Reading the text: Kate Elliott
Posted by Randolph Carter on October 16, 2009
An interview with science fiction/fantasy author Kate Elliott who talks about her Crossroads series and her gaming background. Other highlights include her closet X-Men comic book reading habits, her experience being a model for pen-and-paper RPG cover art, and how a sword fight led to marriage.
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Author’s website: http://www.kateelliott.com/
From what I can gather you’ve lived in a variety of places around the world and currently reside in Hawaii. Would you say where you live has an impact on your writing?
Yes. I believe that having a mother who was an immigrant and having lived in foreign countries has made me more aware that the way we live, in the USA or even in my particular neighborhood, is only one way that people live. It’s also gotten me interested in exploring other cultural lifeways, as the anthropologists say, and using elements of them in my work. For instance, after living in Mexico while my archaeologist husband was doing fieldwork, I decided to give my “elves” in the Crown of Stars series a Mesoamerican feel including a backstory that had them sailing eastward to make landfall and try to build a new home in the Europe equivalent of the “Old World.” The Crossroads series shows a clear Asia/Pacific influence from my time living in Hawaii. Also, after writing about so much snow and ice in the Crown of Stars books, I decided to set the Crossroads books in a subtropical/Mediterranean climate like the one I was now living in. So — yeah, definitely.
You’ve said you met your husband in a sword fight. Would you care to explain this?
We were both members of the Society of Creative Anachronism, and we both fought in armor (I did not join the SCA for the cooking, sewing, or cultural life; I was just a stick jock). We literally met in the first or second round of a tournament, where we double killed (isn’t that romantic?). Later, a friend of mine “became queen” (as per the way the SCA does things) for the summer, and she decided that because she fought in armor (not all that many women did so), that all of her ladies in waiting would be female fighters. I was one of ladies in waiting. The queens also always had a “Queen’s Guard,” made up of fighters who had not yet been elevated to “knighthood” (generally conferred on a fighter when the council of knights figured s/he was a good enough fighter to warrant the honor) but were very very close. So . . . he was the captain of the queen’s guard and I was a lady in waiting. Isn’t that sweet?
If someone were to come up to you at a dinner party, or perhaps during a sword fight, and ask what your Crossroads series is about, what would you tell them?
During a sword fight I would probably figure they were trying to distract me, so I wouldn’t tell them anything. But at a dinner party, I might say, “Crossroads is a historical novel set in an imaginary world about . . . uh . . .” and then I would run out of things to say. I’m really awful at describing my books. I need some more elevator pitches, like the one I made up for my Jaran series: “Genghis Khan meets Jane Austen.” A few months ago I might have said something like, “a fantasy trilogy as done by HBO” but now that George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is actually being filmed by HBO I can’t say that anymore. So how about: “it’s an epic fantasy series about justice, corruption, and people crossing borders to find new lives. Oh, and there are cops–I call them reeves–who fly around on–actually underneath on a hang glider style set up–giant eagles the size of small Cessnas.”
Would you mind describing what the process was like for you in getting your first book published?
Can I just provide a link to my “writing biography?”
Were you a big reader as a child/young adult? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?
Yes, I was a huge reader. The first books I remember are Thornton Burgess’s Mother West Wind stories, which I read and re-read and re-re-read. I then graduated to animal stories. I read animal stories until junior high, by which time I had also moved via the monthly Scholastic Book purchases at school into fantasy and science fictional stories. In junior high I read Tolkien, and that kind of ate my life. I really don’t think I ever got over it. Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles is another book that had a big impact, as well as Edgar Rice Burroughs and some of the early reboots of the X-Men (when they introduced the big new set of characters). I didn’t keep following the X-Men, though, because everyone else in my family kept informing me that to read comics ought to be beneath me; I’m sad that I listened to them at that time, because I really loved those comics and ended up reading them all later, when no one was around to suggest in that pitying way that I ought not to want to read such things. Jane Austen and Ursula Le Guin were big influences in high school and later I read many of C.J. Cherryh’s novels. Many more, of course; those are a few to start with.
What do you enjoy reading these days?
I read a lot of non fiction, much for research that is also for pleasure. My fiction reading is mostly sff, with a few mysteries and mainstream novels thrown in for variety.
Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?
As a child, my family mostly played card games like Pinocle and Hearts. However, my husband is an old school wargamer. He still owns many rare original games, including early versions of the board game of RuneQuest and other Chaosium games. I mean, this man played some entire 5 day World at War scenario, maybe more than once, in high school (Third Reich? World in Flames? A World at War? World War II? Who knows?). I don’t have the patience for that kind of gaming. Risk pushes my limits in terms of time spent staring at a board. When our children were younger, we often played Cosmic Encounters, The Awful Green Things From Outer Space, Kings & Things, and Dungeon, and others too numerous to mention. Our family currently enjoys Settlers of Catan and its offshoots.
My RPG experience is far less extensive. I had never heard of RPGing until after college. I played some Runequest, did a tiny bit of play testing for Worlds of Wonder: Superworld. I also played in a few campaigns run by other people (which were great). That’s about it. I don’t play console games (I’m sorry to say our children were never allowed to have a console, but they more than made up for it with computer games). I do like puzzle computer games, but these days browsing the internet takes up far too much time so I don’t even have time for garden variety time-wasting games.
Have you ever ventured into or perhaps been exposed to online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.
When I was in college, I played what was either Colossal Cave Adventures or an early version of Zork (I’m not sure). I thought it was the coolest thing ever. No online game since has ever had quite the novelty, although I admit I’ve deliberately avoided the current explosion of online worlds due to needing to have a life in this world rather than spending all my time in an addictive world next door. I do enough of that by writing. In fact, one could almost call my novels a form of gaming, only I’m doing it all by myself.
Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your gaming past?
My husband and I were the models for the RuneQuest third edition (Avalon Hill) cover. The painting was one of illustrator Jody Lee’s early professional jobs; she’s since done covers for many many books, including my Crown of Stars series (7 volumes) for DAW Books (1997 – 2006).
Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?
I would say that fighting in armor in the SCA has had a greater influence on me as a writer than gaming. But I played in a Call of Cthulhu campaign once, many years ago, and that left me with a lingering appreciation for H. P. Lovecraft’s imagination and the appeal of RPGing in a campaign where you are more likely to fall into gibbering insanity than to die.
Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?
Yes. Writing is work, just like work is work. I’m not complaining, mind you, at making my living as a writer, but I don’t sit around waiting for the Muse to strike. I sit down and work, and sometimes I would rather be folding laundry, and sometimes I would rather be writing.
By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?
When the writing is going well. There’s nothing like that flow, when words are pouring from brain through hands to paper/screen, and the vision in my head is making it onto the page. Not perfectly, of course, but so I can see the shape and feel of it. Then, also, I love when revising goes well, when that original draft or drafts falls into place with the right pacing and imagery.
When do you find time to write?
I write full-time. It’s my profession. So I find time to write in the same way a person “finds time” to work where they are employed.
How do you tend to escape these days?
I paddle outrigger canoes, both 6 man canoe (OC-6 paddling is the Official State Team Sport of Hawaii) and one man canoe (out by myself or with friends).
Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?
I do. The most comprehensive thing I have to say to would-be writers is contained in a long post titled “Advice for First-Time SFF Novelists” which is in fact applicable to most writers to one degree or another, not just science fiction and fantasy (sff) novelists.
You wake up to a world where your Crossroads series has been made into a massively multiplayer online game. What race and class would you play and why?
I can’t imagine myself playing a Crossroads MMO because it feels like I would know everything in the world already, so there would be no suspense. But I think a Crossroads MMO would be very cool.
I have to say that although I know it’s just a mechanism for playing, that entire race and class designation thing in RPGs and MMOs drives me crazy because it becomes such an arbitrary thing with such a limited sense of characteristics and a baseline of defining individuals by artificially imposed identities. However, having said that, if I were to play a WoW or D&D style MMO, I would TOTALLY be an awesomely agile and athletic elf warrior chick whose weapons are bow and arrow, and sword.
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