Let’s start with an introduction, for new readers: Who is Helen Lowe?
Thank you, for hosting me on Civilian Reader, Stefan. In terms of “who I am”: I’m a novelist, poet, and occasional interviewer. So far, the only idea I’ve ever had for a novel has come to me in speculative fiction mode, i.e. as fantasy, science fiction, or legendary history, but I write short fiction in a wider range of genres. Outside of writing, I live in “Middle Earth”, aka New Zealand, and I am interested in a range of “stuff”, from astronomy and history, through martial arts, to wine – especially NZ wines – and making and consuming food, the latter in the company of friends whenever possible.
Your latest novel, Daughter of Blood, was published earlier this year by Orbit (UK) and Voyager (US). It’s the third in your fantasy series, but how would you introduce the series to a potential reader?
Well, the Twitter-length synopsis for the series is that it’s a story about a people who believe themselves to be champions of good but are divided by prejudice, suspicion, and fear. (Not to mention xenophobic, socially rigid, and prone to fratricidal blood feuds.) They are also alien to the world they inhabit (Haarth), so there’s an SF-nal element there. The Wall of Night series is a single story told in four distinct parts, but it centres on a young woman, Malian of Night (think ‘princess’, not ‘farm girl’), who must attempt to reunite her fractured people (the Derai) and restore their abandoned magic, as well as building alliances with the other cultures of Haarth, in order to prevent the world being destroyed by (another) alien invader.
At face value, therefore, The Wall of Night is classic epic fantasy, with not just a world but possibly a universe to be saved, two central protagonists — Malian and her sidekick, Kalan — with destinies, and the full array of quests, weapons of power, prophecies and portents to satisfy any epic fantasy lover. Magic — of the chaotic, dreamlike kind — is a potent force throughout, but I would also call the Wall series “adventurous fantasy” because flights, rooftop pursuits, single combats and melees, tournaments, battles and sieges play a large part in the story.
At it’s heart, though, The Wall of Night is about people, not just what they do but who they are — and how what they do affects them as the story progresses. So if I were to apply a NZ Maori whakatauki (proverb) to the question: “‘what is the most important thing in the world’ (He aha te mea nui o te ao) of this story?” the reply would be:
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata: it is people, it is people, it is people.
What can fans expect from the third book?
Again, the Twitter synopsis goes something like: “Intrigue, war, & friendship in the face of darkness as two heroes race against time to find a lost shield and solve a 400 year-old mystery.”
However, in view of where readers left Malian and Kalan at the end of The Gathering of the Lost, I believe it would be reasonable to expect a return to the Wall of Night, at least for one of them. I have already mentioned single combats, flights, alarms, and military assaults, but readers could also expect Malian to be grappling with the implications of her new alliance with a former enemy, the Prince of the House of Fire. Readers can expect plenty of intrigue arising from the enmities between the Derai Houses, but there is also that four-hundred-year-old mystery to be solved – and of course the last of Malian’s inheritance of three legendary weapons to be found. I can also promise a cavalry charge (and its captain) that beta readers would not allow me to cut from the book, the return of at least one further character from The Heir of Night; and the introduction of two additional leading characters, Faro and Myr – the titular Daughter of Blood.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I am not sure that I was inspired to write the series, as such: it was more that the story kept waking me up at nights until I finally gave in and started writing seriously! Although if I look back I can see an array of influences over a considerable period: for example, the instant tropical nightfalls of Singapore in my early childhood that first sparked the idea of a dark world, which was then further shaped and refined by the Norse myths, in particular, but also the Celtic Mabinogion. Other influences around cultural interaction and difference may stem more from my junior and teen years living in a remote and predominantly Maori community in NZ’s King Country where the legacy of the “NZ” or “Land” Wars of the colonial period was still very real and lying just beneath the surface of everyday life.
But I don’t believe there is ever any one source of inspiration for any story. The creative source is a melange and a melting point—or as Ursula Le Guin would say, “The world’s full of stories, you just reach out.”
Three books in, what lessons have you learned from the process of writing and plotting the series? Is there anything you wish you could have done differently?
I think the most profound lesson I have learned is that even when you are telling one story in four parts, every book is different and you have to approach it that way from the start. Again to quote Ursula Le Guin, “the boat of story… knows its course” but it’s also highly unlikely to follow the same route a second time. So as a writer I have had to learn to listen to the story and what it’s telling me about the course it’s charted—which may not be at all the same path I was proposing to take, even if it is to reach the same destination (which so far has proven to be the case.)
To be honest, though, I think that’s rather wonderful—and who would want to write the same book a second time, anyway? And it’s that difference between each book that allows both your story and writing to grow.
At a more prosaic level, another lesson I learned very early on with the Wall series is that the more point-of-view characters you add in the bigger your story will get. Just sayin’.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
As far back as I can remember, I loved fairy stories, and from there advanced to first the Greek and then the Norse (and then the Egyptian, and then… I think I may have stopped actively seeking out new material around the Babylonian and the Epic of Gilgamesh.) The first actual Fantasy book I can recall reading, at around age eight, was CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — unless I count Mary Poppins, which I probably should. Yet although an established Fantasy reader from early on, my first distinctly SF novel was Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer, read at about age thirteen, which together with some Bradbury short stories read around the same time cemented my interest in SciFi.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I love writing, even when the going gets tough, which it very often does. In terms of “working within the publishing industry” writers are not employees, of course, in the way my editors, publicists and so on are. However, to the extent that authors are very much part of the wider industry — in fact, to be fair, without authors there would be no industry — I think it’s like anything else you do, with pluses and minuses depending on the circumstances.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I try and keep to a routine, a key part of which is to actually write (not including other writing-related activities, like answering interviews, for example) for twenty hours per week – or at least be at my desk with the intention of writing. So four hours a day, five days a week is the minimum when I’m implementing that routine, although life, in that way it has, does sometimes get in the way. When that happens, I take the time I can get.
Another specific practice is to always read over and revise what I have written the previous day, before writing forward. As regards research, though, I undertake this as required for the story, which for Daughter of Blood included topics as diverse as armor and weapons, and accounts of historical sieges and assaults, including tactics employed and ‘side issues’ such as wounds and their treatment. In The Gathering of the Lost (The Wall of Night Book Two) one topic I researched quite extensively was how far horses might travel in a specified period, given their condition, the terrain, and the availability of water and food.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I believe I started wanting to write almost as soon as I started reading independently. The first thing I recall writing was a poem about crocuses that was hugely derivative of William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” (aka “the daffodils” poem), thus proving, I suspect, that imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. I was around eight years old at that time. Shortly after that, though, I started writing plays that were more original, despite still riffing off fairytale and folklore origins. In terms of whether I look back fondly — I am not sure “fond” is the right word, although I did laugh immoderately over some angst-ridden teenage poetry that I rediscovered recently.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I am not sure I have an opinion of the genre today, to be honest. In terms of where my books fit in—well, in addition to being “epic” and “adventuorus” fantasy, as I averred above, they probably also sit in the “high” fantasy quadrant of the genre compass. The series has been praised for the number and variety of leading female characters, and for both the cultural and SF-nal nuances to the story, as well as for its worldbuilding and character development. But overall, I believe a story “is what it is” and readers must make up their own minds.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on The Chaos Gate, The Wall of Night Book Four, which will complete the series. Obviously that’s my major creative focus, although I recently had three poems appear in Leaving the Red Zone (Clerestory Press), an anthology published to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 2011 earthquake that devastated my home city of Christchurch. I was honoured, too, that one of my three poems was chosen for the back cover.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
Both! I am checking out Leaving the Red Zone a poem at a time, but am also reading a non-fiction publication, Identity and the Natural Environment: The Psychological Significance of Nature (The MIT Press), and a friend has given me Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (The Women’s Press.)
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I am unquestionably the world’s least surprising person.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Right now, I am really looking forward to a ‘special’ getaway to an eco lodge (a ‘first’ in itself) in the heart of NZ’s Abel Tasman National Park. The park is in a region of NZ I have never visited (Golden Bay), so that in itself is an adventure, and there are no roads, you have to walk, boat, or helicopter in, so there’s more adventure right there—and no wifi or internet so completely “away from it all.” Needless to say, I am already looking forward to it immensely. As for whether a story may or may not come of it, that’s in the hands of the muses… But I hope they may prove kind.
Bio: Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet, interviewer, and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night Series, Book Three), is recently published. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, occasionally on SF Signal, and is also on Twitter.