Interview with Robin Hobb

© Nur zur Verwertung im Rahmen des vereinbarten Verwendungszweckes. @ Frank Hanewacker/Sedan Sieben

Phantastik-Couch.de: Hello Mrs. Hobb, or should I say Mrs. Lindholm or better Mrs. Ogden? First of all, thank you, for taking the time and answering a few questions for your German readers. You have recently been visiting your new German publisher – Random House / Penhaligon – on your way to Poland and Scandinavia – any chance, that you will visit Germany on a reading / signing tour?

Robin Hobb:Hello! And please, just call me Robin. At the present time, we have no plans for a German reading/signing tour. But in 2018, I will be at Pyrkon, right 'next door’ in Poznan, Poland! And I’d love to meet German readers there. It will be held from the 18-20 May, 2018

Phantastik-Couch.de: Let´s turn back the time for the beginning. Did you always feel a special affection to books in general and fantasy plots in particular?

Robin Hobb:In my reading, I have always been attracted to the fantastic. Sometimes we refer to it as literature that awakens a sense of wonder. For me, it began with fairy tales, and quickly expanded to myths and legends. When, as a teenager, I encountered the Lord of the Rings, I suddenly grasped what fantasy could truly be. I had always known that I wanted to be a writer; that was my time of discovering what I wanted to write.

Phantastik-Couch.de: When did you discover, that writing was a special gift you were blessed with? Did you study literature or attend work-shops for writers – as far as I could verify it, you once worked for a newspaper published in Alaska?

Robin Hobb:I knew from the time that I was 7 or 8 years old that I wanted to be a writer. I think that one trains to become a writer by doing a vast amount of reading, across all the genres, nonfiction as well as fiction. I think I took one creative writing course in college. My process of learning was to read a great deal and understand why some books were riveting, and others could be easily set aside. I have no ambitions toward great literature; my mission is to tell a compelling story, and tell it well.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Can you offer us a look on the person behind the author Megan Lindholm / Robin Hobb – what do you like to do when you are not writing?

Robin Hobb:I have a tiny farm, and the chores for it keep me very busy. I’m afraid I do not get much time for simple hobbies that are just for pleasure. I still greatly enjoy reading before I fall asleep at night. When time permits, I like to set out 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles and enjoy them for several evenings. I have a large vegetable garden, and I spend a lot of time tending that. This time of year, I am often busy making jam, or freezing vegetables or drying apples. We also have chickens and ducks to take care of. There is always a task that needs doing!

Phantastik-Couch.de: Has social media changed the way, you get in contact to your readers, and if so – how?

Robin Hobb:Social media has completely changed how I interact with readers. When I first began writing, a letter or two might reach me, sent from reader to publisher, often arriving months later. I always tried to answer them. When email first became commonly used, I enjoyed getting email from readers. I tried to emulate Isaac Asivmov, who always responded to at least every first letter from a reader. But over the years, with Twitter and Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram, Reddit and my websites, I am flooded with communication. When I am traveling, the email piles up, unanswered. There are messages on Facebook and on Goodreads. I’m afraid I cannot possibly answer them all anymore. I do try, but to keep up with that, I would have to give up writing. And even then, I would be falling behind. This is not to say that I don’t want to hear from readers. I read all my mail, and I enjoy that they share their thoughts from me. I would need an extra magic day every week, one that no one else had, in order to keep up with messages and letters! I often feel that I enjoy this contact with readers too much! I can do a whole day on social media. It 'feels’ like I've been working hard on my story or book, but in reality, I haven’t typed a word of story. It’s so hard to find a middle ground. I can’t ignore readers, but I must get the writing done.

Phantastik-Couch.de: The road to success is often very rocky – how long were you forced to wait, till you got your first manuscript published?

Robin Hobb:I began writing stories when I was 7 or 8. At 18, I began submitting them for publication. In the years between 18 and 30, I sold short stories to children’s magazines, did newspaper reporting, and had some stories in sf or fantasy 'fanzines’ or amateur publications. At 28 or 29, I began to sell stories to the 'real’ magazines, such as Fantastic. At 30, I sold my first novel to Terri Windling at Ace. That was Harpy’s Flight, written as Megan Lindholm. For the next ten years, I wrote as Megan Lindholm. I had good reviews and moderate success. When I wrote Assassin’s Apprentice as Robin Hobb, I felt I broke through the midlist ceiling and began to move up.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Was there ever a time in your career, when you thought about giving up trying to write, to get published?

Robin Hobb:Trying to get published is frustrating. I’d work hard at it for months, and then go without submitting anything for a long time. But I was always writing. I think most writers are like that; that the writing is something we do, and maybe we try to get published and maybe we succeed, but we always keep on writing. Even after I’d had several books published, I was still getting low advances. That’s the business of writing; a writer gets paid based on previous sales. It was discouraging to work on a book for a year, and get far less for it than I would have received if I’d worked a minimum wage job. But I WAS working a job at the same time, and taking care of my house and children while Fred was at sea. So that writing money was always very welcome, even if there wasn’t much of it!

Phantastik-Couch.de: You publish books under your maiden name Megan Lindholm and under your pseudonym Robin Hobb, but as far as I know, you didn´t publish any books under your real Name Margaret Ogden – why that?

Robin Hobb:I began writing before I was married, so I began writing as Megan Lindholm. I didn’t want to lose my writing credentials under that name by switching to another one. When I moved to a different name, it was a very conscious choice to set the Hobb books apart from the Lindholm ones, as the voice and story telling style was so different.

Phantastik-Couch.de: For you as the writer is there a basic difference between the books that are published with Robin Hobb on the cover and the books you write as Megan Lindholm? Do you feel more freedom in experimenting or expanding the borders using the Hobb and or the Lindholm name?

Robin Hobb:When I get an idea for a story or book, I immediately know if it should be written as Lindholm or Hobb. The stories I write as Lindholm would not work well in the Hobb voice, and the opposite is also true. Under either name, I feel free to experiment; every new book or story is an experiment. I feel there is definitely a basic difference between how I write as Lindholm and how I write as Hobb. Lindholm stories are more often short stories; they move faster, and they are often set in the contemporary world, with a different use of language. Hobb is more layered, and the world is as much a part of the story as the characters are.

Phantastik-Couch.de: When you start a new novel, do you know in advance, under which name it will be published?

Robin Hobb:See above! ;-)

Phantastik-Couch.de: With the duo »Ki and Vandien« you offered your Megan Lindholm readers characters, that would fit in the sword and sorcery part of modern fantasy, while the »Fitz« and the »Liveship trader« books take the usual fantasy clichees and put them in another, fresh context and made them work. Did you start out with this goal in mind, when you started writing the Hobb novels?

Robin Hobb:I don’t start out with any goal except to tell a great story. I don’t want to dazzle the reader with my style of writing, or present a challenge to them. The books I enjoy most are the ones where the story telling is transparent. I fall into the tale and forget that there is a writer, and a book cover and print on a page. At the end, I wake up, and the book is more like something that happened to me rather than something I read. So I don’t really give any thought to theme, or symbolism or any literary device. I just want to tell the story.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Your new German publisher decided to invest money into translating the first 2 Fitz chronicles new. The thought behind it was not only to improve the translation, but also to give the text a new, more up to date speech. What do you think about the English version of the books – has the language really changed that lot since the books were written, that you could rewrite the text?

Robin Hobb:Unfortunately for me, I can only speak about English, as it is the only language I speak. 
I do think that the way we tell stories changes over time. A very common example would be, for English speakers, the works of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Of course the language has changed over centuries of use. And from my French translator, I have learned that sentence length is very different from language to language. Often Arnaud has to join several English sentences together to make one lovely French sentence. A direct translation would be choppy, dreadful French.
So the translators task is not just to translate word for word, but to convey the feeling of the words, and the pace of the scene. So I can imagine that German might have changed enough in 20 some years that the translation would no longer sound right.
I have been blessed with excellent translators. If you enjoy any of my works in translation, at least half the credit should go to the translator!

Phantastik-Couch.de: Now just recently, last year you wrote another, the third trilogy about and with Fitz (which should be released by Penhaligon in autumn of 2019). Wasn´t the story already told?

Robin Hobb:Oh, not at all! The books, taken in order, tell not just of Fitz, but of events in his world that have immense impacts on his life. So in chronological order, they would be:

  • The Farseer Trilogy (Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest.)
    This set tells of Fitz’s early years at Buckeep, and his first great challenge and how he survives it. (Wow, with will be hard to do without spoilers!)
  • The Liveship Traders Trilogy (Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, Ship of Destiny)
    The next set of important events in this world takes place in Bingtown and the Rain Wilds. Traders, sea serpents, pirates, kidnappings, slave rebellions. And a character from Farseer in another guise.
  • The Tawny Man Trilogy (Fool’s Errand, Golden Fool, Fool’s Fate)
    We return to Buckkeep, and a fresh set of challenges for Fitz and 'Lord Golden’ as the Farseer dynasty teeters on the edge of ruin, and an alliance with an old enemy comes with a deadly challenge.
  • The Rain Wild Chronicles (Dragon Keeper, Dragon Haven, City of Dragons, Blood of Dragons)
    Back to the Rain Wilds. What better way to be rid of unwanted youngsters than to send them off into the wilds with the unruly young dragons who have become an immense problem. Will the ancestral memories of the dragons help them find their ancient home, or lead them all to death?
  • The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy (Fool’s Assassin, Fool’s Quest, Assassin’s Fate)
    Our hero Fitz has aged and found peace at last. If only that were true of the Fool as well. When vengeance is all that remains to him, Fitz lets nothing stand in his way.

So as you see, the story meanders through some sixteen books. And characters move freely among and between the trilogies. I never know who was going to show up suddenly in one of the stories.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Seeing what a TV-Series (GoT) can do to a fantasy-series in a positive way – are there any plans to bring Fitz to the TV screen?

Robin Hobb:As of right now, there are no plans for television or film. I’m not averse to such an idea, but it really hasn’t come up.

Phantastik-Couch.de: You tend to write trilogies. The »Farseer Trilogy«, the »Liveship Traders« Trilogy, the »Tawny Man« Trilogy and right now the »Soldier Son« trilogy. Do you need the space offered by a trilogy, or why don’t you write a stand-alone novel once in a while?

Robin Hobb:“Begin in the beginning, and go on until you reach the end. Then stop.” That’s the advice the king gives Alice in Alice in Wonderland. I think it’s good advice for a writer. Some ideas are only enough for a short story, and others demand more space. The Rain Wild Chronices were actually written as two sets of two books, for example. Almost all my Lindholm books are stand alones, even when the stories take place in a world shared with an earlier book. I think that much of English story telling is done in three parts, even the very simple stories such as The Three Little Pigs, or the Three Billy Goats Gruff or the Three Bears. In a trilogy, there is often the set up for the world and its conflict, the continuation of the conflict with a possible solution, and then finally the working of the solution. So it’s a very natural way for me to break up a very complicated story when I want to tell one.

Phantastik-Couch.de: You wrote one book together with Steven Brust called »The Gypsy«. Was it fun collaborating with another author? Would you do other collaborations, or do you prefer to work alone?

Robin Hobb:Writing with Steven was an absolute roller coaster ride. It was fun and exhilarating. And at the end, we promised each other we would never write together again UNLESS we came up with a story that both of us felt could be as much fun to co-write. So far, that hasn’t happened. I’m happy to work alone. I’m never really alone when I'm writing. All the characters are there with me.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Do you have any specific goals in mind writing fantasy plots? Do you intend to get a special message to your reader?

Robin Hobb:I never intend to send any message or advice or lesson to readers. I just want to tell a good story. Along the way, readers may learn how my characters think or feel about certain things, but I don’t always agree with my characters! So some of the opinions in the stories I write are not my own. They are what my characters believe, and what lessons they have decided they have learned. That’s part of characterization and story telling. The books should be the characters’ experience and ideas, not mine!

Phantastik-Couch.de: Your heroes, especially Fitz are no larger than life heroes, and most of the time Fitz is not very happy with his life. Is it easier for you to write about a person who is like in real-life a man, who struggles with his fate?

Robin Hobb:If you asked a random person, “How are you today?” you would either get a very polite, “Fine, thank you.” Or an honest response, “My daughter has a cold, and my work assignment is late and my car needs new brakes.” Very few of us think 'Today I am happy.' Tolkien pointed out that 'Adventures are not all pony rides in May sunshine.' And he observed that the fun and easy and calm times of a person’s life don't make the most exciting reading. So the reader does not meet Fitz, or Althea or Kettricken at calm times in their lives, but when they are confronting problems. And like most of us, my characters have problems on several levels. Can you defeat the evil swordsman with a hole in your shoe while you grandmother is sick? Because life is like that for most of us. And I want my characters to be very real.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Your novels don’t fit in the usual fantasy cliché. Most of the time, your heroes don’t end up happily. If they are lucky, they survive the quest you lay upon them. Would you like to write a humorous fantasy novel once in a while?

Robin Hobb:Humor is probably the most difficult thing to write. The wrong sequence of words can easily turn a funny story into a disaster tale. In slapstick, we laugh at the fellow who falls down the steps while carrying the birthday cake. But we know that in real life, that would be a family disaster! Almost all humor has some element of dismay or pain that we don’t acknowledge.
And while my stories don’t have the traditional happy ending, where the girl and boy get married and the kingdom is saved, often their endings are 'as good as could be expected.' Again, that is how life goes for most of us. After the hurricane, we may just be happy to be alive, and if our spouse and dog came through it, we know we are fortunate! A good story does not undo every sad or hard thing that happened, and throw a party for the protagonist. Sometimes it ends with the protagonist holding on to a lesser but very good part of life. Just as we do each day.

Phantastik-Couch.de: How do you begin and how do you proceed when you start a new novel? Is there a detailed draft worked out, or does the action lead you to places unknown to even you?

Robin Hobb:All books and stories, for me, start with a character. I listen to the character. Sometimes I outline the first few chapters. When I outline the whole book, when I start writing, I often stray far away from that plot. Still, it is comforting to know there is at least one path the story could follow to reach one ending. I tell people that it is like planning a long road trip. I will know where I start, and where I want to end, and often I know which sights I want to see along the way. But I can be surprised by a detour, or pick up a hitchhiker, or have the car break down. Books are like that. Unforeseen things can happen mid-plot. And they can become very important to the tale.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Can you give us an outlook on further projects of yours?

Robin Hobb:Right now, I have several possible projects. I am actually writing all of them simultaneously, but that is because I am at the very beginning of them. One will emerge as the strongest and the most compelling to write right now. And that will be my next book.
But I can’t really talk about any of them right now. It is too easy to talk a book to death, and then never write it!

Phantastik-Couch.de: It seems to me, that you have a special affection to the sea. The »Liveship traders« were situated at the shore and the ocean. Do you love the sea?
Would you like to send a special message to all your German fans and readers?

Robin Hobb:I would like to welcome them to the Six Duchies and to the Realm of the Elderlings. They can find more information about me on my website at www.robinhobb.com. I am also easy to find on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram. Let us hear from you! Although there are Italian and French fangroups, and the wonderful general site called www.theplenty.net (Thank you Nerwende!), there is not yet a German reader group. I’d love to see one form. I have greatly enjoyed the friendships I’ve come to because of reader groups, and the good fellowship I enjoy with them when I am able to visit!
And thank you for this opportunity to reach out to German readers.

Phantastik-Couch.de: Thank you very much for your time!