The Wolves are Howling: An Interview with Lynn Abbey

lynn

I am so excited and honored to welcome a legend in the world of sci-fi/fantasy literature. Lynn Abbey has been spinning fantastical yarns since the early 80’s, contributing unforgettable characters and breathtaking worlds to our lives.

RLM: Which of your many characters is your favorite? Why that one?

LA: That’s hard to answer, a bit like asking a mother to pick her favorite child!

Rifkind’s the oldest and like all oldest children, she started out as an only child. She benefitted from my undivided attention and suffered from my lack of experience. She’s tough, she’s resourceful, she’s a survivor, and she taught me how to write a novel.

Rifkind and I parted company, though, after two books and I thought her story had come to a satisfying conclusion until Brian Thomsen, my new editor at TOR Books, said he didn’t believe the character I’d created would have stayed where I’d left her. He wanted to know what she was doing now; he wanted me to finish her story. I disagreed, but Brian was insistent.

daughterSo I did something I never do: I re-read Daughter and Black Flame and then I told Brian that there was no way I could continue Rifkind’s story: After twenty-odd years, I was not only a different writer, I was a different person, a person who had zero empathy with the character she’d created. Brian was…unimpressed. We argued and argued until he’d worn me down and I’d agreed to write Rifkind’s Challenge.

He was right. There was more to Rifkind’s story. Finding that story and figuring out how to tell it was, well…a challenge. I had to get to know her again and, take my word for it, Rifkind is not someone you’d actually want to know: she’s reckless and she’s ruthless, but if I ever find myself in a dark alley, she’d the character I want guarding my back!

Then there’s Hamanu, the titular character of Rise and Fall of A Dragon King and, come to think of it, another book that Brian Thomsen talked me into writing. Hamanu isn’t a character I created. I started playing Dungeons and Dragons™ before I started writing and when an opportunity write gaming fiction has come my way, I’ve usually grabbed it. Hamanu was one of the “big bads” from the Dark Sun D&D milieu and I’d used him for background color in the Dark Sun novels I’d written, but I hadn’t thought of him as a character in his own right until Brian told me that he’d managed to get Rise and Fall into the TSR/D&D publication schedule. All he needed, he said, was someone to write the book…in six weeks…for delivery in six weeks from the conversation we were having right at that moment.

the rise and fall

I’m a professional writer; I write for money and the money looked good, so I took a deep breath and said, “Sure, I’ll have it for you by December 24.”

It’s one thing to have a chaotically evil character running around in the background of a novel, but something quite different to make that character’s life the whole story. Not only was Hamanu evil beyond redemption (the Fall part of the title was mandatory), in epic fantasy tradition, he’d been actively evil for over a millennium. Even worse, every moment I spent in planning what I was going to write was a moment I wouldn’t have for the actual writing. I was wide-awake at 3AM, on the verge of panic, when it dawned on me that the only way I could make everything work would be to write Rise and Fall as a memoir: first-person Tyrannosaurus Rex. And to do that, I’d have to become—for not-quite six weeks—Hamanu, the Dragon King.

I didn’t start killing my friends or terrorizing them, but whenever my hands were on the keyboard, which was most of the time, I was channeling Hamanu, who—I’d decided—had started out as a farmer’s son in a remote village. I gave him no excuses for his choices, he had to be conscious of them all. I allowed him myriad regrets, but no shame, no guilt; and only one enduring love: the city he’d risen to rule.

It was, to say the least, an intense experience. By the end of it—December 24—I’d written what might be my best book and I had a new, very loud voice permanently installed in the back of my mind that continues to offer alarmingly simple solutions to complex problems. I wouldn’t say Hamanu’s a favorite character, but he remains the only one I hear every day!

RLM: Tell me about your daily writing routine.

LA: My writing routine has varied a lot over the years. Ideally, I like to get up, make my coffee, and settle in for a couple hours of writing, do real-life stuff in the afternoon, and then get another writing block in the evening. There’ve been times when I’ve been able to pretty much achieve my ideal, but not recently, not for the past several years.

My parents are both in their nineties. Their well-being and not my writing has become my first priority. I write when I can: when I have the time and the energy to shift out of the “real world” and into the imaginary places where stories happen.

It’s not unlike the way I wrote when my stepchildren were at home and in school. Preparation is the key when forty-five uninterrupted minutes at the keyboard is an unusual gift. I have an outline of what I hope to write. I take notes on what I’ve written (because it never quite matches the outline). I reread, re-outline, and take more notes. And then, sometimes, I actually write new words!

Some day I may return to my ideal routine, but I’m in no hurry.

jerlayne

RLM: You have a recommended reading list on your website. Are there any books you’ve read this year (2015), that you would put on that list?

LA: Oh, dear…my website and/or my blog, both of which suffer from extreme neglect.

Without deliberate plan, I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction this year.

Right now I’m reading The Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. It’s a well-researched examination of the last lynching in America, which happened not far from where I currently live. It’s a horrifying story and as I read it, I’m constantly reminded of William Faulkner: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

Before that I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Peabody Sisters by Meghan Marshall. I’d never heard of the sisters before I picked up the book, but if you’re curious as to how Boston went from being the hometown of the Puritans to the hometown of the Abolutionists in the first half of the 19th century, the Peabody sisters knew everyone involved in the changeover.

I got The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot for Christmas. In broad strokes, it’s the story behind the HeLa cells, the first successfully cultured human cells, but it’s so much more than that. Read it.

This year in genre, I read and recommend Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling. The follow-up, Invasion of the Tearling just came out and I’m eager to read it because Johansen did some deeply layered storytelling in Queen and I want to see how she starts to pull things together.

And I reread George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (because I got angry with the HBO deviations!)

For sheer laughs, my favorite book this year is Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr. Do not drink anything while reading this book. You have been warned.

planeswalker

RLM: On your website, you mentioned something about repackaging the Rifkind books. Is that still in the works? When do you think that will appear?

LA: The website again. I must do something about the website.

I’ve repackaged Daughter of the Bright Moon. It’s available in multiple digital formats from Closed Circle Publishing, the e-publishing company run by CJ Cherryh, Jane Fancher, and myself.

Rifkind’s Challenge is no longer “in print” from TOR Books, but it continues to be available from them as a digital publication.

I’ve been holding back on the middle volume, The Black Flame. I reconstructed a digital manuscript by sacrificing an old printed copy to my scanner, but when I started to correct the inevitable OCR mistakes, I found twenty-first-century self yelling at my twentieth-century self. I don’t really want to rewrite the whole novel, but I don’t want to re-release it in its current condition, either.

RLM: You’ve written several books in the Forgotten Realms tradition. How did writing a story set in an already established universe affect your storytelling process?

LA: It doesn’t so much affect the storytelling process as it affects the preparation. An established universe has “canon” and whatever story I’m going to write has to be constructed within that canon. In a way, it simplifies the world-building in the same way that setting a non-fantasy story in New York City would. There’s research to be done: I have to get the details right, but, fundamentally, the geography’s set along with the history and the background personalities. I can assume that the readers of a Forgotten Realms novel know the Realms as well a mainstream reader knows New York City.

That means that if the contract calls for me to deliver a 75,000 word manuscript, I don’t have to devote 20,000 of those words to world-building and I don’t have to figure out how to disguise the world-building within the story’s structure. I can prepare a story that has more plot, more character, more theme.

In a very real sense, I have more storytelling freedom in an established universe than I do in one that I create from whole-cloth.

sinbul

RLM: Given that you’ve written in the fantasy genre for quite some time, how have you seen the genre change?

LA: How? In just about every imaginable way.

When I submitted Daughter of the Bright Moon to the editor who ultimately bought it, the title page read, “by Marilyn Lorraine Abbey.” Granted, my parents only called me that when I was in deep trouble, but it is the name I use when I’m signing checks or handing over my passport. So when that editor told me change my name to something else, something less demonstrably feminine, something more ambiguous, I was comfortable switching to Lynn Abbey. But in today’s marketplace no woman would be required to change her name for publication.

That’s one of the positive changes.

On the negative side? Publishing no longer stands a bit apart from other entertainment forms. It’s in the pits, competing with movies, television, the Internet, you name it—and the competition is cut-throat. Publishing houses have consolidated. Editors who’d prefer to work closely with their chosen authors, find themself doing assembly-line work, filling pre-determined niches with interchangeable titles. Money’s tight, profits are razor-thin, and while everyone wants to have the next Harry Potter or Song of Ice and Fire, virtually no one can afford the risk.

Personally, I gave up on traditional publishing several years ago when CJ Cherryh, Jane Fancher, and I founded Closed Circle. Our goal is to bring our stories directly to our readers (which has, I think, been the goal of every writer since Guttenburg built his printing press) and we’re committed to the digital marketplace, a marketplace that no-one, including Amazon, truly understands yet.

If you like chaos and uncertainty, it’s a great time to start writing!

RLM: Whenever I read Dragon and Unicorn, I get the feeling of having listened to an old carol or ballad. Was this story inspired by a legend or historical happening?

LA: Thank you for the compliment, but, no, it’s a wholly made-up story, although I did do my research “on the ground” in France and Great Britain so when it came to the settings and scenery I had photographs to support my imagination. (And I played my Steeleye Span tapes pretty much nonstop in the background while I was writing it.)

unicorn and dragon

RLM: Do you plan to ever write a third volume to the Dragon and Unicorn?

LA: There is more to the story, but it will never be written. I worked through a “packager” for Unicorn and Dragon and it was a sufficiently unpleasant experience that I promised myself that I would never do it again. I’d had the foresight to put a “poison pill” in the contract that prohibited the packager from ever replacing me as the series author. Of course, it also prohibited me from continuing the series without his involvement. From time to time I’d ask how much it would cost to buy him out; he always came back with an absurdly high price. Then he died in a car accident and his company went into receivership. The “assets” which included his participation in the Unicorn and Dragon package were sold by a bankruptcy trustee and are now so encumbered that there’s no hope of extracting my two titles.

Sometimes we create orphans.

RLM: You’ve described the world you created for the Rifkind books as “Australia on a tennis ball.” What exactly do you mean by that?

LA: A beach ball, actually, and it happened by accident… or neglect. I was a complete beginner at my craft when I started writing Daughter of the Bright Moon. I just started writing about a young woman who’d survived a catastrophe. She lived in the arid scrublands that surrounded a desert and were themselves surrounded by a narrow, fertile rim. Honestly, I was thinking Mongolia, but when I looked more closely as what I’d done, it was Australia.

RLM: Your most recent release listed on Amazon is The Sinbul’s Gift (Forgotten Realms: The Notables, Book 6) do you have anything more recent planned?

LA: That website! It’s missing:

Planeswalker and The Nether Scroll – from Wizards of the Coast

Rifkind’s Challenge and Sanctuary – from TOR Books

Orion’s Children – a four-volume series (Out of Time, Behind Time, Taking Time, and Down Time) – all from Closed Circle

Last time I checked, they were all available at Amazon.

Currently I’m working slowly and erratically on a story about magic, conspiracy, online gaming, and the swamps of Florida!

nether scroll challengesanctuary out of time

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