Interview Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
A Conversation with Lynn Abbey
Interview by Steven H Silver
October 2002
© Lynn Abbey
Lynn Abbey
Lynn Abbey
Lynn Abbey was born in the city of Peekskill, New York. She attended the University of Rochester getting 2 degrees in European history and was working on a PhD, when she decided to become a computer programmer working in New York City for a large insurance company. About the time of the NYC Bankruptcy Crisis of 1976, she moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. There she began work on her first novel, Daughter of the Bright Moon. Through 80s, she wrote more novels and co-edited (with Robert Asprin) the 12 volumes of Thieves' World,a shared-world anthology series. In 1993 she moved to Oklahoma City.

Lynn Abbey Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Turning Points
SF Site Interview: Contributors to Thieves' World: Turning Points
SF Site Review: Jerlayne

Thieves' World: Turning Points
Thieves' World 1
Thieves' World 2

Griesbach Martucci
Jerlayne
[Cover]
Advertisement
Why revive the Thieves' World setting now?
There are many explanations, all of them at least partially true, but the most accurate explanation is that there was no single, outright conscious decision on my part. From the moment Bob Asprin and I shut down Thieves' World in the late 80s, I'd been dodging questions about a revival. Officially, we'd put Thieves' World in a "freeze-dried" mode because of changes in the book publishing marketplace. Unofficially, Thieves' World had been a team effort and the editorial team was falling apart.

It's enough to say that Bob and I underwent a typically tortured divorce during which I became the sole owner of a freeze-dried property. For the better part of a decade, the thought of reviving Thieves' World was about as attractive to me as picking at half-healed scabs. "When pigs fly," became my stock answer to any and all revival questions.

Then, very late one night at the 1997 WorldCon, I was standing around, fielding the usual questions in the usual way, but talking about the good times, too. When I came to the part about the flying pigs, I must have spoken a bit wistfully because, afterward, several people commented that I'd sounded like I was ready to revive Thieves' World.

Naturally, I said, "No way!" but, as is often the case, my friends were on to something. Within a year, my agent and I were starting to talk to publishers and in May of 1998 there was a terrible tornado outbreak in Oklahoma City, where I'd put down some roots during the 90s. My stepdaughter and others called to report that they'd escaped unscathed, which was more than could be said for the animals in some of the commercial pork-producing farms. Yes, indeed, the pigs had flown, even if they hadn't survived their landings.

Fate had intervened. The rest is recent history.

What do you perceive as some of the weaknesses of the old Thieves' World series and how do you plan to avoid those in the future?
Our strengths and weaknesses were nearly identical. Bob and I had created a milieu wherein our authors spent as much time conspiring with one another as they did writing their stories. Over time, this meant that we published fewer stories [that] were complete in and of themselves and many, perhaps too many, that never really came to a satisfactory conclusion. The politics, both among the authors and between their characters became tangled with C.J. Cherryh's observation that you write your first Thieves' World story for fun and the rest for revenge becoming more true with every passing volume.

Most readers seemed to like the never-ending conflict (we were fictionalizing Beirut for several volumes), but politics is not "sword and sorcery" and Thieves' World, at its best, was down-and-dirty sword and sorcery. Sales were starting to drop off and, worse, with story-lines that had become more incestuous than shared, we were unable to attract new readers. Even if people could find all nine, ten, or eleven backlist volumes of the series, very few readers wanted to read them all in order to read the new volume.

Bob and I did try several editorial tricks meant to open things up; none of them worked, in part, I think, because we were bucking internal tradition. Now ten years have passed -- over thirty Thieves' World years -- and I'm dusting off some of the lessons we learned the hard way in the 80s.

For starters, the fictional power structure has changed and become more diffused throughout the city of Sanctuary. It's not a black-and-white, either/or line-up of Rankans versus Ilsigis or Hell-hounds versus Hawkmasks any more. The city went through some very rough times (outlined in my novel Sanctuary which bridges the gap between the last 80s anthology, Stealers' Sky, and the first twenty-first century anthology, Turning Points) and those who survived are immune to the rampant politics and factionalism that dominated the later volumes of the 80s.

And all the authors have been warned that there's no tampering with the balance of power, at least not for a few years. I'm hoping to make that stick. In the first series -- before Bob and I knew any better -- we encouraged our authors to tamper with the balance of power. By the time we saw the down-side of that, we'd essentially lost control of the train. When we made suggestions about how the city was evolving between volumes, they were just that: suggestions, and the authors chose, mostly, to ignore them. This time out, I'm hoping to do a better job of defining what's going on in Sanctuary between the stories. I want sharing and overlapping without the incest problems.

Of course, I'm seriously outnumbered and the authors will almost certainly conspire against me, just as they did the last time. I predict we're all in for a few surprises.

I imagine that not all of the authors you invited to take part in the new Thieves' World series were able to join in. How did you decide which authors to invite?
About two-thirds of the authors I invited into the new project accepted my invitation and all but two of those submitted stories for Thieves' World: Turning Points. Deciding which authors to invite was analogous to trying to form a chorus from a pool of soloists. I was looking for singular voices that would blend nicely together (and play nicely together). Overall, I'm very happy with the Thieves' World: Turning Points chorus.

That said, there are still some voices I'm trying to lure into Sanctuary. It's been twenty years since Bob and I started Thieves' World and if I've got any reservations about the Thieves' World: Turning Points line-up it's that most of the voices have a "sadder-but-wiser," reflective quality to them because most of the authors have learned their own "sadder-but-wiser" lessons. So I'm out trolling for some Young Turks brimming with confidence and swagger to shake things up a bit in volume 2.

Could you go into a little more depth on the process by which you selected new authors to invite to write in Thieves' World: Turning Points?
Not really. Editorial processes are subjective, based on what's available at a given moment in time, and ultimately unfair. On the one hand, I'm looking for good stylists and storytellers who can play well with others and, on the other, I'm trying to keep Tor happy by delivering a manuscript they can market the heck out of. It really is forging a fairly small choir -- a dozen great sopranos might audition, but only one bass. The one bass is probably going to get the nod, but no more than three of the sopranos, even if every one of the sopranos is technically better than the bass.

Have there been cases where you've had to outright reject a story written for a Thieves' World anthology?
Thieves' World is not an "open submissions" anthology and I don't read unsolicited stories. The way the process works, both in the original series and the current series, an author submits a character sketch to me, and if the character sketch is right, the author is invited to write for the series. There have been cases where the author has been unable to deliver a story to Thieves' World, but, by in large, an invitation is tantamount to acceptance.

Robert Lynn Asprin invented Thieves' World and has recently started to publish again after a long hiatus. Why is he not included in Thieves' World: Turning Points? Did he have any input in the new projects?
This is not an easy question to answer. Bob's writing "hiatus" began before we separated and played a part along the path that led to Thieves' World showing up as my sole property in our divorce. Suffice to say that he knew Thieves' World was coming back to life at Tor and that he signed the same "bridge" agreement that I sent to all the other 80s authors.

When it came time to form the chorus, I invited him to participate and he declined the offer -- which I can't say was a big surprise. The invitation still stands. I would very much like to have a story from Bob and have made provisions that, should he decide to write one, he would not have to deal with his ex-wife during the editorial phase.

The pigs flew once; who knows, they might fly again.

How do you ensure continuity between stories?
I don't strive for perfect continuity, which is good, because I'd never achieve it. There are inconsistencies built into the Thieves' World stories. Each author, each character perceives events through a personal filter. They're all eyewitnesses to Sanctuary's history, but, like real-world eyewitnesses, their perceptions vary over time and prejudice.

That said, there's a Thieves' World "bible" which goes out to every author and which contains the "facts" of Sanctuary. I'm in the process of extracting the "facts" from Thieves' World: Turning Points and adding them to the bible so it will be ready for the next anthology. All the authors -- including me when I'm wearing my writer's hat instead of my editorial one -- are supposed to stay "inside" the biblical limits.

As an anthology's stories arrive, I construct timelines for each story and a master timeline for sequencing the stories in the volume. I also compare the "details" in each story with the details in the stories I've already received. If there are conflicts, I work with the authors to resolve them. The author who got his/her story in first has an unfair advantage in this process... then again, there are a lot of unfair processes in Sanctuary.

In my copious spare time, I'm working on a concordance of all the material in the twelve volumes of Thieves' World 1 -- most for my own amusement and so I can answer questions about obscure gods and ethnic groups.

Once you receive the stories from the authors, how much re-writing is required to make sure there are no contradictions between stories?
Very little, a sentence or two, maybe a paragraph. When a story comes in with the sort of events that everyone in town is apt to notice, I let the authors know (much easier in the Internet/email age than it was in the 80s). If an author doesn't want to deal with the event, I just make certain his/her story precedes the story that contains the event.

More often, authors, if they've got the time between submission and deadline, will ask to read the other stories so they can add the cross-references that make Thieves' World a shared milieu.

Thieves' World lends itself to role playing and Chaosium released a box set after the publication of Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn and a supplement after Shadows of Sanctuary. Are there any plans to create more Thieves' World gaming tie-ins?
I don't have any signed contracts right now (October 2002), but my agent's out there shaking the bushes vigorously. As noted, Thieves' World lends itself to gaming because of the sort of groundwork that's necessary for the authors to share material. (Someone once referred to the original anthologies as "D&D for writers.")

According to the credits, you were heavily involved with the Chaosium Thieves' World set. What did you learn from the project?
Yes, I was the one trying to answer the questions as the Chaosium team (and Midkemia Press) fought to turn our prose into a playable game. The main thing I learned was that gamers and authors have different needs. Gamers, especially the game masters who are the primary audience for any game box want precision because that's what the players want. They need to know exactly how big the town is and what everything looks like, not to mention, how much things cost and where they can be reliably acquired. Writers, on the other hand, thrive on ambiguity. The moment I say exactly where or how something works, the authors pull stakes and center their stories in another neighborhood, another tavern, drinking another beverage, and fighting with different weapons acquired from different sources.

By the same token, when I was putting Thieves' World: Turning Points together, the new authors relied heavily on the material in the Chaosium boxed set and were quite distressed to learn that the maps were no longer accurate!

Did any of the ancillary Thieves' World's projects (the role playing game, board game, graphic novels), teach you things about Sanctuary and Thieves' World that you didn't know and how did those projects affect the main anthology series?
Almost every time someone asks me a question about Sanctuary, I learn something about Sanctuary that I didn't know. (Talk about continuity challenges!) In general, I adhere to the notion that until and unless something appears in one of the anthologies (or in the novel Sanctuary, which is a special case), it's not "cast in stone." When new material appeared in the games, the graphics, and the spin-off novels, it didn't necessarily become part of the Thieves' World canon.

Most of the material in the Chaosium game box has become canonic, but a lot of the material in the spin-off novels, especially in Janet Morris's "Beyond..." novels never made it into the canon. As a result there are a lot of "inconsistencies" between her novels and the accepted history of Sanctuary.

Thanks to bigger and better computers and their indexing capacities, I hope to keep a tighter control on what is, or isn't, in the canon, but there will always be inconsistencies, deliberate and accidental.

I imagine that the Thieves' World project is taking up a lot of your time. Do you have any other projects at the moment?
I'm currently working on my third book about Emma Merrigan, curse hunter and university librarian. The working title is Taking Time and I hope to deliver it to Ace books before the end of the year.

The novel, Sanctuary, took more time and energy than I'd expected. Inventing thirty years of Sanctuary's history then shoe-horning them into the cracks of a story that was also supposed to lay the groundwork for future anthologies was one of the greater challenges I've set for myself as an author. Getting the new anthologies up and running has had its share of unexpected pitfalls, too. I hope I'm not being naive or unduly optimistic when I think that, time-wise, the worst is over.

In the best of all possible worlds, Tor will publish one anthology per year and I'll find the time to write one-and-a-half Lynn Abbey books in the same period.

Do you have any plans for the current incarnation of Thieves' World to tap into the potential of the web?
Right now Thieves' World's web presence is limited to two "groups" within Yahoo Groups. LynnsWorlds is the list where I answer questions about Thieves' World and also about my other works and projects. A long-time fan of Thieves' World runs the ThievesWorld list where conversation is more specific to Thieves' World past, present, and future. Some of the Thieves' World: Turning Points authors participate in the ThievesWorld discussions; I usually limit myself to LynnsWorlds.

I've reserved a domain, Thieves' World-sanctuary.net, and have been working with a web-designer to get a site organized and uploaded. At the very least, the site will allow me and the other authors to post notices about upcoming events. It might do more, but as no one is working full-time on the site, it's hard to say how long development might take.

We've had a few inquiries from companies and individuals looking to develop an interactive, web-based game but, to date, none of them have progressed to the contract and license stage.

How has your own attitude towards Thieves' World and Sanctuary changed since it was created in the 70s?
I've always seen Thieves' World from two perspectives -- as a business property and as a creative sandbox.

My feelings about the sandbox have been steadfastly enthusiastic since that February dinner in 1978 when Bob, Gordie Dickson, and I began kicking around the idea for Sanctuary. I think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread -- if my love for it were any less, I wouldn't be able to convince other writers to come and play with me.

Business-wise, I've lost my innocence. The SF/F market has changed... No matter what I do, the new Thieves' World won't be the success that the earlier incarnation was. If we can get a quarter of the 80s sales, Tor will judge us a success and, if we're lucky, offer us contracts beyond the two original anthologies we've got papered now. The market for licensing has broadened -- in part because of the doors Thieves' World opened twenty years ago -- but the negotiations are tougher, more cut-throat. Bob and I reasonably expected that we'd retain creative control of the property every time we licensed it. Deals like that are scarcer now, which is one reason we're not rushing out to make them.

I met with Tom Doherty, Tor's publisher, just before I signed the current contracts. As it happens -- and not coincidentally -- he was the publisher at Ace when the original anthology contract was signed. He admitted that his peers were unanimous in their verdict that Tor was making a mistake: the day of the original shared-world, short-story anthology had passed. Tom thought that, perhaps, his critics were right, but, if there were one shared-world that could prove them wrong, that shared-world was Thieves' World.

That's a notion Bob and I could not have conceived back in the 80s, it's the backbone of the current incarnation: we're out to prove the naysayers wrong. Maybe a shared-world anthology can't hit the bestseller lists in this day and age, but one, at least, is going to survive.

I've heard some authors say that they are sometimes surprised by their characters' actions and other authors claims that they always know exactly what their characters will do. When you began to work on the current version of Sanctuary to provide to your contributors, were you surprised by any of the ways the city had changed?
I'm one of those writers who, when writing, believes she's god -- and that she hasn't bestowed free will on any of her characters. In that sense there are no surprises in any of my books. That was especially true of Sanctuary. The book had to fulfill so many objectives other than the plot -- getting the history in, laying the groundwork for the future anthologies -- that there was very little left to chance. Every so often I'd be able to write a scene with greater flourish because I'd gotten lucky with my words as I was writing them down, but no surprises. (The scenes with Cauvin at the Broken Mast and the laundry were such scenes; and any time Bec was giving his big brother grief.)

Interestingly -- though it didn't feel interesting at the time -- I was doing a rewrite of chapter five (where Molin recaps Sanctuary's history for Bec's benefit) last September and I think my own emotions in the aftermath of 9-11 bled into the character's and enriched them. They certainly lengthened them: chapter five became chapters five and six.

All the actual changes to Sanctuary, though, were deliberate. I've got a five-page chronology of the years between Stealers Sky and Sanctuary and I stuck to it religiously as I laid down the prose. I didn't dare diverge from it: changing the past might have changed the present and the whole book might have fallen apart!

Thieves' World is often credited with starting the sub-genre of shared world anthologies. Why do you think these appeal to so many people and what do you see as some of their weaknesses?
When done well, the shared universes are richer than their single-creator counterparts. As an author, you're usually responsible for both the creation and evolution of your characters, but in a shared world, the evolution of your character is at least partially determined by what your character does in response to situations you didn't create. And sometimes, what your character does things while under the control of another author. (The evolution of Hanse is a case in point. Andy's admitted that his view of punk-kid, street-toughs changed radically once Tempus Thales went a few rounds with him.)

As for weaknesses, there's a constant danger that the authors will get so caught up in the shared aspects that they're writing for one another rather than a book-buying reader.

[This question is based on a comment made by Robin Wayne Bailey in a related interview] What, if anything, of Alfred Bester's original magical system remains in Thieves' World?
I'm not sure that I understand this question. Insofar as there was a magic "system" in Thieves' World it could best be described as "Magic is whatever it takes to make it work." If this is "Alfred Bester's original magic system" then it's still there in its entirety... but when Bob and I laid down the magical epistemology of Sanctuary we were more influenced by P.E.I. Bonewitz' Real Thaumaturgy than by anything Bester might have written. (I have to admit that, other than The Stars My Destination, which I read back in Junior High, I'm not directly familiar with any of Bester's work.) Our theory -- to the extent that we had one -- was that during the many centuries that magic, here on this planet, was presumed to have worked, there were at least as many theories as to how magic worked as there were cultures and religions. We figured that just because magic actually does work in Sanctuary was no reason for us to insist that it worked in only one way, and, in fact, magic works differently for every author who's written for the series.

(This is not to say that there haven't been Thieves' World authors who may have taken their cues from something Bester wrote, but they didn't "clear" their epistemology with Bob or me and no one magical epistemology has ever been canonic in Sanctuary.)

Do you have any plans to continue the story begun in Siege of Shadows?
Yes, though they're very nebulous. Although Ace and I had signed a contract for a trilogy, my editor there disliked Siege so much that we agreed I would not finish it. (The two unwritten books eventually became Out of Time and Behind Time). But because Ace had published the first volume with a disastrously low print run, no other publisher wants to get within ten-foot-pole distance of it. If I ever become rich and famous, that will change and I'll be able to finish the story.

Your career has seen you write for and edit a shared world series (Thieves' World), a variety of gaming novelizations for TSR/Wizards of the Coast, the Catwoman books and several novels of your own. What are the differences between each of these types of novels?
As I noted earlier, when I'm writing my own material, I've full control over creation and evolution, vertical and horizontal, the whole nine yards, etc. It's the most satisfying type of writing, and also the most difficult because while all the triumphs are mine, so are all the mistakes.

For me, writing in Thieves' World is a bit like Animal Farm: All authors are created equal, but, as the editor, I'm somewhat more equal than all the others. I love writing Thieves' World, but I feel a responsibility, too, to the other authors. I've lost many nights' sleep worrying if I've made the sandbox too large, too small, anything but "just right." I don't usually start my Thieves' World stories until I've got most of the others in hand and I'm usually more concerned with tying off loose ends from other tales than with my own plot.

The books I've written for gaming companies are a like games of miniature golf where the object is to weave an interesting story through an obstacle course. I recall in Cinnabar Shadows when I was building a rather large altar in a cavern. For the purposes of the plot and the ritual, the altar consisted of two immense bowls which -- because the characters were building it both underground and somewhat secretively -- I'd decided should be made from sewn-together animal skins stretched over a wicker framework. My editor said, No -- the bowls should be carved from alabaster. So, there's this little scene where the character in charge of construction is complaining about how his boss expects him to do the impossible and get a ten-foot-wide alabaster bowl down a five-foot-wide passageway. In the end, the character paints the hides to look like alabaster and neither his boss, nor my editor dared complain again.

And the Catwoman book was a nightmare, pure and simple. My Warner editor resigned, my DC editor was afraid of the project, and my co-writer became my ex-husband at the end of chapter one. The miracle is that I finished it at all.

In your opinion, which of your books or series most typifies a Lynn Abbey book and what characteristics of your writing do you feel separate you from other fantasy authors?
Gak -- I'm the last person in the world who can answer that question! Right now, Sanctuary is my favorite among my books, before Sanctuary, it was Jerlayne, and before Jerlayne, it was Rise and Fall of a Dragon King. I'm not sure that there are any linking characteristics among those three books except, in a general sense, that all my protagonists eventually find themselves in situations so totally beyond their control that all they can do is hunker down and trust their fallible guts.

I don't know if this tendency to focus on characters struggling to survive in seas of absurdity is what separates me from other authors, but it's probably a good place to start. Another place would be that I think my prose reads as if English were my second language. By the time I get to the end of a paragraph, I'm dodging bullets and gasping for breath.

What non-fiction titles would you recommend to readers who want to understand a little more about your books?
Three things to know about me: a) I've got two degrees in medieval history; b) before I was a writer I was a computer programmer; c) when I'm not writing or tweaking my computer, I do embroidery. When I'm not plunging into the past, tweaking, or embroidering, I'm reading books about history, computers, or embroidery. In my mind, the same principles underlie all three interests. I can't explain this; it's simply a fact... in my mind.

Right now I'm reading The Great Household in Late Medieval England by C.M. Woolgar, but I have some history books that I come back to when I'm trying to debug my worlds. At the top of my list you'll find: Fernand Braudel's three-volume Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Philippe Aries & Georges Duby's four-volume A History of Private Life (these are both translated from French and come from what is called the Annales school of French historical writing), Norbert Elias two-volume The Civilizing Process (and also The Court Society), Norman F. Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages (a must for anyone who wants to know why modern fantasy is what it is); also his Civilization of the Middle Ages and Elizabeth Wayland Barber's Women's Work, the First 20,000 Years but I need to tell you, that's only about twelve inches among my forty-odd linear feet of history books.

Your writing is predominantly in the fantasy genre. Until very recently, fantasy has not translated well to the movie screen. Why do you think fantasy is so much more successful in books than on film?
Er... most books don't translate successfully into movies and one of the criticisms against an author like John Grisham, whose books are regularly made into movies, is that he's actually writing screenplays, not novels.

So, beyond the fact that what makes a good novel isn't necessarily the same as what makes a good movie, it's only recently that the special effects industry has evolved far enough to be able to handle the demands of fantasy (and/or science fiction) economically enough that there's enough money left over to buy a decent script that doesn't have to direct all its energy to those special effects.

Right now I think the most interesting SF and fantasy is being done in serial television where a few sets and what have devolved into moderate-price special effects are used to support an ensemble cast and stories that focus on characters.

If I had just begun reading fantasy, or come back to reading it after a long hiatus, and found that I liked your novels, what other contemporary authors would you recommend who have a similar feel?
I can tell you, in no particular order, who I've been reading lately: George R.R. Martin, C.J. Cherryh, Glen Cook, Paula Volsky, Thomas Harlan, and Dorothy Dunnett.

Copyright © 2002 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a four-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings (DAW Books, January, February and March, 2003). In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.


SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or other stuff worth mentioning, please send it to editor@sfsite.com.
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide