Tanith Lee's Adventure

From Fantasy to the French Revolution



Author Tanith Lee

Some quick math: If Tanith Lee has written 61 novels since 1971, and if that includes eight series, all of which freely mingle elements of horror, fantasy, and science fiction... if Tanith Lee has also written six plays and one work of non-fiction... if Tanith Lee has written in genres including juvenile and adult fantasy, as well as venturing into pure horror with her recent Scarabae and Blood Opera series... then that comes out to 2.72 stylistically risky, darkly erotic, award-winning, unpredictable works per calendar year, right? Well, more or less. Lee sounds quite perky on the phone, talking around a crackling, muffled connection from England, as she tells me that she wrote her current book, The Gods Are Thirsty, in about a year, "not counting time spent researching, of course." Please count with me: If The Gods Are Thirsty is a 514-page novel (it is), then, sure, she only had to write 1.41 pages a day -- but when did she rewrite? Never mind. The same elegant sense of irony, wedded to muscular, unstoppable prose, that powers her Flat Earth adult fantasy series powers this novel of the French Revolution, proof once again that Tanith Lee can do just about anything, including center an epic novel around a minor journalist martyred on the guillotine during the height of Maximilien Robespierre's Reign of Terror.

Austin Chronicle: I enjoyed The Gods Are Thirsty very much.

Tanith Lee: It was written about 13 years ago. What happened was, I tried it in England. And people over here hated it. They said, "It's too horrible." And I said, well, the French Revolution was pretty horrible, you know. But, "No, no, you can't do this." And of course, the other thing they said was, "It's not what you usually write." And as you know, writers get ghettoized, and I was being ghettoized. So I just sat on it.

AC: And here I was thinking that you'd taken yet another turn in your career.

TL: Well, it usually turns up in short stories, but I have done historical stories before. And the thing is, you say a new turn in my career, if it is successful it could even be one. I'm very glad you enjoyed it, because I was concerned that it might be a rather difficult book.

AC: (Laughing) Yeah, it's kind of a door-stop, sure. But it sucked me right in after page 30 or so, and one of the reasons was definitely your main character, Camille Desmoulins. He seems to have become very real to you.

TL: They all do that, when I'm writing a book the characters all just get hold of me. And if I'm writing as them, first person singular... it's like acting a role, if you're an actor. They, they do take you over. I have to say, when I was writing this book, the house was full of them! Particularly Danton. I think Danton even more than Camille. . . . Oh, he was a lot of fun. He's dangerous.

AC: Now, Georges Danton was one of the major forces in the Revolution. Why not center a book around him, rather than Camille?

TL: Yes. In -- I suppose it was probably the late Seventies -- there was a play on British TV, which you may have heard of, called Danton's Death.... It's a wonderful play, by a German writer about whom I know very, very little. But it's the most marvelous play about the last days of Danton and Camille, and all the people who went with them to the guillotine. And then some years later, I was reading -- I think it was a novel, and I saw Camille mentioned, just a tiny mention. But I thought, `Wait a minute. This man is the link between the two giants.'

Because you've got a choice with the French Revolution. You can write about Danton, or you can write about Robespierre. But if you write about Camille, he is the bridge between the two. And of course he's got a love story which is rather nice. And because he isn't known, or hardly known, you can take chances with him in a way you can't with someone like Danton.

AC: He's not as fixed in the imagination.

TL: That's right. And he did actually seem to start the revolution, though as he says, anyone could have done it, it was just being at the right place in the right time.

AC: And that's what you get the sense of when you read the book, that so much of what happened in the revolution was less by plan than by chance.

TL: Yes, the hand of fate is quite terrifying. One of the things I found very strange was the way the weather seemed to follow what people were doing. When I was researching, one of the things it said was that probably the weather influenced the way people reacted anyway. And it did seem as though the weather was providing this dramatic background to all the events.

AC: It's a very complex and tumultuous time period -- the social classes, the political factions. It seems almost impossible to compress it into any sort of workable story. How did you approach it?

TL: (Laughing) Well, that is what I was thinking. I started to research seriously, and I thought, `My God, this is impossible'.... I mainly read biographies. I found them completely fascinating. The characters of the revolution, whether you like them or detest them, they're larger than life and they're magnificently moving. You can really get your teeth in them. So I just read and read and read.

Finally, when I had decided that I probably would do a book, I was extremely nervous about it, never having written anything quite like this. I wrote a diary of events, just a skeleton, and I stuck to that skeleton -- actually it was like a synopsis, which I don't normally do for a book -- but I stuck to that all the way through. And all the way through, I was constantly having to stop and go off and find another book and read that.

When I write anything, as I said, the characters do get hold of me. And it all seems totally real. And because it had been real, I suppose there was even more pressure on me. But once I got into my stride, I ceased being frightened, and I began to take risks.

AC: I'm curious -- and I'm not asking you this as a historian, but rather as a novelist who has immersed herself psychologically in a time period -- do you think the Terror was inevitable?

TL: (Sighing) I would say that it probably had to happen. It's like -- well, I think it says in the book, it was like something running away downhill. In the end it was unstoppable. One of the worst things about it is that -- [well,] I had always felt that Robespierre was a monster, before I started doing the research. But when I wrote about him, and when I'd gone through it all with them, I thought, no, this is the usual tragedy of someone who really wants to do good and through trying to do good, they've done more harm than anybody would've done who'd have left it alone.

AC: Certainly there's a lot of irony in seeing all these characters, who have such good intentions, end up so tragically far from achieving them. What themes are important to you as a writer?

TL: Well. The ongoing theme of people -- people are endlessly fascinating, and exciting, and rewarding to write about. Their psychology, their hates and their loves and their quite legitimate terror of death, with the hope that maybe they're wrong and there is something.

AC: Which is a question that Camille almost resolves.

TL: (Laughing) Well, he appears to, yes.... That part of the book was quite terrifying to write....

AC: As far as your other work is concerned, I'm curious to know: While you name five gods in the Flat Earth series, you've only so far written about four --

TL: Well, it isn't, it isn't [correct]. Because in the last one, Delirium's Mistress, you actually come across the fifth Lord of Darkness. But you're not told who he is. I don't know if you remember, but when the heroine, she's in that sort of magical submarine-thing and she slides off the edge of the world into Chaos and is pushed back. Well, she's pushed back by Chaos, because Chaos is the fifth Lord of Darkness. But I have never yet got around to writing a fifth book. Sometime, I plan to get around to doing that.

AC: And will you keep writing in the horror genre?

TL: I honestly don't know. It depends on what people want. People are very. . . unwilling, now. It surprises me a little bit. But they only want -- I don't really know what they want. And I've never really written what people want, I've written what I felt I had to write at that time. What I've actually done is, I've written a fantasy, but I don't know who is going to bring that out at the present time. And I'm working on another one -- which is not to say that I might not do another horror novel. I would like to do -- I don't know if you're familiar with the Scarabae series.... [That's] a series that I've done three books of, and they are sometimes counted as horror -- although I think that's a little bit misleading, they're not that horrible -- and if I get a chance, I will write a fourth book. [But] no one has made any offers for that fourth book.

AC: You're having problems finding a publisher?

TL: I'm afraid I think an awful lot of writers are having problems getting printed at the moment.... It's all I hear. [Again,] I don't quite know what they want. The economic climate is not very healthy for anyone unless you are an absolute bestseller.

AC: Why do you write?

TL: Why do I write? It's as natural to me as being able to walk, being able to talk, being able to think. It's the most exciting thing and it's the most rewarding thing. My husband, John Kaiine, has exactly the same reaction. When you're writing and it's coming -- now, everybody gets blocks, when you just have to work purely professionally, and say [to yourself] I must do seven pages today -- but when it's not like that, it's the most wonderful thing in the world. It's like -- it's like a double whiskey that isn't going to make you feel ill (laughing).

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