Patricia A. McKillip: Springing Surprises
Locus, July 1996
Copyright Locus Publications, reprinted without permission.
Patricia Anne McKillip was born February 29, 1948, in Salem Oregon – a leap year’s child. Educated at San Jose State University in California, she received a B.A. in 1971 and an M.A. in English in 1973. She published two short children’s books in 1973, The Throme of the Erril of Sherill and The House on Parchment Street. Her first longer novel, the sophisticated young-adult fantasy The Forgotten Beasts of Eld(1974), won the 1975 World Fantasy Award. She switched to children’s mainstream for The Night Gift (1976), but returned to young-adult fantasy in the ‘Riddle of Stars’ trilogy The Riddle-Master of Hed(1976), Heir of Sea and Fire(1977) and Harpist in the Wind(1979) – after which she turned away from the field in a move she thought would be permanent. but after writing Stepping from the Shadows(1982), an adult contemporary novel with some magical realist elements, she returned with YA science fantasy duology Moon-Flash(1984) and The Moon and the Face(1985). Her adult SF novel Fool’s Run(1987) was followed by YA fantasy The Changeling Sea(1991). Since then, she has written the fantasy duology The Sorceress and the Cygnet(1991) and The Cygnet and the Firebird(1993), Brian Froud’s Faerielands: Something Rich and Strange(1994), plus two stand-alone fantasies, marked by great sophistication and elegance: The Book of Atrix Wolf (1995) and Winter Rose(1996). After living for years in San Francisco, McKillip, on impulse(!), bought a farmhouse in a small town in upstate New York, nearly five years ago.
“You can get pretty indrawn in a big city, in a way you can’t in a tiny village where everybody‘s watching you! I bought this house, and every single inch needed renovating. It was an impulse purchase. I’d never even bought a can of paint in my life before I moved in there, so I had to explore hardware stores, learn how to wallpaper, learn how to change a toilet seat – just all kinds of things I’d never done before. And I had to approach people in a way I hadn’t had to do in the city, because I had a landlord.
“But I found people pretty accommodating. They were used to people coming up from the city, buying second homes, and then going, “Well,now what do we do?” As far as my being a single woman, I’m sure there’s a lot of curiosity about that, but nobody – except for some local little boys – ever gave me a really hard time about that. There are a lot of women who have been married 30 years, they’ve left their husbands, and they live alone in big houses that need renovating, so the men understand that women can live alone in those circumstances.
“As for my being a writer, they’re beginning to know my work. The kids in the school about a quarter of a mile down the road from me started reading my books long before the adults did. There are a lot of little writing classes for adults springing up there, and people who are in them write about life in the Catskills, or their own lives, and they’re wary of fantasy. Most of them haven’t read my books, although I gave them James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah, and they got the biggest kick out of that one! They don’t understand the basics of what goes into fantasy, really.
“Maybe a lot of the faerie in Atrix Wolf and Winter Rose comes from my move east. Instead of being surrounded by the landscapes in California – vast distances and mountains and everything else – I’m surrounded by these little woods, and they’re definitely ‘fairytale’ woods, especially when you look at them in certain casts of light and can’t quite see what’s in them. That’s where the story begins, when you start wondering about what lies in these woods. Exploring that aspect of faerie is a consequence of living where I live. Village life also enters into it, in Winter Rose especially. They’re out of the castle, into the farm. By now, I’m a little tired of cows…
“In the last interview [Locus #379], I talked about a ‘fine arts in space’ novel I was working on. It had some neat characters, and I had this fascinating plot, and I was doing all kinds of research for it, and I suddenly realized that I simply was not doing it well. The characters seemed to be coming out of a PBS series of the British Raj, rather than science fiction! I was trying to write adult science fiction, but I realized for what it was, it was pretty boring science fiction – so I went back to writing fantasy.
“What I think is fascinating about science fiction these days is that they’re doing such wonderful things, and it’s taking on this completely different turn from fantasy. Things like Mother of Storms, Red Mars, Moving Mars, that stuff fascinates me because I can’t do it, and yet I think it’s well done. It’s a whole different kettle of beans in fantasy.
“At least my fantasy heroes are getting older. In Atrix Wolf, the mage was definitely ancient, and in the one I’ve got going now, Songs for the Basilisk, I’ve got a middle-aged hero. I like writing the stuff I’m doing now, because it is more adult, and I find myself doing things I’ve never done before even if the context is still fantasy. In The Book of Atrix Wolf, Something Rich and Strange, and Winter Rose, faerieland does crop up, and it’s a bitch to write about! I find it enormously difficult, because the characters tend to be rather static compared to regular people, but for some reason I keep being drawn to it. I’m hoping that Winter Rose was the last of my forays into faerieland.
“I think readers like faerieland because it is a source of power, a source of imagination which becomes a very powerful tool. Maybe that’s why I keep digging into it, because it is something that’s totally imaginative, and yet it’s also a very ancient way of looking at the world. The first way I’ve handled it lately was in Something Rich and Strange, which was a sort of faerieland at the bottom of the sea. In that one, the characters moved out of the sea onto land and became semi-human, but they were also symbols. Maybe people look at these characters as symbols of something they want to be or to have. It’s also a way of looking at real people. If you look at a person that way, they become more powerful because you don’t know them; all you can see of that person is something that you want to be or to possess. Maybe that’s partly where faerie comes from.
“It’s certainly something I was trying to get at in Winter Rose. That was an enormously difficult novel, because I was trying to write about obsessive love, but it turned into a love story – though I was fighting it all the way! I made the mistake of framing it around the ‘Tam Lin’ story, which of course is a love story. I didn’t realize it quick enough, so I spent the next year making it a love story. Faerieland in there was a very dangerous place to be. The characters there were out of the Wild Hunt, really not very nice people. It’s the wicked queen, who doesn’t really have any motivation, except that she wants to be wicked. One of the reasons I wanted to do the ‘Tam Lin’ story was that I did want to change they myth a bit. It’s a transformation tale, but it’s always the male who gets transformed. Janet has her child, and that’s her transformation. She’s very brave and courageous, but I wanted to write a story about a woman who had to transform herself, rather than rescue somebody else by his transformation. Instead of having a child, she bears herself in a certain way.
“I’m doing a lot more short fiction than I’d been doing for a long time. I think all my stories surprise me, stylistically if not in content. Some of them grew out of things I thought might be novels, like The Snow Queen, which I did for Terri Windling for Snow White, Blood Red. WithTransmutations, I was trying to start a fantasy novel, but it turned into a short story. I knew the plot, but stylistically it was so tight, that’s what intrigued me about it. It did some things I didn’t know I could really do. What I like about writing short fiction is that I can experiment a little more without committing to a very long piece of work. Although I don’t think writing short pieces is at all simple, you can do different things with it – and I surprise myself little more easily, sometimes, than in a novel.
“Another short story that grew out of an idea for a novel was the one David Hartwell took for his Best Science Fiction of the Year anthology,Wonders of the Invisible World. That was the story with Puritans in it, and they came out of doing research for an entirely different novel, a contemporary novel I’ve been tinkering with off and on these past few years, a retelling of The Scarlet Letter, as I mentioned in the 1992 interview. I was reading a biography of Cotton Mather, and it’s utterly fascinating, because he was so possessed. His imagination was just completely off the wall! And he was a very dangerous character because of that. He really did need to sit down and write a fantasy, instead of doing what he did in life! So I wrote that sort of half-historical story, which I then brought forward into the science fiction era. It was interesting to me, because I’d never done a thing like that before in my life. When I got done with it, I was saying, “What is this? Qu’est-ce-que c’est?‘ I sent it to a couple of people, and they didn’t know what to make of it either, but David Hartwell finally bought it.
“I keep saying I’m going to do one more fantasy and then life is going to change and I’m going to do contemporary fantasies or contemporary novels or just anything different. But I said after I finished the Riddle of Stars trilogy that I’d never write fantasy again. So you can see some things never change!
“I went through decades of writing fantasy and telling myself “this has nothing to do with me – it’s just fantasy.” Then damned if that book doesn’t catch you somewhere, and you realize suddenly that all these things are crowding into your head from your life, and you’re sitting there writing what you think is fantasy – and it just makes a jigsaw puzzle. You cannot write without writing about yourself, but sometimes it’s so disguised you don’t recognize it. The interesting thing is that when you’re not trying to examine yourself, and you don’t really want to – all you want to do is make a buck – then you find yourself in there.
“I always think I know what I’m doing until I don’t have the vaguest idea! The book I’m working on now, Song for the Basilisk, is a case in point. I wanted it to be something simple and quick, and with some sense of humor, because Winter Rose and Atrix Wolf were kind of grim books to write. This one I just wanted to write for enjoyment – and it’s not gonna do it for me! Suddenly something started ballooning out, that’s another novel entirely. And of course this is after I sold it. I think, after a lot of soul searching, the two sections are going to fit together, but it’s not easy. I’m also finding out more about myself when I’m writing, which is not a very comfortable process, and not what I intended to do. But you’re more likely to look back when you hit middle age. The book’s middle-aged hero has got to come back and reclaim his heritage, but I can’t figure out what the hell he’s been doing for 45 years until then! Where’s his wife and children and his normal life? You have to have these little practical details. I don’t think there’s any faerie in it – but I wouldn’t swear to anything at this point!
“Winter Rose and Songs for the Basilisk have definite springs in real life, and yet for some reason they insist on being fantasy novels, instead of contemporary novels. That’s something even I don’t quite understand. The hardest thing of all is writing a contemporary novel with the power of a fantasy. That’s what I’d really like to do, but I don’t quite know how. Maybe I have to make them fantasies because I have a big imagination, and it won’t shut up!”