In my ongoing quest to uncover what makes an author choose fantasy elements for their work, I’ve begun asking other writers for their reasons. Today, I interview Lynne Cantwell, author of the “Pipe Woman Chronicles” among others, who explains what magic tells us about a character’s emotional development, universal truths in most religions, and why a dictionary’s quality should be measured by whether it includes the word, “roynish.”
John Phythyon: You have a series of four books – “The Pipe Woman Chronicles” – that appears to use Native American mythology. Tell us briefly about the series.
Lynne Cantwell: Technically, it’s a five-book series; Annealed should be out in mid- to late May. But yes, Native American mythology – specifically Lakota Sioux and Ute mythology – figure prominently. The main character in the series is Naomi Witherspoon, a lawyer and certified mediator in Denver, Colorado. She’s visited by White Buffalo Calf Pipe Woman, a Lakota Sioux goddess, who tells Naomi that she’s been drafted to mediate an agreement between the Christian God and the pagan gods and goddesses whose worship Christianity suppressed. White Buffalo Calf Pipe Woman also taps a couple of helpers for Naomi: her best friend Shannon McDonough, who’s a therapist; and Joseph Curtis, a Ute skinwalker, or shapeshifter. There’s a fourth member of the team, but they don’t meet him until the second book.
White Buffalo Calf Pipe Woman is a pretty major figure in Lakota myth. She brought the Lakota their sacred pipe, and taught them their seven sacred ceremonies.
Joseph’s patron god is Coyote, a Trickster god who shows up in the stories of a bunch of Native American tribes. Coyote, like Raven in the Pacific Northwest, is both a troublemaker and a creative force.
And by the way, a few other mythologies figure into the story, too.
LC: Not very much – even though at times, while doing the research, I felt like I was taking a class in comparative religion. Naomi’s journey is one of trying to reconcile her Protestant upbringing with her Native American heritage (there’s a reason why the goddess picked her and not somebody else). So for her, it’s more of a cultural exploration than a religious one. Although spirituality was tightly woven into Native Americans’ daily lives, so culture and religion are kind of the same thing for them.
But I think one of the major goals of any religion is to teach its followers the right way to behave in order to get along in society. That moral guidance – keep your hands off other people’s stuff, treat others the way you want to be treated, and so on – is remarkably similar from one faith to the next. I hope that comes across in the books.
JP: Is religious conflict an important theme to you? Do you have something to say about how well two different faiths can get along?
LC: Hmm, what can I say that won’t give away the plot? I can tell you this much: the big mediation scene takes place in Annealed. Mediation is designed to help the two (or in this case, quite a few) parties come to a compromise they can each live with. So you can expect that Naomi will be looking for similarities among the many religions in the series, instead of emphasizing the differences. (Yes, I’ve written this scene already. Yes, it was hard!)
JP: Your books are set in modern America, but they feature magic. Why is that an important part of the story? What made you decide to interject the fantastic into your tales?
LC: The magic in the “Pipe Woman Chronicles” flows from the intercession of the gods into the lives of these modern-day characters. I mean, what else would you call it? If Naomi’s new-found power came from Jehovah, she could call it a miracle, I guess. But “miracle” is probably the wrong word for power granted to someone by a pagan goddess. Hence, magic.
The other thing is that the series is urban fantasy, and the genre pretty much requires the incorporation of magic into the story. Usually it means you’ve got sparkly vampires or werewolves or some other horrible, dark critters challenging the protagonist. I think vampires have been done to death, if you’ll pardon the pun, and I didn’t feel up to attempting to explain werewolf pack dynamics. So I went with Trickster gods instead.
JP: What about magic and monsters appeal to you? What do they add to stories that other elements do not?
LC: First, I don’t consider any of the characters in the “Pipe Woman Chronicles” to be monsters. Even later on in the series, the people creating chaos have – or think they have – good reasons for their actions. I don’t generally subscribe to the black-and-white, Good/Evil dichotomy that pervades Western storytelling. Real people come in varying shades of gray – and in the “Pipe Woman Chronicles,” even gods can be mistaken.
I do prefer to read stories with fantastic elements. I think magic can be a gauge of the character’s emotional development: is he confident or tentative in its use? Is she an arrogant jerk about it? Does he use it to cover up his failings in other areas? Does she absolutely refuse to use it, and why? It gives the author another way to portray the character’s inner struggle. I’ll grant you that you don’t get much inner struggle in a lot of light fantasy: “Hey look, here’s a magic club! Coooool! I’m gonna go beat up those ogres and steal all their gold!” But there’s a fair amount of fantasy that does go deeper. Which segues nicely into…
JP: Are there other writers who inspire or influence you? If so, who?
LC: I always cite Stephen R. Donaldson, first and foremost. His Thomas Covenant is a brilliant example of what I’m talking about. Covenant has leprosy, which was still incurable back in the ’70s when the original trilogy was published. He has adopted tactics to ensure his survival, and then he gets transported to The Land. Donaldson adeptly portrays Covenant’s distrust of a place where he’s healthy again and where people think he’s some kind of hero, as well as how he grows into a person who can finally reconcile his actions in The Land with his truth in the “real world.” The final book of ten is due out this fall. I can’t wait to read it.
Some of my other favorite writers are Graham Joyce, for his use of the fantastic in the modern world; Patricia McKillip, whose lush, lyrical prose is so wonderful; and Kent Haruf, who doesn’t write fantasy, but whose spare, simple prose is wonderful in a different way.
JP: One of the hallmarks of Donaldson’s protagonists is they all have some debilitating weakness that stunts and threatens to prevent their growth into heroes. Thomas Covenant has leprosy and consequent unbelief. Morn Hyland has Gap Sickness. Terisa Morgan has such low self-esteem she surrounds herself with mirrors just to remind herself she still exists. Is that a technique you like to use? Does Naomi have a weakness that interferes with her ability to fulfill her destiny?
LC: I like to think that my characters have more self-confidence than either Covenant or Terisa! But yes, Naomi and Joseph both have their flaws. And Naomi is fully as suspicious of her goddess-granted power as Covenant is of wild magic but is less of a jerk about using it. If I had to compare Naomi to one of Donaldson’s characters, I’d say she’s more like Linden Avery, except without the angst. Plus, Naomi’s funnier.
JP: What other things do you try to emulate from your favorite authors?
LC: Well, not Donaldson’s word usage, that’s for sure. At one point, I based the purchase of a dictionary on whether it contained the word, roynish. (It means mangy or coarse. It’s Donaldson’s adjective of choice for the barking of Lord Foul’s ur-viles.)
I don’t know that I consciously emulate anyone, to be honest. My style is probably more a result of the twenty years I spent in broadcast journalism than anything else.
JP: What did you do in broadcast journalism? How did that inform your voice as an author?
LC: I worked mostly in radio news, as a reporter, anchor, writer, and editor. So my sentences tend to be short, with active verbs and few modifiers. You won’t find me writing many sentences that start with “there is” or “there are” – that sort of passive construction is just wasted air time.
JP: Did working as a journalist lay the groundwork for the kinds of novels you chose to write? What bearing did it have on your deciding to become a fantasy author rather than another genre?
LC: I’d like to say that spending so many years as a reporter, up close and personal with tragedy and bureaucratic bungling, made me want to flee into a kinder, gentler fantasy world of my own design. I’d like to say it, but it’s not true; I was writing fantasy long before I started working in radio.
I will say, though, that it makes me crazy when I run across a novel in which the author includes a “newspaper article” or TV news broadcast about something that’s happened in the book. Newspaper articles are written in a specific style; broadcast news style is similar but more conversational. I can always tell when the author hasn’t got a clue that a style exists at all. In fact, it bothers me so much that I wrote a couple of “Getting It Right” posts for Indies Unlimited about it last year.
JP: How has becoming an author changed you?
LC: I’ve been writing fiction since I was a second-grader, so the most accurate answer is, “not at all.” But since I’ve become an indie author, I’m probably a lot more boring to my friends, because I have less free time and I always want to talk about indie publishing!
Lynne Cantwell has been writing fiction since the second grade, when the kid who sat in front of her showed her a book he had written, and she thought, “I could do that.” The result was “Susie and the Talking Doll,” a picture book illustrated by the author about a girl who owned a doll that not only could talk, but could carry on conversations. The book had dialogue but no paragraph breaks.
Today, after a twenty-year career in broadcast journalism and a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University (or perhaps despite the master’s degree), Lynne is still writing fantasy.
Read a sample of Seized, the first book in the “Pipe Woman Chronicles”, here.
Buy it from Amazon.com.