Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Tanith Lee
by Darrell Schweitzer
It's very hard to sum up the career of Tanith Lee so far. There's just so much of it.
She first came to the attention of most readers with The Birthgrave (1975) which
clearly announced the arrival of a major talent. She is perhaps best known for her
Flat Earth novels, and tends to focus on exotic, fantastic adventure in exotic
settings, but she has written science fiction, straight horror (such as Dark Dance
and its sequels), historical novels, detective fiction, screenplays (including a couple
episodes of Blake's 7) and quite a bit more. Two special issues of Weird Tales have
been devoted to her, which is only appropriate since it seemed to me when I was
co-editor of that magazine that her work expressed the Weird Tales aesthetic more
perfectly than that of any other living writer. Among her awards are two World
Fantasy Awards for best short fiction (1983, 1984) plus eight more nominations;
and a British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1980 for Death's Master plus five
more nominations. She has published over eighty books.
SCHWEITZER: I notice that a lot of your recent books have been for Young
Adults. I mean Piratica, etc. Your first novel, at least the first I am aware of, The
Dragon Hoard, was also for younger readers. Is this a return to an early ambition
for you? It is, of course, obvious that J.K. Rowling has made this sort of book more
profitable, but I cannot imagine you chasing anyone's coattails. So why this
LEE: No, I'm not returning to a previous interest at all. I've been writing YA
books alongside adult work for most of my (mad) career. In fact, my very first
published work was a short adult horror story, written when I was about 18.
("Eustace"). By the time The Dragon Hoard, Princess Hynchatti and Animal
Castle were published in the early 1970s, I'd already written Don't Bite the Sun
and the first draught (the first of only two novels of mine ever to have two draughts
-- the second was The Gods Are Thirsty in the 1980s) of The Storm Lord, I just
hadn't found a publisher. While working with DAW books, between 1974-1988, I
also published six YA/childrens' novels, and later on seven others (see the Unicorn
series, and the Claidi Diaries (or Journals, as they are in the USA). The Piratica
books are just part of an on-going commitment to this kind of writing.
SCHWEITZER: How is writing for younger readers different for you than
writing for adults?
LEE: To me there's no major difference. Some ideas that come to me seem to fit
the adult bill, others prefer the YA medium. Two exceptions I can quote --
Volkhavaar was originally thought of by me as being for the YA range -- but
before starting it, it seemed to me I could move more freely among some very adult
themes if I began with an older viewpoint. The other is a recent proposal turned
down by my YA publishers over here, which I have frankly now seen might work
much better as a very dark adult novel. (Incidentally they had already rejected the
idea of a fourth Piratica. Nor did the American firm of Dutton wish to print the
third already published Piratica, though all these books seem to have done well in
both Britain and the USA, not to mention in translation -- Russia, Spain, Japan etc.
I still get endless worldwide letters asking for another book in the series.
The only criteria I keep in mind when working on YA is that violence should not
be gross, and certain more awful things, though spoken of, stay "off-stage" as it
were. And the same with the sexual act. Though there are, of course, sexual
reactions evidenced if not adultly described, and things left unsaid that the older, or
more experienced reader will pick up on.
As for so called "Bad Language" I don't use it, save in "invented" form. Examples
of Lee-invented really vile language exist in both the Claidies and the Piraticas.
Have a look, say at the noun "tronker," maybe, and see what you think it might be
. . .! (Claidi) or many of the terms in the Piratica novels . . .
SCHWEITZER: Isn't all fantastic fiction to some degree aimed at youth? After
all, it's about newness and wonder, the discovery of things we (or the characters)
did not previously know to exist, and that is very much the condition of youth.
LEE: This presupposes any writer aims at anyone or thing. Some writers, of
course, simply write, as they feel they are driven to do, by outer/inner inspirations.
If, after the work is written and, hopefully, published, others respond -- that is the
Champagne. But we, or some of us, don't write for the Champagne. We write
because we write. However, to address the premise that Fantasy and all Fantastic
literature is "aimed" at youth, well, perhaps then at the youth of the heart and mind,
that is if we apply the criterion of "newness and wonder." Not everyone who
grows older loses this ability (yes, ability, skill, not failing). C.S. Lewis had a
glorious and most aware comment in his Narnia novels, to the effect that nothing
was worse than a child who was too childish, and an adult who was too grown-up.
We all know these awful kids, but thankfully they may (ha!) grow out of it. I
suppose the dire aged may also grow out of the over-adultness.
Your question equates the wonder and surprise, the delight of finding, with all we
"didn't know previously existed." OK. In the 1500s grown ups thought the world
was flat. But apparently it isn't. (Or is it? Another new thing to find out, maybe
. . .) What I mean is, new facts are always coming to light, and I don't just mean in
the cosmos, or the outer environ. In ourselves. That is, if we stay, at least on some
level, pliable enough to listen, to see, to feel. The "condition of youth" is a state we
should, and must, internally, hang on to, and try to preserve (a juxtaposition of
notions -- preserving -- pickled youth!) Basically that trite phrase the "inner
child" -- trite phrase, yet intelligent thought. The "fantastic" therefore may be a
key component in arousing the sleeping spirit in our physical souls. If I ever get to
100, I'd want to be filled with wonder and wild, adolescent, wide-eyed interest in
newness. So let's keep the flame burning. Let's stop thinking everyone over 29, or
49, has to be reinforced by concrete.
SCHWEITZER: When did you start reading and writing fantasy?
LEE: I couldn't read anything until I was almost eight -- dyslexia. (Unrecognised
at the time, in the early 1950s.) The first book I read, Hans Christian Anderson's
Fairy Tales, was, of course, Fantasy, like all fiction (and indeed, some non-fiction.)
To clarify, my mother was a great aficionado of all SF and fantasy, the early
Galaxy and later Weird Tales, and early novels by Asimov and Clarke --
Childhood's End and The City and the Stars being two favorites -- were well
known in our various homes. The first Fantasy story I am conscious of having read
as such was "The Silken Swift" by the amazing Theodore Sturgeon. I suppose I
read that in my early teens, just as I read Mary Renault's The King Must Die when
I was eleven-ish. These wonders were like finding a major truth of books, (just as
first hearing Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov was like finding music I
had always known, but somehow mislaid -- or been robbed of.) When I read Jane
Gaskell's The Serpent (at about eighteen) however, I suddenly realized the scope
of what one might be "allowed" to write. By which I mean, breaking-all-rules of
sticking to the so-called Real World, might be allowed into print. Pathfinding
genius that Gaskell was/is, she lit a special light for me along the road. Not long
after, I embarked on my first draught (only one of the two -- the other was my
French Revolution novel The Gods Are Thirsty -- books I ever did two draughts
on) of The Storm Lord. But I must add I'd already written a fantasy novel, set in a
parallel ancient Mediterranean, when I was sixteen. It came naturally. As writing
SCHWEITZER: Most writers report, as you do, that writing is just what they do,
rather than something they decided would make them a lot of money. That being
the case, when you discovered you were a natural writer, and had written an entire
novel by the time you were sixteen, how much deliberation did you then apply?
Did you read books on writing technique? Did you find that the way you read other
people's fiction changed? Did you start reading critically, to see how stories were
LEE: I have never read anything to see what I should be doing, or how to plot,
construct, voice a particular story. I read to enjoy myself, to be transported
elsewhere, and yes, to learn -- but for its own sake, not in a self-conscious or
precise way. I read what entices, terrifies, amuses, enlightens me -- as a human
thing. Meanwhile, I must suppose that reading wonderful writers may,
inadvertently, teach an avid reader a great deal -- not only about life and other
matters, but about how to write. Therefore doubtless I have benefited from frequent
immersions in the glowing genius of others. It would be nice to think so. (I do
actually think so). But to improve my skills will never be the prompting force of
my reading -- that's just literary lust.
SCHWEITZER: Did you have the worry, as many people do in such a situation,
"This is what I want to do with my life, but what if I don't make it professionally?"
and then have a back-up plan, or did you just plunge into writing?
LEE: In the beginning I had no idea I would ever be "allowed" to make my
profession that of a writer. And in this sad mind-set I was encouraged to stay by a
great many persons, for a great while. So, if I had a plan then, it was only for a
wretched sort of survival, doing other work at which I was largely incompetent,
and where my unhappiness was matched only by my confusion. When I was about
twenty-one, this condition almost drove me mad -- I do mean that. Through it all,
however, I kept on writing, since to me that was the only sanity and bedrock in my
life. It was the only Real place to go. (I wrote The Birthgrave during this period).
When finally I was rescued from my false "working life" by Don Wollheim and
DAW Books, I had no sense of wildness or charging off any rails. I had none of the
often reported fear of being unable to cope with my new situation. It was the
former situation I had been utterly unable to cope with. Now, writing every day,
and being paid for it and encouraged to do it, it was as if, in the midst of the
clichéd dark and stormy night, I found the magical inn, its windows golden lit, and
Summer was due to start tomorrow. I can only work at one thing well. Deprive me
of that, and my "back-up plan," even now, will be the empty, stormy, darkened
heath -- where, incidentally, even unpublished, somehow I'll still be writing.
SCHWEITZER: Let's talk a little more about the Jane Gaskell influence. What
most inspired you in her work? Was it entirely the work, or the fact that she
published her first novel at fourteen? That I should think would inspire many
LEE: When I was a child I found children largely uninteresting -- not as people
but to read about. As a young adult I was a little less elitist, but not much. (Only
David Copperfield and Pip in Great Expectations got past this barrier. But then,
that's Dickens for you.) The fact therefore that Gaskell had published a couple of
(fascinating) novels when very young would have held little allure for me, let alone
been any sort of encouragement. (I read Strange Evil and King's Daughter after.)
Of course, anyway, they are about adults, so even my intolerant child-persona
would have liked them. But Gaskell had written with sensibilities far beyond her
years. King's Daughter, precursor of the glorious path-breaking The Serpent, is an
astonishing work for one that young (fourteen, fifteen I seem to remember). Who
writes an ending like that, when so "immature"?
What I first read by her was Attic Summer, a then contemporary novel. I loved/love
her humor and her cynicism, (apparent in all her work ) her play with color and
every one of the senses, her take on -- not only sexual romance -- but sexual and
romantic psychology, indeed all forms of psychology, for a "Romantic Novelist" is
definitely not what Gaskell is. Also, I valued the fact that she wrote inside at least
two very separate forms -- what I now know had been labeled Fantasy, and what
is straight "reality," and mixed the two in the most cunning, witty and apt of ways.
So what inspired me most? As with any writer I love, all of it - all.
SCHWEITZER: CS Lewis said he started writing fantasy because the books he
wanted to read were not on the shelves? Did you have some of the same feeling?
When you started to write, after all, fantasy was not nearly as widely-published as
it is today.
LEE: I only read the Narnia books (typically) when I was fifty. (I'd tried as a
child, but the child heroes, as explained, didn't interest me much). At fifty, though,
I did get a lot from the work. The books are intensely spiritual for me, though not
religious in perhaps the sense Lewis might have wished to convey. His use of the
Dionysian aspects of Jesus Christ charmed me, (I agree with them) and some of the
sequences are wonderfully beautiful and profound. What a curious combination,
adventure and laughter -- and cutting-edge visionary reports from the edge of the
afterlife . . .
But to return to your actual question: I did and still do, in some way, write what I
want to read. Perhaps that is true of many writers. Meanwhile there are hordes of
authors whose work thrills me, so I got and get plenty of nourishment without
scribbling it personally. On the other hand, too, when I started to find what was by
then classed as Fantasy, I was shown that alter-worlds and otherwheres were
completely possible -- by which I mean capable-of-being-recognized (and
published.) And while, still, I had very little hope of that myself, I grasped that I
need not shy away from something that had been internally beckoning me for quite
some time. In retrospect I am both surprised and dismayed to see in this that I must
have taken some (inadvertent) notice of all those who tried to wean me from my
proper path. How odd. Thank God I found it anyway.
SCHWEITZER: You have written some non-fantastic fiction, such as your
French Revolution novel. Is the craft of non-fantasy any different for you? Would
you ever want to write a purely realistic, contemporary novel, or is the whole
appeal of writing for you to get away from that?
LEE: The writing of my French Revolution novel, The Gods Are Thirsty, was in
one way different for me, but not in any creative or artistic sense. Except I
preferred to do two draughts. I was obsessed with it (as I always am with what I
write), and wrote it in floods (also usual), having to pause only to do research.
(This can happen even when dealing in fantasy or SF, or any type of other genre
book/story. For example, if I have to describe a copper mine or glass foundry, I do
some research on them first.) The main and very pertinent difference for me with
The Gods Are Thirsty was not, either, to do with the fact that the people in it had
historically lived -- were "real." My own invented characters seldom feel
invented, to me. They're equally actual, and so are their stories and otherwheres.
So, the one salient difference with The Gods Are Thirsty was that I had available to
me from the start almost all the known facts and events. And -- I knew the ending.
It was established, revealed, and unalterable. Sometimes pre-knowledge of many
facts and scenes does happen when I use an "invented" plot. But it's rare, and
always subject to great/slight change -- the work tends to metamorphose. While
nineteen times out of twenty I don't know my book's ending, until it evolves or
simply displays itself, occasionally shocking me.
On writing "purely realistic contemporary" novels -- well, I've done so. The
problem was, and remains, getting publishers to look at them, let alone publish.
They seem to have trouble accepting the books as valid, and might entertain others.
Seemingly, someone writing outside their genre-ghetto is not normally encouraged
to do so.
I have written as Esther Garber, a character not a pseudonym, (though such a
unique voice her books were published as "Tanith Lee writing as Esther Garber").
These volumes -- Thirty Four and Fatal Women are Lesbian fiction, set in our
world, but inside a kind of floating historic vista, (ranging approximately between
the late 1800s and the present day) and often also in France.
The novel L'Amber (written only by me!) is placed in 1980s-ish London and
environs. Grayglass has a slightly earlier and later timeframe, and uses London
generally, with a brief excursion to New York. Otherwise this book does operate
within an underplayed yet intense supernatural twister. Death of the Day is a
detective novel, influenced by and therefore in the tradition of Ruth Rendell. It
resides in 1990s Kent and Sussex, England. There are two other novels -- To
Indigo and God's Dogs. To Indigo stays firmly in London during the 2000s, but
contains a strange alter-motif concerning a Prague-like alchemical city around the
late 1700s. Be warned though: the last is because the book's main character is a
writer, and the alternate location represents his single (closet) fantasy novel! God's
Dogs is set in 1934, mostly in England, but with flashbacks to a slightly earlier
time in mainland Europe. L'Amber and Death of the Day were published, too, by
the same small press (P.O.D.) that brought out the Garber books. None of these
books is now available, however, as the firm packed up. Greyglass did nearly make
it into print but had the door slammed in its face by the same outfit a couple of
days before release. Meanwhile, both the Garber books got very good reviews in
Locus, and so did Death of the Day over here, in the Guardian.
Frankly though, when I first started to write novels, (about sixteen years of age,
circa 1963-64) I did opt for parallel historical, and finally out-and-out Fantasy and
SF venues, indeed in order to escape 'ordinary' fiction -- even though I still
continued to enjoy, along with fantastical material, reading about the so-called
everyday. With impressive geniuses like Graham Greene, Jane Austen (historical,
yes, but still this world and the everyday for then), Jane Gaskell, J.B. Priestly and
Richard Llewellyn, working in that area, my interest isn't surprising. But by now I
find for myself no discrepancy that way when I write "ordinary world" novels. For
me they're all part of a carpet I keep on weaving, in company, in a curious manner,
with all dedicated writers, artists and composers, as with all I do of whatever
leaning. I relish my contemporary books, cherish them, am obsessed by them. They
flow or sometimes stick -- just as the fantasy ones can. It's all fiction, after all.
And all real to me, or more real, than the world (beautiful or horribly cruel) that we
SCHWEITZER: I know you've written a few teleplays, including a couple
installments of Blake's 7. Have you wanted to write more for the screen, big or
little, or do you prefer writing for the printed page?
LEE: When I first started to write at any sustained length, (about age twelve) I
wrote plays almost exclusively. (Though I confess to writing a Priestly inspired
novel at ten/eleven -- it was called Forsythia Square, a contemporary work
[1950s] of curious type!) I loved/love live theatre, and radio drama -- which then
was far more omnipresent than now -- though BBC Radio generally maintains a
stunning standard in both acting and production. I immensely liked writing the two
Blake's 7 scripts. I'd watched the show from the beginning and was fascinated by
all the characters. (My original hope, had the series continued, was to write an "in-depth" script for each of them. At least I got to tackle Cally, Avon somewhat, and
I can imagine, now, writing other radio plays. (I did actually write one years back,
which I never submitted, finding it too dark -- it was called Darkness -- a
consideration that I'm afraid wouldn't stop me today -- but my radio contacts are
mostly gone. As for TV -- it's changed such a lot I'm not sure. While a movie,
knowing as I do something of the paraphernalia and muddle that seems to attend all
script-writes, (see F. Scott Fitzgerald if in doubt, and that was back then!) might
not be a challenge I'd choose to take on. Luckily I'm spared that choice so far: no
one has asked. Incidentally anyway, when I write for the "printed page" I
personally see it as a movie, (aside from how the characters relay their inner
thoughts and mental attributes). All within my head. It's all, for me, happened, or
is happening. All on film.
SCHWEITZER: And, what are you working on now? What might we expect to
see from you in the near future?
LEE: The Flat Earth books are due, all of them, to start being reissued in 2009,
from Norilana Books, the established five to be followed by at least one more. And
there are loads of my short stories and novellas either recently out or about to be, in
anthologies and magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Asimov's and Weird Tales
-- see my website: (Also your own anthology on Werewolves.)
Meanwhile, my two main UK publishers, Hodder and MacMillan, have between
them rejected three proposals from me for new work. These were the detailed
proposals everyone now seems to need, and both firms rather oddly kept the two
(Hodder) and one (MacMillan) packages -- and myself -- hanging on for six
months in either case. (I had been publishing YA books with Hodder, incidentally,
for ten years. Five for adult work with MacMillan.) That then was my main income
gone, if nothing else. Neither company gave any encouragement that I should offer
anything else, rather the reverse. Not, frankly, that I felt inclined to.
The small UK press as well, Egerton House, which was publishing other work of
mine, such as contemporary novels, a detective novel, and lesbian fiction, had
already folded, leaving many accounts unsettled.
I have since attempted to interest a number of other houses. Reaction here has been
mixed, the smaller presses indeed seeming the least inclined, and -- in a couple of
cases -- very cavalier. Other possibilities do exist, but unfortunately due, as they
say, to circumstances beyond my control, at present, I have not been able to discuss
any new commitments -- hopefully the new year will resolve this situation. Also
there has been, as ever, a constant flow of openings for short fiction, which has
been a real joy to do. Alas, it doesn't pay the bills. Altogether, that financial way, I
am now in a nightmare scenario.
But, as said before, while able, I will always write. It's like breathing to me. My
current project is a weird contemporary novel called Ivorian, which veers between
a detective story and a supernatural -- or is it -- take on sibling hatred. Also, I
have two completed contemporary novels and one collection of mixed lesbian, gay
and heterosexual short stories, all sitting in the cupboard. Oh, and the rejected
ventures? What they were to have been, and still may be, were: 1) The Firesmith
-- a violently and erotically bronze-iron age adult epic, whose priest-mage-metalsmith-protagonist must survive in a dark age savaged by fire-blasting
dragons. And for Young Adults: 2) a fourth pirate novel in the Piratica series --
War and Pieces of Eight, the final saga of Art and her handsome husband Felix --
he is now consort of the Queen of Scotland, and featuring a more than guest
appearance by Apolleon, the Napoleon of their history. Plus 3) Glitterash, or King
of Ghosts. That being the story of a one-handed pianist gang-warrior, in an SF
worldscape of blazingly ruinous cities and oil-slicked, wasp-infested seas, where
the written word has been dumbed right out of existence, and reinvented "modern"
Tarot cards have become the credo of Law, religion and power.
Sound a bit flat, don't they? Far too unoriginal and slow for any publishers to take
a risk on.
I must admit, I never thought, after all the years of working as a professional writer
in and out of the genres, I would end up at sixty-one, back where I was at twenty:
unknown, unpaid, unincluded, uncertain.
SCHWEITZER: Thank you, Tanith.