SFFWRTCHT: An Interview With Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb was born in California in 1952, but was raised in Alaska. Marrying at eighteen, she moved to Kodiak, an island off the coast of Alaska. It was at this time that she sold her first short story, and began a career writing for children’s magazines. “Bones for Dulath” in Amazons!, published by DAW, was the first piece of fantasy that she published as Megan Lindholm, and that anthology won a World Fantasy Award for Year’s Best Anthology. From 1983 to 1992, she wrote exclusively under the pseudonym Megan Lindholm. Fiction under that pseudonym tends to be contemporary fantasy. In 1995, she began use of the pseudonym Robin Hobb for works of epic traditional European Medieval and American Frontier Fantasy. She currently publishes under both names and lives in Tacoma, Washington. As of 2003 she had sold over 1 million copies of her first nine Robin Hobb novels. She has recently finished writing a third volume in The Rain Wild Chronicles. The volumes are named The Dragon Keeper, Dragon Haven and City of Dragons. Her latest release, The Inheritance, is a collection of short fiction by both Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm. She can be found on Facebook and at her websites: http://www.robinhobb.com/ or http://www.meganlindholm.com/
SFFWRTCHT: Let’s start with the basics: Where did your interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy come from?
Robin Hobb: My mom. When we lived in Fairbanks when I was about 11, she patronized the second-hand stores there, and often would come home with the digest sized magazines and SF paperbacks. Amazing. Fantastic. Those are the titles of the magazines, but, yes they lived up to their names. I would get them after her and read all the contents in order from shortest stories to longest. From those, I graduated to the paperbacks. Never regretted it!
SFFWRTCHT: Who were some writers who inspired you as you discovered the genre?
RH: Robert Bloch could scare the tar out of me, day or night! Poul Anderson. Fritz Leiber. Theodore Sturgeon. Jack Vance. Those are names to conjure by!
RH: When I was 18, I married and moved with my husband to Kodiak Island, to a little village called Chiniak. I’d always said I wanted to be a writer, so I borrowed my sister-in-law’s typewriter and settled down to giving it a try. I sold a story that year, to a very small children’s magazine. I think I got about $3 for it. But it was my first professional sale and one never forgets that! It was quite a long time until my next sale, but I collected lots of rejection slips, some with notes on them, and I began to learn.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you study creative writing at all in school? How’d you learn your craft?
RH: I took a class in creative writing in high school, and one in college. I think what I learned to do in them was how to critique. I don’t think they really taught me much about actual writing. I learned to write by doing it, and by trial and error submission. I read Writers’ Digest and had a copy of Writers’ Market. I followed the advice on formatting manuscripts, kept carbon copies of my stories, and always included a Stamped Self Addressed Envelope for the manuscript and attached rejection slip to come home in.
I feel like a dinosaur admitting all that!
SFFWRTCHT: How do you approach creating monsters/aliens? Do you model them after human cultures? Mix and match or just improvise?
RH: I’m still scared of The Dark at night. It’s full of monsters. So all I have to do is lie awake and wait for them to come and terrify me. With that said, I don’t think I write monsters or aliens very much. As Megan Lindholm, I wrote a few. But I don’t consider my dragons or Elderlings or even the pecksies to be monsters or aliens. Just others.
SFFWRTCHT: How much effort do you put into worldbuilding before you sit down to write? Or do you just throw it together as its needed?
RH: Generally speaking, stories exist for a long time in my mind before I ever begin typing. I don’t think the worldbuilding happens quite the way other people do it, with maps and lists and descriptions. It’s more like an ‘if this, then that ‘ equation that works through my mind. If seaport, then trading or fish? If trading, trade with who and for what? If fish, sell where, what kind of fish, how processed, who does the shore side work, etc. etc. I do like to look at maps, especially old ones, and think about how geography shapes history. But most often for me, it starts with a character. From one person, you can think about his family, his town, the economy, the government, the geography, the religion. It’s like having one puzzle piece from a jigsaw, and then imagining all the other pieces that would fit in around it.
SFFWRTCHT: How do you define epic fantasy and what are its core elements to your mind?
RH: Oh, I would not presume to define it! And I’m only partially joking when I say that. I don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write an epic fantasy today!” I don’t even say, “I’m going to write a book today.” Instead, I think of the scene I’m going to do, and how it ties in to other scenes, and that perhaps I’ll have to go back into an earlier chapter and add a few notes so the reader gets the full impact of why finding a butterfly’s wing is significant. An Epic is actually just an umbrella with a lot of little stories under it. I have to make the reader care about each of those little stories, and if the reader cares, at the end, it will feel like an epic.
RH: To me, it’s obvious from the first moment I get the idea. Stories seem to want to be told a certain way, and they seem to fall on one side or the other of my mental fence between the two styles. I don’t think I could do a modern urban fantasy as Robin Hobb, for example. The nom de plume helps the reader to know what she or he is getting when he picks up the book or story. It’s not that different from how we break the genres down and sell them in categories, I suppose.
SFFWRTCHT: The Rain Wild Chronicles tells the tale of a group of people assigned to escort dragons to a new home after a decree is made declaring the dragons must be relocated to their ancestral homeland so they don’t die out. Where’d the idea for the trilogy come from? And was it conceived as a trilogy or did that come later?
RH: Basically, the dragons are eating the Rain Wilders out of house and home. And as game in the area diminishes, the Rain Wilders start to wonder if they are looking like the next course, so moving the dragons to another location seems like an excellent idea. In some ways, it’s the classic Not In My Back Yard response!
The idea for this story grew naturally from the events at the end of the Liveship Traders trilogy. The Rain Wilders had struck a sort of ‘deal with the devil’ bargain with Tintaglia, the sole great dragon. In return for her protection, they promised to aid the young hatchling dragons that she left in their care. But the Rain Wilders had expected those dragons to swiftly become self-sufficient. And they didn’t, leaving a large problem on their doorstep.
I had intended to write a single stand alone book about them, but as Tolkien said, “The tale grew in the telling!”
SFFWRTCHT: Do you outline an entire trilogy in advance with your chapter by chapter breakdown or just do that when you approach each book? How detailed do your breakdowns get?
RH: I have the general premise for the full trilogy in my brain when I start, but it’s not usually formally committed to paper. There will be notes and cool ideas and sometimes even bits of dialogue. Often those ideas float around in my brain for years. Then when the time comes to start writing, I do a quick chapter breakdown for the first book. I don’t regard it as binding; it’s more like a map of how the story might go to reach the desired endpoint. But as all travelers know, there are many routes to any destination, so if I see an interesting detour, I’ll probably follow it. I may come to a dead end and have to backtrack, but there is also the chance that I’ll find some really fascinating unexplored territory or meet a character I didn’t expect to be traveling with.
SFFWRTCHT: For those unfamiliar with the Rain Wild Chronicles, do the books take place successively or are there gaps in time between them?
RH: All the books I’ve written in the Rain Wild Chronicles fall into chronological order. Sometimes the connections between the trilogies are not easily apparent, but they are there. So my world’s history begins with The Farseer trilogy, followed by the Liveship Traders trilogy, and then the Tawny Man trilogy. The Rain Wild Chronicles return to Bingtown and the Rain Wilds, settings much used in the Liveship Traders trilogy. The Chronicles are in chronological order (Dragon Keeper, Dragon Haven, City of Dragons and eventually Blood of Dragons) will very little time lapse between the books.
SFFWRTCHT: In City of Dragons, although they’d almost reached Kelsingra, their homeland, the dragons and people have now formed transformative magical bonds. Tell us a bit about the magic system in the Rain Wild world please. Where your ideas came from? How much did you create in advance and how much came out in the course of writing?
RH: Over the course of writing the Realm of the Elderlings, I’ve known a great deal of the back story of the Elderlings and the dragons. And of course any fantasy writer has to know the rules and limitations of the magic before he begins, or the books will be full of contradictions. Now, I can’t fully explain what is going on in the Rain Wilds without risking major spoilers for the final volume, Blood of Dragons. You’ll just have to accept that, yes, it all fits together quite logically. Little bits of things that were glimpsed in Assassin’s Apprentice are now unfolding. The reader will just have to trust me and read on! And for readers that read closely and pick up hints and clues along the way, there will be big revelations of things they have suspected for a long time!
SFFWRTCHT: To reach home, the dragons are forced to relearn how to fly, despite their weakened condition. They must probe their instincts. When writing about instincts of mystical creatures such as the dragons of the chronicles, how much do you research and model them after actual animals and how much do you just “wing it” no pun intended?
RH: So called ‘instinct’ fascinates me. I am certain that we do not have the full biological information on ‘instinct’ or ‘ancestral memory.’ We have now documented that tool using behaviors are passed on among animal families, even to language signing among apes. Crows teach their young to use tools; coyotes learn to follow milk trucks and pass the information on to their pups. It’s true that initially such information may be acquired accidentally, but I believe that beneficial information is deliberately passed on among animals.
Even when young creatures are taken from their families early, such as a collie or Labrador puppy, those pups will exhibit a tendency to herd or fetch even if humans don’t specifically teach them those skills. So, somehow that knowledge is being passed on independent of adult modeling. Is it so strange to believe that? Think of all the wonderful things animals seem to be born knowing. The migratory path of the Monarch butterfly spans hundreds of miles, and yet those tiny brained creatures follow it, year after year. The swallows of Capistrano come and go like clockwork.
What human knowledge are we born with, and then deny? Do you knit well because your mother and grandmother did, and the skills seem familiar the first time you pick up a needle? It’s a fascinating topic to me.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you plan to end with City of Dragons or might you revisit the world of this Chronicles some more?
RH: City of Dragons is the third volume in a four volume tale. The Rain Wild Chronicles are Dragon Keeper, Dragon Haven, City of Dragons, and the final concluding volume with be Blood of Dragons, to be published in 2013.
Will I return to the Rain Wilds or Bingtown or Kelsingra? Hard to say where a future book might take me. I certainly enjoy writing in those worlds.
SFFWRTCHT: Have you written or will you write any short stories in this world/with these characters?
RH: Short fiction is very difficult for me. I like to explore characters and worlds in detail, and once I’ve met a character, I build on all I know about that person. So I’m unlikely to use these characters in a short story as there would be so much back story to explain to a new reader. There are other stories that take place in the Rain Wilds or the Six Duchies. There were three of them in my recent collection The Inheritance. That book featured work I’ve done as Megan Lindholm as well as stories by Robin Hobb. So, if someone wants to sample the world without committing to reading several books, that might be a good place to begin.
RH: I read the newspaper every day. Then I retreat to my fantasy world, where things actually make sense to me. I wouldn’t say that real life events inspire me; I don’t incorporate them into my stories. They do help me see the relationships between events that might seem random, but actually affect one another.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing process like? Specific time set aside to write? Grab it when you can?
RH: My ‘process’ has really varied over the years. When my kids were young, I wrote during nap times, very late at night, sitting on the side of the sandbox with a notebook (the kind with paper in it!), at rollerskating rinks, sitting in the car waiting at soccer practice. It was anywhere and everywhere. Much of my writing was done in 15 minute stretches and then edited during the late night hours.
Now that the kids are grown, I try to have a pattern to my writing, but perhaps it’s a bit late to establish one. I still find myself at my desk late at night, and I still always have a notebook in my purse (the kind with paper in it.) I set writing goals for each day, and sometimes I meet them week after week. And sometimes I’m promoting a book or dealing with a windstorm that has left a mess, and I don’t get to it for days at a time. But even when I’m not at the keyboard, I’m still writing. I think that’s what the paper notebook taught me. My brain ‘writes’ all the time. It’s just finding the time to sit down at the keyboard and record what is store there!
SFFWRTCHT: What role do beta readers play for you in the process now that you have a publisher?
RH: I’ve never used beta readers. I write, I let the story cool, I read it, I rewrite it, wait, read it again. And I do that as many times as I can before the deadline hits and I have to surrender it to my editor. I’ve never belonged to a writer’s workshop group or had friends that read my work before my editor did. I’ve often wished I did, as I think that can be very effective. But given the way I evolved as a writer, I never had that opportunity. In some ways, I guess I’ve learned to be my own beta reader, if that’s possible. I think most writers set a story aside and let it cool, and then look at it again with a more impartial glance. I let short stories go through the process three or four times before they go out.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you use outlines or character sketches? Special software? Music?
RH: Mostly really scary deadlines and a stack of bills on the desk! Seriously, I have usually a chapter by chapter breakdown that I refer to. But the bargain I make with myself is that if I suddenly see a more interesting direction for the story to take, I’ll follow it. I’ve regretted that more than once as I ran into brick walls, but it’s what keeps my world and my characters alive and interesting. If I’m always dictating to my characters, then I’m never surprised. And surprises keep the story interesting. It can also lead to moments when you realize you have to discard the last fifty pages as the story line has trickled to a halt. That’s a surprise, too, but not the kind I like.
SFFWRTCHT: How do you approach collaboration? Split characters? Split scenes? Rewrite each other?
RH: I’ve only collaborated once on a novel. That was with Steven Brust, years ago, on a book called The Gypsy. Prior to that, I’d collaborated with Steve on some short stories for Liavek. It was a shared world and mostly we wrote our own stories but our characters lives were entwined. So we knew we agreed on the basic rules of magic and that we could work with one another. I’ve never done a collaboration since then, and at this point, I rather doubt that I could. When I get an idea for where the story has to go, I don’t think I could be flexible enough to make room for another writer.
SFFWRTCHT: How do you decide whose voice is the final?
RH: For Steve and me, it just seemed to happen naturally. I don’t recall that we had any major differences of opinion on things. The story mostly wrote itself. Is it harder to write in collaboration or just the same? I think it was just ‘different’ not harder or easier. More fun in some ways, as there was that element of surprise.
SFFWRTCHT: What projects are you working on for the future that we can look forward to?
RH: I’m trying to put more short stories out there. There are some ideas that are just the right size for a short story, so you either write them that way or leave them alone. I’ve got a fair number of those on my hard drive waiting for polish. Blood of Dragons is yet to come out in the US or UK, and that will mean the final rounds of copy editing and galley proofs. And I’ve a tale about the Piebald Prince that is a rather awkward length that I still have to make some decisions on. So, there are always writing projects coming and going on my desk. Some are shelved for years and then dusted off, and others demand to be written immediately.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
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