I discovered the work of New Zealand author Helen Lowe some six years ago, and was immediately hooked by her first book, Thornspell. I later discovered and enjoyed her epic Wall of Night series, including The Heir of Night, The Gathering of the Lost and now Daughter of Blood. To celebrate the release of the latter, I invited Helen to pop by the blog and chat about all things Wall, Daughter and writing-related. Really, it was an excuse to pick Helen’s brains about the background processes that went into the creation of this novel, to hear her take on strength and strong characters, particularly strong female characters, and to hear a little about her research and world-building.
I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
MARY: Welcome to the blog, Helen. I am so pleased you were able to come by at what must be a busy time. First of all, I believe congratulations are in order for the publication of the third instalment of the Wall of Night series: Daughter of Blood. Writing a novel is often a long and lonely experience, so its publication is an occasion to celebrate both the book’s release and your own (temporary) liberation! I say temporary, because now everyone is waiting impatiently for Book Four.
I have been following the Wall books since the first instalment in your series, The Heir of Night, and discovered this newest addition with pleasure. In it we follow the continuing adventures of Malian and her group of friends, in the march towards what looks to be a seriously epic denouement between the various powers at work on Haarth. As the blurb points out: “[t]he Darkswarm is gaining strength, and time is running out—for Malian, for Kalan, and for all of Haarth…”
I must say, I really liked this third book. It gave me a more in-depth glimpse of the diverse cultures in your invented world, and was a chance to understand how the Derai tick, particularly when seen from the point of view of your Daughter of Blood. Without giving too much away, I enjoyed discovering your world through the eyes of someone who was in some ways quite “ordinary”, and lacked the grand powers associated with heroes in general. Was it your intention to approach the storytelling in that fashion, or did it happen as you went along?
HELEN: Thank you, Mary, both for the invitation to join you today but also for the congratulations on publication of Daughter of Blood. As you know well, being a writer yourself, the process can be as exhausting, with release day celebrations, blog tours and other promotional activity, as it is — unquestionably — exhilarating, to finally see your “little story” sail off into the world. I call the process of writing the book “the loneliness of the long distance writer” because, for me anyway, completing a novel is an endurance event. But it’s also very rewarding when the story finally acquires something resembling the ‘shape’ you have always imagined. As for when it is finally an actual book in your hand, with a cover that has your name on it, well — ooh la la!
I am so glad, too, that you enjoyed the read, Mary, not least because I know you are a discerning reader but also because Daughter of Blood decided to fully live up to ‘novel writing as an endurance event.” Yet the story, or the Muse, or my authorial subsconscious (yer pays yer monies, or not, dear readers, and takes yer picks on that one 😉 ) was always right when it threw me a curved ball, or placed an obstacle in my path that made me rethink what I was doing, or why — yes, even when the upshot was retracing my storytelling steps and finding a different path to where I wanted to go. Yet if the book reads well, then I do not regret one retraced step or rewritten word, because doing justice to the story and delivering on excellence of reader experience are what storytelling is all about — in my humble opine, anyway. (While also acknowledging that there are a tremendous range of reader preferences out there and no one book or author can hope to fulfill them all.)
To come finally to your question regarding telling the Daughter story through the eyes of someone quite “ordinary” — in the sense of not having magical powers or being a leader in either politics or war — yes, the character of Myr was present in my original vision for the story. It was always my intention, too, that she should offer a contrasting perspective on what constitutes strength, particularly when juxtaposed with characters such as Malian, the mage, former covert operative, and now emerging political leader, or Asantir, who is both a warrior-hero in her own right and a commander of armies. So I always knew that Myr would be a gentle spirit, but once I actually started telling her story, her character took off and really blossomed in terms of personal integrity and finding her own path — which was as rewarding for me, as the author, as I hope it will be for readers, sharing the journey of the book with her.
MARY: I love that definition of strength, expressed as gentleness and integrity. Absolutely! I’m glad to see an alternative to the usual, tough-as-nails fantasy female character who has to “kick ass” to be seen as strong. (Nothing against kick-ass heroines, but variety is the spice.) Myr struck me as being strong in a very different way: she had the courage to face up to more powerful adversaries and stand up for what was right. That’s difficult when you have little in the way of magic or physical brawn to fall back on… I liked her endurance and flexibility, too. To indulge in metaphor, she’s the bamboo who bends and weathers the storm while the big tree snaps.
Regarding backtracking in writing, I’ve found personally that when that becomes necessary, it’s also a godsend. Painful to do, but the work is so much better for it.
All right, I have another question for you about Daughter of Blood, which brings me back in part to the issue of strength. I’d have to be a dunce not to notice that you write strong female characters (you mention a few by name, above.) They are all strong in different ways. Another interesting point is that quite often, that strength is not questioned by those around them, but accepted and supported, added to, used to the full. What I mean by that is, with the exception perhaps of Myr, I have noticed that these heroines do not spend their time justifying themselves, proving their worth or trying to convince the world around them to simply give them a chance. I find that rather a relief. It seems that a fair number (though not all) of the men who encounter these strong women are able to recognize their talents and appreciate what they do.
How conscious was your desire to portray a more or less equal playing field for women, certainly women with martial or magical ability in the Derai world?
HELEN: Just reflecting a little further on Myr, I think you have arrived at the nub of what I was trying to achieve with her character, which was to explore strength of character as a concept distinct from physical prowess, or political or magical power. The exploration could also be described as a reflection on what constitutes moral fibre, if not outright moral leadership…
The matter-of-fact equality of the Derai world, at least when it comes to gender equality, was not something I consciously thought about and planned with respect to the series: it was simply the way the story, the society, and the characters deployed on the page of the first book, i.e. you might say that they wrote themselves that way. To be honest, I wasn’t even conscious of it as a distinguishing feature of my work until The Heir of Night, The Wall of Night Book One, was published and reviewers and readers commented on that aspect of the story. However, once these external observations led me to reflect further, it seemed self-evident that in a society where gender equality was an established fact, then people within that society wouldn’t comment on or angst over it, but would simply accept it, and so of course the characters would have each others’ backs, regardless of gender. For them to do otherwise would be like us questioning breathing, or whether the sun will rise in the east and set in the west, when in fact we just take it as given. That is how it is with the Derai: they just take the gender equality of their society as given, to the extent that it’s invisible to them.
By contrast, in the second novel in the series, The Gathering of the Lost, where it has become unusual (although not unprecedented) for women in the Southern Realms’ duchy of Emer to become knights, the emergence of a female knight-in-training does generate discussion among the characters. When it comes to magical ability, however, there is little or no difference between the capabilities of Emer’s male and female adepts, which I like to think at least partly explains the Southern dukedom’s relatively equal society in gender terms. Of course, having seen the reviews and reader commentary in respect of The Heir of Night, I was much more conscious of what I was writing, in gender terms, in the subsequent two books. This led me to think more rigorously, and consciously, about the internal consistency of the societies in this respect. Overall, I believe this is a good thing, even if the original concept of the gender-equal Derai society arose naturally through the act of storytelling, rather than by predetermined design.
MARY: I find it interesting that your default position was one of equality, adjusted later in your writing process to reflect local variants. The default position in so many fantasy stories these days is to reflect either the current struggles of women, or else a certain view of what life was like in historical contexts. I’m also very interested in the fact that Myr has an unshakeable moral core. Again, that’s quite rare in our times of “gritty” fantasy and fictional takes on realpolitik, where characters are required to betray their most deeply-held values as par for the course.
On another subject, I also enjoyed discovering the rich traditions of Derai culture for the first time in this book. Could you tell me a little about your research and what inspired the courtly and martial traditions of Blood?
HELEN: In terms of your initial observation regarding fantasy and the status of women, I am also aware of these trends but it seems to me that in writing fiction, particularly fantastic fiction, one should take the opportunity to imagine what “could be” as well as what “is” now or “was” historically — although I believe there is plenty of evidence to suggest that history was by no means as monolithic as some writers would have us believe, even in relation to the status of women.
With respect to Myr’s “unshakeable moral core”, that is certainly how her character developed and the way the story played out, although again I did not start from a point where my author’s note against Myr read as “unshakeable moral core.” Yet although The Wall of Night series is most commonly described as epic fantasy, it may also be termed “heroic fantasy”: i.e. it is a story that centres on heroes and explores what makes a person a hero (whether female or male.) In that sense it is absolutely a tale about moral cores, as well as about gritty realism and realpolitik, all of which more than play their part in Daughter of Blood. One aspect that particularly struck me when developing Myr’s character was how, given her circumstances, she would have internalized the particular values that she holds – simply because although disposition may be inborn, I suspect values are something we learn. In that sense, Myr’s relationship with Mistress Ise, as well as with the guards Dab and Taly, are all central to understanding her character.
To come (finally!) to your question, I didn’t really research culture in terms of the Derai. My specific research for Daughter of Blood centred on sieges and related matters such as disease and medicine, rather than culture. However, I have a strong interest in history, and read historical non-fiction as well as fiction, as well as having travelled reasonably widely both through my reading and in fact. So it may be that my exposure to both historical and contemporary cultures has imbued the development of the Derai society — particularly in terms of the logical progression that any society that has been a “people under arms” for not just millennia, but aeons, is going to have a deeply inculcated martial culture. In terms of some of the historical cultures that might have influenced my thinking around the Derai, those where I have read more widely include the Spartans, the Macedonian armies of Philip II and then Alexander the Great, and the Romans, including the Republican and earlier and later (Western and Eastern) Empire periods. I have also read a reasonable amount about different periods in Chinese history and Japan in both the pre-Shogunate and Shogunate eras. In The Gathering of the Lost, however, I can tell you that Emerian society is informed by, without being in any way a direct replica of, the Burgundian knights in the heyday of their power. I understand the armoured “knights” of medieval Korean society also trained in similar ways, although I’m far less familiar with their society and history.
MARY: I love the Spartan and Macedonian connection, and read much Mary Renault as a child for similar reasons… 🙂 I did indeed feel the siege and medical knowledge coming through in the book. It felt grounded in the possible, in a world very much like our own.
One last question, Helen. Can you give us a glimpse of what to look forward to in Book Four, and a rough idea of when the book might be out?
HELEN: Ah, the mighty Mary Renault. Her Athenian trilogy is one of my favourite historical sequences — and come to think of it, her children’s book, The Lion in the Gateway, was probably a formative influence, although Rosemary Sutcliff is also very much present in the historical fiction mix.
I am glad you felt Daughter of Blood was grounded in the possible, because making the world feel real is as important to me as the “strange magic” of my particular style of fantasy — although the magical and fantastic elements are very important, too. To hark back to an earlier point, I think speculative fiction is short-changing itself — and readers — if it doesn’t strive to explore something beyond the square of what we already know and to consider what “what if” and “other” could mean. In that sense, although your Chronicles of the Tree is a very different story on the surface, I think the subsurface exploration of “otherness” is an element the two series have in common.
Ah, Book Four… Well, the working title is The Chaos Gate and I can tell you that it is definitely the last book in the series. As for what is in it, I am something of a Taoist in my writing approach in that I find “the book that can be spoken of is not the book.” Plus I don’t want to jinx anything so I shall say no more than: “last book, which will complete the series” and last but not least, “working on it!”
Thank you very much for inviting me to do this interview, Mary. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.
MARY: It’s my pleasure! I’m always thrilled to be allowed pick authors’ brains, and find out more about what makes them and their characters tick. And I do agree, the exploration of “otherness”, and more specifically the dismantling of concepts of “us” and “them”, is the key to many a good tale.
But that is a (long) discussion for another time, I hope. Meanwhile, those who wish to buy The Wall of Night series in the UK can do so here: The Wall of Night on Amazon UK. US readers can look here: The Wall of Night on Amazon US and Aus/NZ can find the series here: The Wall of Night on Fishpond.
Thank you for joining me today, Helen.
Helen’s first novel Thornspell, (Knopf) was published to critical praise in 2008, and in 2012 The Heir Of Night, The Wall Of Night Book One, won the David Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Fantasy Newcomer. The Gathering of The Lost, (The Wall Of Night Book Two), was shortlisted for the David Gemmell Legend Award in 2013.
She is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.