Another Monday has rolled around, and that means time for another of our Legend Award nominee interviews - today's featured author is Helen Lowe, winner of the 2012 Morningstar Award with The Heir of Night and this time nominated for the sequel, The Gathering of the Lost.
1.Tell us a little about your nominated title, The Gathering of the Lost.
Helen: The Gathering Of The Lost is the second novel in The Wall Of Night series and picks up the story five years after the opening novel, The Heir Of Night, leaves off.
Just to quickly outline the basic premise of The Wall Of Night series (which is a quartet), it’s classically-conceived epic or high fantasy. The Wall of Night itself exists on the world of Haarth and is an environment of shadow and conflict that the Derai Alliance garrisons against an aeons-old enemy. So far, so usual – but part of the reason I chose this classic theme, other than my unashamed love of epic-heroic stories, is because I wanted to explore how the Derai, who believe themselves to be champions of good, are in fact divided by prejudice, suspicion and fear. I also wanted to address the notion that it is what people actually do, rather than what they believe about themselves, that really makes for “good guys” or “bad guys” – as well as how circumstances may have a bearing on that equation. Another less usual element is that the Derai are alien to Haarth: they have imposed their war and their enemy on the indigenous inhabitants, which adds a cultural dimension to the conflict.
The two main characters are Malian, the Heir to the warrior House of Night, and Kalan, a friend who was thrust into a confined temple life because of his magic powers. At the end of the first book, The Heir Of Night, they had fled the Wall of Night and disappeared into the wild back country of Haarth. For five years they have been believed dead, but now, in The Gathering Of The Lost, Malian’s enemies are on the hunt and the adventure shifts from murder amidst the alleys and islands of the River city of Ij, to insurgency along wild marches patrolled by the Emerian knights. The story is one of magic and adventure, roof top pursuits and forced marches by night, tourneys and “bands of brothers” – which in this case, includes ‘sisters’, too. It’s also a story of a thousand-year-old riddle, hidden identities, and springtime love.
At another level, the story is about Malian and Kalan’s friendship, and whether their interests, after five years’ separation, remain as aligned as they were in The Heir Of Night. Other tensions revolve around who, in a world of conflicting ambitions, either of them can truly trust. In Malian’s case, given her great power, the question may even be whether she can trust herself—as well as just how much she is prepared to sacrifice, including Kalan, to defeat her enemies.
2) Your books to date have made a real impact, with your characters in particular being praised. How do you go about creating and developing your characters?
Helen: That is an interesting question, because I’m not sure it’s a “how” I’ve ever consciously thought about! Usually the characters come to me in one of two ways: they either spring forth fully formed, Athena style, or they evolve. Usually though, even with the evolving characters who have been with me for a number of years, there’s a flashpoint moment – usually an image of the character in a place or situation where their identity becomes ‘concrete’, although sometimes it can be the ‘voice’ of the character I hear first. Usually the flashpoint comes with with far more backstory around what the character’s life is, and the challenges ahead, which is when the writing begins.
In the case of Malian, in the The Wall Of Night series, the flashpoint was a vision of her scaling the interior wall of an ancient, ruined castle that was imbued with shadows and a bloody history. Even that image though, was still only the end of the beginning in terms of the development of her character, which has continued to grow and evolve in relation to both events and changes in the characters around her. It’s important to me that should happen, as I feel it’s a vital part of making characters real. I also feel strongly that character continuity is vital to the authenticity of the story—which means that a character cannot just go and do something against her or his nature, as established in the story thus far, simply to advance the next element in the plot. Not if I’m “keeping it real” as a writer.
Malian is a major character and so obviously gets a lot of attention. But a telling measure of writing quality for me is whether the minor characters, for whatever brief time they are on the stage of the story are also real. One way I like to think about this in my own writing is that even if a character is not important to the story being told, he or she (or it, in the case of certain speculative entities) will be important to him or herself. Even the most minor of characters will have a history and a life that matters to them, and as the writer I have to convey a sense of that, even if the reader will only ever catch the most fleeting glimpse of the character on the page.
When a writer does this successfully, I believe it adds depth and texture, as well as conviction, to the story. I know it adds greatly to my enjoyment of a book when I don my reader’s hat.
3) Your first title, Thornspell, was a Young Adult title. What made you switch to writing for adults, and would you like to write more YA books?
Helen: You know, I really didn’t switch, it only “appears” that way!
Ursula Le Guin, in her book “Steering The Craft”, says: “…the 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 it’s going.” The quote always speaks to me, because I don’t say, “I’m going to write a children’s book now”, or “This will be a book for adults.” Rather, I have ideas for stories and when I start to write them the story itself tells me what kind of tale it is, whether it will be for adults or for younger readers, or a crossover between the two. The other reason why I said I didn’t switch is because although Thornspell was my first title published, The Heir Of Night (The Wall Of Night, Book One) was the first book I wrote. So to answer the second part of your question, yes—I would love to write more novel-length stories, and I’m open to whether they are for Junior, YA, or Adult readers.
4) Your present series, The Wall of Night is four books, whereas many fantasy series tend to be trilogies. What led you to decide on writing four books?
Helen: For me, it always comes back to the story itself driving every aspect of the storytelling. I like to describe The Wall of Night as one story told in four parts, and when I first started writing I thought of it in terms of a standalone book, but quickly realised that could never be: the story was just too big! Although the automatic fantasy reflex, as you say, was to then think ‘trilogy’, when I sat down and really plotted it out, I realized that the story could not be accommodated in less than four books. It’s still really the one story, but in fact each ‘part’, i.e. book, is turning out to have its own distinct character, which is fun, although it can also be demanding to write.
At one level, the character of The Gathering Of The Lost is that it’s a tale of high adventure, but what I realized once I finished writing it, is that its “secret heart” is friendship. Events force both Malian and Kalan to ask and answer questions of loyalty and responsibility to each other, but also about their obligations to those who stand outside their own culture’s narrow bounds. Other central characters, such as the heralds, Tarathan and Jehane Mor, and the minstrel, Haimyr, who have previously been brought together by events into a “band of brothers”, find those ties tested by changing circumstances and the reassertion of old allegiances and duties.
Ultimately, The Gathering of the Lost is also a story about responsibility, in terms of which I can do no better than to use the words of my US editor, Kate Nintzel: “… to each other, to the world in which we live, to our families, whether of blood or friendship.”
5) You've already tasted Gemmell Awards glory, winning the Morningstar award for The Heir of Night. How did it feel to claim that prize, and what would it mean to bring home the Legend Award?
Helen: I think my first words, when the Morningstar call came through, were “I don’t believe it”– but after my disbelief was suspended I was obviously very happy indeed, not least because I have always loved epic fantasy so winning a major award in the genre for my own epic storytelling was very special. The David Gemmell Awards are international, as well as being reader voted, so winning the Morningstar and making the shortlist for the Legend award – which I feel is “huge” given it’s the open category – both suggest that readers see “The Heir Of Night” and “The Gathering Of The Lost” respectively as having merit. As a new writer still, that’s tremendously encouraging.
I also felt honoured to win the Morningstar Award, and now to be shortlisted for the Legend Award this year, because the awards commemorate the legacy of David Gemmell, which was formative for me as an epic Fantasy reader and writer. I love the sweep of his stories and the sense of contending light and dark—but also the many shades of human fallibility between those extremes. And I have always been strongly drawn to his writing of heroism, sacrifice and duty, as well as the ability of friendship and love, in rare circumstances, to transcend ambition and self-interest.
As for what it would mean to bring home the Legend Award – well, it has not escaped me that it is a battleaxe, and clearly, every epic gal needs an epic axe!
Many thanks to Helen for taking the time to talk to us - it seems the mighty axe is very sought after indeed!
Next week's interview will be live on Monday, when we'll be chatting to double-nominated Jay Kristoff. See you then!
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