Interview, excerpted from the Orbit Books Newsletter for March 2001
Her name's Carol Berg. Her debut novel is TRANSFORMATION. It's Book One of the Rai-Kirah. And it's very, very good. We caught up with Carol when she delivered the manuscript for its sequel...
Who or what inspired you to become a writer?
I have always been a reader. I love not only fantasy and science fiction, but historicals, mysteries, and classics. I suppose every reader runs across some clinkers and thinks, "I could do better than that," but I never imagined that I could plan out a whole story and make it real. About ten years ago a good friend of mine, who was very interested in writing, shared a fantasy book with me - a series of letters between two sisters. We decided that it would be an entertaining exercise to send each other email letters "in character". She was to be the wild younger sister who went off to magic school, and I would take the part of the dutiful, shy older sister who ended up in a hostile royal court. This was glorious fun. What it taught me was that I didn't have to know in advance how the story was going to develop. Over the period of a year, we wrote about 30 letters each, and when we were done, we had a pretty good story (albeit with quite amateurish writing!) But by then, I didn't want to stop. I had this idea for a new character . . .
When did you first decide you wanted to write fantasy?
One might say it was in high school, long before I ever thought I might actually write a book. Most of my writing in school and university was in the way of essays and literary criticism. As beneficial as this formal writing was for me, I disliked it immensely. I majored in math and computer science in part to avoid more of the same! But once, in tenth grade, my English teacher had assigned us to write a short story, and I was having a hard time feeling imaginative. My "difficulty" inspired me with an idea about two children whose father had purposefully squelched his children's imaginations because he was afraid of "elves". It turned out very nicely, so I suppose I was left with a good feeling about writing fantasy.
Which SF/fantasy novels have influenced you the most?
Heinlein was the beginning - his early adventure stories. Tolkien was the giant step - an entire world with its own language and mythology and wonderful, vivid images. Beyond these have been so many that have stayed with me, read over and over again. To name just a few, I would say Mary Stewart's Merlin books - The Crystal Cave, et al - and Mary Renault's Theseus books and her Alexander the Great books - The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, and Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. Both of these women are masters of rich and marvelous storytelling. Then there are Roger Zelazny's first Amber series for sheer imagination, Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer and Swordspoint for emotional impact, excellent characters, and glorious detail, and Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry for absolute beauty and magnificence of language. I love Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game for composition of character, plot, and world, and Raymond Feist's Magician series for the "youthful adventure tales". The book I would like most to have written is not a fantasy at all, but Edith Pargeter's Heaven Tree Trilogy, an historical adventure that takes all of these elements to another level. Whew! It's hard to stop.
What kind of preparation went into creating your own vividly-imagined world?
My world is, in effect, a reflection of my characters. Though I do enjoy the traditional Celtic fantasy setting, I believed that Aleksander was the product of a harsher, more brutal environment, albeit one that has its own beauty and purity as he does. And the Derzhi Empire had spread uncomfortably far beyond its desert roots, into realms such as the mountains near Capharna, much as Aleksander is forced to move beyond his preconceptions. Seyonne's home, on the other hand, needed to be as remote from the cruel world in which he was held captive as he was from the life he loved. I wanted it to be a place that nurtured his love of life and beauty and "home," as well as his contemplative side. From my studies of art history in college, years of miscellaneous reading, and my travels here in the western United States, I picked bits and pieces of cultures and environments that would reflect and nurture what I wanted in my characters. Plus I did a bit of extra reading on desert cultures, just to make sure the Derzhi were making sense!
Can you tell us a bit about the world and the mythology you've created in TRANSFORMATION - where did your inspiration come from?
In Transformation, the "ordinary" world is that of the Derzhi Empire, an absolute monarchy built on warrior traditions, conquest, and slavery. But unknown to the general populace there has been another war going on. For a thousand years, the Ezzarians, a secretive race of sorcerers, have protected the world from soulless demons who creep into human souls and feed on the cruelties of life, driving their victims into madness. The origin and nature of the demons is unknown. At the time Transformation begins, it has been sixteen years since the Derzhi conquered Ezzaria, and, as far as anyone knows, killed or enslaved its entire population.
I suppose the key to the mythology of Transformation is Seyonne's statement that demons are not evil in themselves. The Wardens only kill a demon that refuses to leave its host, because the death of a demon seems to upset some balance in the universe. The problem for the Ezzarians is that they don't know why, and they have locked themselves into traditions and a world view that do not allow for gray areas. They literally "don't see" what they don't want to see.
Though much of fantasy depicts the struggle between good and evil, darkness and light, and Transformation certainly deals with those fundamental issues, the beauty of life - and fiction - is its complexity. I find myself annoyed with those who try to deal with our own world - nations, institutions, or people - in simplistic terms. This leads to prejudice, bigotry, and cynicism. And of course this struggle to understand and deal with complexities is reflected most of all in Aleksander's and Seyonne's changing view of each other and of themselves, and in the transformations they must undergo.
Seyonne will explore the roots of Ezzarian history and the nature of the demons in Revelation, the sequel to Transformation.
Which do you find more important: character or story?
To me, both strong characters and well-developed plot are essential, but I always start with character. With complex and interesting characters placed in a problematic world, the story will begin to develop of itself and take on a richness that plot alone can't provide. Transformation began with the character of Aleksander - an arrogant, unlikeable, high-born man who was going to fall very low before finding out his true importance to the world. And then, as proud and arrogant princes are unlikely to be introspective, I needed someone to tell his story - someone who had no reason to like Aleksander, but who was around him all the time to report what happened to him. Thus a slave. I truly didn't know who Seyonne was when Aleksander bought him on page one, nor that his voice would prove to be so strong, and his background and character so fundamental to the story.
Do you have a daily routine when you're writing a novel?
I don't have a daily routine, as sometimes I have entire days to devote to writing and sometimes I have to squeeze it in before or after work. But I do have habits. I write every day, even if it is just a few edits. In our Colorado summers and fall, I love writing outdoors on our deck or on a weekend in the mountains. I've been known to write by campfire light. When it's too cold to be out, I work beside my favorite windows for lots of light and a good view. I write in a spiral method, in that I always review the previous day's work before beginning to write new material. It helps me immerse myself in the world and the action, prime the pump, so to speak, as well as to do an editing round. Sometimes I feel the need to go back through earlier chapters before I can move ahead. I am constantly editing and revising as I go. I have also been known to read the story aloud to myself. Because I like to be immersed in the world and the story, I work best by myself with minimal distractions. My husband is a saint.
What do you do to relax?
Writing has been my primary relaxation for a number of years. Beyond that, I enjoy reading, of course - though I am quite behind - watching films, and hiking and camping in the mountains. I've been known to dabble in bicycling and skiing. My secret vice is watching (American!) football - but only one team, our Denver pro team. I love music, but I'm even farther behind in my piano playing than in my reading.
How do you think the fantasy genre will change over the next ten years?
I have absolutely no idea. I'm not sure what it's done in the last ten years!
What advice would you give to budding fantasy authors?
Think characters. (I guess this answers the earlier question.) What do they like, what do they dislike, what are they afraid of, why do they choose the paths they walk? Avoid all-powerful heroes, all-evil villains, and magic that can fix anything. One of my readers commented that he appreciated Transformation because the magic always had a cost. I thought that was an excellent way of expressing this idea. Another bit . . . read your work aloud. This reveals so much about flow of language and dialogue, about balance and clarity. Find compatible peers to read your work and critique it. Don't change things just because they say, but listen to their comments, and let it teach you to read your story with new eyes.
Don't forget to check out Chapter One of TRANSFORMATION on the Orbit website now: http://www.thebookplace.co.uk/orbit/orbit_feature_transformation.asp
The follow-up, titled REVELATION is scheduled for publication this September.
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