An Interview with Victoria Strauss
Interviewed by Lazette Gifford
©2004, Lazette Gifford
Strauss leads a double life as both a talented writer and a zealous writer's
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
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).
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.
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?
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 --
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?
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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
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.
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 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
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
Vision: What authors have influenced your
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
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).
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
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
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
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).
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
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!