Helen Lowe is an epic fantasy author and SF Signal contributor, and last year she won the David Gemmell Morningstar Award for her debut adult fantasy novel, The Heir Of Night (THE WALL OF NIGHT Book One.) Today, fellow speculative fiction author Tim Jones is talking with her about her writing and recent shortlisting for the David Gemmell Legend Award for Best Fantasy Novel, for The Gathering Of The Lost (THE WALL OF NIGHT Book Two.)
Tim: First of all, Helen, congratulations on your shortlisting for the David Gemmell Legend Award! This is a classic Oscar-type question, I know, but how did it feel when you heard that The Gathering Of The Lost had made the shortlist?
Helen: Thank you, Tim, for the congratulations. To be honest, given the range of books on the longlist and that many of them were by authors whom I esteem highly, I was afraid to look when the result came out. A friend in the UK – fellow BookSworn author, Mary Victoria — had to email and tell me to “go look” some time later. Needless to say, when I did I was very happy indeed and there may even have been an air punch and a “happy dance”
Tim: High or epic fantasy can range from the deeply heroic – such as The Lord Of The Rings – to the deeply anti-heroic – such as the A Song Of Ice And Fire series. If you’re willing to admit the existence of such a continuum, where along it would you place The Gathering Of The Lost – and would you place the predecessor volume, The Heir Of Night, at the same place on the continuum?
Helen: That’s a very interesting question, Tim. I do think there is a continuum, and I tend to think of THE WALL OF NIGHT quartet (of which The Heir Of Night and The Gathering Of The Lost comprise Books One and Two respectively) as “epic-heroic” fantasy. What I mean by “epic-heroic” is that it is primarily a story of adventure and heroism and magic, where there is a lot at stake and what’s at stake matters. In that sense it draws on the High Fantasy tradition of the Morte D’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Parsifal, with their notions of quest and doomed stands, the trumpet blast at dawn, the banners of noon day, and the twilight of both heroes and gods.
Squarely, you may therefore assume, at the Tolkien end of the epic fantasy spectrum – except that another major influence on my writing is history, and that means I try to temper the heroism with realism, particularly when it comes to dealing with war and conflict. One way I do this is through a focus on characters, so as I said in a recent post: “although The Gathering Of The Lost is heroic fantasy … people who matter, people those in the story love and care about, are going to get injured and killed in the armed conflicts-because that is what happens in war … So as part of achieving realism, I try and make sure that those caught up in the conflict are real people for the reader, not just “redshirts” who can be killed off with zero emotional cost.”
I believe this aspect of the storytelling is not incompatible with what is happening in the A Song of Ice And Fire series – but I would argue that it’s not incompatible with Tolkien either. The Lord Of The Rings is probably higher and more heroic storytelling, but it is also all about the emotional cost of war, so perhaps that is a thread that binds the continuum together.
Emotional depth is also the respect in which I feel the WALL series is very much its own story. For me, a good film or a good book is always about the emotional power in the storytelling, and the depth and subtlety of the characters. Do they feel real and believable, do I lose myself in what is happening in their lives – because those are the characters I want to meet in my reading and bring to life through my writing. Much as I love heroism (and I really do), I believe both The Heir Of Night and The Gathering Of The Lost are primarily about human characters. So although Heir may be a more magic-driven story and focused on the “unrelentingly dark, haunting atmosphere” (Specusphere) of the Wall of Night, while Gathering is more adventurous and opens up into a wider world, I believe they do sit together on any continuum.
Tim: The Gathering Of The Lost begins five years after The Heir Of Night ends. What led you to decide on this time jump, what were the advantages of doing so for your storytelling, and were there any disadvantages you had to counteract?
Helen: You know, that is always just how I envisaged the story unfolding “from the beginning,” so there was never any sense of weighing up pros and cons and making a decision. Admittedly, at the end of writing The Heir Of Night I did have many ideas for exciting adventures for the lead characters, Malian and Kalan, in the intervening years – but these were peripheral to THE WALL OF NIGHT series arc and would have blown the planned quartet way out of the water, so I never contemplated diverging from the original plan. Of course, I did have to weave some backstory into the The Gathering Of The Lost to bridge the gap. If I had found myself continually slipping into backstory to make the second book work then I might have revisited the five-year leap forward decision – but in fact not a great deal of bridging was required.
Tim: One of the things that surprised and intrigued me about The Gathering Of The Lost was the suggestion that this may in fact be a science fiction rather than a fantasy novel, in the sense that the great enemy, the Swarm, appear to be extraterrestrial [if that’s the right word] in origin. Without edging too far into spoiler territory, is that a topic we’ll see further developed in the remainder of the series?
Helen: Yes, and yes! An important element of the THE WALL OF NIGHT series is that both the Derai (Malian and Kalan’s people) and their enemy, the Swarm, are alien to the world of Haarth and have imposed their war on the indigenous inhabitants. So the origins of the Derai and the Swarm are an important part of the story that will definitely be explored further. I’m pleased that readers see this as an interesting aspect to the books, but I do still regard the story as primarily fantasy, and also part of a tradition established by authors such as Raymond Feist with the Magician series, and CJ Cherryh with the Morgaine books.
Tim: Very appropriately, you have dedicated The Gathering Of The Lost to those who lost their lives in the Christchurch earthquake of February 2011, and to all those who performed such valiant deeds on and after that day. How, despite the massive disruptions you have experienced as a result of that quake, have you managed to keep the series on track?
Helen: It’s been very tough, Tim, to be honest. The eighteen month period between the first major earthquake on 4 September 2010, to the last on 23 December 2011, with the devastating February 22 quake that you mention and over 10,000 discernible recorded “aftershocks” (many major earthquakes in their own right) was very much the “year of awful.” Part of that “awful” was the loss of the 185 lives and major injuries to many other people, the destruction of the city center and 2/3rds of the city’s infrastructure (roads, bridges, sewerage system, stormwater, and telecommunications), and widespread loss of homes and businesses. So completing The Gathering Of The Lost during that time was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and completion felt like one of my most significant achievements.
Yet as others who have been through similar experiences will know, the hardest part often comes once the “heroic” period of the actual disaster and response is over and the “carrying on” and dealing with the consequences, and “work arounds”, over prolonged periods begins. We are still in that phase, with the full rebuild (although infrastructure has been ongoing for some time) only just starting to kick in, and likely to continue for some time. It makes negotiating the everyday a very draining process and that does have an effect on every aspect of life. It’s not always possible to fully gage the effects from inside the process, but the statistics are starting to flow through on effects such as post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression.
In many ways the writing has given me something to focus on that is outside of the immediate situation. As to how I keep on track, basically I try and emulate the zen aphorism: “the way is easy, keep going; the way is hard, keep going: keep going!”
Tim: Earlier, I invited you to place THE WALL OF NIGHT series on a continuum between the works of that fraternity of the double ‘R’, Tolkien and Martin. I don’t want to belabour the similarities between your series and theirs, since there are so many differences, but THE WALL OF NIGHT does also have a setting that’s reminiscent of medieval Europe. What do you bring to that setting that’s new?
Helen: I deliberately set out to write a book that was very ‘classic epic’ in its initial form, so that really drove the Western European medieval-style setting, as did the mythological basis to the work which draws on the Greco-Roman, Norse, and Celtic traditions. Another reason for choosing “classic epic” was not just because I love it, but because I wanted the focus of the books to be on the exploration of character, the world building, and telling a damn fine story. I wanted to explore how the Derai, who believe themselves to be champions of good, are in fact divided by prejudice, suspicion, and fear. I also wanted to address the notion that it is what people actually do, rather than what they believe about themselves, that really makes for “good guys” or “bad guys” – as well as how circumstances may have a bearing on that equation. I hoped that contrasting this exploration against the “classic epic” setting would provide fresh insight into what at first appeared familiar. So I suppose I have been trying to heed Emily Dickinson’s exhortation to “tell it slant.”
Looking beyond the classic epic framework, I mentioned earlier that the Derai are alien to Haarth and have imposed their war and their enemy on the indigenous inhabitants. Several reviewers and readers have noted the wider cultural dimension this brings to the conflict. Many readers and reviewers have also noted that not only is the lead character female, which is still relatively unusual in adult epic fantasy (although not unprecedented, given Mara of the Acoma and Morgaine, for example), but also that the books contain diverse and compelling female supporting characters – as well as their male counterparts.
If I focus specifically on physical setting, the locales I have drawn on to inform my world-building are also diverse. When Malian, Kalan, and their companions ride into Jaransor toward the end of the first book, the terrain they encounter is strongly influenced by Central Otago in New Zealand. Later, Malian looks out from Jaransor to the Wild Lands beyond, a landscape informed by vistas seen from Australia’s Great Dividing Range. The River city of Ij, which is built on islands and features many canals, may appear to reference Venice, but is in fact based on Bangkok and its khlongs.
So sometimes the choice of a “classic epic” setting may not necessarily be as traditional as surface appearances suggest. I also make no apology for being more concerned with achieving authenticity and depth in my writing than “the new” – mainly because I question whether there ever is anything truly new in storytelling beyond a surface packaging. One reason it’s a tremendous thrill for me that The Gathering Of The Lost is a David Gemmell Legend Award finalist is because it suggests that readers feel I have achieved some of my storytelling objectives, from authenticity to spinning that damned fine yarn.
Tim: Thanks very much for your answers, Helen – they have enhanced my own understanding of the series, and made me even more enthusiastic about reading the final two volumes!
I encourage readers to:
- Read Helen’s Morningstar Award essay on influences and “why Fantasy”
- Vote in the David Gemmell Legend Award (be sure to click on “vote” to complete the process)
About the Interviewer:
Tim Jones is an author of both science fiction and literary fiction who was awarded the New Zealand Society of Authors Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature in 2010. He lives in Wellington, New Zealand. Among his recent books are fantasy novel Anarya’s Secret (RedBrick, 2007), short story collection Transported (Vintage, 2008), and poetry anthology Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand (Interactive Press, 2009), co-edited with Mark Pirie. Voyagers won the “Best Collected Work” category in the 2010 Sir Julius Vogel Awards, and was selected for the “Books On New Zealand” exhibition at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair. Tim’s most recent book is his third poetry collection, Men Briefly Explained, published by Interactive Press (IP) in 2011. He is currently working on his third short story collection. His story “The New Neighbours” appears in The Apex Book of World SF 2, edited by Lavie Tidhar (2012). For more about Tim and his writing, see his blog Books in the Trees. See also: Helen’s interview with Tim.