Interviews from the Void: Janet Morris
Greetings, Donny here:
This interview is a dream come true for me. Janet Morris is here to answer some questions from the Void. Janet has been an author since the early 70’s and has inspired many authors with her prolific prose since her first series, “Silistra.” She is infamous for her contributions to “Thieves World” has written novels that live and breathe better than humans do, spanning across genres with a masterful skill unparalleled by most, and unlike any. Her recent novel “Outpassage” is receiving avid praise, while her “Sacred Band of Stepsons” series continues to prove that well-told tales of heroes, deities, love, war and steel do not have to be tired attempts to copy greats like Robert E. Howard, rather she takes off where he left off… And this is not all, Janet has written historical fiction that is as vivid as any story ever told as in her tale of the Hittite king, Suppiluliuma, “I, the Sun.”
Janet, could you tell us about yourself?
Here is my Wikipedia bio. That’s the official story (grin). That bibliography is a “select” one, it isn’t all inclusive, but it has most of the novels listed, some of the short fiction, and a bit of the nonfiction.
The beginning of your career began with the Silistra series. How did this come about?
Silistra actually began with dissatisfaction: I couldn’t find the book I wanted to read in any store. There wasn’t much written about women in science fiction that wasn’t “woman’s movement” diatribe or immature, or both. I had been reading Edward O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology, a New Synthesis” and become intrigued with the impact that genetics might have on behavior and culture. So I wrote the book I
wanted to read, “High Couch of Silistra,” and shared it in single-space with my friends. The heroine, Estri, is a courtesan of renown in a world where reproduction is the most important goal because misuse of science has had adverse effects on population. Given that premise, this book tackled sexual roles and hard-wired behaviors and the negatives and positives of unbridled power: in Silistra, the saying goes, “We are all bound, the greatest as much as the weakest.” Sex roles were different, society was different; the book was science fantasy and unabashedly erotic. And different: full of hard questions about ethics, emotions, and based on the heroic model, but with a female taking the role of hero, but doing so differently – as a woman, sometimes as a picara, not as a man in a girl-suit. My friends loved it. So did I. They, and I, wanted to read more, so then I wrote “The Golden Sword,”
“Wind from the Abyss,” and “The Carnelian Throne,” still circulating the one extant single-spaced copy of each. Many of my works, looking back, begin with a similar longing to read something that isn’t available. I knew nothing about the book business, had no friends who were writers; I was playing music in my husband’s fusion band and writing song lyrics. One of my friends said she knew a literary agent and offered to send the book to the agent if I’d have it properly typed. This was expensive, and so it took perhaps a year for me to pay to have High Couch typed. The agent who first read High Couch was Perry Knowlton, president of Curtis Brown, Ltd. He called me and we agreed he would represent not only High Couch, but the entire Silistra series. He sold them to Bantam and that gave me money enough to quit my day job. I stayed with Perry Knowlton until his death, and still have titles with Curtis Brown, Ltd, now under his son Tim’s stewardship.
Your current novel is “Outpassage.” It seems to be an intelligent return to good old, Sci-fi, the kind that has been
missing for decades. What inspired the story?
I always write the book I want to read, and I wanted to read “Outpassage.” I missed the adventure tales I had read as a youngster; I missed good old-fashioned sf: the excitement, the pacing, the meld of fact and fiction, the pure fun of space adventure. I couldn’t find solid adventure stories among new books being published. “Outpassage” is an experiment in pacing, character, and structure: very lean prose, very fast-paced, with a metaphysical core, but using vocabulary appropriate to the story’s protagonists. “Outpassage” is paced somewhat like a movie: lots of dialogue, a storyline that owes as much to nineteenth-century adventure novels such as “Robinson Crusoe” as to sf or heroica; strong characters from different strata of society who define themselves by words and actions. I loved writing Det Cox and Paige Barnett. I loved creating Frickey, the female Ranger – even today, women can’t get into Ranger school, but in our story, a female Ranger is plausible. The book also allows me to talk about prejudice, about corporate and government collusion, about humans meeting an alien presence that makes earthly science seem like flat-earth pipedreams. I had a great time writing this one; we’ll do another one of these, we think.
I recently read “Beyond Sanctuary: The Sacred Band of Stepson’s – Author’s
Cut Edition.” You created a moving, viable world, with characters that I believed in. I will not ask if you believe in them too. From the outset, this was apparent; no one could create such magnificent breathing personalities without feeling at least a smidgeon the same as they did. When you write, are you living that world? For instance, when your characters cry, do you sometimes brush away a tear or two of your own?
The Sacred Band consumes me when I write their stories. For me, they are supernatural, and the process of writing them is exhausting: one surrenders to these plotlines, rather than constructs them. I laugh with them, cry with them; when my editor/husband reads the draft out loud, if they’re in the midst of tragedy, I can hear the tears in his voice. With the exception of “I, the Sun,” their books are my favorites because they transport me completely into a world as real as this one.
It is not an easy thing to make me love a character as much as I did Tempus Thales or Niko. I imagine them being quite demanding to their author. Do you find it difficult to put them aside to work on other projects?
When Tempus wants a book or story, eventually I give in and write it. I had done everything but confront the issue of the Sacred Band of Thebes. I didn’t want to write the historical tale of their obliteration: too sad. But finally, having created my own Sacred Band of Stepsons and lived with that set of truths for many years, Tempus convinced me we could rescue the twenty three pairs whose skeletons are missing from SBT’s mass grave at Chaeronea. So began The Sacred Band, the best of the Stepson novels, the most demanding, which begins August 2nd, 338 BCE, the night before the historic Battle of Chaeronea. Mixing this much history with myth and fantasy is demanding, so I had avoided it for many years. I couldn’t write around it: if I was going to write more with Tempus and Niko, this was the next book. And so Chris and I wrote it, to please Tempus, the Band, and the gods.
I am fascinated with world history. When I discovered that you are too, I felt as if you were a godsend, an inspiration. I read that you went through deep research to write “I, the Sun.” Could you tell us about it?
“I, the Sun” was conceived when I read part of the Annals of Suppiluliumas I, in the mid 1970s, after I’d sold Silistra. Some of the texts were in first person; some supposedly written by his son, Mursili. But Suppiluliumas grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. There was no internet then; no easy way to get the necessary information to write a biographical novel of the (then) nearly forgotten
Hittite king. Research was difficult and costly. I took the money I’d made with Silistra and hired Calvert Watkins, professor emeritus of linguistics and classics at Harvard, to give me tutorials as needed, answer questions, provide a short course, reference materials (and translate some tablets previously unread that dealt with sorcery, since I needed that element for my story). I still have some of his translations done specifically for me, in pencil on lined paper. I used and still prefer the long chronology, and Kitchen’s relative chronology, “Suppiluliuma and the Amarna Pharaohs” was my bible. “I, the Sun” took several years to complete; in the middle of it I sold the Dream Dancer series before I wrote it, to keep the money flowing. But the story of Suppiluliumas is like no other. Not only did I have his own words, I had diplomatic correspondence from the Amarna letters; I had a conquering hero that puts fiction heroes to shame, from ancient times until modern. In a way, I had a lover – though my husband didn’t mind. I have considered doing the obvious sequel to “I, the Sun,” but to watch his sons struggle to become half of what their father was – I haven’t the heart for some of what would need to be in that book. I might yet write Muwatalli and the Battle of Kadesh, since his grandson did in some ways fulfill Suppiluliumas’ design. We’ll see. “I, the Sun” taught me so much about kingship and the gods, about international diplomacy in ancient times, and about love in the midst of war, I credit this book as having generated Tempus, another Favorite of the Storm-god, and my Sacred Band. I needed a new hero when “I, the Sun” was finished, but what was I to do? I had just chronicled one of the greatest ancient heroes who ever lived. It wasn’t a far step to mix together what “I, the Sun” taught me, plus mythology and fantasy… As Tempus and Herakleitos say: everything flows.
Why do you write?
I cannot fail to write. I can choose not to publish, which I did with only one book, but I must write. My body needs to write; my mind needs to solve; my heart needs to beat; I need to see three-hundred sixty degrees of my story. In story is wisdom: it is our species’ way of transferring what we can share about the human condition – the only condition we ever truly know, but cannot easily understand.
When you write a story or novel, do you keep the word count in mind?
I have written many pieces to order; these often have a word requirement: up to 15K words; 10K words or under; a thousand words for an op/ed. I have accepted a number of book contracts before the books were written, which specified not more than 100K, or some other specific length. If I know that I am pacing for a market or a contract that has a word cap, I want the first plot turn to occur about ten per cent in; I try to minimize the middle and have the catastasis start about seventy-five per cent in. At this point in my career, something inside me deals with the issues of length and story elements. If I commit to a length, once I have a reasonable idea of what must be in that story, I can write that length without much thinking about length as a factor: only so much story will fit in so many pages.
Do you start with an outline? Or do you just wing it?
I resist writing formal outlines: they suck the life out of stories. I have done it, once or twice, when selling a trilogy, with the understanding that if the book went another way, I would throw out the outline and the editor would be content with a book that breathed better than an outline could predict. However, I spend more
time organizing the book before I write than do many who construct formal outlines: I define my characters; my settings; my historical, scientific, or mythical referents, if any; I know where my story will begin and end and how – and I know what the point of the story is; why I am telling that tale. Since my work requires characters who come to life, I let them do that, and get from point to required point howsoever they decide. “I, the Sun” was my greatest challenge in that regard: the historical battles are mapped, a good bit of my subject’s history known (more now, even, than when I wrote “I, the Sun”), and some events occurred at specific times relative to other events in other empires of the day. In that book, I really learned to work with givens and keep freshness, and use that outlining style to this day, to the extent that I have one: in each section, not simply in the book, I decide what must happen, what must be foreshadowed, what must climax, and make it so. The rest I leave to my muse and the characters who inhabit me.
Your “Hell Series” is a shared universe that is a collaboration with other
authors, how does this work?
“Heroes in Hell” (HIH)is a shared universe, as well as the title of the first book in that anthology series. HIH worked differently in the 20th century than it does in the 21st, because now we have a secret FaceBook group where authors can exchange ideas, arrange plot hand-offs and tight collaborations, and share portions of ongoing draft works. I give the writers a long arc, a medium arc, and a choice of shorter arcs for each volume. They write and post to the group a two or three line synopsis; before they are permitted to write. They request the use of characters from my character pool, or ask to start new characters. All characters who come to my Hell stay in my Hell, and can be used by other writers if I choose. So once characters are requested, they are approved or denied by me: characters must be legendary, mythical, or historical; characters must be dead and have died before 1900, except by special permission. They cannot use other writers’ fictional characters or milieus. In 20thcentury Hell books, we allowed some use of more contemporary characters, but seldom allow it now. In the 20th century, a phone call or two was used to define who would write what; now we can collaborate much more closely. Chris Morris and I write two or three short stories for each volume, sometimes to act as guide stories if a new arc is being introduced, but sometimes we write later if we need to see what the writers have done in order to make sure the book has a strong beginning and ending. The volume released for 2014 is “Poets in Hell”; after Poets will come Doctors.
Since you began as a published author, how have things changed?
Let’s see: electric typewriters; computers; word processors; fax machines;
conference calls; internet; video tie-ins; gaming; e-books… just a bit different, today. There are good changes: a vast array of source materials and classical works at one’s disposal; books coming back into print and electronic publishing formats. There are many disturbing trends toward the bottom of the markets, but there have always been those. When I get disgusted, I reread Henry James’ preface to “The Figure in the Carpet”: James coined the term ‘trash triumphant’ at the end of the 19th century, and he reassures me that no matter how much things change, they stay the same. There may be more room for the good book today, but perhaps less room for the great. The biggest issue for everyone involved in contemporary publishing is the rise of the illiterati: the arrogant and uneducated who insist that the uninformed opinion have equal value to the informed opinion. Although these folk always have been around, they are an ever-present danger, even going so far as to single out words or thoughts as unacceptable.
As a self-published author, I have my limitations, especially where it comes to marketing. What do you do to help get your novels into first the hands, then the minds and hearts of readers?
Anyone who can answer that question and be correct could dominate publishing. One tries to make people aware of a particular title, and attempts to get the book wide visibility. People have always striven to make their books stand out.
Now we have better than seven billion people, and one response to the need to find a market seems to be genre-fictation, which labeling we abhor. I think the writer should do some internet time, be accessible if they dare. Since my books have long pedigrees, it’s easier to get people to look at my work than, for example, to look at some of the younger writers we’re publishing. But we are publishing these writers for a reason: to help them reach readers. We hope this will become increasingly apparent, and people will agree that these writers should be read. We are trying various online publicity houses, testing the waters, to support these goals but really it is the satisfied reader who sells your books for you.
You and your husband Chris are a team, how does that dynamic play out when you are developing a novel? When it is underway?
We talk about everything before, during, and after. I type the first draft; he reads that draft aloud; we add or remove or change text or elements. We do this several times for each section, each day’s work. We try for transparency, total immersion in character and story. We get that by extremely close collaboration, sometimes spending a half hour on one important sentence. We’ve been doing this together for so long I no longer know who wrote what final line or chose what word. Or care.
Who are your favorite authors?
Homer, Hesiod, Sappho, Thales, Heraclitus, Anaximander, Euripides, Xenophon, Virgil, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Plutarch. Marlowe, Shakespeare, Spenser. Hawthorne. The Shelleys. Byron. T.E. Lawrence. Henry James, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Marguerite Yourcenar. Jules Verne, Daniel DeFoe, H. Rider Haggard, Joseph Conrad, C.S. Lewis, George Orwell, Harold Bloom.
Tell us about your publishing house.
Our house is The Perseid Press (theperseidpress.com). Our main mission is to publish books for experienced readers, books worth reading; our books are literate but not necessarily literary, and have the edge that purpose brings: we hope people give us serious consideration who want a book with substance, no matter the genre.
Perseid Press video Perseid Press Website
In “Nine Heroes” you introduced us to Rhesos. You mentioned in one of our chats that you are working on a full novel starring your new hero. What would you like to share with us about Rhesos and the new novel?
Rhesos…. When I did a charity story for a book called “Nine Heroes” recently, by the time I was a thousand words into the story I admitted to myself that I had a much bigger fish on my hook than the 5K words desired could contain. I
have long loved this mythic person and “Nine Heroes” gave me a chance to see if Rhesos and I could connect, with one eye on the short story and one eye on a longer work. So I wrote the story, “Black Sword,” as a first section for a new novel in such a way that it would serve as an heroic short story. However, doing this created a style for the book to come, with a special sort of pacing: the story begins a novel, but the novel treats its elements in somewhat the same form that the short piece accomplished, at least for the first draft. Rhesos, according to the Iliad and to Euripides “Rhesus,” was the reason Athene urged the night hunt upon Odysseus and Diomedes in the “Iliad”: omens predicted that if Rhesos came to Ilion (Troy) and pastured his horses there and drank from the Scamander, then the Trojans would win their war. In the Rhesus by Euripides, as myths will, the threat is told differently: I used this quote from Euripides (Richmond Lattimore, trans) to begin my story:
Athena to Diomedes and Odysseus: Where are you going? Why do you leave the Trojan camp biting your very hearts for disappointed spite because the god will not allow you to kill their Hector or their Paris? Have you not heard of the ally Rhesus, who has come to Troy in no mean circumstance? For if he survives this night and is alive tomorrow, not even Achilles, and not Ajax with his spear, can keep him from destroying all the Argive fleet, smashing, demolishing your walls and storming in to fight with level spears. Kill him, and all is won. ––Euripides, Rhesus; Richmond Lattimore, translator.
Now since the best date for Odysseus’ return to Ithaca is April 16, 1178 BCE, an approximate date for this night hunt is possible. But no date shows you the quality or the nature of this hero, Rhesos: that is where story comes in. I’ve long wanted to tell his story, someday, but it requires great command of the detail that has been left to us. And yet, think of it: a hero so powerful that not Akhilleos nor any of the Argives could best him, if the fight was fair; so much a threat that Athene herself contrives his murder; a youngling king who could have changed the result of the
Trojan War, had Pallas Athene not interfered. A hero-cult develops around him, much later, but we’ll get to that as the tale plays out. His story is fascinating when all the divergent myths and what history we know are taken into account. Rhesos is a demigod, son of Strymon the river god and the Muse Kalliope. By the time our story opens, he’s long ago been murdered by Diomedes and reanimated at his mother’s demand – yet imprisoned in exchange for resurrection. He has spent many years in the silver-veined caves of Rhodope. So we’ll tell this story of the reborn hero Rhesos, long after his murder, about the hero lost and the hero still to come. In Rhesos of Thrace, we’re treating myth as history and history as novel, and we have a character who not only inspires a hero-cult, but draws to him famous females of mythos: Salmakis the fountain nymph; Theano, priestess of Pallas Athene; Tisiphone the Erinys; Pallas Athene herself; Kalliope the Muse, and, in flashbacks, his beloved hunting partner, Arganthone of Kios. The story of Rhesos and Arganthone itself could have made a wonderful novel. I chose a bigger canvas for this storied hero; it’s a tale to test a writer’s mettle.
What inspires you?
The human condition. Nature. Animals. Song. Mythopoeic thought. Philosophy. History. Life, really.
“I, the Sun.” “The Sacred Band.” “Outpassage.”
If you could make one statement to potential readers to convince them to hop aboard and to read your work, what would you say?
Like no others, we write a door and take you through it, into pleasure and pathos and passion, worlds away.
How important are reviews to you? For marketing? For sales?
Reviews mean both more and less now than they did in the 20th century, so far as
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the greater publishing industry goes. I love getting a perceptive review. I like the idea of reader reviews, although I am aware that the purpose can be twisted and fakery abounds. But fakery and purposeful twisting existed in the 20th century as well. So, really, what is the difference? I’ve had good Kirkus and Publishers Weekly and Library Journal reviews when that mattered, and standards were different. As for the genre press reviews: we don’t fit in any genre, ever, so those reviewers were never comfortable with us, years ago. Now, with a broader group of reviewers, we’re finding a more comfortable place among those who still read for pleasure. The reader reviews are interesting, and the blogger reviews, because the reviewers are self-selecting. I’ve considered putting some reader reviews or blogger reviews on ‘praise’ pages in certain books, since these are surely as honest as anything from previous times.
Someone will do so, soon enough, if we don’t. So far as sales: sales by word of mouth are the best result, and reader reviews may actually be a way of doing that. What’s left of pro-publishing reviews are suspect with good reason: those reviews are, after all, paid through subscription to the reviewing publications. The online magazine reviewers and blog reviewers, in general, are even more interesting yet, since these online entities often take a specific portion of the market as their own: knowing their audience, they are able to better satisfy their reading public; some of the reviews I like best have come from places such as Black Gate, which have reviewers deeply literate in their area of specialty. As for what drives sales, we put our efforts to drive sales into two things: manuscripts that are well produced in trade paper and as e-books; covers of quality that represent the story they enwrap and are respectful of it. Volume sales, such as we were accustomed to in the 20th century, exist, but no formula except broad exposure of a title is apparently working. We’d dearly love to have a worldwide bestseller in the 21st century – but for the books we like, to an audience who can appreciate those books; we’ll not publish a book we don’t like for a market segment we don’t respect because we think some book will sell well. This will probably keep us a small independent publisher for a long time, but it allows us to do projects such as we’ve discussed above, and do them with respect for individual works and authors. That is, or should be, what publishing is about.
I would like to thank Janet Morris not only for taking the time to be interviewed by the Void, but also for her notable contributions to writing and the world at large. And a very special thanks to Chris Morris for taking the time to edit this interview. It is my hope that he will come on The Void soon for his own interview, as his contributions are just as notable and deserve their own interview time.
I hope you enjoyed the interview,
I love you all,