Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ruth Todd Interviews New Zealand’s Own International Legend Award Finalist, Helen Lowe

Christchurch author, Helen Lowe, (right),won the international David Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Fantasy Newcomer, 2012, with The Heir of Night—the first woman and the first antipodean writer to do so. That was a huge recognition of Helen’s work, but now to add to that she is on the shortlist for this year’s David Gemmell Legend Award for Best Fantasy Novel (published in the preceding calendar year) with The Gathering Of The Lost. The Legend Award is the ‘open’ category – and this year Helen is not only the sole woman author on the shortlist, but if she wins will be both the first woman and the first Southern Hemisphere author to do so.

 Ruth: Tell me more about this prestigious award, Helen.

Helen: The David Gemmell Awards were established to honour heroic fantasy author David Gemmell who passed away in 2006. There are three classes of awards, all named after his books: the Ravenheart is for cover art, the Morningstar is for the best newcomer, and the Legend Award is for the best novel, published in the preceding calendar year, in the epic, heroic, or high Fantasy genres. The awards are intended to celebrate excellence in the genre, but also to encourage readers and lovers of epic fantasy to read and discuss the books and so promote fantasy literature and jacket art.

I should note that The Heir Of Night, which won last year’s Morningstar Award, and The Gathering Of The Lost, which is shortlisted for this year’s Legend Award, are the first and second novels respectively in The Wall Of Night series, which will be a quartet once complete. I like to say that it is one story told in four parts, but in fact each ‘part’ or book is turning out to have its own distinct character, which is fun although it can also be challenging to write some times.

Ruth: It can’t have been an easy task focusing on your writing, living in Christchurch over the last two years, since the big earthquake in February, 2011, followed by thousands of aftershocks. I notice that you have dedicated this book to those who died in the earthquake.
How difficult has it been?

Helen: Very, Ruth, not just in what I call the “year of awful”, which was those eighteen months between 4 September 2010 and 23 December 2011, but also through all the exigencies of aftermath – which as you know yourself continues to be very draining. The Gathering Of The Lost was completed during that eighteen months of ongoing earthquakes, and part of what makes this shortlisting feel so special is because the book is a tangible representation of having lived through those times. The reason I dedicated it to the 185 people who lost their lives on February 22, 2011, was because it was a personal way in which I could not only commemorate their loss but say that their lives mattered.

Ruth: I love this epic adventure story, especially as you have a feisty young heroine , Malian, that female readers can really identify with. Where did she come from?

Helen:  That’s a great question, Ruth. I’m never quite sure where characters come from. Sometimes they spring forth fully formed, Minerva style, and sometimes they evolve. Malian was one of the ‘evolving’ characters. I had the idea of an initially quite young heroine in a (literally) dark world for many years, and then a chance-heard phrase, describing some unknown person’s life as a “race along a cliff’ sparked the idea of my heroine’s life being one of magic and danger, roof top pursuits and flights by night. But The Heir Of Night story in particular only took off when I had this vision of a very daring young girl -- Malian -- scaling the interior wall of an ancient, ruined castle while a storm raged outside. That image came with far more backstory around what her life was, and why, and the writing began.

Yet the process of writing being what it is, that was still only the end of the beginning in terms of the development of the character. Since then Malian has continued to grow and evolve in relation to both events and the changes in the characters around her. It’s very important to me that should happen, as I feel it’s a vital part of making characters real. I’ve heard Kate de Goldi talk about writers having “bones” that we gnaw on, in a metaphorical sense, and the whole notion of “consequences” is definitely one of my “bones.”

For example, the action in The Gathering Of The Lost picks up five years after The Heir Of Night closed, and not only is Malian older but she has been separated from some of her closest companions for most of that time. So a big part of the story is whether the friendships and the interests remain as closely aligned as they were in The Heir Of Night. Other tensions revolve around who, in a world of conflicting ambitions, Malian can trust, and whether, given her power, she can trust herself—as well as just how much she is prepared to sacrifice, and who, to defeat her enemies. Given actions have consequences, every decision she makes comes with its cost.

I should add that one of the things I love about Malian is that although she does have a lot of female fans, she seems to have almost as many male readers who are enthusiastic enough for her cause to write and tell me so.

Ruth: If you are a writer in this genre, one major task has to be creating the imaginary world in which the characters live and survive, and making it credible. Again this is a major part of your success, I believe.

Helen: World building is one of the great joys, but also the great challenges of writing fantasy fiction, because the writer has to create a whole world, including cultures and societies, but without “infodumping” – what the great Ursula Le Guin describes as “expository lumps” of text. One shorthand method for world building can be to pick a society or an alternate culture from our world’s history and model the world faithfully on that. I haven’t done that for the Wall of Night world; in fact it was important to me that the world have both geographic and cultural diversity. I will sometimes adopt specific historical elements that suit the story, though. For example, the Emerian knights in The Gathering Of The Lost are based on the Burgundian knights in the heyday of their military power. The resemblance is primarily in terms of the knights’ training, armour and tactics, but less so in terms of Emer equating with Burgundy either historically or geographically.

I am not a Fantasy writer who spends a long time developing every aspect of the world before I start writing: very much like a traveller going on a journey, the world unfolds through the experience of the characters as the story develops. In this respect I tend to use the “five senses” to ground the readers in the reality of the characters and their immersion in landscape and environment. Reviewers and readers have been kind enough to say that “making it real” in terms of world building is one of my gifts. I do find that pleasing because I work hard to “make it so.”

Ruth: How do you see the future? Will you concentrate on writing series that seem to be popular with readers and publishers, or is there also an important place for the one-off novel?

Helen: To be honest, initially I wanted the Wall of Night story to be one book. Once I started writing, however, I quickly realised that could never be, the story was just too big! So yes, I definitely believe there is a place for one-off novels, even in epic Fantasy which is very much associated with “fat trilogies.” In terms of where to from here once the Wall quartet is complete, I have several ideas for stories involving both new worlds and new characters, but I’ll have to spend some time with them before I know whether they are standalones or will also be series. And of course a big part of the future for any writer is whether there is enough of a readership for one’s work for a publisher to want to run with a new book or series.

That’s one reason why the Legend Award news is so exciting. The Gathering Of The Lost has made it to the final round of an international, reader voted award, which suggests that readers out there are finding something in the storytelling and my writing to like. Being one of the five books on the shortlist is also an opportunity for more review and discussion, which I hope will encourage new readers to try the books.

Ruth: All the very best of luck, Helen, and thank you for doing the interview. For readers who would like to read Helen’s Morningstar Award essay on influences and “why Fantasy” from last year, it’s here. If you would like to vote, the link is here (but be sure to click on “vote” to complete the process.)

About The Interviewer:
Ruth Todd (right) was until very recently the Joint Programme Director of The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival, and is a longtime radio interviewer and book event organizer. She currently presents the Bookenz programme with Morrin Rout and is on the selection panel for the New Zealand Poet Laureate.

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