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A Chat with Robin Hobb
by Catherine Book

March 11, 2012 - that’s the date when I finally met Robin Hobb.  I’ve enjoyed her books and universes for so very many years that when she appeared on the list for the Tucson Book Festival I was almost giddy.  And thrilled, of course, that she agreed so readily to an interview.

Robin recounted that she always knew from the time she started reading books she wanted to write them.  She remembered using that lined paper from kindergarten and once she took a book and painstakingly copied it just to see what it felt like to write that many words.  But it was her first experience with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that she realized that was what she wanted to write.  I asked her if she’s influenced by writers today and she said that she actually has to be careful about what she reads these days.  She wouldn’t want a wizard character to start sounding like a hard-boiled detective and she avoids fantasy while she’s writing; she tries to be careful not to be influenced by what she’s reading.

So, how does she put words to paper?  She started out writing as a young parent and quickly learned that she had to write whenever she could.  That often meant sitting on the floor in the bathroom while the kids were in the bath, or perched on the edge of sandbox, or waiting in a doctor’s office.  She carried a steno notebook in her bag everywhere and stole moments where she could.  Even though her kids are now grown, she retained that facility of being able to write just about whenever.  As she said, if one grows up with a tight budget, one learns how to cook hotdogs seventeen ways.  So, if one grows up with a tight time budget, one learns how to write whenever one can.  A fifteen-minute bus ride is fifteen minutes, thirty minutes at lunchtime, twenty minutes after dinner, and they all add up to enough to transcribe a few pages each night.  I marveled at how she managed to just jump into the story in a fifteen minute bus ride.  She said she always tried to write every single day since that helped keep her head in the story.  And, of course, just because a pen wasn’t in her hand didn’t mean the story wasn’t unreeling in her head.

How is she affected when other works intrude?  I wondered if she ever tried to work on multiple projects.  She says that’s very hard for her.  She’s found that if a new idea or scene for a different story intrudes, she has to just jot down some notes to bring her back to it – in the future – but let it go and return to the work at hand.  So I asked how short stories fit into her work schedule.  Robin allowed that short stories are very, very hard to do.  In a short story, every word, every scene has to mean something and advance the story.  There is no room to explore nuances which is something she loves to do.  She tends to restrict how many short stories she writes in a year; after all, she explained, if she wrote four short stories, she could’ve written a quarter of a novel.

But what’s more important in her work?  Plot or setting? Characters?  Oh, definitely characters, she answered.  It’s never a place or plot that grabs her but usually an interesting character who steps on stage.  Someone who has a story that she just has to tell.

And what about this whole e-book phenomenon?  Robin feels herself very old-school – typewriter, carbon paper and SASE’s.  She does have some of her titles available as e-books but that’s through the publisher and nothing she did.  She’s considering dusting off her older Lindholm (Robin also writes as Megan Lindholm) stories that have been out of print for years.  Maybe they’d do well as a e-book or one of those print-on-demand things.  But these books will have to be digitized (no e-file for these) and there are only so many hours in one’s day.  Since all the US rights to those books have reverted to her, we’ll have to wait until she finds the time or a publisher makes her an offer. (The Lindholm books are available as e-books in the UK and Australia.)  Something that she advises all writers to do is to put into your contract that you get your rights back when the book goes out of print.  Sometimes books get lost when one publishing house is swallowed by another and another until the trail runs cold.  She cautions her fellow writers to research carefully the term “out of print” which could mean different things to different publishers.

We chatted about A Game of Thrones for a few minutes and I asked her if any of her stories had ever been optioned.  I, personally, would love to see Fitz in TV series.  Yes, they had; but nothing had ever come of it.  She was of two minds on the process.  She thought she would have to choose between trust (that they do it right) or just ‘letting it go.’  And she worried that even if she kept control, how would she know what she was doing with no experience in that industry.

So, what else is her future?  Anything that she really wants to get to?  She’s pretty sure that Megan has an urban fantasy to write but since Robin is hogging the keyboard, Megan hasn’t had much chance.   There’s always a lot of stories to write and the older the writer, the harder the choices of which ones to write and which ones to let go.

Having touched on both Robin and Megan a few times, I had to ask her what her legal name was.  Would you believe – Margaret Ogden?  She explained that Margaret Lindholm was her maiden name and she originally wrote under the name as M. Lindholm before she married.  She says she never really had much attachment to the name Margaret and when she sold a story to Daw for an anthology, the editor didn’t like the single initial.  Robin explained that she didn’t like Margaret or any of its diminutives  but maybe Megan was okay.  So a misunderstanding of Robin’s intentions led to a new byline – Megan Lindholm.  As Megan she wrote all across the spectrum of SF/F – urban fantasy, sword-&-sorcery, pre-historic fantasy, and more.  But she has observed that readers like to know what kind of story they’ll get when they pick up a particular writer and Lindholm didn’t fit into any one niche.  So, when she started on the Farseer stories, she decided to write them as Robin Hobb so that when one picks up a Robin Hobb story, one knows what one is getting.

I often ask writers if they have a favorite story or character.  Unsurprising, most of them declare it would be like picking a favorite child.  But Robin surprised me when she named “Wizard of the Pigeons” an urban fantasy set in Seattle that she wrote as Megan Lindholm and “Assassin’s Apprentice” as Hobb because that was the first story where she worked with both Fitz and the Fool, favorite characters of hers.

Considering how long she’s been working, I wondered what she was doing when she wrote her first story.  She was eighteen and living in a tiny village on Kodiak Island in Alaska.  She wrote a lot of children’s stuff for children’s magazines.  From that she had a long apprenticeship – lots of short stories, newspaper articles, anything that she could get published…until her first novel was published when she was thirty.  Obviously, she must have held other jobs during all those long years.  Oh yes, she said – she’s pulled a lot of beers, slung a lot of pizza, delivered US mail, sold retail clothing, all kinds of things.

I asked her what was coming up in the near future.  She’s doing the final editing on “Blood of Dragons”, the fourth and last volume for the Rain Wilds Chronicles. (Yay!!)  And she sent in a “long-ish” piece on “The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince” set in an earlier time at Buckkeep which has been placed with Subterranean Press.  So, we’ve got some exciting new stuff to look forward to.  I don’t foresee Robin disappointing any of her readers for a very, very long time.  Thank you again, Robin. 

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