author of Cast in Peril, book eight of the Chronicles of Elantra,
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born, raised, and schooled in the then borough of North York, which is now part of Toronto. When we moved into our newly constructed semi-detached home, there was a farm within walking distance, and we would take carrots to feed the ponies there. That didn’t last very long, and there’s really no evidence now of what was once a farm and its environs.
I still live in Toronto, so geographically, I’ve lead a very boring life.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
I honestly don’t remember what I wanted to be when I was twelve. I was, at that age, a voracious reader, but reading was not considered a terribly social activity (go figure); I would frequently invite multiple friends over to my house in the hopeful theory that they would play and talk with each other, so that I could curl up in a corner and finish a book.
I had no desire to be a writer at that stage. At age thirteen, if I had discovered the fanfic community, I’m almost certain I would have joined it–although maybe not. I wrote my first novel at that age, but never showed it to anyone. Thank god. Writing was intensely personal. I didn’t write for an audience; I wrote for me.
(I think, when I was six, I wanted to be a doctor or a fireman, if that helps).
I know what I wanted to be when I was eighteen, but it’s unlikely to be impressive: I wanted to be myself. Fully myself. I wanted to like – openly – what I liked, love who I loved, answer all asked questions honestly. I wanted to stop being terrified of what other people would think of me, to stop attempting to live up to other people’s expectations (or down to them). This started a year or two earlier, and I was a touch fanatic by this point.
I wanted to own my own life, accept the consequences for my own mistakes. I did not care, at that point, if this meant I would have no friends. I probably offended any number of strangers, because I was a prickly little porcupine: I wanted people to understand, up front, that I was me, not more and not less, and if they didn’t like it, they would regret making it my problem >.<. I started to spend more time with the geeks, and less time with the activists; I swore off of boys, declaring to a friend when she said that she wanted to be a bridesmaid when I got married that she could be a pallbearer at my wedding.
This may be because, at heart, I’m a lazy person. It was so much work to be someone who wasn’t me. It was work to watch every word and gesture and reaction. The thing is: we all want to be liked. It’s human. But I grew to understand that if someone liked me because I was pretending to be something else, they didn’t like me.
At the age of thirty? At the age of thirty, I had three books published. I had already decided that I would work in the bookstore and write books, because neither of these on their own would be enough to live on, but combined, they would pay my rent. I was married four years by that point. So: at the age of thirty, with some trepidation, I wanted to be a mother.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I can’t think of a single thing. Oh wait. I believed that I would never, ever get married.
I have to go back to fifteen, and even then, it’s amorphous: my attitudes about love, true love, and parenting were different – but I’m not sure I would classify that as belief.
I think at eighteen, I assumed that life was more personal, especially in disappointment, than I do now. I came to realize that life was not, in fact, out to get me; it happened. It just happened. But as I met people from different backgrounds, with different sexual orientations and different religions, it broadened my worldview without breaking any of it.
For instance: my mother had always taught me that when two people love each other, they get married. Seriously. That was the sum total of relationship advice.
What she *didn’t* say: was “when a man and a woman love each other” etc., etc. So discovering that people were gay, lesbian, bisexual was surprising, but it didn’t break anything. For me, the ‘love each other’ part was tantamount, if unpredictable from the vantage of a sheltered, normative life. (She was, otoh, shocked.)
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
The first SF novel I read was Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. It was a revelation. At fifteen, I was aware of the difficulties that sexism and gendered attitudes caused, being among other things female. What I was less aware of was my own attitudes, my own assumptions.
In Left Hand of Darkness, there is one human diplomat and a planet full of aliens who do not have gendered sexual characteristics unless they’re in heat. They’re not defined by their sexual gender identities because they don’t have any; they can, during their cycle, adopt either gender for the purposes of procreation.
One of the aliens had a personality I did not care for at all. And I was shocked when that character went into his sexual cycle and became female. Everything about the personality – everything I didn’t like – seemed so ineluctably male to me.
And I realized, as I twisted my brain around the unexpected, that I *had* gender expectations and identifications, and that they *weren’t* harmless. All of early Le Guin SF had a strong effect on me. She examined the Other and the Other looked back from her pages.
In some ways, I was the Other in my early life. I was the child of one of the only two Japanese Canadian families in my neighborhood, and the only Asians. This lasted until I was in grade five or six, when a few Chinese families (from Hong Kong) moved in.
The second is Lord of the Rings. I read Tolkien for the first time as a child – it was the Hobbit. I loved it. But when I opened Fellowship of the Ring, it wasn’t about Bilbo – it was some strange Frodo person instead. I wanted a book about Bilbo. So I put the book down. I came back to it later. and I read it in one sitting (with the usual breaks for school, dinner, etc.).
I loved those books. They moved me in a way that nothing else I’d read to date had. I read them through three or four times in succession, and then read all the appendices, and then reread the hobbit. And I read them once a year, every year, until I had children.
The third is Dream of a Common Language, a book of poetry by Adrienne Rich, which I was given in my first year of university. Poetry is, to me, writing that depends on experience. Everything’s a metaphor, but without the specific life experience to which the metaphor speaks, the poem doesn’t work. It’s all ‘aha’ moments, moments of sharp clarity, moments in which a metaphor you would never have chosen feels exact, true and personal. Dream of a Common Language spoke to me strongly. I’m not sure it would have, had I discovered it earlier or later – but at that point in time, it sang.
I’m not entirely certain that I can trace a literary legacy through these three things, although I write secondary world high fantasy.
None of the three are music; none of the three are visual. I have almost no visual acumen, and when music moves me, it moves me entirely because of the lyrics.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I didn’t, in my own mind, have innumerable artistic avenues. As I said above, I have no visual acumen, no spatial acuity–which would rule out visual arts. I always read. I wrote. I didn’t write *for* readers until my last year of high school, and even then, it was only for my classmates. I had a few poems published in the UC review in university, but only because it was a student run journal and one of the editors had been in a workshop class with me in that final year and he asked specifically for some of the pieces that had passed through the workshop.
I wrote my first entirely unreadable novel at thirteen years of age. I started three in high school. I did not start them assuming that I would be published: I wrote them because I couldn’t not write them.
But when it came time to choose what I wanted to do with my life, I chose to write, because I already wrote. I would have to take the risk of writing for people who were not me, of exposing my work to people who were also not me. I would have to learn how to revise, and when.
But it was time. I wanted to be read. I wanted–when read–to move people. I wanted to write something they could love in the same way I had loved Lord of the Rings. They were books of my reader’s heart. So is almost everything by Terry Pratchett. But what I love and what I can write are not always the same thing, and I doubt that anyone could find any hint of Pratchett in my writing.
So: I needed to find the stories I could believe in, and the stories I could tell.
Cast in Peril is the 8th novel in the Chronicles of Elantra. (The first is Cast in Shadow). In it, Kaylin has a room-mate for the first time in her adult life, which earns her serious attention she doesn’t want from the Imperial Palace and the Emperor. It earns serious attention from unidentified assailants who aren’t best pleased by the race of her new room-mate, and it sees her leave the exterior borders of Elantra for the first time.
Also: an egg hatches.
I really don’t want to say too much more than that because it heads into spoiler territory and some people really dislike spoilers.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I want, first and foremost, to move people. I want to make them laugh (hopefully when something is intentionally funny >.>) or cry or bite their fingernails.
But I also want them to see some of their own life in the struggles of the characters, and I want them to emerge with something like hope. I write fantasy. Fantasy is generally considered escapist. I won’t argue with this: it is. But when we step outside of our own lives for hours at a time, we’re open to experiences that we don’t have the spoons for while we’re struggling to stay above water. If my worlds aren’t true in the same way that going to the office/bookstore/school is, they’re true in a different way: the characters are human, and they want – for themselves – similar things: security. Safety. They want to be able to protect the things they care about, and to achieve the goals they’ve set themselves.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
This is hard, and I’m not sure I can answer it because the answer is a moving target; it depends on my mental energy at any given time. Today, because I have a million deadlines and I am flailing and running around like a headless chicken, I would say Terry Pratchett.
Why? Because I can’t do what he does. I admire it, I am so grateful for it, but I can’t do it. Pratchett makes me laugh, yes – but he makes me laugh by reminding me that I can be both frustrated and affectionate. That I can find the humor in things that didn’t, before I started the book, seem humorous at the time. Bureaucratic nightmares. Over-focused collectors. Terrifying mothers (Nanny Ogg.)
I emerge from a Pratchett novel in a much better frame of mind than I generally enter one in.
Finishing all of the story arcs in the West universe.
I don’t have great, ambitious life goals. I want to get my kids through school. I want to finish the story I began in Hunter’s Oath, continued in Sun Sword, and am writing now in House War. I want to reach the readers to whom these books will speak.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
It’s funny that you should ask this, because I recently wrote an introduction for Tanya Huff, a special guest at this year’s World Fantasy Convention. In it, I distill all of the writing advice I learned from Tanya when we worked together at Bakka. Tanya and I have very different — VERY different — processes. I am a process geek. I love novel structure. I love the ways in which we all approach it, because no two writers work the same way.
Tanya is a practical, pragmatic person who has a strong aversion to pretension. She does not have the novel structure geek gene. And that’s fine. But if we read different books (with some overlap) and get excited about different things in those books, we both, at base, follow this advice:
Butt in chair. Write more. Whine less.
All the theorizing, all of the deconstruction, all of the research in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t make time to do the actual writing. When I look at that, it sounds harsh. But I wrote five books while working full-time. Tanya wrote more before she moved out of the city. When we start writing, we’ve got commitments, and most of us are working full-time. Making the time to write, and doing the writing in that time, had to be a priority. It came before television (I didn’t watch much) or movies or drinking with friends – because it had to be done in our ‘spare’ time.
Having said that?
No two writers work the same way. Some writers write 60 page outlines. Some don’t write outlines at all. Some write scenes out of order as the mood strikes them; some have to write from page 1 to the end. Some write dossiers on characters. Some discover character as they write.
There is no one way to write a novel. There’s only your way. So, while your butt is in the chair and you’re writing, everything else is up for grabs. There’s no guideline to process; you have to find out – often by trial and error – what works for you.
Michelle, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.