Victoria Goddard is a writer of literary fantasy. She is a keen gardener, an inveterate book collector, and has a PhD in Medieval Studies (focusing on Dante and Boethius) from the University of Toronto. She currently lives in a cozy farmhouse in the Canadian Maritimes with three dogs, three cats, various poultry, and a wildly exuberant garden. Her website is victoriagoddard.ca.
Hi, Victoria. You’re a Canadian fantasy author, best known for the Nine Worlds series. Could you tell me a little about your background?
Sure – I’m Victoria Goddard. My family is British extraction. My dad was raised in England and my mom in Canada, and they actually met when they were in both teaching in Papua New Guinea, an island north of Australia. They lived there for about ten years, and my older sister was born there. I was born in Canada, but they were still working down in Papua New Guinea for a couple of years afterwards. So I grew up with stories of Papua New Guinea and living there. And then when they came back to Canada, we lived up in northern Canada and a whole bunch of different places. I grew up jumping around mostly northern Canada until I was a teenager, and then after that, further south in Canada. And so I got a lot of experience living in small, remote communities coming from away. I now live now in the Canadian Maritimes, but having experienced the breadth of the world, even if it was mostly Canadian, gave me an interest in other cultures.
I did an undergraduate degree in Ottawa in humanities – the Western classical literature, basically, and philosophy: a lot of literature, a lot of philosophy, some history, languages. And then I went on and did a master’s degree and then a PhD in medieval studies.
So that’s pretty much my background: I like travelling. I like places. I like learning languages – I’m better at learning to read them than speak them, but I’m working on that. And I suppose I’ve always been quite interested in that interplay between the Western traditions of fantasy and non-Western cultures and how they have their own stories and histories, and the vividness and the beauty of lots of other places. I am really interested in exploring those through my writing.
It absolutely shows. It sounds like you grew up hearing stories about the anthropologists’ paradise because Papua New Guinea and the Pacific is where Malinowski and all these great classics of anthropology were written. And at the same time, you have a strong education in the Western classical tradition.
Absolutely. My parents are both in education. They’re teachers, and they actually built the first high school on the Trobriand Islands, which is where Malinowski did most of his original research. They always used to joke that a family in the Trobriand Islands was mom, dad, the kids, and an anthropologist – that was the joke that people had in the villages. I grew up with a lot of stories just about that, because they lived there for so long – there were stories about living there and also that tension between being from away and being from a dominant culture, but being very interested in and very thoughtful about and working primarily with indigenous cultures. My parents later on did a huge amount of work with Canadian First Nations peoples and Inuit and Northern Canadian peoples, the Dene and the Cree in particular.
So there was that kind of tension. I’m from the dominant culture, specifically British English cultural background – that’s where my family’s from. But also, we spent so much time and working in those communities. And a lot of my parents’ work was explicitly intended to be transitional from the colonial to self-governance, specifically self-governance in the field of education. And so that point of that transition is something that I just grew up hearing stories about and that was their work and I continued to be interested in it.
Transitional states are so interesting for writers, aren’t they?
Yes – I have a strong interest in gardening and a kind of minor interest in ecology and botany, and edges are very fruitful parts of ecosystems. Where you’re in between the two sides. I think creatively that’s also the case.
The whole concept of being home and being from a place that you’re deeply attached to is not my own personal experience. I grew up all over these places and didn’t really have a central home. But my dad has a sense of where he’s from in England and my mom not so much. That tension is also something I just find really interesting, talking to friends who have been in one place for their entire lives. That’s so strange to me, that idea that you could live in the same house for 20 years.
So the concept of it is really fruitful – being kind of from the edges in some ways, not really culturally, but personally in my life and how I grew up, because we moved around every couple of years. Always starting over new in a new place, getting a sense of what they’re like and related cultures, but not always the same. Even if in Canada, the difference between being in Alberta and being in Nova Scotia is distinct. There’s a difference. There’s exploring.
That’s definitely a strong, recurring theme in your books. You once went on a quite long trip through England, some time ago. Were you looking for your roots, your parents roots, or was it a cultural thing? Because Britain, its culture, its folklore, is fascinating. Or was it both things?
It was both. I was not really searching for my roots there because I didn’t actually go really anywhere close to where my family is from. That was the year I decided not to follow an academic path. I was really moving towards saying, “I’m going to focus on writing”. I’d tried doing both because obviously being an academic and writing novels on the side is a time-honoured tradition, right? That’s a clear path that people follow. I was really just at that point deciding that, no, I didn’t really want to chase academic jobs around North America. There weren’t very many in my field. You spend five or ten years doing sessional work and basically building up till you get to a more permanent location. And I thought to myself, if I’m going to spend the next five or ten years doing lots of work that I’m not being well paid for, I might as well do it in the field I actually want to succeed in, which is novel writing, as opposed to the one that is sort of something I really like but wasn’t as close to my heart.
That walk across England had been something I’d wanted to do for a long time. When I was in undergrad and I was doing my Bachelor of Humanities degree in liberal arts with a minor in classics, everyone was like, “what in Earth are you going to do with that?” I got so upset about that question and I finally said, “You know what, I’m going to write novels and walk around the world”. That was what I used to tell people. That was what I was going to do with my degree – I was going to walk around the world. So I saved up money and I just went and did that. I only really walked through England, and at the end of that period, I was ready to go home for a bit. And I was running out of money!
I built my route combining a few places I’d always wanted to go to, like Lindisfarne and the White Horse of Uffington. I worked on farms in exchange for room and board, and stayed with people my parents knew, relatives and friends. England has a fantastic network of footpaths and long-distance trails and there was this really great website where you could just click on the trails and see what connected to them. So that was what I did.
It was really a transitional year for me. I was exploring, and I was practising telling people I was a writer when they asked me what I did. It took me the entire six months to say that. It’s really hard at that beginning stage where you have it in your heart – you’ve written a book and maybe a few short stories, and you’re working on it but there’s no external success yet. You’re just looking at it and being like, do I dare to say that that’s what I’m doing? So it was important for me as a claiming kind of thing, but it was fantastic in terms of the experience too.
I’m so glad I did it. I’d love to go back to certain places – I’d love to do another long distance walk one day, especially having a little bit more money so you can stay in slightly nicer places. Back then I would see the expensive private castles and go, “Do I want to pay £30? I don’t know if I want to pay £30 to go into that castle.” Maybe I should have, I don’t know. I probably missed it.
Next time! As someone who did a PhD in philosophy and then became a translator to pay the bills, I wish I’d done that. Just take a year off and go and walk the Great Wall of China. Something like that.
That’s a cool one! Yes, I’d done my degree, I had a job – a three-year position, pretty much the ideal job for me, and I liked it a lot. I really loved elements of it, and that was still not enough for me. And that was really helpful because I had the ideal job and I still felt, “You know what? I’m not sure this is enough”. I love teaching. I quite like lecturing and I like one-on-one teaching a lot. But the big thing that I realised was that I just don’t have a strong critical response in the academic sense. I read the books, I study them, and what I want to do is write a book. I want to go write a novel that somehow answers what I’ve been thinking about.
For example, I’ll be thinking about form and structure in Dante, and my response to it is creative, not critical, and I really struggled with coming up with the academic papers that I was required to. Every once in a while, I’ll come up with an essay idea, but they don’t come naturally to me in the way that stories do. And that was quite a realisation for me. I think if I’d been in a period where there were a tonne of jobs and there were lots of open positions, I might not have seen that. But given how few jobs there were, and you’re looking at it and it’s really competitive, it’s really hard.
You knew you wanted to be a writer from a fairly early age. When did you start writing creatively?
Creatively? Pretty much when I was around twelve or thirteen. We had a couple assignments in school, write a short story kind of thing. I think that was the first one I really wrote. I remember really quite distinctly there was a book I read, when I was about twelve, and I think that was when it really occurred to me that people wrote books and that was where they came from. I read this book and I was like, “I could do better than this”. And then I attempted to write one. Which is when you discover quite quickly that writing a book that makes any sense whatsoever is a lot harder than it looks.
So I was about 12 when I realised that’s what I wanted to do. “I want to write books, I basically want to live in the country and have dogs and possibly poultry in a big garden and write books”. It’s taken me a while, but I got there.
You’re living the dream! Your academic training didn’t run to waste, though, because your writing , as I see it, is obviously so informed by your training as medievalist. You have talked about this in your conversation about fealty with Alexandra Rowland. But I’m particularly interested in the form and structure of your books, because they’re baggy in the best possible way. There’s a lot of worldbuilding in them, but they don’t follow the conventions of plot in the way we would expect of a classically constructed 19th-century novel, like Madame Bovary. Is this deliberate? Do you think it comes from your training as a medievalist? Because it reminded me quite a lot of the medieval romances and that sort of literature.
I remember reading an article some years ago which I’ve never been able to find again – I think it may have been by Debra Doyle. She wrote an essay about how she reckoned that modern fantasy novels are not novels in the 19th century tradition at all, they’re romances in the medieval tradition. I have thought about that quite a lot and I think I agree with it in many cases. I think fantasy is a mode rather than a genre, really, despite marketing, so it really depends on what branch of it you’re looking at. Some of them follow novel constructions extremely clearly, and some forms don’t. You have the epic quest format, which is obviously very popular in many branches of fantasy, and the mystery and romance ones in urban fantasy are storylines that are also usually very novel-like. But I’ve always liked the weird ones, to be honest.
I like stories that don’t quite tend to follow those formats. I think that comes from having grown up reading a lot of the classic 20th-century fantasy novels. I was always really interested in what happens behind the scenes, what is happening after the end, after they get home, or what are the conversations they’re having while they’re on their quest? All those things, the life that happens around the structure of the quest or whatever, or the mystery, those are the questions that have always really interested me.
In fact, in Till Human Voices Wake Us, my first book, which I rewrote a lot, I was already doing that – I very clearly moved what is normally the dramatic finale into the middle of the story, so you can see the aftereffects of all the choices that led up to it. It’s just something I find really interesting.
Having studied medieval studies rather than English literature specifically, I haven’t read that many of the great 19th century novelists. It’s one of those things that I always feel like I need to go back to – I’m very well read in other areas, but that one isn’t one of them. Whereas I’ve read more of the 18th-century novelists – Don Quixote and Henry Fielding and Victor Hugo and people like that – these big baggy forms, strange novels that are full of all these digressions and weirdnesses and stuff like that. And I think at some level I just really love those – I love that kind of portmanteau stories where all the stuff gets stuffed in and there’s a lot of attention given to these other parts of life. That’s something I love.
So that combines with an interest in form and how form plays off against content, which is what I did my PhD – how you can use poetic form to make philosophical points. That’s what I was looking at. And I think as I get better at the craft of writing, that’s something that’s going to be coming out more. I was more conscious of that with my last book. I’ve been studying more narratology, the structure of narratives.
Could you tell me a little more about your thesis? Because it sounds fascinating.
It’s called Poetry and Philosophy in Boethius and Dante. Boethius wrote On the Consolation of Philosophy in the prosometric style, a kind of poetry and prose back and forth within an allegorical framework. Part of the reason why he wrote it that way was to represent ways of knowing in the structure of the text. As you’re reading through the text, it keeps coming back to the same questions and the same points again, but in different, fuller understandings. The first answers are not wrong, but they’re made better and truer as you get more context and understand it better. The two great questions of the Consolation are ‘What is human happiness?’ And the answer is ‘Coming home to God.’ And then the question is ‘Well, how do you get there?’ That second question isn’t answered in the text. It’s left unanswered and it’s implied that it’s prayer and some sort of religious motion. Because that’s outside the limits that Boethius had set for himself in that text.
I just had one of those intuitive moments when I was reading The Divine Comedy and thinking, “you know what? This just feels the same – it feels as if it’s asking something similar as Boethius.” So I decided to study two of the biggest authors in the Middle Ages. Everyone was like, you maybe need to study somebody smaller that doesn’t have two entire aisles in the library about them. I was like, “well, that’s fair, but I want to study that. Nobody else is doing this.”
I wrote a whole section about these 12th-century people writing imitations, creating deliberate responses to Boethius and the Consolation of Philosophy. And I just pointed out why they’re not doing the same thing – it looks like they’re doing the same thing, but they’re not. Whereas Dante, who doesn’t look like it, is actually doing the same thing – and I still feel very confident about this argument of mine. If you look at all the poetic imagery and all of the philosophical points that Boethius makes, Dante picks all of them and rearranges them into The Divine Comedy. Every single image gets picked up and taken in. And what he says in the direct quotations and direct allusions and things like that is all about coming to know things truly. And I think Divine Comedy in some ways is an answer to that. What is human happiness and how do we get there? That’s the point of the Comedy. And you can see that structurally.
Basically, my argument was that you can see that in the relationship between what Dante wrote about Boethius in his earlier works and how he treated Boethius later. And what he did with Virgil in The Divine Comedy as well. That’s how I read it.
That answer informs my writing in a lot of ways. Including in things like series writing, where every once in a while you go back and you’re like, “oh man, I made a mistake there. I shouldn’t have said that. Why did I write it that way?” And just going back and doing a revised edition where you fix it – that’s false. That’s not a good response. That’s not fair to anybody. You have to come up with something that makes sense. Inside the world, you have to make a bigger, more complete context for it, that makes it cooler. And that’s so much fun in terms of worldbuilding. Writing that is such a challenge.
Those sort of mistakes you make, I find, often end up with the most rich and delightful kinds of things out of them because it’s mimicking the intransigence of the real world, right? In the same way in which there is something that’s there, it’s really there in the real world. You have to incorporate it into your arguments somehow. If you want to talk about how physics works, you have to talk about sunspots or whatever. They have to be answered for in your philosophy, in your arguments. The same thing applies in fiction. If I’ve said in book one that one character’s eyes are this colour, and in book two, they’re a different colour, what happened? Why are they different colours? There has to be some reason for that. And being a fantasy novelist, often the answer can be magic. But you still have to think about that magic in a way that’s not cheating.
I was going to ask about your worldbuilding because, as you said, you’re so interested in exploring the world, the context outside the straight lane of the plot, so to speak. And from what you’re saying, your world wasn’t fully developed fully from the start. Has it developed as you went along? Or does it feel more similar to what Michelangelo said about sculpting, that it was just the process of taking away what was…?
Everything that wasn’t the shape.
I’ve often thought about that line, actually. I don’t think that’s quite fair, having looked more into what Michelangelo actually did. He went to the quarry and said, “I want that block”. He was involved in picking the shape of the marble as well as carving the thing out.
I’ve often thought that what I need to do as a fantasy novelist is build the marble first and then take away what’s not the shape. So you’re doing both steps of it.
My worldbuilding is, I guess, pretty organic. My main characters, in particular Fitzroy and Raphael – I’ve been thinking about them in their world and what happened since I was a teenager. I’ve actually been working within my Nine Worlds, as I came to call it, since I was about 13 or 14- So at one level, I’ve been spending a huge amount of time on worldbuilding. I’ve thought about it for a long time. But for me, it’s been very character-developed – I kind of follow characters and that opens up worlds to me. And there is always that sense of discovery, like it’s something that’s already there, even though I know I’m also making it up. There’s a back and forth with that where you really feel like you’re uncovering something.
Every once in a while, I’ll read a book about salt, or memory technique,s, or something, and then suddenly it all just opens up from that, and you’re like, “of course that’s what that is”. And then there you go. It feels like it’s always been there.
George Eliot used the metaphor of bringing a lamp close to a mirror, and all the scratches on the surface will seem to radiate, to circle around that lamp because of course that’s where the light is. It’s your focus that makes everything converge.
That makes sense. I was just going to say, I remember distinctly deciding at some point that I wanted a really flexible narrative universe. Almost all my stuff fits in the Nine Worlds. I have one science fiction story that’s sort of off by itself and one that could be technically in the real world, and then everything else is within the context of the Nine Worlds. Even when I have something that seems quite separate for me, there are always some underlying connection between them.
I remember that I was so surprised when Shakespeare turned up within that universe!
I know. That was a case where sometimes I wonder, Why did I decide to do that? And it was because it made sense to me at the time.
Talking about Fitzroy – he’s a poet, and poetry plays a very important role in your narrative. I find there’s a tension between the narrative form, on the one hand and the lyrical or the epic form, on the other. It plays a particularly significant role in your latest book, At the Feet of the Sun, but it also appears in your other series, which is more 18th-century-inspired. You even have architectural poetry there, which I was really intrigued by. Could you tell me a bit about that?
I’m an exploratory writer as opposed to a didactic writer, I think. So I’m kind of telling myself things as I write. I don’t usually start with a principle or something I want to convey. With The Hands of the Emperor, I wanted to write about a friendship that was as important as a romantic relationship and then explore that. But that was about as far as I went. That was pretty much what I wanted in terms of a point. everything else just kind of came out from following out who these characters are and what they might be and exploring that more.
You succeeded spectacularly, if I may say so.
Thank you! I really enjoyed it. I write for myself and to explore things for myself and just to play around with the worlds and follow the characters where they go.
Regarding poetry – I that it’s really important. I think art in general is incredibly important and can really shape us. Poetry and literature have hugely shaped my life and my understanding of myself and my place in the world and how I think about the world and relate to it. And I just wanted to really celebrate that in my books, I guess, and I enjoy that. I think in some ways I’m a frustrated poet, the tight narrative lyric is not for me, but I wish it was in some ways. And that’s why I write people who are poets and have that sort of response to poetry.
Jemis studies and analyses poetry in the Greenwood and Dart books. I spent a lot of time doing that as my doctorate, so I thought, “why can’t that be a skill that’s useful? Let’s make it relevant here”. But it’s also fun because he’s not studying it for a purpose. In some ways, there’s lot of that in the Greenwing and Dart books – that tension between studying something for the love of it and its use. And then the uses that you come up with even though you weren’t studying them for a practical, utilitarian purpose. I think that’s kind of partly there. And poetry – it’s just a love of it. I really enjoy it. Probably for me it’s a bit of a synecdoche for the whole of human creativity.
I found it really interesting because in At the Feet of the Sun, I felt that at one point, the poetry, the lays, took over narrative, and I thought “this has stopped being a novel for a moment. This has stopped being a novel and turned into something else.” And then I realised that a novel can be all of these things – you don’t have to follow a strict form. I found that fascinating, and it worked fantastically well for me, this blurring of lines. In fact, what attracted me about your writing is that you blur so many things so consistently and it works so well. Things that in principle shouldn’t work do work. And I think it’s because, as you say, your writing is very organic. Your worldbuilding is very organic, and shows the possibilities of the form and the genre.
Thank you! I know I’ve had a few people comment that they didn’t like that whole bit in the middle, and that’s all right. You don’t have to like everything.
I think this does go back to, again, my love of those early modern novels right before the crystallisation of the genre – those big, vast, unwieldy things with all of these bits in them. But it’s also something that I loved, having studied Boethius and Dante specifically, who are both writers who use a lot of subsidiary forms, in their works. I’m sure it comes out through my subconscious creative process. Because you can’t spend six years of your life intensively looking at how you can relate formal structure to the overall purpose of a book without that somehow coming in into yourself.
I think At the Feet of the Sun, at one level, maps very nicely onto the hero’s journey. At one point towards the end of the process, I was talking with a friend, and this friend basically pulled out Joseph Campbell and mapped out all his points onto the book. But I didn’t do that on purpose. I know that method, right? That’s something I’ve spent a lot of time reading and studying and being interested in. And that was such a clear kind of underlying plot or structure.
I just read the introduction to a book called Meander Spiral Explode, which is about basically about story structures that are not the kind of triangular rising-falling action structure. And just the concept made me realise that At the Feet of the Sun is a book of waves. It’s made up of five waves that crest at the end of each part. That was how I pictured it, that was how the action moves in this story. And it obviously fits thematically with a lot of things. That was something I was doing more consciously in that book. I usually write for quite some time and let the story become what it wants to be. And then in the revision process, which happens at different points in the writing, I see what I’ve written and then try and make it more that. As much as I can, I let the story be what it wants to be, and then I go back and try and bring it more or less together into a formal structure.
I would like to talk about your writing and revising process later on, if that’s all right. But I wanted to ask you now – I imagine, given the sort of novels you write and the structures they have, they won’t exactly fit marketing boxes very well, knowing what agents want and what publishers want. Your work is not something that can be neatly labelled. You publish your own books. How did you make that decision? Did you decide to do that from the start, was it a decision you came to, or how did it happen?
When I first finished Till Human Voices Wake Up, I did submit it to a couple of places and reached out to a number of agents. I had pretty reasonable responses for a first book, namely, maybe write us, send us your second book, that kind of thing. Which is pretty much fair enough. But I had a friend who actually worked in a major publishing house at that point, and we had a chat about how it worked. And she told me. “You know, Victoria, marketing plays such a huge role, even if it’s not a book that fits into it, because people want to order something they can sell, because they’re businesses”. And I thought, yeah, that’s fair. There has always been self-publishing of one form or another, but at that time, in 2012, 2013, it was exploding. The Kindle had become really dominant, and there were many more tools available than there had been previously.
One of my writing friends was really into it and she was just a little bit further ahead in the process than I was. So I started to think seriously about self-publishing, and basically it came down to a couple of things. One was that I’m highly unlikely to ever write stuff that actually does fit in the boxes. I knew that about myself, right? That wasn’t what I wanted. None of the stuff was coming out that way – it wasn’t going to be like that. Even when I try to write a cosy, funny, Regency-esque fantasy mystery, it goes sideways by the end of the book and kind of goes off into its own thing, which is Greenwing and Dart. I just don’t really work very well in those structures. I’m sure if I tried hard, I would be eventually able to fit myself into them, but I didn’t want to. So I thought, “You know what? There are other options here”. I also knew that it would cost somebody $50,000 to $100,000 to produce a book in mass market publishing. I asked myself, would I put $100,000 into this book? And the answer was no, I wouldn’t. That was not a good business bet. I love my books, but they’re not going to earn out anything like that. Very unlikely, unless you somehow hit the cultural zeitgeist. So that was one element of it, the fact that these are kind of weird niche books.
And then the second part of it was a combination of artistic integrity and also awareness of how publishing works as a business with intellectual property. I had always wanted to write interconnected series and stories of different sorts that crossed over and had lots of shared characters. I did not want to lose any of those rights to any of those characters, nor did I really want to have other people responsible for publishing one series. I didn’t want to lose that control.
So for me it was the combination of those two things together with the rise of the ability to do it fairly inexpensively and effectively- Plus I was just interested – I did quite a bit of manuscript studies as sort of a side thing in my PhD. Having studied manuscripts and how they work, I was quite interested in how you do layout and stuff like that. I also thought about the marketing side of things. My plan, such as it was, was to keep writing these stories that slowly interconnected. I knew from the start that they were going to connect eventually. It’s only recently that their crossovers have become more obvious. So I felt that I needed to be consistent. I thought people who liked my work would like all of it and if they didn’t like it, they probably wouldn’t like any of it. So hopefully I would be able to gradually build an audience that liked one of my stories and would then go on to the other ones because they’re connected. That was my plan, and publishing myself lets me be in control of that.
For most writers these days, even those who are traditionally published, it’s very difficult to make a living just from writing. It’s usually the case, in many creative professions, that you do something to pay the bills and then you pursue your passion – I have dancer friends and artist friends who do something else as a day job and then pursue their art. How have you managed this aspect? Because you have had quite interesting careers in your life. You owned a cheese company, I believe?
Yes, I did for a while. It’s one of those things I always liked on authors’ bios on their books, where they had all this list of random jobs and I thought that was more fun than having a single job your whole life. But that’s a personality thing.
Yes, I did a few things and then basically I had a business selling cheese at a local farmers market. I didn’t make the cheese. I always have to explain that to people – I just sold the cheese, I was a retailer, and that was basically what I did. I live in a location with a fairly cheap cost of living. And that was enough to pay the bills and let me build up my writing and have enough time to work on writing, which is something I really wanted. For a number of reasons – partly due to Alexandra Rowland, who had a bigger Twitter following, finding my books and telling people about them – I suddenly went up a level in terms of readership and therefore income. But I was building up to a point and that really got me into the right audience. This last year I’ve been able to go writing full time and hopefully I will be able to keep doing that.
Thank you. I’m very pleased about this. And I think a large part of it came from the fact that I had a business plan. The cheese company was great because it helped me to learn how to run a small business. And that was invaluable, I have to say. When you start reading about people making their living at writing long-term, there are two things that come up again and again. One is persistence, which is necessary for any field, especially artistic ones, and the second one is good business practices. They keep coming around to that. Patricia Wrede, who is one of my favourite authors, said in an article that she felt that the best education she ever got was her business degree. Now I can see that, because so much of it is decisions – artistic decisions are on one side as the writer and what you’re writing and what you’re excited about, and then there’s the rest of life, which you somehow have to manage in a practical fashion. I found it really helpful for that. And I also I had help from my supportive family, which helped too.
That always helps. Artists do tend to focus on inspiration and craft, but you need to eat at the end of the day, so you need to manage that. It seems like a very mundane thing, but it’s what supports you, ultimately. So it’s good to have a head for that separately from your artistic head, so to speak.
It is, and it’s important and it’s something I’ve occasionally struggled with. But I live somewhere with a pretty cheap cost of living, which helps a considerable amount. If I lived in a big city, it would be different. So that’s one element, honestly, having a plan. I made actual business plans, which are very difficult to do with writing because you have no idea, and I’m following them out. I did this workshop that my province held for people who wanted to work on small businesses. And they’re all looking at me going, are you even planning any of that stuff? And I was, what are my sales going to be like in six months? Who has a clue? I don’t know! But I thought, if it’s this, then I can do that. If it’s that, I can do this. I’d done enough research to know the pattern. If you keep digging for it, there’s quite a bit of discussion available about means of discoverability, how many works you need to get out in order to start hitting new levels. Usually it’s somewhere between 15 and 20 solid books, novels and novellas, but also short stories.
Somewhere in that range is when there’s a lot more organic discoverability. You probably have enough of an audience who likes your stuff that they’re telling people and you’re getting word of mouth out. And indeed, I feel like I was at 17 items when I knew it was going to happen at some point. I could see that sales were going up, that there was more interest, that people were starting to pay attention. I felt something was going to happen. And I was prepared because of what I write and the way I had planned it with the kind of interconnecting stuff. I thought something was going to take off at some point and hopefully lift everything else with it. Which is what happened.
You have to be prudent enough not to give in to the temptation of throwing everything as soon as you have an increase in sales. No, you have to wait a year and make sure that you actually have a sustainable base and pay off debt and all that kind of stuff. That kind of practical stuff. People don’t always talk about it, but it’s very important.
At one point you will have to leave off something and you have to be willing to take a risk when it’s time. I had to focus on my other business just to make it through COVID, which I did. And then I had a very nice year, the second year, because people were really supporting local food and weren’t going anywhere. My main customer base, the people who want fine cheese, are the people who travel places, and they weren’t traveling anywhere, so they were happily buying fine cheese instead. But that business wanted to grow. The way I’d structured it, it was coming to a point where it either had to sell it to somebody else or I had to expand it, and the writing was doing the same thing and I just couldn’t handle two businesses at the same time. There comes a point where you choose, and so I chose the writing over and sold the other business.
That’s an excellent problem to have, actually.
I was very grateful for it. 2020 was hard for me, like everyone. It was very doubtful at a few points through that year, but I made it in the end.
Listening to you just now, I felt Kip – Cliopher Mdang, the public servant who is the main character in The Emperor’s Hands and At the Feet of the Sun – would be very proud of you. In your work, you have managed to imbue the civil service and the minutiae of bureaucracy and of running things, with romance and with an epic feeling. The feeling that actually running a country or a household or a business is a good and noble thing, and it’s difficult and sometimes it’s even heroic.
We have some good family friends who were quite very high up in the Canadian government bureaucracy, and I always deeply admired their devotion to work. I didn’t have anything to do with them professionally, but I would stay at their house and just see the kind of attention and care they gave to it. And I was like, wow. I also know the not very good bureaucrats of the government – I know that they exist, I’ve had my interactions with the people who are phoning it in, let me tell you. But I’ve also seen the people who care, and I wanted to honour that because there are those people in every government, and it’s hard. It’s hard, hard work. And I appreciate that.
I think it goes back to what I was saying about liking the ordinary life on the outside of the epics. It connects with that to me, just because I think in fantasy as a genre you so often have the ordinary character entering into the extraordinary, seeing it with fresh eyes. That’s our window into – Alice going to Wonderland or Frodo and Sam being the window onto everything that’s going on, or Bilbo, or the Pevensey kids going to Narnia. They’re coming from our world. They’re from the familiar. They are the ordinary person who finds the extraordinary in themselves through that course. And I think that’s a fantastic story. I’m all over that one. I enjoy that one greatly.
But I also always like that other sort of question – what does Gandalf do the rest of the time? What are the elves doing all day? That’s the question I always ask myself. It’s the flipside of the same question. You can have the extraordinary in the ordinary moments or the ordinary in the extraordinary. I enjoy both, I enjoy playing with both of those. Kip and the bureaucracy are part of that, I think. But it’s also the fact that I have a lot of friends who are in government in one form or another and I appreciate their work.
I really love that. From reading your books, you get this feeling of going behind the stage and seeing the workings behind everything. For example, the scenes when you show a character who goes to this little bar and meets these people in this community. And Kip is so outraged because he never knew. He’s known this person for his entire life, and then suddenly he has a secret life, it turns out that he actually owns the bar, and he has never told Kip in 40 years.
I feel people are like that, though. You always find these secrets, right? You just have to start talking to people and suddenly they’re just–worlds open up behind them. Every once in a while, you get the key to something, and it’s an extraordinary story, and you had no idea. “You were the person who brought organic farming to this province? You were the person whose daughter had a problem and so you’ve ended up adopting her kid and now are raising her?” Just these stories that people have: “In my youth, I happened to be one of Leonard Cohen’s lovers. My cousins were the Sisters of Mercy.” And that’s fantastic, and that happens. These moments in their lives, and sometimes they go on forever, and sometimes they’re just little jewels that they hold in their heart that once upon a time that happened. I just find that really neat, and I like exploring that. I just find people are very interesting.
You just have to be able to see it. And I think this is something you show very well in your work, how everyone contains these universes within them. People just look at Kip and they see the civil servant and he’s got all this wealth within him – not only his culture, but his own personality and his own interests and his own love. And there’s so much in there, and nobody notices, until, of course, they do notice.
Now – this is writer me being a nosy parker. Could you tell us a little about your practice as a writer?
I’m still kind of working it out. I think you just have to keep pushing yourself, try different methods and things like that. I like the term “writing into the dark” – I write into the dark in the sense that I just start and go on. I usually, have lots of stories in my mind and I’m vaguely thinking, “this year I’m going to work on these things”. And then something will come up, and suddenly I have a totally new idea that I will also work on in my list. So I have a kind of combination of that and waiting till the story is ready, turning it around in your mind until you are sort of ready for it.
In terms of practical writing, I like writing in the morning. I also find I write well in the evening, sometimes too late in the evening. But these are not good times. If you like getting up early and writing and also staying up late in writing, these do not work out very well. I’m not a good napper in the middle of the day. Now that we’re moving into the spring, I’m trying to get up early and write in the mornings and then do other things the rest of the day.
I’ve also been working on figuring out what’s a sustainable pace. Last year I tried to do a challenge to write more, and I found that I can write about 4000 words in a day. But I it got to a point where my hands physically hurt, and I realised I can’t sustain that. Creatively, I got very into it, I was really enjoying writing that much. But physically I understood that I was going to give me something wrong with my hands if I kept doing that. So I kind of backed down from that. I think one of the things too about the persistence period when you’re just building up, in terms of sales and career wise, but also creatively, is that you also have to build up that muscle of being able to be creative for extended periods of time and physically able to do it.
I was just talking with a friend who’s a painter and she told me about how sometimes she goes through periods where she only paints a little bit and then other times, she’s paints for 8 hours a day. And asked her, “Really? You don’t find that cramps your hand?” And she said no, she really got into it, she got focused. She paints these incredibly detailed still lives. And that’s amazing, but I can’t write for that long because I physically won’t stop hurting. But I type and I write a bit by hand as well and try and be careful not to get carpal tunnel, which is the big fear, right? I I’ve tried a bit of dictation that hasn’t worked for me yet, and thankfully I don’t have to use it from a physical point of view. If I ever do, presumably I’ll have to come around to it. But I like writing by hand or on the computer and kind of go back and forth between.
It’s good to write every day, but I also find that it depends on where in the story you are. I’m just at the beginning stages of starting a new one right now. So you have to push the story a little bit. It’s like pedalling a bike up a hill – you have to just keep pedalling and pushing it. And then at some point, you crest the hill and then the story pulls you down. That’s always the best bit. That’s when you don’t want to do anything else. All you want to do is write, this feeling of being pulled down at the other end of the story.
Now I have a better sense of my rhythms.
I understand that you write a first sort of baggy draft and then you revise. Do you revise yourself? Do you have someone else’s help or a beta reader?
I do it in different ways. I like the ideal of the two-draft book, to be honest, where you write one draft, and you do one revision and you’re done. I haven’t done that with all my stories, I’ve done it with a few of them. It depends very much on the book how much other people are involved. I usually get at least one other person to read it before I’m done, writer friends. One of them was one more in a professional relationship he was doing it as a side business, but he is a writer as well. With At the Feet of the Sun, Alexandra Rowland and I did a huge amount of revising. We talked through the process quite a bit, and Alexandra was more heavily involved as an editor than I usually have had other people involved in. But that was also a very big book with a lot going on in it. I was very grateful to Alexandra for their work on that.
Usually getting somebody else to read your work is the same problem that you have with copy editing. You always need somebody else to do it because you know what you’re trying to say, so you need somebody else to read it and point out where you made a logical leap. When I know what my steps in between were, but I didn’t actually express them. I like having somebody else read it for those purposes, for sure. But as I get better, as I keep practising my craft and working on it, I get better at getting closer to expressing that the first time. So I don’t need as much as I did earlier stages. I definitely needed more editorial work in the past because I wasn’t nearly as confident nor as clear. But it really depends on the project. Some of them are much more complicated than others and need a lot more work.
It really depends on the book. Some of them, like, At the Feet of the Sun, I basically did each part separately as I wrote them, and I wrote them out of order. But usually I start at the beginning and write to the end, and then I’m done, and then I go back and clean it up a little bit. Usually I’ve written too much at the beginning and I have to take out half of it.
Oh my God, that’s got to hurt!
No, because it’s what I needed to get there. It’s the preliminary sketches, and I’ve gotten better about that. I’m pretty willing to just throw it out and start over again if I have to. I think this is one of the benefits of writing fairly quickly. Most people, I think, write at about the same speed once you get kind of practised at it. It’s just how much time you are able to give to it, both creatively and also in terms of other demands on your time.
I try to think of musicians – they practise, and that’s a beautiful thing, but it’s ephemeral. And yet it’s not wasted – you’re not wasting by practising your scales, even if nobody else hears them. So even if nobody else read that initial bit or it turns out to be a side version, usually it’s something like, I picked the wrong character and I need to start over again. And you can’t really salvage anything if you have the wrong perspective.
I know crime writers usually start from the end because obviously you need to know who’s the culprit and they plan the story backwards. But sometimes they have to overhaul everything, and for them, because in crime writing, if you change a character, it changes absolutely everything. It changes the entire story. So they tend to be very careful about it. But I love your way of looking at it as practice that is not wasted. You need to do the practice to give a concert. That’s a fantastic way of seeing it. I’ll remember it in the future when I have to throw out reams and reams.
And it’s also like painting practice, where you do all the preliminary sketches. Those are not wasted.
Not at all!
I try and remember that. It does hurt when you have to throw stuff away and you just be like, well, that was a story. But like you know, it’s funny. The Return of Fitzroy Angursell was the second book I tried to write. And then I couldn’t get it to gel at that point and left it alone and decided to write something else, because that book was going to be this complicated story about this group of folk heroes getting together again after a long gap between the last time they saw each other, and there’s in this big magical cataclysm in the middle. And I had not established any of that history in my story. I was like, okay, this is too much right now.
So I left it alone too and wrote a bunch of other stuff. And then when I went back to it, I did reread some of my original stuff, but I just started again. I was doing an exercise for a workshop, and the assignment was about working on character voice. I had to write 400 or 500 words in which the character was telling a lie.
I wrote this sequence and immediately it was first person, it was Fitzroy, it was 100% Fitzroy telling this thing. That whole opening is still the opening. I barely changed it, and I just kept going. I just hit the right note there and I just kept going, and I was ready to write the story. I wrote the whole thing and revised it and then I actually published it.
And then, not that long ago, I was looking through some old stuff and I found one of the old versions of that story. I was looking through it and I was amazed at how much it is the same. Even some lines are the same. And I did not go back to it and physically pull them out or anything. I just had them in my brain. They were still there, and that was in third person. It hadn’t worked then, but did later.
Even that process – that was like ten years apart – that wasn’t wasted. Still there, the ideas were still there in my mind, at some level. It was like, that’s what happens in that story.
So revision and the writing process go together for me, like cycling – I write a bit, I go back, I read it over, I write a bit more. I usually know what I want the emotional end note of the story to be, and that’s what I aim at. Plot-wise, though, I need to see what happens.
So are you doing something different next? Are you working another series for a change or are we continuing along the same series?
Well, I tend to not be able to write about the same characters back-to-back, even if I’m really excited about whatever happens next. I usually need a break and let the story percolate for a while. So I will be going back to the Red Company, but it will not be for a little while. And because I have the crossover story timelines, I need to do some more work on the Greenwing and Dart story before I can go back to the Red Company Reformed ones. Because the next one in that series is almost certainly going to be from Jullanar’s perspective and it takes up after the end The Redoubtable Pali Avramapul. I need to know what has gone on with Jemis and his friends a little bit more.
I think I need to write two books simultaneously for a bit, so that’s going to take a bit longer. In the meantime, while I’m working on that, I’ve gone on a trip to Polynesia, where I got this whole idea. I’m going to write a much more straightforward and simpler story about Aya, Cliopher’s second cousin who he meets on Lesuia. So I’m going to have a story about her.
I’m so excited to hear this. I’m not going to ask about dates because clearly you’re juggling so many elements here.
Yeah, dates are hard. I find deadlines very helpful, they really motivate me. But at the other time I find them extremely stressful and I’m not great at them. So I’d like to try and get ahead of myself a little bit and then plan the publishing side separately from the writing side. But that’s one of the business planning things that doesn’t always work.
I have a whole bunch of half-finished stories and things on the go right now and I hope to finish some of them this year. One of them is a Young Red Company story, which is called Derring-Do for Beginners, which I promised many years ago. That was the third book I attempted to write, but I’ve had to rewrite that one considerably. And a couple about Conju and Cliopher’s friendship mostly. I also have a couple of short stories about Raphael and Shahrazad from Human Voices, two paired short stories. Then there’s the third of the Sisters Avramapul stories, which again has been sitting half-finished for a while. So a goal this year is to finish a bunch of those and then the Aya book and then the next Jemis book should be out later this year, too, and hopefully Derring-Do as well. That’s kind of this year’s plan.
For the next Cliopher book, there’s a lot of plot that needs to be dealt with for other characters before we get to anything further there. But we will be meeting Cliopher again, obviously, given the end of At the Feet of the Sun. We will be seeing him from other people’s points of view, which will be fun.
We’d all love to see more of Kip, certainly.
I love writing scenes from different points of view and in different books because I really love the idea of how an event can be important to multiple people, but not for the same reasons. Something that could be hugely important in one character’s life might be a really minor incident in another character’s or might be equally important, but for a completely different reason. And they happen at different points in people’s arcs. The climax of somebody’s story could be somebody else’s inciting incident. Or it just happens in the middle and is this thing that throws their plans totally aside.
I really enjoy the ramifications and implications, because I think that’s how life works too, right? Something huge happens in our friends’ lives, or in our families, and that affects us. Somebody decides to retire and suddenly your relationship with them changes and their relationships with their people change. That’s fun to explore.
Absolutely. And I also have to confess that I have a soft spot for Jemis myself, so I’m really glad that’s in the pipeline too.
Well, I’d originally conceived of that as being a seven-book series. It is not concluding in seven books. So I have to decide whether it’s going to be open or a closed series. But I think it is going to finish – I think it’s probably going to be either nine or ten books. I have this just one question in mind about it’s going to work, but I have plans. Jemis gets to have at least a break at some point, hopefully.
Stargazy Pie was me being like, “okay, I’m writing all these shapeless books that have no plot. I better try and work on my plot a little bit.” I kind of went overboard with it. And I realised I need to just be simpler and let the plot handle itself because plot may really not be my strength, and that’s okay. Whereas I just kind of went with Jemis as having all the plots, just all of them.
He’s like the plot magnet.
Everything happens to him!
It’s fantastic to know that there’s more in store ahead – we have lots of things to look forward to this year or next year or in the coming years. Thank you so much for talking to me – it’s been an absolute pleasure. Is there anything you would like to talk about that we haven’t covered?
There’s one thing I would like to say just because it’s sort of something along that’s close to my heart and I think it’s also why lots of people really like Kip and Jemis too. I feel a strong trend in contemporary literature is the exploration of evil in a lot of ways. And I feel quite strongly that it’s important to explore good, which is equally complicated, goodness is equally nuanced and interesting. I feel like people have responded well to that. And I’m glad for that because I like writing people who are people, notwithstanding the odd actual saint. But even that is fun – questioning the concept of what is sainthood, what does that even mean?
In lots of ways, the Greenwing and Dart books are where Dante comes out the most in really weird ways, that kind of attention to the ordinary and common things, the common and ordinary good in life. That’s just really important to me. I enjoy exploring that.
I’ve had a lot of people say that they discovered The Hands of the Emperor in Covid times when they were in lockdown or in the immediate aftermath of lockdowns. They say that they’d really been struggling to read books, especially new books, because they couldn’t handle the uncertainty. There was so much uncertainty in life around them that they needed an escape in fiction and something familiar and comforting. And numerous people have told me that they’d been told by somebody else that this was a book they could trust to end well, basically, and to not have anything too dramatically awful happen in it. And I feel really grateful for that because that is important to me. One of the things I was wanted to do when I was writing The Hands of the Emperor was imagine a world that had a better standard of living than we do. A world that was that little bit further along, but not in an unrealistic way. So I kept telling people it was sort of my utopian book, with a government that kind of worked, and that was what I came up with.
I try not to be unrealistic about it. I like writing about people who are good, but still people and making mistakes and trying to recover from them. With Cliopher – going against the trend is obviously a lot easier for somebody who doesn’t have any family or people that they’re really close so they can go off on a big adventure, right? It’s so much easier to do that if you’re an orphan or functionally an orphan. Right. Whereas if you do love your family but you still want to go, that’s a tug. As it is for Cliopher.
And I feel like that’s a good thing to explore. I just want to say that that to me, it’s really important to keep exploring goodness, while not ignoring that there’s bad things in the world. Sometimes I reflect, wow, I’ve given all my characters these horribly tragic backstories. But at the same time, I think that’s pretty true to life, too. A lot of people have a lot of bad things in their background, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try and live well. And I like exploring that.
There is a fallacy that goodness is bland or boring or neutral – beige, so to speak. Yet being good and doing good is really hard work which involves a lot of details and thinking. As you say, it’s easier to go out and do good things if you’re an orphan, but if you have a family, you need to work things out. In At the Feet of the Sun you actually describe the implementation of universal basic income. And you work through the details, you explain it, you actually go into the nitty-gritty of it and make it interesting. Another achievement of your work, I find, is making goodness interesting and fun and, dare I say, sexy,
Honestly, competency is always sexy. You always enjoy watching people who are competent – like watching people at the Olympics. That’s fantastically amazing, just mesmerizing, right? Not only are they doing it, they are doing it with a bit of what the Italians call sprezzatura. There’s just something fantastic about watching somebody do something really well. And that can be bureaucracy, too. And I think that’s fun.
Yes, goodness is underrated in fiction.