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Author Interview With Patricia A. McKillip
Fantasy author Patricia A. McKillip is known for her lyrical language and detailed worlds of magic. Now the author reflects on the evolution of her writing and shares an insider look at her newest novel, The Bards of Bone Plain. And don't miss the EXCERPT of her latest novel at the end of this interview!
RT BOOK REVIEWS: The Bards of Bone Plain revolves around the mystery of the wandering bard, Nairn, the Unforgiven. Who came to you first, Nairn or the reluctant bard, Phelan Cle, who researches his story years later?
Patricia A. McKillip: Phelan came much later than Nairn. The entire tale was pretty much all over the place for a couple of years. Characters changed sex; story strands got dropped; the idea of it as a trilogy, or as three different tales told in three different times, with Nairn always the constant character, finally had to go. Writing Nairn’s life as somebody’s scholarly paper written in a relatively modern world came to me only after piles of rewrite got pretty high. (I do my rough drafts with pen and binder paper.) Once I got brave enough to try it, the tale took on its own life and became much easier to form.
RT: In your latest novel, the actual location of Bone Plain has been lost. What was the most challenging part of creating a “lost” place?
PAM: Actually, it’s my opinion that Bone Plain was never lost at all; its name just got changed back in the shadows of antiquity to Stirl Plain. Imagining what was actually inside the tower on Bone Plain was the most difficult part. It was hard thinking up something that could be a terror, a trial and a treasure all at the same time.
RT: Princess Beatrice of The Bards of Bone Plain would much rather work on an archeological dig than attend a formal affair. She is just one of many classic fantasy characters who you have lent a distinctive twist. What was your motivation for giving Beatrice a royal background?
PAM: I really needed a point of view character who could go anywhere—to court as well as to the docksides and sewers of Caerau. Phelan and Zoe could get around, but their view of court was limited; they couldn’t see the comic/domestic side of it as Beatrice could. Also I suppose I was thinking—since they’re so much in the news—of modern royal children who go off and fly helicopters on a battlefield and get involved in trying to make the world “green”.
RT: After a long wait, your fans are clamoring to get their hands on The Bards of Bone Plain. Can you share one of the revisions that got made to a character, or tell us a little bit about a scene that did not make it into the finished story?
PAM: Nairn actually first appeared as an idea for another book, one which still hasn’t been written. In it a wandering knight, exiled from court, encounters a mysterious, ancient, maybe-good, maybe-not man one night on the vast plain she is crossing. In the unwritten book he becomes her staunchest, though perhaps most ambiguous, supporter. Nairn grew into his character from that point, since he intrigued me a great deal before he even opened his mouth on paper. Who was this ancient figure? Why was he so old? Where had he come from? The knight eventually rode away into the world of untold tales while Nairn stepped into the story and became its beginning and its end
RT: You’ve hidden the language of Bone Plain all around their world. Do you have a favorite instance of symbols hidden around a city (or around the world) outside of fiction?
PAM: They usually aren’t hidden; we just don’t notice them, or have forgotten what they meant. The shell on the Shell gas station signs could be the “half-shell” under the famous Botticelli painting of Venus or a symbol of baptism; the winged horse on another old gas station sign evokes the myth of Pegasus. I’ve seen buildings in Manhattan decorated with the Green Man’s face. The old language is still around, if we pay attention.
RT: In the last ten years it seems that you’ve moved away from creating series or duologies and instead of focused on single-book stories. What has drawn you to these stand-alone stories?
PAM: I’ve written over two dozen books; I can only think of seven that are not single novels: The Riddle-Master trilogy; the two Cygnet novels and the two YA s/f novels Moon-Flash and The Moon and the Face. I started Riddle-Master knowing it would be a trilogy. I didn’t really intend to write sequels to The Sorceress and the Cygnet or to Moon-Flash. I just liked the characters too much to give them up, which is sometimes good and sometimes not. I am very much drawn to the form of the novel. I read widely: mainstream, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, even the occasional thriller or spy story (John LeCarre). I read single novels far, far more often than I do series or trilogies. To me they are enormously satisfying, which is probably why I like to write them. In the late 1980’s I envisioned a series of novels which would have only two things in common: they would be fantasy and they would be written by me. All the worlds, the characters, the stories in them are completely different, beginning with The Book of the Atrix Wolfe. I was fortunate that my editor chose to put Kinuko Craft cover art on them; other than that they have nothing in common. Oops. Except for Winter Rose and Solstice Wood, which share a landscape and a history— I couldn’t resist trying my hand at writing a modern sequel to a tale that happened in some nebulous past.
RT: You are well known for your almost musical prose and your unique way of constructing language. Does your writing style reflect your inner monologue or do you use some special tools to prompt your voice as an author?
PAM: Other than listening to music when I write, I just try to make the words fit together in ways that bring out their sounds, and if I can manage it, something of their history and the weight of myth and fantasy they might carry. Words are like kindling; if you place them right they catch fire from each other.
RT: You’ve been a published author since the early 1970s. What changes has the fantasy genre undergone that you love (or you wish hadn’t happened)?
PAM: I love that there is so much more of it now than there was when I was growing up! When I was first published, I could walk into a bookstore and find the fantasy and s/f novels mixed together on a shelf or two. Now there are entire stores dedicated to one or the other.
RT: Can you share a detail from a current project that the RT readers can keep their eyes open for?
PAM: I have a title I love and some characters I’m not sure what to do with, and a couple of contrasting landscapes, one of which might vanish into the other. In short I have the beginning of a story. I have no idea where it will go. What it refuses to do is go away. If it keeps refusing, I might actually figure out how to write it.