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An Interview with Patricia Briggs

by Chadwick Ginther - Friday, Aug 28, 2009 at 6:06pm

Patricia Briggs, bestselling author of the Mercedes Thompson urban fantasy novels was kind enough to take the time to answer some of my questions prior to the release of her most recent book, Hunting Ground, the second volume of her Alpha and Omega series.

CG: When you first wrote the novella Alpha and Omega was there any inkling the story would grow into its own series?

PB: No, and more's the pity. I intended Alpha and Omega to be a nice, self-contained story. I'd agreed to write a story for the anthology, and I wanted to tie it into the Mercy Thompson storyline.

Once in a while a character kind of captures my imagination, and I find myself making up background story and adventures with them. Of course, part of being a disciplined writer is forcing yourself to quit making up elaborate backgrounds for the side characters, and get back to writing the story that's probably overdue . If a character is particularly interesting, however, I sometimes promise to come back and explore a little more . . . later.

Charles was a fascinating character who played only a bit part in Mercy's story, and he'd sort of been pushing for a bigger role. The novella seemed like just the sort of opportunity we needed to let him strut and fret his hour upon the stage. I was happy with the story, and surprisingly happy with the character of Anna. The story did what I asked, and I thought I'd tied it up neatly with a bow. After the story was published, my editor asked about possibly writing a series featuring Anna and Charles -- and it sounded like a fun idea. In fact, these were characters begging to have lots more adventurers. The problem, of course, was that I'd tied the novella up with that big stupid bow.

Trying to smoothly and gracefully start the book series proved to be a real bugger. I wish I'd known, when I wrote the novella, that I wold someday launch a book series. If I could have rewritten the last scene of the novella, I could have saved myself (and my very patient readers) a great deal of frustration.

CG: Your earlier works are medieval flavoured fantasy, what made you shift to tell stories with a modern setting?

PB: Urban fantasy had been a Guilty Pleasure of mine ever since Laurel K. Hamilton started writing -- pun intended. Not that she was the first person to write about vampires and werewolves in the modern world, of course, but she was my introduction -- and a very fine introduction, indeed. By good luck or divine providence, the first few authors who followed suit were very good.

My editor and I both read voraciously, and we often trade reading lists, so she knew that I was familiar with the genre. Urban fantasy was rapidly gaining popularity, and a chance event left her suddenly needing to find someone who could write an urban fantasy. At this point in time I had just completed several months of marathon writing, and I was pretty burned out on inventing social norms and trade routes. I had been planning on taking a few week hiatus from writing, when my editor called and asked if I could write an urban fantasy. The light went on. I could play with all the non-human, mythical, magical or whatever elements I wanted, and add as much romance, mystery or horror as I felt like, just like in traditional fantasy but the world was already built. I didn't have to worry about trade routes, or economics, or period clothing. I didn't have to research swordsmanship, chicken farming, and regional dance. I could just play with the fun parts of storytelling. I gave my editor a very enthusiastic, "yes", and started feeling creative immediately!

CG: What do you think it is about werewolves that resonates so strongly with the fantasy reader?

PB: Writing a book is a dance between reader and writer. Unless writing a doorstopper novel like the Michener books, writers must use the commonality of human experience to bring their story to life. If I say a room is decorated in high Victorian style, I might describe the velvet draperies that hide the piano legs, or the leaded glass mirror -- or even make reference to the way every nook and cranny was filled with stuff. But I don't have to take the readers on a guided tour of exactly what a Victorian room looks like because they, like me, have seen them in dozens of films and photos.

When I started writing, I quickly learned that there are words that have more impact than their dictionary meaning alone. Words that pull a whole host of hubris from all the writers who have used them before and the weight of human experience: serendipity, love, coal, tattoo, strawberries - whip cream . Lots of implications, some of which are not the same for every reader. Supernatural/fantastical creatures are like that, too -- who can think of a vampire without remembering Dracula? The hubris a monster brings to the table is much larger than most other words -- and many of the impressions are contradictory. Dracula was a scary customer (Nosferatu), but there is also Buffy's Angel, Hamilton's Jean Claude, and Rice's Lestat all of whom mitigate that impression to one degree or another. That's a very rich minefield for a writer to play with.

Like vampires, werewolves are rich in lore and cultural meaning -- a meaning that is added to by the lore of its real-world cousin, the wolf. To those of us familiar with the history of the early western migration across the US, wolves are scary predators. They are too large to categorize as merely nuisance (like a coyote) and hunting in packs, they are obviously dangerous to people. In Europe, during the middle ages when there were times that sickness or starvation conditions made the human population vulnerable, wolves preyed upon them -- and the humans never forgot or forgave. This is mitigated by the 20th century studies done by people like Farley Mowat who taught us about the world of the wolf, where mates were forever and the adult wolves played with their cubs. All of this richness of experience is easily extended to the werewolf.

Werewolves are, by lore, tragic figures as well as monsters. The conflict between good and evil, civilization and savagery is fought in the skin of a person and that battle is lost. No matter how loving a mother, how dutiful a son, in the grip of the full moon's change, the werewolf kills everything in its path. And then awakes to the discovery that they are the monster.

Werewolves, as you see, are a very rich playground for any writer -- and reader.

CG: Do you write either the Mercy Thompson or Alpha and Omega novels with an eye for a definitive end to the series?

PB: If you could see my office you wouldn't need to ask that question! The perfect author would probably point to a row of neatly-labeled notebooks and tell you that each one contains a detailed plot outline, character summary, and marketing plan for one of the Mercy Thompson books. All of the plot threads would be laid out, in colored pen, on some sort of fold-out time line. I'm pretty sure that's what a perfect author would have, but I can't work that way.

I don't work from an outline, though I'd doubtless write faster if I did. Every author eventually develops their own technique, and I'm the master of the "bump and go" school of writing. My husband compares it to one of little toys that were popular years ago, the go until they hit something, then back up, turn a random amount, and go again. I write by feel, and often backtrack a bit and try a different approach. I usually have a fairly clear idea of where I'm going, but only a vague notion of how to get there. I'm usually as pleased and excited when something works out well as I hope my readers will be.

So, I don't have a fixed plot-line, and I don't know where the stories are going, exactly. I try to make sure that the each book is a full story in its own right, and that the characters grow and change from one book to the next. I also know that there are larger events taking place in the world that will affect the characters in future books.

CG: Since your two series are set in the same world is there any plans to cross over the books and tell a story involving both of your protagonists?

PB:I don't have any plans for that right now. There are real issues involved in combining protagonists from two books (remember the Spiderman/Superman team ups in the 80's?). I won't say never, but I think that too many main characters make a book feel muddy to me. So probably not in a book, except for the kinds of cameo appearances that Charles has been making all along. More possibly in a novella or short story.

CG: What is the most interesting research you've done as part of your writing?

PB: I've been told that, as a writer, nothing you can experience or learn is ever wasted, it all becomes grist for the mill. Most of what an author needs isn't formal research, it's just living. Life has been a grand adventure so far.

However, I also do some focused research for the books, and some of it's been a lot of fun. We sometimes go places just so I can look at them for the books. World building is critical in traditional fantasy, and capturing the essence of an area is an equivalent skill for urban fantasy. Walking around Seattle at night trying to catalog the smells and sounds was lots of fun!

Probably the most extensive research we did was actually building silver bullets. After I had Mercy casting her own bullets in Moon Called, we had a number of nice readers write to us and tell us it couldn't be done. A little searching showed us that it had been tried unsuccessfully any number of times, but no one seemed have done it. It turned out to be far more involved (and expensive with silver at $20+ an ounce) that we'd originally expected. Mike documented the whole thing on our website so that other authors can benefit from our efforts. The bottom line is that only an idiot would cast silver bullets, as there are several easier ways to get the same result -- and a shotgun (much easier still) would be a lot more effective weapon. However, a determined idiot can indeed cast a functional silver bullet.

Categories: Interview, SciFi & Fantasy

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