Nathan: Thanks for taking the time for an interview. 🙂 I’m pretty excited. (Your Firebird trilogy has always been one of my fav books and my fav sci-fi book.)
Kathy: Thank you! I’m excited about this release too, and I’m always honored when someone says that about the Firebird books.
N: How did you go about with your world-building and the history of your worlds? Did you make it up as you needed it, or did you plan it all beforehand? (We don’t hear of the Shuhr until book 2 in Firebird. Did you make up the worship rituals as you went?)
K: I do a bit of both—some of the background was brainstormed before I started writing, but there was plenty that I made up as I went along. You picked a good example: I didn’t think of the Shuhr until I was writing Fusion Fire, but at that point Firebird hadn’t been published, so I was able to retro-write a mention of Shuhr into Firebird before it went to print (in Damalcon Dardy’s first conversation with Ellet). I use a layered approach to writing, and I concentrate on establishing the main characters’ interactions in the first draft. Specific cultural details often come in the second or third or … well, much later drafts.
N: When did the idea for Firebird first come to you?
K: Even though I assume you mean Firebird, the novel, I think you left me some leeway by not italicizing “Firebird”—so let me tell you about my first glimpse of Firebird, the character! I was eight or nine years old when I actually dreamed about her. She was my age, and she could fly (Peter Pan was my first hero. What can I say?). When I rediscovered her as an adult, she still could fly. But it was a little different.
N: What was it like to write another author’s characters in your SW novels?
K: It was oddly like real life. I had to deal with these people as they already were defined. I studied them, trying to understand what made them tick. Then, watching them move through events that I invented meant that sometimes my outlines had to change—because the characters didn’t always cooperate! That’s what my original characters do, too.
N: When you finished Firebird, were you originally planning on writing additional books or not? (and the question in every fan’s head) If you were, why did you wait so long? (yeah, I’m impatient)
K: (Laughing). You bet I wanted to write additional books! The publishing industry is like any other industry, though: it’s profit-driven. Bantam Books didn’t feel that the original two books’ sales were impressive enough to warrant a longer series. Maybe the timing just wasn’t right. The traditional New York publishers are being bought up by international conglomerates, and so if you want to see more books published in any series that you love (or by an author you enjoy), buy those books. Encourage your friends to buy them. Give them as gifts. We’re all stretching our dollars, I understand. And writers are always glad to pick up a new reader via a used bookstore or a borrowed copy … but to the publisher, that’s a “no sale.”
This is an aspect of the business where e-publishing, or niche publishers like Marcher Lord Press, really do stand to help free “writing as an art” from “writing as part of a profit-driven business.”
N: Your universe in Firebird is very believable, not too much description, not too little. How long did it take you to write Firebird?
K: Thank you again! I’ve been told that 90% of the worldbuilding in a writer’s supplementary files won’t show up in the story, but it needs to be invented anyway so the tale will have a sense of reality—so the writer will feel at home in the secondary world. How long? Well, it’s complicated. I started brainstorming Firebird in 1983. I did numerous revisions while marketing it, and it was first published by Bantam Books in 1987. Before Bethany House Publishers brought it out again in 1999, I spent more time rewriting and revising. The annotations for Marcher Lord Press took a few more weeks. Pick an answer!
N: How do you pick the names for your characters?
K: Short answer: I brainstorm. Long answer: It often takes a page or more of ideas before I hit on one that feels right. I prefer a name that’s pronounceable by English-speaking readers. I want it to suit the character (either directly or in an ironic sense). I like it to feel slightly exotic (e.g. “Carradee”), since its unfamiliarity will remind the reader that she lives in a different universe. If I invent a people group, I want their names to be reasonably consistent with each other. I also keep an alphabetical list of character and place names for each book I write, and I try not to re-use the same initial letter too many times. Readers often keep characters straight just by remembering the first letter (did anyone else have trouble keeping “Sauron” and “Saruman” straight on their first time through LOTR?).
N: When you write a book, how do you outline and why?
K: I start with the “big picture” flow of the book and gradually break it down into plot-driving scenes, usually three scenes per chapter. When I travel, I’m a map lover who likes to know where she’s going—but I also appreciate the freedom to go off the map when something else looks interesting. Often, after I’ve written a first draft I realize that a particular stretch of the plot doesn’t feel right. If simply tweaking it doesn’t do the job, I need to chuck it and have something else happen.
N: When writing with other people’s major characters, how did you keep them so similar to the originals? (your SW novels)
K: Again, I dig as deeply as possible into each character’s persona and try to identify his or her essence. For example – my one-word characterization of Luke Skywalker was earnest. He gives himself completely to whatever situation he’s in. Of course, that’s an oversimplification … but it helped me stay on track. In fact, one of my most delightful professional moments came at a planning meeting at Skywalker Ranch: I’d been brought into the outlining process for the New Jedi Order series quite late in the game, and we were discussing the fates of the various characters – the editor, several writers including myself, and Mr. Lucas’s personal assistant, Lucy Autrey Wilson. When someone suggested writing Luke out of the story for a while, I interjected, “No! Luke Skywalker is Star Wars.” Ms. Wilson turned to me and said quietly, “You get it.” Compliments don’t come much sweeter.
N: Of all your books (including the upcoming ones) which character would you most like to set loose in our world?
K: Oh my. Well … a character you haven’t met yet would be my #1 choice, but of course I would also like to meet Brennen face to face. (c:
N: What thing in your worlds would you most like to have in our world?
K: A sanctuary like Hesed House … pastoral, natural, spiritual, rich in history and community.
N: What do you use to stimulate your writing and creativity?
K: Reading within my genre; reading beyond my genre; the discipline of considering my work as work that requires a certain number of hours each day (and Sabbath time off, whatever day it falls on); music. No music when I’m editing—at that point, I need to know it’s the writing that carries the emotional impact—but when I’m writing a rough draft, often a movie soundtrack or some romantic-era classical music (or Celtic folk music) can help me stay on track. It has to be instrumental, so I don’t get distracted by lyrics. I made several notes in The Annotated Firebird about the music that accompanied me when I was writing that trilogy.
N: (You are talking to dozens of writers:) How do you feel one’s faith should be handled when writing?
K: Our faith, as the foundation for our world view, identity, routines, likes and dislikes, sense of responsibility for whatever gifts we posses, etc. has to influence everything we do – the characters we create, the plot lines we show, the language we put on the page, our feelings toward the audience we address … so we need to be mindful all these things and more.
N: What ‘tricks’ do you use to keep your characters different from each other and you? (to get inside their heads, so to speak)
K: In each novel’s supplemental notebook, I create a chart for each character that includes continuity details such as hair and eye color, education, family history, etc. but also plot-driving details such as “what does she want” “what stands in her way” and “how is it going to get worse?” Also, when editing I sometimes read all the way through a work-in-progress while keeping my eye on just one character, trying to make him or her as consistent as possible but changing in ways that drive the story. It’s one of the most complicated tasks in fiction writing.
N: What was your very first concept of Firebird? (first thought or sentence?)
K: That girl who could fly! Later, when I started writing the novel, the first image in my mind was inside her head as a door clanged shut and locked behind her, making her a Federate prisoner.
N: How long did it take you to get published?
K: I started drafting Firebird in 1983. It was published by Bantam Spectra in 1987.
N: Which character in all of the things you have written is most like you, and why?
K: They’re all like me. A character often gets a cluster of “traits that I understand together.” Some of them get clusters that I see in myself and dislike – and by exaggerating those traits and carrying them to their logical extremes, I try to make those people into believable villains. Other characters get clusters of traits that I either like in myself or would like to strengthen in myself. Other characters get mixtures of my traits and other people’s. I don’t think there’s any single character in any of my work that really is me.
N: What are your favorite books/authors and why?
K: Lifetime favorite: Lord of the Rings, for its detailed and convincing worldbuilding and spiritual depth, its Englishness and its rich cast of entertaining characters … and because after all these readings it’s a part of me. More recently, I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series and followed it breathlessly – for her excellent writing craft, her sense of humor, and her ongoing cast of likeable characters. For the same reasons that I enjoy LMB, I devoured (I just re-read them) the Harry Potter books. Less well known: my favorite apocalyptic novel is Father Elijah by Michael O’Brien.
N: When did you first know you were a writer?
K: When I deleted the first four chapters of the first draft of Firebird. At that moment, I realized I could separate myself from my precious words and reshape the book into something more readable and hopefully more publishable. One disadvantage of the current situation is that it’s easier to get published too soon, before a person’s understanding of the writing craft matures. A good story is vital, but so is learning to write well enough to not distract the reader from that story (distractions can include bad grammar, poor use of viewpoint and other writing skills, etc.). A solid grasp of the craft sucks the readers into that good story and keeps them turning pages. I love it when readers tell me they stayed up all night with one of my books.
N: What’s your favorite instrument in real life?
K: The hammered dulcimer.
N: The most important tip you were ever given as a writer?
K: Use third-person limited point of view. One character’s viewpoint per scene is more like real life than the omniscient viewpoint. That makes it easier to write well than any other point of view. Still not easy, but easier.
N: Christian writers are writing sci-fi and have been for a few years now, but originally it was dominated by the secular market for a very long time. Why do you think that is?
K: Like secular SF, Christian SF needed to mature. Christian themes have been there all along, but during the modernist period, secular SF was dominated by the “consensus future” worldview of Isaac Asimov et al. The idea that people would outgrow our need for God was part of that view—an unrealistic, grandiose hyper-optimism that has been humbled by an increasingly frightening understanding that people are not getting “better and better” but actually are just as greedy and self-centered and violent as ever. The spiritual memoir genre is growing in popularity for this reason, I think: people want to read about how other people have come to grips with the world as they actually find it. They want good stories that have the ring of truth. This—plus the rise of publishers willing to major on speculative fiction from a Christian worldview—has created an opportunity for marketing overtly Christian SF and fantasy.
N: Thank you SO MUCH for taking the time for this! 😀
K: Thank YOU for the opportunity. And here’s a short commercial: There are longer answers to some of these questions in The Annotated Firebird. Also, watch for the next Firebird-universe novel, Wind and Shadow, to be published by Marcher Lord Press later this year.
N: It was my pleasure. Your replies were amazing and very helpful. I will most definitely be watching out for your next book and can’t wait to read The Annotated Firebird. To everyone who is reading this, if you somehow do not know who Miss Kathy Tyers is, or her work, you should check it out right away. 🙂