March 10, 2008

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 2

In part two of Maya's interview we delve a little further into her specific works. If you haven't yet, please read part one, and then jump back into this post!

Interview continued...

In the Mer Cycle trilogy, you created your own fictional world, but for Batman: Fear Itself you wrote in the preconceived environment of Gotham City. How is the writing experience different? How is it more enjoyable? How is it less enjoyable?

MKB: It's very different. I chose what "facts" to put into the Mer Cycle books. I had to keep track of them, keep them consistent and work out every tiny detail from language to magic to religion to monetary units, and I had free rein to do this. The characters, likewise, were mine to move and shape as I wanted (insofar as they allowed it). That's the upside of an original fantasy work—and the downside. You're out there on your own, flying by the seat of your pants and you have to make it all up. You devise the rules of the world and you have to abide by them. There's more, broader research required for a fantasy novel than for just about any other genre.

Did I say that was the downside? Not if you love research as much as I do.

With a media tie-in or any "share-cropping" book, the world and the back story are written in stone. Batman is Batman and there are some things you cannot make Batman do, not because he won't let you, but because the story canon won't. That's the downside ... and yes, it's the upside too. You've got guidelines! You've got material. Your characters are half-built and the rules of the world are in place. But of course, you have to learn them all, and your research is less the fun "ooh, what's this!" kind and more the "What would Batman use to dig a hole" variety. In other words, targeted.

What I love about making it up is the freedom and the sense of accomplishment when the Rube Goldberg machine I'm tinkering with suddenly starts to purr like a well-oiled machine and the characters make me want to kiss them or kill them. What I hate about making it up is the second-guessing: Did I do that right? Should the character be this or that? And having no one to ask if you're doing it right. (Help me, Ray Bradbury!)

What I love about share-cropping is the sheer challenge of working with someone else's tools. It's like that TV show that was all the rage a while ago—Junkyard Wars. You get to be MacGyver. Hm. I have a piece of chewed pink bubble gum and a TV remote control—what can I do with that? Start the clock, I'll think up something...

JS: The Meri (the first book in the Mer Cycle trilogy) is a book about self-discovery, character development, and change. Where did the idea for The Meri come from?

MKB: Literally a dream and a line from a Robert Silverberg novel. I dreamed a vivid, movie-like dream and knew as I was dreaming that I wanted to write it into a story. I wanted to wake up and write it, but when I managed to get one eye open (we'd gigged the night before and I was exhausted) I saw that it was 6 AM and I couldn't make myself reach for the note pad in my head board. I was afraid I'd forget the dream, so in my dream, I magicked myself up a yellow note pad and a nubby little pencil and wrote down what the characters did in a pivotal scene (it has to do with amulets). I made my dream characters perform the same scene over and over until I finally woke up and could wrap my fingers around a real pencil.

The dream sat on its notepad for months before the final two pieces of the puzzle turned up. I knew the main character was a young teen on a quest, but I didn't know what the quest really was. I had two epiphanies. One came as I was rereading my notes and realized the character that had been a boy in my dream needed to be a girl. That gave me the central conflict. I cloned the boy in my dream—he became the main character Mereddyd and her close friend Leal. I started pushing ideas around, but the final piece fell into place as I was reading one of Bob Silverberg's Gilgamesh stories and came across a phrase that made chills race up and down my spine: He was as a man on dry land and as a selkie in the sea. I knew as I read it that this was the final piece. It gave me the nature of the quest and one further plot element that I needed.

I sat down and started to write. I wrote the whole novel longhand in pencil in a series of college theme notebooks and copied the pages on the Xerox at work (with my boss' blessing) every day just in case.

JS: Mereddyd, the protagonist in The Meri, begins the story as a headstrong, often impatient, and sometimes doubtful young woman, but she develops (quite drastically) throughout the story. Do you plan for a character’s development before you begin, or does it work itself into the story as you move along?

MKB: Both. I plan how I want my character to change overall and I plan pivotal points in the story where those changes will either be catalyzed or will be put to use. But then I let the character "find" the pace of change. I try to let the changes grow out of their environment, the things that befall them, and their personalities and beliefs.

A basic element of change for a character is the type of person they are and how they regard change. Mereddyd, for example, is a person who knows she needs to change and knows she should welcome change. She's just not sure what form those changes should take or if she'll have the ability to make them—and thereby hangs the tale. Contrast her to the old Osraed, Ealad-hach, a man so afraid of change that he'll do incredible mental contortions to avoid it. People like Mereddyd bend and adapt; people like Ealad-hach don't bend, they remain staunchly rigid until they break.

JS: Mereddyd changes significantly throughout the story. Batman, on the other hand, doesn’t change much at all (he rarely does even in the comic books). How does that effect the way you approach the storytelling?

MKB: Well, therein lies one of the downsides to episodic writing. The character really can't change. It's a challenge, because in a way it goes against nature. I wrote some obvious growth into Bruce Wayne in my first draft of Batman: Fear Itself and the "powers that be" said "uh-uh". It was mildly frustrating and it caused me not to go as deeply into the character as I might have liked. I couldn't have the character forge deep relationships with other characters—especially the ones Michael [Reaves] and I created—and I had to be careful about what I revealed about him. This can be exacerbated if you're in a situation where the "owners" of the world are saying they'd like the character to grow but aren't sure how much. Also, the character's life exists on a continuum—at first, Lucius Fox doesn't know Bruce is Batman, then he suspects he is, then he knows he is. Where are we in the continuum and are the comic book people happy with the revelations in the most recent movie? The cool thing about Batman in particular though is that you're really writing two characters: Batman and Bruce Wayne. It's the points at which they come together that are tricky.

It boils down to not writing outside of what's considered canon and it does cause me to write more carefully and with less abandon. My one-time agent told me that I wrote my best when I "use the Force." Which for me means that I close my ears and eyes to anything but the internal muse and, knowing my characters as a creator knows her creation, I immerse myself in the world and write. That's not possible to any great degree with a media tie-in. But I still enjoy writing them—as I said, it's a challenge.

That concludes part two of Maya's interview. Please stop by tomorrow for the next section, and if you haven't yet, please check out part one. Thanks!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate Maya's honesty and comprehensive perspective in this segment. She has a clear and masterful command of her craft; it's evident in how she discusses it.

Good stuff!