March 09, 2008

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 1

As I mentioned yesterday, today's post launches an exciting new segment for Constructing Stories. I'm very pleased to present my writer interview with Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff. I've had the pleasure of reading three of her novels, and I highly recommend each. She's talented, she has worked very hard, and it all shows. Here's part one of her interview. I'll be posting the rest of it throughout the week. Enjoy!

JS: A writer strives to engage readers and stimulate them with setting, characters, and plot. You’ve created fantasy and science fiction worlds and worked with existing comic book worlds. As a writer, what tools do you use to make these worlds come alive to the reader?

MKB: Ooh, a multifaceted question! The most basic tools are the words a writer has in her palette. I love words. I love playing with them, molding them, shaping them into sentences and paragraphs and scenes, and watching stories emerge. Writing is a lot like sculpting in that way—you have these raw materials, words, and you work them until a coherent shape emerges, then add detail upon detail until you have a complete story. It’s very tactile for me and I love the feel of words and the sound of them read aloud.

Naturally, it's important to know the tools as well as you can. A good writer can make worlds come alive by choosing the right words and arranging them so that they paint pictures, evoke emotions, excite, terrify, impassion, soothe...all that. That's where the craft comes in: knowing how to get words to evoke sadness the way the color blue or a D-minor chord evokes sadness, or spark anger or get the blood pounding with a good action sequence.

There's more to it than that, of course. One mainstream writer, whose name I've mercifully forgotten, said that there was nothing at all mystical about writing. He was one of those types that hate writing but love having written. It was just like forging horseshoes, he said. Just the iron of words and the brute strength of craft. Period. I thought about that metaphor for about two seconds before I realized he'd missed one of the most important factors: fire. If you don't have fire—inspiration, passion—AND strength, the inert material will just lie there. So, I think the tools are inspiration, passion, craft, and words. And by inspiration I mean whatever sparks you to write—a cool idea or research you've done about pre-Columbian burial mounds or a neat turn of phrase, a divine epiphany or a dream.

Now, I'm going to turn around and answer the question in a completely different way. In another sense, the tools you have are character, plot, setting, dialogue, action and writing style. These things put together combine to create stories readers want to read. But of course, underneath it all is ... words.

JS: That passion and intentionality is very apparent in your writing. Do the tools you use change based on the type of story or the type of environment with which you’re working?

MKB: Yes and no. I mean, whether I'm writing a crime novel or a fantasy novel, I still need to absorb facts, create characters, put words together in ways that are harmonious (or not) and vivid. But the type of facts I need and where I acquire them differ.

I wrote a crime novel that my agent is currently shopping for which I needed facts gleaned from the real world. I needed to understand how guns worked and what was the right weapon for a 5 foot tall, 98 pound PI. I needed to know a lot about pot hunters (archaeological looters) and Latin American ruins. I needed to know about the magic of the Russian Orthodox Church. For my MERI series, I needed a different set of fact-tools and I had to create a significant number of those tools myself. The magic, the religion, the government, the history all had to be invented.

So, as I'm working in the environment, I look at my toolkit and say, "Well, for this story I need to create a language and know how the priestly hierarchy works. And for that one, I need to know some Russian and how a police department is structured."

Obviously, the words and how I use them will also be different. I use different words trying evoke a sense of placeless wonder for a fantasy novel than I will to depict a gritty urban landscape. The type of characters I'm writing about will also cause me to handle words differently. A shy, village lass and a smart-ass Asian-American detective don't think, speak, or behave the same way. The tools change to adapt.

Having said that, there are constants. Action scenes in any genre require words to be used in a particular way. Dialogue in any genre, likewise, needs to communicate, and descriptive passages need to bring the reader into your world.

That concludes part one, but part two will be posted tomorrow. Be sure and drop back by!

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