Robin Hobb (a/k/a Megan Lindholm) is the author of the Realms of the Elderlings epic fantasy series, which is comprised of several sub-series, including the Liveship Traders, The Farseer, The Tawny Man, and the Rain Wild Chronicles; this last is her most recent, the third volume of which, City of Dragons, came out in February 2012. Her other most recent book is The Inheritance and Other Stories, which showcases her short fiction published both under the bylines Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm.
This interview first appeared on The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which currently airs on Wired.com and is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
You started out publishing fiction under the name “Megan Lindholm,” but your given name is actually “Margaret.” So how did you become a “Megan”?
One of my first professionally published stories was in an anthology called Amazons!, of which Jessica Amanda Salmonson was the editor. Prior to that I had been publishing as “M. Lindholm,” and when it came time to put the anthology together, Jessica said that she really wanted to use full names on the stories, as she felt that for many years female writers had been forced to hide behind a single initial—or a male name—in order to get published. My response was that the “M” was something that I used because I had no particular attachment to my given name of Margaret—or Peggy, or Maggie, or Meg—and I said, “Well, Megan’s not too bad. But none of those names really resonate with me, so I’ve always just left it as M. Lindholm.”
Well, when the anthology came out and I opened my copy, I saw that my byline was now “Megan Lindholm.” There had been a misunderstanding, and Jessica had thought that was the name that I was actually choosing as a first name for my pseudonym.
You recently released a book called The Inheritance & Other Stories, featuring short fiction from throughout your career—as both Megan Lindholm and Robin Hobb. Many of those stories deal with characters living in poverty. Why do you think that’s such a recurring theme in your work?
Well, they say, “Write what you know.” [Laughs] I will not claim to have lived in poverty. I have seen true poverty, and I know what it looks like, but I’ve certainly lived at the lower level of income. I would say that many of the characters in my stories do not live in true poverty—they are not out on the street, they are not wondering if there will be anything to eat in the next week. They are people who are at the lower echelons of the economic strata. Why do the stories happen there? Well, because they do. It’s not as if I sat down and said, “I’m going to write a series of stories about people at the lower economic strata.” It’s simply that I get a story idea and I say, “Where is this set, and who are these characters?” And that’s how it comes out.
I think if you look at the full strata there, they are people who are mostly working blue-collar, and sometimes in the spectrum of fantasy people who actually work every day for a living and have a tight budget can seem like they’re poor, when actually for most of us that’s a reality.
One of the stories in the book is about gaining immortality by sticking roadkill in your mouth. How did you come up with that idea?
If you read a number of the older books about doing magic, and what people believed you could magically do, there is supposed magic whereby if you take the correct bone of a cat and put it under your tongue, you could become invisible. From there it was a short step to say, “What if, instead of that, it simply conferred this wonderful, huge rush of—not necessarily immortality—but renewed youth and vigor, and you didn’t need anything else except that? How would that work? What would you be willing to give up for that? Would you actually be giving up anything?”
That cross-referenced with an idea that I’ve often had, which is, “Who does magic work for?” In many of the stories that we read there is somebody who, by dint of their genetic heritage, or because they are going to be the rightful king, or whatever . . . magic descends upon them, and they can do magic. And I thought, “What about the person who doesn’t get that?” When you take those two ideas and put them in a bag and shake them up, then you get something like “The Fifth Squashed Cat.”
Your short story “Cut” is about a near-future in which female circumcision becomes a fad among teenage girls. Where did that idea come from?
That was written a number of years back, and tattoos were, at that point, becoming more and more popular, and the issue [arose] of, how old should a kid be before a kid is allowed to walk into a tattoo parlor and say, “I want six piercings in my ear”? Or “I want my belly button pierced”? Or [get] any kind of a tattoo? At what point is a person old enough to say, “I own my body and I get to do what I want with it”?
The flip side of that is, at what point does a parent’s decision of what to do with their child’s body become valid? You know, male circumcision is still very commonly practiced in the U.S., and yet we throw up our hands in horror when we talk about female circumcision, or genital mutilation, yet I’m sure that the parents who commonly practice this on their children are doing it with the same attitude that we see in male circumcision, or in having a child’s teeth straightened or whatever. There’s this whole hazy area of, who owns the body and at what point does that ownership of a body kick in? It’s not an area in which I have any answers. I just have a tremendous number of questions. And when I have a question about something, one of the things that I do is I sit down and I toss the question up in the air with some other factors, and usually what comes out is a short story.
How did you first start writing under the name “Robin Hobb”?
Fantasy encompasses a wide, wide spectrum of writing. We have beast fables, we have gothics, we have tales of vampires and werewolves, and we have sword & sorcery, we have epics from Homer, and there is just so much out there that we put under the umbrella of “Fantasy.” And there are readers who choose very selectively within that huge umbrella. Some readers only want to read ghost stories, or they only want to read a romantic fantasy, or a time travel fantasy, or sword & sorcery. So when you’re a fantasy writer and you’ve been writing—as I did as Megan Lindholm—all the way across the spectrum of fantasy, as my first agent Patrick Delahunt observed, he said it’s like you’re writing your first novel every year, simply because I would dabble in one area and then the next book I put out would be in another slice of the fantasy genre. So I was not building a following of readers, necessarily, except those who were adventurous enough to say, “Well, I liked your last book, so I’ll take a chance on where you’re going now.”
So when I submitted the Farseer trilogy—Assassin’s Apprentice—it’s very obvious that that was in a different slice of the fantasy genre than I had ever written in before, and so we decided that we would set it apart from my other work, and kind of “brand” it, so the people who were looking for that kind of story from me would know where to find it. I had a lot of fun choosing the name, choosing one that would fit nicely on the book cover. I went into bookstores and I checked out what shelf was at eye level, and in most bookstores it proved to be the “H” shelf, and I was looking at who would be on the H shelf with me, and it was Heinlein and Herbert and Hambly, and all sorts of writers who would pull people to come and look at that shelf. So I said, “OK, I want a surname that starts with ‘H,’ and I want it to be short enough to fit on the cover.” And then I deliberately chose “Robin” as an androgynous name, because there are still readers who, you know, if you are writing first-person male they expect the book to be written by a male, so I chose a fairly androgynous name. It gave me lots of room for the reader to step over that threshold and start reading.
As Robin Hobb you’ve written a number of fantasy books. Could you give us a rough idea of how those series fit together, and in what order people should read them?
In the Realm of the Elderlings, I’ve written very chronologically—it’s with the passing of time—so if you want to read the stories in chronological order and get all of the references to one another, you would start with the Farseer trilogy, which is Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest. Then you would move on to the Liveship Traders trilogy, because although there’s no obvious continuation of characters from Farseer to Liveship Traders, the events that happen in Farseer directly affect what’s happening down in Bing Town. And, of course, after you’ve read the Liveship Traders trilogy and you return to the Fitz and Fool stories in the Tawny Man trilogy, you will find that what has been happening in Bing Town definitely affects what happens up in the Six Duchies, which is very true of our world as well. After the Tawny Man trilogy, I took a brief side step into a different world, and I wrote the Soldier Son trilogy, which has no relation at all to the Realm of the Elderlings—it’s kind of a gunpowder fantasy. And then I have returned to that world with the Rain Wilds chronicles. They continue events and they pick up the life threads of a few characters from the Liveships trilogy, but it`s also talking about what happens with the serpents and the dragons.
How many people recognize that the map of the Six Duchies is Alaska, and what’s the background on that?
People talk to me about “Is that the map of Alaska?” It shares a lot of features with it. Somebody pointed out that if you turn it upside down there are a lot of shared features. But basically, again, it’s a question of “Write what you know.” I wanted a long string of islands that went out into the sea, similar to the panhandle of Alaska. There are a lot of things that come from real life into my written work, such as seismic activity, and lahars, and tidal waves. [Laughs] The geography of the Six Duchies and the rocks and things are very similar to Kodiak Island. Essentially I sent off a scratched-out map—because I’m by no means artistic—to both of the publishers, in the UK and the U.S. That is why the maps are different in the UK editions from the U.S. editions, because the publishers immediately recognized my lack of talent in the map-drawing area, and they actually commissioned maps. So if you look at the two maps, they don`t exactly match, and things I had sketched in, such as the ice shelves that cover land to the far north, and the sea that’s there, are interpreted slightly differently in both of those. So the resemblance to Alaska actually became greater in the final product than when I was sketching out the panhandle and islands that I wanted, and things like that.
There’s a science fiction author David Marusek, and I heard that when he wanted to write his first novel he moved to this shack in Alaska, because the Government pays you to live there, and it’s really cheap. I was just wondering, do you think that’s a good strategy for novelists, to all move to Alaska?
I would say that “paying you to live there” is a wild exaggeration. There is a kickback from the oil pipeline money, which my relatives who have remained in Alaska do receive. They get a pipeline bonus every year. And of course there is no income tax up there. But for all of that, there are taxes to pay and other expenses. What you may save in taxes, you’re going to spend buying the correct gear to live in Alaska. If you’re actually living in a very rural area, you’re going to need to layer up. And what you’re going to spend on buying an orange, or a banana, or fuel oil is . . . you’re still going to experience a lot of expenses there. So it’s rather like people who talk about how Anne McCaffrey moved to Ireland. There’s probably benefits, there’s probably drawbacks. I would say that if you want isolation, if you want to get away from the internet, if you want to have peace and quiet . . . or if you want to experience some of the skills that are actually necessary in a more—I don’t want to say primitive, but a more self-reliant location—certainly Alaska would be a good choice. The fact that I grew up in a family where we hunted and fished a lot for food, and we had a huge garden, and we had to put that food up for the winter, and we had to deal with the kind of day-to-day thoughts about survival in deep cold. You didn’t run out in your shorts and T-shirt and flip-flops, and hop into a car and say, “I’m just going a few miles to a friend’s house,” because that could be a life-or-death decision, if you slid off the road or something like that.
What was your first exposure to science fiction and fantasy literature?
I think it’s really hard to draw a hard-and-fast line and say Grimm’s Fairy Tales doesn’t count as science fiction or fantasy. Or at what point do we say mythology is not fantasy, so reading mythology when you’re young does not count as an exposure to fantasy? And of course I grew up reading fairy tales, beast fables, Aesop’s fables, The Jungle Book, and a lot of my father’s old fairy tale books. My mom would sometimes bring home . . . from the second-hand store she would bring home the digest-size magazines of the time, you know, Fantastic and Amazing and Analog. And horror. I had a lot of exposure to writers like Robert Bloch when I was a teenager. I absolutely loved horror, The Twilight Zone, things like that, and that was where I definitely felt at home as a reader and as a writer.
Your Liveship Traders series, which you mentioned earlier, is about sailing vessels with magical figureheads that think and talk. What was it about the idea of living ships that made you want to write about them?
My husband is third generation maritime, and both of my sons have followed him more or less into that trade. I would often have the opportunity to go up and spend time on whatever ship he was working on. During the summer, I would take sometimes a younger child or two with me, and we would go up and spend some time on a salmon tender or herring tender, and be on the ship. What struck me about his experiences—all the way back to when he was a boy, because he grew up on fishing vessels—was that every one of the ships that he lived on or sailed on had their own personalities that seemed independent of who was crewing them. There were some ships where nothing ever seemed to go wrong, and other ships where everything seemed to go wrong. I remember dropping him off—he was taking a tug across from Seattle to Hawaii—and we got on it, and it was very restless at the dock, and the captain, Captain Jack, said to me, “One thing I want you to know about this boat is she rides really rough, but she always knows which way is up.” Which means she’s not going to roll, she’s not going to turn turtle. And so that was his way of reassuring me that I would see my husband again. [Laughs] But the fact that he would say that about the boat meant that he felt that the boat knew which way was up. And there are other boats that, if you talk to the local fishermen, they say, “No, that’s a bad luck boat. I don’t sail on that boat. Things just go wrong on there.” So to get from that to the idea that the ship is alive and has its own personality, and has a living, speaking figurehead, is a very small step.
You say in your author notes that your husband doesn’t read your fiction. Could you tell us a bit about that?
What I discovered with my husband reading my stories is that he sees right through me. Writers always think that we’re writing at a distance from ourselves, and actually we’re all out there walking around in our underwear, and people know much more about writers than we realize. They know what our fascinations are, they know what themes we come back to over and over. They see a character type who crops up over and over, and they say, “OK, I know something about you. This absent mother, or this cruel, heartless cousin, there’s something in your life that mirrors that.” Which may or may not be true. A lot of times it’s not true, and it’s strictly a fascination we have with that story element. But when Fred would read a story—or especially if it was a work in progress—he would say, “Oh, is that character modeled on so and so?” And half the time he would take something which I was not consciously aware of and bring it, boom, right out into the open, and when that happened it really . . . for me it was a total “Oh, I was about to have that character encounter a really messy death, and now that I know that it’s modeled on our dear friend whosit, that’s going to be really uncomfortable for me to write. I don’t think I can write that story the way I was thinking about it.” So one day we were talking about it and laughing about it, and Fred said, “Well, I just won’t read them anymore. It’s OK.” And I thought, “That might actually be the best.” For the most part, Fred is not a fiction reader. He likes to read non-fiction related to his trade. He likes to read adventure that is based on an actual thing that happened. For instance, The Long Walk is one of his favorite books, or The Life of Jigoro Kano, or a book called Supertanker, that talks about the latest technology and advances in tankers. So for him to read my work had actually been more or less his “Well, what are you doing?” favor kind of thing rather than “I’m deeply interested in fantasy and science fiction.” So it was no sacrifice for him, and it freed me up to write without having a reviewer within the walls, and it just works very well for us.
In an interview I heard you say that growing up you had a cat named “John the Baptist.” What’s the story with that?
We lived in Berkley at the time, and we had a kitten. My brothers and sisters, we all went to Catholic school. I was in preschool at the time, so I wasn’t there, but they were coming up with a name for the cat, and they decided they’d name the cat “John the Baptist.” We had a lot of cats with peculiar names, from “Dressing Salad”—not “Salad Dressing,” but “Dressing Salad”—to “John the Baptist,” to “Stupid,” to “C’mere,” which was because the cat would not respond to its name, so it just became “Hey, c’mere.” But I do recall my mother standing on the back porch in Berkley calling, “Here John the Baptist, John the Baptist, John the Baptist,” and the neighbors very much enjoying that.
Are there any other new or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
I just sent out the galley corrections this morning on a short story for Asimov’s that’s called “Old Paint.” That’s a Megan Lindholm story. I am working through coming up with a final draft on a Robin Hobb shorter work—which doesn’t mean [shorter] by much—but it’s a shorter work, which will be “The Willfull Princess and the Piebald Prince.” It’s actually stepping back in time in the Six Duchies, and again, it will kind of shine a spotlight on something that happened back then, which triggered events that were set in motion in the Assassin’s Apprentice story. And then of course there is still the fourth book in the Rain Wilds chronicles, so those are all the things I’ve got coming my way and going on here right now.
What other epic fantasies do you think people should check out?
Oh, I’ll throw Joe Abercrombie’s name in the hat there. I’m currently reading his book Heroes, and wow, in his string of books he’s definitely attacking epic [fantasy] on the very small and personal scale, which I like. I’ve read Prince of Thorns, and wow, that’s a strange and wonderful ride. I started into Prince of Thorns going, “Why on earth did my editor send me this? This is hard and this is dark and, oh gosh, it’s disgusting. This is a horrible character.” And then of course you turn the page! So I’m looking forward to his next book, and I think that he is definitely a writer to watch. Mark Lawrence. I’ll toss in one more—Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, now that was one I really enjoyed. Oh, and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. See, I could keep you here all day, but I think I’ll stop with those.