Helen Lowe is a New Zealandian novelist, poet, broadcaster and blogger. She is the author of Thornspell and The Heir of Night (The Wall of Night, Book 1).
Risingshadow.net has had the honour of interviewing Helen Lowe.
AN INTERVIEW WITH HELEN LOWE
Can you tell us something about yourself in your own words?
I live in Christchurch, New Zealand, which is currently recovering from a major earthquake — over 1000 so far since the initial 7.1 shock on 4 September, and so may safely be called the "Shaky City". I am a novelist, poet, broadcaster and blogger, but before the writing career I worked for a long time in environmental management across a range of areas as diverse as building roads and bridges, advocating for the protection and restoration of archaeological sites, buildings and monuments, and working with Maori land rights and related issues. I hold a second degree black belt in the martial art aikido and also fenced for my university while an undergraduate. Not surprisingly for a writer, I love reading, but am also a keen cook and wine enthusiast, a gardener and occasional stargazer. I live in a 90-year old wooden house, which I share with my partner and a 17-year old cat called Ignatz (after the cartoon "Ignatz and Crazy Cat").
You're a poet and a writer. Have you always been interested in writing?
Yes, always. I loved story and reading from a very early age and started actively writing around age 8 . I have basically never stopped, although I did not start writing seriously until around eleven years ago.
What insprired you to write a book?
I think inspiration comes from so many sources: from loving books and story in all its forms and wanting to write and tell my own stories as a natural extension of that; from the "what if" ideas that can be sparked by hearing a piece of music, or seeing a new place — or an old one in a new way — or reading about some odd or amazing fact or event in the newspaper. But in the end, I had started to wake up at nights in a panic because I wasn't writing, so one day I pulled out every partial manuscript I had and thought: "Just pick one and finish it." And so I did.
What kind of books do you read? Do you have any favourite authors?
I read very widely, both fiction and non fiction, but Fantasy-Science Fiction (F-SF) and historical novels are my favourite type of story. I do have favourite authors, probably too many to list, but my top 4 books on those Top 100 lists (that booksellers and newspapers put out from time to time) are pretty much always The Lord of The Rings, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Aldous Huxley's Eyeless in Gaza. The Lord of the Rings is always first, but the other three change around a bit depending on how I feel on the day.
I blogged recently about my top three reads of last year (during which I read about 90 books, so these are the three that really stood out for me), which were: Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap, and Max Brooks' World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.
In terms of strictly Fantasy, there are again, so many authors that I love, but enduring favourites include Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana, George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones, and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. In terms of Kids/YA reads I still rate CS Lewis's Narnia books, but Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea trilogy and Patricia McKillip's The Riddlemaster of Hed (again a trilogy) have also stood the rest of time. I don't necessarily like every book by these authors, but I like the works mentioned a great deal.
What are you currently reading?
I am really trying not to, because I am working very hard to finish the second book in The Wall of Night series, but I read Emma Donoghue's Room (a Man Booker finalist) while in Australia for Worldcon (the 68th World Science Fiction Fantasy Convention), and the latest Cassandra Clare, The Clockwork Angel, on the plane on the way home. In between the writing, when I want to relax with a book but not get hooked into a new read, I am re-reading Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne, which is another favourite of mine.
What things are important to you in a fantasy book?
That is a big question, but I think elements that are important to me in any story are encountering interesting and "real" characters, as well as intriguing ideas, although I'm not not so much into cleverness just for its own sake. I like stories to have emotional depth and I like plots that have complexity, i.e. where there are layers to be unraveled. Perhaps the most important thing to me though, is continuity/consistency of both characters and plot: I very much dislike where characters behave inconsistently with their character as developed, just to make the plot work, or there are glaring continuity holes in the action of the story.
I think it would be fair to say that if these elements are present in a book, then I don't really mind what type of fantasy it is. But I like vivid and authentic world building, and again, I think that the world and systems of magic, how the societies work etc, need to be internally consistent, because internal consistency is a big part of what helps the world and the characters to feel "real" for the reader. Keeping the characters emotionally real, no matter how fantastic the story, is also very important to me.
Your debut book, Thornspell, was published two years ago. How did you come up with the idea of writing the story of Sleeping Beauty from the prince's perspective?
The idea "just came" when I was attending a performance of the Tchaikovsky ballet of Sleeping Beauty in 1998. The lights darkened, the prince came leaping onto the stage and I remember sitting up in my seat and thinking: "What about the prince?" It was the first time I had realised that he is almost invisible in the traditional story. We don't know who he is or where he comes from, let alone the sort of person he is, or his motivation for "getting involved." At the same time, he is vital to the story: he is the one who undoes the spell. So I immediately felt that his story needed to be told — and the character of the Thornspell prince arrived in my head, complete with his name, which was Sigismund. A very Holy Roman Empire kind of name, and what first gave the story its "Fantasy-universe" flavour: i.e. it is set in this world, in a country"far away" that could easily be part of the Holy Roman Empire in the broadly Renaissance era, but isn't (quite).
Did you have to do any research before you began to write Thornspell?
Not particular research, because I read a lot of historical non-fiction and already knew a fair bit about the era, so it was more a matter of filling in gaps and deciding what to keep reasonably historically accurate and what to make a little more "fantastic". Areas of particular research included the history of fencing and the transition from the medieval broadsword to the rapier, and I also did quite a bit of research into the Parsifal legend and overlaps with the Arthurian cycle, as both those stories inform the book (as I recall you picked up in your review.)
You are currently writing The Wall of Night series, which is a fantasy series for adults. The first book of this series will be published September 28, 2010. What inspired you to write this series?
I didn't actually set out to write a series. Originally I intended The Heir of Night to be a standalone novel, but quickly found that I couldn't tell the story as envisaged in one book, so I thought: "OK, maybe a trilogy then." But when I finally sat down and plotted it all out in detail, I realized that it was going to be four books. I really loved the central characters by then, and the twilit, windblasted world of the Wall, as well as the dour and stoic Derai, so that all helped inspire me to keep going.
Your fantasy series can be called traditional fantasy, but it also contains less traditional elements. Was it difficult to write this kind of fantasy?
I love epic fantasy, but it was really important to me to work with the traditional form in a way that introduced new elements. In particular, I wanted the world and the people to feel very "real", in that "good" and "evil" are not necessarily easily and clearly defined — and the central protagonists, the Derai, who believe themselves to be the champions of good, are in fact divided by prejudice, suspicion and fear. Another non-traditional element is the presence of several strong and — I hope — very real women characters who do not fall neatly into the stereotypes of either helpless victim or the more contemporary (but frequently implausible) "kickass heroine" who "out-mans" all the men. I have worked hard at keeping the men real as well, neither villains nor plaster saints, and I hope that the combination of these factors give The Heir of Night authenticity and a unique feel, while still very much being epic fantasy in scope and style.
But in terms of whether it was difficult to write the non traditional elements, I didn't find it difficult at all, because it was the story I wanted to tell. The elements I have to work a little harder on, are always things like getting the sequencing of the story's action right, working on the nuance of character and trying to ensure that they do not simply become stereotypes. This was particularly important to me for the Earl of Night, the father of the main character, Malian. It would have been very easy to simply write him as the traditional tyrannical and emotionally unavailable parent, but I wanted him to be more than that. I believe that he is, now, but achieving that took considerable work and thought.
The events in The Wall of Night series take place in a world called Haarth. Because your worldbuilding in The Heir of Night is great, I have to ask that was it challenging to create a completely fictional world and its history?
You know, it didn't feel like a challenge at all because mostly it was a mix of "just fun" and also a very natural process. I had had the idea of a twilit world for a long time and I "saw" the Wall of Night world in a very complete way — so in a way I was just describing for readers what I could already see/smell/hear/feel. The other elements then evolved naturally from that initial Wall of Night concept, both through the evolution of the story (e.g. the Winter Country) and by extending my imaginative eye to think: well if the Wall is like this, what is the adjoining country going to be like? And after that ...? Which is a lot of fun to do, but also feels very natural.
In terms of the history, it is hard to explain, but that tends to just evolve as well. For example, the historical backstory of Aikanor, Xeria and the Great Betrayal had been in my mind for a long time, but the links to the contemporary Derai story fell into place as the action of that story developed. And possibly because I am so interested in history and read so much of it, I also have an intuitive understanding of its patterns layer through our lives, and also how certain threads recur — which is not always a good thing.
The Heir of Night contains several interesting characters from young characters to older characters. The heroine of this story is Malian, who's an Heir to the House of Night, but other characters are also important. Was it difficult to write about different kind of characters?
Again, in terms of your question on non-traditional story elements above, and also similar to the world building question — not at all. That is because I see each character as a real person with thoughts and feelings, who responds to and sometimes changes in response to the situations that arise around him or her. As the author, I just need to hold the character's personality and history clearly in my mind. Sometime, as with the Earl of Night, I have to work a little harder on understanding a character's backstory and the forces and events that have shaped them, but as long as I continue to understand each character as a real personality, writing them as distinct entities is not difficult.
I would like to add that keeping characters real is probably the single most important aspect to me in writing a story. To me, even if the character is only a "bit" part — what on stage would be a "walk on, walk off" role — they still have to be important to themselves. And that sense of the character's reality, even if he or she is not central to this story, needs to come through to the reader.
You wrote well about Kalan, who's a young man whose life has been difficult because of his old powers. This approach to magic feels fresh and interesting, so I'll ask what made you write about this kind of magic?
Where do ideas come from? Ursula Le Guin, in her book Steering the Craft, talks about pulling ideas out of the air and sometimes they really do spring fully-fledged from the ether. The idea of the Golden Fire has been with me almost from the beginning of that original idea of twilit world, although it has also grown over time — and I always knew that Kalan had acute hearing and could see in the dark, but otherwise ... You know, I am really not sure where the idea of the magic first came from. It was "just there" with the characters and the world.
There are several dark moments in The Heir of Night. These moments are thrilling and interesting, so I was wondering how did it feel to write about these moments?
I remember when I had completed the first draft of Heir and was working through and rewriting, I got to one of the fight scenes and it was so exciting and scary that I was holding my breath — and I'd written it in the first place! [Laughs] I think it was then that I thought, "OK, maybe this works!" But in writing about darkness, what drives me is both to tell the story in an authentic way, but also to do so in a way that is true to the human condition, such as fear and doubt and courage, rather than to "get off" on the horror.
Here's the final question: Is there anything you'd like to add?
Just that I hope, as all writers do, that there will be readers out there who love reading The Heir of Night as much as I enjoyed writing it — and to give my assurance that I am working hard (very hard!) on finishing the next book, working title: The Gathering of the Lost (The Wall of Night Series, Book Two.)