Victoria interviews Carol Berg, author of THE SPIRIT LENS and THE SOUL MIRROR from NAL/Roc Books and, forthcoming in Jan 2012, THE DAEMON PRISM.
1. Why fantasy? What drew you to it?
I’ve always loved reading fantasy, as well as mysteries, mythology, spy novels, science fiction, mainstream adventure, and classics. But when it comes to writing, fantasy provides a very broad canvas. There are no limits to the kind of stories one can tell and I can include elements from all these other genres to shape the tale I want. My stories tend to be very personal adventures set against a landscape of great events, and when the landscape includes a touch of magic, it just makes the adventure more interesting. I like spending the time in a world of my own design, while making the human story as real as I can make it.
2. Why did you decide to write in the first place?
It was wholly a whim. For years, I was convinced I could never write a whole story. All that plotting and foreshadowing and leaving clues and such… But a good friend of mine and I had the habit of trading books and talking about them over lunch at work. One day we were talking about a fantasy story that had been told as a series of letters between two sisters. In a fit of midday madness, she suggested we each take a character and write letters to each other, as she had ambitions to write stories one day – our own little RPG!! Before I left work that afternoon, I started the first letter and produced TWENTY pages. No one was more surprised than I. I was already hooked.
3. What are some of your literary and cultural influences?
A lifetime of reading, no doubt. I grew up on the classics, Austen and Dickens, Shakespeare and the Brontes. I love historical novels – for example, Edith Pargeter (also known as Ellis Peters, the author of the Brother Cadfael mysteries) and Ken Follett. And I love the literary treatment of mythological stories as history: from Mary Stewart, for example, who wrote the romantic suspense novels I read as a teen and also my most favorite version of the Merlin and Arthur tales, starting with The Crystal Cave (which won the first Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult literature). And Mary Renault, who wrote the tales of Theseus and the Minotaur as historical novels, starting with The King Must Die. I have always read mysteries, from Nancy Drew through those of Dick Francis, Tony Hillerman, Elizabeth George, and Charles Todd. Fantasy/sf writers like Roger Zelazny, Poul Andersen, and Tolkien, and those who wrote spy thrillers such as John le Carre and Len Deighton. As for other influences, I grew up in a family of teachers, musicians, dancers and librarians – people who didn’t get to travel very much (until our newest generation) but who read and talked about cultures, politics, and ideas far from our everyday. Every one of those elements can be found in my books. Even my own science and engineering background.
4. Most of your protagonists, save for Anne in The Soul Mirror, are male. Are you more comfortable writing male characters than female ones? Did you have to tackle The Soul Mirror differently since the novel dealt with a heroine instead of a hero?
I do enjoy writing male protagonists. Maybe because I have spent a lot of years observing males. Maybe because I love a challenge! I never set out consciously to choose my protagonists. They sort of come to me in the initial inspiration for the story. Certainly I have to approach a female narrator/protagonist differently, in the same way I have to approach the warriors Seyonne and Aleksander differently from the librarian Portier. I like writing strong women who participate in and drive the action of the story, yet I’m not a advocate of chicks in chainmail. And indeed, Anne wasn’t my first; there is also Seri, the heart and soul of the four Bridge of D’Arnath books. Another strong, extraordinary woman, though among all the principals of those books, she alone has no power for sorcery.
5. Your male characters tend to suffer horribly, both physically and mentally. Why? In The Soul Mirror, Anne, while she must endure some discomfort, it is ultimately a male character who does the physical suffering. What was the reasoning behind that?
One common complaint about secondary world fantasy is the Disneyfication of pre-industrial societies. One of my goals as a writer of fantasy is to create worlds that seem real and true. In the cultural settings of my stories, life can be pastoral and beautiful and close to nature, but it is also gritty and often brutal, as such times were in our own history. In making their way through world-changing adventures, my heroes and heroines must deal with these realities. Slavery, war, and fanaticism are neither kind nor bloodless. In addition, my stories deal with extraordinary people. Strong people. People with deep-held passions and beliefs. I force them to confront extraordinary challenges both mental and physical, because I need them to change their ideas – an essential element of storytelling to my mind. Such people do not relinquish their beliefs lightly.
I will confess that there are lines of physical violence that I choose not to cross when it comes to my female or children characters. For better or worse, there are just places I won’t go. But Seri and Anne are strong, intelligent women, and Gerick is an extraordinary child who comes of age in the Bridge series, a pawn and then a player in a terrible war, and I set their challenges to be the kind that will force them to look at the world in different ways, to step up in the way every hero must step up. My heroines would all tell you that they would rather be hit on the head than face the challenges I set them!
6. A few of your books feature characters who die, but come back, or should die, but do not. Is this a theme that appeals to you in some way? If so, why?
One of the delights of reading or writing fantasy is the opportunity to explore ideas, to wonder, to imagine what if. And I will admit to a love of certain romantic tropes – romantic in the larger literary sense, not the Harlequin sense. Amnesia, mistaken identity, telepathy, true dreams, and magic, of course, in many different forms. I enjoy taking elements of human existence that we take for granted and upending them and imagining what might it be like – to be unable to die, or to share your body with another soul, to meet the gods you’ve sworn by and prayed to in person, or to discover that your beliefs about the world or the afterlife are right – or wrong – or have only skimmed the surface of truth, leaving a much larger truth beyond. Fantasy offers the perfect canvas for these adventures and explorations, telling the stories through the eyes of very human and, I hope, interesting people.
7. Which of your characters was the most fun to write?
Oh, that is a really, really tough question. Valen of Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone is like a bad boy son. He came to me full blown in all his worldly exuberance and bad habits. It was ferreting out his particular story that gave me fits. Seyonne and Aleksander from the Rai-kirah books are so real that I never had to rewrite any of their conversations. It was as if I was eavesdropping. But they kept making the story veer away from where I thought it was going. Dante of the Collegia Magica books is a favorite because he has hung around in my head for many, many years, just waiting for the right story. He is dangerous and not at all nice, and I really, really like him and the story that developed around him. But he was very reluctant to let me inside to see what made him tick – which I had to do for The Daemon Prism. And then some of my secondary characters grew into so much more than I envisioned, almost without working at it – Paulo from the D’Arnath books and Saverian and Kol from Breath and Bone and Anne de Vernase who has such a minor part in The Spirit Lens, but took over her own book. Why didn’t you ask me an easier question, like which of my children I love the most?
8. While The Daemon Prism, the last book of your Collegia Magica trilogy, comes out in the new year, can you tell us anything about your next project?
After four intense years with the Collegia Magica books and the prior three intense years with the Lighthouse books, I am currently lying fallow, considering what will come next. Having developed five, fairly complex worlds, I have a yen to return to one of them, and I’m considering one strong possibility. I actually intended to wait longer before actually writing anything, but a couple of weeks ago I scribbled an opening chapter about a fellow named Lucien. A sorcerer. An artist. He lives in a world just emerging from a terrible war. And he’s in big trouble…
Thank you, Carol.
Victoria Rogers, SFFWorld.