Worlds & Time

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Interview With Michelle Sagara

Michelle Sagara (who also writes under the pen names Michelle West and Michelle Sagara West) is Canadian fantasy writer. Her latest book is The Hidden City, the first volume of the House War series, and some of her previous works include Cast in Shadow, Hunter's Oath, Hunter's Death, and The Broken Crown.

Spherical Time: First, can you describe your typical work environment and your preferred method of writing? Do you have an office or do you prefer to write in a coffee shop? Do you listen to music while you write? Do you type directly into a computer word processor or do you prefer to hand write your works prior to typing them up?

MS: My typical work environment: I have an office, of sorts. It's actually the computer room, in which all computers we have ever bought go to rest. I do some of my work there when the kids are not home and using the computers. I do work, while they're there, in my dining room because it has the most table space, and sometimes I spread things out all over it. I can't listen to music while I write. I get distracted by the lyrics, or by my emotional reactions to the music itself; I don't have the ability to background it.

For the most part, I type directly into the computer word processor; if I am really stuck, I'll write longhand because there's something about the physical act of writing -- not the words -- that can sometimes pull me along, and if I'm having trouble anyway, I'm not madly stumbling over the keyboard in a desperate attempt to write it all down before it goes away (this also happens).

Spherical Time: Do you have a method or process that you commonly use when researching and plotting novels? Is so, can you please describe it?

MS: I really don't have a set method. Before I started writing Hunter's Death, I sat down and made up the bible of the world as I conceived it. I wanted to know that information because it was information that many of the characters in the Empire would know, and I also didn't want to trip myself up on things like names (which, I admit, happens anyway =/).

But looking at those documents, which were written in 1994/95, so much has changed; the names are often the same, but very little else is.

Spherical Time: Your extensive bibliography includes both novels (The Sacred Hunt, Sun Sword, Sundered, and Chronicles of Elantra series) and short stories (for collections such as Familiars, Assassin Fantastic, Women of War and Battle Magic). Are there differences between writing a novel and a shorter work? If so, can you describe what they are?

I wrote novels first. I tried the short story approach, but all of the short stories I tried just didn't end up being short. My first 4 novels were started because I was trying to write (yet another) short story. I always see the end clearly, but approaching the end is something that is not as clear, and the characters and their arcs are all -- for me -- largely emotional in structure. But things that are emotional, if they work, aren't things that you can easily set up and write through in 2 pages. Well, I can't.

I did eventually write short stories. But many of the first attempts were basically front-end heavy; they have just enough emotional weight to work, but I didn't understand the structure of the shorter form to start, and I don't think I really figured it out until much later. But even so, my natural short length is still the novella =/.

The difference? Viewpoints (how many), character interactions, and where those interactions take the characters; the shorter form, for me, has to be more direct, less oblique. Other writers, let me hasten to add, do not have this problem; it's -my- problem. But when writing a short piece, I have to see the end clearly, and I have to make a running start at it. If I overthink it, it's never, ever short.

But if I had had to break into the short fiction market before I sold novels, I'm not sure I would have sold novels.

Spherical Time: Your books contain dozens and dozens of brilliant, fully realized characters, all with unique backgrounds and convincing voices. How do you create and build characters such as Jewel ATerafin, Avandar, Kallandras, Teresa, Evanye, Diora, et cetera? Are the characters based on people that you know or are they created in other ways?

MS: Created in other ways. In as much as anything is created in a vacuum. What you understand of people in general, and what you know of how a variety of different people and different personalities have reacted to different tragedies or triumphs, will always be part of the way you perceive any world. This one, or a created one.

Spherical Time: Do you have any favorite characters or situations, and why are they your favorite?

MS: I don't really have a favorite character.

Spherical Time: Three of your series (The Sacred Hunt, The Sun Sword, and the upcoming House War) as well as several of your published short stories take place in the shared universe of the Empire of Essalieyan and the Dominion of Annagar. Do you have any advice for new writers on how to create such a fully realized setting in which dozens of stories can be told?

MS: I wrote a world-bible before I started writing Hunter's Death. It made me work out things like economics -- although my understanding of that was not so steady when I started -- and political structures. I don't actually enjoy worldbuilding for its own sake; I know authors who start new worlds by drawing maps first, which I can't even imagine doing for fun (I'm not very good with geography. This is an understatement).

I try to read a lot. I try to understand as much as I can of general history. I try to apply that understanding to what I write. But I don't have a lot of advice in that regard; I think that people who have run D&D campaigns with incredibly clever players have a leg up, because they know how to integrate a world with an unfolding narrative that is not quite under their control. I don't think this is necessary, but I do think it helps; the Erikson books, for example, are based on a campaign he and a friend played/designed. Playing in a world makes it real in a way that world-building alone doesn't.

That said, I've never run a D&D campaign.

Spherical Time: Religion plays a large role in books mentioned above and also in The Sundered series. Can you please talk a little about how to write about fictional religions believably? Do you bring personal experience into your characters' religious experience?

MS: I actually don't think I write convincing religion, for what it's worth. I think Kate Elliott has written the best religious conviction in fantasy, in her Crown of Stars series, and I also think it's the best extrapolation of what a society founded on primogeniture would actually feel like, from the inside of the various different characters & social levels she portrays.

But I am not terribly religious. My convictions, such as they are, are sort of science geek. If I have to stand behind something, I want it to be solid, rational, and practical. So my universe has gods that can interact with their human followers in some minimal way; faith is not a matter of will, or of intense belief -- it's a matter of fact. You may not choose to make offerings or sacrifices to the gods -- but everyone knows they're real.

More or less.

In the South, in the Dominion of Annagar, the religion is faith-based, but it is still a religion in which the gods are distant and essentially cannot be counted on to care. They believe what they believe, but they also acknowledge that their beliefs don't really matter to their gods.

Spherical Time: Your first book, Into the Dark Lands, was published in 1991. Could you please describe your first experience with publishing a novel? Also, did you use an agent or did you submit directly to a publishing company? Did you have any short stories sold prior to selling Into the Dark Lands?

MS: In order to publish a novel, I had to write one, and Into the Dark Lands was the direct result, over a number of years, at my third attempt to write a short story for publication. I had, in university, published a number of poems in the UC Review, but those weren't written with publication in mind; a friend read them and he wanted them to go to the UC editorial board, and I allowed this after some hesitation; poetry, at least mine, is in the terrain of the personal.

But when I was almost finished University, I realized that I had to have something to do. I was working full-time at a bookstore, and I really, really loved that job, but if I wanted to be able to support myself, I needed to do something else.

So I decided that I would try to write, with an eye to publication.

There's a school of thought that says an author should try to write short fiction first, because (at least in the genre) it will help you to get a grip on plot, characterization, and story arc, in a shorter chunk. It's also a good way to smooth out the micro tools of your trade -- the word-for-word choices, the grammar. I had already been in various creative writing classes in both high school and university, so I had done some work in those trenches.

So I set out to write short stories. I wrote two. The third ended up being 4 novels. But the first novel? I thought of it as a short story because I could clearly see the end. At one hundred pages, I thought it was a novella; at 200, I thought it would be a novel. When I hit the end of the novel, I realized it would probably be 2 or 3 books. This is the long way of saying: No, I didn't have any short sales before I sold the novel. I did have one short published two weeks before the novel was published, but it was sold after.

I submitted the first novel to Del Rey books in 1987. It was rejected, but with a phone call, and in the end I revised the manuscript and sent it back. The revision was passed on to Lester del Rey, who was alive at the time. He rejected it with a 4 page single space letter which had all the trademark curmudgeonliness for which he was famed. But buried in that 4 page letter was a very definite "This flashback of 94 pages needs to be its own damn book, and it should be book one."

So... I wrote that novel, and I submitted that novel, and that's the novel they bought. In between the long process of revising and writing, I started to look for an agent, and I found my first agent from research and sitting in on agent panels at Worldcons. So the submission was a slush submission to start; my agent came on board before they made the offer but after they'd showed interest.

It took them a while to schedule the book after they bought it, and it was published at the end of 1991. It didn't have a great cover. I did see the copy-edited/line-edited manuscript, and Veronica Chapman was a fabulous line-editor. I also got the page proofs (all of these things are part of the normal process of novel publication), and corrected them and sent them back. And waited.

Spherical Time: I understand that you work in a bookstore as well as being a writer. Do you have any advice for new writers based on your retail experience rather than your own publishing experience?

MS: My advice to writers: Get a job in a bookstore. Seriously. In any capacity. Work in a bookstore for a couple of years. It takes some of the mystery out of publishing, but it also takes some of the heartache out of it as well, because you cannot work in a bookstore without gaining an understanding of how the industry works. You see the returns. You pull the returns. You see how long books stay on the shelves. You see brilliant books die. You see garbage die. You see brilliant books sell, and you see garbage sell. Some of that brilliance that sells gets heavily promoted; some doesn't. Some of the garbage gets heavily promoted; some doesn't. You begin to realize that promotion does not, in fact, guarantee sales.

You begin to realize that there's no strict rhyme or reason, and it really helps you not to take things personally if they don't work out.

Spherical Time: Are there any writers that have had a significant impact on your work, or are there any books or authors you would like to recommend even if they don't influence you?

MS: In as much as I've always been a reader, the books I love are important to me -- but I can't think of specific influences that I'm aware of, although no writer writes in a vacuum. I adore Terry Pratchett, Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, Megan Whalen Turner, Guy Gavriel Kay.

Spherical Time: What is your favorite word or phrase?

MS: Ummm, I don't have one that I'm aware of.

Spherical Time: Do you have any additional advice for aspiring writers?

MS: Never give up. Write what you care about. Write what you care deeply about. Write. Revise. Write more. Revise more. And never give up.

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2 Comments:

  • I couldn't agree more with the bookstore thing re: pulling returns. Sometimes I'll be scanning out returns and pick up like, my favorite book of all time and be like WHY ARE WE RETURNING THIS? It's so true. And then A New Earth sells like 90 million copies and I shake my fist. The secret to selling books I guess is writing to the Oprah market. Sigh.

    By Blogger Ashley, at 2:30 PM  

  • Michelle,

    I would say that "In as much as" is an unconscious favorite phrases of yours as it appears quite frequently in the 'Cast in' series and some in the 'Sun Sword' series :)

    By Blogger Sarah, at 6:29 PM  

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