Six Elementals Author Interviews will introduce prospective readers to some of the best writers in their genre you may, or may not, have heard of, via a series of six questions. I encourage you to check out the work of these phenomenal creatives!
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To have such a legendary writer as the international best-selling author Janny Wurts interview with Six Elementals is an incredible honour. I am so excited about this and wish to thank Janny for joining me! Janny is a writer with such an extensive and impressive breadth of work, that instead of mentioning currently published works merely in terms of individual books, I am compelled to mention her writing largely in terms of series! Janny’s current published works include: The Cycle of Fire Trilogy; The Empire Trilogy (co-written with Raymond E. Feist); The Wars of Light and Shadow Series; stand-alone novels Master of Whitestorm, Sorcerer’s Legacy, and To Ride Hell’s Chasm; novella The Gallant; the story collection That Way Lies Camelot; and numerous short stories including Silverdown’s Gold, Blood, Oak, Iron, Child of Prophecy, Watchfire, Last of Her Kind, Finder’s Keeper, Moebius Trip, Sundering Star, Reins of Destiny, and The Decoy.
P.L.: I am over the moon to have the chance to speak to you Janny! Thank you so much for joining Six Elementals Interviews! Janny, you are widely acknowledged as an iconic writer. You have been mentioned in the same breath, in many circles, as J.R.R. Tolkien, G.R.R. Martin, Ursula Le Guin, and many of the truly elite fantasy authors that have ever lived. https://www.ranker.com/crowdranked-li… .
Your work has been nominated for The British Fantasy Award. You are also a highly accomplished illustrator, whose illustrations have won prestigious Chelsea Awards (formerly the ASFA awards, given by the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists to recognize individual artistic works and achievements during a given year).
After reading your books, you have become my personal favourite author of all time, on a list that includes the likes of Bernard Cornwell, N.K. Jemisin, and John Gwynne. Your novels have been international best-sellers, and you have been writing books for decades. Of all your many works, what is the one you are most proud of, and why? Does that differ from your own favourite work?
Janny: Terribly hard to answer this because each book was written for a different reason, and it’s like comparing apples to oranges – the flavors are distinct but how can one choose a favorite?
Sorcerer’s Legacy – debut novel – was written for sheer escape entertainment, but it also handled a feisty heroine who was both widowed and pregnant – thrust into the heart of a seriously dangerous palace intrigue. I am proud of Elienne for being a kick your butt survivor, but not with muscle and no weapons. She fights on her merits, and she was the reason Ray Feist asked me to collaborate on the Empire Trilogy.
Master of Whitestorm pretty much is a novel about trauma and facing the greatest fear and overcoming that. What it means to run, and what it means to stand and face the demons in the closet. Of course it can be read as a simple adventure sword and sorcery, but there are also themes interwoven that go a bit deeper.
Cycle of Fire trilogy is the only time I wrote a coming-of-age story. But I am pleased to have tried something a little different – all three young protagonists are flawed, and some of them triumph and some will fail totally, destroyed by their flaws, not to recover. But to try to make that story sensitive enough to bring the reader into sympathy with the worst side – there was the challenge.
Empire series with Ray really stepped out of the usual fantasy mold for the sort of fantasy written at the time. I don’t think either one of us ‘set out’ to do that (the collaboration was totally a 50/50 effort). But my experience visiting a friend in Korea and many world travels impacted the story. The idea that a woman had to change her culture to survive – and change it permanently to spare her family – that’s a strong theme. I was utterly floored, once, when a young lady from Japan met me at a convention with her translator – and I was told the books were considered subversive women’s literature in her culture – that was amazing to hear, and deeply touching.
To Ride Hell’s Chasm was probably the book that wrote the fastest, it was a nonstop on fire roll and I finished the draft in 8 months, which is very fast for me! I’d set out to write a story about the spirit of the law vs the letter of the law and the moral stance of the warrior: what responsibility does the man who holds the weapon truly wield, and where does his personal choice shoulder the burden of his orders…but as I began the first draft, bingo, in walks the main character and he is POC and that added another very sharp dimension to the story. I faced a choice, and I chose to handle racial prejudice with the gloves off, let the story run. Not only for the human elements involved – but the animals. Part of the inspiration for the story was a long-distance race called the Tevis Cup, where horses cover 100 miles of difficult terrain in 24 hours…I have ridden all my life, and the animals are as much the heroes of this story as any of the characters on two legs.
Wars of Light and Shadow is the biggie of them all, it has the most depth, the most complexity, the most careful planning as it was always intended to be a long work, a story in five arcs. It is a book that stands on many themes, but it (hopefully) tears down the myth of history as written by the victor. It is a slow burn, carefully laid story that takes you for a ride on your assumptions, then rips the rug out from under what you thought you saw or believed, not just once, but repeatedly. Beliefs get stood upright, flipped, and run through the shredder because each time the viewpoint expands, the scenery changes. It does not extol war as a solution; it does not endorse many of our societal presumptions – but shreds them one after the next, until, in fact, Athera is not anything like the ‘classic’ fantasy scenery we are handed – it is a life work, I am extremely proud of how it has finished out (the final volume is in complete draft right now) – if I had to wish for one thing, it would be that our human society would wake up and stop! making war and killing a noble pursuit, and if we could at last admit the truth that violence solves nothing. There are so many themes tied into this huge series, I cannot begin to scratch the surface, it takes a read to open it all up – but there is also plenty of subversion of capitalism, and no question, plenty of themes shredded with the gloves off, which one can do writing fantasy, that’s one of the sharpening points.
P.L.: Many would consider the last series you mention, your War of Light and Shadow Series, as your signature books, and it is apparent you feel the same. They are a momentous accomplishment, of truly astounding breadth and scope. Having read the first book, The Curse of the Mistwraith, I can attest that it is one of the best books I have ever read. I can’t wait to immerse myself in the rest of the series. Curse of the Mistwraith is approximately 800 pages, and the rest of the novels in your 11-book series are similar in length. How much time and effort went into crafting something of the scale of War of Light and Shadow? How did you conceive the idea for the series?
Janny: Honestly? Five decades! I had the seed idea in 1972. The planning and first outline written than encompassed a fantasy series where the blond, upright, charismatic HERO maybe wasn’t; and the small, secretive, dark-haired guy maybe wasn’t EVIL. Set on a world that ‘appeared’ to be familiar, but that would, in the end, be nothing of the kind. I started out planning a very deep back history and doing a lot, a whole LOT of research, so the unbelievable bits would synch hard with realistic bulwarks…and also, doing life experience so that you would ‘be there’ for some of the serious action – weapons research, offshore sailing, hands ON sorts of experience to add an edge to the pages – in the course of figuring out the setting and the ‘mix and match’ bits of warfare etc taken from our history (the world Athera has restrictions, so it does not follow our timeline for evolution of tech, etc)…in the course of doing the serious reading to get to the pith – I encountered a documentary of Culloden when the clans were finally broken in Scotland. It showed what Really happened with the gloves ripped OFF – no poetry, no ballads, no Bonnie Prince Charlie – the ugly Actual of what occurred – right as I had just finished doing all the research on wars/tactics/weapons from roughly Roman empire forward to gunpowder – and man, I came out of that theatre ANGRY…because I realized, full stop, our culture ennoblized war – our news, our history, our Entertainment – glorified war and painted such a damnably false picture of might makes right, justifying every sort of atrocity and solving nothing. That film – in stark black and white – reshaped EVERY war and tactic I had just read on paper and showed the falsehood in graphic terms. And: fantasy was about the worst offender – the Great Evil defeated by the Great Good on a bloody noble battlefield got blown to shreds.
Right there, I decided War of Light and Shadow was gonna shred the myth, tear it sideways and leave it dead on the floor. So that shifted the course of a younger me into some sterner stuff – Wars of Light and Shadow is a story in 5 arcs, and it is all about ripping assumed values to pieces and not stopping there, but reassembling them in a different form altogether, and winding that into the lives of very real characters in ways we don’t see too often in Fantasy. Where the ‘hero’ of one scenario might be the villain in another – that any heroic quality has its flip side…and in the different setting, it could be the factor to bring down the roof. You would not want a Patton at a peace talk…so the idea that ‘it takes a village’ of talent to build a society and not any one quality alone.
This is not wish fulfilment fantasy, I can hope it entertains, but there are hard moments of reckoning with idealizations written in. I spent three decades working on the concepts and the world before Vol I ever came out, and fifty years in the actual start to finish accomplishment. There is a lot more to the iceberg underneath than the books themselves ever reveal. If you are just taking a look at this series – it is seriously adult in concept, slow burn, and carefully staged. The hammer always falls – I write for finishes, each volume brought to a finale. It is not a set of books to be digested in a rush. Choose one of my other series for a more simplistic read if you want an easier starting point.
P.L.: Don’t think one can go wrong starting with any of your books. Your incredible stand-alone work, entitled To Ride Hell’s Chasm, is a simply phenomenal book. It is beautifully written, and it also tackles some difficult themes, such as racism. For those who have not read this novel, can you tell us a little about it, what inspired you to tackle these challenging themes, and what kind of research you did to make the book so engrossing?
Janny: To Ride Hells Chasm – this book had some fun sparks to start the fire. One was: people were ‘complaining’ I could not ‘finish’ a series – (Light and Shadow was at its mid point volume in publication order). So I wanted to write a book that ran on a very simple threat to a kingdom that was Not straightforward – and it moved start to finish very fast. The plot time for this novel is five and a half days, so it sort of reads like a fantasy 24. I was inspired by the long distance endurance race the Tevis Cup, mentioned above – and ‘what if’ horses were necessary to saving a kingdom? I have been an equestrian most of my life, I ride for a Search and Rescue mounted team – so much is owed to the horses, and yet, they are seldom credited for what they give, and give willingly in trust. So I wanted to write a story where the horses were also heroes as much as any person. Next into the puzzle, I wanted to stand the Missing Princes trope on its head. We’ve read plenty of stories where she was ‘forced into marriage’ and ran off or whatever – well, what if the match seemed made in heaven? and what then if she vanished? I’d written the outline where two warriors were charged to find her by the king, and I wanted two men of opposite backgrounds entangled in two patterns of ethics…what happens when the spirit of the law collides with the letter of the law – which is right, which is wrong – how can you choose the ethical path forward? And who holds the power, truly, the man giving the orders OR the individual holding the lethal weapon with the lethal choice?
That is where the story began, but it all shifted sharp focus when Mykkael stepped up on the page and he is Black. I have had the wonderful and also the wrenching experience of working with people from many walks of life, and seeing at first hand situations in other countries, other cultures, other viewpoints that are very different from the culture I was born to. In walks Mykkael – and with him came all of the frustrations and the pains and the anguishes witnessed – and that instantly became a driving force in this story. It is About racism, pernicious, horrible, endemic, unfair, and so terribly often thoughtlessly based on Assumptions Never Challenged. I put a lot of frustration and rage in these pages – scared to death – because I know I come from a privileged background, no question of it – how do we fight? With all we have. So I pulled off the gloves, had my editor behind me, and let the story tell itself. I can hope the story is a good read; I can also hope that when the pages are done and the cover is closed, maybe a few readers will ask themselves: how much talent do we LOSE WORLDWIDE to our persistent prejudices and our thoughtless assumptions. Hells Chasm was written to throw that into relief. All the characters in it have agency. Every single one plays their part. And not only for Mykkael, but the kingdom relied on other characters stepping up. Even the fat lady sings in the end. And I have been extremely fortunate to have sat at the feet of elders of other cultures entirely different than mine – by the last pages, I can only hope to have slipped a little of my awe and wonder into the pages, that this world is HUGE and humanity has many facets. I tried to step out of a few of the boxes, time and posterity will be the judge.
P.L.: Congratulations on the rights to The Empire Trilogy, which you co-wrote with Raymond E. Feist, being acquired in order to be potentially turned into a major television event!
You must be thrilled! Tell us please, for those writers amongst us who have considered co-authoring a book, how does writing something of that magnitude with another legendary author work? How does the workload get divided? How do you write something that feels entirely cohesive, as if it were composed by a single author, though it’s written by more than one person?
Janny: Ray had this idea he wanted to do, with a first chapter and a finale concept, and he wanted a female lead. So he asked, he begged, he badgered, and I said, I’d beta read, etc, and stood him off until the Day I caved in because the story was just too seriously cool NOT to collaborate with him. I was a nobody with four novels; he was just writing Silverthorn, not yet on the Times list, so we were just authors doing our thing. We had no idea.
We began with a solid contract because Ray had his Riftwar worlds established in his other books, and we wanted to be sure we covered contingencies, if one or another of us dropped out midway, what would happen – so we sat down with the agent (Ray’s at the time) and hammered out the ‘what ifs’ so we each knew where we stood.
Then we blasted out the outline for what became vol I and II, Daughter and Servant, in about 4 hours of gestalt face to face at a convention. Off we went. We wrote chapter one or so together face to face, then, after that, parceled up the outline – he’d write this bit he was interested in, and I’d do that bit – then we ‘swapped’ the files by dial up modem and each OVERWROTE the others’ files, then we swapped again, and again, nobody Looked at what hit the cutting room floor, nobody checked who changed what – we just took what was the latest iteration on the page at the time and kept working it, until – bingo – you had a blend of styles, nobody could tell anymore who wrote what. And any surprises ‘sprung’ into the text just got incorporated seamlessly, until we had a contiguous whole.
We found the page length getting horrific!!! And realized, oh noes, we really had an ‘outline’ covering two books; and when we realized there had to be a split to fit it all in, somebody – who knows who – in gestalt planning figured out that Mara was not going to escape notice by the Assembly of Magicians – and Mistress was born – we had a trilogy. So we went back to contract and expanded to a trilogy and here we are today.
The adaptation is extremely exciting because it has potential elements that can include all the classic fantasy elements of Ray’s Midkemia and the world culture views and female lead of Empire. Six Studios is just incredibly enthusiastic and bent on bringing in the best talent they can and stay true to the original story in the process – so we are on the edge of our seats, thrilled, and excited to see where it will lead. No question the team is serious and in love with the books. It’s exciting that the news is public at last. If we can have a story that melts east and west into a production that brings the love of fantasy together, I will be entirely happy to see a fantasy that can bring all that together in a series. By the talent Six Studios has brought in – they have serious chops – no question this will be an adaptation to watch.
P.L.: We can’t wait to see it come to the screen! Your legacy is already cemented as a famed author, fantastic illustrator, and a wonderful supporter of others in the writing community. Your writing career has already been one that most people could only dream of. What else would you like to accomplish as an artist and member of the writing community in the next few decades?
Janny: Lord, I really don’t know! The best thing I can say is, I keep my enthusiasm by surprising myself, and who knows where that is going to lead? I have no idea! I have Just completed vol 11 of Wars of Light and Shadow, and really haven’t had time to look down the road from there. I do have a small stand alone novel – a nautical fantasy – four chapters down. I may do some short work just to refresh the page. I may try a thriller bringing in my Search and Rescue experience….as far as the field goes, I’d like to bring attention to really superb works being written that are not well known, or older works that fly under the radar that really deserve a wider audience, and as far as possible passing on what I know to new writers and giving them a boost where I can – paying it forward. The algorithm is so pernicious about burying all but the most popular works, and it is such a wilderness of signal to noise on the internet scene – if I can do my small part with sharing the love and encouragement of new talent and old, forgotten talent that is still striving – there you go. It’s a great satisfaction to recommend and book or an author and seeing a reader connect to another book they can love. That’s huge and a gift in itself.
I’d like to also see more Writer-Illustrators out there! No reason the two skills have to be specialized. I know the row I had to hoe to get my artwork up there and accepted and to do my own cover art – so it is cool when I see others doing the same. Yes, a book can be illustrated by a talent, but truly: you have ONE CHANCE to ‘see’ a work from the author’s eye view. Why not?
P.L.: You are a hard act to follow Janny! There are lots of talented creatives out there, but few can combine your level of writing plus illustrations! Janny this is the biggest highlight of 2022 for me so far, without question, being able to chat with you! I truly appreciate you joining me on Six Elementals Interviews! Thank you so much! In lieu of a sixth question, I’d like to leave it open for anything else you’d like to add before we finish the interview?
Janny: PL – thank you so much for asking me for this interview! Chatting with you is a huge privilege, so many ideas and serious discussions, it’s a rare mix. I have read your first book, A Drowned Kingdom, and I am in awe of the huge and meaningful concepts you are tackling, and not just that – the world you have drawn, and Atalantyx – wow. It is words that paint a vivid and detailed picture, just made for a tapestry of imagination. The story is bold, it tackles big issues and has vivid characters – heroic and flawed – I wish you well going forward and cannot wait to read volume II. Be bold, be fearless, be you – and for gosh sakes, people, if you have not tried PL’s book, get a copy and read it!
P.L. I am completely humbled by your kind words, Janny. Thank you so much. I am so happy you enjoyed A Drowned Kingdom. I am so looking forward to reading the rest of your incredible books.
Buy The War of Light and Shadow Series here
Buy To Ride Hell’s Chasm here
Buy Master of Whitestorm here
Buy Sorcerer’s Legacy here
Buy The Cycle of Fire: The Complete Series