Friday, March 06, 2009

Patricia Briggs Interview

I did this interview with Ms. Briggs several years ago, but thought readers would enjoy it again.

Debbie Ledesma: How did you decide to become a writer?

Patricia Biggs: I’m not sure it was ever anything so definite as a decision - except perhaps this last year when I began to write full time. I’ve always loved books. When I ran out of horse books to read I started reading my sister’s collection of Andre Norton and branched out from there. Writing just seemed like a natural extension of reading.

DL: Why did you choose the Fantasy genre?

PB: If you could look at my collection of books, you’d know just how good a question that is. I read anything from philosophy to romance and most things in between.

When I was a child, my older sister spent several years reading a different fairytale to me every night. By the time I was out of elementary school I’d read all of Andrew Lang’s color fairy books twice over, as well as all the fairy tale books in the local library. My degree is in history, and I really loved the Middle Ages. I had this wonderful professor who used to bounce up and down on his heels as he described the final moments of the average black plague victim. Finally, I’ve always been a
horse person. It took years for my mother to explain to me that most people like to talk about other things than horses. So when I decided to take the plunge and write a book; folklore, history and horses seemed to point to Fantasy.

After I started to write I found that it was a better choice than I’d expected.
Fantasy is among the least restrictive of all genres. My books can be mysteries, war stories, romances... whatever I feel like writing and they are still fantasies. I read articles about authors who complain how hard it is merely to switch from time-travel romance to contemporary romance because each subgenre has a different readership. Fantasy readers seem to be more forgiving than that. The person who reads Robert Jordan, for instance, probably would still enjoy Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. I believe the kind of person who opens themselves to different worlds is too adventurous to restrict themselves to one subgenre: Fantasy readers allow authors a lot of leeway.

DL: What authors, Fantasy or otherwise, influence your writing?

PB: Holy, cow. Who didn’t? Not that I planned it that way. When I wrote my first book, I felt like I had done it on my own. Which is particularly silly, in retrospect, because I wrote Masques as an exercise to find out if I could actually write a book from beginning to end. I purposefully chose the most classic plot of fantasy, evil wizard tries to take over the world while the valiant underdogs strive to stop him. So even before I read Tolkien’s LOTR he had a tremendous effect on my writing. For those
of you who caught the implications, yes, this does mean that I read LOTR after I was a published writer - actually it was just this year. I must have read The Hobbit a bizillion times, but I tried to read LOTR when I was too young and unfortunately never got past it. I used to hang my head at SF Conventions...

When I started writing, I turned to other authors’ works to see how to do things - how to punctuate conversation, for instance. The only teacher I had, and I had many wonderful teachers, who taught proper punctuation of conversations was my second grade teacher, Mrs. Searle. To see how to get a conversation to flow, I picked up a few of my favorite character-building authors and picked apart their conversations: Dick Francis, Barbara Hambly, Robert Parker, Jayne Anne Krentz, Anne McCaffery and a dozen or so others.

But the most influential writer would have to be Andre Norton, because if my sister hadn’t taken Black Beauty (which I recently read to my children and realized that I still have large sections of it memorized) forcibly out of my hands and replaced it with Beast Master - I would never have discovered how much fun adventurous reading
could be.

DL: Are you planning to branch out into other genres?

PB: I don’t think so. As I mentioned earlier, Fantasy allows me tremendous scope. When Demons Walk was a mystery with a light touch of politics. Hob’s Bargain was a fairy tale and an apocalyptic/survival novel (which I would have had a hard time selling in
the traditional genre of apocalyptic novels, SF). Dragon Bones is a coming of age novel and a survival story in its own right. I do try to stretch and grow as a writer with each novel, both to keep my interest up and to keep my books from being repeats of earlier books, so I suppose changing genres is not out of the question, just unlikely in the near future.

DL: Do you use any mythology sources for your writing?

PB: Absolutely. Northern European Folklore was steeped into me from childhood. I read a lot of folklorist’s books, including the invaluable Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katherine Briggs (no relation) before I wrote The Hob’s Bargain to brush up on my knowledge of the lesser-known fey. Though I have to confess that I used the pooka
Harvey (from the old movies of the same name) as a basis for my Hob. One of my only two short stories is a retelling of "Rumpelstiltskin" called “The Price” which appears in the Datlow-Windling anthology Silver Birch, Blood Moon. That anthology, BTW, won
the World Fantasy Award for anthologies.

I have read/studied many other mythologies - I even taught Greek and Roman mythology. But other than “The Price” and The Hob’s Bargain, I don’t recall deliberately using mythology in a story.

DL: How long did it take you to write your first book and how long did it take to get that book published?

PB: My first book, Masques, took me about a year to write, once I quit rewriting the first ten pages over and over again. It’s a short book, about 75 or 80,000 words which, set in a small font, came out as just under 200 pages in a book format. It still takes me about a year - except for When Demons Walk, which was a sheer romp. I sent a synopsis and three chapters out to all the Fantasy publishing houses with a letter telling the editors I had a complete novel and asking them if they’d like me to submit the book (submitting a book to multiple publishers at the same time is a Very Bad Thing). After about six months I got back letters from all the publishers except for Ace. Everyone said no except for Del Rey who said - we don’t read samples, either submit this or don’t bother us. So I did another polishing run on the whole book, printed it out ready to send to Del Rey, when I got a letter from Laura Anne Gilman at Ace. (She’s now running the editorial show at Roc.) I submitted it to her. She wrote
me back for revisions, which I did. Miracle of miracles, she bought it. It was probably a year from when I finished Masques until Ace finally made an offer on it, and I took another year before they published it.

Most authors don’t sell their first book -- or even first few books, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t. Luck can compensate for skill -- I was lucky that there was an editor at Ace who liked the kinds of books I write. Laura Anne babysat me through the editing process - and most editors don’t have the time to do that. But skill will compensate for lack of luck as well, it just takes longer.

DL: What do you think is the important function of Fantasy?

PB: This question usually comes up in some variant as a panel topic at science fiction conventions, and I’ve even been a participating panelist on it a time or ten - and I think that the answer varies with the author, the book and the reader. There are some things that Fantasy can do very well - and like its siblings SF and horror - has traditionally done. The first and most obvious is escapism. Allowing people to put aside the trials of their lives to live in a different world is valuable. Art reminds us that there is beauty in the world when our world looks pretty bleak. Sometimes that makes people angry; because art can point out the joy that is lacking in their world. But the best art, whether books, paintings, or music can console us and lift our expectations. I am a firm believer that if you want to be happy, you have to snatch happiness and fight for it. When I was in high school, I used to take Christopher Stasheff’s wonderful novel, The Warlock In Spite of Himself with me to dentist visits - or any other high stress times. I wore out five or six copies -- that was in the days before he made a big splash so those copies were hard to find. No matter how upset I was, I could always laugh when I read that book. It saved me a lot of Valium. When I
write, I try to offer hope. I want people to feel better when they finish my books than when they started them.

Another traditional role of fantasy is to disguise some current issue and examine it from an angle not possible if you were to write about it directly, the style this takes varies from satyrical to serious. In speculative fiction (the genre containing SF, horror, and Fantasy because in them the author speculates about worlds that operate under different laws than our own) we are allowed to change the society that is viewing the subject and use that to try to change the attitudes of our readership. Take the issue of homosexuality for instance. If you take the social stigma away from being
homosexual, how does that change matters? In our society, being homosexual is not only a sexual decision - it is a cultural one, with established roles to play: butch, transvestite and the like. To be homosexual in 2002 in the US is to make that single facet of a person's life the most important single thing about them. But in a different world where such things are normal, how does that change the participants?
How much of that familiar culture is caused by being homosexual, and how much is a reaction to society’s rejection? There are certainly non social issues for homosexual couples -- the most important one is that they cannot have children together without help. Sometimes taking away the familiar norms of our world allows us to see things in a different light. We might disagree about the answer, but posing the question in a different manner might just make us think about it instead of clinging to easy answers we were given by someone else.

Which brings me to another important function fiction, any kind of fiction, does: It allows the reader to see the world through different eyes. When I read, I can be a black man or a young child. I can be an old woman or a deer named Bambi. That doesn't mean that I think hunting is a bad thing -- but I do have sympathy for the deer -- and the little old woman who backs up traffic as she shuffles across a busy intersection. Psychologists say that one of the common difficulties shared by child molesters is the inability to empathize with another human.

Between faster communication and growing population, our world decreases in size every day. In the light of 9/11, it is important for us to be able to “walk a mile in another’s moccasins”. Books are, in my opinion, the single best medium to develop the understanding necessary to live together on our earth.

DL: There are a lot of books by authors like Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, etc. that are popular. Do you find a lot of the Fantasy books hitting the bestseller lists derivative? Do you think they’re helpful to further the field?

PB: To a certain extent, all books are derivative. The subgenre of Epic Fantasy is one of the few genres of fantasy that traditionally produces bestselling novels - meaning that people who don’t read fantasy will read Epic Fantasy. We owe this in a large part to the reputation of Tolkien, whose torch was first taken up by Terry Brook’s The Sword
of Shannara
, which was the first trade paperback to hit the NYT Bestselling Lists. Now, publishing houses look at epic fantasies and say, “Gee, this might be a bestseller.” So they promote it as a bestseller - and the promotion helps make it come true. Because most of these books are epic fantasies, they share certain similarities. To me a good book is a good book, whether it is a Terry Brooks novel or a Laurell K. Hamilton. I like most of the bestselling fantasy books, and when I don’t like them, it’s not because they were too much like another book I’ve read.

Authors are not in competition with each other. Any author who can pull in readers, benefits the industry as a whole -- as well as their readership. I have a friend who had never read a book since high school. Last year she picked up a Nora Roberts book and liked it. Now she reads all the time, and not just Nora Roberts. The Harry Potter books have brought a lot of young readers into the genre. What do you think of this? Is it helpful to the genre?

I am for almost anything that can get children to read. Sometime in the eighties I read that 1/3 of adult women were functionally illiterate - meaning that their reading level was third grade or below and they could not fill out a job application. The article mentioned that the figure for men wasn’t quite as bad. Reading is such a basic skill, and it takes practice. If peer pressure forces children to read - especially good books like Harry Potter, then I’m all for it.

While Harry Potter fans are eagerly awaiting the next installment, they might try Tamora Pierce, Jane Yolen, or Brian Jacques. Some of them will continue to read Fantasy decades from now - and without Harry Potter, they might never have tried reading anything at all. The more children who read Fantasy now, the more adults will be reading Fantasy in the future. How can that be bad?

DL: Movies are a different medium, but do you think any of your books would make a good movie?

PB: If a good producer and a good scriptwriter (not me) got involved, found good actors and cinematographers, yes. When Demons Walk, in particular had a number of very visual scenes -- though I’m afraid the temptation would be for a producer to turn it into a horror movie. I’d like to see what the special effects people would do for Caefawn’s tail in The Hob’s Bargain . But to be a good movie, the stories would be different. Any industry that can take Andre Norton’s Beast Master and turn out the movie they did (which I enjoyed - but it had very little to do with the novel) is not to be trusted lightly with any book. Just look what they did with “Beast Master 2” & even worse 3! (Although I have to admit laughing myself silly at BM2 about 2am and had a wonderful time as visions of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” ran through my head.)

DL: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

PB: Make sure you are doing this because you want to write - not because you want to be a writer. You can always sit down and write, but you can’t always publish. The publishing world is not a kind one. There are many, many authors who only ever publish one book, and still more who never publish any.

If you can’t take criticism learn how. Or don’t show anyone your book, ever. I’ve yet to see a book that hasn’t garnished a few nasty comments from someone.

Then write and read. Don’t pay anyone money to doctor your manuscript in the hopes it will be publishable afterwards. It is possible to about how to write that way, but there are less expensive and more effective methods. Don’t pay anyone to publish your book and expect to make money. No matter what they say. Don’t send your manuscripts to agents who charge reading fees. If they’re not making enough money off of selling books, they’re not good enough agents and try elsewhere. Don’t expect to become rich from writing. Some people do ‹ but the average person who claims writing as their main career makes something like $1200/year: that’s with Stephen King’s millions added into the mix.

Write - and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.

DL: What books or stories are in your future?

PB: I’ve finished the sequel to Dragon Bones. It's called Dragon Blood and is scheduled to come out from Ace in January of 2003. Right now I’m working on a trilogy proposal for Ace, just to try something new. I’m aiming for an Epic Fantasy novel, but I can never really tell until the book is finished.

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