Epic Fantasy Interview Swap – Ian Irvine interviews Helen Lowe

Last week we showed you the first part of this interview, in which Helen Lowe interviewed Ian Irvine about the publication of his brand new epic fantasy series, The Tainted Realm. This week the tables have turned! Click through to the interview to read more . . .

Ian: I haven’t done an interview swap with another author before, and it’s been a challenging experience to be put on the spot by Helen Lowe, who also writes epic fantasy and loves it as much as I do. But now I get to ask her the hard questions!

Covers of the two published books in Helen Lowe's epic fantasy series The Wall of Night

Helen, you live in Christchurch, New Zealand, which was devastated a year ago by a powerful earthquake. Has your experience of this natural disaster and its aftermath informed or altered your writing of epic fantasy, and if so, how?

Helen: Ian, the February 22nd earthquake was a “major”, and as I discussed in my Australia/New Zealand launch post for my new book, THE GATHERING OF THE LOST, both that event itself and its aftermath – which includes subsequent major earthquakes on June 13 and December 23 – is still ongoing. Everyday reality comprises living in a broken house in a broken city, where much of what I valued and a great deal of what I loved, in terms of both community and the built environment, has been swept away.

But because I am still very much “in it”, I think it is too early to say what longer-term effect it will have on my writing. My experience of other major life events, such as the illness and death of close family members, has been that when they occur you are always in “dealing/coping” mode and the real effects may not be seen for quite some time afterward, perhaps even years. Usually though, the experience does flow through in some way – and given that I see epic fantasy as being much about the sweep of major events, you could say I now have first hand experience to draw on!

Ian: For those who haven’t read THE HEIR OF NIGHT, can you fill us in on the key characters and the central conflict of the novel?

Helen: Both books form part of The Wall of Night quartet, which is what I would call classically conceived epic or high fantasy. The Wall of Night itself exists on the world of Haarth and is an environment of shadow and conflict that the Derai Alliance garrisons against an aeons-old enemy. So far, so usual –  but part of the reason I chose this classic trope is because I wanted to explore how the Derai, who believe themselves to be champions of good, are in fact divided by prejudice, suspicion and fear. But I also wanted to address the notion that it is what people actually do, rather than what they believe about themselves, that really makes for “good guys” and “bad guys” – as well as how circumstances may have a bearing on that equation.

Another less usual element is that the Derai are alien to Haarth: they have imposed their war and their enemy on the indigenous inhabitants, which adds a cultural dimension to the conflict.

THE HEIR OF NIGHT introduces the quartet’s central characters, primarily Malian, the Heir to the warrior house of Night, who must discover both the full bitterness of that legacy and begin to resolve it, and Kalan, a young man thrust into a hateful life who is striving to break free. There are other main characters, but rather than listing them here, I will simply say that like all my stories, ‘HEIR’ is about adventure and mystery and magic, friendship and love, as well as what Robin Hobb, in her cover quote, describes as “strange magic, dark treachery, and conflicting loyalties.”

Ian: And THE GATHERING OF THE LOST is the new book – could you sketch out its bones?

The Wall of Night series is a continuing story that THE GATHERING OF THE LOST picks up five years after Malian and Kalan went missing in the wilds of Jaransor. But now her enemies are on the hunt and the adventure shifts from murder amidst the alleys and islands of the River city of Ij, to insurgency along the wild marches patrolled by the Emerian knights. Yet five years on, the arms of the Derai’s greatest hero, that Malian must find, remain lost and without them a return to the Wall of Night promises only defeat and death. As her enemies close in both Malian and Kalan must fight for their lives while seeking out allies – and unravel the mystery around a cave of sleeping warriors.

Ian: Speaking as a reader, I want to identify with the protagonists. I want to hope their hopes, fear their fears and worry about whether or not they’ll achieve their goals. What are Malian’s and Kalan’s greatest hopes and greatest fears, and who is their most powerful adversary?

Helen: That’s an interesting question, the central point of the series in fact: “who is the true adversary?” I also believe readers must decide the answer for themselves. It may even be that different readers will reach divergent conclusions –but if there is a consistent thread in the story, it is that no one may ever be quite as they seem . . . But a central question in THE GATHERING OF THE LOST  is whether Malian and Kalan’s interests, after five years’ separation, remain as aligned as they were in THE HEIR OF NIGHT. Kalan, for example, hated the life forced on him by Derai society, so why would he want to return? While Malian, at the end of the first book, pledged her word that she would try and save their world – but she still lacks allies, as well as the hero’s weapons of power. Other fears revolve around whom, in a world of conflicting ambitions, she can truly trust – and even whether, given her great power, she can trust herself? As well as just how much she is prepared to sacrifice, including others and their aspirations, to fulfil her duty to the Derai Alliance and save Haarth.

Ian: You love the roots of epic fantasy such as the Greek, Norse and Celtic myths. To what degree do these and other myths influence your storytelling? Do you see yourself as a reteller of myths in a more modern guise, or a creator of new worlds and new kinds of stories?

Helen: I do love the classic mythologies. I consider their vibrancy and power a very strong influence: their sense of both great emotion and a great deal at stake, personally and at the societal level, is exactly what I am trying to capture in my own storytelling. But although I draw on mythological sources, I am not consciously retelling any particular myth or legend (or at least, not in my current work: it may yet happen!) And I love both world building and developing characters, so in that sense I hope that I am creating new worlds and stories.

In terms of “new kinds” of stories though, I am not so sure. In fact I suspect it is actually not possible to make any story completely new: not just because of the pervasiveness of classical and traditional sources in literature, but because in writing characters we are writing people. And as people we do have a distressing tendency to make the same mistakes in the same old ways! I believe it is the tragedy – and sometimes comedy – of the human condition that most informs the great mythic stories and speaks to us in every generation.

Ian: How did you come to writing fantasy? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?

Helen: Absolutely, yes! In fact, when someone asked me why I “chose” Fantasy recently, I replied that I have always felt it was far more a case of Fantasy choosing me. Even as a very young kid I adored fairy tales, and of course the myths and legends we’ve already discussed. From there it was a very short step to Narnia, Elidor, and the many fascinating worlds of authors such as Diana Wynne Jones. From reading and loving all these fantastic stories it felt like a natural progression to wanting to write the same sort of tales myself. So yes, whether for better or worse, I did always “want to be a writer when I grew up.”

Ian: Helen, you’re also a poet. In what way does your experience as a poet benefit your writing, and in what ways (if any) is it a handicap?

Helen: Although at one level poetry and the novel are very different forms, at another they are simply faces, however diverse, of the same creative impulse. Paul Klee said of drawing that it was “taking a line for a walk” and I agree with those who consider that an apt metaphor for poetry as well. I feel it encapsulates a process that may also be interpreted as teaching artistic discipline, which is as beneficial in a novel length work as it is in a poem. In my world, poetry and prose definitely inform each other, and as for poetry and fantasy – well, both explore the boundaries of the imagination and seek to juxtapose novel and unexpected elements. To come back to the point about diverse forms arising from the same creative impulse, I believe that both my poetry and my fantasy are characterised by my love of the richness and versatility of language – and both, in their distinct way, tell stories. So if there is a handicap in being a poet as well as a fantasy novelist – which I confess I have yet to detect – then I believe it is far outweighed by the benefits.

Ian: Where did the idea for The Wall of Night series come from? Did the creative process start from an idea, a theme, a character, a unique setting, or in some other way?

Helen: Didn’t Ursula Le Guin say (something like) that the ideas are “in the air” and we as writers pluck them out of it? But I don’t think there is ever just the one idea. So in terms of the Wall series, I had the vision of a dark, wind-blasted world from a very early age, a vision that was undoubtedly influenced by both the Norse myths as well as by the dark world of Elidor in Alan Garner’s novel of the same name. I was living in Singapore at the time and I definitely think the swiftness with which night fell there, almost on the equator, helped the prevailing idea of “darkness” to take hold. But the spark that ignited THE HEIR OF NIGHT story in particular was an image of Malian scaling the Old Keep. That first imagining came with its instant backstory of what her life was, and why . . . So although the genesis of the idea lay with the world, it was the evolution of Malian’s character, with a host of others quickly following, that sparked the actual story.

Ian: Without prejudice to the end of The Wall of Night quartet, which is some way off, do you see yourself writing more stories set in this fantasy world? Or will you, by then, be looking for new worlds to conquer?

Helen: That’s an interesting question – as much for me as for readers, because I would also like to know the answer! The Wall of Night is by no means my only world. I have a host of half begun stories, in fact, with characters and plot ideas to go with each new world.

But of course what I have found when exploring the worlds in each of my books – the great forest of Thornspell, the Wall of Night, and now the Southern Realms of Haarth in THE GATHERING OF THE LOST – is that the process of exploration, together with the development of characters and societies and backstories, generates new tales. “I could tell a great story around that character or event,” I think. Or get really excited about a new society, so the story ideas start spinning off that. Which is all good – except that “life is short but the art long” as Hippocrates said, and I suspect there are some of those other worlds and characters that I am going to have to bring into being. I don’t think they will give me any peace if I don’t.

Ian: Thank you, Helen. That’s the wonderful thing about writing fantasy – when one has a whole world, or worlds, to work with, there’s no end to the story possibilities, any more than there is on the world we inhabit. All the very best for THE GATHERING OF THE LOST and the books to come. May there be many – and many new worlds.