Many thanks to Robin for graciously accepting to do this with me. I could not quite believe that she managed to email this Q&A to me just before her departure for Australia. What a great writer and a terrific woman!;-) No but seriously, for all of us living in North America, this will give us a little something to sink our teeth into before the upcoming release of Shaman's Crossing.
Robin Hobb continues to be, in my opinion at least, the most accessible fantasy author in the field. If you haven't already, please feel free to visit her website (www.robinhobb.com), from where you'll be able to access her newsgroup and the wonderful community you'll find there.:-)
Here is the interview:
1- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
Definitely characterization. I know and love my characters. For me, the story is really about how the events affect the characters rather than about the events themselves. As characterization is extremely important to me in the books I read, naturally it’s a big element in the stories I write.
2- What would you say was the hardest part of the entire process involved in the writing of THE FARSEER, THE LIVESHIP TRADERS and THE TAWNY MAN? Where did you get the initial idea that drove you to create those series in the first place? What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write THE SOLDIER SON?
You’re cheating, Patrick! That was 3 questions, not one!
The hardest part of any writing project is the first draft. Getting the story fixed on paper is really difficult for me. With every sentence, you narrow an infinite number of possibilities down to a single track. So every scene represents a decision in how the story is going to unfold. If one of those decisions is wrong, it carries the story off in a direction that may not work for me as a storyteller. And then I have to back up and take another run at it. I always feel a great deal of relief when the first draft is done. After that, the task is to go back and make it pretty.
3- After writing three bestselling series, is there added pressure when it comes to writing a new project?
The ‘bestseller’ tag doesn’t figure into the writing equation on my end. After all, there are many different types of ‘bestseller lists’. A book may be a bestseller on one list and not even show up on another one. So that isn’t something I dwell on. From the very beginning, writing has been about constructing the best possible book, telling the story in the way that I find most pleasing. I think if I ever sat down and said to myself, "I have to write something that a whole lot of people will want to read so I can sell lots of books," I’d give myself the worst case of writer’s block ever. Because I simply would have no idea what other people would want me to write. But when I think of all the stories I want to write, my reaction is to worry that I’ll never live long enough to write them all.
4- You have been acknowledged as one of the best writers in the genre? Where do you think you stand in the fantasy field?
Up in the Northwest corner, just a bit south of Greg Bear. Seriously, I think it would be impossible for me to answer this. It’s based on someone else’s opinion of my work. Who said I was one of the best writers in the field, and when? What book were they talking about, and how much of the genre were they familiar with? If I started giving things like that weight, I’d just make myself crazy. My day to day thoughts as a writer have a lot more to do with what scene I want to get written today and if I should go back into an earlier chapter and foreshadow something or if it’s better to completely surprise the reader. Discussion of the varying merits of different writers is the province of reviewers and people who compile best seller lists. Status in the field is completely out of a writer’s control, in my opinion. It’s entirely dependent on reader reaction to the work.
5- Is a World Fantasy Award something you covet?
Not really. As I mentioned above, the focus is on the writing, not on sales or awards. Even if I seriously coveted a World Fantasy award, I don’t think my books are likely to win one. I write trilogies and in many ways, they are not suitable candidates for this award because each book is only 1/3 of a story.
I’m not immune to the allure of a shiny trophy. I’ve won the Asimov’s Reader award a couple of times, and ‘Bones for Dulath’, my first short story published in a commercial venue, was in the anthology Amazons! and that did win a Best Anthology World Fantasy Award.
When I was a fairly new writer, I did long to win awards. I even went so far as to start thinking that I could write a story tailored for the purpose of winning nominations. Luckily, I came to my senses and realized that if I started doing that, it would no longer be my story. I think being mesmerized by award fantasies is a fairly common pitfall for beginning writers.
This is not to denigrate any of the awards. The lists of winners are a wonderful way to discover books and short stories that might have slipped past me.
6- What is your work ethic? Tell us a little more about your writing routine.
My basic routine starts early each morning. I start off with the daily paper and a cup of chai (I recently gave up coffee), do the necessary family organizing for the day (I’m a full time mom and grandmother) and then turn on the computer and get at it. I’m not in my desk chair all day; that is really bad for my back and hands, and when I do get on a marathon keyboarding session, I pay for it later. But I am writing all the time. Mundane chores are a great way to engage a different part of your mind while letting your writing brain work on dialogue or mull over that corner you’ve painted your character into. Of course I check my email daily and visit my newsgroup once or twice a day. The computer is turned off at about midnight.
7- The fact that you have your personal website and newsgroup is an indication that interaction with your readers is important to you as an author. How special is it to have the chance to interact directly with your fans on a daily basis?
Interacting with readers on a daily basis is like any other friendship. It covers the whole spectrum from amazing to awful, sometimes in half an hour! Seriously, I think interacting with people who have read my books works for me because the books are the starting point rather than the entire relationship. I know you’ve visited my newsgroup, and you’ve probably noticed that very little space is actually devoted to discussing my books. Instead it covers all sorts of topics with international input, sometimes serious and sometimes silly but always interesting. One thing I enjoy about the newsgroup is the high level of courtesy. There are misunderstandings, but I think that we are generally very tolerant. Some of our members have English as a second language, and I think that makes all of us aware that using language can be an inexact science. Often when it seems someone was being arrogant, it turned out to be a language difficulty, and we were all glad that flames were not the first choice response.
8- You were recently in France to attend a convention. And to promote the release of SHAMAN'S CROSSING, you'll be going on a book tour that will take you to Europe and Australia. Although time-consuming, how important is it for you to travel abroad to meet your readers?
I enjoy it. The travel is interesting, and meeting the readers even more so. I think readers enjoy the chance to talk with authors.
That said, I don’t think book tours are a necessary facet of being a writer. Very often when I come home from a trip, I feel a sort of panic when I think of all the days that have passed without my being engaged in a solid work schedule. I’m a person who has to stay ‘in the book’ in order to write daily. If I leave it alone for a few days, getting the book going again is like trying to start a car that hasn’t been run all winter. It takes some work. So I do my best to write every day when I’m traveling.
9- Writing 2 sets of trilogies from the POV of FitzChivalry was, in my opinion at least, a tour de force. How were you able to do it in such a realistic fashion, considering that you had to put yourself in the perspective of a male character?
This question and number 10 have pretty much the same answer.
10- Your characterizations always stand out, and character growth is omnipresent in each novel/series. One thing that strikes me is how all your characters stay true to themselves, enabling the readers to identify with what they are going through. Is this something you continuously strive to accomplish, or is this just a knack you have?
My technique with characters is to try to let each character be the main character in his own story. Even if someone is just a ‘walk on’, it helps to remember that maybe that barmaid is near the end of her shift and is really tired, and to let her behave accordingly. When I first started writing, I found it was very easy for me to fall into that trap where I made all of the characters do what they must to make the plot advance smoothly. I wound up with minor characters who existed only to take a bullet for the protagonist or to be the romantic prize to be won. Cardboard.
When the characters are not true to themselves, the story loses its veracity. If you can put on the skin of even your minor characters and say, "What would I really want to do next? Wouldn’t I duck when I saw the arrow coming?" the plot becomes more interesting and the characters are believeable.
11- When ASSASSIN'S QUEST was released, you claimed that you had no future plans to write another Fitz series. At which point during the writing of THE LIVESHIP TRADERS did you realize that there was another tale in the making?
I was midway through the first book, Ship of Magic, when I realized that one of the characters was behaving in a suspicious manner. That was my first inkling that something was going on in the back of my mind that I hadn’t consciously planned. And that is as much as I’ll say about that to avoid spoilers.
12- You once told me that writing THE LIVESHIP TRADERS had been a welcome break from Fitz's intense, first-person focus. Did you have to prepare yourself differently for your 3 past trilogies? Did the writing of SHAMAN'S CROSSING involve more research and preparation than the previous series?
Each book requires its own unique research because each book covers different topics. When writing fantasy, I think it’s always best to ask, "Historically and culturally, how did this work in our world?" and attempt to understand it. Then, of course, I mix in the fantasy element, but I try to do it with enough touch-points to our world that the reader has some sense of familiarity.