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Interview with Helen Lowe

Interviewer: Simon Litten

This interview was conducted at the 68th World Science Fiction Convention (2-6 September 2010) coincident with the Australian launch of Ms Lowe’s new novel The Heir of Night.

Simon: Helen, thank you for this interview and congratulations on the launch of your new novel The Heir of Night.

Helen: My pleasure and thank you.

S: Do you see yourself as a fantasy writer?

H: Yes. When I have ideas they are science fiction or fantasy.

When science fiction ideas come up I often feel challenged by the need to "get the science right", probably because I don’t have a strong science background, so given the need for more extensive research it’s usually science fiction for short stories and fantasy for novels.

So really I view myself as a fantasy and science fiction writer.

S: Have you written any of your science fiction ideas?

H: Yes, I have a couple written. One is almost a novella. I presented that to my mentor, New Zealand writer Owen Marshall, as part of the NZ Society of Authors/Creative New Zealand writing Mentorship programme (a few years back now) and it was his favourite piece from my portfolio at the time.

S: Why was it his favourite piece?

H: He said it absorbed his attention from start to finish and held him the whole way, so much so that he didn’t realise it was 14,000 words long.

S: Has it been published?

H: I haven’t really tried to sell it. Unlike novels, it is hard in New Zealand to identify the market for longer forms of shorter length fiction, e.g. the novella and novelette (although that is changing now with SpecFicNZ). I did have a much shorter story, Red Earth (a climate change dystopia) published in Borderlands 10 (Australia).

S: What do you write when you want to take a break from your novels?

H: I write poetry.

For me the short story is such a different prose form that to do it properly requires time, time that I should devote to the novel at hand. Poetry is also really different but is so short that it doesn’t take that much concentrated time.

S: What are the central themes or ideas that drive your stories?

H: I don’t think about themes all that much, but…this may be quite hidden in my books but my characters are concerned with fairness and right behaviour. Also their sense of place in the world is very strong; the character has to be a whole person in themselves. I really dislike stories where the secondary characters are cardboard cut-outs. For me every character has to live the whole time they are on the page.

So a major theme for me is keeping it real; the scene and the characters have to be real. The situation may be fantastic, but the characters and their reactions need to be real and need to convince the reader.

S: Do you try to introduce accent and dialect to your works?

H: Only to a limited extent.

In Thornspell I gave the character of Auld Hazel a different way of talking. The problem with accent and dialect is that it is hard to do well unless you have a strong ear for dialect. Again, as another example from Thornspell, Balisan never ever contracts his words whereas others do. But that distinction is very subtle.

In The Heir of Night some of the mythic characters speak in a more heroic language (a la The Iliad), but then the "normal" characters expect them to speak like that, because they are part of their legendary history.

S: Are there any books you return to?

H: If I really like a book I will reread it. Some that I really, really like: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Flowers of Adonis, Robyn McKinley’s The Blue Sword, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Earthsea series.

S: What triggered you to start writing?

H: Real life – I kept waking up every night with the thoughts, "Why aren’t you writing Helen?" crashing around in my head. So I had to choose an idea; picked one and stuck with it. And I did that by pulling out all my half-started manuscripts, laying them out on the bed and "just choosing one".

S: How close to being chosen was Thornspell?

H: It wasn’t on the bed. It was an idea I had forgotten about and only remembered when I rediscovered a notebook with my early ideas in there.

At that time I wanted to do a standalone novel and Thornspell fitted the bill perfectly.

S: Are ideas for stories a problem for you?

H: I have so many ideas crowding in and trying to get written – so no, that isn’t a problem. I don’t want to be the type of writer that does the same story over and over again, so I like to have those ideas there.

Whenever I can, I jot new ideas down.

S: What working style do you use to write?

H: I set myself the target of four hours writing or 200 words a day, five days a week, as a minimum. The 200 words have to be new words in the story, not revisions – and usually, I achieve much more.

But when I started trying for 1,500 words as a minimum I found that I was writing words for the sake of it, rather than good quality words and so would often have to delete them later.

I also have to make sure the fear of the deadline doesn’t paralyse me as The Heir of Night is the first of four books in the Wall of Night series. But with book two nearly done, so far the method is working.

S: Thank you once again for the interview and I hope the new book, and the whole series, is well received.

H: Thank you.

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