On Fantasy: Susan Fletcher

Susan FletcherFor a few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this blog is featuring a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. Today, you can read Susan Fletcher’s answers. She’s the author of many fine books, including Alphabet of Dreams.

Q: What was (is) the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: Some fantasy writers revel in the details of the geography, costume, politics, technology and architecture of their made-up worlds. Me? Not so much. I love fantasy, but what come naturally to me are character, dialog, language—things like that. Designing an entire fantasy world from whole cloth is really daunting to me.

Flight of the Dragon KynSo I pick up great whole chunks of the “real” world for use in my fantasy novels. Elythia in my dragon books is based on the country Wales. (Loosely.) Kragrom is medieval Scandinavia. (Sort of.) Eric Kimmel loaned me a beautiful coffee table book on the Vikings, and I borrowed liberally from that.  There are three caves in my dragon books, and each is based on a real cave that I have visited. Dragon’s Milk‘s cave is a lava tube in central Oregon. Flight of the Dragon Kyn‘s cave is a huge cavern in southern Oregon. Sign of the Dove‘s cave is a sea cave on the Oregon coast. The draclings (not coincidentally) resemble my old cat Nimbus, the way they thrum in their throats and knead Kaeldra’s legs with their talons.

I pilfer—steal—so liberally from the real world partly because my imagination is not up to the task of creating a whole world all by itself, and partly because I believe that connecting my fantasy worlds to this one helps to make them feel real.

For me, world creation in fantasy is not so very different from world creation in historical fiction. In both cases, you fashion your fictional worlds from a combination of research, imagination, and alchemy!

Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

A: In fantasy, you have the advantage of freedom; you can design your fictional worlds to fit the needs of your characters and their stories. In my dragon novels, for instance, I didn’t have to research medieval politics or ship building techniques in a particular time and place. By contrast, the historical novel I am writing now takes place specifically in 1252 A.D., and I have to know exactly who was the king of where, and what languages were spoken in the various locales where my characters find themselves, and whether, on a ship voyage, passengers would sleep above or below decks.

But the freedom of writing fantasy comes with a price. And the price is that your fantasy world has to make sense on its own terms. And part of what this entails is a coherent magic system. You have to create the rules—and stick to them. Rules in which the magic is internally logical, has clear limits, and has a significant price.

Q: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your book? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

The MoorchildI read a bit of fantasy as a child but began to delve into it seriously later on, when I began writing for kids and young adults. Some of my early favorites were Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a masterpiece I have loved ever since the first time I read it, when I was in college. The books of David Almond and Philip Pullman were later favorites. But I think that the fantasy novel I love most is Eloise McGraw’s The Moorchild. Eloise was a friend, and in Moorchild she was writing at the peak of her considerable powers. Saaski, the protagonist, is half-human and half-folk, and doesn’t really belong in either world. The Moorchild is about being different from those around us—something we’ve all felt. It is about the difficulty and necessity of finding one’s place in the world, and living with integrity—all of which speak to me.

Q: Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A: Oh, definitely: Shahrazad! I didn’t invent her; she is the heroine of the legend on which I based my novel Shadow Spinner. But what a wonderful character she is! Shahrazad is probably the most famous storyteller of all time, so I would talk with her about the art of telling stories. Because she told stories in order to save her own life, I would ask her about capturing the interest of listeners (or readers), keeping them engaged, and designing compelling cliffhangers. Because she had to come up with something new to tell for 1001 consecutive nights, I would talk to her about generating new ideas, being prolific, and meeting deadlines. Because she was telling stories in order to reform the character of a wicked king, I would talk to her about the conundrum of writing a “moral story,” a story that articulates meaning in a significant way without hitting listeners (or readers) over the head with a preachy moral. And then we would toss down some sharbat and just generally dish the dirt.

Thank you, Susan, for sharing your thoughts about fantasy as well as your book recommendations. I encourage you to read all of Susan books, including her most recent, Falcon in the Glass. She’s a wonderful story spinner. Learn more about Susan on her website.

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bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song was published June 7th and is available from Clarion Books, your favorite bookseller, and your local library. The BNKids blog said, “Readers who love taking their time to explore sometimes creepy, sometimes wonderfully magical fantasy worlds will be charmed. Grayling is one of the most relatable young heroines I’ve read about for ages. Give this one to a daydreamy nine or ten year old, who could use a bit of inspiration to set off with courage on their own perilous journey through adolescence!”

Associate: installmentloansbase.com

On Fantasy: Susan Cooper

Susan CooperFor the next few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this blog is featuring a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. Today, you can read Susan Cooper’s answers. She’s the author of many fine books, including the Newbery Medal-winning The Grey King.

Q: What was (is) the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: On the whole, it’s American writers who build a fantasy world; the British ones (including me) tend instead to bring fantasy into the real world.  Maybe it’s because we grew up in time-haunted islands full of mysterious reminders of 3,000 years of ancestors; if you visit Stonehenge in the middle of the night, as I once did, you can believe almost anything could happen there. The hard thing—but also the most fun—is to make your reader believe that the real world can also contain magic.

Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

A: I seem to be incapable of writing a realistic novel. I began life as a newspaper reporter, and I’ve written biographies and other non-fiction books, but whenever I write fiction, my imagination gives me fantasy—even in books set in the historical past, like King of Shadows and Victory. The only exception was Dawn of Fear, a book about World War 2,  but that wasn’t truly fiction because it was almost totally autobiographical.

The Dark is RIsingQ: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your books? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

A: I was born a loooong time ago, so I grew up reading myth and legend and folktale rather than fantasy novels, and I don’t have a favorite. But I remember E. Nesbit’s books, like The Phoenix and the Carpet, and two fantasies by the English poet John Masefield, called The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights. I read Tolkien when I was at university; he lectured to us on Beowulf, and after a lovely shout of the poem’s first two lines in Anglo-Saxon, he mumbled. C.S.Lewis gave lectures too (on Renaissance literature) and was much easier to hear, because he boomed. I read his adult science fiction novels, but not the Narnia books.

Q: Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A: Since you have to think yourself inside the head of every character you invent, you know most of them as well as you know yourself. The only exception for me is Merriman Lyon, in the Dark is Rising sequence: he’s mysterious, remote, perhaps unknowable. But I’d never have the courage to invite him to dinner.

Thank you, Susan, for sharing your experiences and insight. I encourage you to read all of Susan Cooper’s books, including The Dark is Rising Sequence and Green Boy, as well as the others she mentions. Learn more about Susan Cooper on her website.

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bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song will be available on June 7th from Clarion Books and your favorite bookseller. The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books said “The language gives the book the atmospheric flavor of historical fiction, and the land itself is wild and mysterious, exactly the type of place where magic could happen, children could wander around trying to fix the world, and tiny mice could shapeshift into mighty protectors if fed the right potion.”

On Fantasy: Will Alexander

For the next few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this space will feature a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. First up, Will Alexander.

Will AlexanderQ: What is the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: Getting lost. I’m not sure that I build fantasy worlds so much as grow them in secret. Margaret Atwood compared writers to magpies. Or maybe ferrets. Both creatures collect shiny things. A pet ferret will hoard forks, coins, paper clips, and bits of foil underneath your couch.

My fantasy worlds start out as similar piles of strangely shiny ideas. I hoard them under the couch in the back of my mind. Each pile grows until it becomes a place, and then I go exploring. It’s a fun process, but inefficient. Sometimes I get lost.

Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

A: I can only guess! None of my fiction is realistic. My brain lacks the knack for realism. Goblins and/or ghosts will show up no matter what kind of story I set out to tell.

I do believe that there is a significant overlap between fantasy, history, and the two sets of fiction that use either (or both) as raw material. Ursula K. Le Guin describes that overlapping territory in her introduction to Tales from Earthsea, so I’ll defer to her wisdom:

The way one does research into nonexistent history is to tell the story and find out what happened. I believe this isn’t very different from what historians of the so-called real world do. Even if we are present at some historical event, do we comprehend it–can we even remember it—until we can tell it as a story? And for events in times or places outside our own experience, we have nothing to go on but the stories other people tell us… When you construct or reconstruct a world that never existed, a wholly fictional history, the research is of a somewhat different order, but the basic impulse and techniques are much the same. (xiv)

NomadQ: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your book? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

A: Lots. Endlessly. Especially when I was eleven. The books we read at that age change everything—maybe because we’re about to change ourselves. We can see puberty coming, and we’re justifiably scared, so we need to gather resources, explore possibilities, and explore impossibilities to figure out the sort of person we want to become.

When I was eleven I read Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, Jane Yolen, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Susan Cooper. I don’t think I can choose any one favorite from that magnificent pile of books, but I will say that Le Guin’s Earthsea taught me the most about the grownup that I wanted to turn into.

Q. Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A. Semele the goblin playwright. I suspect that we would swap backstage ghost stories. Maybe she knows why all theaters are haunted. I’ve often wondered.

Thank you, Will, for sharing your thoughts with my readers. I hope you’ll read all of Will’s masterful books but especially his most recent, Nomad, and his National Book Award-winning Goblin Secrets. Learn more about Will on his website.

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bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song will be available on June 7th from Clarion Books and your favorite bookseller. Kirkus Reviews gave it a star, “The eventual revelation of just who unleashed the destructive power manages to be simultaneously unexpected, plausible, and thought-provoking. Despite her self-doubt, Grayling is cut from the same cloth as the author’s other sturdy heroines, but she is also an entirely original and endearing character that readers will cheer on as she seeks to save her mother and return her world to rights.”

 

A list of fantasy books, part one

You may have heard. I have a fantasy novel coming out in June, Grayling’s Song. An interviewer recently asked me to recommend my ten favorite fantasy novels. Here they are, in no particular order. I’ll post them over the next few weeks. You might notice that all these novels are funny or have substantial humor in them. I don’t like a book that takes itself too seriously.

The Hobbit by J.R.R.Tolkien. I read the trilogy also but this seemed more—a funny word to use for a book about hobbits and elves and such—human.

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See: The Tolkien Library