Helen Lowe

Novelist, poet, interviewer and lover of stories, Helen Lowe is an internationally successful and award winning New Zealand author. Her fiction and poetry have been published in journals and magazines, including the NZ Listener, Takahe, The New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre, Blackmail Press, Poetry NZ, JAAM and Bravado.

Her first book, Thornspell, was published in 2008 by Knopf in the USA. Lowe’s newest work, The heir of night is the first in a four book epic fantasy The Wall of Night series.

Lowe was scheduled to present at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival 2010. When the event was cancelled, Berinda Joy of Christchurch City Libraries contacted her for an interview instead.

We were all disappointed when the Christchurch Writers Festival was cancelled. This was going to be your first festival as a contributor. What were Find The Heir of Night at Christchurch City Librariesyou planning to share at your session, "Hot off the Press?"
I was going to do a short reading from my first novel Thornspell, which is new out in paperback, and a slightly longer piece from my new novel The heir of night, the first of the four book The Wall of Night series, which was released in the USA and Canada on 28 September and into Australia/New Zealand on Thursday 7 October.
You are in the interesting position of being both an interviewer for Plains FM Women on Air programme and interviewee for your own novels. What is your favourite question to ask other writers? Favourite question to be asked? How would you answer it?
As you may know, most of my interviews are with poets, as well as some novelists, and so I really don’t have a favourite interview question, because each book is unique and gives rise to different questions. It is very important to me to have really read a book thoroughly before I interview, in order to try and illuminate both the work and the writer for listeners; conversely, I like being asked questions myself which show that the interviewer has really understood my work. But there is no one, favourite question, in either case.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Almost everything: I can recall wanting to be a fireman, an astronaut, a policeman, a commando, both an airline pilot and a hostess—it really did change around an awful lot depending on the day and the hour. One consistent thread though, was that I never wanted to do anything in the medical professions. But I always wanted to write, and began writing actively around age eight.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I am a keen cook as well as a wine enthusiast; I enjoy gardening and getting out for long walks in the hills or on the beach, and I love reading, music, and the theatre.
What book(s) are you reading now?
None right now because I am trying to stay focused on finishing the second book in The Wall of Night series and if I become enthused by a new book I find it hard to put down. But while I was in Australia recently for the World Science Fiction Fantasy Convention, I read and loved Emma Donoghue’s Room, which is currently a Man Booker finalist, and also Emily Maguire’s Smoke in the Room, because Emily was going to be at the Christchurch Festival at an event sponsored by Women on Air. I also read Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead at that time because we were on a panel together in Melbourne called Writing Strange Lands: Other Cultures in YA Speculative Fiction.
How important is the space in which you write? Where do you do most of your writing?
I write in my study, which is/was basically the third and smallest bedroom in our house, but which I have set up as a workspace. I would prefer a room with a nicer outlook, but because the study is smallest it is cheapest to heat in winter, which is a very important consideration when you’re at home all day. A laptop gives more flexibility to move around—but of course, once I get into the writing flow, considerations such as outlook don’t matter. Warmth in winter always does, though.
When you lift your head and look around, what do you see?
Books. I have both an Oxford and a Merriam-Websters’ dictionary — although now I tend to mainly use Merriam-Webster Online, since I have US publishers — as well as a thesaurus and a number of other resource books. My favourite is Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, which I first encountered through the Christchurch City Libraries Central Library.
I also have copies of all the print publications that I have had work published in, as well as quite a few poetry books because of the Women on Air interviewing. Plus a filing cabinet. Significantly, I graduated from a two drawer to a four drawer this year, a necessity given the paperwork associated with the small business aspects of the writing life, such as tax and contracts, in particular, but also resources for workshops and presentations. I also see the original artwork for the Wall of Night world, which was drawn by local artist Peter Fitzpatrick and is included in The Heir of Night.
The window in the room is an early style bay with lead-pane fanlights — which are particularly nice when the sun shines through — but beyond that there is just the driveway, a fence and the back wall of the neighbour’s house.
CoverYour first novel, Thornspell, was a standalone book. Your new book, The Heir of Night, is the first in a series. What particular challenges did you face in writing a series of four?
I haven’t completed the series yet, but even completing the second book, as I am now, there are clear differences. With a series, you can have more central characters, simply because you have room to accommodate their stories. That is a very big difference to me: that Thornspell has one single, point-of-view character (which helps keep the storyline tight) while The Heir of Night has seven, i.e. the two central protagonists, plus five prominent secondary characters (and another three who don’t get point of view sequences in Heir but are still very important to the story).
Another major aspect of writing a series has been the need to always remain aware of the need to sustain continuity, both of plot and character, over four books.
It looks like The heir of night is going to be shelved at the library with the adult books. Your previous book was shelved with the kids’ older fiction. Is this how you had wanted your books to be categorized?
I was really surprised when Knopf decided to publish Thornspell as Junior (8-12) fiction, because I feel it would take a very proficient eight or nine year old reader to handle the scope of the language (if say, you compare it with a book like Grace Lin’s Where the mountain meets the moon, or Kage Baker’s The Hotel under the sand). I always saw Thornspell as crossover fiction, similar to Robin McKinley (e.g. Beauty, The Blue Sword) or Patricia McKillip (e.g. The Riddlemaster of Hed, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld), i.e. aimed more at 11-14 year old readers.
Interestingly, I have received my most positive feedback from within that age band—but "crossing over" to readers "of all ages" who like the fairytale retelling genre. With The Heir of Night, I believe the decision to publish it as adult fiction is the correct one, because although the two central protagonists are young in the first book, the eight secondary — but still point of view and/or prominent — characters around them are not. I also believe that Heir is emotionally an adult story (although of course I read adult books extensively when I was a teen). Certainly the themes are darker and more complex than in Thornspell. But I do think it is the kind of story that will cross over very readily between an adult and young adult readership, and there is nothing in the book that would preclude a teen reader who has enjoyed Thornspell from reading Heir.
Which of your characters in either of your books is most/least like you, and in what way(s)?
None of them. My characters are entirely their own people and they also evolve as the story develops — although my partner remains quite sure that the prince in Thornspell must be modelled on him. And someone did email through my website once to ask if the Margravine zu Malvolin (the evil faie) in Thornspell was modelled on me. In reply, I assured, (or was that reassured?) him that: "the official line is that ‘all characters are entirely fictional and not based on any person either living or dead’ (including myself), which in fact is entirely true with my books".
PhotoIf you could be a superhero, what would you want your superpowers to be?
Interestingly, despite the vast array of things I did want to "be when I grew up" as a kid, I never even contemplated being a superhero. My heroes were always legendary and/or historical figures such as Robin Hood and King Arthur and Queen Elizabeth I, and I guess I understood that although I could be like them in terms of qualities that was as far as it went. But I attended a church boarding school and was always struck by the Old Testament story where the young King Solomon asks for the "gift of an understanding heart". I have always taken "understanding" in that context to be a blend of discernment and compassion, which as superpowers go, is difficult to surpass.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
I am definitely starting to hear from readers more now—although the Margravine story above is an early example of reader feedback. Some of my favourite feedback for Thornspell has been from young readers, including, Selina (a Wellington library reader) who said that Thornspell is "… just a really good book. I give it 14 out of 5 stars." And from the student reader (14) in the States who wrote that Thornspell was " … probably the best book I have gotten from Flamingnet!"
The reader feedback for Heir is starting to come in now, too, such as the following from US ARC readers (who posted on my blog): “I recently won a copy of Heir of Night. I finished it today and wanted to say “WOW”! I don’t read fantasy, cause it isn’t my cup of tea, but this was a fascinating story and and I am impressed with your talent to weave such a complex story and then tell it. It is beyond me how an author can come up with such a detailed world. Thanks for letting me get a preview of your book and I look forward to the next one!” -- Sharon
"I was up until 3 am because I couldn’t put it down." -- Georgette
What book(s) went into the building of you? What book(s) wouldn’t you be "Helen Lowe" without?
In terms of childhood favourites: CS Lewis, absolutely, particularly The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Horse and his boy; also Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels such as The Eagle of the Ninth and The Lantern Bearers, and Joyce West’s The Year of the Shining Cuckoo and Drover’s Road trilogy, although I always loved collected fairytales and myths and legends (Greek, Norse, Celtic, Egyptian … ) as well.
But these examples are just the tip of a very large reading iceberg. My "desert island books", the ones that I have kept coming back to for a long time and usually put in the top 4 of those "Your Top 100" surveys, are: JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza. I realise that it is a fairly "standard" top 4 list, but these are all books that had a profound effect on me when I first read them and which I still get a lot out of whenever I re-read—and I can’t resile from that, even in order to seem more "interesting"!
If I was allowed two more books on my desert island, I would probably add something like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and a Georgette Heyer historical romance, because Heyer’s history is always so good and her books are full of humour, which I am sure would go a long way on a desert island.
You live in Christchurch. What are your reflections on the Garden City? Has Christchurch influenced your writing?
I do live in Christchurch now and enjoy it, too, because Christchurch is such a "livable" city. But I have also lived in other places: all four main centres as well as Hamilton; a remote area of the King Country; Singapore and also Sweden. I suspect they have all had influences, as have landscapes such as Central Otago, which I visited a great deal for work at one time.
I believe influences of place are stronger, or at least more immediate, in my poetry and short fiction, than in my novels, but I know at least one Christchurch influence that has stayed constant for many years in my imagining of the second Wall novel (the one I am completing now). This particular influence is the first green of the willows along the rivers, even before the rest of spring has really started. Every year, I notice it afresh, and whenever I envisage the opening scene of Wall 2, in which two of the characters leave one city in the land known as the River (definitely not the Avon or the Heathcote) and ride to another, the willows are always part of the landscape.

Helen Lowe at Christchurch City Libraries

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