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Rebecca Levene Interview

Rebecca Levene2014 has been an incredible year for readers hunting for new authors within the epic fantasy genre. To prove it I could point you to some fantastic debuts such as Age of Iron, Traitor’s Blade and Red Rising (all frighteningly good if you’re a writer looking to get published one day – the bar has officially been raised!), but also, likely because of the success of Game of Thrones and various other fantasy TV shows/movies. I could point you to some authors who have crossed into epic fantasy from other genres too. There’s The Finisher by David Baldacci, The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris and, easily my favourite of this year’s genre visitors, Smiler’s Fair by Rebecca Levene.

I won’t tell you too much about this book before the interview – I got Rebecca to do that and she did a far better job than I could – but there is a lot about Smiler’s Fair that fascinated me. As much as it is shaped by A Game of Thrones the novel, it is shaped by Game of Thrones the television show. And when I say GoT and similar media obviously influenced Rebecca, I don’t mean always in an ‘I should do that’ kind of way, but also an ‘I should not do that’ way too. The result is a book that feels very much as though it could be the next stage in the evolution of fantasy books.

Anyway, without further ado, let’s get onto the questions!

There has been lot of buzz and excitement surrounding your recent novel, Smiler’s Fair. In your own words, what exactly is it about and who would enjoy it?

Smiler's Fair (cover)That’s nice of you to say! My elevator pitch for the book was that it’s Breaking Bad in a fantasy universe. It’s epic fantasy, and a ‘chosen one’ book at that, but the central character’s destiny isn’t to be the good guy. It’s the first in a series exploring what it does to someone when you tell them that they’re the enemy.

It’s set in a fallen world, a thousand years after a great war between the moon god and the sun goddess tore the land apart and left monsters beneath the ground that can emerge to prey on the inhabitants if any place is left too long in shadow. Everyone has to keep moving, and there’s only one great city in the world: the travelling carnival called Smiler’s Fair where any vice can be had, if you’re willing to pay the price. That’s where the action of the book kicks off, and where my characters first gather: an alcoholic warrior, a noblewoman forced into an arranged marriage, a sociopath, a lovelorn rentboy, and a humble goatherd.

As for who’d enjoy it – well, everyone, obviously! In fact, people should consider buying two copies, just in case the lovely gold foil on one of them gets scratched. In all seriousness, I did try to write a book that would appeal to fans of epic fantasy and those who might be a bit dubious about the genre. Whether I’ve succeeded or not, who can say? My mum thinks it’s the best thing since Pride and Prejudice, so probably best just to take her word for it.

Epic fantasy. It’s kind of difficult to define these days (we will return to that later), but with the traditional Tolkien/Martin like definition in mind: What was it that tempted you into begin your own series in this particular genre?

It’s funny – I’ve written loads of different genres in several different media over the years, everything from TV sketch comedy to video game novelisations, but up until now no epic fantasy. Though it was my favourite genre as a teenager, I drifted away from it as I got older and it wasn’t until I read A Game of Thrones a few years ago that I was reminded how very much I love it. It really was Martin’s work that inspired me to try my own – both by giving me a standard to aspire to and by proving there was a huge market for the kind of thing I wanted to write.

I also think that subconsciously I wanted to wait until I’d learned enough as an author to have any hope of successfully tackling the challenges of writing epic fantasy. Shocker, I know, but multi-strand narratives involving intensive worldbuilding aren’t easy. In fact, if I’d known how hard they were before I started, it’s possible I would have just written a cookbook or something instead.

I have to say that as much as I LOVED A Game of Thrones, I have struggled a bit with the latest books in the series (A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons); I feel the individual stories have been spread out so far and there are so many of them that it is difficult for Martin to keep any kind of pace.

With that in mind, Smiler’s Fair was a real breath of fresh air for me as an epic fantasy reader. Your experience writing for television, I think, shone through with the short chapters, the seamless transition from one character to the next and the incredible pace the book set. I also loved how you managed the passing of time – trusting that the reader was intelligent enough to work out what had happened during the gap between an individual character’s chapters. Truly, it is epic fantasy that reads at the pace of an urban fantasy novel. Was this pacing a conscious choice in reaction to the current state of the genre?

I’m very relieved to hear you say it – there’s a certain fear as an epic fantasy writer that you’re selling this stuff by the pound, and if there isn’t enough of it, it won’t seem very good value. And I totally share that joy in a good, meaty long book – there’s nothing better than discovering a fantasy novel you love and then finding out there are ten more in the series and they’re all 800 pages long. So it wasn’t really a decision to avoid writing a long book – it’s just not what comes naturally to me.

You’re absolutely right that it’s my experience as a TV script-writer that’s led to that. Whenever I was struggling with a scene in any script I was working on, I almost always found that the answer was to cut away from it. Viewers and readers are clever and they’re also as familiar with the conventions of the genre as I am – they don’t need me to lead them from A to C via B. There’s a temptation, of course, to spend time showing off your new world – ‘Do you like the way I’ve arranged these lakes? And I’m very pleased with the architectural work on this city’ – but I tried hard to resist it.

Certainly. I have to say though, no one could accuse you of skimping on your worldbuilding; it is quite amazing how many places, creatures and concepts you introduced me to as a reader and yet still managed to keep that page count down. As a thank you, how about I give you a moment to self-indulge. Avoiding spoilers, what creature, magic element, place, piece of architecture or even scene are you most proud of and why?

Thanks! Without blowing my own trumpet too obnoxiously, I did do a lot of work on the worldbuilding – I talk about it in one of my rare blog outings over at the Waterstones blog, but it was an incredibly important (and ongoing) part of the process for me. I couldn’t truly know my characters until I knew where they came from.

As for my favourite? Actually, it’s a creature I hadn’t planned – who was totally born out of plot necessity but became something much more than that. It was when I needed to get one of my characters a long distance very quickly, and I wasn’t sure how to do it. I thought, ‘Well, in some fantasy books, this would be the scene where a dragon turns up and carries them away.’ And instead I found myself writing this giant, talking armoured vampire bat with a shirty attitude and a big secret. And then a lot of other really important story elements came to me because of having created her.

So, moving on to the humanoid characters (are they humanoid if on a fantasy world?), I don’t think anyone is going to be able to accuse you of using stock characters or sending them on already trodden paths. Although they certainly feel like characters that belong in a fantasy world, you’ve given each a twist that differentiates them from characters we’ve seen before. With fantasy often accused of being a genre based on stock characters and concepts, was it a conscious choice to make your characters and their tales different?

Yeah, it was very much a conscious choice – though it’s not that the stock characters are dull in themselves. There’s a reason for their popularity: they’re archetypes with the weight of myth behind them. But there are truths beyond the ones they tell us, and those are the ones I hoped to get at: the other stories that aren’t always told, often because they’re stories about the ‘other’.

At the start of any book, when the whole thing’s wide open, an author has too many choices. To narrow mine, I chose to springboard my core cast from those stock characters – characters from The Belgariad, in fact. I think the cast of that series embodies some popular tropes of the current genre: the warrior without a tribe; the noblewoman facing a forced marriage; the rogue; the grumpy magician. And I thought about who those characters would be in my world and how they might reflect one of the key things that I wanted to talk about in the book. Because I really wanted to address a Western cultural – very Christian – belief that suffering is somehow ennobling. I think suffering is far more often the reverse: it’s deeply corrosive, and that’s what I wanted to explore. Which is probably why a lot of my characters head off in directions you’re not expecting.

Sorry, that was a very long and serious answer. I also just wrote some people that way because it was fun!

I’ve found myself unable to decide which is my favourite character. I mean, the obvious choice is Krish; he’s so naive and nice, right? But I love Nethmi and the changes she undergoes. I shouldn’t write off Dae Hyo though, because every chapter of his is a blast. Then I come to Eric who offers me a completely new experience as a reader. And how about the mystery surrounding Marvan and that ‘what the heck will he do next feeling’ I’m left with at the end of each of his chapters. So, you see, back at square one! As the author is there a POV that you particularly like writing from?

I’m glad you enjoyed Dae Hyo, because he’s definitely the character I had the most fun writing. I don’t imagine you’d describe my book as a laugh riot, but actually comedy is something I love – I’ve had a couple of co-written sitcoms optioned by the BBC. Dae Hyo let me indulge my comedy instincts, at least a little – I thought his scenes with (character redacted for spoiler reasons) brought some much-needed lightness to the second half of the book. Although there is the whole circumcision thing, for which I apologise.

In terms of how you go about writing a four book epic fantasy series: how much of the series do you have mapped out in your head already? And, when you are following the path you’ve set yourself and an idea comes into your head – you mentioned that you didn’t really plan for you ‘giant, talking armoured vampire bat’, for example – how do you deal with it?

I’ve always written detailed story outlines for myself. I know plenty of writers who don’t like to be constrained in that way, but I get panicky if all I’ve got to stare at when I’m starting is a blank page. I pretty much do a scene-by-scene breakdown of each book before I write it – but my outline gets vaguer the further into the series I go. I know the points I want the story – and my characters – to reach, but not how to get there.

When I first started writing, I’d follow my outline slavishly from start to finish – and I think the books suffered as a consequence. I ended up telling clockwork stories: you wound them up and let them go, and their own internal mechanics drove them rather than the desires of my characters.

It’s hard to say ‘now I listen to my characters’ without sounding like a bit of a wanker, but…now I listen to my characters. As I write, I get to know them and what they want, and if I try to push them into doing something they don’t want, I feel this sort of internal resistance. I often experience this resistance as writer’s block and start doing the standard neurotic writer thing of panicking that my muse has deserted me. But the problem is almost always that I’m trying to make my characters do something that’s out of character.

So now I have an outline, I find enormous comfort in having it – and I almost always depart radically from it in the finished book. I’m just coming to the end of book two (called The Hunter’s Kind – you heard it here first!) and the big thing that happens at the end is the exact opposite of what I originally thought it would be. But writing always seems like a process of discovery rather than invention. I don’t feel like I’ve changed my mind; I feel as if I’ve managed to uncover the real story.

Thanks for the exclusive title reveal! 😀

So, moving on from book’s composure: you’ve recently attended a number of conventions around the UK and taken part in a few marketing bits and pieces following the book’s release (such as this interview!), have you had many people talk to you about the book? Have you read many reviews? How are you feeling in terms of its reception?

Rebecca Levene (panel)I have indeed been putting myself about a bit! A few people have chatted about the book, but yours have definitely been the most in-depth questions, which is fab. Authors spend so long writing in isolation, creating these characters and places that are only inside their heads, it’s really strange – and really exciting – to suddenly have them be inside lots of other people’s heads as well. Especially as you know the versions out there are different from the versions in you. Like any writer, I *love* talking about my work. I could do it till the cows come home.

The reception’s been pretty good so far. Rather weirdly, both the Daily Mail and The Guardian really liked the book – not quite sure what that says about me or my work! I tend only to read reviews I know are decent. Not because I think negative reviews aren’t equally valid, but just because I’ve got a fragile ego and I do my best not to wobble it too much.

Of course, being a neurotic writer, I spent the entire run-up to launch worried that everyone would hate the book. And then it came out and some people liked it. But instead of thinking, ‘That’s great! I’ve made something people like!’ I transitioned straight to, ‘Oh no – what if I let them down with the second book?’ Thanks, brain!

Haha, so moving away from your book for a moment (because I’m sure we’ve already convinced people to pick it up – seriously, people, do it!), is there anything you’ve read and enjoyed lately that you’d like to recommend?

I’m never going to stop banging on about how much I love Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names and its recent sequel, The Shadow Throne. Flintlock fantasy with great female characters – and they’re gay too! I read an early draft of Lavie Tidhar’s latest book, A Man Lies Dreaming, and it’s extraordinary – difficult and unforgettable. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series really ought to get more love in the UK and Kim Curran’s Glaze is one of the best YA books I’ve read in a long time.

We spoke earlier about problems in the epic fantasy genre, I wonder whether, as a writer, you find it hard reading books. I know some of my author friends find it hard to truly get lost in a book after having their own published as they find themselves unconsciously comparing, looking for what works and condemning what doesn’t.

I’ve got pretty good at shutting off that part of my brain and just enjoying what’s enjoyable about a book – I reread The Belgariad fairly recently and it was a blast, even though the sexual and racial politics are a total disaster. I know other people find problematic stuff so painful they can’t get past it, and I absolutely understand that, but for me it’s not a deal-breaker. The important thing is not to pretend the problems aren’t there, or that other people don’t have every right to be infuriated or upset by them.

As far as analysing what I read – no, I can’t really stop myself doing that. But very often, with books I like, my thought process goes something like: ‘What a great idea – why didn’t I think of it? If I’d thought of it, I’d have done it like this. Hmm… actually, the author’s handled it better than I ever could.’ And then I can sit back and enjoy it. My writer brain is much more of a problem watching films and television. It drives my housemate mad, because I always figure out where the story’s going and then, being an arsehole, can’t stop myself telling him.’

Following on from that, and I know this is one of those cliché questions that currently unsuccessful writers always ask authors who have found some kind of success, but do you have any advice you’d like to offer to new writers? Mistakes you see all too often, directions you see the genre moving in, etc?

I think it was Lawrence Kasdan who said, ‘Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.’ Being a writer isn’t coal-miner hard, but it’s psychologically tough and that’s probably what you’ll struggle with more than anything else. You’ll have to deal with your own resentment of other people’s success – no matter how well you’re doing, there’s always someone doing better – bitterness about your failures, self-doubt, criticism both fair and unfair. The important thing to realise is that pretty much every writer struggles with all that, and it doesn’t make you a terrible person – or no more terrible than the rest of us, anyway.

As for mistakes – well, don’t be a cock, listen to your editor, be someone people enjoy working with. If you’re the next Dickens, publishers will put up with a lot of shit from you, but most of us aren’t the next Dickens and editors are human enough to want to work with someone who isn’t going to make their life miserable. Yes, defend your work, yes be passionate about it, but be humble enough to realise that you need some outside perspective on it too. On that front, I always wait at least a day before replying to any editorial notes – to avoid the knee-jerk ‘how dare you not love every word of my masterpiece!’ reaction I fear I might otherwise send.

In terms of the genre – I really believe you should write what you love, not what you think the market wants. Cynical books can sometimes sell – they can even make a lot of money – but they’re dead behind the eyes. However, don’t uncritically write what you love: many of us imbibed some very reactionary tropes and character archetypes with our childhood fantasy reading and the genre has, thankfully, ceased to be a haven for that kind of thing. Beyond that, I can’t tell you what the next big thing is going to be – if I knew, I’d be writing it!

Finally, what are your long-term plans? Have you caught the epic fantasy bug to the extent that you think you’ll spend much of career here or do you think sticking to a single genre is always going to be a struggle for you as an artist?

Thank you for calling me an ‘artist’ – that may be the first time! My original pitch to Hodder said that this would be a four-book series followed by another linked series, and that’s still the plan, but I would like to write some other stuff too. I’ve had various ideas for crime novels that one day I might actually get off my arse and write, and I’d also like to do more games writing. I’ve been having a – sometimes stressful but always rewarding – ball working on Zombies, Run! over the last few years. So if, for example, Bioware asked me to write for any of their big RPGs, there’d be a little Road-Runner-style cloud of dust behind me as I sprinted towards them.

Smiler's Fair (cover)Smiler’s Fair – Book one of The Hollow Gods, the spectacular new epic fantasy series by Rebecca Levene. Yron the moon god died, but now he’s reborn in the false king’s son. His human father wanted to kill him, but his mother sacrificed her life to save him. He’ll return one day to claim his birthright. He’ll change your life.

He’ll change everything.

Smiler’s Fair: the great moving carnival where any pleasure can be had, if you’re willing to pay the price. They say all paths cross at Smiler’s Fair. They say it’ll change your life. For five people, Smiler’s Fair will change everything.

In a land where unimaginable horror lurks in the shadows, where the very sun and moon are at war, five people – Nethmi, the orphaned daughter of a murdered nobleman, who in desperation commits an act that will haunt her forever. Dae Hyo, the skilled warrior, who discovers that a lifetime of bravery cannot make up for a single mistake. Eric, who follows his heart only to find that love exacts a terrible price. Marvan, the master swordsman, who takes more pleasure from killing than he should. And Krish, the humble goatherd, with a destiny he hardly understands and can never accept – will discover just how much Smiler’s Fair changes everything.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar JSH says:

    “My elevator pitch for the book was that it’s Breaking Bad in a fantasy universe.”

    …aaaaand you have me

  2. Avatar Simon Ellberger says:

    Does anyone know if there is any hope for a US release of Smiler’s Fair (and the rest of the series) on the Kindle?

  3. Avatar Davieboy says:

    A good interview, thanks. I have this hardback book already but have been holding out for an audiobook version; anybody know anything?

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