Author of eighteen novels and two short story collections, Janny Wurts has been around fantasy literature for a long time, from her best-selling Empire series, co-written with Raymond Feist to two fantasy series of her own, The War of Light and Shadow and The Cycle of Fire. But she is also an accomplished artist and painter, and that is where yours truly first encountered her talent, on book covers and in fantasy art collections. All that, and she’s also a musician, formally trained in the highland bagpipes, among other instruments. How much more creative could one person be?
JW: I have always been drawn to story telling, no matter what form, whether ballads, or theatre, or books. From having stories read aloud to me as a child, to reading nearly every book in the fiction section in my local library, to seeing original paintings by the Brandywine River area illustrators, Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth – the concept of story has fascinated me. I went to college expecting to become a scientist. But when I encountered how limiting the thought process was, I quickly realized I had too many interests to fit into one convenient box. As a writer and painter, telling stories, I can plunge into anything up to my neck, pursue any subject matter, and use that richness as a backdrop. I deeply enjoy that freedom, even today.
TH: What is The Story of Janny? Is it a novel? A short story? An epic fantasy poem? A limerick?
JW: It would be a Renaissance visionary’s encyclopedia, probably. Curiousity has taken me in many directions, to many countries and areas of thought that are well beyond the fields we know. Sometimes fun, sometimes adventurous, sometimes hair-raising scary, always challenging, it’s a journey that has too many depths and dimensions to fit very well into any form.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
JW: I wrote stories in high school, had finished some three “novels” before entering college, and took none of it seriously until I realized the frontiers of astronomy weren’t wide enough to contain my curiosity. Academic science was going to be way too constricting, and imagination could always top what was known in ways that carried a lot more thrill. To look beyond the edge proved too enticing to put down, once I realized that everything, ever, changed because somebody dared to dream.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
JW: If it’s unrealized, as yet, understand, that’s because I’m still chasing for it. I have a massive series, nearly complete at this point. I have a whole lot more artwork and material I want to paint to back it up, and enlarge upon the concepts. I haven’t, yet, started finishing the music that would accompany the whole thing, although some of the compositions are just waiting to pop, once I can get my hands on the equiment to produce them.
TH: Aside from being a painter and an author, do you have musical training as well?
JW: Well, yes, but formally, only on the Highland Bagpipes, I’ve taken years of lessons from a truly accomplished instructor. On my own, I play six and twelve string guitar, hammered dulcimer, and mandolin. I also had some wonderful all nighters, messing with electronic music on an array of synthesizers, that was a blast I’d like to revisit someday.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
JW: Wilderness travel, music, quantum physics, crystals, stars, sunsets, and old ruins.
TH: How have your world travels found their way into your art?
JW: Certainly, they have. I felt early on that I could not write, without life experience. I sent myself to England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Senegal, Russia, and Korea, then, had the chance to go to Australia, the Carribbean, Bermuda, and the Bahamas. I’ve sailed offshore on sail boats small as 35 feet, and as big as a 75 foot period rigged schooner. Reflections of those experiences have found their way into novels and art in the oddest ways. Sometimes, even stranger, I’ll find I’ve written scenes that looked just like a real place, visited years later. This was true of the Isle of Harris, in Scotland. It could have “doubled” as certain views of Vastmark, in the series, where rocks looked like sheep, and sheep looked like rocks, in a misty, clouded vista barren of trees.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
JW: That moment when the story takes hold so deeply I forget the clock, forget myself, forget what I intended, and just watch in awe as the muse herself writes the page. I know, then, we are much more than we suppose.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore?
JW: I don’t know what’s been most successful. I know which areas I feel good about. Those would be where I create an inviting space, or start a discussion about something I’m passionate about, and people volunteer to ask for more. I’ve done everything from making pretty art into book marks and laminating them for quality, and letting people pick them up, to mastering Garage Band and doing excerpt readings people can download for free. The internet is a great avenue to find new readers, but only when it’s used with ethics and etiquette, and above anything else, kindness.
TH: Have you reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
JW: The milestones never ever get old, when you receive a finished copy of a book, or a short story, or see a painting made into graphic cover art. It’s always cause for celebration. I think I’ve yelled just as loudly for joy on my 18th novel, as for the first. Some say you’ve “made it” when you’ve sold, some, when you get your first hardbound, others, when you’ve had your first short story collection. I’ve done all those – but really, the milestone I’m reaching for is always the next book, to come. How it will turn out, and how it will surprise me. I also hope, one day, to see a compendium of artwork and writing under one cover. That would be wild to create! This year, coming 2010, there will be a fantasy art calendar of my work (titled Myth and Magic) from Tide-mark press, that’s as close as I’ve come.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach? Do you write under any pseudonyms?
JW: I do not write under pseudonyms, and honestly, I hope never to do so. (I have a thing about saying ‘never,’ since that can come back to bite!) But I feel it’s central to my nature and my ethics to claim authorship, to be responsible and stand behind what I write and paint. I want to have the mask off, for the readers, and let them know I stand behind my integrity in the work, and also, unapologetically, stand for my mistakes both good and bad.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
JW: I am finishing out the Wars of Light and Shadow series, with the last three volumes at last under contract. Sword of the Canon I, Initiate’s Trial, is nearing finish, in draft. It will be followed by Sword of the Canon II, Destiny’s Conflict, then the last, Song of the Mysteries. I have a few projects working on the side, in the dark, as it were. Those are free time pursuits, and when they are ready, I’ll have them up and out there. As I can, I want to do some short fiction works that relate to the series, mostly to bend minds. Occasionally readers assume how certain points of history went – and I know otherwise. A few short pieces can open those areas up and create some really wild surprises.
TH: What title(s) would you recommend to a reader who is new to your work?
JW: It truly depends upon the reader, since I tend not to write the same thing twice. Here’s the “rough rundown” to let you pick for yourself.
Sorcerer’s Legacy, (standalone) if you like tight court intrigue, fast plot, and a mild romance.
Master of Whitestorm, (standalone) for action adventure with a mercenary hero, or if you enjoyed the movie, Lethal Weapon.
Cycle of Fire trilogy (Stormwarden, Keeper of the Keys, Shadowfane) for coming of age quest, closest to YA.
Empire trilogy (co-written with Raymond Feist) – Daughter of the Empire, Servant of the Empire, Mistress of the Empire – sort of Woman of Substance meets Shogun, where a woman whose family line is killed in a bloody political move by her enemies. She inherits her ancestral honor and ruling power as a woman in a male culture – and must alter and innovate within that culture, and change tradition, in order to save her family.
The Wars of Light and Shadow series, eight books beginning with Curse of the Mistwraith – for mature readers, No Elves, No Dwarves, No Darklords – expect the unexpected, a highly intricate plot that will not sprawl so much as deepen. The characters will change, and what you think you see at first is apt to pull reverses. There is no way I can accurately tag this. Try the posted excerpts.
To Ride Hell’s Chasm – (standalone) starts as a mystery with a missing princess, progresses to a political intrigue, and rips looks to a hard action adventure. If you liked the movie Terminator with a tough heroine and an even tougher hero – a good starter to see if you like my work. Most likely book to try if you enjoyed the Empire. My husband’s complete favorite.
There are MP3 files of chapter audio readings for free download, and also, text excerpts available on my website, to sample most of the titles.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
JW: Most memorable moment, (among them) good: the time I was on a book tour in Australia, caught in front of a mike with a media appearance, live radio, and the show host, very bored, said how on earth was she to interview a “fantasy” writer, and take that seriously, when troops were on the ground shooting in Bosnia. I responded that we were in such a difficulty in the first place for the sore lack of imagination – that long since, we could, as mankind, use our faculties to dream up another solution than a shooting war…the look on her face, priceless, as she yelled to her producer, “This is IMPORTANT, extend the show another hour!
Most memorable moment – bad. The long, horrible wait to have the rights to the series revert, so that I could get a new contract in place, after the books were orphaned. Now, at last, in May 09, there will be nine books releasing, one title a month. The long eclipse period, where my books were not available in my own country – that was very difficult since I am not known for patience.
TH: What were some of the things you discussed on the radio show?
JW: Mostly that, too many times, humankind keeps on repeating the same mistake over and over – that might makes right. We fail to use imagination to seek other solutions than a shooting war, when many times, problems could be solved creatively, without bloodshed. If we put as much effort into education, and in building up the vision that more than one solution might exist – that to be inspired to solve a difficulty, sometimes old responses have to be junked – we’d have a different picture to reach for. In crisis situations, there are non lethal ways to stop violence, and sort the situation out without killing. But very little time or effort or money get spent, pursuing such things. We are conditioned to abandon our imaginations as we grow up to be adults. Which is perhaps a criminal loss, because kids naturally think outside the “box” – one has to dream where one wishes to be, and have the guts to believe it’s possible. Then the steps toward the solution are revealed as inspiration. But too often we are taught not to expect, not to reach, not to peer into the unknown, just to make do with life as it is, and not bend the rules. Yet everything new we’ve ever created has happened because some maverick dared to dream it, and defied the drawn line to pursue what could not yet be done. I have always believed that education has to be turned upside down, made to foster mavericks, and shifted away from just toeing the old beaten track, to learn what our parents taught, before us. Few talents and fewer dreamers survive the system. Many people never get over being forced away from their own, natural bent for curiosity. We are taught and told not to follow our impulses – but many impulses are not destructive at all, but a real clue to our natural gifts.
TH: Could you describe how your books were orphaned?
JW: Very simple – I had a senior editor in love with my stuff who changed houses. HarperCollins London wanted me to move to their New York counterpart. I signed a ten book contract – five for series books, one short story collection, and four back list titles, to be reissued. Book one of the series remained with another house – but the idea was, it would get bought out later, to put the whole series under one roof. Only one new book, the short story collection, and three of the backlist were issued under that editor before that editor became promoted and shuffled to another department. Book one continued to sell through nine reprints, but was never bought out to bring the series together. My titles were handed off to the then assistant, promoted to editor, and that kindly individual saw three of the other new series books through, until she had a pregnancy leave, concurrent with the third book’s release, and a merger. All the former staff was fired. The incoming editor(s) knew nothing of my work. As the merger finished, with nobody home who knew my stuff, two of the earlier books in the series went out of stock, and no one noticed. When I found out, the merger mess caused a longer review, since all the staff was new - the reprint wasn’t put through, and the “automatic” order (determined by computer at the chains) fell off the radar, since no copies could be sold with no stock. Eight months later, those titles were resurrected, but the damage had been done. Auto reorder was not reinstated, because books never got on the shelves in enough quantity to trigger the computer. Worse, the new regime re-ordered the title list! They eliminated the title of book one, since it wasn’t their book, and the back room employee who changed the typography (loyal to the new regime) had no idea it would cause any mess up. Also, inside the book, they got the series books they did have under their roof scrambled out of order. Nowhere, anywhere, was there a guideline for the readers to follow, to know how to order the series. Book one made no mention of its sequels, and book two had no complete title list! Just ordinary bolluxes, no malice involved – and what that tangle started, the terrorist act in NYC finished off.
The short story collection, even more oddly, worked against the computer numbering. It sold extraordinary numbers, in hardback, for a short story. Then the three reprint paperbacks came out in mass market. I had to paint the covers, then book two in the series was so fat, the publisher split that for the paperback – and I had to do another cover for that. This put the next series book in late, beyond the two year mark – and when the chains looked up sales for “my last hardback” they found the (quite lovely) numbers for the short story collecton – and ordered that number, since after two years, the old numbers are considered useless. But the short story’s numbers were half that, for the hardback series books – and the press run was set, at half – it never recouped the initial runs, even though the subsequent two hardbacks reprinted three times. The initial run was never put back into place through oversight, and its visibility dropped as a result. Even today, I still find readers from the USA who say they found the first three, great books but what happened after that? They literally have no idea that I kept on writing, or that the other five sequels existed.
Don’t mistake this for whining – such events are very common! Many authors have to keep on producing through the prevailing winds in the marketplace, or even, after mess ups happen internally. It’s part of the game. One has to stay patient, keep focused, and never ever think of giving up.
It’s taken years for all the rights to revert back, to void the old US contract. The last book had to go out of print and stay dormant for a stated period of time. I’ve only been free to start a new deal since last year – and now we have nine books returning all at once.
On the flip side – I’ve also been merged twice and orphaned twice in London – but the difference was, the incoming staff had someone who had read my work, or who encountered it and loved it, and always there was someone at bat. That is why HarperCollins London will be bringing the books back in, through their US distributor Trafalgar Square, I feel there’s been enough continuity there to warrant finishing out the last three series books from that office.
TH: Does the publishing industry follow or lead, and why do you think so?
JW: The publishing industry has changed hugely, since I had my start, in some ways for the good – there are many more choices and more books than ever before. In some ways for the worse – since bottom line has become a steeper and steeper expectation, and corporate profits focus exclusively on the short term to the point where radical experimentation is discouraged. Once, an editor could just buy a book because they liked it. Then the market place decided, over the course of several books, whether an author’s work was viable. Now, the profit margin demanded up front is far larger. Editors must make up a “p&l” (profit and loss) statement – whereby they have to predict or estimate how much a book will make, up front. They do this by comparing it to other books that are similar – and that causes a backward gearing of the industry. Like books used to justify like books. Something completely different is not going to fare too well, by this system. The shift to national buyers, as opposed to regional ones, the downsizing of sales forces, the mega merging of many smaller houses into multinational combines – all have had an effect. Readers also do not understand the very narrow margins by which a book might succeed or fail. They underestimate the impact of not supporting authors they love – and with computer generated numbers, a new title has far less time to make a mark. I could really go on, but it’s too complex a subject to manage in much depth here. The upshot is, I see a lot of complaints about the tightness of the industry, and the difficulty for new authors to break in. Well, if folks don’t buy books when they’re, don’t support such efforts up front, it’s no surprise that publishers are careful and cannot speculate as freely. Buying books used, or getting them off the bargain table, or doing internet swaps for recent titles – all this has an impact that many don’t fully appreciate. I am not condemning these practices. But when a brand new title in hardbound gets some 75 “ex library copies” for sale on Amazon within three months of its release date – who loses? No library dumps its books that fast…and no publisher can compete against “used” copies sold for pennies on the dollar. Think about it.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
JW: You haven’t gone into much about the work itself – which is fine, just I’d like to add that I’d get extremely bored writing the same sort of story over and over. So depending what a new reader to my stuff wants to read, some titles might suit better than others. More, some work is better suited for mature readers, due to the layers of complexity. Even more, I like books best when they have impact at many angles: creative characters are changed by their experiences. Creative language pushes the envelope and takes thought into new territory, and even, raises wonder. Stories that are unforgettable, that don’t fear to show a full range of emotions, concepts that inspire deeper thought, and pack an ending punch, before a whimper – they are my style, all the way. I feel that cutoff cliffhanger endings, even in mid series, are a wimp out, and short change the reader. Therefore, I always strive to work each book to a resounding culmination. Nothing is perfect, art evolves, breathes, and lives. What counts is the courage for the doing, and the understanding, that once the story’s out, it belongs to the readers. They, and the critics, always follow, never lead. But the best alchemy happens when doors open that, before, did not exist. That is worth every chance of success, and every trip up that might be called a failure.