David J Howe talks to best-selling author Robin Hobb
It’s slightly disconcerting meeting an author whose name, you know, is just a pseudonym. Should you call them by their own name, or by the name under which they are currently writing? As I’m scheduled for lunch with the author, and as the latest book in The Liveship Traders series, Ship of Destiny, is written by Robin Hobb, I decide that this is the name I should use. Thankfully, Robin herself seems happy with either. ‘I still do some writing as Megan Lindholm but in a much more limited way,’ she explains. ‘It’s mainly shorter stuff and I don’t really see a conflict. I am also blessed with an editor in the UK called Jane Johnson who recognises that there is a significant difference in the voice and style of Robin Hobb as opposed to my other work. Jane has a tremendous amount of insight, and as long as there’s editors like her around, I’m not worried what name people use!’
‘I wish I could give you a precise point in time where I knew that I wanted to write in a different style,’ Robin begins when asked about the origins of the Hobb name. ‘There had been several false starts. I was writing books where the characters were very full-fledged, the world was very complex and you’d get about a hundred pages into the novel and you’d suddenly realise that it’s too much, it’s not going to fit into the then-current limitations for a paperback, and so you set it aside. I can think of at least one manuscript like that. I had set out to write this very convoluted, very detailed story but I ultimately decided that it was just going to be too big.
‘What happened was, I think, that Robert Jordan came along. The length of his Wheel of Time books was definitely a groundbreaker. It showed publishers, and the readers too I think, that a long novel could work. There are also writers like Anne McCaffrey, who showed us that you can, over the span of several books, completely and fully flesh out a fantasy world. That appealed to me tremendously: to finally have the space in which to develop not only characters but background and culture and description.
‘In a longer book you have to keep the plot moving forward at a consistent pace and yet at the same time you have the lavish space in which to really describe landscapes and not only what the hero is doing but what he is thinking and feeling and the minor details of whatever caste he is, or his lifestyle … all of which I hope gives you much more a sense of being present in the events of the novel.’
I comment that it sounds as though Robin always wanted to write novels to this depth, but needed to wait for the publishing industry to catch up with her. ‘I think that’s a valid observation,’ she smiles. ‘Short stories have always been very difficult for me because in a short story every word must be precisely tailored and must count. That for me is very difficult, that’s like creating mosaic, you go back and read the sentence to see if there are any words you can cut out, or whether there is there a shorter way to say the same thing.’
In the novels, there is the scope to create an entire planet’s ecosystem for the characters to develop and adventure in. I asked Robin whether the people or the place came first. ‘For me the characters always come first,’ she explained. ‘I think that’s a variable among writers, some stories are plot driven, where somebody thinks of a neat set of events and they put in characters specifically to ensure that those events happen. Other writers have characters in their heads and turn them loose to see where they go and what they do. I’m definitely the latter type of writer. It’s not a conscious process of the creation of characters; it’s more like somebody steps out onto the page in front of me. They’re already fully formed and sometimes have a name attached. I usually have no idea where they’ve come from.
‘In The Liveship Traders series, Althea and Brashen were the first two characters who came to mind and they were definitely the starting point of the story. I knew that I wanted a living ship as a character, and that there would be serpents, dragons, political intrigue, pirates … But a lot of the minor characters didn’t exist at all in my mind. It’s a problem I have: I’ll write an outline and I think I know where the story is going, and then some character becomes too interesting to ignore and shifts all the events in their favour.’
I noted that this was presumably one of the problems of writing a character-led book; that the original ending and intent can get lost. ‘If you let the characters have their head, yes,’ affirms the author. ‘I’ve been fortunate in that the finished book is seldom a) the book I set out to write or b) anything remotely resembling the outline, and up to now, it’s always come out right.
‘Sometimes when you outline something, you nail it down and then discover that it’s dead. It can be very difficult to then write that book because it’s like a school assignment … go write a three page essay on the geography of Peru. Something like that is pre-defined and that’s exactly what you’re going to write. So when I plunged into Assassin’s Apprentice, the first of the Robin Hobb books, I did so not really knowing where it was going.
‘Under those circumstances, I think the writer always has to trust their subconscious, that there is something back there cooking, and that it will come to the fore if you allow it. If you lose that basic faith in yourself and start trying to force things, then you’re going to end up in a place where your subconscious mind doesn’t know where to go and you are going to hit a brick wall. Every time that I have run into a writer’s block, I have found that if I back up five or ten pages and just start reading, I will come to a point in the story where I instinctively know that I went wrong. If I then rewrite from that point onward, all of a sudden the story takes off again and the writer’s block disappears.’
This is a very raw method of writing … trusting your instincts. ‘Exactly. You have to. You have to believe that Story is something that exists outside of us as well as inside. You could deliberately sit down to try and construct a tale that was heartwrenching or terrifying but I don’t think it would work as well as one you let grow instinctively because you believe in it.
‘I think I can pinpoint when this started happening for me. Some years back a writer called Stephen Brust sent me the first chapter of a book. He said that as he was writing, it occurred to him that the magic was similar to that which I had featured in my novel Wizard of the Pigeons. Did I want to play? It was very easy for me to sit down and reply with the next chapter. We went on like this for over a year, by which time the book quite miraculously wound itself up and ended and we realised we had a viable manuscript. We got together for a weekend in San Francisco and edited it on a coffee table in a hotel room. We literally had two chairs scrunched together in front of his computer. It was a dream collaboration. I had so much fun writing Gypsy with Steve that it renewed my sense of why I had become a writer and the enthusiasm for starting a story and plunging into it with no idea of where it’s going.’
Ship of Destiny features a noble and intelligent – but also single-minded and vain – dragon, and I wondered if there was a danger of unoriginality when dealing with such a well trodden fantasy concept. ‘You can’t worry about being original,’ states Robin emphatically. ‘You have to trust your own voice to be unique. If I sat down with an Anne McCaffrey book about dragons and re-wrote it, then even if I kept all the names and the geography the same, because my characters behave differently and because I see things from a different viewpoint, it would end up as perhaps the same story but told in a radically different way. Look at the differences between the traditional story of Little Red Riding Hood and the Neil Jordan movie The Company of Wolves … If you trust your own vision then you really don’t have to worry about originality.’
With The Farseer Trilogy and three volumes of The Liveship Traders already published, I wondered if the end of the story had been reached? Robin’s reply is somewhat philosophical: ‘There’s never an end to a book because there’s never a place to end it, the best you can do is come to the next beginning and stop there. I very much feel that I stopped at the next beginning. I won’t be going back to the Liveships immediately. I won’t say that I will never go back there because who knows what the future holds. For the moment, though, I’ve finished with that piece.
‘I’m currently about five chapters into a book that returns to the six duchies and the first person viewpoint of Fitz, the lead character from The Farseer Trilogy. This is some years after the first series, and part of the fun is that he will be hearing distorted rumours of what is actually happening in Bingtown regarding the events of The Liveship Traders, which may or may not be in the neighbourhood of the truth.
‘There will definitely be more rewards for people who have read all the Robin Hobb books than if you jump in and just read a bit of it. That’s part of the fun too: because I’m working from individual viewpoints, I don’t always have to be precisely truthful. I can have the reader find out what a character thinks is going on, or happened, or believes. It’s like reading in a newspaper about a horrendous bus crash and then finding out it was nothing more than a fender bender.’
Having fun is certainly something that features highly in Robin’s job description. ‘One of the things I realise is how extremely fortunate I am to do what I love for a living and to actually make a living out of doing it. That is something that I very seldom lose sight of. There have been a lot of jobs I’ve filled, like waiting tables in a hateful restaurant, or delivering the mail to five hundred houses, that were not particularly enjoyable. To be doing something that I love is a vast blessing that I am continually grateful for.’
David J Howe