Building The Wall of Night: An Interview with Helen Lowe

The Wall of Night quartet is Helen Lowe’s Orbit debut, and we’re so excited to welcome her to the Orbit family that we can’t wait any longer to introduce all of you to this New Zealand author, poet, blogger and radio interviewer with this getting-to-know-Helen-Lowe interview.

1. What’s the best thing about living in New Zealand?

Oh, that is such a hard question, because how do you ever see yourself objectively? But there’s still a lot of open space, compared to other countries I’ve visited, and I really like that—areas where you can drive for miles and not see another person, or a house. But because NZ is long and narrow, even really remote places are never that far away; for example, the location of Edoras, in The Lord of the Rings’ films, wouldn’t be more than a couple of hours drive from Christchurch, where I live.

2. How do you think the poet part of you impacts upon your fiction writing?

I don’t see the poet and the novelist as different — they are more different faces of the same creative impulse. To me, a poem like The Wayfarer, which is about Odysseus, is as much work of fiction, with both character and story, as The Heir of Night (ANZ | UK). (If you click on the name, you can read The Wayfarer on my website.)

3. Where did the idea to write The Wall of Night quartet come from?

Ah, another tough question. I think it evolved — I had had this idea of a twilit world from when I was quite young, about 8 or 9, and that was reinforced when I read The Lord of the Rings — not by the LoTR story directly, but by the references to the older, mythic tales of Morgoth and Beleriand, where the sense I got was, once again, of dark, twilit worlds. The rest came from a quite strong response to some of the tropes in epic Fantasy, how black and white it so often is, whereas I felt that, in fact, life is never like that … And I wanted to explore that idea.

4. You’ve blogged about world building – what is it that attracts you to the process of world building in your writing?

For me, it just happens. The vision of the world is always so strong, so real, and I always experience it as the characters do, through the five senses. So the original twilit world, which evolved into the bitter peaks and wind-blasted mountain range of the Wall of Night, was always “just there. ” I am simply describing what already exists.

5. What are you reading at the moment?

Well you know that I read all the Hugo Award fiction finalists — that took some doing! [Grins.] And I am on a panel at Worldcon with an author called Karen Healey, so I have just finished reading her book, Guardian of the Dead. I have a couple of books to read on the plane, on the way to Melbourne, but of course I’m longing to get some quiet time with Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, which is just out.

6. If you could create a pseudonym for your genre fiction, what would it be?

A pseudonym for Helen Lowe? Well, I did have one in mind, because it did seem to be a bit of a tradition for big name fantasy authors to just use initials: you know, J. R. R. Tolkien, G. R. R. Martin, C. J. Cherryh, J. K. Rowling. But just “H Lowe” falls a bit flat … And there’s this really beautiful place called the Mavora Lakes, in the south of the South Island. (Yes, the lakes featured in the LOTR films — where the fellowship run the elven boats ashore at the end of the first film, just before the uruk-hai attack—that’s the Mavora Lakes.) So I thought HL (my actual initials) Mavora might work—but my editor at Knopf, Nancy Siscoe, (the publisher for my YA novel, Thornspell) talked me out of it. [Grins again.]

7. We’ve heard you practice martial arts, what is it about this discipline that draws you to it?

It’s a bit like the vision of the twilit world, something that’s endured from an early age. As a kid, I lived in Singapore for a few years and I loved the Chinese swords (toy, of course!) and tv shows like The New Samurai. (It was Japanese, dubbed into Malay, so I never understood a word, but I was glued to the drama and the samurai and ninja action.) Later, at high school and university, I was in the fencing team, and aikido just felt like a natural progression (it’s a sword based art, as well as “empty hand”.) I like the physicality of the art, but also the discipline and sense of tradition. I do zen meditation as well, so there’s obviously something that appeals.

8. What’s most enjoyable about writing dark characters?

I try to make characters emotionally real and I think darkness is something that is present in all of us—which is something that you can’t hide from when you do a martial art like aikido, actually. But the enjoyment comes in making the characters true to the human condition, not in getting off on the darkness.

9. Many fantasy writers have been influenced by folklore and myths from different cultural heritages, is this something that resonates with you?

Absolutely. Eight to nine was obviously a formative age, because it was around then that I first discovered the Greek myths and read everything about them I could find, before progressing on to Norse, Celtic, Egyptian, and folklore from a huge range of countries. As I recall, I got a little stumped on the Epic of Gilgamesh — but I was only little! But myths and folklore really are all through our literature, not just SFF, possibly because they speak to universal themes and the truths, as well as tropes, of being human.

10. Who would be your dream interviewee for your radio programme?

I mainly interview writers, so sticking with that, I would really love to have had the opportunity to interview someone like Mary Renault, because her books made that amazing crossover — especially The King Must Die and the Alexander trilogy — from the mythic/legendary to the anthropological/real history. But right now … maybe someone like Suzanne Collins, because I loved The Hunger Games so much. Or China Mieville, because he’s always working at breaking new ground.

THE HEIR OF NIGHT, book one of The Wall of Night quartet, is out in ANZ this October and in March 2011 in the UK.