Skip to main content

Interview: September 2010

September 2010

After captivating audiences with THE DEMON KING, fantasy author Cinda Williams Chima returns with THE EXILED QUEEN, the second installment of her wildly successful Seven Realms series that follows Han Alister and Princess Raisa as they each begin their own epic journey towards Oden’s Ford, where they hope to start new lives after fleeing the land of the Fells.

In this interview with’s Melanie Smith, Chima reveals how she came up with the ideas for two separate fantasy series, elaborating on the tools and tricks that have kept her on task and how her transcontinental travels inspired the volcanic mountains of the Fells. She also explains how magic has helped her explore her interest in history, speculates on the kinds of qualities --- and sacrifices --- that make people strong leaders, and gives readers the scoop on what they can expect from the rest of both series. Your debut series, The Heir Chronicles, was a successful fantasy set in modern times, an achievement you have followed with the Seven Realms series, which is even more ambitious in its scope. How did you come up with the ideas for these two series? Did you have an epiphany, or have plots been developed through conscious effort?

Cinda Williams Chima: Hmm… Epiphany sounds too quick and easy to describe my process, but “plot development” sounds too structured. I would say my process is a series of small epiphanies. The act of writing spurs the creative process.

The Heir Chronicles grew out of a series of “what if?” questions and a desire to write fiction my two teenage sons would enjoy. I had lots of time to develop and polish, since I revised THE WARRIOR HEIR for four years before I found a publisher.

I created the Seven Realms world for The Star-Marked Warder, an adult high-fantasy trilogy that I never finished. I began writingSMW while I was waiting to be discovered as a YA author. After the first two Heir Chronicles sold, I set it aside in order to write THE DRAGON HEIR.

When I finished DH, I knew I wanted to continue to write for teens, and I thought of the world and the characters from the Seven Realms. So much of the work was already done: I had conflict, I had a magical system, I had a history, and I had some characters that I loved. In a way, the Seven Realms series is a prequel to The Star-Marked Warder. It takes place when some of the SMW characters are 16 and 17 years old.

TRC: THE DEMON KING has its own geography, history and political structure, all of which frame the story beautifully. Did you intend for any concepts to be a reflection of historical places or cultures?  

CWC: High fantasy typically takes place in a quasi-medieval world. But even fantasy landscapes draw heavily on the real world --- which is what makes them resonate with readers and draws them in. The mountainous landscapes of the Fells rely heavily on my own memories of visits to New Zealand and the Canadian Rockies. The thermal features surfaced (erupted?) after a visit to Yellowstone Park.

Readers have noted that the clans have commonalities with indigenous peoples in the Americas. But the clans in the Fells are powerful adversaries --- they hold their own.

TRC: How do you go about organizing a project this big and keeping yourself on track? 

CWC: Who says I do (laughing)? I don’t outline ahead of time. I wish I did --- it would feel a lot less like skydiving without a parachute. I launched the Seven Realms trilogy with 60 pages, a paragraph summary of each book, a well-developed world, and an ending in mind. I finally used the 60 pages in the third book, and now the trilogy has turned into a quartet.

I am disciplined when it comes to writing. When I’m working on a first draft, I set daily word goals (between 1,000-1,500 words) and just get the bones down. After that, there is considerable revision.

Recently I began using Scrivener, a writing software for the Mac. It’s a wonderful tool for writing longer works, whether fiction or nonfiction. It allows you to look at the whole project in several different ways, which prevents the author from wandering in the wilderness. There’s similar software for the PC called Page Four.

Because I work best in the morning, when I’m on deadline with a project I often go to a café and write there all morning, up until 2PM. Then I have lunch and allow myself to get online and answer emails and do business.

TRC: While THE DEMON KING was an introductory book to the Seven Realms and its characters, THE EXILED QUEEN brings more of a personal element to the story, revealing many individual strengths and motivations. What should we expect in the next book? Will the focus of the third installment expand again to involve many Realms, and will any new characters be introduced?

CWC: In the third book, we return to the Fells and find out what kind of mischief has been going on in Han’s and Raisa’s absence. The personal focus continues. I like to think of it as a thousand-year-old love story playing out against a background of assassination attempts, clashes of culture, political skullduggery and wizardly intrigue. The cast of characters is pretty much already onstage --- I have enough people to keep track of as is.

TRC: Did you plan the outcome of the series before you began writing? 

CWC: Yes, I did go that far. But I reserve the right to change it.

TRC:  Let’s talk about the themes that will dominate throughout the series. Magic is central here as a means of imparting power, but its value is downplayed whenever individuality and personal integrity are concerned. The theme of fate versus choice is also central with obvious parallels between Han, Raisa and their ancestors, who played a part in destroying the Realms. There seems to be a lingering question of whether the past will repeat itself. What important ideas and themes would you like to impress upon readers at this point?   

CWC: You’re right --- the magical element of this series is subtle. No cats are being changed into lamps. I like to think that it’s similar in that way to George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fireseries, and Kristin Cashore’s GRACELING and FIRE. Character is what it’s all about for me. If that’s not working, nothing is. And there are different kinds of power. We all know people who are physically frail and yet make things happen.

Fantasy can be a safe place in which to address contemporary issues. The story is framed by longstanding cultural and political clashes between the clans, an indigenous people, and the Valefolk and wizards, who came later.

I find it fascinating that an inciting incident, such as the Great Depression or 9/11, can drive history for years afterward. In the Seven Realms, it’s the Breaking --- the magical catastrophe catalyzed by Alger Waterlow, a young wizard now known as the Demon King. The Breaking resulted in the Naeming, a framework of rules that are supposed to prevent wizards from behaving badly. But a thousand years later, the Naeming traps everyone in the conflicts of the past. The Fells can’t move forward as a nation because of it.

I’m also interested in revisionist history. History is often a story about the past told by the victors to support their own agenda. And that’s definitely the case in the Seven Realms. In a sense, Han’s and Raisa’s relationship is a “do-over.” It could be a chance to right a great wrong…or it could result in yet another disaster.

TRC: Though I'd like to ask who Raisa will marry and if she'll ever have a choice in that, I can't. So instead I'll bring up a related concept about natural leadership. Although your heroes do undergo a process of growth and transformation, there are some who seem naturally predisposed to certain roles. Do you believe there is such a thing as a natural leader, and if so, which of your characters would you say most closely fits that label? Do you feel accepting leadership necessitates giving up certain things?

CWC: Ah, the old nature vs. nurture issue (I have a philosophy degree tucked away in a drawer). It’s a common fantasy trope that “blood will show” --- in other words, that some abilities and flaws are hardwired in, whether it be magical talents and graces, leadership, or a propensity for evil. And yet, we all know people who transform themselves. Plant the same tree in two different environments, and one will succeed and the other will fail.

I think that there are traits that make a person a natural leader. Both Han and Raisa demonstrate a talent for leadership, even as the series opens, but it’s manifested in different ways. Han was a nearly legendary street-lord, and Raisa is already showing signs of being a stronger leader than her mother.

That’s the question, isn’t it --- when it comes down to it, what are you willing to give up in order to lead?

TRC: Who is your favorite character in the Seven Realms series?

CWC: That’s like asking which of my sons I love best! My first job as an author is to make characters real to the reader. It’s been gratifying to receive so many emails from readers who’ve become entangled with Han, Raisa, Micah and Amon. I love both Han and Raisa --- why would I spend this much time with characters I didn’t love? But sometimes a minor character rears up and takes over. I love Cat Tyburn --- she does all the things I don’t dare to. And Micah --- he’s awful at times, and yet, his occasional flashes of decency are a real accomplishment, since he’s been raised in such an awful family.

TRC: Your talents could easily lead to success in any genre. What has motivated you to focus on fantasies for your writing career thus far? Have any particular authors influenced you?

CWC: I’ve always loved fantasy fiction, but I read broadly, and I wouldn’t rule out writing something else. What prompted me initially was that I wanted to write something my then-teenaged sons would enjoy, and they were fantasy fans. And then, once you’ve been successful in a specific genre, there’s some pressure to continue on in that.

Anyone who writes fantasy --- especially high fantasy --- has been influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien. I also read classical fantasists like Mercedes Lackey, David Eddings, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart. And I love contemporary authors like Tamora Pierce, Cassandra Clare, Megan Whalen Turner, Suzanne Collins and Kristen Cashore.

TRC: How many hours a week do you spend writing?

CWC: All the hours…just kidding. But I do work a lot, both writing and doing writing-related business. I’m trying to learn not to work all the time. I got in that habit when I had a day job, and I spent every spare moment writing. When I’m working on a first draft or revision, I write all morning up until 1 or 2PM, eat lunch, and answer emails and do business in the afternoons. And then I return to writing and revising in the evening.

TRC: After you've completed the next installment in 2011, what are your plans for future projects?

CWC: I’m under contract to write two more books in the Heir series when I finish the four books in the Seven Realms series. And I have lots of other ideas. There will never be enough time to write them all down.