INTERVIEWED by KATHARINE ELISKA KIMBRIEL
Judith Tarr is always Judith Tarr, author of dozens of novels, fantasist and Storyteller, by turns the murmur of water over smooth stones and then a roaring of cataracts—but occasionally she is also Caitlin Brennan (The Mountain’s Call and sequels) and Kathleen Bryan (The Serpent and the Rose and sequels). She’s a professional historian, a breeder of exquisite Lipizzan horses, and quite often a screamingly funny woman. Pay attention—she moves fast.
Q.) You are one of the Secret Mages of Fantasy—someone who took the advanced school track, and ended up with real credentials connected to your love of history. What were you originally planning to do with that doctorate? How did you detour into fiction?
A.) I was always going to do fiction. I was going to be my generation’s answer to the Inklings. The doctorate was supposed to support the fiction habit by supplying me with a day job. Instead the fiction became the day job.
Q.) Of all your wonderful books, how was A Wind in Cairo chosen to be your first e-book/small press re-release?
A.) I thought it wise to do one of my four officially OOP books first (since I wanted to try a Lulu POD edition as well), and A Wind in Cairo seemed to me to be the most accessible. Everybody wants horse stuff from me. Look! Horse story!
Also it’s one of my favorites. It got scuttled by a gawdawful cover and a misguided marketing plan—someone thought it would be a good idea to aim a story about a girl and her horse at the teenaged male audience. The publisher made amends with other books published after it, but the damage to that one was done. It went out of print almost as soon as it appeared. It’s had a cult following all along, and I hoped this new edition would find new readers. Which it did, though they were nearly all in the ebook realm. So that pointed me in the direction to take with the next few books.
Since then I’ve brought out over a dozen ebooks from BVC, including an original title (Living in Threes), with a bunch more coming this summer: the epic fantasy series beginning with The Hall of the Mountain King. It’s been a productive few years.
Q.) More than once, you have written stories about human men trapped as stallions, and the women/mares who try to rescue them or keep them out of trouble. What specifically is the appeal to you of this trope?
A.) Uh, what? I wrote one story that I expanded into Cairo, a sequel to that story at an editor’s request, and that’s it for men-into-stallion stories, out of some three dozen novels and I forget how many works of shorter fiction. I wouldn’t call it a trope. If I have a trope, it’s highly independent women who won’t marry their men, for reasons that seem good and sufficient to them. And the men put up with it.
I am a fantasy writer, after all.
Another trope is a great fondness for the history and legend of Alexander the Great. He and his family fascinate me. I keep going back to them, trying to figure them out.
As for why I wrote that first stallion story, it’s about the first horse I truly bonded to. He had been a stallion and a bad one—dangerously so—and I met him after he was gelded. Classic horse story: the wild and untamable horse that only one girl can ride. He was an Arabian horse, and he looked and acted exactly like Khamsin in the story. His name was Sheik Nishan. I didn’t own him and couldn’t afford to; when his owner died, I had to part with him. That was hard.
Come to think of it, I did end up with a happier ending the second time around—nobody, but nobody, rides my stallion but me, and as far as he’s concerned, except for the part where they adore him and give him cookies, the rest of the human race can just go poof. Except for his teacher. He looooves her.
I would never want him to turn into a human. He’s perfect as he is.
Q.) Which of your stories is the one that surprised you by breaking out?
A.) I don’t know that I’ve been surprised by much of anything. I did find out a while back that a story I thought had sunk from sight forever is many people’s favorite or nearly favorite of mine—“Dame à la Licorne” that I did for Peter S. Beagle’s unicorn anthology. I’ve known for a long time that “Classical Horses” is a cult favorite. It gets reprinted fairly often. Ditto my Tolkien-tribute story, “Death and the Lady.” That one gets labeled “masterpiece” now and then. We’ve made it into an ebook here at BVC.
Q.) Which of your stories is the one that surprised you by NOT breaking out?
A.) I can’t think of any. I write them. They go out there. People read them, or not. It’s often hard to tell which—though with all the social networks now, there’s a whole lot more feedback than there used to be. I like that, even when the feedback isn’t glowingly positive. It tells me people are actually reading what I write. Wow. Who knew?
Q.) Will you ever return to the world of The Hound and the Falcon? Skimming fan sites, I see a desire to explore other stories there.
A.) I might. “Death and the Lady” is a coda of sorts to that series. There are more stories to tell in that world.
Q.) The Caitlin Brennan books had some wonderful themes going on, but for some fans there seemed to be a fork in the path at book three. Was this a classic case of “This is not your automatic Happily-Ever-After romance book”? Or fantasy readers who did not like the concentration on The Relationship, which tradition says must be at least 51% of a romance novel?
A.) Well, as to that. Each genre has its own distinct template. Fans of the genre are very, very devoted to it and really, really don’t like it if an author violates it. Whereas I keep wanting to do something different. I ran into that with the Avaryan Rising books (now being published in e-form by BVC), which got me hate mail for the third one. It wasn’t that bad with the Brennan books, but it seems romance readers sincerely do not want to see a woman who is in love with two men. Even having her end up with the “right” one didn’t satisfy them. They hated that she acted on her feelings for the “wrong” one.
The romance genre is totally constructed on the idea of One True Love. I respect that. But as a writer, I’m not wired that way. When I did try to do that with another series, I got panned for having too “pat” an ending. I can’t seem to win with that demographic. Or with the trilogy format, it seems.
Fantasy fans on the other hand think it’s great, and horse fans ditto. They write and ask for more.
Q.) In hindsight, are you pleased overall with the Brennan trilogy, or are there things you would change today?
A.) I’m pleased with it. I wrote it the way I wanted it to be. If I change anything, I’ll do it in new books or stories—exploring different ramifications of the ideas.
Q.) Will there be a fourth book about these characters?
A.) I have an entire second trilogy outlined, plotted, and approved by the publisher—which then changed direction and killed the books the week I was to start book four. Someday I would like to write that series—maybe do a Kickstarter. I just need to find an opening in the writing schedule.
Q.) A new world, a new publisher. What can you tell us about the last Caitlin Brennan book?
A.) House of the Star was a middle-grade horse book for Tor. It’s another one with series potential; it’s written for 10-12 year-olds, but I think it has enough adventure, drama, and complexity to appeal to older readers. It’s set on a horse ranch in Arizona and on the borders of Faerie, and it’s full of magical horses, deadly dangers, and warring worlds. I’d really like to revisit that world someday.
Q.) So, what are you working on right now? Should we be pining for a completed but not yet out book, or hoping for a sale?
A.) I am messing about with a project that my agent averred would never sell to a major publisher, with an archaeological mystery, alien ninjas, and space pirates, among other things. I ran a Kickstarter in March and it did really well. People love space opera. So that’s the work in progress; I plan to finish it late this year, get it edited by fellow BVC member Sherwood Smith (who will kick my writerly ass but good and proper, and I will love it), and publish it through BVC next year.
Q.) Something I have never understood is why you haven’t reached the mass audience you deserve. Does your work sell better in Europe? Has any editor or publisher ever sat down to try and figure out how to boot you onto the A list? (I am reminded of how Dick Francis had to leave the house that sold his mysteries to try his Big Books—which turned out to sell fantastically.)
A.) Yes. Many times. So far we haven’t found the Sekrit Formula for fame, fortune, or awards—though I can tell you all about being a Critical Success. I remain a writer’s writer and an editor’s writer, and my fans are fiercely loyal. I call them The 5500. They are wonderful. So I write for me, and for them, and maybe the next book will be the one that breaks through the wall. As they say on the big screen: Never Give Up! Never Surrender!