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An interview with Robin Hobb

City of Dragons, the third instalment in The Rain Wild Chronicles, will be published in the UK on the 23rd of April 2012. In advance of the book's release, Robin Hobb has kindly taken time to expound on the inspirations behind the stories.

City of Dragons is the third in your Rain Wild Chronicles – which is fast becoming recognised in the contemporary canon of dragon lore. As we know, much of the popularity of dragons in the science fiction/fantasy genre stems from the legendary Anne McCaffrey and her Dragonriders of Pern novels. Did you take any inspiration from McCaffrey in writing your Rain Wild tales?

I read most of the Pern books many years ago. One thing I realized instantly was that they were SF, not fantasy. My first clue was the phonetic spelling of a chemical compound; I'll say no more than that, as to this day new readers are still discovering Pern, and I don't want to do spoilers for anyone! But I did read them as SF rather than fantasy, and when you look at the tale that way, it is delightful to unravel the various clues to the history of Pern.

I think Anne McCaffrey's dragons were part of the hordes of dragons that gave me inspiration for various parts of my stories. Smaug is there, of course, and The Reluctant Dragon, and a host of unnamed maiden-devouring dragon hoarding dragons as well. One thing that I think Anne McCaffrey did very well is making certain that her dragons and the culture that evolved on Pern make sense, biologically and socially. So I may have taken that from her books; I wanted to be sure that my dragons in my tale, though fantasy, had logical roots. And that these huge predators made sense in their ecology and biology.

Much like McCaffrey, within your stories, you play with boundaries, expectations, subverting rules about male heroes, creating empowered female protagonists, and personifying what many would call “monsters” or monstrous. (Your dragons are certainly beasts!) What makes you push the boundaries of modern sensibilities in each novel you write?

I think 'pushing boundaries' is one of the things that fantasy does best, and also one large reason why many of us enjoy fantasy. If I want to read about a world that has the same sensibilities, cultures and accepted rules as ours, I'd pick up a historical novel or a modern day novel. All fantasy, I think, begins with 'what if' and grows from there. We have historical fantasy or 'alternate history' in which the outcomes of wars are changed and the tale proceeds from there. But we also have full-fledged fantasy in which writers can explore worlds where the cultures have developed in very different ways or where magic exists and science never fully developed. So I don't really perceive any boundaries as existing in fantasy. If you can think of it, you can write a story about it.

The Rain Wilds gives you a vivid tapestry to write about the toxicity of our environment – both emotional and physical. As we progress in time, do you see more people heeding the advisories you lace into your printed words; or do you feel there is more of a need than ever for you and other writers to use fiction as a platform for awareness and change?

Rather than trying to write advice, I write stories. I don't intend to preach or warn; all my stories go back to the fantasy “what if”? The Rain Wild River and its sudden floods of acidic water actually takes it roots from the very real consequences of seismic activity. The hot acidic water of a lahar (a flash flood of water, mud, gravel and debris triggered by a restless volcano) can indeed flood down to a river and change the river's flow substantially as well as increasing the acid content. So what is going on in the Rain Wilds, outside of the magic that exists there, is actually a very natural event. There's not really much people can do to prevent volcanic eruptions, so I'm not really cautioning them about them, other than reminding readers that we still need to respect 'nature red in tooth and claw.'

As far as emotional toxicity, well, that exists in every form of literature and song that I'm aware of. So I don't feel I'm issuing advisories on that so much as recognizing that the things we do to other people in the name of 'well, it's my life' can have far ranging consequences, ones that echo far outside our own little circles. Stories ultimately are about people, even if the people are rabbits (Watership Down) or robots. That human element is what keeps us turning the pages.

I do know that some writers do write tales that are intended to increase awareness in their readers of various issues the writers are concerned with. I don't think I'd actually do well at that; when I get opinionated, I'm afraid I get heavy handed in expressing it, and I think the readers would quickly tire of it. I don't think any reader enjoys being pounded on by a writer, even if the cause is women's rights or an end to prejudice. That certainly NOT why I pick up fiction!

You have no fears about exploring non-conventional love stories and promoting same-sex relationships; how have readers responded to your open-mindedness?

I like to write about a variety of characters, and I think my readers enjoy reading about such characters. Again, it is what fantasy does best; it allows us to explore the 'what if' of very big questions, without necessarily offering answers to any of them. I think that in fantasy, sexual orientation, like race, culture and age, becomes but one facet of a character, and not necessarily the most important face of that character. If a character is a gay vampire with a gambling addiction, it's really hard to say what the most intriguing aspect of her is or which one will drive the story. And I don't think readers really want a one-note character who is 'the black one' or 'the gay one' or 'the child dying-of-an-incurable-disease' one. I like to read about characters with whom I share one key aspect that lets me identify with him, but at the same time is so different from me that I'm excited to journey with him in that adventure.

One of the super powers of fantasy is that we can write stories where something that is shocking or unacceptable or even just frowned upon becomes ordinary in the fantasy setting. Then, as we explore it in that setting, we may find ourselves asking just why it is shocking, unacceptable or rude in our real existence. Thus we have SF stories that look at euthanasia, radical population control, engineered babies, society controlled by artificial intelligence and ask 'what if'. And we have fantasy tales in which someone gets three wishes, or discovers a talent for magic or becomes a blood-drinker by preference, and we again ponder 'what if'. That's what our genre is about. No boundaries, and no holds barred.

About.com has a wonderful article on Anne McCaffrey's legacy, which mentions her acclaimed novel, “The Ship Who Sang.” While very different from your own Liveships, it made me wonder how these sentient dragonwood entities sprung from your vivid imagination?

My husband is a marine engineer, from a long line of maritime ancestors. In the early years of his career, I was often able to spend part of a summer or a few days on board one of the boats he worked on. I soon came to see that there is a reason why ships are named, for each vessel truly did seem to have its own personality. There were boats that always seemed to do okay, no matter the storm or maintenance issues, and other ships where the tiniest problem seemed to set off a chain reaction of bad luck and worse headaches. The ships, regardless of who was the current crew, seemed to have genuine personalities of their own. For generations, sailors have anthropomorphised their ships. I just took it one step further.

The Rain Wild Chronicles are – like the river you name the books in honour of - a steaming brew of intrigue, toxic relations, rites of passage and personal renewal. How have you seen the Chronicles evolve since Dragon Keeper, and how has this 'world' evolved since your earlier Liveship and other related collections of novels?

Rather than an evolution, I see it as a natural progression. People and dragons change and grow, and as they do, their relationships change. So the progression of the story, the plot, is affected by the characters.

Without doing a lot of spoilers for people who haven't read the Liveship Traders or the Rain Wild Chronicles, I'll mention that a great deal of the plot has to do with very large predators moving back into their niche. There's a very interesting parallel going on in our own natural world right now. The aspen groves are recovering because wolves have been reintroduced to some of our parks and natural areas. The decline of the aspen groves, which reproduce largely by a form of cloning, was in turn affecting all sorts of wildlife from deer to birds to small mammals. The groves were declining because of over grazing. Now of course the reintroduction of wolves is also going to affect the hunting by other predators, such as humans, and it may also impact ranching activity. So, if you change one factor in the natural world, as a writer, you gain a huge playground for other changes and plots.

The Rain Wild Chronicles are a natural outgrowth of all that happened in the Liveship trilogy, including the welcoming of a freed slave population to the Rain Wilds, and the development of new shipping technology. I really feel that fantasy cannot fulfil its full potential if it's written about a world that is static. The end of a story shouldn't be that all situations have safely returned to what they were at the beginning. A story should end when a new balance is reached, and where the next story would logically begin.

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