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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Interview w/ Karen Miller

Here is another interview for all of you. Thanks to Karen Miller for taking the time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions. I look forward to finishing The Awakened Mage. Here it is:

SD: Thanks for doing this interview with me. I was very glad to receive a response back from you. First, would you tell us a little bit about yourself, such as the basic history of how you came to be a writer, what you've written in the past and recently (fiction or non-fiction), and the like. This is sort of the typical first question just to introduce you to people reading the blog.

KM: And many thanks for asking!
Like a great many writers, I've been scribbling stories for years. Ever since I was a child. My favourite classes in school were English, Composition, Creative Writing. All that stuff. When I left high school I went to university and did a communications degree. One of my majors was Creative Writing. I also majored in Literary Studies and Film
Studies, basically wrapping up my three favourite past times -- reading, writing and watching film/tv drama.
I always always always wanted to be a writer, but it took me a long time to grow into the person I needed to be in order to achieve that goal. While that process was happening I did a lot of different things -- I worked in the public service, the insurance industry, the
telecommunications industry, the publishing industry, I was a PR officer in local government, I worked professionally with horses, I was a college lecturer and I owned/managed by own sf/fantasy/mystery bookshop for several years. That was the last 'regular' job I had before making the leap to professional writing. And while it was
unnerving, not being able to settle, I did gain a lot of useful experiences over those years that have in turn helped my writing. My favourite mantra is: Nothing learned is ever wasted. Or, Who cares if you're bleeding? It's all good copy!
My first professionally published work was in Australia. I wrote three YA light romances. Then I started working on my first fantasy novel, The Innocent Mage. In 2005/6 Innocent Mage and its sequel were published in Australia as the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology, and then went on to be published in the US and UK in 2007. They were followed by my first Stargate novel, Alliances, and my current fantasy trilogy --Godspeaker. Bks 1 and 2 are out in Australia, and they'll be published this year in the US/UK. Bk 3 comes out in Australia in June, and in the US/UK next year.
I've got a new series starting to release in Australia this April, under a pen name. That's also been sold to Orbit, but I don't have any firm release information yet. I've just finished my next Stargate novel, Do No Harm, which is due out in a few months. Once I've completed Godspeaker bk 3 I move on to the next in the pen-name series, and in December I'll deliver the first volume of the sequel duology to the first Kingmaker, Kingbreaker books.
On the whole, it's a good thing I don't mind my own company. *g*
SD: Speaking of Stargate, what is it like writing for shared-worlds? For others out there that don't know what that term means, a shared-world is basically one in which people other than the original creator are allowed to write stories within the world, provided some rules are adhered to. Prime examples would be Dragonlance and Star Wars. So, for you, what were some problems or issues you had in writing for Stargate? Was it hard? How much research did you have to do?

KM: In terms of working with MGM, the parent company who licences the franchise, or with the editors at Fanedomonium -- no troubles at all. My experiences to date have been wonderful. As far as the work being hard is concerned, yes. It's hard work. There's a school of thought in the genre community that says media tie-ins are by definition low-brow crap written by talentless hacks who are too pathetic to write 'real books'. To which I say: really? Honestly -- if you're going to accuse someone of being a talentless hack because they write about worlds and characters they didn't personally create then almost every single tv scriptwriter on the planet is a talentless hack. For the record? Not so much.
I take the Stargate novels I write very seriously because I'm a fan of the show, and before ever I was a professional writer I was a fan. I try to the very best of my ability to get it 'right' in terms of characterisation and dialogue, because I feel my job is to give the reading fans an authentic 'Stargate' experience.
Having said that, though, the single biggest problem with writing fiction based on a tv how is that while all us fans are watching the same show, none of us is 'seeing' the same show. We bring individual biases and beliefs and interpretations to the source material. Which means that for some people, I will never get it right. And I need to make my peace with that. I pretty much have. I'm sad if someone's disappointed with what I've written, but I know I've been true to the show I see to the best of my ability. Whatever I do I make sure I can point to aired material in support of my story -- and boy, I watch and I watch and I watch and then I watch again. I have the show on dvd and it's my constant reference source.

SD: Your biography on your website talks about your various moves in life. Could you talk about what the transition was like when you moved from Canada to Australia and then to England, etc.? What sort of cultural challenges did you face? Was it difficult to adjust? How did this part of your life affect your writing, if at all?

KM: In practical terms, there was no impact because I did all that shifting around when I was a small child. My mum's English and my dad's Australian. They both went to work in Vancouver, Canada, as youngsters.
Ended up in the same street, met and married and had me. When I was around 18 months they shifted to England, but that wasn't working out for Dad, so when I was two they decided to go to Australia, and if he couldn't make it work here they'd go back to Canada. But it did, so here I stayed! I did go and live in the UK myself for three years, after finishing my first degree. That was really wonderful for a lot of different reasons. A lot of stuff that I experienced working professionally with horses found its way into the first two Kingmaker, Kingmaker books -- most particularly, the class structure/barrier/prejudice stuff.

SD: Why did you choose to write fantasy? What about the genre is most appealing to you?

KM: I think fantasy chose me. I've always loved history, ancient and British up to the end of the Tudor Era in the UK especially. But writing in the real world involves restrictions, and in fantasy you're really the only one in the driving seat -- provided you bserve/respect the general tropes and expectations of the genre. So in writing fantasy I get to play with the best of both worlds – larger than life events and themes, a splash of magic, and a chance to explore humanity from a slightly skewed perspective.

SD: Were you influenced by anything in particular to write fantasy, whether in your childhood or in your adult years?

KM: The first fantasy I read was the Narnia series. I was in fourth class primary school (around 5th grade or ages 9-10). I fell in love with those books, and still read them as an adult every so often. After that came Andre Norton, the Tom Swift books, the fairy tales illustrated by Robin Jacques. I watched Lost in Space and Star Trek and all the Irwin Allen sf series. The Hobbit and LOTR. Heinlein. Silverberg. Harrison. Star Wars. I adore popular fiction, genre fiction. SF and fantasy, crime, some romance. I find them exciting and thought provoking and emotionally engaging, and positive, and that's what works for me as a reader and a writer.

SD: What are you currently reading, what do you plan to read, and what have you read in the recent past? Alternately, what are some of your favorite books and authors? And, since your bio mentioned you have an interest in composers like Hans Zimmer and John Williams, what is your favorite soundtrack(s) and do you listen to music while you write?

KM: Right now I'm reading the first Jaz Parks urban fantasy, Once Bitten Twice Shy, by Jennifer Hardin. I don't think I'm the right person to write urban fantasy, but I do enjoy reading it. I recently finished the new Robert B Parker and the new Sue Grafton. I don't read nearly as much as I used to, because after a day in front of the computer my brain needs a break from words. I watch a lot of tv drama on dvd. That feeds my need for story without having to process more words when my brain is in meltdown.
Some of my favourite authors are: Pratchett, Kage Baker, Rachel Caine, George RR Martin, Janet Evanovich, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Jacqueline Carey, Jennifer Cruisie, JD Robb, Kate Elliot, Sara Paretsky, Karen Traviss. That's not an exhaustive list, but they're just some of the people I buy regularly, in hardcover if that's what it takes to get the new book.
I always listen to soundtrack music when I write. Always. I don't have one absolute favourite, but I very much enjoy and regularly play: the Battlestar Galactica soundtracks by Bear McCreary, The DaVinci Code, Gladiator and Pirates soundtracks by Zimmer, Children of Dune by Brian Tyler, Master and Commander by Iva Davies, compilation discs of Williams, plus various soundtracks by James Horner, Thomas Newman,
Gabriel Yared, Rachel Portman. Basically, anything lyrical and beautiful and emotional, but not too much that's bombastic because it tends to pull me out of the writing.

SD: What makes you think you're not the right person to write urban fantasy?

KM: You have to connect on a really fundamental level with the material to do it justice, I think. And while I enjoy reading some urban fantasy I'm not passionately in love with the genre. I can admire the people who do it really well, like Rachel Caine, but that 'click' in the soul isn't there for me.

SD: What are some of your favorite television shows (shows that perhaps influence you, spark inspiration, and simply amaze you)?

KM: Okay ... in no particular order:
The West Wing, New Doctor Who, Shark, Criminal Minds, Waking the Dead, Wire in the Blood, Bones, new Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, Buffy, Angel, Due South, Rome, Deadwood, Farscape, Star Trek (all incarnations), The Shield, Spooks (MI-5), NYPD Blue, Murder One.

SD: Fantasy as a genre has exploded massively as far as production goes. Dozens, if not hundreds of book series are being published these days by new and old authors and ever since the Lord of the Rings films did so well it seems that film companies are buying up every bit of fantasy property they can. How do you feel about this boom in the field? Do you have any concerns about saturation (which has probably already hit the young adult market) or do you see nothing but good news ahead?

KM: I think it' s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's great that the genre is so popular, that people are loving to read it and see it on the big screen and on tv. On the other hand, it is harder to get noticed when the field is so crowded, and there is always the chance
the reading public could get exhausted. But on balance I think it's a good thing. What I love about the spec fic genre is that it's such an elastic field -- there's room for so many different kinds of storytelling, so many interpretations and permutations of what started
out as a fairly narrowly defined style of story. And provided it stays that way, I think its future will be healthy.

SD: The Innocent Mage is book one of a duology. Given the popularity of enormous fantasy series in the market, what made you decide to write it as a two book duology rather than a trilogy, etc.?

KM: I didn't start out to write a duology. I was so uncertain about my ability to write a fantasy novel -- it took me a long time to really get some confidence and self-belief that I could tell a long and complicated story -- that I wrote it originally as a stand alone novel. But it quickly became apparent that I'd massively short-changed the story. After that first version was knocked back by Voyager with some suggestions for a rewrite, I decided to split it in half. I had just enough confidence in myself to do that! And the more I wrote, the more confident I became.

SD: Your approach to magic in this book is one that perhaps is less common, at least among the younger market of fantasy books in which magic is flashy, grand, and often with few limitations at all. In The Innocent Mage, however, it very much touches upon aspects of Tolkien in which magic exists and can be used to great effect (such as with the Wall or even mention of magic in ancient times), but it rarely is. When you set out to work with magic in your story, what did you want to initially do with it? Why did you choose this non-flashy, or at least lightly presented form?

KM: First of all, I think that if you're using magic as a permanent Get Out of Gaol Free card, you're really robbing your story of any true tension and conflict. If it doesn't have limits, if it doesn't come with a hefty price tag, then what's the point? Your characters are never in any true jeopardy, and if they're not in jeopardy my interest as a writer isn't engaged, and I don't think most readers' interest gets engaged either. For me it needs to be a lawed, limited tool, not a sonic screwdriver solution. It's how the characters work within the limits of their powers that makes life interesting, I believe.
In the KK books, the magic is an integral part of the world. It's literally life and death on one level. And it's a mixed blessing for those who have to wield it on that level, because it hurts and it shortens your life. I guess it's like electricity -- it can power a video game or it can keep someone alive on life support. Magic in the KK world can make toys dance, or it can keep a powerful evil at bay and make sure everyone's got enough to eat. It's also a strong social engineering tool. I wanted it to be the driving force of events.

SD: I'll be honest in saying that I absolutely despise Fane. You made me hate her so much it actually made me mad when she was on the page. I don't know if that was your intention, but on that subject, what influences drove you to make her a spoiled rotten, wicked Doranen?

KM: It's funny -- I seem to always have more sympathy for my 'bad' characters than a lot of readers do! *g* Fane's not the nicest person you'll ever meet, I agree. But while her life seems to be charmed on the surface, I think her pain is legitimate. She wasn't born for her
own sake, she was born to replace her defective brother. She was born to serve her father's agenda. From the minute she drew her first breath, her life wasn't her own. And she grew up knowing it never would be. That all her choices were made for her by other people before she was born. So if she's bitter, and a bit twisted, I can't really blame her. But I agree -- she shouldn't have been so mean to Gar.

SD: I'd like to ask you some things about the nature of opposition within your novel. First there is the opposition between Fane and Gar, the most obvious one. Were you conscious of the conditions of this opposition when you began writing The Innocent Mage? What made you want to provide this opposition, which has serious social and political repercussions within the story?
SD: Could you also talk about other oppositions within your story and how you use them to provide political and social tensions between your characters and the society they live in? (Such as the tension between Borne's family and Lord Jarralt's, the differences, socially, between Gar and Asher, and how Asher comes to be seen as an equal, even though he is technically still of a 'lower class' and in some eyes even seen as a 'heathen').

KM: I'm going to answer 10 & 11 together, okay?
In a nutshell: when it comes to drama, opposition creates conflict, which creates tension, which drives a story. So wherever possible I looked for chances to throw opposing agendas/aspirations/personalities/experiences into the mix. If everyone in a story wants the same thing, you don't have a story, really. Or at least, not one as interesting as when the characters are after different things, or all want the same things but have different
methods of achieving them. Exploring those issues is fun as writer and hopefully makes the reading experience fun too.
The difficulties between Gar and Fane have helped to make them the people they are. If they had reacted differently to their respective situations -- if, for example, Fane had not resented Gar, and looked down on him for his deficiencies, perhaps the disasters that take place could've been avoided. She might have figured out what was truly happening to him. But because she turned away from him, she sealed her own fate and the fate of the kingdom.
The social/political divide also drives the story. If magic wasn't used as a way of keeping the two races separate, forcing the levels of secrecy that exist, the bad things that happen might have been avoided.
I think the fact that Gar and Asher are such different personalities makes them a fun 'odd couple' pairing -- and yet what they have in common, difficult family experiences, gives them a bridge that helps them build their friendship. Gar is an outsider in his own community, so he's more easily able to recognise Asher's value on his own terms. He's not blinded the way his own people have been blinded by being able to use magic. So the oppositions he experiences in his life make him able to remove the oppositions between himself and Asher. Which of course is the key to everyone's survival.
As for the conflict between Jarralt and the king, well -- Jarralt looks at him and thinks he could do the job better. Isn't that the story of every political party? *g*

SD: The Olken and Doranen societies have some clear similarities and some clear divisions. When you set out to write about these two cultures, did you intend for them to have similarities as, perhaps, a result of cultural influence? Or were these two always supposed to be seen as two separate entities that simply came to live with one another? Could you talk a little about what you wanted to do with each society and anything that acted as an influence (historical elements you might have read about, etc.)?

KM: They started off as very different cultures, but inevitably over the years there's been some blending. They've been stuck together for a very long time! They're a bit like a Venn diagram really -- two circles with a little bit of overlap. I did do that on purpose, yes. They recognise they need each other, but they also privately (or not so privately) think that they're people are the superior ones. Asher looks down on the Doranen because they don't get their hands dirty. And many of the Doranen look down on the Olken because they lack elegance, they're somehow 'less' because they lack magic. It's all snobbery and
My experiences in the UK working professionally with horses really informed that aspect of the story. As a groom I was essential because I did important work, but I was also despised because I was a servant and 'lacked' things that my employers deemed essential for a person to be socially acceptable. It made for an interesting life.

SD: The ending of The Innocent Mage leaves the audience with a cliffhanger. Some really don't like these sorts of things, but having read the book I have to wonder whether you could have chosen a better place to end the book. Ending when Gar suddenly gains magic would have left the audience with some annoyance, I think, because it could potentially come off as 'deus ex machina'-ish. The logical place to end is where you ended it. Did you have problems with finding the best way to end The Innocent Mage? What about other parts of the book? Were there any points where you weren't sure what to do next?

KM: As I mentioned, in its original incarnation this was a stand alone novel. When I realised I needed to break it in two, that literal cliff-hanger moment seemed the most logical. Also, it was the back end of the original version that needed the most work in terms of expanding the story.

SD: What are some of your writing habits and what advice would you offer to any budding writers out there about their own writing and about the publishing world?

KM: Right now, my writing habits are chaotic and insane and I don't recommend them to any smart person. *g* I'm writing every day, all day, almost every waking moment. That's because life got a bit complicated last year and I ended up having two novels due to due
different editors at the same time. Note to self: NEVER AGAIN.
When life isn't so insane, I write 6 days a week, anywhere between 3 and 4 thousand words a day. Around the core writing time I do research, maintain the website, the livejournal, keep up with friends, read other people's books, think about upcoming projects.
For anyone who's still on the road to publication, I'd say:
1 – learn to read and watch film/tv analytically. Deconstruct the stories you're taking in, to find out what does and doesn't work for you, so you can use the positive elements to your advantage.
2 -- lose any defensive attitude you have about your work. The only way you improve as a writer is to open yourself up to criticism.
3 -- don't submit your work too soon. Nine times out of ten when you think it's ready, it isn't. It is NEVER ready when it's still in first draft mode.
4 -- if you're writing spec fic, join a group like the Online SFF Writers' Workshop. I
recommend this group because I got my start there, with a lot of great feedback and encouragement. Not only do you get your work critiqued by other writers who love the genre, you get to critique other works in progress. And that will teach you a lot about the craft of writing. It's vital.
5 -- not everyone who wants to write publishable fiction can do it, just like not everyone who wants to win American Idol can sing. But if you *do* have the basic elements of fiction writing in you, then write. And write. And write some more. Never give up.

SD: I recently spoke to Jennifer Rahn about what it was like working with a small press and I'd like to ask you the same question about working with a larger press like Orbit. What was or is the experience like? What do you think are some advantages of larger presses over smaller presses, if any? Would you publish with a smaller press or are you pretty happy with your relationship to Orbit? Also, could you talk a little about your experience with Voyager?

KM: I'm not able to make any comment about small press, because I've never worked with them. I know some folk who've had horrible experiences, and others who've had a great time. Whoever you're looking to work with, as a writer, you should do your homework on them before becoming partners.
I can say that my experiences with Voyager and Orbit have been fabulous. I consider myself blessed with both my publishers. I have a wonderful personal relationship with both of my editors, who are so incredibly supportive of me and my writing aspirations. Given that publishing can be a volatile business -- incredibly so, in some cases -- I have been spoiled rotten. Long may it continue!
I know I sound like a press release, but it's true. I adore them both.

SD: I noticed that Orbit titled your second book "The Awakened Mage", but Voyager has it titled "Innocence Lost". Why was the title of the book changed, or if you don't know could you possibly speculate?

KM: Orbit felt they wanted more punch in the title. Since they're the marketing experts, I'm happy to defer.

SD: Now for a random question: What one thing from a fantasy world, either your won or someone else's, would you like to become a reality?

KM: A holodeck.

Thanks again to Karen and I hope everyone enjoys this!

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  1. Great interview again :) It's very interesting to hear their stories & become more knowledgeable about the writing industry. An aspiring author learns a great deal from another's experience.

    I also have to agree a "holodeck" in real life would be totally awesome which brings me back to checking out Wil Wheaton's blog often too ...

    Take Care!

  2. OMG, that's the actor guy again. I miss his movies. *saves his blog for later*