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Hidden Reality: An Interview with Michelle Sagara West

author-02.thumbnail.jpgMichelle Sagara West is a prolific author under several pen names. In our interview, she talks about being a bookseller, writing a prequel, and how she wants to write characters who are real and behave in realistic ways. A very knowledgeable writer who employs beautiful language even when she is just doing an interview with a lowly blogger like me, Michelle West is an author you should look into reading.

Be sure to read my review of The Hidden City, where Michelle comments on my review and talks more about writing real characters.

Grasping for the Wind: Besides being a writer, you are also a bookseller at Bakka-Phoenix in Toronto. Do you find that rewarding? Any memories of a favorite sale you made?

Michelle West: I love, love, love working in a bookstore. I think I always have (I’ve worked in bookstores, changing employers, without a break since I was sixteen years old.)

Part of the reason that I started writing novels was indirectly because of that. I had taken creative writing before, in both high school and university, and I had mostly concentrated on poetry or the type of dense prose that is almost poetry, but as I wasn’t going to follow an academic career track, this didn’t seem like anything I could do as a career; I still write poetry, but with one exception, have never tried to get any of it published.

I knew that I would never make enough to live on as a bookseller; the income is middling retail, even working full-time, and while it seemed like a lot at sixteen, once I actually had to pay rent and do things like eat, it wasn’t.

So… I thought about the things I could do, and love, that I could combine with bookselling so that I could pull my own weight, and I decided that I would try to write fiction, for publication.

But yes, I find it rewarding. Because it’s a job that involves books. Books and reading have always been enormously important to me. I love being able to figure out what customers like to read, and I love being able to match them with books they will love (even if they’re books that I personally don’t or can’t love in the same way). It’s the best part of the job. It does mean, though, that I’m thoroughly broken of the habit of shoving my books into the hands of people whose taste I don’t have any sense of, because I feel, on some level, that I should only be giving them things I have some sense they’ll love. And frankly, Military SF readers are not going to love my books, as a single example.

I think possibly one of my favorite sales — and these blur over time — was to a retired older gentleman who came into the store when the three people working were all women who were significantly younger than he was. He was polite, but he was so very hesitant because we were all girls.

I understand that some people would find this irritating; we didn’t because he was of a generation in which it was probably extremely rare to run across women who adored the genre he loved — and he approached with that hesitance to ask me if maybe I had heard of a couple of authors (Alfred Bester, A.E. Van Vogt, Asimov), and of course, I had. When I started to answer, he relaxed completely, and just started to talk. His grandson was interested in SF, and he was hoping to find some of the books that he’d loved and read in the original to give to his grandson. We did find a couple of those (with some argument over the best of the Besters, but it was a friendly argument), and then I gave him a few more recent novels as well.

He bought those, and he thanked us for our time, and he left — but for some reason that particular sale stays with me.

For more of West’s thoughts on bookselling read her interview with Jim C. Hines.

GFTW: Your latest novel, The Hidden City, is a tragic novel. Why did you decide to write a novel so filled with tragedy, but with the faintest hint of hope?

MS: I’m not quite sure how to answer this, because I had no intention of writing a novel that -was- a tragedy.

I’ve written the six-book series, THE SUN SWORD, and one major plot thread was not addressed by the end of it: the House War, which would be the war for control and rulership of House Terafin, the most powerful of the Houses in the Empire. I wanted to write about the House War, and I intended to write in the present of the current time-line, with flash- backs to the early years of the den, as a braided narrative.

This was the plan, but when I started to write the first book of what I thought was two books, the start of the book was from Rath’s viewpoint. A little bit about this.

I will start a novel many times, from different viewpoints and during different events, trying to find my way into the book. I have false positives sometimes, if I’m writing something I really like, but when I actually have the start of the book in hand, I know. With HIDDEN CITY, the start of the book, unfortunately, was Rath’s viewpoint.

For a variety of reasons, and attempting not to spoil, this meant that the braided past/present narrative structure was not going to work. Which meant that I could either give up on writing about the den’s past, or I could write a book (or two) about it. And in the end, I chose to write about the den’s past.

You will probably think this is slightly funny, but when I started the book, I felt that readers would find it less stressful because they already know who lives and who dies. My husband, however, pointed out that new readers wouldn’t know this up front.

I never considered the book itself a tragedy, possibly because I’ve written so much about the den in the ‘present’. I knew that where they came from was not by any stretch of the imagination what we would call a good life, but I also knew that they would see it from a different cultural context. So what I was concerned with, as a writer, was making their situation, and the subsequent way they came together as a family, more real.

You and I have talked a bit about action and consequence before. I don’t feel the need to invent a new and interesting way to kill people, because I think the tragedy of death, and the way in which we’re scarred by the things that don’t kill us, don’t require the All New Interesting Death option. What I do want, though, is some sense of the emotional aftermath of actions, because it’s our -reaction- to tragedy that illuminates who we are. So, in your review, when you talk about the lack of actual action, you’re touching on something that probably annoys some readers; it’s not the action itself that interests me so much as what comes -of- the action.

And what comes of action is often the thing that is elided, so the actions themselves, which might be the same — or far worse — don’t hit us as hard.

I also don’t feel that I am doing anything darker in these books than other fantasists do; I think the possible difference is the protagonists live in their lives. They are not living quiet, happy lives when you find them, and they have no easy way of rising above the lives they lead because of their age and their situation. What they can do, though, is privilege the positive over the negative in the lives they are leading.

What Jewel offers them, and what they offer each other, is a better way of living, or a more hopeful one.

GFTW: Rath�s character was the most difficult for me as a reader to understand. What was your intent in writing about a character who could be so kind as to allow Jewel�s children to live with him, yet ignore them otherwise?

MS: I’ve learned, over time, that I can’t actually predict which of my characters readers will love, and which they will hate, so I simply try to make the characters as real as I can, and let them stand on their own.

In this case, Rath is a person who has survived by wits and skill for a number of decades, in a variety of different social circumstances; he is not a very social man, and Jewel was therefore a surprise, to him. His reactions to her, which, over the course of the book become clear, stem from his past and his inability to accept that past for what it was.

But, it’s less simple than that. What she is, he doesn’t see clearly at first, because no two people understand each other perfectly on first meeting. Or second. I could argue that there are some people who can live with each other for years and never understand each other completely, because it takes a certain amount of will, intent, and attention. In part, and against his better judgment, he allows her to build her den because he’s curious about where, and how far, she’s willing to take things, and because he tells himself he can get rid of her — and them — at any time.

I’m not sure if I’m answering your question, because I’m not sure I entirely understand it =/. He was willing to take her in, but unwilling to let her get in the way of his life — because, if he were being true to his own vision of himself, she wouldn’t be part of his life. At all. And also because the type of work he does, if it can be called work, requires long stretches of time away from his home.

He ignores them because he doesn’t want them to know, or be involved, in his work. He doesn’t feel that this is cruel – why would he? He’s not living in a society in which cruelty can be defined by neglect of this nature. Jewel’s father loved her, but when the docks and ports were open, he was -never home- because if he were home, it would mean he had -no work-, which would mean starvation and death for the two of them. Even when her Oma died, and Jay was alone in the home for hours on end, nothing about her isolation could change the truth of that fact; her father -could not be home-.

Rath is somewhat similar, but were he inclined, he might use cash reserves to stay home; he’s not. He uses the money for other elements (often unexpected) that his business might require (hiring Harald and his men, for instance).

In modern day life, this type of neglect might seem horrific. But even when my parents were children, it was frequently a fact of life.

GFTW: The Hidden City is a prequel to the other novels you have written set in the same world. Was it difficult for you to go back and write a story set in the history of your established characters? Did you have to do a lot of research back into what you had written before in order to remain consistent with the story you had already told, or was it easy to remember since you had been intimate with these characters for so long?

MS: The first word I wrote about Jewel and her den was sometime in 1994. I’m still writing about them now (the current work in progress is HOUSE NAME, sequel to HIDDEN CITY) in 2008.

So, fourteen years, more or less, and I think it would not be inaccurate to say that I’m not quite the same person I was fourteen years ago, because life experience does change the way you think and view the world.

I’ve always written — usually briefly — about elements of the den’s past from the present. This is not hard because the past, the scene or scenes that I write, are not connected to anything -but- the character in the present; they’re meant to underline emotion.

Since I had intended to write a braided narrative of past/present, to give readers a stronger sense of when the den was formed, and how, and why the current House War was so relevant to them as a whole, I didn’t worry too much. When it became what it is now, however, it was significantly more difficult.

The whole paradigm of the past changes, because it’s -no longer- the past; it’s not used in small glimpses as a way of underscoring emotion in the now. The past -becomes- the now. And the now of story makes stronger demands on narrative structure because it has to work as a novel, it has to have the power of story and causality behind it.

Before I started, I read all of the books, and I made notes about anything I said. I missed a couple of things, and as usual, minor details shifted because I’m not very good at remembering things that are physical. I also discovered, to my surprise, that my writing style has changed over time; I hadn’t expected this, although I probably should have, because what -I- remember about these books are the key emotional scenes that drove me to write them in the first place.

I then made a time-line of known events, and dropped those which simply didn’t work. I didn’t overwrite them, but there are a few places over the years where I have changed ages by a year =/.

But the hardest part about writing something like this? I know what’s going to happen. Not only do I know (and this is not unusual), but I’m – stuck with it-. It’s -already happened-.

So anything that the characters reveal, anything they grow into, ways in which they present themselves that I didn’t expect or didn’t fully anticipate can’t actually -change- the events that are already writ in stone.

It’s this last that makes it challenging and very difficult, because my normal writing process allows anything at all to change within the context of what I know about the world. Even if the story at the time requires that something in the middle of the book -has to- happen… I change it. I need to feel that the book itself is organic, and that
what happens is a natural extension of character and reaction.

Which, in books of this nature, I can’t freely do with nearly the openness. Which is not to say that things did not occur which surprised me. Rath was a surprise to me.

GFTW: You have written many reviews for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. How do you approach review writing, and what do you do while reading a book to ensure that your review is well-written and thoughtful?

MS: First, I started reviewing because I needed to read, and every time I sat down with a book, I would look at the mess of my house or the words that needed writing or the children that wanted time, and I would put it down. A review column meant that it was work, so I could read without guilt.

Sadly, I am not making this up.

Both of my kids are older now, and I get much more of a chance to read, but because I still can’t read as much as I used to before I had children, I don’t finish anything I don’t like. This means that in general, I’m going to be reviewing books for which I’m in some part the natural audience; I liked them enough to finish them, flaws aside.

So I start with a pile of new books and ARCs, and I just open them up and start reading. If for some reason I didn’t care enough to finish a book, I obviously won’t be reviewing it.

I consider the reviews I do to be entirely different creatures from critiques, the long and more detailed look at a book’s themes, influences, and history. I love these, by the way — but they’re not, in general, what I write. I write reviews in large part as an extension of what I do at the store when someone asks for a book recommendation. Which means I have to have enough plot synopsis to give a reader an idea of what the book is about, without spoiling anything that might otherwise surprise them.

What I try to do with each review is think of who I’d be recommending it to, in store, because obviously I have no face-to-face time with the readers of these reviews. The review only has to (hopefully) speak to the possible audience for the book (or what I think is the possible audience, because after all is said and done, a review is simply an opinion).

I also try to match tone to content; if a book requires a great deal of thought and concentration, like Hal Duncan’s VELLUM, I try to make that clear; if the book is possessed of strong narrative ticks (see VELLUM again), I also try to make that clear, because if you’re doing things with narrative structure that don’t follow a relatively straight line, that’s where (in my bookstore experience) you’ll lose the most readers; it’s not the prose, and it’s not even the felicity of characterization. But I adored that book, and it ate my brain for a couple of weeks, and I also made that perfectly clear.

For something like a Patricia Briggs book, which you can read at the end of a long and frustrating day, none of these things (except that I really liked the book) are going to be a problem; these reviews tend to emphasize the nature of the entertainment, and they deal with flaws (if there are flaws) that make the book less entertaining than it might otherwise have been.

Which is a long way of saying, it depends on the book .

If I were reviewing books I didn’t particular care for, I would approach things differently.

GFTW: Finally, what has been a response from a reader that you particularly enjoyed getting?

MS: I think one of my favourite emails was one I received for BROKEN CROWN many years ago. In it, the reader thanked me because she said the book was the first fantasy novel she had read in over ten years in which the characters never felt out of character; that all of their many actions seemed entirely true to who they were, and none of those actions seemed to be undertaken at my convenience.

Actually, let me give you another: email I received after HUNTER’S OATH had been published. The email was not actually -about- HUNTER’S OATH, but it was written by a young woman who lived in Oregon. She had seen OATH, had picked it up, had put it down, had come back and picked it up, had put it down, and while she was in the process of doing this, she remembered the last book that she had done this with: my very first published novel, INTO THE DARK LANDS. It was a book that she’d read at 16 years of age, and she adored it.

So she picked up HUNTER’S OATH, and read the copyright page. And saw that it was, in fact, written by the same author as INTO THE DARK LANDS. Which is when she hunted down an email address for me. The email was long, and she’d read all of my novels, which she used as incentive to get through her exams. We corresponded for a number of years after that, before we finally fell out of touch — but that first letter that she wrote almost justified the entire SUNDERED series for me, and at a time when I needed it.

Because in the end? I write books that I hope will move and affect readers in the same way that I am moved and affected by books that I’ve read and loved. I know that it’s not possible for me to move everyone this way, but when it does work, it makes me feel as if I’ve achieved something that is valuable, or meaningful.

GFTW: Thank you very much for your time.

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