Juliet E. McKenna

Today, for your delectation, I offer an interview with the internationally acclaimed UK fantasy author Juliet E. McKenna. Her books include the series The Tales of Einarinn, The Aldabreshin Compass and currently The Lescari Revolution trilogy. Her new novel, Dangerous Waters, is the first in a new series, The Hadrumal Crisis.
Tell me one little known fact about Juliet E. McKenna.

I was once ‘Patient X’ in The Lancet, thanks to a catastrophic allergic reaction to a thoroughly tested, licensed, approved medication when I was at university. I know this because about 6 months later, the girl next door on my corridor, the one who’d gone for the doctor at the time, showed me the article. She was studying pharmacology so recognised the case – one of those real life coincidences a novelist could never hope readers would believe.

Do you have a literary hero and if so who is it?

I’ve not really thought about this before but the first name that came to mind was PD James. I’ve had the privilege of meeting her socially on a handful of occasions and to hear her speak a good deal more often, on a wide range of topics from writing crime and indeed other fiction to the novels of Barbara Pym. She is invariably meticulously prepared, articulate, intelligent and able to take questions from the sublime to the ridiculous without missing a beat, even now when she’s into her 90s.

She began writing Crime Fiction in the 1960s when its popularity was equalled by the derision of the so-called literary classes. She has always maintained genre fiction has nothing to apologise for and defended the quality of characterisation, plot and content against the snobs for decades now. I reckon the far greater esteem that crime fiction now enjoys owes her a considerable debt, for her uncompromising, eloquent defence and for the quality of her own writing which leaves the critics without a leg to stand on, frankly.

She did all this while supporting her family as her husband was disabled by mental illness. She worked as a civil servant in various government departments, and still makes a valuable contribution to public life as a Baroness in the House of Lords. She is extremely well informed and having come from a family of modest means, leaving school at 16 and having lived through the Second World War, has a far greater grasp of the causes, consequences and extent of deprivation than many of the younger politicians from privileged backgrounds.

I am in awe of her. Or at least, I would be, if I didn’t know at first hand, how amiable and approachable she is. One of the best things ever was being able to introduce my mother to her, at a St Hilda’s event in Oxford – and watching my mother have a total fangirl moment.
It must be strange having fans. When/how did you first realise you had them and what did it mean to you?

I think that would have been at my first convention, Wincon V, back in 1999 – when a couple of people who’d read The Thief’s Gamble were asking eagerly about the sequel, visibly thrilled to learn that The Swordsman’s Oath was due out in November. That was so nice to hear – and so reassuring. I suppose we would call it validation these days; confirmation that what I was doing was worth the time and effort, to entertain other people. That I had the right to sit alongside ‘real’ writers and offer my own experiences and opinions on panels. And you know, an encouraging hint that I was entertaining sufficient people to have hopes of a lasting career.

When and how did you know that you were going to have a lasting career?

Ah, actually, I’ve never thought that. Initial hopes are one thing; experience is another. What  happens to newly published writers, once they start mixing with the old hands is this; you learn you really are only as good as your last book – whether that’s your second or your seventeenth. Okay, if you’ve published seventeen titles, you might get away with one dud but it wouldn’t be wise to rely on that. Then as you go on, you learn more about the book trade and see the many and varied things that can scupper a writer’s career which have nothing to do with their writing and are beyond their control. Then there’s just plain bad luck.

At that point, you can either throw up your hands and quit. Or rub your hands together, roll up your sleeves and decide to make a fight of it, primarily by making every book you write the very best possible book you can write. Never get lazy. Never get complacent. Because the other thing you see is the harder writers work, the luckier they tend to be. And we’re so very lucky in SF&Fantasy to have such wonderful camaraderie between writers which encourages us all to stick with it.

What are you most proud of in your life?
What in your career are you most proud of?

At the risk of sounding sentimental, the thing I’m most proud of in my life is my two sons, by which I mean I am so proud of them being two well-rounded, good-natured young men who know their own minds, who are following their individual aptitudes and ambitions in education and work. I know I can take them into any social situation and all the feedback I get will be complimentary. They’re a credit to themselves.

As far as my career goes, I think I’m most proud – as in being satisfied that I’ve done a good job as opposed to being smug – of still being in this game; of still being published with a sufficiently creditable track record that I get invited to conventions, asked to write for anthologies and to review books, so on and so forth, up to and including currently serving as an Arthur C Clarke Award judge.

What do Arthur C Clarke Award judges do?

Mostly we do a great deal of reading, initially looking for the books that satisfy our individual requirements for good fiction. So far we’ve had sixty or so books submitted by a wide range of publishers; genre and mainstream, small press and multi-national conglomerate imprints. Come January, we’ll be discussing among ourselves which of those meet our collective definition of Science Fiction; I foresee some fascinating discussions there. In February we’ll draw up a shortlist and then all go away to re-read those particular books. Then we’ll decide on a winner.

It sounds so simple, put like that. In some ways it is. Some aspects prove far more complex. Overall, I’m finding it one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done in a long time.

Have you any plans or desire to write an SF novel (or horror) or are you completely committed to fantasy?

I can’t see me ever writing horror, not in the sense the true aficionados mean. It’s not a genre I understand or enjoy as a reader so there’s no way I can understand it as a writer. The closest I’m likely to come would be some sort of dark fantasy and even then, I can’t see me adding anything worth reading to vampire or werewolf tales, for example. That might change but I don’t see it at the moment.

I might try my hand at SF, as long as it’s understood the focus will be far more on the fiction that the science; I know my limitations on that score. Something in the space opera line? Perhaps. But I will need to have a sufficiently original idea that I’m convinced I can see through to a far more than merely satisfactory conclusion. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

For the moment, I know my strengths as a writer are well-suited to fantasy fiction. That said, I am always looking to expand my scope as a writer and find new challenges. So I’m likely to be expanding outwards from fantasy’s boundaries rather than making a giant leap right across into another genre. Unless I decide it is time to write that crime novel…

You mentioned PD James and now ‘that crime novel’. Do you read crime fiction? Is there a book and/or a writer you could recommend to the uninitiated?

I read a great deal of crime and mystery fiction; it’s my relaxation reading since I find reading epic fantasy nigh on impossible while I’m writing a book myself. I’m simply in the wrong mindset.  Michael Connelly is writing some of the best US police and legal thrillers at the moment. Val McDermid is able to turn her writing skills to so many facets of the genre; from the dark psycho dramas of her Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series to the variety of style and theme in her standalone novels. A bookshop browse among either of their backlists should turn up something tempting for the curious.

What are the books within your own (fantasy) genre that most
1. inspired or influenced you
and later
2. impressed you?

Influences is another pretty much impossible to answer question. I’m invariably surprised when someone says ‘oh, that bit in your book where… it reminds me of…’ and then I realise that yes, actually, they’re right, even though I haven’t thought of that other book or author in decades. As when someone referenced Halo Jones in my first heroine Livak’s character-DNA. That would never have occurred to me.

Inspiration? Again, it’s so difficult to pin any particular books down, given I’ve been reading intensively for over forty years. With regard to epic fantasy, Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books (for all their unevenness). Similarly Anne McCaffrey’s writing. Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince Books. Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksennarion. Robin Hobb, particularly the Liveship books. From the chaps, in their very, very different ways, Christopher Stasheff and David Gemmell.

Latterly, I’ve been particularly impressed with Kate Elliott’s writing, particularly the Crossroads Trilogy. By contrast with Elliott’s big-picture, sweeping canvas writing, Emily Gee’s intensely personal tales are strikingly good. Martha Wells’s The  Cloud Roads is one of the most unusual and interesting books I read in 2011. Brandon Sanderson and Gail Z Martin both continue to write gripping epic fantasy with all the core virtues of the genre while deftly skirting the cliché pitfalls while Pierre Pevel is only one of the writers currently pushing at the boundaries with his tales of musketeers and dragons, starting with The Cardinal’s Blades.

What, apart from reading, do you do for fun and relaxation?

My main hobby outside the writing life is the Japanese martial art Aikido. I’ve been training for nearly thirty years now and I’m a second dan blackbelt. I like to knit and embroider from time to time. I like to travel and see new places and people; though invariably those end up in my writing somehow. As a family we sit down and watch selected films and TV shows together, with a definite skew towards SF and superheroes in the cinema and character-led drama like Sons of Anarchy or Burn Notice on the telly.  And yes, doubtless that viewing somehow influences my writing, though don’t ask me how. Because being a writer does tend to be who you are, not merely what you do.

Readers of fantasy might think that real life is not a mjor influence within the genre. How does real life affect your novels?

Actually, I reckon it’s only the people who don’t read fantasy who think that real life has no influence or input into the genre. Every character I write is drawn from real life and they all share the same concerns as the rest of us – success and progress in all the myriad challenges of life, love and livelihood. The details differ; slaying dragons isn’t quite the same as tackling a killer project at work, but the essentials and how they can test and prove an individual’s character are the same.

On the broader level, fantasy constantly addresses real life issues of the uses and abuse of power, religious, political, whatever, for selfish or altruistic purposes, the manipulation and exclusion of ‘the other’ (and what lies behind it),  the way in which the best of intentions can lead to disaster, the perils of ignorance. You name it; all human life is there. But it’s so much more interesting to explore these issues through a tale of high adventure than it is to read some worthy opinion piece in a newspaper or listen to talking heads offering their analysis in some documentary.

If you were not a writer, but any other type of artist – musican, painter, actor etc. – and you had to be remembered for a single piece of your art – picture, song, you get the idea, a one-hit-wonder – pick one single work for which you would be proud to be remembered.

Not only can I not draw, I can’t even imagine being a painter or sculptor, so that’s out. I used to sing though and play a couple of instruments, competently enough to be a reliable orchestral player and choral singer and well enough to know that I wasn’t cut out to be a soloist. If I had been…that’s what I’d like to be remembered for – writing and singing one of those songs that everyone recognises, even if they only hear a snatch of it. One of those songs which makes people pause and think, about where they are now, where they were when they first heard it, maybe even how life has changed in between times.

Then name the song.

Ah, that’s the tricky bit. I can’t think of a specific song because I haven’t written it, nor am ever likely to… something on a par with Sweet Dreams Are Made of This (Eurythmics), Crazy Little Thing Called Love (Queen), Sounds of Silence (Simon & Garfunkel) Feelin’ Good (Nina Simone)? Those are a few of the songs which do that for me.

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