Carol Berg interview


Fierce Vowelless One
Apr 25, 2003
Help! I'm stuck in the forums!
Here is the author's response to our recent questions regarding her book 'Transformation' as well as some general writing questions. I would like to thank the author, here in this public forum, for being so generous to make the offer and follow through with answers (and so quickly too!). I appreciate her giving us some of her time and I'm sure the rest of the group here does as well. I've made her responses blue so that we can see exactly what text is from her and what is from us. Also at the end she's given us a link to her website and a list of her books. BTW, I just bought 'Son of Avonar' and once I get through my backlog of reading I'll post a review in the reviews forum.

Hi April,

Quite a modest list of questions...and some interesting ones, as well.

> 1) What was your inspiration for this story?

I can't say I had a particular inspiration, other than to turn a
fantasy trope on its head. So many fantasies start with a naive
innocent hero, a poor boy who is shepherded to a great destiny by the
wise wizard. I wondered what if the hero was not naive, innocent,
likeable, or poor? What if he was arrogant, high-born, cruel, and
believed he knew exactly what he was destined to be? He would have to
fall very low before he could be worthy of a great destiny. And who
would tell his story? Someone forced to be close to him. But someone
who had no reason to like him...a slave. Then I started writing.

> 2) Which authors influenced you the most in choosing this genre?

I love to read across many genres. But fantasy just seemed like the
most wonderful, wide-open arena. Some of the books that particularly
inspire me: Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer, Mary Stewart's Merlin
books, Roger Zelazny's first Amber quintet, Mary Renault's Theseus
books (a cross between historical and mythology). But truly what got
me started writing fantasy was a friend who challenged me to write a
series of email letters in character - in a fantasy world.

> 3) Do you have any plans for a book signing in California?

Two other Roc authors and I are working on a West Coast book tour in
June. If it works out, we hope to do events in San Diego, LA, San
Francisco, and Oakland, as well as Portland and Seattle. I'll post
the plans on my website as soon as they're confirmed.

> 4) Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?

Now THIS is a big question.
#1. Read, read, read. Read outside your chosen genre. Read
classics. Read good literature. Read good writing.
#2. Learn the craft. Learn grammar. Learn writing. Learn about
point of view and maid-and-butler dialogue and run-on sentences and
said-bookisms. Ask yourself what is it about such-and-such a writer's
characters that makes them seem real.

#3. Write. Rewrite. Write more. Write a million words before you
think about getting published. Learn to accept critique. Find
critiquers who are #1. readers of many books, #2. writers of your own
or slightly above your level, #3 striving to be honest in their
reactions to your work, rather than either being merely supportive or
trying to transform your work into theirs. Learn what to do with
critique (critiques are lists of symptoms, not diseases or cures).
Rewrite yet again.

> 5) Have you had any anthropological training - taken any anthropology
> classes, or even read in anthropology? If so, how consciously did you
> draw on things you learned in these courses or reading in the writing of
> "Transformation"?

I only took one anthropology course in college - about Japan. (I
can't say that helped much.) But I read magazines and newspapers, and
I visit museums and ruins (when I can), so I'm aware of
anthropological issues when I'm thinking of cultural world-building.
I try to take all the bits and pieces of knowledge I've gathered over
the years and put them together in ways that make sense.

> 6) Are the cultures you created for "Transformation" based, in any part,
> on cultural practices from real cultures, or did you create them from
> scratch?

The cultures are not based on any existing peoples. But it would be
very difficult to create any realistic human culture entirely from
scratch. When I think about "a desert warrior culture" I have to look
at those that exist. Ah, Arabs have many words for the varying kinds
of desert (just like the Inuit and their many words for snow).
Bedouins have blood feuds over horse breeding and bloodlines. All
those bits of information feed into what I'm trying to do.

> 7) One of the hardest parts of writing fiction is the naming of
> characters. How do you deal with this aspect of the writing process?

Some names come easily. Some take time. Aleksander, for example, was
easy. It evoked everything I wanted for my arrogant prince. And yes,
much of the name's "magic" derives from Alexander the Great.
Interesting that it exists in so many languages, and it always means
"defender of man." (Though this kind of "meaning" is always secondary
to the sound and feel of a name.) Clearly I was thinking "cossack"
and "steppes of central asia" in coming up with Derzhi names.
"Derzhi" itself is one of those names that just popped into my head.
Seyonne on the other hand, I had to work at. I was looking at Welsh
names for the Ezzarians, evoking the myths involved in a small, green,
and rainswept land, isolated by its own ancient culture. I found a
name I liked the look of "Sion" but I wanted my own pronunciation (and
a spelling that was slightly less ambigous.) So I worked until I came
up with Seyonne. I felt like there were fewer ways to read it, and

most were close to what I wanted. ("say OWN") I don't agree that
naming characters is a particularly difficult part of writing - making
a character live is much harder - but it certainly IS a critical part
for me. I just can't proceed until I have the name.

> 8) I couldn't rephrase this question properly without losing the sense
> of it so here is the exact question:
> In an interview, Carol Berg listed the elements she keeps in mind while
> writing a story. One of these was: 'an initial setting that feels like
> it could have been a part of our world at some time'.
> I'd never really thought of this aspect of fantasy writing very much -
> somehow it seems to bring fantasy closer to sf, in my mind, since what
> she is suggesting is that she views her fantasy worlds as possible
> extrapolations of our own. Is this a fair comment? Also, why is this
> important to her - since it is fantasy, why bother about such things?

Certainly fantasy worlds can take on many different shapes, some
closer to our own world, with some slight alteration to its natural
laws to permit such things as magic, and some that are radically
different from our world. Hmmm...possible extrapolations of our own
world? I'm not sure of what you mean. I don't believe anyone is going
to be shapeshifting any time soon...but then I don't necesarily
believe we're going to discover faster than light travel any time soon
either! I love Zelazny's concept of Amber as the "true world," with
the multiple reflections that you can travel through, with
progressively wilder alterations in natural law the farther you get
from the center. (Do you call Amber itself an extrapolation of our
world? It is very "human-like" with houses, forests, occupations, and
so forth, and its own set of natural laws.) At the other end the

Courts of Chaos is wonderful, but it's not where I want to start out
or to stay!

I personally enjoy writing worlds that are, at least initially, closer
to the Amber end of things rather than the Courts of Chaos. (Those who
have read "Revelation" and "Restoration" know that sometimes my hero's
path leads to worlds that are quite different from human worlds, of
course.) I like to live a story with my characters and take my
readers on the journey as well. I feel like starting out in a world
that is familiar enables the reader to identify with the character
more easily, and relieves me of having to redefine every aspect of the
world. In essence the reader's mind is freed up to fill in some of
the details of a Derzhi city's marketplace or the ruins of Drafa and
feel "at home" there. Then as we move into stranger places, we can be
drawn along as well. I like to think of my stories as "human stories"
and that the fantastical elements of the world are there to challenge
my characters and allow us to explore their nature in interesting

ways. What would it be like to have a demon living in your soul? To
shapeshift? What would it be like to discover that your singing
somehow changes the world? Fun!

I certainly believe that fantasy worlds must "work" as real worlds in themselves in order to present conflicts that are "real" and characters that live. They must have economies and history, and mythology. They must not give the appearance of being "static" or homogeneous, as life isn't that way. To me that is the minimimal line between stories that are "fluff" and stories that I can get involved in as a reader.

Hope that approaches an answer!

Best to all,


and SON OF AVONAR, new from NAL/Roc in February 2004


Sep 22, 2003
I know how busy a writer's life can be, and the life of a published writer is even more hectic. I appreciate the time Carol gave to each question....what a wonderful gift.