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Christchurch author cracks US market

Helen LoweHelen Lowe is a Christchurch author whose book Thornspell is about to be released in New Zealand and across the US. In 2008, she took some time to speak to The Pulse ahead of the launch of her book on Saturday, 20 September at Fendalton Library.

You’ve done the seemingly impossible Helen – getting a first novel published in the US. It’s such a big and tough place to get noticed. How do you feel about it and can you tell us how it came about?
Well, I feel pretty good about it although I'm not always entirely sure that it feels real – I have to pinch myself. I think that is partly distance: it's all happening at 14,000 kilometres removed, but also because when I think about it I realise that it is big and that's hard to take in when I am just living the same everyday life in Christchurch that I've always lived – you know, doing the garden, collecting the mail.
In terms of 'how it came about', I had written an earlier book (also
Fantasy) and tried the traditional Kiwi DIY route to getting published, but without success although I came close on several occasions. This helped me to understand that sometimes, in today's world, DIY really isn't the best way to go, so I decided that for the next book (Thornspell) I had to get an agent. But I had made quite a few friendly contacts along the way and it was one of these, someone in the publishing industry in Australia who read Thornspell and said: "You should try America with this."
The critical first step in "trying America" was getting an agent and although I was taken on by the first agency that I approached, Writers House in New York, their selection/acceptance process took some time – just under five months I think from my first inquiry letter. But my agent, Robin, sold the manuscript in less than a month, so I think that pretty much justified my decision to "get an agent" – and also to follow the advice of "trying America".
Fantasy writing means creating not only convincing characters but entire worlds – does that make it harder to write than other types of fiction? What’s the best part of writing fantasy and sci fi?
World building is one of the parts of Fantasy writing that I love the most – imagining not just the characters but the whole world that they live in and "making it real" for the reader. In the case of Thornspell, the "world" is loosely based on the Holy Roman Empire during the Renaissance / early Reformation period - not in terms of events, but in terms of cultural geography and technology, such as how people lived, clothes, weapons, tools, and learning. I think that helps to "ground" the story for the reader, but as a Fantasy writer you have to be careful because the more historically accurate you make things the more you risk losing the "fantastic" element that is crucial to telling your story. So although Holy Roman Empire is the "flavour" of the story, Thornspell is not set in that actual empire - and I deliberately slid the historical timescale in several places to keep the fantastic alive.
I love world building but I am not sure if there is one best part of writing SciFi-Fantasy. I think that Fantasy allows you to explore wonder and a sense of the magical in relation to real people and the world that is quite special, and the best SciFi – or at least the SciFi that I enjoy - captures that same sense of wonder, but in relation to either what is in the universe, or what could be … But in both cases, I think that it is important that the human characters are real people and react in a real way to the events that they experience. So perhaps like writers in all genres, it is my characters that are most important to the writing process.
You write lots of material and read on the radio – what did you do before you were a writer?
Before writing I worked in environmental management and was involved in areas as diverse as building roads, bridges and other infrastructure, protecting archaeological sites and historic buildings and building partnerships with iwi in respect of land and heritage issues. I trained and taught in the martial art aikido for many years, achieving the grade of nidan (second dan black belt), and have also worked as a volunteer, at different times, with Amnesty International, the NZ Society of Authors and the NZ Poetry Society.
Your website has fantastic artwork on it and a sample chapter of Thornspell. Was putting a chapter on the website a difficult decision to make?
No - it really wasn't! If people go into a bookshop they can pick up a book and browse to get a feel for it, and I wanted potential readers to have the same opportunity through the website.
Also, Thornspell is a Children's / Young Adult book and I wanted parents to be able to look at it as well, so that they could feel comfortable with Thornspell as a reading choice for their kids. And it is only one chapter - if web visitors like Chapter 1 there are still another sixteen chapters for them to enjoy in the "real book". (Smiles.)
The jacket art is by Antonio Xavier Caparo, by the way, and both my Thornspell and Helen Lowe websites were built by Peter Fitzpatrick, right here in Christchurch!
How do you approach writing dialogue? Is it hard to make characters in fantasy books sound convincing?
I always try to make the characters real and that means they have to have real voices and ways of speaking. For example, in Thornspell, Sigismund, the hero, speaks differently from Balisan, his mentor and master-at-arms. Balisan is always slightly more formal. But whoever the character is, I always ask myself the question: "do real people speak like that"? Or would a real person say (or do) this in this particular situation? And I often read the dialogue aloud, to make sure that it rings true as speech rather than narrative.
I think this approach is important in all writing, not just Fantasy, but in Fantasy I do think that the language needs to be true to the world and setting that you are trying to convey. For example, someone in a European-Renaissance world like that of Thornspell, would be unlikely to talk the patois of certain areas of the United States - or NZ for that matter - and readers would not "buy it" if they did.
Writing is a solitary activity – do you write every day – do you have a set routine?
There is an exhortation in aikido, "train everyday", and the same principle applies to writing. I do write everyday, although I try to have the weekend to spend with my partner and do other things, in the same way as people with regular jobs - but when I am on a roll I like to keep going, regardless of the day or time. But I think it is important to have a set routine of so many hours and so many words before you can call it quits for the day, and to keep that time non-negotiable. And to begin - even if you start off writing "just anything" each time you sit down, it will quickly turn into "something" if you stick with it. So that is why it is important to have both a minimum time requirement for every day and a minimum word count: it is not an either-or option.
How important are libraries to writers? Do you have a favourite library?
Libraries were tremendously important to me as a kid and young adult, because I was the archetypal avid reader, and read my way through most libraries that I encountered. Very few households could offer the range of material and subject choice that you have in libraries so I have always seen libraries as both information and recreation centres.
Libraries are still important for me in terms of research and seeking out the new - although I find that as part of a writing community there are always so many books doing the rounds or being given to me as a "must-read" that I no longer have to go into the library to have a pile of books-in-waiting sitting on my desk. It's an informal writer's swap and share system!
In terms of the library I visit most, that would be Christchurch Central, mainly because I walk into town a lot and it is often on my route, and it has the New Zealand room, but I would be hard pushed to pick a favourite outside of that.
Are you inspired by other fantasy or sci fi writers? Who are your favourites?
I am definitely inspired by other writers, but not just in the Fantasy SciFi genre. I loved Michael Cunningham's The Hours, for example, and non fiction, particularly - but not exclusively - history. I enjoyed McNeish's The Dance of the Peacocks about New Zealand's Rhodes scholars in the 1930s - and was amazed that (even though a New Zealander) I knew so little about these six extraordinary lives. But as a kid I loved writers like C S Lewis and Ursula Le Guin, and then as a teenager I graduated to The Lord of the Rings.
I think it would be very difficult for any writer of contemporary SciFi-Fantasy not to be influenced by one or all of these three - but favourites, that is a difficult question. I really enjoyed Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass when I first read it and SunshineRobin McKinlay's Sunshine (I think I most loved all the wonderful descriptions of baking juxtaposed with slaying vampires and outwitting demons in a world that was almost - but not quite - our own). But probably my favourite series in recent years has been George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, which started with the novel A Game of Thrones.
What's next on the writing agenda for you?
I am currently working on another Children's/YA novel, working title Yrth, but Eos, the SciFi-Fantasy imprint of HarperCollins USA have recently bought my first novel, The Wall of Night (Wall), which is the first of a four part series. Both Yrth and Wall are currently scheduled to come out in the USA in 2010, so as soon as I finish Yrth, I will begin to work on the edit of Wall with Kate Nintzel at Eos. So there is plenty of writing ahead for me!

September 2008