Jane Lindskold is a renowned writer of both fantasy and science fiction, and author of Athanor, Firekeeper Saga, Breaking the Wall, and Captain Ah-Lee series of novels and novellas. SCIFI.radio’s correspondent Ivan Majstorovic was able to interview her on her writing and career in both fiction and nonfiction work.
Let me get some things out of the way for starters. In my interviews I always ask writers on their opinion on modern media and how to get young people to read more. What would be your take on the issue?
I think young people read more than is generally thought. Certainly, they don’t deserve to be singled out as “non-readers,” when fewer and fewer adults are choosing to curl up with a good book. That said, most of the young people I know who are readers come from backgrounds where someone they respect reads.
So the simple solution is, if you want to encourage reading, be a reader yourself. Give books as gifts. Read the books you give, then be available for book chat.
Many years ago, I noticed my young niece—I think she was about eleven at the time— was reading The Hunger Games. Although I’m a fan of YA lit, I hadn’t read that book because the premise turned me off. So I asked my niece how she felt about a book that centered around kids killing other kids. Her response was “Well, it’s really not all that much like that.”
Her statement fascinated me, so I decided to give the book at try. What do you know? My niece was right. Hunger Games was the most sanitized book and emotionally painless book about genocide ever.
Kids may not have the vocabulary to express complex ideas, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have complicated ideas or aren’t worthy of book chat. Read with them; talk with them. You’ll not only create readers, you’ll also have a terrific time.
You have a PhD in English concentrating on Medieval, Renaissance, and Modern British Literature. I must assume that it includes Beowulf. Do you think modern Fantasy genre takes much inspiration from those early heroic poems? Or even earlier sources like Gilgamesh, Iliad, and the Odyssey? Does the Arthurian cycle also fuel some of the modern Fantasy tropes?
I’ve read all of the above, and, yes, Beowulf, in both modern translation and the original Old English.
Given that these works are among the backbones of Western cultural myth and folklore, of course they have influenced modern Fantasy—and Science Fiction as well. For example, the emphasis on the solitary hero or leader comes out of this tradition. So does the semi-divine hero. So does the idea of divine forces playing games with humanity. All of these and more could be traced back to these sources.
The Arthurian cycle has a special place in both Fantasy and SF, with entire series recounting it, retelling it, and/or using characters from it. King Arthur is a character in my Changer and Changer’s Daughter (aka Legends Walking). In those novels, he lives in New Mexico and tries with only moderate success to reign over a very diverse community of immortals.
Everyone knows that for instance Star Wars takes much of its story beats from Joseph Campbell and his “hero’s journey” as seen in his Hero With a Thousand Faces. Do your heroes also follow the same journey or are there exceptions?
Nope. I never write by formula. I write from the organic motivations created by the interaction of the characters and the situation.
Your Breaking the Wall trilogy has a lot of Asian, especially Chinese influences. How do you go about researching different cultures and mythology? Do you feel understanding other cultural influences can help in better relations with different people and cultures? Do you think that is something that is needed in today’s world?
Remember that Ph.D.in Literature? I learned, while doing my academic work, how to be a very careful, very thorough, researcher. For the “Breaking the Wall” books (Thirteen Orphans, Nine Gates, Five Odd Honors), I read a tremendous amount about Chinese mythology, history, art, culture, costume, even gardens. For mah-jong, which is central to the magical system, I read at least ten books. I also play mah-jong.
As for the rest of your question? Yes. Understanding where other cultures differ is useful. Just knowing that the Chinese have five directions (they include center as a direction), not four, and that what they consider elements are different from what most “Western” cultures do, is a reminder not to be too quick to assume that every culture has the same “basic” foundation as your own.
In case you’re wondering, the Chinese elements are fire, wood, earth, metal, and water.
Understanding is always useful, although it is possible understand and still not agree.
You used to teach writing. What are some common “traps” that new writers fall into? You’ve written a book about writing called Wanderings on Writing, and also give writing tips in your blog. How was the feedback on that? Do readers and your students take your advice? Do you have any students that became published writers?
Other than panels and workshop at SF conventions, I’ve never formally taught creative writing. However, I definitely have taught composition and other forms of non-fiction writing.
I often write about writing on my blog because I love the creative process. Wanderings on Writing came about because numerous people suggested I collect some of those blogs in one place. I thought this was a good idea, picked out a selection of my columns, expanded some, and added a few completely new pieces. One of the most important pieces of new content in Wanderings on Writing is the introduction, which stresses that there is no “Golden Key” to becoming a professional writer.
That said, if there isn’t a single magic formula to getting published, there are a tremendous number of ways to not become a successful published author. I once organized a panel where we took the most common questions about how to write, how to get published, and answered them in reverse as “How NOT to Get Published.” It was a great deal of fun.
One of the most common traps that new writers fall into in the current publishing scene is getting discouraged by initial rejection, then racing into self-publishing. I am not against self-publishing—I’ve done it myself—but there are some really wince-worthy indie pub works out there that, in the days before websites like KDP or Smashwords, would have stayed quietly in the bottom drawer where they belong.
Also, it’s too easy these day to find an echo chamber of people who will reassure you that what you’ve done is perfect. “My mother loved it” is not a suitable response to being told a piece is weak, but I’ve heard it. Or, “I gave it to a kid, because it was supposed to be a kid’s book and she loved it, so it must be perfect.” Well, no, not really. The kid—like with my niece and The Hunger Games— may be able to respond on some levels, but “love” is not a helpful critique.
Since I have never formally taught creative writing, I can’t really answer your question about students who became published writers, because I don’t have that sort of continuity. I have, however, critiqued for many published writers and, on the whole, they seem grateful.
On the topic of students and mentors, you worked with the great, late Roger Zelazny. You even finished some of his unfinished works, like Donnerjack. What do you think his reaction to the world as it is today, 25 years after his passing would be, especially about the technology?
I wasn’t Roger’s student. He wasn’t my mentor. As you said, we worked “together.” Roger did read some of my early works, but he gave me very little in the way of critiques. Why? He said he felt I “had it,” and he didn’t want to turn me into a second-rate Roger Zelazny. What he did do was teach me a lot about the business side. When I sold my first short story, he sent me a tax organizer with a note clipped to the front: “Congratulations, lady. You’re a pro now. Keep track of your expenses.”
That said, I did learn a lot about writing from talking with Roger, because we both loved writing and stories (which is not always the same thing) and so we talked a lot about writing, and why a certain story we both had read worked or didn’t. Also, when I wrote a literary biography about Roger for Twayne, I asked him a lot of questions about how and why he had written certain pieces, and some of the things he told me stuck and certainly influenced me.
If Roger were around, I think he’d say I had a few things to teach him, too. Here’s an example. One of the last projects Roger took on before his death was when we were already living with each other. His agent called to say that there was a computer game company that was interested in having Roger provide the story idea for a possible computer game.
Roger said (and this is pretty much a direct quote), “I know nothing about gaming, but Jane knows a lot, so if they’ll take us both on this, I’m interested.” Aside: Roger loved variant styles of storytelling, so I’m not surprised by his interest in trying a new form.
Well, the company was interested and that’s how Chronomaster came about. The game was one of the first to have endings that varied according to how the player achieved goals. By modern standards, those varied endings weren’t much but, at the time, it was very fresh.
I firmly expected to get dumped or sidelined on the project after Roger was gone, but DreamForge Intertainment not only kept me on, they gave me a lot more involvement. I wrote most of the script, designed some of the puzzles, and served as a beta player. When I saw the opening video and how they’d turned Roger and my words into pictures, I’ll admit it, I started crying because I wished Roger was there to see it.
Roger didn’t ever really accept that he wasn’t going to beat his cancer, but as he got weaker he spoke with both his agent and his editor, telling them that if he didn’t “make it,” he wanted me to finish Donnerjack and Lord Demon. Basically, he said, “I don’t outline or like that, and Jane’s the only person who has any idea what I want to do with these books.” It helped that his editor for those projects, John Douglas, was also my editor, and that I was with the same agency.
As for what Roger would think about today? I don’t think the technological changes would surprise him at all. For a man who never worked on a computer—he was fascinated by my PC and would stand behind me and watch as I typed (no pressure, right?)—he was remarkably prescient. He read a lot about computers and technology. I think that the cyberspace he envisioned for Donnerjack back in the early 1990’s is far closer to the worldwide web of today than any of what the cyberpunks projected.
I loved Roger very, very much and, although the universe has been kind to me and given me my Jim, I don’t think a day has gone by where I haven’t wished Roger was around and we could talk about whatever… Because that’s the biggest difference between “my” Roger and the Roger almost everyone else will tell you about. Everyone says how quiet he was, but when we were together, he talked and talked, like he was making up for a lifetime of silence.
In the collection Shadows and Reflections, Roger’s daughter Shannon, who was sixteen when he died, has a short essay where she talks about her dad. This is the closest to anyone capturing the Roger I had the great pleasure to know.
You also collaborated with other authors and written stories set in other author’s literary universes. I loved your contributions to David Weber’s “Honorverse”. How do those collaborations come to pass? Is it something suggested by editors or publishers, or by authors themselves?
David Weber… Oh, David Weber. If Roger was the out-of-the-blue love I never imagined could be, David Weber is like a brother. First of all, you’ve got to understand, I always call him “Weber” because at the time I met him, I had a lot of Davids in my life, so it was just easier to call him by his surname. I’ve never gotten out of the habit, so it’s become sort of a nickname.
I met David Weber at a convention in South Carolina. Big, effusive, full of kindness and enthusiasm… He still had a ponytail then. He had one and half-novels published. I had one short story. In fact, I think the first autograph I ever signed was for Sharon Rice (who is now Sharon Rice-Weber) who was managing a bookstore where there was a group signing I went to because Roger was signing. She heard I had published a story, found the anthology, and got me to sign it.
Weber and I somehow clicked. He’d call. We’d talk. A lot. Weber is very talkative, but what many people don’t realize is how carefully he listens. One day he called to say that his car had broken down and he was on the outskirts of the small town in Virginia where I then lived. I took him home with me. He stayed for a week because his car was so old that they actually had to make the part to fix it. This long stay only made us better friends.
When I moved to New Mexico to live with Roger, Weber and I stayed in touch. When Roger died, well… One of the key people who got me through the grief and pain and darkness, was Weber. He called every day, and this was before free long distance. One day we talked for hours because (as I learned after) he was worried about how bleak my mood was and was determined to make me laugh before he let me go.
There’s never been anything romantic for either of us; we’re just really good pals. In fact, Weber is the one who kept me from running scared when I realized I was falling for Jim. I talked Weber through his divorce, and then through his courtship of Sharon—and later on through the long and often difficult road to parenthood. We don’t talk as much now that he has a family and lots and lots of projects, but I still value him as a friend, not just someone who I work with sometimes.
So, collaboration with Weber came out of friendship. We disagree from time to time, because on many levels we’re very different kinds of storytellers, but we deeply respect each other and each other’s works, so I think we always have the goal of compromise that will make for the best possible story, not for getting our own way.
I should note that we’re currently working on new books in our “Star Kingdom” series.
As for the other collaborations… Hmm… Fred Saberhagen is the only other person I’ve truly collaborated with in the sense that we both wrote the story. I’d been invited to an anthology called Man Vs Machine and, of course, Berserkers came to mind. When I learned from the anthology editor that he didn’t have Fred on his initial invitation list (and was kicking himself for being so dumb), I offered Fred my slot. Fred suggested we collaborate, and we did. The anthology came out shortly after Fred died…
Steve (S.M.) Stirling is a friend, so the work I’ve done in his universe is by his invitation. Other times I’ve been approached by an editor or packager. Chuck Gannon, who you have also interviewed, and who I have known since the days of the dinosaurs (okay, since I was a college undergrad), invited me into a few projects. So, it varies. Mostly I don’t try to find opportunities to write in other people’s universes because, since I am determined to get the details right, the amount of research and reading I will do to capture the “feel” of that other world is counterproductive.
I’ve read in some of your earlier interviews that you “hate” the literary tropes and tools that make great literature? “art”. As I’ve understood it, there is a difference between literary “art” and literary “fun”. Do you think some SF & F authors can be seen as “art”? What are the basic differences between “fun” and “art” literature?
This is complicated. What I “hate” are writers who—like James Joyce, especially in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake— believe that stylistic tricks substitute for a sophisticated plot and well-developed characters. Certainly, I couldn’t love Roger Zelazny’s work as much as I do if I “hated” literary flourishes.
The difference is, Roger never let use of stream of conscious narration, prose poetry, and other tricks he took from what was already common in literary fiction (but very new in SF/F) substitute for telling a ripping good story.
So, of course SF and F can be art. In fact, we’re seeing mainstream “literary” authors borrowing from what is “old hat” in SF/F and getting praised through the roof for including time travel or alternate universes, simply because the literary establishment doesn’t realize that such things have been around for decades.
There is no difference between “fun” and “art” literature except for time. My Child of a Rainless Year has been called literary fiction. Although I appreciate the compliment, I didn’t approach it any differently than I do anything else I write.
Authors who, like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, are termed “literary” today were read by general audiences in their time. Shakespeare filled theaters with people who went to see his plays because they were fun.
Time, not the judgement of professors, is the only judge of what will last and what will fade away. With that in mind, I write what I want to, and leave worrying to others.
What is it about New Mexico and writers? George R. R. Martin, Cormack McCarthy, even D.H. Lawrence, among many others and of course you, chose New Mexico as a place of residence and writing. Is it the climate?
I moved to New Mexico because that’s where Roger lived and neither of us thought it was a great idea to go far from his kids, at least until they were out of school. After Roger died, I stayed in New Mexico because there is an active and vital writing community here. It’s nice having people with whom I can talk about writing without first having to explain the differences between an editor and a publisher, an agent and a packager, or whatever.
I also liked that New Mexico is multi-cultural from the foundations up. I was born in Washington, D.C., went to college (and then grad school) in New York, and have always been more comfortable in a non-homogeneous environment.
Later, when I married my husband, Jim Moore, I had the added incentive to stay in New Mexico because his work—he’s an archeologist—is firmly centered in New Mexico. By now, I’ve lived here longer than in any other place. It’s home. I’ll likely be here for a long time to come.
I know why George moved here, but that’s his story to tell, not mine. D.H. Lawrence (I did my doctoral dissertation on aspects of his work) was attracted by many things, including what he perceived as a closer to the psyche landscape than he found in Europe, as well as the clear light, which inspired him to paint. I can’t speak to Cormack McCarthy!
Also, what’s with the wolves? Both you and George R.R. Martin feature wolves in your stories. Somehow I pictured New Mexico having coyotes, not wolves. (I just googled about wolves in New Mexico and to my surprise, there are 131 Mexican gray wolves in the wild in New Mexico… things one can learn…).
I think there are now six or eight more Mexican gray wolves, since our zoo’s pack just had puppies.
Actually, I have written coyotes as characters in my novels Changer and Changer’s Daughter (originally published as Legends Walking, but given its original title in the reissue). I like coyotes and sometimes see them in my neighborhood.
However, wolves… I don’t know exactly when my fixation with wolves began, but it goes back to when I was in single digits. My mom gives credit to Kipling’s Jungle Books, and maybe she’s right.
My dad (who was a lawyer with the Justice Department’s Lands and Natural Resources division) worked on a case having to do with protecting the wolves in Alaska. I remember asking him, “Dad, if they don’t want them, I’ll take care of them.” So, you can see, I was very young indeed when I began to love wolves.
I grew up being told over and over that if I ever met a “real” wolf, I wouldn’t like them at all. However, this wasn’t true. I’ve not only met wolves, I’ve been licked on the face by them, been chased by them, and find them amazing. When my finances permit, I support a local wolf sanctuary.
My Firekeeper Saga didn’t begin with my deciding I was going to write about wolves. My then editor, John Douglas at Avon, who bought my first several novels, suggested that I should consider writing a series. Up until that time, I’d written stand-alone novels. I then started thinking about concepts that would invite different adventures. I’ve never been a fan of claustrophobic series that milk one concept, one crisis, to death. I much prefer exploration and discovery. I’m also fascinated by perception—especially what influences who we think we are. Eventually, I came up with a list of possible ideas for series. Jim and I talked about them. Eventually I narrowed down to a series about a feral human discovering the human world. However, I felt that Tarzan and The Jungle Books had already perfected what you might call the “first contact” aspect, so I wanted a larger problem as the focus.
Initially, I went back and forth between SF or Fantasy, but Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land had already done human raised by aliens, and that was a big shadow to work under. So I opted for Fantasy, and from there to an epic fantasy, sword and sorcery setting—no elves, no dwarves, no gnomes—just humans and the natural world.
I considered many creatures by which Firekeeper could be raised, but in the end wolves fit both my needs and the desires of my heart. I’ve never regretted going there. Also, I was determined that this was not going to be an “animal companion” story, that the animals would have their own agency, history, and agendas. My new Firekeeper Saga adventures, Wolf’s Search and Wolf’s Soul, are very much about Blind Seer, the main wolf character in the series, achieving some of his goals.
As for George, oddly enough, we’ve never talked about wolves.
OK, joking aside, you employ a lot of animal motifs in your books. You have Royal animals in your Firekeeper saga, animals of the Chinese zodiac in “Breaking the Wall,” and so on. Are animals depicted differently in different cultures? Or are there some traits that are constant across cultures? Are wolves always noble? Are bears always lazy? Snakes duplicitous? Or is it culturally defined?
I like animals, so that’s why I write about them. I’m also good with them in real life because I go out of my way to understand them and how they see the world. I think you can see that in my books. Therefore, you’re never going to find cultural stereotypes shaping how animals are depicted in my books. I do my research SF style, looking at biology, ecology, etc.
I once was a speaker at a science conference where one of the poster presentations was about wolves. I’d read every book on the person’s bibliography. Among the many compliments I have received about the Firekeeper Saga, the ones that touch me deeply are from people who work with wild animals and thank me for depicting them as what they are—not as thinly disguised humans.
Getting back to your question… Yes. Animals are depicted differently in different cultures. A great example is the rat. In most western cultures, rats are depicted as dirty, sneaky, destructive creatures. The Chinese, however, see rats as intelligent, good providers, and highly capable. Every family hopes for a Rat Year child.
Snakes are another interesting example. Doubtless influenced by the Bible, snakes are usually depicted in Western culture as evil, scheming, and duplicitous. However, the Chinese see them as clever and diplomatic, even as very loyal. Snakes are the partners of dragons in the zodiac, and partake in some of the same wisdom.
Until recently, wolves were rarely depicted as noble, but rather as vicious and cruel. You see that in fairytales, in language—in English neither “wolfing” or “wolfish” are complimentary terms. I still wince when I read a book where a human villain or thug is described as “wolflike” for possessing traits no real wolf has.
Interestingly, many cultures see foxes as tricksters, whether the French Reynard, the American Brer Fox, or the Japanese kitsune. I’d hazard that this is because, as non-peak predators, foxes need to be clever to survive, and that cleverness has been recognized by humans.
It is an open secret online that you are an avid gamer. Is it just pen and paper RPG’s or do you play computer ones also? Any favourite settings? Classes? Races? Do you feel that being a gamer is a factor that some people are feeling ostracized in the modern society? Are media portrayals of gamers negative? Or is it just that gamers, with their active imaginations tend to be portrayed as “nerdy” and socially maladjusted??
Wow, I never knew that it was a secret—open or not—that I am a gamer. I’ve certainly never hidden my involvement. I discovered RPGs as a freshman in college and I’ve been a gamer pretty much constantly. I do play computer games as well. Jim and I often play the same game together, not against each other, and quite enjoy solving puzzles, fighting battles, and winning treasure.
Favorite settings? Hmm… Not really. I’ve played in a lot of different settings: historical, fantasy, science fiction, anime-ish, and contemporary law enforcement. As long as the story is good and the character interesting, I’m hooked. I’m not really fond of class-based systems. I prefer skill-based. No particular races either.
No, I don’t think gaming has anything to do with being awkward or ostracized. My current gaming group includes a medical Ph.D. who is working on her M.D.; a paralegal; a dentist; and a sign language translator who is studying to specialize in medical translation or perhaps transition completely into medicine. Oh, yeah, and my archeologist husband. This is hardly the stereotypical “nerds with no social skills living in their parents’ basement.”
Yes. There are negative stereotypes of gamers, but there are negative stereotypes of a lot of things. That doesn’t mean they’re true or even reflect the bulk of the population. If one believed movies, most cops and doctors have drug and alcohol issues.
All gamers are not socially maladjusted nerds, but that makes for a good laugh on T.V.
What are your favourite authors? Books? Movies? Other Media?
I don’t have any favorite authors. On my website, www.janelindskold.com, under “Neat Stuff,” there is a not at all complete list of SF/F books I really like. I also enjoy classic mysteries. I read a lot of non-fiction, including history and biography, but actually whatever catches my attention. Every Friday for the last couple of years I’ve posted what I’m reading that week to my blog. It’s a pretty representative survey of my eclectic choices.
I’m not a big movie buff. They take too much time. I’d rather be reading or gaming or doing crafts than just sitting watching something. My favorite visual media is anime. I’ve been an anime fan for long enough that I remember when you had to explain to someone what you were talking about, then go on to explain that in Japan animation isn’t automatically meant for kids, not even when it’s visually cute. I prefer anime subtitled, rather than dubbed, so I guess you could say that even my viewing time involves reading.