* Excerpt from Science Fiction and Fantasy Chronicles interview with Tanith Lee
sffchronicles: You have said that you never know what you will write until you write it. Does this mean that you never plan ahead? Have some sort of idea where you want a story to go but leave the details to inspiration? Or that you make plans but are always ready to change them if a better idea comes along?
Tanith Lee: All of those. Sometimes there is only atmosphere, or a strongly — even vaguely — seen mental image, (as it was with The Birthgrave — and strong, this one: a white female-being curled up inside a waking, blood-red volcano. No more, no less). As I get into a book/story a certain amount of — not planning, more self-discussion and conjecture — occur, which are often immensely fascinating for me. Inspiration (or whatever it is) always supplies vast amounts of detail. Characters constantly arrive from ‘nowhere’. And in many scenarios the main character is the one who appears first and foremost, before any real aspect of the plot becomes at all clear. I can site Sabella in the latter case, also Esther and Judas Garber (Thirty-Four, Disturbed by Her Song) And very decidedly, Azhrarn, Prince of Demons, in the Flat Earth sequence. Though, in the instance of Azhrarn, of course, I already had the seed of the idea for the first story. Sometimes also my husband (writer/artist John Kaiine) will suggest a theme, twist, or whole plot. These are always striking and generally tempting, and I have assayed many, especially for shorter fiction — as endless ‘Thanks to JK’ credits show! The essential of the drowned mask in Faces Under Water (Venus Quartet) was his. Not to mention the overwhelming whale in the Lionwolf Trilogy. Speaking of Lionwolf incidentally, a medium told me I would write that. She said she saw snow and a strange moon, and a lion that was also a wolf. To which I found I added ‘and also a man… and a god.’ And there the 3 novels begun.
Occasionally, even before I start work, I have a definite outcome in mind — this is more usual for me when writing short fiction than with novels. But how I get there is by my constant method: I sit down with pen and paper ( I always write longhand — unreadable scrawl with the spelling skills of a year-old duck) and then I take the Dictation. And yes, also things can and do change. Sometimes I get the shock of my life ( another one, in writing it happens quite regularly) or am, as they say, ‘surprised by joy’. Now and then minor characters become major ones ( Guri in Lionwolf… the Pet in Don’t Bite the Sun), the wicked turn out to be innocent, the beautiful and good to be monsters, Heaven to be Hell, etc:—
sffchronicles: You have written most of your books in one draft, yet your prose is elegant and assured. Do you revise as you go along? Or does it simply come out of your subconscious fully formed? How much changes as the story you wrote out in longhand is typed into your computer?
Tanith Lee: Thank you! I do revise a little as I go along. When it flows, as a rule I don’t need to change more than perhaps the odd word or emphasis. Sometimes I need to add in a short passage, or remove ditto, or move an existing one up or down the line. Sometimes the scrawl is so uncivilized I realize even I won’t be able to translate it by the hour I again reach that point during typing, so I rewrite it slightly more legibly. As I type out the MS I may also change some small thing. Rarely does it amount to much. Now and then, luckily for me not often, I may struggle (at the longhand stage) over a tiny paragraph or piece of continuity. I’ve found, across time, (having been writing since 9, that’s roughly 55 years) that the best way here is to leave the wretched thing alone and go on regardless. Almost always, a while later on returning to the scene of the crime, I can sort it out in 10 minutes or less. Here and there I may, and have become, stuck. In some of the huger novels, especially the early ones, a certain amount of these stickings seemed very much in the nature of the beast. One swam, floated and flew for 150-200 pages — than ran into a granite mountainside. But by slow, persistent hacking with a mental axe, or scraping with a mental knife — or sometimes blowing the whole confounded mess up with mental high explosives — I’d eventually emerge into the light.
Worse by far than these hold-ups are, however, the very few novels/stories that simply would NOT start. A fine example of this is the first Piratica book. I’d engaged enthusiastically to write about pirates (there is another thing I need to add about this engaging-to-write business — I’ll come to that —). It was, though, to be a YA scenario. I don’t pull punches, whatever I write, but obviously in work for a younger audience, I firmly believe in keeping the worst sorts of violence off-stage. And so I had to face up to how difficult this would be, when dealing with some of the most blood-gulpingly ruthless and foul thieves on Earth. The book duly went into hiding. After about 5 false starts, (some of the material of which I was still able to use later in the book) my genius husband suggested (it’s by now fairly well known, so not too much of a spoiler, I hope) that with my heroine at least I could begin — not among throat-cutting crews, but with the talented actors who played them in The Theatre. (Actors are some of my favorite people). And inside a couple of days the book was off and sailing fast. Certainly, as it progressed, the real vile wickeds came in, but by then we all had our sea-legs, and there were, for me — as opposed to my characters — no problems at all.
My other comment on this is, though, that frankly I’ve always hated writing to order — that is from an already developed idea — and this is now, unfortunately, usually entailed in any sale which is obliged to include a (‘detailed’) synopsis. (I hate and resist synopses. They are, to me, chains. The only good synopsis, again for me, is the one prepared from an already completed work.) For this reason any pre-writing notes I offer a publisher carry the warning that ‘author may make changes’. And so Author does!
Yes, my work comes from somewhere or other that seems to have very little examinable relation to me either physically, or experience-wise. And I think I’ve established I prefer to be the bus, not the Driver. I am the vehicle, I take the Dictation, I gaze at the pictures appearing on my mind-screen, listen to the dialogue and the music, describe and report. For this reason I only deceive under instruction, where guided to, and never, therefore, lie. What I get I pass on. I’m a journalist — and I’ve been places even I, sometimes, can hardly credit.
sffchronicles: In a book like Venus Preserved where so many plotlines converge in such a complicated manner, was there any sort of rough outline, on paper, or in your head?
Tanith Lee: None. Pre-start, I knew this: Much of Venus was undersea and protected beneath an air dome: we would be dealing with the future. My leads were a male singer (Picaro) and a female gladiatrix (Jula). I was going to tackle the preposition of revitalizing the dead — which I’d already postulated the ill-advisedness of in a short SF story from the ’70’s, called The Thaw (published Asimov’s.) The book, too, had one strong connection back to the first novel of the Quartet. These are marker posts, obviously, not plotlines. (Near the end of the saga, which I admit I found extremely harrowing to write, I was startled out of my wits by the apposite revelation of the triple 6.) But really all this sort of thing is the typical Lee working day.
sffchronicles: Do you ever get the idea that your subconscious mind is running far ahead of you, working out different contingencies while you’re still in the early stages of a project?
Tanith Lee: Yes, I do, but I’m never entirely convinced it’s just my sub consciousness — although doubtless that will have its paws on the book as well. The inspiration and motivation seem to build from so many non-physical areas — genetics I never rule out, i.e. genetic memory — or those elusive yet maybe fundamental elements: World consciousness and Group awareness. What I call the boys and girls in the backroom backbrain. They take their very useful share of the work too, often bringing a needless flaw or error to my attention, or solving some obscure correlation of character action or psychology.
sffchronicles: For Cold Grey Stones, your new anthology, you wrote a story in four hours. Is it usual for you to complete a story in less than a day? And the stories you write at lightening speed, do you think that parts of them are already there in your subconscious, just waiting for the right story to come along?
Tanith Lee: On the speed — less often now than when I was younger, but as with the one you mention, it does still happen. This one came from ‘nowhere’ — as so many seem to — and again its last words surprised me, so I must conclude those backbrain boys and girls were on to it as soon as I was. It is a very short short though. Sometimes even when my writing gallops for me, sheer physical tiredness (not mental) makes me pause, or lay off till the next day. I think the most I ever wrote in 8-9 hours was a passage in Vazkor, Son of Vazkor (1st of the dual sequel to Birthgrave.) It amounted to about 17 long page-sides in rough — around 9-10 thousand words. But I was late twenties then. Now I judge my most recent bulk scribble was about 5-6 thousand words, in a contemporary novel, (due out late this year, I think, from Immanion: Ivoria). Some of these things do wait in the wings, very definitely, either on a scrap of paper with a tiny note, or title, or else unconsciously picked up from something or other I can usually, subsequently, identify. The Greyve— the story for Cold Grey Stones — didn’t relate to anything, so far as I know — aside from the collection’s title. But then, I might well be the very last to know…
sffchronicles: Are you ever intoxicated by words — your own or anyone else’s?
Tanith Lee: Regularly — by others. ( I read whenever I can, and some very wonderful writers.) With my own stuff I’m more often than not permanently intoxicated just by the sheer act of writing — the bus is allowed to be drunkenly happy with the drive. Sometimes a line, a phrase — more frequently the conjuring of an image seen by me, either in so-called real life, or on the inner screen, extremely excites and pleases me. I never feel these are mine — by which certainly I don’t mean I’ve stolen them from others. (Though for sure, reading geniuses can educate and enable any writer who is open to it.) It’s just that for a split second I feel This is it. Which, translated, is: This has caught some Essential — what I/we/the bus-Driver/s were after. It doesn’t intoxicate as such. It’s — like coming home.
sffchronicles: It seems that more and more of your novels and collections are published by the smaller presses. Do you feel that the smaller and newer presses allow you more freedom?
Tanith Lee: In many ways they do. Often they are run by writers themselves, and of high caliber. They know, of course, what writers hope for and try to accomplish, and exactly how they do NOT wish to be edited. An intelligent 2nd line editor is invaluable — one should always be one’s own 1st line editor. I have had the delight with working with 2 or 3 of these in the past, and now — with the writers I spoke of — very often. Even, once, one quite wonderful copy editor.
The good editors are gold. The rest… I rest my case.
Tanith Lee (born 19 September 1947) is a British writer of science fiction, horror and fantasy. She is the author of over 70 novels and 250 short stories, a children’s picture book (Animal Castle) and many poems. She also wrote two episodes of BBC science fiction series Blake’s 7. She was the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award best novel award (also known as the August Derleth Award), for her book Death’s Master (1980).
She also writes under the pseudonym Esther Garber.