Last year you were awarded the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Congratulations! What would you emphasize of your long and outstanding career?
Thanks for your congratulations. The truth is that I am very unhappy when I am not writing a book, so I keep doing it. At first it was very difficult to get anything published, but I kept grinding away for ten years, until somebody introduced me to my agent, Laura Cecil. She has handled my books ever since, and very good she is! She is particularly good when I get angry with publishers, because she calms everyone down. My British publishers used to want a lot of changes for no reason at all, which always annoyed me, while my American publishers are still liable to insist that certain things do not exist and should therefore not be in whatever book we are dealing with. This seems odd when the book is fantasy. Two years ago they made the astonishing assertion that there were no such things as Post Offices in America. I asked every American I met about this and the American first said 'What!' and then, 'Where are these people?' I said 'New York,' at which the American always said, 'That explains it. New Yorkers live in a world of their own. Of course we have Post Offices.' And Laura, as usual, calmed everyone down by explaining that my book was set in an alternate world which was not like New York at all.
Here in Spain, few people know that you have been writting fantasy books for more than thirty years. As an experienced author, what do you think about the latest changes in this field? Do you think there is now an excess of fantasy?
Odd, this. Just last night an earnest person asked me about changes in fantasy: did they reflect changes in society? I suppose they do, but in fact fantasy has been changing throughout my writing career and will certainly go on changing. One would not wish it to be always the same. The good thing to come out of the latest changes is that fantasy of all kinds has now become respectable and people are not ashamed to read it (as they were when I first started writing). You now get fantasy for every type of person - there can never be too much of it. It is good for people. It reflects how human minds work.
What kind of books do you read? Do you read other fantasy authors currently? Who are they, and what do you think about them? Any recommendations to Spanish young readers?
I read other fantasies. I get bored by books that are supposed to be realistic: they open no horizons. I would recommend Neil Gaiman, Pat Wrede and Lois McMaster Bujold from the older generation of writers and Jonathan Stroud, Mary Hoffman and Sarah Prineas from the latest wave. Try all these.
Your work is very original in the contemporary fantasy. Which are your influences? Which authors were your favourites when you were a teenager?
My books probably owe their character to the fact that I had almost no books -and therefore almost no influences - as a teenager. My parents disapproved of fantasy and were, besides, too stingy to buy books. I had no money to buy books myself. Until I was 15, I was given exactly 1p a week as pocket money. Then my sisters rebelled and demanded more, and we were given 6p a week on condition that we bought our own soap, shampoo and toothpaste (6p didn't buy any of these either). So my reading was mostly in old books: tales of King Arthur, myths of ancient Greece and Rome and Norse sagas. My mother owned also all the books of Jane Austen, which she forbade us to read until we were older. At 16, I sneaked them off the bookshelf and read them all. They were a profound influence. But I also read Joseph Conrad(which I regarded as adventure stories) and Captain Marryatt and the short stories of Saki, not to speak of P.G.Wodehouse, which were all on my parents' shelves. After that there was nothing left but poetry, and when I read all that I started writing stuff myself to read aloud to my sisters, who were quite as book-hungry as I was.
It is well-known that you attended lectures by C.S. Lewis and J.R. R. Tolkien at Oxford University. How were they as teachers? Can you tell us something that you remember about that time?
C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien were strikingly different as lecturers (I never had any individual teaching from either, you know, but I went to all the lectures of both). Lewis was a short man with a big rolling voice who lectured to capacity crowds in the biggest lecture hall there was. He had a genius for making the dullest things vividly interesting. He talked about the beliefs and superstitions, the religion and everyday assumptions of the late medieval world. He unravelled the complexities of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen (which has always been my favourite long poem). We hung on his words. We remembered all he said. Tolkien, by contrast, was almost wholly inaudible. He lectured in the smallest possible room with his back to his audience. He looked like a minor Old Testament prophet(in glasses) but didn't behave like one at all. The facts were that in those days he was paid to give 8 lectures a term, but if he had no audience, he was still paid. So he did his best to send his audience away. From the timing, I now guess that he was nearing the end Lord of the Rings and wanted to get back to writing it. As a writer myself, I now know how frustrating it is, when you have to leave writing you are passionately engaged in. At the time it was a mystery why he was such an awful lecturer and the pure irritation on his face when he came into the tiny room and saw that I had turned up (with one other person) again to hear him was quite something to see. What I could hear of what he said was fascinating. He was musing to himself on plots and plot formation, long before anyone else had talked of narratology. I It made my brain ferment.
You have written many books in all these years. Which is your favourite one?
It is very hard to name a favourite book - I have spent the same time, effort and imagination on each and each appeals to me for a different reason. But yesterday, when I was signing books at the Bath festival, someone presented for signature an old battered and much loved copy of Dark Lord of Derkholm and said it was her very favourite. And I realised that - for the moment anyway - it was one of my favourites too.
The Ingary series have three titles for the moment: Howl's Moving Castle (1986), Castle in the air (1990) and the new sequel House of many ways (2008). Why these twenty years between the first one and the third one? Did you plan these three books from the beginning or the sequels came up later?
I never plan sequels. Usually, when I've finished a book, it feels as if I have said all there is to say about those people and that place. If I do want to meet these people again, I usually have to approach them sideways and make the scene different by introducing more people. So it was with Castle in the air and its oriental setting. After that, for many years, I did know that I wanted a book set in High Norland (as in House of Many Ways) where Howl would appear, much to Sophie's fury, disguised as an angelic small boy. But though I tried to write this several times, it never would work, until I saw that I must introduce Charmain and come at Howl and Sophie through her. It took a long time to see this.
Many people know you in Spain because of the film that Hayao Miyazaki made from your book Howl's moving castle. What do you think about this film? Do you know if it made the book become more popular? Is there another film proyect based in your books?
Miyazaki's film is sumptuous and full of unbelievably wonderful animation. I loved it when I first saw it, even though he had distorted my story in order to introduce all the war machines he is so fond of. He had altered Howl and Sophie too, though they were still recognisable, but his contract allowed this, and I think the result was pretty successful. And in some ways the fact that this was a film made clearer the way Sophie gradually reverts from old woman to girl: it could be done visually, where I had to be so subtle that most people think it isn't there in the book. (I get annoyed about this). The film has made the book popular all over the world. From the moment the book was published, young ladies began writing to me asking if Howl was real, because if he was they wanted to marry him. Now the queue to marry Howl stretches several times round the world.
How is your working day? Do you write in the morning, by night...? Do you write the same number of hours daily or do you prefer a non-stopping writing for a certain time?
Mostly nowadays I write in the mornings, but by no means regularly. I can only write when the inspiration for a book strikes me ('strikes' is the right word. It is like being hit). Then I usually have to get to work on it at once whatever time of day it is. Fire and Hemlock so captivated me that I had to write it all times, when five minutes or so were available. The Spellcoats I spent all one night finishing. Not regular, you see.
Where is for you the beginning of a new story: an image, a sentence, a character...?
The beginning of a new story can come in all ways. Two of mine have come from pictures we own: Fire and Hemlock and Hexwood; The Magicians of Caprona came from a tune; The Pinhoe Egg arose because my youngest sister wanted another story about griffins; Archer's Goon was woven from a silly punning phrase: 'urban gorilla'. The one I am writing now was actually inspired by myself! I write many things I don't finish. From time to time I go through these scribblings and usually get wholly surprised by them and wonder how I thought the beginning was going to go on. On this occasion, I found Chapter One of something I didn't even remember having written and it hit me like an inspiration. I had to go on with it. All these beginnings have one thing in common though: they have to provide images, places and people and sounds and situations so vivid that I have to learn what happens next.
How long does it take you the writting of a new book? Which one was the most difficult to write?
I can take any time from two weeks to ten years writing a book. Charmed Life was written in 13 days (if you don't count time spent on a final draft); Power of Three took 8 years and was almost the most difficult to write. The most difficult was The Crown of Dalemark, which took 10 years: it was my only proper sequel.
You have written several series. How do you plan them? Do you have in mind the story of each book from the beginning?
No, I don't plan a series. I do what seems to be required by the books themselves. I don't even plan a book that I'm writing, let alone any sequel. When I used to visit schools, I shocked teachers by telling children not to plan their writings either. This gives room for the unexpected to happen: a book is boring if you know what to expect. The next book in a series comes about when I got a very strong feeling that I want to revisit a place or some people.
Your characters are very carefully worked. They seem very real, even if they live in fantasy worlds. How do you create a new character? Are they based on real people?
I never 'create' characters. They come into my head as people and then demand to fit into this or that book. My head is always crowded with people. But I do put real people in my books too, usually when someone has made me angry. Most of my baddies are real people.
In many of your books there are magical travels between differents places and times. Why this interest about interdimensional travels? Where does it come from?
I had the notion of travel between worlds from the age of 9, but I felt nervous about using the idea until one of my sons introduced me the stories of Asimov. After that I read all the sf I could lay hands on and found it was full of travel between alternate worlds (or times). Then I felt free to go ahead with the ideas for myself.
In some of your books you talk about death, a knotty matter in young literature. You deal with that matter in an inhibited way with a bit of humour. Do you think that now the politically correct idea makes authors afraid of talking about some taboo -as death or sex? How do you think this affects the literature for young people? Do you think is easier to deal with the matter of death from a fantastic point of view?
Death is part of life and so should be dealt with. But subjects that are politically incorrect or taboo are always arising: they change from decade to decade actually. Then poeple see them as Rules For Writing. I don't hold with this. I usually try to find a way to slither round these alleged Rules. And fantasy is the best way to deal with taboos. If you put death or sex or any of those things in a situation that people need not believe in, the reader can examine them properly without any unnecessary emotion intruding. And, I hope, see the things for what they are.
In our country it is a bit difficult to find some of your books. They have been released in different publishing houses, more than twenty years after their publication in English, and some of them are already out-of-print. Do you know if is there any plan to rescue these books in Spain or to release new ones?
I hope there are plans to publish more of my books in Spain, but that depends on the decisions of publishers, over whom I have no influence.
You have also written two more series (The Dalemark series and The Derkholm series) that have not been released in Spanish. What can you tell us about them?
There are only 2 books in the Derkholm set. Again, I don't know wheteher I shall feel compelled to write more. It is a set up I love and it arose from my book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland at a time when I was very irritated at the way people would keep writing imitations of Tolkien. So I wrote the guidebook to the country they all seemed to exploit, in hopes that some writers at least would feel they ought to think of something new. It has worked - a little. But then I thought, 'What would it be like to be an inhabitant of this country of magics which is so constantly being exploited?' And the first book is about just that. The second takes place after the exploitation has been stopped and is set in a magical university. It is full of griffins. Both books are. The Dalemark series was written over 20 years or so and is much more complex, set in another universe, of which each book shows a different aspect. I wrote of my trouble writing the final book. This was because I hadn't realised until 10 years had passed that almost everything and everyone in the first books had to be turned to its reverse in the last one. Creepy. People I had thought of as nice were suddenly seen to be nasty. And so on.
Are you working on a new book currently? If so, what can you tell us about it?
I am working on the book I mentioned earlier. It will be called Enchanted Glass.
Have you ever visited Spain, for work or leisure?
Yes, I have visited Spain twice, once in the far south and once in the far north. The second occasion was when the Americans took over Madrid airport in order to bomb Lybia and we were stranded there for a while. But then, you see,I have a travel jinx. Something always goes wrong when I travel.
Many of our readers want to be writers too. Could you give them any advice?
There is one main piece of advice: never write anything unless you are interested in it and excited about it.For the rest, never plan it out too precisely, because this makes it stiff and lifeless. Never imagine you only write it once. You have to do a very careful final version to make it fit for others to read. The way to tell that it isn't fit is when you look at a piece and wriggle slightly and say to yourself, 'Oh, I think that will do.' This means that it definitely will not do and you'll have to rewrite that bit.