How does a poet become a fantasy author? It's an interesting question and one of
the few our reviewer Katherine Petersen asked
fantasy author Helen
Lowe. Maybe it's the New Zealand landscape? Or her childhood around the
Pacific Rim cities? Why not join us as we find out.
You started off as a poet, and it really reflects in your writing. How do
you see your poetry background affects your storytelling?
Helen: Your question is a really interesting one, because itâs
made me realise that poetry does always come first for me. By which I mean that
my very first scribblings as a child were poetry and every time I have a
sabbatical from writing, it is always poetry that I start writing again first.
Possibly this is simply because I find it so much easier to complete a poem
within the initial creative burst, whereas most short fiction (with the probable
exception of flash) and certainly novels, have to be sustained beyond that â
well beyond in the case of novels!
Poetry and prose are not separate worlds, though, but neighbouring countries,
where border crossings are made by way of the rhythm and flow and richness of
language, and the shape the story being told assumes (because even poems tell
some sort of tale). For example, I have written a poem called Penelope Dreaming, which is a riff on Penelope of
Ithacaâs story. I have also written a short story called Ithaca, which offers another interpretation of
Many people have a very set idea of what New Zealand must be like, do you
find a lot of inspiration from your home?
Helen: New Zealand is probably most famous now as âMiddle
Earthâ in The Lord of the Rings (LoTR) films and the landscapes of New
Zealand certainly inform Haarth, The Wall of
Night seriesâ world. For example, the description of Jaransor in Book One,
Heir of Night, reflects Central Otago (which also features as the
Westfold of Rohan in LoTR) with its rock tors, wild thyme growing underfoot, and
hillsides characterized by sweetbriar and matagouri thorn. The landscape around
Caer Argent, in The Gathering of the Lost (Book Two), is strongly
based on the Nelson region of NZ, although not in every particular. I canât
point to a strong influence in Daughter of Blood, however, since most of the
action takes place on the Wall of Night itself â and that is entirely imaginary.
Iâve always wondered where the original idea for THE WALL OF NIGHT came
from. Itâs such an intricate world and rich plotline, and yet every piece fits
together so nicely.
Helen: Ah, that fitting together so nicely comes from a
LOT of hard work. :-) As for the original idea, I suspect it started
awaâ back in the mists of âHelen Lowe-timeâ when as a child I first discovered
the Norse myths, closely followed by the Celtic, at the same time as I was
living in tropical Singapore â howâs that for a juxtaposition? The Norse myths
are full of the stark, the dark, and the deeply brooding, as well as heroes,
quests, and a sense of the high and far offâŚ And magic â did I mention the
magic? Celtic folklore is also infused with magic â and their stories are vivid,
passionate and colorfulâŚ It would be fair to say that both traditions colonised
my imagination to the extent that I began weaving my own stories within them.
Plus that in Singapore the equatorial nights fell so swiftly that it is probably
not surprising that a sense of darkness â and the whole idea of âIf Night
falls, all fallâ â soon wove itself into my first imaginings of a stark
heroic world and the powerful, passionate people who inhabit it.
You have some amazing character names. How do you pick the perfect names for
Helen: I keep working on them until I get them right for the
character! One of the main players in DAUGHTER OF BLOOD is Myr,
whose full name is Myrathis, but who is also known as âLady Mouse.â The âMouseâ
part was a constant from my first creative glimpse of the character â but I had
to do a great deal of writing and rewriting of the opening scene to get her full
name and diminutive âjust exactly rightâ. Yet because Myr is a leading
protagonist who appears throughout the book, as well as being a nuanced
personality, I knew I had to get her name â and its character âflavorâ â spot on
from the outset.
Sometimes, too, a name will contain a âkeyâ to the character. For example, the
nickname of âmouseâ is important to the development of Myrâs character through
the DAUGHTER OF BLOOD arc. And the name of the Wall seriesâ main
character, Malian, is based on a Greek root: âmalâ, meaning âdarkâ â and it is
not chance that Malian is also the Heir of Night. As for Raven, whom another
character calls âthe Raven of Battleâ, I hope his name speaks for itself âŚ In
short, a great deal of thought does go into the character names, not least
because I find it helps the story to âflow.â
Youâve mentioned before that you often do not know what is going to happen
next for your characters, that you wait for the muses to talk to you. Can you
talk about that?
Helen: Of course! In fact I do sometimes know, absolutely, what
lies ahead for some characters â but in others (in exactly the same way prophecy
works in the books), there are many, or at least several potential paths
depending on the way the story evolves. I think of the story arc as being like a
journey with its beginning and final destination clearly marked, and with
several equally clear way stations along the route â but the best path between
them can sometimes be extremely hard to find. So for example, if weâre talking
characters, I had always envisaged two of the protagonists in DAUGHTER OF BLOOD falling
in love â but they absolutely refused to do so: there was just no chemistry
between them, no matter how I wrote and rewrote their scenes. Yet in the end, as
soon as I accepted that the romance was not going to happen, I realised that
what was happening instead was a much better outcome for the story. As
the great Ursula Le Guin has said, ââŚthe story boat is a magic one. It knows
its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it to find its own way
to wherever itâs going.â I just had to learn to listen to the story, or the
muses, so I could chart the right course for the book.
You are a very busy writer, but do you make time to read? Who are some of
your favorite authors?
Helen: How much time do you have? J I have so many favorite
authors that a list would probably be longer than the rest of this interview put
together. However, a few favorite reads from the past few years include Emily St
John Mandelâs Station Eleven, Nicola Griffithsâ Hild, and An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris. In terms of
Fantasy-specific titles, Iâve also read and enjoyed Laini Taylorâs Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Maggie Stiefvaterâs The Raven Boys, and The Way Of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. So yes, I am
a reader, although when Iâm very busy the reading can tend to slip a bit. I
havenât had time to read a lot recently, for example.
Do you like to read in your genre, or do you branch out?
Helen: As I believe the above shows, I both read widely within
the genre (STATION
ELEVEN is future dystopia for example; DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE
and THE RAVEN BOYS are
paranormal urban fantasy) and also branch out, e.g. both HILD and AN OFFICER AND A SPY are
historical fiction. I also like a little horror, like WORLD WAR Z, some crime â I
love Henning Mankellâs Wallender novels â and also more contemporary stories,
like Ann Patchettâs BEL
CANTO. I also enjoy reading historical non-fiction, such as Sun Tzuâs
THE ART OF WAR, or Douglas Woodruffâs THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ALFRED
What would you like new readers to know about your books?
Helen: Itâs probably best to start at the beginning with THE HEIR OF NIGHT, since
The Wall of Night series is definitely one story, despite being told in four
distinct parts. I deliberately started with a âclassic epic fantasyâ premise,
i.e. quest-journeys, worlds to be saved, prophecies and portents, and a heroine
with a destiny. But overall the story is character driven â although with an
action emphasis on magic, adventure, and the swashbuckling romance of
tournaments, duels to the death, and rooftop chases, as well as both friendships
and love that defy the odds.
The double tweet-length summary of the Wall story is:
âA people who consider themselves champions of good and yet are divided by
prejudice, suspicion and fear; a young, untried champion & a promise that
has endured down centuries â that she should not have to stand alone.â
âIntrigue, war, & friendship in the face of darkness as two heroes race
against time to find a shield of power & solve a 400 year-old mystery.â
In terms of similar types of stories, if you have enjoyed JRR Tolkienâs The
Lord of the Rings, or George RR Martinâs A Game of Thrones, Lois
McMaster Bujoldâs The Curse of Chalion or Kate Elliottâs
Crossroads trilogy, or Brandon Sandersonâs The Way of Kings,
you may well enjoy The Wall of Night series as well.
Thank you for the fun, Fresh Fiction questions and the opportunity to do the
Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and sometime interviewer whose first
novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was
published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of
Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell
Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost,
was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of
Blood, (The Wall Of Night Series, Book Three), is recently published.
Helen posts regularly on her ââŚon Anything, Reallyâ blog, occasionally on
SF Signal, and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.
Malian of Night and Kalan, her trusted ally, are returning to the Wall of
Nightâbut already it may be too late. The Wall is dangerously weakened, the Nine
Houses of the Derai fractured by rivalry and hate. And now, the Darkswarm is
rising . . .
Among Grayharbor backstreets, an orphan boy falls foul of
dark forces. On the Wall, a Daughter of Blood must be married off to the Earl of
Night, a pawn in the web of her family's ambition. On the Field of Blood, Kalan
fights for a place in the bride's honor guard, while Malian dodges deadly
pursuers in a hunt against time for the fabled Shield of Heaven. But the
Darkswarm is gaining strength, and time is running outâfor Malian, for Kalan,
and for all of Haarth . . .