Author Ellen Kushner – Writer, Performer, Artist and Host of PRI’s Sound & Spirit.
JMW: Hello this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com With me today is writer, editor, singer, radio personality and all around great performer, Ellen Kushner. Welcome Ellen.
Ellen Kushner: Thank you.
JMW: So much of your career on radio and performance and writing has involved works that don’t quite fit in one category or genre. That certainly applies to your first fantasy novel Swordspoint. Which came first your interest in genre bending art, or writing a fantasy without magic?
Ellen Kushner: I had no intention of doing anything other than telling the story I wanted to tell. And about halfway through it, I realized oh my God, this fit’s no category known to man. But I was so in love with telling the story, and I was young so you’ve got a certain screw it attitude when you’re young. I’m just going to write it, it’s going to be what it’s going to be, and having already been in publishing I thought it’s their job to figure out what it is and how they’re going to market it.
This nearly proved my downfall when nobody knew what it was or how to market it. And it finally got published in the fantasy genre, where he became this sort of semi [inaudible 01:19] with every body being scandalized, it became a [sesay] de scandal with everybody saying, oh my God, it’s a fantasy novel without magic.
And you know that’s one thing that you can call it, and it did in fact… Just an accident of history that it was published in the fantasy genre. And people who needed to think of it as a fantasy and yet it had no magic. So it became in fantasy without magic, which then later, people realized that there was a lot in it, that had a kind 18th century or a Regency, Jane Austen field. So they started calling it fantasy of manners.
So it was one of the first that spawned what then became recognizable genre of fantasy that something that certainly didn’t exist before the late 80s when it was published. So in other words, I didn’t do it on purpose. I swear I didn’t. But it was just a lucky accident of history that placed Swordspoint and its sequels where they are.
JMW: It interesting that something that so literary would be hard to categorize because always before the modern piece, literary novels literary works could deal with elements of fantasy. “The Tempest” for example without causing scandal.
Ellen Kushner: Oh, sure. No, no. I mean, the fantasy genre as a commercial genre happen because of J.R. Tolkien, absolutely. Tolkien became an enormous success and publisher’s said there’s gold in them thar hills. And they started rushing into print a thing that generally, remotely reminded them of Tolkien, and slapping a J.R. Tolkien style cover on it.
I was in high school at the time, and I read them all. And they were all packaged to look like Tolkien and none of them remotely resemble Tolkien. They were all books though that had been written and published as literary novels in the 19-teens, the 1920s, E.R. Edison, [Lord Dunsinee], all that stuff came out and gave my generation of readers the chance to read these classics of proto-fantasy, if you will.
Then the next-generation immediately followed which was the writers influenced by Tolkien. Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, even Peter Beagle in a way. But that was all the sort of the young fantasist that got published and then everything just kind of blew wide open once the Tolkien imitators came out. And fantasy was a hard and fast and big selling genre, and that really altered the way that people saw novels that contained some element of fantastic.
Ellen Kushner: What prompted you to return to the world of Riverside so many years later, to tell the tale of Alec’s niece “In Privilege of the Sword”?
Ellen: Well the sad truth is I’m a very slow writer. But when I finished Swordspoint. Everyone said oh, you’re going to write a sequel. In those days, sequels worst sort of trashy in my opinion at least. It wasn’t like now, where basically any book that’s any success, you assume there is going to be a sequel and you look forward to it with delight.
At that time to me writing sequels felt like it locked you severely into a certain style of genre. So I said no I’m not going to write a sequel. Everyone died of diphtheria, sorry.
And the next novel that I wrote then was a very different novel. Which was this folklore based “Thomas the Rhymer”. But I love my characters. I love my city, and I simply missed them. And I wrote a short story about them, called the swordsman whose name was not [Death]. Which end up figuring in the sequel to Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword.
I actually could start The Privilege of the Sword, put it away. My agent at the time didn’t like it, and I just abandoned it. And then I did write another novel set in that [inaudible 05:07] world with Delia Sherman called, “The Fall of the Kings”, that takes place some 60 years later.
So what prompted me to do it? I just fell in love and I just missed them. What allowed me to do it was a sense that they warrant literally sequels, that I wasn’t doing the same trick over and over.
Now I kind of question my reasoning thinking, why didn’t you, it would have been fun everybody would’ve loved it. Oh, you’re such a silly person. Be that as it may, that was a choice that I made, but I felt like if I could keep coming at the same city, and the same family, but from very different angles that it would be an interesting exercise and it would make interesting books.
And indeed the difference between in Swordspoint, where you’re in very close, in this very tight relationship between the swordsman and his lover. The mysterious renegade student and seeing those same two characters when they’re both a little bit older but through the uncompromising gaze of a 15- year-old girl, you’re getting a completely different look at the same place and same people.
And then to do some of the short stories that I’ve done. Because I’ve written quite a few actually about those characters now. And “The Fall of the Kings”, which is set, the next generation down so that the teenager in Privilege is now the rather frightening and powerful older woman but also that the city has changed.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.