Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Author Panel 1: Conference Co-Chair's Favorites

There's an impressive crowd for the second panel of the day.  There have been author panels at MLA for a few years now, and they've unofficially been chosen for being people the conference chairs liked.  Well this year that standard was formalized with Michael Colford selecting World Fantasy Award wining author Patricia A. McKillip and Gianna Gifford picking Edgar award winner Laurie R. King (sadly all of Ellen Keane's favorites are dead).

The presentation is being run by Library Journal editor Barbara Hoffert, who says she will stick to asking "the big questions".  First up, do each of the author's feel restricted by the genre labels associated with them?  Neither of the authors felt terribly restricted, and Patricia mentioned she would like to try something outside of fantasy, but that it is probably what she is best at, although in her novel Winter Rose she butted up against the inherent story structure of fantasy, which prevented her from utilizing the nebulous ending she had intended.

Next question, we seem to be in a period of particularly high interest in fantastic literature, is that a sign of the times or merely happenstance?  Laurie feels that in troubling times people prefer stories with firmer structures, which genres tend to lend themselves too.  There's also an argument to be made for the need for escapism in times of stress (i.e. Tolkein writing as a product of WWI).  Authors are occasionally defensive of escapism, but Laurie prefers to embrace that.

Laurie came to writing "like many writers in her genre" as a second career, albeit after being a life long reader and library user.  She cannot imagine not writing for herself, but potentially writing for the sake of others.  Patricia on the other hand wrote her first story at age 14 and had published 3 books by the time she completed her Master's degree.  However, she also takes a more practical view of her career, namely that an awful lot of the reason for her career is simply to pay the mortgage.

Laurie has difficulty writing the novels featuring the same characters consecutively, needing to vary the voices in her head.

My favorite line of the panel came from Laurie King, "I write with a great deal of authority when I lie".  She's had fans come up to her saying they recognized fictional locations from her Mary Russel books, more frequently than those that actually exist.  

Patricia's fantasy environments tend to grow fairly organically, one in particular was inspired by a painting she encountered at a Worldcon.  The hardest world she's created is one she's still working on (and has been for the last three years).  The details of this world have had a tendency to overshadow the narrative.  All the world's she creates need to fulfill some personal need within her in order to have any vitality.

Some more good lines from Laurie "I don't find Poirot, Poe or Mrs. Dalloway terribly sexy and Mary Russel is essentially Holmes".  "[The Holmes stories] are adult stories of a man driven by his sense of justice".

Patricia feels that epic or high fantasy is defined by a character that has been, to quote Barbara, "forged in the fire" and that character must be victorious by the dictates of the genre.  Laurie's crime fiction also follows this dictate, partly because she feels the hero's journey of making order from chaos is critical to her novels, but also because she "doesn't have time for depressing stories".

Laurie is probably the only person to graduate from UC Santa Cruz with a BA in theology to make a living off her degree.  Patricia has never felt inclined to incorporate such theological themes in her stories.

Library Journal has picked up on the large crossover between adult and YA novels and has a new column 35 going on 13, thus Barbara is curious what the author's feel regarding the dividing line between the audiences.  Is the line permeable?  Do author's need to gain an awareness of that line?  Laurie's answer: yes.

Laurie feels that all book categories (both genre labels and age appropriate guidelines) are artificial, simply being ways to tell store clerks where to shelve each book.  Patricia has one book that she envisioned as an adult novel that was published as YA, which just goes to show the somewhat arbitrary distinction.

And with that the discussion is turned over to questions from the audience:

Neither author has a clear method of keeping track of their stories during the writing process.  Both Laurie and Patricia have their own head space for their writing mode and tend not to have organization problems (although Laurie also says she is not an organized writer).

The characters and demands of each story govern their construction.

Neither author shares their drafts with anyone besides their editor (and in Patricia's case her agent).

Gianna had to ask Laurie about her take on Holmes and if she had any difficulty separating him from the image of Basil Rathbone.  Laurie is more of a Jeremy Brett fan, but is looking forward to Robert Downey Jr.'s upcoming movie.  She has no problem with the idea of her stories being filmed, but knows of other authors who feel that films have taken away their characters.

New writers should attend writers' workshops and conferences to find agents.  Also occasionally manuscripts are found in slush piles.

Michael asked about the importance of flawed characters.  Patricia feels that such characters are integral in fantasy.  All of Laurie's characters "are perfect", but she does feel that flaws can contribute to more well rounded characters.  This works the other way too, villains need to have a sympathetic side.

Laurie views her Mary Russel books as an open ended series and has no long term direction in mind.  Her Martinelli books are also open ended, but she doesn't view the series of being nearly as numerous, because the Russel fan are more violent (she can never kill Mary).

Who are there favorite authors and what one question would you ask them?  Laurie would ask Peter Dickinson why aren't you still writing adult novels?  Patricia is a huge fan of P.G. Wodehouse but goes through so many books there's not a particular favorite.  She would ask all of them "how did you do that?"

Patricia somewhat arbitrarily makes the decision to write a world closer to reality in many of her novels.  In one case she chose that setting because she felt a longing for the Oregon coast at the time.

Laurie is attracted to historical fiction for its ability to actually reflect the present and see it anew.

Laurie was not published in Brittain for roughly 4 years because of questions regarding Sherlock Holmes' status in the public domain.

Both authors will be signing in the vendor hall when it opens later today.

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