the standard opening question: what attracted you to writing? All
your bios say you began reading fantasy with The Wizard of Oz
and progressed from there, but lots of people read fantasy without
attracted me to writing? It sounds a little trite, but I think it’s
the same thing that attracts birds to flying. I write because that’s
what I do. Before I knew the alphabet I made up stories by
storyboarding with pictures.
believe there are “born writers” (born storytellers,
actually) the way there are born artists or born dancers. (I don’t
really think there are born C.P.A.s, but in fact there may be.) We do
it because we can’t not do it, usually from a very, very early
age. The early instinct was reenforced by being a social misfit in
school, which turned me toward daydreaming; storytelling was my “safe
standard second question: who and what would you say are your
influences in writing? How do you feel when other authors cite
yourself as one of their influences?
were my influences as a writer? The early influences were Oz,
Barsoom, Kipling, and Doyle – my dad is a great fan of those
last three. As a teen-ager and in my early twenties, British
mystery-writers, Georgette Heyer, Mary Renault, and H.P. Lovecraft
were added to that list.
do I feel when other people cite me as an influence? Like a fraud –
but very pleased that people like my work.
have written novels in a wide variety of genres: high fantasy,
sci-fi, historical detective, vampire, romance and even a foray into
Nazi Germany. Are there any other genres you would like to break
there any other genres I’d like to break into? I’d like
to do a bit more with historical romances or straight historical
fiction, and unfortunately the market for that last is pretty small.
I have a zillion ideas, not all of which are marketable in the
current economy or with the way the publishing industry is currently
set up. If I had another job to bring in cash (or a wealthy husband)
I’d probably be a bit more independent in my choice of
projects, but since this IS my source of income, I have to choose
projects which will support me. I don’t think, “What are
people buying these days, I’d better write one of those,”
but I DO think, “Of the dozen projects I’ve come up with,
which will the editor buy?”
well as creating your own worlds, you have written several novels set
in ‘established’ worlds: two Star Wars novels,
Children of the Jedi and Planet of Twilight, and three
Star Trek novels, Crossroads, Ghost Walker and
Ishmael. You also wrote two novelisations of the TV series
Beauty and the Beast. Are there any other established worlds
you think you would enjoy writing for? Can we expect Barbara Hambly
does Doctor Who or Stargate in the future?
are a couple of established worlds I’d love to write for –
Dr. Who is one of them – but there’s a juggling-act of
time and energy going on. The historicals I’ve been working on
for the past couple of years – The Emancipator’s Wife and
Patriot Ladies (and, I hope, another one in the planning stages) –
are very research-heavy. I love research, but it takes up time and
have gained something of a reputation for revelling in the
lesser-known parts of the English language. The “Nifty Word
List” on your website gives definitions for some of the
more obscure words in your books. My personal favourite is
Brobdingnagian. Do you have any favourite words?
have lots of favorite words. My editors point this out to me whenever
I use the same adjective or phrase eight or ten times on a single
page. Since I have good editors, and conscientious copy-editors, it
isn’t obvious, but I’m one of those writers who has to be
edited with a whip and a chair.
yes, I do have fun with language; I love searching for words that
resonate from one sense to another – like describing sunlight
in terms of daffodils or butterscotch – or that resonate with
the universes created by other writers, like Brobdignag or
many authors, who create a popular series and then stick to that for
the remainder of their career, you seem to have a number of projects
on the go all the time. How do you manage such an impressive output
in such a variety of genres?
move from genre to genre because I don’t like to tell the same
story too many times. I enjoy the variety. I’m told this is
actually not a good idea from a marketing standpoint, since books
these days are “niche marketed” and chain bookstores
often aren’t run by people who know about books, so they don’t
know whether to put a novel in Fantasy or Mystery. And, since there
are a lot of mystery readers who steer clear of the fantasy section
on principle, I understand I’ve done myself damage by writing
mysteries under the same name as I used for fantasies.
too, I’ll usually have a “big” project and a “side”
project going. When I was writing primarily fantasies, the “big”
project would be Stranger at the Wedding or Witches of Wenshar, and
the “side” project would be Beauty and the Beast or one
of the Trek novels.
addition to being the way I make my living, I simply love to write; I
love to tell stories. There are lots more to tell.
people have complained that, especially in your earlier novels, your
use of more realistic threats, such as global climate change in a
fantasy world, did not lend itself to a satisfactory climax to the
story. Do you believe this is true? If so, has it been something you
have had to consciously work to avoid?
never heard the complaint phrased in just that way, but yes, I think
my use of realistic threats or situations set my stories apart from
the mainstream of fantasy, and I think a lot of fantasy readers found
them disturbing and unsatisfactory. I’ve been told my two Star
Wars novels are among the least popular, and I wonder if it has
something to do with the fact that I told stories about problems that
are NOT solvable by the Force – nor sometimes, in fact, by
anything. In both of them (and they’re both primarily Luke
stories) Luke is severely limited in his use of the Force, and thrown
back on his wits. And, notoriously, the three books that followed
Dragonsbane (Dragonshadow, Knight of the Demon Queen, and Dragonstar)
were dissed because, I think, because I walked a little too far into
the region of, “What would REALLY happen if two people went
through all this horrible stuff...?” Though I think they’re
excellent books, they are quite dark, and I’ll probably never
do something that raw again. But as an author, I had to explore.
like any form of make-believe, is a way of processing fear and
exploring the roads of hope: both reading it and writing it. I tend
to like to write about situations that are a little ragged, that
don’t have obvious solutions: part of the solution is seeing
how much of the situation is livable-with, how much of the situation
isn’t what you originally thought it was. I like to explore the
different shapes that “Happily Ever After” takes.
of your greatest strengths is in characterisation. All your
characters are believable, and their motives recognisable, if not
necessarily understandable. Do you put yourself into each character
when creating them, or can you stay removed from them? Once the
characters have been created, do they offer their own suggestions as
to how a scene should be played out, or do you keep them under the
strict control of the plot?
characters are very real to me, though I wouldn’t say I ever
“put myself into them.” I understand them, the way I
understand (or think I understand) my friends. I never take a
straight one-to-one transfer of someone I know, but many of them are
combinations of two or more people I know, have met, or know of. I
enjoy watching people, and seeing how they react to things, and how
they live their lives.
have never had the experience of a character “taking over”
a scene or story. That simply isn’t the way I write. Generally
I know before the story starts who these people are and the sort of
things they’re likely to do, and why: I see the scenes in my
head like a movie, and hear their voices. I wouldn’t say I
“keep them under strict control” because both plot and
characters are pretty organic.
since Andromeda Spaceways is an Australian magazine: your bio says
you spent one high school semester in New South Wales. How did that
come about? What did you think? Have you considered touring
1967 my father was working for an aerospace company that was selling
missiles to the Australian government; he was transferred to a
facility at Penrith, New South Wales, as a troubleshooter for his
memories of Australia are a bit ambiguous, because I suffer from
Seasonal Affective Disorder: depression in the winter as the hours of
sunlight shorten. It took me until I was nearly fifty to figure it
out, but the equatorial swap from midsummer to midwinter causes a
dislocation in my brain-chemistry whose effect is to throw me into
severe depression – exacerbated by whatever else is going on in
my life or in the world at the time.
didn’t know this back in 1967. I was fifteen, my sister
seventeen, and my brother turned fourteen the day we left. I was a
strange and geeky teenager to begin with, and I went to Australia
determined to be unhappy; I think I would have hugely succeeded in
this aim even without the aid of a slightly dislocated
my memories of the country are marvelous. We were staying in
Blaxland, in the Blue Mountains, and I always loved the drive down to
Sydney through the green countryside. At Easter we went up to
Coolangatta on the Gold Coast, and the memory of the moon rising over
the ocean there is one that I still treasure. The memory of the quite
large black hornets that nested under the eaves of our rented cottage
there is equally vivid – I’ve had dogs smaller than those
stayed four or five months. That was during the first season of the
first run of Star Trek, and my dear friends – the other two
Trekkies in my high school in California – faithfully sent me
summaries of the plots and the best bits of dialogue, cramped onto
these little blue airmail sheets that they had then.
second visit to Australia was in ’91. Swancon in Perth asked me
to be Guest of Honor, and I went on to Sydney to do some signings
there, and on that occasion the swap from midwinter in California to
midsummer in Perth threw me into a near-suicidal depression that
lasted several months. I was pretty shaky for the better part of a
year, but the depression was far enough separated in time from my
teenaged experience that I didn’t connect the two episodes.
Only after a third visit to New Zealand a year later, after I’d
been diagnosed with S.A.D., did I realize that I wasn’t going
crazy – that in fact it was just a tweak of brain-chemistry,
like my inability to distinguish left from right.
this, on future visits I’ll be able to compensate for the
hours-of-daylight dislocation: at least I’ll know what’s
going on. And I hope there will be future visits, because I think
Australia is a beautiful country and everyone I’ve met there
has been marvelous. New Zealand is of course wonderful (since
everyone in the world now knows it looks just like Middle-Earth). (I
was on the South Island, in Dunedin). In both cases I wished I could
have remained longer.
yes, I certainly will be back, time, energy, and funds permitting, to
see the country properly this time.
Barbara's home page
This interview was first published in Andromeda Spaceways Issue 21
. Reproduced online with permission.