I first discovered the romantic fantasy of Sharon Shinn when her second book, Archangel, was recommended on a romance reader list. I was somewhat dubious—the cover was sort of bleak and could have been horror—but the list had given good suggestions before, so I took a chance.
Bingo! Archangel was a wonderful tale of a world where modified human “angels” can fly and sing to the heavens to control weather, bring down medications, etc. It was a dazzling world, one that I wished I’d invented myself, and a terrific romance.
An award-winning author of both fantasy and science fiction novels, Sharon Shinn almost always has a great romance as a central part of the story. The November publication of her novel Fortune and Fate inspired me to invite her for an interview. F&F is part of her Twelve Houses series, set in her world of Gillengaria. (www.sharonshinn.net )
The books stand alone pretty well, but it’s so lovely to see her characters grow and develop that it’s worth starting with the first book, Mystic and Rider. In Gillengaria, people who have magical abilities are called mystics—and way too many other people hate them for it. So buckle your seatbelts…
MJP: Sharon, how did you start writing? Are there stacks of juvenilia hidden under your bed?
SS: I started writing poems and stories when I was in grade school, and I completed my first (truly dreadful) novel when I was 20. I simply can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a writer. And it’s hard for me to imagine that I might ever stop writing, though perhaps someday I might slow down.
Oh, yes, piles of juvenilia! For a long time, my goal was to have more published than unpublished novels…I think I hit that milestone at fourteen. Mentally I categorize the unsold oeuvre as “unpublishable and unreadable, unpublishable but readable, and almost publishable.” There are days I think I might polish up some of the manuscripts in the latter category and sell them really cheap online for hard-core fans…but so far I haven’t had the time for that very necessary polish-them-up part.
MJP: How did you become interested in science fiction and fantasy? And how about the great romances that are such an essential part of the stories?
SS: I read a lot of sf/f when I was growing up, mostly Andre Norton books and Robert Heinlein’s juveniles. Eventually I started picking up Anne McCaffrey and Robin McKinley and Peter Beagle and early George R.R. Martin. It’s hard to know how to answer when people ask why I write sf/f…all I can really say is, “That’s how my brain works.” When a story starts taking shape in my mind, it’s almost always set in some kind of speculative fiction universe. I’ve dabbled in writing contemporary stories, but they tend not to be very good.
I also read a lot of romance! Like many others, I discovered Georgette Heyer at an early enough age that her stories, characters, and linguistic style became imprinted in my bones. Weirdly, I didn’t really enjoy contemporary romance until maybe the past ten years. So I was readng Regencies.
I was also reading Westerns (Zane Grey’s Sunset Pass and Raiders of Spanish Peaks…the quality of the prose is awfully uneven, but the romances are lovely. Ernest Haycox’s Canyon Passage and The Earthbreakers. Intelligent, adult love stories—and the man can really write.)
I even, I must confess, have read everything by Emilie Loring, multiple times. So I think all the romances in my books draw from these pre-1960s traditions and rarely have a contemporary feel, even when they’re set in a futuristic time.
To people who don’t read sf/f, I often say that a fantasy book can be viewed as a sort of historical novel, with a meticulously created sense of time and place. So in a sense, I’m writing historical romances, and those were my influences.
As to why I almost always do put a love story in my books…well, I tend to think books without romance are boring. <g>
MJP: Sword and sorcery fantasy and historical romance require similar research in terms of creating a low-tech world. Can you tell us about some of your research as you did your world building?
SS: Oh, I wish I could. The truth is, I’m pretty cavalier about the research. I have a YA book coming out next year that is partly set in a sort of alternate China, so I skimmed a couple of books about Chinese history and I bought a Chinese-English dictionary. But since the traditions and culture I wanted to create were specific to the story I wanted to tell, I didn’t need a great deal of actual background—just a tiny bit of flavor.
When my characters in The Truth-Teller’s Tale were learning to waltz to the sound of a wind-up music box, I emailed an antique music box dealer to ask how long a typical song might last and how big a box might be. That was the extent of research for that book. I am not a role model for research. (Hangs her head in shame.)
MJP: Will you tell us about the Twelve Houses books? How you came up with the series, whether you’re going to set more stories there, any other tidbits you might like to share?
SS: I knew I wanted to write a series that featured a linked set of characters whose stories, taken altogether, would make up one protracted arc. For that reason, it was pretty important that I have a fairly clear idea of the whole story arc before I started writing—and essential that I have a really good grasp of the main characters from page one. So I spent a long time thinking about the series before I began writing it. I sketched out my map, I played with names, I came up with key scenes and worked out relationships.
As I’m sure all writers do, I have a kind of mental bank of stories that I play around with from time to time, and a lot of details of the Twelve Houses books got drawn from that mental bank. For instance, a great deal of Dark Moon Defender came from a story I knew I would never write. Same with The Thirteenth House. But because I knew the details of those stories from years of skimming through them in my head, I was able to plant a few clues about them in Mystic and Rider, the first book of the series.
For instance, I knew that in DMD, the third book, Justin would have need of Senneth’s necklace, so I started mentioning it in M&R. I knew how I wanted the raelynx to be deployed in the last book, so I introduced it in the first one. Even so, it was pretty exhausting keeping all the details straight for what was essentially a 2,000-page book…and I would not be surprised to find that there are many little continuity mistakes that made their way into the final versions.
I haven’t really decided if I’m going to spend much more time in Gillengaria. There will be a novella set in that world that appears in an anthology coming out in fall 2009, and I am seriously toying with the idea of writing a novella about Donnal and Kirra. Many people tell me that their romance got short shrift, and I have a lovely little story I can tell about them that would take place between The Thirteenth House and Dark Moon Defender.
I also have a shortish piece I would like to write about Kirra that takes place twenty years after Reader and Raelynx. Meanwhile, I’ve gotten glimpses of stories I could tell about the next generation—kids born to Justin and Ellynor, and to Cammon and Amalie—as well as, perhaps, Lyrie Rappengrass, who makes a memorable appearance in The Thirteenth House. I could build a story around her.
I’ve also been mulling over another linked series of novels about five siblings from Tilt, stories that would take place a couple hundred years before M&R. But I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to write that series. I’m not sure I want to stay in Gillengaria another four or five years.
MJP: The Twelve Houses books use a convention of sff, which is the woman warrior, every bit the equal of male warriors. I love that Wen, the heroine of Fortune and Fate, is small even for a female, yet she is one of the elite warriors of Gillengaria. Is this realistic, or more a sign of female wish fulfillment? <G>
SS: My guess is that it’s female wish fulfillment. <g> But I have to figure that a trained female fighter can inflict some serious damage on an ordinary guy, even if he’s bigger than she is, and Wen is nothing if not disciplined. If anyone can carry the banner for the small but fierce female fighter, it’s Wen.
MJP: The Samaria books were technically science fiction, which isn’t entirely clear at the beginning because they read more like fantasy at first. They cover multiple generations, with technological evolution as well as looking at different female roles. Comments?
SS: Well, in my original draft of Archangel, it was quite clear that the book was science fiction, because it opened with a prologue about how the original settlers left their ravaged, violent world and settled onto a new world where harmony was the first principle. But my editor really liked the idea of going straight to Gabriel on the opening page, and it certainly does reinforce the fantasy feel of the book. People often mention the “hybrid” science fiction/fantasy aspect of Archangel, but I don’t think it needs to be strictly defined. It’s an alternate world romance with religious undertones…kind of hard to categorize no matter what!
The books cover multiple generations because I wasn’t thinking “series” when I wrote Archangel. I wasn’t even thinking “published,” because I wrote it at a time when I was getting very discouraged about the fact that I hadn’t yet sold a book. So I just wrote the story that was in my head at the time. When Ace bought it and asked for two sequels, I didn’t really see how I could extend the story of Gabriel and Rachel and tell the evolving story of Samaria.
To me, the central mystery of the planet was the relationship of the people to their technology, and I didn’t think that could be solved within the reasonable lifetime of Gabriel and Rachel. Plus I just didn’t think I could do that to Gabriel…force him to confront the truth about his god. <g> So I moved the story along by a hundred or so years with each new book so that Samarians could slowly uncover their past and Gabriel didn’t have to break his heart.
I don’t know that I actually set out to look at different female roles. But after I’d written the first three books, I wanted to bring a fresh perspective to the next two. I loved writing Angel-Seeker, because both Elizabeth and Rebekah were so different from the angels and Edori I’d focused on before. Some readers dislike Elizabeth, who coldly calculates how her life can be improved if she takes an angel lover, but I see her as determined and strong-willed and pragmatic. A sister under the skin to Scarlett O’Hara, someone who will do whatever it takes to survive and thrive.
Rebekah might have been even trickier to write because I wanted to make readers believe that she would find it hard to give up her familiar life, repressive as it was. Most modern-day American women might say, “Why wouldn’t she run away the first chance she had?” but Breven is the only world she knows and she’s terrified of what lies outside its boundaries. I’m not much of a risk-taker myself, so I could empathize.
MJP: You always convince me about the characters! Occasionally in Samaria you show characters from earlier books, but the stories are pretty much self contained. In contrast, the Twelve Houses are an ensemble piece of a group of closely linked characters in which the overall story arc is advanced with different books from the point of view of different characters. I love returning to see the same characters. Did that just seem to suit this series, or is the approach part of Evolving Style or even A Master Plan? <g>
SS: It was a master plan! While most of my readers seemed to love the angel books, many of them were bitterly disappointed that Rachel and Gabriel were not the stars of the next two books. I’ve read lots of blogs and posts where readers who’ve finished the whole series reassure new readers that they’ll come to love the new characters just as much as they love Rachel and Gabriel, but I certainly got the message. Stick with beloved characters!
What’s funny is that some readers have been disappointed that the Twelve Houses books don’t keep Senneth and Tayse at the forefront, even though they still play major parts in the rest of the series. So maybe the message needs to be fine-tuned a bit: Stick with one set of beloved characters. <g> But I’m not sure I’d be able to do that. I’d have to think about it a long time before I’d try.
MJP: You’re also done young adult fantasy novels, with two of them, Summers at Castle Auburn and The Safe-Keeper’s Secret being named to the ALA list of Best Books. How do the YAs differ from the adult novels? Are they the same worlds?
SS: So far, I have not set my YA books within my established fantasy worlds. I know some sf/f writers have done that—Anne McCaffrey, for instance, has YA dragon books—but my YA books have mostly inhabited their own distinct geography.
The main difference between adult and young adult books, at least for me, is the degree of complexity. I don’t think the emotions are less complex, and I don’t simplify the writing that much, but the books tend to be less than 300 pages and have fewer plotlines. In my adult books, I tend to interweave a couple of stories and bring in a pretty big cast of characters, but with only 250 or 300 pages to play with in a YA book, I don’t have time to meander off and go exploring. So I tend to tell one story about one set of characters in a fairly efficient fashion.
Other than that, the components I use are pretty similar. There’s a little magic, a little romance, a little world-building. Someone is either in disguise or is about to find out about a mysterious heritage. And there’s usually a happy ending.
MJP: What are you working on now? And what direction might you choose in the future? Whatever it is, I’m sure I’ll love it!
SS: I just turned in an anthology that features four novellas, each one set in one of my existing worlds (Archangel, Heart of Gold, Summers at Castle Auburn, and Mystic and Rider). This turned out to be harder than I thought it would be (oh! That’ll only be 400 pages! I can churn that out in a couple of months), since each story required its own story arc, character development, and world-building elements. But I really really really like the way the book turned out, and the story "Blood," set in the set in the Heart of Gold world, is possibly my favorite thing I’ve written in the last few years. The anthology is tentatively titled Quatrain and it should hit the shelves in fall 2009.
At this very point in time, I’m working on another novella for an anthology I’ll share with three other writers—Laurell K. Hamilton, Yasmine Galenorn, and Marjorie Liu. It’s supposed to be a “feminist fairy tale with a twist,” which can be interpreted a lot of different ways! Mine has many of the hallmarks of my other stories—it features a group of people who don’t really like each other making a trip together and bonding deeply while a couple of them fall in love. Oh, and there’s magic. And an evil father gets his comeuppance. It should be fun to read.
Next up…Come January, I’m going to start working on a novel that I’ve had in my head for years and years. I used to call it my “Calcutta book” because much of the action takes place in a teeming city, which will itself become almost a character in the story, if I do it right. I’ve thought about this book long enough that there are a lot of layers to the culture and my hope is to really bring this exotic city to life. I haven’t started writing it yet, but I’m thinking I’m going to find this a really interesting world to live in for much of 2009.
Thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog! It’s been fun to hang out here and talk about writing.
So--are you a fantasy reader now? If so, what do you like? If not--why not?