On writing fantasy, choosing pseudonyms, tips for new writers and the inspiration behind her books, here you will find the recent interview from Sword and Laser with one of my favourite author’s of all time, the very talented Robin Hobb.
On writing fantasy, choosing pseudonyms, tips for new writers and the inspiration behind her books, here you will find the recent interview from Sword and Laser with one of my favourite author’s of all time, the very talented Robin Hobb.
I realise the title of this post suggests I’m going to reveal some kind of ten step formula, perhaps a clever strategy of sorts to come up with a suitable pen name, but in the name of full disclosure I should probably state right now that I have no such knowledge.
In fact, quite the opposite.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late since writing my article about Females in Fantasy (check it out here), and how a great deal of female authors still choose ambiguous, androgynous or straight-out male pen names to help the sales of their novels.
There are unquestionably plenty of other reasons for authors, male and female, to put a name that is not their own on the front cover of a book, but what I want to know is how they come up with such a name.
To get an idea, I sourced out some of the more well-known authors and their pseudo counterparts.
J.K. Rowling uses her first initial (Joanne), her grandmother’s first initial (Kathleen) and her last name. Easy.
Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series, is actually James Oliver Rigney, Jr.. It is said the idea for his pseudo-surname came from using the initials of his full name: J.O.R.. It is also speculated that he adopted it from Ernest Hemingway’s character of the same name from For Whom the Bell Tolls.
George Orwell, aka Eric Blair, chose a pen name that “stressed his deep, lifelong affection for the English tradition and countryside: George is the patron saint of England (and George V was monarch at the time), while the River Orwell in Suffolk was one of his most beloved English sites.”¹
Theodor Seuss Geisel became Dr. Seuss, because apparently his father always wanted him to become a doctor.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson invented his pen name, Lewis Carroll, by translating his first and last names into Latin, Carolus Lodovicus, and then anglicizing it.
Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte, were published under Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, at a time when female authors lacked credibility. Each of their pseudonyms began with the first letter of their actual names.
Children’s writer Dav Pilkey came up with Sue Denim, which I think needs no explanation.
So if I wanted, or was asked, to choose a pseudonym how would I go about it?
My initials, K.M.H., are all consonants, so no help from Robert Jordan’s strategy.
I could get back to the origins of my name, like Lewis Carroll. Katy, which is thought to derive from either the Greek Aikaterine, or even earlier Hekaterine, would be Katherine in Latin. Hulme derives from the Middle English Holm (someone who lived near a holly tree). Katherine Holm? Katherine Holly even? Maybe I could just do a Madonna and go with the single named Hekaterine. Hmmm.
If I wanted to follow the Brontes, Robin Hobb, or J.K. Rowling, with an ambiguous sounding name, ‘Kit’ is the diminutive of both Christopher or Katherine. Christopher Hulme? Kit Hulme?
Or perhaps I could follow Dr. Seuss’s reasoning and just add a title to my name. I’ve never wanted to be a doctor, but I could see myself as a noble. Lady Katherine? She wasn’t the most pleasant character in Pride and Prejudice. Countess Hulme? Hardy ha ha.
Failing these, maybe I could cheat and consult a name generator. The Leprechaun Name Generator has christened me Tweedle O’Gold. The Fantasy Name Generator, has me as Lena Amethystmace. Or more subtley, The Pen Name Generator tells me I’m Cindy Capleton.
I think I’m having a slight identity crisis. Honestly, I feel no closer to finding my bestselling counterpart. For the time being I think I’ll stick with the name my parents bestowed upon me, and focus my attention on writing my novel, as opposed to the name that will appear on its cover.
Anyone else have any interesting pen name formulas to share? A pseudonym of your own perhaps? For those of you who don’t, any ideas what you’d like to call yourself if you were told to choose one?
If you’ve been feeling at all like something is amiss in your life of late, it is in all likelihood due to the absence of my Robin Hobb idolisation posts. Never fear, dear readers! Today I came across Jackie Morris’s cover art for City of Dragons, the soon to be released third volume in Robin Hobb’s Rainwild Chronicles.
And can I just say WOW.
I’ve mentioned before how much I love the cover art for the re-released editions of Hobb’s books. Jackie Morris is responsible for them all, and not only are they stunning, but they also look pretty damn good on my bookshelf. I would frame these covers and hang them on my wall if I could.
I’m a self confessed judge-a-book-by-its-cover person. I’m not proud of it, but I can’t help but be mesmerised by good cover art and be completely put off by the less appealing covers. When the excellent quality of a book matches its cover, my life is complete.
I’m currently restraining myself from purchasing some of the new Penguin Clothbound Classics, which I already own in other editions but which are soooo pretty! I was also lucky enough to work at Penguin with designer Daniel New when he was putting together Maggie Beer’s Maggie’s Harvest, an absolutely stunning cover.
Have you got any judge-a-book-by-its-cover moments? Favourite covers?
There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island. -Walt Disney
With the 30 Day Book Challenge now done and dusted, I find myself missing the daily mission of scouring my bookshelves and digging deep into the recesses of my mind in a hunt to find the appropriate book for each task. It was a literary treasure hunt for my book-lover mind, and I took great pleasure in reliving my reading history and rediscovering what books mean to me and the influence they’ve had on my life.
Throughout the challenge I contentedly reacquainted myself with some old favourites, relived memorable childhood reading moments, and crooned over some literary heartthrobs. I confessed some secrets, pledged my eternal allegiance to a certain author, and had many an inner battle in futile attempts to choose ‘favourites’.
Frankly, I found the whole challenge a wonderful exercise and am happy to see so many of you taking the challenge too.
Before I leave you to it, however, I thought I might share with you the top three things I’ve learned about myself and my reading habits from this literary pilgrimage.
So there it is. My lessons learned in a nutshell. Thanks to all of you who commented and participated in the challenge with me. I’m looking forward to *one day* getting to all the books you’ve recommended, and eagerly anticipate the posts of those of you who are now taking part in the 30 Day Book Challenge.
Happy reading fellow bloggers.
Oh no! I should have looked ahead, because I only the other day wrote about what book I’m reading in my Feeding My Book Addiction post. My bad.
For those of you who missed it, however, I’m currently reading The Golden Fool by Robin Hobb. It is book two of the Tawny Man Trilogy, and follows on from the much acclaimed Farseer Trilogy.
I’ve found that Robin Hobb loves to dedicate much of her time to character building in her books, which often means that a lot of the action doesn’t take place until quite a way into the novels. I don’t mind at all, because a) her characters are interesting and b) it makes later plot advancements and drama all the more compelling after spending so much time getting to know the characters, their motives and desires. Despite this, she doesn’t fall into that dreadful trap of rushing the action at the end. The stories are all well paced and never bore, at least not me.
This book is no different, and I am currently still caught up in the character building stages, but sense that the action is not too far away…
Well, I’m not going to mention the She-God of writing again, because that would just make me sound like a crazy stalker person…which I’m not, by the way. If you want to check out the *actual* last book I read you can go to Day 24 of the book challenge, where I talked about my favourite scene in a book (watch out for the spoiler!).
Meanwhile, I’d like to mention the last book I read from today. Fair? I thought so.
Today, in a moment of sheer insanity and after several months of giving the WNIP (Work Not In Progress) the cold shoulder, I spent roughly half an hour writing up a plot summary with, believe it or not, actual plots (note: plural!). Hoorah! I’ve mentioned before that I had an idea for a novel but was struggling to begin without knowing where the story was heading and what the protagonist’s purpose was. Some suggested to just start writing anyway, others insisted that some idea of the plot was necessary, others just told me to stop procrastinating and get on with it (hello again unfriendly but straightforward voice in my head!).
Try as I may, I could not face writing it without the plot to guide me and so, in frustration and disappointment at being unsuccessful in my plot making endeavors, I paralysed myself into a novel hating lull. I didn’t want to think about it, look at it or talk about it with anyone. Something just wasn’t working, and I didn’t know how to fix it.
Today, like a sign from the heavens, I received a well needed shove to get the motors going again (thank you She-God!). I opened up Scrivener and started to write. Half an hour and approximately 1000 words later I had an idea that I was excited about, with plot twists, drama and conflict! All the things I had been struggling to establish with my original idea, finally coming to life!
So what changed, you ask? What changed, my friends, was the story. Like, the whole thing. About the only thing I kept was my character’s name. I still love the original idea, but have come to the conclusion that it’s just not ready to be written yet.
So, back to the purpose of this post, that being the last book I read, or in this case, the last book I picked up. In my plot writing frenzy, I started getting curious about how the big boys of epic fantasy built their worlds and created their creatures. Who to look to in such a moment of need? The master of fantasy himself, of course: J R R Tolkien.
During my teenage years when I was obsessed with the LOTRs, my parents bought me Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia by David Day; a comprehensive guide to everything you’d ever want to know about Middle Earth, the Undying Lands, the creatures, the characters, the geography, the history. This book is pretty spectacular.
Now, it has to be said that when I began flicking through the pages today, I started to panic. That little voice in my head started having a go with his usual taunts; “Don’t be an idiot Katy. You could never create anything as comprehensive as the world of Tolkien. Look at all the research! It’s far beyond your inferior intellect.”
That little voice is a real asshole sometimes. As has happened many a time before, my confidence in my abilities started waning and I could almost see that small spark of creativity threatening to die a slow death in the depths of my brain. Bummer, right?
Well, it would have been if I hadn’t come across what I can only guess was intended to be a funny look on how to write fantasy fiction. It read:
Researching mythologies, legends, and history on your own is a complete waste of time — real authors don’t worry about that kind of thing. It’s fantasy; they just make stuff up off the tops of their heads!
Now, I realise research can be more than important when writing. I for one can’t write without a fast internet connection for all the Googling I do while I’m ‘in the mode’. And yet despite this, it sort of reminded me that my greatest tool is my imagination. If I want to, I really can just ‘make it up off the top of my head’. For some time I have been crippling myself with the idea that I simply don’t know enough to start, or continue, especially with world building. But really I don’t need to ‘know’ anything. I just need to create it.
Ideally, of course, I would like to have my world reflect a reality readers can relate to. Power structures, heirarchy, economy and commerce are all things that make a world run, for better or worse. They may not need to be identified, but the reader needs to know they’re there.
But I digress. The point of the story is that today was a good day. Tolkien both helped and scared me out of inertia and some funny person on the internet reminded me not to take it all so seriously, because my mind is quite capable of filling in the gaps.
As for the asshole in my head? He’s still there, but he’s unlikely to resurface again today.
Katy 1 – Asshole 0
Well I certainly needed this kick up the backside today. Take heed fellow would-be-writers!
Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?
Start today. Write. Finish what you start. Submit what you finish. Repeat. Don’t get caught up in the ‘someday I’m going to do that’ trap. Don’t blog and tell yourself that it puts you on the road to being a published fiction writer. It just makes you a blogger. Get your stories down on paper now. Don’t wait. The stories that you can and would write today are irreplaceable. The story you will write at 15 can’t wait until you are 30. It won’t be the same story. It will be gone. Don’t write a lot of stuff in other people’s worlds. You are not a cookie press pushing out dough into a pre-set shape. You’re a writer. If you don’t write your own characters and worlds now, today, no one ever will.
If you don’t write them now, your characters will shrivel up and die, unknown, unread, unmourned, and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT!
(Isn’t guilt a wonderful motivator?)
Robin Hobb in an interview at Grinding to Valhalla
My last post had me mentioning (again) Robin Hobb, so I thought I’d follow it with a quick update on where I’m up to in the world of Hobb and other reading exploits.
I’ve been a bit behind on my reading lately, and seem to be progressing far slower than usual, so I’m only up to book two of The Tawny Man Trilogy: The Golden Fool. Loving it of course. But I’m quite keen to finish this trilogy, not only so that I can read more Hobb, but also because I have a number of other attractive books that continue to stare at me from their place on the bookshelf, alone and unread and tempting me with their alluring covers and seductive stories. They include:
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin– I am SO very excited to start reading this series because I recently watched the new HBO television adaptation of it and thought it was AMAZING! Apparently the author also played the part of executive producer in the making of the show, which gives me high hopes that the novels will be just as spectacular if not better.
On Writing by Stephen King – I have been hearing about this book literally everywhere I go. I started reading it at work one day and already understand the hype. Looking forward to reading the rest.
Burn Bright by Marianne de Pierres– I recently heard Marianne speak at the Supanova Fantasy/Sci Fi Convention in Sydney. I was inspired to read her books and was lucky enough to meet her at the book stall and have her sign this one. I have heard nothing but good things about this Australian writer, so can’t wait to check it out.
Friday’s Child by Ian Kennedy Williams – The author of this collection of short stories is a fellow member of my writers’ group, and a talented writer at that. Yesterday I went to hear Ian at a National Book Council meeting here in Launceston, where he discussed where the ideas for some of his stories came from and some of the places that have inspired stories he has written. Having already read one of his short stories in the writers group, and finding his presentation yesterday fascinating, I decided it was time to stock up on some more of his work, starting with Friday’s Child. After hearing him read some excerpts, I already know I’m going to like it.
La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales – Gifted to me on my birthday by my best friend Priscilla. It’s been a while since I read a travel story and I’m having severe withdrawals.
I’m not out of work!..I’m a Writer! by Wayne E. Pollard – I was lucky enough to be sent this by the author when I mentioned his outstanding blog in my post about The dangers of ebook world domination. Thanks Wayne! Meanwhile, his blog Bo’s Cafe Life has some highly entertaining comics relating to all things writer-ly.
And yet, despite this excellent line up of books yet to be read, I continue to find excuses to keep buying more books to pile up in sweet anticipation. Today alone I ordered another three from the Book Depository, which by the way is where I buy all but my home grown Aussie books these days. Free delivery anyone? And super cheap new books too. Book lover heaven I tell you.
Okay, I think it’s time to scoot. I do, after all, have a KAZILLION books to read and so little time.
I don’t want to frighten you all away with my Robin Hobb obsession, but I can’t seem to escape the Robin Hobb Love Bubble. She has me bewitched I tell you!
Day 1 of the 30 Day books challenge saw me mention Assassin’s Apprentice as my favourite book, and I will stick by that choice for my favourite fiction book. More about my Hobb addiction can be found here, where I talk about my love affair, and here, the most joyous of days when I awoke to an email from the writing god herself. Bliss.
I realise that this is going to sound sort of bizarre, but I’m nothing if not eccentric in my ways.
I recently finished reading Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Errand (I know, I know, I’m still stuck in the Robin Hobb love bubble), and I was on a plane when I read this particular scene. Now, I’m not usually prone to public displays of relative instability and unsoundness, but I honest to God was crying like a baby when I read this scene. I mentioned I was on a plane at the time, right?
I then arrived at my destination, hopped in the shower and booed again. A week later I was walking through town with my mum, explaining how I had teared up on the plane AND in the shower, and as I related the scene to her I choked up again. Mum was a little concerned, but once I managed to get it out through the sobs, she understood.
So my favourite scene is one that has me wailing like a banshee? Yes, it is.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so emotionally connected to a character/s and his/their quest, as I have with Fitz and co. in both The Farseer Trilogy and now The Tawny Man Trilogy. I think the sheer fact that I got so upset by this scene is a testament to the author and her writing. When I’m reading these books, I’m there and the characters are real. I experience their joys and their sorrows, their desires and their concerns.
The scene in question is at the end of the book after the final battle, when the protagonist, Fitz, lays down by his wolf, Nighteyes, with whom he can communicate with and is essentially bonded to in mind, heart and soul. Those who have this ‘magic’ are known as Witted, or as having the Wit. In this book, Fitz and Nighteyes undertake a quest to save their Prince Dutiful from a band of Witted folk with evil intentions. Throughout the story it becomes apparent that Fitz and Nighteyes are not the youthful heroes they once were, with Nighteyes in particular showing signs of fatigue and aging. As they fall asleep after the final fight, exhausted, they share thoughts and dreams.
I could not sort out which thoughts were mine and which were the wolf’s. I didn’t need to. I sank into his dreams with him and we dreamed well together. Perhaps it was Dutiful’s loss that put us so much in mind of all we still possessed, and all we had had. We dreamed of a cub hunting mice beneath the rotting floor of an old outbuilding, and we dreamed of a man and a wolf pulling down a great boar between them. We dreamed of stalking one another in deep snow, tussling and yelping and shouting. Deer blood, hot in the mouth, and the rich soft liver to squabble over. And then we sank past those ancient memories into perfect rest and comfort. Healing begins in deep sleep such as that.
He stirred first. I nearly woke as he rose, gingerly shook himself, and then stretched more bravely. His superior sense of smell told me that the edge of dawn was in the air. The weak sun had just begun to touch the dew-wet grasses, waking the smells of the earth. Game would be stirring. The hunting would be good.
I’m so tired, I complained. I can’t believe you’re getting up. Rest for a while longer. We’ll hunt later.
You’re tired? I’m so tired that rest won’t ease me. Only the hunt. I felt his wet nose poke my cheek. It was cold. Aren’t you coming? I was sure you’d want to come with me.
I do. I do. But not just yet. Give me just a bit longer.
Very well, little brother. Just a bit longer. Follow me when you will.
But my mind rode with his, as it had so many times. We left the cave, thick with man-stink, and walked past the cat’s new cairn. We smelled her death, and the musk of a fox who had come to the scent, but turned aside at the smell of the campfire’s smoke. Swiftly we left the camp behind. Nighteyes chose the open hillside instead of the wooded vale. The sky overhead was blue and deep, and the last star fading in the sky. The night had been colder than I had realised. Frost tipped some of the grasses still, but as the rising sun touched it, it smoked briefly and was gone. The crisp edge of the air remained, each scent as sharp as a clean knife-edge. With a wolf’s nose, I scented all and knew all. The world was ours. The turning time, I said to him.
Exactly. Time to change, Changer.
There were fat mice hastily harvesting seedheads in the tall grass, but we passed them by. At the top of the hill we paused. We walked the spine of the hill, smelling the morning, tasting the lip of the day to come. There would be deer in the forested creek bottoms. They would be healthy and strong and fat, a challenge to any pack let alone a single wolf. He would need me at his side to hunt those. He would have to come back for them later. Nevertheless, he halted on top of the ridge. The morning wind riffled his fur and his ears were perked as he looked down to where we knew they must be.
Good hunting. I’m going now brother. He spoke with great determination.
Alone? You can’t bring a buck down alone! I sighed with resignation. Wait, I’ll get up and come with you.
Wait for you? Not likely! I’ve always had to run ahead of you and show you the way.
Swift as thought, he slipped away from me, running down the hillside like a cloud’s shadow when the wind blows. My connection to him frayed away as he went scattering and floating like dandelion fluff in the wind. Instead of small and secret, I felt our bond go wide and open, as if he had invited all the Witted creatures in the world in to share our joining. All the web of life on the whole hillside suddenly swelled within my heart, linked and meshed and woven through with one another. It was too glorious to contain. I had to go with him; a morning this wondrous must be shared.
‘Wait!’ I cried, and in shouting the word, I woke myself. Nearby, the Fool sat up, his hair tousled. I blinked. My mouth was full of salve and wolf-hair, my fingers buried deep in his coat. I clutched him to me, and my grip sighed his last stilled breath out of his lungs. But Nighteyes was gone.
Robin Hobb Fool’s Errand pp.604-606
And yes, typing this out had me in tears yet again! It’s so sad, and yet so beautiful. I think Robin Hobb is a truly wonderful writer.
So this one is easy, and I’m not going to go on about it because you’ve heard it all before. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb is still top on my list of faves right now. If you want to know more about this love affair, check out my previous post.
Did I mention Robin’s writing is perfection? Robin is God? Yes? Okay, moving along…
See this —> :D Yep, that sideways emoticon, with the beady eyes and unnaturally large mouth indicating extreme happiness. Well that right there, that is an accurate representation of my face right now. Why? Because this morning I had the pleasure of waking to an email from Robin Hobb herself. Now, I may sound very calm and collected, but inside, not so very far from the surface, I am jumping up and down, kinda like they do in the Toyota ads, shouting out things like “OH EM GEE!” “Life will never be the same again!” “Hallelujah!” “Robin Hobb, you complete me!”. Or thereabouts.
Now, as much as I’d like to claim that the queen of fantasy herself sourced me out just to say hi because she heard how awesome I am, well, surprising as it may be, this just wasn’t the way of it. Instead, it transpired as follows.
You might remember a previous post (or two) about my undying love for Robin’s Farseer Trilogy, which I have only recently discovered. Well, a few days ago I finished the series. After much consideration, and a few tears, I decided that I didn’t want to monopolise this blog with too much of one thing (no matter how good a thing it is), and so, in the name of keeping things varied, I did not post another blog about how AMAZINGLY AWESOME the trilogy was once I finished it and how DEVASTATED I was when it was over. You’ll be happy to know two things. Since then, I have started reading the Tawny Man Trilogy, where the story of the Farseers continues, so no more devastation. Secondly, by not writing about it then, I feel like fate has allowed me to write about it now, and let’s face it, I’m sure you’d much prefer hearing about my intimate correspondence with Robin Hobb as opposed to simply reading an update of joy every time I finish a page.
In any case, seeing as I felt I could not justifiably express myself on my blog, I instead decided that if possible, I would speak my mind to the source itself, and email Robin Hobb. Just to be clear, I am not a stalker. I dabble in a bit of Facestalking every now and then, but stalking of the actual kind, well that’s just rude…and creepy. So, inexperienced stalker that I am, I had no idea how to go about contacting her majesty, but after a surprisingly short time on Google, I was privy to her email.
I won’t copy and paste the contents of my email, it’s her response that I’m sure you’d rather read, but basically the gist of my correspondence to her was to communicate how brilliant I thought the Farseer Trilogy was. I told her how I came about reading her books (I was at Supanova, standing in the Isobelle Carmody line waiting to get my Obernewtyn book signed and saw the long, snaking line of Robin Hobb fans and knew that an army of fantasy book lovers never lies!) and told her that I hoped to see her return to Australia soon. Finally I thanked her for her superb writing and how it had encouraged me to persevere with the writing of my own fantasy novel. Your average fan email, or so I assume. And her response?
What a wonderful letter to receive! Thank you so much. (And now you can see why I sit next to Isabelle . . . it’s to steal her readers! Well, no, not really, but it sounded good.)
Good luck with your fantasy novel. I will tell you the only trick I know. Persevere. Push those keys down every day. The only way that anyone writes anything is one key stroke at a time. So when it is dark outside and you are alone with your little lamplight shining out the window, think of all the writers all over the world who are doing the same thing, and keep at it.
Best of luck!
Ah-maa-zing! The only thing better than a brilliant writer, is one who will take the time to respond to the fans and even give them a little piece of encouragement and advice. My heart swells with joy! So, I’m sorry dear bloggers, but I’m afraid this Robin Hobb infatuation won’t be going away any time soon and I can assure you this won’t be the last you hear of it! *cue further Toyota jumps*
I recently came across an interesting post over at Words about Words in response to an article posted on the Guardian website yesterday, entitled The incredible shrinking presence of women SF writers.
Now, despite my love of all things fantasy and a slight (read: considerable) reading obsession, I have to admit that until it was pointed out to me recently, I didn’t really notice the distinct lack of female presence in the science fiction and fantasy genre. I mean, I just wanted to get lost in the story, you know? I wasn’t really fussed if it was written by a man, woman or your neighbour’s talking llama, as long as it was well-written, entertaining, and for a few hours a day let me escape to my merry reading bubble.
But try as I may to reach my happy place, I found I simply could not with this new found information. I started noticing the severely unbalanced male to female writer ratio in my book collection and began questioning the male protagonists in my favourite stories. Whatever happened to Harriet Potter, the girl who lived? Did Tolkien not think Frodina could have saved Middle Earth? Surely Bella could have survived in a world without Edward Cullen saving the day every ten pages?
The revelation came to a head, however, on discovering that my favourite author had changed her name from Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, to the ambiguously gender neutral Robin Hobb when she began writing her bestselling series, The Farseer Trilogy, led by male protagonist Fitz. The reason? Apparently boys are reluctant to read anything written by girls for fear of catching girl germs and being subjected to lovey dovey romance scenes when what they’re really after is war, sword fights and Tarzan-like displays of chest-thumping male domination.
“Really?” I hear you ask. Well, apparently Hobb is not the only one afraid of this outcome. J.K. Rowling’s use of her first name initials is not mere happenstance, and when I recently attended this year’s Supanova Pop Culture Expo in Melbourne, I listened with interest as Australian fantasy author Jennifer Fallon expressed her regret at not giving herself a male pseudonym for similar reasons. In a recent interview she was asked, “If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?” To which she replied:
I’d go to the past, just before I was first published and change my name from Jennifer Fallon to John Fallon. Then all the boys out there who assume that all female fantasy writers write soppy romance fantasies would pick up my books and read them and I’d be much, much richer.
Now, I know boys can be pretty boneheaded, but for it to make such a difference in a society where I like to think we have reached some level of gender equality; for it to have reached the point where authors are putting considerable thought into changing their names in order to sell their books, well that does surprise me. Not to mention, it makes me consider my potential (and at this stage very distant) future in writing fantasy fiction. Should I be considering a male pseudonym?
Similarly, the Words about Words blog that brought me to this discussion also considers the lack of strong female heroes within the genre itself. I’d like to entertain my suspicions that this has something to do with the fact that many (but by no means all) fantasy novels, are set in a mythical past, often resembling a folkloric history of our own. Now although fantasy, and all speculative fiction, ultimately has the creative license to build a world that doesn’t adhere to what we know as reality, a reader needs something to connect with, something familiar in order for them to relate to and follow the story without too much effort on their behalf. This is what M. Thomas refers to in his Teaching fantasy: Overcoming the stigma of fluff, as the “Blue Skies, Green Grass” theory:
A fantasy novel usually follows the “Blue Skies, Green Grass” theory. It has oceans, mountains, forests, and fields. It has small towns and big cities, usually medieval in setting but not always. Many fantasy cultures have not yet reached an age of technological sophistication, and most, but not all, deal with some aspect of the supernatural world that has some historical basis in human myth–fairies and elves, for example. (Thomas 2003:60)
I bring you to this point because, if the reader is placed in a medieval type setting, then they might expect some level of medieval type principles, which would result in the men as the warriors and the women bearing the children type structure. Perhaps this answers to the lack of female heroes? Perhaps not.
Joss Whedon, writer and creator of the cult hit television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the upcoming Avengers movie, may not be a writer of literature, but his writing sits as high as the best of them, and just between you and me, I’m pretty sure I’m in love with his brain. He created Buffy because he saw an absence of strong female characters and set out to rectify it. He refused to stick by the convention that a heroine needed to be warlike or ‘manly’. Buffy was, for all intents and purposes, a typical sixteen-year old girly girl and Joss is even quoted as saying:
When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men that not only have no problem with the idea of a female leader, but were in fact engaged and even attracted to the idea.
Although he struggled to get Buffy off the ground, the show eventually prompted a change in small screen heroines and was significant in influencing the future of strong female characters on television as we now know it.
While I’m reluctant to enter the gender issue debate, I do think it’s worthwhile to recognise the gaps that might exist in any medium, because by doing so we give ourselves the opportunity, as women and as writers, to embrace a potential niche in the market and make it our own. Perhaps, if we pay heed to the absence of female writers and protagonists in fantasy fiction, then we might follow Joss’s example, endeavour to be pioneers, and make female characters more prevalent in the genre without misrepresenting or distorting the credibility of the historical and mythical worlds in which we place them.
Do I detect a challenge?
I talk to animals. Maybe I should be more specific. You see, I don’t go around to any old worm, ant or cockroach asking them how their day is going. No, I’m much more selective with my Doctor Dolittle tendencies. My dog, Jack, for example. <—-That’s him, over there to the left. The one with the crazyman eyes looking like he’s about to eat my face off (It’s not his best angle). Yep, he’s worthy of the kind of Homo sapien to beast exchange I might participate in. And in case you were wondering, yes, he does on occasion talk back.
You see, I’m that person who walks into a pet store and believes that every cute, little non-toilet-trained ball of fur is looking at me, and only me, begging to be taken home. I’m fairly sure I was the nightmare child that begged and begged for a puppy, a kitten or a hamster. One time I believe I actually hid my auntie’s new puppy down my jacket and hid in the back seat of the car for a reasonable amount of time thinking my ploy a great success. Which, of course, it wasn’t. Ahh, my days as a 7 year old dog snatcher now long passed, and yet I still have not grown out of my animal talking ways.
Jack and I have some good ol’ yarns. He usually monopolises the conversation, telling me how much he needs a scratch behind the ears, shouting at me for not paying him enough attention for the last hour, telling me how happy he is to see me in the morning after 7 or 8 hours of no play. Yep, Jack and I, we are quite the intellectual conversationalists.
Anyway, there is a point to this animal talking admission. I realise that together with my post about talking trees you may be starting to wonder if I’m actually a bit of a loony, escaped from the crazy house, slightly ‘unhinged’. Yes? Well, rest assured I’m about to defend my stark raving madness. The fantasy fiction buff that I am, I’ve always noticed how many writers in this genre incorporate some affinity for animals in their stories. Whether it be an ability to understand and talk to animals, or where the animals are spiritually connected to their human protagonists, or simply conveying a love and caring for animals as pets or companions.
I know that one prevalent convention of the fantasy genre is that the main character is often isolated or cut off from society in some way. Harry Potter had his friends but they couldn’t always be with him or go through the trials he undertook. And so there was his owl, Hedwig, to keep him company. In the Farseer Trilogy series that I’m reading at the moment (see my previous post) some people have the ability to talk and bond to animals. The main character, Fitz, is one of these people, and again, is in many ways detached from society. His animal bonds offer him the companionship and friendship that he cannot find in the human company he keeps. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials every human has a daemon, which is essentially a person’s soul in the shape of an animal. Isobelle Carmody is another animal lover, advocating, in her Obernewtyn Chonicles, for animals in such a way that a horse must agree and be willing to carry a rider. Where animals are not owned or considered pets, but exist as equals amongst humans.
I’m sure there are many more examples, but I wonder at this manifestation of animal equality and the many stories whereby the humans have the ability to speak to animals. Does it stem from some guilt at the maltreatment of animals over the centuries? Or is it some inner, subconscious response to a desire to realise such a possibility? Perhaps I’m just looking to substantiate my predisposition to talking to animals. Who knows? What I do hope, is that in the very least it results in an awareness of animals – not so much as to offer them a seat at the dining table perhaps, but as living things just as worthy of the respect and decency that we expect for ourselves.
Jack says it’s time to play. The beast has spoken.
I think I’m in love. The subject of my affections? Robin Hobb and her Farseer Trilogy. It’s a fairly recent love affair but I can just tell it’s going to stand the test of time.
I only yesterday started the final book in the series, Assassin’s Quest, so perhaps this might be a little preemptive, but honestly, I simply couldn’t imagine being disappointed by this writer. She has such an economical use of language, nothing too flowery or long-winded, and yet the writing is still so amazingly colorful, intelligent and imaginative. While I was waiting for Assassin’s Quest to arrive in the mail from The Book Depository, I started on another of her series – The Rain Wild Chronicles, and although I missed Fitz, the Fool and Burrich from The Farseer Trilogy, I found her writing equally impressive. Not to mention, all her books have been recently re-released with beautiful covers, and although you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, feel free to judge away with these.
These books really have been a pleasure to read…easy reading without the simplicity. It’s not one of those books where you find yourself reading a paragraph over and over to make sure you’ve understood what is going on (insert frustration here), but neither does it make the mistake of underestimating its readers’ intellect. I believe these books to be an excellent example of how to ‘show not tell’, a writing principle that makes all the difference in a good book.
I would recommend this series to anyone who enjoys the fantasy genre…and even to those who don’t. This is not a point-your-wand/alohamora/Hogwarts type fantasy, for anyone out there put off by that sort of thing. It’s fantasy for adults, a story of intrigue, loyalty and a boy’s often agonising journey to becoming a man.
In conclusion, read it! You know you want to…