A Conversation With Anne Lesley Groell

by Claire E. White

Editor and author Anne Lesley Groell is a native New Yorker who
Photo of Anne Lesley Groell and Friend
grew up on the Upper West Side. She received a B.A. in Biology from Yale University and a M.S. in Developmental Biology from the University of California at Irvine, specializing in limb regeneration in salamanders. Eventually, missing seasons, she returned to the Upper West Side, where she still resides, to become an editor and writer. She worked for two and a half years at Avon Books, then moved on to Bantam, where she is a SF/Fantasy editor for Bantam Spectra , editing such authors as George R. R. Martin, Robin Hobb, Connie Willis, Lynn Flewelling, Mark Anthony, Catherine Asaro, Kay Kenyon and John Marco. In addition to being an editor, she is also a popular fantasy author. Her first published novel, Anvil of the Sun, was released from Penguin/Roc in 1996; Bridge of Valor, the sequel, in 1997; and Cauldron of Iniquity, in 1999. The three novels follow the adventures of the fledgling assassins, Jenifleur and Thibault, as they strive to become full members of the legendary Assassin's Guild. Her books are a blend of fantasy, adventure and romance which have been highly praised by publications such as Locus, Starlog and Romantic Times. In addition to her vivid characters, her stories are also known for their inventive settings and their wonderful sense of humor.

Between editing and writing, she gets very little sleep, and jokes that she is currently trying to work out a scam to blurb her own authors. Anne spoke with us about how she made the transition from biologist to author and editor, how she created the Cloak and Dagger series, and gives some great tips to aspiring writers hoping to get noticed by an acquisitions editor.

What did you like to read when you were a child?

Science fiction and fantasy, pretty much obsessively--despite frequent
Cover of The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee
maternal cries of: "Why don't you read a real book?" I cut my teeth on Madeleine L'engle and Lloyd Alexander, graduated up to Robert A. Heinlein and Anne McCaffrey--and, of course, Tolkien--then discovered Tanith Lee, Katherine Kurtz and Barbara Hambly, at which point it was pretty well over for me. I had cemented my lifelong devotion to the genre. And it is so nice when it feeds back to you, too. I will never forget the feeling of getting my first quote as an author from Anne McCaffrey. And of meeting Katherine Kurtz for the first time; she grinned at me and said: "Oh, I just read your book. I really enjoyed it." I mean, surely that was MY line? And one of the biggest thrills of my editorial career has been reissuing my favorite book in the universe--Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover--which I recently brought out with absolutely the perfect cover and interior design. Tanith and I really had a meeting of minds on this project, which was wonderful.

What prompted your switch in careers from biology to editing and writing?

Getting thrown out of graduate school? Actually, it was more of a mutual parting of ways--I was thrown out, but I
"For myself, I read for character more than plot. If I love the characters, they could be hanging out reading the phone book for all I care! Well...okay, not quite. But I do need characters I can care about."
pretty much wanted to be out by that time, and it was exceedingly obvious. I still love biology as an intellectual pursuit--thinking about it, learning about it, teaching it--but I hated doing the actual research. So when it came time for me to leave, I decided: Why not try for my dream job? I had been reading SF and Fantasy for as long as I could remember--and writing it about equally long. So I wrote to all the SF and Fantasy publishing houses in New York, and fortunately Avon Books had an opening. Even more fortunately, I got the job--though the writing sample I submitted was a lecture on sea-urchin fertilization. I am probably the only person in publishing who actually got a job based on sea-urchin fertilization! And when the Bantam job came open, my boss called me into his office and told me about it, saying he would hate to lose me but knew I would be perfect. So I applied, and I've been at Bantam ever since.

As for writing... Well, I didn't so much switch into it as finally manage to make it work professionally. I've always been writing, for as long as I can remember. I started with highly surrealistic poems in kindergarten, then started writing my first novel at the age of ten. I never finished it, but I did finish the one I wrote at seventeen. They were both dreadful! Then, through college and graduate school, I produced two highly angst-ridden SF novels, which I still think have a shred of promise--providing I throw out almost everything but the basic idea! In fact, the only really good thing about them is that they got me my agent, which is always a good first step in getting published.

What do you enjoy most about being an editor?

Oh, that's easy! Getting paid to read. And being one of the first people in the world to see the newest books from some of my favorite authors. Not to mention discovering brilliant new talents. There are days I still can't believe the scam I've put over on the world! They're actually letting me support myself this way?

As an editor, what are your pet peeves about query letters?

Arrogance. Deliberate, cutesy cleverness. We don't care who you are, or how brilliant your mom/spouse/neighbor thinks your writing is. All we care is how brilliant we think your writing is--and that we can decide for ourselves. I always say that good writing will speak for itself. Without any frills. Oh, yeah, and not knowing what genre I work in. It's insulting, knowing the author has not even done the most basic research. We work our tails off here, largely unappreciated and mostly unknown to the general public. At least do me the credit of pretending you've heard of me!

What really catches your eye in a manuscript?

People read for different reasons--and one of the things you quickly learn in publishing is that everything is subjective, based on the editor's personal taste and particular mood at the time of the reading. For myself, I read for character more than plot. If I love the characters, they could be hanging out reading the phone book for all I care! Well...okay, not quite. But I do need characters I can care about. Yet what I really need, more than anything, is the inability to leave a book at work. If I have to take it home, read it obsessively until 3 am, then I know I've got a winner. What a lot of people don't realize is that editors have to really love the books they buy, as they will be reading them a minimum of three times--and often more. And if they get bored by the second go-round, then they really are in trouble!

What kind of manuscripts are you looking for right now?

Right now, nothing specific. We're pretty fully booked--which is the case with most of the big publishers these days. But if I see something I adore, I'll certainly fight to acquire it!

What trends are you seeing in the SF/Fantasy genres today?

Trends? Mmm, I dunno. Unlike Connie Willis--who has an uncanny ability for these things--I find trends pretty impossible to predict. Though I also tend to believe that it is impossible to write to the market--that trends develop because of what is written and out there and good rather than the other way around. But I do know that Fantasy is outselling SF these days--my personal theory being that science fiction has recently become highly dystopian. People don't want to read books for pleasure that say the world is bad and only getting worse. But Fantasy--as in the heyday of SF--is a literature of hope. It tells us that there IS a future worth fighting for, that good usually wins out over evil. And I think that is something everyone needs to believe in.

How has being an editor affected your own fiction writing?

It's been a wonderful learning experience. When you see a finished book, you hopefully should not see the seams, or see how it is constructed. But when you edit, you begin to see where books don't work and how they start to fall apart, which means you can really learn a lot about how to put them together. And there's a particular inspiration to reading something really wonderful at work, and wanting to rush home to write something just as wonderful yourself!

Let's talk about the Cloak and Dagger series. What led up to your first book, Anvil of the Sun, being published?

Cover of Anvil of the Sun by Anne Lesley Groell
Well, as I mentioned, I got my agent off my dreadful, angsty SF novel--but we couldn't sell that book for beans. So while we were shopping it around, I wrote another, this time a fantasy. The submission process takes a LONG time. We editors are very busy, and tragically, reading submissions is at the very bottom of our list. So by the time my agent and I discovered that the second submission had gotten lost in the mail, I had written 120 pages of Anvil of the Sun. We both liked it better than my previous project, and so decided to market that instead. And it sold--to one of her clients who was also an editor, and who had just sold her own first novel to my former boss. (Did I mention that publishing is also highly incestuous?)

The stars of the series are the fledgling assassins, Jenifleur and Thibault. What was your inspiration for this fantasy series and for these two characters?

Well, the inspiration for the series was somewhat three-fold. First, I wanted to create my own take on the James Bond universe--a fun
"Don't give up hope. It's a tough market out there right now... Trends come and trends go; lists tighten and open up. A lot of it is persistence, and a lot of it is sheer, rotten luck. But I tend to believe the true talent will always make it. And remember: just because an editor rejects your book doesn't mean that your book is dreadful. The whole industry is subjective and based on personal taste. And some day an editor will come along who thinks you are wonderful!"
action-adventure series in which the woman was in control, had a loyal male sidekick, and a different guy every book. I mean, why should men have all the fun? I also wanted a world with a technological feel, but without possessing guns or other such explosive technology. I couldn't quite figure out how to do that until I realized that if a society contained a subset of people who could do magic, and that society then advanced to a "technological" level, those magic users would end up becoming a major economic power, on the order of the phone companies and power companies combined. And so the Mage's Guild was born. The last leg of the stool was my abiding interest in the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution, which I find to be one of the most fascinating periods in history. With the discovery of black-naphtha (essentially, crude oil) in Anvil of the Sun, I am deliberately setting the stage for a future industrial revolution which will ultimately topple the Mage's Guild and completely alter the power balance of the world. But as for Jen and Thibault themselves.... Well, they came into being one afternoon in a hotel room in Athens. I was traveling by myself at the time, and was taking a bit of a lie-down before dinner when I had this vision of a woman dressed in some outrageous garb climbing in through the window, and her long-suffering partner--lying just about where I was--thinking: "Oh, no; not again." Thus were Jen and Thibault born--and that scene actually exists (although under somewhat modified circumstances) in Cauldron of Iniquity.

And since the series was conceived abroad, it has pretty much become my travelogue series. Anvil is set in a sort of alternate Saudi Arabia (inspired mostly by Lawrence of Arabia, as it is the only one of my settings I haven't actually been to). Jen and Thibault's homeland, Hestia, is an alternate France. Bridge of Valor is set in a mentally-rebuilt Dunnottar Castle, whose ruins lie near Stonehaven, off the east coast of Scotland. And Cauldron of Iniquity is set in an alternate Greece--whose alternate Athens contains a conglomeration of the Las Vegas strip and Bourbon Street plunked down in the middle of it. (Which is one of the beauties of writing fantasy, being able to play fast and loose with history and geography.) The fourth book, Dungeons of the Moon, which I am currently planning, will be set in an alternate Italy, but one which contains the extensive system of caves found in the Dordogne region of France. Which, I suppose, means I'll just have to keep traveling more to get further inspiration. Damn; such punishment!

The mage Absalom is one of my favorite characters. He and Vera's interactions are especially funny. Do you think he'll have a bigger role in future books?

He certainly thinks he will! Actually, Absalom is an interesting character. He was invented--literally--as scene filler and local color for the bazaar scene in Anvil. Only he refused to go away, became a series player, and now is one of my favorite characters ever. He is bossy and autocratic, steals every scene he is in, is bucking for his own series, and remains an enigma even to me. It sounds odd for an author to admit, but characters often take on a life of their own, and Absalom is one who continues to surprise me. He has revealed his background only in fits and snatches, so while I know a few more things about him than the readers at this point, even I remain largely in the dark. But I do look forward to seeing more of him in the future--even if I do refuse to bow to pressure and give him his own series. (I dislike being bullied by my own creations, and can be as stubborn as Absalom himself when pushed!)

Let's talk about your latest book, Cauldron of Iniquity, which is the third book in the series. In the latest book it seems like our fledgling assassins are finally growing up a bit, and learning some hard lessons. How would you say Jenifleur and Thibault have changed since the first book in the series?

Well, I made a very deliberate choice in the creation of this series, and have been catching some degree of flak for it ever since. But I decided that it was no fun starting a series with perfectly mature characters who have no room to grow. So I not only made both my main characters young, I made them realistically young. Jen is eighteen, and has been born into a world of extreme privilege. She acts like the typical eighteen year old--cocky, overly-confident, not much concerned with the future, and convinced she is immortal. Consequently, she can be a bit obnoxious, and make some seriously bad choices based on impulse. (Actually, one of the beauties of Vera as a character is to serve as foil to Jen--the grown-up version of Jen, as it were.) My hope always has been that Jen has enough charm to get the readers to stick with her for a few books and watch her progression into responsible adulthood. I was quite deliberately giving her a grace period in the first two books, and setting her up for a major fall in Cauldron--which is probably one the darkest books I have ever written. It has always been planned to represent a major turning point in the lives of both my characters, because Jen's fall leads Thibault to question some of his own, most deeply held beliefs. Hopefully by the fourth book, you will begin to see substantial changes in both characters as a result of the events in Cauldron of Iniquity.

Gideon is another strong character; there's certainly more to him than meets the eye! How did you approach writing Gideon?

With a degree of trepidation. There are probably not many fantasies in which the romantic lead is a sociopath, and you never know quite how you are going to handle writing such a character. In fact, the ease with which I could get into Gideon's mindset at times almost scared me. Should such a character be fun to write? Because he was! But the other thing I didn't want to do with Gideon was make him a straight figure of evil. I find that boring--and stereotyped. I much prefer my villains complex, and while Gideon is clearly evil, I nonetheless tried to convey the sense of a man who has a code--even if its rules are completely warped and different from our own. And as with Absalom, another interesting thing about Gideon was the way he surprised me. Without giving any secrets of the plot away, let's just say even I didn't know Gideon's true nature until close to the end of the book. Although, ironically, I had been writing all the hints in without really knowing what I was hinting at.

The fantasy world in which the series is set is quite complex and uses magecraft to simulate many of the comforts we have here in our world. What went into your decision on how to set up the magical system in this world?

As I mentioned before, I wanted a complex, partially-industrialized world without guns. And I am still very pleased with the genesis of the Mages' Guild. They will definitely be featuring more in later books--as Absalom's true background is revealed, and as the oil-powered technology gradually eases them out of power--and leaves them struggling to find new ways to adapt to their world.

What's next for Jenifleur and Thibault?

The fourth book, as I mentioned above, will be set in an alternate Italy, and will deal with an art-smuggling ring. For the far future.... Well, I've got a rather long story arc on this one, with the building industrial revolution and resolving the particulars of Jen and Thibault's relationship. Not to mention Vera and Absalom! However, just to give myself a mental break, I am currently working on a vastly different trilogy--more of a standard medieval/renaissance epic dealing with a world at war. I am very proud of it, and having enormous fun with all my new characters.

I'd like to talk about the practical side of the creative process. What is that like for you? (when do you write, do you use the computer, do you revise a lot etc.?)

Oh, I am a huge fan of the computer! I really can't write any other way. I
Cover of Cauldron of Iniquity by Anne Lesley Groell
have trained myself to write with music, because it is the only time I would get to listen to it, otherwise. And I am a fairly logical writer. I can't, like a lot of authors I know, work out of sequence, doing all the big scenes and then going back and filling in the blanks. I have to write completely sequentially--starting at the beginning and working toward the end. Partly because that's the way my mind works, but mostly because I never really know the middle of a book. Once, I tried writing from a detailed outline, and it bored me to tears. It mostly just felt like copy work; all the creative stuff had already been done. Now, I make sure I always know my beginning point, my end point, and a few key middle bits--and let the rest of the plot evolve organically, which I find much more satisfying if sometimes a little scary. Working this way can definitely make you feel like you are operating without a safety net, and sometimes you do back yourself into impossible corners. But so far, I have always managed to extricate myself in one piece, and for me it keeps the process exciting. As for the creative process itself... Well, luckily I am a very fast writer. (I actually wrote the last 45 pages of Bridge--and the last 58 of Cauldron--in one sitting. Though the latter, admittedly, was an all-nighter.) Unless I am really on a roll, I tend to work chapter by chapter. I do what I call the initial brain-spew, then go back and do the bulk of my editing and clean-up on that chapter. Then onto the next chapter, and the next, occasionally going back into previous chapters to insert bits of storylines I only just worked out, or to correct inconsistencies arising from changing my mind about something mid-stream. Then, once the whole book is as clean as I can get it chapter by chapter, I print it out and do the final edit of the whole manuscript on hard copy--just as if it were one of my author's books. (Yes, old habits DO die hard!) Then I give it to a handful of my friends for an honest critique.

When you're not working, what do you like to do for fun?

Not working? When am I ever not working? (grins) Much as I love editing professionally, it's not a job you can just leave at work every night. There's always more to do in a day than you can reasonably handle, and there are always manuscripts to take home and edit. And since the bulk of my paycheck comes from Bantam, those duties take priority. Writing occurs in whatever left-over time I can snatch. Nor does it help that I have become addicted to endorphins, and spend about two hours a day at the gym. But beyond that... Well, I refuse to give up all vestiges of a life--and I firmly believe you need to interact with the world to remain creative a writer. So I go out with friends, see movies, watch too much TV, go to museums, throw parties, try to get out of the city as often as possible, and make sure to travel for three weeks every Fall. I think Germany is on the roster for this September/October.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

In the past, Anne McCaffrey, Tanith Lee, Katherine Kurtz and Barbara Hambly. In the present... Well, who has time to read non-Bantam books any more? But that is hardly a punishment. Some of the many delights on my list include: George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, Connie Willis, Lynn Flewelling, Mark Anthony, Catherine Asaro and Kay Kenyon. I recommend them to everyone most highly! I have also taken to reading mysteries as something completely unrelated to work. I am currently addicted to Elizabeth George.

Is that a salamander you're holding in your author photo?

Cover of Bridge of Valor by Anne Lesley Groell
No, it's a frog. It's partially an in-joke from Bridge of Valor, in which I have a rain of frogs. But I also just like frogs, and like catching them...if I can. The picture was taken at the Innisfree Gardens in Milbrook, NY, where I go every year after apple-picking. What they--I suppose fortunately--cropped out of the photo is the mud all over my jeans from where I fell into the lake chasing after the frog. I am a very dedicated amphibian-stalker!

How useful do you think conventions are for aspiring and/or published authors?

For aspiring writers, I think the best things are the writers conferences and the critique groups. I have attended many, many writers conferences as a guest editor, and the services they offer are amazing! The attendees get to speak to editors and agents one on one, can practice pitching their book, and sometimes even get personal feedback.
Cover of A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
And the talks are also most informative. As for the critique groups... As I mentioned above, there's no better way to learn how to construct a book than seeing where other people's don't work. Critique groups are valuable both for the insights into your own work as well as the chance to refine your editorial instincts by examining other people's works-in-progress. For the published authors... By all means go to the big conventions! I do the Nebulas, the World Science Fiction Convention, and the World Fantasy Convention every year, and they are amazing! The SF and Fantasy community is truly wonderful: smart, funny, generous, and accepting. I have come to consider most of its denizens as friends, and going to the conventions is like a gigantic family reunion for me, because I get to see all the uncles, aunts, cousins etc. who live out of town. I look forward to them every year.

What is your advice for aspiring authors hoping to get published?

Don't give up hope. It's a tough market out there right now--even for me! Trends come and trends go; lists tighten and open up. A lot of it is persistence, and a lot of it is sheer, rotten luck. But I tend to believe the true talent will always make it. And remember: just because an editor rejects your book doesn't mean that your book is dreadful. The whole industry is subjective and based on personal taste. And some day an editor will come along who thinks you are wonderful! I hope...

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