Wednesday, September 9, 2009

An Interview with Kate Elliott / Alis Rasmussen

Yep, for those of you who didn’t know, ‘Kate Elliott’ is not a real person. :-) Hehehe you know what I mean. :-)

First off, welcome to the South African SFF-reading public, Alis (Kate), and thank you for doing this interview! :-)
Would you please tell us a bit about yourself?

I breathe. I write. I am a parent. I have great parents. I’m married. I paddle outrigger canoes for exercise and focus and meditation . . . oh, maybe you meant about the books? I don’t actually talk about myself much in public. I’m a fairly private person, and I really put everything in my books. That’s not to say that the main characters are some iteration of me, or that I have an agenda when I write, or anything like that, but just that for me I try to make sense of the world and of the human condition by writing fiction. I also write to entertain myself. And, I consider writing a kind of addiction or disorder, but mostly in a positive way, because when the writing is going well it’s just about the best thing ever, it’s like being in an altered state where words are simply flowing through you. If you’re in the zone, you are totally in the moment and not struggling or exhausted. It’s like a form of joy without strictly being joy, a state of being without future or past but right here right now. What’s not to love? I mean, besides the parts of writing where you are struggling and/or exhausted and/or discouraged? The key is that I am very stubborn. That more than anything has allowed me to continue writing over the years.

Do you sometimes think it unfair that you had to publish under a different name to see your novels on the shelf?

I figure I’m already extremely fortunate to be doing what I’m doing, and to be doing it full-time (not having to have another paid job), and to have had 18 novels published so far, with my nineteenth due to be published in August 2009. For me, it’s always been about the work. I don’t much care what name it’s published under. Honestly, what a pleasure and a dream it is–despite all the hard work and tearing out of hair and beating one’s head bloody against the wall when things aren’t going well and all the doubts and fears and setbacks and indeed the entire staggering degree of uncertainty and (impermanence)–to be a working writer.

Will you please give us an overview of your body of work for those who have not yet read ‘Kate Elliott’? The novels and their subject matter?

I think many readers would suggest that I’m best known, and best read for, character and world building. I would say that every book I’ve written has been about cultures in the process of change, and how cultures meet and interact (sometimes violently, sometimes peacefully, and everything in between). They’ve been about other things as well, but my mother is herself an immigrant and my father was a history teacher, so perhaps my thematic interest in this vein was inevitable.


The first four Kate Elliott books are the Novels of the Jaran: Jaran (volume one); An Earthly Crown and His Conquering Sword (volumes two and three, but, confusingly, actually a duology whose over-title is The Sword of Heaven); The Law of Becoming. I facetiously like to call this sf series Genghis Khan meets Jane Austen on the set of Lawrence of Arabia. Jaran has a strong love story component, although it’s also about politics and adventure; the later books really open up outward to deal with ideas about empire, cultural change, a young man’s coming of age, a girl’s coming of age, war, colonialism, theater, sex, and so on. I guess you could call it anthropological sf.

Crown of Stars is a seven volume epic fantasy series. It’s epic fantasy, so: war, magic, and politics; also, I try to highlight the lives of ordinary people whose lives are disrupted by the goings-on around them. Also: dogs. I love dogs.

Crossroads is a trilogy (Spirit Gate, Shadow Gate, Traitors’ Gate), also epic fantasy. It has less overt magic and is more about the meeting and mingling of cultures, as people from one region are exiled into a land called the Hundred, which is under assault by a mysterious army that seems to have risen from within the Hundred. There are reeves who patrol on giant eagles, and the vanished Guardians, whose role in the growing chaos is greater than people at first realize. Oddly, there are no dogs in this book. Oh, wait, we glimpse some dogs in book one whose descendants we will meet in a later trilogy.

Your body of work in Fantasy is amazing: is there any particular project that remains close to your heart?

That’s like asking if there is one of my children I love better than the others, isn’t it? I could find at least one thing in each book I’ve written that I love about that particular book more than any of the other books–a scene, a detail, a conversational exchange, whatever. There may be a few books whose line-up of favorite things is longer than some of the others, but beyond that I am sure I love them all equally.

I suspect that the project closest to my heart at any given time is the one I’m currently working on, because it is what is absorbing me in the moment.

What have you found to be the best way of relaxing during or between projects? Have you ever wanted to just pull your hair out and demand more hours in the day from the universe?

I’m in a constant wrestle with the universe about the lack of enough time to get all the things done I want to get done. I may not always be actually writing, but I’m always thinking about writing, about character, about plot, about craft, about research, about world building; it never ends.

Having said that, the two best ways for me to relieve stress are

1) reading. I’m one of those people for whom reading is profoundly relaxing, to the degree that reading can put me to sleep because I stop thinking about what is outside myself and focus only on the flow of words.

2) paddling (or exercise–I used to do martial arts, for example, but right now paddling outrigger canoes is my obsession). Being out on the ocean is the single most stress-releasing activity I know. There’s something about being out on the waves, feeling the pattern of the swells and the weight of the vast, knowing that beyond the horizon lie thousands of miles of ocean, and being fully focused on the moment–the water, the sky, and the necessary attention to put your blade in the water at the same time as the rest of the crew–that makes it possible to leave everything else behind. Also, very occasionally the breaks will be just right that we can catch a wave in our six-man canoe, and those seconds of surfing in a big canoe are pretty amazing, too. Also, we commonly see sea turtles, and I’ve also seen dolphins and a whale and her calf close up. The ocean puts you in your place in the great scheme of the universe, and somehow that makes me feel better.

Have you ever done any physical training, such as with weapons, while doing research for a particular novel?

I grew up in a rural area; I have some experience doing outdoor work–for instance, I’ve moved irrigation pipe in a pasture with a bull, although he was a very good-natured placid bull–and I was raised in a house heated with a wood stove whose wood we supplied through our own labor. So for instance, in Book Three of Crown of Stars (The Burning Stone), I spend a paragraph describing Prince Sanglant splitting wood in part because that activity is such an essential part of living in that world (one often ignored or neglected) and in part because it’s an activity I myself enjoyed. In general I try in my fiction to remember the work involved on a day to day basis to stay alive in a society where there aren’t supermarkets and gas stations and ready-to-wear clothing purchased in department stores.

While I haven’t specifically done any physical training *while* doing research for a particular novel in order to teach myself something that is in that novel, I have always been athletic and have done physical training and sports for my own pleasure, some of which were martial arts. I practiced Shotokan Karate for about four years, and the heroine of my Highroad Trilogy (published under Alis A. Rasmussen) is a karateka (although I hasten to add that she is nothing like me and is in no way an avatar of myself; I saw the opportunity to use what I knew within the context of the story). I’ve done medieval broadsword fighting, so I can honestly say that I met my husband in a sword fight. A number of the battles in Crown of Stars are adapted from melees and battles that either I or my husband fought in while participating in the Society for Creative Anachronism some years ago. Without the actual killing and dying part, which I feel it’s well to remember which I hasten to add makes such fighting very much less than “real.” But in terms of weight and movement on a field, one can learn something from that experience.

Look for paddling and canoes to show up in some context in a future novel, maybe Crossroads #4.

With such a sustained emergence of Fantasy authors continuously entering the market, do you think that a saturation point may be reached?

No. Not unless people stop reading. I think the problem comes with figuring out who to read out of the many titles that are available. It’s easy for interesting books to get overlooked in a crowded marketplace. But this–visibility and access–is part of the connected world that is still being sorted out.

You must have been on many book tours and have had to sign many books: is there any tour that stands out in particular, one that you really enjoyed?

While I’ve done a number of bookstore signings, I’ve only been on two book tours, the first for The Golden Key (co-written with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson) in 1996, and the second in Fall 2006 for the release of Spirit Gate, shared with Melanie Rawn for her release Spellbinder.

I find touring difficult and tiring; I’m not an extrovert and while I really enjoy and appreciate meeting readers, I don’t thrive in the constant “on stage” environment. I thank all the readers I’ve met who’ve been kind enough to come out to see me.

With fantasy changing as a genre and the emphasis turning to grittier, un-formulaic storylines, what do you feel began this shift, and do you see it as a good or a bad thing?

Change is a thing, neither good nor bad. Change is inevitable. To paraphrase Heracleitus, “no one can step into the same river twice.” People’s tastes, interests, and the way they approach writing has changed as society has changed. Glen Cook’s Black Company series was perhaps a harbinger; I also believe C. J. Cherryh’s writing has done a lot to influence the current “grittier” state of the field. Those are just two off the top of my head.

I think we’re in a golden age of fantasy writing, both adult and YA (young adult). There’s so much great stuff being published, far too much for any one person to read, but I’m delighted to have the chance to try. This is a wonderful time to be reading fantasy. Maybe that’s the definition of a saturated market: there are too many good books for me to have the time to read them all.

However, I’m not convinced the grittier storylines are necessarily less formulaic. A certain kind of grittiness seems awfully formulaic to me from my perspective as–let’s be blunt–a 50 year old woman who has seen a bit of life in her time. I’ve developed a bit of a jaundiced view of certain kinds of what I would call societally masculine-gendered fixations, or the idea that certain things are shocking or non formulaic when they strike me as obvious or predictable. I think it’s often a matter of where you’re standing. I still see sexism — less overt, usually, than in days of yore and often arising mostly out of unthought-through assumptions or because of simply not “seeing” or taking notice of entire swathes of human activity — in 21st century science fiction and fantasy. Also, modern life skates over plenty of things that folk in older days could not take for granted, and sometimes that skating translates into the fiction in ways that make certain kinds of “grit” seem not just predictable but a bit shallow. There are matters of taste involved as well. Things that don’t strike me as surprising may strike a different reader as revelatory, and that’s as it should be. We’re not all supposed to have the same tastes or reactions. In fact, few things irritate me as much as a certain kind of reader who would like to mandate what others ought to be liking. So–bring on the grit. I love it. Just don’t try to convince me that it is somehow inherently more stunningly original than other stuff.

Thank you, Alis, for giving up some of your time for this interview, and for the wonderful worlds and characters you’ve taken us too and shared with us! :-)

To get more info on Kate / Alis, visit her website here; to order her books, click here for US, here for UK, and for those in SA, please use the link at the top of the page.

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