The OF Blog: Robin Hobb Interview

Monday, April 28, 2003

Robin Hobb Interview

For Kory…
During the last couple of weeks Kory and I were working closely together with Robin Hobb to bring you this interview. I know it’s not much, but through working on this interview I made a friend in Kory that I now somehow feel lost without (which I had never thought would or could happen with an ‘online personality’); and so I would like to dedicate this interview to him, to Kory.


Robin Hobb was born in California in 1952, and majored in Communications at Denver University, Colorado, and she now lives outside Seattle. Robin Hobb has also been writing books under the pseudonym Megan Lindholm, her real name though is Margaret Alice Lindholm Ogden.

The books:

The Farseer Trilogy
* Assassin's Apprentice
* Royal Assassin
* Assassin's Quest

The Liveship Traders
* The Ship of Magic
* The Mad Ship
* The Ship of Destiny

The Tawny Man
* Fool's Errand
* Golden Fool

The Synopsis

Assassin's Apprentice (The Farseer Trilogy, Book 1) Filled with enchantment and evil, heroism and dishonour, passion and adventure, Assassin's Apprentice, marks the debut of the most irresistible new voice, in high fantasy to appear in years...

Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father's gruff stableman. He is treated as an outcast by all of the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of assassin. For Fitz's blood runs the magic Skill - and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family.

As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival to the kingdom...


First of all let me say that we at Other Fantasy welcome you and greatly appreciate your time. You are an author who we are all greatly interested in hearing from (understatement of the year!) and thank you for giving us this opportunity. The first set of questions are designed to not focus on the story line of your books themselves, but to give our readers an idea of what it is like to be an author. The second set of questions is somewhat more specific, and comprises mainly requests from your numerous followers on the board.
Thank you once again.

On writing

1 ) First of all, could you share with us the basics of you and writing. How much do you write on the average day? Do you set yourself a target that you set out to achieve for the day, or the week, or even the year?

The answer to this is probably going to be a bit skewed. Yesterday, I finished (finally!) the manuscript for Fool's Fate. I'm 4 ½ months past my deadline; so, there has been a major push to finish this book.
Turn the computer on at 7 and off at 11 at night. Eat, sleep and breathe writing the book. I'm not going to claim I was typing continuously during those hours, but I was 'writing' in the sense that when the prose slowed down, I'd take a break and eat or mow the lawn or whatever.
I've completely lost sight of what a 'normal' writing day is. My target for the year is at least one book. In a good year, I write several publishable short stories as well.

2 ) How much do you write that you personally later edit out? How much and what sort of things does your editor usually edit out?

This depends on what I'm writing. In a novel, I sprawl, and I know it. Luckily I have incredible editors standing by to yank my chain and say, "this is moving much too slowly" or "You're repeating information we already have."
In a short story, I'm the opposite. I ruthlessly edit and cut out everything that does not describe the setting, advance the plot or offer a character insight.
Prose as Megan Lindholm is much leaner than prose as Robin Hobb. "Cut" by Megan Lindholm, currently available at the Asimov online site is an example of how I write when I'm in the 'tight edit' mode.

3 ) Many of our readers are aspiring fantasy / Sci-Fi writers. What tips would you give them for submitting a work that's more likely to be accepted?

Proper manuscript preparation, whether its an electronic submission or on paper is key. Writer's Market is a good resource for getting those basics.
Make the manuscript as perfect as you can in terms of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, etc. Yes, the story is the important thing, but those sorts of errors are like a fence between your reader and the story. Don't make a reader work his way past those things. Familiarize yourself with the market before you make a submission. And always be courteous.

I know those are mechanics rather than comments on content, but content is such a wide topic that there is no way to address it here.

4 ) Do you keep up with what other authors in the genre you are putting out, or do you tend to read material from outside of the genre in your free time?
Any authors that you are particularly fond of at the moment?

My reading has been sacrificed lately to my writing hours. I've done no pleasure reading at all for several months now, and I've really missed it.
I read within my genre, within YA (because some of the best writers are working there) and a lot of non-fiction for research. I also love a good police procedural or detective novel and some of the mainstream.
Favourite author right now is George RR Martin. I believe that his Song of Ice and Fire is a masterpiece in the making and we are fortunate to be right here watching it grow. Recently I read Coraline by Neil Gaiman; that's a gem. I subscribe to several of the magazines because I think the short fiction in our genre is what keeps it vital. And I continue to re-read Lord of the Rings with pleasure.

5 ) How precisely does one go about submitting a story? How long did it take for 'The Farseer Trilogy' to be approved?

Again, Writer's Market is an excellent resource for this sort of question and most libraries in the US have a copy or two. Use the most recent one. It talks about format of a manuscript, and who is buying what, and how long the story can be, etc. etc. A site with a lot of useful information about submitting books and stories is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America site at I highly recommend it.
But there is no substitute for reading in the genre. Read the magazines before you submit to them. Usually, there's a paragraph in the front of the magazine under the masthead that tells where to send manuscripts. And before you send a book manuscript off to an editor, familiarize yourself with the publisher's line of books in the genre.

I honestly don't recall how long it took to hear back from the editor regarding The Farseer Trilogy. I had been writing for Bantam as Megan Lindholm, so they knew me and I naturally went to them first. That's not quite the same as an 'over the transom' manuscript. When I first began writing as Megan Lindholm, way back when, I began by writing short stories and tried to establish some credentials there before I went on to submit books. I think it was an excellent discipline for writing, as well as something that can be presented to an editor when you are first pitching a novel.

6 ) Is there any work out there that you've read and thought 'oh, I would've loved to have written that'?

Oh, yes. I read Tolkien, oh, about 1966 I think. And it was like an arrow through my heart. I'd never read anything like that before, never even imagined that anyone would write a book like that. I remember my sorrow when I finished it, that there was no more of it to read, and I also remember thinking, 'I'll never, ever be able to write anything as good as that.'

7 ) Do you ever use ideas that fans send in to you in regards to the storyline? Even a little one?

Nope. Not that readers don't have good ideas, but they don't fit my brain.
For me, writing is intensely personal. I usually have a very strong idea of where a book or story is going from the start, and to change in the middle would be like, well, like suddenly deciding to turn a meat-loaf into a salad, or getting half way through knitting a scarf and deciding to make it into a dress. It just wouldn't work. In a sense, story DNA doesn't mutate like that.
I get ideas for side trips, and I've had characters suddenly show me that they weren't who I thought they were. But in each case, I’ve felt like I was following the Story, not suddenly deciding to control it and do it a better way or different way.
To put it another way, if I tell four people the story of The Three Bears, and then ask them to write it down, I will get four radically different stories. At any family gathering, when Uncle Joe tells a story, Uncle Pete is going to say, 'oh, that isn't how it was at all!' I can't possibly write your idea. By the time it enters my ear, goes through my brain and comes out of my fingers, it's turned into my idea, and you probably wouldn't even recognize it.

8 ) How do you come up with some of the more 'adventurous' names for the characters in your stories?

I don't know. I don't know exactly where characters generate in my brain, but usually when they step out onto the stage, they have a name they bring with them, and often a life history. And I'm stuck with it. Or sometimes, like the Fool, the character only unfolds as the story does, and I don't know any more about him than the reader does.

9 ) Do you outline your books before you begin writing them?

Yes. I do because my contract says I will. Do I like it? No. Do I feel obligated to stick to it? No. Is it helpful? Much as I hate to admit it, yes, it is. Because when I've painted myself into a corner, it's always nice to look back and say, 'oh, yeah, there is a possible way to end this book.' And then you kick a hole in the wall.

10 ) Your characters seem so alive that the reader literally weeps for them at times. Many consider this your finest strong point among many other qualities. How do you create characters that the reader genuinely cares and treasures?

Every character is the main character. Even if they only have a bit part, for the time they are on stage and moving around, the writer has to remember that for that character, 'Life is all about me.' We've all read or seen on a screen characters who only exist to die at a dramatic moment, often taking a bullet for the hero. Or love interests who exist only to be rescued, or villains who live only to be defeated. Climb into a character, and suddenly even the villain is wondering what is for dinner tonight and wishing he hadn't worn these uncomfortable shoes or even wondering why everyone is mad at him when his intentions are so good. If you put on the villain's skin, you have to love him or at least understand him. Same is true for the innkeeper or the squire or the king. A character should only do what the character would do if the choice was his. If he is doing something simply to advance the plot, then it's all going to fall apart.

11 ) When you create characters, how much do you know about them? Do they ever go off in directions you hadn't expected?

They walk in, name and resume in hand. I have no idea where they come from.
And from that point on, they often seem to do as they please in the story.
At the moment that the Fool was declaring, "We are here to save the world, you and I," I had no idea what he was talking about. But having said those words, he wouldn't take them back and I was stuck with them. Luckily, he knew what he was talking about and proved to be right.

12 ) Lastly for this section, what advice would you give to a young and aspiring writer?

Get an education. Read. Experience life. Learn to type with all ten fingers. Listen to people. And please, don't think that fantasy means you can write anything you want as long as it's exciting.
I just stopped reading a story where the hero was tracking a herd of deer that were headed up into the mountains, in winter. Now, in a story like that, how can I believe that the writer knows what he's talking about when he tells me about the unicorn or magic horse or whatever fantastic element there is if he hasn't stopped to find out when or if deer wander about in herds and what they do when winter is coming? So. Get a foundation under your writing. A tiny village isn't going to have an artisan who makes his living specializing in doorknockers. A medieval farm family didn't harvest its entire farm in one afternoon. Make your economy and geography make sense.
And remember, it's not what you don't know that makes you look dumb.
You'll be smart enough to look that up. It's the ignorance you are unaware of that will trip you. Re-read you manuscript looking for blithe assumptions and do the research.

Specific: The cut & paste questions...

13 ) An extremely popular question shall we say...will you write any more novels set in the farseer world?

When I finished writing Assassin's Quest, I was absolutely certain I was finished with Fitz's story. I was wrong. So, no more absolute answers. 'I don't have any more ideas for that world right now' is the closest I can come. When I wake up tomorrow morning, that answer may have changed.

14 ) What benefits to the story did you find when you chose to write Farseer in first person?

Immediacy and reader identification. But it isn't like I planned it.
Fitz stepped out onto the stage and started telling the story that way. So that's how I wrote it. It was horribly inconvenient at times, because I could never say, "Meanwhile, back at the castle, thus and so was happening." I could only tell the reader what Fitz knew at that moment.

15 ) How, after so many books, have you maintained your momentum unlike so many other writers in the genre who became bogged down in their own work?

I'm four and a half months past my deadline. I think I just slogged out of the bog, so I can't exactly claim to be virtuous in that area. Part of it is that I get paid when I turn in the book, and I've become accustomed to things like eating and sleeping inside a house, so I try hard to make sure I can continue to do those things by completing my work on time.

16 ) In the Liveship Traders the reader can sense your love for the sea and passion for sailing. What experiences led you to this?

I married a sailor. Worse than that, the son of a son of a sailor, as the song goes. So the attic is full of old charts and we have log books with his fourth-grade scrawl in it from when he lived aboard the family fishing boat, and we have all sorts of maritime flotsam and jetsam around the house.(Six barometers. You can never have too many barometers, you know. Dividers in every desk drawer. Fids inside the clothes dryer.)
Currently, he somewhere between here and Hawaii on a WWII vintage tug pulling two barges.
So, it goes with the territory.

17 ) The boy we once knew has become an older man with the insights and the wisdom that one could only know personally. Would you call the evolution of Fitz a reflection of yourself?

Well, I hope that as I got older I got wiser. But the sad part is that at 40 you look back at 20 and wonder how you could have been so naïve, stupid and dense. And at 51 you look back at 40, and wonder the same thing.
My mom used to warn me, 'What goes around, comes around.' Now I tell my son that whenever his little girl cuts a particularly good cookie. I don't think you can understand your parents until you are one. And then all the stuff you did as a kid seems completely different from when you were doing it.

18 ) What is specific to wolves that make their appearance in fantasy frequent and given such a bond with man and higher level thinking skills? What specifically did you find attractive about making a prominent character a wolf?

When we first moved to Alaska, my little stateside border collie Bindy ran off or got lost. I was nine and that was a terrible loss for me.
Then this big, rangy animal with weird eyes showed up to take his place and literally just moved in with us. We later found out from people in the area that he was a pack animal (as in dog that carries a pack) that was more than half wolf that had had a falling out with his previous owner. Bruno became everything to me. So that's my personal link.
I think that there are certain animals (canines and horses for example) to which humanity has a sense of connection. Taking a stab at it, they may represent our link to the natural world, and become a sort of extension by which we think about the animal parts of our natures and the roles they play in our lives. Or maybe not. This is just off the top of my head.

19 ) Why did Micheal Whelan stop doing the covers?

That would be an excellent question to ask Michael Whelan. We talked about it and I completely understand his reasons. But I don't think I should speak for him.

20) Finally, what is next for Robin Hobb?

At the moment, I'm going to clean the house, answer email, take care of my yard and pack for the Netherlands. Right now, I feel completely written out. I've got another story in my head, but my hands are really tired right now and I know I still have the entire editing process to get through.
So I don't have any grand projects lined up just yet.

Thank you one again for your time and we all wish you the best if success in the future.

Fool's Fate

“Last night, I finally sent off the last chapter to the editors. Fool's Fate was finished at 1018 pages, far longer than I expected it to be.
To answer the most frequent question I've received: The book was originally scheduled to be released in summer 2003 in the Netherlands, Autumn 2003 in the UK and Australia and January/February 2004 in the US. Obviously, as I have turned the book in 4 1/2 months late, these publishing dates may be difficult to meet. I will try to post information on the website( as the book moves through the editing process.”

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