Archive for the 'Interviews' Category

Fifteen Days of Deverry Interviews: Writers and Creativity

November 6th, 2009

QUESTION: Let’s talk about the meta part of writing. When we were young, it was all about the story. As we get older, we not only look harder at the material, but at ourselves as writers.

How have you changed as a writer?

KIT: I hope, quite simply, that I’ve gotten better. I think I have. When I look at DAGGER- and DARKSPELL, I am bitterly aware of flaws that I don’t see in the later books. I’m not impressed with the craft in BRISTLING WOOD and DRAGON REVENANT, but at least it doesn’t make me cringe! By TIME OF EXILE I feel I was hitting my stride. One thing I do know is that while I can consciously work on issues of craft (is the dialog different for different characters? are the descriptions succinct but clear? that kind of thing), all the overarching plots and even the minor complications of the books came out of my unconscious mind, some deep level that had synthesized years of reading and living. It was magical but a painful kind of magic at times, with periods of depression when I had to let the well re-fill itself.

ALIS: Kit said, “One thing I do know is that while I can consciously work on issues of craft (is the dialog different for different characters? Are the descriptions succinct but clear? that kind of thing), all the overarching plots and even the minor complications of the books came out of my unconscious mind, some deep level that had synthesized years of reading and living.”

My response to that is to ask, what is the unconscious mind and how does it work? I don’t think we can actually answer a question that neurologists have been struggling to understand for decades and philosophers for centuries, but I’d like to talk about what it means to us and to the way we may approach writing.

One element I notice over and over again is the degree to which layers are unfolded, connections fire off within the brain, linking up seemingly unrelated threads. Plots that have run into obstacles are suddenly, perhaps during the course of a walk, revealed to open down a path so unexpected in its consequences that as a writer I feel I could never have come up with that solution consciously, that is, if I had thought it through in the forefront of my mind. There sits a place farther back where this works goes on just on the edge of my awareness. I have learned to trust that if I do not force, some things will work themselves out with enough time or enough tangents bringing them around to my attention. I’m not sure anyone can explain this process; certainly no one has yet done so in my lifetime or before. We have only identified that it exists, and we call it the creative process, but analysis evades us.

KIT: All I know is, there is a large part of the mind that works without our consciousness knowing or directing it. It produces dreams, certainly, which are akin to fiction, but it also handles all the mundane stuff: keeping the lungs emptying and filling, the heart beating, the hormones oozing, and all the rest of it.

I keep thinking about the phenomenon of blindsight. If someone’s brain is injured in such a way as to damage the big nerve pathways leading from the eyes to the optical bit of the cortex in the forebrain, they become blind, even though their eyes are still in perfect shape. But, oddly enough, their peripheral vision still functions, though they cannot see. That is, if someone makes a move in the periphery, the person “sees” nothing — but he knows that the other person made a move. The nerves are not damaged that lead to a far older vision center in another part of the brain. This particular center apparently functioned without any need of consciousness to know it “saw”.

I suspect that the build-a-story part of the brain operates in some similiar way. The neurons are happily firing and solving the problem in a normal brain way. We simply aren’t conscious of it. Hence, the “unconscious” is our chosen term in this scientific age. Now, earlier cultures saw this process in a different way. Most of our surviving works from the Greeks and Romans, for instance, were written by men. They speak about “The Muse”, a female figure that ‘inspires’, ie breathes upon or into them, their work. What this seems to me to describe is an experience of a part of the mind so deeply buried that they saw it as coming from outside of them, from The Other, a female and thus alien (in their view) source. I wish we had some knowledge of how the few female writers in ancient times saw this process, but we only have a bare handful of framents and poems from a couple of named women writers.

I have heard — or read interviews with — modern writers who feel much the same way about their creations, that somehow their creations come from such a deep level that the sources feel alien, even frightening. F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked, in fact, that writers drink so much because they are afraid of the creative moments that take them over. Others resent not being able to control and dominate the process of creating — a very male thing, somehow — and drink to ensure the process stays dormant when they want it to. Now, I’ve heard about many women writers who drank too much because they were so frustrated by the unequal treatment they got from publishers and critics, but I don’t recall any of them being afraid of their own minds in this way.

Virgina Woolf talks about hearing a voice in her head telling her the story while she wrote frantically (by hand, remember) trying to keep up and not lose any of it. Since she’d read about Freudian theory, she saw this voice as part of her own self.

SHERWOOD: The older I get, the more I realize that no two perceptions of a story, much less the process by which it comes about, match entirely.

I’ve read some interesting thought on reading and brain function—Maryanne Wolf’s PROUST AND THE SQUID, and Lisa Zunshine’s WHY WE READ come to mind—but they seem to grasp firmly onto the elephant’s tail, working forward from there, while writers have hold of the trunk, and are feeling their way backward.

KIT: I think that’s a good way of putting it.

SHERWOOD: I used to think I was just that special, as a teen, because I was running the creative track of my mind secretly, while pretending conformity in real life, until I began to realize just how many similarities there were between me and my schizophrenic uncle. At some point he mapped his reality onto the world, while mine ran alongside it, but in the eyes of relatives, was there any difference between us? (Other than the fact that I didn’t get arrested.)

KIT: I’d say there was a great deal of difference. You were in control of your story-telling, and he wasn’t in control of his disease, just for starters. Certainly writers (and painters and musicians) are always being accused of being nutcases, but the two states are very different. I think of Pope’s line that runs something “Great wits to madness are oft allied”, but allied isn’t the same as identical. People who have no imagination can’t seem to understand how powerful the imagination can be. Schizophrenia, on the other hand, is a disease, and a painful one. I doubt very much if it’s allied to the creative process.

Depression, on the other hand, which I’ve certainly experienced at various points of my life — now there is a mental state that is linked to creativity, in my opinion, anyway. The problem is that depression is such a catch-all term. It can mean a paralyzing mental illness, or a physical deficiency with genetic roots, or extreme exhaustion after a crisis, or, finally, a simple “pressing down” of mental energy when the unconscious mind needs to work some deep problem out. It’s this last state, this turning inward of mental energy so it can be used by non-conscious parts of the brain, that is “allied with great wit”, or so I think.

Interview with Kit

October 28th, 2009

Question: First, how does it feel to be done?

Kit: Very very odd, and at root, anti-climactic, which is partly why I am so deeply pleased that you and my other friends are putting together this Deverry “party”. I finished the last of the page proofs and thought to myself, “Well, that’s over. No more Deverry.” And I had the neurotic feeling that no one would particularly care, either. But it was definitely time for the series to end. Because it -was- over. Even though on some theoretical level I could have
followed the stories of various characters and of the countries involved for hundreds of years, I knew that I’d reached The End.

Question: when you’ve told the story of Deverry’s evolution, you indicated that you wrote scads back in the early eighties, when you first conceived and sold the series. You said that the last scene in the last book would tie back into the first scene of DAGGERSPELL, like Celtic knotwork. Has it been difficult to make that happen?

Kit: No, oddly enough it was very much easier than I thought, though perhaps the connections aren’t obvious ones. DAGGERSPELL began with the Jill-soul being born from the Halls of Light. MAGE ends with Aderyn being reborn from that same place. The “past life section” in MAGE shows the Deverrians arriving in the world of Annwn some thousand years before DAGGERSPELL opened. The latest incarnation of the Jill-soul is Branna. Jill’s last line in DAGGERSPELL is “It would have to do for now.” Branna thinks the same thing in her last appearance in MAGE.

There is a further twist on the knotted structure in SPIRT STONE, which is Book 2 in the final four. In DAGGERSPELL, Jill and Rhodry ride into the middle of a war sparked by Aderyn’s son Loddlaen, but they have no idea of what the real causes of that war are. The past life section of SPIRIT STONE finally reveal them. That section also shows what made Alastyr, the evil magician of DARKSPELL, turn to the dark path when he was a teenager. So Book 2 of the last four books echoes Book 2 of the first four.

Question: How has the series changed over the years–I don’t mean the vexations of marketing and publishers, but your internal perception of the world and your approach to the material.

Kit: It got longer and longer. (glyph of straight face) But seriously . . . you know this story, but I will tell it again for the discussion. When I started writing Deverry, I thought it was a short story — that material is now the end of Book 6. So I realized my mistake early and decided I was writing a trilogy, which then expanded into a tetraology, which expanded into two tetralogies, ending with the death of a central character. Except of course I’d never finished
the Civil Wars sections, so that became a trilogy that also carried the main story forward. I thought GOLD FALCON would then finish off the series by being the fourth to that last trilogy.

Wrong again!

These data about the length are important because they do show my approach to the vast heap of material changing. At first I thought I was writing some episodic series books, that the three or four books would follow a pattern: present time adventure for Jill and Rhodry, coupled with a past life adventure for Whoever, each adventure complete in itself. Then I began to see the connections between everything, and the consequences of the actions in both past and present.

Once you start seeing the consequences of your characters’ actions, you can no longer write Standard Series Episodes, or at least, I couldn’t. It was Maddyn in BRISTLING WOOD who really changed my mind. I had thought that once he joined the Silver Daggers, that episode would be over, because it was “really” about how the Silver Daggers began. Then I realized that his deep connection to Nevyn had made that impossible. As soon as Nevyn decided “I’m doing something to stop the wars”, my fate was sealed. :-) Besides, although I was sure that Maddyn was an earlier incarnation of Rhodry Maelwaedd, they were so different that I knew there were some stories about how living the lives in between had turned one into the other — that was the genesis of A TIME OF EXILE.

Overall, too, as my perception of the stories changed, my view of what Deverry was got deeper. It couldn’t stay as just a “Celtic fantasy background” because the places themselves became “characters” of a sort. The cities, particularly Dun Deverry and Aberwyn, grow and change and at times shrink during the series. So, starting with BRISTLING WOOD again, I began to give much more space to descriptions of the terrain and to the history of places — maybe just a few lines here and there, but each one of those capsules did add something to the sense of history and of place. I did more and more research into the so-called Dark Ages and their transitions into more stable forms of government as well as more research into Gaulish culture in order to add solid touches to the changes within Deverry.

My view of the Westfolk and elven culture also changed, from the Tolkienesque “noble and magical” to something a fair bit more realistic, as the readers will see in SILVER MAGE. Sam Gamgee’s style of wide-eyed sense of wonder at the elves has morphed into the far more realistic envy and bitterness that, I believe, real humans would feel faced with an impossibly beautiful and long-lived race.

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