Click on each Frequently Asked Question to see its answer:
A Note for Students & Teachers
Why do you write?
What else can you tell us about yourself?
What inspired the Deverry Cycle?
How did you come up with the Dweomer system of magic in the Deverry Cycle?
Why is the Deverry Cycle broken up in “twisted timelines”?
Who wrote what in your collaboration with Mark Kreighbaum on Palace?
What is “The Pinch” in Palace?
Do you have any advice for would-be writers?
If you are a teacher, PLEASE do not assign your students to write to an author and ask her or him a ream’s worth of questions. Every author I know gets these letters, and they put us in an awful position. We don’t want to be rude to the student, who’s writing in good faith, but we don’t have time to do their homework for them, either.
If you’re a student, please do your research for those assignments here and on my home pages, and not in e-mail. You’ll get to read the new Deverry much sooner that way.
And of course, if you’re simply a curious reader, then you’re welcome to read these FAQ sheets too.
I haven’t the slightest idea why I’m a writer. Seriously — I’m not being coy. I honestly do not know why I write. I enjoy it immensely, other people seem to like what I write, I make a living at it, and so on and so forth, but the why of it escapes me. I do know that I’m a storyteller, not a philosopher or essayist, so I certainly can’t say I have great truths or even insights to communicate or some such thing as that. The stories may have truths, but that’s their business, not mine.
However, this is not to say that there are no “ideas” in my fantasy work. One of the thing that gripes me the most about the snootier elements of the SF community is their insistence that SF is the “literature of ideas” while all fantasy is brainless. These are the same people who claim psychic powers — they actually know what’s in fantasy books while insisting they never read them. Astounding, eh? Yuri Geller should take notes. 🙂
I find ideas, particularly the history of ideas, extremely entertaining, and I salt a few in my books for like-minded souls to find. DARKSPELL, for instance, can be read as a running commentary on Aristotle’s ethics, and yes, he’s referred to by name in the text, as is Cicero; references to Aristotle’s stab at establishing the first Western system of psychology appear in Dragon Revenant, where it’s further related to the art of magic; all the books portray the conflict between the outer-directed shame morality of the primitive honor code and inner-directed guilt morality of ethics that emerges in a progressing society. These are just a few obvious examples. My fantasy work does not stand alone in this kind of thing, either.
I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was about eight and realized that actual people wrote books. Before that I’d thought they magically appeared into existence, like clouds in the sky. 🙂 As soon as I put the truth together, I knew that I wanted to be one of those beings, writers, when I grew up. In fact, I saw no reason to wait and began madly scribbling the usual kid’s stories, complete with illustrations, and stapled them into “books.” Of course, becoming a pro took me rather a long while. I was 42 when my first book was published. Sometimes I think that the women of my generation were doomed to be late bloomers, whether we had kids or not.
Born 1944, Cleveland, Ohio, to a working class family. My father, whom I never knew, being as he was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, was a roofer; my grandfather worked in the steel mills. My mother and I lived with her parents; she worked in an office and eventually hauled herself up to the middle class. I became a baseball fanatic at an early age. I know Cleveland has an awful reputation, but when I was a child they had one of the best public school programs in the country, from which I profited greatly.
My family moved to Santa Barbara, California, when I was 9. It’s a beautiful place, filled with flowering trees, all of which I was allergic to — not that any doctor realized why I was so sick and tired all the time I lived there. I did meet Howard there when I was 13 and he, 14, so it did have one thing to recommend it. I left in 1962 for college and have lived in the Bay Area ever since.
Attended Stanford University, majoring in classics, but never graduated — I had a National Merit scholarship, in case you’re wondering how we could afford it. These were still the days when scholarships such as that were available to co-opt the brighter members of the lower classes and minority groups (like women) before they caused trouble.
I, however, caused trouble anyway. First I got involved with civil rights demonstrations, much to the horror of the dean of women; then I dropped out to join the various ’60’s revolutions in San Francisco. Took a few more courses at various local colleges, including a lot of botany, oddly enough, while working part-time, reading history like mad, and scribbling various unpublishable stories. I read Latin, French, and Welsh (and a little Spanish and Italian) as well as English but can really converse only in English. I can say foul things in Spanish when pressed.
Married Howard Kerr, finally, in 1973. (Maiden name was Brahtin.) We have no children, only cats. Aside from Howard, the big loves of my life are baseball and comparative linguistics.
Politically I’m a howling leftist radical, according to most of the SF community, though I suspect that mainstream culture would consider me a Democrat. I do see the world from the point of view of those at the bottom of society, being as that’s where I’ve spent most of my time. And I am a feminist. Without feminism my life would have been miserable.
(You can also read more at my About Me page!)
I began work on what became the Deverry cycle over Washington’s Birthday weekend in 1982. I had an idea that I thought would make a short story. Hah! Writing the first words was like opening a crack in a dam — flood time! I wrote steadily for over a year, watching minor characters bring a history with them and turn into major actors, finding new stories, seeing a chance remark here or there open up huge possibilities, sketching in histories and king-lists and languages and the lot, before I started to shape some of this material into the first novel. The original short story now forms the last section of A TIME OF OMENS. During that year I sketched in large pieces of what became the first six books, and in fact, I still have a whole novella that I haven’t used yet which dates from that period. I have never had so many ideas in such a short time in my life, and it was something of a mad scramble to write them all down.
It was this material that provided that big breakthrough into getting a whole book published. My agent showed the large heap of mss. that later became Daggerspell and Darkspell around for less than a year. DAW and Del Rey turned it down (though Del Rey later bid on the paperback rights and bought them). Adrian Zakheim, then with Doubleday, offered on it. He told me to cut it into two books and made absolutely invaluable suggestions on structuring the material, which I followed. Howard came up with the new titles; the whole mess had been called The Silver Dagger before.
I’ve been interested in Celtic myths, legends, and culture ever since I was a child. For my 11th birthday, I think it was, a British uncle of mine sent me a “Boys’ Book of King Arthur”, which caught my imagination instantly. From that time on, one of my hobbies was reading about Celtic matters. Thus, when I wanted to create a fantasy world, I had a tremendous amount of material at my disposal already. I did, however, do a lot more research for the books themselves.
At that time, 1982, there wasn’t quite as much Celtic-based fiction the market as there is now, either. Even if there had been, that wouldn’t have stopped me. Reviewers who complain about “too many” Celtic fantasies, or medieval ones, as if they were speaking of ice cream flavors, irk me mightily. Why not complain about too many Mars books, or too many spaceship journeys, or to switch genres, too many books set in New York, or too many college novels? And all those crime novels have murders in them! How unimaginative!
I also based my world on the “forgotten culture” of the Celtic mythos, that of ancient Gaul. It does share many traits with the British (or Old Welsh) culture but also has a flavor and a history all its own. To make this clear, I’ve taken to appending “historical notes” in the back of some of the books. The postulate is that a Gaulish tribe migrates to some new world, left unspecified, and there begins to develop along new lines in response to new conditions, but free of all Christian influences and most Roman ones. This idea (yep, another whole idea!) of a variant provincial development of a root culture has a lot of relevance for all Americans, I should think.
Just how the Deverrians got to their new home is a kind of subtext or undercurrent of the plot of the second set of books. Basically, the peculiar being known as Evandar in the stories is responsible, but I won’t go into detail here. But I do want to point out that Evandar and his people are the race of beings that the Irish call the Sidhe and the Scots, the Seelie Court, and they live in the place that the Welsh (who also speak of them) call Annwn, the not-world, the otherlands. The differences in the speed Time runs in the physical world and the world of Annwn is well-attested in various legends.
The magical system, the “dweomer,” as I call it, is based upon historical research as well, though it’s much more Jewish than Celtic! In spite of the wide variety of “New Age” books that claim to discuss “real Celtic magic,” very little of same survives, except for the beloved ancestors’ predeliction for writing horrifying curses against their personal enemies on lead tablets and then burying them for the gods of darkness to find. (You can probably tell that I don’t think of Celtic culture as some kind of golden age or ideal state.)
One thing I most definitely did NOT want in my books was the utterly irrational “ZAP! you’re dead, orc!” magic you find in gaming systems or the sort of fantasy people call “generic,” where magic works because it does and that’s that. Thus I did my best to root all the magical acts in one historical tradition or another, and to give explanations for them. Just as an example, the shape-changers, the sorcerers flying in the shape of birds, are of course a very very old Celtic theme, but the “how” of it I borrowed from elsewhere, namely, the technique the New Agers call “astral projection” but with a twist.
At root, Deverry magic follows what we might call “British revival Rosicrucianism,” current in that island at the end of the Victorian era and on into the 1920’s (another period when “New Age” subjects were popular in the industrialized nations.) The best-known group studying this material was the Golden Dawn, of which W.B. Yeats was a practising member. This movement in turn derives from the “Christian Kaballah” or “Rosicrucianism” of the Renaissance, based in part upon the neo-platonic magical works of Ficino a bit earlier, which incorporated the deeply-felt and spiritual tradition of the Jewish Kaballah. Let me stress that Jewish rabbis practised devotion to God, not “magic” in the usual sense, a system in which the magician considers himself in charge of and responsible for his workings. This is something Christians added back in and then unjustly blamed the Jews for. It figures.
However, the Kaballah itself was influenced by the vast sea of ideas, often lumped together under the name of Gnosticism, that floated through the late Roman Empire, washing over the primitive magicians and high priests of that culture alike. I’ve also done research on this Hellenistic magic, which tended toward the simplistic ritual to control everyday life, much like the aforementioned lead tablets, for the common people in Deverry to use. You’ll see more of that in later books. Let me point out a small joke, though. Iamblichos was a real late Roman Empire (though he wrote in Greek) writer about things magical; in OMENS the “pseudo-Iamblichos” scroll is a work the Bardekians attribute to him.
Why do so much work on magic? Most people assume that all magic is just garbage anyway. Why research it? Because, quite simply, historical magic has tremendous pyschological value, as a storehouse of images, myths, and archetypes, as well as deep and primitive hopes and fears, that influence our thinking every day still, here at the edge of the Twenty-first century, whether we want to admit it or not. Until recently, scholars tried to relegate magic to the underclasses of history, to dismiss it as the superstitious nonsense of peasants and poor cityfolk, until Carl Jung’s researchers began to make it respectable again.
Particularly at fault were the Hellenizers, as I call them, that strain of classical scholars who have had such an undue effect on Western culture. They get their start in the Renaissance but come to full flower in the German Enlightment, with Lessing and Schiller. These people projected Enlightment beliefs in Reason into Greek society, which was only rational among its philosophers, and even they had dissenters. Victorian scholars, particularly among the British, took up this line of thought and imbued it heavily with anti-Semitism. Greek culture had to spring pure from European soil, according to them, so until the last twenty years, classical scholarship has ignored the huge influence of societies such as the Phoenician and Egyption upon budding Greek culture — simply ignored it. In the same manner, it’s been crucial for these reinventers of Hellenism to explain away the prevalence of magic in Greek and Roman society, and of course, True Believers in science have been glad to help. It’s from this odd strain of thought that we get other popular misconceptions, too, such as Greek statuary being pure white marble or the Greeks being the “inventors of democracy.” This entire white and shining view of “the Greek way” is oversimplified wishful thinking to the point of error — dangerous error, when it influences politics.
I go on about this at some length because this cluster of ideas (which also lies behind the belief in some social elite and in the superiority of Western culture) still has an enormous effect on the fantasy and SF community today. (It had a rather nasty effect on Nazism, too, but that’s another story.)
Now, however, more and more research, of the academic and well-documented kind, that is, not New Age stuff, is being done into the history of Western magic and being published by university presses, such as the books of Francis Yates and Gary Tomlinson. They show that magic has held a central place in the thinking and imagery of Western culture for thousands of years, a vast river, sometimes running underground, more often right on the surface, of ideas and practices as well. Just for instance, some of the founders of early science, such as Paracelsus, John Dee (he invented sideral navigation, basically,) and even Isaac Newton were also students of magic — a fact that tends to get suppressed by the bigots, both religious and scientific!
Please note that I’m not saying I believe that magic is real or that it “works” or whatever. I’m merely pointing out that it’s an important strand in the intellectual history of Western culture. To ignore it distorts the picture we have of that history and of the origins of science and modernism both.
Because I’m perverse, that’s why.
But seriously, folks . . . one of the ongoing themes of these books is the profound effect that the Past has on the Present. It sounds very dull when I state it outright, doesn’t it? To add some life to this theme I’ve chosen to juxtapose major events in the Past with their effects on the Present, rather than starting at the beginning and going right through to the end. Consider the following graphic:
If you follow the lines far enough you’ll realize that what appears to be two lines is actually only one, knotting round upon itself to form a pattern. What’s more, while each knot looks like a separate entity, it’s not merely connected to the whole — it’s formed by the whole.
There. Now it should be perfectly clear. Right? 🙂
Well, wrong, judging from a few letters I’ve gotten. All right . . . the “past lives” stories that appear in some volumes are one line of the interlacement. The “present time”, that is, from Jill’s birth onward, is another. They weave over and under each other to form the volumes, like knots. What’s more, the underlying symbolism applies to each human life — it appears distinct but is part of a larger pattern.
Eventually, the last “past life” section in the final volume will link up with the “present time” section in Daggerspell. And then the pattern will be complete and, hopefully, everyone will be able to see it, even book reviewers. 🙂
Who wrote what in your collaboration with Mark Kreighbaum on Palace?
If the most often asked question about the new Deverry is when, the one I get most about Palace is who? These days collaborations have fallen upon hard times in the eyes of many readers. Most people seem to believe that every collaboration has two partners: the senior, who does little beyond daydreaming to a theme, and the junior, who does all the hard work of the actual writing. After all, ideas are cheap. What makes the difference between a would-be author and a real one is the long hard work of getting those ideas into phosphor or onto paper.
Unfortunately, there are all too many collaborations on the market these days that deserve this harsh judgment. (No, I’m not going to name names and start literary feuds right before your eyes.) The Name Writer reels off some 40 pages of outline, backstory, and setting; the Unknown then writes the entire book. This arrangment leaves the Name under the onus of being a lazy rip-off and the Unknown under that of being unable to come up with a good plot to save his soul. I want therefore to go on record as stating that this is not the case with Palace.
Besides, readers like newsy bits of information about how books get written. So I’ll tell you that Palace got its start one cold winter night when Mark was visiting. My husband was discussing Versailles, which is something of a hobby of his, in particular the Versailles of Marie Antoinette. I suddenly realized that this situation — a group of rich and powerful people all living in a small location, presided over by a dictatorial soul who was the most powerful of all — would be a grand setting for SF, once translated to a distant time and planet. In a series of brainstorming situations, Mark and I — with some more input from my husband, Howard Kerr — laid in the main lines of the story and came up with the central group of characters.
Since 1991 I’d been working on a large SF mileu, the Pinch. We set the story there and were on our way. Mark contributed a number of the crucial idea systems — the religion and our version of cyberspace among them — while I filled out the planets, the races, and the history of the Pinch. From that point on, as in any real collaboration, who exactly did what becomes hard to pinpoint. It should be obvious, though, that Mark certainly created part of the world as well as some additional characters. When it comes to the actual writing, we can safely say that I did half of that. Thus we see that no, I am not a lazy exploiter of the intellectual working class any more than he was a hapless drone. 🙂
In other words, if you want a Katharine Kerr book, then you can read Palace with confidence. Conversely, if you want to see what kind of world and story a new talent can create, Mark’s ideas are there, too. You’ll get to see even more of Mark’s work in the next volume, because he’s going to be the sole author — and the only name on the cover and title page. Mark will be using some of the ideas and characters I came up with for Palace, but the writing will be all his. It’s my firm belief that unless a writer actually writes some of a book, her name has no business being listed as a full author. If this attitude ruffles a few feathers, well, so be it.
All controversy aside, we both hope you’ll enjoy both of them!
The Pinch —
An area closed off from the rest of Rim civilization by the shifting of certain microshunts, as we are calling our means of getting around the problem of FTL.
are not areas through which you travel in any real sense. They are, rather, tears in the fabric of being, weaknesses along a sub-continuum fault or superstring line — in short, mathematical discontinuities in the sequencing of the universe. If you enter a shunt, you cease to be within the universe and thus you cease to exist. There is never any memory of having shunted, because during the jump, no one exists to do the remembering.
“Mathematically speaking, it is certain that you exist before you enter the shunt and that you are travelling in a given direction. Therefore, the mathematical probability that you will continue to exist and to be travelling in the same direction on the other side of the discontinuity is very very high, though by no means certain. It is possible to find yourself travelling in a very different direction upon leaving the shunt. It is also possible that you will no longer exist at all.”
—— Georgie of the Gyre
Because of the nature of the shunts, the concept of “proximity” means something very different out in the Pinch. Since it takes at least six months to bring a ship up to relativistic speeds, that is, some high percentage of the speed of light, and another six to drop it back down again, long-distance travel by any other means than shunts is mostly impossible, simply because of the length of time it would take to go from one star system to another at sub-light speeds. Thus, two systems may be, for example, a hundred light years apart, while another pair might be five hundred lys distant, but if that second pair shares a micro-shunt, then its members will be “closer” together than those of the first pair.
Ly, a light year, is pronounced lee.
Thus a map of the Pinch will convey its information as a series of lines, the microshunts, and dots, the star systems those shunts connect. A planet such as Souk will take a “central” place if it lies at the nexus of a number of shunts, no matter where it might fall within an actual hologrammatic star map. Souk is “close” to Palace and Belie because of the pattern of microshunts; in reality it lies over a thousand lys from each, and several other systems, which lie technically closer to Souk, a mere hundred and ten lys for one and a hundred and seventy for the other, are to all intents and purposes unreachable.
Here’s the secret of any writer’s success: reading. What really counts is reading a large spread of different kinds of books — from fantasy to ancient literature to modern experimental novels to the great classics from all around the world. I’ve known too many would-be writers who only read fantasy and science fiction — and then are surprised that their books are derivative and dull.
Another thing that helps someone become a writer is learning a foreign language, any language. Nothing makes you so aware of what English can and cannot do as learning another tongue from the ground up when you’re old enough to see what’s going on. Most of us learn our first language as very young children, after all, and the process is lost on us.
So what I’d recommend is you take all the “world literature” courses you can, throw in a couple of languages, and don’t neglect history, either, which is full of all the best plots and disasters. 🙂 A lot of the plot twists in the Deverry series come right out of history.