Rebecca, who lives in New Zealand, recently met with NZ author Helen Lowe to discuss the release of Ms. Lowe’s second novel The Heir of Night (first novel in her series The Wall of Night). Read Rebecca’s reviews of The Heir of Night and Helen Lowe’s children’s novel, Thornspell.
REBECCA: What was the first glimmer of inspiration that you had that eventually led to The Wall of Night? To be more specific, one of the book’s major ideas is that of the Wall and the Houses that live there, whose task it is to guard Haarth from the Swarm. What was the thought-process behind the concept of the Wall?
HELEN: My very first inspiration came when I was about nine years old and read Alan Garner’s Elidor, which is about a world trapped in darkness. I was living in Singapore at the time, where twilights are very swift and come complete with bats and other intriguing — to a NZ kid abroad — creatures. The real world experience and the world of the book combined to spark the idea of a twilit world (as opposed to the absolute darkness of Elidor.) The idea stayed with me, even after my return to NZ, and then when I first read THE LORD OF THE RINGS (at about age 14), the background story of Beren and Luthien also very much caught my imagination. My envisaging of their world was also built around a twilit glamour of power and mystery, which I began to translate into my own imagined world, with a range of stories and characters worked around it. Those initial stories were very Tolkien and Lewis influenced, and also drew on the Norse myths, which I knew well enough to recognise as strongly informing Tolkien’s world — especially it’s heroic history (e.g. Luthien and Beren, Turin and Hurin.)
The idea of the alien Derai garrisoning their mountainous and wind-blasted shield wall on the world of Haarth came a lot later again, when one day I thought: “What if the people fighting the ancient enemy were not defending their own world, but were a kind of alien invader themselves? And what if their society was not clear cut and certain, but deeply fractured?” I jotted those first ideas down, together with an initial concept of the Keep of Winds and the main character, Malian, but the real story only began to evolve from that point once I started writing it seriously.
HELEN: I had always loved fairytales, but I began consuming myths and legends avidly, again from about age eight, when I was entranced by a poster of the twelve Olympians that my teacher put up on the classroom wall. I wanted to know more and began the process of reading first the Greek and then the Norse, Egyptian and Celtic myths, as well as folklore and legend, King Arthur and Oliver and Parsifal. Those stories absorbed my imagination and I also loved the epic sweep of stories like The Iliad and The Odyssey, as much as their emotional power. The next step, of course, was that I wanted to tell my own stories, once I ran out of stories already told. (Which is why, by the way, I still have several school cases of these stories under my desk.) But for me, the idea of “story” is constantly being sparked, usually because I see or hear or read something and think: but what if it didn’t happen like that, but like this? What if the Saxons had defeated the Normans at the battle of Hastings, or Luthien and Arwen didn’t have to give up their immortality because they married humans? What would actually happen if King Arthur came back as the legend says he will? Once you start to play with ideas like that they tend to develop a life of their own and very often a story will “fall out of the air”.
REBECCA: While I was reading, I was especially intrigued by those little hints that you gave about the Houses not being indigenous to this world, which in fact have instead traveled there from another dimension entirely. Why did you choose to add this little touch of (what felt like) sci-fi to an otherwise straightforward fantasy setting?
HELEN: I think the only answer to that, other than what I have said already, is: why not? [Smiles] There are no “rules” after all, that say the two may not overlap. Also, although it is only a little touch at present, the alien element is an important part of THE WALL OF NIGHT series in terms of the cultural dimension of the story.
REBECCA: It provides an interesting point of view considering the original inhabitants of Haarth are not warmly disposed toward the people who have essentially brought a war into their world, though naturally from the Derai’s viewpoint they are the ones fighting an inevitable enemy and the rest of the world should be grateful for their protection! It brought to mind debates surrounding military occupation and fear of foreign invasion; were there any “what if?” scenarios based on actual history that were in your mind when you came up with this conflicting state of affairs?
HELEN: No, I don’t believe I was consciously thinking about those things. The Heir of Night and THE WALL OF NIGHT series is primarily a “yarn being told”, and not an allegory or extended metaphor. But I did a significant part of my growing up in an isolated, predominantly Maori community where the sense of grievance over the 19th century Land Wars and subsequent land confiscations was still very much present. I later worked in the area of Maori land and cultural issues, including for the Waitangi Tribunal, so it may be that these sorts of cultural reflections are always subconsciously there for me and “work their way out”.
REBECCA: In my review I described Malian and Kalan as archetypes, that of “the rebellious princess” and the “naïve social outcast”, both acting as familiar touchstones so that the reader can be introduced more easily into the exotic elements of Haarth. Would you consider that a viable description of them, or do you envisage them differently?
HELEN: I don’t think you can ever argue with how a reader experiences a story, because that is their unique experience. But I know that for me, as the writer, I don’t see Malian as rebellious in the traditional sense. For me, a very important part of the story is where, having learned that she is probably the prophesied One-to-Come, she puts aside rebellion and accepts that responsibility and her duty: as Heir of Night, and to the Wall and the Derai vigil:
” … Most of all, she longed to be free of whatever destiny Yorindesarinen had seen for her in the fire, which felt too dark, too heavy for her slight shoulders.
Yet even as she felt this, another thought came winging in: But what would happen if every Derai forsook the Wall for a life that seemed easier, more pleasant? What would have happened if Yorindesarinen had not shouldered her duty and stood forth against the Worm of Chaos? And if she, Malian of Night, really was the prophesied One but abandoned her duty, leaving the House of Night and the Derai Wall to stand or fall without her, then it would not matter where on Haarth she dwelt. Night would fall everywhere.”
So if she is rebellious, then it only inasmuch as she steps outside some of the Derai restrictions in order to pursue her acceptance of that larger responsibility.
REBECCA: We first see her when she has snuck into the Old Keep to elude her guardians, causing considerable worry among her nursemaids. In most stories this act would be seen as an endearing act of defiance, but in light of your previous answer, would you consider it a mark of immaturity instead? Or something that lies between the two extremes? I ask because her story is very much one of growing up and accepting responsibility.
HELEN: Ah, interesting question! I think it is partially immaturity, but partially also — if you recall — that Malian is very much a child alone and so finds her own amusements, but is also challenging and testing herself, e.g. with that initial climb to the Hall of Mirrors. Forgetting the time and “doing her own thing” though, is just being young! Part of the testing of herself, of course, arises because she is being trained intensively for leadership responsibility — but because she is still a minor her role is limited. Yet quite early on, when Malian goes into the main hall for the formal feast, she consciously longs for responsibility and to play her part in the Derai cause. But because she’s young, she thinks about this in terms of “dreams of glory” rather than in a more adult way. The passage I quoted above, though, comes when Malian has been through a lot more, so the decision she is making is also much more “mature”.
The whole rebellion question is important to me because from the beginning, Malian is very much a “duty, honor, country, self” (or in this case “duty, honor, Derai Alliance, self”) person. She isn’t rebellious in that sense at all. The subversion of the trope is subtle, but I do believe it’s there. Although you’re right: initially, when she is free to do so, she does kick up larks, i.e. she’s a gal of spirit.
REBECCA: And what about Kalan?
HELEN: In terms of Kalan as the naive social outcast, I have always seen his importance as that of a member a group that have been ghetto-ized and oppressed because of the fractures within Derai society discussed above. So the class he belongs to is oppressed, but he is not personally oppressed within that class, nor outcast from it—although it is not a life that he wants for himself. In this way I do see him as different from the traditional outcast who is often a “person alone” figure, out of step with the entirety of the rest of their society, e.g. Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone, who is both albino and an apostate from the traditions of his mainstream culture.
Overall, my writer’s vision for both Malian and Kalan is that they are the central characters of the story and so ultimately THE WALL OF NIGHT series is about their development—and both how, and whether, they can resolve the conflicts within Derai society, as well as the wider—and so far, I agree, traditionally conceived—conflict with the Swarm of Dark.
REBECCA: Names are always a strong indicator of a fantasy world. Where do yours come from? That is, how do you create names like Malian, Asantir, Haimyr, and what comes first: the name or the character? Does one influence the understanding of the other?
HELEN: Hmm, that is not an easy question to answer, in the sense that it varies. Some characters, like worlds and story ideas, spring fully-fledged from the air, complete with their names — Sigismund in Thornspell was like that, and so, too, was Asantir, in The Heir of Night. You do have to be careful, though, because the original Honor Guard captain in Heir had a different name and was only a minor character before I decided that there were too many characters with very similar names and I needed to change a few. But as soon as I wrote down the new name of Asantir, which I thought “sounded good”, the whole character changed immediately: looked different, had a very different back story and basically told me that she was a major character. And I had better sit up and take notice! So changing names can be a dangerous business. The few times since the “Asantir incident” where I have had to change a name, I have been very careful to hold the character as conceived in my mind and experiment with names until I find one that suits them as they are. But as for the actual names and where they come from—honestly, it’s another one of those intuitive, organic processes that I “just do.”
REBECCA: The topic of fate and destiny are threaded throughout The Heir of Night, and Malian herself is the subject of a prophecy. Lots of epic fantasy deals with the themes of fate versus free will; on the one hand, destiny is a good way to get the plot moving, but on the other hand, you don’t want to disrupt the character’ autonomy by having their sole motivation being “because destiny says so.” What for you is the relationship between these characters’ destinies and their free will?
HELEN: I have talked about the influence of myth and legend on my own storytelling, and fate, prophecy and destiny are very important elements of those traditional stories — and sometimes, particularly in the Greek myths, the protagonists’ attempts to exercise free will actually bring about the fated doom! So not surprisingly, fate, prophecy and destiny do figure in The Heir of Night and the WALL series. As a society, the Derai believe in the prophecies that have driven them from the beginning of their long conflict, such as: “If Night falls, all fall …”, but I think this is one of the important differences between Malian and Kalan in The Heir of Night: she fundamentally accepts her role as Heir of Night, while he is in rebellion against his lot — but whether these alignments continue through the series remains to be seen…
REBECCA: I also noticed a gradual expansion in the setting and tone of the book as it went on. Part 1 is confined primarily to the citadel, but by Part 3 Malian and Kalan have passed through into the wide world. Was this a conscious choice or did it happen naturally in the course of writing?
HELEN: Both! I originally envisaged the story as containing at least elements of the hero’s physical journey, i.e. the quest that involves travelling to other lands and places. As the story evolved, I contemplated keeping the action entirely within the physical confines of the Wall of Night, i.e. at one point the story development offered that possibility. But then the story evolved further and the deepening of the cultural elements drove in the other direction — that to work, the story needed to include a wider experience of the Haarth world. And biased though I am (!), I do think it is a wonderful world, one I hope readers will enjoy.
REBECCA: This is your second published book after Thornspell. Both are classed as “fantasy” but there are several pretty big differences between them. In particular: what’s the difference between writing a “self-contained” story like Thornspell, and Wall of Night, which is the first book in a trilogy?
HELEN: Well, Thornspell is a fairytale retelling and The Heir of Night (and WALL series) is epic fantasy — although I did notice that some people at Worldcon were starting to talk about it as “dark fantasy” as well—so that is an obvious difference in sub-genre terms. Thornspell is set in a kingdom “far way”, but one that is still very much of this world with an overlap into the faerie realms. Heir is in a separately conceived fantasy world, which means that as the author you have the opportunity to do a lot more world building and world building is a lot of fun, so it’s nice to have the scope to work with that! With a series, you can also have more central characters, simply because you have room to accommodate their stories. That is a very big difference to me: that Thornspell has one single, point-of-view character (which helps keep the storyline tight) while The Heir of Night has seven, i.e. Malian and Kalan as well as five secondary characters (and another three who don’t get point of view sequences in Heir but are still very important to the story.) Another major aspect of writing a series has been the need to always remain aware of the need to sustain continuity, both of plot and character, over four books.
REBECCA: As stated, Thornspell had a basis in both history and a familiar fairytale. In comparison, did you find world-building from scratch for The Wall of Night a challenge?
HELEN: You know, it didn’t feel like a challenge at all, because for me world building really is just fun. And it also happens very naturally: the worlds have a habit of springing almost fully fledged from the ether and into my mind. This was true for both the Thornspell world, which I “saw” immediately as a very “of-this-world”, Holy Roman Empire, Renaissance period backdrop, whereas the twilit world of THE WALL OF NIGHT had been in my mind for a long time. Some of the other elements though, just evolved naturally through the evolution of the story (e.g. the Winter Country) and by extending my imaginative eye to think: well if the Wall is like this, what is the adjoining country going to be like? And after that …? So for me, “world” happens very naturally and organically.
REBECCA: How much research was involved in the writing of each book? At a guess, I would say that a book set (however tenuously) in the real world would involve some degree of research for accuracy’s sake, whereas people would assume that a purely fantasy setting allows you to “go wild”. Would you say that’s true?
HELEN: Hmm, you know, I’m not sure … I believe that the initial Thornspell world emerged partly from my knowledge and love of history, and I am very familiar with that period, so my research was more a matter of filling in gaps. And I deliberately fudged some elements of the history, mainly in terms of time period and available technology and weapons — not wildly, but more extending the Renaissance influence in some areas and contracting it in others — because the more historically accurate you are, the more the book becomes history and not fantasy and I really wanted to keep that fairytale/fantastic element.
So can you go wild with a completely distinct world, as in The Heir of Night? You know, I don’t think you can. The world has to work in a way that readers can believe in, and for that to happen, consistency and continuity have to be core to the way the world is constructed. And don’t forget that in Thornspell I had that overlap to the faerie realm where I could have gone wild if I had wanted to — but because of the natural and organic way in which the worlds evolve, I didn’t really consider doing that: the story “told” me the how and the why of the world and I “went with” that process.
HELEN: I can tell you that … I am working very hard on the manuscript at present and it’s about two thirds complete. I can also tell you that the action is still centered around Malian and Kalan, and you will see some, but not all, of the secondary characters from Heir (although those other characters will definitely be back in the final two books.) I’d also like to say to readers that I know there have been long delays with some fantasy series, and as a reader I am frustrated by that, too, and it is why I have made a personal commitment not to let that happen with the WALL series. Basically, I am working on it every day—and hey, I already know how it ends.
REBECCA: Finally, this is a question that is usually asked at the end of all FanLit interviews which has become a bit of a tradition: What is the one question you never have but would love to be asked, and what would the answer be?
HELEN: Oh, duh! I have just gone completely blank. Ok, ok, here it is … a few people have said to me (and I paraphrase) that I have a gift for writing and am a reasonably switched on sort of a gal, so why don’t I write literary / contemporary realist fiction—the implication being that that is the real deal and Fantasy-SciFi (F-SF) isn’t. The answer, as an exclusive first for you and FanLit readers [smiles], is that I am first and foremost a lover of story. And F-SF, in my experience, contains some of the very best stories, with grandeur and sweep, what-if ideas, and wonder, and tremendous passion and heart. Put quite simply: F-SF stories rock! I love them—and that’s why I write F-SF, too.