It is with great pleasure that I learned that Robin had accepted my invitation for a another little chat prior to the release of Forest Mage. Hopefully this Q&A will help you wait for the second volume of The Soldier Son trilogy. As always, it was a delight to do this with her.
Many thanks to Robin Hobb for doing this. If you follow her newsgroup, you are aware that she was incredibly busy and was afflicted by back problems this last year. Hence, I consider it a privilege to have been granted this second interview with her.
For more info about Forest Mage: Canada, USA, Europe
- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write THE SOLDIER SON trilogy in the first place?
My books usually are the result of several ideas colliding rather than a single idea sprouting up and taking root. I don’t always know all the roots they come from, but in this case I’m aware of at least two of them. One was a portrait in the lobby of a hotel that I stayed in while I was in London. And the other was when we were driving past a French cemetery, with a tall stone wall with iron points on the top. I wondered, “Are we keeping something out or keeping something in?”
- Honestly, do you believe that the fantasy genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this, to tell the truth. I write the stories that I want to tell, and I read the stories that appeal to me, and labels don’t influence me much in either writing or reading. The ‘greats’ of any genre transcend genre walls. Terry Pratchett is his own category. So is Stephen King. If you write well enough, the public doesn’t care what your roots are. They just want to read a good story. If I want to measure my popularity, then I’m more concerned about the people who walk into bookstores and libraries and walk out carrying one of my books than I am about a critical evaluation or review. I’m not disparaging critics and reviewers. They often have very good insights into books. I am saying that pleasing a critic or breaking out of a genre label isn’t high on my list of ambitions. Writing a book you can’t put down is. When I look at the bestseller lists, I see SF and fantasy holding down some very high positions. And many writers that hit that #1 spot have elements of fantasy or SF in them, even if the authors and reviewers don’t label them as such. So I don’t think that the tags matter all that much. I don’t think readers go into a store looking for a ‘respectable’ book. Fiction is more about enjoyment and interest.
- Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters do you find the most unpredictable to write about?
All of my characters are unpredictable. If they weren’t, writing about them would be far too boring. Just like the friends I choose in real life. If I could predict everything about my characters from the very beginning, then my readers probably could, too. I enjoy writing much more when I don’t know every little thing to start with. And I think readers enjoy books that can sometimes startle or surprise them.
- What made you choose to write an epic fantasy? Were there any perceived conventions you wanted to twist or break? Why do you think that epic fantasy has such a vast and fractured fanbase -- those who either rabidly support or denounce a particular author?
I wanted to tell a story, and my stories tend to be rather big and sprawling. I don’t think I made a conscious decision to tell an ‘epic’ story. As for questions about the readers supporting or denouncing a story . . . I’m afraid that doesn’t come into it for me. When I sit down in front of the keyboard and screen, I’m focused on the story, and writing it in a way that I enjoy. I do want others to read and enjoy the stories, but I don’t pay a great deal of attention to readers ‘supporting or denouncing’ a particular author. I’ll admit I go by Amazon and sometimes look at the reader reviews, but they don’t really have an impact on the creative process. For one thing, by the time those reviews are posted, it’s too late to tailor the book to those readers. They either liked it or they didn’t, and there’s nothing I can do to change it either way. It’s all in the past. Usually, they are talking about a book I wrote at least a year ago, even if it was published only a few days ago. So I don’t think there is much point in dwelling on it.
I don’t think I could write at all if I were focused on trying to please a particular set of readers. The story really dictates how it has to be told, I think. If I started bending, spindling and mutilating the story in an effort to make it appeal to a particular set of readers, I think I’d end up with a story I despised and one that no one else liked very much.
- Have the plotlines diverged much since you began writing your different series, or did you have the entire plot more or less figured out from the very beginning? Were any characters added or further fleshed out beyond your original intention? Have you made any changes to your initial plans during the course of the writing of those series?
No more so than usual. In writing any multi part story, there are changes that occur as the writing goes along. As characters develop, the writer sees better paths to tell the tale. For Soldier Son, the basic shape of the story is pretty much the same as when I started. The characters always take on greater depth during the writing; it would be a pretty bare story if they stayed as the stick figures that the outline gives. Part of the fun of writing is watching that happen.
- How would you like to be remembered as an author? What is the legacy you'll leave behind?
Hm. I don’t think I’ve given this a great deal of thought. Off the top of my head, I think the legacy I’ll leave behind will have a lot more to do with how I live my life and how I’ve influenced my children and grandchildren than it will with the books I write. I’m much too close to my own books to know if any of them will have any staying power past five or ten years, let alone past my life time. But I am almost certain that the values I give to my family will be passed down to later generations. I think of myself as a storyteller, and I think I can tell stories to this particular generation ofreaders. But whether my books will last into the future is really hard to say. I think our world is changing at a much faster rate than at any time in history, and I expect that rate of change to accelerate as the years go by. So it’s hard to tell if the stories I’m telling right now will have anything to say to readers 20 or 30 years from now. Only a tiny percentage of books have staying power. I’d have to be pretty egotistical to think that mine will make the cut.
- Do you already have plans for another fantasy series following the completion of THE SOLDIER SON trilogy? I remember you telling me that you had the idea which made you write THE TAWNY MAN while writing THE LIVESHIP TRADERS.
I have ideas, but nothing that I’m ready to talk about yet. There are always a queue of books and stories waiting to be told. The problem is deciding which one is most compelling and interesting at this time, and which ones need to stew a little longer. Sometimes the only way to find out is to try a chapter or two. And when I hit a wall and can’t tell what happens next, I know that the story needs to age a bit longer, or that perhaps there’s a piece of it that I haven’t discovered yet.
- As a writer, you have managed to surpass yourself with every new book since the publication of THE FARSEER trilogy. Is this a goal you set for yourself, to raise the bar higher for each new project?
Oh, that makes me smile. I think very many people would disagree with you! A lot of the feedback I get is from readers who want me to go back and write more about Fitz and The Fool rather than venture into new worlds, characters and stories. So I don’t think those readers would say I have ‘surpassed myself.’ But I also think that is very common, and not something for me to take too seriously.
I think every writer hopes that the new book will be better and stronger than the ones that have come before it. But I think that if a writer continues to challenge himself, he must expect that sometimes there will be failures, experiments that don’t succeed, or that he will venture into new territory where his readers may not wish to follow him. Obviously, I don’t think that a writer should flinch from trying new things and telling new stories. But I also don’t think a writer can expect the readers to be more thrilled with each new book. Some will want another helping of the same story the writer told last time. Others will be willing to try new things. And some will try the story, and either like it better or think the writer made a big mistake. All a writer can do is trying to tell a very good story every time.
- Is there a reason why you chose to join Eos/HarperCollins after spending so many years with Bantam Spectra?
Business, pure and simple. Writers (and editors) move around a lot during their careers. I began with Ace, went to Bantam, and now I’m with Harper Collins. Writers and editors look for projects that are mutually fulfilling and are a good fit. Sometimes the direction the editor takes diverges from where the author is going, or vice versa. And then people move on.
- SHAMAN'S CROSSING received some mixed reviews. Most of the criticism concerned the pace of the novel. Personally, I got the feeling that you were laying a lot of groundwork for the rest of the series and that THE SOLDIER SON could well be your most ambitious work to date. In retrospect, what are your thoughts pertaining to this?
I try not to pay too much attention to reviews. Most of the professional reviews I saw for Shaman’s Crossing were positive. Most of the readers ones on Amazon are negative. In this particular case, I think a lot of the reception has to do with reader expectations and hopes. Many readers had become comfortable in Fitz’s world and simply wanted to hear another story set there. And that wasn’t what they got. So they were disappointed. Other readers just didn’t like the book for their own individual reasons. The first book in a trilogy usually has to spend a lot of time setting up the world and the characters, and that can lead to a slower pace. I think that has been true of the first book in every trilogy I’ve written. We’ll see what people think of the second and third books.
- Last but not least, without giving anything away, what can you tell us about FOREST MAGE? What should we expect?
Oh, you know I don’t do spoilers! All I’ll say is that the story will continue to unfold, the characters will grow and change, the horizons of the story will expand--- in other words, it will be the second book of a trilogy.