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Blood is Deeper than Water: An Interview with Pamela Freeman

pamela.jpgPamela Freeman is a noted Australian author of children’s fiction. Her first adult novel, Blood Ties (my review), is set for release in April 2008, with the sequel, Deep Water (my review), in September or October of the same year. The final book in The Castings Trilogy, Full Circle, does not yet have a release date. As well as being a skilled epic fantasy writer, she is a mom, wife, and educator. She is also fastest responder I have ever interviewed. After I sent the questions to her publisher, Orbit, I had a response the very next day. And yet her answers are intelligent and full, suggesting to me that she is one sharp woman. I’m sure you’ll agree.

GFTW: You are an experienced children’s fiction writer with seventeen books to your name. Is your approach to writing children’s fiction and adult fiction different? In what way?

Pamela Freeman: The main difference, I think, is length! That sounds facile, but it actually makes a big difference to how you work. Most of the children’s books I have written are under 30,000 words. Blood Ties is around 150,000. I can keep all the details of a 30,000 word story in my head quite clearly, but with a larger and far more complex narrative I needed to spend a lot more time thinking about plot and timing, particularly as I had two main narratives running over several years. I am learning so much through the Castings Trilogy about writing long complicated stories!

GFTW: Recently the blog SF Signal asked a few authors of young adult fantasy and science fiction about the explicitness of sex in young adult fantasy and SF. Where do you draw the line in your fiction?

PF: The only YA fantasy I have written was for the Quentaris series, which doesn’t emphasise that aspect of storytelling, so it didn’t arise for me. In my other fantasies, I have been writing for younger children and I don’t put much about sex in them because I don’t think they’re really all that interested in it – they want a different kind of action! I think the line for me is about storytelling – when the details about the sex get in the way of the story, then it’s bad writing. Are the details relevant to the character’s development? Do they illuminate aspects of character or do they set up further developments in the plot? Then, by all means, put them in. But if they’re just there to be “exciting” then it’s bad storytelling.

GFTW: Blood Ties is your first novel for adults. Was there any fear or trepidation in making the jump from children’s fiction to the more critical adult world?

PF: Absolutely. That was why I wrote the book as part of a doctorate in creative arts – because I wanted some help in making the transition and I knew I’d get intensive supervision through a doctorate. I was lucky to have Debra Adelaide as my supervisor – a wonderful writer and editor. But don’t think that the children’s lit world isn’t critical! You are scrutinized and reviewed far more in children’s literature – every one of my books has been reviewed extensively, which is very unusual in adult writing, as you know.

GFTW: Blood Ties includes several vignettes of characters who are incidental to the story, but to whom you give a past or a future aside from their encounter with one of the three main characters. Where did the idea for this germinate?

PF: In fact, the stories came first, and the longer narrative came out of them. The very first story in the book, “The Stonecaster’s Story”, was written in 1996! I gradually, over a number of years, wrote a collection of stories set in the same world and often with the same characters, but it wasn’t until much later that I realised the larger story which they fitted into.

GFTW: What do you think the vignettes add to your story?

PF: There are three things. Firstly, I wanted to give a sense of what it might really be like, living in a world where fortune telling is reliable and ghosts appear three days after the person dies. How would that affect ordinary people and their lives? The stories explore that.

Secondly, fantasy novels traditionally concentrate on people who are “special”. I wanted to show that everyone has a story, that everyone is worth listening to. It’s a democratic impulse, I guess.

And thirdly, well, there is a larger structural reason I have those stories there, but you won’t find out what it is until the third book! But I promise, there is a thread connecting them all.

GFTW: Blood Ties began its life as a paper you were writing for your Doctoral degree in Creative Arts. Did you have to make significant changes to it to get it ready for publishing as a marketable novel? What kind of reception did you get from your advisors?

PF: I did have to make changes to it to get it ready for publication, but probably not more than I would usually do once a manuscript goes to an editor. Mostly it was about pace – my advisor was far more interested in character than pace and I had to tighten up the first third of the book. I was worried at one point in the doctorate that I was writing a story no one would want – it would be too “literary” for the marketplace and too genre for the literati. But fortunately that was just nerves, and I know that I am a much better writer after being challenged by my advisor to improve things like character development.

GFTW: The Travelers of your story are a race of people oppressed by the stronger and more prolific Actons. Why is racial oppression and the reactions to it the central theme of Blood Ties?

PF: Because I hate racism, I guess. Because I live in a society in which racism is alive and well, because decisions which affect people’s wellbeing are still made on the basis of race and culture, because it’s just not fair – and that is an anger that can keep me interested in a 450,000 word story, which is what the trilogy will eventually be.

GFTW: What is your response to some reviewers who might say that you resort to a little deus ex machina to give your characters powers not previously foreshadowed, or to get the characters to encounter one another?

PF: It’s deus ex lith or aqua with me! Yes, I do that, partly because I’m also interested in what it would be like to live with active gods, where you didn’t have to take deity on faith. Partly for fun – and you’ll note that I do it quite openly, that the interference is understood by everyone, rather than using some vague concept of “destiny” which is the same thing working behind a screen, like the Wizard of Oz. I’d rather have the machinery showing, as it were, because it feels more honest to me.

GFTW: Your inclusion of ghosts has a mystical, ancestor worship feel. That, and the divination from the casting of the bones, is the extent of the magic use in the story. Why did you avoid writing a complex magical system?

PF: Why is hard to answer. I started the stories by writing about stonecasting, and that just popped into my head and sat there, fully formed. Everything else followed from that. I suppose the other, technical answer is that one of the issues I am exploring is about the oppression of hierarchy, through the warlords, and for that to work they have to be unchallenged in power. Any complex magical system suggests an ability to harness power, which sets up another hierarchical system (the whole wizard’s college/guild thing) which would be in opposition to or in cahoots with secular power, it starts becoming another story altogether, one which I am not currently interested in writing. Maybe another day?

GFTW: The ghosts are an interesting part of the story. You require that characters who cause death return to the spot where the killed, lest they be haunted by the specter of those murdered. What was your intent in including such a requirement for your characters?

PF: There are two intents, the main one being the necessity for personal responsibility for violence. It’s not enough to just come back – you have to acknowledge your role in the person’s death and offer reparation. The other intent is story-driven – the army of ghosts which is raised in Blood Ties must be laid to rest, and there has to be a way of doing that which gels with the rest of that universe.

GFTW: Bramble comes from a good family, Ash from one that couldn’t take care of him, and Saker from one that was destroyed. Family has a great deal of effect on the characters, even if most of the story occurs away from them. Why such focus on these relationships?

PF: Cause that’s how humans work. We are the results of our backgrounds, mediated by our own character and ability, and we take our memories with us wherever we go and whatever we are doing. I’m not sure I could write a fully convincing character if I hadn’t thought about their family and backstory.

GFTW: What has been your favorite reaction from a reader?

PF: Someone emailed me and told me I was now their favourite writer! That was a real buzz. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of writer where people wait expectantly for the next book, and a number of people have told me that they are hanging out for Deep Water to be published, so that is very satisfying – one of the good things about writing a trilogy.

GFTW: How do you balance raising your son and writing fiction?

PF: I write while he is at school. I have an alarm which goes off half an hour before I have to pick him up, so I don’t forget because I am caught up in a scene (which almost happened once). Occasionally I write on weekends, but mostly just when he is out of the house. And I teach at night, when his dad is home (BTW, I also teach an online writing course at the Sydney Writers Centre.)

GFTW: What can you tell us about the sequel to Blood Ties, Deep Water?

PF: In Deep Water, the Well of Secrets sets our characters off on new journeys, some physical and some mental. Bramble learns a lot more about Acton and the invasion of the Domains by his people. Things are not as history has represented them! Ash must discover why his father has withheld songs from him which are crucial to the safety of the Domains. We meet new characters who will play big roles in the story and discover new kinds of beings and powers operating in the Great Forest and the deep waters and Saker’s ghost army is growing larger and stronger. It’s a more complex story and a faster pace than Blood Ties, and I hope it is full of surprises.

GFTW: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

PF: My pleasure!