Wednesday, September 11, 2013

My Interview with Cinda Williams Chima

EDIT: This interview was originally published on the MuggleNet Blog, in February. I held back from posting it here for a couple of silly reasons, including plans to do a bunch of other author interviews—plans that somehow didn't pan out.
MuggleNet thanks Cinda Chima, author of the "Heir Chronicles" and the "Seven Realms" novels, for graciously agreeing to let this star-struck reviewer interview her.

For those of you tuning in late, the "Heir Chronicles" is (so far) a trilogy consisting of the books The Warrior Heir, The Wizard Heir, and The Dragon Heir. Set in a variant of our present-day world, these books dramatize the conflict between five "guilds" of magically gifted people, known as Weir. Wizards and warriors are only the tip of the iceberg in a teen fantasy filled with danger, battles, betrayal, and sacrifice. Readers of all ages can enjoy this exciting series, as my parents can bear witness—once I started reading it to them, they couldn't get enough! As you will see below, there is more to come in this series.

The "Seven Realms" series, meanwhile, boasts four books to-date: The Demon King, The Exiled Queen, The Gray Wolf Throne, and The Crimson Crown. It is an exciting fantasy world where so much depends on the balance of power between the Queen of the Fells, the wizards, and the upland clans who create the magical focus-pieces on which the wizards depend. In the two books I have read so far, I have been captivated by the author's flair for world-building, to say nothing of the passionate princess, the dangerous street lord, the ambitious young wizard, and the other characters who are caught up in a web of conflicting agendas, loyalties, grudges, and bids for power.

If you want more information about these series and their creator, visit her website, or her blog, or her page on FaceBook, or her GoodReads profile, or her Twitter feed—@cindachima. And now, with a final "thank you" to Cinda Williams Chima, our interview...

RF: What do you think is unique about the approach to magic you take in your books?

CWC: This is going to sound odd coming from a fantasist, but the magical element in my books is subtle. Nobody is changing cats into lamps or people into cats, a la Harry Potter (Don’t get me wrong—I love this aspect of Potter World.) Magic in both the Seven Realms and the Heir Chronicles is a kind of energy—a catalyst—produced by gifted people and harnessed by those with the training to do it. In the Heir Chronicles, there are five magical guilds, each with a specific scope of power. In the Seven Realms, wizards produce energy that must be accumulated in flashcraft, or amulets, in order to have enough to do something worthwhile. Thus their power is limited by the Clans—artisans who produce flashcraft.

To me, magic is just one more tool in the writer’s kit, another way to add conflict to story. But when readers find magic in my books, it usually comes from the characters.

You can find more information about the characters, worlds, and magical systems in both series here and here.

RF: How would you describe your ideal reader for the "Heir" and "Seven Realms" series? What kind of person do you think would be most likely to "get it"?

CWC: The Heir Chronicles is contemporary fantasy, so it’s a little more accessible to non-fantasy readers. Readers learn about the fantasy systems alongside the protagonists, who are high school students in a small town in Ohio. There’s less world-building, since most people are familiar with the Midwest (except, perhaps, for New Yorkers.) This series has been popular with boys, which has garnered a lot of attention because boys tend to veer off into non-fiction in the teen years. The sweet spot for the Heir Chronicles is middle school, but I hear from readers ranging from late elementary to deployed US military.

The Seven Realms is high fantasy, set in the long ago and far away, so it is more accessible to committed fantasy readers. The romance element is stronger, so it seems to attract more female readers, including adult women. The readership is older, ranging from middle school through adult. In fact, it was published as adult fiction in some markets overseas.

RF: What is the likelihood that you will someday add more books to the "Seven Realms" quartet?

CWC: Very likely, if the popularity of the books warrant it. My YA series is actually kind of a prequel to an adult high fantasy series called The Star-Marked Warder, that I began, and never finished. Many of the teen characters in the Seven Realms series appear as adults in SMW. So I sort of have a 500,000-word head start, though I’m sure many, many of those words need revision.

RF: (By way of updating your FAQ): Do you have more precise release dates now for "The Sorcerer Heir" and "The Enchanter Heir?" How far along are you in writing them?

CWC: The Enchanter Heir, the next book in the Heir Chronicles, is set for release October 22, 2013 (need to update that web page!) I just submitted revisions to my editor. The cover reveal is scheduled later this month (February, 2013).

RF: Without spoiling too much, what can you tell us to expect in these upcoming books?

CWC: It’s been interesting (and challenging) to return to the Heir Chronicles after a four-year break. There’s a clamor of reader expectations echoing in my ears, and I’m not the same writer that I was, then. Hopefully, that means I’m improving.

I tied things up pretty well at the end of The Dragon Heir, and so I’ve had to pick those knots apart and create more trouble for my characters. My working tagline: Peace doesn’t work for some people.

The Enchanter Heir begins about a year after The Dragon Heir ends. It focuses on new characters, as I’ve done in the past, but the familiar characters play an important role. The main characters are Weir savants—members of the Weirguilds whose heartstones have been, er, modified.

RF: What are the chances of further "Heir" titles beyond these two upcoming books?

CWC: I don’t like to close doors.

RF: Would you share any "casting dreams" regarding movies that might be made from your books?

CWC: I’m so ignorant of popular culture. It’s a huge joke at my house. I often get suggestions from readers, though. Sometimes I think it works well to choose relative unknowns, so that they can “disappear” into the roles they play.

RF: Are you planning any new books outside your two established series? If so, will they be a similar kind of book, or a new departure for you?

CWC: Just taking it one book at a time, thank you. Two books in the pipeline, then we’ll see.

RF: How do you manage your time from day to day, especially when you are writing a book?

CWC: I used to be a spectacular time manager—I published three novels while working full time as a department head in a health care system. I’ve found that once your books are published, there’s a whole other job—promotion and interaction with readers. I love that a lot, but it is sometimes difficult to juggle everything. I’ve written a book a year since 2006—and, as you know, my books are long ones.

The main thing I do when I’m working hard on a novel is not to get online until after lunch. My best writing time is first thing in the morning. So I write until 1 or 2 p.m., work out, have lunch, and then get into email. I find that email and social media take whatever time you give them.

RF: Do you follow a checklist of goals to achieve in each day's writing, or in every chapter? If so, what can you share about it?

CWC: Oh, no no no no no. I once appeared with another writer who used a spreadsheet in planning for his novels. I got up, then, and said, "There are many ways to write fiction. You have to find what works for you."

RF: Do you ever take inspiration from specific pieces of art, music, etc.? Do you have anything like that in mind while you write? Or could you recommend a brief playlist to go with one of your books?

CWC: I do like to listen to music while I write. For one thing, it shuts out the conversations around me when I write at the coffee shop. I favor blues, bluegrass, folk, and some country, e.g. Alison Krauss. I once considered developing a playlist, but my son informed me that nobody would listen to a playlist I devised. I recently had a reader suggest Demons, by Imagine Dragons, as a kind of theme for the Seven Realms, and I have to say, I agree.

I love the artwork that talented readers create, from video trailers to fan art to fan fiction to music. I had two readers write a symphony based on the Heir Chronicles (Shadowslayer.) Roto has written two original songs for Seven Realms trailers. All of those are available on my website.

RF: When writing a book, or while reading another author's work, what emotional response gives you the most satisfaction?

CWC: It’s the relationship between readers and characters that create tension in story. And so when a masterful writer entangles me with characters, I ask myself, How did he do that? I began writing my first stories set in the Seven Realms after reading George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. I was fascinated with what he did with character—and it was in fantasy. I want to do that, I thought.

RF: Do you have to stay vigilant against any particular writing mistakes? What are they?

CWC: Like most writers, I have my writing “ticks” that can throw an alert reader out of a story. For instance, for a while all my characters were running their hands through their hair. Then they move on to pursing their lips. Don’t go looking, okay?

RF: Apart from the pleasure they give, how do you think your books can help make life in the "real world" better?

CWC: For me, my first goal—always—is to write a great story. To provide escape and enjoyment to readers. Anything that gets between readers and a good story diminishes the work. Great stories come from character agendas—not the agendas of the author.

I have this theory that reading is, by its nature, a creative pursuit. Readers and writers are always partners in story—they each contribute to the final work. It doesn’t matter what you’re reading—it’s all great training for creativity. Hard is not necessarily better. That’s why I don’t buy the current focus on reading levels and testing. Way to destroy reading for pleasure.

Now, when you write a great story, it does provide a bit of a platform. I include diverse characters in my novels—because that’s the way the world is, and people should be able to see themselves in fiction. Certain themes surface, over and over in my stories—but theme comes from story, not the other way around. For instance, in the Seven Realms, I explore how a Big Lie, told often enough, and by powerful people, can change history. History is written by the victors.

RF: Are you currently addicted to any series of books by another author? What series?

CWC: Some of the books I’m most smitten with have been stand-alones like Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. Right now I’m reading and loving Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, which is the first book in a fantasy trilogy.

RF: Can you name a particular author or title that has made you laugh recently?

CWC: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is amazingly funny for a novel about two teens with cancer.

RF: In very general terms, where are your kids at these days? Are they of any help to you as a writer? How do you think your writing has affected their career plans?

CWC: My sons are both out of college, both working in information technology. My older son, however, double majored in computer science and journalism, and he’s an aspiring writer. Also a great first reader. After he read The Crimson Crown, he called me up and said, “Mom! I totally didn’t see that coming!” and I was, “Yes!!!!”—because he’s hard to fool.

I credit my sons for my interest in writing YA. They were 13 and 16 when I decided to try my hand at novel-length fiction again. We all loved reading fantasy, and I thought, Wouldn’t it be cool to write something they would enjoy reading? They were just relieved I stopped writing personal essays about parenting them!

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