Friday, August 05, 2011

Interview with Laura J. Underwood

This interview first appeared at Suite101 in 2004. I’m sharing it again because she is a wonderful fantasy author.

Laura J. Underwood is a Fantasy author of many talents. She is a librarian as well as a writer. Her many skills include being a former fencing champion and a harpist too. Ms. Underwood uses her many talents to provide entertaining Fantasy short stories and novels. The main worlds her stories are set in include Keltora and the harper mage world of Annwynn Baldomere. Her short stories can be found in different anthologies and magazines, while the books include: Ard Magister, Dragon’s Tongue and others.

More information can be found at her web site:

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

Laura Underwood: I’m not so sure that I ever really decided that for myself. Seems like I have always been writing down my fantasies from the time I could hold a pencil. I was one of those children whose imaginations always ran wild. I was reading on my own by the time I was three, which always amazed my parents. They thought I was mimicking the books they read to me, but one day I picked up a newspaper and started pointing to words and sounding them out. I was the only child in my first grade class who could read when I started school.

Because I was a rather solitary child (in spite of having siblings) I used to
daydream a lot. Put myself into the stories that I liked best, and I talked to myself a lot. I did a speech recently where I blamed my fantasy writing career on Mighty Mouse, because when I was little, I used to talk to Mighty
Mouse. My poor mother was under the impression in those days that talking to yourself was a sign of insanity, and she tried to discourage it because she worried what people would think (and there were those d 3ays, like when I made the bus driver stop the bus to let Mighty Mouse on, and I told the ladies at the church Sunday School that I needed an extra cookie and orange juice for Mighty Mouse--I honestly think those poor church ladies thought I was possessed...), so I started writing down my imaginings so I could read them to myself.

Of course, it is obvious that I was not willing to give up my imaginary worlds that easily. The only difference is these days, the talking to myself takes place on a laptop, and I call it storytelling. And because I keep getting those stories published, my mother thinks it’s pretty cool.

DL: Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?

LU: As a teenager, I thought I _was_ writing novels, though I suspect they were just novellas. :-) In fact, my efforts at mystery writing were all novels.
But when I started to sell my fantasy fiction, I wrote short fiction, mainly
because I could produce more of it at a greater speed. But I love novels for the scope they allow. It’s the difference between a short sprint and lengthy marathon race. Both can leave you short of breath. One just takes longer than the other. I’m what one might call a “sneezing” writer (my friend David B. Coe always teases me about that). I literally toss everything on the page at a rapid pace and then clean it up in the editing phase.

DL: What authors influence your writing?

LU: Well, if we start with the earliest influences, those would be anyone who wrote fairy tales. When I was six, my great aunt gave me a beautifully
illustrated book of fairy tales (The Golden Book of Fairy Tales by Adrienne Segur who illustrated it as well) that I still have. It’s rather moth eaten and fragile, and my evil younger brother drew all over the pictures, but I did manage to find a reprint of it recently. I also read a lot of Greek and Roman mythology. I used to be able to recite nearly every story from
Bulfinche's and D’Aulaire versions of mythology. And of course, I fell madly in love with Kipling and must have reread The Jungle Book over and over.

As for specific authors, Edgar A. Poe, Fred Fields, Shakespeare, but then I
advanced to Lloyd Alexander and George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis and Alexander Key in my teens. At that point, I actually switched to reading mystery novels and was a long time fan of Ngaio Marsh, Peter Lovesey, Dick Francis and many others. Then somewhere along the way in my early twenties, I rediscovered fantasy with Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Fritz Leiber. Barbara Hambly and Teresa Edgerton are now my biggest influences, though I am also fond of Lynn Flewelling, Esther Friesner and a host of other authors who write really good fantasy.

Surprising to most people is that I did not read any Tolkein before the movies came out. Now, of course, I see what I missed since I have gone back and read the books. They always seemed to wordy to me when I was a teenager and a librarian handed them to me, but now I can see a lot of the poetry in the work...I can also see the sources Tolkein drew from.

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

Celtic mythology plays a strong part, but not the stuff you usually see in the
D&D manuals (I really have a long rant there that I won’t go into here), but I
do mix a touch of Anglo-Saxon lore and old Norse lore in from time to time. Since my days of reading fairy tales and Greek and Roman mythology, I got into folklore, and have been an avid reader of older texts that were gathered in the 18th century. But I am also interested in Native American mythology (being part Choctaw and Cherokee), in English folktales, Scandinavian lore, and in the mythologies of India.

DL: Most of your stories are centered in two worlds- the Harper Mage and Keltora. Which world do you find easier to write about or prefer?

LU: That’s a hard one. I find both worlds easy to work in, though sometimes have to remind myself that they are not the same. Keltora is just part of the world of Ard-Taebh which is my “grand scheme of things” epic fantasy world. It’s a world where mages are genetic and magic essence is in everything, and mageborn are able to tap this essence so they don't drain their own essence casting spells. And it’s getting more complex by the day. My latest project has put me in a position of taking a hard look at the history of Ard-Taebh and realizing that the part I write now is just one era of an even bigger milieu.

The Harper Mage world is one where the gods choose who will have the power, and then it is up to the mage to make the right sacrifice to release the power. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the power, and to have that power, one must give up one of the five senses. Oddly enough, it started out as a novel, and then I started writing the short stories, and the late Marion Zimmer Bradley started buying them. I would offer her other things, but she always asked for more Anwyn and Glynnanis stories, and as a result, the world has grown legs based solely on the short fiction. Anwyn is a fun character because he is always at odds with himself and his legacy. Makes for some serious angst. I still get requests from readers as to when I plan to write a novel telling the origin of his power. I have also written one novel where we learn the history of Rhystar and how he came to his power.

Of course, these days I admit that I have grown fond of writing in Selina
Rosen’s Bubbas of the Apocalypse Universe because I get to apply the mythology of my Appalachian roots.

DL: Who is your favorite character?

LU: That’s like asking who is your favorite child among the many you have given birth to. Probably depends on the project, but I will admit that I have a lot of fondness for Conor Manahan. That amuses me since the real focus of those stories is supposed to be Rhoyd who is the Ard Magister. But Conor sort of takes over when he opens his mouth, and it’s hard not to follow him around. There are times I want to be Eithne, except I doubt I would have her patience. :-)

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

LU: To keep opening our eyes to the wonders of a world that "might have been." I'm of the opinion that fantasy helps us to keep the storytelling techniques of our ancestors alive and well. Giving credence to things that never were can be fun. Fantasy allows us to tell and retell the favorite stories in a new way. If we can enjoy ourselves on the journey, all the better. If we can make the material seem fresh and new, it becomes even more "fantastic." As a writer, I tend to write the tales I have always wanted to read, and the reward is hearing readers tell me that they think my worlds and characters are very real to them.

DL: With the success of the "Lord of the Rings" movies, do you think any of your stories would make a good movie?

LU: I think all of them would, but that is probably because I am a very visual writer and very fond of my own work. *g* I see scenery being played out in my head. I get up and practice fight moves from time to time. By now most people know that I am a former fencing champion and fencing coach who now does fencing demonstrations for the SFWA Emergency Medical Fund.

I would seriously love to see any of my books turned into a movie. Or a
miniseries. In fact, I think there are a lot of authors now who are holding up their hands in hopes of getting the attention of Peter Jackson. But if I had to pick only one, I suspect I would hold up my current projects Dragon’s Tongue and Wandering Lark because they have the sort of depth (at least I hope they have the sort of depth) that Jackson could have a field day with.

But of course, because I am a practical sort of person by nature, I won't hold my breath. *g*

DL: What other stories are you working on for the future?

LU: I just finished editing Wandering Lark, which is the sequel to Dragon’s Tongue (a novel that will be coming out from Meisha Merlin some time later in 2004). I also recently finished a “collective novel” called Shadow Song, which is set in Anwyn’s world and essentially ties together what happened to that message he carried that I mentioned in “Harper’s Moon” and “The Black Tower.” Of course, I don’t have a publisher for that one yet, but it's the book Marion was always pushing me to write.

I’m currently working on a couple of short stories that I have been asked to provide for future anthologies, and because everyone keeps asking me “What happens next? after Ard Magister, I am working on the further adventures of Conor, Eithne and Rhoyd under the tentative title of Box of Bones. It takes place about three years later. Rhoyd is getting close to preteens mage-wise, and he’s a lot bolder and more trusting of his own power, but there are times when the little boy in him gets in the way. It brings back characters like Michan (From Chronicles of the Last War) and mentioned “The Demon-Bound” as well as the late Fenelon Greenfyn.

Selina Rosen and I just finished collaborating on a “gonzo” mystery novel we’re calling Bad Lands that we are seriously hoping will become a series. I have a soft spot for mysteries still, and writing this book was like going back to my roots of writing mysteries. Plus the characters are a hoot.

I am also hoping to get around to editing Anwyn’s first novel one day and
marketing it and a couple of independent novels set in Ard-Taebh. I have a book about Ginny and Manus (who appeared in a number of my Sword and Sorceress stories) that I am calling The Hounds of Ardagh that is almost ready to submit.

Of course, what I actually get into working on for publication next (besides
the short stories) is probably going to depend on how well my novels Dragon’s Tongue and Wandering Lark do when they come out. (An author’s career is only as good as their numbers.) There’s a trilogy that follows those two books that deals with how Keltora took the High King’s crown and another trilogy in the works dealing with Rhoyd’s Aunt Genna. Plus one day, I want to go back and write something in the time of the Shadow Lords. There are a lot of places in my own worlds that I have not begun to explore. So who knows what stories are hiding there?

DL: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

LU: Keep writing, rewriting, revising and resubmitting. And keep reading as well--everything you can get your hands on, be it history, biography, folklore, archaeology, letter and memoirs as well as what you want to write. You can't learn to write if you can't take time to read. And you can't write well if you don't read broadly enough.

Above all, never give up. I see so many beginners who want instant success, and I can tell you after thirty years of writing, there is no instant success. Not without hard work. It's something you earn by taking the steps of the ladder to publication one rung at a time. Too often, aspiring writers will think there is a secret they are missing out on. A handshake, a wink, a password. Trust me. If they existed, I would have found them and bottled them and made myself rich by now. *g* As one of my own mentors would have said, "It takes time to become an overnight success..."

Personally, I'm still waiting. *g*

DL: Thank you very much for the interview.

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