The Barnes and Noble Interview - July 22, 1997
Moderator: Welcome to the BarnesandNoble.com Live Events Auditorium! Tonight we're proud to present Barbara Hambly, author of A FREE MAN OF COLOR, as well as many other bestselling high fantasies and vampire tales. Ms. Hambly will be here at 8 PM ET, but you can leave a question for her now by clicking on the red button above. Also, don't miss your chance to own your own signed, bookplated copy of A FREE MAN OF COLOR -- available for immediate delivery!
Moderator: Welcome Ms. Hambly, we're glad you could join us here tonight! Is this your first online event?
BH: No. I've had another online event a couple of years ago but I can't remember where or when.
Jon from Maryland: Was it difficult for you to write in the voice of a black man? What kind of research did you do before undertaking this project?
BH: I did extensive research at the Historic New Orleans Collection. And I did not think so much about writing in the voice of a black man, as writing in the voice of a historical character from another time and place.
Amanda from New Jersey: Will you write any more stories involving Benjamin? He is a really wonderful character!
BH: Yes, the second book about Benjamin is FEVER SEASON. I've already turned in the manuscript, and it should be out in the Summer of 1998. And I'm working on a third one.
Moderator: Welcome. . . to our viewers and to Ms. Hambly! Matt, our esteemed Sci-Fi editor, is typing for Ms. Hambly, who joins us tonight by way of phone. Submit your questions NOW!
Amy King from North Carolina: How is writing suspense fiction different from fantasy? Do you have a different audience in mind when writing in these different genres?
BH: I seldom write with an audience in mind, I write mostly because it's a story that I want to read. I write to amuse myself. I know that it's a different audience, but I don't write for an audience. It's different writing fantasy because in fantasy I will frequently use magic, and there are things that I can do using magic, involved in the story, that I obviously can't do in a straight historical setting.
Jim Selbert from Pasadena: I read in your bio that you live in New Orleans -- is it at all the same place it was in 1833 when your story is set? How is it similar, how is it different?
BH: There are obvious differences. But I think many of those differences date to the period between about 1845 up through the Civil War. That period in terms of racial relations, in terms of cultural assumptions made is completely different than it was in the 1830s. Then of course, the Civil War and Reconstruction completely changed the outlook of people. And of course, physically, the city is very, very different. I have maps of the city from different eras and I have to be very careful that things that appear to me to be old (which may only date back to 1860 and not even standing in the 1830s when I'm writing about it). Very different city even between the 1850s and the 1830s.
Brenden from San Antonio: What distinguishes an historical mystery from a mystery? Did you do any historical research while you were writing this book? If so, did you uncover anything particularly exciting or unexpected?
BH: Yes. When I was doing the research for FREE MAN OF COLOR, I uncovered reference to a court case that I'm using in the plot of the third book, which is titled GRAVEYARD DUST. I'm basing a great deal of it on an actual court case that I encountered in my research for the first book.
Rory from Florida: Hey Barbara, I have four questions for you:
1) I am planning to write a book of commentaries soon (I am going into the 8th grade at the end of August and thought that December would be the perfect time to start). Anyway, when I start writing this book, should I think of what commentaries I want to write? Do some research? What should I do?
2) How do you overcome writers' block?
3) How much time do you spend writing?
4) How do you put life into your characters? Do you use character sheets? Do you watch people's personalities and write them down? How do you do it?
Thanks a bunch!!!!
BH: 1) Yes. Research always gives anything you say a better groundwork to build on.
2) The way I overcome writers block is that, if I'm working and find myself stopped, I will go back into the events of the story and see if I can change what's happening. If I find myself stopped, it usually means my subconscious is telling me that the story is not working. So I backtrack in the story and see what else I could have done.
3) It depends on whether I'm writing a first draft or second draft or a final draft. A first draft - I can only work for three or four hours a day, and usually only for an hour at a time. If I'm writing second draft or third draft, I will write six or eight hours a day. Sometimes I have written as much as ten or twelve hours a day.
4) No, all of my characters are just people that seem to live in my head. One way that I give life to some characters but not all of them is that I imagine who would play them in a movie. And when I'm writing, I try to see that person or hear that person's voice.
Laura Dinen from Falmouth, MA: Will you write any more Star Wars books? Your talent is so diverse! Are there any other genres you are interested in experimenting with?
BH: I don't know whether I will write any more Star Wars books or not. I would like to try writing a historical romance and a western. I'm always interested in branching out in other genres.
Dominique McCarthy from San Diego: Do you think that the same racial issues that are present in your story are present in today's society?
BH: Some of them. But society as a whole is very different and perceptions of black people have changed over the historical period. And some of the issues are the same, but some have changed.
Paul from Clinton, NY: Are any of your stories ever built around a real experience of yours?
BH: Yes. I wrote a fantasy novel called STRANGER AT THE WEDDING about a young female wizard who goes home to visit her parents who don't realize what magic is about. I built this around what sometimes it feels like to me to sometimes deal with my own parents. While I love them, they sometimes don't seem to understand what writing is about. LADIES OF MANDRIGYN -- many incidents in it were based on your training in karate.
Don from NYC, NY: Is there really a way to tell, down to the fraction, how much a person is black or white? Was the term octoroon a blanket phrase for those of lighter colored skin, or was it really scientific?
BH: Technically, octoroon meant at that time "a person with seven white grandparents and one black grandparent." As far as I know, there is no way of looking at someone and being able to say what the percentage of African genetics vs. European genetics. As far as I know I don't think there is a way of analyzing DNA to tell what the percentage is simply because the differences are so small and so slight on a genetic level -- what it actually is to be a human being -- that they make no difference at all.
Barry a teacher from Simsbury, CT: A technical question for you (your book, with which I am almost done, is fantastic!) How often do you write. . . daily? And how do you go about it - do you use a word processor or do you usually take notes and then write? Do you have any quarky habits that are part of the process?
BH: Well, I write on a computer, then I will print out a hard copy and will go over it with a ball point pen and rewrite sentences or paragraphs or chapters by hand. Sometimes I have written entire chapters of a book on notebook paper on an airplane or sitting in a hotel in Istanbul. And then I enter them into a computer when I have access to a computer again. As far as quirky habits -- sometimes when I'm writing a book which involves a lot of macho men running around being heroic, I will sit down for several nights and watch Rambo movies, or sweaty-blowing-things-up movies. My friends find this disgusting.
Amy from NYC: You say that your parents don't understand what writing is about, what do you think writing is all about? What is it about a person that makes he or she a writer?
BH: I think a person is a writer if they HAVE to write. This is not an easy way to make a living. I think I would be doing this even if I were not making money at it. I think people who are true writers write because they have to. They can't NOT do it. They have stories in them to tell, and they have to tell them.
Robert Macnamara from NY: What did you conceive of first, Benjamin and the other extraordinary characters, or the plot and thematical structure? I am fascinated with the coming together of all elements of the novel?
BH: First I wanted to do a story in that milieu. I wanted to do a story about a murder mystery involving a free black detective in the antibellum south. Then I came up with the story and Benjamin and his family and the people around him kind of grew up out of thinking about "who would these people be" in that era. I don't know why or when I realized that Benjamin would be a musician, but once I realized that, so much of his outlook became very clear to me. This was a man who genuinely loves music and who thinks in terms of music. Which means that I have to do a lot of research about early 19th century music.
Lamotte from New Orleans: Who gets to read your books before they're published? Friends, your husband? Do you pay much attention to editorial criticism?
BH: Friends and my husband will usually read my books before they're published. I am very attentive to editorial suggestions because I know that certainly my mystery editor knows much more about the field than I do. And both my current fantasy editor and the fantasy editor that I had before her, know much more about the fantasy field than I do. And so I'm always ready to listen to an editor's suggestions.
Kathleen from Oxford: Which writers have been influential in your own writing? Do you have any particular favorites?
BH: I have many, many favorites. Just to name a few -- Mary Renault, Georgette Hayer, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Manning Coles, John LeCarre, J.R.R. Tolkien. I have to add Margaret Mitchell. GONE WITH THE WIND taught me a great deal about how to put a story together. She has her faults, but the woman was a master storyteller.
Elizabeth McCoy from NH: Would it be a horrible faux pas to #1: say I absolutely adore the Windrose series, and #2: ask if you intend to write any more in that "world"?
BH: It is not a faux pas to say you enjoy that series. I adore it. I do plan to write more in that world.
Gabriel from Orlando: When you begin writing a fantasy novel, how much do you detail the world you will use? Do you have notebooks full of fictional histories?
BH: No. All of this is in my head. Usually when I begin writing a fantasy novel, the first thing that I establish in my own mind is "what is the level of technology?" I try to match it with a historical period. For instance, in the Windrose series, the level of technology is late 18th century. In the Sunwolf and Starhawk series the level of technology is about Renaissance. And that's the first thing that I establish. Once I establish that, many other things fall into place.
Tim from Alabama: Did you fear people wouldn't take you serious with Free Man of Color since you're primarily known for your fantasy and science fiction?
BH: I wouldn't say I feared it but it was a concern. I'm delighted that people like the book. I hope that my historical suspense writing will be taken seriously and will advance this as a second career.
Rick Rhodes from New York: I see that you earned a masters in medieval history - have you ever used your knowledge of that area in fiction? WIll you ever write a factual history, or will continue with fiction?
BH: My masters in medieval history taught me how to do research and I use those skills with every book that I write, whether it's fantasy, or history-based fantasy like the Vampire books or straight historical, like the New Orleans books. I use research in some degree on all of them. If I were to write a straight non-fiction history, it would probably not be medieval. There are a number of other places and times that I would be interested in doing non-fiction about, but oddly enough, none of them are medieval.
Moderator: For those of you just joining us, Barbara Hambly is here to answer questions about her bestselling books and life as a writer. Submit your questions by clicking on the red button above, and order a signed copy of her latest book, A FREE MAN OF COLOR, available for delivery NOW!
Suzzanne Bardot from New Rochelle, NY: Are you reading anything right now?
BH: Yes, the autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant.
Tara from Maclane, VA: How do you know when you are done with a book?
BH: It feels done.
Brian from Hoboken: Have the movie rights been optioned for FREE MAN OF COLOR, or any of your other works? How would you feel about having your writing adjusted for the screen. . . who would play Benjamin?
BH: I have had a number of books optioned for short terms but nothing has come of any of that yet. I would love to see FREE MAN OF COLOR made into a film. The actor that I see as Benjamin is Lou Gossett. But I think Lawrence Fishburn would be very good too. But my first choice would be Lou Gossett. I think he is a phenomenal actor.
SunHound from Orlando: Mrs. Hambly, will you be writing a third installment to your Sun Cross books?
BH: Eventually, but not in the near future.
Kristin from San Antonio: Did you have A FREE MAN OF COLOR planned completely before you wrote it? Or was there anything about the way the story unfolded that surprised you? - It is a great story!!
BH: The relationship between January and his mother is something that unfolded as I was writing the story. His mother is a horrible woman, but I very much enjoyed writing her because she is a very strong woman. And she's fought very hard for what she has.
Robin Kelleher from Hartford: Have you ever abandoned an idea for a book, or tried something that just did not work? What was it and why did it not work?
BH: I don't think I've ever completely abandoned an idea for a book. There were a couple of light contemporary comedies that didn't work and I put them aside. But eventually, I may go back to them also. I always have more ideas than I can deal with at any one time.
Emily from Princeton: Have you studied one period in history that you are particularly enamoured by? If you could live at any other time, when would it be?
BH: Unfortunately I know too much about the inconveniences of living in a pre-industrial society to go live there. And I am a very bleak pessimist about the future, so I think I'll just stay right here, thank you very much. I will say that I'm very happy to have lived in the 1960s.
Philip Strand from Brooklyn: Do you have any advice for a writer just starting out? How did you get started? Was it long before you established yourself?
BH: My advice for a writer just staring out is to have your work read by someone else who's judgment you trust. Be willing to take their advice and be willing to rewrite. It took me less time than I thought it would to establish myself as a fantasy writer. From the time I published my first novel fifteen years ago, I think I have always been well regarded, and I don't think it took me long to establish myself as a well-known author.
Moderator: Ms. Hambly has time for a few more questions -- click on the red button above!
Jamie Griffith from Ann Arbor: Your suspense is so wonderful! What is the key to writing suspense? Can you share your tricks?
BH: I don't know what the key to writing suspense is. What I try to do is to make everything appear as real as possible, and to play fair with my readers. Not to pull something out of a hat that they have had NO clue about before. When you look back at the story, you should be able to see it coming.
Bill M. from New York: Do you prefer writing your own original SF and fantasy, or do you like using characters that others have created, like the Star Wars characters?
BH: I have a great deal of fun doing it both ways. I love my own characters, but I would not write about the Star Wars characters if I didn't love them too. I have written Star Trek novels because I love that set of characters. I wrote two novelizations of the T.V. show "Beauty and the Beast" because I was fond of those characters. So I can't say I love one type of character above another, because I loved them all differently.
Larry W. from NYC: Who of your contemporaries do you read and enjoy?
BH: I read and enjoy Elizabeth Peters, George Alec Effinger, who is also my fiancee, but I read and enjoyed his stuff long before we got involved. Neil Gaiman. Joe Haldeman. I have read and enjoyed some of Anne Rice but not all of Anne Rice.I don't read many novels.
Moderator: Thanks so much for joining us tonight Ms. Hambly! Congratulations on your success, we look forward to having you here again in the future! Best of luck and good night!
BH: Thank you.
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