Cat Hellisen and I go way back, all the way back to Cape Town's Sanctuary nights at the old Purple Turtle during the late 1990s where DJ Reanimator used to spin Bauhaus and Einstuerzende Neubauten ... okay, no, wait, that's ancient prehistory. But it's safe to say we've known each other for years, and Cat's one the people who's helped inspire me to attain the highs (and helped keep me going through the lows) of this thing called SFF publishing.
Not only is she the creator of some of the most profound, nuanced fantasy I've read in recent years, she also possesses a keen understanding of SFF as a genre, and I value her opinion when it comes to our discussions about this industry. If you've yet to check out her novels, go take a gander at her Amazon page.
So, without further ado, here's a transcript of a little dialogue we had this week, in which we discuss world building, theme and trends in SFF...
ND: Stories and the world around you – I've loved recognising bits of the world I know in your stories (like Pelimburg in your Hobverse) or even the way you've portrayed Joburg in Charm. With your recent move to Scotland, are there parts of your new space that inspire you? That may creep into the story?
CH: I'm very much influenced by my environment (to the point that you can tell which of my books are written in what season) so there are definitely elements that are going to take root in the story soil. The book I'm working on now has a quasi-European setting, so it kinda helps to be in Scotland. Not that the landscape is Scottish particularly, but I know exactly what a jackdaw sounds like now, and elements like that will inform the text. It's also pretty amazing to be in a country where I can go walk around the ruins of castles and forts, where ancient churches are as much a part of the landscape as shopping malls. To be able to get close-up looks at old stone work and so on, or go into the caves where Saint Margaret went to pray - they help with building a mental picture for me as I write.
ND: Do you have any idée fixes? For instance, reading Marguerite Poland’s books, she often brings in the theme of birds that convey a theme. Are there any favourite, small details in real life that have crept into your stories – little Easter eggs as such that people have picked up on?
CH: I don't know if I'd call them idée fixes, but there are definitely recurring elements from my psychological landscape that litter my writing and I do rather like that. I always think of JG Ballard and his empty swimming pools, or John Irving and his bears. I don't set out to incorporate these motifs, but they're obviously things I fixate on: labyrinths, and the Space Between Worlds (which sometimes doubles as the labyrinth), masks, birds, and water. As far as themes go, I remember someone once telling me that my constant theme is broken boys saving each other, which is a little unfair because my girls are just as broken, but they wear better masks.
ND: We appear to be seeing what appears to be a new wave of readers (and authors) of SFF who're getting into the genre in the wake successes like Twilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, yet when I've spoken to them, very few have heard of classics such as Ursula K LeGuin, CJ Cherryh, Katharine Kerr and others of their ilk. I know this discussion crops up often online on the lists, but if you had to make a checklist of must-read fantasy authors, who would you suggest and why do you think it's so important for others to read outside of their comfort zone?
Weightless Books is an ebook store that stocks a range of good small press work.
I also encourage people to read widely on the subjects that fascinate them and go right back to the key works in that field. The more you know about the world and history and politics, the more informed and nuanced your work will be.
ND: What are some of the issues you pick up in contemporary SFF that you suspect are related to the paucity of authors’ source material? For instance I’ve encountered so many writers who’ve been inspired because they’ve read Twilight or The Hunger Games, and that is pretty much the first experience they’ve had with truly reading – and now they want to go out and create. Yet in one case, a lady returned to me saying that when I’d turned her onto reading Wuthering Heights, she’d struggled because of the unfamiliar vocabulary. And her writing showed this paucity that no amount of editing could fix.
CH: It depends what you're reading. Yes, some of the larger houses put out work that is strained by the writer's lack of familiarity with the genre, and these books end up reinventing the wheel, or serving us the same old pap in a plastic bowl, but there is also great stuff coming out, often from smaller presses. As you say though, the great stuff with the better ideas and higher level of writing comes from writers who are readers, and you can spot it instantly in their work. They are the writers who make Classical references that they expect their readers to get without hand-holding, or whose books are a conversation with the stories that have come before. They use language skilfully and play with words in a way a less-well read writer simply can't.
It's become a bit of a cliche to say it, but I believe that you cannot be a decent writer if you are not first and foremost a reader.
ND: Do you think the bigger houses should (or would) look at starting up smaller, boutique imprints or do you think those small presses and co-operatives that are starting up in this literary vacuum are going to fill that need for readers and authors? Considering, especially, the high overheads attached to even bringing out an anthology (there are hidden costs readers generally aren't aware of). What do you see as a possible future for publishing.
I am very excited about the co-operative model because I think this is where the mid-listers are going to congregate. In recent years the concept of the mid-list author who is not a household name, but built up a decent fan base over a collection of novels, and now sells consistently, has all but been eradicated. You either make it big out the box, or you're dumped for the next New Author Who Might Make It Big. Writing generally improves over time, so writers aren't really getting the opportunity anymore to build their audience and develop their voice. And I think that's where co-ops and small presses are going to come in.
ND: One thing that I've always appreciated about your writing is its layering and nuance – how do you approach this?
CH: Thank you kindly! It goes back to the reading non-fiction thing. Being curious about the world you actually live in is a great way to enrich your imaginary worlds. And twitter is not the world. Go walk outside, go explore aimlessly, go to the library and grab a book from the history section that looks interesting. Find out about your family secrets and stitch them into your own stories.
On a writing level, I approach it by revising, revising, revising. I need all that information in my brain to get embroidered into my writing, and that only happens with revision. Layering is one of the most important aspects of revision - going in and reworking the warp and weft, strengthening the story where it needs strengthening, unravelling the bits that are tangled nonsense. To drag this metaphor on to its inevitable conclusion - you don't make story out of just cloth tacked together, you need shape, you need strengthened seams, you need hidden pockets, silk linings, buttons and embroidery.
ND: I’ve always tried to explain to authors that adding layering is about engaging the physical senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell – but also about engaging with emotion and intellect. Often writers think it’s fine to have a ‘laundry list’ of descriptions but don’t quite immerse how environment or events relate to the character. How would you suggest they break through this barrier to making their writing flow?
CH: Ah, the laundry list. Description of physicality and mannerisms is not characterisation. If a person had to describe me as only "a loud chubster with dyed red hair, wearing mum-jeans." It might be accurate on some level, but it would tell you nothing about who I am. It would be fine if you were writing me as a once-off character who merely imparts some information to our Intrepid Hero, but if I was a main or secondary character, there needs to be more there to make me a human, to make me a character the reader feels they know.
That means adding dimensions that are more than just surface, superficial description. I talk about interiority - what emotion do they feel, how does it physically affect them, what do they sense. "Get inside their head" is a favourite critique which I think you know I've levelled at more than a few betas. Ask yourself questions about why a character does something in your book - build them a back story. Write it down if necessary. But a real character has a history, and it lies under the surface of everything you write about them, and informs every on-page decision they make.
ND: And for you, if you had to pick some of your all-time favourite characters/characterisation, who is this and why do you think the author nails it in this particular case(s).
CH: Ah wow this is a tough one. So many good works out there, and what's a favourite? My favourites change over time, though there are a few constants. I'm a sucker for a certain character type, I won't pretend otherwise. I love Howl and Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle, Pie'oh'pah from Barker's Imagica, Tenar (and Ged) from The Tombs of Atuan. Actually, Ged is a very good example of a character who grows and changes through the books. In A Wizard of Earthsea, he is cocksure and difficult to like, and power gives him an arrogance that ultimately is his downfall. I like Ged better in Atuan, where he's a little wiser and a little more broken. If you read the Under the Poppy trilogy by Kathe Koja, following her two puppeteers and sometime spies, you get a pretty good idea of the characters I love.
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