I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Shinn last fall with all of the questions that had built up over a decade or more of reading her work. After reading her most recent novel, Troubled Waters, I found I had a few more questions, most of them related to the new book. I caught up with Sharon via email to discuss how it felt to write a single novel after spending so long on a series, what some of her inspirations behind the setting were, and what’s coming up next for her.
Elena Nola: Your last five (adult) novels were all in the Twelve Houses series, and your last book was a collection of novellas set in previously established worlds. Did that long hiatus from going to a new place make it harder or easier to write in a new setting?
Sharon Shinn: There’s always a great deal of effort involved in world-building, so I had to spend a lot of time coming up with names and geography and clothing details and cultural details and calendars for Troubled Waters. In that sense, it was harder than some of the recent books I’ve done. But frankly, it’s also difficult to write in an established world, because you have to remember allllllll the details that you’ve put in place already, including the small unimportant ones that you blithely tossed off and then forgot about and that later trip you up because they contradict something you want to write about in a new story.
What I really think is that it’s never easy to write a book. Which is a great disappointment to me! I thought it WOULD be, once I figured out how to do it!
Now that you’ve written a true series in the Twelve Houses books, do you think you prefer writing standalone novels or series in general?
They both have different charms. With the Twelve Houses books, I loved the main characters so much that I found it easy to dip back into their style of banter and their interrelationships. They were fun to write and fun to hang out with. But OMG, keeping track of the details of five books was SO HARD. And I planned the books as a series, so I was keeping track from day one. I kept a special file, and every time I mentioned someone’s height or eye color or city of origin or family background, I went back in and added that information. Even so, there was stuff I forgot to include, stuff that I wrote down but in such an obscure fashion that I couldn’t find the information when I needed it, and stuff I wished I could change from book one to book five, but it was too late because the first books were already in print.
I’ve always liked writing standalone books. I have a story in my head, I clearly understand the beginning-middle-end, I get to the last page, it’s over. There’s a certain freedom and relief in writing that way. But then I don’t get the chance to live with characters on an extended basis and learn more about them as I go along. So, to answer your question, I guess I’d say: It depends.
There were parts of the world in Troubled Waters that reminded me of India—the bright colors of clothing, the riverbank spread with people who had nowhere else to go…. Was that a conscious inspiration for you or just coincidental?
In the ten years between the time I first had the idea and the time I sat down to write the story, I always referred to it as “my Calcutta book,” so, yes, that was a conscious inspiration. Though by the time I got around to writing it, the setting was much less like India and more like its own place.
The river played a large part in Zoe’s story. Rivers have been a common landmark in several of your books, but this was the first time it was such a big part of the setting and the story. And your city has the Mississippi running through it, so I wondered if there was much of your own river (or feelings for the river) infused into the setting and/or making Zoe a child of the river?
I think any time you live near some primal elemental feature, it works its way into your calculations even when you aren’t consciously thinking about it. When I lived in Chicago, I was always aware of Lake Michigan, even when I was miles away from it and couldn’t see it; it was so vast it just became the basis of all orientation. Right now, I live about ten miles from the Mississippi, and I don’t go boating or fishing, so I don’t really spend time on it, but it’s always there. It defines the boundary of the city. And at times it’s impossible to overlook.
I was working in downtown St. Louis, a few blocks from the riverfront, during the Great Flood of 1993 that sent the Mississippi so high over its banks that whole streets were 20 feet underwater for days. People would go down and sit on the top steps of the Arch, because the rest of them were underwater, and just sit for hours watching the river roil past. A lot of them had their video cameras out, filming the river like it was some kind of theatrical production. Something that powerful just naturally works its way into a story.
In Welce one of the traits of the Water blessings is change, and that was probably the most prominent of them in this story. I’m curious whether Zoe was always coru, water, or if her affiliation became clear after you realized what a force of change she was going to be for her society?
Zoe was always coru. I had some of the major plot points worked out before I started writing, including the big one near the end that involves water, so it was always clear to me that that would be her elemental affiliation.
That being said, I was pretty late in my plotting process before I developed the notion of the blessings and decided which ones should be associated with which elemental trait. Fortunately, “change” and “surprise” and the other obvious coru traits nicely suited her story. 🙂
Maybe half your books now are told exclusively from one character’s point of view, as opposed to alternating between hero and heroine. Is it always obvious to you when you start writing which way a story needs to be told? Troubled Waters, for example, is a very different story if we know Darien’s motivations all along, but I’m curious how much time you spend considering that other story before you decide which path to take?
It’s usually pretty clear to me at the beginning—in part for that very reason. If the reader knows what the other characters are thinking, does that heighten or lessen the tension? Sometimes, as with Mystic and Rider, I used the alternating points of view to withhold information from the reader. For instance, in the scene where Senneth and Kirra visit with Ariane Rappengrass, the chapter is told from Tayse’s point of view. If it had been told from Senneth’s point of view, the reader would learn much earlier the truth of Senneth’s heritage.
Sometimes I choose the single point of view because the book seems to be so very much one character’s story. That’s the case with Troubled Waters. It’s really Zoe’s journey from start to finish. She changes so much from beginning to end that if you finish the book, then flip back to page one to start rereading, you find it hard to believe she’s the same person. I don’t think that transformation would be as effective or believable if the reader didn’t follow her through every minute of the story.
Your website mentions that your next novel is an urban fantasy. What you can tell me at this point about the story or what your slant on “our-world plus…” is going to be?
It’s done, it’s turned in, it’s been accepted, but it won’t be published until spring 2012. It’s hard to know how much to give away here. It’s set in present-day St. Louis and the main character is a 30-something woman named Maria who’s been in love with a shape-shifter since college. Except…she’s never actually seen him change shape. He leaves for weeks at a time, claiming to be off in his other form, and she’s chosen to believe him. But things start happening to make her question whether he’s telling the truth—and if he is telling the truth, if he’s done some terrible things—and if he’s done some terrible things, if she can still love him. No kickass heroine, no vampires, but a lot of emotional tension and a few intense love scenes. 🙂 The working title, btw, is The Shape of Desire.
This is something a little different for you (at least in terms of novels; I know you’ve worked with contemporary fantasy in short form for one of the Powers of Detection anthologies, and an upcoming ghost anthology). What made you decide to go for urban fantasy in a novel—was it a desire to do something completely different, or did that particular story came to you, obviously as one that would only work as UF?
I was seized with an idea that literally just invaded my head. Usually I mull a story over for six months to several years before I start writing, but I had the idea on a Monday and started writing on a Thursday. I wrote the first 80 pages before I set it aside and worked out the rest of the story in my mind. So I can’t exactly say it was something I chose to do. But this story can only work in a contemporary setting, so that’s where it takes place.
So it kind of sounds like you went between two extremes with the writing process of Troubled Waters (10 years before you wrote it) and Shape of Desire (started, at least, immediately). What that was like for you, as a writer, to have a book just DEMAND to be written like that when your normal MO is to think it all first?
Most of the time, when I have a new book idea, it IS a matter of being seized by it. I’ll have a kind of euphoria as I figure out who the characters are and how certain plot points should unfold. But the storyline is often so complex that I’m only getting that clarity on a few scenes, a few major themes, and I know I have to mull it over longer to put together an entire narrative arc.
In the past, before I had a job and book contracts, I would write down the most vivid scenes as they occurred to me. Sometimes I wrote entire pieces of short fiction that way, very fast, while the ideas were bubbling up so insistently. Other times I just wrote the specific scenes that I could see so clearly, and later began the long, laborious process of stitching them into the novel as a whole.
I like to work that way, because it IS fun. But these days, it’s rare that I have the free time to spend a few weeks getting those ideas on paper when they’re so fresh and raw. The opening sequence for The Shape of Desire just happened to come at a time when I wasn’t working on anything else, so it was something of a luxury to pour the words out so quickly. (It was also something of an annoyance…I had been looking forward to a little break from the writing routine, but here I was, back at the computer, obsessively pounding out chapters.)
However, as a general rule, that headlong style of writing doesn’t work for me. In the old days, when I rushed to put the opening scenes on paper, I often didn’t know what to do next. I had a great chapter or a great conversation, but nowhere to GO with the story. These days, when I’m seized by the idea, I’m usually aware that it’s only part of the story. And I know if I think about it (for months or years) I’m more likely to actually FINISH it.
The elation of conceiving a new idea only takes you so far—at least, it only takes ME so far. It’s like Thomas Edison said…10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration. But that inspiration sure is fun.
Do you have any more YA novels in the works or at least in mind at the moment?
I don’t! That’s not to say I’ll never go back to that genre, but not in the near future.
Finally just some fun questions to end with: What would your element(s) be if you lived in Welce?
Mostly torz, with a little sweela thrown in. I’m one of those grounded, stubborn people who resists change…but I like to think I have some of the fire traits of creativity and intelligence.
Do you think you would you make a better Truth-teller or Safe-keeper?
Like most people, I think I’ve played both roles at different times. I love the idea of being a Safe-Keeper, but at heart I’m more of a Truth-Teller (so, obviously, I need to be honest here!).
And what do you think your mystic power (or possibly-derived-from-a-god talent, if you weren’t an obvious mystic) would be if you were from Gillengaria?
Well, I’ve always wanted to be a reader—that seems to be a useful skill for so many reasons. But these days, as I find myself writing more shape-shifter stories, I start thinking that that’s the power I’d like to have. Sadly, I’ve shown no evidence of either kind of magic.
Big thanks to Sharon for the interview. If you haven’t read any of her books, Troubled Waters would make an excellent dropping off point–check out my review here. You can learn more about Sharon’s other books and keep up with current news at her website.