"There was a mural in the Great Hall....The human figures, the other pegasi, the landscape and all else fade into the background: only the pale gold pegasus, the stain on his wing, and the shining whiteness of the treaty stand out--and of these it is the wing that draws the human onlooker's eye, that makes the wingless human shoulder blades itch. At night, by candle- and lamplight, it was easy to imagine that his one raised foreleg was in preparation for stepping down off the wall. When Sylvi was younger....she had got so far as to hear the sound his hoofs made as he took his first steps on the floor--and the rustle of his wings." (page 15 of ARC)
Robin McKinley's newest book, Pegasus (Putnam, YA, 400 pages), has been in the world for a week now. It is a beautiful, carefully wrought story of two peoples, humans and pegasi, united in an uneasy alliance against common foes. The unease of this alliance comes from the aching void between pegasi and human understanding and communication--a void that language cannot cross due to the deep divide of otherness that separates the two races.
From the beginning of this pact, it had been hoped that familiarity might ease into some greater understanding. And so each member of the human royal house is twined with a young pegasus. In the bond between Sylvi, the youngest child and only daughter of the king, and Ebon, a young pegasus who dreams of sculpting with the feathery "fingers" that are all his people have for hands, it seems that this hope might come to pass.
But the enemies, nightmarish creatures that seem bent on carnage, are attacking in ever greater numbers. Hostile factions are at work in the human court that could destroy what Sylvi and Ebon are building between them. And worse--that could separate them forever...
(Part 2, incidentally, is on its way--this first book is very much a build-up of worldbuilding and characters that leads to a humdinger of an ending, and the promise of much excitement to come).
I was honored to be asked if I would like to interview Robin McKinley, and to celebrate the publication of Pegasus with a give-away. And even though answering questions about her writing process isn't her favorite thing, she was gracious enough to respond with great thoughtfulness.
Me: One of the things I love most about your books is the vivid places you create--when I re-read your books in my mind, the settings unfold beautifully and are clearer to me than the particulars of what the people/pegasi are doing.
Do you see these places in your own mind's eye before you begin to write them, so that it's essentially a matter of describing something already there, or are they created through the words you choose, with the words, as it were, leading you into the picture?
I'm imagining that it's more the former, based on something you said over at Holly Black's interview with you:
"A lot of my discovery of a story world is by simply seeing it. Sometimes I’m myself, me, Robin; sometimes I’m a kind of ghost; sometimes I’m a character, most often the heroine (or in DRAGONHAVEN’s case, the hero. Yes, it was peculiar). It was disconcerting being short. (As Robin McKinley I’m tallish.) I’ve found myself being middling to tall; this is the first time I’ve been aware of being short."
Robin: The problem with all answers to writing-process questions, at least for me, is that they’re all approximations. Approximations at best. I’m not at all sure I don’t outright lie sometimes, not because I mean to, but because I can’t get any closer to the truth than untruth. Us writers live by words, and by that intimacy we know with bleak and grueling accuracy—truth!—that they are slippery and unreliable. I was recently moaning in my blog that writing about writing is the WORST—I’d much rather write about hellhounds or bell-ringing. At least hellhounds and bells are. Writing . . . by definition it’s an approximation. And therein lies both the magic and the exasperation.
So the answer to your question is: both, and a third, crucial thing, which is the story itself, with its hand on my shoulder and its mouth by my ear, saying, ‘no, no, not that, you fool, this’. One of the reasons I spend so much time in my head before I write anything down is because I’m trying to see as much of it as possible—because as soon as I start trying to turn it into words, none of the words will fit, which means I will have to keep trying till I find the nearest, the least unacceptable approximation—and if I didn’t see it clearly to begin with all those tries and retries will smudge it to a ghost. It’s a little like getting dressed up for a really special event. You want to look perfect. Well, all right, you want to look as near to perfect as your body and your wardrobe will allow, which isn’t very. Pause to accept your mortal limitations. And now on with the show: you have an idea of what you’re going to do . . . except it turns out that that neckline does not work with that fabulous little cover-up with the sequins, and furthermore neither of them pull down smoothly over that skirt and this pink doesn’t really go with that pink after all and what about shoes? There may be a quarter-million-plus words in English, but very often none of them is the exact shade of pink you’re looking for.
You’re also always looking for the crucial detail that will give you the thing: writing as synecdoche. You haven’t a hope of describing anything completely—and if you try you’ll only succeed in boring your reader into throwing your book across the room—so you’re looking for the individual characteristic that will make the thing—person, place, critter, cithara, garden, goblet, one ring to rule them all—bloom in the reader’s mind as itself. Here I confess a bias: I do as little sheer factual or comprehensive description as possible. This is probably most conspicuous in my reader-frustrating habit of declining to describe what my characters look like. I think the characteristics that make someone come alive on the page have very little to do with hair and eye colour. So while you know Ebon is black, he’s a pegasus, and his blackness is a dominant aspect of his presence. You know Sylvi is slight and short, because this is a huge thing to her about herself, and is also important to the story—but you don’t know the colour of her hair or her eyes.
What I’m trying to do is tell the story—slipping (or possibly wedging or stuffing! I’m well aware I have a reputation for leisurely story telling!) in the details of background as I can, as they come up, as my characters see or engage with them—or as the story’s grip on my shoulder grows vicelike, and it orders: ‘Put that in’. My basic guideline to what is written down about the world is, if the current POV character runs into it, whatever it is, literally or metaphorically, I get to stop to give it a sentence or more of its own. If it doesn’t come up, it is unlikely to get described—although since I’m always really interested in the world (see: leisurely story telling) I may engineer space for a few bits I find particularly interesting—or a few bits that pre-final-text readers most want explained. Since I inevitably know much more of the story and the world than gets written down, I sometimes find myself writing about something I haven’t got time or excuse to describe right then, and then I have to look around and see if I can give it its identifying paragraph somewhere else. The Hall of Magicians was like that in PEGASUS. It’s crucial, but it’s crucial in a rather shadowy, ambiguous way—and Sylvi isn’t allowed in it, and she’s the protagonist.
Me: Were you ever able to see/perceive reality through pegasi eyes? Or were you so much Sylvi that it was hard to see things from the very alien perspective of Ebon and the other pegasi?
Robin: It’s not so much being Sylvi—I’ve been or eavesdropped on various people, conversations and pieces of history that didn’t involve Sylvi. But that pegasi are very Other, yes, that’s pretty confounding. I won’t say ‘alien’ because it sounds so unfriendly—I probably read too much ‘Golden Age’ science fiction at an impressionable age! But Other, yes. Very not-us-humans. Trying to see through pegasus eyes . . . it’s a bit like being perched on a mossy rock in the middle of a shouting river—a teetery mossy rock, and you’re wearing stilettos! And the little black cocktail frock you put on for your special event! You are totally out of place, and the moment you make any kind of move, you’ve had it! Everything about the pegasi is so, so, so different . . . just trying to think about how that third set of limbs works . . . okay, it’s odd to have wings for arms, and tiny stiff weak wristless hands, and a long skinny face with your nose and mouth at the far end away from your eyes, and your field of vision is upsetting because there’s so much more of it, and then the magnificently long flexible neck, and the ears that move independently . . . but you can almost get this. (It’s also really cool.) But then add the rest of the body and the hind legs . . . Nope. You’ve just fallen into the water, splash!
Standing perfectly still, relaxed, and balanced, as if I’m about to move into a yoga asana, I can pick up a certain limited sense of pegasusness. But the mindset is utterly different too. Calmer, I have to say, and better grounded, although that may just be because I’m at the volatile end of human.
Me: Do settings cooperate with you as a writer differently than other aspects of your stories (like what the characters want to say and do)? Are settings easier to bend to your will, or is it at least more likely that you won't have to go back and change key details suddenly, when the book is almost done? Or do your fictional places present the challenges along similar lines to your garden in real life, metaphorically wanting to have more rosebushes planted in them then they will actually contain?
Robin: I try very hard not to bend anything in a story to my will, because if I ever do it will be sure to spring out of place later and make me lay it back where it wants to go! The story has the first, last, and most of the middle say, and veto power on all the bits in between! The chief difference between the development of landscape or background and the development of characters is what you might expect—movement. Background tends to reveal itself, like fog rolling back, or going for a walk and looking around, or opening a door. Characters catch my eye or ear when they move or speak.
I want to remind you that you do need to remember that everything I’ve said here is both an approximation and a metaphor—even when ‘I am Sylvi’ I’m conscious that I’m still Robin, hurtling her hellhounds or sitting at her desk or muttering over the washing-up—or planting more rosebushes. It’s just when the story is very strong, this world dims, and I’m seeing through my mind’s eye with greater brightness and clarity than through my physical eyes. Which is no different from many other forms of concentration—but it does lead to tiresome mundane-world difficulties. The clichéd absent-minded author is completely me, and I have the bruises and the piles of unsorted filing, laundry and books to prove it.
The story-stuff that I have to change later on always feels like me having botched it the first time. If only I’d looked a little harder, opened another door, paid attention to something someone was saying before I wrote this or that. The problem is that if you wait till you have perfect understanding you’ll never write anything. You have to find the line between ruining it and never starting, which is called ‘muddling through somehow’.
Me: And finally, if you could ever visit any of your fictional places in real life, which would it be?
Robin: Oh, help! I can’t answer questions like this! My mind/imagination/crack in my skull where the stories come through isn’t/aren’t built for this kind of choice. I can cheat however—most of my books take place in different parts of the same world—so I’ll just go there, having stipulated a good native guide to meet me at the threshold!
Me: My husband did say what you, Robin, might well have been too polite to--that that last question was more than a little lame...but it's the sort of game I'm rather fond of myself! My favorite place that you have ever written is Harry's courtyard in The Blue Sword, but the caves of the pegasi come close...
Thank you so much, Robin!
And now for the Giveaway!
Putnam is giving away a "Robin McKinley prize pack" in conjunction with this interview to one winner in the US--that includes a copy of Pegasus, paperback copies of Chalice and Sunshine, and a poster of the gorgeous cover of Pegasus! Just leave a comment, making sure there's some way to get back to you, by midnight next Wednesday, the 17th of November!
Incidentally, to celebrate the release of Pegasus, McKinley fans are organizing a host of local get-togethers. More information can be found here.