A Conversation With Victoria Straussby Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, February 2004
Bestselling fantasy author Victoria Strauss was
Victoria graduated from Vassar College with a degree in Comparative Religion, a choice which she says, "didn't do much to help me find a conventional job, but did satisfy my fascination with world belief systems, an interest that enduringly informs my writing."
After graduation, she took a number of jobs to support her writing habit, eventually taking a permanent job as the financial manager of a not-for-profit corporation -- "a very strange place for a "D" math student to find herself!" notes Victoria. Ten years after she wrote it, The Lady of Rhuddesmere, was published. Two more young adult fantasies followed: Worldstone and Guardian of the Hills. Although she enjoyed writing for young people, Victoria had always wanted to work in adult fiction, so she began a new book, the critically acclaimed The Arm of the Stone and its sequel, The Garden of the Stone. Her newest release is The Burning Land (Eos), the first book in a duology. The Burning Land is a stunning fantasy novel, which explores the power and effects of a repressive religion. In a four star review, Romantic Times calls The Burning Land, "A sweeping new epic fantasy...Strauss creates a beautifully imagined and impeccably detailed world. The fully realized faith of the Way of Ârata, complete with history, tenets and hierarchy, strengthens a timely adventure plot about the dangers of spiritual oppression and the challenges to those who dare to question an established belief system." Paul Goat Allen of Barnes and Noble's Expressions magazine says, "Religious ideologies clash in Victoria Strauss' fantasy The Burning Land, a profoundly moving and timely novel that examines issues of faith, prejudice, and the senseless violence associated with fanatical religious and political leaders."
A few years ago Victoria left the world of salaries and offices behind to begin writing full-time, a decision which she says, has made her "a good deal poorer but a great deal happier." Her professional affiliations include the Author's Guild, Novelists Inc, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, where she is a member of the Writing Scams Committee. Along with other dedicated scam hunters, she helps wage a vigorous campaign against the huge variety of literary schemes and scams that prey on writers. As part of that effort, she created and maintains the popular online resource, Writer Beware, a compendium of warnings about literary fraud.
Victoria lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her husband Rob and two cats. In her spare time, you might find her in her garden, out hiking, curled up with a new book, working on her extensive website or taking in the latest feature film. She also writes freelance articles and book reviews. She spoke to us about The Burning Land, why she founded Writers Beware, and what every beginning writer must know about avoiding literary scams.
What books do you remember most from your childhood? Were there any special favorites that you read more than once?
Many! I still have all my beloved children's books, in battered editions, sitting on my shelves. Favorites included Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield; The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth Speare; Five Children and It by E. Nesbit; The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge; The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald; The Borrowers by Mary Norton; A Traveller in Time by Allison Uttley; The Sword in the Stone, by T.S. White. I also loved Joan Aiken, Robert Louis Stephenson, Leon Garfield, the Little House books, the Anne of Green Gables books...I also read my way through all the Andrew Lang fairy books, as well as Roger Lancelyn Green's wonderful retellings of classical myths and legends.
What was the first thing you ever wrote? What reaction did you get?
I think it was a little book of poems (illustrated) that I made for my grandmother's birthday. I must have been about seven. Of course everyone loved it. Rave reviews all around. It's been downhill from there, I'm afraid.
Is there anyone that really inspired you in your writing, or encouraged you to write fiction?
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Also very influential was the editor who bought my first novel, Meredith Charpentier. She saw a spark in a really flawed and imperfect work, and in the true spirit of old-fashioned editorship dedicated herself to working with me to pull a real book out of the mess. She edited my next two novels as well. I learned a tremendous amount about writing from her; without her I might not be writing today. I lost touch with her over the years, and was shocked and grieved to hear recently that she'd passed away. I'm glad to have the chance to acknowledge her here, even though she won't see it. Thanks, Meredith.
What prompted you to major in Comparative Religion at Vassar? What did you enjoy most about college?
By the time I got to college, I knew I wanted to be a novelist. Since writing was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life, I felt I should do something completely different for four years. At first I planned to major in anthropology (I traveled a lot with my family when I was a child, and studying the origins of culture appealed to me), but a semester of reading about primate dentition made me think again. I'd happened to take an introductory History of Religions course, and it struck a chord. The study of religion seemed to combine all the disciplines I was interested in -- history, psychology, philosophy, even anthropology. So I decided to major in religion instead.
What did I enjoy most about college? Hmmm. I think the independence and the freedom of choice, as well as the sense of being on the edge of adulthood with so many possibilities for what might come next (though this was also, at times, pretty terrifying). I do think I made the most of my college experience -- but I don't think I appreciated it enough at the time. You know how they say that youth is wasted on the young? Well, college is often wasted on college students. A liberal arts college like Vassar offers an incredible environment of intellectual and social freedom that for most people will never be repeated. Most students don't fully realize this.
Vassar when I was there was very different from the prevailing Vassar stereotype, by the way. It had gone co-ed just a few years before, and was actively trying to recruit a more diverse and unconventional student body. And it succeeded -- for instance, the president of the senior class the year I came to Vassar was a drag queen named Jackie St. James. For a while, in the early to mid-1970's, Vassar was an extremely cool place to be.
Please tell us about the road to publication for your first novel.
|"I'm very much concerned with religious intolerance and the dangers of fanaticism. I didn't intend The Burning Land to be a topical novel, but some of the issues it examines are pretty relevant to things we're seeing played out in this country, as well as in the Middle East."|
As it happened, one of the publishers I queried was about to go out of business, and the editor who was looking at my manuscript was planning to start a literary agency. She offered to represent me (I didn't know it at the time, but this was a major stroke of luck; she has gone on to become a top agent). She diligently submitted my novel (which she'd decided to market as a young adult book, since it had a youthful protagonist) but got no takers. After a while most of the possibilities had been exhausted, but she still sent it out whenever she thought there might be a slot for it. Meanwhile, I'd decided that I'd been nuts to think I could be a novelist, and had pretty much given up my once-burning hopes of a writing career, resigning myself to a boring day job instead.
Then one day, out of the blue, my agent called. An editor (the wonderful Meredith Charpentier) had made an offer -- if I was willing to make substantial revisions. Was she kidding? Of course I was willing! Suddenly, I was a writer again. Under Meredith's tutelage, I completely rewrote my very imperfect novel, and in 1982, ten years after I'd written it and eight years after my agent took me on, The Lady of Rhuddesmere was published. It got good reviews, and was nominated for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award.
Two of your novels, The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone, were fantasies set in a unique world where all technology was controlled; most of it had been outlawed by the Guardians of the powerful Stone. What were your influences when you were creating this world?
The idea for the world actually came from a friend's dream, which involved an alternate reality where magic was possible only because technology was restricted. I began to wonder what sort of world this would be. Why would magic and technology be in opposition? What kind of society would result from technological restriction? What would be the mechanisms of control? The world of the Stone books grew out of these questions (there's an essay on my website, "An Impatient Writer's Approach to Worldbuilding", that goes into this in more detail).
The idea of magic and technology being somehow fundamentally opposed isn't unusual in fantasy...but in most fantasies, the conflict is real: it's part of the natural order of that particular fantasy world. I was -- and am -- more interested in relativism. So from the beginning, my thought was to make the magic-technology opposition ambiguous. Is it a real opposition? Or is it a mistaken assumption that has grown into an ideology? Various people in the books take various positions on this issue, but in the end I leave it up to the reader to decide.
I'd like to talk about your new book The Burning Land. How did this story come into being? What sparked your imagination?
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The story (which I never finished) stayed with me, and after I completed the Stone duology I returned to it to see if I could find a way to expand it into a novel. Shifting to a fantasy setting changed the premise quite a bit, but the core idea remained, and that became The Burning Land.
Gyalo is a fascinating character; the story really revolves around him, his struggle with his faith, his growing understanding of the world and his place in it. When he stumbles across facts which seem to indicate that the major prophecy of his religion has already happened, his entire world is turned upside down. How did you approach creating Gyalo? Were there any traits you were particularly trying to avoid with him?
Initially, I'd planned for Gyalo to be fairly ambivalent about the limitations on his shaping power (for those who haven't read the book, shaping -- the inborn ability to manipulate matter -- is regarded as a sacred power but also a very dangerous one, and Shapers are required to cripple their gift with drugs and to use it only in the context of religious ritual), and to harbor a deep dark secret wish to set his shaping free. I also thought he was rather arrogant -- the kind of person who has a good idea of his own talents, and therefore tends to assume he'll be able to cope with whatever comes his way. The disaster that overtakes him and his companions in The Burning Land was supposed to be something of a comeuppance, and the choice he makes in the disaster's aftermath was supposed to rise at least in part from his darker side.
But as I wrote, I found that this really wasn't working. It began to seem to me that the discoveries Gyalo makes, the questions and choices that are forced on him, would have more impact if he weren't ambivalent about his vocation -- if he were instead completely and utterly (and also intelligently and compassionately) devoted to his religious duties as a Shaper and a priest. So instead of a conflicted and overconfident young man who's thrown into events beyond his control and matures as a result, he became a mature man of ardent faith who has the courage to recognize -- and also to do -- the right thing even when it challenges his deepest-held beliefs. That's not to say he doesn't doubt and struggle -- he does. But his struggles have more to do with the conflict between religion and reality, and less to do with his own personal flaws (though his naïveté about politics does lead him to make some very poor decisions).
It usually exasperates me when writers talk about how their characters "take over" and do as they please, as if a writer weren't the creator of her own fiction. But in this case Gyalo really did speak to me, and tell me he wasn't the person I first thought he was.
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Axane is actually a lot like me -- in her constant questioning, at least -- and her character didn't change very much from my initial conception of her. So in a way she was very easy to write. In another way, though, she was extremely difficult. Here's a woman who is totally isolated from everyone else in her society by the secret knowledge she has gained, a woman who is prepared to leave behind the people who love and depend on her in order to follow her dream of escape from a life she regards as a prison. A woman who lives mostly inside her own head, and presents a false version of herself to those around her, even her father, the one person she really loves.
Someone like this could easily seem cold and calculating, distant and selfish. And in fact, in the initial drafts, my first reader had a problem with Axane -- "I just don't like her very much", she told me. I had to work hard to overcome this perception, and make Axane a character readers would want to spend time with.
The mythology that underlies the religion of the Âratist faith is fascinating. How did you create the Way of Ârata? What was the greatest challenge in creating a new religion?
I didn't want the Way of Ârata to be an analogue or adaptation of an existing faith. Yet I wanted to create a religion that would feel real. Religion in fantasy is often not much more than window-dressing or background information -- but I wanted the Way of Ârata to seem like a living faith, a faith that some group of people somewhere in the real world might actually follow.
Many people think that with fantasy you can just "make it all up", but invention is far more convincing when it rests on a solid base of knowledge (most fantasy writers I know do a great deal of research for their books). For The Burning Land, my research had two goals. First, I needed to figure out what the Way's structural principles should be (for instance, all religions have a creation story of some sort, and an explanation for the presence of evil in the world; most religions have a theory for what happens after death; and many religions view the world of human experience, full of time and death and suffering, as the result of some sort of cosmic catastrophe, which at some future point will be redressed). Second, I had to develop those principles into legend, ritual, scripture, history -- and, equally important, delineate the hierarchy and institutions of the Âratist church.
My Stone books had a European-style setting, but with The Burning Land I wanted to write a book that would have more of an Eastern feel. So I wanted to stay away from obvious Judeo-Christian references. I originally concentrated my reading on Eastern religions -- Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Shinto. There are a lot of Eastern elements in the Way -- the perpetually-reincarnated Brethren, for instance, who resemble Tibetan lamas. But I also wanted the Way to be monotheistic (I was determined to avoid the conventional pantheistic-style religions that are so common in fantasy novels), and as a result a lot of elements crept in that are more Western than Eastern, such as the messiah-like figure of the Next Messenger. In the end, the Way wound up being a pretty equal mix of East and West.
The society of the Refuge is a fascinating one, yet its treatment of its women is extremely repressive and its treatment of the Dreamers is cruel. In the Empire of Arsace, the church has absolute control over the lives of any people who manifest the skill of Shaping. Why is this an important theme to you?
I'd have to say that the repression/oppression that occurs in this novel is not so much a theme I'm compelled to explore as a product of the world I built for the novel to inhabit. Both Refuge and the Âratist church hold fairly rigid ideologies; the repression springs from the need to maintain them. Neither society is intentionally cruel or despotic -- they believe that the repressions they practice are essential to the preservation of society.
In Gyalo's world, the faithful are all waiting for the Next Messenger to arrive. In your research for this book, did you find that many religions have that "waiting for something to happen or someone to arrive" element? Why do you think that element shows up so much in religions and/or creation myths? Does it have to do with man's feeling of having no control over his future or environment, so he is waiting for a mythic figure to show up to fix things?
I agree that the idea of the arrival or return of a key figure who will fulfill some sort of promise or bring about some sort of change is a recurrent religious theme (and also a mythological one: the Arthurian legend, for instance, ends on a promise of return) -- though many religions don't include it. And I think that in a sense all religion is about control -- insofar as control is the understanding of the world one lives in, which religion gives people a way of achieving (or of believing they've achieved).
Really, though, I think that the waiting-for-a-deliverer archetype is a way of expressing an idea that lies at the heart of many faiths: that the material world, this vale of suffering, isn't all there is. Whether the world is an illusion that you can escape through your own efforts, or a fallen reality that one day will be redeemed, or just a place you have to pass through on your way to a glorious afterlife, ordinary reality is temporary: there's something better further on.
The waiting is interesting, though, because it poses a dilemma. If you've been waiting for something for a very long time, what happens when you finally get it (or seem to)? Do you welcome it? Or has the waiting become so much of a habit that the getting is no longer what you want? The Brethren, as leaders of the Âratist church, have to struggle with this question -- in which they have a very personal stake, since the arrival of the Next Messenger means the end of their long cycle of incarnation.
Can you give us a sneak peek into the next book in this series? I understand there will be two books?
|"It's not just the scammers a writer has to watch out for. More people than ever these days want to be writers, and there's only so much room within the industry. This excess of supply and scarcity of demand has produced an enormous number of faux "gatekeepers"--amateur agents who can easily tap into writers' desperate desire for publication, but can't very often tap into the publishing world, because they don't have the necessary skill or contacts."|
It is tempting to read behind the lines of a novel, and infer the author's views on current events. What personal views of yours do you feel are reflected in the book (about politics, religion, women's rights, love or just views on life in general)?
I'm very much concerned with religious intolerance and the dangers of fanaticism. I didn't intend The Burning Land to be a topical novel, but some of the issues it examines are pretty relevant to things we're seeing played out in this country, as well as in the Middle East.
I'd like to talk about the day to day aspects of being an author. Would you take us through a typical writing day for you?
I work in the morning, either revising my book in progress or working on other writing projects (I'm also a book reviewer and do some very occasional freelance journalism). I go off to the gym for an hour or so and take a lunch break, then get back to work in the afternoon and into the evening. I also have to make time for correspondence -- which, with Writer Beware, is voluminous. Unfortunately, I'm a terrible procrastinator, and tend to dawdle at each transition point (let me sleep for just fifteen more minutes...just one more cup of tea...). Life also interrupts. No matter what happens, though, I try to write at least six days a week, even if I only manage to fix a troublesome scene or produce a paragraph or two. Maintaining the momentum is very important.
I have a small office right across the hall from my husband's (he works at home too); if I shut my door I can just manage not to hear him shouting on the phone. I work at a long oak library table that holds my computer, my books and files, a yellow and purple lava lamp that I stare into when I'm searching for inspiration, a large cushion for my two cats to sleep on, and a few talismanic objects, such as the arrowhead I found in the woods when I was writing a novel about ancient Native American cultures. I need silence to work, so I often wear noise-blocking headphones.
How do you approach the editing process as you write a new book? Is there anyone that you allow to read your work in progress?
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Let's talk about Writer Beware, your website which helps writers avoid literary scams. How did the site come into being? Why is Writer Beware so important to you?
People often ask me if I created Writer Beware because I myself was scammed. The answer is no -- my publishing experiences have mostly been positive. Naively, I thought I was typical. When I first went online about six years ago and began checking out writers' forums and chat rooms, I was amazed to see how many writers had gotten mixed up with disreputable agents, publishers, freelance editors, etc. Here was a whole slimy publishing underworld that I had no idea existed. I began to follow the scam stories, and to take note of the names of agents and publishers that popped up over and over again.
One day I was checking out the "help wanted" section of the website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (of which I'm a member), and saw a call for a volunteer to create a section of the website to warn about literary scams. Given my interest in the subject, I jumped at the chance. Around the same time, Ann Crispin, another SFWA member, was working on establishing a SFWA Writing Scams Committee. Neither of us had any idea what the other was doing until a mutual acquaintance put us in touch. Our activities seemed to dovetail perfectly, and we decided to join forces.
The Writer Beware website is now the public face of SFWA's Writing Scams Committee. The website provides warnings about common scams and pitfalls (there are sections on literary agents, vanity/subsidy publishers, freelance editors, contests, print-on-demand, electronic publishing, and copyright, as well as a page of writer alerts and a series of case studies), advice on how to avoid them, and links to helpful online resources. The Committee collects documentation on questionable agents and others (right now we have files on more than 350 agents and 150 publishers), provides a free research service to writers trying to find out about agents' and publishers' reputations, and assists law enforcement when there's a criminal investigation.
I know it sounds corny, but by warning writers about the very widespread and active world of literary fraud, and also by steering individual writers away from bad agents and others, Ann and I are able to give something back to the writing community. This is very important to both of us -- as well as the fact that we're shining a light into the dark corners of an under-reported and under-prosecuted area of white-collar crime.
What are some of the horror stories which every beginning writer should know about literary agencies which defraud writers?
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Here's an important point: It's not just the scammers a writer has to watch out for. More people than ever these days want to be writers, and there's only so much room within the industry. This excess of supply and scarcity of demand has produced an enormous number of faux "gatekeepers"--amateur agents who can easily tap into writers' desperate desire for publication, but can't very often tap into the publishing world, because they don't have the necessary skill or contacts. And the growth of the Internet and the relative cheapness of print-on-demand technology has fueled an insane proliferation of amateur publishers that don't have a clue about producing, much less distributing and marketing, books. These people aren't actually trying to rip you off -- often they are very well-intentioned -- but they will cheat you just the same, because they can't fulfill their promises.
What is your advice to writers who are feeling discouraged about their chances of ever getting published?
Don't believe the mythology -- that successful agents aren't interested in first-time writers, that publishers don't want to take a risk with new talent, that really original writing has no chance because publishers are only interested in cookie-cutter copycats of bestselling authors. Yes, publishing is a tough field. Rejection is a given. But it is possible to break in. What's hard these days is not to start a career, but to maintain one.
Also, the competition is probably not what you think it is. Much is made of the fact that though thousands of manuscripts are written every year, only a tiny percentage ever find commercial publication. But the truth (as anyone who has ever looked at a publisher's slush pile knows) is that less than 10% of those thousands of manuscripts even approach publishability. Given a marketable work, you're not vying with every other writer seeking publication, but only with that 10%.
Be persistent -- and that doesn't just mean about submitting your work. Keep writing. If your current manuscript can't find a home, maybe your next one will (many authors never manage to sell their first, or even their second or third, books). Consider alternatives. If you can't find an agent or get interest from a large publishing house, look to reputable independent publishers. Smaller publishers may not have the promotional budgets and distribution clout of the big guys, but many do an excellent job of publishing. And if you can't snag the interest of a good independent, think about a reputable e-publisher. The market for e-books is small, but it's enthusiastic, and many e-authors have lucrative careers.
Finally...be realistic. Plenty of writers believe they're talented, but not so many really are. Consistent rejection by the commercial market may be shortsighted and unfair -- or it may be justified. A deep conviction of your own talent is important. But there may come a point at which you have to reassess.
You have a very entertaining and detailed website. For The Burning Land, you even included details about the revision process and a scene which did not make into the book -- just like the deleted scenes with director's commentary that you get to see when you buy the DVD of a movie. How much time do you spend on your author website? What is the biggest mistake an author can make when creating a website?
My website requires anywhere from a couple of hours a month, when I'm just posting new book reviews and updating the "what's new" page, to an intensive daily effort -- as, for instance, when I overhauled it recently to give it a more up-to-date look, or when I'm creating a new feature such as the section for The Burning Land.
|"Plenty of writers believe they're talented, but not so many really are. Consistent rejection by the commercial market may be shortsighted and unfair -- or it may be justified. A deep conviction of your own talent is important. But there may come a point at which you have to reassess."|
What are some of your pet peeves in life?
Muzak in elevators. Inappropriate apostrophes ("it's" instead of "its"). People who want to do away with copyright and think that artists should exist on a patronage system. People who assume that vegetarians eat fish (I've been a vegetarian for twenty-five years, and I am so sick of this question). Cat hair on my pillow (I'm doomed on that one). Expensive clothing where the buttons fall off within a week. Celebrities who write children's books because they think they have a message.
Do you ever make New Year's Resolutions? Do you have any resolutions for 2004 for yourself? Are there any New Year's Resolutions that you wish any other people (or organizations) would make for 2004?
I used to make New Year's resolutions. I also used to diet. When I dieted, I was overweight. Once I stopped dieting, I became slim. I feel the same way about New Year's resolutions. If there's something you need to do, you need to find a way to do it -- not wait for a special time to resolve to do it, and then possibly fail and feel bad about yourself afterward.
There are a lot of resolutions I would wish for our government, but I won't inflict my political views on your readers. I think I'd like to wish that law enforcement agencies resolve to pay more attention to the hundreds of fake literary agents and publishers who scam writers out of millions of dollars every year.