Tell the Stories You Have to Tell: Interview with Tanya Huff

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Canadian fantasy author Tanya Huff was born in Nova Scotia, but spent much of her childhood in Kingston, Ontario. She eventually moved to Toronto, and later, to “the middle of nowhere,” Ontario. Her first novel, Child of the Grove was published in 1988.

Blood TiesHuff’s “Blood Books” (a series of novels pairing human detective Vicki Nelson with vampire and novelist Henry Fitzroy) were adapted as the series Blood Ties for CBC Television. The series also aired in the US on Lifetime.

The third book in her current series (commonly referred to as the “Gale Girls” series) was recently completed. The second book, The Wild Ways, was released in November 2011.

Earlier this month, Huff’s 2012 novel The Silvered won the 2013 Aurora Award. (The Aurora Awards honor science fiction and fantasy works by Canadian authors.)

We here at Toasted Cheese were happy to have Tanya Huff share her experience and insight with us. (And be warned… a couple of her responses had the interviewer all choked up!)

Tell the Stories You Have to Tell

Toasted Cheese: When did you first know that writing was what you wanted to do?

Tanya Huff: The late George Carlin used to answer the question “Did you always know you wanted to be a comedian?” with “Not in the womb, but right after that.” I have a letter that my grandmother, who was taking care of me, wrote to my father while he was out to sea, when I was three. In it, she tells him a story I told her of a spider who lived at the bottom of the garden. (He made a web and ate a fly and then he fell asleep and his web got broken. —come on, I was three!) I also illustrated it. Badly.

The year I turned ten, one of my cousins had spinal surgery and had to spend the entire summer in bed. I spent a good portion of my summer telling her stories—and acting them out with our Barbie dolls.

The thing is, I have always been a storyteller but I had no idea you could make a career of it. My family is not exactly… bookish.

TC: How long have you been writing professionally? Did you do anything else before you started writing?

Child of the GroveTH: I sold two pieces of poetry when I was ten—but I don’t think you could call that writing professionally. In 1985 I sold a story to George Scithers at Amazing and then in early 1986 I sold Child of the Grove to Sheila Gilbert at DAW. I went on to sell another four stories to George and another twenty-eight books to Sheila.

Before that I spent a year studying forestry at Lakehead University, took a class C posting with the Naval Reserve (which I’d been in for two years at that point), spent six months in LA where if I’d had any idea of the way things worked, I’d be a television writer today, six months working for a security company, four months working maintenance for the YWCA in Toronto, three months in a coffee factory, then off to Ryerson Polytechnic for a degree in Radio and Television Arts paid for by working at Mr. Gameway’s Ark and selling sunglasses from a pushcart at Yonge and Bloor but graduated the year the CBC had massive layoff so went to work managing Gypsy Bazaar—the first of the flea markets as stores—and, finally, left them to work at Bakka Books for eight years where I was when I wrote the first four of my novels.

TC: We all know that the work of writing often involves just doing the work, regardless of whether or not the muse is in the building. That said, what inspires you?

TH: Hmmm, good question. People, definitely. Everyone has a story and a lot of those stories are distinctly stranger than fiction. And other people’s writing. When I finish a book that really touches me—emotionally, or intellectually—it gets me all fired up to go and write.

TC: Do you have any specific habits or rituals that help you get “in the zone”?

TH: Hot beverages are important. *g* It used to always be tea—plain black tea with milk—but in the last few years I’ve started drinking more coffee and green tea so just generally, the making of a hot drink. Boiling the water. Pouring into the pot. Waiting. Pouring it into the cup. Carrying it into my office. It’s one of the reasons I don’t work on a laptop—I’ve drowned any number of keyboards over the years.

TC: I know that music is important to you. Do you listen to music when you write? How does music inform your characters and their stories?

The Wild WaysTH: The only time I’ve ever listened to music while writing was during The Wild Ways when I had Cape Breton fiddle music on fairly constantly. Usually, I relate to music the way I relate to short stories, each piece is complete in and of itself and isn’t meant to be a creative layer in a larger whole. I listen when I’m running, and in the truck, and doing housework, and it often inspires creativity the way any other piece of another person’s writing may, but when I’m actually working and being creative myself, I prefer silence. Now, if things aren’t going particularly well, then I’ll throw on some music and play spider solitaire for a while until something breaks loose but, generally, if I’m at my desk, it’s quiet.

TC: Where is your favorite place to write?

TH: I have an office with a desk and my desktop and a whole lot of research books and, if I’m home, that’s where I am between one and six in the afternoon. I’ve never understood how people can write in coffee shops—I’d be too busy people watching. That said, I really like to write on trains. I don’t know what it is, but I can sometimes produce an entire day’s word count during the two-and-a-half hours it takes to get into Toronto.

TC: I know that this is like asking someone to choose their favorite child, but do you have a favorite of the books (or series) you’ve written?

TH: It is kind of a favorite child question… Unlike a number of writers, I still like everything I’ve ever written. There’s a few structural things I’d like to fix in some of the early stuff—although I think the Quarters books are some of my best writing, particularly The Quartered Sea—but for me, it’s all about the storytelling and I enjoy the stories I tell. I even still like the Ravensloft book I wrote for hire. Now, I can say that Valor’s Choice was the most fun I ever had writing a book. Fitting space marines and evolved dinosaurs into Rorke’s Drift was joy from start to finish.

TC: How about of the ones you haven’t written? (That is, that have been written by someone else… not imaginary ones. *g*)

TH: I adore everything Terry Pratchett has ever written. When there’s a hole in my life for whatever reason, I turn to Pratchett. He sees people, with all their complexities and stupidities and courage and cowardice and potential in a way that no other writer I know does.

I love Charles de Lint’s work and I think he knows secret things the rest of us only suspect exist.

TC: Earlier this year, Stephen King wrote about first lines for The Atlantic. Do you have a favorite opening line from any of your books or stories? How much thought do you put into those first words your reader will see? Are there any opening lines by other authors that you admire?

TH: Sitting here, without getting up and checking, I have no memory of what any of my first lines are. And I just sent my latest book of three days ago. This is not to say I don’t work at getting the first lines right, but once they’re written they’re part of the story and while I remember the story, I don’t remember the words that make it up.

So, let’s take a look at a few…

The Future Falls: 3rd Gale girl book, just turned in… She lay stretched out under a beach umbrella, long silver braid coiled on top of her head, the fingers of one hand wrapped around a Pina Colada—made with real island rum and fresh coconut milk—the fingers of the other drumming against the broad teak arm of the lounge chair. Hmmm, really needs the next line to make it work. She’d been watching a beach volleyball game and she hadn’t appreciated having her view of half naked, athletic young men bounding about on the sand interrupted by the Sight of a falling rock.

We’ve set up the Gale’s appreciation of handsome young men, given enough information that readers of the first two books can identify the character but—hopefully—intrigued new readers, and set up the entire A plot. Not too bad.

The SilveredThe Silvered: 2012’s hardcover release… Senses nearly overpowered by the scent of sweat and gunpowder and cheap pipe tobacco, Tomas followed his nose through the 1st Aydori Volunteers, searching for his greatcoat. Okay, that introduces a main character, lets you know he’s probably not human, sets the tech level as post-gunpowder, and suggests there’s going to be a military element. Decent set up.

Blood Price: 1991, the first of the Vicki Nelson/Henry Fitzroy books… Ian shoved his hands deep in his pockets and scowled down the length of the empty subway platform. Well, that pretty much establishes something’s definitely going to happen and that we probably shouldn’t get too attached to Ian given the lack of information about him.

Now, my absolute favorite line in any book ever is from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis: There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. Although honesty forces me to admit that I remember it as: Once there was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb…

TC: What was your favorite book as a child or teen (or both, if you like…)?

TH: As a child, I lived in the Narnia books. I’ve been trying to get through that wardrobe since I was seven. As a teen it was Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey and Zenna Henderson and Robert Heinlein topping the list, but I read everything I could get my hands on so it was harder to have a favorite. Although, I did stand in line for two hours to have Anne McCaffrey sign Dragon Singer so…

TC: Earlier this year on your blog, you discussed an issue with some staffers at a bookstore chain warning readers away from your books due to LGBT content. Was it resolved to your satisfaction? Had you experienced any similar problems previously?

TH: Once I mentioned it in the blog, I was contacted by people from the chain who took it completely seriously and assured me this was an individual not a company policy and it was dealt with. I was impressed by their response and, as I said at the time, well aware that in other stores in the same chain my books have likely been recommended because of their LGBT content.

I’ve never, to my knowledge, had a previous problem with that sort of thing. My editor has never wanted me to change a character’s orientation. The Smoke books, which have a gay protagonist, did have an interesting drop in numbers from book one to book two, but that could have been because of the realization they weren’t continuations of the Blood books not because the gay was front and center instead of safely in the background. I do have to say though, people who love the Smoke books, really love the Smoke books.

TC: Can you tell us anything about any new projects that you’re working on?

The Enchantment EmporiumTH: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve just handed in The Future Falls, the third Gale Girls book (after The Enchantment Emporium and The Wild Ways). It tried to kill me—never write a book based on a clever idea you and your editor kicked around during a phone call. Or maybe you can. I need a little more mulling it over time. I’m now about to start on a new Torin Kerr book. I can’t call it a new Valor book because if you’ve read Truth of Valor you know there’s been some changes but I’m really looking forward to getting back into that ‘verse.

TC: Finally, any words of wisdom for our readers?

TH: Tell the stories you have to tell. Write a book, write a story, write a poem, write a song, bake cupcakes, bake cookies, bake pie, build a house, dance, sew, paint, draw, rebuild a car, garden, knit, quilt, carve, program a computer, raise a child, make a home, sit around a campfire and start with, “Once upon a time…”

It’s not how the story is told, it’s the telling.

Catch up with Tanya Huff online:
Tanya Huff’s LiveJournal
Tanya Huff’s Twitter


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