It all started with a couple of poems.
A ten year old girl was spending the summer at her great-uncle's farm and had written two short poems, one about a local personality and the other about an old ruined house. Her uncle sent them to the paper for her. The paper printed both, and paid her five dollars each. That was the first time the Muse got Tanya Sue Huff. Now, about 35 years and 20 books later, she and her Muse are still going strong.
Tanya Huff was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1957 but spent most of her life in Ontario. She went to high school in Kingston, Ontario and attended college at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto. It was at Ryerson that she started her first novel, Child of the Grove (more about that later). She worked for several years (1985 to 1992) in the famous Bakka Science Fiction Book Shop in Toronto. (As an aside, Bakka is perhaps the oldest science fiction bookshop in the world. It was originally located on Queen Street at Spadina but a few years ago it was moved to downtown Toronto and is now located on Yonge Street at Wellington.)
Her books include the novels Fire's Stone, Scholar of Decay, books in well-received series such as Victory Nelson, Quarters, The Keeper's Chronicles, and many others. Recently published books include The Better Part of Valor, sequel to Valor's Choice, and the two-novel collection, Of Darkness, Light, and Fire.
When I met Tanya Huff for the first (and so far the only) time at the Ad Astra 2002 SF Convention in Toronto, I took the opportunity to ask for an email interview. Her response was a simple "Yes."
So there we were, Tanya and I, chatting together over a virtual cup of tea.
Ahmed A. Khan: When did you first realise that writing was what you wanted to do?
Tanya Huff: I've been a voracious reader all my life and I was always a story-teller. That summer I was at the farm, I spent a lot of my time telling stories to a cousin in a body-cast. My aunt told me recently I was hell on getting housework done that summer, because every time I started a story, she'd stop working to listen. I come from a working-class family, though, and I didn't realise writing was even a career until about grade eight when it suddenly hit me: "People write books." Where I thought they came from before that, I have no idea. Springing fully formed from the head of Zeus perhaps? Who knows. Anyway, shortly after that came the equally important epiphany: "I am people! Therefore I can write books." So I started to.
AAK: What was it that attracted you to SF/fantasy over other genres?
TH: Science fiction and fantasy deal with the big themes -- truth, honour, sacrifice, duty, consequence. As Jane Yolen said in Touch Magic, ". . .they touch the soul beneath the skin." They are genres where the possibilities are endless, where imagination takes the reader by the hand, where the question isn't so much "How?" or "What?" but "Why?" Within SF/F, I can write humour, mystery, history, poetry, science, sports, romance, and war. I can write of other worlds, or this world slightly skewed. I can write of people striving to be more than they are through science, through magic, or through sheer guts. I can take a look at the human condition through an outsider's eyes. What's not to be attracted by?
AAK: Stories of first sales are often fascinating. Could you tell your story?
TH: Well, my first sale was a short story called "Third Time Lucky" to George Scithers while he was editor of Amazing Stories, back in its digest format days. It had been rejected by Asimov's, Magazine of Fantasy & SF, and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress series at that point. Shortly thereafter, I sold a story called "What Little Girls are Made Of" to Andre Norton's shared world anthology Magic in Ithkar. Because of publishing delays at Amazing, the Ithkar story actually came out first. I suspect this is one of the non-fascinating stories. . . .
AAK: Most writers seem to have strong relations with their editors. Would you like to tell us about your relations with your various editors?
TH: Since I've sold all but one of my twenty-one books to DAW, I suppose you could say I have a strong relationship with my editor. Sheila Gilbert is a gem. She'll hold your hand if you need it. She'll leave you completely alone if that's the way you prefer to work. She can spot the rough edges that need smoothing and she can unscramble my occasionally complicated syntax in such a way that I can't tell the repair from my original work. She's always ever only a phone call away. The things that are important to you, become important to her because those are the things that make a story strong. The one book that didn't go to DAW was Scholar of Decay which was a work for hire in the TSR Ravensloft series. I pitched a story, received their list of things I couldn't do in their universe, wrote a detailed outline, kept to the outline when writing the book, got a call from the editor (I have no memory of who but I think it was a woman), we discussed a few changes, I made them, I cashed the cheque. Nice professional relationship. Most of my short stories I do because I've been asked to do them for anthologies. Any overt editing with these means the editor and the writer are coming from two totally different places and never the twain will meet. Ninety-nine percent of the time, there's no contact with the editor at all.
AAK: Do you have a literary agent?
TH: Yes, of course.
AAK: Did you seek one out, or did the agent come to you?
TH: After I sold my first book and had an offer for the second, I called Misty Lackey (who had two books out at the time), and asked who her agent was. Unfortunately, he wasn't taking new clients but he knew of other agents at Scott Meredith who were -- at the time, the agency represented a lot of SF/F writers. When my agent left Scott Meredith, I went with him.
AAK: Who -- apart from yourself -- is your favourite writer? Why?
TH: Writers. Terry Pratchett; because he's not only hysterically funny but he has the comedian's grasp of the human condition AND he uses language brilliantly. And Charles de Lint; I've always thought he knows something the rest of us are just missing, seeing truly the things we only catch glimpses of from the corners of our eyes. I also love Nicole Hollander's Sylvia cartoons and I think Joss Whedon is brilliant. (Joss, if you're reading this, I'd sell my firstborn to write for you!)
AAK: What kind of setting/atmosphere do you find most conducive to your writing?
TH: I need quiet and I need a caffeine source -- tea when I'm not on a deadline, coffee when I am. Other than that, I'm fairly flexible.
AAK: What is the most memorable event (related to your writing) in your life?
TH: Buying my first computer. (It was a Commodore 64 -- I wrote two books on that, so let's all stop complaining about how slow our 1.4 GHz processors are, okay?) Takes as long to write a book but it takes no time at all to edit it! Whooohoooo!
AAK: In what way has your writing contributed to society?
TH: Never underestimate the healing power of a couple of hours escape from the pressures of real life. Storytelling always has a place. Always had. Always will.
AAK: A writer's first book is like a firstborn child. It has a special corner in the heart. So could you tell me about your influences and inspirations for your first book?
TH: I was sitting in a TV tech class in the fall of my third year at Ryerson's RTA program, bored out of my head -- technology and I have no real connection -- and, instead of taking notes (which my subsequent marks suggest I should have been) I wrote the first line of Child of the Grove. I liked it so much, I kept writing, just putting one word in front of the other, until I finished. The first version was about 3,500 words shorter than the final version, mostly because I'd skipped the war entirely. At the end of one chapter they went off to war, next chapter they came back but my editor said, "You can't have a war without a battle scene." So. . . .
I'd have to say that influences and inspirations for the book included everything that had happened in my life, everything I'd read, watched, talked about, and done, up until that TV tech class. Much the same way that the book I'm working on now is influenced and inspired by everything that's happened in my life until the moment I stop writing it and send it off to DAW.
AAK: What project are you working on, currently?
TH: I'm currently working on a new story for the second collection of my short fiction that Meisha Merlin is putting out -- no title as yet but the book will be released at the Toronto Worldcon, Torcon 3, in 2003 -- as well as a three book hardcover series about Tony from the Blood books. He's got a job at a second-rate production company working on a straight to syndication television series about a vampire detective. They should start coming out in the spring of 2004.
AAK: Speaking of Blood books, it was interesting to know that the second book in the series, Blood Trail (DAW, February 1992), at one point had the working title A Canadian Werewolf in London, Ontario. I related to that title, not because I am a werewolf (I am not) but because I live in London, Ontario. Now, for my 13th question of the interview, let me ask you: Are you superstitious?
TH: Considering the number of fetishes around my house, I'd have to say yes to that but only in the broader "everything is connected and there's little point in pissing off the spirit world" sense. In the "if I don't wear my lucky earrings while I write the opening chapter of the new book the whole thing'll end up in the toilet" sense, no.
AAK: We have it through the grapevine that your third and yet to be published book in the Keeper series is called Another Fine Summoning. Would you like to say something about the story?
TH: Well, the TV Guide description would read: "Two keepers, a cat, a couple of dozen displaced street kids, and an archetype try to stop a shopping mall from taking over the world." Given that it's a Keeper book, you can assume that I'm treating this serious subject matter with the respect it deserves.
AAK: Is the title an intentional tribute to Robert Asprin's Another Fine Myth?
TH: The title is now Long Hot Summoning, mostly because Another. . . was my editor's title and I always felt it was WAY too close to the Asprin title. I loved the Myth books by the way.
AAK: What stage is it at?
TH: It's done! And I'm never doing another one because comedy is too hard. Whine whine whine.
AAK: [Aside to Keeper fans] This is almost exactly what Tanya had said in an earlier interview after she had finished the first Keeper book. So don't be disheartened. Cheer up. We may yet see more of the Keeper.
AAK: [to Tanya Huff] Your Quarters books constantly seem to challenge the reader's gender assumptions. To what extent do you deliberately set out to put women in roles which are, even now, usually thought of as "male," and vice versa?
TH: Well, the question here becomes: usually thought of as male by whom? Not by me. Because the Quarters books are my world, it never comes up. On those rare occasions -- like procreation -- where life is gender-specific then obviously it goes to that gender. Otherwise it depends on what the story needs at that time. Although sometimes, it depends on the other pronouns surrounding it because "he said, she said" is infinitely easier to write than "she said, she said." The trickiest part of writing same-sex love scenes is the single pronoun.
AAK: It has been pointed out that your book Sing the Four Quarters ruthlessly subverts the tradition of the romantic novel in which the wilful, handsome man is tamed by the feisty young woman. How far was this one of your aims in writing the book, and how did you anticipate readers would react?
TH: It does? I don't actually read romance novels so. . . .
My aim in writing this book was the same aim I have writing every book -- to tell a good story with interesting, three-dimensional characters, that's worth someone forking over approximately ten dollars of their hard-earned cash. If they take away meaning or some kind of lesson -- that's very cool but that's them, not me. I hope they're entertained, I hope they feel it was money well spent, but I don't ever anticipate reader reaction.
AAK: How far do you see yourself as being on the cutting edge of fantasy writing?
TH: Mixing metaphors here but I'm so far from the cutting edge, I'm on the sidewalk. Occasionally, I stop at a sidewalk café, have a coffee, and enjoy the buskers.
AAK: Reading your books gives a strong sense that you enjoyed writing them. Are there times when the writing is just a chore? How do you cope with that?
TH: I love what I do. I firmly believe that I have the best job in the world because when the words fall together just right and I know that I've said what I wanted to exactly the way I wanted to. . . it's better than anything!
And sure, there are days when the words don't so much fall together as go splat, and I have no idea of what I want to say or how I could possibly say it, but those days the joy in writing becomes the joy of the hunt. Of finding the right words. Of discovering what I'm actually saying. Of working like hell to get it right.
Frustrating -- occasionally. Maddening -- often. But a chore? Never.
I don't have to cope; I celebrate.
AAK: For my last question, Tanya, I have a heavy one. Does Canadian SF have its own identity?
TH: Not that I've noticed but I don't think about these kind of meta-questions much. Or at all actually. If anything distinguishes Canadian SF, I suspect it would be the same thing that distinguishes Canadians. We're good at self-mockery, we're simultaneously jealous and disdainful of our neighbours to the south, we have a disturbing tendency toward excessive navel-gazing, and none of us are as polite as we like to think we are, while still being remarkably polite.
On that note the interview with one of the leading lights of modern SF/fantasy ended.
Ahmed A. Khan is an IT professional infected with the writing bug. His works (fact/fiction) have appeared in magazines of various countries, including India, Kuwait, UK, USA, and Canada, and in webzines such as Pif, AlienQ, Anotherealm, Jackhammer, CyberOasis, Gateway, and Millennium. He makes a living in Canada with his wife and four children. For more about him, visit his Web site.