Monsters—oh, yeah, I’ve got monsters, old and new, including a talking giant. And more subplots than you can shake a wizardly staff at…the first use of both Norns and Sithi as focal-point characters, and at last I’m going to talk about Josua and Vorzheva’s twins.
After more than two decades, how special was it to finally return to the universe of Osten Ard?
Special and strange. I hadn’t really realized before how much I’ve forgotten of things I already wrote. I’ve occasionally had to check back into my old worlds for short stories, but usually that required only a little reading to refresh memory. What I discovered this time, with full rereads of the originals and lots and lots of research (also with the help of some readers who know the world better than I do) was how much effort and thought I had put into Osten Ard in the first place, so many years ago. Layers upon layers. So not only do I feel an almost holy obligation to treat characters well that I know readers care about, I’ve also had to be very thorough and thoughtful in expanding a place that had quite a documented existence and history already. I hope I’ve done justice to everything. I’ve had more fun doing it than I would have imagined, but you never know how people will take things, and the readers (who are both customers and curators) are always right.
After so long and with the number of novels/series you have written since TO GREEN ANGEL TOWER was published, was it difficult to get back into the swing of things? I know you had help regarding the continuity, but were there other aspects that proved more challenging than you expected?
As I mentioned above, it took me a little while—I cursed the writer of such preposterously long books several times during the rereads—but I feel like I’ve been in a good mode with it. The most difficult thing was aging the familiar characters some thirty-plus years while still trying to retain the elements that (I hope) made them memorable in the first place. How do you take someone like Simon, who spends most of the early part of MST as a callow mooncalf of a youth, and show him as a competent middle-aged monarch without completely de-naturing him? It forced me to think deeply about all the characters who return from the previous books, about their lives since then, who they were, and how that has affected who they’ve become. It’s not always easy to clearly show that they are the same people—if we met our older selves when we were still young, leaving out facial resemblances, would we recognize ourselves? Some of us change quite a bit on that long journey.
How well-received has THE HEART OF WHAT WAS LOST been thus far?
I have no idea about sales or anything, but the reviews were almost uniformly good, which was gratifying. I used to be just another unimportant hack fantasy writer here in the States, but apparently now I am an older but middling skillful fantasy writer, although still relatively unimportant. (That sounds like grumpiness, but it’s really not. I’ve learned that context is everything, that I can be a pretty okay genre fantasist in one country and an important modern writer in another, even when it’s the same books being discussed. I used to be angry at the unfairness of being judged by people who didn’t really know or care about my work enough to understand it. Now I know it’s just part of the deal, and a lot of perfectly good writers have it far worse.)
Without giving anything away, since we don’t really have a true cover blurb yet, can you give us a taste of the tale that is THE WITCHWOOD CROWN? Come on, Tad, throw us a bone!
Well, Simon and Miriamele are king and queen now, so you know some of it is about the eventual succession. And I’m spending a lot more time with the Norns in these books—several of the leading characters come from that background—so you know they’re going to be an important part of the tale. And since Utuk’ku was only stunned into retreat and deep sleep at the end of the first books, you know she hasn’t got any sweeter. What else can I tell you? Old and new characters, lots of both. More background and depth on the world and its history. Monsters—oh, yeah, I’ve got monsters, old and new, including a talking giant. And more subplots than you can shake a wizardly staff at, including many locales we didn’t see the first time, and the first use of both Norns and Sithi as focal-point characters.
And at last I’m going to talk about Josua and Vorzheva’s twins. Everyone assumed I included the prophecy about them in the first story as a jumping off point for a sequel. As the time elapsed since then proves, I didn’t really mean it that way at all, and simply wanted to show that magical, weird things would continue to happen in Osten Ard after MST was finished. But Fate always has the last laugh, and now I really am writing that long-expected (by everyone but me) sequel.
Can you tell us a little more about the road that saw this one go from manuscript form to finished novel?
The only thing different about writing The Witchwood Crown from my other long books is that I let more people see this one at an early stage, after what was for me a very loose first draft. Normally I assemble the first drafts so carefully (because of plot complexity) that you could read it in that form and assume it was a finished book. This time I wanted some feedback from longtime readers on what I was doing, and so I let some people in early, and listened carefully to what they had to say. Also, I’d say it’s the most plotted of any of my multi-volume stories, because I spent most of the first year just thinking about it while I was finishing the last Bobby Dollar book. And because I have all my usual research to do, plus making a complicated plot fit cleanly with the immensely complicated MST that already exists, I’ve spent more time thinking about it on a day-to-day basis than I usually have to. (And I usually spend a lot of time thinking about whatever book I’m writing anyway.) So in some ways it’s almost like I’ve been testing out a new working method, and that’s been quite a trip in and of itself.
Are you still working on A CHRONICLE IN STONE (short stories set in Osten Ard) while writing the current trilogy, or has this project been incorporated into The Last King of Osten Ard series?
At this point many of the ideas that would have been in the anthology book have been used in the new series instead. If I ever write Chronicle, it will have the same framing idea but all different stories. However, I might still do it one day.
How special is it to have Michael Whelan returning to illustrate the covers of The Last King of Osten Ard series?
More than almost anything else, that’s felt like returning home. I was very pleased when I heard—several of my readers heard it first at a convention and smuggled the information to me before I’d even heard it from my publishers. I’ve always felt very lucky to have Michael’s work adorning any of my books, but with this new one it feels really special and just right.
Stephen R. Donaldson once said that he waited for so long to write The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant because he wasn’t ready and needed to grow as an author before he felt comfortable tackling such a project. Would you say that, at least to a certain extent, this was one of the reasons why it took so long for you to finally decide to write the long-awaited sequel to Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn?
Yes, but not necessarily in the same way as Donaldson’s talking about. I said for years that I wouldn’t write a sequel to anything or even re-visit a world unless I had a story first, a story that cried out to be written. And for years Osten Ard was in that category, although I had thought a bit about the Chronicle project. Then, when I sat down one time to list off for Deborah (my wife and business partner) all the reasons I had no more stories about Simon and Miriamele and Binabik and the rest, I realized that I had left most of the main characters still very much in the bloom of their youth, and that after decades of life and growing responsibility—which I had undergone myself since I wrote it—they must all look at the world very differently. That set me to thinking, and within one night the first rudiments of the story for The Last King of Osten Ard (the title for the whole series) had begun to take real shape. So every moment I was aging, and moving from one country to another, and becoming a parent, and so on, I was actually creating a plot for new Osten Ard books without realizing it.
Speaking on Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, given all the noise that will be made regarding THE WITCHWOOD CROWN this coming spring, it will doubtless pique the curiosity of new readers. How would you describe the series to someone who hasn’t read those books yet?
A very big epic fantasy, long (I hope) on both wonder and humor, but also full of horror and plot twists. It will be perhaps a tad less pessimistic than George’s Game of Thrones, and also with a bit more in the way of magical happenings—but not TOO many. Too much magic tends to cheapen a big fantasy for me, because I know the writer can always pull an ace out of his or her sleeve and save the day when it seems hopeless. I like to put my characters in situations that even I can’t imagine how to escape, and then have to figure it out alongside them.
What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
Simply that—I’m a storyteller. My work may not be for every single reader, but I think I’m good at telling stories, plain and simple. I think I do a good job of creating characters that people care about (positively or negatively) and I think I have a pretty busy imagination, which certainly helps when creating fantasy worlds. But I also spend a lot of time reading about science and history, so I like to think my created worlds feel more real than many. And I love language, so I’m always trying to do more than simply tell a tale, I’m trying to make the words sing, to open up new ways of thinking for the reader.
Also, I’m cute as a button. Albeit a very old button.
By the same token, what would be your weaknesses, or aspects of your craft you feel you need to work on?
If I really knew I’d have fixed them already.
Like all writers I have my own tropes, things that effect me deeply and make their way into my work time and again. That doesn’t always guarantee they’ll have the same effect on readers. Also, I like to take my time with pacing, especially with big stories, and I’m sure that some readers just find me exhausting and too slow. But every time I start to bend in that direction, to be more accessible to those raised on Twitter and internet memes, I also have other readers saying things like, “I could only have loved this more if it were twice as many books.” I guess my compromise is in trying to write in a more compact way without reducing the amount of information—without harming the breadth of the story or the depths of the characters, because I’m convinced those are things my readers like about my books.
With your wife Deborah, you have an in-house editor perusing everything you write. Then, at DAW Books you have Betsy Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert editing your novels. With that many editors having you under the microscope (and I reckon that your British editor also has something to say before anything goes into print), some would think that it could become a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. And yet, this approach obviously works well for you. Why is that?
Well, for one thing, I’m stubborn. As much as I love and respect all those folks, including my overseas editors, ultimately the complaints and/or suggestions have to make sense to me before I’ll make any large changes. I’ve been doing this writing gig for quite a while now and I don’t think you get to the point I have—making a living at it for decades—without trusting your own instincts. So if one person says they don’t like something, I’ll look at it and consider it but won’t necessarily change it unless the complaint strikes a chord for me. However, if all or at least several of them say that such and such a section is boring or confusing or whatever—well, I’m not stupid.
On the other hand, because I have intelligent, skilled readers and editors like the three you mentioned, I also feel I can try new and unusual things and they are all clever enough to understand what I’m trying to do, which gives me a certain sense of freedom combined with the reassuring feeling that if I screw up too badly, they have my back and will help me fix it.
There are a number of different perspectives as to the function secondary-world or epic fantasy carries out for readers. Le Guin once wrote that such fantasy deepened and intensified the mysteries of life, while R. Scott Bakker has put forward that humanity is neurologically ill-equipped for a modern, rationalist world and this leads some to seek access to a pre-modern worldview (or the fiction of one) where reality conforms to the mind’s irrational, evolutionarily hardwired expectations. Others have denigrated it as mere escapism, an alternative opiate for the masses.
What is your view as to fantasy’s function?
I have long thought that the appeal of fantasy fiction is fundamentally escapist, although I don’t think it has so much to do with our brain wiring, as Bakker says, as with the simple fact of living in an unheard-of age of entanglement, surrounded by instant information and a thousand distractions designed to grab our attention. I believe we love to dive deeply into another world not just because it’s fantasy and seems “simpler”—“simple” books don’t generally have long appendices and guides to pronunciation or cover multiple volumes—but because it allows us to escape from the war zone ambience of modernity for a little while and mono-focus on a place that seems almost as real but is less exhausting. (This is also true, though not as strongly, for fiction in general, where—unlike the apparently real world we all live in—all of us know for certain there is a controlling intelligence behind our experience, that we are in someone’s hands and that everything that happens is not simply random and inexplicable.)
According to George R. R. Martin, most authors are either architects, who write novels based on detailed outlines, or gardeners, who have a general idea of where the storylines are going but prefer to watch things grow as they go along. Which type of writer are you and why do you prefer that approach?
Some of both, but mostly an architect. I design and build my books first in broad strokes, but still in quite a bit of detail, and my plots are usually at least mostly imagined before I begin because I like to know the shape of what I’m working on. I leave some things unimagined until I get to them because you can’t think of everything at once, especially with a million-word story, but I like to think carefully about the engineering of my books before I write them, so that I have some sense of the rhythms and the themes from the very first. That said, I don’t want to limit myself to only what I can think of while writing a preliminary outline, so I leave lots of bits open to discovery, including plotlines I haven’t foreseen, characters who just pop up, and twists in the story I hadn’t envisioned when I started. A big, sprawling story is always a bit of a swaying bridge between planning and serendipity, so there’s no complete separation between architect and gardener even for me, but I definitely lean toward the planning-ahead style.
How has your interaction with fans and critics colored your choices in terms of characterization and plot? Has there ever been anything that you’ve changed due to such interaction in any of your novels?
Oh, yeah, of course. As I mentioned above, when enough of my readers say something didn’t work for them, I take that seriously. I’ve taken things out for several reasons—needlessly violent, distracting from the main story, not tied in to the plot sufficiently, even occasionally because they were artifacts of an earlier idea that went nowhere. But I probably have done less rewriting during my career than most writers simply because I always used to assemble my first drafts so painstakingly.
We writers all have blind spots, or at least nearsighted spots. Sometimes people have completely different reactions to things than I expect. Even that is only a problem when those responses are overwhelmingly negative for the wrong reasons (in other words, an effect I want to achieve that hasn’t worked). Then I have to fix it, because I don’t want to get in my own way, and sticking to doggedly to something that doesn’t work is exactly that kind of mistake.
Have you ever written a scene, only to be stunned by your own reaction after reading it?
Not really, although sometimes I’m inordinately pleased with how something turns out. I’m a very conscious writer, so I’ve mostly thought through how and why I want any given scene to work. I will occasionally be favorably surprised by how it’s come out, but I wouldn’t say stunned. I will admit that once or twice I have teared up a bit at my own prose, but truly it’s always at the situation not my prose, and it’s because I have lived with the characters for so long. I felt very affected when Simon finally saw his pseudo-mother Rachel the Dragon again in the first Osten Ard books. I’m sure there were elements of my own life in that scene, of my close relationships with my mother and grandmothers: I had lived with Simon so long he felt like a part of me, and so that unexpected reunion felt very moving.
Some writers admit having a favorite book among those they’ve written previously, others say that their favorite is their current work in progress, and others still say it’s always the next book that hasn’t been written yet. How about you?
It’s a combination of “current book is the one I care about” and the Parent Syndrome—I love all my books in different ways, regardless of how “successful” they’ve been. I think the most interesting work I’ve done are the Otherland books, for instance, but I am most emotionally attached to the Osten Ard books, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. But Tailchaser’s Song feels more…heroic, almost, because it was my first and because I wrote it in my kitchen late at night (I was working at least two jobs at the time) with no particular expectation of selling it or any knowledge of the industry or the market, just wanting to make something. Other of my books have strong autobiographical elements that make them special, or other features that make them dear to me. But it’s always the book that’s alive in my mind right now that has precedence. One of the reasons I never really thought much about writing sequels is that whatever my current idea has been, it burned so brightly that it threw everything else, especially books I’d already written, into shade.
Neil Gaiman said of Lord Dunsany’s THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, “…It’s a rich red wine, which may come as a shock if all one has had so far has been cola.” If THE WITCHWOOD CROWN was a drink, which one would it be? Would you recommend downing it in one shot or sipping it slowly…?
I imagine The Witchwood Crown would be a hearty, complicated, spicy and very alcoholic punch, like the kind served during the holiday season. So much goes into a story like this, so much thought, so many ideas, literally thousands of possibilities that don’t make it into print, that I can’t imagine comparing it to anything less complicated—and, I hope, to anything less convivial and satisfying. Yes, that’s probably it. Build a fire and get it roaring, sing a few songs with your near and dear ones, and have a long draught of the Witchwood Crown. Then go back and fill up your cup again, because there’s plenty.