Fantasy and SF author Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing, like breathing, keeps her alive. As a child in rural Oregon, she made up stories because she longed to escape to a world of lurid adventure fiction. She now writes fantasy, steampunk, science fiction, and YA.
It should come as no surprise that she met her future husband in a sword fight. When he gave up police work to study archaeology, they and their three children fell into an entirely new set of adventures amid dusty Mexican ruins and mouthwatering European pastry shops. Eventually her spouse’s work forced them to move to Hawaii, where she took up outrigger canoe paddling. With the three children out of the house, they now spoil the schnauzer.
Kate was very kind to answer some questions about her work and her new collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott.
Paul Weimer: Readers at SF Signal are familiar with you and your novels. So why a collection of shorter works, for which you aren’t so well known?
KE: Jacob Weisman at Tachyon Publications approached me to ask if I had ever considered publishing a collection of my short fiction. I was brought in as part of the Tachyon “THE VERY BEST” series, which also includes volumes from Charles de Lint, Tad Williams, and Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine.
As it happens the stories in the collection are indeed “the very best” of my short fiction because they constitute ALL of the short fiction I have ever written with the exception of two stories too tied to the Spiritwalker Trilogy to work without prior familiarity with that series (one available for free on my web page and one — with fabulous Julie Dillon illustrations — available for purchase) and two (never published) short stories I wrote as a teenager. Over the course of my life I have written twice as many novels as short pieces.
“The Queen’s Garden” is widely available here for the first time (it was published in a limited edition with the British Fantasy Society), and “On the Dying Winds of the Old Year, On the Birthing Winds of the New” is original to the collection.
PW: I didn’t expect the non fiction essays to be included along with the stories. How did you come to choose these to be included? How do you see the dialogue play out between the essays and the themes of your own stories?
KE: I don’t write in a vacuum. While my chief goal when writing is to create a narrative that entertains the reader and keeps them reading (if I can’t keep my readers reading then it really doesn’t matter what other theoretically fabulous things I do, does it?), I do churn a lot of themes and questions through my stories as a way to examine, take apart, and consider from multiple sides issues and thoughts I have about the world, life, people, history, culture, and so on. Writing science fiction and fantasy is my way of trying to understand how humanity works and how I feel about that.
Writing a more substantive essay takes a lot of time so I don’t do it often, and generally I write such essays about subjects that I’ve wrestled with for a long time, often through my fiction. I asked for these essays to be included in the collection, and wrote an introductory essay as well, because the concerns reflected in the non-fiction resonate throughout my fiction.
For example, some of the subject matter found within “The Narrative of Women in Fear and Pain” can certainly be seen in Shadow Gate (Crossroads 2) in particular (although in other of my novels as well) because I specifically chose to focus some of the plot on how the consequences of war shatter the fabric of everyday life.
This dialogue takes place on a grander scale as well (not just between my thoughts and my fiction). In my experience the interactions we have with others become one of the great and important elements in a writing life: that our conversations with people struggling over the same issues illuminate both issues of craft and also the human condition. So much of what I write about now has been influenced by my discussions over the years with so many different people, as well as what I’ve read and experienced.
I can’t keep track of how things wash together in my brain or settle into my unconscious to be fished out later. None of this is accomplished in isolation. And maybe one of the larger stories I am trying to tell in my fiction is that by and large all people function in this great wash of interpenetrating influence, and that the narrative of how we connect or separate is one of the most crucial themes of all.
PW: Some of the stories are tied to your previous series while other stories are in original worlds. Which do you prefer to write? Which are easier for you?
KE: Neither one nor the other. The advantage to writing a story tied to a previous series is that I don’t have to come up with a boatload of world-building, while the advantage of a story set in a new world is that I’m not tied to anything I’ve already done. I get more ideas for novels than for short fiction, so I would say that writing novels is easier than short fiction for me, even though I know that’s not the question you asked! What short stories offer me is the chance to focus tightly on a single idea or character or dilemma.
PW: While some of the stories set in previous worlds are contemporaneous with the writing of the novels, stories like “Riding the Shore of the River of Death”, the first story of the collection, was published several years after the Crown of Stars series. How did it feel to revisit Novaria?
KE: Originally Kereka’s story was intended to be part of the third volume, The Burning Stone, and much of this material (in an altered form) was written at the time I was working on that book. Given the way the narrative had begun to expand in book three, I realized Kereka’s story would pull the story too far afield and introduce too many competing complications, so I cut it (and put the frater Zacharias in her place, since I could more easily circle him back into the main plot). Lest you wonder, I do have SOME self control over my tendency (like that of many epic fantasists) to run off on tangents.
Later, when I was asked by Yanni Kuznia of Subterranean Press if I had a piece of short fiction for an anthology of original fantasy fiction (A Fantasy Medley), I worked this cut material into a novelette. The major change I introduced was era: The story now takes place generations after the events in Crown of Stars although originally it was set in that time.
PW: Your short stories are intense nuggets of action, character and story. Your output is mainly novels, but are there shorter stories you are still seeking to tell?
KE: I have five partially written short stories set in the Spiritwalker world that I want to complete. While a couple of the stories stand alone they all relate to characters readers know from the series. Each of these tales allows me to illuminate a little corner of the Spiritwalker world that (for various reasons) would not fit into the novels.
I also have a standalone short story idea related to the Black Wolves trilogy, one which would need no prior familiarity with anything I’ve written, that I hope to write. At the moment, with two major projects going forward, I don’t know how much time I will have to manage random acts of short fiction.
PW: With the publication of The Very Best of Kate Elliott, what can readers look forward from you next?
KE: 2015 is a far busier year than I intended. Not that I’m complaining.
My Young Adult debut novel, a fantasy called Court of Fives, is slated for publication on 18 August 2015 (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). The description by the publisher calls it “an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.” LBYR has also pitched it as “Little Women meets Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games,” while I have described it as “Little Women meets the Count of Monte Cristo in a fantasy setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt.” I guarantee it is the fastest-paced book of anything I’ve written up to now.
Black Wolves is the first volume of a new epic fantasy, coming in October 2015. This is a hard book to describe but let’s try: historical epic poured into a blender with Dragon Age and Jane Austen’s Persuasion and set to HIGH. Stir in giant justice eagles, a complicatedly anxious schnauzer (not under that name), hidden magic, untold secrets, old soldiers who haven’t given up the fight, a battle brewing within the palace, and several ambitious empires waiting in the wings. And mules. Don’t forget the mules.
PW: Where can readers and fans connect with you, online and in the wider world this year?
My web page is at www.kateelliott.com and I strive to keep it up to date; if you want reasonably up to date news, that’s where you will find it in what I hope is an easily accessible layout. My blog is at imakeupworlds (I Make Up Worlds); I aim to post once a week but at the moment rarely manage that; the blog’s pages have Extras including essays about writing and world-building, posts about my specific works, and free short fiction.
PW: Thank you so much, Kate!