An Interview With Ellen Renner
Times are changing. Fantasy books are arguably more popular now than they ever have been before.
Is it because social issues are easier to digest and to understand if they’re in another world? Is it because the genres are slowly merging into one another, until fantasy is also romance, adventure and mystery? Or is it, perhaps, because the world is entering a strange age, and losing oneself in a book about dragons is more comforting than staring, open-mouthed, at the news?
Fantasy author Ellen Renner was kind enough to agree to an interview surrounding these questions. We discussed portraying social issues in fantasy, the affects of social media on writing, and what it is about fictional characters that draw readers in so much.
- How does writing make you feel? Can you take me through your thought process as you write?
Thought process behind writing is, I’m always writing for myself, I need to entertain myself, so I write a story that I want to tell. I choose the best story I can tell. While I’m writing, I become the characters, so it is to do with “Show, not tell”, it’s to do with empathy, it’s to do with getting inside the character’s head, so the reader can experience the character’s emotions and what they’re going through. That way, the reader learns what it’s like to be someone else, and I think that’s what reading does for you better than any other form of art, arguably.
- Do you really get into the heads of your characters?
Yeah, I try and become – if you’re trying to write a really nasty, evil villain, which I have had several, it’s quite unpleasant. It also means that if you kill off someone you’re really fond of, which I’ve just done in my latest book, it’s very painful. So when you kill off a good character who you care deeply about, which you have to do sometimes for the story, it really, really hurts. About two weeks ago, I had that – it’s probably the hardest bit of writing I’ve ever done to kill off a character I cared about very deeply, and it was incredibly important to my character. It was very painful.
- How do you think social media has changed reading and writing? A lot of people have developed short attention spans; does this make it more difficult to really capture interest in a book, and do you think readers are more easily bored?
Well, that’s the thing that everyone talks about, and I think it’s true, there is a problem with the amount of noise that’s out there. Young people in particular, their time is so pressurised, because they feel that they can’t get off their phones, because if they do, they’ll miss something important. There have been some recent studies to suggest that some kids – some people – are checking their phones at least thirty times a night, not just to see what time it is, but to actually interact, because they’re so concerned with not being up to date with what’s going on in their lives online. And there is a problem, I think, there is a potential problem because of the sort of bittiness of everything, when everything is put into small chunks on the internet, with people not being able to sustain the amount of concentration needed to write a novel. I don’t know whether that’s inevitable. I think it will be a shame; I think stories will continue, because we’re human beings and we need stories like we need food and drink, but it may change. Technology has always changed human society and always will, so writers really just have to go with the flow, and writers need to write, and people need stories, so it will continue. I’m not terribly negative about it – I am concerned about the attention span thing, but I think there’ll always be readers as well. Who knows? We live in an interesting age.
- Do you ever base your characters on real people, and if so, has it ever been noticed or called out?
I’ve only ever based one character on a real person. Usually with my characters – I’m a lucky writer, characters just appear in my head, and I’m quite happy with them, usually. I based a minor character in my first book, Castle of Shadows, on my former fencing master. He doesn’t know. He would probably be very flattered, because he is a very heroic character. But no, it’s the only time I’ve done that.
- Why do you think writing (and books) is important?
Writing is important because of empathy. I use fantasy as a sort of Petri dish to look at social issues that we’re all experiencing now; fantasy, for me, is a way of exploring, in a focused and intensified way, the issues that are going on in the world. That’s why Tribute was endorsed by MSD International; they recognised that I’m writing about social issues through fantasy, and the only way we’re going to resolve the world’s problems is through empathy. When you read a book, you have to become someone else. If the writer’s doing a good job, and the reader’s doing a good job, you learn to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and that’s incredibly important. In this day and age, people need to be able to learn empathy and to get out of their own parochial point of view. So that’s one of the main reasons I write. Also, I’m just an obsessive fantasist. I have to tell stories.
- Is making people feel empathy for characters more difficult in fantasy? It’s such a big world.
I don’t think so, no. People have a lot of preconceptions about what fantasy is. Fantasy is just a device; the stories are about characters’ emotions, problems and relationships. So, as I said, fantasy makes it easier to focus on the big issues, but there are some fantasies that are quite removed from reality. I’m hoping my characters are very immediate and very real to the readers, so I hope, if I’ve done my job right, the readers identify with the characters quite strongly, because of their emotions. If I’ve done my job.
Special thanks to Ellen Renner for giving an interview; check out her books, Castle of Shadows and Tribute.