An Interview with HEARTWOOD Author Freya Robertson

New Zealand author Freya Robertson is the author of Heartstone, the first in the Elemental Wars series out from Angry Robot Books. You can find her online at her website, FreyaRobertson.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter as @EpicFreya.

Freya was kind enough to answer a few questions about her and her work.


Paul Weimer: Let’s start simple: Who is Freya Robertson?

Freya Robertson: I’m 44, married with a teenage son. Born in the UK, moved to NZ eight years ago. Currently working as a PA to four deputy principals in a high school.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 15. Had a few pieces in the local paper in my teens. Won second place in a short story contest at 20. First published short story at 21. Had a dozen or so in various magazines, have won about fifteen competitions over the years.

Took a degree in history and archaeology, specialising in medieval history, castles and forts, and monasticism.

Wrote seven novels, mostly historical and F&SF, including Heartwood, up to the age of forty. Struggled to find an agent or publisher, and had two novels sitting with publishers for 18 months before being rejected. Demoralised, and gave up for six whole months.

Turned 40. Decided although I might never be Stephen King or John Grisham, I still loved writing, and I’d try something else. Saw an advert for a digital romance publisher requesting romance novellas, wrote one and it was accepted.

Went on to write 23 romance novels over three years :-) Learned heaps about writing and editing.

In the meantime, saw the advert for Angry Robot’s Open Door epic fantasy submission. Took out the book, polished it up using the techniques I’d learned, sent it off. Waited ten months. Then got The Call from Lee Harris.

Got published!

PW: What drew you into genre fiction? How did you get interested in writing it?

FR: I was always going to be a genre writer. I have no literary pretensions and I love genre fiction.

I grew up on a diet of science fiction TV shows, which is my father’s fault. Blake’s Seven, Wonder Woman, the Incredible Hulk, Battlestar Galactica…you name it, we watched it.

With regard to books though, that came a bit later, and I got into fantasy in my late teens, reading authors like Katharine Kerr, Terry Brooks, Charles De Lint and Marion Zimmer Bradley (and, of course, Tolkien.)

But my first instinct was to write historical fiction. I wrote a medieval “soap opera” set in a medieval village, following the lives of its inhabitants. But I felt constricted by history and found myself automatically wanting to insert fantastical elements, and it wasn’t long before I decided a blend of history and fantasy would be the perfect setting for me.

I’m a fan of the Arthurian and Robin Hood legends, and I find nature religions fascinating. One day I took a pad of paper and just wrote down all my the things I enjoyed reading about in a big list—medieval, castles, knights, Templars, magic, trees, nature, battles, armour, weaponry, Green Man, Arthur… and Heartwood was born out of that.

PW: What is the elevator pitch for Heartwood?

FR: A dying tree, a desperate quest, a love story, a last stand. Can Chonrad and Heartwood’s holy knights save the Arbor and protect Anguis from the invasion of the Darkwater Lords?

This is the original two line pitch I sent to AR for the Open Door submission.

PW: Open Door submission, Interesting. What was the experience like in sending an unsolicited manuscript cold to Angry Robot?

FR: I had a bit of a competition obsession a few years ago and was always sending off stories here and there, so at the time my submission to Angry Robot was very much a “press the button and off it goes” kind of approach. It sounds like false modesty, but after a few years of rejections I honestly didn’t expect to be picked up by such a prestigious publisher off the slush pile like that. The email from Amanda Rutter asking for the whole manuscript nearly made me fall off my chair. I worked really hard for a week re-reading and polishing the manuscript. Then came the wait. It’s by far the hardest part of writing. The whole thing from start to finish took ten months, and that’s not particularly long in publishing. I was very unprofessional and hounded Lee Harris on Twitter around that time because, to be honest, I was expecting him to reject it and by then I just wanted to know so I could move on, you know? I was absolutely stunned when he came back with a two-book contract. Completely shocked. I picked up the email at 6am, lying in bed, reading my iPad. Hubby and I read it together, and we just lay there and went, “Huh.” The knowledge bloomed throughout the day into a tremendous euphoria. Best thing ever.

PW: You’ve been a writer of romance novels before your debut in genre. How was writing a fantasy novel, particularly epic fantasy, the same? How was it different?

FR: I actually wrote Heartwood before I wrote my romances. Sci-fi and fantasy have always been my first love, but while trying to place Heartwood, I turned to romance due to the fact that—it being the most popular fiction genre and commandeering something like 45% of the market—publishers are hungry for new authors, and the new burst of digital-first publishers that erupted a few years ago with the advent of digital are happy to accept authors without agents. I was determined to be published, and—believing that a writer’s success lies in being flexible—I wrote romances for a while and was thrilled to finally see my name in “print”.

Ultimately, there’s no difference in the writing process between writing romance and writing epic fantasy. Romance is easier, in the sense that a lot less planning and research is required. Romance novels have one major plotline with possibly one or two sub-plots at the most, and they’re simple and formulaic in that they’re about the development of a relationship, and exploring the characters’ emotions and matters that are important to women (mainly) without getting too bogged down in description and complicated plots (although I acknowledge that many romances are more involved than this.) Because of this, romances are often shorter, many being only 60,000 words or so (compared to Heartwood’s 180,000.) This is not to put romance down at all—each genre speaks to its readers in a different way. I was trying to explain to my son—who loves rock music like Them Crooked Vultures etc and who dislikes most pop music—that the music by boy bands appeal to girls in the same way as his music speaks to him, and that he shouldn’t look down on the bands or the girls for liking them because of this. And I feel the same way about romance. Each to his or her own—it’s all writing, all creative, all valuable.

After saying this… Writing epic fantasy compared to romance was like embroidering the Bayeux Tapestry compared to sewing on a button. Heartwood has dozens of characters joining on seven quests across four countries. I had to make up maps and names and languages and design castles and do research on the medieval period for everything from food to transport to weaponry. It was a very different experience—longer, harder, more convoluted, and much dearer to my heart because of that.

PW: Did you do any rewriting of Heartwood between the time you first wrote it, and your romance novel writing?

FR: When I saw the Open Door submission from Angry Robot looking for epic fantasy, I took the manuscript out, dusted it off and looked at with fresh eyes, with the editing skills I’d picked up from the editors I’d worked with. I didn’t change anything significant in the plot, but I did polish the phrasing and tighten the writing, taking out extraneous adverbs, changing passive tense to active, the sort of thing I’d learned along the way. I think it made it a stronger story.

PW: Who are your writing heroes in science fiction and fantasy? Who do you read?

FR: My biggest influences have been Katharine Kerr, Anne McCaffrey, Charles de Lint, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Terry Brooks. All of them are great storytellers. I love the kind of magic realism that de Lint, Bradley and Brooks write about, where characters cross between the real world and the fantasy. I’d like to write a book or series like that one day.

PW:I recently saw that the cover to The Sunstone, the sequel to Heartwood, was revealed. What was it like writing a sequel?

FR: Writing a sequel is a delicate balance, I think, between retaining a “feel” of the original while making it different enough to not be a copy of the original book.

Heartwood is very much (IMO) a traditional quest-based epic fantasy. Sunstone is a little different in that it is set across three different timelines which are interwoven and cross at certain points like threads in a blanket. It’s still epic in the sense that it’s about saving the world and it involves long journeys and battles and moments where the characters think they can’t go on, but I think it’s deeper than Heartwood; it expands on many of the ideas and explores them in more depth.

As an archaeologist and a historian, I enjoy books where the land and its people have a history and where subsequent books show a development of ideas, cultures and religions. This is very much a part of Sunstone, where the reader can shadow the people’s gradual understanding of the Arbor and its control not only of the land but also of time.

It was a lot easier to write than Heartwood in many words because I had already built a majority of the world, and I’d set up the different peoples and their variations on the religion.

PW: So with Heartwood coming out, and The Sunstone on the way (when is that due to release?), what is next for you?

FR: Sunstone comes out on 25th March in the US. I’m just about to submit that to my editor, so fingers crossed that he likes it!

What’s next…hmm… I have an idea for the third book in the Elemental Wars series, but I’ll have to wait and see how Heartwood is received before I commit to that. I have a couple of ideas on the boil for both a sci-fi and a fantasy series that I’m excited about. I would like to take part in NaNoWriMo again this year (I did CampNaNo back in July) but it coincides with Heartwood’s launch in the UK as well as the busiest time of the year in my job (I’m a PA to four deputy principals at a high school, and I’m in charge of the school prizegiving, which falls on 7th November – the day Heartwood’s released in the UK! How’s that for timing?) So I don’t know whether I’ll have the time. But I’m itching to start something new. I’m a fairly prolific writer, and I’m not happy unless I’m cracking on with the next project!

PW: Where can readers find out more about you and your work?

FR: At my Website: http://www.freyarobertson.com, my Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/freyarobertsonnz or my Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/EpicFreya

PW: Thank you, Freya!