Darkstars Fantasy News

10. Dezember 2017

Interview with Robin Hobb

Category: Interviews – Darkstar – 14:04

Hobb - Der Bruder des WolfsRobin Hobb is one of fantasys most successful authors. Her Farseer-novels are well-beloved worldwide.

Recently Robins first trilogy about Fitz and the Fool has been re-published here in Germany with great new cover art.

Together with Kat, a writer friend of mine and a Robin Hobb-fan since years, I had the chance to talk to the author about her novels and writing in general.

Interview with Robin Hobb

Assasin’s Apprentice came out over twenty years ago and it’s still so well beloved. There are a lot of novels out there which people love. But over time they are forgotten. Why do you think Assassin’s Apprentice is different?

Well, I wish I really had a clear answer to that.

It’s what all writers ask themselves: why did this one of my books stay in print, and that one has been forgotten. I think that people find Fitz very engaging and very charismatic. And, oh, part of it is that they just like the story.

If I could tell you exactly why they have remained in print I would know one of the greatest secrets of publishing literature.

If I would have to guess, I think it might be the combination between having such a strong narrative voice and a relatable character. Combine that with the world you created, I mean it’s just – it all works together so well. I think that might be one of the reasons.

Well, thank you. I do think that the first person is the natural storytelling voice. It’s how we tell each other what happened to us. When we went to work, or visited the grocery store, or pick children up from school – the first person [narration] is a great engaging one.

It pulls a reader into a story in much the same way like reading somebody’s diary or somebody’s journal. You feel like you have that inside track on them.

When I discovered your books for the first time I didn’t find my way into it. I sat it aside. But two years later I started it again and I just loved it. Since then I have the feeling that there’s a right and a wrong time for a reader to discover a book.

I think that’s absolutely true. The reader brings so much to the experience that everyone of us actually reads a different book.

I read Lord of the Rings at exactly the right age for me and it has stayed with me and I could revisit it and reread it endlessly. And yet I talk to people very often who say, oh, I tried to read that, I just couldn’t get into it.

I think the storytelling voice changes, too. The first time I tried to read Robinson Crusoe it was very difficult for me because it was written in such an old-fashioned style. And again, as you said, years later I came back to it and said, oh, this is the language and the style of the time. And that enriches my experience of reading it.

Can you remember which was the very first idea or spark which generated the first Fitz novel?

Yes, I can actually, because I was in the middle of writing something else.

Hobb - Die Gabe der KönigeI think for every writer there comes a point in a book where the writing is hard to do and all the other ideas suddenly look like they would be more exciting, or they would make a better story, or be more fun to write.

That is when you have to say, I’m not going to stop writing what I’m writing now, I’m going to finish this. For me that was one of the hardest lessons I learned when I was first beginning to write.

Back to Fitz: I was at my desk one evening, and I was thinking about magic, and I was also thinking about drug addiction because at the time we were having and we continue to have some serious issues in Washington state with drug addiction.

And I thought, what if magic was addictive? And what if that addiction was totally destructive? What if you knew that if you started doing magic and plunged yourself into it, eventually it was going to destroy your health and possibly your mind? Would you still do it? What would drive you to say, this is more important for me to do even though I know I may be badly injuring myself by doing this magic.

So I wrote that down – in much fewer words – on a scrap of paper. It happened to be a piece I tore off an envelope. I put it in my desk drawer for later, because I wasn’t even writing on a computer back then, so I couldn’t just save it in a separate file.

It stayed there for several years. I would be writing stories and doing some work and I would take out my scraps of paper that had different bits of ideas on them, and I would look at them and I would arrange them, and I would say: do these connect? Is there anything that’s going to happen here? You’re looking to strike a spark.

Eventually, there was another idea I had. We love all our tropes and clichés in fantasy because they speak to us. And we all will read a book and say, oh, it’s just the same old thing. It’s got the wise old wizard who lives in isolation and it’s got the earnest young man. It’s got the wise woman out in the woods, and it has the beautiful young lady who is the one who has the vision. All of those bits and pieces.

And I thought, well what if I tried to knock the rust off those clichés and combine that with this story about this addictive magic? So that would have been Assassin’s Apprentice.

Does it even feel like 22 years ago?

Actually, for me it would be more like 25 years. Because it takes me about a year to write a book and then it takes – at that time – about another year to move through the editing process. So it was probably about 25 years ago that I started spending time with Fitz and the Fool.

The dedication in the most recent book is to them. They are my oldest friends, really, the people or characters I spend more time with over the last 25 years probably than anything else in my life.

Speaking of the Fool: I read once that in the beginning you didn’t think the Fool would become the central character that he’s become. Were there any other people in your books that surprised you, that became more important than you planned, or maybe less important?

I really thought that we would see a lot more of Verity, as he’s really the one who’s bearing the brunt of the magic. And I did not expect, in some ways, for Starling to have such a role. But definitely it was the Fool who emerged and would not leave the stage. He shaped a lot of the plotlines, more than I thought any character would.

How much did you know about Fitz when you started with the first novel?

Definitely characters grow and change. If they’re not growing and changing, then the books would become circular. If at the end of the book, the characters would be exactly the same as they were in the beginning, what would be the point of writing the story? Life changes all of us.

As Fitz grew older, sometimes he would reflect back on decisions he made – things that seemed absolutely normal and right when he was a younger character. He could look back on [those decisions] and say, that was a really foolish thing I did.

How different the world would be right now if I had simply retained my self-control for another month. Or if I had simply not reacted to something.

I always found it interesting how Fitz combined the Skill and the Wit and this somehow equipped him to deal better, or perhaps differently with the pull of the Skill. I was wondering, did the idea of the Wit grow alongside the Skill, or did that come later?

From the beginning I knew that he would have this other magic and the magic would be despised. That it would be a talent that he had to conceal and that would other people make think less of them, if they knew that he had it and was using it.

For Fitz, the Wit was more of an obsession in many ways than the Skill was. He could and did refrain from using the Skill but the Wit and his bond to various canines in his life was a very powerful thing that he could not walk away from. He needed that companionship.

Is this how you approach a new book? Do you think about the character arcs, or is that something that comes from the plot, and reflects back on the character?

Hobb - Assassins ApprenticeFor me, the characters always come to me long before the plot does.

I know a character that I want to write and then a lot of the story and the plot fall into place around him. Knowing there would be this addictive magic was an important part of the story, but where I was going to take Fitz was another question entirely.

So for me the stories always begin with the character and it has to be a character that I find interesting enough that I want to follow that character over the course of a year of writing. I usually have a good idea of where the book is going to begin and I have a good idea of the ending.

But as I follow the character, it’s not always that their path goes, you know, straight from the beginning to the end. It may wander around and sometimes I get lost. Sometimes I have to say I need to take these last 20 pages and discard them and go back to an earlier point because we’re not getting any closer to the ending.

Do you work with first or second drafts a lot? Is editing a big part of your writing process?

I write in a very linear fashion. I write from the beginning to the end of the story.

But if I begin to have a difficulty with the story, very often I’ll say, okay, I need to think about where I’m going and I will back up. Maybe just a few pages, or maybe I’ll back up a whole chapter and I will sit down and do the first of many rewrites of that chapter, where I’m looking through it and correcting grammar and spelling, and ask myself, do I need to describe this room a little bit more. I’ll change the dialogue to make it a little bit more clever.

And usually [as I go back] I come to a place where it just doesn’t feel right, where the direction of the story moved into an odd direction, and that is where I’ll start changing and begin to write again. So by the time I reach the end of a book, I may have rewritten chapters two, five, seven or twelve times as I go through this process.

In the middle of the writing of the book, if I think there’s something where I need this to have happened in an earlier chapter in order for that to happen right now – if for instance, in chapter twelve the horse goes lame and it affects things – then earlier somewhere in the book I should mention that there is a bad piece of road that has sharp pieces of rock in it or something. So it’s not just, I waved a magic wand and the horse went lame. There is something where the reader would go, oh, I bet I know when that happened. So I would add little notes that say ‘prior to chapter twelve, go back and note that there are sharp rocks in the road’.

Or, you know, that someone is allergic to lavender. Or anything I need for foreshadowing. At the end of the book I go back and when I do my rewrites, I make sure I put all those little bits and pieces in.

Did your writing process change since the years when you started?

I’m sure it has, but I probably could not see it, because it’s a slow change. It’s like, you know, do you cook the same meals now that you cooked for yourself when you were twenty? You’ll still be making sandwiches but maybe it’s a different bread or you realise that you don’t like mayonnaise that much. Or that you shouldn’t be putting that much butter on a sandwich.

So it’s a very gradual process and trying to remember how you did things when you were twenty, thirty, forty, fifty … I’m sixty-five now, so there’s a lot of years of writing behind me.

Do you feel that the genre has changed a lot during the last twenty, thirty years?

Oh, again, I’m sure it has, but because I have been consuming books I don’t think there have been any earth shaking, startling transformations in how we tell stories.

I think in terms of subject matter, from the time when I first began writing fantasy to now, certainly we can talk about sexuality in a much more frank way. I think that in some ways the levels of descriptive violence have increased.

But, you know, in terms of telling a story – storytelling is such an old, old thing that we do – could you go back and tell a story that we tell today and tell it around a campfire a thousand years ago? I think other than the nuances of the modern world such as cars and electricity I think you could do it. Stories are mostly about people and I don’t think people have really changed all that much.

I sometimes wonder whether our perception of time also changes how we like stories? Will people like to hear and tell stories in the future, or is this something we will lose within the next hundred years or so?

I think people always tell stories simply because, as I was saying earlier, if you pick up your child from school, or you see a mate when you come home from work, among the first things you do is you tell the story of how your day was.

Sometimes our attention is split, people are likely to be sitting in a restaurant across from each other looking at their phones. And maybe they’re talking about their food and having a discussion about what they did, and at the same time they’re looking at their phones.

But story will always be with us, whether it’s told as a Snapchat or whether we’re getting little bits of a story on Twitter and watching something unfold in tiny little chapters. I think stories are always going to be there.

I do believe we had a big surge of popularity in audiobooks, which is interesting to me. It’s people listening to story in their cars on their commute and getting their daily meal of story that way. Maybe we’re not reading as much but I do think that people are still getting their dose of story that way.

In stories, the world make sense. We see things happen, we see people doing bad things and they seem to be rewarded for it. We see a hurricane that strikes and tears apart people’s lives. And in a story, we make sense of it. In a story we tell each other why things happen and how people survive things.

So a lot of story is us imposing order and common sense on all of those strange and random events of our lives.

What urges you to write stories?

It is looking at how random life is and trying to impose order on it.

But for me a story almost always begins with a character and the question ‘what if’. What if magic were addictive? What if your cat could talk to you? You know, all of the ‘what if’ things when you’re sitting in your car during your daily commute, or whatever, and you say, you know, what if I could get into a tiny little helicopter and just lift out of here and fly over everything? How would that change my life?

I was just listening to the radio today as I was driving into town and they were talking about building a light rail system in the US. But it’s not going to be done until it is 2023. And some of the people are saying, look, by the time this comes around, who’s going to be riding a train and why are we riding a train still, and does it even make sense to build this? Or will we have driverless cars, will we all be working from home? You know, are we building something that is already obsolete?

So then you sit there and you think, well, what if? What does come next? You know, what happens if we’re not all sitting in traffic in our own little cars – which is very American to do this [laughs] – but what if we were all sitting in driverless cars with the computer system that sensed where the most efficient way through the traffic would go, and just moved the car? What is going to happen? What if?

Everyday there’s a thousand stories and pondering them, thinking about them, is tremendously entertaining for me.

I just finished the final book and I loved it. I loved how the world of the Six Duchies unfolded even further to include Cleres. I found that a stunning setting and the culture there, once again, appeared so very complex and intriguing. I was wondering, when did Cleres first become a place in your mind?

Hobb - Assassins FateLet’s see. I always had a vague idea of where the Fool came from.

That it was a faraway place, that he had training, that he was treated well, and then badly. That he had very good memories of it and very terrible memories.

Did I think I would ever take the reader there? I really did not, because that I would be allowed to write eighteen or nineteen books that were set in the same world – this did not seem like it would be a likely event to happen.

I knew bits and pieces of it, but as far as having a complete view of that part of the world, I probably didn’t until I began – not this trilogy, but probably the one before, when I was writing Tawny Man.

There I began having ideas of where it all began and what his [the Fool’s] training would be.

Is this really the last novel from this universe, if I may ask?

I said so many times this is the last book in this world. And so many times I have been wrong, so I’m not going to venture an opinion on that right now [laughs].

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been tinkering around with an urban fantasy.

It would be a Megan Lindholm book, it would not be a Robin Hobb book. Its writing style is different, and it has a different way of approaching story. I’ve been tinkering with it in a very lackadaisical way.

I have not been rushed or telling myself I have a deadline. I’ve been watching it unfold and seeing where this book will take me. I’m not even sure that it’s something that will be publishable.

Whenever you venture into a new world with a new character there’s always that [question], ‘I wonder if my editors will like this’, ‘I wonder if my readers will like it’.

Is it a relief to have two author names?

I do think it’s very liberating and it’s not unusual, especially with genre writers.

Some of us write, you know, romance and history and westerns and fantasy and we’ll use a different name for each of them because the last thing we want is to have somebody pick up a book thinking they’re getting a fantasy and finding out that they’re in the middle of a mystery or a western. It’s only going to disappoint most readers.

So, by giving the author different bylines, you let the readers know what they can expect. Especially in genre, a lot of us are deeply rooted and we say, oh, I only want to read fantasy. Or, I only like mysteries. So it’s a way of packing it and saying, this isn’t the genre you’re looking for.

Isn’t it a marketing nightmare for you? To handle different facebook profiles for your alter egos?

Megan Lindholm has her own facebook page and has her own website. But it’s not really a nightmare, it’s just a different way of looking at the world.

I think all of us have different facets to ourselves. Maybe a father, and a brother, and a cousin and a son, and a husband, and an employee or an employer. And depending on where you are in your day if you’re going to write a paragraph about what you did it would be a very, very different paragraph for each of those facets.

So for me, when I’m writing as Megan Lindholm I’m more likely to tell you about my chickens or what vegetables I’m growing. Robin Hobb thinks about other things, and writes about other things.

Do you have any weird writing habits?

Weird writing habits? Oh, I don’t think I ever had the opportunity to develop those.

I know there are people who say, when I write I like to have this music on, and to have a glass of wine, or to have a nice soft light and scented candle and sit in a calm room. But when I first began writing …

I started writing when I was a teenager and then I was a parent with small children. That meant that I would have to write in the odd bits of time I could find. I couldn’t say I’m now going to sit down and write for two hours.

It would be: Well, I’m sitting here in the car waiting for soccer practice to be over. So I would open my notebook, and I would write two or three pages while I’m waiting for the kids to come back from soccer practice. Or, when you’re sitting on the floor of the bathroom while the very small children are playing in the bathtub, you can write two or three pages. And then at the end of the day, when they’re all in bed, you can sit down and get those pages and type them in and as you’re typing you’re doing your first set of revisions and editions.

If I have an odd habit of writing it is that I can write anywhere. I still, to this day, always have a notebook and a pen with me.

Do you set word goals that you want to reach, or a certain amount of time that you want to spend writing each day?

Hobb - Der Erbe der SchattenWhen you have a contract, that goal is set for you and it says that you need to have this story finished by such and such a date.

Then it’s a matter of breaking down the work into how many months you have and how far you have to get every month. So sometimes it is frantic writing towards the end of the book because life interfered and you didn’t get the work done. And sometimes it’s a steady unfolding.

The hardest thing is writing when you don’t have a deadline, because we tend to endlessly revise and change the story, and let this thing grow and sprawl.

So setting a personal deadline if you are a professional writer, is an excellent way to make yourself get to the end of the story and actually write ‘the end’.

When you’re beginning to be a writer, part of the hardest thing is to write the ending of the book. Because it’s a big commitment. It’s saying this is the way the story goes.

In all this time I had many, many stories with beginnings and middles and no ends, because I thought maybe that’s not the best ending. But then you discover that you can write a story’s ending, and then if you don’t like it, you could just go back and change it. You’re not stuck with it. You can say, wait a minute, that doesn’t seem likely, and maybe something else would be a better ending for it and then you try it.

Do you have any advice for writers who struggle with inner critics during the writing process?

We all have internal editors and sometimes – when they’re revved up – you simply have to turn down their volume and say, I need to set this story down on paper in one form or another.

I can always go back to change it, I can always go back and fix it. But you can’t fix it or change it, until you’ve written it badly. So writing something badly is the first step to writing something well. Just get it down on paper and then fix it.

I like to close interviews with a fun question: If you could invite three fictional characters – either from your work or from somebody else’s – for a tea party or for a dinner, who would it be and why?

Oh my goodness. Who would I invite?

I feel like I know my own characters so well that having them over for tea would not be very enlightening.

The first thing that comes to mind are the characters from The Lord of the Rings. Would it be Aragorn? Would it be Tom Bombadil? I think that there are some characters that we – Tom Bombadil especially – that we did not get to really know, because he’s a character that we cannot fully know. There are always those characters, like Merlin, or Tom Bombadil, the sort of characters where you get a glimpse and you move on, and you don’t know them as well as you know the main characters in the story.

So, who would I invite? Perhaps Merlin, and perhaps Tom Bombadil – and, oh, there’s so many stories out there. The second I say Merlin I think, but what about Lancelot? Or Arthur? Or Guinever?

And then you jump to the enxt story and think of characters like Mowgli, from Kipling’s Jungle Book.
Or Bagheera. Because with fiction we can talk to anything that we choose.

I’d have a terrible time choosing. This is a question where I have to think about probably for a month so I can come up with a decision.

Thank you!

To learn more about Robin Hobb, you can visit her Website.

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