Leading us to Sanctuary:
An Interview with Lynn Abbey
Interviewed by Lazette Gifford
Abbey is returning to her roots... but those roots are in Sanctuary, a town
filled with dark magic, notorious thieves, and wondrous tales. With the
revival of the famous (or perhaps infamous) Thieves' World books, Lynn Abbey has
begun the publication of a very popular series of stories, long missed by
However, if the Thieves' World Series is the
only writing you associate with Lynn Abbey then you are missing a wonderful
array of fantasy novels. Lynn's unique, exciting stories are filled with
wonderful adventures and great characters. From the publication of her first
book, Daughter of the Bright Moon, fans have looked forward to each new tale.
Be sure to visit The Worlds of Lynn Abbey (http://www.lynnabbey.com/)
to keep up on her latest work in both her standalone novels and the Thieves'
Let's start out with a simple question that's sometimes hard to answer: When
did you start writing and what drew you to it?
Lynn: My parents might say
that I started telling stories when I learned to talk and decided that I'd
become a writer the day I recognized a typewriter, but my professional career
began in early 1977 when I was recuperating from an auto accident. With one
ankle broken and the other severely sprained (not to mention a fractured skull)
I found myself taking advantage of friends' hospitality. For several weeks I
lived on a sofa at Bob Asprin's house, reading my way through his library of SF
and Fantasy while he was at work. As the haze receded, I began to think that I
could write a novel, too.
The truth is that I wasn't very good at it, but I had an unfair
advantage: that auto accident? It occurred while I was on my way to the airport
to pick up Gordon Dickson, who was coming in to Ann Arbor for the annual SF
convention. Gentleman that he was, Gordie felt the need to do something
for the fan who'd wracked up her car and body on his behalf and I was not so far
gone that I didn't immediately think of "free advice from an established
Gordie stuck with me for the better part of a year. He later admitted
that he'd done his best to discourage me, but I'm dense when it comes to
discouragement and never picked up on his many hints.
Persistence pays and so does a willingness to follow directions. Each
time Gordie told me to do a rewrite, I went home and did my best. After several
false starts he encouraged me to have a go at chapter two; after that it was, in
his own words, "clickety bang."
As to why writing and not some other form of creative endeavor, I think
the answer lies in my high-school sophomore English class. We were give that
hoary old assignment: write a short story. I'll date myself here, but the
Berlin Wall had just gone up and I decided to write a short story about a group
of friends whose lives had been divided and who devised a plan to bring the East
Berliners to the West. I gave them a simple plan that involved a river, never
mind that I still don't know if there is a useful river flowing through
Berlin. (A clear indication that I'd eventually find a home in fantasy
fiction.) It took a while to write; I'd guess it was about five thousand words
long -- fairly lengthy for a high-school assignment -- when I turned it in.
My teacher decided that some of stories needed to be read aloud. I
clearly remember that most of the stories which preceded mine were "frame"
stories that began with "I went to bed" and ended with "and then I realized it
had all been a dream." Superficially, they were much more fantastic than mine
and I was starting to worry that I'd blown the assignment. Then it was my turn
and I read without interruption -- I mean totally without interruption: there
wasn't a sound in the classroom until I finished and then my fellow students and
my teacher applauded.
There is nothing that compares to an unexpected round of applause and I
had never gotten one before. It was as though someone had flicked a light
switch. I'm no athlete and my piano lessons were going nowhere; I got good
marks in school, but there were always kids who outshined me -- until I wrote a
short story. Suddenly, I knew there was something I was good at. It wasn't
something I imagined I could turn into a career, but that bedrock faith that I
could write was what blinded me to Gordie's attempts to discourage me.
good fifteen years had passed between my short story and what would become
DAUGHTER OF THE BRIGHT MOON, during which time I'd written no fiction, unless
one counts a few under-researched term papers and my journal.. The process of
getting two college degrees had stunted and twisted my "natural" style, but with
Gordie's help, I recovered it and never looked back.
Would you like to tell us about writer Gordon Dickson and your first novel
Lynn: I guess I've already
answered part of this question. I was one of those rare and fortunate writers
who did not go through an amateur period of creating unpublished/unpublishable
fiction. The idea that I could write had been part of me, but I didn't
actually start writing with professional intent until a golden opportunity fell
(crashed) into my lap.
Gordie had mentored many other authors before he agreed to mentor me
and had evolved a mentoring style which emphasized asking questions: What were
you trying to achieve here? (Or, in my case, Don't you think that adding
characters... dialog... a hint of a plot?) It was a very gentle strategy
because it didn't involve him giving his opinions (I never guessed how hopeless
he thought I was in the beginning) and it allowed me (and his other mentorees)
to find solutions in our own words.
When gentle questions didn't work, Gordie would take a problematic
chunk of prose and run it through his typewriter (this was pre-computers, of
course) and rearrange it. He rarely added or subtracted words, just changed the
order of the sentences, then he'd hand it back. Flaws of style and sequence
would fairly leap off the page and the means to correct them would, too.
Looking back on the process, I realize that his rearranging tactic was just
another way to keep his opinions to himself and let me find the answers that
worked for me.
The final tactic I remember Gordie using didn't come into play until
there was a substantial piece of prose under consideration. Again, in
retrospect I know what he saw: a plot had bogged down, character motivation had
become obscured, or the logic of cause and effect had evaporated. Gordie could
have gone after the problem piece by piece, but experience had convinced him
that the best way to solve the problem was to suggest something absurd, to
recommend a turn of plot or character which he knew would be utterly
unacceptable. The idea was that in the process of defending the integrity of my
story, I would clean up the structural problems without focusing on them. And
it worked -- I've used it myself with the writers I've mentored.
The actual process of selling my first novel was exciting at the time,
but the market has changed so much that there's nothing useful left in the
tale. That sale, though, changed my interaction with my mentor. I was no
longer an apprentice but had become a journeyman and we talked less about
specifics, more about the craft of writing in general.
Gordie said that the journeyman stage would last until I'd published
(not written, but published) a million words. He likened it to a cabinetmaker
or other artisan. In the beginning, every time the cabinetmaker began a new
job, he spent as much time out in the toolshed grinding out the tools he'd need
to solve the problems that particular job presented. Gradually -- and
unconsciously -- he'd spend less time grinding new tools until, around the
millionth word, he'd find himself in need of a new tool and, returning to the
toolshed, he'd realize that the grinders were covered with dust.
It took me about twelve years to reach my million-word mark and when I
got there I found that, as usual, Gordie had been there first. The challenge
now is to continue to challenge myself in ways that get me back into my toolshed
because it's possible to become so comfortable with one's style and structure
that one ceases to grow.
Fantasy seems to be your genre of choice. Do you like to write in any other
genres? What is it about fantasy that draws you to write in that genre?
I've thought about writing in other genres, but my imagination just doesn't seem
to lead me in other directions. Actually, I don't so much think of myself a
fantasy writer as a writer of histories of places that don't exist. I'd like to
write the histories of places and people that have existed, but I've never been
satisfied with the completeness of my research. In order to feel free enough to
write at all, I have to give my research a "twist" that allows me to say, Okay,
this is NOT 12th century France; I don't have to have the background nailed down
perfectly; I can wing it.
only market for the histories of places that don't exist is the Fantasy half of
SF/Fantasy. Writing genre fantasy requires a few more research "twists," most
of them involving magic. By the time I start the first draft, whatever magic
system I've built is meant to seem fundamental to the world I've created, but
it's really an afterthought. I have a problematic relationship with magic: when
push comes to shove, I don't believe in it. When I set out to write a new novel
and I reach the moment when it's time to add the "magic," in my own mind I'm
adding "science." My magic is always empirical -- it can be analyzed and
replicated and there is always a specific "engine" driving it. Nothing happens
that breaks the "rules."
After twenty-plus years, my "tool set" has gotten seriously biased in
favor of genre fantasy. A year or so ago, I considered writing a "mainstream"
novel and, despite several time-consuming efforts, I just couldn't come up with
a concept that made my ears wiggle and didn't involve fantasy-genre elements. I
delved a bit into what mainstreamers call "magical realism," thinking that it
might work for me, but "magical realism" is based on magical magic, that is, the
happening of things that cannot be explained by the characters and are not
explained by the author. This is not my kind of magic, so "magical realism"
wasn't an option and I returned to the fantasy fold.
I've also thought about writing on the SF side of the house -- the
process by which I create my magic systems shouldn't really be that much
different from the processes by which SF authors overcome the constraints of
E=mc2. As a result, I do have a small collection of traditional SF
ideas which I've never been able to sell. I'm known as a fantasy writer and
neither my agent nor my editors want to risk my "brand" (such as it is) by
jumping genre. If I want to write SF, I'll have to write it under another name.
When I started out, I thought being a writer was all about writing.
Writing is important, but the business of a writer is publishing and the
realities of publishing can be very limiting, even unpleasant. I'm not
constrained by being a genre writer. Any story I can imagine, I can cast as a
fantasy novel and probably get it published. Were I to decide that I didn't
want to be a genre writer, or that I wanted to switch genres, I'd be looking at
starting over and when one expects the royalties to pay the rent, that's just
Why did you decide to bring back the Thieves' World series? How does working on
the new incarnation compare to working on the old ones? Have you enjoyed getting
back into the world?
Lynn: Ah, Thieves' World...
otherwise known as the project that ate my life in the Eighties. For me the
rise and fall of the 1980s incarnation of TW was deeply personal and intertwined
with the rise and fall of my marriage to co-editor, Robert Asprin. Suffice to
say that when the marriage began to go south, one of the first casualties was
Thieves' World, which ceased publication a good five years before the divorce
was finalized. By the time the divorce was final there was very little
perceived value left in TW both from a New York publisher's perspective and from
In the "who gets what" negotiations that accompany all divorces,
Thieves' World was pretty much an afterthought: something that wound up on my
side of the ledger along with other responsibilities and debts. I did not
imagine that there would be any future value in the milieu and frequently swore
that "pigs would fly" before I stuck my hand in to that meat grinder.
But time really can heal wounds and by the mid-90s, when I realized that I was
signing books that were older than the readers offering them to me, I began to
reconsider my position.
Resurrecting Thieves' World was an arduous project made easier when we
secured the interest of Tom Doherty at Tor Books. Tom had been the publisher at
Ace when Ace published volume one of the original series (which no one, at the
time, suspected would become a series). He was willing to take a chance on a
package of old and new material.
A dozen years is a long time in the world of publishing. The market is
more fragmented and competitive than ever, and overall readership is down.
Finding a niche is the first challenge; inserting a book into that niche is the
second. Our strategy was to level the playing field by advancing the milieu
chronology a character generation and inviting a mix of old and new writers to
create stories in the reshaped milieu.
It's been great to work cooperatively with a group of talented authors
again, but the book world has become an unforgiving place and it remains to be
seen if Thieves' World can reestablish a toehold in a sufficient number of
imaginations to become a regularly scheduled product. If enjoyment were
sufficient, then we'd be home free with a solid core of writers and a host city
that, for me anyway, is endlessly exciting.
At the moment, Thieves' World stands right on the edge. The sales
figures for volume two of the new anthology Enemies of Fortune, which
will come out this December, will tip the scales one way or the other. From a
purely selfish point of view, I urge everyone whoever enjoyed a visit to
Sanctuary to come back and see what we're up to.
Has working as an editor on such a famous series like Thieves' World presented
you with any specific problems?
Lynn: I'm a writer first
and an editor second... or maybe third or even fourth. Successful editing
requires a very specific set of skills and I don't claim to have all of them at
my command. I'm also fortunate in that, because Thieves' World has always been
an "invitation only" anthology, my reading is pre-screened. It takes a special
talent to read dozens and dozens of stories looking for the handful that merit
inclusion in a magazine or anthology.
That said, the challenges that arise in Thieves' World tend to fall
into two categories: continuity and compatibility.
Continuity problems are fairly straightforward, with absolute conflicts
being the easiest to resolve. If writer A and writer B both lay claim to the
same piece of real estate or character, it's usually possible to come up with a
chronology that allows both stories to exist. Failing that, there's always the
"but little did he/she know" clause that allows a bit of drama in one story to
be completely reworked in a subsequent story. (This is also known as the "best
laid plans gang oft awry" rule.)
It's a bit more complicated when an author does something hard to
ignore -- plagues, natural disasters, the night it rained fish in Sanctuary...
When a story like that arrives, either it's got to be the last story in the
volume or every other author has to have a whack at rewriting their story to
incorporate the "big event." This happened in TURNING POINTS when Dennis
McKiernan decided not only to feature a major single-elimination martial
competition, but to frame his story with a combination lunar/solar eclipse
cycle. Fortunately, he got his story in very early and the other writers in the
volume were able to incorporate both the competition and the eclipses.
Dennis also fell victim to the "but little did he know" clause. In his
story, Soldt, Sanctuary's resident swordmaster and assassin, loses the final
duel of the competition. It works dramatically, but it's a bit out of
character, so in the published anthology there's a scene at the very beginning
of the book, setting up the dynamics of the eclipses to come, where Soldt learns
that he's expected to throw the final duel so the powers-that-be can find out
what other characters are up to. Nothing in Dennis' story changed, not even the
final scene where Soldt wakes up with a drug-hangover and vows that someone's
going to pay for the indignity.
Compatibility problems are touchier because the Thieves' World ground
rules allow author A to make use of author B's character. Sometimes author A
does something that sends author B right through the roof and the editor has to
scramble to play peacemaker. The classic compatibility problem happened early
on in the first series. Andy Offutt had created a thief, Hanse Shadowspawn, and
was having ten kinds of fun dragging Hanse through the mud (Andy freely admitted
that Hanse incorporated all the traits of every bully who'd ever given him grief
in school). Then we invited Janet Morris to play in the sandbox and she ante'd
up Tempus Thales, the baddest bully on the block, and more beside.
Janet read about Hanse and thought, What a neat character! Tempus will
take this young punk under his wing, both professionally and romantically.
Janet politely asked us to clear this with Andy and that Southern gentleman of
the old school just about melted the phone when asked if Hanse was up for an
affair with Tempus. (But the really interesting thing about this was that it
permanently changed Andy's perspective on Hanse. Suddenly Andy realized how
emotionally dangerous the life of a gutter-rat could be and things began to
change... Take a look at Andy's stories in the first three volumes to see the
As an editor, what advice can you give to new writers? Can you explain about
the differences between an open anthology and ones like Thieves' World which are
Lynn: Some of the best
advice I can give an aspiring author is trivial. Most times an editor doesn't
know you from a hole in the wall when he/she opens the envelope containing your
story. That manuscript is your avatar -- it stands for you and makes your first
impression. And, as the old saw goes, you only get one chance to make a first
impression. So, go the extra step to insure that you don't start at a
disadvantage. We used to recommend that you put a new ribbon in your typewriter
before typing the final draft of a story. No one uses a ribbon typewriter any
more, but your final draft is not the time to try to wring a few more sheets out
of your inkjet cartridge.
Don't forget the standard things everyone tells you: use an easily read
font, preferably at 12-pitch, never less than 10; 3/4" margins are a minimum, 1"
are better; double space your lines; make use of your spellchecker! Unless your
return address says United Kingdom, try to conform to standard American style
(that's color, not colour; gray, not grey).
Yes, it's true that you're trying to stand out from the crowd, but
leave that challenge for your story, not your format.
Oh, and very important, if you're submitting to a particular editor,
get the gender and spelling right. I know it's a silly mistake when I get
something addressed to Lynn Abby or Lynne Abbey, but I notice it every time and
it tweaks my mood as I start to read and you never want to tweak an editor's
As for the differences between open anthologies and invitation-only
anthologies... they're pretty much self explanatory. Editors of open
anthologies actively seek submissions from all comers, established and unknown
(they may not have a level playing field behind the invitation, but they are
willing to read whatever the tide washes up at their feet). Open anthology
editors usually seek to spread the word that they're reading and the minimal
requirements for submission.
Editors of invitation-only anthologies tend to be a secretive lot.
We're looking for very specific things in our story mix and know the "voices"
we're looking for to round out the chorus. Additionally, an anthology like
Thieves' World operates on a time lag... ideally, the writers are hard at work
on the next volume's stories when readers first lay their hands on the current
volume. There's almost no chance that an unsolicited story will mesh with the
next volume's storylines.
But, if there's a "closed," invitation-only anthology out there that
draws you like a magnet, then your best course is to contact the editor and
offer selections from your already written (preferably already published) prose
and ask to be considered for a future volume. I do keep a small file of samples
from not-yet-invited authors. The cold, cruel fact is that I wouldn't be doing
any of them a favor if I asked for a story. In the hierarchy of publishing,
unless you've already got a substantial body of publishing work, producing
stories for a pre-made milieu, be it Thieves' World, Star Trek, or Forgotten
Realms, is going to be a negative credential, something to be overcome when you
try to market your own stories.
You have worked extensively in universes that were not fully your own (such as
Thieves World and Forgotten Realms). Do you find that there are any specific
things that give you trouble? How did you get involved in writing for those
types of books?
Lynn: It's true I've done a
lot of shared-worlds and work-for-hire. Ask me if I think it's always been good
for my career and the unequivocal answer is No, but it's paid the bills when the
bills need to be paid. I've developed a reputation as someone who can turn a
sow's ear into a silk purse when it comes to pulling a story out of a murky
milieu and that keeps my name in circulation. (I guess it's good to be known
Contractual considerations are very important in shared-world or
work-for-hire situations. I make sure I know exactly what's expected and, when
possible, I try to get it written into the contract that if the powers-that-be
sign off on a detailed outline of the project and I deliver a book that conforms
to that outline, then the powers-that-be can't meddle with it or call for
rewrites. That's the most annoying risk that I find associated with
work-for-hire situations: somebody's always trying to move the goal posts. It's
a good idea to nail those suckers down before I start the first draft.
Money is another thing. You usually don't get the copyright or reprint
rights in a shared-world or work-for-hire situation (Thieves' World is an
exception), so your ability to make additional money off your work is limited.
My agent usually tries for a higher royalty. At the very least, we want the
advance money up-front.
While there are exceptions, the quality of editing in the work-for-hire
world is generally a few notches below what you'd find elsewhere and I've had a
few run-ins with editors who thought they were really collaborators. That can
be very annoying. It can be worse than annoying when you don't have an agent
running interference for you or you don't have the financial freedom to walk
away from a project that's turning sour. (I always make sure I have an escape
clause that allows me to pull my name off a project if I have to abandon it.)
Truth is, the money can be decent, but I really don't recommend the
work-for-hire route as an entry into publishing. Too many things can go wrong.
It's harder to get stand-alone material published, but it's worth the wait and
effort, and then, if you really want to do a Star Trek novel, you can pretty
much dictate the terms.
Thieves' World, by the way, was my entry into the work-for-hire world.
Because I'd been involved in the creation of a successful shared-world it was
assumed that I'd know the rules in other shared worlds so the invitations flowed
my way. It was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time
with the right credentials -- but it still wasn't the best thing for my career.
You have a unique relationship with the Emma Merrigan books. Would you like to
tell us about those stories?
Lynn: Ah, Emma Merrigan and
the TIME books. I'm not sure how much of the background I can admit to.
Suffice to say that things had gotten a bit rocky between ACE books and myself.
We were arguing over two outstanding books from an old contract. They didn't
want the books originally on the table (the second and third books in the SIEGE
OF SHADOWS trilogy) and weren't showing enthusiasm for anything else I
suggested. So I asked them, Well, what would you like me to write for you? I
got a request for a contemporary fantasy, possibly involving a mother and her
daughter, and witchcraft. I swallowed the impulse to say that sounded a lot
like a book I'd written for them back in 1982 called The GUARDIANS and got to
work on a story.
They had had very specific complaints about the believability of my
protagonists, so I decided to play it safe and model my new heroine on the most
believable character I knew: myself. Emma is not an autobiographical character,
but we do have a lot in common. Whenever Emma has to react to something, she
reacts the way I would react.
To be honest, as I wrote OUT OF TIME, I was hoping ACE would reject the
book. I was in a rather manic and not terribly mature mood as I wrote and,
ironically, the whole process was very liberating. I took risks with the style
and characterization (and the parameters I'd been given) and, before long, I was
having serious fun.
One of the risks I took was turning one of the classic fairy-tale
tropes on its head. Fairy-tales (and modern fantasies in general) tend to be
about young people on the brink of adulthood discovering their destiny, powers,
whatever. In modeling Emma after myself, I had a heroine who was far enough
into her adulthood to be thinking about golden years and retirement plans. She
had a dull life, but it was the life she'd built for herself and she was
determined to be content with it. And, of course, I had to shake it down to its
foundations. Emma discovers the paranormal powers she should have discovered
back in junior high... she also discovers the mother whom she never knew
(remember, ACE wanted a mother-daughter angle) and who happens to look not a day
The power Emma discovers is the ability (and obligation) to walk
through time to trace a curse to its historical origin and "mooting" it in the
moment of its creation. A mooted curse ceases to exist in the present and the
formerly cursed individual is set free. There's more to it, of course, and it
gives me the opportunity to indulge one of my great passions: the collection of
historical trivia. In OUT OF TIME Emma unravels a domestic tragedy in 11th
century England, in BEHIND TIME she deals with 17th century Paris, in TAKING
TIME (which was published in April) the focus is on a series of forest fire in
the Thumb region of Michigan, and in DOWN TIME, Emma tries to take a vacation
and winds up digging into the dark shadows of colonial Nassau. And she does all
of this while trying to hold down a job in the library at a Midwest university,
among other details of ordinary life.
Once upon a time you lived in a unique three-person writing community with
authors Jane Fancher and C.J. Cherryh. What was it like to live in the company
of two other writers?
Lynn: It was a lot of fun
and it was more than three authors, it was three authors and several hundred
characters. Mealtime conversations could bound and rebound over several
universes as well kept track of one another's projects. Fortunately, none of us
Friends who are not writers try to be sympathetic and understanding of
a writer's mood, but, truly, it takes one to know one. Carolyn, Jane and I
didn't have to waste time explaining things. There was (and, over a greater
distance, there still is) instant understanding when a scene stagnated, an
editor balked, or you were holding a brand-new book in your hands for the first
Our little writer's colony existed for about three years and it would
take nearly that long to share the stories we accumulated. There was the time I
was home by myself for a weekend and, in the course of feeding Jane and
Carolyn's cats, managed to let a pair of mallards into their living room and
leave them there overnight, or the nights when dying cutworms invaded my
bedroom, our marathon holiday decorating binges, and the many, many times we
thrashed out a recalcitrant plot.
I went to Oklahoma to recover from a shattering divorce and I couldn't
have found a better, safer haven, but in time I realized that I needed to be
closer to my parents, which entailed moving to Florida. A few years later, Jane
and Carolyn moved to Washington state -- so these days we're about as far apart
as you can be and still be in the continental US, but the friendship and
I seem to remember you once saying that you wrote to support your research
habit. Is that still true?
Lynn: That's probably an
exaggeration -- my writing has to support more than my research habit, but I
love to curl up with a book about some dusty corner of history. There are some
periods I come back to again and again (we'll deal with that in question 12) but
I'm always trolling for trivia. When I was working on TAKING TIME, for example,
and I needed a plot complication, I remembered reading that someone was blaming
the Great Chicago Fire on the breakup of comet Biela. Sure enough, a little
Internet review and I was able to work a little astronomy into my forest fires.
I don't think I'd have uncovered Biela by doing research for TAKING TIME,
but because I'm constantly sifting through neat stuff and have a good memory for
odd information, I was able to recall Biela when I needed it.
Right now I'm reading a book called Salt: A World History by
Mark Kurlansky. The title's accurate -- the book's about all the ways salt has
figured in history, from the Roman's taste for garum to the cultures that have
used salt as currency, plus how (and more importantly why) the Chinese make
thousand-year eggs. I just know that some of this information is going to make
it into a book someday.
Last year I went on a Venice jag and now I'm planning a fantasy that's
set in an environment that's not quite Venice but owes a lot to last year's
Do you have any advice or tips for writers that can help them with research?
Lynn: I hate to admit this,
but organization helps. I have a computerized database of "stuff." (The
program I use is askSAM for Windows.) Whenever I encounter an article that
makes my ears wiggle, I give it a number, write a summary for my database and
put the article in a file cabinet. Searching the database is faster and easier
than trying to have a fancy filing system. Once I know that article 1389 has
the comet information I want, it's just a matter of flipping through the file
cabinet until I find it. (Or the bookshelves, because books are in there, too.)
When I started the database my computer was an Apple ][ and I was
storing the database on 5 1/4" floppies. My computer's a lot faster now and,
with a 60 gig hard-drive, conserving storage space is no longer an overriding
concern so, sometimes, I scan the whole article into the database or download it
from the Internet.
Nothing is too obscure for my interest... you just never know when some
quirk of science or history is going to prove useful. It's also true that the
act of creating a database record helps solidify my memory of the oddity I'm
preserving for future use.
In the last few years I've become more reliant on the Internet for
research. I'm addicted to Google. I Google everything from neighborhood
restaurants to deep historical questions, but I try not to rely on something
that I can only source to the Internet unless the source is impeccable -- a
university website or something similar. There's a lot of hearsay and worse out
on the Internet and, though, I write fiction, I like to think that my background
information is solid.
I operate on what I call a "10th grade standard" -- that is, if a
high-school sophomore reads, say, BEHIND TIME instead of her world history text
and faces a pop quiz on seventeenth century Paris the next morning, she's not
going to fail if she relies on what I wrote. I find this is a good benchmark
for how much evidence of research is enough in a fiction project.
C. J. Cherryh had the best answer to the
questions of what and when to research. She pointed out that there are two
professions where it's useful to know how to crack a safe... and only one of
them is legal. For a good fiction writer -- and that includes writers of SF and
Fantasy -- there is simply no such thing as useless research. I never pass up
an opportunity to learn how something is made or used. Even if it's something
that I won't likely use directly in my fiction, I'll pick up cues for craft and
attitude that I can incorporate into any invented background.
Tell us about your interest in Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Lynn: I got caught up in
Eleanor's story back in college when I first ran across her second husband,
Henry II. Optional reading for the course included Amy Kelley's "Eleanor and
the Four Kings," a book that's a little dated now, but still a good introduction
to the life of this amazing woman.
Eleanor would have been amazing no matter her century, but for the
twelfth century she was downright scary. The prevailing culture just didn't
have a pigeon-hole shaped to hold her. The powers-that-were spent half a
century trying to clip her wings. Henry put her under house arrest for twenty
years because, as skilled a king and emperor as he was, he couldn't rule his
lands once she declared her opposition to him. (One of the questions one has to
ask is how different the map of Europe would look today, if Henry had managed to
remain faithful to a woman who was, it must be acknowledged, a good fifteen or
so years older than him?)
Part of the fascination with Eleanor is that most of what's known about
her was preserved by those who considered her an abomination to the name of
womanhood, and just possibly in league with the devil himself. It's very hard
to reach through and find the real woman behind the propaganda. My guess is
that Katherine Hepburn came close enough in "The Lion in Winter," which ranks
among my favorite movies and without which no Christmas is complete. (Her line,
"How, from where we began, did we reach this Christmas?" has accurately
summed up a good many years of my own life.) I understand some bright light in
Hollywood has decided we need a new "Lion in Winter" and has cast Glenn Close as
Eleanor... I'll probably go see it, and probably wish I hadn't.
If all my dreams come true, I'll have a chance to write a straight-up
historical about Eleanor before senility sets in. It won't be an easy task...
the primary sources are hard to come by and my Latin's gotten very rusty over
the years. More likely, I'll figure out a way to capture her life "sideways,"
through a fantasy-laced book.
Would you like to explain about the little old lady from Schenectady?
Lynn: If you write, one of
the questions you're always trying to answer is, Where do you get your ideas?
And, if you write, you know how pointless a question this is and how difficult
it is to answer. You can try a serious answer, giving credit to the hard work
that underlies creativity and the need for maintaining a prepared mind; or you
can resort to sarcasm. One of the sarcastic answers in circulation is that as
authors we subscribe to a service run by a little old lady in Schenectady from
which we get a plain brown envelope filled with ideas at set intervals. Another
is that we get them by climbing to the top of the nearest steeple and casting a
baboon's knucklebones by moonlight.
The truth of the matter is that ideas are a writer's cheapest
commodity. If I never had another idea, I still couldn't write my way through
all the notions rattling around in my hindbrain this morning. Ideas aren't
magical; the only tricky part is holding on to one long enough to get it written
down. But neophyte writers tend to believe that there is something magical
about ideas and that if they can just get a hold of a good one, then their
futures are ensured.
Enter the Internet. Before I started writing I programmed mainframe
computers for a living, so, when the sudden buzz back in the mid-90s was
creating a personal website, I wanted to incorporate something a little extra.
This, of course, required chasing down an idea which turned out to be using a
pseudo-random number generator to mix up some standard fiction tropes and
present them as the idea-basis for a story.
It took me about three days to put the generator together, another day
to gussy it up as the "Schenectady Steeple." The telling irony is that will
work as advertised. A writer has to add a tremendous amount of imagination to
what the generator supplies, but if you're desperate for an IDEA to act as a
framework for your story, the Steeple will provide it. I've gotten e-mail
reports from writers' groups and English classes that have used the Steeple as
an exercise in story mechanics.
I think of it as my little contribution to Internet culture and the
demystification of the writing process.
Which do you prefer to write, short stories or novels, and where does editing
fit into the picture?
Lynn: Preference really has
nothing to do with it. I think in terms of novels. When I have an idea, it
goes from vague, cloudy notion to 100,000 words in a heartbeat. If I aim for a
short-story idea, I then get to spend the next portion of my life removing
90,000 words from what my imagination generated. Which is to say that, for me,
writing a short story is much, much harder than writing a novel. I wish I knew
how to imagine a short story, because I rather like the form, but they're
too time-consuming for me to write on a regular basis.
That said, from an editorial perspective, I can usually tell the
difference between a short story idea and a novel-length one when someone
describes the idea to me. Think of a dark room and a lightbulb coming on. A
short story idea focuses on the lightbulb, a novel idea focuses on the revealed
room. A good short-story writer has an instinct for sketching in just enough
background to ground the specific story.
If plot, setting, and character are the three elements of fiction, a
short-story writer is often a pole-sitter, and, like pole-sitting, short-story
writing requires an exquisite sense of balance. Novelists, frankly, can get
away with more. A novel can have a dull spot or two, because the reader has
made a different commitment.
I've read short stories that are as dense as a 19th century novel and
novels that really are short stories filled with a lot of helium. In the right
hands, both extremes can be commercially viable, though the over-expanded short
story is a riskier endeavor -- the literary equivalent of pixelation can occur
when a story is expanded beyond its "ideal" length and readers can feel cheated,
never a desirable thing.
A good editor -- and I don't claim to be one -- can deduce the "ideal"
elements of a writer's style and story and administer the necessary guidance to
trick the writer into revealing it.
You seem to like to write sets of books. Is this something you would suggest
for new writers?
Lynn: I write sets of
books, but I've also written a lot of orphans.
The attraction of books in sets is that once you've invested hundreds
of hours in creating a coherent universe your story's grown to around a
half-million words and can't be written as anything less than a trilogy. The
attraction of stand-alone material is that you'll never find yourself in the
situation where only the middle book of your trilogy is available from the
publisher. A compromise is to create your world and then set an open-ended
series of loosely connected stories there; this allows you to reuse your world
but, in theory, frees you from needing six inches of retail shelf space to make
My sense of the current marketplace is that the compromise position is
the safest course. Publishers want to know that there's a potential for "more,"
but are leery of the commitment necessary to promote a tightly interwoven
trilogy, at least for a newly acquired author.
What publications should your fans look for in the future?
Lynn: I'm trying to keep
busy. TAKING TIME, the third book about Emma Merrigan, was released by ACE in
April of this year (2004). They've got the manuscript for the fourth book, DOWN
TIME, but haven't given me a publication date; I suspect late 2004 or first
quarter 2005. I'm not sure if there's a fifth Emma book on the horizon. I'm
actually without an active ACE contract for the first time in my career and it's
a very strange feeling. I'm hopeful my agent can negotiate more Emma books, but
that's up in the air right now.
There's another Thieves' World anthology in the pipeline. ENEMIES OF
FORTUNE, featuring stories by C. J. Cherryh, Steven Brust, Dennis McKiernan, and
Robin Bailey among others, will hit the stands this December. I'm hopeful that
there'll be more TW anthologies. The situation's a little iffy right now. The
market's soft and Tor hasn't seen the numbers that it would like to see. But
I'm going to scramble for some licensing deals over the next few months. With
luck, we'll capture the elusive momentum and keep the stories rolling.
I've just concluded negotiations to resurrect Rifkind, the protagonist
from my first books, DAUGHTER OF THE BRIGHT MOON and BLACK FLAME. It's been a
long time since I've written old-fashioned sword and sorcery; I'm hoping it's
like riding a bicycle. The working title is RIFKIND'S CHALLENGE. She's back in
the Wet-Lands, determined to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a friend and
discovering that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It
promises to be a lot of fun. The manuscript is due in December, but I hope to
have it finished before them. A 2005 publication is likely, with Tor putting
out a hard-cover edition first, followed by the mass market nine months later.
I'm doing some world building in my spare time. I started with the
Italian Renaissance in general and Venice in particular and have been mixing in
other elements for the last several months. I've finished the first draft of
the "first act" of the story and turned it over to my agent for marketing. The
working title is CHASING FATE and so far the response has been good. If all
goes well, we'll have contracts by the end of this year and a book by some time
Thank you to Lynn for a wonderful Interview!
Check out information about Lynn
Abbey's work and her upcoming projects, as well as ISBN's and ordering
information for her books at her website: http://www.lynnabbey.com/