My interview with Robin Hobb

Two weeks ago at SFContario in Toronto, I had the chance to sit down with the lovely Robin Hobb, and to interview her.

We spoke of her previous and current novels, choosing between first and third-person for telling a story, 250 page limits for novels, the release of the next novel in The Fitz and the Fool trilogy, and more.

I hope you enjoy!

 

[Transcript: For convenience, R = Rebecca (me), and RH = Robin Hobb]

R: Hello, I am here with Robin Hobb!

For readers that are new to you, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?

RH: I write fantasy epics, I guess you could say. It’s really hard to classify within fantasy exactly what you’re writing because it tends to wander. Previously, I wrote for children at the beginning of my children, then broke in writing novels as Megan Lindholm. But, when I moved into a different slice of fantasy, I took on another pseudonym, which is Robin Hobb.

R: Yeah, and I think that’s what most readers know you as now.

RH: Oh yes, absolutely. The Megan Lindholm books have been out of print for years and years now. So unless you’re an avid collector and are willing to hunt them down, you’re not going to find them.

R: Alright. I believe that you wrote a short story that came out recently as Megan Lindholm…?

RH: Yes. I’ve continued to write short stories as Megan Lindholm for some time. Mostly for the magazines, usually Asimov’s, and for some anthologies. But, I haven’t done a Megan Lindholm novel for years and year. I would like to, but there simply isn’t that many hours in the day.

R: Okay, and you last wrote about Fitz and the Fool in 2003, I think it was.

RH: That sounds about right.

R: Did you know you’d be coming back all these years later, or had you planned on ending it there?

RH: When I ended it, I think a lot of very astute readers picked up on all the clues that were left, that yes, there was more to come in the story. There’s even a phrase toward the end where I speak about how the minstrel pauses to catch his breath before he sweeps into the final chorus. I got a lot of emails about that saying, “Okay, when is this going to happen exactly?”

So some readers who were really reading every detail of the book would definitely have picked up that there was more to come. Chronologically, time had to pass, rather than write it out of order. The Rain Wilds Chronicles had to come in there too, and it’s time now to write the story.

R: And do you think you’ll be writing more after this trilogy?

RH: I’m so focussed on writing this trilogy that I haven’t allowed myself to look up and say, “Well, what would be after this?” I’ve got at least another year-and-a-half to two years, if you count all the copy editing and proofreading before these two books will be done. So, right now I’m not thinking about it. The danger for me, as a writer, is that when you hit the hard part of the book. that other idea that looks like it would be such a quick and easy story to write, always comes knocking at your door.

I’ll take a moment and open up a file, write a new note, and close the file. I can’t let myself be distracted. I’m not one of those writers who can work on several projects at once. I really need to focus on just one.

R: Alright, and I think many people would agree that the Fitz and Fool friendship is one of the better written ones out there. Characterization is definitely one of your strong points. What’s your process for creating your characters, and the writing process around that?

RH: I think a lot of character creation happens in a part of my brain that I don’t necessarily have conscious access to. With Fitz especially, it was like he stepped out into the spotlight on a darkened stage and started talking. As he spoke, the spotlight enlarged and I could see more and more of the world around him.

It always begins with a character for me. Many of the characters in the book have grown and changed. They really do seem to generate in a part of my mind that I do have conscious access to.

R: Okay, and are you more of a discovery writer or an outliner? Because I know the Fool was supposed to be a one line thing.

RH: It’s a combination. This is a comparison that I’ve used before, so readers might be familiar with it. But it’s like when you’re out in the woods, and you’re on a ridge… The valley below you is full of fog, and you can see the next ridge with the rock sticking up, and you know you have to get to it. When you look down through the fog, you can see maybe the top of a very big tree, or a large rock, or a place where there’s moving water, and you know, you have to hit those points before you get to the next ridge.

But everything in-between those points in enshrouded in mist. So, all of the adventures along the way aren’t necessarily spelled out to me, but I do know the ending point. I’ve known the ending point of this trilogy probably since I first started writing Assassin’s Apprentice, so it’s been a very long arc of knowing eventually where Fitz would end up.

R: Okay, yeah… That’s quite a long journey… It’s been a couple years.

RH: Oh, about twenty.

R: So, what were some of your biggest influences when you started getting into the industry; fantasy writing in general?

RH: There’s a lot of influences that aren’t fantasy, or that we no longer think of as fantasy. I read a lot of myths and legends and fairy tales when I was small. I read a lot of [Rudyard] Kipling. A lot of adventure stories, whether it’s Kidnapped, or Treasure Island, or Mysterious Island… A lot of adventure storytelling.

When I came to The Lord of the Rings, it was at the perfect time for me to read that, and it was the perfect time for me at that age, at that time. For me, it was a watershed event, it was life-changing. I had never read a story that was that long, that intricate, that detailed, that was a fantasy. Where the characters were taken seriously, and they had names, and you cared about what happened to them.

Up until then, what I had experienced were myths and legends – fairy tales where sometimes the prince or the princess don’t even have names. They’re simple the prince or the princess. So, to encounter these characters who all obviously had previous histories and lives outside the border of the book – to realize that that could be done with fantasy, was an amazing revelation to me. I think the next one that I read after that, which resonated that strongly with me were two works by Peter S. Beagle, A Fine and Private Place, which was the first novel he ever wrote, and The Last Unicorn.

But I really had a hard time for a number of years to find fantasy that took the story as seriously. There were a lot of ones that were full of pratfalls and silliness, and humour, which is fun but it lessens the impact that you feel if the character is hurt or disappointed.

It’s like the difference between Saturday morning cartoons and a movie. Tolkien was the one that made me realize what you could do with depth and breadth in fantasy.

R: And now we’ve also seen the fantasy genre expand a lot more, especially in the last few years. There just seems to be so much out there.

RH: It’s grown hugely. One of the odd things, when I started writing paperback fantasies, is that I was told that a paperback binding would not hold more than 250 pages. I was definitely —  like the Beatles’ song — a paperback writer. And so, no matter how much I might want to expand my story, I had to be able to tell it in that number of words and pages.

When you’re writing fantasy, where you have not only a plot, and character development, but you also have setting – it’s like this third element which mainstream writers don’t really have to deal with. If they say it’s a 1970s Chevrolet, that immediately comes to you with a whole lot of impact. Whereas if I want to describe that the horse and cart that they picked up is not going to get too far, I need to put in enough detail that the reader picks that up. So, I really admire the fantasy writers of the generation who wrote to that length and told such amazing stories where every sentence is freighted with character development, and setting, and plot all-in-one.

When Robert Jordan came along, and proved that yes, you could have a much bigger binding on a paperback, that kind of loosened the bonds for the rest of us. And we finally had the space in which to paint the world as well as tell you who is in it, and what they’re doing.

R: Yeah, I would say that him writing a 750-800 page novel would kind of break the 250 page barrier.

RH: When I first saw those in the shelf, there was nothing else on the shelf that was that size. It was ‘what is that thing?’

R: Building bricks. And, do you have any advice for beginning writers, or those seeking to get published for the first time?

RH: Those are two different animals. A beginning writer is someone who is realizing that they have that creative obsession that leads us to sit down and write on paper, and believe that somebody else is going to find what you wrote to be interesting.

They’re writers from the beginning. The thing to do is to sit down and write; to write every day, and to finish what you write. That’s the hardest part for a beginning writer. I don’t know how many footlockers you could fill with my spiral notebooks of unfinished books that I wrote all the way through my teens and early twenties. I think the hardest part is recognizing that you have to have an end to the story. Which means making those final decisions, and saying: “This is really what happened.”

Now, luckily, today with word processors it’s so much easier to change your mind than when you had to go back and rewrite the last 200 pages. You can cut and paste, you can take this piece, and toss that piece out… but, you have to make the commitment to finish what you write.

For people who are attempting to get published: I’m kind of a dinosaur. I came to publishing when it was ‘make sure that your typewriter ink ribbon was fresh so that you had nice black characters of white paper, and clean your keys before you start, and make sure you include a self-addressed stamped envelope so that the editor can send your story back if they decide not to publish it, so you don’t have to retype the whole thing… and always keep a carbon-copy.’

So, most of the things that I learned as a beginning writer are laughable now. I am not extremely familiar with self-publishing. I’ve seen some people become very successful at it. It’s a different pathway, it’s not a pathway to be sneered at just because it’s not traditional publishing. I am very happy living in traditional publishing. I have no reason to want to leave it, and strike out and publish my own work.

For me to give advice to writers that are seeking to become published, I think there’s a whole array of opportunities and decisions that are open to them that I never had to face. There was only one pathway, other than vanity publishing at the time. Which, who could afford that?

R: Even still, I think there are options to do that…

RH: But print-on-demand is very different from the old form of vanity publishing. You weren’t printing copies until they were actually ready to be sold. There’s just a lot of opportunities out there. They’d probably get better advice from a website.

R: Alright, I just figured I would ask.

When you’re writing, how do you decide whether a story should be told in first or third-person?

RH: I always prefer the first-person, if it can be told that way. For me, it’s the natural story telling voice. It’s the voice we use when we talk to our families in the evening, or when your mom is telling you about what things were when she was a kid, or when something goes wrong… It’s really “I did this,” and “I saw that”. It is the most intimate voice.

It brings the reader into the story, in a way. They might come kicking and screaming, but they can’t stay outside because they’re in the heroes head. The limits are, of course, that you can only tell the reader exactly what the hero knows. But, if the hero was going to be present at all of the key scenes, that’s my preferred voice.

I switch to third-person when I’m writing a story where the action is going to be taking place in different geographical locations, where they can’t possibly communicate across the distances, or where you wouldn’t want to have somebody telling someone else what happened today over a phone call; you want it to be very immediate. So then I carefully select the characters whom are going to be at those action points, and give each of them their own point-of-view. Then, my preference is to write a very tight point-of-view, where even though I’m saying: “She did this,” and, “he thought that”, in any given scene, you will only be with one character, in their mind, looking through their eyes. You will not have a conversation where I suddenly switch from my point-of-view, to your point-of-view, and then back.

It’s a personal preference. Some people do that and they do it very well, or they do the omniscient where they’re looking down in time, and they can tell you everything, and they can tell you that “meanwhile over the hill, the armies are massing.” But, I prefer the first-person first, and then a very tight third-person point-of-view.

R: Have you ever started writing a story with one of those, and then found out after you had started, that it had to be the other way?

RH: I think the most ill-advised and ambitious thing I did was to write in first-person present-tense, and I will never do that again. It was absolutely exhausting – that would be Cloven Hooves. But, there may come a point where you look at things and say: Well, now what am I going to do? Because what’s happening in the next room is going to have a huge effect. You then have to make a choice. I’ve never had to go back and rewrite a whole book to be in third-person, but I could imagine it happening. I just hope it never happens to me.

R: Hopefully not, that would be quite a lot of work.

RH: It’s a tremendous amount of work, and the amount of rewriting that writers do – writing is invisible work. Even a painter, sometimes you can stop and watch somebody paint, and realize what goes into that one painting that goes into the cover of a book, or is hung in a hotel wall… You can watch other artists at work, sculpting and all that. But if you watch a writer, all you’re going to see is someone typing. The nuances – the retyping, the erasing, the cut and paste, all the rest of it – it’s really invisible work. Sometimes it’s really hard to justify, “It took you 5 years to write that many pages?”

Well, it took me 5 years to write the pages that I’m going to share with the world, and to find out which ones they were.

R: Especially as well – when you mentioned invisible writing, made me think, the best books are the ones that drag you into the story, where you’re no longer seeing the words, but just the story.

RH: Stephen King says you fall into the hole on the page. That’s of course, what all of us try and do to you.

R: Fall down the rabbit hole…

I don’t think any of your books have been optioned for TV or movie, have they..?

RH: There have been options. An option is simply an agreement that they can try to develop it. The options usually have a time-clause in it: “You have the right for two years to see if you can get everything you need to get this into a movie.” A couple of times, various books have been optioned. It’s always happens though, that it doesn’t come to much.

The process of a story becoming a movie is a lot more complicated than people realize. I certainly didn’t understand it until one of my children went into film. All of the people that are involved – when you sit at the end of a movie, and you watch those credits scroll past, and scroll past, and scroll past, and you realize what a huge team it takes to make a movie. The person who options it has to get all those people on board. A good director, a producer who comes up with the money, and get the locations, and the actors, and agree on the script, and figure out what has to been changed, and what to leave in, and what do you leave out.

I’m happy for my books to be books. Would I want one to be a movie? I wash back and forth on that quite a bit. I personally don’t have the skills to oversee something like that. So, for me, it would be: Take the money, then open your hand and let it go, and realize that whatever is not that screen, be it big or small, is not going to be your book. It’s going to be somebody else’s experience of having your story. So, I go back and forth on it. It’s something that would be an interesting experience, and on any given day I’d probably give a different answer.

R: Alright, cause more and more we’re seeing TV shows and movies based off of series. So, it seems to be that it’s becoming more –

RH: I think a short story translates better to a movie than a novel does, simply because of the amount of information which can be conveyed in an hour and a half through visuals and dialogue. So much had to be left out of The Lord of the Rings, and so much had to be – in many ways to explain as you went along, things that were told not in dialogue, in books. I really enjoyed those movies, they’re tremendously beautiful, but at the same time, if you give me two hours to do something and it’s a choice between picking up a book, and watching a movie… I will probably find a warm spot, and a dog, and pick up a book.

R: And also, you recently did a reread of your books. What was the most surprising thing you came across?

RH: Oh… I would hit scenes that I did not remember writing at all, and scenes where I’d go, “Why did I put this in here, and what was the outcome?” I can tell you the main plot of everything, of course, but it was the little side excursions into relationships and things; the pieces that, for me, were really important to make the readers care about the characters, but I didn’t always remember each individual scene that I wrote. I would say that there were quite a few moments where I was saying, “Why did I put this in?” And then I’d reach a point, and say, “Oh yeah! It’s because this detail, 50 pages later, was going to be important.”

R: Okay… and my next question is slightly evil, but I was told to you ask you this.

Of all your characters, which one is your favourite?

RH: Oh, that’s like asking a parent, who your favourite child is.

R: Yes.

RH: I really am fond of Fitz and the Fool. I’ve known them now for 20 years, so they’re like old friends. But every character is my favourite when I’m writing that particular character, when I’m in that character’s skin, and experiencing that scene through the character. I think if there was any character that I found unpleasant or boring, it would be very very hard to write that character. So, even when it’s a character I don’t agree with, and I don’t like what they’re doing… I find them interesting enough, and intriguing enough, that I want to write from their point-of-view and follow their thought process.

I think you have to do that. If you don’t love every character; if you don’t love your villains, and agree with them when you’re wearing their skin, it’s really hard to make them convincing.

R: Mmhm. You can’t just say: That guy is bad, and he’s just bad because he’s dark and evil.

RH: And he’s going to conquer the world, nyahahaha, because he loves evil. You know, those stories were fine when I was 8-9, 11-12, and you just wanted to have the bad guy be the bad guy, and nothing more… because that’s so understandable.

As I’ve gotten older, I want my bad guys to have motivation, and to have existed before they became bad guys, and to even have parts of their lives where they’re actually pretty nice fellows.

R: And where they don’t just stand around for a chapter or so, explaining their evil plans before they do it.

RH: Exactly, exactly.

R: Do you know, by any chance, as to when we can look forward to seeing the next book in this trilogy?

RH: I have really been struggling. This morning I woke up and wrote some more. I think – and I’ve said this so many times in the past three months – I think there’s only three chapters left. I’ve been saying that since July, and it turned out there was a lot more than three chapters left; various scenes had to have underpinnings and bridgework put in. I’m writing frantically, and my editors have been extremely patient with me. As of right now, the next publication date is still August 2015. But because I am late, and it’s taking this huge publishing mechanism and throwing a monkey-wrench in it, and saying, “Oh yes, I was supposed to give you this to edit four months ago, and now I’m giving it to you – on top of all the other books which are being correctly turned in on time – So, why don’t you just give up on sleeping for a while? Do this work now, because I was late.”

It’s really a horrible thing to do to your publishers and your editors. So, I don’t know if the August 2015 publication date will hold. If it doesn’t, it’s entirely my fault.

R: Alright, yeah, it’s typically about a year.

RH: Yeah, it’s about a year. The manuscript goes in. It gets, in my case, two editors – one in the US and one in the UK, and they both contribute ideas and thoughts and say, “Well, this scene is slow,” or, “Can you explain more what happened here?” or, “You have been redundant here. Six mentions of this fact is too many, cut it down to four and put them where you think you need it, or cut it down to two and put it where we think it’s needed.”

But there’s that whole editing process, and so, it comes back to me, and I go through the whole thing, and I send it back to them… They then look through it all again – sometimes there’s a second or a third rewrite, where there’s now a bump here, or the action doesn’t flow here, so I need to do more work. Even after they are both happy with it, it then goes to the copy editor, who catches things like, “Well, he was a redhead on page 12, and in chapter 30 you’re talking about the wind blowing through his dark curls: make up your mind.” All of those fixes that make me look like a much better writer than I actually am. All of the consistency, all of the “two days passed for this character, while five passed for that one,” I better fix that… Even down to: “Well, you said it was a full moon five days ago, and now it’s a full moon again. You have to go fix that.” It’s all of those little details that copy editors are amazing people, and they catch all of those things.

Then after the copy edits, there’s the galleys, and reading the whole thing again for the typos that slipped by, or the places where a couple of paragraphs got flip-flopped, so it really takes that full year before a manuscript is ready to be a book.

R: Yeah, and there’s also with the galleys, the time for reviews to start show up.

RH: And sending out the ARCs for people to look at. Asking people if they’ll do a blurb, getting the cover art right… So many things.

R: Well hopefully you’ll be able to get it out for some time next year.

RH: I hope so. If it’s late, I’m the only person at fault. It’s not the publisher.

R: I think your fans will be likely to forgive you though.

RH: One hopes so.

R: Well, you do seem to have a tiny bit of a following.

I think that’s pretty much all I have, unless there’s anything else you’d like to add?

RH: Nope, that covers things nicely.

R: Alright, well thank you very much for your time, and I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

RH: I had a good time, and it was lovely to meet you yesterday evening.

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