My interview with Robin Hobb

Two weeks ago at SFContario in Toronto, I had the chance to sit down with the lovely Robin Hobb, and to interview her.

We spoke of her previous and current novels, choosing between first and third-person for telling a story, 250 page limits for novels, the release of the next novel in The Fitz and the Fool trilogy, and more.

I hope you enjoy!


[Transcript: For convenience, R = Rebecca (me), and RH = Robin Hobb]

R: Hello, I am here with Robin Hobb!

For readers that are new to you, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?

RH: I write fantasy epics, I guess you could say. It’s really hard to classify within fantasy exactly what you’re writing because it tends to wander. Previously, I wrote for children at the beginning of my children, then broke in writing novels as Megan Lindholm. But, when I moved into a different slice of fantasy, I took on another pseudonym, which is Robin Hobb.

R: Yeah, and I think that’s what most readers know you as now.

RH: Oh yes, absolutely. The Megan Lindholm books have been out of print for years and years now. So unless you’re an avid collector and are willing to hunt them down, you’re not going to find them.

R: Alright. I believe that you wrote a short story that came out recently as Megan Lindholm…?

RH: Yes. I’ve continued to write short stories as Megan Lindholm for some time. Mostly for the magazines, usually Asimov’s, and for some anthologies. But, I haven’t done a Megan Lindholm novel for years and year. I would like to, but there simply isn’t that many hours in the day.

R: Okay, and you last wrote about Fitz and the Fool in 2003, I think it was.

RH: That sounds about right.

R: Did you know you’d be coming back all these years later, or had you planned on ending it there?

RH: When I ended it, I think a lot of very astute readers picked up on all the clues that were left, that yes, there was more to come in the story. There’s even a phrase toward the end where I speak about how the minstrel pauses to catch his breath before he sweeps into the final chorus. I got a lot of emails about that saying, “Okay, when is this going to happen exactly?”

So some readers who were really reading every detail of the book would definitely have picked up that there was more to come. Chronologically, time had to pass, rather than write it out of order. The Rain Wilds Chronicles had to come in there too, and it’s time now to write the story.

R: And do you think you’ll be writing more after this trilogy?

RH: I’m so focussed on writing this trilogy that I haven’t allowed myself to look up and say, “Well, what would be after this?” I’ve got at least another year-and-a-half to two years, if you count all the copy editing and proofreading before these two books will be done. So, right now I’m not thinking about it. The danger for me, as a writer, is that when you hit the hard part of the book. that other idea that looks like it would be such a quick and easy story to write, always comes knocking at your door.

I’ll take a moment and open up a file, write a new note, and close the file. I can’t let myself be distracted. I’m not one of those writers who can work on several projects at once. I really need to focus on just one.

R: Alright, and I think many people would agree that the Fitz and Fool friendship is one of the better written ones out there. Characterization is definitely one of your strong points. What’s your process for creating your characters, and the writing process around that?

RH: I think a lot of character creation happens in a part of my brain that I don’t necessarily have conscious access to. With Fitz especially, it was like he stepped out into the spotlight on a darkened stage and started talking. As he spoke, the spotlight enlarged and I could see more and more of the world around him.

It always begins with a character for me. Many of the characters in the book have grown and changed. They really do seem to generate in a part of my mind that I do have conscious access to.

R: Okay, and are you more of a discovery writer or an outliner? Because I know the Fool was supposed to be a one line thing.

RH: It’s a combination. This is a comparison that I’ve used before, so readers might be familiar with it. But it’s like when you’re out in the woods, and you’re on a ridge… The valley below you is full of fog, and you can see the next ridge with the rock sticking up, and you know you have to get to it. When you look down through the fog, you can see maybe the top of a very big tree, or a large rock, or a place where there’s moving water, and you know, you have to hit those points before you get to the next ridge.

But everything in-between those points in enshrouded in mist. So, all of the adventures along the way aren’t necessarily spelled out to me, but I do know the ending point. I’ve known the ending point of this trilogy probably since I first started writing Assassin’s Apprentice, so it’s been a very long arc of knowing eventually where Fitz would end up.

R: Okay, yeah… That’s quite a long journey… It’s been a couple years.

RH: Oh, about twenty.

R: So, what were some of your biggest influences when you started getting into the industry; fantasy writing in general?

RH: There’s a lot of influences that aren’t fantasy, or that we no longer think of as fantasy. I read a lot of myths and legends and fairy tales when I was small. I read a lot of [Rudyard] Kipling. A lot of adventure stories, whether it’s Kidnapped, or Treasure Island, or Mysterious Island… A lot of adventure storytelling.

When I came to The Lord of the Rings, it was at the perfect time for me to read that, and it was the perfect time for me at that age, at that time. For me, it was a watershed event, it was life-changing. I had never read a story that was that long, that intricate, that detailed, that was a fantasy. Where the characters were taken seriously, and they had names, and you cared about what happened to them.

Up until then, what I had experienced were myths and legends – fairy tales where sometimes the prince or the princess don’t even have names. They’re simple the prince or the princess. So, to encounter these characters who all obviously had previous histories and lives outside the border of the book – to realize that that could be done with fantasy, was an amazing revelation to me. I think the next one that I read after that, which resonated that strongly with me were two works by Peter S. Beagle, A Fine and Private Place, which was the first novel he ever wrote, and The Last Unicorn.

But I really had a hard time for a number of years to find fantasy that took the story as seriously. There were a lot of ones that were full of pratfalls and silliness, and humour, which is fun but it lessens the impact that you feel if the character is hurt or disappointed.

It’s like the difference between Saturday morning cartoons and a movie. Tolkien was the one that made me realize what you could do with depth and breadth in fantasy.

R: And now we’ve also seen the fantasy genre expand a lot more, especially in the last few years. There just seems to be so much out there.

RH: It’s grown hugely. One of the odd things, when I started writing paperback fantasies, is that I was told that a paperback binding would not hold more than 250 pages. I was definitely —  like the Beatles’ song — a paperback writer. And so, no matter how much I might want to expand my story, I had to be able to tell it in that number of words and pages.

When you’re writing fantasy, where you have not only a plot, and character development, but you also have setting – it’s like this third element which mainstream writers don’t really have to deal with. If they say it’s a 1970s Chevrolet, that immediately comes to you with a whole lot of impact. Whereas if I want to describe that the horse and cart that they picked up is not going to get too far, I need to put in enough detail that the reader picks that up. So, I really admire the fantasy writers of the generation who wrote to that length and told such amazing stories where every sentence is freighted with character development, and setting, and plot all-in-one.

When Robert Jordan came along, and proved that yes, you could have a much bigger binding on a paperback, that kind of loosened the bonds for the rest of us. And we finally had the space in which to paint the world as well as tell you who is in it, and what they’re doing.

R: Yeah, I would say that him writing a 750-800 page novel would kind of break the 250 page barrier.

RH: When I first saw those in the shelf, there was nothing else on the shelf that was that size. It was ‘what is that thing?’

R: Building bricks. And, do you have any advice for beginning writers, or those seeking to get published for the first time?

RH: Those are two different animals. A beginning writer is someone who is realizing that they have that creative obsession that leads us to sit down and write on paper, and believe that somebody else is going to find what you wrote to be interesting.

They’re writers from the beginning. The thing to do is to sit down and write; to write every day, and to finish what you write. That’s the hardest part for a beginning writer. I don’t know how many footlockers you could fill with my spiral notebooks of unfinished books that I wrote all the way through my teens and early twenties. I think the hardest part is recognizing that you have to have an end to the story. Which means making those final decisions, and saying: “This is really what happened.”

Now, luckily, today with word processors it’s so much easier to change your mind than when you had to go back and rewrite the last 200 pages. You can cut and paste, you can take this piece, and toss that piece out… but, you have to make the commitment to finish what you write.

For people who are attempting to get published: I’m kind of a dinosaur. I came to publishing when it was ‘make sure that your typewriter ink ribbon was fresh so that you had nice black characters of white paper, and clean your keys before you start, and make sure you include a self-addressed stamped envelope so that the editor can send your story back if they decide not to publish it, so you don’t have to retype the whole thing… and always keep a carbon-copy.’

So, most of the things that I learned as a beginning writer are laughable now. I am not extremely familiar with self-publishing. I’ve seen some people become very successful at it. It’s a different pathway, it’s not a pathway to be sneered at just because it’s not traditional publishing. I am very happy living in traditional publishing. I have no reason to want to leave it, and strike out and publish my own work.

For me to give advice to writers that are seeking to become published, I think there’s a whole array of opportunities and decisions that are open to them that I never had to face. There was only one pathway, other than vanity publishing at the time. Which, who could afford that?

R: Even still, I think there are options to do that…

RH: But print-on-demand is very different from the old form of vanity publishing. You weren’t printing copies until they were actually ready to be sold. There’s just a lot of opportunities out there. They’d probably get better advice from a website.

R: Alright, I just figured I would ask.

When you’re writing, how do you decide whether a story should be told in first or third-person?

RH: I always prefer the first-person, if it can be told that way. For me, it’s the natural story telling voice. It’s the voice we use when we talk to our families in the evening, or when your mom is telling you about what things were when she was a kid, or when something goes wrong… It’s really “I did this,” and “I saw that”. It is the most intimate voice.

It brings the reader into the story, in a way. They might come kicking and screaming, but they can’t stay outside because they’re in the heroes head. The limits are, of course, that you can only tell the reader exactly what the hero knows. But, if the hero was going to be present at all of the key scenes, that’s my preferred voice.

I switch to third-person when I’m writing a story where the action is going to be taking place in different geographical locations, where they can’t possibly communicate across the distances, or where you wouldn’t want to have somebody telling someone else what happened today over a phone call; you want it to be very immediate. So then I carefully select the characters whom are going to be at those action points, and give each of them their own point-of-view. Then, my preference is to write a very tight point-of-view, where even though I’m saying: “She did this,” and, “he thought that”, in any given scene, you will only be with one character, in their mind, looking through their eyes. You will not have a conversation where I suddenly switch from my point-of-view, to your point-of-view, and then back.

It’s a personal preference. Some people do that and they do it very well, or they do the omniscient where they’re looking down in time, and they can tell you everything, and they can tell you that “meanwhile over the hill, the armies are massing.” But, I prefer the first-person first, and then a very tight third-person point-of-view.

R: Have you ever started writing a story with one of those, and then found out after you had started, that it had to be the other way?

RH: I think the most ill-advised and ambitious thing I did was to write in first-person present-tense, and I will never do that again. It was absolutely exhausting – that would be Cloven Hooves. But, there may come a point where you look at things and say: Well, now what am I going to do? Because what’s happening in the next room is going to have a huge effect. You then have to make a choice. I’ve never had to go back and rewrite a whole book to be in third-person, but I could imagine it happening. I just hope it never happens to me.

R: Hopefully not, that would be quite a lot of work.

RH: It’s a tremendous amount of work, and the amount of rewriting that writers do – writing is invisible work. Even a painter, sometimes you can stop and watch somebody paint, and realize what goes into that one painting that goes into the cover of a book, or is hung in a hotel wall… You can watch other artists at work, sculpting and all that. But if you watch a writer, all you’re going to see is someone typing. The nuances – the retyping, the erasing, the cut and paste, all the rest of it – it’s really invisible work. Sometimes it’s really hard to justify, “It took you 5 years to write that many pages?”

Well, it took me 5 years to write the pages that I’m going to share with the world, and to find out which ones they were.

R: Especially as well – when you mentioned invisible writing, made me think, the best books are the ones that drag you into the story, where you’re no longer seeing the words, but just the story.

RH: Stephen King says you fall into the hole on the page. That’s of course, what all of us try and do to you.

R: Fall down the rabbit hole…

I don’t think any of your books have been optioned for TV or movie, have they..?

RH: There have been options. An option is simply an agreement that they can try to develop it. The options usually have a time-clause in it: “You have the right for two years to see if you can get everything you need to get this into a movie.” A couple of times, various books have been optioned. It’s always happens though, that it doesn’t come to much.

The process of a story becoming a movie is a lot more complicated than people realize. I certainly didn’t understand it until one of my children went into film. All of the people that are involved – when you sit at the end of a movie, and you watch those credits scroll past, and scroll past, and scroll past, and you realize what a huge team it takes to make a movie. The person who options it has to get all those people on board. A good director, a producer who comes up with the money, and get the locations, and the actors, and agree on the script, and figure out what has to been changed, and what to leave in, and what do you leave out.

I’m happy for my books to be books. Would I want one to be a movie? I wash back and forth on that quite a bit. I personally don’t have the skills to oversee something like that. So, for me, it would be: Take the money, then open your hand and let it go, and realize that whatever is not that screen, be it big or small, is not going to be your book. It’s going to be somebody else’s experience of having your story. So, I go back and forth on it. It’s something that would be an interesting experience, and on any given day I’d probably give a different answer.

R: Alright, cause more and more we’re seeing TV shows and movies based off of series. So, it seems to be that it’s becoming more –

RH: I think a short story translates better to a movie than a novel does, simply because of the amount of information which can be conveyed in an hour and a half through visuals and dialogue. So much had to be left out of The Lord of the Rings, and so much had to be – in many ways to explain as you went along, things that were told not in dialogue, in books. I really enjoyed those movies, they’re tremendously beautiful, but at the same time, if you give me two hours to do something and it’s a choice between picking up a book, and watching a movie… I will probably find a warm spot, and a dog, and pick up a book.

R: And also, you recently did a reread of your books. What was the most surprising thing you came across?

RH: Oh… I would hit scenes that I did not remember writing at all, and scenes where I’d go, “Why did I put this in here, and what was the outcome?” I can tell you the main plot of everything, of course, but it was the little side excursions into relationships and things; the pieces that, for me, were really important to make the readers care about the characters, but I didn’t always remember each individual scene that I wrote. I would say that there were quite a few moments where I was saying, “Why did I put this in?” And then I’d reach a point, and say, “Oh yeah! It’s because this detail, 50 pages later, was going to be important.”

R: Okay… and my next question is slightly evil, but I was told to you ask you this.

Of all your characters, which one is your favourite?

RH: Oh, that’s like asking a parent, who your favourite child is.

R: Yes.

RH: I really am fond of Fitz and the Fool. I’ve known them now for 20 years, so they’re like old friends. But every character is my favourite when I’m writing that particular character, when I’m in that character’s skin, and experiencing that scene through the character. I think if there was any character that I found unpleasant or boring, it would be very very hard to write that character. So, even when it’s a character I don’t agree with, and I don’t like what they’re doing… I find them interesting enough, and intriguing enough, that I want to write from their point-of-view and follow their thought process.

I think you have to do that. If you don’t love every character; if you don’t love your villains, and agree with them when you’re wearing their skin, it’s really hard to make them convincing.

R: Mmhm. You can’t just say: That guy is bad, and he’s just bad because he’s dark and evil.

RH: And he’s going to conquer the world, nyahahaha, because he loves evil. You know, those stories were fine when I was 8-9, 11-12, and you just wanted to have the bad guy be the bad guy, and nothing more… because that’s so understandable.

As I’ve gotten older, I want my bad guys to have motivation, and to have existed before they became bad guys, and to even have parts of their lives where they’re actually pretty nice fellows.

R: And where they don’t just stand around for a chapter or so, explaining their evil plans before they do it.

RH: Exactly, exactly.

R: Do you know, by any chance, as to when we can look forward to seeing the next book in this trilogy?

RH: I have really been struggling. This morning I woke up and wrote some more. I think – and I’ve said this so many times in the past three months – I think there’s only three chapters left. I’ve been saying that since July, and it turned out there was a lot more than three chapters left; various scenes had to have underpinnings and bridgework put in. I’m writing frantically, and my editors have been extremely patient with me. As of right now, the next publication date is still August 2015. But because I am late, and it’s taking this huge publishing mechanism and throwing a monkey-wrench in it, and saying, “Oh yes, I was supposed to give you this to edit four months ago, and now I’m giving it to you – on top of all the other books which are being correctly turned in on time – So, why don’t you just give up on sleeping for a while? Do this work now, because I was late.”

It’s really a horrible thing to do to your publishers and your editors. So, I don’t know if the August 2015 publication date will hold. If it doesn’t, it’s entirely my fault.

R: Alright, yeah, it’s typically about a year.

RH: Yeah, it’s about a year. The manuscript goes in. It gets, in my case, two editors – one in the US and one in the UK, and they both contribute ideas and thoughts and say, “Well, this scene is slow,” or, “Can you explain more what happened here?” or, “You have been redundant here. Six mentions of this fact is too many, cut it down to four and put them where you think you need it, or cut it down to two and put it where we think it’s needed.”

But there’s that whole editing process, and so, it comes back to me, and I go through the whole thing, and I send it back to them… They then look through it all again – sometimes there’s a second or a third rewrite, where there’s now a bump here, or the action doesn’t flow here, so I need to do more work. Even after they are both happy with it, it then goes to the copy editor, who catches things like, “Well, he was a redhead on page 12, and in chapter 30 you’re talking about the wind blowing through his dark curls: make up your mind.” All of those fixes that make me look like a much better writer than I actually am. All of the consistency, all of the “two days passed for this character, while five passed for that one,” I better fix that… Even down to: “Well, you said it was a full moon five days ago, and now it’s a full moon again. You have to go fix that.” It’s all of those little details that copy editors are amazing people, and they catch all of those things.

Then after the copy edits, there’s the galleys, and reading the whole thing again for the typos that slipped by, or the places where a couple of paragraphs got flip-flopped, so it really takes that full year before a manuscript is ready to be a book.

R: Yeah, and there’s also with the galleys, the time for reviews to start show up.

RH: And sending out the ARCs for people to look at. Asking people if they’ll do a blurb, getting the cover art right… So many things.

R: Well hopefully you’ll be able to get it out for some time next year.

RH: I hope so. If it’s late, I’m the only person at fault. It’s not the publisher.

R: I think your fans will be likely to forgive you though.

RH: One hopes so.

R: Well, you do seem to have a tiny bit of a following.

I think that’s pretty much all I have, unless there’s anything else you’d like to add?

RH: Nope, that covers things nicely.

R: Alright, well thank you very much for your time, and I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

RH: I had a good time, and it was lovely to meet you yesterday evening.


Posted by on November 24, 2014 in Interviews, RLovatt


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Review: Under the Skin, by Michael Faber

Hailed as “original and unsettling, an Animal Farm for the new century” (The Wall Street Journal), this first novel lingers long after the last page has been turned.

Described as a “fascinating psychological thriller” (The Baltimore Sun), this entrancing novel introduces Isserley, a female driver who picks up hitchhikers with big muscles. She, herself, is tiny–like a kid peering up over the steering wheel. Scarred and awkward, yet strangely erotic and threatening, she listens to her hitchhikers as they open up to her, revealing clues about who might miss them if they should disappear. At once humane and horrifying, Under the Skin takes us on a heart-thumping ride through dangerous territory–our own moral instincts and the boundaries of compassion. A grotesque and comical allegory, a surreal representation of contemporary society run amok, Under the Skin has been internationally received as the arrival of an exciting talent, rich and assured. 

With elements that could have made for a good story if they were developed enough, Under the Skin is a book that tries to make a point, but ends up leaving no impression on the reader.

The book starts off setting up a very good concept: a young woman named Isserly drives along the lonely Scottish highways, picking up muscular male hitchhikers, and lying to them about herself, drawing them into a conversation about who would miss them if they would disappear, before knocking them out with a drug and taking them back to an isolated farm. At the beginning of the novel, we’re shown that she quite enjoys this; gets a rush from it, in fact. She’s also in near constant pain and has surgical scars all over her body. At this point, the book is a good enough read, though not spectacular, and sets itself up to be a nice character study of a female serial killer who seduces victims before doing off with them. If it had stayed like this, I probably would have liked the book a lot more.

Unfortunately, the truth will out, and in this case the truth is that Isserly is not just a psychotic young woman: she’s actually a sort of monkey, a species yet unknown to humans, who had her body surgically altered so she could pick up humans for a company that sells human meat to her species, who consider it a delicacy. She brings back muscular men who then get given steroids for a month to make them more muscular before being killed and shipped off to Isserly’s home. The inclusion of this rather bizarre supernatural twist, which comes quite early in the novel, upends what was otherwise shaping up to be a rather nice premise and the novel goes in a different direction from thereon.

The book reads like it was intended as a vegetarian manifesto, with the point driven in further when a young man, son of the company’s owner, comes and preaches to Isserly about the dangers of eating meat and how he suspects humans are an intelligent species. Here, however, it fails for one major reason: it’s implied that Isserly’s species doesn’t naturally eat meat and that doing so is causing health problems for them. That’s all right for Isserly’s species, but means the book doesn’t apply at all to humans; for whichever reason vegetarians remove meat from their diet, there’s no denying that we need the protein it gives and that our bodies are set up for an omnivorous diet. In this way, the book fails to be applicable to the reader. Partly because of this, as well, the premise fails to grab the interest of the reader or to create any drama; all of this comes out by the middle of the book, causing the second half of the novel to plod along without really going anywhere.

With so much attention given to the book’s vegetarian philosophy, the plot is left to meander by the wayside, and as a result the book is a fairly boring read. The scenes with Isserly talking to the hitchhikers are the best in the novel: each one does build up some drama as we sympathise with the humans who might lose their life. Each one also includes a short section from the humans about how they view Isserly, which serves to characterise them very well, as well as giving some character to Isserly, showing how she presents herself to others in the course of their job. There aren’t quite enough of these scenes to save the novel, however, and the drama and questions these scenes raise about Isserly’s motives is completely lost when we learn what she’s doing, taking out much of what made these scenes enjoyable in the first place.

However, even taking out the problems with the main premise, the book falls flat on a few points. None of the characters are very well fleshed-out; Isserly in particular is never explored in much depth, leaving much of her personality a mystery to the reader. This was done partly deliberately, as it’s implied Isserly shuts herself off from others, but leaves her as a relatively bland protagonist. Isserly goes through no appreciable character growth, meaning the reader is denied seeing how her experiences change and affect her. Exactly who Isserly’s species is and where they come from is never explored, and the information we are given only raises more questions than it answers. We know it’s somewhere with a coastline, as they send a ship to pick up the human meat, so they most likely live on an island. It’s also stated, however, that they polluted their home so much that nothing can grow; there are no plants to produce oxygen and the air above is so bad they were forced under ground to survive and to generate their own oxygen. Any island with a pollution problem that bad would have been spotted by someone and explored; logically, then, humans should already have been aware of Isserly’s species, yet Isserly takes great pains to avoid letting on to the humans she picks up that she’s not one of them. Somehow, however, humans are known to Isserly’s species, and they’re familiar enough with human appearances to surgically alter their own people to look human, with the resemblance being so good that to humans, Isserly just looks a bit ugly. Questions about how it is possible they remain hidden from humans stay with the reader even after the book is finished, detracting further from the novel’s overall quality.

The ending leaves on a rather low note that does nothing to resolve the books main plot, what little there is. The issue of how Isserly sees humans isn’t resolved, nor is anything done about the corporation that’s selling human meat. With no resolution and nothing to tie it together, the book ends up reading as a collection of scenes and events related to each other, but failing to tell any sort of story. The book has good pacing and dialogue, but with nowhere for any of it to go and nothing for it to really work up to, these points don’t work much in the book’s favour. The day after finishing the book, I had already nearly forgotten it, and for all the staying power it had, I might as well not have read anything at all.

Overall rating: 1.5/5

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Posted by on November 17, 2014 in ARamone, Reviews


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In Conversation With Tom Doherty

Entering the Tor/Forge office is more exciting than being a kid in a candy shop. Bookshelves line the walls, carrying the titles of Robert Jordan, David Drake, Orson Scott Card, Steven Erikson, Ian C. Esslemont, and dozens upon dozens of other familiar names and titles. The Tor office is a place where fantastical imaginations are brought to fruition.

I still find myself slightly shell-shocked by the entire experience. Never had I anticipated that this blog would lead me to interviewing Tom Doherty. Nevertheless, it has, and the questions and answers are all in the transcribed text below. If you’re interested though, there’s more to be found in the audio.


[For convenience, R = Rebecca (me), and TD = Tom Doherty]

R: Hello, I’m here with Tom Doherty, publisher, president, and founder of Tor Books. Tom, I think it’s safe to say that most readers know who you are, or have at least heard of you. So, could you tell us something about yourself that we might not know?

TD: Well, you might not know that I started out looking for a job in publishing when I got out of the army. My dad was the vice-president of a floor covering company. I was looking for a job in editorial, and couldn’t find one, because I had majored in chemical engineering in college. In the army, I had read a lot and decided, ‘it might be fun to be in publishing’. That’s what I really loved.

My dad’s company put in a floor for a guy who was the vice-president of sales for Pocket Books. So, when I wasn’t having much success in finding a job in publishing, it happened that this guy came in to complain about his floor. My father wouldn’t normally have gone out to adjust a single floor, but he did. He adjusted it, and told Mory Solomon that he had a son that looking for a job in publishing. Mory said, “Send him around to Pocket Books.”

When I got there, Mory said, “We’re not hiring, but we just signed a deal with Select Magazines to distribute our books to magazine wholesalers around North America. They’re hiring, and I’ll send you over there with a recommendation.” So, I went over to Select Magazines, and they hired me to be a salesman out of Boston north. Just had a little piece of Massachusetts along the coast. Lynn, Salem, Gloucester, Newburyport… all had wholesalers in those days.

I worked for them for about 8-9 months. They took me out to a really nice dinner and laid me off. They had just lost a major client. They said, “Kid, we’re really sorry. You were doing a good job, but we just lost this major client and we can’t have two men in Boston anymore. We can only have one, and Bill Burks has been with us for 22 years, and you’ve been with us for 9 months.” So, I was out of a job in publishing, and I liked books better than magazines. I called up Mory Solomon, and I said, “Mory, did you like anything I did for you, representing you through Select Magazines?”, and he said “Yeah kid, but we don’t have anything comparable. But, if you’ll agree to be assistant local salesman — it’s kind of like stock boy, you fill the shelves at the airport. If you want to move yourself to Philadelphia, there’s a job there.”

Well, nobody else was offering me a job, and my wife had literally the week before, told me that she was pregnant with what would turn out to be my eldest child, my daughter Linda. So, I got a U-Haul trailer and moved to Philadelphia.

That’s how I started book publishing.

R: You’ve come a long way since then.

TD: Well, I did all the sales jobs at Simon & Schuster through their national sales manager, and I got a chance to learn a lot about science fiction and fantasy as national sales manager at S&S. Ballantine was still an independent line, and we distributed them. So, I was sales manager for Ian and Betty when they launched the first fantasy line that had ever been launched in this country.

I was their sales manager for Tolkien, which was the first huge fantasy bestseller.

They were such generous people with their time. They mentored me, and they taught me things that you wouldn’t normally learn in sales. So, when I had a chance to become a publisher, I had a background that included knowledge that you wouldn’t normally have gotten with the background that I theoretically had.

R: Yep, which is good. And it lead to a lot of this <I gestured to the plethora of books surrounding us>. You were the publisher for Ace Books, and now Tor.

TD: Sure, well actually, first I was publisher for Grosset & Dunlap, and we had a YA line called Tempo. I hired a really brilliant young woman, Harriet McDougal, to be my editor-in-chief at Tempo. We began publishing science fiction and fantasy in this young adult line. We did well enough, so that when Ace came under hard times, Grosset bought it for us to play with. So, she got to be editorial direction, and I got to be publisher of Grosset Ace for the paperbacks.

R: And then her husband went on the write the Wheel of Time series.

TD: He did. She found him because… well, what happened was that she got divorced, she had a 5-year-old and she inherited the home she grew up in, in Charleston, SC., and she thought that would be a good place to bring Will up. So she moved home to Charleston.

I didn’t want to lose her, so we began telecommuting before the word was even invented. She shopped at a bookstore when she was young, and she went back to shopping in that bookstore. Bookstore owner asked her what brought her back to Charleston, she said: “I’m opening an editorial office, and I’m going to do some of my own things, and I’m going to represent a New York publisher.” The bookstore owner said, “Well, I’ve got this great customer who’s just written a novel. Would you take a look at it?”

It was a book that we published as The Fallon Blood. Which was under the pen-name Reagan O’Neal, because Jim Rigney, who was Robert Jordan for fantasy, was Reagan O’Neal for historicals. So, we did that trilogy. Then he wanted to write a fantasy. He said his dream was to write a big epic fantasy.

R: And he did indeed.

TD: He sure did. He thought it was going to be one book. Of course, he had thought that the story of the American Revolution in the south was going to be one book too… But it turned into a trilogy.

So, we said to him, “Jim, this is never going to be just one book; what you described.” He came back with, “Well, maybe a trilogy.” So, I said, “Well, let’s make it a contract for six books.” He said, “That’s silly!”

It turned out to be fourteen.

R: Fourteen and a prequel… And had he continued on, it might have even ended up being longer.

TD: Well, it would have. He was planning a spin-off. You’ve read The Wheel of Time, right?

R: Yes.

TD: Well, he couldn’t imagine that Mat would just let his wife — you know, her mother was overthrown and assassinated, and his wife should be empress of the Seanchan. Mat couldn’t just let that go… So, Mat was going to go back with Tuon to straighten out things in Seanchan. He had planned that, and actually sold it to us. The trilogy spinoff, but he didn’t do enough work on it… And Harriet didn’t feel good about it going forward.

She was betwixt and between. She knew that he wanted to do it, and that he did sell it to us, but he hadn’t really done the kind of detailed outline like he had done for what turned out to be the last three books — which he had always been telling us was only going to be one. That was typical Jim.

We would love it if Harriett were to turn around and decide that we could do that, because it’s something that a lot of the fans want. They’d like it.

R: Yep, still I see posts about it on an almost daily basis: “So, about those outrigger novels…”

It would be great. Hint, hint.

TD: Yes. But Harriet was always a brilliant editor, and I think she had edited six of his books by the time that they got married.

R: You and she made a great choice with Brandon to continue that series.

TD: Yeah, I thought he was the perfect guy. It was Harriett’s real decision. I didn’t want to do anything that she didn’t love. It worked out perfectly.

R: I agree, and I think most other people do as well.

TD: Good.

R: And, I believe you guys have won the Locus Award every year since 1988 or so–

TD: I forget what the year was, but it’s been 27 years. 27 consecutive years. I have the plaques over there.

R: Yeah, I was noticing those. What does it feel like, knowing that you and your company have had such a great influence on this industry the years.

TD: It feels good, but it feels like… Like I said, the Ballantines really started it all off, the real emphases on fantasy in this country. There’s something maybe you can influence: I really want Betty Ballantine to get a Hugo, for all the things that she did. You know, she’s 95 year’s old. Judy-Lynn del Rey was given a Hugo, and she well deserved it. She did a brilliant job of carrying forward what Betty had started, but  remember, she got a line that had already been established, which had been called Ballantine up until that point.

She got a line that was established, and had things like Tolkien in it, and a lot of other major things. So, I would love to see Betty get some recognition.

R: Or something like the Lifetime Achievement Award.

TD: Exactly. But, I think that for editing, it would be great to give her a Hugo. One of those retroactive Hugos.

R: That would be good.

TD: I think she did get a Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award. She started the first science fiction line too.

R: I don’t quite think I’ve got the influence to make that happen.

TD: Hey, you do do things that influence people and I would just love to see her get — while she’s still with us, and able to appreciate it — get more recognition. A lot of people have forgotten her.

R: Which is a crime. We have an entire genre; hundreds upon hundreds of books to thank her for.

TD: Yep, exactly.

R: Another thing. With so many bookstores closing and the push for buying books online, are you guys at all worried about how — I know there’s still a huge market for it, but there’s not the ease of access for discovering new books.

TD: That is a worry. Discovery is the main worry. The internet is wonderful for things that you know about. If you fall in love with an author, you can get backlist that is too extensive for a bookstore to have stocked, and that would have had to been ordered anyway.

So, it’s great for finding deep backlists, and it’s great for accessibility on things that you already know you want… but it’s not good for discovery. There are too many trees in the forest.

R: Agreed, because you can just walk into a bookstore and see that one cover that catches your eye. You don’t get that on Amazon, or these other sites.

TD: And you know the mass-market system has kind of fallen apart. We used to look at surveys which would say: You’ve got bookstore readers from ‘impulse sale’. There were 100,000 retailers that had mass-market paperbacks, the person standing in a drugstore, waiting for a prescription… Buying from a wire-revolving rack; the person walking down the grocery aisle to get coffee, seeing a nice display of books and sampling one.

When they were pleased often enough, they began going to bookstores. Some people didn’t, some people just kept buying them in the impulse locations. But it also fed the bookstores, because they were happy with the entertainment and they wanted more of it. We’re losing that because the structure for that has broken down.

It’s broken down for a number of reasons. Mass-market paperback used to mainly be reprints of hardcover books a year after the hardcover book was published. It’s like anything else. If you buy a computer this year, next year it’ll be cheaper and maybe even better. If you buy women’s fashion this fall, it’ll be on a sale table next spring. People are used to waiting for the cheaper edition. With ebooks, they get instant gratification. Which, of course, in one place cuts into hardcovers, as they can get it cheaper already, but in another place, to the mass-market because they don’t have to wait for the cheap book.

So, we’ve got that problem. At the same time, we had a breakdown in the distribution system; there was a distribution system existing that had, in every town, book-truck drivers who sold only books to the retailers. They learned that you put different books in immigrant ghettos than you did in college situations, and a third kind by the military. They put the right books in the right spots.

What happened is the major chains forced an increase in discount, which caused the wholesalers to not to be able to afford two trucks running the same route: one for magazines, and one for books. So the distribution system was combined, which is a problem because books were pushed into a magazine bundle, and you don’t have book-truck drivers driving down the street with hundreds of titles, and able to put a different assortment at different stores. You have a much more limited assortment going everywhere. That’s not good. You should sell different books at different demographic areas.

We’re not getting them there anymore. So, between the instant gratification at a lower price, and the breakdown of the distribution system — I only get into this because it affects discovery. We lose huge numbers of places where people used to discover books.

R: Which is unfortunate, like Borders closing down a couple of years back, and independent bookstores seeming to close on a nearly daily basis.

TD: Yeah, well, I mean the other chains even worse than Borders for discovery were the Waldens, and Daltons, Crowns, and Lauriets… We lost several thousand mall stores.

I saw a focus study. This is an oversimplification of it, but essentially what it said: Did you miss the Walden that was in the shopping center? The answer was essentially: “Oh yeah, we’d come here to buy a sweater, or a pair of shoes, and we’d see the open and inviting display of books. We almost always had time to walk in. If we walked in, we almost always bought a book. Often we bought several.” When was the last time you bought a book? “Oh.. Yeah. We’ve got to go to a bookstore soon.”

If you don’t put books where people are… they don’t get in the car and drive 11 miles. Some of them will; they’ll drive to the Barnes & Noble now, or the big independent. So many of them won’t. They just won’t get around to making the special trip of any appreciable distance.

R: And it’s a shame, because there were a bunch of bookstores near me that I used to go to, but one by one I’ve been watching them disappear over the last 5-10 years.

TD: And you used to have chains like Waldon and Dalton, you had Classics, and Coles and Smith. All gone. How many impulse locations could have been handy, but are now gone?

R: And with that, we’re seeing the rise of ebooks more and more. Because, I guess, there is the convenience, the cheaper prices, and as you said — the instant gratification. But we’re losing something as well, because if you pick up a book, it’s got the weight to it, and there have been studies that state that you don’t retain as much when you read the ebooks.

TD: Yeah.

R: I think that’s a sad thing for the publishing industries.

TD: People will always will always want a good story.

R: Yes, definitely… and there have definitely been a lot of changes in the publishing industry over the past many years.. Besides for the ebooks, which has been the most surprising to you?

TD: Well, what I was just outlining — the breakdown of the mass-market distribution system, the physical breakdown, and it’s been the most damaging. Not being able to get the right book into the right store.

R: And… sorry, going back to ebooks, how do you think they’re going to affect the publishing industry in the long term? Do you think they’re going to plane out with physical books?

TD: I think it’ll level out, and I think that it’ll slowly gain market share. But you always do have the problem of discovery, and we haven’t worked out online how to best do that. I think, also, many people like a physical book, and I think that it’s a pretty darn efficient package.

R: It is. I will always choose a physical book.

TD: Me too.

R: Even though that means my luggage going home is overweight now…

Do you have any advice for people trying to get into the publishing industry in general, perhaps editorial? Publicity? I know a lot of jobs are also being done by freelancers now as well.

TD: Well, part of the thing about freelancers is there are an awful lot of people who want to work part-time. For example, we have a lot of people who don’t work full-time for us. Some of them were really fine editors who retired, but they would like to do a little bit. They just don’t want to work full-time; they don’t want to commute to an office. They may have one or two authors who want to work with them, and who they still want to work with. Well then, sure. If the author wants to work with them, if they want to work, and if they’re talented editors… Why wouldn’t we use them part-time? And I think, even at the very beginning we did that.

When I was starting the company, I knew a couple of editors who I thought were really fine editors. One of them had been retired, one of whom had been laid off; combination of companies coming together, mergers.. And I asked both of them if they’d like to edit for me. Both of them said yes, and neither one of them wanted to come into the office.

One of them actually became a ski instructor up in Killington; a guy by the name of Pat O’Connor. He had been the editor-and-chief of a couple companies. His number one author at the time was Andrew Greeley, who was a bestseller, and he said that he’d love to edit Andy. And Andy wanted to be edited by Pat.

Harriet McDougall, who I told you about — she didn’t want to come to a NY office. She was willing to work full-time, but she wanted to work in Charleston, SC., and we got Robert Jordan. You know, some of the things that people don’t remember about her, they just think Robert Jordan, but if you look at the acknowledgements in Ender’s Game, you’ll see the praise that Scott gives his editor, Harriet. She was responsible for many really great books in the early days.

R: She also edited the very first book you guys did, by Andre Norton.

TD: Yep, we had done Andre Norton together at Tempo. YA. I feel bad when people just remember her as Robert Jordan’s editor. She was the editor of many of our great early books. Beth Meacham had arthritis and wanted to live in Tucson, so she works out in there. I see no reason why any anyone has to come into the NY office.

R: Especially with the internet, there’s the ease of access.

TD: Well, we did it before the internet. We started telecommuting before they invented the word.

R: Yeah. Going back.. I know one of the ways for getting into publishing now is through internships and things. Do you have any other advice for people who want to get into this?

TD: Well, I think that what you need to do is look at the books in the bookstores. Become quite familiar with what a publisher does. Then, come to the publisher and say, “This is what you do, and this is what I care about. And I know what you do. I care enough to know. I didn’t come in because I wanted any old job. I came to you because I like what you do, and I want to be part of it.” And I think that impresses people. You try to learn about that particular thing that you really do want to be part of. It’s a win-win for both sides.

R: Alright, well, I know you do fantasy…

TD: <chuckles> Yes, yes we do.

R: So you guys, I imagine, get a lot of submissions pretty often. What do you guys look for when you’re trying to find the books that you’re going to publish?

TD: We have a lot of readers, and different editors like different things. If you’re an author, and you would like to be published by a publisher, you ought to look at the books from that publisher that you think are from the same market that your book is for. Then, you ought to look in the acknowledgements, because some of those books are going to acknowledge their editor. Then you ought to submit your book to that editor with a note saying why you think they might be interested. They’re much more likely to look at slush that way, than they are general slush.

If you’ve got an agent, so much the better. But, so many first-time authors can’t get an agent either. So, this is one of the ways to make your book a little more marketable.

R: Okay, thank you. And are there any books that you come across that still manage to surprise you?

TD: Sure. Always.

R: That’s good.

So, what would you say has been your proudest moment, working in the industry? After everything you’ve done through your illustrious career, has there been any one project that was just…

TD: I think it was really building this company. I think it has published a lot of things that people have loved and they continue to love. That I’ve been able to give a lot of dreams life. Things that are worth having been done.

R: As a reader, I definitely agree. You have done an amazing job.

TD: And I was lucky enough to start Tor, and I don’t know if you know, but I spun-off Baen. I’m still a partner with Baen. He wanted to do a different kind of thing, so we created a company for him to do it. He — They, it’s now Toni Weisskopf who’s running the company since Jim died. I think they do some things very well.

R: I think that’s pretty much all I’ve got, unless there’s anything else you’d like to add?

TD: Nope.

R: Alright, well, thank you very much for taking the time.

TD: You are entirely welcome.

R: It’s been an honour to meet you and talk to you. Thank you.


Posted by on November 17, 2014 in Interviews, RLovatt


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The Copper Promise by Jen Williams : Review


There are some far-fetched rumours about the caverns beneath the Citadel…

Some say the mages left their most dangerous secrets hidden there; others, that great riches are hidden there; even that gods have been imprisoned in its darkest depths.

For Lord Frith, the caverns hold the key to his vengeance. Against all the odds, he has survived torture and lived to see his home and his family taken from him … and now someone is  going to pay. For Wydrin of Crosshaven and her faithful companion, Sir Sebastian Caverson, a quest to the Citadel looks like just another job. There’s the promise of gold and  adventure. Who knows, they might even have a decent tale or two once they’re done.

But sometimes there is truth in rumour.

Soon this reckless trio will be the last line of defence against a hungry, restless terror that wants to tear the world apart. And they’re not even getting paid.

Originally released as a series of four novellas, the paperback release of the Copper Promise by Jen Williams brings them together to form what I hope is only the first book in an already amazing series. I don’t usually go in for books that are released as a series of short stories or novellas, I find that they tend to be a little too muddled or disjointed for my liking. I really loved the cover art for the Copper Promise though, and a friend of mine was kind enough to send me a copy from England since it has yet to be published in the US. I was fairly surprised at how well written and cohesive I found the story to be, I really could not tell it was originally released in four separate pieces. I found the story to be an enjoyable throwback to the old school sword and sorcery stories I grew up reading.

The Copper Promise tells the story of Frith, a disfigured and crippled noble on a quest for revenge against those who wronged him and his family. When the holy warrior turned mercenary Sebastian and his companion Wydrin are hired by Frith to explore and loot the fabled Citadel they soon discover that more than just gold and jewels are contained within its cold stone walls. Soon Frith, Sebastian and Wydrin find themselves to be all that stands between the destruction of their world by an angry and forgotten horror.

I really can’t describe how much I enjoyed this book, there wasn’t really anything about it I didn’t enjoy. The characters really made this story for me, they were all fleshed out with their own complicated pasts and unique traits and qualities. Wydrin the Copper Cat of Crosshaven, with her witty and crass humor stood out above all the others, she was the type of character you wish you could take out for a night of drinks. I honestly don’t think there was a single cardboard cutout characters in the entire book, which is really saying something considering how long the story is.

I think anyone who is a fan of the great old-school fantasy stories like the Lord of the Rings will really enjoy the Copper Promise. Unfortunately it is only available at this time from Headline publishing, and so it hasn’t been released outside of the UK. I really hope to see this book published in other territories, I truly think it deserves to be read by a much wider audience. Until then though I would suggest anyone who is interested in reading it look to the Book Depository to order it.

I would rate this book up there as one of the best books I have read this year, and I’m tempted to order a second copy myself just so I have one to loan out or give away as a gift.

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Posted by on November 14, 2014 in Reviews, SJardine


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Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss


Deep below the University, there is a dark place. Few people know of it: a broken web of ancient passageways and abandoned rooms. A young woman lives there, tucked among the sprawling tunnels of the Underthing, snug in the heart of this forgotten place. Her name is Auri, and she is full of mysteries.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a brief, bittersweet glimpse of Auri’s life, a small adventure all her own. At once joyous and haunting, this story offers a chance to see the world through Auri’s eyes. And it gives the reader a chance to learn things that only Auri knows….

In this book, Patrick Rothfuss brings us into the world of one of The Kingkiller Chronicle’s most enigmatic characters. Full of secrets and mysteries, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is the story of a broken girl trying to live in a broken world. 

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is, without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read this year.

A short novella, only about thirty thousand words, The Slow Regard of Silent Things isn’t a story in the traditional sense. There is exactly one character, who says not one line of dialogue in the entire book; there’s no plot, or climax. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful book, and I wish I could see more like it.

To be clear, this is not a book for those who have not already read the first two books of The Kingkiller Chronicles; without the content and backstory they give, the book doesn’t make much sense. If you have read them already and then pick this up, however, it comes together wonderfully. The book is a week in the life of Auri, giving us fantastic insight into her mind and worldview and tantalising insight into her past. To us, the logic seems disjointed and odd, but everything makes sense in Auri’s mind. I’ve always particularly liked her and identified with her, and this book fleshed her out to an enormous degree; even if I didn’t understand the basis for her internal logic, the writing of the book drew me in and made me celebrate her victories and sympathise with her downfalls. I was drawn in completely for the entire book, and had to give it a hug when I finished. I only reluctantly put it down.

If you’re a fan of The Kingkiller Chronicles, pick up The Slow Regard of Silent Things; if you haven’t read The Kingkiller Chronicles, read them and then read the novella. You won’t regret it, and you might just discover you love a style of storytelling you’ve never even thought of before.

Overall rating: 5/5

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Posted by on November 3, 2014 in ARamone, Reviews


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