Interview with Barbara Hambly . . . Posted December 25, 2005

An interview with

Barbara Hambly

by Ben Cook

Interviews index

Firstly, 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 writing it.

What 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.

I 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 place.”

The 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?

Who 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.

How do I feel when other people cite me as an influence? Like a fraud – but very pleased that people like my work.

You 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 into?

Are 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?”

As 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?

There 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 energy.

You 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?

I 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.

But 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 Munchkinland.

Unlike 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?

I 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.

Then, 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.

In 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.

Some 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?

I’ve 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.

Fiction, 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.

One 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?

My 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.

I 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.

Finally, 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 Australia?

In 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 program.

My 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.

I 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 brain-chemistry.

But, 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 things.

We 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.

My 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.

Knowing 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.

So 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.

Tags: Interview,Barbara Hambly,Ben Cook

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