What’s the most surprising thing a reader or reviewer has said about your work?
When you do something like I do, you live in a perpetual state of surprise. You spend years and years admiring the great authors who you’ve read and loved, and you dream of managing to pull it off yourself someday. When you do pull it off, you have a tendency to think, “Is this me they’re talking about? Really?”
It’s hard to pick out just one that is the most surprising. I would say that the things that struck me most were in the early days of my career, after I published Elantris. That book is about, in part, people who wounds continue to hurt, and the pain doesn’t fade. Their bodies are broken; healing doesn’t work on them any longer. I once got a very nice email, a year or so after it was published, from someone who was dealing with cancer, who thanked me for writing this book and said it was a metaphor for what it’s like to deal with a chronic illness like cancer. Now, I hadn’t gone into this book thinking, “I’m going to write a book about a metaphor for people with cancer,” and yet, the poignancy and power of this letter really drove home to me the strength that a story can have for each individual reader, when they adapt it to their own circumstances. I would say that was something that left me in awe of this whole process.
I am not naturally inclined toward revision, but revision is vital. My first drafts, while fairly clean because I do a lot of planning and outlining, are still quite a distance from being fantastic. Sometimes they’re good, but they’re not really good. The first draft might get a book’s quality to ninety percent of what it needs to be, but getting that last ten percent takes just as long as the first ninety. To this day, forcing myself to sit down and take something that I know is working pretty well, and instead try to make it really good, is hard for me. My mind always wants to be creating something new.
Are there themes you don’t yet feel you can tackle for whatever reason?
There are indeed. There are things I’ve shied away from – more because I haven’t found the right character voice that I would want to tackle them with yet – things that are very far removed from my own experience. Writing a transgendered person, for instance, is something that is so far removed and so different from what I’ve done, that it’s something that I’ve intentionally not tackled. If I find the right character, the right story, and the right resources, then perhaps I’ll tackle it. But writing the other, someone who is very different from yourself, is not something to approach lightly. I don’t think it’s something that you should absolutely avoid, or absolutely be afraid of, because otherwise some voices are just not going to get as much visibility as they probably deserve. But I might be the wrong person to do it, or it might just be the wrong time in my life.
Thanks to Sophie Calder at Orion for organising this interview, and providing the transcript.