This week’s post in an interview with fantasy and science fiction author Deborah J. Ross. Enjoy.
Debbie Ledesma: Please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us how you got started in writing.
Deborah J. Ross: I have written and edited fantasy and science fiction for over 30 years. My recent novels include Thunderlord (with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley), Lambda Literary Award Finalist science fiction novel Collaborators (as Deborah Wheeler), and an epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. My short fiction has appeared in Asimov's, F & SF, Realms of Fantasy, Star Wars: Tales From Jabba's Palace, Sisters of the Night, and Sword & Sorceress. I’ve edited a number of anthologies, including Lace and Blade, Across the Spectrum, Mad Science Cafe, and Stars of Darkover. Along the way, I served as Secretary to the Science Fiction Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and am currently on the Board of Directors of Book View Cafe. When I’m not writing, I knit for charity, play classical piano, and study yoga and dog training.
How I got started in writing? Well before I learned to scrawl my name, I made up stories, and once I could form proper words and pictures to accompany them, I began putting together whole books. My father was a printer, and our home was amply supplied with paper and ink. In my teens and twenties, I began many novels, even finished a few of them, but never knew what to do with them next, nor did I know any writers beyond a few school friends who were just as clueless as I was. I knew I loved to write, and I occasionally dared to hope that someday, my writing would be more than a secret pleasure.
In my early thirties, just after my first child was born, I hit career burnout and decided to work part-time from home. A friend invited me to join a women’s writing group. Although none of us knew what we were doing, I came home from the first meeting so exhilarated that I drafted the story I'd been playing in my head for the last year. No one told me it was crazy to write a novel in 6 weeks with a new baby and a part-time career. The real break came in 1991, when I lived in Lyons, France. A couple of months after I returned to the States, I sold my first novel.
DL: What authors, Fantasy or otherwise, influence your writing?
DR: The list is very long! Some of my favorite contemporary authors include Barbara Hambly, Mary Rosenblum, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sherwood Smith, Carol Berg, Freda Warrington, Jennifer Roberson, Chaz Brenchley, Judith Tarr, Vonda N. McIntyre, Ursula K. Le Guin, Charles Stross, Saladin Ahmed, Diana Wynne Jones, and Tanith Lee. I love authors who give me a new way of thinking about story or language. Once it was possible to keep up with who was writing what, but the field is so large now, I’ve given up trying. I rely on the advice of friends whose taste I trust. It’s hilarious when a friend hates what I love and vice-versa, so I go for whatever they pan. When I go to a science fiction convention, I try to buy at least one book by an author I have just met but have not yet read.
DL: What genre is your favorite to write?
DR: I'm interested in a lot of different things and write for readers who are, too. My first two novels, Jaydium (an adventure through alternate time paths, complete with six-foot silver slug-like aliens) and Northlight (set on a lower-tech world, with romantic, ecological and spiritual themes) were science fiction. Besides seven Darkover novels, I’ve written epic fantasy featuring strong women heroes, science fiction dealing with gender and power, and some rather oddball young adult fiction that turns the usual paranormal tropes inside out.
My short fiction has provided me a place to be wildly inventive. I've written a Star Wars story (Tales From Jabba's Palace) and whimsical fantasy, vampires (funny ones in Sisters of the Night, or a friendship between a vampire and an observant Jew in "Transfusion" in Realms of Fantasy), I've done kids' stories (in several Bruce Coville anthologies), and almost-not-science-fiction pieces about grief and obsession and courage, grim near-future dystopic sf, and epic fantasy. Then there’s wacky stuff like "Harpies Discover Sex" for Olympus. A historical fantasy based on the life of Dona Gracia Nasi and another from the Indus Valley civilization. A story for Marion in Return to Avalon, based on the history of opera. My most recent short fiction has included “Among Friends” (F & SF) about Quakers, the Underground Railroad, and a slave-catching automaton, “A Borrowed Heart” (F & SF), which pits a prostitute against a succubus, and “The Hero of Abarxia” (When the Hero Comes Home 2) in which the hero, of course, is a horse.
DL: I’m always fascinated with Fantasy that has mythic themes. Do you use themes from mythology in your books?
DR: Not consciously, although I borrowed shameless for “Harpies Discover Sex” (Myth Fantastic, reprinted in Beyond Grimm: Tales Newly Twisted, Book View Café). I do frequently draw on archetypes for depth and resonance, although I may change them. The wise old (male) mentor becomes the middle aged (female) mentor, that sort of thing. Archetypes are valuable because they draw upon very deep psychological processes. Myths are culturally-specific, so although we might find stories from a different time or place entertaining, they don’t move us in the way they affect the people who gave rise to them. Archetypes seem to be universal and hence are more powerful.
DL: You also write novels set in Darkover the creation of the late Marion Zimmer Bradley. Is it difficult or easy writing stories in another author's world?
DR: Writing Darkover stories is much like writing historical fiction. I do research, using not only Marion's published work, but The Darkover Concordance and her articles in the old Darkover newsletters. I try to create story lines that are true to Marion's vision of Darkover and the themes that were meaningful to her. Since I work closely with the MZB Literary Trust, I hammer out a detailed outline before I start. Once that's approved, I turn the process over to my creative back-brain. Because I'm not trying to distort my own intuitive style, I can then write from my heart.
DL: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
DR: Writing is both craft and art. You already have the dream. Now you have to learn the craft. As exciting as the prospect of publication is, if you’re in this for the long haul, be patient. It takes time and work to achieve excellence. There are so many aspects of success you’re powerless over, but the quality of your work is one you do have control over. I wrote a series of essays about nurturing yourself as a writer as you wrestle with the skills, called Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life.
Read voraciously, and read the best writing you can lay your hands on.
Pay attention to what lights you up inside.
Study everything besides writing. History, astronomy, human biomechanics, African languages, oceanography, ancient runes, Balinese music, ballet, medicine, fashion design, dog training, walrus training, platypus training, whatever strikes your fancy. Once you have something to write about, something you care passionately about, then pay attention to the craft.
Meanwhile, write every day, even if it’s crap. A crappy manuscript can be revised and edited, but a nonexistent one will never become better.
DL: Thank you very much.