Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Grim Interview: Janet Morris

I'm honored to have Janet Morris as our next guest. Janet has been a prolific author, with more than 40 novels, her career started in 1976 and since then, she's been offering heaping helpings of darker fantasy, scifi, and short fiction. Often co-writing with her husband Chris Morris, there's so much to choose from in their extensive bibliography. For those who prefer something darker, there's The Sacred Band Of Stepsons series, based around the ancient warriors known as the sacred band of Thebes. Or there's the Heroes In Hell series, a sprawling set of anthologies, each featuring a broad cast of characters who find their final resting place in the pits of the underworld; selected titles in the series include Angels In Hell, War In Hell, and the latest edition (currently priced at $6.66 on Amazon), Poets In Hell. And for those who want science fiction with a dark twist, there's Outpassage, a scifi thriller offering plenty of intrigue and adventure. When Janet isn't creating writing, she is a championship level horse breeder, and an advocate for non-lethal military proliferation.

Janet, thanks so much for taking some time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.

Thanks for having me with you here at Grimdark, Rob. Grimdark well describes much of what I read and what I write.

Grimdark fiction is on the rise. It seems that, at least for now, fantasy fiction readers have given up on the black or white, good or evil, PG rated writing that has saturated much of the genre for years. People seem to want a true sense of the human condition, that life is sometimes brutal, and sometimes the good guys lose. In your opinion, what factors do you think have contributed to rise of darker storytelling?

Grimdark fiction has always been out there; from as far back as the epic of Gilgamesh, writers and poets and mythologists framed their worlds around struggle: struggle against Nature, struggle against their gods, who often controlled elements of nature; struggle against each other; struggle to define themselves in a hostile world. As the early Greeks evolved the novel form, writers found ways to show the human condition and tell the stories that still haunt our dreams. Once Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, Grimdark fiction had its calling card. And from there on, all great writers, and would-be great writers, tried to set their characters daunting tasks in a world where their hearts and souls would be tested. The heroic monomyth itself ( as it defines our sense of heroism and ethics and morality) defines Grimdark: if a hero isn’t faced with great trials, he is not truly a hero. At times, this model has been sweetened and softened for children and for reasons of religious persuasion, creating stories of perfect heroes in various versions of Camelot, and peopling these visions with watered-down beasties such as friendly fairies and elves and such. These elementals weren’t sweet at their beginnings. But then came warfare utilizing naphtha fireballs, plague-bearing rats thrown over the walls of besieged cities, and two things happened: the darkness of humanity’s soul became overwhelming; writers either wrote about man’s failings, or pretended those failings didn’t exist. In the 20th century alone, over 180 million people were killed in warfare. Mustard gas, carpet bombing, napalm – all these made humanity admit the increasing lethality of our species. This plus the first atomic bombs, and the threat of nuclear annihilation by a single push of a button, made people ask “Is God dead?” In the face of the unanswerable question, fiction and the other arts reacted; from Kandinsky and Klee and Sartre and Kafka onward, from horror movies and the rise of science fiction, two reactions rocked the world: tell fairy tales and stories of perfect heroes who’ll save us; tell the truth about the human condition as history revealed it and as we know it: penetrate and understand the Grimdark reaches of the human soul.

In the 1970s, when I started my writing career by selling the first draft of my first novel, “High Couch of Silistra,” I wrote because I couldn’t find the book I wanted to read. Any ethical writer writes that book for the self; writing less is pandering. Silistra turned into a quartet of novels exploring the link between sex and power in the human psyche, and the responsibilities that come with overwhelming power; the books were smart, erotic, philosophical and took no prisoners. They looked like science fantasy, or what is now called sword and planet. Soon Silistra, a series whose hero is a bisexual prostitute, had four million in print. This series was very dark and made me few friends among the old guard of science fiction or the woman’s movement, for it broke new ground and gored all oxen. This issue of limits to power and responsibility can be found in many other writers now thought ‘Grimdark’ at that time, the days of Stephen King’s first novel and many other anti-heroic views of humanity. Whence the anti-heroism? All around us was proof that humanity is self-destructive and hates any members of our species even slightly different from ourselves; that we can’t be trusted with power; that we are lethal to one another and every other species on the planet. This focus on the worst elements of the human condition is our way of coming to term with ourselves as recent history shows us to be: willing to destroy wantonly for reasons of politics, greed, and metaphor. Since those who grew up in the “duck and cover” days when children learned to hide under school desks before the A-bombs hit, is it any wonder that today, faced with the horror of what we have become, writers feel compelled to explore the darkest part of our fictionalized souls?

After Silistra, I then wrote “I, the Sun,” the biography of Suppiluliumas, Great King of the Hittites – not scifi or fantasy but a rigorous biographical novel about a man who raised his Ancient Near East empire from ashes, took three queens, made twenty-four of his sons kings, and sired at least forty-six children while he brought chariot warfare to a new peak, took slaves and countries, and conquered his way from the Black Sea to the gates of Amarna Egypt. The book was called “a masterpiece of historical fiction” by Dr. Jerry Pournelle, and the Hittite expert O.R. Gurney praised it as: “familiar with every part of Hittite society.” In Hittite society, if you cut off a man’s ear, you paid him twenty shekels of silver; in Hittite society, sorcery was punishable by death; in Hittite society, if two men had sex with the same free woman, there was no harm in it; in Hittite society, sack and pillage were normal tactics of warfare. That book, reprinted today, still incenses and scandalizes those who want to recast history in a kind and gentler light.

When I had just finished “I, the Sun,” Bob Asprin asked me on a conference panel to write for “Thieves’ World,” and described it as the “meanest town in fantasy, dark and gritty and filled with mankind’s worst.” Having determined he was serious, I brought my character Tempus, an immortalized son of a storm-god, and his “sister” whom he loved, and their ancient ethos into sword and sorcery-style fantasy. In the early 1980s, as the stories progressed, readers saw a man dragged to death by the entrails; another staked out over a badger’s bower while the badger was smoked out with nowhere to go but through the man’s body to freedom, and more. Some readers found Tempus a villain – I can’t think why. Any ethical writer can confront these issues of state-sanctioned incest, murder, pederasty and treachery through the right character, and Tempus was – and is – the right character. He applied historically-acceptable corrections to wrong-doers, from knee-capping to burning alive, but he also brought the Sacred Band ethos to life in fantasy. In his turn, Tempus is saddled with a female elemental of great power who has her way with him when she chooses. The Sacred Band, male/male pairs of bisexual and homosexual fighters, have since graduated into my Sacred Band of Stepsons series, which, from those early days to these, is not for the faint of heart. A good sense of history pervades all Grimdark fiction: not so much what disturbing methods were used, but why they were used, and the characters of those who use them: our heroes of Tempus’ Sacred Band fight valiantly, mercenaries of the god of war – realistic war, not a pastel childlike view of humans and their failings. Much darker than Conan or Elric novels, our Sacred Band of Stepsons fight more and worse enemies, but realistic ones. They do this because no writer of good conscience can write about anything but the human condition, and how realistic heroes deal with the horrors within us all, often worse than any dragon or demon or plague.

In science fiction, I wrote Outpassage, a bleak future wherein governments and corporations collude for reasons of national security (sound familiar now? It didn’t, then.), and a Ranger outfit finds aliens where aliens shouldn’t be… But when given orders to mine the equatorial faults of a planet with nukes to blow it apart, my Rangers balk – at first. I won’t tell you the story, but having spent twenty years in government, that story seems more plausible than ever. And the dystopian Kerrion Consortium Dream Dancer books, based in science but truly about dynasties exported into space, had two volumes on the Locus bestseller list at the same time. Meanwhile, many other writers were beginning to write dark and darker still, including not only King but Clancy and Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote.

Whatever I write, whether solo, or co-author with Chris Morris or others, my sense of history and what it tells us of the human condition pervades the story. I don’t write horror per se, but what I write may be horrific, sometimes, but inspiring, always. One of the most important things about our species is its capacity for hope. All Grimdark writers realize that hope is the only justification for heroics: hope of glory, hope of love, hope of honor, hope of triumph, hope of survival. 

And beneath all subterfuge, the Grimdark writer faces the final truth: every one of us lives to die. It is the quality of that living which matters. And by my lights, this is what Grimdark is about: taking bold action in service to an ideal when you know that death is at the end of all striving. 

No doubt that you have an extensive body of work, and there's no doubt you have a broad perspective on the ebb and flow of the publishing industry. Tell us a bit of your experience with the industry, the industry at present, and direction you see it going.

When I sold my first novel, I had no familiarity with publishing as a business. I had written the story for myself and my friends to read. I was completely unaware of science fiction politics, or conventions, or its fan network. Because my books made a few bucks and publishers called me “bestselling author Janet Morris,” I was thrust into an arena where you sold books and were paid half before you wrote them, half on delivery. I took multiple book contracts. I had books go to auction in the US and England because more than one publisher wanted them. I did this until an editor, making a multi-book deal with me in a bar on a napkin, said that what she wanted in these books was “blood on every page.” In her mind what she meant, I am sure, given my body of work, was a bestseller. In mine, she had slapped me across the face: I didn’t write for those reasons. I took the contract, wrote the books, but decided that if this was where the industry was going, I’d do something else.

About then I started writing primarily nonfiction for government customers, and found it difficult to write fiction that wasn’t in some way related to my nonfiction. So for about 20 years I wrote only nonfiction, primarily in the defense and policy arenas. Because of this, I was on the sidelines of the implosion of the book business: since much of what I did for my government customers was predictive, one could stretch a point and say I took a look at what was coming and got out of the line of fire.

With the internet came book piracy, which made the old publishing model unsound. For example, one pirate had 57 editions of my work on the internet for free – probably for years, until I started fighting back. Since every writer expects royalties and is judged by their sales, piracy hurts: not only does it hurt publishers, it makes publishers less likely to invest in new writers. Big publishers died off and tiny publishers sprouted. People tried marketing on the internet. Confusion reigned.

In the first decade of the 21st century, when I knew I wanted to write fiction again, I talked to my New York agent, who said that the book business had radically changed, and we couldn’t offer a book to what was left of NY publishing without offering digital rights. So, since I wanted to keep my digital rights, we formed a small publishing company to do the kind of books we liked to read: edgy, dark, and well-written: that publisher is “theperseidpress.com”. During the time we had not been concerned with fiction, the “worldwide” bestseller became a possibility. These were and often are books written to suit youngsters-to-adults of minimal sophistication and education, books with simple plot and vocabulary. In the 20th century a book needed to be readable by a twelve-year-old; now, in the 21st, publsihers wanted to pitch to a nine-year-. Perseid doesn’t do those books. Perseid, heading into the wind as is our nature, does books for a literate audience. We’re publishing to stick a thumb into the dike holding back a newer and darker dark age; we publish the book we want to read: dark, lyric, literate, and compelling. Others like us are trying micro-publishing, and none of us “know” where that will lead us. But we are slowly publishing more books, by more writers, and getting our backlist into modern print (sometimes as “Author’s Cut editions,” revised and expanded because now we are not limited by a publisher’s contract to a certain word count) in editions with more readable print. Will this get us ‘worldwide’ bestsellers. There’s no way to tell.

One thing is certain: as long as digital editions exist, good books will be available, sometimes for free, sometimes not.

You've paired up with your spouse Chris to coauthor a number of works. Give us an insight into your collaboration process, and what you like best about working together. And have your two hit any bumps along the road in learning each others work habits?

Chris and I fell into full collaboration naturally: he was always my first reader; he always contributed ideas. But in those days and still today a book written by a man and a woman is less desirable to some than a book written by one male. We had to fight hard to get his name on our books once it was obvious to us that this would be the next step. We sold a book at auction for a high five figure advance that we wrote under the pseudonym of a single male, and got more for it than we’d ever gotten for a book written by a woman or a man and wife team. Nevertheless, fair is fair: if Chris contributes substantial to my work, or me to his, both names go on the product.

Our collaboration process goes like this: One of us suggests a title or a story line. We discuss it, expand it. I type the draft because I am a faster typist. He then comes in o my office and we go through the draft line by line, aloud. We argue and discuss, sometimes for as much as fifteen minutes on one line, until we have each line as we want it. Then we break and eat and discuss what needs to happen in the story on the following day and how the characters will be impacted by the new events. So we both live with the characters around the clock. Then I type that next bit of draft, always early in the day. Thus it has evolved: separate work early, combined work late on any day. We take notes on good lines or points to be included for the next day. If one of us doesn’t like something, we pull it out and try again, until each line is as we want it. The result is an increasingly strong sense of presence and character. In the early days of drafting on paper, when I would finish draft, Chris would take it all the way across the room before he started reading, so I couldn’t grab the paper away from him and rewrite in pen then and there. Now, with computers, it is much easier.

My work habits are three hours of concentrated drafting per day; his read/edit mode and mine are truly combinatory, to the point where often neither of us will know who actually first came up with a line or a quip or a piece of description.

Writing and editing together creates a whole that is more cohesive than any other way. When I’ve written with other collaborators, I don’t get the seamless quality I do when Chris and I write together, or the depth of insight that putting both male and female eyes on a story can yield.

The rise of the e-book has had an enormous impact on the industry as a whole, and with that eBook piracy has also been a factor. Give us your take the effects of piracy and how your think authors, readers, and publishers should respond.

The first thing the internet brought us was piracy, which has virtually destroyed the book business as big business, and forced print publishers into e-books to try to hold onto their rights. One pirate had 57 editions of my works on the internet for free. Like others trying to make a living writing, this was distressing. And remains distressing. The wonderful thing about the internet is you can get nearly any book immediately. The horrific thing is you can steal almost any book without fear. For the midlist writer, piracy has meant tremendous privation. The writer can’t keep track of sales or popularity. “Beyond Sanctuary”, one of my most popular pirated books, has been available from numerous pirates for at least fifteen years, before real e-books existed, as ugly scanned copies. People who would never break into my house and steal my clothes or food or medicine or animals are without compunction when it comes to stealing my livelihood: my books. Because of this overwhelming piracy, we began the “Author’s Cut” series of books at Perseid Press with the “Beyond Sanctuary Trilogy,” which is expanded by fifty-thousand words over the three volumes and contains new scenes and new insights; on these editions, I am trying harder to control the piracy. I ask people not to steal my books or books of other writers: in doing so, these people harm not only the writers, who need royalties to live and write more, but other readers, who may lose access to talented writers because the piracy problem is insoluble unless readers refuse to read pirated books. Today if your book is pirated you can report the pirate, and if the pirate doesn’t remove your book, they are banned from the internet. So now the pirates ask you to sign up before you see their list of illicit titles, and often that sign up agrees abiding by their rules… which may preclude your right to report them. This is an issue of ethics and morality, person by person. The unethical will steal e-books, others will not. Thieves will always be with us. But consider: there are many free books available from young writers, fledgling publishers, and from big companies such as Amazon; there is no real reason to steal. But as long as e-books exist, people will steal them unless and until an internet methodology for banning pirates permanently is found.

Many of our readers are aspiring writers of Grimdark fantasy and scifi fiction. What advice would you give to new writers when it comes to writing about darker themes?
Tough question, and an easy one. The writer knows darker themes; they are a part of each of us. If the writer chooses to write a character-driven piece, rather than get caught up in techno-babble or historicity for mechanical propulsion of plot, that piece will succeed; someone will see it and want to publish it – IF that writer has enough basic grammatical skills, literacy, and understanding of dramatic modalities to create a viable story. The good editor is seeking the good writer; the good writer is seeking the good editor. When those two find one another, great things happen. However, too much of what I see today is derivative: fiction written by people who have not read the basic Western Canon, which you must read if you want to be a fluent writer of fiction, and instead take their cues from hack writers who have impressed them because some hack’s book sold many copies. To make things worse, the internet is full of scalpers who claim to be copy-editors, editors, and publishers but have little understanding of what is needed beyond how to upload a file and secure an ISBN number. Don’t use people to help you with your work who are not better than you at something; a BA in English does not make a competent copy-editor, much less a savvy editor or publisher. When I read a manuscript from someone whose editor and copy-editor haven’t done a good job, I can only blame the writer for allowing their work to fall into clumsy hands.

As for how to write dark, if you don’t feel the magic, read some ancient history. Read those who shaped literature, all the early Mesopotamians and Greeks. If you want truly dark, read Milton’s Paradise Lost: don’t skim it, read it. True ‘dark” isn’t a matter of window-dressing: it’s inherent in the viewpoint character on every line and page. Spend a bit of money and buy Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, and hear the words of those historical characters that shaped our world. Then read Homer, Xenophon, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca. You waste your time if you read derivative works for inspiration: read the source material, always, as those before you have read these works and been inspired.

What projects are you currently working on?

We’re writing a new novel with a new hero, “Rhesos of Thrace: The Black Sword” is the working title. Rhesos is a quasi-mythical hero, and his small part in the Iliad convinced me that, were I bold enough, I could tell his story. He’s a hero forgotten in modern times, whose assassination Pallas Athene decreed, for, if he fought at Troy, the DanaƤns would lose the war. I’ve done the beginning of this story, published in “Nine Heroes” edited by Walter Rhein, and fifteen thousand words beyond that. I’m also doing a new Sacred Band of Stepsons novel, a sciamachy; and a new series of “Grimdark” heroic anthologies, “Heroica,” the first of which I hope will be out in mid 2015. Speaking of dark, we’re at work on the yearly Heroes in Hell volume, this one being “Doctors in Hell.” And we have a hush-hush project with a new collaborator.

To date, what has been the most rewarding part of being a writer? In hindsight, anything you might have done differently? 

The most rewarding part of writing is drafting: being whisked away into another time, another place, another life, and seeing the world through a different temperament. The writer of a tale experiences about 90% more than he can communicate to the reader; for these pale shadowings, some of us are royally paid, some not. I love to draft; when I have been drafting for three days, my endorphins take over: after that, until I skip a drafting day, I have no discomfort, no concerns but getting back to that world awaiting; the story tells itself, subject only to the limitations of my physical body’s ability to sit still and take down what I see and hear and feel. This is what I write to accomplish: to fall through the words into another world, and hopefully take you with me.

In hindsight, as far as fictional work, I probably should have stayed with my first editor, who was brilliant and protective of me. But I was young and impetuous, headstrong. However, I am happy with what I have accomplished. And because of our nonfiction work, people are alive today who might not have been if Chris and I hadn’t written that door and ushered others through it. So we’re content enough, and busy writing using what we’ve learned.

Thanks again to Janet for taking the time to give us some insight. To win a kindle eBook copy of The Sacred Band, Poets In Hell, or Outpassage, just email us, grimdarkfcition@gmail.com, with the subject line JANET MORRIS, and we'll pick a random winner on August 31st, 2014, U.S. only.

Poets In HellThe Sacred BandOutpassage


  1. Thanks, Rob, for your thoughtful questions. This is now one of my favorite interviews...

  2. This is an excellent Interview. do you mind if I reblog it on my site? JPWilder.net

    1. Go ahead JP! Maybe toss in a link to the blog here :)