Marion Zimmer Bradley
Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Marion Zimmer Bradley was a powerhouse in the fantasy and science fiction world, where her Darkover series became a publishing phenomenon, and her novel Mists of Avalon was a New York Times Bestseller. Book View Cafe is delighted to have the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust as a member. Our first release from the trust is The Complete Lythande. In the following interview, two of the individuals entrusted with the legacy of her work (long time friends and co-workers Ann Sharp and Lisa Waters) talk about MZB’s outlook on writing and on her own work.
1.) What pushed Marion Zimmer Bradley to become a working fiction writer? Why did she go down that creative path?
A.) MZB used to say that she didn’t want her children raised by someone whose market value was less than hers, and writing enabled her to work at home. She really wanted to become an opera singer, but she didn’t have the resources to train; writing was her second choice. Opera, however, definitely influenced her writing, even when she wasn’t rewriting The Magic Flute into Night’s Daughter or Norma into The Forest House. The Mists of Avalon is operatic, if you look.
2.) Do you think MZB’s “voice,” the thing that stamped her writing as uniquely hers, changed from book to book, story to story–or do you see themes that reoccur in her work?
A.) What we noticed in her original books was a unique wit and a note of understatement. For example, in Sword of Aldones, someone referred to someone’s father carving wooden figures for them when they were children, and that one detail gave the reader a feel for what type of person the father had been. Over the five decades of her career, of course her voice changed. There are certainly themes that recur in her work, such as children, and culture shock, but the way she treated them and looked at them changed as she matured and as the world around her changed.
3.) What do you think MZB loved the most about writing?
A.) Writing took her away from her personal life. She liked to think about things, to consider multiple viewpoints of the same events. For example, Mists of Avalon started when she was a teenager and read Mallory: “Morgan le Fay was not married, but put to school in a nunnery where she became a great mistress of magic.” MZB’s first thought was “that must have been some nunnery.” The manuscript was called Mistress of Magic until the publisher changed the title on the grounds that “Mistress of Magic” sounded like a bodice-ripper.
4.) MZB became a formidable editor, launching a fiction magazine and a successful series of anthologies based on her Darkover world. Why did she decide to become an editor? Did financial need drive her, or did she see it as a way to pay forward? Was she trying to channel fan fiction into building new writers?
A.) It definitely was not financial need; by the time she edited her first anthology, she was financially secure. She firmly believed in paying forward and never forgot the support that she had received as a young writer. The Darkover anthologies did start as a way of publishing the best of the fan fiction. In her Sword and Sorceress anthologies, while she certainly encouraged new writers, there was no fan fiction involved. She was enormously proud of what we still call “MZB’s writers”: the authors who made their first sale to her and went on to successful careers of their own. (We are, of course, very grateful to the ones who still contribute to the annual Sword and Sorceress anthology.)
5.) Writer Deborah J. Ross has continued writing novels in the Darkover worlds, and Diana L. Paxson the Avalon books. Do you think that any of MZB’s other worlds would lend themselves to further exploration?
6.) Did MZB ever speak of what she had learned from her own writing—about writing, or about the world?
A.) At great length. She gave weekend workshops on short-story writing, she attended conventions, and made other public appearances. Around her, writing was contagious. The only member of her family who did not write had her own literary agency. MZB always said that anyone who could write a literate English sentence could make a living writing category fiction. She also trained editors: Elisabeth Waters, Deborah J. Ross, and Mercedes Lackey currently edit as well as write.
7.) Some people jump into fiction—they take a character or an idea that interests them and simply start writing. Others research like mad before they start, and still others have a character tap them on the shoulder, and then they start researching. Did MZB have a favorite way to start a project? Was she usually a planner or a “pantser”, as writers who simply start writing call themselves?
A.) Definitely a pantser. Her outlining was all in her subconscious. When she got stuck, she’d have someone else in the household write the next scene, and then she’d either use it or say to herself “No, it goes this way.” (She trained her household well enough that her son David and her cousin Lisa both earned royalties from this input.)
8.) Did MZB prefer one length to write or to read? Or was she simply in love with story, and went with what expressed the idea she had in mind?
A.) For her own writing she preferred the novel length. She learned to write short fiction early in her career when she was establishing herself as a writer and the largest market was magazines. The novel length allowed her to have more characters and explore more ideas.
9.) Do you think that MZB would have embraced social media? Or would she have thought it too intrusive, too time consuming? Would it have been just part of the promotional job?
A.) Remembering the struggle—and the number of years—it took us to get her to use a word processor, we are quite sure that she would have hated social media. (She had a computer that was nothing but a word processor, and she still managed to burn out the motherboard every single year. We—and the field service tech who came out to replace it—still have no idea how.) She did not regard promotion as her job; that was why she had publishers. In fact, her consistent reply to “Why do you let them put those covers on your books?” was that a cover is not an illustration; it’s a marketing poster for the book. The only time she gave any cover input to a publisher was when she told Donald A. Wollheim that if he put a naked Amazon on the cover of The Shattered Chain, they were through.
10.) What makes Book View Café the right place for the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust?
A.) The mutual aid, support, and comfort… Oops, that’s the Book of Common Prayer marriage service. Seriously, the individual talents of the Book View Café members bring us to a place where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts.