Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Duology:
An Interview with Victoria Strauss

Interviewed by Lazette Gifford
©2004, Lazette Gifford


Photo of VictoriaVictoria Strauss leads a double life as both a talented writer and a zealous writer's advocate. 

Victoria's novels, such as The Burning Land, The Garden of Stone and The Arm of Stone, have provided readers with fantasy worlds rich in detail and diversity, as well as treating us to wonderful characters and exciting adventures.

As a writing advocate, Victoria Strauss has helped countless writers avoid the pitfalls of literary fraud through her Writer Beware warnings, which are now sponsored by the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America).

She graciously answered a few questions on both aspects of her work.

 

Vision: Tell us about your latest book, The Burning Land, and what inspired it.

Cover of The Burning LandVictoria: The Burning Land is the first half of a duology. Gyalo, the hero, is a priest-sorcerer sent by his church on a dangerous mission into the Burning Land, the desert where the god Ârata is believed to lie sleeping. Deep in the trackless wilderness, he finds a lost community of heretics, who guard a secret that suggests an ancient prophecy may have been fulfilled. He returns with news, along with a young woman named Axane who has defied her people's faith -- but his superiors are as threatened by his discoveries as the refugees were by his arrival, and he and Axane become unwitting pawns in the conflict that follows. The book asks the question: When you've been waiting for something for a very long time, do you want it when you get it? Or has it become more important to keep things as they are?

The idea for the book actually came from research for another project, about Hernando de Soto's expedition through the Southeastern United States in the mid-1500's (this novel never got written, but it's a really fascinating story and I'd like to return to it one day). I did some background reading on the Spanish incursion into South America, and was intrigued by the part that Hernan Cortez's completely coincidental resemblance to a figure of Aztec religious prophecy played in his conquest of Mexico. I stuck this idea away in a file, where it remained for many years until I dug it up for The Burning Land. The premise is a lot more complex than I originally planned, but the core idea -- an explorer who stumbles on an undiscovered community, and precipitates conflict and tragedy because of his accidental fulfillment of their religious expectations -- remains.

There's a feature on my website (www.victoriastrauss.com) about the research and planning that went into The Burning Land, including a lot of background information that didn't make it into the novel.

Vision: Since you have written both young adult and adult fantasy, what do you consider the differences between them?

Cover of Guardian of the HillsVictoria: The differences nowadays are fewer than they were when I was writing YA, back in the 1970's and ‘80's. Then, you had to be careful about how dark you made a story, and it was somewhat difficult to get away with a downbeat ending. There were also pretty strict length restrictions. All of that has eased in recent years, with a plethora of YA novels on very dark themes, and doorstoppers like the fourth Harry Potter book. You do need to need to keep your audience in mind with YA, and be conscious of what they will relate to: a younger protagonist, no long literary passages of inner monologue. But the level of imagination and commitment you bring to either kind of book is exactly the same.

Vision: Tell us about your educational background and how the study of religions has helped your writing.

Victoria: I traveled a lot as a child, and the emphasis was always on culture: museums, historical sites, ancient ruins, archaeological digs. I liked the idea of studying the origins of society, and my first plan in college was to major in anthropology. After a semester of learning about primate dentition, though, I rethought that plan and started looking around for something else. The study of religions seemed to combine everything that interested me: history, psychology, philosophy, art. So I wound up majoring in Comparative Religion.

I'm interested not just in what people believe, but in why they believe what they do and how they act on their belief. I'm also fascinated by the relativity of belief -- different people can in all sincerity interpret a religious doctrine or a piece of scripture in completely opposing ways -- and by the commonalities between religious traditions, all of which, I think, seek to address the same basic concerns about existence. And I'm interested in the difference between faith and its expression, especially the conflict that sometimes develops between the raw material of revelation and the religious institutions that grow up around it, whose self-interest can place them at odds with the faith they're supposed to guide.

The Arm of the StoneThese interests all play out in my books. My Stone duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) is about a powerful belief system that's not a religion but in many ways functions just like one, and reacts just as badly to challenge. In The Burning Land I use an invented religion (which intentionally echoes many real-world traditions) to take a look at a number of real-world issues that interest me: doubt, intolerance, the clash between faith and politics. (This is one of the reasons I love fantasy, by the way: it allows you to invent a setting to reflect the themes you want to explore.)

All of this makes my books sound awfully serious, which I suppose they are. But I definitely believe in entertainment (for me as a writer as well as for the reader!), and the serious themes are just one element of a mix that includes character-driven stories, action and adventure, unusual magics, and romance. Something for everyone, I hope.

Vision: Do you think having traveled extensively as a child helped you with your writing, say in developing cultural backgrounds for your stories?

Buy The Garden of the StoneVictoria: Absolutely. Whenever we visited historical sites, empty but for tourists, I'd people them in my imagination, trying to recapture the feeling of the life that must have gone on there -- it's quite similar to what I do now when I'm world building for a novel. Travel also taught me not to make cultural assumptions. The way you view the world is not necessarily how others view it. Being forced to learn this first-hand while living abroad has made it easier for me, I think, to enter into the often very different mindsets of the societies I make up.

Vision: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Has your career progressed the way you thought it would?

Victoria: I enjoyed writing little stories when I was young (and illustrating them too, with really embarrassing results), but it never occurred to me to think of writing as more than a hobby. I didn't discover my writing vocation until I was 17, and started writing a novel more or less on impulse (I wanted an excuse to take a year off between high school and college). I never expected to finish it -- but I did, and by the time I was done I knew that writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Has my career progressed as I thought it would? I honestly think that any writer who says "yes" to this question is lying, at least a little bit. You can control the diligence you bring to writing, and the persistence you bring to submitting, but the basic realities of the industry and of your own talent are beyond your command, and whatever ambitions you may start out with, a large part of a writing career consists of adjusting your expectations. Writing is a realm of dreams, but it exists in the context of a very hard, un-dreamy reality -- and while a smart writer will dream, she will also take intelligent stock of the industry and adapt as needed.

I realize I just dodged your question, by the way! In many ways my career has not gone as I expected. I thought I'd have more books written by this time. I hoped (as I'm sure any writer hopes) that I'd be better known. On the other hand, I never imagined I'd be part of the vibrant and exciting SF/fantasy community, or that I'd become a writer's advocate, or that I'd be lucky enough to be able to write full-time. It's a different balance than the one I thought I'd have at this point in my life -- but it's a good balance and I'm happy with it.

Vision: Has your mother's background as a published author helped you, either with inspiration or in a more hands-on sense?

Victoria: My mother published one novel, and then decided that a career as a novelist wasn't for her. Really, what she should have been is an editor -- she has impeccable editorial instincts. From the time I wrote my first novel, she has been my first and best reader. I totally trust her insight. She's the only person who sees my books while they're still in progress.

Vision: What authors have influenced your writing?

Victoria: That is such a hard question! There have been so many, at different times in my life -- from the authors I read as a child (T.S. White, Elizabeth Goudge, E. Nesbit, and all of Andrew Lang's fairy books) to the ones I discovered as a teenager (Thomas Hardy, Mary Renault, Jean Genet, and a whole range of SF/fantasy writers, from Harlan Ellison to Anne McCaffrey) to the very eclectic reading I do as an adult, which right now consists mainly of SF/fantasy, mystery, and a bit of mainstream. My favorite recent read is a wonderful fantasy by Ian R. MacLeod called The Light Ages. I don't often read a book that completely bowls me over, but this one did.

Vision: Do you think the success of the Lord of the Rings movies has helped or hindered the genre?

Victoria: I certainly don't think it will hinder the genre. It will probably give birth to a rash of imitators, as the Harry Potter books have done, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I hope it will help SF/fantasy moviemaking. The LOTR movies are extraordinary not just because they're superior works of craftsmanship, but because they take the genre seriously. It would be nice if that sparked an upgrade in the caliber of SF/fantasy films -- most of which, it has to be said, are pretty wretched once you get past the FX. I kind of doubt it will help SF/fantasy publishing, though. A large part of the audience for the movies was LOTR fans -- i.e., they were already readers -- and for those that weren't, there doesn't seem to be a lot of crossover between film audiences and book audiences, apart from media tie-ins.

Vision: Are there common mistakes you see new writers making? What suggestions would you give them?

Victoria: From my perspective as a writer's advocate, the mistake I see most often is that new writers don't take enough time at the outset to educate themselves about the publishing industry. Not only does this hamper their efforts to submit effectively, it makes it more likely that they'll get mixed up with questionable agents or publishers. Even writers who do know something about publishing often don't adequately research the agents and publishers they approach. Knowledge is your best tool and your most effective defense. Learn as much as you can before plunging into the quest for publication.

Vision: How has writing changed who you are or how you see the world? Are there themes that matter most to you?

Victoria: At this point I can't remember what it was like not to be writing, and my identity as a writer is so integral to my outlook on the world that I can't separate them. I do know that when I see something that really strikes or impresses or scares me, I feel compelled to put it into words, even if just inside my head -- which probably is not an impulse that's common in non-writers! And I think not only in images but in whole sentences (which doesn't help my insomnia, when I wake up in the middle of the night with dialogue going through my mind).

I think the theme that concerns me most is the relativity of perception. One person's belief is another person's heresy. Two people, witnessing the same event, will tell completely different stories (one of my favorite movies is Rashomon, in which one incident is seen from several viewpoints). Apparent villains have very good reasons for what they do, and apparent heroes may be selfish and egotistical. I try to explore ambiguities like these in my books: to present several different viewpoints with equal authenticity, and challenge the reader to make up his or her own mind.

Vision: You devote a great amount of time to helping other writers.  What made you decide to create Writer Beware?

Victoria: People often ask me if I started Writer Beware because I was scammed. (For those who aren't familiar with the site, it's a compendium of warnings about common literary scams and pitfalls, sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.) I never was scammed -- by and large, my experiences have been positive. But I was fairly ignorant when I began to seek publication (I didn't follow my own advice, above), and while scams weren't anywhere close to as common as they are now, it was luck as much as anything else that prevented me from falling into questionable hands.

The world of literary fraud really began to expand in the 1990's, in response to the conglomeration of the publishing industry and editors' increasing reliance on agents to filter the slush. (I also think the rising popularity of the PC -- which makes it so very easy to produce a clean manuscript, as opposed to writing in longhand or struggling with typescript -- played a part, by increasing the number of aspiring writers.) Around the time I first went online, in the mid 1990's, several major scams were just beginning to implode, in part through writers' sharing of their experiences on the Internet: scam book doctor Edit Ink, fraudulent vanity publishers Northwest Publishing and Commonwealth Publications, and the notorious Deering Literary Agency with its satellite vanity publisher Sovereign Publications. I was at first fascinated, and then angered, by this shadow-industry of scammers, which I'd never suspected existed. When I saw a call on the SFWA website for a volunteer to create a cautionary resource on literary fraud, I jumped at the chance

Writer Beware includes sections on literary agents, book doctors (a.k.a. independent editors), vanity publishers, print on demand, contests, copyright, e-publishing, and more. In addition to maintaining the website (which is updated at least quarterly with new information and links), we collect complaints and documentation on questionable agents, publishers and others. Right now we have files on more than 350 agents, nearly 200 publishers, and assorted editors, contests, and services. It's the largest and most complete database of its kind in the world, and we use it to provide information not just to writers who contact us with questions (we get upwards of 50 letters a week), but to law enforcement officials, with whom we're currently at work on several ongoing investigations.

Vision: Do you think the internet has been a boon or boondoggle to writers?

Victoria: Both. It's an incredible boon to research -- it's just amazing, the resources that exist online -- and also to communication. For a long time in my writing life, I knew no one who was engaged in any sort of creative pursuit at all; it wasn't until I went online that I began to make friends with other writers, and to find great writers' communities like Forward Motion. The Internet also provides a wealth of marketing opportunities for writers that never existed before, such as writers' websites (though the Internet is not, as some people want you to believe, a substitute for traditional book promotion).

But...and this is a big but...the Internet is also chock-full of misinformation. If you're looking for an agent, for instance, you shouldn't start with the Internet, because you're too likely to run across questionable agents or outdated listings (a good print guide is a better source). The Internet also fosters a lot of damaging writers' myths -- for instance, that publishers are only looking for cookie-cutter clones of the latest bestsellers, or that successful agents won't consider first-time writers, or that agents and editors are just waiting to steal your work. None of this is true, but you wouldn't know it from the discussion you see in many writers' forums. And the amount of wrong advice about complicated issues like copyright is truly mind-boggling. Plus, numerous writers' scams flourish online. The key to using the Internet successfully is to be careful and selective, and resist taking as final any single opinion you find online (including this one!).

Vision: Since you are a full time writer, can you tell us what your average work day is like? Do you write every day?

Victoria: Not every day -- I need at least one day a week of down time, to recharge the batteries and catch up with the rest of my life. But I do try to write at least five days a week, and usually six.

I get up fairly early, and take about an hour to drink tea and come to awareness (I am not a morning person!) I spend the morning revising what I wrote the day before, or working on other writing projects such as book reviews or this interview.  Around noon I take a break for exercise -- I walk or run most days of the week -- and lunch. I return to writing in the afternoon and continue till 8:00 or 9:00pm, usually with another break to cook and eat dinner. I then spend an hour or two online, catching up on correspondence and visiting my favorite websites. This is my ideal schedule, and I can't always keep to it -- often something intervenes, like an unforeseen emergency or (gasp) housework. But come what may, I try to spend at least three to four hours a day writing.

Vision: What do you have coming out that we should look for? What sort of things do you plan, or hope, to write in the future?

Victoria: Right now I'm working on the sequel to The Burning Land, as yet untitled. Hopefully it will be coming out sometime in 2005. After that, I have a number of ideas I'm batting around, including a third, unrelated book set in the world of The Burning Land, based on a historical incident that's mentioned in the novel. I'd also love to do some more YA, and I'm working up some ideas for a standalone novel.

Vision: Thank you for taking this time for this interview. Any last words you'd like to say to our readers?

Victoria: I love to hear from readers and other writers, so please come on over to my website (www.victoriastrauss.com) and drop me a line if you feel so inclined. Thanks for the chance to "talk" -- it's been fun!