Interview with Holly Lisle

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your current projects?

A: I have several projects in progress right now. I’ve sold the fourth book set in the Matrin universe, _Vincalis the Agitator_,to Betsy Mitchell at Warner Aspect. It will be a stand-alone novel that precedes the SECRET TEXTS trilogy (_Diplomacy of Wolves_, _Vengeance of Dragons_, and _Courage of Falcons_) by a thousand years. Briefly, at the height of an era in which magic drives incredible technologies and makes the every wish of society’s elite a reality, and when the bodies and souls of the poor and the weak are the fuel for that magic, Vincalis — a rebellious boy from the slums, and Solander — destined to become chief among the wizards in his father’s footsteps, become unlikely friends and over the years, allies in a fight to throw the wizards from power, break the chains of the wizards’enslaving magic, and reshape the world.

Things don’t work out as the two of them plan, of course.

I’ve also just sold three stand-alone books in the new_Sentinels_ universe to Jennifer Brehl at Avon Eos. Each of these will be set partly in a tiny town in North Carolina and partly in the alternate universes that connect to it through carefully guarded gates — the stories will be about the Sentinels, regular small-town friends and neighbors who also belong the secretive, hereditary order of guardians who have watched over the flow of magic between universes since the gates were first discovered, and about the world-threatening magic that comes through those gates.

In the first book, _Sentinels of Cat Creek_, Lauren, the young,widowed mother of a two-year-old son discovers that her parents were Sentinels, that they were murdered by other Sentinels, and that her memories of her childhood have been magically suppressed by her parents for reasons that she now must discover, or die.

I’m also working, as most writers do, I imagine, on something big, different and on-spec. My current on-spec project is a huge high-fantasy world with highly localized magic, a mysterious order that requires the annual sacrifice of young town rebels from each of the hundreds of towns and villages under its dominion, and a young woman who dares to infiltrate the order.

Q: Of your own works which one is your favorite?

A: That’s a brutal question — which of a parent’s kids does he love the most?

Having now made the obligatory protest, I’ll say that I think I have told my most compelling and deepest story in the just-completed SECRET TEXTS trilogy — I had the opportunity to explore the question “What would happen if a long-awaited savior was reborn into his world to great celebration, then immediately removed from the equation, thus nullifying a thousand years of prophecy, throwing at least one religion into chaos and leaving the forces he was supposed to oppose at large, in control, and bent on enslaving everyone?”

The trilogy explores the power of hope, issues of duty versus love, what it means to be human and who qualifies, and the question of how much any of us owes to the other human beings who share the world with us. I got a chance to work with a complex, powerful magical system; I ended up with characters that in some places moved me to tears; and I learned things from the writing of the trilogy that changed the way I see the world.

The only other book that had a similar impact on me as I was writing it was _Sympathy for the Devil_, an outwardly comic contemporary fantasy novel that on a deeper level allowed me to ask and find an acceptable answer the question, If there is a God and he or she claims to love us, how can this deity countenance the existence of Hell, or permit the eternal torture of the damned? This was always a big issue for me — the answer that I discovered completely changed my views on God (for the better, I’ll add, though I still avoid all forms of organized religion), and from fan letters I’ve received, I’ve heard that it has had the same effect on quite a few readers.

Q: What are you usually inspired by when writing a book?

A: I’m driven to find the answer to the question Why? No one could ever answer it to my satisfaction when I was a kid, and finding its multifaceted answer now fuels every book that I write. Why do evil people prosper? Why do good people suffer?Why do we die? Why are we here in the first place? Why aren’t there more headhunters in fiction?

Things like that.

As for calling it inspiration — I wouldn’t do that. I was quite serious when I said I was driven; the difference to me between a good day and a bad day is a thousand words successfully placed on the page, (a quote I’ve stolen and modified from Lynn Abbey, who isn’t happy unless she’d done fifteen hundred.) The day when I really don’t want to write is rare indeed, and is usually preceded by the flu.

Inspiration seems to me to be a fickle thing. I’d hate to have to rely on it to make a living.

Q: Do you find that fantasy writing is ignored compared to science fiction, or taken less seriously?

A: Depends on the reader. Fantasy is certainly taken less seriously by readers of hard SF, but they aren’t the fantasy audience. Fantasy currently is selling better than hard SF overall, though of course there are individuals in both fields who do quite well, and those writers, as well, who are hanging onto the bottom edge of the cliff with teeth and claws and praying the rock doesn’t crumble. So I wouldn’t say fantasy writers are ignored compared to SF — perhaps simply ignored by the hardcore center of SF fans, both readers and writers.

And not even always that. I routinely get letters which begin,”I don’t read fantasy — ever. I only read SF. But my (wife,husband, best friend, annoying neighbor) beat me over the head with your books until I finally read one, and I’m writing now to tell you how much I liked it.” So even some hardcore SF fans read and like some fantasy.

Q: How much research do you put into your novels?

A: I’m obsessive. I do massive world building, starting with maps of the globe, maps of the region, maps of the relevant city, maps of specific houses or ships or neighborhoods. I develop languages and grammars and word sets. I have a medical background — I read a lot of science books and magazines and was an RN for ten years before I quit nursing to write fulltime, and the science in my books matters to me. I work out the physics of the planet, the rules of magic as if they were extensions of the physics. I develop races and cultures for the people, do a serious back history for the region about which I’m writing and a broader overview of the history of the entire planet. I design costumes and name the costume parts for the different cultures. I figure out the religions of the region and how they interact with each other, the rivalries of various groups and the alliances, too. I develop flora and fauna sets,starting from the tiny little things that get eaten, and working up to the big things that eat them. Then I start writing, and I continue to add to the world building as I go.

I use very little of the actual background that I build, but knowing that it’s there gives me a way to throw in casual references to places, people, or things and make sure that the next time I refer to them, they’ll be in the same place, and used in the same context. I have a crappy memory, so I make sure I put it all on paper first.

Q: Do you follow a strict outline when you write, or does the story “flow”?

A: I submit an outline when I sell the book. The finished novel rarely bears a great deal of resemblence to the outline, but I try to hit all the key points in some fashion, and I _will_stick to the overall theme and story arc. I look at it this way– I had a good idea when I pitched the book; if, in progress, I figure out a way to make it better while still making sure the publisher gets the book he paid for, then we both win.

Q: What has the Internet meant for you as an author?

A: Wow. A wonderful place to meet people. An amazing times ink. The best source of reference material I’ve ever found. Anew market — I recently put together an e-book on writing,_Mugging the Muse: Writing Fiction for Love AND Money_, which has turned out to be the Number 4 bestseller at and a big seller at too. And finally, a way to pay forward.

When I got started writing, Stephen Leigh, who was my Writer’s Digest writing course teacher, taught me the basics of putting together a salable piece of fiction — Show, don’t tell; say what you want to say and not almost what you want to say; start in the middle; pay attention to details and get them right;leave out wimpy adjectives; tell a story worth telling. He also encouraged me, letting me know when I was close and reassuring me that selling fiction wasn’t just a pipe dream.  taught me the rules of working as a professional — Hit your daily page limit; remember your readers and write for them;treat the people which whom you work well; meet your deadlines;remember your promises. (In my case, by writing them down.)And pay forward, because you can’t pay back.

I cannot repay either Stephen or Misty for their help and encouragement, but I _can_ and do pay forward, helping other writers get started and avoid the pitfalls I’ve found. I’ve done this by creating and maintaining a huge and growing website dedicated to helping beginning and intermediate writers write salable fiction and then sell it. I’ve added a free bi-weekly newsletter recently, and am working now on acquiring a chat facility, where I hope to offer live interviews with some of the people I know and work with, topical discussions, and a monthly question-and-answer forum, as well as a place where beginners can meet and chat with each other when nothing else is going on.I hope to be able to bring that live in the next week or two.The site is Holly Lisle’s FORWARD MOTION Writers’ Pages, at

We as human beings matter to each other. We can help each other, and if we cannot change the world, we can at least improve our small part of it. The Internet has helped me to do that.

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