Interview of Teresa

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Some of these questions came up during an interview by Tom King. Others are questions which various people have asked me since.

Q: Why do you write?

Like many other writers, my answer to this one is completely unoriginal. I write because I have stories to tell, stories that come roaring into my mind and won't give me any peace until I finally let them out by putting them down on paper. The first stories that I can remember making up were those I told to my little sister when I couldn't have been more than six or seven, and they were all very fantastical, about flying up to the clouds and having adventures there, and the stories I wrote down a little later were also in a fantasy vein. One of them was quite definitely a rip-off of The Wizard of Oz!

In a way, writing a story down is like an exorcism. Once I've written the book, the story finally loses its hold on me and I'm free to move on to something else. Unlike some of my more prolific colleagues, I have a hard time working on more than one project at a time. For me, it's like trying to conceive when I'm already pregnant.

Q:When did you first think about becoming a writer?

If by that you mean when did I first think about becoming a professional writer, I know that I made the decision when I was in the fourth grade and my teacher was reading the Little House books to the class. I identified so much with Laura, and because she grew up to become an author I suddenly realized that I could do the same. Up until that point, I don't think I thought of writing as something I could do as a career—just as something I did for the sheer pleasure of it.

Q: Who first encouraged your writing?

My parents and my teachers always told me that I was good at it, but I really can't say that anyone ever actively encouraged me to write. Not that I needed any encouragement.

My parents did, however, actively encourage my love of books. Though my father was a very busy man who worked long hours at a physically exhausting job, I have memories of sitting on his lap, when I was very small, while he read stories to me. And both of my parents made sure that I had plenty of books. As far back as I can remember, I had a wonderful collection of books, and we were always buying more.

Q: Where did the idea come from for your first novel?

There were two scenes, actually, that came into my mind at the very beginning, with very vivid images of snow and blood in a castle courtyard, and a girl who was a witch and a boy who felt he was under a terrible curse because he had sinned somehow ... and even though practically everything else changed as the story developed and I wrote draft after draft after draft (I stopped counting at twelve) both those scenes are still in the trilogy.

Q: What do you like most about being a writer? Dislike most?

Without a doubt, it's the writing itself. When it goes well, the act of writing is marvelous; it's euphoric. It's better than sex; it's better than chocolate. When I can't seem to make it work, it's sheer Hell. I'll go through periods, sometimes for months at a time, when everything that I write strikes me as wrong, wrong, WRONG. Interestingly enough, sometimes I'll go back and review those passages later, and decide that they weren't so bad after all. They weren't so good either, but they weren't nearly as awful as I thought at the time. But when it doesn't feel right, it's very hard work indeed.

The second best thing about writing is when someone tells me that they love my books or that something I wrote really moved them. Actually, that's probably tied for first place, because it's the thing that makes all the effort worthwhile. The second worst thing about writing is the sense of isolation I sometimes get.

Q: What writers have influenced vou most?

In fantasy, all the usual suspects: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, T.H. White, and Peter S. Beagle, and of course Andre Norton. Evangeline Walton is, in my opinion, a grossly under-recognized influence on the High Fantasy tradition. She influenced me directly without a doubt, and I believe that she influenced some of the other writers who influenced me. I do believe that her impact was nearly as profound and lasting as Tolkien's, and I sometimes wonder if the lack of recognition has something to do with the fact that women writers often don't get the respect they deserve. More recent authors would include Patricia McKillip. In terms of style, Charles Dickens. In terms of plot and setting, Rafael Sabatini, Thomas B. Costain, Margaret Campbell Barnes, Gladys Malverne, and dozens of other writers of historical romances and adventures that I read as a teenager and who made an enormous impression on my tender young psyche. Later on, I discovered Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, and I've never been the same since.

Q: What writers do you enjoy reading now?

Well, just about everyone that I mentioned above, I still like rereading ... though some of the historical romances don't stand up as well as they might. My own research has spoiled a certain amount of the innocent pleasure I used to take in what I can now see are wildly implausible plots, given the time, the place, and the way the world works in general. I don't read as much fantasy as I used to ... at least not for recreational reading. Because too often, I find myself "working." If I think the book is poorly written I find myself trying to improve it; and if it's good, I find myself comparing it with my own work and trying to think of ways to get some of the same "oomph" into my books. Kate Elliott's big four-part series is one of the few recent fantasies that really succeeded in drawing me in in spite of myself. But mostly, for pleasure, I read mysteries these days. Since I have not and do not (at this time) ever intend to write a mystery, I'm not tempted to make comparisons and I can just relax and enjoy myself. My favorite mysteries are the Bast books by Rosemary Edghill.

For light reading, no one can match P.G. Wodehouse for witty dialogue, clever plot twists, and sheer mastery of the English language. I have to not think about that last part when I am reading, though, or I end up studying his technique instead of just going along for the ride.

Q: As a writer, you are often mentioned as a stylist. How did you come to concentrate so much on this particular part of the writing process?

For years, I had no style at all. I kept trying to copy various other people, with very unfortunate results, to say the least. Then one day, several years and several drafts into writing the first trilogy, my style just suddenly arrived out of nowhere, whole and coherent. I can show you the exact passage, which is now at the very beginning of the trilogy. An idea of what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it came into my head, and when I sat down to write it, it was literally the best and the easiest bit of writing I had ever done up until then. And it was distinctive. It might strike some people as mannered, as a bit old-fashioned, but it was my own natural writing voice.

Up until that time, when other people were talking about style I had no idea what they meant. But when I finally began to understand, I realized that the books that I loved the very most had all been written by master stylists, writers who seemed to have a very precise and conscious control of their style; somehow, even though I didn't understand what they were doing or why it was a good thing that they were doing it, those books and writers had an impact on me.

Between the time that I was finishing up Child of Saturn and now [1999] ... I would say that I have become more aware of style as I write, but I still believe that I do my best writing, and even my most stylish writing, when it all comes pouring out naturally, without very much thought on my part at all. I guess you would call it inspiration. The parts I write when I'm in that state of mind seem to require very little polishing afterwards, while the parts that I have to write slowly and laboriously almost always require a lot of fixing later.

Q: What do you think is the most important lesson you've learned in twenty years of writing?

The importance of revision. I used to think if you were a truly talented writer you would get it right the first time, but that's not always true. On the other hand, while I have learned a great many important lessons about plot and pacing and structure and characterization and style and clarity, I can't let myself think about those things consciously while I'm working on the first draft or so, because that bogs me down, when I need to let the ideas just flow. The difference is that what I had to make right by trial and error (sometimes repeated error) when I was first starting out, now, when I read over what I have written and I have a gut reaction that tells me something is wrong, then I can go through a whole long list of things that I've learned over the years, to find out where I made my mistakes. Once I identify those mistakes, it's usually fairly easy to fix them. Identifying them is really the big thing. But this only works when it's a mechanical problem or problems. If the story is simply going off in the wrong direction, it can take me a long time to find the problems and solve them; that, I am sorry to say, has not changed so very much over the years.

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