GW Talks to Pamela Dean Dyer-Bennet

Pamela Dean Dyer-Bennet, author of the Secret Country books and many others, recently took the time out of her busy schedule to answer the GW fantasy interview questions!

1. How do you come up with the ideas for your stories? In other words, how do the muses work for you?

I don't get ideas for plots at all often. Well, really, I don't have ideas as such come to me at all often. The only parts of a story that usually spontaneously present themselves to me in an importunate and annoying fashion are characters; and as I get to know the characters, I realize things about their worlds and their stories.

I can sometimes jumpstart things when it's necessary -- somebody I respect has asked me for a short story, say -- by lifting a plot from somewhere. The short story that became the novel Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary started when Jane Yolen asked me to write a story for a YA collection, and issued stern remarks about length. I found a very short ballad, Child #1, and just managed to stay within the length limits. This account is oversimplified, though, because that story ended up including an idea I'd had since my teens, the idea of the kids who build a time machine in the attic.

Ultimately the inspiration for my books seems to be mostly other people's books and songs and poetry.

2. Do you have a special routine when you're writing, or can you just sit down at a computer and start typing?

If things are going well I can sit down at the computer or pick up a notebook or snatch up a bit of scratch paper and a pen, and not so much start, as continue, to write. I have various routines for when things are not going so well, designed to overcome my reluctance to look at the work in progress until my forehead bleeds. But these routines have to be changed periodically to continue to fool my unconscious mind, and they aren't intrinsic to the process of writing, only to the process of sitting down to write.

3. Who are your literary influences?

Oh, goodness, a complete answer to that question would be several volumes in itself. But let's see:

What I read very early that left a definite mark:

  • Lewis Carroll
  • Louisa May Alcott
  • A Girl of the Limberlost, though not Porter's other books
  • Barbara Sleigh's The Kingdom of Carbonel and Carbonel, the King of the Cats
  • Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy
  • Robert Heinlein
  • Arthur C. Clarke
  • J.R.R. Tolkien
  • C.S. Lewis's Perelandra trilogy
  • Tennyson
  • T.H. White's The Once and Future King
  • Andre Norton
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder

    What I read in late adolescence through my thirties that left a definite mark:

  • Shakespeare
  • Keats
  • Jane Austen
  • Homer
  • Euripides
  • George Eliot
  • C.S. Lewis's Narnia books
  • Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle
  • Edward Eager
  • E. Nesbit
  • Dorothy Dunnett
  • Dorothy Sayers
  • Mary Renault
  • John M. Ford
  • Wallace Stevens
  • Robert Frost
  • Georgette Heyer
  • Jane Yolen
  • John Crowley
  • Patricia McKillip, especially the Riddlemaster books
  • Robin McKinley
  • Christopher Fry
  • Tom Stoppard
  • Mary Renault

    What I have read more recently that is leaving or has left a mark:

  • Patrick O'Brian
  • Joanna Russ
  • Terri Windling
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Carolyn Heilbrun and Amanda Cross (the second being a pseudonym of the first)
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • A.S. Byatt
  • Linda Nagata

    There should be a lot more in that last category, but it's not done settling yet.

    And I wanted to add the books of people I've been in a writing group with, but I couldn't really figure out if those fell within the scope of the question or not. In any case, they are Steven Brust, Emma Bull, Raphael Carter, Kara Dalkey, Will Shetterly, and Patricia Wrede.

    4. Generally how long does it take you to write an average novel? How many different revisions do you usually go through?

    One of the more unsettling discoveries I've made in my career is that there is no such thing as an average novel. I keep thinking, once a particular book is going well and especially once it's done, "Oh, good, I know how to do this now." Well, that's true in one sense: I know how to write that book. But that book is written. I don't know how to write the next one, until it is written.

    I'm not saying I don't learn anything from each book that carries over, because I do. But there's more that's unique to each book.

    I've never taken less than eighteen months to write a book, though, so there's a lower limit.

    5. How do you deal with writers-block?

    Very badly. I ignore the whole issue and then flail and complain and whine and fuss a lot.

    But I do have a rule that is useful for times when I have a deadline for a novel, and almost as useful for writer's block. This is the four-hours-or-four-pages rule. I have to spend four hours writing or trying to write, or else write four pages, every day. This gets a book written, and it will shake writer's block loose eventually. It's not very efficient, though.

    6. Out of everything you've written, which would you say is your favorite; which gives you the most satisfaction of a job-well-done?

    That's a very difficult question to answer. One's latest work is usually foremost in one's mind. If you'd asked me this before I had to reread my first three novels because they were being reprinted, I'd have said Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary was my favorite of my books. But I was really quite surprised at how well I liked my first three books.

    I think, if I have to pick, though, I'll say The Dubious Hills. It has a very alien viewpoint that was hard to get right. It's fantasy, but writing it felt like writing science fiction. Getting that right was very satisfactory.

    In another mood I'd probably pick This Fair Gift, a short story that was published in Sisters in Fantasy 3. I don't write much short fiction and this was an especially tricky one to manage. It's an adaptation of an Arthurian Christmas-court ballad, set in a patent-law firm.

    7. Do you have a favorite character that you've created?

    That's even harder to answer. And even more circumstantial. Just at the moment, I'd have to say it's Thrae, who comes out of the stories I wrote for the shared world of Liavek. She owns a theater and manages a theatrical company. She's on my mind just now because she's one of the viewpoint characters in the book I am presently writing.

    I'd give you a different answer in an hour, though.

    8. What do you think makes a good fantasy author?

    Um, the ability to write a good fantasy book? I don't mean to be flippant (well, only a little), but good fantasy is so variable and the ways that people's personalities and philosophies and working habits manifest in their work are so various that it's really impossible to say.

    9. Can you tell us what you're currently working on and when you expect it will be available in bookstores?

    I'm working on two books at the moment. The first, the one I'm well into, is the one mentioned above. At the moment it's called This Green Plot; it's about the theatrical company mentioned, and about gardens, and about religious faction and loyalty and love and poetry. I don't know if it will ever appear in bookstores, since no publisher has, of this writing, been interested in buying it.

    The other book I'm working on has just barely been started. It's a joint sequel to The Whim of the Dragon and The Dubious Hills. This is a crazy thing to try, but I'm doing it anyway. The Whim of the Dragon is the last volume of The Secret Country trilogy, all three books of which are being reprinted this fall and winter by Firebird. When I wrote The Dubious Hills I knew it was set in the same world, though it had no overlapping characters. At some point it occurred to me that, because of the timing I had decided on, I was sending Arry, the protagonist of The Dubious Hills (the one with the alien viewpoint) to the same location, a wizards' library, as I had sent Ruth, one of the characters in the Secret Country books, at the end of her story. The thought of their meeting was very alarming, so I had to consider writing about it.

    10. Random quote or piece of advice you'd like to share to end this with?

    "Words, words. They're all we have to go on." ~Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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