Interview with Kate Elliott, author of the Spiritwalker trilogy

I had the privilege of meeting Kate Elliott last year when she visited Australia for WorldCon 68. Meeting Kate and attending that convention opened my eyes to some of the issues that face genre writers (beyond the need to produce quality stories). It’s a privilege to interview her on behalf of The Ranting Dragon in light of the release of Cold Fire, the second instalment of her Spiritwalker trilogy.

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Thank you for making time for us, Kate. Perhaps you could start by describing a perfect day for Kate Elliott.
A perfect day in the day-to-day routine starts with an eight mile outrigger canoe paddle in the early morning on a clear ocean with gentle wind and moderate swells, and moves on to drinking a chai tea latte while writing another 2000 words on the latest novel, a dinner someone else has cooked for me, plus reading or viewing, and talking with family members. Also, the schnauzer would get his walk.

A perfect day out-of-routine would involve traveling and spending time with family and friends while seeing some place awesome like Angkor Wat or Stonehenge or Timbuktu or the beautiful swimming hole on the Willamette River, near where I grew up.

My best days, though, are usually the ones on which the writing went well.

Moving quickly onto your writing then, when did you start writing novels, and how did you come to have your work published?
I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. Many people talk about breaking into writing by publishing short stories first and then moving on to a novel, but my first sale was a novel (not my first written novel but my fifth). In the twenty-two years I’ve now been publishing, I’ve published three times more novels than short fiction. I’m simply more comfortable with the novel form than with the short story form.

As for breaking in, I did it the old fashioned way. I wrote several novels and eventually one was good enough to attract the interest of an agent, who eventually sold a book to an editor.

By the way, I was a complete outsider at the time. I had no contacts within the industry and really was quite ignorant of the process. So if you aren’t an insider and don’t know anyone, don’t let that stop you; I didn’t. I should mention, too, that the publishing industry is in a time of great flux, so all bets are off as to what it will look like in ten years.

After twenty-two years of being published, do you still get the same thrill (or anxiety) when a new book is released?
The thrill I inevitably feel when a new book is released is increasingly tempered by the heights of anxiety I scale. Maybe I just know more now about the many obstacles a book faces in order to gather readers. The stakes and the risk of failure seem higher today in the Attention Economy, even though I’m not sure they necessarily are higher, just different. So I worry a lot about how a book will be received and whether it will sell and get enough notice to sell, despite also believing that I am writing better than ever before.

I used to think writing would get easier as I got more experience, and that the career elements would smooth out as I built up a bigger back list. In reality, the more I write, the more I see ways in which I need to improve, so I’m just as neurotic, compulsive, and anxious as ever.

At the same time, of course, the publishing industry is going through a sea change. One has to be persistent and observant and adaptable. That’s me: neurotically persistent in my attempts to be observant and compulsively anxious as I endeavor to adapt.

It’s no secret that many fantasy readers would love to write and publish their own stories. If you could tell our readers one thing about the business of writing, what would it be?
You probably need to do another revision.

That’s brilliantly succinct! My observation of the online community and at conventions suggests that there are really positive relationships among genre writers and with those trying to ‘break in.’ Is the dominant attitude that ‘the rising tide lifts all boats?’
Overall my sense is that among genre writers there is a great deal of support, a “we’re all in this boat together” atmosphere. My relationships with other writers have been crucial for me over the years. There have been times in my career when it was only the caring support of my writing friends that got me through a really bad patch. And I hope I have given them support as well, when they were undergoing difficulties. It’s a hard job in the sense that it takes a lot out of you mentally and emotionally as well as creatively. You have to be stubborn. Having friends and colleagues who understand exactly what is going on is truly important.

You’re quite vocal online about respecting diversity in the fantasy field. Why is the issue important to you and what do you feel is at stake for the fantasy community?
As I’ve said elsewhere, I grew up in a time and place (in the USA) when girls who had an interest in things that were culturally defined as “boy” interests were called tomboys. Society had fairly rigidly defined gender roles, and people who did not fit into those roles were seen as in some manner deviant or stubborn or odd or unnatural. In fact, gender roles are mostly culturally determined, which is not at all the same as saying that biology is genderless.

Furthermore, in those days it got hammered in that most of the things women were being told they ought to be doing were not very “important” in the greater scheme of things. We were also told, repeatedly, that women had never done anything important in history (with rare exceptions like Queen Elizabeth I) due to essential differences in the male and female biology and psyche that made it impossible for all but the most unusual female to accomplish anything that mattered in the public sphere, where almost everything that mattered happened. Add to this the constant reminders that boys were active and girls were quiet, and you can just imagine how this might have played through the head of a girl who loved nothing more than making up adventure stories while playing outdoors, climbing trees, swimming, and running around.

In other words, I was constantly being told that the person I saw myself as, the person I wanted to be and who I felt as my true self, was not a person I should want to be or even possibly one that ought to exist.

Add to that, that my first serious political awakening as a young child was in the context of watching the Civil Rights Movement. By that, I do not mean to equate my own experience to the shameful oppression experienced by African-Americans, Native Americans, and minorities in my country (the USA). Rather, I mean that I came of age with a basic awareness of how institutionalized injustice functions in society. Also, my own upbringing was in an ethnic household with an immigrant mother, so I was always aware that there were other cultures, sub-cultures, and countries who had their own ways of doing things that weren’t predicated on the American way. Finally, I’ve lived in Hawaii for the last ten years. About seventy-five percent of Hawaii’s population is of Asian/Pacific Islander ancestry and/or mixed race, so I live in a diverse community; that’s what the world looks like to me on a day-to-day basis.

Given all that, my focus on the need for diversity of roles, diversity of cultures, and expanding the kinds of stories designated “important” becomes almost inevitable.

What’s at stake for the fantasy community? I think the fantasy community ought to strive to see and represent the entire world, not just one small slice of it. At times I get a sense the horse has been blinkered. I think the widest range of vision is the best, healthiest, and most just one.

As a male reader I feel that I can’t help but be drawn to male writers. Do you feel a similar impulse towards female writers?
It depends.

The idea that men and women by definition write about different things or approach how they write stories differently is itself an idea that reinforces stereotypes about theoretical essential male and female differences (I’m not talking about the biology of reproduction here, obviously). As a child I wanted to read about adventures and to imagine myself having such adventures. For a long time I therefore basically had to read about males doing those things, whether men or boys, and had thereby to identify with males. In fact, my earliest cycle of fantasy stories, written with my best friend when we were in our mid-teens, starred two male leads. We simply had never read or seen books in which girls or women could do what we wanted to write about.

By my late teens I had started to write these same types of stories with girls or women in the lead roles because I had decided I didn’t need anyone’s permission to do so. I had decided that maybe it was society that was lying to me, instead of me lying to myself or being abnormal. Because of my eclectic preferences, I mixed up a lot of elements into these tales; there was adventure, romance, fighting, intellectual discussion (of a sort), a journey of some kind, and political conflict.

So I guess what I am trying to say is that I’m not drawn toward female writers over male writers specifically. I’m looking for a blend of elements. Fiction that skews too heavily to plot action without exploration of character development will bore me, just as will fiction that focuses solely on character without any sword or blaster fights or political machinations. And fiction that doesn’t include a diverse set of characters, one that is mostly white male dudes doing things while women are relegated to sex work or care-taking (or being the one and only kickass fighting chick or love interest), with people from non Euro/American-analog cultures featured as sidekicks, servants, or aides de camp, has also come to bore me.

So for me the question becomes: Which writers in our field are most likely to offer up that blend in a mix that I will most enjoy? And how have my own preferences changed over time? I am certainly less willing to tolerate books that don’t create interesting roles for women, and it is possible (but not provable without a lot of data collection and numbers crunching that I don’t have time for) that I am more likely to find more interesting treatment of gender roles and more female characters (both major and minor) in novels written by women. I’m not sure. I do not read as many epic fantasies written by men as I did, say, 15 years ago. But I also read very little urban fantasy and paranormal romance of the type typically written by women. Either way, long novels that can’t pass the Bechdel Test strike me as a sad indictment on society’s continuing elision of female lives as valued and important. And the same is true of novels that feature little or no diversity on other axes as well. I’m not talking about quotas. I’m taking about how much of the world people (in this case writers) actually see.

As a teacher I regularly come across young people who don’t actually recognize that people treat others differently because of race or gender. How do you think fiction writers can address the ignorance that exists in this area?
I myself don’t care for didactic fiction that seeks to “teach a lesson,” but I think fiction writers can tell stories in which issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. play a role in how the story unfolds and how such issues affect people’s lives. One way that children and teens learn about the world is through story.

Turning specifically to your current series, how would you introduce Spirit Walker to new readers?
The best introduction to the series is the one I wrote last year: An Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure, with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons.

How seriously were you taking the history part of writing a novel that is ostensibly alternate history?
Before he retired, my father was a career educator (teacher and later administrator) whose field was American history. I grew up in a house where history was dinner table conversation. So I take my worldbuilding very seriously. Partly, that is because I want to try to create cultures that have a degree of plausibility and heft, so that they feel like a glimpse into real cultures (although obviously they are never remotely as complex as real cultures). Partly, that is because, as a worldbuilder, I inevitably draw from actual historical cultures of Earth.

The most interesting element of writing this alternate history is that it isn’t a true alternate history, which I will define here in my own idiosyncratic manner: Alternate history by my definition being a counterfactual history in which one major or several minor historical currents or events have changed such that history moved off in a slightly different direction from our own timeline. For instance: What if Genghis Khan’s son Ogedai, who became great khan, had not died an untimely death and the Mongol armies had instead pressed forward and conquered Europe?

In the Spirit Walker universe, the presence of magic alters the entire dynamic, as well as the presence of a spirit world and the way the worlds are interwoven through each other. Also, had there been an actual prolonged Ice Age, civilization would, I think, have progressed very differently and it is likely that all the familiar names and nations would not have existed in any way similar to the history of our own world, so in that sense I’m fudging by having a Roman Empire at all.

However, having said that, I did go to some lengths in other aspects of the world building. I worked hard to have no place names that come from a Germanic-languages root (except for cases where it is a translated name like Newfield). And while the culture of Adurnam looks a lot like the late 18th century/early 19th century pan-European culture and quite a bit like England of that period, I tried to embed other elements into the world Cat and Bee move through that show the influence of other cultures. For instance, when the Northgate poet begins a hunger strike on the steps of the prince, he is acting out a recognized form of protest among the Celtic cultures, where poets and bards had a great deal of social power because the power of words and speech was considered important. This is also true of what I will call, for lack of a better word, the pan-Mande culture, in which the djeliw (griottes) are, among other things and for lack of a better word, poets and bards who can use the power of their words to scold, mock, manipulate, praise, and remember. I show a Phoenician temple where the old sacrifices are still being made, although I borrowed the form of the sacrifices from the Hebrew Bible.

Additionally, the legal system in the world is not the same as in ours. There is no English common law here; law is based on a rough amalgamation of Roman civil law, what we know of Celtic law, and some very basic elements drawn from reconstructions of the famous Malicharter called the Kurukan Fuga. I also made an attempt to show family structures as they might have evolved out of different culture traditions. In book two, I try very imperfectly to portray a conception of rights that is more community-based rather than individually-based because of the differing nature of community and relationship in West African and indigenous Native American societies.

Finally, with the recent discovery of dinosaur features in amber, I just want to point out that my daughter’s description of the trolls—the intelligent descendants of troodons—seems spot on.

I found Cold Magic to be a good entry point for readers who are new to fantasy; would you say it’s a good introduction to Kate Elliott, or is it a departure from stories you’ve written in the past?
I think the Cold Magic books are a departure. For one thing, they’re written in first person rather than third person, and there is only one point-of-view character rather than several or many as in my other novels. That makes for a much tighter story in some ways, although I know that my tendency to write the world itself as one of the characters can make for dense reading for people who don’t normally read a lot of fantasy. Some readers who have read my other work see this one as having more of a YA feel, by which I think they mean it is a faster paced and somewhat “lighter” story, although there are certainly serious themes at work. And I must say, this is the first series I’ve written that is consistently praised as being humorous, mostly because of the way the narrator has of seeing and describing the world.

On a similar note, did you deliberately write Cold Magic with a young adult audience in mind?
I have to admit I was thinking about the Young Adult market when I wrote the first 200 pages of Cold Magic. But when I sent it to my agent, he said it was not a young adult novel. It has had some crossover, but not a lot.

One of my favorite elements of Cold Magic was the way you set up magic and industry as such literal opposites. Was this a deliberate thematic choice?
Initially, I specifically wanted to show cold magic as seeming antipathic to technology, because cold mages literally kill combustion. In book one, cold magic is seen as the powerful force used by the established status quo to maintain their power, which is the power of the old order and the “old” way of doing things. Technology is seen as a destabilizer, as well as a force that will bring unwanted change. So when cold mages extinguish combustion it is a kind of thematic metaphor for how some elements in society resist and try to kill change while others push for it. However, magic and industry are not in fact literal opposites, as will become steadily more clear as the story goes on—especially when we move to the Amerikes in book two and meet fire mages.

When I read Cold Magic, I almost felt like I could see you gleefully mashing up elements of epic fantasy, steampunk and even a bit of Austen-esque romance. Was that just me?
No, it wasn’t just you. I’m of the opinion that it is impossible to create a human culture out of whole cloth uninfluenced by any existing or historical cultures. So I would say that all secondary fantasy and science fiction worlds are, to some degree, mashups. However, yes, I deliberately crossed genres with this one, sometimes gleefully so, and sometimes unexpectedly, when I might discover I had introduced an element I hadn’t intended to. Throughout, as always with my work, I researched and wrote as carefully as I could to minimize the number of errors, infelicities, and appropriations, but those will always be there because that’s also part of the nature of the endeavor. But, yes, with these books, I’ve let myself throw in everything and even kitchen sinks (which do appear in the narrative once or twice), and while I take the writing and the story very seriously and there are some very serious themes undying the narrative, I have tried to write this story from a core of delight.

Without giving too much away, what’s in store for readers of Cold Fire?
Sharks! Kisses! Sword fights!

Also, a very different American hemisphere from the one in our world. In this fantasy Earth, Columbus never existed, and the Western European nations did not colonize the “New World.”

Thank you again for taking the time for our interview, Kate. Would you like to finish off by telling us what we can expect from Kate Elliott in the near future, and perhaps where people can follow you and your work online?
My web page
. My blog, I Make Up Worlds, mirrored at my livejournal, But Enough About Me! How do YOU like my dress?

I’m currently working on Cold Steel, which is proving to be a slippery mess of a novel, although I’m slowly beating it into shape. I’m also finishing up a short story with Rory as the main character (a story, I must note, that has no redeeming social value at all; it is pure fluff). I would like to write a novella written from the point of view of Cat’s cousin Bee that deals with some of her adventures when she and Cat are separate, but we’ll have to see.

After that… I couldn’t yet say. Crossroads #4 is under contract and waiting impatiently to be written; I hope to write another (standalone) trilogy set in that universe as well. I have several ideas for Young Adult novels. I would love to write Jaran #5. And I’m poking at another epic fantasy series. The market is volatile right now, so I can’t make any specific predictions as to what will be written when.

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Cold Magic and Cold Fire are available in paperback from Orbit in both the US and UK.

About Michael Neate

Michael Neate
Michael is a lifelong Fantasy reader and a History teacher by profession. Given his love of Ancient and Medieval times, he has toyed with the idea of writing historical Fantasy in those settings. Michael will always be thankful to his 6th grade teacher who suggested he read The Hobbit. He is not sure whether or not to thank the high school friend who introduced him to The Wheel of Time. Michael loves writers who avoid patronising the reader and telling them all about their invented world but show their characters and setting through intense action and crackling dialogue.

View all articles written by Michael Neate.

2 comments

  1. Hmm, I have always found myself drawn to female writers of SFF and am a female . . . it’s difficult to say why as I feel I haven’t read enough fantasy by male authors to compare properly. I do feel it might be the lack of believable or authentic female character in novels written by men, which I have read – thus far. 

  2. Hmm, I have always found myself drawn to female writers of SFF and am a female . . . it’s difficult to say why as I feel I haven’t read enough fantasy by male authors to compare properly. I do feel it might be the lack of believable or authentic female character in novels written by men, which I have read – thus far. 

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