Patricia McKillip Interview
by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner
Date: November 1, 2005 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu caught up with Ms. McKillip, to ask some questions about her short fiction, her evolution as a writer and her way with words. And so...
SFRevu: What inspired you to become a writer?
Patricia McKillip: I loved reading as a child. I didn't really write much until I was fourteen. I wrote the occasional poem and I told stories to my four younger siblings when I had to baby-sit them; they seemed to enjoy it. I really don't know what made me sit down one day when I was fourteen and write a 30 page fairy tale.
Before that I didn't connect my love of reading with the possibility of writing. But after I wrote that story, I realized that I'd had an absolutely wonderful time, and that I could do it all over again, and keep doing it. So I pretty much did.
SFRevu: What advice would Patricia McKillip-2005 give to Patricia McKillip pre-1980?
McKillip: I am in awe of P. McKillip pre-1980. She broke the ground, she did the hardest work, just learning the craft. She stuck to it through all the rejections slips, all the manuscripts that wound up in the bottom drawer. If I had to do all that again, and knew exactly what it meant, I might be tempted by something a bit less demanding. But I do think that over the decades my writing has gotten better; the never-ending challenge is to keep it evolving.
SFRevu: Fantasy has many sub-genres: sword and sorcery, epic, historical, modern, etc. Where do you see your work within these myriad sub-genres? Are sub-categories like these relevant to what you do?
McKillip: I suppose the trilogy might be considered "sword and sorcery"; there's a lot of both in it. My work in the last dozen or so years might be called "Imaginary Worlds" fantasy, because the settings are varied and integral to the plot. I don't really think about labels when I write fantasy.
SFRevu: The Riddle Master of Hed trilogy is your longest work to date. Philosophically, it's a very ambitious work and incorporates themes that you've explored further in subsequent novels. A) Was Hed a reaction to the Tolkien-esque epic fantasy of the late 70s/early 80s? B) Have you been tempted (or urged) to write another trilogy?
McKillip: The trilogy was a reaction to The Lord of the Rings itself. I read it the mid-sixties, fell absolutely in love with it, and decided, at the age of seventeen, that I needed to write a trilogy, too. It took me 12 years, because I was also learning how to write, and I learned a great deal from all the chapters and entire novels I had to discard along the way. (I was also writing other things at the same time, and published four YA novels, including The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, before the first of the Riddle-Master books was finally ready to be published.)
There wasn't much around in the way of fantasy trilogies when I started it; by the time I finished it, I suppose the trilogy trend of the late 70s had begun. But I was inspired by the source itself. I have been asked if I'd do another trilogy, and--after being moved by the astonishing films of The Lord of the Rings-- I've been tempted. But I really don't know if I have a trilogy's worth of a story to tell. Or whether, in a fit of self-indulgence, I would just write the same kind of tale all over again. Maybe. I just don't know yet.
SFRevu: Do you have a favorite theme or motif? Is there one aspect of the human condition that you find most interesting to explore through fantasy?
McKillip: I love seeing what I can do with women characters. The sorceress Mag in Ombria in Shadow, the witch Brume in In the Forests of Serre, gave me a great deal of satisfaction. The three sisters in The Tower of Stony Wood were extremely challenging to write about. In the short fiction, the women in "Fellowship of the Dragon" were a female combination of the Three Musketeers and the Fellowship of the Ring, with more humor and a lot less gore. I enjoyed writing about them very much. Female characters can be very unpredictable. I've been writing a long time, and the unpredictable keeps me writing in the same way it keeps a reader reading.
SFRevu: Harrowing the Dragon, your new short story collection, covers a range of work from 1982 to 1999. A) How would you compare writing a short story to writing a novel? B) Are there themes that lend themselves to short fiction more easily? C) Have you been tempted to revisit any of these short pieces and expand them to novel-length?
McKillip: I'll answer A and C together, since in my experience the two sometimes trip over one another. For instance, the kitchen in my short story "Ash, Wood, Fire" was a definite prototype of the royal kitchen in The Book of Atrix Wolfe. But at that point I didn't know I would write the book. My alchemy story "Transmutations" was going to be a novel, I thought. But it never got farther than a short story.
I tried very hard to turn "A Matter of Music" into a novel; I thought there was more than enough detail there to make a novel. But it refused to be anything but itself. I did write a music novel later, Song for the Basilisk, but it had nothing to do with the short story.
I'm not of the school of thought that believes a short story is harder to write than a novel. I can write a short story in three days. I've taken anywhere from five weeks to eight years to write a single novel. It's hard work, a daily commitment, full of ups and downs, stops and starts, hair-tearing and pleading with the gods. Short fiction requires the same kind of hard thought and sustained effort, but for a much shorter length of time. Which makes them, from my point of view, less demanding. And sometimes a great deal more fun to write than a novel.
SFRevu: Do you have a favorite story among those included in Harrowing?
McKillip: There are several that I feel are more polished than others, like "Lady of the Skulls" and "The Stranger." I'm quite fond of my Baba Yaga story, and especially pleased with what I was able to pull off in "Toad." I think "The Fellowship of the Dragon" was probably the most fun to write.
SFRevu: Has there ever been a story that didn't turn out as you first expected, or a character that assumed greater (or lesser) importance than you'd planned?
McKillip: That happens frequently, especially to writers, like me, who don't plot out the entire novel ahead of time, and leave lots of room for the unexpected to happen. I once fell in love with a character who popped up mid-novel at the other end of a simple phone conversation. I had to go back and rewrite the story to give him a major part in it. (That was my musicologist, Sidney Hallack, in Fool's Run.)
In short fiction, there is less elbow-room for change and, at least in my memory of the stories in Harrowing, fewer surprises of that sort.
SFRevu: Every fantasy author creates 'magic' for themselves and their worlds. What is 'magic'?
McKillip: Magic is what I say it is, in any given story. Making the reader believe what I say is the challenge, and it begins and ends with language. "Eye of toad" can be a believable magical ingredient because of all the different stories resonating off the words "eye" and "toad." They are very old words and they are crusted with imagery. Whatever it is I want that particular ingredient of a spell to do must have something to do with those words. "Toad" brings to mind "prince", the German word for death, "water", "jewel", "moon"--all of these are fairy tale words that can create a powerful magic spell. They can make the reader forget the real world and believe in mine. That's magic. "Toad" can also bring to mind "warts", but that's a different story.
SFRevu: Are there particular conventions of fantasy that are fun to explore, to put a new spin on, or avoid altogether? Similarly, do you enjoy the work of creating fantastic worlds?
McKillip: I do, or I wouldn't be doing it. I look upon my fantastic worlds like paintings, where language is the paint and every word must be appropriate to the atmosphere of the painting. That's the challenge, at any rate; sometimes I'm more successful than others.
SFRevu: Do you prefer to have your heroes think through obstacles rather than fight? To take two examples: "The Throme of the Erril of Sherill" features a quest by a knight that involves little or no physical combat, while the five women in "Fellowship of the Dragon" in Harrowing face challenges that are certainly dangerous but cannot be answered by physical prowess. A) Is the mind the most powerful weapon a hero can employ? B) Are the worst mistakes made by failing to think or reason through a problem?
McKillip: There was a lot of fighting in the Riddle-Master trilogy. I tried to make each battle as convincing as I could, just to show that I could write well about the violence that seems a constant of fairy tales, myth and modern fantasy. But I'm just more interested in other things, like the psychology and symbolism of the quest.
If the story makes violence necessary, as in, for example, The Tower at Stony Wood, I try to tear up the carpets with it. (Though by today's standards it's probably pretty mild.) In Shadow in Ombria, my one violent fight scene kept getting upstaged by my sense of humor.
In The Throme of the Erril of Sherill, I was trying to turn the expected on its head. The knight who never needs to fight is not what the reader might expect. Keeping the reader surprised by the unexpected seems more fun to me--and way more interesting--than a constant series of sword-slogging battles. To answer your questions: A) Yes. Unless he's fighting Orcs. B) Not always. Consider Alexander the Great and the Gordian knot.
SFRevu: To close, your next novel is Solstice Wood, coming from Ace in February. Would you tell us a bit about it?
McKillip: Solstice Wood is something I thought about and worked at for about five years. I wanted to do a contemporary sequel to my fantasy Winter Rose. In that tale, the village where my heroine grows up was based on the farmlands and hills and tiny villages in the Catskills, where I was living. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to make the leap between an imaginary world that existed perhaps a couple of centuries ago, and the real world I knew. The hardest part in the book was to change the story; for a while it seemed that every idea I had evolved into the same story as Winter Rose. But finally I was able to open a door into my imagination that led to an unexpected place, and change the way I looked at that particular world.
It wasn't easy to make the transition from fantasy world to modern. But I really was feeling frustrated not being able to use so many of the words I knew. I couldn't use the words "duct tape" in any of my fantasies. Or "toothpaste", or "pickup truck", or "peanut brittle" or any of thousands of words I might use in my everyday life. I think, too, the fact that I moved away from the Catskills enabled me to write the novel more easily. It gave me a certain perspective and a genuine nostalgia to write about that world from a distance. It will be interesting to see if readers like the new direction I seem to be taking.SFRevu would like to thank Patricia McKillip and Maggie Kao of Ace Books. See this month's review of Harrowing the Dragon.