I am thrilled to be interviewing Erin Bow, whose second book, SORROW'S KNOT (isn't that an awesome title?), was released last week!
Your first book, Plain Kate, was Russian-based fantasy. Your second, Sorrow's Knot, seems (correct me if I'm wrong!) inspired by at least one Native American culture. How do you decide where to go for your inspiration? What comes first, the research or the story?
There's a story behind the setting of Sorrow's Knot. I met the heroine, Otter, long before I knew much about where she lived. I knew she lived in a whispery, haunted forest, and that seemed good enough. I put that forest in the middle of what Diana Wynn Jones called "Fantasyland." (see: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1044747-the-tough-guide-to-fantasyland-the-essential-guide-to-fantasy-travel) For a long while Otter and her friends wandered around Fantasyland Forest, picking up horses and swords, but the story wouldn't quite come together.
Then I visited the Black Hills in South Dakota.
The Hills -- actually they are small mountains -- are very strange. The rise up out of the prairie, stoney and literally black, because of the black pine trees that cover them. Inside the forest there, the light is different, and the air is different. It's a strange, numinous place, and holy to nearly everyone who's lived in sight of it. Knowing it was holy it was with some trepidation that I set the story there. But it felt, that day, as if I'd walked into Otter's world.
So it was at that point that I stopped and did research. A LOT of research. Architecture, gardening, ethnobotany, storytelling, drumming, hunting, foraging, stone knapping, rope making -- there was a lot. I wasn't trying to make Otter and her people an historically accurate depiction of (say) the Hidatsa (from whom I borrowed the houses and gardens) because when you start with a world where the dead prey on the living and give women (and only women) the power to bind the dead in knots, you don't end up with an historically accurate anything. But I did try hard not to default to the European, the urban, or the modern. I tried hard, in other words, to get inside her world and let the story take root there and grow.
That DOES sound like a lot of research - I'm slightly overwhelmed just reading your list! Do you enjoy research, or do you see it as something you have to do to get into the story (or -- like me – a little of both?)
I do like research -- part of what I really like about writing books is that you get to dig deep into stuff. I'm the kind of person who goes into a bookstore and sees a gorgeously illustrated 800 page book on things to do with ropes on sailing ships and am just THRILLED that someone knows that much about knots and lashings! And this, despite getting seasick in bathtubs. So writing is, in one way, just a channel for me being really geeky.
On the other hand, every time I write an historical, I swear I will never write another historical. Ugh, it's ENDLESS.
Did you ever have to/get to go back to the Black Hills to fill in details/descriptions for your story? In that one paragraph, by the way, you managed to add them to my bucket list.)
I have been back, once. My extended family farms in South Dakota, so the Black Hills are not too far out of the way. But most of what I've done has been from photos and books, plus some locals and experts who answered questions and gave me assorted lessons. The acknowledgements list in this book is long.
Also -- you need to go to the hills! I didn't even tell you about the buffalo herds! Or the caves!
You say you "stopped" to get into the research. How do you know when you've done enough research and you're ready to get back into the story?
It's a paradox, isn't it -- it's hard to know what to research before you write, but hard to know what to write until you do the research. It's tricky, too, because you want to write too early (because writing is awesome and research is hard) and also want to use research as means of procrastination (because research is awesome and writing is hard). For me it's always a dynamic balance, nothing quite as clean as stop and start. There are periods, especially early on, where I do a lot of research and write while knowing that most of the writing may need to go out the window. There are periods later when I mostly write and leave the research questions on little notecards so that I don't break my own flow. And at any point that balance may shift, if only briefly.
The real trick for me is to do enough research that the world becomes natural and real, and the story flows from inside the world. For instance, in my current work-in-progress my characters are on an epic cross-continent horseback journey. This is a problem for me because when I started the story I'd never been on a horse. (I have since taken a couple of lessons, and think I really nailed the bit where my protagonist rides for the first time, is awkward and terrified, and later very sore.) I knew I'd done enough horse-ish research when the horses began to suggest stories. I stopped moving them around the board and they started to move the novel on their own. Otter's world is more complicated than that, because the research was so multifaceted, but at a certain point there was the same kind of shift.
Perhaps not entirely relevant, but hey, it's my interview. So: since you mentioned The Tough Guide to Fantasyland - what's your favorite Diana Wynne Jones book?
They say you never forget your first, and mine was Charmed Life. Still my favourite, though I usually end up reading the entire Chrestomanci series every time I pick it up. Also Fire and Hemlock. And Howl's Moving Castle. Ummm. I could start to get carried away here ....
So could I, so I will resist the temptation to... oh, okay. The Chrestomanci series first, Howl's Moving Castle second, and then... right, RESISTING NOW.
To find out more about Erin and her fabulous book, you can check her out at http://www.erinbow.com/.