Katherine Kurtz's Deryni saga is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. I was thus very excited when I was able to secure an interview with the author last spring. Her moving back to the USA in the intervening months postponed this Q&A for a while, yet I'm happy to finally bring it to you!
For those of you who think that GRRM is taking forever to write the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, know that Kurtz has been at it since 1970 with the Deryni saga, and it remains unfinished. Sadly, other than a scant few, not many people among the new generation of SFF readers have read this series. Here's to hoping that this interview will pique your curiosity enough to give it a shot. . .:-) Please be forewarned that this Q&A contains a couple of spoilers.
For those who wish to learn more about Katherine Kurtz and her novels, check out www.deryni.net.
- At this point, how many Deryni novels do you foresee will be required to bring the saga to an end? Have you abandoned the idea of one day managing to write all the Deryni books you envisioned when you started working on the series?
Actually, I don’t so much see an end to the saga as a filling in of blank spots within what I’ve already written. I’m working on the third Childe Morgan book now; but when I finish that-which may or may not actually bring us up to right before the beginning of Deryni Rising-I will probably do the book that covers the events of 948, when so many of our favorite characters die. (Of course, some of them are pretty old by then, so that’s OK.) After that….maybe the story of Orin and Jodotha? Or I might do a tale of Torenth….or the Anvilers. I’ve told several short stories from the other side’s perspective, and rather enjoyed it.
- At the time when THE BASTARD PRINCE was released, you were probably at the height of your popularity. At that point you elected to turn your attention to other writing endeavors. In retrospect, with the Deryni saga being what it was then, would you do it again? Do you feel that you needed to concentrate on other works at that juncture in your career?
I think what has kept the Deryni series fresh-for me, at least, if not all of my readers-is that I have branched out to do other things, given myself rests from the Deryni. I’ve even given myself rests from my characters, by alternating between the characters of Kelson’s time and those of Camber’s time. (And when I wrote Lammas Night, the first non-Deryni novel, it was partially to prove to myself that I could sell things besides medieval fantasy. Who would have guessed that John Graham would later be part of the inspiration for the Adept series?-which I’ve enjoyed immensely.) Besides that, it’s been fun doing other things-so yes, I’d do it again.
- Will you soon be revisiting the characters and events introduced in both The Legends of Camber of Culdi and The Heirs of Saint Camber trilogies?
That would be the book set in 948.:-)
- Some Deryni titles appear to be out of print. Is that the case? If so, have the rights been sold to a new publisher?
For the most part, the books haven’t been out of print; just harder to find. But every time a new one comes out, that’s encouragement for the publishers to re-release previous ones. I believe that’s part of the strategy on the part of Ace to let me do the "author’s cuts" of the first three books-and also to finally make them available in hardcover, since they were originally paperback only, in the dim, dark ages when modern fantasy was just being invented, and no one was sure whether it would fly beyond Tolkien. And yes, I moved publishers with King Kelson’s Bride. I believe it’s Ace’s intention to gradually acquire the rights to all the Deryni series and build up a substantial backlist, in addition to the Adept and Templar books.
- What's next for King Kelson and company?
I’m not certain that I’ll go beyond King Kelson’s Bride, time-wise. He eventually got the right girl, and hopefully they will all live mostly happily ever after. (It didn’t particularly work for Dorothy Sayers, when she tried a story about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane after they’d married and produced an heir; but maybe she was generally running out of steam by then.) But another reason I probably wouldn’t do a post-KKB book is because the anti-Deryni menace is becoming increasingly resolved by then-and conflict is part of what makes a good story. Now, 948…
- DERYNI RISING was first published in August 1970. How rewarding is it to realize that you're still around and that interest for the Deryni saga remains to this day?
It’s immensely rewarding-and having had the chance to go back and tweak it for the hardcover edition was a real eye-opener for me, looking back at where I started and contemplating where it all has gone. Who would have thought? One can definitely see that I was not only learning my craft but defining my genre-indeed, helping define the whole historical fantasy genre that now exists. And they’re still damned good first novels. But I’d started to hit my stride by Camber of Culdi; and the rest, as they say, is history. What’s particularly gratifying is that the early books, in particular, got a lot of kids to start reading. A fourteen-year-old protagonist is very attractive to kids in junior high-and Harry Potter was still far in the future.
- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
I would have to say that it’s characterization, and the ability to evoke richly textured visual images. And I suppose I do have a devious mind for convoluted plots.
- Have the plotlines diverged much since you began writing the Deryni series, or did you have the entire plot more or less figured out from the very beginning? Were any characters added or further fleshed out beyond your original intention? Have you made any changes to your initial plans during the course of the writing of the series?
When I first started out, I had no game plan beyond the first three books-though by the end of that first trilogy, I certainly had Camber firmly in mind, and knew I had to write a book about him. Of course, that one-book notion lasted about two thirds of the way through CC, when I realized that all of Camber’s story wasn’t going to fit into a single volume. And I think I only got about halfway through SC before I realized that I was going to need a third book about him. Even then, his story wasn’t really finished-which was when it became clear that I was actually telling an ongoing saga. For me, at least, writing is an evolutionary journey, and where you think you’re going may not be where you actually end up; sometimes characters have better ideas than the writer does. This is not to say that one ought to let characters run away with the story, but it is a good idea to listen to them from time to time.
- Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?
It wasn’t characters so much as incidents. I would have to say that there have been several characters who have occasionally done things that I hadn’t planned-though in hindsight, the incidents have always been ones where, after I’d written that passage, I’d say to myself, "Of course that’s how it had to happen. What was I thinking before?"
One of the most striking examples is when Cinhil opens that chest in his room, after an assassin has tried to kill him, and we learn that he’s been squirreling away vestments and other Mass accoutrements, that he hasn’t really given up his priesthood as he was instructed to do-but of course that’s what he was doing. How could he have done anything else, and still been true to himself? But as I was writing that scene, I didn’t consciously know that. As he’s walking across the room, looking at the chest and then kneeling to open it, I’m thinking, "Why is he walking over to that chest? What is in that chest that’s so important?" But he knew-and when the chest opened, all became clear. Another example is when Teymuraz suddenly turns on Morag and kills her, toward the end of KKB-whoa, I hadn’t seen that coming! But how else could that scene have played out, given the two individuals?
- Were there any perceived conventions of the fantasy genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write the Deryni series?
LOL, good gracious, no! I just wanted to tell the kind of story that I liked to read, because in those days, there wasn’t enough out there to my taste. (The old adage of "Sometimes you have to do it yourself" is certainly true.) In the first book, I thought I had to follow certain conventions, like rhyming spells, and magical beasts, and the like, for it to be fantasy-but by the time I’d done the first three books, and they were selling well, and I was finding my voice as an author-I decided that maybe I didn’t have to follow the "classic" guidelines. There was a whole universe out there to be explored.
- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write the Deryni series in the first place?
It was a dream, Honest! I still have the 3x5 cards on which I jotted the notes right after I woke up. A few things changed in the course of developing the outline for what became DR, but it’s pretty much all there. Interested readers can look at a transcription of those original notes, the unpublished short story/novella that was later expanded into parts of Deryni Rising, and the original outline that sold the first trilogy in The Deryni Archives, which also contains the first few short stories I wrote in the Deryni universe.
- What would you say was/is the hardest part of the entire process involved in the writing of the Deryni series? Each new addition reveals yet more depth to a series which has shown just how rich and complex it truly is.
I don’t know that I can pin down the hardest part. Some parts of some books are just harder than others, and there’s no way to predict, in advance, what those will be. But part of the enjoyment of the creative process is figuring out the puzzle. Resurrecting Camber, after I’d said he was dead, was a challenge-but I can’t use that device again. Having Dhugal turn out to be Duncan’s son, while still preserving everyone’s honor, was also a challenge. And there were others, of course. As long as I still get to resolve puzzles, I’ll probably keep writing the series for as long as I can.
- For obvious reasons, many authors steer clear of religion. And yet, you have made religion an integral part of the tale. Was that a deliberate choice right from the beginning?
I’ve always been interested in religion and the history of religion, especially Christianity. When I wrote Deryni Rising, I wasn’t sure one could go there-and if you look at the original edition, I really hedged my bets, and was careful not to be too specific about the religious aspects. And yet, what was being reinforced in my graduate studies in history was that in the real middle ages, religion was inextricably interwoven with everything else that was happening, and permeated virtually every aspect of life-and like so many other forms of power, religious power was sometimes corrupted. So I got bolder in DC, and bolder still in HD-and I knew that there was this Saint Camber guy who had to have his story told.
- What extensive research did the writing of the Deryni saga entail?
Well, I have an MA in history, so I’d already done a lot of that-and knew how to do it. As for the rest, one delves deeper when there’s a specific need-like deciding to use a corruption of minution-blood-letting designed to help monks suppress their bodily passions-so that it became a weapon in the hands of unscrupulous men who justified what they did in the name of religion. And of course I did research before writing an excommunication scene, for example. Part of the challenge is interweaving these things into context, so that the flow of the story isn’t interrupted. I try to avoid information dumps; but I do try to leave my readers knowing more about a subject than they did before. An author’s first job is to entertain, to tell a damned good story; but if you can also open minds and educate along the way, that’s an added bonus.
- In light of the current market, are you tempted to write one of those enormous fantasy epics which continue to be the most successful series at the moment?
Er, am I not already writing a multi-volume epic fantasy?-and began doing it before most other writers had really thought about it. Tolkien was the first, of course-and between the two of us, we apparently managed to convince an entire generation of writers that trilogies were the only way to go. But it isn’t. It’s astonishing to me that so many aspiring writers think they have to write a trilogy. That’s a big bite for folk who’ve mostly never even managed to complete a short story in coherent form. I don’t mean that to sound harsh, but too often young writers get wound up in creating a world, and do that at the expense of learning how to create compelling characters who can speak in believable dialogue. There’s a definite place for stand-alone novels-says the woman whose books almost all touch on a very few common threads.
- Is a World Fantasy Award something you covet?
It would be nice, certainly-and awards do tend to give a book exposure that leads to more sales, so that’s a definite plus. But I don’t write for the awards. I write because it pleases me, and because I get antsy when I’m not writing and putting ideas together. These last couple of years, when I was heavily involved with finishing the restoration of our house in Ireland and getting it to market, the original writing suffered, though I did manage to turn out Childe Morgan, and am happy with the result. But fortunately, the general chaos coincided with the polishes for the hardcover re-releases of the first three books-the "author’s cuts," if you will-which I could pick up and put down without losing continuity. (I was also been working with my Scottish writing partner, Deborah Turner Harris, on the outline for a new Adept book, a prequel to the five we’ve already done-and that is now getting underway. And of course, the third Childe Morgan was bubbling away on a back burner.) So even in the midst of chaos, the writing goes on, in one form or another. And now that I’ve just about found the floor in my new office, and my new bookshelves and desk units have been installed, I can get back to work on that third Childe book! (When we first moved back to the States, earlier this year, we lived in a hotel for more than two months, before our house was ready to move in-and I reviewed the copy-edits for High Deryni while holed up in the hotel room, and had to rely on the hotel business center for my internet access. This was not conducive to getting much serious writing done!)
- What project will you be tackling next? What's the progress report?
I’ve begun work on the third Childe Morgan-still uncertain what it will be called. Hopefully it will go fairly quickly. Meanwhile, the High Deryni hardcover will be out for Christmas of this year.
- Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.
Well, J.K. Rowling certainly did her part to put fantasy on the popular map. Granted, the Harry Potter books are regarded as children’s literature-but I reckon that at least as many adults as children have read the books, and loved them. And while some adults may still sneer at fantasy, there’s no denying that it has made Rowling one of the richest women in Britain-and one of the most respected, since she applies a large portion of her wealth to good causes, like children’s literacy. There’s no arguing with that sort of success-and by association, I think fantasy probably has acquired a bit more acceptance. A number of science fiction properties have also helped to raise public awareness of speculative fiction as a worthy literary genre, by being translated into the more popular medium of film. After all, you can’t have films without authors.
- How would you like to be remembered as an author? What is the legacy you'll leave behind?
I know that many of my readers have found inspiration in my books for dealing with troubling aspects of their real lives, and that the books sometimes have made big differences in how those readers have coped with difficult times. Some would call it a spiritual dimension that they had thought lost. That can only be a good thing. I know that my readers generally learn things from reading my books-and to learn is always a good thing, especially if it’s nothing like the formal lessons one remembers-or doesn’t remember!-from school. But most of all, I hope that my readers come away from their reading of my work with a greater awareness that being different is not necessarily wrong. As I’ve often summed up my intention, "I don’t necessarily want to change minds; just open them."