An interview with Elspeth Cooper

Elspeth Cooper is a British fantasy author and her debut novel Songs of the Earth, book 1 of the Wild Hunt trilogy, is published on 16th June this year by Gollancz. Both Mark and I recently read an advanced copy and our reviews can be found here.

Elspeth very kindly took some time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about her interest in the fantasy genre, her processes as a full time writer and her experiences as a debut author.

songs-of-the-earthI’ve read that you’ve been a fan of epic stories and fantasy since you were a child. What is it about the genre that speaks to you more than others?

EC: I think it’s the scope. Reading Homer at a formative age probably had something to do with it (it was raining, and the only thing in the house I hadn’t read was Dad’s Penguin classics). There’s so much room in fantasy; space for the imagination to breathe, in the landscapes, the architecture, the customs, the history. There are new and interesting ways to present questions and address issues, or just torture your characters to find out what really makes them tick as people.

Who were your favourite fantasy authors growing up?

EC: As a youngster, it was Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, who’ve stayed with me to this day (a couple of years ago I asked for, and received, the The Dark is Rising omnibus as a Christmas present), then David Eddings, who I sort of grew out of through my teens; looking back now the books seem a bit simplistic. Late teens I got into Guy Gavriel Kay, with The Fionavar Tapestry. They’re the stand-out names, but in those days I inhaled books at a rate of knots, and can’t remember half the titles I’ve read.

Can you describe your journey to being published? Did it take you long to find an agent and then a publisher?

EC: It was a short and not very interesting journey: I found an agent in 17 days. But it took me 20 years to work up the courage to start looking for one. Seriously, it was one of those happy accidents: I hit the right agent at the right time with the right book. Based on my opening chapters he requested the full manuscript, and by the end of the week I had an agency agreement. Two weeks later, I had an offer from Gollancz. That’s about as painless as it gets.

After years of working on your novel, what did it feel like to find out you were going to be published? Where were you when you found out the news?

EC: I was sitting at my computer reading my email, and there was one from my agent with the subject “I hope you’re sitting down”. I had the whole this-isn’t-really-happening wobbly moment, then after reading it I was incapable of coherent speech for about 20 minutes. All my husband could get out of me was demented giggling and random swear-words.

As a (soon to be) published author, have you discovered any myths about the process of being published?

EC: Anywhere unpublished authors gather together, you will hear the myths being perpetuated. I’d been a subscriber to Writers’ News & Writing Magazine for absolutely yonks so I knew most of the stories were utter BS, but they’re so pervasive, and they’re repeated so many times by so many people that they acquire this sheen of Divine Truth.

For example: Editors will rip your work apart (busted: if it needed that much work, they’d never have bought it in the first place). You have to know someone or be someone to get published these days (busted: I’m a complete nobody). Books over 100,000 words, especially by a debut author, will never sell (busted: here’s a debut author with a 144k word manuscript, sold to the first publisher who got a sniff at it, and re: myth #1, it got *longer* during the edit).

Actually one myth – that it’s the marketing department who hold the real sway over book acquisitions – I found out from my editor to be at least partly true. Many a beautifully-written book has fallen at the final hurdle, the acquisitions meeting, because the marketing dudes couldn’t see how to position it to make it sell. And this, I think, is the bitterest pill for the writer to swallow. Publishing is a business, and like any other, it only stays in business if it makes money. That means you, Mr or Ms Writer, have to give them something that they know they can sell. That doesn’t mean it has to be some bland identikit “airport novel”, but it does mean that your work needs commercial appeal. There is no longer room in most publishers’ lists for utterly lovely books that sell less than 1,000 copies, even subsidised by the next Dan Brown.

As a full time writer, is it any easier or harder than when you were unpublished?

EC: It’s easier, because I can spend all day writing, and it’s harder, because I can spend all day writing! It is so easy to get distracted by Twitter or Facebook or even by household chores because there’s no longer a full-time job occupying most of my day to force me to ruthlessly prioritise what I do with the time that’s left. If anything, it takes more discipline now to make myself work, than it did when I only had two hours late at night and had to make them count.

Some modern fantasy is murkier and less black and white than fantasy books from my youth, by authors such as Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks. Where does Songs of the Earth sit on the spectrum?

EC: Good question. I’ve never really thought about it. I went through so much what you could call cookie-cutter fantasy when I was younger that I thoroughly sickened myself of it, and tend to run away screaming at the first mention of the p-word (prophecy). So I love reading books where there are fewer moral absolutes, and the heroes are a bit grubbier round the edges (and I don’t just mean they haven’t bathed recently).

But is that what I’m writing? It’s difficult to be truly objective about my own work. Certainly I made no conscious decision to write a particular kind of fantasy; like many first novels, Songs started with a single scene and just evolved. On the cookie-cutter to bankrupt-nihilism scale, it’s somewhere in the middle, leaning towards the grubby. Gair’s a fairly moral guy, trying to do the right thing, but he’s also human, and he doesn’t get it right all the time.

I read on your blog that Songs of the Earth seemed to develop organically over time. Has your approach changed with the other two novels in the trilogy? Are you still a gardener or an architect who plans everything?

EC: I am a 100% organic certified-by-the-Soil-Association gardener. For the second book, I already knew where it was going – I had a piece of trellis to train the plant up, as it were – but how it got from rung to rung was in some cases a complete surprise. For Book 3, I’m still nailing bits of wood together . . .

I have tried planning, I really have, and I find I write more fluidly if I just point myself in the general direction of “The End” and take the brakes off. If I over-think I seem to tie myself in knots, whereas if I let myself go, almost on autopilot, the characters really do develop a life of their own and frequently take interesting shortcuts that add a depth and texture to the story that would otherwise never have occurred to me if I’d tried to reason it out.

Maps in fantasy books are very important to some people as part of the world building experience. Are you a fan of them or not? Do you have a physical map for your world anywhere?

EC: I drew a map years ago, when I was still at the “false start” stage with the book – it didn’t even have a title then. But then I changed the geography quite radically, and it became useless. One day when I have some time I’ll dig out the draughtsman’s pens and have another go, just for my own amusement.

As a reader, I rather like maps when done well, but I hate useless or irrelevant ones that seem to have been included purely because the publisher thought fantasy = must have a map. I certainly don’t feel cheated if the book doesn’t have one. With some complex worlds, like Melanie Rawn’s (unfinished) Exiles trilogy, the map’s downright essential to keep track of the ladder pairs, but in others you don’t even miss them when they’re not there.

Do you still read fantasy now that you are a published author? If so, what novels or authors have you recently enjoyed?

EC: Yep, I’m still a fan, although I feel like I have even less time for reading now than I used to. It’s the one thing I miss about giving up the commute to the day job: I’ve lost two hours a day of prime reading time.

The last thing I read was The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, which had been sitting unopened on my bookshelves since the day it was released, until this February. Before that was Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie, and before that was Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, which I read whilst in hospital last autumn.

As for which book’s currently got my bookmark in it, I’ve still got about 65 pages to go on Trudi Canavan’s The Magician’s Guild, but I haven’t cracked the covers in months. I put it down before Christmas to go make dinner, and have had no real desire to pick it up again beyond my terrible compulsion to finish what I’ve started.

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Songs of the Earth is published on June 16th and for more information about the author and forthcoming signings and appearances you can visit her website and follow her blog or visit the Gollancz website.

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