Featured Author Week: Interview with ‘Limits of Power’ author Elizabeth Moon

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Lytherus is honored this week to be joined by prolific science fiction and fantasy author, Elizabeth Moon! Winner of several awards including a Nebula award for her novel, The Speed of Dark, Elizabeth has made quite a name for herself in the sci fi world with her two main series, Vatta’s War and Familias Regnant. Lately though, she has returned to the fantasy world where she began her career and continued the story of Paks, Kieri, and Dorrin in the Paladin’s Legacy series. She graciously agreed to talk with us about the new installment, Limits of Power, and about her books and writing in general.

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press-elizabeth-moonWelcome Elizabeth! Can you start by telling us a bit about how the writing process works for you , and what types of things inspire your stories?

Thanks!   I’m glad to be here.    Writing process…with very few exceptions my writing process is one of adventure/discovery:  that is, I have some sort of idea–usually pretty clear about one or more characters and what they think their current situation is and where it might lead–and then I dive in and start writing.    Often I have many ideas, and often many of those ideas don’t work once the story is moving.   Writing in adventure mode leads to blind alleys, short-cuts that aren’t,  thick mental fog,  swamps of despair, etc.  It’s not the most efficient way of finding the real story but it’s the only way that works for me.   (As a child, I never followed the directions with my Tinker Toys or Lincoln Logs either.  I looked at them and thought “I wonder if I can build something else…like…um…let’s see now…”)

What types of things inspire stories?    That’s a hard one.   Everything I’ve read, heard, or experienced.   All the books, and most of the shorter stuff, has inspirations from multiple sources.    It can be something “big,” like an event in history or what’s found in an archaeological dig or a significant bit of research in science…or it can be something “small,”  like a comment overheard in a party or  a bit of sensory input.    Everything is grist for the mill, or something that goes into the storytelling soup cauldron.   The only absolutely clear example I can give is for a short story: two anecdotes told me by the same person, one hilariously funny and one not, led to the story “If Nudity Offends You.”   The first one I knew as I heard it wanted to be part of a story…the second one latched onto it perfectly, and the story was there, needing only some hours at the keyboard to write it down and polish it.

Unlike many authors you write both in the science fiction and fantasy genres. What is it like switching back and forth, and what would you say are the primary differences between the two?

Switching back and forth between book-length or longer projects takes a week or so to clear my head and sink back into the right mindset for the new one.   It’s not a struggle, just resetting the switches so that the two forms don’t blur together.   Science fiction needs a connection to this world–for me, at least, needs to feel that this planet with its specific history is–however far away or distant in time–part of the same universe.   Everything is explainable, or would be with the right people doing the right analysis, though not everything is explained in the story and the explanations given may be wrong.    It’s a little more centered in the head than the heart, although–for me–a story not grounded in the characters’ personalities and thus their motivations isn’t that interesting.

Fantasy may be set in this world, of course, or in a world connected with this (portal fantasy) but most of mine is set in a different world that does not connect to this one  at all.     The worldbuilding side of it uses the same knowledge base and skills as in science fiction–since that’s what I like,  something that holds together at all levels.   But I can play with the social/cultural side of things,  and of course add in magic systems and abilities that humans just don’t have.   Fantasy (or, more accurately, the fantasy in the Paksworld books) always has its roots in the human heart more than the human brain.

Would you say one or the other is your favorite or is that too much like asking to pick a favorite child?

That, yes.   Each satisfies a different part of my brain and heart.   When I’ve been writing a lot of one, I like to switch to the other–in both directions.

Technically, this series is a sequel to your trilogy The Deed of Paksenarrion, yet it can clearly stand on its own as well. Is it difficult to write about characters like Stammel knowing that some readers will be more invested in what happens to him than others?

No, not at all.   When I’m writing,  I’m not thinking about readers.  I’m writing the story I want to read.   I have had Stammel in my head as a favorite since the first book of the first series, so carrying his story on was–well, all things considered, not easy–inevitable.   Whether a given reader has read  the earlier books or not, and how that might affect the reader’s attachment to Stammel, isn’t an issue.

You repeatedly give your main characters access to tremendous power. However, each character who receives that kind of power comes from a humble background, and so far none of them have sought to abuse it. Would it be better to infer from this that in your world great power is given to those you know how to use it, or that great power goes to those who understand what it is like to be powerless?

Limits of Power          That’s a fascinating question, but the answer may be more complicated than you anticipated.   How people use power has intrigued writers all the way back to the beginnings of tales–and I’m in that group.   None of the theories that people have come up with about who can be trusted with power fit reality:  it’s not being “born to rule” since good rulers have had vicious children.   It’s not being born in poverty  or suffering abuse as a child, since some rulers born in poverty or suffering abuse as a child became cruel, abusive rulers.   People who intend to use power wisely and non-abusively may not do so when they get into power.   “What went wrong” is the theme many tragedies.  “Hubris” is the easy answer, but where does it come from?

In Paksworld, many people come into great power and some use it badly, abusively (Siniava and Barranyi in the first Paks books; most of Dorrin’s family,  the Duke of Immer,  the iynisin,  the Pargunese under the influence of Achrya, etc. in the new group) and some use it wisely.  It’s easy to write villains who misuse whatever power they have…we are all familiar with the impulses leading that way.  Who has not felt envy, rage, resentment, and–at least in imagination–though the world would be better if only he or she were free to get rid of somebody?   The news and history books are full of villains abusing power.  Solzhenitsyn said the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, shifting back and forth as that person and exterior experience interact.

But trying to understand how someone comes into great power and uses it well is a greater challenge.   How does a character–and by extension how do I–develop whatever it is that allows them to handle power without abusing it?   It’s not that the person is just naturally “good”  and will automatically make the better choices.   Every individual has flaws, has seams of character along which they might split under pressure.   Every individual–no matter how privileged–experiences pressures that can lead to such fracture.  Every individual–no matter how alienated or abused–has countering strengths that might–if developed–prevent such fracture.    So  each individual has a unique task, as it were, of learning how to make the most of what Isaiah Berlin called “the crooked timber of humanity”–how to see the limits and flaws without losing sight of the talents and skills, and then how to put the whole box of parts together to make a person capable of managing whatever power he or she acquires–either by birth or by later accident.   Those who do use power well must overcome all the social pressures to use it badly as well as  their own personal flaws that make abuse more likely.   The process is one of the things I find fascinating about strong characters.

You have filled this world with many religions and many forms of magic. Do you draw on any particular myths or folktales when you create these elements?

On a wide variety of them from multiple sources, including anthropology and history courses and study of the history of religions.   I had the good fortune to grow up in an area where cultures met–the southern tip of Texas–a unique Border environment (as all border environments are.)   In high school we had a remarkable English teacher, Marguerite Robinson, who went far beyond the state curriculum for senior English and assigned us books on different mythologies, different religions, different philosophical systems, and more.   I went on from that to read more and more…and at this point can’t really say which of the many sources contributed most to which of the story elements…I fitted things I’d heard, seen, and read into that world’s structure where they seemed “right.”

There is never a moment your elves come across as remotely human. Yet with each book their magic seems more closely connected with that of the magelords. Will we ever get an “origins” story told either in another book or given as history to a character that explains the relationship between the many different magics?

There are hints in the last book of this group.   I may, given the chance to write more books in Paksworld,  reveal more of that relationship.  However, among the Elders, each came with their specific set of magical powers.   The magic of the rockfolk (and the magic of dwarves is not exactly the same as that of gnomes)  is quite different in focus and ability from that of elves.  The only bit they’ve been willing to share with humans is “forge magic” for working metals, and only some of what they themselves can do.

A little bit of reader bias here, but I was really drawn to Dorrin in this series. Much more than I was in the original trilogy. What prompted you to pick her out of so many amazing characters to bring her in to focus?

Oath of Fealty            I did not start with that intention at all.   My original plan, to the extent I had one, was to tell Kieri Phelan’s story, but once the writing began, both Dorrin and Arcolin moved up into an equal status with Kieri.    Once I realized what Dorrin had to offer, though,  she certainly earned her place in center stage.   Dorrin in the first books was seen  only through Paks’s eyes–and Paks was young, inexperienced, unable to see more than a competent officer who seemed “cold” in relation to Arcolin.

But as I gave her a chance as POV a character, I had access to her full personality and memories.    Here was someone who, had she gone with the flow, could have had wealth, power, and possibly even a form of longevity–albeit by using evil magery, but that didn’t stop her relatives.    Yet something led her to recognize and refuse the evil, even as a small child, in spite of punishment humiliation, and all the pressure her powerful family could bring to bear.   Dorrin survived her childhood, and the obvious temptations…but at a cost that left her apparently more brittle than Arcolin or Kieri and seriously afflicted with survivor guilt and self-distrust as an adult.   The dislike, distrust, and contempt shown her as a child became normal for her–and affected how people reacted to her, which then reinforced her distrust of herself.   She continues to do the right thing,  and yet she’s not widely liked or trusted; her family’s reputation and her own childhood issues have kept her more solitary than Kieri or Arcolin.

The Marshal-General frequently compares Paks becoming a paladin to the single stone that starts an avalanche. However, in this book, it seems likely that she’s started an avalanche of her own by seeking to alter the Code of Gird. Will we see long term ramifications from this that extends beyond the acceptance of magery?

Yes, but not all of it shows up in the final book of this group.    There may have to be another group of Paksworld books someday (and it better not take me 20+ years to get to them…!)    Actually, the Marshal-General did start an avalanche when she first insisted on accepting Paks as a paladin-candidate–a role for which Paks wasn’t really ready–and then sending her on the expedition to Kolobia.   Granted, the Marshal-General may have been getting strong nudges from Gird–but equally, those were not the best decisions, in terms of getting a young Girdish yeoman through training without a disaster.  Arianya does not think of herself as a particularly game-changing Marshal-General, but she’ll be remembered that way.

At this point in your world’s history, many different lines are blurring. Kieri’s elven heritage is claiming dominance despite his human father, mages are appearing that have no connection to the Verrakai, and newly found documents are suggesting a different history than has been passed down. However, while it seems the rest of the world is coming together and finding more common ground than they have in centuries, one group is still in the shadows: the iynisin. I get the feeling that they are just starting to come into play…can you give us any clearer of an idea of where that story line is going? Did we get our first glimpse of the “Big Bad” here in this book and the end of the previous one?

Surrender None            The first glimpse of the Big Bad is actually well back, in Surrender None, Gird’s story, when he’s cursed by an iynisin so that none of his issue will survive.   We see them again in Paks’s encounter in Kolobia.   But behind them is (as shown in the incident at Halveric’s steading in Kings of the North, and mentioned in Limits in a brief moment of the Marshal General’s thoughts) are the deep forces intent on destroying creation:  Gitres the Undoer, who wipes out accomplishment, and Nayda the Unnamer, who removes even the memory of what was done and who did it.   They almost never appear in the story–they work through their followers and intermediaries, and thus it’s left to the reader (or the person in that world) to figure out if a daskdraudigs, for instance, is a creature of the iynisin or one of the lesser deities and powers.   It’s also left to the reader to consider how much of the Big Bad goes back to Solzhenitsyn’s comment about that line between good and evil in every human heart.   As a reader, I prefer stories in which the gods intervene in dreams, or brief revelations, but rarely if ever involve themselves directly.  The struggle is mostly within and between individuals on a scale we can comprehend.

It’s clear throughout your books that you have great knowledge of actual fencing as well as combat, yet unlike many writers you choose to use less technical language and more description. I find this makes it easier to envision the action, but I always wonder if you walked through those scenes in real life to give them verisimilitude?

Many of the combat scenes were acted out with friends who also have some useful background for exactly that reason.   Sometimes the way I “see” a scene doesn’t work at all (there’s one such back in Oath of Fealty.   It’s great to have people with whom to play-act such things.)   When it comes to larger combat scenes in fantasy,  those are sketched on little maps of the terrain,  so I don’t suddenly move a hill in the middle of writing.

I choose to write the fights and battles and so on in a less technical way for two main reasons, both based on my preferences as a reader of other writers’ work.   One is that Story trumps teaching.   Teaching requires technical detail, which slows down the reading and eventually leads to the reader skipping pages.   The other main reason is language-based.  The technical language for modern fencing with European weapons is largely French, and throwing French (or Italian or Spanish or German) technical terms into a fantasy world that’s not a direct derivative of ours leads to readers falling out of the story.

 I realize I may be touching on a sensitive issue here, but right now there’s a huge call for more strong female characters in science fiction and fantasy. And while I think there is an issue to be addressed, I frequently find people overstate their case by claiming that there are almost no examples to be had. However, I found your books brimming with them. Is this a deliberate act on your part to provide more women as central characters, or do you find they occur naturally as part of the story?

Victory Conditions           Both, actually.   Growing up when I did, many books I enjoyed had only male protagonists, and the occupational possibilities for women were still quite limited.  I started writing stories for myself in which girls/women had leading roles as pilots, spies,  astronauts, adventurers of all types, usually alongside boys/men.    But I also found it natural to write women as central characters–to have a woman scientist or engineer or governing a state, as long as the society she was in wasn’t hostile to it.    I think it’s also important to include strong secondary and minor characters of both sexes.  If the only “strong female character” is the swordswoman or the spaceship captain,  you’ve still got an unhealthy balance.   And if “fighting skill” is the only proof of strong character (in female or male character) then that’s also unbalanced.   Strength of character and strength of arm are not on the same axis.   Strong characters are more fun to write: they offer more complex possibilities for motivation, and thus can drive more complex plots, and they can withstand more of the things writers throw at characters.    (And strong secondary or minor characters in one volume may turn out to be important in later volumes: Arvid Semminson, Thieves’ Guild enforcer, for instance.)

Even as you finish Limits of Power, it’s clear there are many unanswered questions. Do have an idea at this point of how many more books we can look forward to in the series? And are there any other writing projects you can tell us about?

Paladin’s Legacy ends with Book V,  Crown of Renewal, which comes out next year.   I turned that in a few weeks ago.    One thing I feel strongly about is that a book, or a group of books, or a story universe, must leave some questions open…because it needs to give the illusion of existing beyond the frame, as a landscape painting does.    We all want to step through–to see behind the frame and the wall it hangs on, to use the picture as  a portal to another reality.  So with stories.   If everything is answered, everything is told, then that story-world is severed from imagination of its possibilities.  Leaving mystery keeps it alive.

That being said, I do hope to write more in that universe.    Nothing’s solid yet…I just turned in that last book, and my brain is still caught up in it…it will take a little time to detach from Crown and think what might be next.    Some readers, who like my SF but don’t like fantasy, are clamoring for more Vatta stories.   And my editor, too, will have a say in what comes next.

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