Anne Lyle Interview
Anne Lyle grew up in Robin Hood’s England where she couldn’t help but be captivated by the heroic tales of old. She now balances her time between researching and writing fantasy based in Elizabethan England and working as a web developer – a beautiful juxtaposition of the historic versus the modern, which shows through in her work. Lyle brings us historical fantasy with a fresh approach, blending just the right amount of fantasy elements, alternate history and pure old-fashioned intrigue to tell a story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. Anne was happy to share a little more of her world with us, so on with the questions.
When did you discover a love for fantasy and do you feel that this shaped your writing?
I think it was reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. I’d been exposed to classic children’s fantasy like the Narnia books and The Hobbit, but Earthsea seemed much more grown up, more like the SF books I was also reading in my early teens. My writing has been shaped, I think, by this early mix of SF and fantasy – I loved stories about strange creatures, aliens speaking mysterious languages, that kind of thing.
What made you first decide you wanted to write historical fiction and when did the idea for the series first come about?
Although I didn’t enjoy history lessons in school, I loved history and in my spare time I read a lot of non-fiction books about European history, mainly ancient and medieval. Also, starting in my twenties I read quite a bit of historical fiction as well, particularly historical crime by writers such as Ellis Peters and P C Doherty, and classics like The Three Musketeers. As a result my own fiction has always been influenced by history.
The Night’s Masque series started out as the vague desire to write a murder mystery set in a fantasy world. I wanted it to be a Renaissance/early modern Europe type setting, because I was growing bored with fantasy that eschewed gunpowder and other pre-industrial technology, and since I was also interested in the history of the theatre, the Elizabethan period seemed the perfect match. Eventually the story evolved well away from its beginnings into more of a spy thriller, mainly because I became intrigued by the Elizabethan secret service whilst researching the murder of Christopher Marlowe.
Tell us a little about your writing process from concept through to actually getting words down on paper. You seem to concentrate on things chapter by chapter. Are you very methodical?
Yes and no. In the early stages I do a lot of exploratory writing, mostly debating plot and character ideas with myself in a spiral-bound notebook. Eventually a story starts to emerge, and that’s when I create a rough outline (nowadays I do that in Scrivener, which is the best piece of writing software on the planet!). From there I typically hammer out a rough, skeletal draft, following the outline for the most part but bringing in new ideas as they arise. Then it’s back to analytical mode again, deciding what works and what doesn’t, and revising the draft until it’s complete. I often don’t decide on chapter breaks until well down the line, when I have a better idea of how the pacing needs to play out.
And following on from that which parts of your writing process do you like most and least?
I love and hate all parts of it, depending how well it’s going. You can’t beat the rush of writing “in the zone”, when the ideas seem to coalesce out of nowhere – but that same drafting process can be as painful as crawling over broken glass when the ideas just aren’t coming together.
Likewise I enjoy the more creative parts of editing, like revising a scene that’s almost there but just needs a bit more pizazz, but when the book’s about to go to the printers and you’re on the ninety-seventh re-read and going cross-eyed with exhaustion but you want to be absolutely certain there are no errors left…aaaargh!
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I work full-time as a web developer, so the vast majority of my “spare time” has to be devoted to writing. And by “writing” I mean all of the work that a writing career entails, from working on the books themselves to promoting the books (and myself) in person and online – like answering these questions!
That said, I do manage to squeeze in some downtime. I read novels (other people’s) on the bus to and from work, and if I’ve had a hard day at the office and there are no pressing deadlines looming, I’ll probably chill out with a glass of wine and a DVD.
Alchemist of Souls is released shortly. What can readers look forward to and what themes are you exploring in this book?
To quote (in part) one of my favourite movies, The Princess Bride: “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. True love. Good men. Bad Men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truth. Passion. Miracles.” Well, maybe not miracles, but magic certainly. And skraylings: strange fanged and tattooed creatures from the New World, who have come to Elizabethan London to trade – at least, so they say.
I guess the main theme is the making of difficult choices – when is it right to be selfish and do what you want, rather than what is expected of you? My thesis is that there’s no single correct answer – it depends on the person and the situation.
Do you see any of yourself in any of your main characters?
There’s a bit of me in all of them. Mal has my stubbornness and sense of honour; Coby is very much me as a teenager: bright and opinionated but also a little uncertain of herself and where she’s going in life. I put some of my best and worst bits into Ned (Mal’s best friend) and then exaggerated them, which is why I love him despite his dreadful flaws!
I loved being introduced to Mal via Twitter and felt like I knew the character and the setting to a degree before I even began reading. How did this come about?
I seem to recall reading online about someone doing it for their own protagonist, and I thought it would be fun to try. As it turns out, it’s given me an opportunity to explore Mal’s everyday life in a way you can’t really do in an action-packed novel.
How did you first conceive the skraylings? Were they clear in your mind from the start or did they appear or develop during the writing?
I developed the skraylings at least a couple of years before writing the first draft of the book. I was playing with various fantasy and SF ideas at the time, and was interested in combining the two – not in an obvious way like, say, steampunk, but at a more fundamental level. For example, I love SF stories about first contact, and that’s not a trope you see often in fantasy, which I think is a pity. This dovetailed neatly with the Elizabethan setting, at the height of the Age of Discovery.
So, I thought it would be fun to populate my fantasy world with some almost SFnal non-humans for a change, rather than drawing on folklore. I went back to what I knew about animal behaviour, and cherry-picked some interesting characteristics that would make a very different culture from that of humans. For example I made them seasonal breeders, which is one reason they are few in number compared to humans, and the two sexes live apart outside the mating season.
By the time I came to write the book they were pretty clear in my mind, though I added a few details as I went along and tweaked a few others. I wanted the skraylings to look human enough at first glance that the Europeans would think them just another exotic foreign race, but different enough that the reader could tell they were not.
Historical fiction gives us a fantasy narrative in a very real setting. Where does your passion for history come from and how do you go about researching to achieve that level of accuracy in terms of location and events?
As a child I loved Robin Hood (I was born and grew up in Nottinghamshire) and all the old swashbuckling movies that were often shown on TV on Saturday afternoons. From them I learned to associate the past with action and adventure, which is probably why I found school history lessons so dull!
I approach research from many angles: lots of non-fiction reading, of course, but also visiting historic locations and even learning crafts of the period like calligraphy and embroidery. I’m going to be writing an article on the topic for the Fantasy-Faction Anthology, so you can find out more when that comes out.
You’re working on the second book at present. Do you have a release date yet?
I don’t have a firm date at the moment – spring 2013 is as precise as I can be. But the first draft is done and the artwork is being commissioned, so you won’t have to wait too long!
Anything you can tell us about the next instalment yet?
It’s called The Merchant of Dreams, and is largely set in Venice, one of my favourite cities. All I can really say without spoilers is that once again Mal and his friends get caught up in skrayling politics and find themselves in way over their heads. Expect more sword-fights, more cloak’n’dagger intrigue and more romance, all with an Italian flavour!
Have you thought beyond The Night’s Masque in terms of where your writing might go from here?
More fantasy with a historical bent, I think you can be fairly certain of that! Probably a new setting and characters – I don’t want to get stuck in a rut – but a similar blend of action and intrigue.
You are quite active in terms of online networking and attending conventions. Do you feel this has any bearing on your work? By increasing your public exposure, boosting confidence or providing a support network, for example?
Writing is a very solitary activity, which is ironic given that its purpose is communication. I think it’s useful to socialise with other writers, partly to give and receive feedback and improve your craft but also just for the emotional support of having friends who understand this strange business!
It helps that I’m quite a sociable, confident person in the first place, although I’m an introvert at heart – I enjoy meeting people and talking about writing, as long as I also get some time alone. I’ve made so many friends through going to conventions, I really wish I’d started sooner, but like many people my mental image of cons was of fans queuing for autographs whilst dressed as Klingons – not really my cup of tea.
In fact there are a lot of low-key book-oriented SFF conventions, entirely devoid of cosplayers and commercial razzamatazz. Those are the best places to meet like-minded people for a quiet chat in the bar, as well as attending panels and workshops aimed specifically at writers. Some good examples in the UK are FantasyCon, AltFiction and the BSFA’s Easter weekend convention, affectionately known as EasterCon (though this year its official name is Olympus 2012).
Unfortunately, I can only afford to go to a handful of conventions a year, so I use social media to keep in touch with my con buddies as well as meeting new people online – many of whom I will then go on to meet at the next convention. It helps to keep the isolation at bay, with the additional benefit of getting my name out there and promoting my book. I do stress that it’s a side benefit, though – no-one likes the kind of self-promo-obsessed writer who only ever tweets to push their book in your face.
And the sneaky final question: what’s your biggest irritation in the world of genre fiction?
There are serious issues in SFF, like the under-representation of women in book review columns, on convention panels, etc, despite that fact that around half of SFF readers and writers are female. But that’s not an irritation, just an unfortunate situation that needs dealing with. I’m inadvertently doing my bit by putting myself forward for panels and readings, but I’d do that anyway because it’s in my nature to be a bit of a show-off. 🙂
As for irritations, I don’t have any, because frankly life’s too short. As long as I can write books and get them into the hands of people who enjoy them – and preferably get paid to do so – it’s all good.
Anne Lyle’s debut novel Alchemist of Souls will be released in April 2012 from Angry Robot Books and is the first in The Night’s Masque trilogy. The second installment The Merchant of Dreams is due out in Spring 2013.