|A Conversation with Lynn Abbey|
|Interview by Steven H Silver|
| October 2002|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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