Helen Lowe is an award-winning poet and author who won the prestigious Morningstar Award in 2012 for her novel The Heir of Night. Helen and I chatted recently over Skype about her writing career, her novels, earthquakes and more. When we chatted Helen knew she’d been shortlisted for the Morningstar Award but the winner hadn’t been announced.
Nalini: Thank you very much for talking to Dark Matter. When did you get the writing bug?
Helen Lowe: At a very early age. I think I would have been about eight when I wrote my first poem which was incredibly derivative, of course! From there I started writing little plays to act out with my brothers. And by the time I was a teenager I was writing my first novels.
Nalini: Wow. Who supported and encouraged you along the way?
Helen: That’s an interesting question. Nowadays there are so many schools for young writers and it seems like there’s so much encouragement. For me, no one actively discouraged me but no one really encouraged me either, so it was very much a self-driven thing. I got my first encouragement when I was at high school: I submitted a short story to Radio New Zealand (which would be a bit like the ABC in Australia.) The competition was open, not just for school kids, and my story was one of the ten finalists selected. That was when I really thought: “Oh, maybe I can do this writing thing.” I didn’t win the competition, but the story was broadcast on the radio. And then, of course, I went to university and didn’t get back to writing for quite some years!
Nalini: What did you study?
Helen: My undergraduate degree was a BA in English and Geography. For my postgraduate studies I went to Sweden, to the University of Stockholm, where I studied urban and regional planning.
Nalini: Okay, that’s a bit of a divergence from writing. What was your plan?
Helen: Backtracking a little to your question about encouragement to write: no one ever told me that writing was a thing you could do as a career—it was always spoken of in terms of a hobby. So because I was very interested in environmental issues I went down that path and worked in the environmental management field for some time. I really enjoyed my work, but in terms of doing the writing seriously, a time came when I felt I had to choose between doing one or the other full time.
Nalini: Do you think that your experience with urban planning will come out in the structures of the environments in the books?
Helen: Just to clarify, rather than urban planning, I actually worked more in what I would call environmental management. My focus was more with the natural environment and related cultural issues, such as Maori land issues here in New Zealand. Other areas included river management and building roads and bridges in remote areas. I think you can see those threads a little in my stories, because both the built environment and the natural environment are a strong influence. I also think that the cultural element is present in The Heir of Night, because the Derai people are alien to the world that they are living in. They brought their war and their values with them—and you get a sense that the other peoples in the world might have their own views of that. I have tried to expand on that a little more in The Gathering of the Lost. It’s not my “mission” to expound on cultural issues, but I do try to differentiate the cultures in the books, both within the world of Haarth, but also between its peoples and the Derai.
Nalini: I think that gives added depth
Helen: I agree—and I love stories that do that kind of thing well. Some of the books I’ve loved include Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, where you’ve got an array of sexual mores coming into the book, as well as other political and social issues. I think there are quite strong cultural issues between the off-planet protagonist as well as the two main societies within the world, highlighting the differences between them. There’s also a book like The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge, were you have quite disparate cultures within the world, but also the cultural interaction with the people from off-world—basically a colonial power. I like those kind of stories, so it’s probably not surprising that I want to tell similar kinds of stories myself.
Nalini: What other books and authors have influenced you?
Helen: (speaks softly, half laughing) That’s a very long list… (normal voice) There are so many. There are the obvious ones—when I was a kid I loved the Narnia books, then went on to The Lord of the Rings as a teen. I often talk about Alan Garner’s book Elidor, because Elidor is a dark world and when I read it at about eight or nine that really colonised my imagination. I think that’s where the original idea around The Wall Of Night world, which is twilit, first sparked. I was reading Norse myths at the same time, which is all Twilight of the Gods and quite dark too—so that twilit/dark idea really got in there and percolated away. In terms of other influences … I’m trying to think of something a bit more diverse than just The Lord of the Rings!
Nalini: Did you like Lord of the Rings before you were living in Middle Earth?
Helen: Yes I did. Although I was always living in “Middle Earth”, pretty much.
Nalini: Well, before it became Middle Earth.
Helen: Exactly! But I loved The Lord of the Rings as soon as I started reading it, because I had read so much of the Norse myths when I was younger, so I recognised the stories and knew where they were coming from. For me that wasn’t a detraction from the book, it gave it extra richness. I love that kind of depth, the mythologies and the legends coming through. I really liked Dune as well, as a teen. I think I was reading The Lord of the Rings and Dune for the first time around the same age, when I was 14. I can see the influences: in both cases the world building is so powerful, and there are cultural elements as well as the politics and the action of the story.
I like big stories, but I also read widely. I love William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive, all those stories, which are nothing like the stories I write myself. More recently, I really loved Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Shipbreaker. When I read The Windup Girl I remember thinking: ‘this is one out of the box’. I hadn’t read a book I enjoyed quite as much for a long time, especially in sci-fi. I feel sci-fi has taken quite a back seat to fantasy in the mainstream over the last few years, even decade or so. During that time It’s all been about the big epic: The Wheel Of Time, A Song Of Ice And Fire, Stephen Erikson—all those books. But I really like good sci-fi. Another writer I’ve always really liked was CJ Cherryh: she does that kind of dense storytelling, quite intricate, and I think I incline towards that as well.
Nalini: I’d agree with that.
Helen: I am using quite a lot of sci-fi examples. The Snow Queen is sci-fi, The Left Hand Of Darkness is sci-fi, and also Cherryh’s Downbelow Station, which was the first of her books I read. It just blew me away: the combination of science and how she envisaged the society, and the way space exploration might play out at the social and anthropological level. Not to mention the action or the fact that there is a space war going on—and its effect on people. I really liked all of that. Later, of course, I realised that CJ Cherryh wrote fantasy as well. I liked The Chronicles of Morgaine and books like The Paladin. I don’t know if The Paladin is that well-known, but it’s a little gem of a book that I’ve always really enjoyed.
Do you want to stop me? Because I’ve suddenly thought: then there are the YA novels. I really love fantasy like Patricia McKillip’s The Riddle Master of Hed series. I love the beauty of her language as well and feel love of language generally is another influence on my writing. As a teen I loved stories like Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown as well.
But I am going to stop now because otherwise I could go on all day!
Nalini: You obviously have a love of books. The way you were discussing the books that have influenced you, it sounds like you’re putting yourself in the box of a fantasy writer and yet The Heir of Night seems to bridge both science fiction and fantasy. And The Gathering of the Lost, but I’m only about a third of the way through reading it.
Helen: Are you enjoying it? (Putting you on the spot: I’m sorry!)
Nalini: Absolutely. My only regret is that I didn’t have time to reread Heir of Night before reading Gathering because it’s so detailed. I’m struggling to remember exactly what happened.
Helen: Yes, that’s the trouble with 18 months, well technically 17 months between books. I know this is a digression, but for me as a writer, I feel caught between the proverbial hammer and anvil. On one hand I want to get the book out because I don’t want to keep people waiting—but the book has to be right as well. Especially with the kind of books I’m writing, where there’s a great deal in them, it’s easy to end up with a lot of what I call “Band-Aids”, e.g. plot hole: band-aid! As a reader I find that kind of storytelling really unsatisfactory, so I don’t want to do that to my story. I have to take enough time that the story can really work itself out and not just have band-aids plastered over plot holes everywhere I look.
Nalini: I’m probably an author’s nightmare because I tend to pick on plotholes, but I’m not finding any.
Helen: I hope that will continue as you read on. And do let me know if you find any! By way of an anecdote, I had just sent off the final version of the manuscript, or what was supposed to be the final version, and gotten on a plane to Wellington for the launch of Mary Victoria’s third book Oracle’s Fire. Anyway, there I was on the plane, which had taken off, and was sitting back and relaxing—when all of a sudden I sat up in my seat and went ‘OMG! Continuity error!’ So as soon as I arrived in Wellington and had my computer set up, I was e-mailing my editor saying: ‘I know you’ve just received the “final” version, but I’ve got to plug this gap!’ It only took a few sentences to set things right, but it just had to be plugged.
Sorry, you’ve got me diverging again!
Nalini: No, that is great. I love an author who is concerned with continuity.
Helen: I hate plot holes worse than anything. When there are plot holes you can drive a bus through, I can’t like a book, no matter how interesting the characters or the ideas. So it is one of my bugbears as a reader that I try to avoid in my own writing. As a writer, I’m trying to write what I like as a reader.
But coming back to your actual question—at last!—which was about science, fantasy, and bridging the gap. My answer is that I’m not sure. I tend to think of the Wall series as fantasy in the same way a book like CJ Cherryh’s The Chronicles of Morgaine is basically a fantasy. There’s a hint of sci-fi in the Wall series, since the Derai come from “the stars”, but it’s not a big part of the story, which basically comprises an alternate fantastic world with magic and things like that. So to me it’s primarily fantasy.
I do think though, that you can cross the divide: they don’t have to be really separate. I believe there are many books that do that in a small way. For example in Raymond Feist‘s Darkness at Sethanon, there is this idea of a bridge through space. But it’s still basically a fantastic concept. The people have come from other worlds because they are fleeing the dragon lords—I think! (It’s years since I’ve read those books.) So—primarily a fantasy, “in my book”, but with just a hint of space-time and sci-fi.
Nalini: Unfortunately I need to back track because I’ll get into trouble if I don’t ask you a particular question; I’m leading into this. I hear you’re a fan of some awesome science fiction TV shows. What are your favourites?
Helen: Babylon 5 is a big favourite; I love the way the story goes through – well, really the four seasons. (The fifth season is a bit: ‘Oh, we’ve got an extension so we have to make another season.’) I enjoy the way there’s the big story going through the arc, and how all the little stories along the way build up to/into the big story. And the characters are great. I know some people hold that there are really only two characters in the series, that is, Londo and G’Kar, but I don’t agree. Even though I like some characters better than others all the main characters have their part to play and the way their stories evolve is also one of the things I really like about the series. And although Babylon 5 is sci-fi, it’s epic in a way as well. Not just because of the good and evil—which are not always as they seem either—but the sweep of events. Big things are at stake and those things matter. And people have to make hard decisions and it’s not always easy. So for all these reasons, I really like that series.
And then there’s Buffy. I do love Buffy. I feel the buddy thing is what makes Buffy—because if you look at the stories, often they’re really silly, but somehow the show still carries it off.
And Firefly, obviously you’ve got to love Firefly. Why wasn’t there more?
I’ve also been re-watching Carnivale recently. And suddenly realised: “this is epic fantasy—there’s a farm boy with superpowers! Why didn’t I see that before when I first watched the series?” He’s got to choose between good and evil as well. But the way they’ve set it – I love that juxtaposition of the 1930’s dustbowl environment and the ‘classic’ epic story.
The current series I’m watching is Being Human (which you’ve probably picked up from my tweets.) The UK series, I haven’t seen the US one. I also haven’t seen A Game of Thrones yet, isn’t that terrible?
Nalini: Oh, you haven’t?!
Helen: I always wait until I can see them on DVD, and see them when I’m not so busy and can really concentrate. But it’s been a bit long; I need to sit down and watch it because the second series is almost here.
Nalini: Yes, they did a very good job. I’ve just watched it for the second time. And my husband’s sitting there and he hasn’t read the books. He’s is like, ‘Oh yes, I picked up so much more this time’. But he was still asking me ‘Who’s this person, who’s that person?’
Helen: I can imagine – it must have been quite a challenge actually, to make it into compelling television, good television. My sister is a fan as well, and she said she almost stopped watching it in the first couple of episodes because she felt like the real story was being lost in the focus on sex and violence, the whole Home Box Office thing. But when she got through that, around episode three, she thought: ‘Oh, we’re coming right now.’
Nalini: Yes. My husband – I’m going to get into trouble if I don’t ask you this. Have you watched the Almighty Johnsons?
Helen: I have watched bits of it.
Nalini: Only bits?
Helen: I’m not sure that I’ve clicked to the Almighty Johnsons yet. Isn’t that terrible?
Nalini: I’m surprised.
Helen: Why are you surprised? Because it’s Norse myth and things like that?
Nalini: We just loved it. Boxcutters podcast reviewed it, and they were raving about it. And something else happened, so I finally ordered the DVDs. We got them on the Friday, we sat down on the Saturday evening to start watching them. We stopped because we had to go to sleep at 3 a.m. and we finished watching the entire first season the next day.
Helen: That sounds like a very good plug and I might have to give it another go. What happens is they put it on late at night here, and on TV you see a bit and then you have 10 minutes of ads. So I was like: “I’ll give this a go when it comes out on DVD.” A lot of series, I never really watch on the telly and when it comes out, I’ll watch the boxed set in a kind of extended viewing. (I did that with Rome, I recall.)
Nalini: Yes, I can’t stand commercial TV either. You won awards for poetry in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Now knowing that you were writing novels as a teenager, it kind of doesn’t quite fit, but why move to novels after receiving so much acclaim for poetry? Why the shift?
Helen: The picture is deceptive: I’ve written poetry and novels all the way through. I probably love novels the best: it’s the kind of storytelling I really want to do. I write poetry in what I call a much more “natural” way.
When you have a novel length work you may have the spark of an idea, but then you have to sustain that by how many thousands of words, or hundreds of thousands of words. Whereas with a poem you have an idea, and unless it’s Paradise Lost, the chances are you can sit down and get that idea out in about 40 to 60 lines. So my poetry is very much of the moment: it’s very observational, slice of life. I’ll see or hear something and the poem will spark. Some of the poems work and some of them don’t. Usually if they don’t, I don’t spend a lot of time on them: I work on the ones that gel.
But I have written a lot of poetry and what happened was that I completed The Heir of Night and I started to try and get it published. Of course, by that time I had plotted it out, too, so I knew it was a quartet, not even a trilogy. And publishers were reading it and going (in some cases, anyway!): ‘Well, this is interesting, but other than a short story or two in high school you’ve never had anything published. How do we know you can finish this?’ So I thought okay I’ve got to get some runs on the board. I’ve got to become a published author or else I’ll never publish my book. So I started to actively send poetry and short fiction out there into the world to try to get publications. I also thought I needed to write a stand-alone novel so potential publishers would know I was capable of finishing a book-length story.
Nalini: So you wrote Thornspell.
Helen: I wrote Thornspell, yes. At that time I was sending a lot of poetry out there as well, and I’m still writing poetry. Getting the books out has turned out to be so major though, I don’t have a lot of time to get my poems up to publishable standard, which means I can’t submit them. For example, even the earthquake poems on my blog, I’ve really just written and put them up; I haven’t spent a lot of time editing or polishing them.
Nalini: It is interesting because I’m getting a very different picture of how you’ve actually got to where you are. Compared to doing the research on the net, it seems that there is a completely different order to things.
Helen: Yes. I think writing Thornspell was probably the smartest thing I did. I’m not saying it’s not smart to write poetry and short stories, but a lot of people see the short story as the path to the novel. Having written them, I now strongly disagree with that. I think short stories and novels are distinct story forms and you have to approach writing them in a completely different way.
I know people who are brilliant short story writers, but I think their novels are okay but not wonderful. And vice versa: people who are great novelists but their short stories, although all right, don’t spin my wheels. You think when you’re aspiring to get your name out, ‘well I have to do these things’ and it probably does help. But I do think the thing that helped the most of the series was getting Thornspell into the publication process because I actually got the contract for the Wall series before Thornspell was even published. The fact that I’d written a stand-alone book and had a publication contract for it seemed to change the whole landscape.
Nalini: So it wasn’t even the fact that Thornspell won two awards?
Helen: No. There may be another factor in there as well. I have a wonderful agent. She seemed to know who would be interested, who to send the books to. I don’t know if it’s the same in Australia as in New Zealand, but we have a DIY culture: ‘do it yourself.’ So I thought I should just be able to send my books out there and that publishers would read them. But there are so many publishers and if they’ve just published an epic fantasy they may not want another one—there are all kinds of different considerations.
It also comes down to who likes what kinds of writing. When you’re living in New Zealand and relying on the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook, for example, it has a whole list of publishers but not a great deal of information about their lists. Even when you go to their websites, you often don’t pick up that information. The books they’ve published will give you an idea… But having a good agent, an agent who seems to be really plugged in to that kind of thing, can make a big difference.
Nalini: I was reading today that The Heir of Night is not actually meant to be a teenage book even though the central character was a young teen: I think she was about 12 at the time.
Helen: Thirteen, I think. You kind of work it out from how long ago her mother died and various other events. I’m not sure I actually stated it categorically, but she was thirteen and Kalan fourteen.
Nalini: It’s not the greatest to pigeonhole a book as young adult: if it’s good quality then other people might not read it, but is The Heir of Night suitable for a younger audience? I read it and I thought I would have loved it, I could have read at any time from age 10 upwards. One of my concerns is that as the central character Malian grows up, is the story going to become more adult or will it stay safe for the younger audience?
Helen: That’s an interesting question because I was going to say ‘tell me what you think when you’ve finished reading Gathering’ but that’s not a fair answer!
I think of the series as crossover fiction. Again, I am writing the kind of story I like. A lot of those very influential books I mentioned, even though they are seen as adult books I read a lot of them when I was all of fourteen or fifteen. At that age I was doing what I call ‘reading up and reading down.’ So I might read something like Robert Heinlein’s The Door into Summer one day, and Heinlein is very much an adult reader. The next day I’d reread Prince Caspian or something similar. At that age of fourteen or fifteen you do that, I think.
If you look at a book like The Lord of the Rings that’s an adult book, right? But sex? Not very much. Romance: almost none. And the violence: I think the violence in The Lord of the Rings and The Heir of Night and The Gathering of Lost would probably be at about the same level. By the end of The Gathering of Lost you will definitely have more sex than in The Lord of the Rings, but possibly not enough for a teen romance novel these days!
But I see it more of an adult book, or crossover, despite the age of the protagonist because the themes in the book are actually quite dark—the ideas about power and people and what they do to each other. I never sat down and said, “I’m writing an adult book” or “a YA book”, but I certainly didn’t consciously think of it as YA. I was trying to write the kind of book that I like reading as an adult and that I first started reading as a teen.
Is that a confusing answer?
Nalini: I think that’s a good answer. I think a lot of readers in high school would be reading crossover and yet, as I said before, I would have liked The Heir of Night when I was 10. Maybe the parent of a preteen should maybe read the book first before they give it to their preteen to read.
Helen: To me my books wouldn’t be ruled out because of sex – although violence? There is a bit of violence – but there is nothing worse than you get on TV. It is probably a lot less than you get on TV. I think it’s because of those darker themes.
When I was ten I was reading things that most would regard as hopelessly unsuitable, much more unsuitable than The Heir of Night could ever be! I read Peyton Place when I was about twelve. My parents had it. I think it first came out in the 1960s and people were scandalised by it then because it was very upfront about sex and there is also incest-rape and venereal disease. Big stuff for a twelve-year-old to be reading. (But I come from a large family and suspect my mother was just pleased that I was being quiet rather than worrying about what I was reading!) I think kids self-edit though. I recall getting to certain bits and thinking: ‘Oh, that’s really ooky.’ So I’d just skip over that bit to the next part of the story I was interested in. And it was mostly the graphic sex stuff where I thought ‘eugh’ and moved on!
But if you talk about the influence of books, there are two things about Peyton Place that I’ve never forgotten. One is that it starts off with a description of the town during an Indian summer: very evocative writing and powerful scene setting. The other thing, of course, is the girl caught up in the incest-rape. The book went into things like how she got pregnant and the doctor giving her an illegal abortion, as well as the court case once that came out. A powerful story and one I’ve never forgotten.
So as a kid I read very widely: I guess I’m saying I really disagree with the YA label. To an extent, yes, there probably are some books that really aren’t suitable for kids, but I was reading all the classics when I was at high school. I was also reading adult science fiction and fantasy and adult historical novels. I read Shogun – and that’s full of sex and violence — at age fourteen or fifteen, too, and really enjoyed it. I made up my own mind about the sex and violence.
To me The Wall Of Night series is a crossover read, but it’s as much an adult book as something like The Lord of the Rings. I believe the books will stay younger reader friendly in that way.
Nalini: The Heir of Night has won a reviewers’ choice and the Sir Julius Vogel award for best novel and it’s been nominated for the Gemmell Legend award and the Morningstar. What was that like?
Helen: It’s quite exciting. I think the Reviewers’ Choice award was the most exciting because I didn’t know anything about it. I suddenly got this e-mail in my in-tray and I’d never even seen the review! There had been this really great review though: and as Heir was a Reviewers’ Choice of 2010 and the book only came out at the end of September 2010, it must have made quite a big impression on the reviewer, squeezing in there at the end of the year. And in America as well, so a bigger market and lots of books, which was really exciting.
The Sir Julius Vogel Award came at an interesting time because we had not long ago had the February 22nd earthquake and it was really difficult circumstances here in Christchurch. Trying to get my head out of that space to go to the Con—I was a guest of honour at the con as well and on a few panels—and then into award mode was quite surreal. It was a tremendous thrill to win though, especially because there were some other very good books in the line up.
Nalini: That’s a real compliment.
Helen: Yes it is. With the Gemmell Awards we’re down to the nailbiting time at the moment because we’ll know on the 31st or shortly after the 31st as to whether or not Heir has made it to the shortlist in either the Legend or Morningstar category. I’m trying to stay cool about that one: I might allow myself to get excited if it gets onto the shortlist.
I doubt that I will get through in the Legend category because I’ve looked at who the other authors are and they are very high profile authors. I think maybe in the Morningstar – the newcomer one – I’d have a better chance. But to actually win in either category would be really amazing—not least because a woman has never won yet.
Nalini: To get on to the long list is wonderful; to get onto the shortlist – I’ll do a happy dance for you.
Helen: There would definitely be a happy dance and some air punching if that happened. Absolutely.
Nalini: Did you find winning awards before the second novel is actually complete, increased the pressure, putting greater expectations on you?
Helen: Actually I didn’t really think of it that way. I think there’s always a sense that if people have enjoyed the first book, you don’t want to disappoint them with any of the subsequent books—but the second is always the next book. So the pressure would only come in terms of the general onus to deliver the goods and not disappoint readers.
I guess that reflects my philosophy, which is that awards are a great accolade, and I really love getting them, obviously. But to me it is primarily about the story: your first responsibility is to the story, to do justice to that and – despite whatever other pressures, whether it’s earthquakes or timeframes or anything like that – to make the story the best it can be.
The second duty is to readers because people have invested in the story. Not just by paying money for the book: they’ve invested their time and energy in reading it and being part of a process with the characters. To me, as an author you actually kind of owe your readers something: it’s a form of noblesse oblige. That’s why I care about getting the books out as soon as I can – as long as I can meet the first obligation, which is to get them “right.”
So any awards come after that: the book is the cake and the awards are the icing. I love icing – but it’s not where the crux of the pressure lies.
Nalini: That answer leads beautifully into my next question which is: there has been some controversy in fandom because of perceptions that some authors are unfaithful to readers by not completing a series or going off and doing other projects before a particular series has finished. I won’t name names. The Gathering of the Lost was delayed due to circumstances outside of your control: you’ve mentioned the earthquakes a few times now. Would you like to talk about how that’s impacted on your ability to meet the deadlines and to finish Gathering?
Helen: I feel I have to be completely honest here and say part of that is me, as well: I seem to be a slow writer. Although having said that, I don’t think 17 to 18 months is that long in the overall scheme of things, to get a next book out. But I know that when you’re waiting – as a person who has waited many times myself – it feels like a long time. But the earthquakes – yeah.
[Helen’s voice wavers as she begins telling the story, gradually strengthening. Although remaining professional at all times while reliving this story, Helen’s emotions sometimes rise to the surface as she relives the horror of the earthquakes.]
The earthquakes were something else. I had done the first draft of the book and then decided that there were some quite major changes that I had to make to get it to the story I really wanted to write. I had embarked on that process at the time the February 22nd earthquake happened and that really just blew everything out of the water because the level of devastation in the city was so great. In terms of our personal circumstances, although our house wasn’t destroyed it has sustained reasonable damage. It’s still livable, but the liquefaction—this flood of silt, sand and ground water that spews out and spreads everywhere—took six days to dig out. It was all around the house. It’s still under the house. Our driveway, that used to be level, looks like an old riverbed. That was us – but everyone else was in the same situation. So you’re doing your own thing and you’re helping other people. We had no sewers for 6 months – in fact it was longer than that, it was February through to the end of September.
Nalini: No sewer?
Helen: No sewer. No toilet.
Nalini: What did you do?
Helen: Everyone was on portaloo; you got to know your neighbours really well! We did have chemical toilets but we’d use those as backup because it’s hard to empty them. Although there were places you could do that, it was still kind of major. So you’d use the portaloos. After February, for about a week we didn’t have any hot water or anything either. There was no power for a few days, there was no hot water, so a really, really broken city. Basically in those 30 seconds in February, the level of vertical acceleration was so critical it took out two thirds of the city’s power and sewerage pumping stations. Everything was just gone. Roads, too: the day of the earthquake the road I live on was the only street between the river and the major arterial about a mile to the west that was open—the only street that was passable. It joins onto a collector road, which was passable too, and that collector road had the only bridge between Cathedral Square and the sea that traffic could still use (although it still had quite a lot of damage.) So everyone who was trying to get from the north side of the city to the south side because of their children or their family or just to get home, they were all trying to go down our road and across that bridge.
On that day, with the smell of smoke from the central city, I knew that something was burning – I found out later that it was the CTV building, the one that collapsed completely. There was a pall of smoke hanging over everything; chaotic traffic; people who had abandoned their cars and were walking; people injured. That was my experience of the earthquake. For people I know who were in the central city, there were the same things only much worse. All the building collapses: my accountant, who had been at a meeting, came back, found his car crushed by falling bricks and then had to walk out. The first open space he got to, Latimer Square, they were already laying out bodies on the open ground.
It is a huge, huge trauma. Trying to write – there’s all these things you have to deal with and trying to write, close it out and write the book—
When I got back to a stage where I could write the book – I think I said on my blog about 10 days later: ‘ I’m going back to write the book, there’s not much I can do.’ But there’s still a lot of stuff that you have to do. It’s not like you have uninterrupted time. You’re trying to write, and also it becomes a way of shutting things out. It almost becomes like a coping mechanism: you shut everything else out and do whatever needs to be done next. In my case, once things got to a certain stage, that was the book.
So it’s been really tough and I think the other thing is that it’s actually not over. People don’t realise. Often people, even in Auckland, are like, ‘Oh, is it still going on?’ And you kind of go: ‘Well, yeah. It is actually still going on.’ One, because earthquakes are still going on. Not as many, or as as intense, but you know that at any moment it could be another big one. Every time you get a nasty jolter like we did on the weekend, your heart GOES and you think ‘what’s happening?!’
Nalini: I noticed your tweet. It sounded like you were doing the cat thing hanging from the ceiling because there was another rumble.
Helen: Mmmm. I was actually on the computer at the time and my heart leapt about 3 feet. And you just tense up, you instantly tense up thinking ‘what’s going to happen?’ There are different quakes in terms of characteristics. All the big ones have started with a jolt and then suddenly you’re just in it. So with that tremor, it was the way it replicated the beginning of a big quake—but fortunately it didn’t come to anything.
The other aspect is that the repair of services is still going on. And our house – all the foundations – we don’t know whether it will be demolished eventually or whether it will be repaired. I’m hoping that it will be repaired, but even if it’s a repair you have to lift the whole house up and re-do the foundations.
So the thing with the aftermath is we’re dealing with insurance companies and all the government agency things. It’s a different kind of pressure, it’s not the trauma of the disaster. Rather it’s that ongoing hassle of constantly having to ring to find out where the insurance process is at. But I actually think it will be a couple of years for us, to be perfectly honest.
Nalini: So people are being put on a schedule based on urgency?
Helen: Yeah… they’re doing triage, I think would be a good way of describing it. The places where the ground condition is best and the least affected are getting fixed first. We are in what’s called the green-blue zone. There are three green zones – because red was like write-off completely – but we’re in the Green-Blue zone, which is the worst of the green zones, where the land was really, really badly affected by liquefaction and lateral spread. The next stage is they’ve started doing geotechnical surveys of all these properties. Then presumably there’ll be some kind of decision about the land condition and how you have to build to deal with that. That will determine the kind of foundations that you’ll have to have, so the cost of that will affect repair/rebuild-type discussions.
The other thing you hear is the insurance companies starting to say interesting things like: ‘Our policies covered this in principle.’ “In principle.” Hmm. Interesting. So we’re still in it, not so much in the traumatic way but in an ongoing aftermath kind of way.
Nalini: It becomes part of your daily life.
Helen: Yeah, yeah. It’s just a constant sort of pressure. Bah. Bah, I say. BAH! Sorry that’s just me laughing at the whole crazy chaotic situation.
Nalini: I hope it doesn’t drag on too long. Well, any length of time is too long really.
Helen: It is, but then you have to look at the magnitude of what happened. It was an absolutely enormous disaster. I have to say that, by and large, people have done really well. The government and the council and those kind of agencies have done well – I’m not saying they’re perfect, they have made mistakes, but when you look at what they’re dealing with, its very major. Not kind of what you expect in everyday life, in New Zealand.
Nalini: Yeah, well, I didn’t think New Zealand was supposed to be such a hotspot.
Helen: Mm, mm, well actually it kind of is. They didn’t think Christchurch was a major risk, but there’s a main fault that goes down New Zealand from White Island off the coast of Bay of Plenty down through Wellington – our capital city where all the pollies are – and on across Cook Strait. In fact there is more than one. There is also the Main Divide fault which goes down the Southern Alps: when that goes it will be really big. So we knew that in Christchurch we would feel that: it would definitely have an effect here and there was always concern about that, but no one realised that there were faults right under Christchurch. And all the earthquakes have been really shallow as well as quite strong. So, yeah.
Nalini: Everybody knows about Los Angeles. It sounds like you suddenly discovered that everything in the equivalent.
Helen: I think we are. That happens sometimes. Just like you guys have had floods and the Victorian fires, and my brother lives in Townsville where they had that huge cyclone last year as well. There is always something, but when you are in it, and it’s major as well as something you’re living with… I must admit it’s totally changed how I respond to news of earthquakes in other parts of the world. I used to go [genteel voice] ‘oh, that is terrible,’ when I heard of something happening, and now I go [more from the gut] ‘oh, poor buggers!’
Nalini: Yes, when something is close to home it really does…
Helen: Yeah. Yes. Mm.
Nalini: Trying to get onto a slightly more upbeat note, I was looking at your interview of John Fulz and if you don’t mind I’d like to ask you some questions that you asked him.
Helen: Go for it.
Nalini: What do you feel that the big epic read offers read offers readers that a more Twiggy-esque read might not?
Helen: I love the sweep of epic fantasy. I love the big story, the sense that there’s lots at stake, that what’s happening really matters. I also really love mythologies. I love that sense that the big epic gives you that you’re part of a continuum, it’s not just your little war or conflict or whatever happening now but what has happened before—you’re part of that ongoing tradition. And I love magic.
It doesn’t have to be about magic, I guess: George R R Martin has taken epic in a different, more “realist” direction. He’s got the big sweep of events though. And there’s still magic in the background of the story with the ice and ‘winter is coming’ and dragons… All of the story is tied into that, even though the foreground of the story is more a brutal realism.
The magic, the power of the story, the big conflicts, the fact that it matters—they are all part of what epic fantasy is about for me.
At the end of last year I did a few articles on SF Signal about having fun with epic fantasy. And I do love some of those tropes: the quest, the journey, the band of brothers, that kind of thing—the things that lift us out of ourselves even if they don’t always hold up: e.g. the camaraderie of a “band of brothers” in wartime may not survive the political differences of peace.
Nalini: What do you see as your major mythological and legendary influences and what drew you to them?
Helen: It started with the Greek myths for me: the twelve Olympians. I went on to read other stories: the Norse, the Celtic, Egyptian… I think I probably stopped around about the Babylonian, but then I discovered Chinese and Japanese folk tales… So I’ve always loved those kind of stories; I’ve always loved fairytales. I think it’s that juxtaposition of the magical and the real that I enjoy.
In terms of the Wall of Night series, the influences vary: the Norse and Celtic myths possibly with a little bit of the Greek. The Greek mythos is not so strong, but I don’t think we can get away from the notions of Greek tragedy with hubris and people often being the author of their own misfortune: that is, it’s because of the fatal flaw in our humanity that we get ourselves into these situations.
You can see the situation of the Derai as having that tragic element: they are flawed and that is very Greek tragedy. But in terms of things like the Gate of Dreams and a sense of surreal magic, to me that is much more coming from the Norse and Celtic myths. The Norse myths also have that idea of worlds at stake, the twilight of the gods, that kind of thing.
Nalini: When you talk about the Derai being fatally flawed are you talking about the culture of where they split their priests and the warriors or are you talking about something else?
Helen: I’m talking about the whole shebang really. You know from having read Heir that there is more than one division within the Derai. There is the recent division between warriors and priests—or magic users, basically—and there is also a much older division that they don’t like to talk about. They see things in very black and white terms. What remains to be seen is whether the universe is as black-and-white as their perception of it.
That kind of very black-and-white thinking is a flaw for the Derai, in my opinion. If you’ve read Heir I think saying that shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler. I’ve also talked about it before in my Big Idea guest post that I did with John Scalzi when The Heir of Night first came out. I discussed how one of my big issues around the way epic has evolved—not all of it, but some of it—is that there has been a tendency to make the stories very black-and-white. Like good is good and you know people are good because they wear the shiny armour and white surcoats, and black is black because the protagonists “look evil” and they wear the black surcoats –
Nalini: And if you’ve got green eyes you’re magic
Helen: Yeah. It’s really a very black-and-white divide between what is good and what is evil. Even as quite a young reader, I felt really dissatisfied with that. Not so much with a story like The Lord of the Rings because I think that although that is in there, there’s enough division within the people who are opposing Mordor to give depth to the story. But there are a lot of other books – I remember reading a book when I was a teen (and I talked about this in the Big Idea post) where characters were meant to be paladins yet they walled one of their enemies up alive. And I went: ‘No. No, you cannot be a paladin and behave like that, I don’t care what colour your surcoat is.’
So I love the epic story, I love the big stories, but when you look at the origins of Greek and Norse myths, Celtic tales, the Arthurian cycle, they’re not like that. They’re mainly about people dealing with their own human natures. There may be an external enemy but when you look at something like the Grail quest, to resolve the quest and find the Grail, what the knights most need to resolve are the flaws in their own human nature.
I want to work around those kinds of ideas with my storytelling, but I still love classic epic fantasy so I also want the storytelling to be within that context—for this series anyway.
Nalini: You don’t set yourself small goals do you?
Helen: Aaahh – No. No, I think if you’re going to tell a story you might as well tell a story worth telling—which isn’t to say that there aren’t books that are just fun to read and you love them, and they don’t have to save the world. But even stories that are fun to read, and you laugh a lot when you read them, usually have something in there to really hold your attention, something that has a little more depth. I think Terry Pratchett is like that: he’s hilarious but he has some fairly acute observations of human nature and we’re kind of laughing with him at ourselves a lot when we read those books.
Nalini: I’m a huge Terry Pratchett fan.
Helen: There aren’t enough people doing that kind of writing. It’s not my thing: I think it’s really important to know what your ‘vein of gold ‘is in terms of writing. I think my characters can be humorous, but I’m not a humour writer. But I’ve recently read a book that is new out in New Zealand called The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse (there’s a report on my blog.) I really enjoyed it: it’s a hoot—a really good story but also a lot fun. I feel we need more books like that.
Nalini: I love a book with some depth and humour and am not a comedian at all.
Helen: We all like a laugh.
Nalini: Do you have a favourite character in the wall series?
Helen: No, and that’s not just a politically correct answer. I don’t have any one character that I love the best. I find it tends to shift around: when I’m working with a character, I tend to be really absorbed in that character and very interested in them.
If we look at The Heir of Night, for example, two of the characters I appreciate a lot for different reasons are the Earl of Night and Asantir, the Honour Captain. I appreciate the Earl of Night because he was such a difficult character to write: I really had to work hard on him. I wanted people to feel the weight that was on him. He is very rigid in some ways, but he is not necessarily a bad guy even if he can be a pain in the butt. I think you meet people who are like that: they drive you crazy, but they’re not bad people although sometimes they may make wrong decisions. (I think if you look at someone like Londo Molari in Babylon 5, for example, although in some ways he is very likeable, he also does awful things and he pays for them in the end.)
So I had to work really hard to try and get the Earl of Night to, I hope, have ‘dimensions’ to his character. As one of my early readers said: ‘That Earl of Night, I really hate him. He is such an anal retentive bastard.’ And I went ‘Yes, YES! My job here is done.’ Well actually, not quite, because the balance was when someone else said: ‘Yes but you just feel the weight that is on him all the time’—and then I really went, ‘Yes, now my work here is done.’
Both reactions were what I’m looking for, so even though he is really hard to like I certainly appreciate him because of the work I had put in to get him right. Whereas Asantir is almost the opposite. She wasn’t in the book originally. There was an Honour Captain who had a different name and was intended to be a minor character. I realised I had too many names that were similar, so I decided the Honour Captain needed a different name. I cast around for the right name and experimented, until I came up with Asantir.
As soon as I had the name though, the way she looked changed and she sort of stepped forward and said, ‘Right, I’m here now. I’m important to this story and you’d better pay intention.’ And I thought: ‘Yes, ma’am, paying attention now.’ And I’ve been paying attention ever since.
They’re very different character processes, but I value the end result equally.
And in the new book there are a lot of characters I really like. I really love all the young knights for example.
Nalini: And the damosels.
Helen: [in a higher-pitched voice] And the damosels. [Back to normal voice] I have to say I’m quite pleased with the way Malian’s character has developed through this book—but I don’t want to say too much more about how Malian develops because it gets a bit spoilery.
Nalini: I dug out my copy of The Heir of Night and compared the two. The Gathering of the Lost is definitely bigger than The Heir of Night: is this going to be a trend? Are you going to do a George R R Martin on us?
Helen: I don’t think so. Or not majorly. The reason why the second book is bigger—if you remember the first Lord of the Rings movie, which is the shortest of the movies, all the characters in it were together. Then the party split up, so the next movies had to follow different people in different locations. That automatically makes your book bigger.
As you are aware from George R R Martin, every time you introduce a new character or a new realm as well, but particularly new characters, your story gets bigger. I think that the next book may be slightly bigger, but it would only be for that reason. To me every character doesn’t have to be followed religiously: that’s one way of keeping a story tight. And I think you will have met most of the major characters by the end of this book, except as possible small addendums to the main story. Whereas in Feast for Crows, for example, we went to a whole new part of the world and there was a new set of characters. I don’t plan to do that with the Wall story. Touch wood—where’s some wood?
Nalini: On the one hand I kind of like that about George’s writing, but on the other hand – in terms of I want the books, I want the story finished, I’m really happy for you to go and write more books later – on the other hand it’s really good to keep it tight, keep it focused, so we can actually get to the end of the story.
Helen: That is my philosophy, although there are different styles of storytelling, all valid. To me this is Malian’s story and Kalan’s story. Everything else that happens is around them: they are always going to be the core of the plot. It would be a very different book if I took all the point of view characters from the first book and gave them an equally important share of the story. It’s a different way of writing. So although the third book may be bigger, it should only be very slightly bigger, to accommodate the fact that the central characters are all in different places doing different things.
Nalini: Is there anything you’d like to say to fans and readers?
Helen: I’ve tried to write a story that I love telling and I hope you love reading it. And perhaps an important additional element in my storytelling is that I do like adventurous stories. While I hope deeper threads will be present in a book, if you look at Thornspell or Heir, and now Gathering, you may guess that there will always be a lot of alarms and excursions, as well as flights by night and sword fights, because those are the kinds of stories I love reading.
Nalini: So if you love the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings – although in some ways I think comparing the Wall series to the Lord of the Rings isn’t doing the Wall series justice because it’s written in a different era.
Helen: I think if you drew quarters on a Fantasy map then you might stick the Wall series in the same quarter of that map as The Lord of the Rings, but it’s certainly not the same story. I mean, it has women characters in it for a start: there are women who do stuff!
Nalini: Yes, and there is dialogue and character development.
Helen: There was character development in The Lord of the Rings, come on…
Nalini: Yes, I’m more speaking from the point of view of my son who started reading it and did nothing but bitch and moan and then quit.
Helen: How old was he?
Nalini: 15 or 16 at the time think. It was a few years ago.
Helen: That’s interesting. I thought if maybe if he was a bit younger… Mind you, even I now sometimes find some of the descriptive passages a little long. I used to love those bits and I still love them, but maybe just a little less.
Nalini: When it came to the Ents I nearly gave up but I was like 12.
Helen: I kind of love the Ents, actually. But it’s different strokes for different folks. In terms of making comparisons I feel that readers who like The Lord of the Rings, or Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, or Guy Gavriel Kay, could very well like the WALL series. And maybe Raymond Feist, as well. It’s that kind of story. I’m not so sure about George RR Martin, just because his stories are so brutal and I’m not sure that I can quite aspire to that level of equal opportunity brutality. (I say this as one who loves the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.)
Nalini: No. I think your characters are more equal opportunity but this is less brutality and a lot less nudity.
Helen: Yes, definitely a lot less nudity. I never noticed the nudity in the Martin books, isn’t that strange? I love the books, especially the first three. When I read A Game of Thrones I just thought ‘wow’. I haven’t read the fifth one yet: I’ve been waiting for a lull in my commitments. But it’s a sign of a good story, to be so absorbed in it you’re not going ‘Yes, so-and-so is naked again’ (or whatever is happening like that)—but I definitely noticed the brutality.
Nalini: You haven’t watched the TV series.
Helen: Ah, no.
Nalini: We had big discussions here last year about the level of sex and nudity in the TV series as opposed to the book, because my son has read the series. He argued that most of what’s in the TV series was in the books, and I had to start kind of mentally shuffling around because I hadn’t noticed it either.
Helen: Yes. I need to re-read them. I know there are things some readers find difficult, like the relationship between Cersei (my most disliked character, I must say, she’s so stupid) and her brother Jamie. And there’s also the fact that Daenerys was pretty much a child bride at 12. I know a lot of people have problems with that, but I don’t because I think it’s very true of the world as it used to be and possibly/probably still is in some places. I think the series has quite a strong element of realism in some aspects of it. History is one of my big influences as well and I think if you’ve read any history at all you won’t have much of a problem with George RR Martin.
Nalini: I remember studying feudal societies when I was at high school and it’s pretty consistent.
Helen: Yeah, that’s GRRM.
Nalini: If we end up at a convention together will have to go and get coffee or go to the pub together and expand on this.
Helen: Yeah, I’d like that. But that’s the thing: why does someone write speculative fiction? The chances are they do it because they love speculative fiction.
Nalini: Although I do know somebody who wrote speculative fiction who has been shortlisted for an Aurealis Award who has only ever read a few of the classics.
Helen: And that doesn’t mean you can’t write something really good.
Nalini: Thank you very much, it has been great.
Helen: It has been really nice talking to you as well.