An Interview with Kate Elliott12 min read
Kate Elliott (Alias A. Rasmussen) is the acclaimed author of over a dozen fantasy and science fiction novels from Tor and DAW, among others, and her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. Though she is a prolific author, she is also a practiced medieval swordswoman and an accomplished paddler of outrigger canoes, a sport she came to when she and her family relocated to Hawaii. Her most recent novel is the second volume of her Spiritwalker Trilogy, Cold Fire, and the third volume, Cold Steel, will be released mid-2013. She describes the series as “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure with airships, Phoenician spies, the intelligent descendents of troodons, and a dash of steampunk gas lamps can easily be soused by the touch of a powerful cold mage.” Who could resist that? Without a doubt, Ms. Elliott wields words with as much ferocity as she wields a sword or an outrigger paddle.
Ms. Elliott was kind enough to spare a little time between paddling practice and the keyboard to speak to us here at Apex Magazine about both her short story, “My Voice is in My Sword,” her love of Shakespeare, her most recent favorite non-fiction books, and the writing life in general.
About “My Voice is in My Sword”
APEX MAGAZINE: What was the initial spark that made you want to write “My Voice is in My Sword”?
KATE ELIOTT: My friend and colleague, Katharine Kerr, co-edited with Martin H. Greenberg an anthology called Weird Tales from Shakespeare, published by DAW Books in 1994. The story was written for the anthology.
AM: This tale interweaves many themes, many characters, and many days. While it could have been unwieldy, you managed to keep it concise and always moving forward. How did you approach juggling the number of cast members within such a tight working space?
KE: The play’s cast list and the needs of a theater company (director, stage manager) set the number and roles of characters. There are indeed a lot of characters for a short story but because most readers will have at least a passing familiarity with the story of Macbeth, I think it is possible for readers to more-easily identify the different characters. I use the play to define the actors. In essence, everyone has two identities, but one of those identities is one that is familiar to the reader. Additionally, the plot of the play is familiar, so I tried to keep the plot of the story running parallel with the plot of the play as it is seen during rehearsal.
AM: There’s no doubt that Bax is the villainous character in this story; from his inappropriate advances and abusive bullying of his cast-mates, to him brashly insulting [G1] the Squat, there’s very little to recommend him, which probably is what makes the ending satisfying. However, it could also make him seem a bit one-dimensional. Why did you choose to portray him in this decisive way?
KE: A friend of mine once worked on a theater production in which the featured actor was a television star. Everything Bax does in and around the stage in this story is taken directly from actual things that actor did during that theatrical production (except for the lamias–those I made up). Needless to say, the other people in that production really detested him and his unpleasant personality but because he was a star and because his star power was going to attract audiences to the production, no one could do anything about it. My friend gave me the details, and I put them in the story. That is why he is portrayed as the villain and why the outcome of the story goes the way it does. I guess you could say it is a revenge story twice over.
AM: When approaching a story that involves alien species, do you typically have a specific cultural or physiological detail in mind as a starting point? What sparked the creation of the Squanishta?
KE: I have to admit that I created the aliens to fit the story. I don’t think I had anything in particular in mind except that I could use them the way I needed to use them. Usually I like to create and think through my cultures more thoroughly, but, in this case, they serve a purpose in the story.
AM: In this, our Shakespeare-themed issue of Apex Magazine, I have to ask: What is your favorite of his works, and why?
KE: His plays are my favorite of his works since I’m not as conversant with his poems.
I was raised in Oregon. Every summer my parents took us kids to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. I grew up on Shakespeare’s plays, and he is one of the major influences on my writing. Although it may be difficult to see overtly, the way I write and deploy scenes in my books reflects his influence.
I tend to have favorite productions of his plays rather than favorite plays. For instance, years ago in Santa Cruz I saw a fabulous production of Henry IV Part One done in (what was then) modern dress with Falstaff as an aging hippie and Prince Hal first appearing on the stage in a Boy George get up (I’m dating myself here). A production of King Lear in which Edmund, the bastard son, was played by a Native American actor while everyone else was white. Another production of King Lear performed in a storefront with folding chairs set along each wall, the play performed down the central space between the chairs, and Cordelia doubling as the Fool. Alan Howard as Coriolanus in London 1978. A “Hyannisport” version of Hamlet in which it was made evident that Hamlet and Ophelia had been lovers already. More traditional productions of A Midsummer’s Night Dream and the Comedy of Errors in Ashland that enchanted me as a young teen. And so on. I love how a director and actors can ring so many small changes in interpretation and setting that make each production unique. For me, Shakespeare lives in production, not on the page.
About Writing in General
AM: When did you decide you wanted to write professionally? What was the spark that made you dedicate the time and effort to improving your craft with that goal in mind?
KE: I’ve been writing since I was a young teen although my first dream was to be an astronomer. When I realized that I was not willing to work hard enough to push into the high levels of mathematics necessary for astrophysics but that I was willing to spend hours and hours writing was when I realized I was willing to do the hard work necessary if I wanted to become a published writer.
AM: You’ve published over a dozen novels, and besides The Labyrinth Gate and the collaboration project The Golden Key, most belong to trilogies or expanded series. How do you keep the themes/subjects/characters/settings alive and fresh for yourself when working on a series of books like the Crown of Stars saga? How far ahead do you plan your underlying structural plots to carry a series, and how do you adapt if/when additional books are added on at a later time?
KE: I don’t have trouble keeping characters alive and fresh as long as the story is moving forward and I haven’t gotten to the end yet. When I get to the end, then I feel I am done with the material and the characters and I am ready to move on. I have never added another volume or material just to lengthen the series.
I sometimes call myself an architectural writer: I build a framework and flesh it out when I’m writing. To begin a story properly I need an end point. That end point never changes, and the very-most fundamental structure (the framework) doesn’t change, but because I don’t rigidly outline the chapter by chapter volume by volume elements, they may shift, alter, reverse, expand, or surprise me as the story goes on. Additional volumes get added if the story expands.
In the case of the Crossroads Trilogy and the Spiritwalker Trilogy, though, I was very clear that I was going to write a trilogy only, and in both cases the third volume is longer than the first two because I fought to fit everything in to close up the story.
In Crown of Stars there were times when the story just got too long and complex, and I had to cut some storylines and push them into a new volume. That is how it became seven volumes. Honestly, unless I begin a series where I plan a longer number of volumes, I prefer to stick with a shorter trilogy-style plot arc. Someday I may even figure out how to write a standalone!
AM: I absolutely love the article on your website regarding advice for beginning fantasy novelists. It’s a wealth of clear, no-nonsense recommendations, with a full writing career in mind (not just one book). You’ve said before that your journey through those early years of writing was long and somewhat isolated. If you could go back in time and give your younger self one piece of advice or encouragement, what would it be?
KE: Be confident enough to cut more.
AM: You’ve also written a wonderfully insightful article on the revision process, the intimidating bane of many beginning writers. How do you manage your editing verses new-words writing time? Do you ever work on more than one project at a time, or do you focus on one through the draft and revision process to the end before starting a new one?
KE: Revising was very hard for me in the early period of my career. I wasn’t good at it because I had a hard time figuring out what was wrong and how to fix it. I had to learn how to revise over many years. Now, I really enjoy revising because I’m much better at seeing what is wrong and more importantly, I’ve learned how to recognize flaws and revise in a way that strengthens the story. I think that the main way to learn how to revise is to revise. The other way is to pay attention. Cultivate the ability to look at one’s own work one step outside the emotion you feel about it. I still find this hard to do, but my instincts and skill at analysis are better so I am more able to identify places where the story, the scene, the dialogue, the description isn’t working. I read other people’s work to get ideas both about how they are doing things wrong and how they are doing things right. And I do read what other people have to say about writing because you never know when another person’s advice or insight will trigger something in you that makes you understand writing in a new way. There are some lessons that can only be learned at certain times. There were times in my writing career where I didn’t know enough to figure out how to do something in a better way. It is just a long, long process of learning that never ends. Honestly, that is part of the appeal of writing novels. There’s still something new to do, some challenge to chase.
AM: Many authors have to work around the schedules of their families–either by getting up early, or writing late at night, or snatching time as they can. Though your kids are now grown, how did you ensure that you had time for your writing when they were younger?
KE: Discipline. If they were napping, I wrote. When they were at preschool and then later at school, I wrote. Learning how to sit down and write with no lag or transition time was crucial. Now I have to meander into the writing mood, and in that sense I’m less productive even though I have far more time without interruption. Also, I prioritized writing over things like an immaculate house. It can be difficult for women who receive many mixed messages about how they ought to be spending their time, but over the years, I realized that what made me, as a person, healthy, also made me a healthy parent.
AM: Hawaii and Oregon are two very different environments. Does your physical environment ever influence your approach to fiction? Do you find yourself wanting to incorporate elements of those places into your upcoming works?
KE: It absolutely does, and in fact I am heavily influenced by physical environment. I have to have been in some analog of a setting to write about it. The steppes in the Jaran books are to some degree modeled off Wyoming and our own great plains. The feel of the air in Expedition (Cold Fire) is Puerto Rico and Cancun. The climate of the Hundred in the Crossroads Trilogy is a mix of California’s “Mediterranean” climate, Hawaii’s subtropical weather, and the Tierra Caliente in Mexico where we lived for six months while my spouse was doing archaeology fieldwork.
Sometimes when I read back through one of my novels I recognize how I referenced a specific place or moment: In The Law of Becoming (Jaran #4), Anatoly Sakhalin stands on the edge of platform which is hovering some thousands of feet up in the air, inspired by my own experience standing on the brink of Kiger Gorge in southeastern Oregon.
Additionally, I subscribe to the idea that physical environment influences culture because it influences the choices people must make in order to best survive in any given environment. Are farmers going to grow rice or wheat? These crops need different environmental situations to flourish, and how and what people eat will depend on their environment. That’s just one small element in how people live and adapt and in how cultures develop, and as a writer I am strongly interested in how culture exists, how it changes and adapts, and how cultures interact with other cultures they come into contact with.
AM: It’s absolutely wonderful that in previous interviews, you’ve referenced at least a few non-fiction books that you’ve found particularly fascinating (I’m thinking particularly of One World, Ready or Not by William Greider, among others). Have you come across any non-fiction books recently that have inspired you? What about fiction books?
KE: Right now I’m primarily reading two non-fiction books (I always have a number floating around but I’m currently focused on two):
1) The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400 – 1000, by Chris Wickam, (Penguin 2010).
In its starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote “Wickham challenges standard views of the early Middle Ages as barbarous and bereft of political and cultural structure, and recreates a stunning portrait of the breakup of the Roman Empire and its consequences for Europe.”
All true, and additionally this is a well-written book, easy to read and accessible without being dumbed-down or simplistic.
2) The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina, by David S. Cecelski, (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
In a review in William & Mary Quarterly, Daniel Vickers of UCSD calls it “a fine study…. describing the complexity and variety of life under slavery.” “[It] describes in absorbing, concrete detail the many different forms of maritime labor that African Americans performed on the North Carolina coast from the early eighteenth century down to the period of the Civil War” as well as “the radical politics of resistance as they actually developed in this maritime society before, during, and after the Civil War.”
This is the kind of thing that should have been/should be taught as part of mainstream history but is usually ignored.
AM: What, if you can say at this time, can we look forward to seeing from you in the coming months/years?
KE: Cold Steel, the third and final volume of the Spiritwalker Trilogy, will be published in June 2013. The first three volumes of my Crown of Stars septology should be available in e-book form now (they’ve long only been available in print versions) with the rest of the series to follow. I have other projects which I can’t announce yet or which I’m waiting to hear about.
AM: Thank you so much, Ms. Elliott, for sharing “My Voice is in My Sword” with us here at Apex, and for taking the time for this interview!
For more information about Kate Elliott, visit her website: https://www.kateelliott.com/
[G1]Consider: to him brashly insulting… ‘bullying works as a noun but ‘insulting’ doesn’t