An Interview With Karen Miller on EMPRESS
Your first series – Kingmaker Kingbreaker – was a two book series which is quite unusual. Why did you decide to do this and do you plan to make it into a trilogy at a later date?
Funny you should ask that … originally, it was a standalone novel. Why? Because I honestly couldn’t imagine writing a trilogy. I never believed I had that many words in me. The idea of writing a single novel was daunting enough. Thoughts of a trilogy had me crawling under the blankets! As it was I struggled for a long, long time to get that single novel written. In the end I wrote it as a film script — I’ve always found dialogue fun and narrative prose more challenging. The only way to reach The End was to do it all in dialogue. After that I went back and novelized my script (you’d have to think there’s an easier way, wouldn’t you?) and — making the classic new writer’s mistake — submitted it to a publisher way before it was ready to be seen. But the editor liked it enough to include a list of rewrite suggestions with the rejection letter, and invited me to resubmit after having another try. Of course when I re-read it I saw all the mistakes — the biggest one being I’d massively shortchanged the story. So I looked for the natural breakpoint, cut the manuscript in two, making it a two book series … and got published.
Having said that, though, I do like the 2 act structure. I do a lot of theatre stuff, so it seems to be quite comfortable. As for expanding the series from 2 to more … well, there is something in the pipeline. No official announcements yet but stay tuned!
Kingmaker Kingbreaker is about the arduous coming of age of your protagonists. What is it about this situation that you think fascinates fantasy authors and readers? Is it also the sort of theme you enjoy coming across in books as a reader?
Well, it’s about a lot of things — love, hate, revenge, sacrifice — but certainly coming of age is a major factor in the story. It’s a theme that resonates through all literary genres, I think, and has done for as long as there have been stories. Because ‘coming of age’ can be a great many things. As complicated human beings I think it’s possible that we never stop coming of age. Every time we grow in our lives, every time we take a chance, meet a challenge, survive something dangerous or frightening, we’ve come of age. We’ve reinvented ourselves. We’ve found a new way to live in the world. That’s where the appeal lies, I think. Because change is frightening. It’s confronting. Experiencing it vicariously through characters in a story can be helpful — but it’s also a lot of fun! All the emotional payoff without the actual scary of real life. It works for me!
Your books are very character-driven. Do you have a favorite among your characters? Are they based on people you know? (You’re allowed to say!)
It does seem to be working out that way, I think — that my books are more about the characters than they are about anything else. Certainly in my own reading and drama diet I gravitate towards stories that are about people more than stuff. I think people are fascinating. What makes us tick is a never-ending source of interest. The characters in my books are a kind of patchwork quilt, made up of aspects of myself and of people I’ve met in the real world. I’ve never based a character on a totally real person, but I’ve certainly been inspired by one. There’s an upcoming character, a psychic named Ursa, who was inspired by a doctor I know.
As for having favorites, well … if I admit to a sneaking affection for Hekat are you going to call for the men in white jackets? And of course I’m very fond of Asher — so brave and bloody-minded! I think he’s a doll.
The scenario you created for Empress is more expansive than your previous series. Is it inspired by anything or did you just feel you wanted to stretch your wings a bit further? Did the greater scope of the new series bring any new challenges to your writing?
With the Godspeaker trilogy I certainly did want to challenge myself. I wanted to shake things up a bit to make sure I didn’t let the fear of pushing the envelope keep me in the same place. The story idea had been sitting around for a long time — I had part of it written while I was still working on the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker books. When I came back to it I realized I’d made the same mistake as before — I was keeping the story too small. So I took a very deep breath, committed to a trilogy (a story in 3 acts, see, the theatre will out!) and realized that I had to go back in time and start with Hekat’s story. So that’s what I did, with much trepidation! So I guess I’d have to say that the expansion grew naturally out of discovering the story I was trying to tell.
As for that providing challenges — yikes! Talk about growing pains. It’s proving to be an arduous journey. I’ve discovered my story ideas are like the Tardis: they’re bigger on the inside. And they take a lot of wrangling to make them behave! It’s not only keeping the various story threads neat and untangled, it’s remembering who said what to whom and when and how many times, and not falling into the trap of repeating myself with certain words and phrases, and remembering the big picture while I’m focusing on a small, intimate scene. Sheesh! It’s like trying to juggle 27 balls at once without dropping any. It’s been a huge learning curve, but a fantastic one. I am in awe of writers who do big multi-volume series. I don’t understand how they keep everything straight!
Unlike your first series, the gods play a large part in Empress. Can you tell us a bit about the thinking behind that?
Philosophically, I wanted to have a look at the nature of divinity. We seem to fall so short of measuring up to certain religious ideals in our own world. People who claim to be religious do terrible things, and others who say they believe in no God at all routinely perform acts of great kindness and charity in ways that seem to fit a religious framework. That’s such an odd contradiction. And the exact nature of God is so elusive. I’m intrigued by those things, and wanted to explore some thoughts and ideas. Of course there’s not necessarily a direct parallel between the divine in the books and in the real world, but hopefully it’s interesting.
Do you have a personal theory on why Fantasy is so popular?
Fantasy is a really romantic genre. And I don’t just mean the hearts-and-flowers true love romantic — it’s sweeping and exotic and breathtaking. It has the power to whisk you away into amazing new worlds where romantic ideals like truth and love and justice and sacrifice and redemption and courage — ideals that are so often sneered at in our modern society — are celebrated and seen as something true and wonderful to aspire to. And I like that. I really enjoy a lot of science fiction, but often it’s very bleak and cynical. Mostly I think fantasy celebrates being human, it celebrates big emotions, it wears its heart on its sleeve — and it’s not ashamed of that. And while it can be down and dirty and gritty at times, still at the core it’s about hope and the triumph of the best of human nature — which is why I think it has such a strong and broad appeal.
Do you read mainly fantasy fiction yourself, or do you prefer a change of genre after a hard day of writing? What are you currently reading?
Overall I read a great deal less than ever I used to — not because there aren’t brilliant books out there, but because after 8 hours in front of the computer thinking up words my brain is cactus and I can’t cope with any more! When I do read, I tend to switch genres so I’m using a different part of my imagination. I love crime, mystery and some romance. I can read those without exploding my head. I do still read fantasy and science fiction — I have a massive pile now waiting for my attention. I’ll get to them when I’ve made my current deadline. I also read non-fiction stuff, books on history mainly, for research. They’re always fun and quite relaxing. And I watch a lot of drama on DVD. TV dramas give me my story fix without words coming into the picture.
Currently I’m reading an older JD Robb thriller, the new Rachel Caine and a book about ancient imperial China.
Do you have any particular favorite authors who have influenced your work?
Probably the most influential writer in my life so far has been Dorothy Dunnett. Sadly she’s dead now, but she wrote historical fiction. Her most famous work is a 6 books series called The Lymond Chronicles. It’s about a sixteenth century Scots nobleman called Francis Crawford, and it follows his life for some 15 years as he intrigues his way around most of the known world as a mercenary and a courtier trying to uncover the truth of his heritage.
The series is sheer magic. Breathtaking prose, immaculate worldbuilding, magnificent characters. Basically I want to be Dorothy when I grow up. I suspect that’s a tall order, but it’s something to aspire to!
What do you do when you’re not writing or reading?
The little time left over when I’m not unconscious, I spend at my local theatre as an actor, director and public relations officer, or watching DVD dramas. It’s a sad little life but someone has to live it.
Can you tell us a little about where the story goes after Empress?
Well there’s a change in location, for a start, to an island kingdom called Ethrea. We don’t lose touch with Mijak entirely — and one character in particular returns with an important role to play — but in the next book we meet the people who must stand in the way of Hekat and her warhost as she seeks to conquer the world. Unfortunately these new characters are dealing with their own major crisis — and if they don’t resolve it they’ll have no hope of saving themselves from Hekat. Things are about to get very interesting…
And, lastly, for those writers who have yet to see their books appearing in the shops, how did it feel to see your first novel in print?
Totally surreal. It’s the oddest feeling, having a dream come true. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl in school. Having that happen now, holding the books in my hand, it’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. I frequently wonder when I’m going to wake up … but of course you know I’m praying I don’t!