John interviewed Janny Wurts, author of the epic The Wars of Light and Shadow. Please find synopses, cover art, and our reviews of Ms Wurts’ novels here.
Where do you find your inspiration to write? Some authors speak of societal issues, others of epic conflict between good and evil. What inspires you?
If I could answer that, I’d be a formula writer….no, seriously! This is a difficult question, because keeping what inspires me fresh is a constant challenge. I don’t seem to do the same story twice. If I examine an issue, it has to be from a totally new perspective each time, or else taking a contrary stance, where things may not be as they seem at first glance.
Differences fascinate me — the idea that many angles of view can completely change the picture, and that the conclusion drawn from any perspective depends entirely upon the frame of belief held by the viewer. I keep returning to the idea that with two viewpoints, we humans always run the potential for misunderstandings, based on our invisible assumptions. We are not a homogeneous society. As the information age explodes paradigms, our conscious awareness is being forced to recognize that there are many moral stances, and that none of them are simple.
I like a story that reflects the idea that two sides can approach the same question, and arrive at two very different conclusions, and that what constitutes a right action in one instance could be seen quite otherwise, sent under another circumstance. The concept that there are no black and white solutions, and that misunderstandings often require more patience and more tolerance to work out, or to arrive at a deeper level of comprehension. When differences rub up against each other, I try to strike for the unexpected. One doesn’t tend to find it, in history, when the books are written by the victor. That sort of authoritative presumption ticks me off, frankly. Call me perverse, but I like to dig into the material and try to see what might lie on the other side. I prefer the rebellion stories that turn the usual conclusions upside down, or sideways, and arrive at something that has a satisfying resonance without striking the commonplace moralistic pose as a knee jerk conclusion.
Who are your favorite authors to read?
I read the library as a kid — all sorts of fiction and non fiction, that is where I got my sense of story, and that is where I absorbed my range of vocabulary. It’s really difficult to say which authors are favorites because there are so many — all different and all beloved for varied reasons. Howard Pyle was certainly an inspiration, as a writer and prominent illustrator. Favorites in fantasy would include early exposure to faerie tales, Mary Stewart, Mary Renault, Guy Kay, Sarah Zettel, CJ Cherryh, Jennifer Roberson, Barbara Hambly, Carol Berg, R. M. Meluch, Roger Zelazny, to name just a handful. For those who want the wider list, I have cataloged sixty titles by favorite authors and some of my most well worn research books on LibraryThing.com — go there check out the list, it’s quite public!
Characters and their consistent evolution has been a strong theme in your writing from Sorcerer’s Legacy through Stormed Fortress. Where do you get your ideas for these changes?
I’ve always felt that to be complete, a story should become a bridge that progresses a character from one state of mind to another. If a person is not changed by the life experience of a challenge, then what on earth is the point of taking the journey? At each stage of growth, perspective evolves. Hindsight lends new angles, which gives rise to new views and new insights, and if a story is an encapsulated experience, then the best ones won’t leave us at the same point where we started.
That’s the stuck up answer, of course! Truthfully, if I told the same story over and over, with no shift in a character’s world view, I would bore myself out of my skull! Part of the fun, as the author, is letting the alchemy occur as a character survives being thrown a curve — are they going to grow in a positive direction, or try like crazy to sit on their comfortable status quo, and if they do that, in what way will the story blow up in their face? If I could predict every point of impact, as a character’s best laid plans come unraveled, then there would be no surprises. The thrill of writing is those moments of epiphany, as problems in a story become solved in quirky, unexpected ways.
Who is your Favorite Character in your own writing? Some characters are interesting, some are necessary, is there one that you just enjoy? I’m guessing Dakar or Sethvir.
Give me the character who walks on the scene and throws every other character a hair-raising comeuppance, or a shocking turn! That’s the favorite of the moment. I think, at one point or another, every single character I’ve written has done this — flipped the whole scene on its head, or knocked it butt down in the mud. Dakar’s antics, yes, and Sethvir’s doddering craftiness, surely, but also the sly fact that some of the less likable characters, or ones people have just hated to bits did something one page that made the reader stop cold, or pause and reflect. I also find glee in the thunderclap moment when the expected doesn’t happen. When the clichéd brawl becomes something other, or when a loaded situation shocks the predictable straight onto another track. My side kick character is as apt to do this as the hero or heroine. Sometimes I see it coming, and sometimes I don’t. If the logic leading up to the explosion is sound, and the steps were all visible in hindsight — there’s the zap for the writer, when the surprise action of a character you thought you knew goes completely off course and spontaneous.
I did the portrait of the character on the US cover to Curse of the Mistwraith, and to this day, I have not seen the actor who looks like that.
Is humor a necessary element of a good story that you actively seek to incorporate, or does it simply occur during the writing process because of your own personality?
Humor happens in rhythm, for me. I tend to write stories that shift mood. An intense scene, a scary scene, a sad or manic scene, or one that’s intensely romantic — in a natural course of progression, the humor erupts to break up the pacing. I don’t force it. The dramatic impact of any event can’t function with the same intensity of focus all of the time. Tension needs to build and let down, to notch up, and regroup, and humor provides a natural relief point. I want a book that walks the whole range of experience. Comfort you, scare you, thrill you, jar you, sit you up straight and soothe you down, all in the same pages of the same book. Comedy in the wrong place would destroy the mood. Too little light-hearted fun makes the sharpness of vision in a serious scene go on too long, and even border on the absurd. Humor lends perspective to life. Laughter lifts spirits, but a steady diet would become comedy, and for me, that’s not the end all. In a comedy, nobody gets hurt. Everything bounces, no matter the hit. Life’s not like that. I prefer stories that span a wider spectrum and strike sparks for more thought. Lightweight entertainment doesn’t stick with me for long. I’ve always striven to write with more substance. Laughter is part of that, but not the end game by itself.
As an author, what is your biggest challenge? Feel free to bring out your soapbox on issues within the industry that you are frustrated with.
Maverick thinking, always. To create at all, one has to leave the pack. To fashion ideas that surprise, expand concepts, perhaps take a few sensitive issues, rattle them around with the gloves off, and then hit the angles of them with a sharp edge, is a constant challenge. It isn’t always easy, but I keep seeking for heart in the sometimes chaotic experience of life, and in viewing what’s going on in our greater world, trying to find sense between the soullessness of many of the inequities. We live in graphic times, as the digital age bares many hidden secrets, and lands images of what once was hidden from common view on our literal doorstep.
More, the advent of the information age has ripped the stuffing out of the industry — shaken it up, and made quite an interesting spaghetti of what once was a gentleman’s business. Eventually, all of these changes will work themselves out. Surviving as a creative in the meantime has made for some interesting twists. It takes continuous courage to keep bucking the trends, to not fall into the lazy habit of looking backward to outworn ideals. Staying true to an original viewpoint, and sometimes roughing up the hair of consensus thinking takes guts, when a marketplace driven by numbers seems to demand the safety of a vanilla approach.
I personally dislike the current trend, that language must be stripped to the most common denominator, that fewer words, dumbed down to the standard of today’s TV dialog is considered “the standard usage.”
Language used creatively can bend thought around corners, push ideas between the cracks, evoke a whole other layer of imaginative meaning, not to mention bring something richer into the experience of reading. I have an artist’s eye, and I use that gift — that perceptive awareness — in my work. I can lend the reader that refined sense of the visual, gained throughout a lifetime, spent painting, and use that to leverage the impact.
We tend to praise stories with inventive characters, astonishing plots, and wild ideas, but heaven forbid we push words to their limits, or use language with a precision that moves beyond everyday slang. I prefer painting in a full color spectrum, and I enjoy using the strength of words to evoke mood and setting for the clear reason that when the synapses of the mind are slowed down, and when the senses are evoked in the imaginative process of reading, the story has a more engaging impact. Reading becomes, not just a matter of what happens to whom, but an experience to be savored. I prefer a book that carries enough layers that a reread provokes wider insights, and even becomes unforgettable. The same book, at twenty, will read differently at thirty, forty, fifty. Ideally, a story will grow in layers, with the reader’s maturity.
If there were a way to package for that, so readers understood on a deeper level just what sort of vision they were embarking on, I’d be all for it. Writers who don’t just relate the action, but bring the reader into the character’s emotional state, and make that live in a setting that breathes, while also handling their language with mastery — flair and verve and innovation — story on all those levels is much too rare in these times of fast food style entertainment. I look for those qualities in my reading as well, and the frustration is in finding the material.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Never Quit for Anyone Else, for Any Reason, period. Take the time to truly understand what a story IS so that you understand your goal (if you don’t know, read Robert McKee’s STORY). Learn how to construct your idea and master the nuts and bolts of your craft (Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain). Don’t ever stop learning how to refine your gift of talent. And your drive makes that talent real. Understand that you are the only person, ever, who can tell your story, and if you don’t, nobody else can. Embrace the artistry of practice. Stop making excuses and understand it’s not about born predisposition — the gift of talent is cultivated by focus, and this means a sustained effort. You will quite literally have to train your MIND, and growing the neuronal connections to do that takes years of practice. Storytelling is not a simple skill, and some days, when it isn’t fun or flowing, it can be arduous work. If you don’t want it badly enough to keep at it, even for five minutes of every day, then you are not a writer, quit pretending you don’t have the time — move on and do something else.
I have a tips section on my website for writers and artists that goes into much more depth — look it up and check out the links. Do your homework about the industry, know who the editors and publishers are, inform yourself well before you submit, or self-publish, or take any step to get your work to a reading public. Make sure your submission fits professional specs, (if you’ve had heaps of rejections, it doesn’t, so get over it, and apply yourself) and that you target the correct place to send or submit. (Writer’s Marketplace, at your local library, is a reference to publishing, reprinted and updated every year.) Visit the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) website and read the section called Writers Beware so that you will know what a scammer or a taker looks like, and you don’t get suckered by the not so legitimate people who aim to take advantage of your dream by draining your wallet.
Thank you for taking the time for us! Is there anything you’d specifically like to say to your fans?
I have seldom met or corresponded or chatted with a more interesting, intelligent and amazing group of people — you come from all over the world, at this stage. Many of you have visited the chat on Paravia.com, or written to me — it’s always an honor and an amazement, seeing what sort of ideas the stories have catalyzed, and what sort of person has been drawn to connect. I’d say, my hat’s off to you all, and profoundly, thank you for sharing the dreams that, I hope, may have expanded your viewpoint just a little.