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A Conversation With Victoria Strauss
An interview with Cindy Lynn Speer
May 2004

© Victoria Strauss
Victoria Strauss
Victoria Strauss
Victoria Strauss was born in Exeter, New Hampshire. Throughout her life, she has traveled extensively, living in several U.S. states, as well as Ireland, England and Germany. She graduated from Vassar College with a degree in Comparative Religion. Her novels include The Lady of Rhuddesmere, Worldstone, Guardian of the Hills, The Arm of the Stone and its sequel, The Garden of the Stone. The Burning Land is the first half of a duology. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her husband Rob.

Victoria Strauss Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Excerpt: The Burning Land
SF Site Review: The Garden of the Stone
SF Site Review: The Arm of the Stone

The Burning Land
The Garden of the Stone
The Arm of the Stone

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Victoria Strauss is a name to know. She has written six books, including The Arm of the Stone, The Garden of the Stone and the recently published The Burning Land. She's also written countless articles and been an invaluable help to would be writers with her work on the Writer Beware web site. To top it off, SF Site readers will doubtless have read her many thoughtful reviews. A trip to her web page is informative as well as fun. Not only does she have helpful links and suggestions for writers, but she includes book excerpts of her latest book, a bit about the editing process and a deleted scene.

The very heart of The Burning Land seems to be about religion, especially about how two different groups see the same deity. This is a very generalist way to put this, but, what were you trying to say about religion?

Exactly that. That religion, like so many other things, is a matter of interpretation, and that different people with different views and agendas may, in all sincerity (or ignorance, or self-interest), interpret the word of the god in completely different ways. This relativity is one of the things that fascinates me about religion -- for in the end, despite artifacts like holy books or sacred objects, there's no objective proof of what we believe, only the leap of faith we make in believing (or not believing, as the case may be).

The Way of Ârata, my invented faith, isn't one of those fantasy religions where the god intervenes directly in the plot and winds up being just another character, albeit a very powerful one. As in real life, Ârata remains offstage throughout. There are no infallible signs or revelations to tell the characters what to do or how to think -- they have to make their own choices, based on the imperfect information that's available to them. Again as in real life, what matters is not so much the literal existence of a god, which can never be proven, but what people believe about the god, and how they act on their faith.

The Burning Land isn't a religious book, but a book about religion (an important distinction, as I realized during one radio interview when it became apparent that the host thought I'd written a Christian fantasy), and it explores a number of different viewpoints, from orthodoxy to heresy to atheism to faith lost and then regained -- and also the clash at the intersection of religious and secular life, and the deeply vested self-interest of religious institutions, which often places them at odds with the faith they're supposed to guide and guard. I try to give each viewpoint equal weight, and leave it up to the reader to make up his or her own mind.

I know the above sounds rather dry and academic -- so I'd like to say as well that the book is epic fantasy, and the serious themes are set within the framework of an adventure plot, with perilous journeys, unusual magics, world-shaking discoveries (no earth-devouring evils or dark lords though), a love story, and a dramatic twist at the end. Something for everyone, I hope.

What inspired The Burning Land? Can you give us a glimpse of what to expect in the next book of the series?
The basic idea came from research I did years ago for a book about Hernando de Soto's trek through the southeastern United States (I never wrote this book, but hope to go back to it someday -- it's a fabulously strange and fascinating story). I did some background reading on the Spanish incursion into Mexico, and was struck by the part that Hernan Cortez's completely coincidental resemblance to a figure of Aztec religious prophecy played in his success. That's the idea that lies at the core of The Burning Land: an explorer who stumbles on an undiscovered community, and precipitates conflict and tragedy because of his accidental fulfillment of their religious expectations.

It isn't a series but a duology. The sequel (untitled at present) explores the questions raised in the first volume (who is the Next Messenger? What's his purpose? Has Ârata really woken from his long slumber?) and follows the protagonists, Gyalo and Axane, as they're sucked even deeper into the conflict unleashed by the revelation they brought out of the Burning Land. There are some interesting new characters, including Sundit, a Daughter of the Brethren (the perpetually reincarnated leaders of the church); her part of the story is told in first-person journal entries, an interesting departure for me as I haven't written anything in first person since my first novel.

You mention on your website that you traveled a lot growing up. Do you think that's affected your writing?
I think it made me conscious of how little of the world is like your own particular part of it -- of how much otherness there is out there. Especially the way my family traveled, on a shoestring budget and with an aversion to typical tourism that sometimes resulted in a lot more immersion in different cultures than I was prepared for as a child. That's definitely something I use in my fiction -- the sense of alienness that lurks beneath the everyday. And I think that witnessing cultural differences -- sometimes in very uncomfortable ways; I have lots of travel horror stories -- has helped me in making the imaginary societies I write about more real.

What was your big break as a writer? How did you get your first book published? Did you use an agent?
I wrote my first novel when I was 17. My long-suffering mother (who is still my best reader and critic) typed the manuscript up for me and I began to send it round to publishers. I got lots of nice rejections, but no takers. Just by chance, it wound up in the hands of an editor who was planning to set up as an agent, and she offered to represent me. I knew absolutely nothing about agents, but thought it couldn't hurt, so I agreed. She has since become very successful -- a huge stroke of luck for me, as I've never had to go through the ordeal of agent-querying that's standard for writers nowadays, if they want to publish with one of the large houses.

My agent wasn't able to sell the book either. I put my writing hopes on hold, and resigned myself to a boring day job. But my agent never quit. Eventually, six years after taking me on, she did get an offer, from a small publisher that has since been gobbled up by one of the large conglomerates. I had an incredibly generous and insightful editor, who saw promise in a very imperfect novel and was willing to work intensively with me to make it worthy of publication. I learned an enormous amount from her, not just about craft but about discipline and dedication. She really taught me how to be a writer, and I'll always be grateful.

Why did you start Writer Beware? What was the most valuable lesson maintaining it has taught you?
I'm often asked if I got involved with Writer Beware because I was scammed (for those who haven't visited the website, it's a compendium of warnings about the many scams that prey on writers, and advice on how to avoid them). The answer is no -- by and large, I've had pretty good luck. Naïvely, I thought my experience was typical. But in the late 90s, when I first began to use the Internet and to participate in online writers' groups, I discovered how wrong I was. Literary scams and pitfalls -- from fee-charging agents to unqualified freelance editors to unscrupulous publishers to fake contests to bogus services -- are depressingly common, and getting more so all the time.

I was fascinated and appalled by this strange alternate universe of scams and schemes, and when I saw a call on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's website for a volunteer to develop a cautionary resource on literary fraud, I jumped at the chance. Around the same time, another SFWA member, A.C. Crispin, was putting together a Writing Scams Committee. A mutual acquaintance put us in touch, and Writer Beware was the result.

In addition to maintaining the website (which is updated at least quarterly with new information and links), we collect complaints and documentation on questionable agents, publishers and others. Right now we have files on more than 350 agents, nearly 200 publishers, and assorted editors, contests, and services. It's the largest and most complete database of its kind in the world, and we use it to provide information not just to writers who contact us with questions (we get upwards of 50 letters a week), but to law enforcement officials, with whom we're currently at work on several ongoing investigations.

I'd say the chief lesson of Writer Beware is this: do your research. Don't query an agent unless you know s/he has a track record of selling books to legitimate publishers. Don't approach a publisher unless you're certain it's able to edit and market its books. Don't hire a freelance editor without reviewing his/her qualifications. Don't enter a contest without checking its bona fides. Don't hand over money for any service unless you're sure that service is of true benefit (unlike, for instance, the many "book marketing" services that have sprung up in response to the enormous rise in print-on-demand-based self/vanity publishing). I often get despairing letters from writers who are convinced that the world is full of sharks and it's impossible to avoid them. It's actually very easy to avoid them, if you educate yourself about the publishing industry -- a step, I have to say, that many writers seem to want to skip.

You write young adult titles as well as adult. What do you think the essential difference between the two is? Do you consider them different genres or different mediums?
Definitely different genres, because you're catering to different audiences. The level of imagination and commitment you bring to each kind of book, though, is exactly the same.

My YA books are less complex, plot-wise, than my adult books, though that's mostly a result of the length restrictions that applied to YA fiction when I was writing it. Nowadays, post-Harry Potter, it's okay for YA books to be pretty hefty. My YA books also are less dark. This too has to do with the needs of the market when I was writing YA, and one of the main reasons I switched to adult fiction was that I wanted to be able to delve deeper into darker themes. Again, though, the YA market has changed quite a bit in the past decade or so, and books that deal with dark themes and disturbing subjects are far more acceptable than they used to be.

You've reviewed an impressive amount of books! How do you think being a reviewer has affected your work?
I think in a way I've always been a reviewer, because I've always read critically. Even as a child I'd spot plot holes and inconsistencies, and make up alternate versions to fix the problem. This became more conscious once I decided I wanted to be a writer, because I felt I should learn from what I read -- what authors got right, what they got wrong, the mechanics of prose style, the intricacies of technique, the interweaving of theme. Writing down my thoughts about these things for other people to read was a very natural transition. So I wouldn't say that being a reviewer has affected my writing so much as it is a natural outgrowth of it.

It has affected my reading. I used to know a music critic, who told me that he sometimes regretted his career choice because he wasn't able any longer to listen to something for pure pleasure -- he felt compelled to analyze it. I feel the same way. I have to remind myself, when I'm not reading for review, not to work so hard.

Do you have any other projects that you're working on? Do you plan to write any more YA titles?
I have several ideas I'm batting around. One is a third, unrelated novel set in the world of The Burning Land, but much earlier, based on a historical incident. I'd also love to go back to my de Soto idea, maybe transpose it somehow to a fantasy setting. And I'd definitely like to do some more YA. I've got a great idea for a YA standalone fantasy.

When you're not writing, what can we find you doing?
I'm an insanely avid gardener. I have a large perennial garden, and in the spring and summer I spend most of my free time puttering in the dirt and adding to my plant collection (I think there are 12-step programs for people like me). I'm also something of an exercise nut -- I walk and run year round, no matter what the weather. And Writer Beware takes up a large amount of time -- at this point, it's almost like a part-time job.

Which of your characters would you want to run into on a sidewalk, and why?
Hmmm. If I were looking for support and guidance, I think I'd want to run into Sundit, the Daughter of the Brethren who's a viewpoint character in the sequel to The Burning Land. She has her flaws, of course, and her conscience isn't clean by any means, but she's one of the most wise and self-aware characters I've ever created, and I feel a real sense of kinship with her.

If I were in a wild Gothic mood, I'd make a date with Bron, the dark and brooding hero of The Arm of the Stone. He'd sweep me off my feet -- until I got fed up with his egotism and his obsession with revenge, and booted him out the door. If I wanted a girlfriend, I'd meet up with Alexina, the heroine of Worldstone -- she's smart and kind, and has some kickass magical powers that could come in very handy. And if I were on the run from the Mafia, I'd definitely want to hook up with Teispas, the cavalry captain from The Burning Land. He's a loyal companion and a valiant fighter, with a cynical sense of humor much like my own. He'd have to update his weaponry, though.

What do you most want people to take away from your work?
A sense of a good story, well told, which raises questions that go beyond the action of the book. I'd like my novels to linger in readers' minds, so that they think of them at odd and unexpected moments (especially when they're standing in a bookstore wondering what to buy).

What is the most important thing for a would-be author to do? Do you think associations are important to someone who's not yet published?
The usual answers to this question -- be persistent, keep writing, read widely -- are good answers. All of those things are important. An answer you don't see so often is the one I gave above, in discussing Writer Beware: do your research. And do it first, not after the fact. This is truly vital -- knowledge is both your best tool and your most effective defense. I get so many letters from writers who've queried bad agents or publishers, and didn't think to research them until after they got a contract offer -- or, worse, signed the contract. You'll save yourself an enormous amount of grief and postage if you take some time at the start of your search for publication to educate yourself about the industry, and the people you're planning to approach.

Writers' associations can be valuable for networking and exchanging knowledge; many also produce informative newsletters and other materials, or put on good conferences. For someone who's still seeking publication, though, I really don't know how much benefit they provide that you couldn't manage on your own (apart from interaction with your peers, which is not always a positive thing, depending on the fragility of your ego).

If you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where could we take you?
Australia. I've been fascinated by it ever since I read James Vance Marshall's Walkabout. You'd have to beam me there, though, because I hate to fly.

What writers inspire you?
This is one of the toughest questions for me to answer, because there have been -- and are -- so many. From the wonderful children's authors I read growing up (Susan Cooper, Leon Garfield, T.H. White, Elizabeth Goudge) to the writers who introduced me to speculative fiction (Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin) to the wider world of literature (Thomas Hardy is my particular favorite) to the writers I've discovered through my reviewing (Jacqueline Carey, Ricardo Pinto. Scott Bakker, Ian MacLeod, Kage Baker) -- I think I take inspiration from all of them, in different ways.

Copyright © 2004 Cindy Lynn Speer

Cindy Lynn Speer loves books so much that she's designed most of her life around them, both as a librarian and a writer. Her books aren't due out anywhere soon, but she's trying. You can find her site at www.apenandfire.com.


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