This is a very special interview. Just her list of fave fantasy novels toward the end is worth the read. And the rest of her answers are as beautifully crafted as her haunting novels. Seriously. If you aspire to write, or love reading YA and fantasy, you need to read this interview then pick up one of her novels.
Not many writers can say they write books for teens and adults that are equally successful, regularly receiving starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus. Her vast bibliography includes thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, poetry, and historical drama. AND she is the recipient of numerous accolades: The Shirley Jackson Award, two Nebula Awards, three World Fantasy Awards, and many more.
Her novels for adults include “Generation Loss” and “Available Dark,” but it was her YA novel “Illyria” that really captured our attention, with its relentless plot that weaves together forbidden love, Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” and many other threads in an amazingly fast 144 pages. More recently there was “Radiant Days“–with its time-traveling poet (French nineteenth century Rimbaud) and visual artist artist (1970’s art student Merle), it should put you in just the right mood for National Poetry Month.
YARN: What does your writing process consist of, from the idea to publication? Do you outline, draft, revise? What is your favorite part it? Your least favorite?
EH: Often I start with a landscape, a place that I’ve been that in some way moves me. It can creep me out (as West Penwith in Cornwall does) or strike me as very beautiful and exciting (like London) or both (like Maine). Then the characters come to me, usually inspired in some way by people I know. (Warning! If I meet you, you might end up in a book!) Plot usually comes last. I’m not very interested in plot; I’m more interested in people and how they behave (or misbehave) and the places they inhabit, than I am in standard plotting.
But you need a plot, or a storyline, so I often steal them from other sources, myths or legends or headlines. I’m not a big one on outlining. I wish I could do it, or do it better—I’m always trying to figure out how to write a decent outline. I’m a sucker for articles that claim they can teach you how to do it in ten easy steps. Usually, they can’t, or they can’t teach me, anyway. Maybe I’m unteachable: I’m an intuitive writer, and I usually find my way in the dark, stumbling across things the way my characters do. My favorite part is writing descriptively—long, lavish sentence or paragraphs describing weather or clothes or people’s appearances. Then of course I need to go back and cut the descriptions so they’re not unwieldy. Most of all I love writing dialogue, in those moments when suddenly a character or characters come alive and I can just hear them talking in my head. Nothing is better than that.
My least favorite part is getting up the nerve to face the empty screen and just start typing.
YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing? What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?
EH: I might get stuck, insofar as a character isn’t coming alive for me, in which case I spend (waste) a lot of writing time trying to get the voice right. But usually I find that just sitting down and starting to write helps. There’s something strange and magical that happens when you just do the work: somehow, it gets done.
If I truly reach an impasse, a sort of cerebral logjam, I’ll go take a long walk—like, an hour or more—and deliberately NOT think about my story. Then, under the surface, ideas start to swim around, and all of a sudden a solution will pop into my head. Stephen King calls this “letting the boys in the basement do their job.” Try it: it really works.
YARN: You mention on your website that personal experiences guide your writing. When a new idea for a novel starts brewing, is it from recalling a specific event from your past?
EH: Yes, definitely. Nearly always, my writing at some level, or at some point, connects to my own life and my own experiences.
I’m really not good at making things up. But I’m very good at remembering things—I have a powerful sensory memory—and I draw on events and people and places from my past, then transmute them into fiction. I was fortunate in that I had a fairly interesting life when I was younger—I thought so, anyway—and when it wasn’t, I’d amuse myself by pretending that it WAS interesting. So I had a fairly deep well to draw from, in terms of things I’d done and the people I’d done them with. I think it’s important for young people to do things that are interesting and fun and challenging—to have a life, to have relationships, to observe closely and read a lot and watch movies and walk in the woods and spend days tromping through the city and stare at paintings and listen to live music and then get up the next day and do it all again. Talk with people about what you see—no one sees the same thing—and try to figure out what it is about someone that makes her see the world differently than you do. When you do that, it becomes part of your own experience, too, and you can draw on that when you write or compose or paint or act.
YARN: Your works are so complex. When you are writing a novel, do you ever feel overwhelmed by nuances of the story not yet on paper? Have you ever frozen in the face of the enormous task of getting it all down? And if you have, do you have advice on how to work through that?
EH: Novels are overwhelming to contemplate, so I try to think of them in much smaller terms. Every day I’ll try to write one or two thousand words: that’s feasible. I try not to think too far ahead, maybe to the next scene, otherwise I’ll freeze up. Short fiction is easier, though I mostly write novellas, which are much longer. For some reason, 7,000 words is the magic number: once I have that many words done on a story or novella, it seems as though it’s strong enough to breathe on its own. So I’ll just try to write my thousand words a day, until I hit 7000. Then it gets easier.
YARN: Since you write books for teens and adults (like your thrillers “Available Dark” and “Generation Loss”), do you ever worry about your teen audience picking up your adult books? Do you ever allow this dual-audience concern to “edit” you—and if not, how not?
EH: No, I don’t worry about people picking up my books, though I have been surprised when parents give (some of them) to their kids to read. No one edited my reading choices when I was younger: if you don’t like what’s on the page or screen in front of you, put it down and walk away.
I do, however, make distinctions for the audience I’m writing for. If I’m contracted to write a book for 13-17-year olds, the book will have more of a PG-13 or R rating. I actually find it difficult to write specifically for a YA audience—I find that I’m always editing myself, maybe because I’m a parent (though my kids are in their early 20s now). I feel much more comfortable writing for an adult audience, even if my point of view (POV) character is younger. And I feel more comfortable writing from the POV of someone looking back on whatever misadventures they had, maybe because there’s a certain detachment in that perspective—not the detachment of someone who’s unfeeling or uninvolved, but the kind of detachment that I try to develop and use as an artist, so that I can get into someone else’s head.
YARN: The origins of “Illyria” are so intimate and have been with you since high school. What compelled you to come back to this period of your life until you successfully novelized it? Why is it important to you that these thoughts, emotions, and characters be forever immortalized in writing?
EH: Rogan, one of the two main characters in Illyria, was inspired by someone I met when I was seventeen. He was my friend, occasional lover, and muse until he died, suddenly, of a cerebral aneurysm two years ago. I was so captivated—obsessed, really—by him when I was a teenager that I started writing about him; not the real person, but a fictional version who inhabited a fictional version of the small towns where we grew up north of New York City. He made me want to write, to create a secondary world that could reflect the real one; but no matter how hard I tried, I felt that I could never capture exactly what it was about him and the nature of our long friendship that made it so magical to me. Shortly after meeting him, he inspired this visionary dream of a dionysian figure I called the boy in the tree. It’s another one of the touchstones of my life, another experience I tried repeatedly to capture on the page. So there are flickers of both my friend and this numinous figure through my work, from my very earliest stories on till now—it’s like this underground tributary in my life as an artist.
But it wasn’t until I wrote “Illyria” that I felt I finally managed to successfully nail all this in a story about our shared adolescence. I was nervous about showing it to my friend—it’s not a sugarcoated portrait of him any more than it is of me. But he loved it—it made him cry, and he felt that someone had really understood him and what he’d gone through as a kid. My heart broke when he died, but I was so, so happy that I’d written the story before then, and that it meant so much to him.
If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that what we experience when we’re young can be as important as anything that happens later. This doesn’t mean your life doesn’t get better when you get older—it does, or mine did, anyway. But I think it’s critical to hang on to whatever it is that fuels you when you’re young, whether it’s a person, a means of creating something, a spiritual path or sports or your family, science or mathematics or the landscape you grew up with. Carry that flame with you: even if it flickers or seems to go out sometimes, you can bring it back to life, and it will sustain you.
YARN: Artists, be they actors, writers, or photographers, abound in your writing. What appeals to you about such creative minds? Do you feel there is something different about them, compared to those with other interests?
EH: I’ve always found something magical about artists—their ability to transform the world through their work, and to transform themselves, seems to me the closest thing to real magic that we have. I’m always fascinated by how it’s done. How did someone like Rimbaud write his great poems when he was only seventeen, eighteen? How did Mark Rothko create his paintings? When did Cindy Sherman flash onto the idea for her Untitled Film Stills? There’s something mysterious and beautiful and unsettling about great art. I want to know where that comes from.
YARN: “Illyria” is a beautifully poetic piece of work. Voice is so important in it. While writing, did you experiment with different voices before settling on the final one, or did it come naturally?
EH: The voice for “Illyria” came naturally to me—it’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to writing in my own voice, for the reasons mentioned above. Sometimes I wonder if I should write a memoir, but then I think, What would be the point? I’ve left my life in all these stories.
YARN: You’ve done so much genre-bending-and-combining, that your career is nothing short of amazing. How have you managed to balance so many kinds of writing—fantasy, historical, thriller, contemporary—in your own imagination, as well as in your career? Has anyone ever tried to convince you to stick with one genre?
EH: Ha!! Yes, all the time! It’s actually not a good career move to bounce around from genre to genre, and over the years it’s often been suggested that I stick with one thing and “gain traction,” as publishers call it. I’m trying to do that now with the Cass Neary books. The problem is, I have a low boredom threshold. I always want to try something new, and I like the challenge of attempting I’ve never done before, even if I fail at it. As Beckett says, “Fail better.”
YARN: As a follow-up to that last question: How do you decide what to write next? You seem to be the kind of writer who has almost too many ideas, rather than not enough. (BTW, we hope your next one is another YA!)
EH: I’m really not someone who gets a lot of ideas. I tend to start with a landscape, or a character, and the story is revealed from those. Often I’m writing as a form of exorcism—“Near Zennor” was about the death of my friend Russ, and also about an inexplicable experience I had with two of my girlfriends when we were all fourteen. That combined with the desolate landscape of the westernmost part of England to create the story.
YARN: Congratulations on winning the World Fantasy Award! What was your reaction when you heard the news, and how, if at all, did it affect your goals as a writer?
EH: Thank you! My work has received four WFAs now, and it’s always a great honor, and always a surprise. What I like best about it is seeing how many amazing fantasists are out there—we live in a golden literary age for fantasy and the supernatural, I think, so many amazing writers that you could have a dozen awards given and not accommodate them all. It really is an honor just to be nominated.
On YA and Other Books/Stuff
YARN: What do you think is fresh or different about YA in fantasy as opposed to “adult” literature? What are some quintessential fantasy novels every teen should read?
EH: I was friends with Charles Brown, the late, great editor of Locus Magazine (the trade magazine for science fiction and fantasy literature). On the morning of his death, I had breakfast with him, and when I asked him what he was reading, he said that for the last five or seven years he’d almost exclusively read YA fiction (for pleasure). I asked why, and he said it was because it had strong characters and strong plots, elements he felt were missing in a lot of contemporary adult SF/F. It was a fascinating conversation and a great one to remember him by. Also important things to keep in mind when writing for any readership, young or old.
As for a list of quintessential fantasy novels—what a great question! I’ll leave out things like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Narnia books, which are essential but so well-known they (I hope) don’t need inclusion. SO, in no particular order:
Alan Garner, “The Owl Service”; “Elidor.” Two amazing, and amazingly dark, YA novels. I think one could argue for “Elidor” as the first urban fantasy. “The Owl Service” is a retelling of part of the Mabinogion, with a love triangle between three teenage friends in contemporary Wales. An extraordinary, frightening book, and hugely influential on many modern fantasists.
Angela Carter, “The Bloody Chamber.” Carter’s retellings of works by Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, etc. jumpstarted the entire craze for reinventing classic fairy tales. The first and still among the very best.
“Lud-in-the-Mist,” by Hope Mirlees. A subtle, sui generis fantasy written by a woman whose poetry was an influence on T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” I first read it when I was about thirteen; I didn’t understand it all, but I loved it. It’s one of Neil Gaiman’s favorite novels as well, and kind of a sideways influence on Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.”
“Little, Big,” John Crowley. A fairy dynasty in contemporary America. Another contender for best & certainly most influential urban fantasy.
“The Once and Future King,” T.H. White. A modern retelling of the Arthurian epic, and one of the great novels of the 20th century. Basis for the (banal) Disney “Sword in the Stone” and the musical “Camelot.” The book is brilliant, very funny, and ultimately heartbreaking.
“The Last Unicorn,” Peter S. Beagle. Like Angela Carter’s collection, this is a subversive take on familiar themes—the eponymous unicorn, the princess in the tower, the hero/fool. Wise and haunting.
“The Magicians,” Lev Grossman. Another subversive novel that takes on the nature of fantasy novels.
I could go on and on and on, but I’ll stop here ….
YARN: You have reviewed numerous novels for major publications. As an established writer yourself, how do you go about this process, and do you feel it is necessary for writers to review other writers’ works?
EH: Except for the column I write for Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, where I can choose what I read, all of my reviews are assigned. So I have no choice in the matter—which is great because, for good or bad, I’m often reading books I’d never read otherwise. I’ve discovered some wonderful new (to me, anyway) authors this way, and also some absolutely dreadful books that I wouldn’t read unless you paid me to. Which somebody did.
I don’t think it’s necessary for writers to review others’ work, but it does use a different, more critical part of your brain. I’m not talking about the banal “I hated this book” “I loved this book” kind of stuff you find at Amazon, though there are thoughtful reviews there, too. An informed response to a novel means not just that you’ve read it carefully, but that you see it in context with other books, by that author (if s/he’s written previous novels) and other writers as well. It also helps to be relatively well-read outside of a particular genre. So don’t just read fantasies, or steampunk, or zombie novels, or technothrillers, or “straight” fiction—read a little (ideally, a LOT) of everything. Read stuff you don’t like, and try to analyze WHY you don’t like it, and also ask what the author’s own intent seems to be, and whether or not s/he succeeded in achieving that.
Elizabeth Hand is the author of twelve novels and four collections of short fiction. Her work has received numerous awards, including the World Fantasy Award (four times) the Nebula Award (twice) and the Shirley Jackson Award (twice). Her first YA novel, Illyria, received the World Fantasy Award; her second, Radiant Days, was named one of the best YA novels of the year by Kirkus. She is also a longtime critic for the Washington Post, Salon, the Village Voice and Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, along others. She divides her time between the coast of Maine and north London, where she is at work on her third YA novel, Wylding Hall, along with a psychological thriller, Flash Burn.