If there is one thing I’ve learnt over the past few days it is that while I love book festivals (especially when they are both free and on my doorstep) they are disastrous to my routine and I need that as much as I need to book talk. I remember, on one occasion, having a long discussion with my doctoral supervisor about the fact that we both needed our own particular ruts to feel comfortable. I’m not so sure I would go as far these days as singing the praises of a rut, but I do know that being kept from my reading and writing time for too long a stretch, for whatever reason, does me no good at all. So, I am now hopelessly behind with the blog, with my reading, with chatting away with all of you and with my work for the Historical Fiction course. What is more, The Bears aren’t speaking to me and there are mutters from their corner of the sofa about changing the locks if I stay out very much longer. Nevertheless, I don’t regret a single event that I went to and as promised I’ll post about some of them here.
Undoubtedly, the talk I was looking forward to most was that by the fantasy writer, Robin Hobb and she didn’t disappoint. I first encountered Hobb when Zoë, one of our book group, suggested that we read Ship of Magic the first of the Liveship Traders trilogy. Zoë was concerned that those of us who weren’t fantasy readers would object to her choice, so she sold it to us on the grounds that unlike so many fantasy novels the central characters here were strong women. Feminists to the end we read the book with relish and then all went on to complete the trilogy. Hobb doesn’t simply write strong women, she also tells a good story and there are times when that is precisely what you want. She also creates a very believable society and I feel as at home now in her world as I do in Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Kerr’s Deverry, so it was interesting to hear how she sets about such a creation.
Most of Hobb’s audience were students who were clearly bursting with queries of their own and so rather than talking, as she said, about things they might not be interested in, she opened the session up to questions from the start and let them set the agenda. Not surprisingly the first topic raised was the Fool and how she came to create this gender-fluid character who so dominates the first and third trilogies and who will return in the forthcoming Fitz and the Fool novels. Hobb’s reply illustrated what we hear so often from authors, namely that some characters have a life of their own. In the original outline the Fool had just one line but once s/he came on stage in the writing s/he simply wouldn’t leave and eventually became the plot’s catalyst not only in respect of the writing but also in the story itself.
If Hobb didn’t know where the Fool came from she was more certain about the origins of Fitz’s wolf companion, Nighteyes. Growing up in Alaska where neighbouring children were few and far between Hobb herself had had a half wolf, half dog playfellow. Definitely not a pet, she said, but an independent minded companion, whose views had to be taken into account every bit as much as her own. I found that really interesting. There is a history of wolves as companions in fantasy and at some point I think some work to be done on why that should be the case, given that the howling of wolves is so often invoked as one of the scariest sounds you can hear.
We have a very healthy creative writing course and so a number of the students were clearly hoping to pick up tips about how to shape their own work. As someone who often complains about the ending of novels it was interesting to hear Hobb say that for young writers this is the most difficult part of writing and that you have to learn to close down avenues as you go along so that as your novel is drawing to a conclusion there is only one way that it can end and even if that is an outcome so terrible that you don’t want to go that way, it is the way you have to go. This linked nicely with a question about how difficult it was to invest time in creating a character you knew you were going to kill off, because, of course, sometimes it is the very killing that is crucial to the plot and if the reader hasn’t believed in the character how are they going to care about the death?
Questions were raised as well about the issue of self-publishing and Hobb was clearly very concerned about the most recent developments in this area. She stressed the need for a strong editor who would tell a writer bluntly what needed doing to shape a novel for publication and emphasised how much a writer could learn from this process. She also pointed out the advantages of an experienced marketing department and the benefits of an advance that gave a writer time to create their work. I got the impression, though, that these were very much fringe benefits; it is the need for an outside critical eye that she sees as most important, as she spoke about the help she had had from editors on a number of occasions.
Perhaps the comment that I found most interesting and certainly the one I would be interested in hearing other views on concerned the difference between writing in first and in third person. Hobb said that she found first person much more tiring and that after a first person trilogy she had to take time away from that form. Has anyone else heard a writer comment about this? I can see that first person must be a relentless way of writing because you never have the option of seeing events from a second character’s point of view and if you’re having a day when you don’t like your main character very much you can’t go and spend time with someone else for a while until you’ve settled your differences. However, I’ve never heard anyone be so emphatic about it.
But the best news that came out of the event was that there is to be another trilogy featuring Fitz and the Fool and that the first book is already with the publisher. Now the question for me is whether to get a copy of each as they come out or wait until all three are available so that I can sit and read it in one fell swoop. I always say I’m going to do the latter, but when it comes to publication date I give in every time. No self-discipline, that’s me!