be useful, because I don’t have anything like it. I write as my sordid Muse prompts me. She hasn’t clued in to all her plans, yet, but I hear her sharpening blades and muttering incantations occasionally, so expect there are more swords and more sorcery slated for my inner theater.

JS: Well the obvious career path for any genre author is to be picked up by Hollywood and become massively wealthy. Or to become king for life of the magical world you find at the back of your closet. But reality often has other ideas.

Formula is not always a bad thing, some formulas are entertaining when done well. And as is always observed by clever people (or people who think they’re clever) all writing is derivative of something, and all plots fall into a formula of some description. But where I find it impossible to conform to formula is where formula is often about the icing rather than the cake. The cake for me is drama, because that’s what moves all plots, and that’s what I find interesting to create when I’m writing—especially personal drama, where characters are faced with difficult decisions and struggle to decide which way they’re going to turn. What the formulas often attempt to prescribe is exactly what kind of drama is taking place, when it really shouldn’t matter, so long as the drama is dramatic and gripping.

I had an experience with Sasha, where an agent (or the agent’s assistant more correctly) wrote a long piece explaining to me why Sasha wasn’t a ‘real’ fantasy, because Sasha wasn’t a ‘real’ princess, because the world she lived in didn’t operate like a ‘real’ fantasy world, where her motivations and the plot structure weren’t like a ‘real’ fantasy because... etc. And yes, he meant it in a bad way. As to the actual substance of the story’s drama, he had almost nothing to say. It’s a bit like critiquing a sportsman or woman because they don’t dress right, they don’t come from the right background, have an unorthodox style, etc, while ignoring the fact that their actual results on the field are fantastic. Which has happened plenty of times in sports, where a star player was overlooked early on because the talent scouts were looking at the icing and not the cake, and missed out on recruiting someone awesome. I don’t know how to please readers who are more interested in icing than cake, but luckily, most readers just want good drama, whatever it’s dressed up as.

As with James, I’m not really interested in writing big good-versus-evil plots. I don’t mind reading them if they’re good, though. But in Sasha, my hero (and she is a hero, not a heroine, which is something you snort up your nose) is a strong willed person who thinks she knows what she believes in, who ends up caught midway between two, and sometimes even three or more competing sides, and it’s going to be very painful no matter which way she goes. Which to me is far more dramatic than a simple good-vs-evil scenario, because the drama is so much more intense when the hero has friends and loyalties on all conflicting sides, instead of just one.

GP: Now I’m curious. How do your sordid Muses work? Do they shape your prose, your characters, your stories? Do they whisper ideas and then leave you solitary to work out what to do with them? One thing I’ve gathered is that none of you are paint-by-number writers (don’t laugh—I met someone at the World Science Fiction Convention who was quite happy to explain that she worked out the tropes that sold and wrote her story accordingly) so how do you write? Each of my novels seems to follow its own trajectory, so if you’re like me, perhaps say it and then tell us the story of one. 

JE: Confession: I stole the sordid Muse from the poet Martial. She shows up in his work occasionally to bust his chops when he complains about the stuff she makes him write. Steal from the best is my motto—which I also stole. (From Heinlein, I think, though I’m confident he stole it from someone else.)

But by using the Muse image, I don’t mean to suggest that I write from inspiration. I’m not sitting here with folded hands waiting for a miracle to happen and stories to write themselves. That would be crazy. You’ve got to lean into this stuff, or it won’t happen. At the very least, you have to put a bowl of milk out for the elves.

But I have some perfectly good story ideas (or so it seems to me) that I can’t bring myself to write. I sit and stare at the screen and then a voice whispers to me, “No, screw this. You’re going to write something about ghost-powered zeppelins.” And that’s what I usually end up doing. That voice or impulse is what I call the Muse. I can’t say she’s never led me astray: it meant that for decades I was writing sword-and-sorcery while the market was setting its face ever more firmly against sword and sorcery. On the other hand, I was writing what I really wanted to write, so... maybe she has never led me astray.

KK: Someone once said that the biggest sports metaphor for writing is golf. So many similarities. Take, for example, that indefinable zone that bestows scratch (par) golf. Golfers are superstitious and talk about the golf gods. They have little idea where those in-the-zone golf rounds come from. Same with writing. We can toss around the idea of Muse, but in the end most writers either pay lip service (hey, the good stuff comes from Somewhere, let’s call it the Muse) or joke that they get their ideas by mail-order or something. And since we don’t have a clear handle on the question of inspiration, sometimes writers fear to lose it. Will I have what it takes on the Next novel? Am I done now? Will I ever get another off-the-charts-compelling novel-length idea? With me, it is a love-hate relationship. I dig for ideas, get discouraged, toss away the less-than-stellar, keep digging, get paranoid, sometimes depressed, keep digging, and then *zing* I fall into the well of fecund, wet, brilliant (it seems to me) concepts. So by this time I think I have disqualified myself from talking about the Muse. I know nothing.

One of my *zing* moments happened as I was walking along the irrigation ditch in Wenatchee (east side of the mountains in Washington state.) There is a miles-long canal stretching through the city and apple orchards and the Cascade foothills. I was tired of the science fiction premise of space travel. I wanted to write a big-canvas story but I refused to set foot in a spaceship. Ever again. And then, came the thought, “It’s a tunnel, stupid.” It is? The universe is a tunnel? No, stupid (my Muse can be sarcastic), the Other universe is a tunnel. And it burrows through our own. Oh, says I, you mean it is contiguous in a fantasy-like way. No, says she, it’s a friggin’ tunnel. It has walls (storm walls) and a lid (a fire-laden sky that waxes and ebbs to create day and night.). Oh, man, you’re creeping me out. You’re welcome, she says. Thus was born the universe of The Entire, and the first novel of my quartet, Bright of the Sky, which has attracted an incredible amount of attention and boosted my profile, under Pyr’s direction, immensely.

JS: My ideas come from real things. I write about human civilisation, which is why I have no issue moving from Science Fiction to Fantasy and back, because the basic concepts of human civilisation are pretty constant, just that one genre’s in the future and the other’s in the past. I’m fascinated by the diversity of different ways of living, and different ideas about society, and the kinds of conflicts that arise out of all the confusion. What I need is a good central character who plays on certain concepts that exist within a civilisation in a way that creates moral or ethical problems, and thus drama. I picture the problems that character will have or create in his or her particular world, and stuff just happens—I get new ideas for the place she lives that will make her life more dramatic and complicated, and new plot points appear for major crises she’ll have to solve.

For example, Sasha came from an idea about individualism, which is often lacking in traditional fantasies, where everyone unquestioningly obeys their lord or king. I had an idea about a girl who was born a princess but rebelled against the traditional expectations of princesses, and goes off to train as a warrior instead. It simply can’t happen in most medieval societies, so I had to create one where it could—a society that worships individualism, and thus has great tensions within it between the authority structures that do exist, and the natural tendencies of its people to love their freedom from those structures. And so I eventually came up with Lenayin, a land of rugged individualists who have been divided into countless warring clans for ages, and only recently brought together beneath a grudgingly accepted royal family and imported feudal laws. They grudgingly accept that the new ways have made them all better off, but there’s still a lot of resentment amongst the traditionalists who feel they’ve lost something. Which is a common theme today amongst developing nations, and even some developed ones—yes, all this new stuff has made us richer, but I remember the good old days when... Creating the character of Sasha created a thematic conflict, and once I had that thematic conflict, it gave me the thread I could run with to create the rest of her world.

And once I have the world, and her living in it, the rest of the conflicts are just a matter of identifying what the major forces are in Lenayin, and what their problem is. It’s like a 3D map for me—the world, all the different factions, how they interact within it, and where the main characters fit within it. So you could say I don’t just get ‘inspiration’, and I’m pretty sure I don’t have some muse whispering to me. Instead, the whole thing makes structural sense as I look at the world I’ve created, I can just see the bits that are going to start fighting each other. Except for the “great crescendos,” which are the big dramatic moments that just occur to me, where an entire plot thread just explodes in a dramatic resolution. Those usually hit me early in the writing, and they probably are pure inspiration, except that the way I figure out where and how they’ll occur are very structural. And they’re great fun, because I have a full on moment of ‘whoa, that’s cool!’ And that then gives me a point to aim at, and I spend most of the rest of the book just trying to arrange things so that I set up those big impact moments. Finally getting to them is fun. I had several in the last book of Trial of Blood and Steel, Haven, that I’d been building toward for about five years. Finally reaching them was eerie, probably as close as an author gets to feeling what an athlete feels, after preparing for some huge competition for half their professional life, and then finally walking into the stadium and hearing the roar of the crowd.

GP: I really didn’t mean that to be a ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I was interested in how those ideas shape what you do, as well as in the sordid muses. My standard “Where do you get your ideas from?” question is about favourite authors and big influences on your writing. In fact, it’s not so much about ideas as what makes you the writer you are. We’re up to it, too. How does your reading fit in with your writing? What five authors do you think everyone should read, and why?  

JS: It’s really the wrong question to ask me at the moment, because I’ve been reading for university for the past few years and my fiction reading has plummeted. Plus I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that people must read a certain author, because I’ve never accepted that literary conceit that certain books will make you a better person. A lot of the stuff I like, a lot of other people don’t like—for example the biggest influence upon me as a young reader was CJ Cherryh, because she showed me it was possible to write ripping good yarns that were also intelligent enough to make your head explode, and that intelligent work could incorporate ‘mass market’ concepts without either the populist or intellectual sides losing anything. But I know a lot of people just don’t “get” Cherryh, despite a lot more who do, so I’m reluctant to recommend her to people unless I’m sure that’s the kind of thing they’ll like.

I’m also not a patient reader. Some readers will plow through hundreds of pages of stuff they hate just so they can talk about how much they hated it. I don’t make it through a chapter of something I’m not enjoying, and if I’m not compelled to turn the next page, I don’t turn it. Which I think is a pretty good thing to have as an author, because I employ the same instinct while I’m writing—if I don’t feel compelled to write the next page, I know something’s wrong, and I have to find out what before I can continue.

KK: Reading is no longer a simple matter for me. I used to consume books and go on joy rides and mindlessly read everything of a favorite author. Now, there’s a lot less time, and books have become my business as well as my raison d’être. I have to manage what I’m reading because there are dozens of books that I need to read and hundreds more that I’d like to. Also, alas, I usually analyze the fiction in terms of its storytelling techniques. Add to that, I have to read books by my writer friends, to be polite and to join in the conversations. Selecting books becomes a bit of dance.

Right now I’m reading The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (analyze), The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan (novel research), My Early Life by Winston Churchill (novel research), The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the Novel (Learning), The Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells (keep up with fantasy, analyze), and quite honestly, Sasha by Joel Shepherd (keep up with fantasy, analyze). Yeah, I read lots of books at once. When I notice I’m favoring one book over the other, I may put a book aside. This teaches me stuff, too. Like Joel, I’ve been known to drop a book after the first chapter, but usually I give it sixty pages.

Thomas Mann famously noted that while one is writing a book, one “happens” to come across books that relate to it, that enlighten your theme, that you need to read. He called this “the magic circle of books.” I love that, and I believe in that magic (both how books “appear”—say from Aunt Linda—and how they richly load your subconscious.) But if they’re too close to my theme, I may avoid the book to keep unintentional copycatting at bay.

I’m going to keep my recommendations to relatively recent books, because if there are aspiring writers out there, I think they do better to read current books. It represents the standard, the tastes, of current publishing. I don’t know how many hopeful science fiction writers I’ve met who, when asked what authors they read, tell me Heinlein, Herbert or Clarke. Really? Anyone else? Anyone else in the last twenty years, for crying out loud?

Naomi Novik: The Temeraire series. Delicious Napoleonic setting with dragons whose personalities far outmatch the humans. Some of the best dialogue writing I’ve seen. For a thrilling adventure that is unabashedly entertaining, I can’t think of books I’ve enjoyed quite as much. And speaking of her human characters, those do disappoint, in my view. But you don’t need to do everything right! Like The English Patient. Why, exactly did this book win the Booker Prize? The characters are shrouded, not quite understandable or likable, in my view. But you can read it for the astonishing poetry of its lines, the suspenseful construction, the lovely ruined-mansion-in-time-of-war-milieu, all put together with amazing self-assurance. You give yourself up to it. But still, Ondaatje is not on my list.

Ian McDonald. Ferociously intelligent and original science fiction. McDonald is also a writerly writer, delivering pleasures at the level of style and structure that make me envious, but also happy. He can be a bit dense and chewy. He’ll make you work a bit. A nice antidote to Novik. Another thing about McDonald, who I’ve read for years: he’s getting better. Rather frightening. I recommend River of Gods and Brasyl.

George R. R. Martin. His reputation solidified with the Song of Ice and Fire series. I think this deeply emotional. intelligent epic shows how fantasy can be merely lit by magic at the edges and still feel like the full monty. Martin’s characters make most fantasy casts look thin and stereotyped. Wonderful dialogue, never wooden. The kind of book you’re dying to get back to. Later books can be slow-going, but by then you don’t care.

Justina Robson. She started strong a few years ago. I was quite impressed with Natural History. Then she began her Quantum Gravity series, beginning with the wonderful Keeping It Real. Forget Heinlein. Robson gives us a female character with drive and dimension (Lila Black.) The whole series is a tour de force. Here I must confess that I love books that mash-up the main chords of the genre. She’s got five different realities, or planes of existence, rocking elves, fused science fiction tropes, and characters with delightful attitude. One of her skills is keeping all this bizarre stuff working, which she absolutely does. Like Ondaatje, her narrative self-assurance carries you along, believing.

I’m going to quit at four, because no other names are shouting at me right now.

JE: There are so many great books out there that I’ve never heard of, I’m more eager to sponge on other people’s experience and get new recommendations than I am to make them. But, tossing these vain scruples aside, one book I like to recommend is Gibbon’s Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon, in some ways, was a racist, classist, cynical, smug little prick. But he wrote stunningly beautiful English prose; he knew a lot; he could tell a good story and, when evidence failed him, he wasn’t wholly disinclined to make stuff up, an important virtue (and vice) in a historian. And, for an eighteenth century English Tory, he could sometimes be surprisingly sympathetic towards people unlike himself. The book is so huge that people tend to avoid it, or they read abridged versions that leave out things like the footnotes, where half the good lines are. But if you just read the first third or so (unabridged) you’ll get the best parts, with the craziest emperors playing whack-a-mole with usurpers and the western empire getting smashed up by barbarians and the martyr-speckled persecutions and the Gnostic theology and the whatnot followed by more copiously annotated whatnot.

Another recommendation I usually make, when I can overcome my natural hesitancy to impose my opinion on others, is to read Leigh Brackett. She has no particular claim to fame, apart from being the greatest sword-and-planet writer ever, and also the fact that she was a genius scriptwriter and a talented writer of detective fiction and westerns and postapocalyptic sf and... Okay, let me rephrase: she has a freakishly varied set of claims to fame. She was a wonderful stylist, always using the right word, never its second cousin. She was a great storyteller. And she belongs to the pulpy tradition that sf/f seems eager to leave behind and should not.

GP: What has struck me throughout this conversation is how very different your writing styles are. How important is style to you, how does it work within your writing, how conscious are you of it while you’re writing? Does it change according to your novel, the point of view character, the slant of the sunshine through the window?  

KK: A few months ago I would have said that my style is inevitable. Whatever my style is, there you have it. But then I recently started writing a novel about Victorian England and I saw changes in formality and diction. That was quite a surprise. Of course the changes arose unconsciously—thus the surprise. Style is important to any writer, it’s just that it tends to be the sum total of quirks, strengths, habits and essential personality. It’s just out of reach of the writer’s art—unless you get an MFA in creative writing and hammer away at “simplicity” or alliteration or what have you. Commercial fiction doesn’t much tolerate self-conscious style. The story is the point, the style is extra, and shouldn’t get in the way.

Another dimension to this question is the style of the story itself: simple vs. complex; several subplots vs. few; dark tone vs. light. Then there are levels of emotion and character, and a dozen elements of dramatization that make up a typical Kenyon novel or an Enge novel. These choices, while a bit habitual, aren’t as buried as style at the sentence level. One can decide to write a “darker” story or a faster-paced one. I’ve almost come to blows with fellow authors on this point. There is the viewpoint that you must write what’s in your heart, as though choosing a subject and approach is defiling some sacred process. I’m not saying that it’s a good idea to try to manipulate stories in a crass manner (particularly with a view to the marketplace.) But we can write a thousand different stories. We must choose them in sequence. And sometimes it’s fun to, you know, play around.

JE: If style is like frosting, slathered on top of the story, there’s only so much the reader can stand (or should stand). If style is the default voice of the writer, the expression of their personality (which is a point of view, and would explain why my style is so disordered), then one wouldn’t expect much variation.

But even in conversation one person tends to use a variety of styles in different social situations (style-shifting, linguists call it) and likewise writers need to vary their style depending on what they’re talking about. Different characters need to have a distinctive turn of expression, too—partly for realism, and partly so that readers can tell them apart. So I’d say the writer of fiction needs not just a style but an armory of styles. But a little goes a long way, and the more noticeable the style becomes the more likely it is to alienate the reader. Some writers won’t care, but most of us have to.

JS: For me, style is completely subservient to content. This might be one of the ways that genre writing is fundamentally different to literary writing, a lot of literary writing seems very impressed with style, but genre is all about telling the tale, and if you tell it in one style or another doesn’t matter, so long as the tale is good. I’ve always felt that my style should be like the director in a fast-paced movie (as opposed to an art house film), where you shouldn’t notice the director. Or a good football game, where you only know the referees are doing a good job if you don’t notice them.

What I like to aim for primarily is realism, to make the action feel like it’s actually happening. When I wrote my Cassandra Kresnov novels, I was writing about a character with hyper-fast reflexes whose brain could process information very quickly, so I deliberately shortened sentences, crashed visual concepts together, and generally made a deliberate mess of the English language where I felt it necessary to replicate that perception. Then in my ‘Trial of Blood and Steel’ fantasy series, people are more formal and social structures more clearly defined, and it required a more elegant turn of phrase, which is always the nice thing about writing fantasy, you get to show off a bit. And lately, I started writing an urban fantasy that originated for me as a screenplay, and I liked the immediacy of the screenplay format so much I thought I’d write the whole thing in present tense, which I’ve never done before in prose, and it works wonderfully. Especially with urban fantasy, because the main problem with a fantastical concept is getting the audience to suspend disbelief, but ‘present tense’ doesn’t give the reader a chance to sit back and process things, it just says ‘this is happening right now, deal with it’.

Maybe I could add to the conversation by asking my own question of James and Kay? What gets your goat, stylistically speaking? I hate it when I’m reading an author who has no time perception, who writes a scene that takes a minute in book time, but takes twenty minutes to read. And yes, I realise that’s an established thing in literary writing, one reason I’m not a literary reader, no doubt. For me a lack of time perception is a sign of an author who always feels the need to inject him/herself into the story. To me that’s an annoying as someone standing in front of the TV when I’m trying to watch.

KK: Oh, stuff I hate to see, Joel? You mean passages I find crushingly boring, stupefyingly impenetrable, plus no fun? How about dream sequences, and their close cousins, flashbacks? Dreams give us a chance to trot out all those freshman writing exercises wherein we practice symbolism and metaphorical realities. But hey, what happened to the character herself? Oh, she’s asleep. And all the character stuff that I hadn’t the skill to impart to her is now stuffed into the dream, only once removed. OK, and then there are flashbacks. My rule is that they should be referred to, but not dramatized. And when dramatized, they should be very short, like four sentences. It’s a dumb rule, but it helps me not write flashbacks. Unfortunately, however, some writers just love them and we’ll get a whole flashback scene that, if interesting, suggests we’re reading the wrong story. THIS is the story you should have told. But if it’s not that interesting, then what’s it doing here? Actually, I’m not usually this intolerant. In fact, I created a splendid flashback in a novel once. But it’s been great venting.

JE: The best thing on style in fantasy ever written, I think, is Ursula Le Guin’s “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”, and in it she mentions a couple of peeves—for instance, the tendency of some American writers (Zelazny and Leiber, specifically) to use modern slang in their imaginary worlds. I mention this to say that—even though Le Guin is one of the great stylists in American fantasy, and her thoughts on style are always worth reading—I think she's wrong about this. Smog was what they had to deal with in Lankhmar; there’s no reason Leiber can’t call it that. If it summons images of modern cities, so much the better. Every age is modern to itself.

So if Le Guin can be wrong with her peeves, I myself am very reluctant to peeve in public. In general, when writers show me they know what they’re doing, I’ll cut them some slack: everyone ought to be able to play the instrument of language in their own way. But dullness is the crime it’s hard to forgive: forgetting that characters are specific people undergoing specific events leads to vague writing that lacks impact. A fox jumping over a dog is not memorable. But a quick red fox jumping over the lazy dog? That’s the stuff. So (though this is blasphemy nowadays), I’m a big fan of adjectives and adverbs and everything a writer can use that lends specificity to the events in a narrative. And Strunk and White can bite me, if they so choose.


And this is where we finish. Finish here, at least. You might want to check the list of books mentioned to follow up the ideas and thoughts of these three writers. They’’ve given me so much to think about that I shall be doing precisely that.

Books and series mentioned in this column:
From Elfland to Poughkeepsie by Ursula Le Guin (Pendragon Press, 1973)
The First Law series by Joe Abercrombie (Pyr)
Blood of Ambrose by James Enge (Pyr, 2009)
Brasyl by Ian McDonald (Pyr, 2007)
Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon (Pyr, 2007)
Cassandra Kresnov series by Joel Shepherd
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (Everyman, 1993)
Hour of the Dragon by Robert E Howard (Donald M Grant, 1987)
My Early Life by Winston Churchill (Scribner , 1996)
Natural History by Justina Robson (Spectra/Pyr, 2004)
Quantum Gravity series by Justina Robson (Pyr)
River of Gods by Ian McDonald (Pyr, 2006) 9781591024361
Song of Ice and Fire series George R. R. Martin (Bantam/ HarperVoyager)
The Swords of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber (Mayflower, 1970)
The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and EB White (Longman, 2000) 
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Vintage, 1993) 
The Entire and The Rose series by Kay Kenyon (Pyr)
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (Tor, 1990) 
The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan (Washington Square Press, 2003) 
The Weekend Novelest Re-Writes the Novel by Robert J. Ray (Billboard Books, 2005) 
Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells (Eos, 2000) 
Trial of Blood and Steel series by Joel Shepherd (Pyr)


Gillian Polack is based in Canberra, Australia. She is mainly a writer, editor and educator. Her most recent print publications are a novel (Life through Cellophane, Eneit Press, 2009), an anthology (Masques, CSfG Publishing, 2009, co-edited with Scott Hopkins), two short stories and a slew of articles. Her newest anthology is Baggage, published by Eneit Press (2010).One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award a long time ago, and three have (more recently) been listed as recommended reading in international lists of world's best fantasy and science fiction short stories. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to work on novels at Varuna, an Australian writers' residence in the Blue Mountains. Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney. She researches food history and also the Middle Ages, pulls the writing of others to pieces, is fascinated by almost everything, cooks and etc. Currently she explains 'etc' as including Arthuriana, emotional cruelty to ants, and learning how not to be ill. She is the proud owner of some very pretty fans, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000 books. Contact Gillian.



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