An interview with Carol Berg

Written by Seregil of Rhiminee (July 29, 2009) [Articles / Interviews]

Carol Berg is an American fantasy author, who has written three fantasy series (The Rai-Kirah series, The Bridge of D'Arnath series and The Lighthouse Duet) and one standalone fantasy book (Song of the Beast). She is the winner of the 2009 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, the Prism Award, the Geffen Award and the Colorado Book Award. has had the honour of interviewing Carol Berg. You can read the interview here:


Hi Carol and thanks for allowing to interview you, and congratulations for winning the 2009 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature.

Hi there, and thank you very much. Winning the Mythopoeic was a huge honor. I'm not quite settled down yet!

How did you become interested in writing? Have you always liked writing?

Actually, I never believed I could write a book. I have always been an avid reader of many genres, fantasy and sf, mystery, spy thrillers, classics, you name it. But the idea of figuring out a complicated plot, making characters come to life, foreshadowing events so that a reader would say, "Ah-ha!" just seemed horribly difficult. For many, many years, I was content to read, and channel my creative efforts in to my work as a software engineer and my family.

How did you become a fantasy writer?

A fellow engineer at work and I often exchanged books and discussed them over lunch. One day we were talking about a fantasy book that was written in the form of letters. My friend confessed that she had always wanted to write a book and suggested that writing letters "in character" would be a fun way to practice her writing. Silly me, I agreed. It wasn't really like writing a whole book or anything!  A year and a half and sixty-four letters later, we had concocted a whole story. Terrible writing, overly melodramatic plot, but great fun, and some characters that I still love. I couldn't quit, and began work on another story, just for fun. That was in 1989. Haven't stopped since.

Was it difficult to publish your first book?

Actually, once I decided to try, it happened really fast. For a long while, I wrote solely for my own amusement, not imagining anything I put down would be good enough someone else might want to read it. But in 1998, I began a story about a musician who could sing visions. Somehow I knew this was better in every way than anything I had written. My friend and I decided to go to a writers' conference here in Colorado that spring. It was so much fun – and tremendously enlightening. A year later, I returned to the conference. Song of the Beast had won their contest for unpublished novels, and I took the opportunity to read the opening of my newest story called Transformation for an editor from Penguin Putnam. She wanted to see it when it was finished. Three days after I sent her the completed manuscript for Transformation, she bought both books, and one more not yet written.

What kind of books do you usually read? If you read fantasy books, what authors are your favourite authors? Have these authors influenced your writing style in any way?
As I said, I read across a lot of genres. My favourite authors are found both in fantasy – Ellen Kushner, Mary Stewart, Roger Zelazny, Guy Gavriel Kay – and out – Jane Austen, Dick Francis, Edith Pargeter, Mary Renault, Charles Dickens. (And many more!) And yes, these writers are my inspiration. They have taught me the beauty and use of language, and the richness of memorable characters. They impart a sense of shared adventure, of mystery, and of worlds that exist beyond the boundaries of the story. I cannot thank them enough.

Your books are refreshingly original and entertaining fantasy books. Where do you get new and fresh ideas for your books?

Most of the time I begin with an image of a character in a bad situation – a handsome, arrogant young warrior riding through the desert, as if bound for a great destiny, though I know he is currently unworthy of it (whatever it is) or my poor musician getting released after seventeen years of torment still not knowing why he had been imprisoned. Or I get struck by something I hear, like a news feature on our National Public Radio entitled The Last Lighthouse that gets me thinking about lighthouses and what they do. Which, of course, led to the development of the Lighthouse Duet. As to the events in the unfolding plot, I come up with them along the way, always trying to think: what would these people really do, and how can I turn these events upon their heads.

What elements do you consider to be an essential part of a good fantasy book?

For me,

  1. characters that live and breathe, who have all the qualities of humans (even if they are not quite human).
  2. intelligent, likeable heroes and heroines who are not all-powerful or all-knowing. 
  3. a world that hangs together logically, that while I am reading, makes me believe it could exist, even including its fantastic elements.

When you write about a new fantasy world and new characters, do you have to do research before you start writing?

I always do research. I believe a fantasy world is only as real as its details are plausible. But I don't necessarily do it before I write. I wrote a great deal of the rai-kirah books before I felt the need to research desert cultures and cavalry raids and sword combat and so forth. First, I had to figure out what I needed to learn.

The lighthouse books required a little more up front – mostly about medieval monasteries, as I knew the story was going to begin there. I also read a great book called The Year 1000 (Lacey and Danziger, 2000), and some others like Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization to give me a feel for a world in the grips of change. The gritty details about pig stripping, ink making, dance training, and Europe's Little Ice Age, I researched along the way.

Are your characters completely fictional or do they resemble real people? Which of your characters resembles you most?

Though I hope they seem real, I don't model my characters on living persons. Of course all authors bring what they know about human nature to character-building. But what we observe about our friends and acquaintances is so often superficial, and I want to dig deeper, build an inner life that will generate the choices and reactions that I want my characters to display.

My works would be very boring if any character resembled me. But I would say that if I share characteristics with any of them, it would be with Jen from Daughter of Ancients. She loves her family, is good at math, and not so good at extraordinary things. She gets riled up about politics and the state of the world, but feels pretty helpless to do anything about it most of the time, and she has those few awkward physical things she can’t get over (hers is heights, mine is walking over rushing rivers on logs).  But she accomplished more than she expected and came up with some talents that surprised even herself. Those parts could be me.

Which of your characters do you like most?

Oh, that is like asking which of my children I like the most!  Right now, Valen is my delight. But Portier, Dante, and Ilario...coming in The Spirit Lens...are waving their hands at me. And then there is Seyonne...and Aleksander. Aidan is incurably romantic, and I loved Gerick from when he was a troubled ten-year-old, all the way to maturity. And that's not even getting in to the secondary characters like Saverian and Jen and Paulo... Nope. It's impossible to answer that.

Have you ever encountered a writer's block during your writing process? If you have, how did you overcome it?

There are certainly days when the words don't flow easily. But when writing under a deadline, I cannot let that stop me in my tracks. Sometimes I just have to stick the fingers on the keys and push them. One word, one sentence at a time. The act of writing itself can serve to get the ideas flowing, even if it is a piece you eventually throw out.

If I find substantial difficulty in moving forward, it's often because I've taken the wrong track or I'm trying to push something in that just doesn't work. There are many ways to approach this. Mainly, I have to step back and put on my analytical hat. Make a list. String together "who knows what at this stage of the story." Sometimes I go out to lunch with a friend who is an incredible listener, and I paraphrase the story thus far, and she'll ask questions and force me to explain – which can lead to all sorts of insights.  Writing is hard. There are more days when it's hard than when it's easy, so you have to have all these tricks in your arsenal.  You cannot just stop and take a holiday.

You've written three fantasy series (The Rai-Kirah series, The Bridge of D'Arnath series and The Lighthouse Duet) and one standalone fantasy book (Song of the Beast), which was published after The Rai-Kirah series. Did it feel different to write a standalone book? Have you ever considered to write more standalone books?

I really can't say, as I wrote Song of the Beast before all the series books. For me, mostly what happens is that I think I'm writing a standalone and then the story gets too big and too complicated for one book. Happened with Transformation and with Flesh and Spirit, both of which started out to be standalones. Will I write another standalone? No clue. I've certainly nothing against them.

Have you ever considered writing something else than fantasy? If you have, what kind of books would you write?

Not really. I adore fantasy. It is such a grand canvas. Its prescriptions are very minor and one can incorporate all the delights of other genres – mystery, romance, action/adventure, historical fiction, myth, domestic complexities, and so forth. The Spirit Lens is essentially a double-agent murder mystery, set in a Renaissance-like world where science is displacing magic. It is unfortunate that many readers believe that fantasy is somehow less worthy than "realistic" fiction. They are missing out on so many fine writers.

You've won the Prism Award, the Geffen Award and the Colorado Book Award, and now you've won the 2009 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. Were you surprised to hear that The Lighthouse Duet had won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award?

I was dumbfounded and thrilled and humbled and gratified. When I said it was an honor just to be listed with the other finalists, I wasn't kidding. Yes, certainly, I believe in the lighthouse books. In many ways I consider them to be my best works, and the themes and execution, I think, put them in the "mythopoeic" realm. If I had a dream in the publishing realm, it was to create something worthy to be in the company of the works on the Mythopoeic list.

The Lighthouse Duet is a fascinating fantasy duology with an interesting main character. How did you come up with the idea of writing this duology?
As I mentioned, I heard this news feature about the last manned lighthouse in the US. It wasn't the story so much as the title that intrigued me. It reminded me about a historical novel I once read where a young Roman soldier is standing in the lighthouse at Dover watching the last Roman ship leaving Britain. That was a striking image. I asked myself if anyone in Britain or western Europe had the breadth of vision to know what that departing ship meant.  Which got me thinking about monasteries and preservation and dark ages and disasters. And eventually my mind wandered into a monastery and I saw a good looking young man prostrate on the floor as if about to take holy orders and mumbling, "What the hell am I doing here?" That, of course, was Valen. My stories always take off from a character.

Your new book, The Spirit Lens (the first book of The Collegia Magica series), will be published next year. Can you tell us something about this book? What kind of book will it be?

I hope this will be fun and a bit different for my readers. This is definitely a double-agent mystery, set in world experiencing an explosion of scientific discovery much like the early 17th century. Magic, already on the wane, is getting shoved aside. A librarian, who happens also to be a failed student of magic and a poor relation to the king, gets called in to pursue an investigation into an attempt on the king's life. The inquiry needs to be undercover, because the last man who tried to look into matters has disappeared. And the king really needs someone who has knowledge of magic, because the evidence left from the attempt implicates a sorcerer. Our librarian, Portier, a very smart fellow even though he can't actually do magic, gets saddled with a ridiculous partner, a foppish young noble who can "open doors" in the court society. He chooses another partner for himself, a very talented, brooding sorcerer from outside the collegia magica circles, who can actually use magic that Portier cannot. These three pursue the evidence, and, as you might suspect, discover a plot with implications far beyond the life or death of one man.

What kind of future plans do you have besides The Collegia Magica series?
I'm not great at working on multiple projects at a time. I just wrote a short piece – a novelette – set in the Song of the Beast aftermath. I hope to see that in print sometime soon. Maybe I'll think of a few more short pieces, but I'm committed to this series through 2011, so who knows what I'll come up with after?

What do you do when you're not writing?

I live at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. I love spending time in the mountains, whether hiking, biking, driving, camping, or working at a writers' retreat. I enjoy participating in science fiction conventions and writers' conferences, as well as watching movies and reading and sporadic cooking binges. My husband and I enjoy spending time with our sons and their families – the best times being when we can combine family events with the mountains.

Here's the last question. Is there anything you'd like to say your readers and fans?

Thanks for reading. Thanks for encouraging me to continue. Thanks for letting me know your reactions.  And thanks for spreading the word about my books. That's the only way a "small" author, as I am, gets to keep doing this.

Thanks for the interview, Carol. It has been an honour to interview you. I wish you good luck with your future projects.