A new series brings new horizons from contemporary fantasist, Kate Elliott. Interview by S.K. Slevinski

Crown of Stars

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With the upcoming publication of her latest book, Crown of Stars, author Kate Elliott is poised to deliver on the promises of a decade of storytelling. She is among the first of the major fantasists of the last ten years to bring an epic series to its finale. While many fans of seemingly endless series wait book-to-book with no promise of conclusion, Kate Elliott fans are on the brink of learning the ultimate fates of Liath, Alain and all of their favorite Crown of Stars characters and villains.

Could it be? Fans of epic fantasy stand and gape. The stars have aligned and a multi-volume epic series finally reaches conclusion? An unusual occurance? Perhaps. But keep in mind, Kate Elliott is not the usual epic fantasist. With her eyes always on conclusion, but never compromising on her vision, Kate Elliott has shown her ultimate loyalty to her fans and characters. Her vision of alternative realities is also amazingly unique. Elliott has both a fantasy and a science fiction series (Jaran) to her name. She weaves the aesthetics and the sensibilities of these two genres with art and intrigue, creating science fiction worlds with the cultural intrigue of any good fantasy, and spinning fantasy worlds where magic permeates the balance of reality with the same authority as earthly physics.

In the first part of our interview, I took the opportunity to question Elliott about her thoughts on issues of genre and cross-genre in alternative reality fiction, as well as the conclusion of her epic Crown of Stars and her newest projects on the horizon.

S: I would like to begin with the latest development in your popular Crown of Stars fantasy series. You report on your official website that a draft of the seventh and final book of the series is complete. How far has that final manuscript progressed toward publication, and is it true that Crown of Stars fans may get their long-awaited conclusion as early as February 2006?

KE: Yes. The book is finished, revised, and out of my hands. The USA publication date is February 7, 2006, with an early March 2006 publication date in the UK. Translations in German, Russian, and Polish editions will follow at dates yet to be determined.

S: You mention, also, on the website that you started work on a new project, entitled Crossroads. Can you give us an idea of the genre and scope of this project? Any teasers or tentative release dates?

KE: Crossroads is a new fantasy series unrelated to the Crown of Stars books. It has less overt magic but, I think, more mystery (in the sense of things mysterious and hidden, not in the sense of genre mystery). It stars Mai, the most beautiful girl in town, who is forced to marry a foreign military captain, and Keshad, a slave seeking to buy his way to freedom. It also features ghosts and exiles, and of course the reeves—you can think of them if you wish as 'law enforcement officers' whose 'patrol cars' are huge eagles. That may sound hokey, but trust me, it works.

I conceive of Crossroads as three trilogies, each trilogy telling a complete story but with one larger narrative strand that will link all three together (over three generations). If I can manage it, the central 'trilogy' will come out as a single volume instead of a trilogy—I have a hankering to write a book with a beginning, middle, and conclusive ending all in one volume.

The first trilogy and last trilogy will definitely be three volumes, however. I have a pretty clear idea of how much story there is for each set of books, and where they'll each be broken into volumes. One of my goals is for each separate volume to have a self contained narrative arc so that readers will feel a sense of satisfaction and closure when they reach the end of each volume. However, the larger story is simply too big to tell in a single book.

The first trilogy has tentative titles: Spirit Gate, Shadow Gate, and Traitor Gate.

I am just completing revisions on Spirit Gate now. My new editor at Tor has made me work unbelievably hard on this novel, and I've enjoyed every bit of it. Publication is set for October 2006, sooner than I expected. If all goes well, other volumes will follow at about yearly intervals.

Once the revisions for Spirit Gate are complete, I plan to post teaser scenes on my web site.

S: Throughout the course of writing Crown of Stars you have kept in close contact with your fans, and you have expressed to them a deep concern with being faithful to the story. On the one hand, you have assured fans that you will not "rush" the ending, leaving loose ends dangling. On the other hand, you have been consistently vocal in your aim for a timely ending. In the current marketing climate, where "big series" fantasy often stretches endlessly into ten or more books with no end in sight, why do you feel the drive to keep your eye on delivering the ultimate ending?

KE: I have to say that much of my drive to keep my eye on the ending has to do with my own desire to 1) write a complete story, beginning middle and end, as this is by far the most satisfying narrative outcome for me as both reader and writer and 2) the sense that, after multiple volumes, I need to move on. I could not, I think, write an open ended series. I like the more formal structure that comes with the fully worked out narrative arc.

In addition, I do think it is frustrating for many readers not to reach that narrative climax. That doesn't always mean that all readers want the end—in some cases I think readers and viewers wish a series to go on 'forever', as it were, as long as it delivers the emotional satisfaction we have been deriving from it. It's an aspect of our own lives, really: we like to continue to do in our daily lives the things we really have fun with, whether specific activities or hanging out with friends and/or relatives with whom we get along well. I think it's natural to enjoy coming back to familiar, beloved ground.

In my case, with Crown of Stars, I knew where I was going, and by the time I got there, I was really ready for the series to end so that I could move on to a new project. This doesn't mean I haven't loved the journey, only that it was time for a change.

S: I'd like to solicit your opinions on some general issues in modern fiction. You have the unique perspective that comes with having written in two major genres: science fiction and fantasy. What do you see as the notable differences between these two genres? Is it just an aesthetic distinction, or do you feel there is a deeper divide between them?

KE: In general, I consider fantasy and science fiction to be subsets of The Literature of the Fantastic. I don't consider them separate species, as it were. Both have the ability to be speculative in nature, and both usually contain 'fantastic' elements, however small or vast, that are not present in the world we live in right now.

Is there an aesthetic distinction? That's harder. I have certainly read fantasy novels that "read" more like science fiction to me, although I can't say I could quite put my finger on the reason why I thought so. And I have certainly read 'galaxy-spanning' space adventures whose epic sweep, cast of characters, and variety of landscapes and ancient evils has a lot in common with fantasy.

The best distinction I've heard—if we must have one, and I'm not sure we must—is one I heard at a panel, and I'm sorry to say I can't remember the name of the person who said it; it's certainly not original to me. I'm paraphrasing, but this is how I understood the definition: the 'science fiction mindset' posits a finite universe that can, in theory, be fully understood. While the 'fantasy mindset' posits an infinite universe whose mysteries cannot, in the end, be fully comprehended.

S: Do you make a distinction between them for your own writing? For marketing purposes, obviously, a distinction gets made. Do you make the same distinction in your mind? In other words, do you set out in a specific story to write "science fiction" or "fantasy"? Or do you worry about the genre label later? If you make a distinction upfront, how does that inform your choices over what types of story elements to include or exclude?

KE: I used to think that when I wrote science fiction I was more concerned with how the story reflected and commented on modern issues and conflicts, and that with fantasy I dealt with thematic issues (whatever those might be) that had a more timeless feel.

Now I'm not so sure. I think when we write that we are talking about ourselves, that we are interacting with our own time far more than we are actually projecting into the past or future. I'm not sure that science fiction is really "about the future" as much as it is about us right now and how we understand the world and what we speculate about the universe and how and why and where things could change and if they should and whether they will. That's what I would call it speculative fiction, which I think science fiction can do exceptionally well at its best.

Fantasy? Sometimes we do seem to be dealing with the timeless issues of morality, virtue, good and evil, abandonment, the quest, and so on. But how we present and explore these themes invariably reflects the place we're writing from.

That's easy to see, for instance, in the changing roles of women in sf/f literature over the last sixty years. Many of the writers of the so-called Golden Age could not see beyond the social constructs of their day to a world in which women (and men) had different roles than the ones they were perceived by "society" to have in the 40s and 50s. Are there more warrior babes in sf/f today? More sex? Are women seen as agents and not just passive receptacles? Are women’s lives portrayed not just in ways that "allow" them male roles, so they can have some "excitement," but examined with a sense of agency in roles seen as historically and anthropologically more typically female?

For that matter, many writers then, and some still now, can’t see beyond a Euro-American-centric view of the world (remember how everyone is white in the first Star Wars movie?).

All these considerations emerge because of changes in the society around us, and as such they show up both in science fiction and in fantasy.

But do science fiction and fantasy feel different? My editor mentioned that a scene toward the beginning of Spirit Gate had a "science fiction feel"—this in a novel that features eagles the size of Cessnas, with "reeves" who patrol the countryside harnessed to those eagles; that strikes me as a very fantastical element. And yet, I could not disagree with my editor, because that brief snippet in that scene does, indeed, have a kind of science fictional feel to it. But I’m not sure I can explain why I think so.

Do I know from the get-go whether I am writing science fiction or fantasy in the marketing sense? You bet.

How does it inform my choices?

I think in a fantasy novel I’m more likely to make sure that at least one of my main characters is a youth under the age of 18. I don’t mean that facetiously, either. I think fantasy is deeply appealing to adolescents—it sure was to me (and remains so). Perhaps it’s a measure of how we try to understand the world or make sense of the world; perhaps it reflects our desire to feel important, set apart, free to act; perhaps as adolescents—and on into adulthood—we want to believe in a world where justice is served, where some get their just desserts, even if, as adults, we come to understand that the opposite is often true.

And perhaps science fiction is more about our hopes for the future.

But, honestly, I'm not at all sure the two should be broken down into discrete categories, and I'm quite sure they can't be. I consider both to be speculative fiction. Good fantasy speculates just as much as good science fiction does, and sometimes it even does so with technology and social change.

S: Can you say whether you enjoy writing one of these genres more than the other? If so, why? If not, what do you find to be the more engaging aspects of writing each? The most useful elements for creating unique stories and characters?

KE: No, I don't enjoy writing one more than the other.

A good question, but not, in my opinion, sub-genre specific except in one way: with science fiction, I feel a little more free to write certain characters with a modern attitude and mindset that we, living today in the early 21st century, can easily identify with.

I don't mind fantasy fiction in which the characters have modern mindsets as long as the writer is doing it intentionally. What I don't care for is when the writer hasn't thought through how different societies and cultures will naturally produce different attitudes and expectations toward the world. I like to see that reflected in the story—but in any story, whether fantasy or science fiction. There's no reason a protagonist existing in the 25th century would have the mindset of a middle class American of 2006. At the same time, sometimes it's necessary to juggle difference with familiarity, so that we as the reader don't feel entirely alienated from the protagonist(s).

I'm not a clever writer in that I can come up with nifty concepts or cool or humorous gnarly-ness. If you can do that, more power to you. In my case, I deal with culture, landscape, and character. Make cultures distinct, and do that by looking at the diversity of human culture both today and out of the past. The study of cultural ecology suggests that the landscape in which we live affects how societies develop. Be aware of how this might work. The classic example of course is Frank Herbert's novel Dune. With characters, make sure that your characters live in (or are separate from in a meaningful way) the culture and landscape.

When I write, I concentrate on a balance of culture, landscape, and character. Plots tend to fall naturally out of the setting when everything is in place. Other writers will emphasize things I don't because of their own personal strengths and interests and eccentricities.

S: In the past, you have indicated that you moved from working on the science fiction Jaran series to the fantasy Crown of Stars series, in part, because market demand for science fiction is low, while demand for fantasy is high. Do you feel that this divide in demand is still true in today's marketing climate? What do you feel accounts for the difference?

KE: I am not an expert in these matters, but I believe that the 'common wisdom' is that fantasy, and especially big fantasy—high fantasy—epic fantasy or (these days) modern supernatural chick-lit style urban fantasy, sells better than science fiction on the whole. That is, there may be specific sf writers or books that sell quite well, and certain science fiction novels and writers may get a great deal of (well deserved) attention, but fantasy will show higher sales numbers in general.

Another way to say this is that, possibly, it is more likely that an author setting out to make a living (such as it is) from writing in the sff genre will have a better chance of supporting themselves from their writing income if they are writing fantasy than if they are writing science fiction. (And the best chance naturally if they broaden their scope to include other genres and fields of writing.)

I don't actually know if this is fact, but it is certainly the perception. In my own case, the Crown of Stars books have outsold the Jaran books. And although I have several more Jaran novels to write, I made a conscious decision to sell and write a fantasy series after Crown of Stars rather than write the next Jaran novel because of the sales difference (that is, I have to eat and pay my mortgage). Fortunately, I'm quite excited about the new series. It's not as if I came up with an idea I wasn't enthusiastic about just to capitalize on the success of Crown of Stars; rather, I chose between stories that were 'ready to go'.

I'm aware that there are loyal readers out there who are waiting for the next Jaran volume, and I am genuinely sorry to make them wait. I hope to be in a position to write it sooner rather than later. As for why I'm not writing it now, see the parenthetical comment above about eating and paying the mortgage.

Why is fantasy more popular than science fiction? Is it? I could argue that we "live in" a science fictional universe now, with all our nifty gadgets. Science fiction permeates the media, both in entertainment (tv, film, video gaming, anime & manga) and in the look and aesthetic of a lot of advertising. There are still a remarkable number of science fiction novels being published, and read, some of them in the guise of thrillers rather than genre sf. It's true we haven't seen an equivalent to Harry Potter's success on the science fiction side. It seems that very little sf is being written for the children's and young adult market, although I don't know that market well enough to be sure.

Why? That's a difficult question, and one I certainly can't answer. I sometimes hear people complaining about the success of fantasy, and positing that folks who read fantasy do so because they are regressive, anti-science, or nostalgic for the days of monarchy and aristocracy. I have my doubts. I expect that such explanations say more about the obsessions of the person making them than about why readers actually seek out and enjoy fantasy novels set in what are, after all, times and places that never existed. I know far more people who aren't interested in reading fantasy novels at all, nor science fiction either. Maybe the question we should be asking is how do we expand our audience outside those who are already reading sff?

S: Which authors, in your opinion, are currently producing the most exciting new writing in science fiction and fantasy? What do you see are the emerging trends in these genres?

I don't feel particularly qualified to comment on new writing and emerging trends for two reasons: First, although I have fairly diverse tastes and like a wide variety of writing, I don't pay attention to trends in the sense that I seek them out or try to spot Hot Now Writers. Second, I still like very traditional stories as well as trendy stuff. Nor am I at all trendy myself.

However, if I had to say where the action is, I might say in manga and anime. I see a lot of excitement in those genres both in the writing and in the reading. Some of the recent wuxia (martial arts) films coming out of China are far more exciting visually and choreographically than the same old Hollywood bang bang shoot'em-up car chase action flicks, which feel ponderous and old and out of ideas.

Another interesting trend is cross genre marketing, and the breakout book. When I see a book like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell being marketed as a mainstream bestseller, I get very excited on behalf of the genre. The success of a Susanna Clarke or a J.K. Rowling may not translate into equal success for any other sff writer, but it surely cannot hurt the genre as a whole to get this kind of attention. In both cases these are clearly fantasy novels, and among all those new readers they bring over, there may well be a few who branch out to explore what else is available in the genre. Also, it suggests to marketing and publicity departments within publishing houses that there may be a market outside the genre ghetto for some science fiction and fantasy novels.

Other obvious trends: the cyber-future subgenre; big space opera with weighty themes; the New Weird; an explosion of children's and young adult fantasy series. Urban fantasy chick-lit supernatural novels are all over the bookstores. That's just what occurs to me off-hand.

Also, I've been impressed in the last few years with the professionalism and excellence of the serious small presses, places like Small Beer Press, Prime Books, Nightshade Books, Wheatland Press, Tachyon Publications, PS Publishing, Sarob Press, Ash Tree Press; I'm scratching the surface here, and I only wish I could list more. These presses are bringing out works that can't get published in the commercial houses because they fit a niche market. There is some remarkably fine work coming out of the small presses today.

S: Traditionally, fantasy stories feature fictional worlds inspired by real-life historical cultures. The tradition, following Tolkien, has also been to model fantasy cultures after medieval England, most often, and medieval Western or Northern Europe, less often. However, in modern fantasy, there is a push toward non-traditional pre-modern settings, such as Middle Eastern desert societies, or medieval Eastern European cultures. In your own work, you have explored traditional English and French inspired settings, as well as mystical desert cultures and steppe-land horse-riding nomads. What, in your view, accounts for this push toward new cultural horizons? Is it simply an inevitable progress in an ambitious genre? Will more traditional Western European based fantasy cultures become obsolete or unfashionable?

I think it’s a natural part of globalization and the expansion of communications technology; that is, that just as the Western commercial culture expands into all corners of the globe, we come into an increasingly unmediated contact with diverse global cultures, many of whom can present themselves to the world on more or less their own terms for the first time. We in the West may have caught glimpses of these cultures before, but those glimpses were often filtered through the disapproving or judgmental gaze of an outside agency.

Some people react to this explosion of information and interaction by circling the wagons and closing in on themselves and rejecting anything outside what they’re already familiar with; others react by embracing and exploring what is new to them. I doubt that 'traditional Western European based fantasy cultures' will become obsolete for those Western readers who want to find comfort in familiar landscapes. In addition, many writers and readers still have a lot to say, and absorb, within that landscape—and well they should, since I think it is impossible to exhaust such a rich history and cultural landscape. At the same time, I believe we will continue to see an ever-increasing range of fantasy landscapes and societies as Western writers venture outside the fields they know, and as we, I hope, embrace the literature of other cultures.

I think it's also important not to forget those writers who were previously pushed to the edge, or were seen as existing outside, of what was considered "properly" Western and who are now taking their place within the tradition and thus expanding our idea of what that "tradition" does contain and should contain. Our ideas about what is worthwhile and acceptable are shifting, and that's all to the good. Traditions must expand and change as times change; those that don’t inevitably ossify and die. Anyway, all of the above is written from the perspective of a writer who grew up in the Western culture. Meanwhile, some of the most exciting material these days is coming out of non-Western cultures, and those traditions are having an increasing influence on what we write about and visualize here. Anime (Japanese animation), manga (Japanese "comic books"—although that term isn't really equivalent), wuxia (a specific kind of Chinese martial arts narrative), and Korean soap opera are all very popular here in Hawaii as well as on the Mainland, and many of them have fantasy, fantasy historical, or science fictional thematic elements that anyone who enjoys the literature of the fantastic can enjoy and admire. That’s just one regional geographical example. We just have so much more access than we’ve ever had before. Indigenous musicians like the Polynesian group Te Vaka can put out CDs that I can easily obtain; I can download an increasing variety of music from iTunes. Indigenous filmmakers and actors in Greenland can produce the fascinating "The Fast Runner." What's not to like?

One thing I fear is that specter of a powerful monoculture devouring the vulnerable indigenous cultures and their traditions, but I have to hope that, as with the various projects to save "heritage" seeds, the same technology that has created a global village may also nurture and strengthen these unique human cultures. In any case, this kind of exposure to other cultures will without question change the kind of stories we tell and how we tell them. We're still in the early stages; it’s hard to predict how the development will unfold.

S: Your novels are very clearly based on extensive research. On the other hand, your worlds are brimming with unique and creative elements. How much, in your opinion, should alternative reality writers—both science fiction and fantasy—base their fictional worlds in real-world research? How my license does the speculative fiction writer have to "speculate" his or her own cultural or technological details? How does the writer effectively balance the real and the imaginary?

Everything I write is based in real-world research in the sense that the cultural and technological details have to be consistent with the level of social organization and the level of technology available to the various societies within the novel. It's also important to make an imaginary culture seem "real" in the sense that it should all hold together without elements that jump out at the reader as being out of place or anachronistic.

I expect that one thing many fantasy readers love is a world that seems both familiar and strange, one that gives them a sense of seeming "real" enough that they can believe it might actually exist somewhere in another place but which also provide surprises, things that can’t necessarily be found in the "mundane" world the reader sees him or herself as living in. And of course this is also part of the attraction of "urban fantasy," that sub genre in which things in the world-we-know are much stranger and more magical than what we see on the surface. I think where the writer has leeway is in speculating about how a culture might have developed in ways that diverge from what we are accustomed to or believe about our own history and society. Are there dragons? If so, how do the cultures we're writing about interact with them? Is there magic? How does that affect social organization and gender roles? Do people believe in a god or gods? How does that manifest in their relationship to the world and to other cultures with whom they come in contact?

If properly thought through, every new element in a story causes a cascade effect whose repercussions can themselves provide plenty of rich earth for more story growth. The key is to see how things affect each other, and to remember that the unforeseen consequences of any given action or situation or unique element are often the most interesting ones. That way, the real and the imaginary serve each other rather than clashing.

S: How, in your opinion, will the science fiction and fantasy genres likely change over the next ten years? In what directions would you like to see them move? Are there any current trends that you're hoping won't survive the years?

Virtual worlds. I suspect that online immersive games and online three dimensional worlds will continue to expand their audience. I've written about an addiction to virtual worlds in the fourth Jaran book, and many other writers have written novels about virtual worlds in both a positive and negative light. I expect that a new mode of narrative is coming into being, but it's still in its infancy. At the moment people are mostly copying from their understanding of familiar, more linear modes of narrative, but we haven’t yet worked out the best way to re-vision narrative in light of the potential of the technology.

There's also been talk for years now of really workable e-books, and if a decent platform can gain wide use that may alter the way we read as well, although I don’t think "paper books" will ever go entirely out of existence. For one thing, printed books are more likely to survive the vagaries of time because of their construction and because you don't need any external platform on which to read them, other than knowledge of the language they are written in.

In terms of fashions within the field, and trends in sub genres (military sf, chick lit, paranormal romance, mundane sf, new weird, epic fantasy, space opera, and so on), I'm neutral. Trends come and go, wax and wane; trends will continue to change as society changes. On a purely selfish note, I just hope that I can continue to work in the field for decades to come.

S: What would you tell readers of other popular genres, or of mainstream fiction, to convince them to give science fiction or fantasy a try? What would you tell fantasy readers to convince them that science fiction is worth their while? Science fiction readers that fantasy is worth the jump?

In my experience, some people just don't "get" certain kinds of fiction. I'm not sure I want to convince anyone to read or watch things they simply have no affinity for, or that there are oughts or shoulds. I don't like to be told what I "ought" to be reading, so I don't care to impose on others.

However, having said that, there's no harm in asking. I think the best way to get people to broaden their horizons is to carefully place in front of them books that have enough in common with what they usually read to make it possible for them to enjoy the book without getting "bogged down" in its genre aspects. One can also point out mainstream or literary books they have read that have fantastical (for which we read: genre) elements. A person who reads primarily for literary values, that is, a certain style of writing, can be pointed at sf/f works whose authors write in a more literary style.

As for science fiction or fantasy readers crossing into the other side of the genre, again I think it is a matter of finding a story that will seem similar enough in parts or in approach to what they generally like to read that they can then appreciate the new elements without just chucking the entire thing.

Many times the expectations we bring to a book before we even read the first sentence can heavily influence how we react to that first chapter and whether we choose to put it down or keep reading. The best way to introduce new readers to the field, or to any of the sub-genres, is to find a way to get them to move past their expectations so that they can and will read the story as it is.

Since concluding this interview with Kate Elliott, she has informed me of her newest project, an online weblog written in collaboration with a number of other science fiction and fantasy writers. To read their thoughts on writing, storycraft and genre, please visit www.DeepGenre.com.

S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.