(The following interview first appeared on the web at www.StrangeHorizons.com)
By Catherine Pellegrino
David B. Coe grew up in the suburbs just outside of New York City. He attended Brown University as an undergraduate and received a Ph.D. in United States environmental history from Stanford University in 1993.
David is the author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, a fantasy series consisting of three volumes: Children of Amarid, The Outlanders, and Eagle-Sage, all published by Tor Books. In March 1999 he received the William L. Crawford Memorial Fantasy Award, given each year by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts to the best new author in fantasy. David is currently at work on a new four-book fantasy project called The Winds of the Forelands. It will also be published by Tor. His wife is a biology professor at the University of the South. They live in Sewanee, Tennessee, with their two daughters.
I met David in the fall of 1998 when I lived in Sewanee. He has a quick and ready wit and is a spendid raconteur, as you will see from the interview that follows. During our time in Sewanee, my partner and I spent time with him and his family on a number of occasions. He and his wife introduced us to the wonders of rogan josh, and the Penzey's spice catalog. Recently, he graciously took time out from the final preparations for his newest book to answer a few questions for us.
Catherine Pellegrino: Who do you think of as the primary influences on your writing? Are there ways in which their influence is noticeable in the LonTobyn Chronicle?
David Coe: I think I can say with some accuracy that every author I've ever read (and I wouldn't want to guess at the number) whether in history, fantasy, science fiction, mainstream fiction, etc., has had some influence on me as a writer. I've wanted to be a writer of some sort or another for as long as I can remember and so everything I read I critique and digest not only in terms of plot and content, but also rhetorically. What did this writer do that I liked or disliked? How could he or she have been more effective in making this point or describing this scene? Having said that, there are writers, particularly those who write fantasy and science fiction, who have influenced me more profoundly than others.
Tolkien's work was, of course, my introduction to fantasy, as it was for so many people. I read it in high school, and I can honestly say that it changed my life, in that it opened up to me this whole new literary world. Reading his work, being transported by the complex textures of Middle Earth and the romantic intensity of his language, made me want to read every fantasy book I could get my hands on.
After Tolkien, I read Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books, all six of them. And they made me want to write fantasy. Covenant was a difficult character to like, a disturbing lens through which to view Donaldson's world. But the darkness of the character was so compelling, so different from any hero I'd ever encountered before, that it made me contemplate the possibilities presented by creating fantasy literature. Of all the writers I've read, the one whose work I most admire is Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay creates worlds that are so alive that as a reader I feel that I can touch them, smell them, taste them. When I read his work, I truly travel to a new place. That's what I want my work to do. That's how I want readers to feel when they read my books. Tigana and A Song for Arbonne are my favorites of his work and I recommend them to anyone.
CP: I share your enthusiasm for Guy Gavriel Kay's novels, and the names of his characters are part of what makes them such exciting experiences for me: Bertran de Talair, Ammar ibn Khairan, Mazur ben Avren, Dianora di Certando, Sandre Duke of Astibar. None of them common names, but all of them redolent of the times and places that Kay evokes in his worlds. I like the names you use in the LonTobyn Chronicle as well, for the same reasons: Baden, Orris, Sonel, Baram, Jibb, Melyor and the rest. (It seems that every character, no matter how insignificant, has a name in your novels!) How do you decide on the naming conventions in your worlds, and how do you then think up all the names you need for a story?
DC: I do tend to name many of my characters, because I believe that it adds to the texture of the world. When we meet people, the first thing we usually do is introduce ourselves and exchange names. Having characters without names makes them feel flat to me. They become props and little more. If they have a name, they have a life, and if I can even hint at that life, my readers will see people rather than cardboard cutouts. I get my names, initially, from a very fine baby names book that I bought at the local bookstore several years ago. (This was before my wife and I had any children and it raised a few eyebrows. This is a very small town.) This book gives not only the names, but also their linguistic origins and meanings. Sometimes I'll find a name in this book that I like as is (Orris or Baden, for example) or sometimes I'll find a name that I like, but that I want to change slightly to give a more unconventional feel (Jared to Jaryd), and occasionally I'll come up with a name in my head that just sounds right for the character I have in mind (Sartol). Finding names for the people in my first book was rather easy. These were folks living in small rural villages, within a pastoral, pre-industrial society. They didn't need last names as we know them. It was enough to be Jaryd, son of Bernel in the village of Accalia.
For the second and third books, particularly for those scenes taking place in Lon-Ser, Tobyn-Ser's highly industrialized sister land, I needed something a bit more complex. I had come up with a primitive language for this world that I used to develop the names of the avian familiars and in that language the word "of" translated to the single letter word "i". So instead of characters being known as "son of" or "daughter of", they were simply "i" as in Melyor i Lakin (Melyor daughter of Lakin). It seemed to work pretty well.
My new series takes place in a medieval society with a larger population and larger cities, so my characters have last names. Here I'm using mostly names that have Celtic or Saxon roots in the first book (because it is set in a kingdom that is analogous in ways to England or Scotland) and more southern European-sounding names in the books that take place in the southern kingdoms. For those characters that belong to my magic race, I'm using names more like those in the LonTobyn books (So and So son/daughter of So and So) because the communities are smaller. Again though, most of these names come from the name book, with some variation along the way and the occasional made-up name thrown in.
CP: Who or what do you read in your spare time?
DC: One of the great ironies of my professional life is that now that I've finally established myself as a fantasy writer, I don't get to read any fantasy. Or any novels at all, for that matter. I find that when I'm in the midst of outlining or writing a novel -- which at this point is almost all the time -- I don't like to delve into someone else's world or become emotionally involved with someone else's characters. It distracts me from my work too much. So when I read it's generally short non-fiction pieces. Thank goodness for the New Yorker. Otherwise I'd probably only read newspapers.
CP: Please tell us something about your upcoming books.
DC: My current project is a four book series that I call Winds of the Forelands. The series revolves around a murder and the young prince who is falsely accused of that crime. In trying to prove his innocence, he uncovers a plot to undermine the political stability of not only his own kingdom, but also the kingdoms that surround it. He must stop the plot and clear his name before the entire land descends into war and chaos. I'm currently at work on the first book which I think will be called Rules of Ascension. I should be finished with the manuscript early in 2001 and I hope to see the book in print by the spring of 2002.
I'm very excited about this series for a number of reasons. For one thing, I've always wanted to write a murder mystery and the idea of combining the intrigue and romance of fantasy with the suspense of mystery seemed like a good one. Also, the lead character, who goes through all this terrible, demoralizing stuff, has a dark side that has been a great deal of fun to explore. It's as if I've finally gotten to write about my own Thomas Covenant-type character. And finally, I'm very excited about the magic system I've developed and the world I've created. The magic is tied to race -- either you're born with magic or you're not -- and it raises all sorts of issues pertaining to racial issues that make the book, in my opinion, that much more interesting. Certainly it's been challenging and fascinating for me as a writer to portray characters who can be so similar to each other in some ways and yet have such vastly different life experiences because of their racial backgrounds.
CP: The mages in the LonTobyn Chronicle have birds -- specifically, hawks, owls, and occasionally eagles -- as familiars. Why did you choose birds? Did you consider any other animals before deciding on birds?
DC: I'd like to be able to tell you that there's some great historical or mythological significance to my choice of birds of prey as the familiars for my mages, but the fact of the matter is, there's none. I've been a birdwatcher since I was just a kid -- both of my older brothers are birders and they turned me on to it. I've always been drawn to the power and intelligence of hawks and owls and when I started developing my magic system for the LonTobyn Chronicle, it just seemed natural for me to turn to that lifelong love of birds. There are other birds I love to see as well, but somehow the idea of a Heron-Mage, with this long-legged wader standing on the shoulder of a sorcerer, didn't seem like it would work. Goose-Master? I don't think so. Chickadee-Sage? Who'd buy a book called Chickadee-Sage?
There is one character in the history of Tobyn-Ser who bound to a wolf -- Phelan, who is one of the Unsettled. Partly I wanted to do that because I always thought that wolves were really cool too. But also it seemed natural to me that somewhere in the thousand year history of the mage-craft, someone would bind to something other than a bird. To me it hints at the possibility that power of the sort my mages draw from their avian familiars can be found in all wild creatures. I find that an attractive notion, one that I might explore more fully if I ever go back and write more books in that world.
CP: Your graduate degree is in ecological history, and that background comes through clearly in the LonTobyn Chronicle. Are there aspects of current or recent writing in speculative fiction that drive you bonkers because of the clumsy or factually incorrect way they address ecological issues? Are there any writers who do a particularly good job? What resources or guides would you suggest to a writer who wanted to get things right?
DC: I'd be reluctant to comment too specifically on writers whose work I find lacking in any way, particularly on factual stuff. This isn't to say that there aren't any, but I just don't think it's wise to take on other people's work in that way. Also, ecological issues don't crop up all that often in fantasy literature. Some authors do spend a lot of time describing natural settings, some with more success than others. Mary Stewart in her series of books about Merlin and King Arthur's court does a particularly fine job of this. That said, I do have certain pet peeves that go to the broader historical issue your question addresses, particularly as it relates to language. This point is best made using an illustration, one I used during a panel I moderated on historical accuracy in fantasy during this year's World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago. An author can have a scene in a book where the hero is riding a stallion, and the writer has obviously taken great care to learn about medieval garb and horseback riding. He or she has been painstakingly thorough in developing a world that is unique but that has obvious parallels in 12th century Europe. Everything is perfect.
And then the hero reaches the castle he seeks, dismounts, finds the person he's been searching for and greets him by saying, "Dude!"
And the entire scene is destroyed. Obviously this is a bit over the top, but stuff of this sort (if a bit more subtle) happens all the time. In my experience, nothing takes a reader out of one's world faster than anachronistic language. It's so easy to get language right and so destructive to a story when you get it wrong. Now I'm not implying that people have to talk the way Aragorn does in The Lord of the Rings. That kind of high literary styling, unless it's used by a master like Tolkien, can be off-putting to readers and often hinders a plot more than it helps. But they should confine their use of words to those that existed in an earlier time. For example, characters in a medieval setting shouldn't be described as being "paranoid" (a word describing a rather modern psychological phenomenon which entered the English language in the early 1800s), or narcissistic (also an early 19th century word and one that is rooted in Greek mythology).
How can a young writer find out the origins and age of words and phrases? Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition, provides such information, as does a great book called English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh. You also don't want characters using inventions that are anachronistic, so I recommend a book called Ancient Inventions, by Peter James and Nick Thorpe.
CP: You grew up outside of New York City and spent a number of years living in the San Francisco Bay area; now you live in Sewanee, Tennessee, a tiny, isolated town in the deeply rural South. Given the choice, is that where you would have chosen to live? For you and for your writing, what are the advantages and disadvantages of living where you do?
DC: I'm married to an academic; my wife teaches biology at a small university in the tiny town to which you refer. And anyone who's familiar with the academic lifestyle knows that people in that profession rarely choose where they live. At this stage of my life, I wear many hats. I'm not only a writer, I'm also a husband and a dad. Home to me is where my wife and my girls are. So would I have chosen to live in Sewanee if I was alone in the world? Probably not. But I have a great life here. My wife loves her job, my girls are growing up in a beautiful, safe community, and I am pursuing my dream of being a writer.
Certainly there are things I miss living in such a small, isolated town. A movie theater that gets first run movies. A choice of fine restaurants. That sort of thing. What I miss most, however, is having a community of writers who understand and appreciate speculative fiction. Once again though, I'm very lucky. Two decades ago, living where I do, I'd have been totally out of luck. Today, with the Internet at my disposal, I can find that community of writers any time I want. It's not the same as being able to hang out with my writer friends, but it's the next best thing.
On the flip side, there are benefits to living in Sewanee. It's located in an absolutely beautiful natural environment. I can take long walks with my dog (yes, Buddy the Wonder Dog really is a part of my family) and let writing ideas percolate for a time. I can draw on the forests, farmlands, meadows, and mountains around me for descriptive inspiration. God knows there's nothing to distract me from my work. . . . Life is often a matter of balancing the good and the bad. Given all I have -- my family, my career, my nice, comfortable home -- the things I find lacking in Sewanee seem very small indeed.
CP: What aspects of the writing process come most easily to you? Which are hardest? Which are just pure drudgery?
DC: I love to write. It's my passion, my dream career. I wouldn't trade this job for any other. But like anyone else in any other profession, there are times when I just want to get away from it for a day or two.
There are, I've found, challenges and rewards in nearly every aspect of the process. I know lots of writers who love to write, but hate to edit, and others who are just the opposite: they struggle to get that first draft written, but then get all revved up about polishing that first rough effort into a book. In general, I enjoy both. Writing that first draft is incredibly exciting. I get a rush out of playing with new characters and watching them come to life, having them do things and say things that even I don't fully anticipate. I love watching a plot come together as the book progresses. Every day I feel my imagination stretching, discovering new elements of my worlds and the people who populate them. Writing for me is a cathartic exercise. If I go too long without writing I start to get grumpy and moody. I'm not at all fun to be around. Certainly there are times when I get burned out. But as I say, they don't last long. I can't take much more than a weekend off at a time.
This isn't to say that writing is always a perfect joy. It's work too. I write slowly compared to some, because I polish as I go. I can't move on to the next paragraph until the one I'm working on reads well. It doesn't have to be perfect, or even publication-ready. But it does have to be close to what I want the final product to be. I get 5 to 8 manuscript pages (1200 to 2000 words) written in a day. Writing that way can be pretty intense, because it means that I'm working on a typical book (typical for me is about 200,000 words) for months at a time. But that's how I work, for better or worse.
I also enjoy the process of revising, although it sometimes takes me a few days to get over the sour feeling of having someone (my editor in this case) tell me that my newest literary baby has warts. Once I'm over that though, I find it quite exciting to see that initial draft being polished until it shines. I have a terrific editor and he makes the revisions fun. We hash out ideas over the phone or via e-mail. He helps me see things that I could have done differently but couldn't figure out for myself. Almost invariably, the give and take of editing and revising yields a better book. And that's a great feeling.
The part that I like the least is copyediting -- also known as proofreading the manuscript. You have to understand that when I finish my first draft I read through the whole manuscript to make changes and find glaring problems. Then I read it again twice during revisions, once before I revise so that I can digest my editor's comments, and once after so that I can see how the book reads once the revisions are done. So by the time I'm proofreading, I'm on at least my fourth read-through of the book. And I'm sick to death of it. By that time, because of how long the production process takes, I'm also usually well into my next project. The last thing I want to do is read that last book one more time. So that's probably the worst.
CP: What directions or subjects would you like to see current speculative fiction exploring, that aren't getting much attention right now?
DC: A somewhat difficult question, because as I said before, I don't read nearly as much as I'd like to, and even if I did, there's so much stuff out there and so many new works being published all the time. It's hard to keep up with everything. I'd hate to say that I wish someone would do "x" and then have someone come back at me and say "Hey, I've been doing 'x' since 1993!" I do think that speculative fiction is uniquely suited to addressing issues that other types of fiction might shy away from tackling. No matter where one comes down on the ongoing debate about 'political correctness' and the issues it raises, there can be no denying that both publishers and writers have to be careful about how they deal with questions of race, sexual orientation, gender roles, religious conflict, ethnicity, and a whole host of related matters. Someone is bound to be offended by books dealing with these topics no matter how sensitive a writer might be. But with speculative fiction an author can change the rules and boundaries enough to explore without fear of being offensive.
My current project, with its racial undertones, is a perfect example. My world is unique, the racial conflicts revolve around magic and histories of persecution and abuse as well as differences in appearance. So I can address racial matters in ways that don't mirror the racial problems in our society, but that still have, in my opinion, much resonance with real-life experiences.
CP: Thanks very much for taking the time to consider these questions!
DC: My pleasure!
**Catherine Pellegrino is Articles Editor for StrangeHorizons.com.**