28 September 2010

Interview: Helen Lowe

Today we have with us author Helen Lowe. The Heir of Night, the first book of her Wall of Night series is being released today.

If Night falls, all fall . . .

In the far north of the world of Haarth lies the bitter mountain range known as the Wall of Night. Garrisoned by the Nine Houses of the Derai, the Wall is the final bastion between the peoples of Haarth and the Swarm of Dark—which the Derai have been fighting across worlds and time.

Malian, Heir to the House of Night, knows the history of her people: the unending war with the Darkswarm; the legendary heroes, blazing with long-lost power; the internal strife that has fractured the Derai's former strength. But now the Darkswarm is rising again, and Malian's destiny as Heir of Night is bound inextricably to both ancient legend and any future the Derai—or Haarth—may have.

- When did you started to write?

I first began writing as a little kid, poems and plays that I and my siblings, together with our friends, used to put on for our parents. I continued writing as a teenager and even had a few stories and poems published and broadcast in the wider world (not just the school magazine), but I didn't starting writing fiction seriously until eleven years ago. Since then I have had many short stories and poems published and anthologized, as well as winning and being placed in competitions, and my first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published in 2008.

- How long does it usually take you to write a book?

Well, it took me five years to complete The Heir of Night, because at that stage I was writing part-time and I had a day job where I was frequently working 60 to 70 hours a week. I also used to get sent off "on location" quite often, as well, at which times it was very difficult to write at all. But I wrote Thornspell as a full time project, when I had a year off work, and that only took me 6-7 months from "go" until submission date. Thornspell is half the size of Heir, so that suggests a year, perhaps a little more full time, for the next books—and that is pretty much how The Gathering of the Lost (The Wall of Night Series Part 2), is working out, time-wise. The Wall series novels are big books, both in scope and physical size, and the quality of the story and the characterization is also very important to me--but I am absolutely committed to finishing the series as quickly as I can, which is why I have given up the day job to work on them full time (in my "garret"! [Grins])

- Are you a planner? Do you know how each of your books ends?

I am somewhere in between the planner and the intuitive writer. I always have the story arc in my mind from the beginning and I always know how the story will end--in the case of The Wall of Night series, that includes both each of the individual books and the series as a whole. I also roughly know the major milestones along the way, but a great deal can change in between as events unfold and the characters develop. I may take text out of one part of the manuscript and put it in another, remove some material altogether and add new, but so far I have never strayed far from the original story arc. I have also done reasonably detailed synopses for each of the four books—in fact, that is how I realized the Wall story was four books—but I find that the more detailed the planning the more I subconsciously feel that the story is "already written" and my work as the storyteller is done. So I find that the more organic, evolutionary approach to writing, as opposed to very detailed pre-planning, works best for me.

- Which of all your books did you have more fun writing?

You know, each book is unique and so I enjoy them in different ways. I love the darkness and power and richness of The Heir of Night, but the beauty, mystery and adventurousness of Thornspell was also a lot of fun to write. Thornspell was easier to write, because it is a shorter book with only one major point-of-view character, and that has its charm, but the challenge of writing the bigger book, and now the series, is also deeply engaging.

- How many hours a day do you spend writing? Do you prefer writing at day or at night?

I am definitely a lark by inclination, but I can burn the midnight oil when I have to—and in fact I do have to at the moment with The Heir of Night coming out in the USA today (28 September), and in Australia and New Zealand on October 7. The process is heady and exciting, but also a lot of work, especially since I am trying to keep up the momentum on The Gathering of the Lost at the same time.

My minimum hours per day to "just write" are four, for at least five days a week. By "just write" I mean the books: not the blog or website, or answering book related emails, or doing interviews like this, or anything else related to the business of writing. Whenever I can, I do more than that, but the four hour minimum has to be
ring fenced otherwise all the other, more immediate demands would take over. I also have a minimum "new word" limit per day. The target is quite small, deliberately so, because then I don't beat myself up if I'm working on a tricky passage, or I have a lot of revision to do, which results in the number of new words for that day being low. Usually though, I write between 6 to 10 times my minimum "new word" count when I sit down to write.

- Where did you get the idea for the Wall of Night series?

I always find this a difficult question, because The Heir of Night and Wall series are not based on a single idea or a single moment of inspiration, but on the build-up of a series of ideas over time. I had the idea of a twilit world from a very early age, perhaps inspired by the Norse myths which I loved reading, but also shaped by living in Singapore with its swift tropical dusks, and also, I believe, by reading Alan Garner's Elidor around that same time. Elidor is about a world trapped in complete darknesswhich of course The Wall of Night isn'tbut I suspect the possibility of the idea, combined with the environment I was living in and all the mythic material I was reading, worked together to shape my own, early world-building vision. But the vision of the mountainous and windblasted Wall of Night, with it bitter peaks and treacherous ravines, came to me a lot later. Having said that, the Wall of Night world definitely arrived before any of the charactersand interestingly, given my fascination with history, myths and folklore, many of the mythic and historical characters referenced within The Heir of Night, such as the hero Yorindesarinen and the Hunt Master, Xeria and Tasian and Aikanor, were amongst the first to people the world. The idea of the Derai, as a dour, stoic and beleaguered people under arms, evolved out of exploring different stories around those characters.

- What are you working on right now?

Ah, that's easy! I am working very hard indeed on finishing The Gathering of the Lost, the second book in the WALL series, as quickly as I can while making sure that it is just as good if not better than The Heir of Night.

- What can you tell us about The Heir of Night?

The Heir of Night is physically very much about the Wall of Night, although the second book will open out into the wider Haarth world, which is partly referenced in Heir: the Winter Country and the cities of the River; the golden city of Ij and the distant empire of Ishnapur with the Great Deserts beyond; as well as the green hills of Jaransor that may drive the unwary mad.

Within the Wall of Night world of shadow, conflict and decay,
The Heir of Night is primarily the story of Malian, the untried Heir of Night who must leave everything she knows to save herself and her people, and of Kalan, a young man thrust into a hateful life who must fight to break free. But the Wall story is also the story of their race, the Derai, who are locked into an ancient war and are divided internally by prejudice, suspicion and fear. In Heir, Malian and Kalan find themselves caught in the heart of the Derai legacy of darkness, peril and mystery, which they must first unravel and then begin to overcome ...

Although The Heir of Night is dark, epic fantasy, with the traditional elements of the hero's journey, ancient and powerful enemies, and young "protagonists
alone" who must follow that hero's quest, it also contains qualities that are subtly different from the tradition, including the depth and reality of the characters, who are not "just archetypes". The fact that the "hero society" is alien to the world of Haarth—invaders themselves in that senseand have brought their "war-without-end" and their enemy with them, and the associated moral ambiguity of the Derai are also non-traditional elements. The one thing you can be sure of is that this is no "black and white" conflict and no one is entirely as they may seem.

- Can you give us a glimpse at the main characters of the book?

I have already talked about Malian and Kalan, but there are also some very important secondary characters in the book. These include Malian's father, the Earl of Night, and his lover and consort, Rowan Birchmoon, who is also known as the Winter Woman because she is not Derai, but hails from the Winter Country. Other important Derai characters include Nhairin, the lame and scarred steward of the keep; Sister Korriya, who is a priestess and the Earl's kinswoman; and Asantir, the powerful and charismatic Honor Guard captain. Equally important characters who are not Derai comprise the Earls' minstrel Haimyr, and the heralds of the Guild, whom the Derai believe function in some "form of symbiosis." And there are other characters with vital roles in the action of the story who are not human (or Derai)and others again who are not alive ...

- One of the things I liked the most about the book was all the different points of view there were. What made you write the book that way instead of just in Malian's point of view?

The Earl, Rowan Birchmoon, Nhairin, Asantir and the heralds are all point-of-view characters in The Heir of Night and those who are not, such as Haimyr and Korriya, still have important parts to play. In terms of why I wrote it that way ... I do think point-of-view choice is very much driven by the kind of story being told. So Thornspell, which is a fairytale retelling of the story of the prince in Sleeping Beauty, almost demands the single main character, third person point-of-view: because it is the prince's tale, his experiences and perspective drive its telling.

The Heir of Night
has a much larger epic sweep: it is a story, not just of the two central characters and those immediately around them,
but also of the Derai race and the world of Haarth. Employing multiple points of view allows that depth and breadth of story to come throughand also provides a wider scope for immediate events within the story to play out, since we are not just reliant on either Malian or Kalan's eyes and experiences to know what is going on. Using multiple points of view also gives us a broader perspective on Malian and Kalan themselves. We get their take on the world and events—but we also get others' take on their circumstances, and on their characters as well.

- How many books are in the Wall of Night series?

Four--it's a quartet. I'm completing the second book at the moment, with the working title The Gathering of the Lost.

- Thanks so much for being here today and good luck with The Heir of Night.

It's a great pleasure to be here! Thank you for the opportunity and the good wishes. :-)

Check back tomorrow to read my review of The Heir of Night!


Melissa (My World...in words and pages) said...

I just saw this book a few hours ago as a new release from Eos and thought it sounded great! I have added it to my want list to get. Thanks for the wonderful interview. I really think I will like this book. :)

Cleverly Inked said...

Crazy how it all began with poems and plays, great interview