A star in historical fantasy and a pioneer in hybrid authorship, Judith Tarr has fought through difficulties throughout her career. I’m super excited to learn more about this award-winning author and fellow horse-lover!
RLM: Tell me about your childhood and education. What first led you to writing as a career?
JT: I can’t remember not making up stories. The career part didn’t come until grad school, when my little scribbles attracted enough of an audience that I began to think, gee, I might publish these. Up to that point, they were what I did. Wake up, write, eat, write, breathe….
RLM: Your first book, Isle of Glass, was published in 1985. How have you seen your writing evolve since then?
JT: It’s gone through some changes, for sure. Market forces twisted it almost out of recognition (I am a girl, but I really am not a romance writer, and I really don’t like writing only Western European settings), but lucky for me, publishing imploded and my career imploded with it. When I finally emerged from the rubble, I realized I could be the writer I always wanted to be: cross-genre, inter-genre, with settings as diverse as our amazing and complicated planet. I’m much slower now, but there’s a lot more variety in what I do and contemplate doing. And nobody’s telling me I “have” to write anything.
Except readers who want more, but that’s the best kind of “have to.”
RLM: One of the defining characteristics of your fiction (especially your Caitlin Brennan titles) are the prevalence of horses. So, what came first, your love of fantasy fiction or your love of horses?
JT: Horses, definitely. I was a horse kid before I could read.
RLM: A good many of your books (including my favorite, Lord of the Two Lands), take place in historical settings with historical figures. What led you to set fantasy stories in these contexts instead of creating a completely new world?
JT: I’ve created plenty of new worlds. But the first novel that actually sold was born out of a two-year stint in England, getting a degree at Cambridge and steeping myself in history. That just happened to be what caught the market first, and I was one of the earliest fantasy writers to do what I did – after Katherine Kurtz and at the same time as R.A. McAvoy. I actually liked writing invented worlds better – world building is more fun for me than historical research – but historical fantasy was notably more successful, and I think I was doing something that wasn’t otherwise being done: accepting the beliefs and worldview of the period, and letting the story develop within that framework, rather than imposing modern values and beliefs on the historical setting.
I did have to do some of that under editorial pressure, because modern readers need to be able to relate to the story; and that was a master-class in writing craft, balancing what was really real against what readers would believe was real.
Fact is, lots of people in genre invent worlds, but there aren’t as many who work within the constraints of history. Since I had the academic background (up to the Ph.D.) and the training, and since my brain works in a way that persistently turns scholarship into Story, well, there I was.
RLM: Given that you own and run a horse farm, what is a typical work day (writing work day) look like for you? Do you usually plan out your books or are you more of a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants author?
JT: I’m a planner, for sure.
The writing day, these days, often isn’t, because by the time the farm work is done and the paying jobs are done (including the time-intensive task of getting my backlist back into print as ebooks), there’s nothing left of me. I write in the cracks and corners. Carve out a day here and there and hope to get a few paragraphs done. If I get in a writing day per week at the moment, I’m doing well.
I am working on this, because I need better balance in my life, and more writing is key to that. But the days of the big advances that allowed me to just write and do the horses and the farm are over. Getting through the day, and keeping the farm, is the priority now. I write when that allows.
RLM: Your newest title, Forgotten Suns is coming out any minute now. Tell me about?
JT: Here’s the blurb:
For millennia the planet called Nevermore has been deserted. Only a handful of nomadic tribes remain, none of whom remember those who came before.
An expedition from Earth has been striving without success to solve the planet’s mystery. Aisha, the daughter of the expedition’s leaders, sets out to open a sealed tomb or treasury—but instead destroys it. Only one treasure survives, but that may hold the answer they have been seeking.
Captain Khalida Nasir of Military Intelligence has a quarter-million deaths on her conscience. Even in the solitude of Nevermore, her past will not let her go. The war she thought was ended still rages. Her superiors force her back into service, and dispatch her to a world that may also offer a clue to the mystery of Nevermore.
With a mysterious stranger, the sentient starship he liberates from torment and slavery, and a crew of scientists, explorers, and renegades, Aisha and Khalida set off on a journey to the end of the universe and beyond. What they find will change not only the future of Nevermore, but that of all the United Planets.
And here are some reviews with more detailed summaries:
RLM: Camp Lipizzan is a fascinating aspect of your life (I’m still trying to figure out a budget that allows me to attend), when did it begin and what was the impetus behind it?
JT: Publishing had imploded, and my career with it. I had to find ways to survive, and one of them was to essentially take in boarders. (I did that with horses, too, for a while.) The original plan was for a series of scheduled workshops with syllabi and the works, but what evolved was quite different. Much more freeform, and much more of a writing retreat with horses, including riding lessons, horse yoga, and whatever else struck the attendees’ fancy.
It became a Thing. Some people have been coming for years; they have their usual schedule, and their usual way of using their time, and it’s a lovely way to spend the best part of a week.
RLM: On your LiveJournal blog, you talk about suffering years of writing blockage. That’s something that many writers go through (myself included). What do you think was the source of your blockage? What helped you finally start clearing it away?
JT: See above regarding career implosion. For three decades I had valued myself for the publishing contracts I had and the books I was paid to write. And then it was all gone.
And, especially in the later years, I wrote to spec. Wrote what I was told would sell: fantasy with romantic elements in Northern European settings. Absolutely no other ideas or settings need apply. I was seriously losing the will to live, in writing terms. And then, boom. No more. I floundered for years; completely without a rudder. Until a friend encouraged me to write what I wanted. Anything I wanted.
And that was Forgotten Suns. The original document folder for it is titled “Unsaleable FunMonster.” Because really, space opera? From the relentlessly typecast Female Fantasy Writer? I was told in so many words that for a book like this, only twenty-something guys need apply. With both a young protagonist and a battle-scarred adult? With psi? No way. Seriously, no way.
I did it anyway, because I wanted to. Ran a Kickstarter, with highly encouraging success. And now it’s a book, and there are calls for a sequel. I am planning one.
RLM: Tell me about the Book View Café.
JT: Your best bet is to go here:
Click through to the Vulpes Libris interview. That goes into detail. I wrote most of the first sections (I’m the head of the membership team).
Members-only co-op publisher consisting of mostly women, mostly genre writers, and run entirely by volunteers. Huge behind the scenes; what’s visible is the tip of a planet-sized iceberg.
RLM: Your career is both illustrious and long-lived. What advice would you give new writers just beginning to enter the world of professional authorship?
JT: Write what you want to write. Yes, listen when you’re told what sells, and be professional about making business and content decisions, but don’t let that straitjacket you. Say “no” if you must. And don’t let anyone force you to be the kind of writer you’re not. Especially if that’s any form of typecasting based on your age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, political leanings, or any other aspect of who and what you are.