For 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.
So 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?
I 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.
Grayling’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!”