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New Fantasy & Science Fiction

Interview with Michelle Sagara

Here is our complete interview with Michelle Sagara. It also appears in Challenging Destiny Number 24.

interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer

CD: You've written under the name Michelle Sagara, Michelle West, and Michelle Sagara West. How did that come about?

MS: When I submitted to Del Rey, I used my name, Michelle Sagara. That part was fairly straightforward. My first novel was published in 1991, by which time I was married. I was working full-time at Bakka, and when we decided to have children, I thought it would be fairly easy to transition to writing at home with a baby. Anyone who has babies can now laugh. The writing became necessary income when I wasn't working full-time, and the sales numbers for the initial book weren't great. When the third book was published in 1993, I had had my first child, and I was both tired and panicking.

I wanted some peace of mind, and the only way to give myself peace of mind at that time was to try to secure another publishing venue -- and I went to DAW because I worked with Tanya Huff, and I saw what they were doing with her books and her publishing identity. So I submitted 4 chapters and very sketchy outlines to Sheila Gilbert at DAW, and she accepted them. I asked that they publish them under my married name, Michelle West, because I still wasn't certain how the Del Rey books would do in the numbers game that is so crucial to publishing, and this would separate the identities for chain buyers.

By the time she accepted them, the third Del Rey book had both been published and gone out of print -- before the fourth book in the series had been published. Del Rey had bought the books that became Hunter's Oath and Hunter's Death, and after some discussions with my agent, we bought the books back and sold them to DAW.

And then DAW had an unexpected slot open up in their schedule, so they filled it with Hunter's Oath, which was complete.

The original proposed trilogy that DAW first accepted has never been written; my editor wanted me to write the 2 Hunter books, and then write the 2 books that I also had planned in the same world before moving to a different universe. The two books, however, became six books.

The Luna books -- published as Michelle Sagara -- came after the eight books for DAW. I wanted to try something a little different with those. I think of them as my Tanya Huff novels. Tanya Huff says they're nothing like Huff novels.

I should make something clear: I don't care what name I write under -- I have stories I want to tell, but it doesn't matter to me if people know that it's specifically me who's telling them. I want consistency of name for particular stories so that people can find what they're looking for. I think the West novels are different; they're slower and more complicated. I wasn't sure that people who like the West novels would like the books I was working on for Luna, so I suggested using a different name. Because I didn't want my Luna editor to think I was writing something I was ashamed of, I suggested that we just use my real name. She asked what that was, and I said "Michelle Sagara." And she said, "Oh my God, are you the same person?" She'd read the Del Rey books when they'd first come out, although she hadn't read the West novels. She was happy with the suggestion, and that's why I write those books under Michelle Sagara.

The third name, Michelle Sagara West, came about with the reprint of the Del Rey books. The publisher had asked that they be allowed to use Michelle West, because they were comfortable with the bookscan numbers for that name (the first books have no history with Bookscan, which wasn't active then). I suggested that they use Michelle Sagara because I thought there would be more crossover for the reprints with Luna readers, and in the end, they decided to use both names.

CD: What's your process for writing a big series -- how do you keep track of the characters and events?

MS: My process for writing a big series is to sit down and write it. That sounds a bit flippant, and actually, it's not meant to be.

I write structurally, and novel structure, for me, is almost organic. I know writers who can outline an entire novel from beginning to end, and then write that book. I can't. I've tried it once or twice, and it simply doesn't work for me. Nor does writing scenes out of order -- they might be fabulous scenes, and I might love them to pieces -- but there's no guarantee that the evolving structure of the novel will ever reach them. I have to start at the beginning -- and by that, I mean start the book several times trying to find the way in -- and then write straight to the end. I know what I'm reaching for at the beginning. I know the ends of the arcs or the books. But my understanding of the novel is largely intellectual when I conceive plot -- the emotional complications become apparent only as I write real wordage.

I work from a very emotional centre. For me, the point of a novel is the end. Everything is structured to give emotional weight to that end, to resonate with it.

Do I care what colour people's eyes are? No. It was four years before I knew what colour my husband's eyes were. I just don't think about it. I started a list of character names and distinguishing characteristics -- in particular, eye colour -- and it's now huge.

I know who the characters are -- I know what they want, what motivates them. But there are still surprises.

An example: You know when you have friends you think will love each other because you love them both, and you put them in a room together and they hate each other's guts? My characters are sort of like that. The chemistry that the characters will have when you put them together for the first time is entirely unpredictable. My mother thinks this is insane, because I'm writing it -- don't I have control over it? Obviously, I do -- but I don't want to over-control a book, to dictate everything. I want to be surprised.

My favourite fan letter for Broken Crown was from a woman who said that it was the first fantasy novel she had ever read in which the characters did things that were entirely in character, rather than things that read as if they were authorially convenient. And I thought, "Good, because it was bloody inconvenient." You can go two ways. If you're really, really good -- and I'm obviously not that good yet -- you can probably do both things. Your characters do exactly what you want them to do and nobody notices. For me, sometimes they surprise me while at the same time being completely true to my understanding of who they are. My response is generally a lot of swearing, but I leave things as they are.

I don't know how to separate story and character. I build the world, and I have a rough idea of where everything's going, and I know what the villains are doing. You can know all these things until you actually touch them. All the emotional engagement occurs when the words hit the page, and then all bets are off.

I was discussing The Broken Crown -- prior to actually writing it -- with my husband, and something came up in that discussion that I want to mention. There was a section of the book that he said would not work. He said, "There's going to be no tension here." And I said, "Well, yeah. I think this is what this character would do because he would think it would have this effect. And obviously it's not going to have this effect. But he has to try."

So I wrote the section -- which involved the killing of hostages from the Northern Empire in the Southern Court. It was hoped that the public deaths of those hostages would incur the deaths of the exchange hostages from the South in the Northern Court. The cultures of these two large countries are very, very different. I reached the section where he'd said "this won't be strong enough" and gave it to him. He came downstairs and he said, "Oh my God." And I said, "Yes, I'm not actually sure how I'm going to get out of this without killing them all, which would make it a very short and almost pointless book."

He had expected that everybody would be safe in the north. Killing hostages, of course, would be seen as barbaric. But if something barbaric has occurred to your people, your response is often barbaric. It's true and it's visceral and it's not you at your best.

I remember telling my editor how Sea of Sorrows ended, just after I'd finished the last confrontation between one of the main characters and her cousin. It was not the ending I had originally envisioned when I had started the novel. The event itself, the necessity of it -- that hadn't changed. But the emotional tone and texture of it was completely unexpected. For those who've read the book, it had never even occurred to me that Diora and Margret would become friends. They despised and resented each other, and I thought -- when I first began to lay out the book -- that this would continue; that Jewel ATerafin, travelling with both of these very different women, would become the cultural bridge between them to some small extent. But it was never going to be a large one and in the end, I thought that Diora would be both unmoved by a very necessary death and almost contemptuous of any sorrow felt over it.

My editor knew that this was generally where I had intended to go. It was not where I went. When I told her what had actually happened she said, "That's not going to work." By this time I was used to this, so I just finished the epilogue and I sent it to her. She read it and called me back to tell me, "That shouldn't have worked."

I am often uncertain about what I write; I am often uncertain about whether or not it works. The few cases in which I'm entirely certain, I cling to. There are very few times I weep when I'm writing, and the end of this book -- which I certainly hadn't expected when I started it -- was one of them. I can think of four other times. I never change those scenes. When you are so much in character, when you are absolutely where the character is, there is no effort -- it's all there; the emotion and the intellectual understanding are perfectly twined. Words are not magic. I understand how you use them. But there is something, sometimes...

CD: It sounds like as you're developing a story, it's generated from the characters.

MS: Yes and no. Well, mostly yes. When I started writing Hunter's Death I stopped really early on and I wrote 250 pages of world building. I wanted to create a society in which our contemporary values of Right and Wrong would also be true -- and the one big advantage to a fantasy universe is that you can actually do this. I built the rulers and I built the guilds and everything else, and I thought about how they would interact. The minute that you're writing about people who have any power, you're dealing with people who understand the power structure. And if I have to constantly stop and struggle and make stuff up on the fly, then I don't understand what they understand. My characters are actually usually smarter than I am but that intelligence needs subconscious time to come to the fore. So in this case, the world is created to contain the characters, to explain them.

Things have evolved but the basic structures have stayed pretty much the same. As I get older it's harder to write things. There are deficits I hadn't really thought of earlier that I recognize as problems as I learn more about the way the world works. When I started writing the second book in that six-book series I realized that because these two nations have been at war for a while, and because the armies are riding to the south, there's a very good chance that the generals of the army will not want the rightful heir to the southern throne to be travelling with them. Because he will see the logistics operations that they probably don't want seen. It suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea how to feed 50 000 soldiers. I said to my ever-helpful husband, "Tom, how do you feed this many people in this tech level? Or any tech level?" And he said, "Good question." That's one of the things that's not published very often. You get a lot about strategy but very little about logistics. I'm of the firm belief that if you can't feed your soldiers, they die. I don't actually care about the strategy -- that'll take care of itself. But I do care about how you feed these people. I can't just assume that it's known, because I don't know. It might be important. As it turned out, it wasn't important.

I want there to be enough play in the knowledge that I have that it can come up organically. You plant everything and you see what grows. Some of the stuff will never come up. It is stuff the characters would know. If I know it, it serves to make them stronger or smarter.

CD: Have you received any interesting letters or emails from fans?

MS: I have had a long time to accumulate email or letters from readers of the DAW Michelle West books, and I have to say that I universally adore them. I've never gotten a huge amount of mail about those books. There's a Yahoo group that I read when I have time; I also try to answer non-spoiler questions when they're asked there.

I've heard a number of fan-mail horror stories -- but I haven't personally experienced anything negative. People who are too bored by the books probably don't finish them, and certainly aren't enraged enough by boredom to seek out a way of communicating this to me. Maybe the West novels don't attract the type of reader who really takes things personally. I got some slightly peeved letters when Shining Court came out from people who were not happy with the way the trilogy ended, and I had to write back and apologize -- I wasn't aware that it had been called a trilogy, and this was not in fact the last book. Even then they were really polite about it. They said, "We really love the way you did this. We hope you write more in the series." I mostly read between the lines.

My West readers will wait for at least a year until after the previous novel was published before they begin to email me to ask me when there might be another one. They always wait a realistic publishing time. Which makes me wonder if they're not all writers or people who work in the book industry.

I had one person write to me when I was working on Sea of Sorrows. DAW had said on its web site that I was working on the last book now. And he said, "Don't do it. There's no way you can tie up everything that you started. You'll ruin the entire thing." And I wrote back and said, "You are probably the first person in the history of Big Fat Fantasy series to write to the author to tell them to make it longer. As it happens, I was trying to tie things up but..." It ended up being the longest of the books to that point and clearly did not end the series.

I corresponded with somebody on Amazon. He'd written a review, clearly traumatized by Broken Crown. He really did not like the book -- although he gave it three stars, which was funny. He also posted two one-star reviews of the last two books. I said to my husband, "I don't understand why he read the last books if he hated the first one so much." And my husband said, "He didn't read them." I said, "Why would you post something if you didn't read them?" And he said, "Trust me, he didn't read them." I was curious about it. I emailed him and I asked him. He was shocked. He said, "I didn't read them. But I was so upset that no one was upset about the things that upset me. I couldn't understand how they could all like your work so much, when so much was unpleasant." It turned out that everything that he hated I had done on purpose -- and this surprised him enormously. He hated the fact that the main character didn't hate her society. I said, "It's the only one she knows." He hated the fact that it was an incredibly misogynist society, which it is. I would say it's a misanthropic society, because everybody's out to get somebody. Everybody wants power.

This particular reader was upset that a baby is killed. He was upset at a large number of things. He wanted a particular character to be a spunky, courageous American Girl, and he wanted her to save the baby. I said, "First of all, I would not recommend that you read anything else that I've written because I have a feeling you won't like it. Second, I didn't do this to upset you. I did it because she is a product of her culture. Not only that, but she is important politically because of who she is. She understood when it all started that she could die or she could wait. But she could in no way influence the outcome."

The only other book that he ever finished that upset him was Shadow of the Torturer. So I'm in good company. He said, "Obviously your writing can't suck, but why did you do these things?" It hadn't occurred to him that you could try to write somebody who was completely true to their culture. If you have a culture and the people don't act as if they're part of that culture -- then you don't have a culture.

But it was an interesting discussion, and it was all very polite.

CD: What's the difference between writing for Luna versus writing for DAW?

MS: I think of them as tonally very different. I approach the Luna novels almost as if they were short stories. I start, I go. Alis read the first four chapters of the first book and said she was screaming "Slow down! The set-up and everything else, it could be so good." I said, "What you mean is it could be as dense as anything else I've ever done, which would make it four times as long with 16 different viewpoint characters."

I'm trying to write something that's accessible enough that people can read it for story. One reader said that it was only on rereading that he actually realized that there was a surprising amount of detail. It was very easy to miss it.

That said, I don't want to not write the West novels. The West novels are a story in progress -- they're not finished. I have never reached a point where I think, "Oh my God, is it done yet?" I have only just started to finish one of the earliest envisioned character arcs. Although one of them might change. Something happened in Sea of Sorrows I really hadn't expected and the ramifications of that might change one arc. I'm not quite sure how that will play out. It's a tricky thing because you always have to know where you're going but you also have to be willing to go someplace else. My subconscious is really good at coming up with something that intellectually and emotionally works, so I just go with it.

The Luna novels are my attempt to write a series as opposed to a trilogy -- like a television series like Buffy with episodes where there's a background arc and foreground closure. I'm not sure that I've succeeded. That's something new for me. The tone is new for me -- people like it because it's a more contemporary tone. It's so hard for me. The way that people think in a contemporary novel is not my writing voice. The West novels, everybody says they're so stylized. Actually, they're not stylized. That's the way I write. That's why I can be weeping through something and writing it at the same time. It's my invisible language, my voice. Which is unfortunate, because clearly it's not a voice that is easily accessible. I would like to be entertaining and moving -- mostly I care about moving. As a reader I don't care about the flashy gadgets -- I care about the people and what happens to them. But I often have to go back over the Sagara books and weed out the heavier use of metaphor and a particular turn of phrase -- it's actually more difficult, for me.

The publishing cultures between DAW and Luna are also entirely different. My editor at Luna will often put happy faces in the margins of the manuscript when she likes a particular turn of phrase. She is incredibly tactful, incredibly diplomatic. Since I came up through the SF ranks, I sometimes don't know how to take what she says -- I don't actually know how to read between the lines. Both Veronica Chapman and Sheila Gilbert would give tact one good try, but basically, they were blunt as a mace. If they didn't understand the point of something, they made damn certain that it was going to be corrected Right Now. I got used to that. So it's been very different.

CD: What do you have coming up?

MS: Cast in Secret is coming out in August. The working title was Cast in Streetlight but "streetlight" was considered too mundane, not fantasyish enough. I'm not hugely wed to titles. The same with names. I'm perfectly happy to go with a different title if it's suggested. I generally whine if my title is judged unsuitable and I'm told to come up with a better one, though.

I don't tell people in the store that I wrote the books. I'm not hugely wed to the acknowledgement of that. I want people to read them, to be moved by them. I don't need the personal interaction. I also don't need to interact personally with authors of books that I absolutely adore. If I really adore something and I haven't met the author yet, I frequently won't meet them. Sometimes you can't separate them. If I have a bad impression, it will adversely affect my reading of their books. And as I get older, I find less that I adore.

The first volume in House War is coming out in March 2008. I think it will be four volumes -- originally I was thinking two. I knew where the first book had to end and I'm about halfway to where the first book had to end at the end of The Hidden City.

I wrote four or six beginnings. In general, I know when I start what the beginning of the book has to be, but getting tone or voice right can mean that I'll take several running starts. When I finished the first twelve pages of the third attempt, I knew it was the beginning of the book. Unfortunately, this particular beginning was going to destroy the structure I had intended. So I hopefully gave all of the putative chapter ones to my husband and when he reached the fourth one he said, "This is the book." I said, "That's what I was afraid of."

It's the only beginning that demands regular chronology -- because it was the only beginning that was done in the viewpoint of a character who is dead the first time you see him in Hunter's Death. I'd intended to do a braided narrative -- one that starts in the present, but winds in and out of the incidents in the past to give the present more weight. If the viewpoint character was dead fifteen years before current events, there's no possible way to do that (I've never done viewpoints of dead people in the present time).

One of the characters who dies after four pages in Hunter's Death was the resident psycho of a small band of orphans who survived in the poorer section of town. She was called Duster, and she was a very damaged individual. She was loyal to Jewel, but she had her issues. It's funny because she figures, dead, very prominently in the rest of the books. Even dead, because Jewel remembers her so clearly.

Writing her alive was hell. Something falls out at the end of this book that upset me so incredibly much, I had trouble writing the penultimate chapter. I really dithered; I didn't know why. But I finally had to face the deadline, and sit myself in a chair. I wrote two paragraphs, and I suddenly realized exactly where the chapter was going. I stopped. And I spent another two weeks trying very hard to get it to go anywhere else. In that period of time I realized there's no place else for it to go. All the questions about why the characters do certain things, about their motivations, given my understanding of their characters -- they're all answered, but only if the book goes forward. It's the only thing that will make it make sense. My editor said, "Given how attached you are to these characters, I'm surprised it didn't take you longer to write this book." I didn't want to go there, but that's where it went.

I have very few first readers. I send a book to my editor when I hate every single word I have written. Once I cannot move a word around any more and I think it's all garbage I take a deep breath, throw it in the mail, and do something else. There are authors who say, "Don't send something out until you're happy with it." If I did that I would never be published. It's never going to be perfect.

The one thing I learned from the first volume of House War: do not try to backfill stories, ever. This advice obviously applies only to my own experience. When I write in the past I'm stuck with everything I've already written -- the future the book is approaching has already been decided. I lose flexibility and I lose freedom. I like approaching a story when I know it can go anywhere at all at the whim of the characters. The reality is it can't really go anywhere -- I have to tie up certain plot arcs. The only thing I'm having stress about at this point in time is there is a definite future -- the end of Hunter's Death -- that the first two books must close with.

I started a different series in the same universe before I sat down to write the first volume of House War (it's set in the Hunter Kingdoms, at least to start, and it occurs after House War, albeit not by much) and I decided I had to go back and write House War first. There is a seminal turning point in House War, a choice given to one of the characters, and I don't actually know until I see how the war plays out what the person will do. If I wrote the second series first, I would have to make the decision on the fly, and then live with it.

CD: It sounds like you'll be busy for a while.

MS: I will be working on the second House War for DAW, which I haven't started yet. I sold Luna a fourth and fifth book in the Cast series. And I'm still writing the review columns for Fantasy & Science Fiction.

CD: You've worked in a bookstore for quite a few years. Do people have misconceptions about what a bookstore does, or what it's like to work in a bookstore?

MS: People have misconceptions about anything they haven't done. I certainly do.

I have a LiveJournal site. I decided at some point to explain how the bookselling part of publishing works in general, because so many questions about publishing are really about bookselling, and some of the terms I was using weren't obvious to people who'd never had to work in a bookstore. I started answering questions about how bookstores work -- pub dates, returns, ordering from a sales rep.

It's impossible to take the industry personally if you work in a bookstore. You know that there are brilliant books that die because nobody buys them, while crap sells. But you also know that there are crappy books that die because nobody bought them, and there are brilliant books that do sell. It s a crap shoot. You can't always say what will work. You think you know when you're ordering books, but you're never 100% certain.

At some point in time on LiveJournal, people started talking about first book sales and contracts. I decided I would go through a first contract step by step. And I happened to have one handy -- mine. It made sense at the time because I could point to specific clauses, could say what had made me scream with terror, and could speak of what the fallout was.

My Del Rey sale was a standard first book contract. It was not Terry Goodkind's, it wasn't exceptional. It's several years old, but contracts haven't changed that much except for electronic rights. Publishing does not move swiftly in that particular way.

CD: So your words of wisdom would be to not take the process too personally?

MS: It is a very unfortunate thing that mixes love and business. Generally speaking, people call it prostitution. I would not call publishing prostitution but I would say that publishing is a business. Put everything into your writing, and then step back and look at it as a business. You're going to be one of many books on the mass market list. There are no guarantees. All of your best work, all the emotional, personal involvement should go into your writing.

However, if you are personable and good at PR, having a public profile is not a bad thing in this day and age. It's not something I actively pursue, because I'm not altogether that personable, and I tend to just open my mouth and say whatever I'm thinking -- which has its uses, one of which is not being the Welcome Wagon. Also? If you really hate people, skip conventions. Offending people isn't likely to be the kind of PR you want.

Nobody's out to get you. An editor did not sit in their office throwing darts at your future. The editor's career is based on whether or not they can turn a profit for the company that's paying their salary. There are editors who have read things they've adored but did not think they could sell. And they've had to say they can't buy the book. I've seen people get very bitter and unhappy about the publishing industry, the way their books are treated. It's not personal, and it happens. The thing you have control of is the writing. Your energy should be put into your words, and then some energy into other words you can use to put towards marketing, if you can. And none of it into feeling that you are being persecuted.

Last modified: August 7, 2007

Copyright © 2007 by Michelle Sagara

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #24 | Interviews