Interview: Lynn Flewelling
By Charlene Brusso
9 April 2001
Like many authors, Lynn Flewelling, the author of the Nightrunner fantasy series, is a woman of many talents -- teacher, pathologist, and potato-picker, to name a few -- all of which inform her lively and detailed writing. The Nightrunner series (Luck in the Shadows, Stalking Darkness, and Traitor's Moon) stars Seregil and Alec, two of the most memorable rogues in current-day heroic fantasy. These swashbuckling misfits lead complicated lives, flitting between a decadent existence as gentlemen of leisure, on the one hand, and skilled professional thieves on the other. But even that is only a cover for their true calling, as spies in service to the wizard Nysander and the Skalan monarchy, undermining plots against Queen and country.
Charlene Brusso: What inspires you as a writer and gets your creative juices flowing? Where does your muse hail from?
Lynn Flewelling: Abstinence (from writing, I mean) is great. So is walking, and doing meandering, seemingly aimless historical research. And my muse is from Sorrento, Maine.
CB: Are we talking the Maine equivalent of Poughkeepsie here?
LF: Sorrento is a very small village on the Maine coast, right across Frenchman's Bay from Bar Harbor. My mom grew up there and I spent a lot of time down there with my grandparents. If there is any spot on the planet that is my spiritual home, it is Sorrento, and not just because I have great memories of it. That whole area of the coast, including Acadia National Park across the bay, has a magical energy. You just know you're someplace different and special. My husband proposed to me in Sorrento. I started the very first draft of Luck sitting on the beach, finished the final draft there on my anniversary, and was staying there when I got the call about several contract deals.
Down the road a ways, at Schoodic Point, I came across a particular stretch of shoreline that inspired the entire ending of Stalking Darkness, which I'd been completely stuck over. All those Plenimaran coastline scenes? That's all Frenchman's Bay.
CB: You grew up on Presque Isle, Maine. What's life like there? Did growing up on an island give you any particular insights for themes or features of the world in the Nightrunner series?
LF: Presque is French for "almost." Presque Isle is a small city of 10,000 or so in northern Maine, situated in the V of the Aroostook River and Prestile Stream -- though aside from having to cross a small bridge now and then, you hardly notice them. It's less than an hour's drive from the New Brunswick border, less than two from Quebec, and if you head north in certain directions, you hit towns where Acadian French is the everyday language.
Growing up there certainly informs my writing. While Presque Isle had a small university, and lots of white collar jobs, just outside town lay miles of potato fields and the North Maine Woods. I spent a good part of my childhood fishing, hunting, picking wild food, and didn't see Boston until I was 16. I think my character, Alec, stems from all that. He grows up thinking the whole world is pretty much what he knows, then discovers a larger world and falls in love with it.
The Northlands are modeled to some extent on the people and places I grew up with, although my travels in Iceland and Europe are mixed in there, too. There's an advantage, too, to having spent so much time outdoors. I draw on that for sensory detail a great deal -- the way weather smells, different types of snow, seasonal changes, how a forest looks and smells. I still feel most alive and in tune with myself hiking along a woods trail or overgrown tote road.
CB: Among the list of previous jobs you've worked at, you mentioned a very intriguing one. Just what does a necropsy technician do? And how did you happen to take the job?
LF: At one point in my life I was going to be a veterinarian. It was my work study job at Oregon State University. Basically, my job was to do the gross autopsy -- no pun intended. I would open the carcass, take whatever samples the vet in charge required, and clean up afterwards. We worked mostly on large farm animals, so I got lots of experience with winches and big knives. I also had to do things like kill baby chicks for salmonella testing, and electrocute sick chickens and calves -- fun times, those. Great sensory training for a writer, too. I don't know too many people who can say they've slipped and fallen in the back of a renderer's truck.
CB: Did you always want to be a writer?
LF: From sixth grade on, yes, though it was a fearsome dream.
CB: That's an interesting word choice. . .why "fearsome"?
LF: The more you want something, the more you fear not getting it, not being worthy, not succeeding. I can do something like cooking or photography because I have no great dreams invested in those pursuits. I had no idea how to become a writer, and didn't know where to look. I think I wanted it so badly, but was also convinced I wasn't good enough. I still have days like that. There's just too much of my sense of self tied up in it. Clearly, I need more therapy.
CB: What was your darkest moment as a young writer?
LF: I took only one creative writing class, the only one offered at the university I went to. The instructor was a poet, a gentle soul who knew nothing about publishing whatsoever, and probably little about popular fiction. I wrote adventure stories, science fiction, horror, while everybody else was creating lovely real-life stories based on their grandmothers, or gritty tales of male depredations against feminist women.
One day my instructor called me into his office, folded his hands, and asked kindly if I was having emotional problems. What he saw in my writing disturbed him. I can tell that story now with a cutting laugh, but it was terrifying at the time. You see, I thought he must be right, that I had revealed something that I hadn't known about myself. It was also embarrassing, and rejecting.
CB: I've heard many similar stories from other writers of SF and fantasy. How long did that bad experience put you off writing?
LF: Oh, I don't know. A few years, perhaps, but those were busy years anyway. I graduated, had no idea what do with my life, got married, moved to the West Coast. . . .But sooner or later the muse came back full force. I actually got fired from a veterinary assistant job for writing when I should have been rolling swabs. [laughs] I guess that was a sign.
CB: What's your writing regime like? Do you write every day?
LF: I'd be embarrassed to show anyone a log of my hours. I'm terribly undisciplined. But I'm coming to accept that my "fits and starts" method is what works for me, and the less I beat myself up for it, the more I seem to accomplish.
I'd like to do a thousand or two words a day. Most days I don't, others I crank out whole chapters in a piece. As I said before, the less structure I try to impose, the better I do -- that's terrible advice, by the way. Do not show this to beginning writers. But it works for me.
CB: Do you like to work out the plot of the new book completely before starting to write, or just start writing from scratch and plot as you go?
LF: It's an organic process. I know what I want the theme to be. I know basically where I want the plot to go. Beyond that, it's a piece at a time, fumbling along in the darkness of my subconscious. I find the darnedest things in there! Something happens to me at the keyboard -- I honestly do enter an altered state of consciousness. I don't think I could ever dictate a book aloud. My brain just doesn't work that way.
CB: Are you fun to be around when you're in the middle of a new book?
LF: Not really. First drafts make me a nervous wreck. I have to go through a period of thrashing -- self-doubt, loathing, applying to colleges to train for a real job, you know, the usual thing -- before things fall into place. I'm either panicking, running away from the task, or so distracted thinking about it that I blank out during ordinary conversations. Mostly, I feel guilty that I'm not doing it faster.
Things don't really fall into place for me until the second draft, usually. I love reworking. That's where a lot of the magic happens for me. Once I get the bones down, the rest really flows. Once I get into rewrites, I'm a joy to be around.
CB: What's the first thing you do right after you finish a book?
CB: [laughing] You mean you don't immediately begin outlining the next book? Do you like to take a long break from writing and just read (or whatever) for a while before starting the next project?
LF: I usually already know what I'm going to tackle next, but I go through a postpartum phase during which I literally cannot go near the computer. It can last for months, until I build up the necessary headsteam of guilt and anxiety to break into the next phase. I'm working at making it a kinder, gentler process, but it's not my nature.
The best times for me as a writer are rewrites, the week or two of satisfaction I allow myself after turning in the final draft, and the fun of launching a new book with signings and readings. I love conventions, too. Hanging out with other people who whine neurotically in the same key as I do is very nurturing.
CB: One thing that sets the Nightrunner series above others in the crowded fantasy market is the texture and depth, both in the setting and characters. There's a history behind everything which grounds it solidly and makes everything about the world that much more believable. What inspired the history and detailed setting for your fantasy world?
LF: I think it stems from my fascination with other cultures and time periods. My family loved shows like the Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic specials. We used to get to go to a neighbor's house to watch them in color! We got National Geographic magazine, too, and I couldn't get enough of stories about Egypt, Arabia, and Greece.
In high school, Ancient History was a required course and I had one of the truly phenomenal teachers of my life. Miss Dingwall was an older woman, very strict and exacting in her methods, but she knew her material and taught it to us as if she'd known all those pharaohs and kings. We had this thick, old purple text book written by James Breasted, I think, full of wonderful maps and black and white photos of artifacts -- Egyptian statues, Greek vases with naked guys running races. I remember looking at the credits on the photos and seeing "In the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts," or the Acropolis Museum or British Museum. The British Museum is still on my "to do" list.
I went on to minor in history in college, and continue to be fascinated by how and why civilizations rise and fall. The more you look at ancient civilizations, the more impressive it is to see how widespread those cultures were. They traded and traveled -- much more so than most people think. To make a long answer longer, I'm also interested in various religions and things metaphysical, how they shape and inform a society. I think how a given population views their relationship to the supernatural deeply affects how they live their lives and treat one another.
CB: What aspects of magic do you feel are the most important for shaping life in the setting for Nightrunner?
LF: As the wizard Nysander tells Alec, "The purpose of magic is to aid man's endeavors, not replace them." The truth is, I don't really like magic. It can make life too easy, or a single individual too powerful. So, Yankee that I am, I put limits on it: it's hard to do, it takes training and devotion, it drains the user. . . .Any given wizard has certain innate abilities, but no one can do everything.
CB: How has the setting/world evolved during the writing of Luck in the Shadows and the subsequent novels?
LF: If you look at the first map, (inside Luck in the Shadows) you'll see a few countries surrounded by mountains and water. While I stand by this on anthropological grounds -- don't get me started on cultural geography, why people live where they do -- it was also handy to say, "I'm only going to worry about this part of the planet right now." But the more I wrote and created a fairly sophisticated society, the more I had to think about where they came from, who they traded with, who they had wars with, and why.
I knew I wanted the main character, Seregil, to be from another land entirely -- one that was thought of rather romantically by his human companions, who had never been there. In the first two books, he drops grudging hints about his past, which is not a happy one. Because of this, and the fact that I have magic evolving as a result of earlier interbreeding between his race and the humans, I had to have at least a vague idea of what his homeland was like.
This grew on me, until I just had to go visit it in Traitor's Moon, whereupon I discovered I didn't know nearly as much about it as I'd assumed. . . .I wanted it to be a very different country, not all airy-fairy, but exotic and well grounded in a different philosophical frame of cultural reference. Their form of government is not a monarchy, but based on family or clan, with a mutually agreed upon council for resolving differences and making alliances. For this, I looked to ancient Iceland, Scotland, and India.
CB: Another interesting feature is the way that magic is such an inherent part of life, yet still is outside the purview of regular society -- and that the heroes aren't any better with magic than most of the rest of the world. For example, Seregil is a wizard-school dropout. In fact, he gets so nauseous from undergoing "translocation" (aka: teleport) spells that he's usually totally ineffective for 5-10 minutes afterwards because he's (ahem) "indisposed."
LF: I do have fun at poor Seregil's expense, but it was necessary for his development as a character. We all have our collections of wounds and secret sorrows that help define who we are.
As for magic, I look at people like Yo-Yo Ma or Stephen Hawking and realize there's someone who possesses a body of talent and instinct I simply do not have. No amount of desire or practice would make me such a cellist or physicist. They have an inborn gift, and perhaps it has defined their lives. People of great ability like that may have no choice but to be what they are. We all have our gifts. In my fictional world, magic is just that, an inborn ability that you either have or don't have.
CB: What kind of response have you gotten from fans so far about the series?
LF: The response from fans has been incredible, far surpassing anything I ever imagined. What's really blown me away is the spectrum of people I've heard from -- old, young, straight, gay, all walks of life. I've heard time and again, "I don't usually read this sort of book but I really loved your stories!"
CB: Do you think you'll continue writing in that world for a while, of are you thinking about moving on?
LF: Midway through Traitor's Moon, I knew I was going to need a break. The book I'm working on now, The Bone Doll's Twin, is set in the same world and history, though, so I didn't stray very far. As the Nightrunner books sparked the idea for Bone Doll, so Bone Doll is inspiring the next Nightrunner book.
I feel torn as an artist. I don't want to write just one world, one set of characters, my whole life, yet I really do love working with Alec and Seregil. I have big plans for them, since they're going to live another three centuries or so. My current plan is to write another freestanding Nightrunner book whenever I have a good idea for one. I refuse to crank them out, one a year, just to keep my name fresh. That wouldn't be fair to me, my books, or my readers.
Ultimately, I'd love to write some non-fantasy books, too, even if it means using a different name. But, no, I don't see abandoning the Nightrunner boys any time soon.
CB: In addition to the main characters, there are also a lot of strong supporting characters in the series. Do you have any favorite characters?
LF: Oh, lots of them! I love Beka Cavish (soldier and daughter of one of Seregil's oldest friends) and Alec because they represent how I have seen myself. I love Seregil as who I would like to be. I was very flattered when a friend said she saw me in Nysander. He represents a level of patience, accomplishment, and maturity I aspire to. But I do love my villains, too. They are so much fun to create!
CB: What qualities make a "good" villain?
LF: A good villain has to be an interesting person, with clear-cut reasons for doing what they do besides being "evil." You have to show what they believe is the justification for their actions. I really hate one-note villains. You can usually spot them: they're Inquisition knockoffs molesting little boys or raping women in the first scene.
My first villain, Mardus (in Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness), is certainly a religious zealot, but he's also a sociopath. Have you ever watched a shark at close range? I've spent hours at the New England Aquarium shark tank, eye level with them. They are the scariest looking creatures imaginable, with mean mouths and ragged rows of teeth, but their eyes -- black and devoid of any emotion -- that's the worst. I remember watching Jeffery Dahmer at his trial and having the same feeling. You could say those were two great influences I drew from in creating the skeleton of Mardus -- Jeff Dahmer and sharks.
But Mardus also believes, with all the fervor of my heroes or Tolkien's, that what he's doing is grand and right and necessary. The so-called villains of the third book are quite a different sort, and intentionally so. They are much grayer, I hope. I won't risk spoilers, except to say that politics and self interest drive the plot there. It was a much trickier job, creating suspense and action, but I think I managed it and I dearly love the villains that emerged.
CB: What's the weirdest fan experience you've ever had?
LF: So far, just the fundamentalist who wrote, begging me to stop publishing these books "pushing the homosexual agenda." He begged me to repent and read the Bible. I wrote back, thanking him for his concern, assuring him I wasn't pushing any agenda, and then shared my knowledge of the Bible with him, and why I've come away with quite a different world view than he did.
It was all very civil, but he did write a reader review on Amazon.com warning people off. They removed it soon after, and I still have mixed feelings about it. I don't think his review would have driven away any readers -- in fact, I've heard from a few people who bought my books because of comments like those -- and I believe in free speech. [chuckles] Still, he did only give me three stars, so it improved my average to have it removed.
CB: Sounds like gender issues are another big theme in your books. And clearly you like the challenge of creating diverse characters. With regard to Alec and Seregil, what attracted you to writing about leading characters who were not only male, but also bisexual?
LF: Looking back over what I've written, published and otherwise, gender issues are definitely a strong theme for me. If I were to get all psychological about it, I'd trace it back to the fact that my dad had no sons, and so I, as the oldest of two girls, got to play that role. I was a natural tomboy anyway, and loved it, but I think I missed out on some "girlie stuff" along the way. My mom, an only child, was the same way. I think both of us are more comfortable holding a shotgun than a blush brush.
As for my characters -- perhaps because I grew up reading adventure literature that featured male protagonists, coupled with my own upbringing, it just came more naturally to write about male characters. Or perhaps their sexuality is my own deep-seated need to identify with my own Jungian animus. Maybe I really want -- naw, let's not go there. These characters come to me out of my subconscious as is and it's impolite to ask them too many questions.
I will say, however, that Seregil stems largely from how bored I was by the standard fantasy heroes of the day. This is going back more than ten years, mind you. Big, brawny, deadpan sword-slingers who never quite get the girl because they're not worthy, and never get laid except for the occasional two-dimensional prostitute. I liked Sam Gamgee much better, along with the darker, more twisted characters of Moorcock's Elric saga and Gloriana. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness opened another whole vista, too, along with Anne Rice's vampire lads, whom I discovered in mid process. In the end, I think I created Seregil just to see if he'd work -- a gay hero, and a gay character who wasn't tragic, evil, victimized, or a bit player thrown in for color.
CB: It's easy to imagine you branching into writing historical fiction. What historical periods and cultures would you like to explore if you had the chance?
LF: Probably my greatest love in history is ancient Greece and Egypt. I've drawn on that more than you might think in creating the medieval Nightrunner world. But if I were to write an historical novel now, it would be set in the early 1900s. It's an amazing time period, and a much easier one to do direct research for. I do have an idea rolling about, but I'm not ready to talk about it just yet.
CB: What authors have influenced your writing?
LF: There's such a laundry list of them! Ray Bradbury, along with William Faulkner and T.S. Eliot, made me want to play with language and imagery. Reading history and Greek myth, and Homer, of course, made me want to create my own worlds. Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates taught me the value of the grotesque.
King and Peter Staub were wonderful teachers for writing suspenseful scenes. Shakespeare has a great eye for human nature, as does Hemingway. I also loved Mary Renault's historical fiction, and some of Anne Rice's books. They totally immerse you in another time and place, so that you almost see it when you look up from the page. And my main character, and the fact that the books have ended up being mystery crossovers to some degree, owes a tremendous debt to Sherlock Holmes.
CB: Which authors would you recommend most highly to your readers?
LF: I regularly recommend these titles to my readers and writing students:
- Ray Bradbury: Something Wicked This Way Comes
- Asimov's Robot series, starting with Caves of Steel
- Arthur Conan Doyle: all of the Sherlock Holmes canon, The White Company
- William Kotzwinkle: The Fan Man, Fata Morgana, and The Game of Thirty
- Joyce Carol Oates: Zombie
- Stephen King: Different Seasons (four wonderful novellas), It, Salem's Lot, The Green Mile, The Stand
- Ellen Kushner: Swordspoint
- C.S. Lewis: the Narnia books, and his sf trilogy
- Anne Rice: Cry to Heaven, Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat
- Toni Morrison: Beloved
- Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea
- Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House, and "The Lottery"
- E.B. White: Stuart Little
- J. M. Barrie: Peter Pan (a very twisted book!)
- Michael Moorcock: The Elric series, Gloriana
I could go on and on, but I'll stop there.
CB: I think I can see the connections for most of those, but Stuart Little? And The Old Man and the Sea?
LF: I look for strong characterization. Stuart Little has a whimsy and a pathos that the recent movie did not even attempt to capture, although they made a nice job of what they did. Stuart is a mouse, yet so very human. Even as an adult, I admire that book. I'm not sure it was even intended for a young audience.
The Old Man and The Sea is a brilliant study in deceptive simplicity of narrative. I marvel at the pictures Hemingway can paint in my head with passages that on the surface seem so simplistic, even clunky. . .part of me is screaming, "How did such bad writing get so famous?", while another is nodding and grinning and saying, "Damn, this guy is good!"
Blasphemous as it may sound, I don't read that much fantasy. I fill myself from other wells, and bring it back to the genre.
CB: After your experience with the college instructor, I'll bet you've thought long and hard about how to "teach" writing.
LF: I believe in being honest, loving, and gentle. There's no sense in telling someone that bad writing is good, but a teacher should go deeper, find whatever is good and build on that. I really stress the positive up front, then work my way around to the stinky bits. . . .
Most of them are writing for their own enjoyment and my job is to help them do the best they can. Besides, who am I to say, after one workshop, that any given student won't go on to become great? I feel it's my task to provide support and guidance, not to decide whether or not this person has a right to write. That's not to say I'm not a very picky critiquer, but it should be in the name of instruction, not judgment.
CB: Do you use a different approach for students interested in SF and fantasy than you would for mainstream?
LF: The basics are the same. I come from a literary background and believe that strong plotting and good style are important to all writing, regardless of genre. Too many literary writers think that beautiful language is enough. Too many genre writers think a good idea is enough. It isn't, in either case. Each has its conventions and tropes, though, and those need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
CB: What advice would you give to beginning writers?
LF: Read widely. If you want to write fantasy, read history. If you want to write SF, read science. But also read the classics, bestsellers, nonfiction, junk -- in a word, sample everything with a writer's eye and learn from it! Consider it a balanced diet for your imagination.
Then, when you start writing, know that the first draft is necessary, but only the first step of a longer journey. Be willing to look at your own work with a sharp eye for what works versus what you like because it has some personal meaning. I've hacked out reams of words to make my books stronger. Sometimes you bleed doing it, but a writer needs a gut sense of the difference between what advances the tale and what's self-indulgent.
CB: What project(s) are you currently working on?
LF: I'm currently writing The Bone Doll's Twin. It's set in the same world as the Nightrunner books, but much earlier in history. The story centers around a queen who was raised as a boy to protect her from her usurper uncle. There's a lot of play with gender identity, but also with the idea of an identity being taken away and never quite gotten back. I see her as very modern, as Elizabeth I was -- a women forced to make her own way. It may turn out to be a trilogy, with the three books based on the three stages of womanhood -- Maiden, Matron, Crone -- crone being a good thing!
CB: If you couldn't be a writer, what kind of work would you do instead?
LF: Something more physically active, I think. A field biologist or anthropologist, maybe, or a Registered Maine Guide. Who knows? I've got lots of years ahead of me yet.
Charlene Brusso has worked as an archaeologist, an astronomer, a baker, an editor, a janitor, a tutor, a physicist, and a scientific programmer. Her short stories have been recommended for the Nebula Award. "Absinthe Eyes" (Issue #42, MZBFM) was a finalist for the HOMer award. She writes for Black Gate, Publishers Weekly, SF Site, and Space.com, among others.