Robin Hobb (2007)

This interview with Robin Hobb comes from Death Ray 5, and was published back in 2005.

I was rather unfairly awarded “worst headline ever” by Matt Bielby for the original title of this piece – “Soldiering On” (because she wrote the Soldier Son trilogy, y’see?). And this from the man who came up with the coverline “Hey candy butt.”

 Robin Hobb is one of the pen names of Margaret Ogden, a prolific writer who has penned more than 20 books since the early 1980s. Here she talks to Guy Haley about her latest work as Hobb, the finale to her Soldier Son trilogy, Renegade’s Magic.

“I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” says Ogden to Death Ray. “For years people told me that it was a silly goal, that I’d never make enough to support myself, that only one writer in a thousand sells his book, and all those other charming myths of this field. And sure enough, everyone was right about that for the first ten years of my writing life. But I hung in there, and I don’t know if I wrote a better book, or if I simply caught a lucky break. Probably a bit of both, but here I am, being a writer and loving it. But I’d probably still be pretty good at serving beer and pizza, which was one of the other things I did along the way.”

Her days of serving pizzas are long behind her now, and she’s a constant presence on the fantasy shelf. Unlike many modern fantasists, Ogden is a restless soul, exploring different forms of fantasy, from standalone contemporary fiction to secondary world epics. Most of Ogden’s work as Hobb takes place in the world of the Six Duchies. She’s had three trilogies published that use this setting: The Farseer series (1995-1997), The Liveship Traders (1998-2000), and The Tawny Man (2002-2003). Perhaps unsurprisingly, after having spent ten years writing books set there, she decided to have a change, and created the Soldier Son series. She gives three reasons for this departure.

“The first reason was that I had a wonderful idea for a new character in a new world,” she says. “And the second reason was that I did not have a wonderful idea for a book set in the Six Duchies. I think the worst thing a writer can do to a created world is to write books set there simply for the sake of it. I could take the Romeo/Juliet plot and crank out a story and set it in the Farseer world. But no one would be fooled by it, not the readers or me or even the characters. And I think that would be disrespectful to everyone involved. That’s not to say that I’ll never write in that world again. But I’ll only do it if I have a plot I’m absolutely in love with that demands to be told there.

“The third reason is that while most readers probably do associate Robin Hobb only with the Farseer world, I’ve written books and short stories in many different worlds. And I hope to continue doing so.”

Soldier Son is set in a fantasy world where technology is at roughly an 18th century level, rather than medieval. It’s a story about one culture destroying another, a commentary on the usurpation of land by civilisations from those less technologically advanced, as well as the concomitant environmental destruction that often results.

In the story, the nation of Gernia, denied access to the sea in a humiliating war, decides to turn its focus to the east. Subduing the nomadic plainspeople on their borders, they push on into the great forests at the feet of the Barrier Mountains, hoping to drive a road through the peaks to the ocean that lies on the other side. Such things have happened many times in our own world, and the crux of the trilogy seems to be a take on the fate of the Native Americans at the hands of European civilisation. But, Hobb says, it is not.

“Um, I didn’t try to put Native Americans and European civilizations into Soldier’s Son,” she says. “I believe that the characters and cultures in a created fantasy world have to be the product of that world to be believable. Nonetheless, many readers seem to see Soldier’s Son as sort of a fantasy western. I think that the Hollywood Western is so prevalent that it is hard for anyone to see the word ‘cavalry’ and not think, ‘John Wayne, Cowboys and Indians, wagon trains, cattle drives!’ Lord knows, I did my best to avoid giving that cue. I used the word cavalla rather than cavalry, to try to tie the mounted forces to an older form of military than was seen in the American West. I made my Plains People nomads with herd animals. I tried to establish that the kingdom of Gernia and the people of the Plains and beyond had lived for centuries in relative peace and trade. So, Soldier’s Son is not the US westward expansion any more than it’s the British in India, or penal colonies in Australia. Every reader will bring their own experiences and thoughts to the book. That is why every reader essentially has a unique experience of every book”

Despite Hobb’s protestations to the contrary, the parallels between the US “Push West” and the Gernian’s drive east seem very strong – broken treaties, waves of settlers displacing a people they despise as primitive, even the King’s Road, a great engineering project that evokes the construction of the US Transcontinental railroad. Perhaps it is simply that Hobb is as much a product of her culture and history as her readers.

The major difference this story of displacement has to real life parallels is that the natives of the forest the King’s Road threatens to destroy have an effective means of fighting back. These “Specks” possess powerful magic, which they use to unleash a terrible plague and enslave several Gernians to do their bidding. One of these is Nevare, the hero of the tale. His magical bondage divides his personality, results in the death of many of his friends and family, alienates his father, loses him his fiancee, and makes him enormously fat. Even by the standards of fantasy fiction he’s had a hard time. Perhaps Hobb enjoyed making the poor chap suffer so much…

“Enjoy it? No! Well, not in a sadistic way. I do enjoy telling a good story, and in a good story, things happen. As Tolkien once observed via Bilbo, adventures cannot be all pony rides in May sunshine. And he also commented ‘Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating and even gruesome may make a good tale, and take a great deal of telling anyway.’ When in doubt, I listen to the Master.

“Everything that happens to Nevare happens for a reason, which is much more organized than real life, when anything can happen to anybody for No Reason At All. I don’t think that, as an author, I randomly rain down bad things on my characters. Bad things do happen to them, that’s true. But what kind of story would it be if I stood there with an umbrella and promised the reader that, ‘No matter what happens, Nevare won’t get hurt’? – No story at all!”

One of the reasons these iniquities seem so painful is that she does make you care. She brings a personal touch to the epic fantasy by using the first person, an unusual voice in heroic fantasy. [When I wrote this piece, that last  statement was still true. It is no longer so].

“I think that first person is the natural storytelling voice for me,” she says of her style. “It makes him experience the story alongside the character, and it lets me describe things vividly, as they happen.”

She says she loves this form of writing, so much so that she employs it to narrate her stories from the point of view of men (most of her protagonists are men). But she doesn’t find this literary sex change difficult.

“I think that when the writer writes as anyone other than himself, the writer makes assumptions and creates a mantle of character,” she says. “Every character is unique, just as every human being is unique. To me, Nevare’s maleness is a part of his character, but his most basic characteristic is that he is human. Writers may choose a point of view of a character who is a different age, or culture, or time from the writer himself. Or a different gender. It’s all a part of the creative process to put on a different skin and tell a story. If you tell me a story from the point of view of a teenage girl who smokes cigars and breaks broncos for a living, I may say, ‘I would never do that!’ But I can’t say, ‘Oh, he’s wrong. No girl would ever do that!  Because somewhere I’m sure there is a girl who would.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t employ realism…

“One of the great parts of being a writer is that none of the experiences of not being a writer are wasted. You need all of them, all that dialogue, all that information on getting out to go to a job you can barely tolerate, all the years of being a student or a nerd or having your boyfriend dump you before you get published. In a sense, all of that stuff is part of becoming a writer.

“So, to anyone who is trying to be a writer, and instead feels their life is just getting over having their boyfriend dump you and having to go to work tonight in some noisy bar after staying up all day trying to be a writer…  Well, you are a writer. You just haven’t got to the really good part yet. Don’t give up.”

Did you know…?

Margaret Ogden’s other pseudonym is Megan Lindholm. “My two pseudonyms are part of my plan to make things easier for the reader,” explains Ogden.  “What I write as Lindholm differs in style and content from what I write as Hobb. Using the two pseudonyms is a way to let the reader know what sort of a tale he has picked up. To me, the two styles of writing are so different that I’d never confuse them.  There are certain kinds of stories that I’d never write as Robin Hobb, and others that I’d never write as Lindholm.”

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