A Chat With Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee stops in for a chat with Storm Constantine. Her new book Killing Violets is now available at Immanion Press

Storm: The Colouring Book series comprises new, unpublished titles, except for L’Amber, which appeared through Egerton House a few years ago. How did the ‘colour’ theme come about?

Tanith: It just happened – if anything just ever does that…In a way, the colour theme started a while before, in the late ‘90s, when I wrote 2 short stories – The Sky-Green Blues and Scarlet and Gold. These tales were utterly unrelated to the novels, as to each other, the first an SF Futurist Kafkaesque – er -thing, on another (green-skied) planet, the second a sort of werewolf story in a parallel 18th Century Eastern Europe. However, I realised I had green/blue and red (scarlet)/yellow( gold) , and something formed for me a third title, a take on the other obvious colour combine, purple/orange – which became lilac/amber. Lilac then abbreviated itself to L’ : L’Amber. No story properly evolved, but the title lingered on. And in a while (about a year?) characters began to encircle my campfire, their eyes glowing.

What the title meant came clear for me, as for the main protagonist, with the novel’s progression.

Then, about a year and a half after that another contemporary-ish (as L’Amber had been) novel made its presence felt: Greyglass. Aside from the fact that they were both (sort of) about the so-called ‘here and now’, I made no connections, colour-wise. But by the time the third one laid its paws on me, I’d begun to see these really were Colouring Books. For there was to be a colour, (and always a mixed colour, not a primary (Red, Yellow, Blue)) in the title of each. The titles, without exception, are completely relevant to the plots.

Only the book which now appears fourth in publication – Killing Violets – was not originally part of this series. I wrote it some while even before L’Amber, and it went by the tag Gods’ Dogs, which remains its secondary title. However, its inner preoccupations, for me, undeniably fit the series, and the Colouring title that now flies top of its mast is entirely compatible with its theme, and its sad, sad heart.

Ivoria, which comes next in publication order, is also true to its name. As is, in the oddest ways, the fifth novel, Cruel Pink.

I realise belatedly that I do have a few unrelated other books with colours in their titles – e.g.: Red as Blood, The White Serpent, Black Unicorn. These things happen, and I can’t restrict the rest of the pack. (There is another Garber book too, that sometime I hope to get written, called Cleopatra At the Blue Hotel – and it is nothing to do with the Colouring Books.) I’d suggest, whether primary colours or not, red, white, black and blue are definitives in their way. NOT mixed. To get a really hard black you need black. And though all the colours together make white, outside a controlled experiment one doesn’t often witness that.

Nevertheless, I can’t one day exclude writing some volume called, say, The Mauve Mountain. Or (doubtless under the influence of strong coffee and alcohol) Tawny Rose and Smoky Jade. (Or perhaps not.)

Storm: The books are psychological thrillers, dark mysteries, and divinely strange tales. What inspirations lie behind them?

Tanith: Whatever lies behind anything I ever do? Sometimes I truly don’t know. Things get sparked by a fragment of an idea, some image – on a screen, on a street, in a painting, in a dream. Greyglass just started with the first line: ‘She lived in a vegetable house.’ Plus a notion of getting to grips with that curious triad, like a witch hierarchy – Crone, Nubile Woman, Maiden: Grandmother, Mother, Daughter. At once the cast assembled and began to offer up scenes, dialogues and diatribes. That’s usual, for me. (It’s also wonderful for me! I could never tire of this feast.) Here and there, of course, small facets, usually distorted or enhanced through some subconscious lens, merge in from my previous younger lives – as with the department store restaurant in L’Amber, the college in Greyglass. And I tend to steal people’s houses and flats for use, although by the time they get on to the page they are changed out of all recognition by their alien inhabitants.

The heroine of Killing Violets owes a lot to my fascination with the unique writer Jean Rhys, (Wide Sargasso Sea, Good-Morning Midnight etc). Her genius has an exquisitely clean and cutting edge, and many of her women display a fragile, damaged endurance that persists in often unforgiveable circumstances.

To Indigo simply sprang on me when I was supposed to be writing something else. There was Roy, and there was Traskul – and well, the other book was abandoned for a while as I wrote To Indigo in five obsessive weeks.

Ivoria, on the other hand, was itself seriously interrupted by ‘life’, as one says. Started early in 2008, I finished it in 2009, with an interval of several months in the middle.

Cruel Pink was another five week sprint.

As for the darknesses and the thrillerish aspects, I’ve always been ensorcelled by that kind of thing. I love le Carré, and marvellous detective novels – Ruth Rendell, for example. And I even wrote a ‘straight’ detective novel myself, in 1997, (Death of the Day). (I wrote an insane spy novel set on Mars when I was 18.) The other element with the Colouring Books would seem to be they either verge on the uncanny, or appear to do so. In fact they are generally non-supernatural, (To Indigo, L’Amber, Killing Violets), and yet they have that feeling, that encroaching shadow. Ivoria meanwhile carries a comment along the lines of: ‘Probably not  supernatural – might be more comfortable if it was.’

Mainly Lee, as ever, just wants to dive in and swim about, does so, and enjoys it all very much – even getting her heart broken has its own glory. Self-evidently, she likes weirdness as well.

Storm: One thing that struck me about the books so far is a creeping sense of unease and dread, as the protagonists’ lives – and perhaps in some cases even their perceptions of reality – start unravelling. They also concern secrets – people not being what they seem: at all! In Greyglass, L’Amber and To Indigo, in particular, the main characters have fairly ordinary lives that are thrust into the extraordinary, through their accidental encounters with mysterious strangers. (Anna’s too, to a degree, in Killing Violets, although her life is rather less ordinary than the others’.) Could you tell us about how these themes developed for the series and what intrigues you about them?

Tanith: Really, this continues the above, but to unravel it a little more: I seem to be intrigued by the unreality of so-called Reality. And this, aside from magical and spiritual events best exemplified in the phrase ‘Mind over Matter’, entails the premise that what so often looks like hard fact – is a tissue of lies. The brick wall is a piece of flimsy knock-downable scenery, the sly tyrant is a terrified fool, the sweetly kind one is a predatory psychopath, dressed as an angel.

Life IS precarious. The majority know this but too well. But in order to keep going we don the necessary blinkers. Which is not a silly self-deception. Most of us, (I definitely include myself) can’t be bravely squaring up to disillusion, horror and death every minute of the night and day, (unless of course we can revel in such ‘life-drama’ on a stage or screen, or between the covers of a book – acting it, reading it, writing it, playing it in a rôle-game). (I sometimes worry how many potential gifted actors and writers now get lost in the exuberance of (computer) games, when they should be creating their own, on paper, or before an audience. But there.) My basic point is, we put on the blinkers in order to get by with any sort of life at all. And self-survival is usually well wired-in. So we need that wall to look real. Then along comes some terrible surprise, and pulls the hidden lever. The wall collapses, the mask slips. Chaos and panic result. Any time, any place.

It goes without saying, I’ve often written about all this, in much of my work. I do think it can seem more there, the threat, more blatant – in such as the Colouring Books, simply because the shocks expand in a more recognisable, (mundane) environment, even where we are in the now-past – 1980s, 1930s. If the setting were less known, threaded with parallel history, magicians, dragons, gods, we’re instantly conscious we are in an Elsewhere, and walking on thin ice. But here? No, we know about here. But what we secretly do know is that here, dragon-less(?) and fraught with everyday stuff , is just as dangerous. More so, since so often the demons of the everyday move in disguise.

Storm: Killing Violets taps into a rather topical subject, as interest in the historical stately home domestic situation has been popularised (again) recently by TV series such as Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. Obviously, you wrote the novel some time before this resurgence, and certainly give a radically different – and rather more sinister – slant to the idea, but what are your thoughts on the persistence of this fascination with the master/servant relationship?

Tanith: I certainly wrote Violets in 1996. I did watch, way back in the 20th Century, the initial episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs, and liked them a lot. Despite Maggie Smith, whom I greatly admire, I never somehow got round to watching Downton Abbey. As for Master-and-Servant, once again I’ve written about that phenomenon, inevitably, in several of my books/stories, since I tend to write fantasy in worlds where servants – and, more frequently, slaves – persist. (I’m reminded of Elephantasm (1993) whose 19th Century English stately home, army-aristos and assorted menials, are haunted, literally, by India and the British Raj. But the formula of Master-Servant doesn’t really have a hook particularly in me.

Nevertheless, in Violets, I must admit, (and it’s pretty obvious) an awful amount of pure rage emerged. Maybe I actually do believe in noblesse oblige. If you are in a position of such power over others, having them work to clean and adorn your (huge) house and gardens, to cook your food, more – to dress and undress you, to hairdress you – at your beck and call – then you owe them. Not just a very decent wage and good conditions for themselves, but your courtesy, appreciation and respect. This has, now and then, occurred. Besides, there have been some outstanding fictional Master-Servant relationships. (I can’t resist mentioning Jeeves and Wooster here, where Jeeves the butler takes the rôle of a playful, wise, cunning and infallible guardian angel to ‘Master’ Bertie’s daftness.) And there have been other examples, in reality as well as on the page, of cruel and conniving servants who may and can destroy the spoiled idiots ostensibly in charge. (Check Jean Genet’s play The Maids; the Pinter adaptation of Robin Maugham’s The Servant (with Mr Bogarde, Mr Fox, and Miss Sara Miles.)) There are a plethora of those alternates in literature, particularly the pre-and-post-revolutionary French and Russian. While Spain produced Cervantes, and the madly (not computer) role-playing Don Quixote, waited on by his forbearing ‘squire’ Sancho Panza – or do we read between the lines?

I’d imagine quantities of us have ancestors who served in one strata, or ruled in the other. And if it’s true we reincarnate, then almost all of us will have had a bash at both sides. Given that, genetically, and just possibly psychically, we must carry scars, and varied gene and/or soul memories of far-off encounters… as we scrubbed stairs at 2 a.m., or raped somebody in a sumptuous bedroom they had only just dusted. Or knifed – or were knifed by them – one or another. Well, we see the way I tend on the matter. I wonder…

Storm: The next novels in the series are Ivoria (due this summer), Cruel Pink (due nearer Christmas) and Turquoiselle, Winter-Green and Brown as Purple – release date not set as they’re works in progress. Can you give us some taster tips about these novels?

Tanith: Ivoria and Cruel Pink are now completed, so let’s see. Ivoria: Brothers Nick and Laurence dislike each other. Nick especially, since he blames Laurence for the death of their mother, the beautiful movie star, Claudia Martin. And therefore, even before we reach 2 thousand words, Nick sets a kind of curse on Laurence, a ‘Doom’ that Nick himself doesn’t believe in. But then weird things start to happen, and Laurence disappears. This book gradually becomes pass-the-parcel – then you unwrap the parcel, and there’s parcel inside to pass on, unwrap, pass on…

Cruel Pink: A suburban house has been made into flats, and the narrative deals with characters living in the individual apartments. The first one tells us she is a serial killer – ‘signs and omens’ advise her who to murder, which she duly does with a pleasant sense of achievement. She seems wild enough, but the rest of the diverse personalities are hardly, as we discover, Mr or Ms Average. This one was a joy-ride and, (as very rarely) I did know what went on – though not, till I was there, how it would end.

On the other tomes I’m afraid I can’t give much. I’m not being coy. I simply don’t know much, if any, of the subjects of these books, as yet. I can tell you that the main (male) protagonist of Turquoiselle is called Carver (no other name yet vouchsafed me); that Brown takes over Purple (no, I don’t know who, how, what or why); and the first line of Winter-Green is: ‘It was the hour when the grapes turned blue.’ I do confess I know why the grapes behave in this ungrapelike manner – but not to be reticent about it would, at this previous juncture, be gabbling too soon.

Here, if it can in any way show willing, is the quoted poem (of a form known as an Otava Rima) that will stand at the start of W-G:

‘Now I am old, and no one cares for me,

I think of stars, that never lose their shine

Till they are spent, like coins, and cease to be:

A nova or a ghost. How different mine,

My end, that is a drifting out to sea –

Unseen, irrelevantly undivine.

So sink my ship into its silent grave;

Nor mark the unimpressionable wave.’

Thomas C Mallen

Storm: Moving away from the Colouring Book series, let’s talk about the Indie Presses, to whom you give much support. It’s clear the rise of the Internet, social media and print on demand has removed a mass of restrictions on both writers and independent publishers, although the downside could be said to be that it’s become a requirement to have a web site, blog, etc. What are your thoughts on it all? Do you have plans to get your entire back catalogue back in print? It’s clear there are more than enough publishers who would be keen to help out there, but how do you feel personally about it? And are there any other previously unpublished Tanith works that might appear through the Indie presses?

Tanith: Certainly I do support and approve the Independent presses. I think the future of most good publishing, the release of new and genuinely innovative work, may well lie with them. Because most of the ‘Big’ houses – well. Fortunately, some justly significant Names still remain at the ‘Top’ in mainstream and genre publishing from those larger houses. Very great talent, (mostly) does still seem to be spotted, supported and broadcast. But there are, too, some strong and entertaining writers – that maybe don’t stand in that highest rank, but still remain rewarding, and appreciated by their readership – who have been pushed right out. While new young writing, unless extreme benign luck goes with the talent, seems to be slipping from the equation altogether. I have seen and heard of examples that cause me astounded horror.

Self-evidently, all the ‘large’ houses that formerly made me at home have, since the ‘Credit Crunch’, shut their doors firmly in my face. No, I don’t consider my work Top Rank material, but I do believe it’s worth more than a slammed door. I now rely on the Independents because they continue to believe in my writing, and publish and promote me, allowing my books to pass on to any who like to read them. (I don’t deserve a readership at all. I write for me, because I LOVE writing – can’t stop. If ever anyone else gets something from what I’ve done, it is like the Pearl Beyond Price to me, something infinitely precious, miraculous, which – as I say – I don’t deserve – but greedily cherish.)

One marvellous advantage of the Independents is, though, that so many of them are run by authors of calibre. (At the moment I’m being interviewed by one such.) Not only does this mean that my work has been acknowledged by my peers (if not in age, most of them are a great deal younger) but working with such a press is couth. Is sane. A proper writer knows how to edit – they learn to edit themselves. And so they never expect one – me – to change anything on a whim, (theirs) – but if one (me) has made a mistake and missed it – they won’t. They will find the beast so I can deal with it. This is the Editor from Heaven, the one you want. (I have, admittedly, worked with a few terrific editors outside the Independents – and one  first class copy-editor – plus I still work with some fantastic editors attached to the ‘large’ houses in the field of short stories.) But where such finesse and skill can be absent in the ‘Big Publishing World’, in the smaller presses, as a rule, it is universal.

On websites, I have a brilliant bibliographical site (run by a fabulously intelligent woman in the States). This lists almost all my work, including foreign editions, and puts up new publications and reprints as they are sprung: http://www.daughterofthenight.com.. My own site,www.tanithlee.com was stolen. Apparently my legal rights to pursue and regain it are cast-iron. But the cost would cripple me. So I have to wave it farewell. The new site – http://www.tanith-lee.com- should be up fairly soon (all delays are due to me). I don’t blog, but I do give business news and offer dreadful limericks from time to time. And the odd, tiny – or tiny and odd – story.

On backlists of my over 90 books, over 300 short stories – hmm. A few publishers sewed everything up, don’t want to let go and don’t want to do anything with. So not everything, maybe, can ever be reprinted. What can be, I will try to see does get a fresh life-lease. As well as freshly written stuff, naturally.

Storm: Is there anything else you’d like to share with your readers?

Tanith: I’ve said I love what I do. It’s one of (several) best things in my life. And, too, I want people to be able, if they wish, to read Tanith Lee. Not because that’s me – but just because, actually, it isn’t me. What my writing is – I’ve never quite known, and perhaps never will. But to it, I’m the acorn to the oak, the hearth – to the fire.

Storm: Thank you Tanith for sharing your thoughts with us. To Tanith’s fans, the next novel in the Colouring Book series is due for release in June.

4 Replies to “A Chat With Tanith Lee”

  1. Tanith Lee’s books have a unique sense of Wonder. Her language is dreamlike, with powerful images and limpid at the same time. Thanks to the small, ‘handcrafted’ publishing houses who publish Ms Lee’s marvelous work.

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