An (old) interview with Carol Berg

Carol Berg's latest book The Daemon Prism, the third book in The Novels of the Collegia Magica series, is finally out!

To commemorate that, here's the transcript of an interview I did with her in 2010. (The article that came out of it was World Weaver, which was published in The Star on May 30, 2010.)

When did you first start writing? I started late, about halfway through my 17-year software engineering career and at a time my children were needing less of my time. A friend suggested we start writing a series of e-mail letters “in character” so she could practice her writing. It sounded fun, not near so hard as planning and writing a whole story, which I had always imagined next to impossible. When I sat down to write the first letter, I came up with twenty pages. I was astonished, and I was hooked.

What kind of stories interest you most? Complex, layered stories about interesting people caught up in dramatic adventures. I want to like the protagonist – eventually if not at first. And I want a satisfying ending, not artificially happily ever after, but not ambiguous or unrelentingly grim.

What does your family think about your career? My husband has been totally supportive throughout it all. He is thrilled that I’ve discovered work I’m passionate about. Writing is not just “a job.” My sons are also enthusiastic supporters. When my youngest son Andrew was in seventh and eighth grade, and I was still writing for myself, he would come in and have me read my work to him. He kept coming back for more, which was a great encouragement. He still likes to read my work before it gets printed.

Of course, my eldest son, a musician, has told me he thinks my books need more pictures. I threw a book at him.

What spurred you to quit your full time job at HP to write full-time? was there a particular event? Actually yes. In 2002, my employer Hewlett-Packard Co. bought Compaq Computer. One of the first things they did after the merger was offer to pay those who had been with the company more than fifteen years to leave. I felt as if it was an IQ test which I passed.

How was the transition like? Very easy. I was already working at engineering only three days a week and writing for the other four. I just dropped that old day-job stuff.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Actually, I never believed I could write a book. I have always been an avid reader of many genres, fantasy and science fiction, mystery, spy thrillers, classics, you name it. But the idea of figuring out a complicated plot, making characters come to life, foreshadowing events so that a reader would say, "Ah-ha!" just seemed horribly difficult. For many, many years, I was content to read, and channel my creative efforts into my work as a software engineer and my family.

How long did it take for you to get published? I wrote for the sheer pleasure of it for about nine years, never imagining anyone else would want to read my stories. Along the way, I picked up bits of information about the craft of writing. Eventually I entered a few contests and got some good feedback. In 1998, I started a new story and knew it was better than anything I’d written thus far. (That was Song of the Beast.) When I finished it, I started Transformation and knew that was the best thing I’d done thus far. Meanwhile my friend and I went to a regional writers conference to learn about publishing. A year and a half later, I sold Song of the Beast, Transformation, and the book that became Revelation and Restoration.

How did you feel when you finally got published? Elated. Disbelieving. I still don’t quite believe it. I see myself as a very ordinary person – wife, mother, teacher, engineer. I took up this hobby, and wow, here I am doing an interview for a Malaysian publication!

What drew you to the fantasy genre? I’ve always read across many genres: mysteries, historical fiction, classics, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, mountain climbing stories, mythology, spy thrillers, romantic suspense, and so on. What I love about fantasy is that it is such a grand canvas for telling any human story. Its “genre prescriptions” are very minor, and one can incorporate all the delights of these other types of stories.

Your characters are often put through quite a bit of torture in your books! Is there a reason why? It’s true, I am not easy on my heroes and heroines. Conflict is the meat of a good story. Conflict changes people. And in order to make people change, in order to make them do things they really, really don't want to do - to be truly heroic - I confront them with hard events. My characters tend to be smart and strong, which means their challenges have to be hard, mentally or physically or both.

What's your writing process like? I am not an outliner. Most of the time I begin with an image of a character in a bad situation – a handsome, arrogant young warrior riding through the desert, as if bound for a great destiny, though I know he is currently unworthy of it (whatever it is) or my poor musician getting released after seventeen years of torment still not knowing why he had been imprisoned. Or I get struck by something I hear, like a news feature on our National Public Radio entitled The Last Lighthouse that gets me thinking about lighthouses and what they do. Which, of course, led to the development of the Lighthouse Duet. As to the events in the unfolding plot, I come up with them along the way, always trying to think: what would these people really do, and how can I turn these events upon their heads. I keep notes and timelines and “who knows what lists” that I develop as I go.

What do you think about your books becoming eBooks? I think it’s terrific. Clearly more and more readers are reading on electronic devices, often in addition to paper books.

But I do think someone is going to have to do something about piracy. I’ve seen “torrent sites” where 1,500 copies of one of my books have been downloaded, and there are hundreds of these sites. Authors get not a cent from pirated books. This not only prevents them getting royalties, ie. income! But also it cuts into their sales, which means publishers won’t pick up their next works. Readers will eventually be stuck with the twenty bestselling authors and miss out on lots of wonderful stories.

Among all your books - who's your favourite character and why? Oh, that is like asking which of my children I like the most! Valen from the Lighthouse Books, is my delight. But Anne, Portier, Dante, and Ilario … new in the Collegia Magica books … are all waving their hands at me. And then there is Seyonne … and Aleksander. Aidan is incurably romantic, and I loved Gerick from when he was a troubled ten-year-old, all the way to maturity. And that's not even getting in to the secondary characters like Saverian and Jen and Paulo … Nope. It's impossible to answer that.

Would you consider writing other genres? Possibly. But right now, I’m really enjoying what I write. There are limitless possibilities in fantasy.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer right now? I love having readers tell me they reread my books and find new things in them on each pass through. That’s the relationship I have with my favorite books. I enjoy meeting readers at conventions and conferences. I enjoy the writing itself – even when it is hard – especially feeling the pieces of a story fall into place by the end.

What do you say to aspiring fantasy writers? Here are the pieces I consider essential for a fantasy that I want to read:

1. Complex characters that live and breathe, who have all the richness of human beings (even if they are not quite human). The genre has far too many pasteboard heroes.

2. Intelligent, likeable heroes and heroines and intelligent, complex villains. People who are not all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good or all-evil.

3. A world that hangs together logically, that while I am reading, makes me believe it could exist, even including its fantastic elements.

These things require lots of hard thinking, true research, and hard work at the craft of writing.

How many more books do you have in you? Many more, I hope.

The publishing industry is a brutal one, and staying published is a challenge - how do you manage to keep being published? Mostly it is thanks to faithful readers, who not only buy my books, but write reviews or recommend them to friends and coworkers. I like to think that happens because I work hard to create stories I am passionate about. Readers do need to know that almost every author they follow is on the verge of being dropped.

Finally, if you can spare us some details about the second book after Spirit Lens, it'll be wonderful.

The Soul Mirror takes up the story four years after the ending of The Spirit Lens. The missing perpetrator has not been found. Strange things have been happening around Castelle Escalon, which lead Portier and the king to believe that they have not ended the conspiracy, but only delayed its result. And our renegade sorcerer has become more erratic and much more dangerous.

But it is the abrupt murder of one of the witnesses from the trial that sets a new train of events in motion.Our librarian friend Portier does not tell this portion of the story. The narrator is Anne de Vernase, who was herself a most important witness in the culminating trial in The Spirit Lens. Anne is reserved and intelligent and very, very disciplined. She is a skeptic when it comes to magic and despises its practitioners (except for her sister). Which means, of course, that she is thrown into a situation where everything she believes is turned upside down, and she is forced to confront some Very Bad Things, including our scary renegade mage, with only her wits. And that's before she starts hearing voices and seeing … mmm … apparitions.