Interview with Juliet McKenna

This Interview has been provided by Orbit, and is printed with their permission.

Juliet E. McKenna’s first novel THE THIEF’S GAMBLE was greeted as ‘a wonderful debut’ by J.V.Jones and heralded the arrival of a sparkling new voice in the fantasy genre. With THE GAMBLER’S FORTUNE, the third book in her enthralling Tales of Einarinn published this month, Juliet has firmly established her unique and undeniably spellbinding world. To explore the wonders and complexities of the world of Einarinn we caught up with Juliet at her home in Oxfordshire.

When did you first decide you wanted to write fantasy?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, for as long as I can remember and if I could possibly get in a fantasy twist, I would do it. My mother recently unearthed my very first attempt at a novel, written when I was about 8 years old. I’d recalled reading a book about a badger fighting a gang of piratical cats on a canal, and unsurprisingly, this story is about two dogs fighting a gang of piratical cats. It takes up at least two thirds of an exercise book in my very best handwriting. I wrote my first full length novel in my mid twenties – and while I’d learned a lot about dialogue, scene setting and characterisation by then, it was unfortunately still pretty much a retread of ideas out of other books, a youth-leaves-home, rites of passage saga. It was about 5 years ago that I moved on from vaguely wanting to write fantasy to realising the full complexity of seriously working at it. I’d say that was the defining moment for me.

Where did you get your inspiration to create the world of Einarinn?
I honestly can’t point to any single inspiration. I started by creating a coherent setting to serve my plot for THE THIEF’S GAMBLE, establishing the essentials of the big picture round the edges which I’m filling in with detail as subsequent plots take me to different places. I take bits from all manner of cultures and times to create Einarinn and invent what I need to tie it all together. History was always a favourite subject at school, I studied classical history as part of my degree, and I continue to read a great deal about a whole range of periods.

What did you find the most difficult part of creating your own complete world?
My personal pet hates in fantasy novels are worlds with ill-defined societies that somehow stay fixed for centuries with no sense of progression or interaction. Developing a historically and politically dynamic world is a major challenge, particularly keeping the internal logic consistent. Then I have to incorporate fantastic elements like magic and mythical beasts. I’d say the hardest thing is maintaining that internal logic but that’s nowhere near as difficult conveying the depth of background without derailing the plot with huge chunks of explanation that are irrelevant to the action. It’s a bit like juggling – and every book throws in new balls.

You have a wonderful way of bringing your characters to life. Are the characters what drive the plot when you write or vice versa?
I see it as a circular process, each element influences the other. For THE THIEF’S GAMBLE, I devised plot and personalities in parallel, to create vivid characters caught up in dramatic events. After that, plots started by exploring questions thrown up by earlier books. For THE SWORDSMAN’S OATH, I wondered what lay behind the Archmage’s search for ancient artefacts. Focusing on Ryshad’s sword meant his character, and then Temar’s, coloured the developing plot. The next idea I opted to pursue was the tradition of magic among the ancient races. Livak was the obvious character to use here, along with Sorgrad and Sorgren, friends from her days as an itinerant gambler. Putting that trio together immediately threw up all manner of potential plot elements for THE GAMBLER’S FORTUNE which had to be woven together without forcing characters into actions inconsistent with their established histories and personalities. As the Einarinn sequence continues, this interplay of character and plot becomes increasingly complex.

Livak’s and Ryshad’s futures seem intertwined but fraught with danger. Will they eventually be able to choose their own destinies or will fate decide for them?
I don’t see Livak letting fate or anything else decide her future for her, that’s not her style – but events might conspire to limit her options, unless she can find an unforeseen way out. But then she’s used to living on her wits, so it never pays to underestimate her. Ryshad’s used to danger, it’s part of the life he swore himself to. A sworn man certainly has to take the orders he’s given but Ryshad’s always been able to chose his own methods when set some task and his loyalty is by no means blind. I can’t see him passively accepting some unwelcome destiny. I’d say the biggest question for those two is whether the things they have in common are strong enough to keep them together, in the face of the differences in their characters and lives. Fate or destiny has little to do with that.

The Elietimm threat has highlighted a need for change in the Empire on Einarinn. Is this change likely to mend past differences or fracture the Empire even further?
All the countries of Einarinn are continually affected by an array of economic and political forces and certainly the Elietimm threat is having a major impact on princely decision makers within the current Tormalin Empire. Exactly what will happen depends on the balance of influence between Emperor, nobility and commoners, how events combine with those other pressures and of course, how key individuals respond to unexpected events. I don’t think you can limit the possible consequences to those two options; Ryshad might find neither, both or something entirely unforeseen at the end of the Summer Solstice festival.

The themes in your books reflect many relevant in the real world. Are these elements you work in to the stories or a natural product of modern story telling?
I have no agenda as a writer, I represent no special interests and I don’t have any kind of axe to grind, so no, I certainly don’t set out to explore themes. I come across too many books written with an ‘important message’ and this generally means a very dull story. I want to write exciting adventures with believable characters. What this means in practice is from time to time my plots find characters facing issues common to humanity throughout all ages and cultures. If my writing about people dealing realistically with these issues makes some readers examine their own preconceptions, that can’t do any harm as far as I’m concerned but that’s as far as it goes.

How many books do you plan to write set in Einarinn?
I have five novels plotted for this particular sequence, of which THE GAMBLER’S FORTUNE is the third. At the moment, I think that’s probably as far as the questions I have about Livak, Ryshad, the Elietimm and the Archmage will take me. Then I have to decide which set of ideas thrown up by other aspects of the world of Einarinn to pursue first. Just what is the full story behind the Lescari civil wars and can anything be done to resolve the shambles? Where will the Kellarin colony be in five or ten years’ time? The Aldabreshin Archipelago is currently peaceful but what could upset a warlord’s equilibrium? What about the western edge of the map and the ancient kingdom of Solura with the unknown land of Mandarkin to the North and distant Wildlands beyond it? I couldn’t put a number on the books I might find in all these different places.

Copyright© 2002 Orbit. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. The interview has been provided by Orbit and is printed with their permission.

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