Author Interview: Kate Elliott

So Kate Elliott is one of my favourite authors and she graciously accepted an interview for The Book Wars as it is fantasy month and she does write fantasy.

 

Kate ElliottAs a child in rural Oregon, Kate Elliott made up stories because she longed to escape to a world of lurid adventure fiction. She now writes fantasy, steampunk, and science fiction, often with a romantic edge. It should therefore come as no surprise that she met her future husband in a sword fight.

When he gave up police work to study archaeology, they and their three children fell into an entirely new set of adventures in dusty Mexican ruins and mouthwatering European pastry shops. Eventually her spouse’s work forced them to move to Hawaii, where she took up outrigger canoe paddling. (source) Find her at her website or on twitter.

  1. Over at The Book Wars, we have been trying to figure out if there is a difference between high fantasy and epic fantasy. As a writer of fantasy, do you think there is a difference or are the lines too blurry to properly distinguish the two?

I can make up definitions until the cows come home, so take this answer with a grain of salt because I’m not wedded to it. On the whole I would define high and epic fantasy as mostly similar, and I have no objection to people who think of them as the same subset of the larger fantasy genre.

If I wanted to differentiate I would call “epic fantasy” a large-scale story dealing with the fate of kingdoms, empires, or the world itself with a cast of hundreds and a landscape with at least some marvellous strange beings or places and a large or small presence of magic. “High fantasy” would then be defined as a story that takes place in a landscape not our own in which the elaborate social structure of the world is an important part of the story; there may or may not be magic and dragons but the tone of the writing might be slightly more mannered or formal.

By this definition, N. K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon duology and Michelle Sagara West’s six volume The Sun Sword are epic fantasy (as well as Game of Thrones), while Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, most fantasy by Patricia McKillip, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy could be described as high fantasy.

 

  1. As a reader of fantasy, what fantasy tropes do you really like? On the other hand, are there any tropes that you find problematic?

I like stories with diverse characters and cultures, although that isn’t a trope. It’s just that reading yet another epic fantasy story in which all the important characters are men, traveling through a narrative landscape overwhelmingly composed of men, in a cultural setting yet again modelled on an era from European history (except without the actual variety present in European history), has come to seem repetitive.

As for tropes, I do love the arranged/reluctant marriage trope (as anyone who reads my books can have figured out). I loved Katharine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor because it uses the “sympathetic outcast hero who must find allies and a place in a society stacked against him/her” trope to perfection. Is Physically Competent Woman a trope? This might mistakenly be called “kick-ass warrior woman” but the Warrior Woman is often a more limited “type” of character. Physically competent women–that is, women who can handle themselves on a long arduous trip, in a fight, in confrontations, and who have other important plot-worthy skills–are a huge plus for me in any book. In TV Tropes terms, I also love the Competent Man. I like competence in general from characters in a book.

As for what I find problematic: The argument that the writer didn’t include women in general and People of Color in general in epic stories because “they weren’t there” or “they didn’t do anything” or “there is no place for them in the narrative.” This argument has nothing to do with the reality of the past and everything to do with the limited imagination of the person who makes it.

Also the woman as sex worker trope is so over-used that it is time for reviewers to call it for what it is: a lazy cliché.

Finally, the complex issue of “Rape as Realism.” I have myself written epic fantasy with rape in it so I am not categorically against depicting rape in stories. However, all too often we are treated to the point of view of those perpetrating or witnessing the act rather than delving into the experiences of those who are affected by and/or rebuilding their lives after these violent acts. It matters whose point of view is considered important enough to be heard in a story. I very much think it is problematic when a person who has been raped is only depicted as a voiceless victim. Also, when a writer argues that he had to put rape into his stories because it is “realistic” but never spends any time mentioning (for example) agriculture or craftwork (both of which are necessary for people to ACTUALLY LIVE), then I am skeptical that the rape has been put in the story for realism purposes but rather because the writer believes it will add drama or “entertainment” or because it is an “easy” way to produce reader shock.

Finally, to end on a more positive note, I love stories about Empire, whether a rising empire, a stable empire, or a falling empire: It’s a fascinating cycle that gets even more fascinating when cultures come into conflict. Conquerers, Chessmasters, and Magnificent Bastards may all apply.

 

 

  1. There has always been a concern over the portrayal of women in fantasy books targeted at adult audiences. Do you think that YA fantasy presents females better than the fantasy novels targeted at adults?

It’s complicated. In general I do believe (although have not counted) there may be more female protagonists in YA fantasy than in adult epic/high fantasy, because the latter tends toward male MCs (main characters).

But writing about an “exceptional girl” (aka the Smurfette Principle in which there is one girl amid a sea of boys) if most/all of your interesting and competent and important secondary characters are male can be as problematic in its own way. In the “exceptional girl” scenario the world is still male-centered; all that’s changed is that ONE GIRL is special enough to be as worthy of narrative attention as boys. That scenario doesn’t challenge the idea that boys/men are the proper vehicle for narrative.

The ideal is to be able to read a story in which women are present all the way from the protagonist to multiple secondary and minor characters, and that their interactions with each other are as important as their interactions with men.

 

  1. You have a YA fantasy novel coming out next year, I believe. Please give us some details about it.

Court of Fives is the first volume of The Fives, coming in Summer 2015 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. I call it “Little Women meet the Count of Monte Cristo in an epic fantasy setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt.”

I wanted to write four sisters at the center of an epic tale that includes all the staples of fantasy like murderous palace intrigue, gritty war, a fallen empire and a buried history, fraught love stories, a ruthless antagonist, and a vivid setting with painted festival masks, frightening stone tombs, and giant metal spiders powered by magic. The story is not a retelling of Little Women but I used the template standard description of each sister (practical beauty Meg, willful tomboy Jo, gentle saintly Beth, and vain spoiled artistic Amy) and gave each one a twist.

 

  1. Was writing a novel aimed at teenagers a difference experience than a novel aimed at adults? Did you have to simplify the narrative and hold back on the complex nature of the world?

When I write fantasy and science fiction for adults I have mostly written stories with multiple points of view and with heavily descriptive fantasy worlds. I knew that the first book of this YA had to be told from a single point of view, and I also knew I could not slow down the narrative with long descriptive passages or indeed any interaction or scenes that did not directly move the plot forward.

As it happened, working with a YA editor was a great learning experience because it taught me a lot about streamlining the way I work setting and description into the text. This skill should serve me well as I revise my latest epic fantasy to make it less confusingly complex and more fast paced. Pacing has always been something I struggle to make consistent within each novel, and again, keeping a quick pace throughout the story is vital in YA. My editor often reminded me to pare down and focus scenes to make them gripping, strong, and vivid.

I don’t believe I simplified the narrative; what I did do was bite off a smaller mouthful (if I can use that metaphor) of plot, one that would fit in a 100,000 word chunk as a complete story.

As for the world, I did not describe it in as much detail as I would have in an adult fantasy. Instead I was forced to figure out what was really necessary to make the most important things about the world come across to the reader, the things that have a direct impact on the characters rather than random cool details that aren’t really necessary to the story. In other words, there isn’t as much description in volume one as there could have been but more details and layers will be revealed in later books when they are needed in the story.

  1. What are some of your favourite fantasy novels (adult or YA) that you would like to recommend to us?

This is the hardest question to answer because I can never name all the books I want everyone to read, and thus I know I am leaving off many fabulous novels. So leaving off the books I’ve already mentioned, I will only mention three novels for space reasons. So many wonderful books and so little time to read and mention them all!

Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn now qualifies as a classic (first published in 1988). Rawn once described this as “Dynasty in the desert” (if any of you know of the old TV prime time soap opera “Dynasty” that was a big hit in the 1980s), and indeed I think Rawn pioneered the soap-opera-meets-epic-fantasy meld that has made Game of Thrones so popular today. Dragons, memorable characters, and some of the best intrigue and backstabbing you can hope to read, plus a unique magic system.

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers: This well-written page-turner is set in a beautifully described medieval setting, but all you really need to know is . . . assassin nuns.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Not really fantasy but a lovely novel about how human lives connect in unexpected ways.

  • Wonderful interview – thought provoking and practical. Thank you!

  • Yash

    I really liked her answers! (Also, your questions.) I am just so excited to get started on Cold Magic!

  • Reblogged this on 20th Century Kirsty and commented:
    I’m always looking for new authors to read and I am particularly a sucker for the fantasy side of fiction. If you’re going to escape of into some fictional realm, it might as well be a mystical land where anything is possible. I haven’t yet read any of Kate Elliott’s books but, reading the interview in full, she is definitely one whose books I will now seek out.

  • A really good interview.

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