Today’s guest is fantasy and science fiction author Karen Miller! Her work includes the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker series (beginning with The Innocent Mage), the Godspeaker trilogy (beginning with Empress), and Fisherman’s Children (beginning with The Prodigal Mage). She has also written books in the Star Wars and Stargate universes and the Rogue Agent series as K. E. Mills. The Falcon Throne, her newest fantasy novel and the first book in the Tarnished Crown series, was released last year and will be published in paperback in the US in June.
Women Writers Are Awesome
I was nine years old when I met Enid Blyton. We were introduced by my primary school librarian, who thrust one of the Famous Five adventures into my hands and said ‘Read that. You’ll like it.’ She also thrust The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at me, but that’s another story.
Probably I was born a story binger. There’s no other explanation for why I devoured every last Enid Blyton I could get my hands on after that first, fateful meeting: all the Famous Fives, all the Secret Sevens, the Mistletoe Farm series, the Wishing Chair series, the Faraway Tree series, the Barney mysteries … I read them all. Many times. Of course these days Enid’s frowned upon as all kinds of incorrect, but she was a product of her particular time and culture, as are we all. I mean, fifty years from now I’m pretty sure some of us won’t be looking too flash.
But that would be yet another story. My point is that one of the first proper novelists I ever embraced with my heart, my soul and all my pocket money was a woman … and so were many of the writers whose work I devoured in Enid Blyton’s wake.
Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong series remains one of my favourites to this day. I still can’t re-read the one where Norah’s appalling cousin murders (yes, murders!) her beloved pony Bobs. (Yeah, and forget Norah being noble and forgiving after the appalling cousin was wounded in the war. I would have staked him out on an anthill covered in honey even if he’d lost both his legs.) There’s not a single book by the Pullein-Thompson sisters I haven’t read. Or Lorna Hill. Or Marguerite Henry. Or Monica Edwards. The Jill series by Ruby Ferguson. The astonishing science fiction and fantasy novels of Andre Norton. Doreen Tovey’s hysterically funny but sometimes heartbreaking tales of life in Devon with Siamese cats and other animals. L.M. Montgomery and her exquisite creation, Anne of Green Gables. Ruth M. Arthur’s brilliantly creepy supernatural books. The truly extraordinary work of K.M. Peyton, whose anti-hero Pennington I’m sure made me disregard blond boys for life. Susan Cooper’s genre-defining The Dark is Rising sequence. (Stupid, stupid Hollywood. How criminal you can be.) Antonia Forest’s exquisitely human and complex series about the Marlowe family, both at school and at home. If there’s a better exploration anywhere of the creative personality (I’m looking at you, Lawrie Marlowe), I dare you to show me! Plus she wrote about death. And anti-Semitism. And family dynamics. And life in general. I swear, that woman should be required reading.
As I grew older, I added some male writers to my list. There was a lot of Alistair MacLean and Desmond Bagley and Ian Fleming. I tried C.S. Forrester but ended up preferring Dudley Pope. Ramage was a lot sexier than Hornblower – at least until Ioan Gruffudd came along. There was also Alexander Kent and Dick Francis and Peter O’Donnell. And of course I expanded my male author repertoire from there – and still do – but I’m sure you get the idea.
Only here’s the thing. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that all of their books were the action and violence and heroism and high stakes books, but I suspect not. I suspect that this thorny divide has always existed in literature, just as it so often exists in real life: men go to war, women keep the home fires burning and roll bandages. I know that’s changing a bit, in some places more than others, but the roots of that perception grow deep in our culture. It’s one of the many obstacles a lot of women writers face today, particularly women who dare to write space opera and epic fantasy.
Still, things have moved on from that simplistic and stultifying and historically inaccurate mindset. In some places at least. Ironic, isn’t it, that while the landscape of, say, crime fiction (in print and on TV) has shifted with the times and evolution of equal rights to include some of the best, brightest, bravest and bad-assiest women ever to be found in not-real life (Brenda Leigh Johnson, I am looking at you!), there remains such resistance to that notion in the genre of speculative fiction. You know, the genre that’s supposed to be about possibilities. About imagining new and better futures – and different pasts. About playing the ‘what if’ game as hard as you can. Of course, that’s a topic for a whole different blog post, but it’s something to ponder. So go on, ponder away!
In the meantime, though, as I meander back to the topic at hand …
Yes, I certainly started reading a bunch of books by male writers. I think it’s pretty crazy to refuse to read something just because it’s written by someone who has dangly bits and you don’t. Or vice versa. But even though I romped with the boys, and had a great time doing so, I certainly never turned my back on the great women writers whose work continues to inspire and entertain me today.
Dorothy Dunnett, Sue Grafton, Anne McCaffrey, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Katherine Kurtz, Marcia Muller, Ruth Rendell, Ellis Peters, Lois McMaster Bujold, Bertrice Small, Lindsey Davis, Laurie R King, Kate Elliott, Caroline Grahame, JD Robb, Kage Baker, Nora Roberts, Jan Burke, Elizabeth Peters, Georgette Heyer, Diana Wynne Jones, J.K. Rowling, Laurell K. Hamilton, Connie Willis, Barbara Hambly …
Each and every one of these amazing women have made me laugh, cry, gasp, curse and cheer. Each and every one of them has made me proud to be a woman, and inspired me to write stories that I hope and dream will in turn make another woman laugh, cry, gasp, curse and cheer. And men, too. Because put the dangly bits and the bouncy bits to one side and we’re all just people, just human people, struggling to find a way through the mud and the blood and the weeds and the booby traps of this crazy thing we call life. Women know things that men don’t, and vice versa. I think it’s about time we stopped throwing missiles at each other and started listening and learning for a change. Maybe we’d all end up a bit happier, a bit less angry, a lot more kind, if we did. Time to open our minds and our hearts and let the people who aren’t us teach us about them – and in doing so, teach us about ourselves. Surely that’s one of the great things about stories, the act of storytelling. For a little while, for as long as the pages keep turning, we get to be somebody else. To walk in their shoes. To live a life that isn’t ours. To expand our limited horizons and grow our hearts.
Women writers have such powerful stories to tell. Women writers represent roughly half of the human species, the human experience, in all its grossness and glory. For crying out loud, it’s the 21st century. Surely it’s time to recognise that once and for all.
Here’s a true story. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was working on a horse stud in Buckingham, England. I was, in that archaic world of hunting and fishing and shooting, one of the lowest of the low: a student girl groom. Even so, I had my own bedroom – which was a big deal, trust me. Some other students I met were crammed into a crappy single caravan without running water. Mind you, I didn’t always have running water either – at one point every pipe in the house froze during the coldest winter in twenty years. But that’s another story.
The thing is, I had my own bedroom. Which meant I had the luxury of reading in bed. So there I was one night doing just that. It was very late, well into the wee small hours. I should have been asleep because my working day started at 5.45 am and didn’t stop until around 10 pm, but no. I was reading. And then one of the other girls banged on my bedroom door, and came in, and said, ‘Hey, something’s going on in the yard. The horse box is on fire.’ And I said, ‘Oh. Shit. Right. I’ll be down in a minute.’
Only I wasn’t. Because I couldn’t bear to stop reading that book. That book was so exciting, so engrossing, so utterly captivating, that I stayed where I was and let everyone else deal with the brouhaha downstairs.
And what was I reading? I’m glad you asked. I was reading The Disorderly Knights, by Dorothy Dunnett. Book 3 of the amazing Lymond Chronicles, simply some of the best historical fiction that has ever been written. Actually, some of the best fiction ever, full stop. Ah, Francis Crawford. Be still my beating heart.
That, right there, is the power of a great story. It’s what a great woman writer can achieve when she’s at the top of her game. And it’s the kind of impact I aspire to have when I settle myself in front of the computer and start to write.
Women writers are awesome. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
Karen Miller writes speculative fiction. Mostly of the epic historical kind, but she’s also written Star Wars and Stargate novels and under the pen-name K.E. Mills writes the Rogue Agent series, about a wizard with special skills who works for his government under unusual circumstances.
She lives in Sydney, travels as often as she can, and when she’s not glued to the computer writing a book or researching history for a book she can be found having fun at her local theatre, swimming laps at the pool, walking the dogs, reading or watching great films and tv dramas, or lazily socialising with friends.
Photo Credit: Mary GT Webber