Today’s guest is New York Times bestselling author Cinda Williams Chima! She is the author of two young adult fantasy series, The Heir Chronicles and Seven Realms, and she is sharing some of her thoughts and experiences as a reader, fan, and author of speculative fiction.
I am delighted she is here today since I love her Seven Realms books. (I haven’t yet read The Heir Chronicles, but I added them to my wish list after finishing the last Seven Realms book since I now must read everything she writes.) After reading The Demon King, I saved each successive book in the series to read during a time when I wanted to read a book that would work. This was a good decision since the books keep getting better, and the series is a definite keeper for its page-turning qualities and wonderful fantasy adventure—but, most of all, for the characters. Street thief Han and the princess-heir Raisa were two characters that have stuck with me, and I was sad to leave them behind when I turned that final page. In fact, I still miss them.
I suppose one of the benefits of growing older is the opportunity to look at the back trail, and say, “Okay, maybe we’re getting somewhere.”
On other days, I feel like we’re sliding down the mountain backwards. On our butts.
I’m talking about the role of women in speculative fiction, as readers, writers, and characters.
I grew up reading anything I could get my hands on, from my aunt’s True Story and True Confession magazines to my mother’s historical fiction to my older brother’s comic books and pulp sci-fi novels with their lurid covers and yellowing pages. I brought home Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels by the sack, borrowed from the teen daughters of my parents’ friends. I read Reader’s Digest condensed books and book-of-the-month club mysteries, which made up the bulk of our home library. I devoured Ian Fleming’s James Bond series long before I knew why 007 was so eager to let women share his bed.
Though I read a variety of genres, I became, and continue to be, a committed fantasy fan.
As a teen, I read Tolkien and Eddings, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mercedes Lackey, Mary Stewart and Jean Auel. Mostly I read novels written for adults. The golden age of young adult lit was still years away.
Even in those pre-fanfic days, I made up new story lines and acted them out in the woods by my house.
That’s the great thing about reading—it’s participative. Readers and writers are partners in story. I wanted to live in a fictional world where I had a chance at adventure and romance. I needed stories that had the ability to take me away at times when I really needed it.
I really didn’t care—and often didn’t notice—whether a book was written by a man or a woman—the key was whether I felt welcome in that story.
I didn’t like those stories where the female characters have little to do; where they have no agency, no journey of their own; where they do not act, but react. Why should they be victims or prizes, but not heroes themselves? Who wants to role play that? It was too much like real life.
So I began writing my own novels, mostly aspirational stories starring characters just like me and my friends having the kind of adventures that never happened at Cloverdale Junior High. I wrote them in longhand in notebooks, and traded them with my friends. I still have some of the novels I wrote in those days.
When I was sixteen, I began working at the local newspaper, typing advertising copy. Women worked in the phone room, taking real estate and Help Wanted: Male and Help Wanted: Female classified ads.
Yes. I am that old.
Men worked in the field room. They went out and called on customers and had expense accounts. They sold display ads, and were allowed to smoke at their desks. They referred to the phone room ghetto as the “barracuda room.”
I worked there through high school and college. It was great training for a writer, writing and editing copy, meeting deadlines. My keyboard skills are stellar, even today.
I never stopped writing, but for a long time I focused on short work, the kinds of projects I could complete in the corners of life. I returned to writing novels as an adult, when my sons were thirteen and sixteen. We all enjoyed reading fantasy, and often read it together. I wanted to write a story that teens of both genders would enjoy reading. I had this idea about a high school boy in Ohio who discovers he’s one of the last survivors of a guild of magical warriors. I chose a boy because it had been a long time since I’d lived in teen girl world, and I worried that I might not get it right. But I had two teenaged boys living right in my home.
That was the story that became my first published novel, The Warrior Heir.
Because my publisher thought the book would appeal to boys, they asked if I would consider using my initials, a la J.K. Rowling, so as not to discourage boy readers. I knew that we were on the same side: both authors and publishers want the right readers to find our books. And when you really think about it, girl readers have a lot more freedom to read what they like than boys do. Maybe that’s why we read more.
Still, I declined. My mother named me after a character in a novel. I like my name, and I’d waited my whole life to see it on the cover of a book. Maybe it’s driven off a few potential readers, but, oh, well.
I don’t buy into the stereotype that boys like the science in sci-fi and girls like the sparkles in fantasy. Some do, some don’t. It’s a matter of personal preference. I love shiny things, but my connection to a story is all about my relationship with the characters. In some of the high concept spec fiction I’ve read, the characters seem secondary. The focus is on the machine, the technology, the magic, the brilliant idea. All of which is cool—anyone who reads my fiction knows that I love world-building. But if I don’t care about the characters, I will put the book down.
A great premise is not enough. Real life is not made up of premises. It’s a tangled web of joys and catastrophes and people succeeding and failing at relationships, all threads of conflict. To paraphrase Hitchcock, the difference between fiction and real life is that in fiction we leave the dull bits out.
I’ve published four novels in the Heir Chronicles series, with a fifth, The Sorcerer Heir, coming this fall. I’ve also published four novels set in the high fantasy world of The Seven Realms. I don’t know the demographics of my readers, but I see adults and teens of both genders at my signings, and I get fan mail from both. Teachers, librarians, parents, and booksellers tell me that both boys and girls like to live in my worlds.
It helps that I’ve had great covers. A good cover makes a promise that the book keeps. My covers are a brand that anyone—male or female, adult or teen, people of all races or sexual orientation—can carry around without feeling self conscious. I write character-driven stories with no characters on the covers. So hopefully any reader can partner with me, and no reader feels unwelcome.
These days, I read more young adult than adult lit, and more fantasy than science fiction. The science fiction I read tends to be character-driven. I read great fantasy fiction by George R.R. Martin, Rae Carson, Robin LaFevers, Maggie Stiefvater, Holly Black, and Kristin Cashore. I read science fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi, Veronica Roth, Suzanne Collins, and Rick Yancey.
When I originally pitched the Seven Realms, my publisher was dubious. The story alternates viewpoints between a male street-gang leader and a princess. You have so many boy readers, they said. Will they read about a princess in the long ago and far away?
Now I have to admit that I have trouble even saying the word princess, because it has so much baggage attached. But my princess is a first daughter, heir to the throne in a queendom beset with treacherous politics, forbidden magic, and wizards behaving badly. She is the only one standing between the queendom and disaster, and she is not one to suffer fools.
Yes, I said. They will read about a princess. And they have.
Cinda Williams Chima was named after a character in a book. She grew up with talking animals and kick-butt Barbies. She nearly failed first grade because she was always daydreaming instead of listening. By junior high, she was writing novels in class, which were often confiscated. She was also caught reading a very racy novel in Problems of Democracy class. That was confiscated, too. Unfortunately, it belonged to a friend of her mother’s. With a degree in philosophy and two degrees in nutrition, Cinda is a totally uncredentialed writer. But she believes in the magic of books. Books took her from first grade failure to first generation college graduate to college professor to New York Times best-selling author of two teen fantasy series: The Heir Chronicles and The Seven Realms.
These days, she daydreams on the page.