An Interview with Fantasy Author Elspeth Cooper
Elspeth was kind enough to answer some questions about her and her series.
Paul Weimer: Who is Elspeth Cooper?
Elspeth Cooper: By day, she is a mild-mannered epic fantasy author. When nobody’s looking she transforms into a sword-wielding British housewife and retired IT worker, drinker of tea and herder of cats.
PW: SF and Fantasy is something many people read when young, and then give up. Others come back to it or come to it for the first time in adulthood, and still others never stop reading fantasy from youth. How was it for you?
EC:I started early and never stopped: my parents read me Ivanhoe as a bedtime story when I was about three or four years old, and it was downhill from there. I was a voracious and often indiscriminate reader, but there was always a thread of genre in it, scifi as well as fantasy, myths and legends. Dragonfall 5, The Moon on the Water (the first book to make me cry), Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, the Narnia books, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and of course The Lord of the Rings.
I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged reading anything and everything that was in the house. They never tried to steer me towards ‘books for kids my age’ or ‘books for girls’, hence they let me loose on Dad’s Penguin Classics editions of Homer, and didn’t bat an eye when I brought a copy of Beowulf home from school. By the time I was old enough to go to the library on my own, I was a lost cause. These days I incline more towards the epic end of the fantasy spectrum, with some forays into urban or magical realism, but I still love reading as much as ever.
PW: How did you transition from avid consumer of fantasy (especially epic), to writing it yourself?
EC: I was always making up stories to entertain myself as a kid – I was a rather solitary, bookish child, happy in my own company. That urge to tell the story, to set the scene, never left me, and I made my first attempt at novel-length fiction when I was just 14. It was awful, derivative fantasy, but it proved to me that I could sustain a story over a decent length.
Fast-forward about twenty years and I’m still noodling around some ideas for a fantasy story, but not able to make it all gel until a couple of years later when my personal life imploded and I broke up with my fiancé. It was a bad time for me and I spent quite a few sleepless nights writing as a way to burn up all the negative energy. What came out of it was the opening scene of Songs of the Earth: Gair, alone in the dark, wrestling with a power inside him he didn’t understand and couldn’t control.
I wanted to know what happened next, so I kept writing. As life got in the way, I picked it up and put it down but never quite left it alone, and ten years later I finished the story. I was married by then, and my husband encouraged me (by which I mean “nagged relentlessly”) to try for publication. I edited heavily, rewrote and in 2009 had the version of the script that won me an agent, and subsequently a publishing deal with Gollancz. Not a bad result for someone who went into the submission process purely to stop her husband pestering her.
Oops. That turned out a bit wordy. This is why I don’t write short fiction: I enjoy the broad canvas too much!
PW: Gair’s story, you said, started with an opening scene and you built outward. Is your writing style more pantser than plotter? How did you build the world of The Wild Hunt series? What were your inspirations?
EC: Pantser, definitely – or as GRRM puts it, I’m a gardener, rather than an architect.
A story usually starts with an image that won’t go away – in Gair’s case, the iron room (which was very much a metaphor for where I was emotionally at the time). From that come the questions about who this person is, how did he get here, and what’s happening next. I write to find out the answers.
That’s not to say there aren’t deliberate choices being made as part of my writing process: once the spine of the story becomes clear I have to start making structural decisions for reasons of story flow or dramatic tension or building up to a climactic scene, so I self-edit relentlessly as I go. I think of it a bit like training a bonsai: you have to let the plant establish a good root system and get an idea of how it’s growing before you start wiring and pruning.
When it came to creating the world of The Wild Hunt, I didn’t want the worldbuilding to overwhelm the characters; I just needed a place in which the story could happen. It was only later on that I realised I’d used early-modern European history (which would have been my major at university) as a template for a society that was still religious enough to make a fear of witchcraft and magic credible, but increasingly secular in terms of its power structures, and technologically advanced enough to give me printing presses, reasonably accurate clocks and so forth. Think the Reformation period.
When the child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church hit the headlines, something of a lightbulb went off in my head. I took the idea of a church with a hidden secret, mixed it with my childhood fascination with knights and my interest in history, and I ended up with an unwanted child raised by an order of Church Knights sworn to hunt down magic users, who turns out to have developed magical powers of his own. That gave me Gair’s backstory, the reason why he was imprisoned in the iron room, and suddenly it all started to come together.
Fun fact: I used to live next door to a descendant of Alice Nutter, one of the ‘witches’ executed after the Pendle witch trials in Lancashire in 1612.
PW: Songs of the Earth tells Gair’s story to come to terms with his power and to learn to use it, as well as the politics and looming menaces in your series start to build. How did you, as a gardener, find writing the second novel, especially with the introduction of a new major protagonist, Teia?
EC: That kinda makes it sound like I sat down one day with a blank sheet of paper and started writing Book 2 from cold. It wasn’t like that at all.
Chronologically speaking, Teia’s story starts roughly 3 months after Gair’s and they don’t intersect until later in the series. By the time I began to pursue publication, I’d already written a good portion of her arc, expecting it to form part of Book 1. However, that made the initial script too long to submit, and I didn’t feel there was enough linking the two stories to show that both characters were facing the same events, just from different perspectives.
I decided to keep the focus on Gair in Songs and moved Teia’s arc to Book 2, Trinity Rising. I wrote Savin’s scenes to tie in key moments from Book 1, so the reader knew where Teia’s arc and Gair’s overlapped. This was a huge gamble. I’ve had a few complaints from folk who felt I’d ‘ignored’ Gair for half the book, perhaps not appreciating that the time-shift meant I couldn’t go back to him until Teia had caught up in time to where I’d left him. Honestly, I don’t know how I could have done it any differently, without making Songs about 800 pages long.
Actually writing Trinity Rising was tough. There’s a reason why publishing people refer to Book 2 as “the difficult second album”. You have to write to deadline, and have to engineer solutions to problems you would have previously left to percolate until later. This came as a rude shock to me: I wasn’t accustomed to writing fast, and so my first draft wasn’t as refined as Songs had been. I also had health problems that year that saw me in the emergency room several times, so…yeah. A year to forget.
Anyway, I’d sold The Wild Hunt as a trilogy because I felt that the story broke naturally into a three-act structure, and I wrote synopses for the later books accordingly. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise until I was processing my editor’s embarrassingly long list of suggestions that my synopsis for Trinity had actually overshot the natural end of Act II and by following it I was now halfway into a third book. Cue frantic phone calls to my agent, a hasty contract extension to four books, and a rather more cliffhanger-y ending to Trinity than I had originally intended.
I am not a natural planner, so adjusting my writing style to the demands of a deadline-led schedule has been difficult, to say the least!
PW: Indeed, I’ve heard (and read) the difficulty and fraught nature of second novels, and it sounds like you had your share. What else you have learned about writing by tackling a second book?
EC: I’ve learned quite a lot. I’m better at pacing, I think, and I’m more able to objectively gauge what degree of subtlety I can get away with when it comes to foreshadowing. I’m also more confident with my prose: looking back I think I second-guessed myself a lot when I redrafted Songs prior to submission, and I was so focused on keeping the length manageable that maybe I lost a little bit of rhythm and flow in the process. These days I’m a big fan of reading stuff out loud to see if it sounds right: anything awkward or staccato just jumps out when you say it.
PW: Branching off that for a moment. You mentioned that you had complaints about the focus of the second book. How do you (as we’ll get to the third book in a question or so) manage a series, and manage reader expectations and reactions in the age of “instant” responses from readership?
EC: ‘Managing the series’ sounds so formal, as if it should involve spreadsheets and index cards and a big noticeboard covered in Post-Its. The reality is fairly chaotic. You see, I never actually set out to write a series. It was only as Songs gained momentum, stopped being just writing-as-therapy and started to develop a purpose, that I realised it was the start of a much bigger narrative. In other words, I am totally winging it.
As far as managing reader expectations goes, I’m not exactly sure what they are expecting. I’m just thrilled that people are actually reading the books. Since Songs came out I’ve been quite open about the fact that the ending of the series will be bittersweet: Gair won’t be crowned a king, nor will he marry a princess and live happily every after. It’s not that kind of story.
It would be nice to think that all readers are going to agree with every story choice I make, but that’s never going to happen. Each person takes their own journey through a book, and what presses one person’s buttons is going to pass unnoticed by another. Whatever I do is going to disappoint somebody, no matter how hard I try. Since I can’t give every reader what they want , I have to concentrate instead on giving the characters what they need. What is fitting. And really, the only person who can decide what that is, is me.
I love getting feedback from readers, and always make the effort to reply personally to email, but I confess I tend to stay away from reviews and ratings on places like Amazon. My ego is fragile enough without subjecting it to the rollercoaster of “Loved it!” and “Why the hell did I waste my money on this dreck?”
PW: Do prefer as a reader to read stories with the bittersweet kind of ending that lies off in the future for Gair?
EC: As a reader, I’m less concerned about whether the ending is happy or tragic or somewhere in between than about whether it feels like it evolved organically from the story. Even if the ending’s got a twist I still want to be able to look back at the story that has gone before and see where it came from. I hate finishing a book and feeling let down by a conclusion that’s too pat, too neat.
PW: So what’s the elevator pitch for the third novel, The Raven’s Shadow?
EC: Oh God, I’m useless at elevator pitches. Is it actually possible to write one without resorting to clichés? Um. “A man with nothing left to lose faces an army led by a woman with everything to gain. Between them, the fate of an empire hangs in the balance.” So, not possible at all, then.
EC: Yes and no. Because of the way I drafted the synopsis, I consider Trinity Rising and The Raven’s Shadow as Part IIa and Part IIb of the series. Trinity copped most of the setup and moving-pieces-around-the-board that middle books are often accused of, and Raven got to be almost entirely payoff for the middle act. The reader goes into the final volume with Gair at his lowest ebb, and everything on the line ready for the finale.
Writing these two books felt a bit like Peter Jackson shooting the Lord of the Rings movies back to back: there was no breakdown and set-up of the sets between the two productions, so the mood and the energy just flowed from one to the other – once I’d got over the panic that I’d goofed with the synopsis, that is. The latter half of Raven came together so smoothly it practically wrote itself.
Needless to say, Book 4 isn’t being quite so co-operative!
PW: Right, so as we wind down this interview — and thank you for taking the time to do this — are you doing any conventions this year? Where can readers engage with you
and your work?
EC: Thank you for your patience with my rambling on!
It’s unlikely I’ll be doing any conventions for a while: MS is limiting my mobility and stamina so travel is tough these days. I did EasterCon in the UK in 2012 and I loved it, but it wiped me out and I needed about a week to recover. Ironically enough, I would probably suffer less if I used a wheelchair, but stubbornness and I are still locked in intense negotiations over that idea.
My website, ElspethCooper.com, has excerpts of all my books and a blog which I update somewhat eccentrically. Otherwise, readers can stalk me on Twitter @ElspethCooper or via Facebook at www.facebook.com/ElspethCooperFantasy.
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