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Kingmaker, Kingbreaker: An Interview with Karen Miller

Karen Miller, author of two of Orbit’s US releases, The Innocent Mage and The Awakened Mage graciously agreed to an interview with me. This duology is not your standard fantasy, and its subtlety in being original and its daring in dealing with real, human drama makes for fascinating novels. I hope you enjoy the interview.

Grasping for the Wind: Thanks for agreeing to an interview. Could you give a quick overview of the story for the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology for those who haven’t read it yet?

Karen Miller: And thanks for asking me! Kingmaker, Kingbreaker (books 1 and 2) is the story of two men who are brought together by fate and manipulation to avert a long foretold calamity in the small, isolated kingdom of Lur. Though they come from remarkably different backgrounds — Asher is blue collar, a fisherman, and Gar is blue blood, a prince, they become unlikely friends who discover they have far more in common than they could have imagined. It’s a story about friendship and sacrifice and secrets and lies and how far people will go to get what they want. There’s a lot of drama and intrigue, some magic but very few swords. As for actual plot details, well … *g* I think that’s what reading the book is for!

GFTW: The main character, Asher, speaks colloquially and with a pronounced accent. Was it difficult for you to write such an accent, and why did you choose to have this important character be a country bumpkin?

KM:Well, I feel I have to leap to Asher’s defence here. I don’t believe he’s a country bumpkin. And I don’t think having an accent makes someone a bumpkin, either. I think that’s an unfortunate assumption that people make, that does a great disservice to folk who are smart and funny and clever and resourceful and who happen to come from a place with a strong regional accent. How a person speaks, in terms of dialect or accent or even their colloquialisms, has no bearing on their effectiveness as a leader, an innovator, and is in no way a barometer of their intelligence.

I will happily accept the premise that Asher is unsophisticated. He is. He’s also not perfect — he has foibles and prejudices, just like you and I do. But he’s very smart, he adapts to his environment, and when things get tough he hangs in there. The rest of it’s just window dressing, to my mind.

In terms of developing his speech patterns, that certainly took some thinking and revision. I love writing dialogue, so I don’t know that it was so much difficult as interestingly challenging. *g* I certainly wanted to show what his regional way of speaking was like, to contrast him with the more ‘refined’ modes of speech of the royal family and the staff who served them. It also gave me a chance to show how he’s able to adapt to his circumstances, but also how he knows to use his accent as a weapon and as a method of maintaining his identity as his life undergoes its radical transformations. His accent is a way of holding onto his identity, and I thought was an important statement about the kind of man he is.

GFTW: The Innocent Mage addresses themes of race, justice, and family. Was there any particular reason you delved into these particular themes?

KM: Well, I suppose because they interest me. Human drama interests me, human interaction and relationships and conflicts interest me. They’re very personal, they involve high stakes, high risk. We’re all affected by them on a daily basis, so they’re the kind of themes that touch us all personally and allow readers to identify with the characters and their journeys. And when you’re dealing with the fantastic, as we do in fantasy fiction, I think that’s a key point to remember. The more real and grounded you make the characters and their lives, the easier it is to suspend disbelief on the more outlandish elements of the story.

GFTW: The Innocent Mage, while full of drama, lacks much of the action of traditional high fantasy. Why did you choose to avoid the standard model?

KM: Well, I guess as writers we’re attracted to telling the kinds of stories we like to read. While I don’t dislike action stuff, as such, it’s never interested me the way high stakes human drama and interaction interest and engage me. For me, one battle is pretty much like the next, it’s all swords and blood, whereas the battleground of human relationships and the human heart contain infinite complexities and variations. Also, I currently lack the requisite physical and tactile experience of battle to, I feel, really do it justice. I’m working on rectifying that, since I would like the option of including the larger scale battle scenes in future works. I’m not certain I consciously chose to avoid the traditional action — or if I did it wasn’t out of disdain for the form — it’s more a case of recognising my strengths and weaknesses and limitations. If I can’t do it well I don’t want to do it at all — but when I think I can make a decent fist of it, I’ll give it my best shot.

But, you know, having said all that — I guess I’ll always be interested in looking at new ways to approach the traditions of the genre. And I think I can safely say that even when I do get around to including the big action scenes, they’ll still be influenced by the intimate human dimension. Without a strong personal component to the action, without human consequences, it becomes too much like a computer game for me to have any emotional connection to the events and the writing of them.

GFTW: You excellently weave humor into your story, a relatively uncommon thing in high fantasy. Why did you choose to have characters act or speak humorously?

KM: Well, thank you! To be honest, it wasn’t a conscious choice. I never once thought, oooh, I have to put a funny bit in here. Sometimes the characters open their mouths and say stuff that makes you smile, or maybe laugh. Well, okay, it makes me smile and laugh sometimes — can’t begin to tell you how I relieved I feel that I’m not alone! *g* It all kind of grows out of the characters and their personalities and how they see the world. People who permit a sense of the ridiculous into their worldview are going to have humour in their makeup, I think. And it becomes a natural outgrowth of the way they think and speak and interact. But it all comes down to individual personalities. Some folk just never see the funny. Or they’re so serious they appear funny to others, which lends a different kind of humour.

GFTW: Some of your antagonist characters, when you get us inside their heads, we find are not truly evil, just misguided (i.e. Durm). And your hero characters make mistakes or act selfishly. Why did you avoid the standard good vs. evil characterization in your characters?

KM: I think it’s important to recognise that, with a few possible exceptions, people are a complicated tangle of positive and negative
traits. So to make any kind of character all good or all bad flies in the face of honesty about what it means to be a human being. For me, the interest and engagement with a character lies within the conflicts, the contradictions, the messiness of wanting to do the right thing and the wrong thing, and the reasons behind which path is chosen and the consequences of those decisions. The choices we make in our lives shape and define us, and examining that journey is, for me, one of the most fun things about reading stories and writing them. This sometimes frustrating dichotomy was brought home to me some years ago. I worked for a man who was in many ways extremely distasteful. But while he was dying of cancer he thought to arrange tickets for me to a classical music concert because he knew I love classical music and thought I’d enjoy it. And that was an interesting experience, because while I wanted to go on feeling dislike for him, that one act of kindness forced me to recognise that nobody’s all bad, all horrible. Even the worst people are capable of kindness, generosity, love. It was a good lesson to learn.

GFTW: What has been the most surprising response you have received from your readers?

KM: There’s been nothing surprising, as such, though much has been gratifying. I love it when people say that while they don’t usually read fantasy, they read and enjoyed my books. I feel like I’ve made a new convert to the cause! It’s wonderful! And I love it when people who generally focus on the action-heavy kinds of fantasy find they can also enjoy the more internal, human drama kind of storytelling. I think both kinds of story are important, they both add enormous depth and value to the fantasy field, and it’s fun getting people to read outside the box.

I think that’s the bookseller coming out in me!

GFTW: Are you working on any new projects? What can you tell us about them?

KM: I am indeed. I have my first fantasy trilogy on the burner at the moment, Godspeaker. Book 1 is out in Australia now, book 2 is out in December, and book 3 will be out here next June. The trilogy will be published next year, 2008, in the US and UK, again by Orbit. It’s got bigger scope, a more complex world. It’s proving an enormous challenge to write. I think it’s safe to say that there’s no Disney whatsoever in book 1. *g* The first chapter is available as a taste test on my website, www.karenmiller.net. The Australian title is Empress of Mijak. In the US/UK it’ll be called Empress. A sample of chapter 2 will be going up shortly, and will show a different part of the world with a different cast of characters.

I’m also finishing a new Stargate SG-1 novel, before leaping into writing book 3 of Godspeaker. I’ve got a new project being finalised, but I can’t talk about it yet, plus next year a new series coming out in Australia, under a pen name. Still fantasy, but standalone novels with continuing characters, and with a much stronger vein of humour. Not full out comic fantasy, but definitely with comic tones. That series hasn’t found an overseas home yet, but I’m working on it.

In other words, I’m pretty busy for the next little while … *g*

GFTW: Anything you’d like to say to folks thinking about reading The Innocent Mage?

KM: Well, really, all I can say is please give it a try because I love it and with luck you’ll love it too! And then I’d add, to those who do take the plunge, thank you very much! Hope I didn’t disappoint.

Thanks a bunch, John.

You are welcome.