I know an author, Prue Batten, who has succeeded in switching genres. I wanted to know more... Prue and I chatted, I asked for some excerpts, I asked questions, and she gave me answers:~
Prue begins: I’ve been writing in many forms since Grade Three, but let’s assume my desire to ‘become’ a writer was the beginning of the journey. It began with a YA fantasy. It was a trilogy and became the book (series) that one has to write but which will never be published and sits at the back of the office cupboard. It’s the one where one begins to learn the craft – one’s unofficial degree in creative writing. And like many things it is all to do with timing. The children had left home, I had the time and the desire. I was a lover of myth and legend and had actually begun this story many years earlier, telling parts of it to my daughter (a teenager at the time).
I love the art of world-building, of creating a world beyond the veil, beyond the seventh wave (legendary entrances to the Other world). There is perhaps licence for creative largesse which is often frowned upon in other types of fiction…
Gio’s glib line of fortunes and Fahsi had set Finnian’s course. Where else would a thief take his goods to sell for a fortune? Somewhere in the souks, at some stall or other, he would find what he sought. His gondola rocked as the water tumbled against the sides and Finnian was drawn from his self-indulgence to glance upward.
The canal city’s brilliance had faded. A cracking, dry breeze scraped past his face as he watched the stuccoed buildings with their quatrefoils, studded doors and regiments of mooring poles dissolving like wet paint sliding off a canvas. Cliffs the colour of watermelon manifested and sharp-beaked kites and black vultures wheeled, shrieking like banshees in the moaning Symmer wind. He had passed from one place to another as easily as walking through the Venichese mirrors and the discovery thrilled him and he heaved a long sigh. Far from Isolde.His gondola had metamorphosed into a scrappy blue craft with an upturned bow and painted eyes that glared to ward off evil. The opaque ochre river along which he floated rose and fell over rocky outcrops. Swollen with Symmer rains, it slid over boulders lining a precipitous gorge until Finnian was swirled into a bend where his boat scraped and thudded onto a long wall of ghats that edged the current. In the blink of an eye, in the passing of a boat over water, he had left Veniche and entered the Raj at Fahsi. Mothers and grandmothers lifted great slabs of wet clothes and slapped them against the wide steps that made up the ghats; grandfathers bent their stiff backs to wash their faces and necks. Children laughed and splashed in air that held the promise of heat and thirst despite the shadow cast by the pink, monolithic walls of a citadel. (A Thousand Glass Flowers.)
Annie: I felt quite immersed in this fictional world, but I remember that there came a shift in emphasis in your career?
Prue continues: It was a kind of unconscious, serendipitous shift. I was looking for something to write on my blog – just a fun piece that would entertain my followers. At the time, Robin Hood, the BBC series, was on TV and myself and many other women had rather fallen for Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Guy of Gisborne. But! He was such a cad and his life so clichéd, that I decided to take him from the old trope and re-write his life as far from the Robin Hood legend as I could get. My Guy became a spy and a merchant, moving through the courts of Europe and creating a team of men and women to work with him. And so each week, I’d add a little more to the blog. But then I found I began to research far more exhaustive detail of the twelfth century than was required for a blog story, and by degrees the medieval era and Guy’s life took me over. I had studied the Middle Ages at university and was fortunate to study under the most wonderful lecturer. He knew how to subtly germinate seeds of interest for the future.
So I decided to remove what I had written from the blog, re-craft it and turn it into the first book in a trilogy. And that, as they say, was that.
We moved at pace. Not running, but with forward purpose, acknowledging no one. Indeed, no one seemed to cast a glance at Aaron of Antioch which I thought was fortuitous. But then I would expect nothing less of Gisborne – that he would have us met by those who were unknown amongst the crowd, those who would not attract any particular attention, for there were plenty like Aaron of Antioch in this maelstrom of men. The worst that could occur would be to have to engage with anyone right now. Better that we made an anonymous landing at our new home. Time enough to take stock later.
To be sure, I would have liked to look about, to search the faces in the crowd, to look for peppery hair and bog-tinted eyes. Or even for a broad-shouldered man with black hair and eyes the colour of a pers-tinted gown. But I kept my sight on the way ahead, weaving back and forth, in and out, leaving the noise behind, edging into the cobbled squares and alleys of Genoa town. Above us the sky was grey and heavily underlined with cloud.
‘Could rain,’ said Aaron in a curious accent that spoke of Outremer and the desert. ‘Maybe we might have a thunderstorm. It has been quite humid the last day or so.’
He turned into an alley that snaked and bent as it climbed. The buildings were only two stories high, most made of timber, but some were pulled down and being rebuilt in stone.
‘Our street,’ he said. ‘Via Dolorosa. Named after your Christ’s way in Jerusalem. At the far end you can see through to Genoa’s cathedral in the distance. The city podesta and the bishops of your church see fit to build a structure of grace.’
Our street. The Way of Grief. Did Gisborne know the Via Dolorosa was called that in Jerusalem?
Of course he did. And it would not have mattered to him at all, even if it seemed somewhat symbolic to me. His prime consideration was our safety and as Aaron’s steps slowed, my gaze went to the wall at our side. Solid cut squares of a tall stone barricade.
‘Roman,’ said Aaron. ‘Built when Liguria was a friend to the empire.’ He patted the blocks. ‘They are impregnable.’ He pulled a key from a purse at his waist, slipping it into a heavy studded gate. After the cacophony of the wharves, the alley was quiet and I could hear the lock tumble as the key was turned. With a grinding of iron on stone, he pushed the gate open and allowed me to walk through, re-locking the gate as he stepped behind me.
After the grim shadows of the Via Dolorosa, the interior forecourt in which we stood was open and light. The house stood another floor above us, a colonnaded cloister running along the three sides at ground level, the gate wall providing the fourth. I knew that behind our chambers, other buildings would bolster us and that the dwelling seemed secure and I thought Gisborne had done well to locate this place in the middle of the Crusaders’ shipping lanes and where none might find us. (Gisborne: Book of Knights)
Annie: Was there something that you felt you needed to do that you couldn't do without switching genre? Or was there simply a story that needed telling and couldn't be done any other way?
Prue: I have four fantasy books as part of The Chronicles of Eirie, and trust me, they sing to me every day. Like a siren calling the seaman on the wild ocean, so they call me back to the fantasy genre.
But there was no way I could tell Guy’s story by staying within fantasy. Whilst Guy’s roots traditionally come from legend, I saw no reason for my Guy to remain attached to that. Besides, my own fantasy had traditionally involved the mythical world of Others, and by consequence, magick. There was no room for that in Guy’s reality. The only similarity for me between both genres, is that the first two of my fantasy chronicles have been set in an ever-so-slightly medieval European environment. That too, is a traditional fantasy trope. However, my books diverge a little, because the last two in the chronicles move from a pseudo-European environment to a pseudo-Middle Eastern/Indian environment and then a pseudo-Asian environment in Book Four of the quartet. My fantasy world is a rippled version of our own but darker – as I said, what we might find through that seventh wave or through the Ymp trees…
Then she began, for the stripping at least must be finished by the time the Master woke. Her work-roughened hands itched and burned as she grasped the bone-handled knife, wincing as blisters burst. Bringing pressure to bear, she slid the blade through the paper, slicing friable, infinitely narrow strips. She took a handful of water from the bowl that had been left outside her door during the night, battered fingers cracking the hoar across the surface as she began to sprinkle scoop after scoop.
Each droplet sparkled, flashing as it fell to sink into the paper fibre and she wanted to slow the motion so she could examine the reflection held in the tiny liquid sphere. Her heart wished for some scrying power so she could see family, her home. But her head knew all that would be reflected would be a bare paper-screened room, mats on the floor, her quilt rolled on top of her sleeping mat and a lantern flickering as the last of the oil burned away.
She took up the strips, rolling and massaging. Anyone looking into the room would think they had chanced upon a noodle-maker except that the room lacked the comfort of a kitchen fire or the smell of star-anise, or ginger and garlic. Reddened fingers lifted the fibrous bundle and she stood shaking and gyrating so the strips separated and fell apart, hanging like an oyster-coloured veil. (The Shifu Cloth)
Prue says: But for the moment, history claims my attention and I now have a historical fiction trilogy called The Gisborne Saga and the first two books of The Triptych Chronicle which will obviously be a trilogy as the series name implies.
Despite the vast blank stretches of baked and powdered earth, and night skies that rivalled a king’s crown. Or green swards and banks and folds of trees that defied the imagination in the searing heat. Or skies bluer than pavonalilis, or pers or paonace. And despite horses that were finely chiselled, with curving ears and small scooped heads, and which could gallop in the heat forever and never falter. Or the fact that Lord Jesus had trod these pathways with Peter and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
None of this signified because Outremer stank.
It clung to Guillaume’s clothes – the sweat and urine. And then even more odious was the smell of shit and vomit from weak men, those who had caught the sickness of warfare when water is tainted and men become crazed.
But most abhorrent was the smell of rotting flesh – the smell of death upon the living. A sweet smell that cloyed and offended and made one gag and then puke until one’s insides had nothing left to give. Every time Guillaume stripped his hose and chemise, he would check every scratch to make sure Death hadn’t hooked a fingernail into him. He learned the value of cleaning a wound and binding it with a strip of fresh cloth, to provide a barrier between the wound, the stink and the flies – those fast, annoying, sticky beasts they called cincelles. (Guillaume)
Prue: After this trilogy is finished I suspect I will return to the fantasy world of Eirie. It’s such an exotic world, filled with shadow and light and I love the characters I met when I wrote it. I need to return there – just for a little while.
Annie: I'd like to know more about the short stories - not so much a shift in genre, but certainly a different technique?
Prue: In my case, I’m writing really short stories, as they are ostensibly for miniature books and because of size and binding constraints, one has to get that story ‘done and dusted’ succinctly. I am very fortunate in having an occasional collaborative relationship with Bopress Miniature Books in the USA and I have written both fantasy and historical fiction for the press. The challenges are simply that I can’t afford to dally with the plot. If nothing else, writing for miniature books teaches one to ‘de-fluff’ when writing – to get to the point swiftly but with subtlety. It’s a challenge!
Annie: I understand the leaps from genre, and from novel to story, but - children's fiction??
Prue: Again, simple serendipity. It arose from my collaboration with Bopress. I was asked if I could write a little story about a wombat. My husband and I farm and we are fortunate to have a pair of wild wombats on the property, so the inspiration was under my nose! The miniature book was cleverly illustrated and bound by Bopress, including a tiny map of Nugget’s journey and it sold very well to collectors across the globe. Not long after its release, I came across Dave Slaney’s illustrations in SJA Turney’s Crocodile Legion. I approached Dave with the idea of illustrating Nugget in a naïve, jolly style for parent-child reading and he happily agreed. The collaboration has only just been released as an e-book and is due for release in print for the Christmas market. It’s been a massive learning curve – watching someone put pictures to one’s words and then going to schools and talking about the project. Hugely removed from my adult fiction but perhaps another string to one’s bow!
He loved sitting at the door at night, gazing up into the darkness and wondering at the diamond sparkle of the stars and the ivory disc of the moon and he would marvel at the reflections on the farm dam, content as he listened to the frog chorus singing the night away. If he ignored the stupid antics of the wallabies, kookaburras and cockatoos, it was a good life really… (Nugget…)
Annie: So what would you say to other authors considering the switch?
Prue: I’m not sure there any specific pitfalls. One just has to love what one is writing about. The research for both hist.fict and fantasy is intrinsic. When writing fantasy, learning about the legends of the British Isles, of Europe, of parts of the Middle East and Asia is wonderful. I already had a lifelong love of myth and legend and so it expanded exponentially. Then learning about specific aspects of life in the various cultures and translating that to my imaginary world was like gilding the lily.
But as a writer of hist.fict as well, I will say that no stone remains unturned as one writes within that genre.
In my mind, the writing of any book, be it for children or adults and in any genre, requires a love for the story, for one’s characters, but above and beyond anything else – for the art-form. The ‘genre’ side of things matters little to me when I am in writing mode.
To be honest, in my case variety is the spice of life, and I think in its own way, it stops me becoming stale which is a real threat to any writer.
I am always open to adventure and to trying different things within the art-form – just like an artist may try oils, acrylics, impasto, watercolour, encaustic, charcoal, pastel, pencil and so on.
With creative writing, whether it works or not is up to the reader to ascertain, but in the end, all I want to do is tell a story that entertains first and foremost, and if each of the stories within the genres do that, then I am exceptionally happy. Both my fantasies and my hist.ficts have been nominated for awards and indeed, have been placed, so I think writing across genres is working for me. Long may it remain so!