INTERVIEW: Kate Elliott

As a child in rural Oregon, Kate Elliott made up stories and drew maps of imaginary worlds because she longed to escape to a world of lurid adventure fiction. This dubious inclination led inexorably to a career as a fantasy writer. “Riding the Shore of the River of Death” takes places in the world of her seven-volume Crown of Stars fantasy series. The Spiritwalker Trilogy (Cold Magic and Cold Fire, with Cold Steel forthcoming) is an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy with swords, sharks, and lawyer dinosaurs. She has also written the Crossroads Trilogy (Spirit Gate, Shadow Gate, and Traitors’ Gate), which features giant eagles, an examination of the old adage “power corrupts,” and ghosts, as well as the science fiction Novels of the Jaran. While not writing, she lives not in lurid adventure fiction but in paradisaical Hawaii.

Tell us a bit about your story, “Riding the Shore of the River of Death.” What’s it about?

The story is about a young woman who wants to live a man’s life, according to the dictates of her culture. That is, among her people, men and women have fairly formalized, rigid gender roles. If she fulfills the specific requirements to “become a man” (one that all boys must fulfill), then she can live a man’s life as long as she lives fully within that gender role.

There are a number of examples from societies (particularly well known among First Nations/Native American groups) in which a woman or man could choose to live within the gender role assigned to the opposite sex as long as they fully inhabited that role. I think of it as a form of social flexibility that could accommodate variation in individual human personality.

The story is about other things, too, like how alliances between lineages and princely families work, how cultures meet and communicate, and how gender roles may vary between societies. But Kereka’s quest to “prove her manhood” is the main focus.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

It is a re-visioned outtake featuring characters and a situation I had to excise from the Crown of Stars series. Kereka and her companions originally appeared as the prologue to Volume Three, The Burning Stone. But as volume three got longer and longer, I realized I simply could not afford another lengthy sub-plot, no matter how interesting it might be to me. There was even a scene about creating shrunken heads. So I cut it in favor of introducing a character who fit more cleanly into the already complex plot of Crown of Stars. However, I particularly liked Kereka’s conflict, her desire to live in a role suited to her personality and ambition rather than one dictated by her reproductive organs, so when I had a chance to write a story for Subterranean Press, this was the one I chose.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

The challenge came in crafting a complete story with the material I already had.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

All my stories are personal in that I always have something I want to say in them, but they rarely reference any part of my personal life. Although I don’t think that’s what you mean. As a woman writing epic fantasy it is personal to me to always write stories in which female characters figure prominently and powerfully. By that I don’t mean solely as “warrior women” (even though that’s what this story happens to include) but as fully realized individuals whose lives have their own trajectory and aren’t just adjunct to that of a male character.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I researched steppe cultures from both central Asia and from the western region of the steppes, particularly those that flourished from the 8th to 15th centuries. And earlier too, since I have done some reading on the Scythian and Sarmatian cultures.

Also, I did a bit of research on how people make shrunken heads, but unfortunately that did not get into the story.

What is the appeal of epic fantasy? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write it? Why do you think readers/viewers love it so much?

Discovery. Adventure. Emotion. The sense of standing on the edge of a cliff and looking over a vista, an unfolding landscape that you will have a chance to explore.

What are some of your favorite examples of epic fantasy (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

There is a great deal of really well done epic fantasy out there, new and old. I’ll just highlight my favorite epic fantasy series, Katharine Kerr’s Deverry cycle (starting with Daggerspell). The early volumes have a well drawn chieftain level society, and as the cycle of the story moves through time, the reader can see how society changes over time. It’s done subtly; you’re never hit over the head with it, but the careful reader can see the historical process at work. It’s also simply a fabulous story with wonderful characters and, I should add, well done battle scenes.