As one of the most well-known female authors working within the fantasy genre, Robin Hobb stood out on the WorldCon 75 guest list as one of the authors to whom we were most interested to speak. With the final installment of the Fitz and the Fool trilogy recently released back in May, we took a few minutes to talk to her about writing worlds, diverse characters, and more.
To get started, welcome to Finland for the second time. How has your trip been so far?
We had some interesting travel bumps with missed planes and so on, but once we got to Helsinki, everything was fine.
Great to hear! Let’s get on with the main questions. There will be some minor spoilers for those who haven’t read the books, but we won’t be revealing any major plot points.
I’ll warn people before I answer.
First of all, you’ve written so many stories and individual trilogies in the Realm of the Elderlings - do you ever get sick of writing in that same world? You wrote the Soldier Son trilogy outside of the RotE - was that an experiment or were you bored?
I don’t think I get bored of the Farseer world, but sometimes you get an idea for a story and it doesn’t fit in the particular world that you’ve been working in and you still want to write that story. Sometimes it’s a short story. I still do writing as Megan Lindholm, I still publish stories as Megan Lindholm that are urban fantasy or vampires or whatever pops into my head, so I’m happy to do those, I’m happy to have the creative freedom to step away from the Realm of the Elderlings.
But from the beginning with the Fitz stories - and I think anybody who’s read the whole cycle of them knows and can tell - from the very beginning, this final book was in sight. I never thought I would be allowed to write this many. I never thought I would be able to tell the full arc of his life, but that’s what that’s about.
In The Rain Wild Chronicles [mild spoilers], I noticed that all of the antagonists end up dead by the end of the series, while none of the protagonists end up dying. Usually the antagonists were dying in a karmic manner by their own doing, at least to some degree. [end spoilers] What are your thoughts on antagonists and comeuppance? Do you believe the antagonists should always meet an end?
Absolutely not. There are still characters in there that I would say are not exceptionally morally well-oriented. I’m trying to dance around the spoilers. There are a number of people who cross purposes with other characters who are still alive and going and figure into the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. I don’t think that... life does not have a nice little point where everything is tidied up. “We all know that they lived happily ever after,” means turn the page for what happened next. So no, I don’t think that a writer should tie up all the loose ends. Readers may find it very satisfying if an antagonist does meet an end in the story, but I think readers also know that the reality is that sometimes the protagonist in this chapter becomes the antagonist in the next one or in the next book. That’s the whole idea that characters grow and change. If you put the "good-guy badge" on them and keep it there forever, it’s not a very interesting story.
I completely agree, though in some ways, the “happy ending” stories have a place, because there are other sad or grim stories out there to read, and particularly with the popularity of these heavy stories, full of death, sometimes it’s nice to read a story where the good guys come out on top.
Yes, and I think if you look at my books, or if you look at life in general, you’ll see there are peaks and valleys. There are moments where we feel that good has triumphed, and then 10-15 years later, we say, “Oh dear, are we back onto this again?”
One of the things that I try to do with fantasy is, if I want you to believe in dragons and magic, then everything else that is mundane and ordinary has to match our reality, and that means there are times when the hero spills his cup of hot coffee, or they miss an airplane, or any of those little mishaps that we all endure in life. I don’t smooth it out and say that everything is always going to be pony rides in the sunshine. It is the normal ups and downs of life. If they don’t appear in a book, it becomes very hard for ordinary people like us to identify with those characters.
When I read a book where someone finds out that they are the unacknowledged son of the powerful king and that they have incredible magic and within the space of 24 hours they learn to become the best swordsman in the kingdom, I’m going, “That’s not how my life is.” If I excel in one area, it’s because I’ve sacrificed in other areas. You can’t become the best at math and still be a cheerleader and soloing in an airplane on your 16th birthday. You have to sacrifice in some places to excel in others. I try to adhere to that in my stories.
Definitely, even if your antagonists survive a long time, you put them through a lot on the journey. Do you think there is a fine line between how far you can go with torturing your protagonists?
When people read the Farseer trilogy and the whole Realm of the Elderlings cycle - I’m going to reveal a plot point; I think if you’ve read as far as The Tawny Man it’s no surprise to you - but the whole idea is that in order to shift the world into the path he wants, the Fool must ensure that Fitz survives, and in almost every future that he can foresee, Fitz doesn’t. So what is going on [there] is these very-near-death experiences; the Fool must then manipulate other events to bring him out of them alive. So it’s not that I’m a sadistic writer, it’s that this is part of the plot for this particular story, this plunging into danger and having that little tick of events that says that you will live. Within the story, it happens over and over and over.
Returning again to The Rain Wild Chronicles, I really liked your portrayal of the gay characters in that series, in particular. I think it was done very tastefully, and the characters never felt defined by their homosexuality. I also appreciated that one of them was, in fact, a villain, because of course gay people are just people, neither good nor bad inherently. Did you find it challenging at all to write them in any way?
Here’s the thing - when I meet a person, their gender identity is most often not the most important thing about them. If we become friends, it’s not because my first impulse is, “I will be friends with you because you’re female.” I mean, there’s a lot of women I can’t stand. There’s a lot of men that I absolutely can spend hours talking to. There are a lot of people on the whole gender spectrum and whether I become friends with them or not has nothing to do with that, so when I am writing these characters, although in some ways gender can influence a plot - for instance, if you want the prince and the princess to get married and live happily ever after in a medieval setting, gender is going to influence that - but for the most part, gender is not much more important than who has blue eyes. What’s more important is who is a skilled navigator, who is tough enough to survive a bad situation, who can think on their feet and find the creative solution to a problem they haven’t encountered before, and that’s got nothing to do with gender.
So it was not that I said, “Gee, I will write a book with gay characters.” It was, I’m writing a book, this character has stepped out onto the stage, he’s told me about him- or herself, and this is who they are.
I also really like the way you’ve written romance in a lot of your stories. Romance can be very, very tricky, because it’s so easy to fall into the realms of cheesy or simply bad writing. Do you think there are any tricks in how to avoid cliches or cheesiness?
I love romance as a genre and there are times when I step away from fantasy and say, “I’m going to read or write a romance.” Or a mystery, or a western. I really love my genres. I try to avoid the language that wants… his or her “throbbing” whatever. That’s not how I describe a lovely meal, so we’re not writing something that’s salacious. We’re saying, this is something that happened and there’s an attraction. In some stories I’ve read, on page 72 we stop and for five pages we have a description, usually of a sexual encounter. And a sexual encounter is not necessarily romance.
The other thing that I often [think] is, "That was a good story until you made the entire solution, 'And then they had sex!'" In my life, that’s never solved anything [laughs]. And in the lives of my friends. It’s like, “Oh, you did that! Okay…” But it doesn’t fix any of the problems in your life.
It often causes more problems than it solves as well.
Exactly. So I think that in some cases, romance and the story of a deep love are confused with the story of people who are strongly sexually attracted to each other and then finally consummate that. That, to me, sometimes has nothing to do with romance or love.
I think it’s something where sex and sex scenes and love and romance… it’s like making a casserole or a soup, where you measure the ingredients. You say, "Do I want it to taste entirely like pepper, or do I want you to be able to tell that there’s a little bit of cabbage in there?" and you can tell that… "Someone put some nutmeg in this!" That’s what I want, is the balance of ingredients in the story.
Perfect! Now, there’s a very fine line in fantasy between something that’s believable within the world and “kind of a stretch even then,” and I know, for example, Patrick Rothfuss - have you read The Kingkiller Chronicle?
With the Adem people, they didn’t believe that men contributed to conception or birth, and the readers were saying, “Oh, that’s not possible. No one believes that!”
Well, if you look at early cultures, for example, there were people who believed that having intercourse opened the woman to allow something from the spirit world to contribute to her pregnancy. It wasn’t necessarily a matter of the semen finding the egg. You’ll also find the idea that people didn’t necessarily look at somebody and say, “Your baby does not look like your husband,” because there was not that idea in those times, that this genetic and that genetic… maybe your baby looks a lot like your husband. But maybe he doesn’t. So to me, that’s perfectly believable that you can have a people that believe that the males have nothing to do with conception and birth. So in that specific example, but I think I interrupted you.
I was actually wondering if a potential parallel might be that [spoiler] Molly was pregnant with Bee for 2 years. Did anyone have any questions about how that was possible?
I like a very biological magic. So I have established from the beginning, that - and I’m going to take two steps back - part of the inspiration for this was an old belief that if you planted a white rose next to a red rose, as they grew older, the white rose might somehow receive material from the red rose, and it would get red veins in it. This does happen, but it’s due to the age of the bush - we now know that. But at one time, people believed that these two adjacent roses could have an exchange of genetic material. So if you take that idea and say, “What if something happens when people live alongside dragons for a long time?” What if there is an exchange of genetic material? What [happens if] an ordinary human [is] in long-term contact with a white [prophet], with the Fool? What if there is an exchange of genetic material that can happen? [end spoiler]
So the idea that some species have a much longer gestation period than others would follow from this. I mean, pigeons can reproduce in 16 days. Cats of course take longer. Humans take much longer. Elephants take even longer. So it’s playing with some biological trappings to the magic.
That’s a very interesting take on things. Now, you have so many trilogies in the same world and I like the way they interconnect really nicely with one another. For example, I’ve read The Rain Wild Chronicles, but I’ve yet to read the Liveship Traders trilogy. But, I can read characters like Reyn and Malta as if I’m experiencing them for the first time, whereas, I noticed when I was doing a bit of research that of course these are well-established characters at this point. Do you find it hard to find the balance, where you’re still throwing back to the readers who have read your earlier books, but you’re still creating them anew for the new readers?
My feeling is that every book ends where the next story logically begins. Every trilogy ends where the next part of the chronology begins, and sometimes something finishes in Buck and chronologically the story picks up in Jamaillia and Bingtown. But when you meet the characters in each trilogy, you’re meeting them at a certain stage in their lives, so the Malta that you would meet in the Liveship Traders is fundamentally and diametrically different from the Malta you come to know in The Rain Wild Chronicles, or indeed, the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. So when you meet them, yes, readers will recognize certain traits and they may speak of a past that they’ve shared with other characters, but really, it’s the beginning of that story, so as a writer I want to make it very easy for readers to step into that world and not feel like, oh, I missed this, I can’t read this trilogy.
As a writer, of course, I would love it if everybody read all of the books in the chronological order in which I wrote them, because there are little surprises and bits built into the story, where the astute reader will note, “Oh my goodness, that’s what that was all about!” And for the reader who has read all the books and paid attention to the between-the-lines, they get the little prizes, and I love when I get an email saying, “Wait a minute, I think… when this happens in this, is that because that happened four books ago?” and I go, “Yes! You are the person I’m writing for.”
You’ve talked about little things that have inspired you, like the different gestation periods. Do you have any other examples of little ideas that blossomed into bigger and bigger things in the stories?
I can throw out there that I have a pond on my farm and dragonflies go through a nymph stage, where they are water creatures and they transform into dragonflies. So again, some readers will immediately know what I’m talking about and what that inspired. I don’t want to do too many spoilers. But there’s just a lot of things like that.
In the course of doing research for fantasy, you turn up all kinds of wonderful bits and pieces, such as, bees will fly toward light. That became an important thing for me to know and for my characters to know. So there are all these little bits that, when you’re researching something and at the time you don’t even know if that’s going to be important, but you reach a point in the story where you need that, and you say, “Ah-ha! I have this little piece of information. I know this is true and I can use it.”
When you do research, are you always researching for something you have specifically in mind, or do you also research for research’s sake?
Oh no, it gets very specific. For instance, I don’t know anything about blacksmithing. I’ve never swung a hammer, I’ve never put metal into a forge and heated it, I’ve never looked at the colors to know when it’s right to do this or that. But if my character is a blacksmith, I have to do at least enough research that my character can convince the reader, “I’ve been a blacksmith for 20 years. I know everything about it.”
So if you can find that one little arcane piece of information that a man or woman who’d been a blacksmith for 20 years would know, and you slide that in - just that one fact; you don’t want to overwhelm the reader with “here’s how to be a blacksmith” - it says, “Oh, that person really knows that.” So I don’t have to know everything about blacksmithing, but my characters do, and they have to convey to the reader that, “I’m a very competent blacksmith.”
My most enjoyable way to do research is to go to the library and I would look up “blacksmith,” but I would look in our filing system in the US... there would be a J for the juveniles. So I go to the juvenile section and I get the picture books on blacksmithing, because, (1) be it a ship or a blacksmith’s forge, they will have everything labeled with the correct names of things, because naming is so important, and you can read it through and they put in the most interesting facts to keep children engaged, so you get all kinds of wonderful little bits and pieces, and (2) in the back of the book, there’s a wonderful bibliography, so this simplifies it, these are the books you used and I now have a bibliography if I need to know more about blacksmithing. So that’s my shortcut and it’s worked very well for me. Beekeeping, blacksmithing, herbs… it’s a great start.
That’s a fantastic tip! Now, winding down towards the end of my questions, who thus-far has been your favorite character to write with possibly the exception of Fitz and the Fool, since they are the obvious choices?
It’s kind of like asking a parent who is [their] favorite child. Especially the viewpoint characters. In the Liveship Traders there are a lot of viewpoint characters, and in The Rain Wild Chronicles there are a lot of viewpoint characters. As a writer, when I am writing from a tight third-person point of view, I really have to put that character on like a coat and say, “I am now Kennit. I feel absolutely justified in what I’m doing, because I’m smarter than everyone else and I know this is what has to be done,” and I have to share his convictions and his righteousness and his fears and his paranoia, and I have to be that character for the time it takes me to write them. So for that time, that’s my favorite character.
Then you go on and suddenly you’re writing from Brashen’s point of view, and he’s very different and he has different attitudes and doubts about himself and a drug addiction, but I have to take all of that and say, “I am Brashen and this is my life,” and for that point in time, he’s my favorite.
Who then has been the hardest to write? Who has the most difficult cloak to put on?
Hmm… I don’t think that I could successfully write a character that I found difficult. There are some that are more challenging than others. Of course, I’ve never written from the Fool’s point of view and that’s because he needs to retain a certain amount of… he’s a very private character. He doesn’t really want people inside his head, so sometimes his motivations are hard to figure out, why he’s doing things or how he feels about things. I think… I end up loving all of my characters. I love my villains as much as I love my heroes, so there are none that are particularly difficult. I enjoy writing them all.
That’s fair. Now because the Realm of the Elderlings is such a great world, what are your favorite and maybe least favorite parts of worldbuilding?
My least favorite part would be drawing maps, because I would be… some people are dyslexic, and I can’t tell you how many feet or yards or meters it is from here to there. Every time I would have to take out a tape measure and measure it. I can’t tell you how long [this counter] is. Most people have an ability to look at that and make a fairly good estimate. So when you have this spatial disconnect, drawing a map is really, really challenging. I send my editors these horrible scribbly things, and they find some poor artist who then tries to make sense of it and make a map. So that’s my least favorite part.
I think my favorite part is when I am doing a rewrite and I get to go back and put the pieces in that make you look very clever. The dialogue that’s witty or the little twist of language that tells the reader more than the viewpoint character knows, and those are the fun parts. It’s like putting little surprises in, hiding the charms in the cake.
My last question then, at this point in time, what are some of your favorite books or authors that you might recommend to others?
Oh, let’s see! On the flight here, I finished a book that is still in manuscript and won’t be coming out for a while. Do you want that one?
It’s called City of Lies and it’s by a new Australian writer, Sam Hawke.
What did I read before that? I read Red Sister by Mark Lawrence, which is riveting. I read Nevernight by Jay Kristoff. Nevernight and Godsgrave. He’s an excellent writer and those are very good books. I had a very interesting time contrasting Nevernight and Red Sister, because they were stories that share some similarities about the training of assassins, essentially, and I very much enjoyed those two. I think I’ll leave you with those ones.
My standards recommendations are… I love everything Joe Abercrombie has written. I can give a strong recommendation to Brent Weeks. Laura Lam is doing some very interesting stories. That should be it.
Great! That’s all of my questions. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us!