Robin Hobb is one of the most respected and beloved writers in the fantasy genre. She has acquired a global audience on the strength of her wonderful novels about a bastard assassin, living ships and a fool. She has also written numerous novels under the name Megan Lindholm. With the release of Shaman’s Crossing in August 2005 a brand new trilogy, the Soldier Son Trilogy, unconnected to any of her previous work kicked off . Ms. Hobb was kind enough to take some time and corresponed via e-mail with Rob Bedford for this interview.
SFFWorld: What can you tell us about the Soldier Son Trilogy?
Robin Hobb: Well, with the first book already out there, most readers will already know what I’m going to say. It does take place in a completely different world from the Farseer Trilogy. So I’m starting out with a new world, new system of magic, new characters, everything new and different. I’m already enjoying working with these characters, and I’m deep into writing book two, tentatively titled Forest Mage. This fantasy is not set in a medieval world, which a few readers have told me was a bit disconcerting at first.
But the general feedback I’ve received so far on the first book has been positive. Nevare is a different sort of character from Fitz, and getting to know him has been enjoyable.
SFFW: When writing as Robin Hobb, the majority of these books are first person narrative. What advantages and comfort levels does the first person narrative afford you versus the standard 3rd person omniscient?
RH: To me, writing in the first person seems the most natural way to tell a story. It’s easy to find the character’s voice, and by bringing the reader into the protagonist’s mind, you automatically bring the reader deep into the story. I like the intimacy of telling a story in the first person, because the reader will know things that the protagonist would not otherwise verbalize at all. The disadvantage is obvious. The reader can only know exactly as much as the protagonist knows. And sometimes that means that I, as a writer, have to rely on the reader to be alert and connect the dots, so to speak. In that way, the reader will perhaps be able to see what is coming even if the main character doesn’t. Or the protagonist may interpret a situation one way while the reader has a different view on it.
SFFW: Keeping this in mind, your first person novels have been told from the point of view of a male. Have any women first person narrators ever knocked on your inner door, begging you to tell their story?
RH: Oh, if you look at the books I’ve written as Megan Lindholm, you’d find that a first person female narrator in Cloven Hooves, for example. And a lot of my short work, as Megan Lindholm and Robin Hobb, is told in first person female. There are numerous female viewpoint characters throughout my writing. To me, it’s not a matter of choosing the gender or thinking, “Gee, I wrote that book from a male POV. Now I have to write one from the female POV to keep a balance.” In the long run, the gender of the character is like the age or race or political persuasion. It’s just a part of the whole person. The character comes along, all in one piece, and has a story to tell. And I go with it.
SFFW: After 9 successful books with Bantam Spectra, you have recently switched US Publishers to HarperCollins/EOS. Why?
RH: It was a business decision for everyone involved. It certainly doesn’t reflect at all on any feelings I have for the editorial staff at Bantam. My most recent editor there was Anne Groell, and she is a fine editor, very aware of the field, who cares deeply about the books she helps to create. Anne and I continue to be good friends. For that matter, I started writing with Ace, and I still have a lot of fondness for the editors there, too.
Each time, the decision to move was based on business concerns. And the moving decisions have not always been mine! I believe that in the earlier days of publishing, editors and writers tended to stay at the same publishing houses for years and years. That is no longer true. The business seems to be a lot more fluid, and as electronic publishing comes into its own, we can only expect greater changes.
SFFW: What background/research reading did you do in preparation for writing the Soldier Son Trilogy and how did it differ from what you’ve done in the past?
RH: I’ve discovered over the years that researching for one book often plants the seeds that become the next book. So, a lot of reading that I did about disease years ago incubated, and that becomes one of the ideas for Shaman’s Crossing. I read “Science Weekly” on a regular basis, and they had an article on a virus, also years ago, that got me wondering in a different direction. Deliberate research that I did for this book included Queen Victoria’s Little Wars and Mr. Kipling’s Army. I read a number of articles on how various military academies around the world were founded and operated. I read sections of several books on the early formation of the US Cavalry. I re-read some of Kipling’s works. Well, that gives you a sampling. I knew midway through Golden Fool that Soldier Son would be my next work, so I’ve been reading and jotting down notes for several years now. The thing about researching for a fantasy is that you get to collect all the best bits, and then you can joggle things a bit to make them fit your world. The writer isn’t locked into any exact period of history or a ‘this is the way it was in our world, so it must be exactly that way in my fantasy world.’ But it does give the writer a solid idea of why things went the way they did, and if you are going to diverge widely from history, it’s a good idea to know why things are so different in your fantasy world.
SFFW: What was both comforting and daunting about writing outside of The Realm of the Elderlings?
RH: Comforting. Hm. Nothing. Exhilarating to be exploring new territory and setting up a fresh stage and getting to know new characters. ‘Daunting’ is always there in any book with any setting, old or new. I look at how far there is to go, how many pages, how many words, how many keystrokes, and the whole project seems insane. And sometimes I cross the safety line and say, “Wait a minute. Isn’t this an inherently silly thing for me to be spending my life doing? Saying, ‘hey, let me tell you a story about people who don’t exist in a world that never was, and I’ll try to make it so important that you’ll spend hours of your life with me over the next three years?’ I mean, if you really look at what writers do, it does seem a bit odd, doesn’t it? So that can be the daunting part. If you let it. But I’m really good at denial.
Over all, I love to write, and read, and tell stories. Really daunting would be if someone said, “Nobody’s interested any more. Go out and work for a living!”
SFFW: With the publisher switch and popularity of the Elderlings books, will US readers be seeing any of the Megan Lindholm books back in print?
RH: They’ve been back in print in the UK for some time. In the US, well, your guess is as good as mine. The writing and style in those books differs substantially from the Robin Hobb books. So, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Hobb readers will want to read Lindholm books.
SFFW: Your work has been accepted and is beloved globally, perhaps more so outside the US. From your perspective, what would you say characterizes the differences between US and non-US readers?
RH: I’m not even going to attempt to generalize. Well, maybe I will, but not about differences between US and non-US readers. I think I write for people who really like to know the characters. I think that in several overseas countries, such as the UK, Australia and the Netherlands, I’ve had some extraordinary support from the publishing houses to put my work in front of the reading public. In many ways, I think it’s sad that we don’t have as much sf/fantasy coming in to the US as we export. I’ve been very fortunate to have read some excellent work in translation from Spain, France, and Poland recently (I acquired a number of anthologies at Worldcon). I think if the work of these writers were more accessible in the US, they’d have a much bigger readership. Look at our UK writers, and the recent influx of Australians to our shelves. Voyager in Australia got behind their local writers, and suddenly the whole world gets to enjoy writers like Jennifer Fallon and
Fiona McIntosh and Karen Miller and Garth Nix on our shelves.
So I think it’s a matter of accessibility in many ways.
SFFW: Would you ever open up the Elderlings world to other writers, like former co-author Steven Brust, for the purposes of an anthology?
RH: Probably not. I think that for a ‘shared world’ to work, you have to open it up at the very beginning, and let everyone put in some bits, as we did way back when for the Liavek anthologies. For me, that was what made it work. Each of us had our own little corner to start building in, like a bunch of kids with a whole room full of Legos. Will Shetterley and Emma Bull set up the ground rules, but I always had the feeling that they were to guide us rather than to bind us. From there, we all explored in different directions, and sometimes our streets intersected.
With a world that I’ve established on my own, there is so much I know that wasn’t specifically written down in the books. Trying to impart all that to other writers would take a huge amount of time and be so much information that, well, it just wouldn’t be any fun for me or for them. So, no. I’d much rather read one of Steve’s own books set in his own world anyway. I mean, I already know about my world. Rather than ask Steve (or anyone else) to work within the constraints of that, I’d rather see him unfolding his own magic while I sit back and applaud
SFFW: How do you think the Internet has changed the writer/reader relationship, and is this a good thing?
RH: Writers and readers can interact more freely on message boards and via email. I know that I get email from people because it’s easy. If they had to find my address and address and envelope and buy a stamp, well, most of them wouldn’t write. But it’s great fun and very reassuring to a writer to hear directly from the readers when they like the book. Of course the flip side is that you also hear, in intimate detail, when a reader doesn’t like the book. And opening one of those emails first thing in the writing day can be very demoralizing if you let it.
I’ve got a newsgroup on SFF.net (http://webnews.sff.net/read?cmd=xover&group=sff.people.robin-hobb&from=-10) and if anyone is interested, it’s pretty easy to find me there to ask questions and chat. What I like most about my newsgroup is that very little of what we discuss there is about my books or me. It might start with something I’ve written, but pretty soon we are off to larger or sillier matters. I’ve got a bunch of regulars who are very intelligent people, and our flame rate is very low. Because it’s international, and many people who are posting have English as a second language, few people jump immediately to feeling insulted by something.
Instead, someone will usually ask, “What did you mean by that? Did you know that in some ways it could be construed as insulting?” And then the other poster explains, and often our best discussions start there.
The big downside: Time! Look at this email interview, for instance. Or my answering the daily round of letters, or posting replies on my newsgroup. Twenty years ago, all of that time would have gone right into my writing.
So, this electronic age and the Internet have sucked up as much time as they ever saved me. More, probably, if you put in the need to update my virus definitions, download patches, get rid of spyware, run defrag, etc. etc.
The most I needed to do with my old typewriter was change the ribbons and scrub off the key surfaces once in awhile. Still, I wouldn’t go back!
2005 Rob H. Bedford