Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Fantasy author Deborah J. Ross

I had the pleasure of meeting Deborah on a panel at Baycon. If I were to describe her based on our brief encounters at conventions, I would say she is a poised, professional writer with a giving spirit and a warm smile. She's also an excellent moderator. Deborah's short published works date back to the 80's, her novels to the 90s. She writes SF and F with equal ease. In addition, she has carried the Darkover series forward (or rather backward chronologically speaking) since her friend, mentor and collaborator, Marion Zimmer Bradley's death. Hastur Lord came out in January of this year. Read her full biography on her website.

AW: Can you tell us what it was like jettisoning your career to be with your daughter and follow your true passion of writing?

DJR: It happened in stages, as such things often do. The first thing to go was the office job, and for a number of years while Sarah (my firstborn) was small, I managed to work and write at home. The real break came when I lived in France and had to leave the other work behind entirely. I wrote every day and felt so relieved and--I guess the word is liberated--that I never went back.

AW: What sparked your interest in SF/F originally?

DJR: Andre Norton! In elementary and high school, I read omnivorously, but the Heinlein juveniles never interested me much. Then I picked up The Beast Master and fell in love. The book not only captured the sense of alienation--and I firmly believe that every adolescent feels like an alien, at least some of the time--but had the most wonderful animals. Balm to the soul of a horse-crazy teen! That book opened a door for me, and pretty soon I had stacks of favorites, not only Norton, but Poul Anderson and C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, and a few years later I discovered that surge of women writers--Marion of course, and Vonda McIntyre and Ursula Le Guin.

AW: What made you decide to study Kung Fu?

DJR: It’s all the fault of my calligraphy teacher! I studied (Western) calligraphy with Lloyd Reynolds at Reed College, and he talked about how tai chi had helped his other students. When I was working at the library at Cal Arts and they offered tai chi classes during my lunch hours, I jumped at the chance. That led me to network with other women martial artists during the 1980s. One of the women I met was studying with Jimmy H. Woo, who brought kung fu san soo to America. She dragged me along to watch and the next thing I knew, I was out on the mat. It was hard because there were so few women and so many of the men definitely had something to prove. But I kept coming back, bruises and all, for over 25 years. I outlasted them!

AW: How has it influenced your writing?

DJR: The obvious thing is that I had an experiential understanding of unarmed fighting, and some weapons work, too. I used my knowledge in all sorts of ways, from scenes of battle to fighting wolves bare-handed. The not-so-obvious benefit was my confidence in myself. I knew I could learn things, even things that were frightening and difficult. I learned patience and persistence, how to size up a situation and decide what’s worth fighting for, what’s important, and what I should prudently walk away from. Jimmy used to say, “You can take my life, but not my confidence.”

AW: You're not the first writer I've met who's had to finish collaborate works of a dear friend after the friend's death. What was that process like for you?

DJR: The first project, the Clingfire trilogy, was jump-started because Marion and I had worked together on the outline of the first book, and I had a firm sense of where the overall story arc was going. The characters for that trilogy, as for subsequent books, are a mix of established characters, created either by Marion or one of the other authors she worked with, and new characters entirely my own doing. I used scenes from her published books (most notably Hawkmistress! but also, to a lesser extent, Two To Conquer), changing the point of view, in order to maintain consistent tone. Fortunately, my natural literary voice is very close to Marion’s, and I’d already written a number of stories for the Darkover anthologies so I was familiar with the world not only as a reader but as a writer. Finally, I worked closely with the MZB Literary Trust and Betsy Wollheim at DAW, who was Marion’s editor and publisher. The reader response has been gratifying, to say the least.

AW: What was it like for you, personally?

DJR: I was excited, of course, and anxious to do a good job, but also confident that I would. I'd written a number of stories for the Darkover anthologies, I'd gotten a lot of feedback over the years from Marion herself, and I knew that my authorial "voice" was very close to hers. I think these feelings are common in this type of collaboration.

The other aspect, which is more specific to me personally, is that in the late 1990s, when we began work together, I was just emerging from a very dark time in my life. I was a single mom with a troubled adolescent child, working full time and struggling to re-establish my career. Marion's offer was like a hand up in getting back on my professional feet. I don't think she would have asked me solely for that reason, but she believed strongly in helping newer writers, in giving them a chance. She believed in me enough to entrust her special world to me. I felt--and still feel--honored and grateful.

AW: What do you think about e-books? Will they threaten the printed variety? Do you own an e-book reader?

DJR: I’m a printer’s daughter and I love the feel and weight and texture of books, even the wonderful smell of ink on fine paper. I hope there will always be a place for printed books, if only because of their longevity. Acid-free paper can last hundreds of years, and we don’t know of any electronic medium that stable. I do believe that publishing is undergoing many changes, both how books are produced and how they’re distributed and read. The important thing for me is not to get caught up in fear of change. Change has brought us everything we value in life, and people will always love good stories.

AW: Can you describe your best SF/F convention moment?

DJR: There are so many, let’s see… This happened at NASFic in 1990 (the infamous “ConDigeo” where the name San Diego was so often misspelled). I was on a panel on “Women Warriors” with Alis Rasmussen (before she started writing as Kate Elliot). We’d been talking about the difference between a hero and a warrior, using our own writing and experiences as martial artists, and then paused for questions. From the back of the room, a rather large man struck what’s charitably called “an attitude” and drawled, “Have any of you…ladies ever been in a real life and death situation?” Alis, bless her, shot back without missing a beat, “Yes, when I went into premature labor with twins.” Every woman in the room got it instantly, and most of the men, except, alas, the poor challenger.

AW: Can you remember when the first fan approached you? How did you react internally vs. externally?

DJR: I remember being surprised that someone was impressed enough with my stories to remember my name. This was in the mid-80s and I had sold only a few short stories to Sword & Sorceress, the Darkover anthologies, and some small press ‘zines. Very early in my career, I’d met such wonderful and gracious writers as Marion, Poul Anderson, Madeleine L’Engle, and C. J. Cherryh, so I did my best to give my own fans that same experience. Marion used to say that the very least a fan deserves is a good, clear autograph. She went the extra mile for her fans, and I try to follow her example.

AW: What are you working on now?

DJR: I’m finishing up the last book of my original fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield, which will be published by DAW. It began as a series of stories, “Azkhantian tales,” in Sword & Sorceress. I used the clash between the nomadic Scythian horse people and the urban Romans, and let the landscape of culture and magic unfold, often in quite surprising directions. As you can tell, I still love horses.

I’ve also been working on the next Darkover novel, an action/adventure set in the Dry Towns, and noodling around with a paranormal romance in collaboration with my husband, Dave Trowbridge. We sit in the hot tub and think up steamy scenes and even steamier magic. So far, we’ve got a heroine who directs a classical music improvisation group, a secret mystical cabal, and an incubus who is not quite what he seems. Very delicious.

vote it up!

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