Speculative Fiction Reviews, Interviews, Art and Whatever Else!
About Susan: After spending her formative years falling off ponies Susan moved on to rock climbing, mountains proving marginally less unpredictable than horses. Along the way she acquired a rugby-playing husband, soon followed by two daughters and a succession of rundown houses. Cumulative wear and tear prompted her to return to study, settling unfinished business with an Open University Humanities degree. She lives with her family in rural Cumbria where she writes fantasy and science fiction with occasional forays into other genres. Her novels Waterborne Blade and Waterborne Exile are now out through Angry Robot Books!
Kristy: Susan Murray (loud cheering ensues)! Welcome to Book Frivolity! Are you ready to face the crazy?
Susan: Thank you! Delighted to be here. I firmly believe the world’s a better place for a little craziness.
Kristy: Tell us a bit about yourself! Please include at least one weird fact, so we readers can confirm that authors are in fact human, and not godlike creatures.
Susan: I live in rural Cumbria with occasional family members, a dog and a cat. One of the best things I ever did was studying for an Open University degree as a mature student. A confessional moment: I covet my teen daughter’s ‘I solemnly swear I am up to no good’ t-shirt, even though it probably wouldn’t fit me.
Kristy: So, let's talk books! Waterborne Exile, the second book in your Waterborne series, is arrived on shelves only a few days ago! How has the 'second book' process been going, compared to the first?
Susan: The second book experience has been very, very different. For the first book I had all the time in the world and was able to take the whole thing apart, reassemble and rewrite half of it after completing the first draft. I had feedback on short sections of it from fellow students on a course with The Writers’ Workshop to help with this. Later on, I sought feedback from beta readers before preparing the final, much-revised version for submission. Through most of this process I was able to reassure myself no one was ever likely to read it anyway.
I had to find myself a new mantra for the second book: people were going to read it and, worse, compare it to the first one. I settled for the less than snappy ‘You can’t edit nothing.’ There was a deadline to work to and we were in the process of selling our house which proved pretty counter-productive when trying to immerse myself in a fictional world. I had to set the new manuscript aside when editorial notes arrived on the first book. In some ways this was helpful as it gave me more time to think through plot issues, but returning to the sequel took more time than I’d hoped and in the end I had to request an extension to the delivery deadline. My editor Phil Jourdan was the first person to set eyes on the completed manuscript and the wait for his verdict was far more nerve-wracking than submitting the first book had been.
K: Your books are currently being published by Angry Robot Books; a publishing house that still has the Indy aura, though publishes some of the best and brightest fantasy authors out there. Is that mix of both worlds, as a general idea, a helpful tool for a début novelist in the publishing industry?
S: For this début novelist, certainly! As a company they know the industry but remain small enough to be flexible, everyone’s involved in the publishing process and their enthusiasm is boundless. They commission great cover art, consulting far more closely with their authors than I expected.
K: I noticed a slight change in how the point of views are presented in Exile, compared to Blade. Rather than having them dispersed throughout the chapters, they are more often than not, divided strictly into their own. In turn, the chapters are now quite short and snap off the page! Was that a conscious choice or did it simply play out that way? Does either/or feel more comfortable for you to write?
S: That choice was largely a result of editorial feedback. For the Blade I’d combined several scenes to form chapters of two to three thousand words, but my editor recommended breaking them down further. As a writer I tend not to think in terms of chapters anyway until the draft’s complete, so it feels like a fairly natural way to present the work. Received wisdom is to try to leave out the parts readers will skip, and I’ve done that with a vengeance in Exile. It’s difficult to say how much of that was due to the proximity of the deadline, and how much to developing an instinctive sense what’s not needed. In Blade I wrote thousands of extra words that I later cut.
K: Exile is written in a way that makes the reader feel they are quite often spying on characters through a POV characters eyes. Are you a bit of a spy yourself?
S: In terms of being interested in people – how they act and what makes them tick – I suspect every writer must be to some extent! People are fascinating, they have so much going on under the surface. I see some writers say they lift entire encounters or conversations from real life, but I don’t do that. Real life events might inform a scene with a flavour or mood, but no more than that.
K: In Exile, you have written a male character in an emotionally abusive relationship, which I've rarely seen in Fantasy; possibly because it doesn't fit the heroic protagonist stereotype (and I am applauding you 1000 fold for it!). Is it important to you that these sorts of realisms are seen in fantasy? Is it a hard decision giving a character such a realistic emotionally harrowing role? Is it hard to write?
S: Thank you! That particular decision made itself, really, I never had any doubt of the trajectory that relationship would take once I’d begun writing. Equally, I hadn’t planned it beforehand, but when I found myself revisiting that character in the second book the whole thing took shape – it was one element I didn’t need to question while drafting or editing. As to realism in fantasy, I suppose I find it an important counterpoint to the fantastical elements. The death of Boromir (hopefully that won’t be a spoiler for too many readers!) is for me one of the more powerful scenes in the Fellowship of the Ring – he dies a suitably noble hero’s death, but the scene’s strength derives from the contrast with his very real, very human failure to resist the influence of the ring beforehand. As a reader I find such realism helps make characters more rounded, and the world more convincing.
K: Another character changes altogether from Blade to Exile! (Can’t tell Readers why! It’s secret stuff.) What's it like trying to supersede a characters old personality with a new one? Is it a struggle to keep them from popping back out, or is simply part of the character's natural progression?
S: I found this tricky to write – there had to be consequences of the events in the first book, and this was one of them. I had to work which changes might be longlasting or even permanent, and which might eventually be overcome or diminished with the passage of time. The repercussions will continue to play out in the third book.
K: So, Alwenna (one of the main POVs in both Blade and Exile) is a bit of a mystery to me, I can never quite tell exactly what her real endgame is due to the blades/goddesses interference; my opinion keeps shifting! Is she still altogether in control at this point?
S: Alwenna’s been through the mill at this point, and that’s bound to have consequences – you’ll have noticed I’m fond of those. When I first pitched The Waterborne Blade I found myself repeating, several times in a few minutes, ‘Everything costs’. Pitching isn’t my strong point... I believe a writer simply can’t put characters through the sort of events that occur in a fantasy novel and have them bounce back at full strength, unaffected by it. Alwenna’s been in better places, for sure, than she is by the end of Exile, but she’s tougher than she looks.
K: You write the most intense bad guys, because (in most cases!), they are doing their duty for what they think is the 'right' cause; though through power comes corruption. There is a definite real world comparison in there! When writing the 'baddies', is it important to you, to make sure that they can identified as the enemy, yet still show that innate human instinct to be on, what they believe, is the right side? Rather than say, a simple maniacal lust for power?
S: Good or bad, I aim to make my characters well-rounded and believable, and I hope they behave in a way consistent with their background – I find thinking of them as protagonists of their own stories useful. However bad they might appear, I like to think they’re capable of some measure of change through the story – not necessarily redemption, perhaps nothing more than a moment’s regret, or a resolve to do things differently another time. At times I’ve had to go back and work up a character’s backstory further to be sure of how they would act. Sometimes those backstory decisions have changed the way the plot unfolds – this was the case with the characters Jervin and Peveril in Waterborne Exile.
K: I always wonder what motivates an author, in deciding to kill off a main POVs character - in general rather than a particular book. What is that process like for you? Is it a simple plot A to B, or is it more involved than that?
S: We’re back to those consequences again! As the stakes get higher not everyone’s going to make it through unscathed. For me the whole writing process involves a messy combination of character motivation and brainstorming possible plot developments. There was one character in Exile I knew would die before I started drafting, but the details of how and why didn’t emerge until much later on.
K: How do you go about the process of writing fantasy? Are you a Gardener or an Architect?
S: A Gardener, and a messy one, at that. I love the unexpected sideshoots plots produce once I’m writing, so I tend not to plan too far ahead. I find it helpful to think in terms of a loose 5-act structure overall but I don’t work to a rigid outline.
K: I am always fascinated by how authors end books within a multi tome storyline. Some wrap everything up, ready for things to go to the dogs the next book, others seem to just back out without saying goodbye! You, however, seem to wrap up most of the threads quite quickly, and then write a jump off introduction for the next book! How do you choose what sort of endings are required in a series?
S: For Blade, I had to go back to basics and rewrite half the book before I found the ending I was looking for. For Exile I knew how the book would end from about the halfway point and that basic arc didn’t alter, although certain details of the closing scenes did. As a reader I like open endings that don’t tie everything off in a neat bow, leaving a sense that the fictional world continues to exist somewhere out of sight. Received wisdom is to end with a new beginning, and that seems to suit the way I think.
K: Are you already scheming for book three or do you take breaks to write different projects? I did notice Exile has followed Blade very quickly compared to the usual Fantasy publishing output…
S: I would love to claim I can rattle several books out a year, but the original release date for Blade was put back when the imprint was put up for sale by the holding company, so in fact I had extra time to work on the sequel. For the third book, I know exactly how it will start, but the rest is hazy at present. Work starts in earnest on that once Exile is launched. I find working at novel length easier if I can immerse myself fully in that world.
K: My Obligatory Random and Strange as Hell question: Have you ever been to the Castlerigg stone circle, and just casually wondered if you could knock three times, and get an audience with somebody from the Bronze Age?
S: The times I’ve been to Castlerigg there have been so many other people wandering about with pushchairs or rucksacks the Bronze Age has felt pretty far away. But now you mention it, maybe I should try...
K: The Not At All Strange Obligatory Question: What are your top 5 fantasy books/series?
S: Only 5? There are so many to choose from so here’s a fairly random selection:
K: What authors/books/genres are you reading at the moment?
S: I’ve been reading all sorts of things lately, although they all have a speculative element. I’ve particularly enjoyed: Son of the Morning by Mark Alder (epic in every sense), Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson (it’ll be out in November and it’s ace), Uprooted by Naomi Novik (more love for fairy tales), The Death House by Sarah Pinborough (unflinching) and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (superb, and my favourite read this year so far)
K: Are you an e-booker or a dead tree collector?
S: Dead tree (apologies to trees everywhere). Partly, I think, because it’s habit to read in that format, and partly because I just love to riffle the pages of a new book.
K: I noticed (because twitter tells all!) during the process of writing book two, you've been moving house! Have you found your new writing space yet? And most importantly has the cat settled in?
S: Yes, the new writing space is all set up, ready for some serious work. The cat has settled in and decided she’s ready to venture outdoors. She’s fifteen and not as agile as she used to be, so I’m hoping to keep her indoors – the rainy weather’s helping. She’s making her displeasure known by using my desk as her approach ramp to the window sill.
K: Is there anything else you wish to tell the world? About anything at all?
S: I’ll be out and about this year at Nine Worlds (August) and Fantasycon (October) if anyone wants stop and say hello.
K: Thank you Susan! *more clapping, much much clapping!* May all the good things come your way!
S: Thank you, Kristy, it’s been great fun!