Author Q&A: Helen Lowe on Earthquakes, Prussian Generals and Rocking on the Porch
We chatted with Helen Lowe, author of this month's Daughter of Blood, the third installment in her Wall of Night series, in the February issue of RT. But we still had things to talk about! So we cornered the New Zealand author to hear more, more, more! She kindly obliged.
Did living through the major earthquakes in New Zealand during 2010-11 affect your writing?
The February 22 earthquake was probably the most terrifying experience of my life, and the 18-month period of ongoing earthquakes, a significant number of them major, was incredibly draining. But in many ways the aftermath is more challenging, because the city has sustained such major damage, so almost everywhere is a mix of broken buildings and infrastructure, demolition and reconstruction—it’s an environment of huge ongoing uncertainty and change, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Yet at the same time, I am one of those who, five years on, am still trying to get my insurance claim settled, so am “stuck” in a house that sustained considerable damage.
You may think, “she’s not answering the question” —but I am, because even though I can’t point to any obvious or direct effect, it’s hard to see how living through all of this could not have an impact on something as central to my life as writing. One example may be that my new book, Daughter Of Blood, took me a long time to write. At a practical level, “negotiating the everyday” of life in post-earthquake Christchurch involves a lot of additional demands on your time and energy. But looking back now, I can see that the way I survived the earthquake period and the aftermath has been by going into lockdown—and it is perhaps not surprising that a story that is being written while its author is in lockdown may take longer to unfold than might otherwise be the case.
In terms of what I write, though, I think that aspect of the earthquakes and their aftermath—a bit like those themes that are invisible to the author until the story is done—has yet to resolve in terms of a discernible influence.
What is the hardest part of writing a quartet?
Someone famous (I don’t know who) is supposed to have said that there are two main ways of writing. The first is to “sit on the porch and rock” until you get the story complete in your head and then just write it. The second is to “write and throw away,” repeating as required until you get the story done. With the Wall of Night series, I have always had a really clear idea of the major “stations” along the story line, as well as the final destination. But the further I have gotten from the period when I (metaphorically) sat on the porch and rocked, the less clearcut the sections of track between the stations have become, so I have to do more writing and throwing away to reach the heart of the story.
A quote attributed to the Prussian general, Graf Von Moltke, is that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” I find it’s very similar with my books, in that no plan survives the process of writing completely unscathed. As soon as the stories take on a life of their own—and they always do—the plot and the characters start evolving and changing shape. Inevitably, I then have to do both more “sitting and rocking” (reflection and plot wrangling) and more writing and throwing away (often literally) to keep the overall story on track.
So the challenge of writing a quartet like The Wall of Night, which is one story being told in four parts (as opposed to four individual adventures), is that the length of the work increases the scope for the story to evolve in new directions. The challenge, though, lies in the endurance and discipline required to work with that, rather than the fact that evolution occurs. Writing is a dynamic process and that is part of what makes it exciting; most often, too, the evolution enriches the story. I like to say that this is because the story is wise and as the author, I need to learn to listen to what it is telling me. In Steering The Craft, Ursula Le Guin says something very similar, in slightly different words:
“…the story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it to find its own way to wherever it’s going.”
To which I can only say: hear, hear.
Daughter of Blood will be available in stores and online tomorrow! You can grab your copy here: Amazon | B&N | Kobo | iBooks | IndieBound. And for more Fantastic tales, visit our Everything Fantasy page.