Interview: Tanith Lee

DeathsMaster-ForWebToday, we are talking with Tanith Lee, the prolific speculative author who began her career with the Birthgrave trilogy and has, since then, tried her hand at numerous other projects from fairy tale re-imaginings (White as Snow) to young adult books (the Piratica series). Tanith Lee’s Tales From the Flat Earth novels are being re-released by Norilana, beginning with Night’s Master, and Tanith was kind enough to answer some questions about her favourite characters, some of the challenges she encountered when penning her novels and her projects ahead.

IFP: What was the inspiration for the Flat Earth series?

TL: The inspiration was, as I explain in my intro to the Norilana edition of Night’s Master, a word game I was playing with my mother, back in the 70s. Her clue to me was locked in the phrase “Go nowhere on a horse that fades”. This quickly translated into an idea for the first story in the book, (“Light Underground”). Other stories followed. And other books in the Flat Earth library. A lot of my inspirations have come from such so-called small things.

IFP: What about Earth’s Master? How will that fit into the Flat Earth series?

TL: Earth’s Master is about the struggle for who/what will end up master of the world – gods, men, or demons. Indifference, idiocy, cruelty – or some greater and more glittering element. I’m not going to know much that’s concrete about it until I start in to the book (which is usually the case with me when I write).

IFP: Is there a chance you will return to another of your series, such as the Blood Opera or Paradys?

n4147TL: I’d happily have returned to the Blood Opera, or Paradys, if there had been any interest from the then-publishers. Definitely there is a fourth Scarabae novel waiting in the wings, Darker Ages, which will resolve several matters, particularly the love-hate motif between Malak and Anna-Ruth. Paradys, of course, has since featured in two or three free-flying short stories.

IFP: Is there any chance we will see some more stories with the protagonists of your older sword & sorcery tales like Jaisel or Vazkor and his mother?

TL: There will be a sequel-prequel linking the Vis books (The Storm Lord, etc) and the Karrakaz Trilogy (The Birthgrave, etc) following on from reprints of all six forerunners, also from Norilana. I can’t imagine this volume will escape all mention either of Raldnor and his dynasty, or of Vazkor and Herself. And I’m sure I’m not the only one to have made the fatal connection between the white-haired, white-skinned Amanackire of Vis and the albino Lost Race of the Karrakaz Trilogy. As for Jaisel – why not? I haven’t heard from her in years…

dark_danceIFP: What was the inspiration for your recent story in Realms of Fantasy, “Our Lady of Scarlet”? Will we see more stories about Andelm in the future?

TL: I think Andelm is a one-off character (But I can always be wrong). The inspiration for the tale has been amorphously with me since the 1970s, when I first came across the notion of red as an anti-plague amulet. As sometimes happens with me, it lay dormant for decades, and then sprang out fully- formed, shouting: Look! Look! THIS is how you do it.

IFP: You’ve done some themed anthologies in the past like Red as Blood and Tamastara, where you wrote the stories at different times. Did you set out to do a series of stories in these themes or worlds, or did they just happen?

TL: Tamastara began actually with the story near the end: “Oh Shining Star”. Then they started to accumulate. I’d suddenly fallen deeply in love with India, and with the (marvelous) films of Merchant Ivory. The whole collection came fairly quickly, but I only saw it as a collection after about four stories. Red as Blood was similar. It started with the lead story, “Red as Blood”, and with “Thorns”, which I’d written some years before. Later on, I did several more re-tellings along the lines of “Red as Blood”, mostly for the excellent Datlow-Windling anthologies of that type. So I now have quite a stack of them, which I’m assembling for Norilana to take a look at. The title of this, once we get it together, will be Redder than Blood. The plan is it will have at least two original tales, as well, previously unpublished. Meanwhile, I don’t think I’ve ever set out initially to do a themed antho. Just noticed eventually I was doing one.

night's_master_spanishIFP: I find that your characters, Azhrarn included, are complex, not always likeable individuals. How do you tackle the construction of a character?

TL: I don’t. They tell me. By which I don’t mean I don’t ask them questions or discuss the whole thing with myself, sometimes aloud, in my workroom. For me, everyone I write of is real. I have little true say in what they want, what they do or end up as (or in). Their acts appall, enchant, disgust or astound me. Their ends fill me with retributive glee, or break my heart. I can only take credit (if I can even take credit for that) in reporting the scenario. This is not a disclaimer. Just a fact. (Oh, and how wise of you. Anyone who likes Azhrarn is undoubtedly misguided. All ranges of reactions for or against, sure. But LIKE? Far too dangerous.)

IFP: Plot or character. What’s more important to you?

TL: As for plot and character, for the greater part plot, for me, evolves from the characters. When some of the plot – very rarely all, or even most – is a set construct, the characters arrive with it, fully-formed and already enmeshed in the web. Finally, I’ll always come back to my basic insatiable yearning, which is, write about people. They are my prime fascination.

birthgraveIFP: Do you have a favourite character from your novels or short stories?

TL: Endless favourites. I’ll name a few. Among the novels: Claidi in the Wolf Tower/Claidi Journals. Guri in the Lionwolf trilogy. Yannul in The Storm Lord and Anackire, and Medaci, his subsequent wife. Furian, and Beatrixa in the Venus quartet, Hephaestion in White as Snow, Judit in The Book of the Mad (Paradys quartet) and Kotta in The Birthgrave. And a handful from the short stories: the apothecary in “Draco, Draco”, the narrator of “Cold Fire”, the Heroine of “The Sea Was In Her Eyes”, the eponymous hero of “Zinder”, the two lovers in “Rapunzel”. But sometimes, the vilest are the most enjoyable, if that’s the word, to write about. I reel with horror, yet relish the portrayal. Two good examples here are Kesarh in Anackire, and the pyromaniacal psychopathic little-girl-lost, Ruth.

IFP: What are some influences in your writing, other writers, movies, painters, etc?

TL: Now that would really be a list. A small volume in itself. There’s music, too. For example: Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich (whose symphonies had such an influence on certain scenes in Anackire), Handel. Not to mention Annie Lennox and Johnny Cash. Movies – obvious culprits would be Ben Hur (the 1959 version with Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd), Caesar and Cleopatra (with Vivien Leigh and Claude Raines), Coppola’s Dracula, The Brotherhood of the Wolf (subtitled version), Olivier’s Hamlet. All the Quatermass films and TV films. Forbidden Planet, Plunket and MacLean, and The Seventh Seal. My foremost literary gods include Graham Greene, Rebeccah West, Elizabeth Bowen, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, Angela Carter and Jane Gaskell. Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, William Blake, Anton Chekov and Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Painters: Van Gogh, Cotman, Turner, Klimt, Rousseau, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Alma-Tadema, several pre-Raphaelites… But I’ve missed so many and so much. And I’m always finding new ones – for example, Ivan Bunin…

lee_daysofgrassIFP: What is the writing process like for you? Do you plot everything in detail before beginning, etc?

TL: I don’t really plot; I get told. Where I can’t quite make the jump, find the through line, I and they have “discussions”, as I mentioned before. Looked at with any kind of cool, rational objectivity, I must assume what I call my “backbrain” works on the details unbeknownst to me, and then there they are. All I need do is dive in for a swim.

IFP: Ambiguous sexuality is a recurrent theme in your novels. Are there any other themes that you like to return to in your writing? Why?

TL: Why? Because they lure me on like singing sirens. This is how the ideas, and the fragments of plotting, come to me. As to themes, the obsessions to which no doubt I return, I think anyone else will probably spot them far quicker and more accurately than I. I simply write what I want, wish, long to write. While as to the “ambiguous” sexuality, I think ambiguity intrigues me generally. Not just the hard-drawn line between male and female heterosexuality and lesbian/gay desire, which hard line may waver in the most staunch of the “straight” or the “homosexual” – but the shadings between wickedness and normality, evil and the divine. The state of human life and the god or demon within. The constant internal war that being alive can conjure.

IFP: You’ve tackled many genres and sub-genres, from sci-fi to horror to young adult fiction. Do you have a favourite one? Conversely, is there a genre or sub-genre that you have not tackled yet and you’d like to try?

TL: The favourite is always the one I’m then writing, or am just about to. I think sometime (if there is time), I’d like to do another fully historical; my only such to date being The Gods Are Thirsty, set during the French Revolution. I’d like to do a few more detectives, as well, and contemporary novels. I’ve only written one of the former, so far, and five of the latter.

IFP: Has there been a novel that has been especially difficult to write? Why?

n56533TL: Three. The Storm Lord was difficult because I was working flat out in the library service. I can remember Fridays, with Saturday still to come , a 9 am to 8 pm stint, coming home and trying to type up previous long-hand work, so drained and frustrated I could barely see the pages. I was 18 and a half. But I did complete the book. This novel was only one of the two written in two draughts. (The Gods Are Thirsty was the other).

Normally, one draught and various “on site” polishes and corrections, are what I do. When I came to re -write The Storm Lord in my early twenties, I had naturally the entire plot and all the characters before me. I changed quite a bit, and cut quite a lot, but the original work in this case really paid off. The Gods Are Thirsty was difficult for other reasons. It was my first, and, so far only, straight historical, as I said. I had no trouble with the flow of it, or breaking off constantly to do copious research – loved all that. But the characters had lived in our world, and their awful pain, and the terrifying foregone conclusion to their story – was an immutable fact. The end had been written already by history. Quite an experience. In a way, I can see from this, and did then, that “invented” characters do allow a little more leeway. At least for themselves. They can die when they say it happened – or survive when I hadn’t thought they would. But the cast of The Gods Are Thirsty perish, and neither they, nor ever I, could alter a thing. Piratica, the first novel, was the third to present, in that case, an almost insurmountable problem for me. I’d signed up to it enthusiastically. Then realized fully consciously that a book about some of the most blood-dripping and goods_are_thirstyviolent human beings had to be presented in a Young Adult format. Usually, Young Adult makes no difference to me in how I work. Sex and violence get tailored, but kind of automatically, and it never infringes, for me at least, basic psychology, sexual love or human crime. The drama and fire still appear before me. I don’t feel out of my depth.

But PIRATES? How to do it without overstepping perfectly sensible limits – and not sell the book short? I stuck. The novel had four false starts, bits of which still were infinitely useable once I got sorted out. How did I? My husband (writer/artist John Kaiine) came up with the solution.

Instead of some of the worst people on the planet, they were to be some of my best-loved actors. This let me in. And by the time the true High Seas mayhem set in, along with the real pirate kind, I’d lost my fear of where to tread, and the book was able to tell me how (fearlessly) to proceed.

saint_fireIFP: How do you think you’ve changed as a writer since the publication of your first novel?

TL: One can change a lot, physically. For example, my hair’s going white – admittedly, with some help. But in my work – frankly, I haven’t a clue. I’m still the mad kid in love with what she does. By which, I mean, in love with her trade. Yes, I’ve branched out into other “genres”, but that too is just part of the in-love-with-work business. I love you, I want to take the risk…and so on. I hope stylistically I’ve learnt more. But maybe I haven’t. Perhaps some things have strengthened. Or not. Am I moving forward? Yes, it feels like it. But how, and where – heaven knows. I just want to write. Always did, seemingly always will. Let me at it! So, no change there, then.

IFP: What are you working on right now?

TL: Lots of short stories. And trying to finish a short contemporary novel called Ivorian, that has only about twenty pages left to do – and which, due to other things, not all work, I haven’t had a chance to get to for over a year! Then I shall be off to finish (also) a novel of dark fantasy called At the Court of the Crow, which is due for Nightshade. Additionally, I’m tackling pieces of artwork for the covers of the Flat Earth reprints from Norliana.

IFP: What do you do when you are not writing?

TL: Read enormous amounts, walk – we live between countryside and sea, a beautiful place to be – see friends more often, watch a lot of movies. And, of course, think and fantasize about the next book.

IFP: Have you ever written any Lovecraftian fiction?

TL: No, I don’t know enough about this particular area. The very little I’ve read of Lovecraft seemed splendid, but I seem to veer in other directions. And time – not enough. There are many only so many hours in a day, and only so many years in a life. Unfortunately.

To learn more about Tanith Lee, visit her at For a schedule of future Tanith Lee titles to be released by Norilana, visit their TaLeKa page.