Q & A with Helen Lowe


As promised, I have the pleasure today of welcoming Helen Lowe on this blog for an interview, as part of the celebrations marking the release of The Gathering of the Lost,’ the second book in her ‘Wall of Night’ series. Helen was one of the first people to take me under her wing as a newbie writer of fantasy fiction, and kindly interviewed me on three separate occasions. It gives me great satisfaction to finally return the favour!

Helen is not only a wonderful writer – she’s an intriguing human being. She’s a poet as well as a novelist, and a recent recipient of the Ursula Bethell residency at the University of Canterbury. When she isn’t busy producing fantasy literature she’s talking about it on well known sites such as SF Signal and Supernatural Underground… and interviewing other writers. She’s also a survivor of the Christchurch earthquakes!

Without further ado, I give you Helen Lowe…

 

1. First of all, congratulations Helen on the release of ‘The Gathering of the Lost’. I wonder if you could share with us, in just a few words and without spoilers, of course, what readers of the series can expect from this second installment. What’s in store for my favourite young female protagonist, Malian?

Helen: Thank you, Mary. It’s a great pleasure to be doing this interview with you.

Now, this may not be a few words, but in terms of what readers can expect—well firstly, neither Malian nor Kalan are quite so young anymore, because five years have passed since the close of The Heir of Night. As well as picking up the threads of their respective stories, readers can expect to spend time with other main characters from the first book, particularly the heralds, Jehane Mor and Tarathan of Ar, as well as the minstrel, Haimyr, and Honor Captain, Asantir. I hope it is no spoiler to say that the action of the story has shifted as well, away from the Wall of Night and its immediate environs to the Southern Realms of Haarth: the River with its independent city states, Emer and Aralorn, Lathayra and Jhaine. So readers can definitely expect the world to open out and their understanding of it to deepen.

I think it would be fair to say that readers can expect plenty of action as well: this is a book of alarums and forays, melées and tournaments, contests of magic and of arms, surprise attacks and desperate defences. I recall you described The Heir of Night as rambunctious—and The Gathering of the Lost does not depart from that tradition: rambunctious it is. But it also contains quieter threads: springtimes loves and enduring friendships, and mysteries to be unraveled from old scrolls as well as by daring the Gate of Dreams.

As for Malian and Kalan, they are both older and it remains to be seen whether either their interests or friendship remain as close as in “The Heir of Night.” Kalan escaped a life of discrimination and prejudice on the Wall of Night, so the obvious question is why he would choose to return. Malian has grown into her power, but is increasingly aware of its double-edged nature. She feels bound by her pledge to Rowan Birchmoon, to try and save Haarth as well as the Derai, but she still lacks allies. And although she has the helmet, she is no closer to finding either the lost sword or shield of the dead hero, Yorindesarinen—weapons she needs to stand against the Derai’s ancient enemy, the Swarm of Dark. Amidst all of this, she must also discern who, in a world of conflicting ambitions, she may dare trust—as well as just how much she is prepared to sacrifice, not excluding Kalan, to fulfil her duty to the Derai Alliance.

2. With the latest outing of ‘The Hunger Games’ in movie mode, much is being made of the ‘kickass heroine’ in fantasy. How do you feel Malian fits into this tradition? Is there an aspect of her character that sets her apart from the survivor archetypes we see in speculative fiction? I have the feeling Malian wouldn’t kill simply to stay alive herself… Or am I wrong? 

Helen: Now that is an interesting question, Mary. At one level, I feel Malian certainly fits into the broad category of “kickass” heroine simply because she is a do-er of deeds and has been trained as a warrior, i.e. she is no backroom gal. She is also a survivor, not least because she has to be: as well as being trained to fight, she has also been raised to lead both her own warrior House of Night and the entire Derai Alliance. And now she has pledged to try and save all of Haarth, all of which means that she has to both develop her power and make tough decisions.

You ask whether she would kill simply to save herself—and seeking for the balance between what she can do and what she should do, between what is expedient as opposed to what is right, is central to Malian’s development in the book. I believe she would kill to stay alive herself—would regard it as reprehensible, in fact, given her responsibilities, to allow herself to be killed. I don’t believe she would see any of that as a “simple” matter though.

I would also add that in terms of “kickass heroines”, readers may also wish to look at Asantir, because these sorts of speculations are also very relevant to her role in the book. She is a soldier, so war and death are her business, and like Oliver Cromwell’s “russet-coated Captain” she gives every appearance of “knowing what she fights for, and loving what she knows.” But I don’t think she would see fighting and killing as a simple matter either, because she lives in the real world and like General Sherman (whom I quoted last week as Trent Jamieson’s guest) she well understands that war means “dead and mangled bodies … the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated.” 

The other reason it may be worthwhile looking to Asantir as well as Malian is because we know from Book One that a large part of Malian’s warrior training came from the Honor Captain.

3. Malian’s sense of duty is a character trait I admire. I felt she was a refreshing change from female protagonists who either whine and lean on others (mentioning no sparkly vampire tales by name) or else take the lead, but have to become so brutal in their dealings that there’s no room left for empathy. I thought you struck a good balance between the two extremes. Again, without indulging in spoilers, I wonder if you could tell me if you had challenges in store that would cause her to question that dutiful moral code? (I know authors can be cruel. It’s part of the fun.) 

Helen: Thank you, Mary. I must admit that I have felt puzzled when reading reviews that say Malian is “just another rebellious teen/daughter” figure, when to me the whole point of her character is that from the outset she shoulders her duty—she has been brought up to it, after all. This is the reason I am also puzzled by those who say Malian exemplifies the “farm boy to hero” trope, i.e. she is no farm girl, but rather the converse! (I hasten to add that there are plenty of reviewers who have seen this, too.) Certainly, she goes against her father’s plan for her, but not through self-will but because she sees a higher duty to her people and the Derai cause. So I don’t see her as rebellious at all.

In terms of The Gathering of the Lost, I think there are many aspects of her path that are called into question and bear on her moral code, but not so much on her acceptance of duty. Whether that stays the case as the story unfolds through the next two books remains to be seen—and I would not like to venture so far into scantily charted waters at this point.

4. Regarding the process of writing this novel: did you find it easier to plot than the first installment of the series, or more difficult? Were there any aspects of story or character development that surprised you, appearing ‘off the cuff’ while you wrote, or was it all meticulously planned? 

To be honest, I am not really a “planner” and certainly not a meticulous one. I always have the arc of the story in my mind, the beginning and end points for the book as well as the basic trajectory between the two, but aside from that I find the storytelling works best for me if I let the story evolve along that arc. So far this process has held true for all the books I have written. In fact, I find whenever I plot in too much detail it is actually counterproductive to the vibrancy of the story—because the writing process turns into a brain dump of “terribly important plot points” as opposed to “telling the tale.” And for me, it’s all about telling the tale and telling it as well as I possibly can!

In terms of aspects of the story and character development that surprised me—even given the “building on a ‘bare bones’ arc” that is my natural approach—there was one such incident with The Gathering of the Lost. It involved the herald, Tarathan of Ar. From the beginning (by which I mean the beginning of the series, not just The Gathering of the Lost) the story arc involved Tarathan taking a certain action within the second book. But the closer I got to that point in the story the more I realized that given how his character had developed, he would never do that.

To give any more detail would be a huge spoiler, but suffice it to say that I knew I was going to have to depart from my original vision in order to stay true to his character. Fortunately there was enough depth in the story that I could do this by giving events a different slant rather than having to re-jig the whole book—but I would still have done so if that was what it took to keep the character and the story “in true.”

5. Completing a novel is in itself an achievement, but I believe you went a step further than most authors do in this case, working on ‘the Gathering’ during a suite of devastating earthquakes which rocked Christchurch in 2010 and 2011.  The February 22nd quake in particular left your house damaged and invaded by the infamous ‘liquefaction’: you went without such luxuries as running water, electricity and a working toilet for months. I have to ask, how did you manage to write a book, let alone bring it in on time in these circumstances?  

Helen: Mary, it’s been a “trip”, no question about that. Although I should clarify that we were luckier than a great many other people in that liquefaction (the sand and ground water forced to and through the surface by the force of the earthquake’s vertical acceleration) did not actually come into our house. We were certainly surrounded on almost all sides and it’s still inches deep under the floor, but it didn’t actually flood inside, thank goodness. The thing I try and focus on is that, structurally damaged or not, the house is still liveable and it will be fixed “one day.” So I am still an awful lot better off than people who have been Red Zoned, or their homes red stickered as unsafe or unliveable regardless of the ground condition.

I certainly can’t argue though, that broken infrastructure and the long slow process of repairing it makes day-to-day living really tough. In terms of how I managed to write a book: I did it because I had to and also because I wanted to. I want to write these books and write them well, and get them ‘out there’ to readers. And in part, keeping going and completing the book was my way of fighting back; not getting the book done would have been giving in, giving up. I felt I owed it to the book and to myself not to do that. In a way (and this is also for the future), I felt I owed it to the Christchurch community as well—because we all have to keep going and get the job done, whatever it is. And since writing The Gathering of the Lost was my job, stopping or giving up just never felt like an option. But I didn’t bring it in on time. I was definitely late.

6. I do think good things are worth the wait, Helen. But going back to the overall story of ‘Wall’, do you feel your series is part of the eschatological tradition of fantasy storytelling – ie, building up to a final, epic pay-off in which a society changes dramatically? Or is it more in the line of sword and sorcery epics and political/historical sagas, in which there is a personal payoff but less change in the society as a whole?

Helen: Mary, you know I had to look up “eschatological” just to be sure …  But seriously, I think that is something that very much remains to be seen. At the moment, my vision of the story arc suggests that the resolution will walk a line between both traditions. But as we have already discussed, the original vision can alter as the story evolves so I would hesitate to make a categorical statement about how things will go at this point. Right now, my main focus is on writing Book Three and I suspect what happens in that will have a bearing on how the fourth and final book develops.

No, correction: right now my focus is on writing Book Three and giving “The Gathering of the Lost” the best launch into the world I can manage! It has been a very hard slog getting to this point and so I feel that “pressing pause” on the production schedule and celebrating, just a little, is entirely in order.

7. In addition to working on book three and surviving earthquakes, I hear that you’ve been awarded a prestigious residency this year at the University of Canterbury! What does the position entail, and how does it help your writing process? Most importantly: do you get a little plaque on a door with your name on it? 

Helen: I have, thank you—and a little plaque on a door with my name on it does indeed go with the territory! The plaque says “Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence” and currently there is another plaque immediately beneath it that reads “Helen Lowe.” So there you are! However, it is what lies on the other side of the door that is one of the real bonuses of having the residency: a room of my own dedicated to writing. You will know yourself how precious—and beneficial to one’s writing—having that sort of space is. And writing is what the residency is all about—it’s not a teaching position. Although having said that, I am also in the process of putting together some sessions that I hope will be beneficial for students interested in creative writing. I shall probably do a couple of seminars as well, but the main focus is meant to be my own writing—which is wonderful. As soon as this necessary book release round is over I aim to take full advantage of the dedicated office space and dive back into writing full time. Because if there is one thing that eighteen months of earthquakes really underlines, it is that Hippocrates was quite right: “life is short, but the art long.”

 

Thank you for appearing on the blog Helen and I wish you all the best for the continuing saga of ‘The Wall of Night’. 

 Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer. She has won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for achievement in SFF for both Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009, and The Heir of Night (The Wall of Night Book One) in 2011. Helen is currently the Ursula Bethell writer-in-residence at the University of Canterbury. She posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground, and occasionally on SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter.

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8 Responses to Q & A with Helen Lowe

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  2. ashleycapes says:

    Fantastic interview, Mary – I enjoyed reading about the insights into the creation process, and I agree, Helen with the following: when to “me the whole point of her character is that from the outset she shoulders her duty” in regards to Malian. Definitely agree.

    I like the idea of a five year jump too, very cool. Ordered my copy of book two last week, so now I wait!

  3. Helen Lowe says:

    I am glad you see that, Ashley, because as an author one has to worry when readers see a character so differently to what was intended! And I totally agree that Mary asked some great questions–and as we know, great questions generate nuanced answers! 🙂

    I hope you don’t have to wait to long for your book–although sometimes anticipation can be an excellent thing!

    • ashleycapes says:

      It does build excitement, absolutely! Part of the joy comes from the wait, for sure and it shouldn’t be too long now and I can get started.

      I was thinking about character – could it be a good sign, too, if a character is seen differently by readers, in that, you get additional confirmation that you’ve written a great character – because he or she can be interpreted in multiple (contrasting) ways?

      • Helen Lowe says:

        Ashely, I do agree that is a possibility, too–but if it is wildly at variance with ne’s own vision then perhaps some doubt must creep in …

        • ashleycapes says:

          Ah, of course. that would have to build doubt. Seems like a good deal of folks feel she is dutiful huh? It’d be fascinating to see what sort of life experience (and bias, possibly?) readers who find her too rebellious bring to the book.

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