Monday, July 11, 2011

A brief interview with Elaine Cunningham

We recently had the exciting opportunity to pick the brain of one of fantasy literature's all-time greats; Elaine Cunningham!

GMK: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
 ec:   Someone once described me as having “eclectic curiosity.”  That works. I’m interested in a lot of things, most of them wildly impractical.  I’m a history geek--16th century Scotland is a particular obsession.  Once upon a time I was a classically trained soprano with a  degree in music education.  I still have the degree, I suppose, but my current musical preference is traditional folk music.   My favorite instrument these days is the Celtic harp, though I also play around a bit with Irish fiddle and tin whistle.  I’m fascinated by linguistics, folklore, mythology and more modern belief systems, the Scottish reign of James VI and I, the Matter of Britain, the mystery surrounding Tycho Brahe’s death, organic gardening, mead making, psychic phenomenon, and how recent advances in neuroscience are changing our understanding of how the brain works.  I’m a voracious reader and I make a great apple pie. I’m married to my high school sweetheart. We have two sons, a garden that needs more attention than it gets, and an eccentric Siamese cat.  

GMK: What was it like to make the transition from music teacher to author?
ec:  It wasn’t a direct transition.  I spent four years doing office work and taking classes, trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I was working toward an MBA when my first son was born. The idea of putting Andrew in daycare was heartbreaking, so my husband said, “You’re always reading. Why don’t you try writing?”  The idea had never occurred to me, but it felt right.  I started reading stacks of books on the craft of writing. I also approached writing the way musicians learn composition:  Analyze music to learn the rules and understand the structure.  I took books I admired and outlined them in detail. After a few of these, I began to understand the bones of a story.  I wrote several manuscripts and began to understand that theory and practice are, in writing as in art and music, two very different things.  My first book sale didn’t come until Andrew was three years old and his brother, Sean, was an infant.  Needless to say, I did most of my writing during naps, nights, and weekends.  

GMK: So shortly after you were published, you started living the  life of  Richard Castle, right? 
ec:  Of course!  Well, there are some minor differences.  I write fantasy novels, not murder mysteries, so instead of following a homicide detective around, I stalk dwarf warriors. You would not believe what I spend on ale on any given work day.

GMK: Can you tell us about your process?
ec:   I usually start with characters, then come up with a basic conflict and figure out their response, which in turn tells me more about the character, which suggests more plot complications.  Story planning is a very circular process, tied together with considerable amount of patchwork.  But it boils down to a few basic questions:  What does this person want, what is he willing to do to get it, and who/what stands in his way?  I  go through this process with the antagonist as well the protagonist, because a hero is only as interesting as the villains he faces.  Then I write a narrative outline to nail down the overall shape of the story.  Then comes the working outline—chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene.  Once I start writing, my inclination is to tinker endlessly, but that’s a terrible habit. I try to work straight through a rough draft, then revise.  The revised first draft goes to the editor, who suggests revisions that might be substantial or might, as with one book, consist of two typos. 

GMK: What is your ideal day off?
ec:   Assuming this ideal day takes place in Scotland, I’d start with an early morning walk along the Tweed, past the 15th century Needpath castle and up to the Roman ruins.  Lunch would be “haggis, neeps, and tatties” and a pint of Guinness at a pub in Peebles.  More exploring in the afternoon--visiting some historic sites, doing some research.  Traditional Celtic music in the evening.

GMK: I've heard a rumor that you're going to be moving on from writing stories set in the Forgotten Realms. True or false?
ec:  Not true.  The Serpent’s Daughter, a novel focusing on Azariah Craulnober, will be out in 2012 or thereabouts.

GMK: Are you currently involved in any gaming?
ec:  I’m not playing RPGs at present. It’s too difficult to find a group of geezer-gamers in the New England suburbs. We do a lot of family game nights, though, and we play Settlers of Catan several times a week.

GMK: Ever played any of the characters you've written about?
ec:  Not yet!

GMK: Who is your favorite and why?
ec:  Hmm. That’s like asking a parent to name their favorite child.  I appreciate Elaith’s complexity, Azariah’s devious intelligence, Danilo’s sense of humor, Liriel’s combination of fun-loving nature and single-minded intensity, and Arilyn and Honor’s devotion to the elven people.  But I’m just as fond of several other protagonists, a few villains, and many secondary characters.

GMK: What projects are on the horizon?
I’ve started a new and very different project:  a series of “e-riginal” fantasy novels in a world of my own creation.  The first, Honor Among Thieves, is available now at all the usual e-booksellers:, Barnes & Noble Nook Bookstore, iTunes, Smashwords, and so on.  I wrote the outline for this story years ago. Since it was planned as a novella, that’s how I wrote it.  It’s only 35,000 words, a little less than half the length of some of my Forgotten Realms books.  Honor Among Thieves is the first story in the Starsinger trilogy. The next two, Honor Bound and Word of Honor, will be novel-length stories.  In addition to the ebooks, I’m posting daily articles about the setting, Sevrin, on my author website,  The Prologue and first six chapters of Honor Among Thieves are also available on the website. 

GMK: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions, Elaine! 
ec:  My pleasure. 

No comments:

Post a Comment