Friday, March 05, 2010

Interview with Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is the author of six fantasy novels, including The Arm of the Stone, The Garden of the Stone and The Burning Land. She’s a regular book reviewer for the online journal SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and elsewhere. She’s an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, where she serves as vice-Chair of the Writing Scams Committee and maintains the Writer Beware literary scams warning website (http://www.writerbeware.com). She welcomes visitors to her own website: http://www.victoriastrauss.com.

Debbie Ledesma: First of all, what led you to become a writer? Was it hard getting published?

Victoria Strauss: I wasn’t one of those people who always knew they’d be a writer. As a child and a teenager, I did do some writing, but not seriouslìy, and certainly not with an eye to a career, even though my mother is a published novelist.

My first novel happened more or less by accident. I wanted to take a
year off between high school and college to live abroad with my family; my
parents were willing to let me do it, but told me I’d have to come up with some sort of educational or creative project to keep me busy for the year.
I’d just taken an English class that required me to write several short stories, and I’d enjoyed it, so I thought: "Hey, why not try and write a
novel?" I wasn’t serious, or at least I didn’t think I was--I was mostly trying to placate my parents. I didn’t actually expect to finish it. But a few chapters in I was hooked, and by the time I was halfway through I’d decided that writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I began submitting the book to publishers (this was back in the 1970’s, when publishers were still willing to look at unagented manuscripts), and
then, totally by accident, got an offer of representation from a brand-new
agent. She diligently sent the manuscript around, but got no takers, and after a while stopped actively submitting. She never forgot about my book,
though, and whenever she thought there was someone who might be interested she sent it out. Eventually, she did get me an offer. I had to completely rewrite the book to make it publishable, which was an interesting lesson in swallowing my authorial pride. But I learned a huge amount from doing it. To this day, I’m grateful to the editor who bought it for taking a chance on a very unready writer, and for being so generous with her guidance and support.

DL: Why did you choose the Fantasy genre to write in?

VS: My favorite reading as a child was fantasy ‘ (especially Arthurian
fantasy--one of my all-time favorites is T. H. White’s The Sword in the
Stone
), fairy tales, and historical novels. Perhaps not surprisingly, my
first novel was a historical with fantastic elements. After that, I gravitated toward fantasy--always with a historical bent (people tell me that my books read like historical novels about places that never were). Apart from the ability that fantasy gives me to explore interesting themes, I love the sense of wonder that rises from magic and adventure in imaginary worlds. It’s my goal to share that with readers--really, to write the kinds of books that I myself would like to read.

DL: What authors, Fantasy or otherwise, influence your writ óing?

VS: I’m a pretty eclectic reader. One of my favorite classic writers is Thomas Hardy, for his matchless ability with character and setting. I’m also a big mystery fan--favorites include Reginald Hill and Barbara Vine (a pen
name of Ruth Rendell, whose books under her own name I don’t like nearly as much, for some reason). Mainstream writers who’ve impressed me recently include Matthew Kneale and Ann Patchett; and I recommend Jeff Long’s The Descent to anyone who likes incredibly dark, atmospheric SF-themed thrillers.

Classic fantasy and SF favorites include Ann McCaffrey, Patricia McKillip,
Philip K. Dick, John Brunner, and Andre Norton ï. I admire John Crowley’s literary fantasy, and Tad Williams is one of the best pure storytellers around. There’s also a really exciting crop of up-and-coming writers who are re-thinking and energizing various subgenres of fantasy and SF: Jacqueline Carey, R. Scott Bakker, Ricardo Pinto, Roger Levy (a UK writer who deserves a much wider audience), Scott Westerfeld, and many others. One of the perks of being a book reviewer is that I get to see a lot of terrific new authors.

DL: Do you find it easier writing for adults or young adults?

VS: Both kinds of writing are equally challenging, in different ways.
You’re catering to different audiences, but ê the level of imagination and
commitment you bring to each kind of book is exactly the same.

My YA books are less complex, plotwise, than my adult books, though
that’s mostly a result of the length restrictions that applied to YA fiction
when I was writing it. Nowadays, post-Harry Potter, it’s okay for YA books to be pretty hefty, but that wasn’t always true. My YA books also are less
dark. This also has to do with the needs of the market when I was writing YA; in fact, one of the main reasons I switched to adult fiction was that I
wanted to be able to delve deeper into darker themes. Again, though, the YA market has changed quite a bit in the past decade or so, and books that deal with dark themes and disturbing subjects are far more acceptable than they once were.

DL: How is your new novel The Burning Land different from your previous books?

VS: My two previous adult novels (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) had an alternate-world setting--a world that split off from our own somewhere around the early medieval period--and a lot of the world building was based on a European medieval template. I wanted to do something different with my next book, so The Burning Land has a setting that’s more reminiscent of Asia or the Middle East.

I also did more extensive world building for this novel than I’ve done
for others, in part because I’d like to set a number of books in this world
(right now, the only one scheduled is a sequel). I research all my
books, but I did much more reading for The Burning Land, and spent more time building the setting (I do a lot of world building on the fly, as I’m writing, rather than in advance--but for this novel, with its complicated background of history and culture and religion, I knew from the start that I’d have to invest more time up front). There’s a feature on my website (http://www.victoriastrauss.com) that discusses the research process, and gives a glimpse of the kind of preparation I did.

The Burning Land also has a very different magic system. The Stone books featured a wide range of magical gifts, but in the world of The Burning Land there are only two: Dreaming, a kind of astral projection that allows the Dreamer’s mind to fly out across the world in sleep, and Shaping, the ability to manipulate and transmute matter. Shaping is a limited gift--a Shaper can’t, for instance, create anything living--and it’s also greatly feared, because of abuses in the ancient past. As a result, Shapers are required to vow themselves to the god Arata (who originally granted the gift of shaping to humankind) and to cripple their power with drugs.

The hero of The Burning Land is a Shaper priest, Gyalo, who’s sent into an unexplored desert (The Burning Land of the title) sacred to the sleeping god Arata, in search of a group of Ürefugees from a recently-ended cycle of religious persecution. It’s feared that some of these refugees may be Shapers, free of vows and drugs and therefore extremely dangerous. After many trials, Gyalo finds the refugees, some of whom are indeed free Shapers--but far more amazing is the secret they’ve discovered, which seems to indicate that the central prophecy of Gyalo’s faith has been fulfilled, an event that heralds the destruction and rebirth of the world. Gyalo’s appearance out of nowhere, which at first seems to fit the refugees’ heretical beliefs, later begins to contradict them, and he’s forced to flee, along with a Dreamer named Axane who has also defied her people’s faith. But the church leaders to whom Gyalo returns are as threatened by his discoveries as the refugees were by his arrival. In the crisis that follows, all beliefs come into question, and both Gyalo’s courage and h Ñis deepest-held convictions are tested to their limits.

DL: I’m always fascinated with Fantasy that has mythic themes. Do you use themes from mythology in your books?

VS: Yes, always--though they’re probably not immediately recognizable as real-world myths. My Stone duology is centered around a mysterious magical object called the Stone, which is based in part on legends of the Holy Grail (which in their original form were quite different from the Grail of the Arthurian story). The Burning Land features Arata, the sleeping god whose dreams continually shape and change the earth, and whose rising will restore the world to its original perfection--a theme embodied in a lot of different myths and legends from many different cultures and religious traditions. I also enjoy making up my own myths--there’s one at the very beginning of The Burning Land.

DL: How do you view Fantasy as a vehicle for social commentary?

VS: Fantasy is a terrific medium for a theme-driven writer like me (when
I’m planning a book, theme comes first; plot and character grow out of it).
Because you’re working with an imaginary world whose nature and
principles you control, you can build a setting that embodies the themes you want to explore, without any of the constraints or baggage of real-world history (though in order to resonate with readers, the setting does need to reflect the real world in some way). Or you can use mythic archetypes to address universal issues; or your imaginary world can skew or satirize some aspect of the real world or work as an allegory of it. On the other hand, if you aren’t interested in anything so abstract, you can simply go for pure entertainment, pure adventure. That’s one of the things I love most about fantasy, both as a reader and a writer: it’s infinitely flexible.

The Burning Land does address serious themes, including the corruption of power and the dangers of religious fundamentalism. These are themes that have always interested me--and, as it happens, are reflected by recent real-world events, both in this country and abroad, in ways I didn’t anticipate as I was writing the book.

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

VS: Maybe I’m biased, but I think any of them would! I’m a very visual
writer--I see the scenes and settings in my books like a movie in my head as I’m writing, and though my books are mostly character-driven, they also
feature strong dramatic story arcs. If I had to choose one novel to turn into
film, I think it might be my YA novel Guardian of the Hills. It’s a coming of age story set during the Depression, in which the excavation of a series of mysterious hill-tombs wakes a powerful, malign spirit.

The current interest in films based on fantasy novels is interesting. A few
years ago, fantasy novels stood little chance of ever being optioned. But
fantasy is now perceived as a moneymaker, and with all the advances in
CGI and special effects it’s possible to bring imaginary worlds and powerful magics to life in a way it never was before. Hopefully the “Lord of the Rings” movies have raised the bar for filmed fantasy, and will make film sales more feasible for writers like me.

DL: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

VS: Read as widely as possible, and think critically about what you read.
Apart from actually writing, it’s the best way to learn your craft.

Educate yourself! This is tremendously important. There are a lot of scams
and pitfalls waiting for new writers (in my other life, I’m a member of the
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Writing Scams Committee, and run a website called Writer Beware, which warns about various kinds of literary scams) and your best defense is to know how the publishing industry wo ≥rks before you start submitting manuscripts. You also have a much better chance of success if you carefully research agents and publishers ahead of time to be sure they are legitimate and that your work is appropriate for them. Many writers seem to want to skip the research step--and I agree, it’s tedious. But apart from writing a good book or story, a firm understanding of the industry and solid research are the two things that will best serve your quest for publication.

Don’t believe the prevalent new writers’ myths: that established publishers
won’t take a risk on new talent, that established agents won’t work with new authors, that original voices have no chance because publishers are
only interested in cookie-cutter clones of successful books. There’s some
truth in these maxims, which makes them very convincing--but they are greatly exaggerated. If your work is marketable and you are smart about
submitting, your odds of pu blication are better than not.

Be persistent. This doesn’t just mean about submitting your work. Keep
writing--if your current book or story won’t sell, the next one might. Keep
researching--the market is always changing, and if you keep on top of
it you’ll improve your chances.

Finally...be realistic. Publications aimed at new writers encourage them to
believe that everyone has an equal chance, and it’s just a matter of trying
hard enough or mastering a few tricks of the trade. But this is misleading,
because every writer is not equal. Some are talented--but more are not.
Consistent rejection by the commercial market may be shortsighted and
unfair...or it may be justified. It’s important to have confidence in your
ability, but at some point, you may need to reassess.

DL: What books or stories are in your future?

VS: I’m currently working on a sequel to The Burning Land. As I mentioned, I’d like to do other books set in the same world--I have an idea for a prequel to The Burning Land, based on a historical incident that’s mentioned in the book, but it all depends on whether my publisher is interested. I’m also working on ideas for another young adult fantasy, or possibly a series.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

<< Home