Interview with Carol Berg

An Interview
with
Carol Berg
By Kseniya Shabanova for SFFWorld.com
March 5, 2004

 

Carol Berg is the acclaimed author of the Rai-kirah trilogy, composed of the books Transformation, Revelation, and Restoration. She also authored a stand-alone novel entitled The Song of the Beast. Her newest release, Son of Avonar, heralds the beginning of a new trilogy. Carol was kind enough to give us of her time to talk about her career, her views on writing in the fantasy genre, her works up to date, and the new series, called The Bridge of D’Arnath.

 

 

SFFWorld: Since Transformation was released in August of 2000, you have released four novels – one each year. That is quite remarkable, considering that many authors keep their fans waiting for years between releases. With Son of Avonar coming out just this February, you already have the Bridge of D’Arnath trilogy complete and waiting for the publishers to catch up. How do you manage it?

 

Carol Berg: First off, every author has to have a book complete a year before it comes out. That’s not so unusual. What gave me a “year of grace,” allowing me to get this series done, is that “Song of the Beast” was actually written the year before “Transformation”. My editor bought them at the same time, but wanted the rai-kirah books published first. So once I had finished “Restoration” (fall of 2001), I could start serious work on the new series while “Restoration” and “Song of the Beast” went through their publishing cycles. Also, Seri’s story had been hanging around in my head and in copious notes for a while, so I wasn’t starting from complete scratch.

 

SFFW: Not only do you write quickly, but the level of creativity, the elegance of the prose and the intricacy of the plots have grown richer with each new book. With all other commitments required of you as a writer, such as conventions, how do you work in order to create so much and so well?

 

 

CB: I try to continually improve my writing, though I’ve discovered that it is almost impossible to judge that for myself. I must offer thanks to my editors, my agent, and my critique circle for continuing to challenge me to do better. I learn new things with every project.

As to how I work my schedule, I love this job. I have left my engineering day job behind. I would rather write than just about anything, so some other aspects of my life are being sorely neglected. I did travel quite a bit in 2003, and found I was not as productive as I would like. So I am cutting down on the convention travel this year, though I do love meeting readers.

 

 

SFFW: For many years, you worked as a software engineer – a field as far from writing as can be imagined. How did you get started in the writing business? Were the stories and the characters born first, or the serious intent to become a professional writer? How did you make it all happen?

 

 

CB: Truly, writing software is not so far from writing fantasy as one might think. (And not because good software is a fantasy!) In software, as in fantasy fiction, anything is possible as long as you start from a basic premise and connect the pieces with logic and language. I use my engineering skills every day.

Though I have always been an avid reader, I never considered being a writer when I was in school or for many years after. I disliked writing school papers¾one of the reasons I majored in math in college¾and math and engineering appealed to other aspects of my nature. But a friend got me hooked on writing fiction when she challenged me to write a series of email letters in character. We each chose a character and made up the story (fantasy, of course) as we went along. It was great fun. Though the writing was dreadful, the characters and story were actually pretty good. After we completed the story, I couldn’t stop, and I’ve been writing ever since. So I suppose you could say, it was the characters and their stories that drew me in. Once I came up with the idea for a character, I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to him.

I didn’t seriously believe I could aspire to professional status until I wrote “Song of the Beast.” I knew it was better than anything I had written before, and my writing friend agreed. Together we went to the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and learned, among other things, about editors, agents, and manuscript submission, and how challenging it is to break in. But the very next year, in 1999, I went back to Pikes Peak as the winner of their unpublished novel contest (“Song of the Beast”) and I read the opening of “Transformation” for an editor from Roc. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

 

SFFW: That is indeed a great story. Is there any chance of seeing that first email creation in print? It would be fascinating to meet the characters that had started it all!

 

 

CB: You might meet some of the characters, and perhaps even a bit of the original story, but the writing (other than a phrase or two, perhaps) will never see the light of day. I hope.

 

 

SFFW: How are you coping with all the accolades you’ve been receiving?

 

 

CB: I like few things better than hearing from readers who say that my books have touched their lives in some way, inspired them to write, or just given them some hours of exceptional pleasure. But all I have to do is read something by an author I admire or take a look at best seller lists, award lists, fan groups, or other such dry statistics to stay quite humble. I appreciate the good words immensely, but try not to take any of it for granted. Each book is a challenge. Though I want to please those who love my current books, I can’t write the same book over and over again. And though I want to write something new and edgy that will make people go “wow!”, I do love the “romantic” tropes of fantasy fiction: shapeshifting and uncertain identity, swords, princes, empires, and other worlds that lie just beyond the everyday. Creating a character that is complex and “real” and setting him or her to explore these old stories is just a delight.

 

 

SFFW: When you begin a book, how complete or detailed of an idea do you have about where it will go and how it will end?

 

 

CB: Quite sketchy. I always begin with a character: the arrogant, unlikable prince with a great destiny, the gentle, lyrical musician brutally imprisoned, or the woman who is living outside of her own life because of grief and guilt. And then I decide what happens to change that person’s life: buying a slave, being freed from prison, meeting a man whose circumstances tweak every painful memory of a tragic past. That’s when I start writing. Though I have an idea of what I call the “shape” of the book¾for example, Aleksander will have to fall very low and learn some important things before he becomes worthy of his destiny¾I often don’t know the answer to the fundamental mystery of the book when I begin. I didn’t know what Aleksander’s destiny was or why Aidan had been imprisoned or who Aeren was until much later in the process. It is so much fun to discover such things along the way. But, of course, I had better get some idea where it’s all going to end before I go too far.

 

 

SFFW: Have you ever felt any anxiety that a story that started with characters you love might not come together in other ways, at the end?

 

 

CB: Yes, definitely. Both before I start and after I’m in part way (that’s the worst!) But as with any writing dilemma, writing is the only thing that cures it. You have to be willing to put words on paper. And you have to be willing to throw some of those papers (and words) away. A tough thing.

 

 

SFFW: What has been your experience with the process of editing your books? Have you had to make dramatic changes?

 

 

CB: Fortunately I have had excellent experiences with critiques and editing, both from my critique partners here in Colorado and my editors at Roc. I actually enjoy editing and revising, as the process forces me to look at my work with new eyes, giving me the opportunity to explore my characters and their actions in new depth, clarifying in my own mind what I’m actually saying. I told my new editor at Roc that I consider a “revision list” or a critique as a list of symptoms. Oftentimes the true problem uncovered is not the one the critiquer identifies. I suppose that appeals to the engineer in me! When my books emerge from a good editing cycle they are always stronger.

 

 

SFFW: Has the editing process ever influenced the very plot of your stories or the development of characters?

 

 

CB: My editors at Roc have never asked me to make sweeping changes to plot or character. The changes I work on in the professional editorial cycle tend to be nuances. Tightening or expanding scenes or backstory. Clarifying the choreography of action scenes. Smoothing the arcs of rising tension. Characters and plot don’t change as a result, but become better defined. The only whole piece of prose I have been urged to cut was an epilogue that I had tacked on to “Transformation”. My editor suggested that everything in that epilogue would be found in the opening chapter of “Revelation”. She was exactly right. Aleksander’s gift was a much better place to stop.

 

 

SFFW: Would you consider yourself to be your harshest critic, or your editors, or maybe your fans?

 

 

CB: As I instigate more changes in my work than all my other readers put together, I suppose I am my harshest critic.

SFFW: Your new book, Son of Avonar, launches a new, much-anticipated trilogy. Tell us a little of your main character and her story.

 

 

CB: I don’t always like the female protagonists in fantasy. It seems as if in our zeal to rectify the simpering heroines of times past, we make our female protagonists too strong, too talented, too young, and incapable of making serious mistakes. And, though I do like strong and capable women, I have just never been interested in warrior princesses or chicks in chainmail.

I began thinking of Seri many years ago¾a woman of thirty-five, living in exile from her own life. She had grown up as an intelligent, self-confident, and passionate young woman who believed that, no matter history, custom, or evidence to the contrary, she would always be able to shape the world to her desires.  And then she failed.  Totally and tragically.  She had made the mistake of falling in love with a sorcerer in a society dedicated to the extermination of sorcery. And despite everything she could do, he was caught and executed, and their infant son slaughtered as well.

How would this change her?  How would she react to an event that demanded she somehow regain her confidence and determined engagement with life?  What kind of incident would it take to jar her out of her self-imposed exile?  A mystery, I decided.  A mystery that touched every nerve that had led her to tragedy before and forced her to look back into her past horror and come to terms with it. That’s the story of “Son of Avonar”.

 

 

SFFW: The fantasy genre is arguably notorious for its portrayal of women. The two protagonists of the Rai-kirah books were male. They were rich personalities – three-dimensional, realistic, complicated, with depths to plumb. In your next release, The Song of the Beast, a man and a woman shared center stage with equal success. Your latest, Son of Avonar, is seen entirely through the eyes of Lady Seriana, a woman. Would you consider this an intentional progression? If so, what has it meant to you and how has it influenced your experience in writing this book?

 

 

CB: It is certainly not an intentional progression, but simply different protagonists, any one of whom could have come first. “Guardians of the Keep”, Book 2 of the Bridge of D’Arnath, will have multiple narrators, both male and female, as will “The Soul Weaver”, Book 3. I try to create complex and interesting characters. Heroes and heroines who have both strengths and weaknesses, who are afraid, who make mistakes, have regrets, and pay serious prices for their talents, magical or other. Villains that have redeeming qualities or complex motives. I like to think I always give a villain a chance for redemption. (Being the villain, that chance just doesn’t always work out.) Once I choose a character whose voice will tell the story, I place these characters into an adventure that will explore all the aspects of their personalities.

What I have found is that I have to work much harder at writing women. Writing Son of Avonar wholly from the female perspective was extremely difficult, which explains why Seri has been around for a number of years before finding her way into print. Getting into her head, getting the right balance of reason and emotion, trying to avoid clichés…

I worried about this difficulty for a while, as it seemed strange for a woman to struggle with female characters. But since then, I’ve heard the same from many other women authors. We seem to agree that we’ve spent a lot more time observing men in our lives. Thank goodness, Seri finally decided to reveal herself to me. She is an argumentative person and very stubborn, but if you get on her good side, she will stay with you.

 

 

SFFW: Another pitfall of the genre you have gracefully sidestepped is the art of balancing magic elements with the mundane and familiar. What are your thoughts on this subject? Is there sometimes the temptation to use more magic than necessary or the opposite – any hesitation to use it at all?

 

 

CB: I write fantasy because I enjoy expanding the natural laws of the worlds where my stories occur and challenging my heroes and heroines with extraordinary circumstances. So, no, I don’t hesitate to use magic, and I’m never tempted to forego it. But I don’t like to overwhelm the characters and plot with the magical architecture of the story, and I certainly don’t like to give characters so much power that they can solve their problems too easily. I do like to set readers down in worlds that feel familiar, so they can fill in the gaps of detail subconsciously¾worlds that are close enough to “real” that readers can feel like they could walk down the streets. I believe this keeps the reader closer to the characters and enables readers to follow the characters into the more unusual dimensions of their reality and accept those as well. My stories are first of all stories of people. I strive to make my non-magical characters as interesting as the magical. And I like to think Seyonne would be an interesting man of extraordinary compassion, strength, and good humor, whether he could shapeshift or not.

SFFW: The scheme of magic in the Bridge of D’Arnath trilogy is unlike any I have come across in the genre. It is both subtle and beautiful, and has its dangers. Could you explain a little of the basic concept behind the magic and discuss the motivations, origins or influences that put you on this path?

 

 

CB: Seri’s people are mundane ¾ born with no talent for magic. The Dar’Nethi (J’Ettanni) people are sorcerers. From an early age, almost every Dar’Nethi can do small things such as creating light, easing the discomfort of small wounds, or summoning birds. But sometime around the sixteenth birthday, a young person comes into one of a hundred major talents, such as Healer, or Word Winder (one who devises enchantments from the meanings of words), or a Singer (one who can make a song take on physical reality.)

Of course, along with the talent to work enchantments of a particular kind, the Dar’Nethi sorcerer must have power to execute it. Power is inborn as well, and expended power is replenished as one goes about the business of living, interacting with people and nature. But using one’s innate power alone is very limiting, as it isn’t very much, and expended power is replenished quite slowly. And so over the centuries, the Dar’Nethi have learned to maximize their power by living in an “enhanced” way…observing, accepting, and savoring the experiences of life, large and small, good and bad together, and viewing these experiences in the larger context of the world. This is a spiritual and philosophical path that derives from their religion and mythology and the beauties of their world. One problem is that this mode of gathering power is somewhat “confining” for someone who is greedy or in a hurry, as it requires commitment and a certain balance and openness of mind.

The concept of Dar’Nethi magic, and particularly Dar’Nethi healing, grew as I developed Karon’s character. Karon was a Dar’Nethi Healer, and we learn in the opening chapters of Son of Avonar, that he was our heroine’s husband, burned at the stake in the mundane world where sorcery is a crime. I wanted Karon to be an exemplar of the Dar’Nethi Way, a person who is entranced with the way a raindrop is poised at the edge of a leaf and savors arguments with his wife. He is a very powerful sorcerer. But the particular belief that he derives from the Way, that as a Healer he is prohibited from causing injury or death to another being…even to save his own life…lead him to disaster. There is always a price for power.

 

 

SFFW: From Transformation to Son of Avonar, you have favored first-person accounts. What do you find appealing about this method of storytelling? Have you stumbled on any difficulties?

 

 

CB: I just seem to have fallen into it. First person narrative feels very natural to me, perhaps because many (though not all) of my favorite books are told in first person. Mary Stewart’s Merlin books, for example, and Mary Renault’s Theseus books and “The Persian Boy”, Roger Zelazny’s Amber books, Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” (a great example of multiple, distinct narrative voices.) Perhaps it is because I enjoy living a story with my characters, and I find this easier when the characters themselves are telling the story. This closeness can certainly be achieved with third person, but I just haven’t developed the technique as yet. Some of my early writing was third person, and I felt like the characters stayed at arm’s length.

The difficulty with a single first person narrator, of course, is that your narrator must be present at all events, which can limit your ability to recount all aspects of a complex story or to show a single event from multiple perspectives. I solved this by using multiple first person narrators in “Song of the Beast”, and in the second and third books of the D’Arnath series. I don’t know that I will ever again be able to do what I did with Seyonne, having him narrate the entire 500,000+ words of the books of the rai-kirah¾a very complex story. No wonder he had such a hard life!

Another difficulty with first person occurs when you want to instill some ambiguity about the motives and behavior of your protagonist. If you are in the character’s head, it is infinitely more difficult to hide things from the reader. One example where I had to work quite hard was near the end of “Restoration” when Seyonne makes a choice that literally changes his personality. A very difficult piece of writing, which would have been much easier if I’d been able to switch into someone else’s point of view. But I was determined not to do that for one chapter at the end of a long three books.

 

 

SFFW: Among the many things that make Son of Avonar unique is the unusual structure and sequencing of the narrative. Would you elaborate on what that structure is and what made you decide to use it?

 

 

CB: My concept for “Son of Avonar” was a woman of middle years living in bitter exile because of horrific events that happened in her past. Because the story I wanted to write was the tale of Seri’s return from exile (both physical and spiritual), the right place for her story to begin was with the singular event that will force her to re-engage with life¾the sudden appearance of a naked man, violent, arrogant, mute, and without memory. I believed that the only thing that could force her to deal with this person was a mystery that engaged both her intellect and her emotions, and that required her to deal with the horrors of her past.

So as the action of the present time unfolds, Seri must delve into her past to find the clues to the mystery, to look back at the very things that led her to grief and tragedy before. But to understand these clues, the reader needed to know a great deal about Seri and her relationships and her history. Structurally, this means that for the first half of the book, we must hear both stories, past and present, not just in flashback snippets, but as lived events, interleaved a few chapters at a time. Halfway through the book we reach the climax of the story of the past, which triggers a major turning point in the present action as well, and from there we proceed apace solely in the present to the grand finale.

I tried a number of structures for this story, but this is the one that felt right. It makes for a complex and perhaps slower than usual beginning, but I like to think that each story enriches the other as the tension rises in parallel. To have written it from front to back, from Seri’s youth to exile to mystery to resolution just didn’t feel as powerful.

 

 

SFFW: Have you also found it challenging to structure the trilogy, distributing material between the different volumes? How does your experience with The Bridge of D’Arnath compare to your first experience with the Rai-kirah series?

 

 

CB: In neither series did I have any problem deciding what plot element went where. Even if a story spans multiple volumes, I believe that each volume must contain its own story arc that comes to completion by the last page. Yes, some threads may continue into the next volume, and unanswered questions may remain, but the first chapter of volume two or three must always begin a new story arc of its own.

 

 

SFFW: You have written two trilogies and a single-volume work, The Song of the Beast. Which mode of writing do you prefer? Do you find there are any trade-offs?

 

 

CB: I don’t really think about this when I start writing. The story develops and takes as long as it takes. As “Transformation” took shape, I believed it was a standalone novel. Only when I reached the end did I realize that there was more to the story, because I had never explained the origins or motivations of the rai-kirah. I thought I had one book’s worth of additional story, but it turned out to be two very full books’ worth. As “Son of Avonar” developed, I knew early on that the story was too big for one book. A natural stopping point came when the arc of the first mystery was solved, but I knew that the main threads of the larger story could not possibly be wound up at the same time. “Song of the Beast” felt like one book as I approached the end. Aidan found his answers, and Lara found a new perspective on life. It’s true that I left Aidan’s world in a worse state than I had originally thought I would, but I felt like I had developed the characters enough to take on those problems and deal with them. Someday I might revisit Aidan and see how he is getting on, but only if I have another complete story to tell.

 

 

SFFW: Fantasy is obviously the preferred genre for your writing. What draws you to it? Have you considered writing anything in a different genre?

 

 

CB: I read in many genres, especially enjoying mystery, historicals, mythology, classics, and science fiction as well as fantasy. I have no ingrained objection to writing in other genres, but I enjoy the freedom that fantasy offers to explore ideas and to synthesize a lot of this miscellaneous knowledge I have acquired over the years into a new world.

 

 

SFFW: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. It has been an honor and a great pleasure.

 

Carol’s latest book, Son of Avonar, was released in the United States in February of 2004. The second installment of The Bridge of D’Arnath, called Guardians of the Keep, is due out in September of 2004, while The Soul Weaver, the third and final book in the series, is expected in February of 2005.

 

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