GIVING QUESTIONS, DEMANDING ANSWERS: Juliet E. McKenna

With Darkening Skies, the second in Juliet E. McKenna's new Hadrumnal Crisis trilogy, due to hit shelves this week, we spoke to the writer behind The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution about her favourite fantasy characters, the interaction between folklore, myth and history, and wizards turned bad...





1. What was the inspiration behind the Hadrumal Crisis?

I’ve written three series in the world of Einarinn now, and one of the ground rules has always been ‘wizards do not get involved in warfare’. Because wizards can be tricky in fantasy fiction; if they’re even moderately powerful, why don’t they end up ruling these worlds? Not necessarily as some clich├ęd Dark Lord but simply because they have these magical resources which the rest of the people don’t. They could well end up doing an excellent job of ruling – but that’s not much of a story. And I don’t find ‘because they’re jolly decent chaps’ much of an answer to this question either.

So it was time to look at what happens when someone, somewhere decides to break that rule about wizards staying out of the fighting. Because that’s the thing about rules; people always go looking for loopholes and exceptions. So now the kings and guild masters of Einarinn are finding out just what the Archmage and his wizards and magewomen can do, if they’re really forced into a corner...

2. What is it about the genre that you are drawn to?

I’ve read fantasy fiction from my earliest childhood, along with folklore, myth and history from all over the world. I never saw any particular distinction between these different stories. They were all taking me to a fantastic place full of wonder and danger, before turning me around to look back at where I’d come from with a new perspective. That’s still the appeal for me, as a writer and ever more so as a reader, given the current maturity and scope of the genre.

3. Are there any particular fantasy writers that have inspired your own work?

Oh, I can never answer this question. Of course there are, there must be, but I am apparently incapable of recognising them. I think this is because I try very hard not to copy those writers who I admire, aiming instead to find a way of incorporating their strengths into something entirely new drawn from my own imagination. I can tell you who I admire; Robin Hobb, Charles de Lint, Kate Elliott, Philip Pullman, Elizabeth Moon, Fritz Leiber, Katherine Kerr, David Gemmell – I could go on and on.

4. Aside from your own creations, who are your favourite protagonists in fantasy?

This is another question where I’ll answer and then later today, I’ll think of half a dozen more I should have mentioned. Just glancing at the bookshelves here? Ged, from A Wizard of Earthsea. Rohan and Sioned from Dragon Prince. Locke Lamora. Lessa, from Dragonflight. Like last time, I could go on and on... so let’s note in particular that these are all people who do things, who take the initiative. Things may not work out well, they may end up fighting to claw back lost ground because of their own mistakes but they are always moving the action onwards. That’s what protagonist means after all; from the Greek, the first to act. I’m really not a fan of supposed heroes who only ever react to events.

5. What are you working on next?

Defiant Peaks, third volume of the Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, is taking up all my attention at the moment. This is the second trilogy I’ve written, and as with the Lescari Revolution, I didn’t want to spend the second book just moving characters into place for a final dramatic conclusion in Book 3. I would find that as unrewarding to write as it is to read. So the second book (in both series) sees plenty of action, which means the third book is all about dealing with the fallout from that. That means a lot more drama because no one’s simply going home for beer and medals. Every action prompts reaction and in this instance, a whole new set of players appear, to add another level of complexity and peril to the Hadrumal Crisis.

6. Tell us a bit about your writing process.

I’m a planner. I spend a good long while thinking about the story I have in mind to write, about the characters involved and how the world and times they live in will shape their actions and reactions and how all that will steer and twist the story as a result, often in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I write a broad brush outline for the whole novel and then I outline each chapter before I start writing it. These outlines used to be a lot more rigid but over the past fifteen years/books, I’ve learned to follow those unexpected twists sooner rather than later, rather than trying unsuccessfully to keep the story on that initially-planned track and ending up changing it in the rewrites. I write two drafts; a first and a final. I used to adore writing the first and found the fine-tuning through the second pass a real trial, however rewarding the final result. That’s changed completely now. I find shaping and honing the final draft my favourite part of the process these days.

On a day to day basis? I work from about 8 am to 5 or 6 pm in my study, starting with clearing email and other admin and then settling down to write, unless it’s a day set aside for tackling accounts, reviews, articles or short story commissions. There’s a lot for novelists to do besides writing novels.

7. How do you go about writing worlds in such great depth?

I start with the story and the people and work out how both have arrived at the start of this particular tale. What background do we need to make all this believable, in terms of physical geography, political history, economic and social structures, technological underpinning, so on and so forth. That might sound incredibly dull but I’m a historian by inclination and education so I love this stuff. Also, and this is the really important bit, I’m only looking for the fine detail that serves the story in hand, just sketching in the rest with a broader strokes until I have a specific reason to look more closely. That way I get that vital sense of depth and reality by hinting at a wealth of untold material, as opposed to unbalancing the book completely by trying to include endless fascinating but ultimately irrelevant information which ends up smothering character and stifling plot. That’s the trap lying in wait for a writer who starts out with the detailed world building and ends up captured by it.

8. Why should someone pick up the books in this series?

To enjoy a good read? Surely that’s the only reason to ever pick up a book. What makes a good read? Being drawn into the lives of people you soon come to care about. In fantasy fiction, it’s also finding yourself alongside those people in some new, unexpected place, learning the rules and finding the pitfalls, perhaps by trial and error. Gaining some new insights into the human condition along the way.

In this particular series, Jilseth, a magewoman, is learning just how complex the challenges for wizardry can be, both from outside their island city of Hadrumal and within the Council of Wizards where not everyone’s the Archmage’s ally. Corrain, a one-time captain of a guard troop and more recently an escaped slave, discovers that finding a wizardly ally is far more difficult and more dangerous than he could ever have imagined. Zurenne, a widowed noblewoman finds herself facing challenges she never expected, first bereft of and later betrayed by the male guardians she had been raised lifelong to defer to. They all find themselves tackling the unforeseen consequences of their own actions and the interventions of others. They’re not natural allies by any means but their stories become increasingly intertwined.

Darkening Skies is out this week in the UK and the US.

1 comment:

Paul Weimer said...

Here's a question, Juliet. Should readers go back and start with the Lescari books? Are the Hadrumnal Crisis books best appreciated if you do?