Author Carol Berg on Tolkien and writing realistic fantasy
Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
Carol Berg is a fantasy author and therefore a creator of worlds. The Fort Collins resident has published thirteen novels spread across five different fictional worlds in her Lighthouse Duet, Bridge of D'Arnath and Rai-Kirah series. A three-time Colorado Book Award winner, Berg has also been awarded the Geffen, Prism and Mythopoeic Fantasy awards for her writing. Her latest novel, The Daemon Prism, concludes her Novels of the Collegia Magica series. Westword recently caught up with Berg to discuss J.R.R. Tolkien and how to write believable fantasy.
Westword: Where did your interest in the fantasy genre start?
Carol Berg: It probably started with Alice in Wonderland, and Edith Hamilton's Mythology. I always read everything, I also liked mysteries and adventure stories. I never read straight-ahead romance and no teen romance, either. I only ever read Westerns when I stayed at my grandparents' house and I'd already finished all the books I brought and then I'd be stuck with my granddad's Zane Grey books. I especially loved anything that took me someplace else, like anything about King Arthur. I loved the Arthurian legends.
Did Tolkien enter the field at some point?
My college roommate gave me her copy of Lord of the Rings and I read that probably five or six times -- not because I think it's the greatest thing ever written, though some people certainly think it is -- but the world he creates is so vivid. So real that he designed its own languages, history and mythology. It was the most complete fictional world I'd ever read. I probably won't read it ever again because now the characters seem kind of flat and archetypal. There was a lot of stuff that I skipped over when I read them to my kids.
I used to love pouring over those great maps he drew.
You always know just where the characters are in a world with boundaries. I liked science fiction, too, but it didn't have that sense of creating a complete world like Middle Earth. That really struck a special chord with me, so I went looking for more books to read in the genre, even though I still just loved to read anything.
Did you have that counter-cultural identification with Tolkien? You said you read it in college and you went to college during a pretty trippy era.
Not so much. I was pretty pedestrian.
Well, sure, it was that era and I listened to those songs. Them, and the Doors and Jefferson Airplane. But I didn't go chasing white rabbits. I was a math major, come on!
Fair enough. I'm just interested in that brief window of time in our culture when the nerds reading Tolkien were the coolest guys around. What did you think of the movies?
I thought the movies actually brought some characters more to life, like Aragorn. I wanted to like that character, but I felt like I didn't know who he was until he was played by Viggo Mortenson. In the movie you can sense his dilemmas on a human scale, and in the book he's this unknowable icon.
Reading Tolkien feels like being told a great story, but there's still that sense of remove from the characters.
That was the way he wrote, and I enjoyed it a great deal. But when I write my stories, I like to write from the perspective of someone who makes mistakes. The desire to see characters like that compelled me to write. If you want to write a book, you need to read books; read stories that you love, whether they're Jim Butcher or Ursula Le Guin or J.R.R. Tolkien.
Have you read George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series?
To tell you the truth, I haven't read those yet. I'm very behind on my fantasy reading because I don't like to read intense fantasy when I'm writing intense fantasy, and I've been writing intensely for the last ten years. I did just read a wonderful quote by George R.R. Martin that someone had shared on facebook. He's talking about how writers are either architects or gardeners. Architects plan everything ahead of time and focus on structure, and gardeners nurture their characters and stories to life. Architecture is sturdier, but gardens are a living thing. I'm definitely in the gardener category and he says he is, too. He's on my shelf at home, waiting for me to take a break.
What inspired you to start writing fantasy novels? It says in your bio that you taught math and programmed software before.
I never believed I could write anything. No way -- write a whole story? Figuring out all that plotting and symbolism? How do you foreshadow things?
Much less build a whole world.
My gosh, all those years of planning? This friend of mine from work and I used to trade books, and we'd go out to lunch to talk about books. We were on a binge of reading fantasy, and we were currently reading this book that was a series of letters between two sisters. It was kind of fluffy for me; I prefer grittier stories. Anybody who reads my stories can tell I prefer gritty things. Anyway, my friend told me that she'd like to be a writer, and she said, "You know what I'd like to do? If we could each take a character and write letters to each other back and forth? We'd send them by e-mail and I could practice my writing." I thought that it could be kind of fun, so I went back to work to write the first letter. So I just started typing and before I knew it I had twenty pages and I thought, where did that come from? I started feeling like it might be pretty good, so I printed the pages and took them home. But when I read them the next day, I read it and went "blech!" like I always do. Anyway, over the course of a year and half, we each wrote 32 letters, and we made a whole story. The writing was horrible, but it was so much fun. I couldn't quit. So I discovered that I wanted to keep writing fantasy because I loved the idea of making up my own world. Not that the idea of world-building was pre-eminent, because I want to focus more on believable characters within that world.
One of the things that put me off writing for a while, was that piece of advice everybody gives new writers: Write what you know. Nobody would ever want to read about my boring life! But I do know a lot things about different societies' cultures and mythologies. The way people were and are. If I'm going to write a story about a dysfunctional family, I don't want to write it about a dysfunctional family in Denver. If I want to write a heroic adventure, I want to have my own characters and my own rules. What I discovered as I wrote --and I think it was Ursula Guin who said this first-- was "fantasy is a great canvas upon which every story can be written." It's our earliest and most enduring form of literature. We've only been writing realistic fiction for 150 years or so. She puts it so eloquently, but I also chose to write fantasy because it's fun. There are so few rules. You can write whatever kind of story you want. I like to write stories that read like historical fiction about great, world-changing events through the lens of a flawed protagonist.
Do your books take place within the same fictional universe?
No, there are five. Right now, out of my thirteen published books, I have five different worlds. I have a two-book series set in the same world, a three-book series in another, another in a four-book series and a stand-alone book called Song of the Beast that takes place in its own world.
To learn more about Carol Berg, her books and upcoming appearances, check out her website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.