The Object of Desire -- Our interview with Tanith Lee

Teresa Edgerton

Goblin Princess
Staff member
Nov 1, 2004

In a remarkable career, spanning four decades, Tanith Lee has written stories in practically every genre or subgenre of speculative fiction one could imagine: dark fantasy, children’s fantasy, gothic horror, steampunk, science fiction, mythic fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, fairy tales, contemporary fantasy ... and the list goes on.

The Birthgrave, published in 1975, established her as a rising talent in the SFF field, was nominated for the Nebula award, and rescued her from a series of “stupid and soul-killing jobs” by allowing her to write full time. Since then, she has produced more than seventy novels and hundreds of short stories.

Known for her elegant and evocative prose, she was the first woman to win the BSFA award for best novel, and has twice won the World Fantasy Award for her short fiction.

With the publication of her short story collection Cold Grey Stones (NewCon Press, 2012), Ms. Lee kindly agreed to an interview conducted via email. The result is below.

Part I

sffchronicles: You have said that you never know what you will write until you write it. Does this mean that you never plan ahead? Have some sort of idea where you want a story to go but leave the details to inspiration? Or that you make plans but are always ready to change them if a better idea comes along?

Tanith Lee: All of those. Sometimes there is only atmosphere, or a strongly — even vaguely — seen mental image, (as it was with The Birthgrave — and strong, this one: a white female-being curled up inside a waking, blood-red volcano. No more, no less). As I get into a book/story a certain amount of — not planning, more self-discussion and conjecture — occur, which are often immensely fascinating for me. Inspiration (or whatever it is) always supplies vast amounts of detail. Characters constantly arrive from 'nowhere'. And in many scenarios the main character is the one who appears first and foremost, before any real aspect of the plot becomes at all clear. I can site Sabella in the latter case, also Esther and Judas Garber (Thirty-Four, Disturbed by Her Song) And very decidedly, Azhrarn, Prince of Demons, in the Flat Earth sequence. Though, in the instance of Azhrarn, of course, I already had the seed of the idea for the first story. Sometimes also my husband (writer/artist John Kaiine) will suggest a theme, twist, or whole plot. These are always striking and generally tempting, and I have assayed many, especially for shorter fiction — as endless 'Thanks to JK' credits show! The essential of the drowned mask in Faces Under Water (Venus Quartet) was his. Not to mention the overwhelming whale in the Lionwolf Trilogy. Speaking of Lionwolf incidentally, a medium told me I would write that. She said she saw snow and a strange moon, and a lion that was also a wolf. To which I found I added 'and also a man… and a god.' And there the 3 novels begun.

Occasionally, even before I start work, I have a definite outcome in mind — this is more usual for me when writing short fiction than with novels. But how I get there is by my constant method: I sit down with pen and paper ( I always write longhand — unreadable scrawl with the spelling skills of a year-old duck) and then I take the Dictation. And yes, also things can and do change. Sometimes I get the shock of my life ( another one, in writing it happens quite regularly) or am, as they say, 'surprised by joy'. Now and then minor characters become major ones ( Guri in Lionwolf… the Pet in Don't Bite the Sun), the wicked turn out to be innocent, the beautiful and good to be monsters, Heaven to be Hell, etc:—

sffchronicles: You have written most of your books in one draft, yet your prose is elegant and assured. Do you revise as you go along? Or does it simply come out of your subconscious fully formed? How much changes as the story you wrote out in longhand is typed into your computer?

Tanith Lee: Thank you! I do revise a little as I go along. When it flows, as a rule I don't need to change more than perhaps the odd word or emphasis. Sometimes I need to add in a short passage, or remove ditto, or move an existing one up or down the line. Sometimes the scrawl is so uncivilized I realize even I won't be able to translate it by the hour I again reach that point during typing, so I rewrite it slightly more legibly. As I type out the MS I may also change some small thing. Rarely does it amount to much. Now and then, luckily for me not often, I may struggle (at the longhand stage) over a tiny paragraph or piece of continuity. I've found, across time, (having been writing since 9, that's roughly 55 years) that the best way here is to leave the wretched thing alone and go on regardless. Almost always, a while later on returning to the scene of the crime, I can sort it out in 10 minutes or less. Here and there I may, and have become, stuck. In some of the huger novels, especially the early ones, a certain amount of these stickings seemed very much in the nature of the beast. One swam, floated and flew for 150-200 pages — than ran into a granite mountainside. But by slow, persistent hacking with a mental axe, or scraping with a mental knife — or sometimes blowing the whole confounded mess up with mental high explosives — I'd eventually emerge into the light.

Worse by far than these hold-ups are, however, the very few novels/stories that simply would NOT start. A fine example of this is the first Piratica book. I'd engaged enthusiastically to write about pirates (there is another thing I need to add about this engaging-to-write business — I'll come to that —). It was, though, to be a YA scenario. I don't pull punches, whatever I write, but obviously in work for a younger audience, I firmly believe in keeping the worst sorts of violence off-stage. And so I had to face up to how difficult this would be, when dealing with some of the most blood-gulpingly ruthless and foul thieves on Earth. The book duly went into hiding. After about 5 false starts, (some of the material of which I was still able to use later in the book) my genius husband suggested (it's by now fairly well known, so not too much of a spoiler, I hope) that with my heroine at least I could begin — not among throat-cutting crews, but with the talented actors who played them in The Theatre. (Actors are some of my favorite people). And inside a couple of days the book was off and sailing fast. Certainly, as it progressed, the real vile wickeds came in, but by then we all had our sea-legs, and there were, for me — as opposed to my characters — no problems at all.

My other comment on this is, though, that frankly I've always hated writing to order — that is from an already developed idea — and this is now, unfortunately, usually entailed in any sale which is obliged to include a ('detailed') synopsis. (I hate and resist synopses. They are, to me, chains. The only good synopsis, again for me, is the one prepared from an already completed work.) For this reason any pre-writing notes I offer a publisher carry the warning that 'author may make changes'. And so Author does!

Yes, my work comes from somewhere or other that seems to have very little examinable relation to me either physically, or experience-wise. And I think I've established I prefer to be the bus, not the Driver. I am the vehicle, I take the Dictation, I gaze at the pictures appearing on my mind-screen, listen to the dialogue and the music, describe and report. For this reason I only deceive under instruction, where guided to, and never, therefore, lie. What I get I pass on. I'm a journalist — and I've been places even I, sometimes, can hardly credit.

sffchronicles: In a book like Venus Preserved where so many plotlines converge in such a complicated manner, was there any sort of rough outline, on paper, or in your head?

Tanith Lee: None. Pre-start, I knew this: Much of Venus was undersea and protected beneath an air dome: we would be dealing with the future. My leads were a male singer (Picaro) and a female gladiatrix (Jula). I was going to tackle the preposition of revitalizing the dead — which I'd already postulated the ill-advisedness of in a short SF story from the '70's, called The Thaw (published Asimov's.) The book, too, had one strong connection back to the first novel of the Quartet. These are marker posts, obviously, not plotlines. (Near the end of the saga, which I admit I found extremely harrowing to write, I was startled out of my wits by the apposite revelation of the triple 6.) But really all this sort of thing is the typical Lee working day.

sffchronicles: Do you ever get the idea that your subconscious mind is running far ahead of you, working out different contingencies while you're still in the early stages of a project?

Tanith Lee: Yes, I do, but I'm never entirely convinced it's just my sub consciousness — although doubtless that will have its paws on the book as well. The inspiration and motivation seem to build from so many non-physical areas — genetics I never rule out, i.e. genetic memory — or those elusive yet maybe fundamental elements: World consciousness and Group awareness. What I call the boys and girls in the backroom backbrain. They take their very useful share of the work too, often bringing a needless flaw or error to my attention, or solving some obscure correlation of character action or psychology.

sffchronicles: For Cold Grey Stones, your new anthology, you wrote a story in four hours. Is it usual for you to complete a story in less than a day? And the stories you write at lightening speed, do you think that parts of them are already there in your subconscious, just waiting for the right story to come along?

Tanith Lee: On the speed — less often now than when I was younger, but as with the one you mention, it does still happen. This one came from 'nowhere' — as so many seem to — and again its last words surprised me, so I must conclude those backbrain boys and girls were on to it as soon as I was. It is a very short short though. Sometimes even when my writing gallops for me, sheer physical tiredness (not mental) makes me pause, or lay off till the next day. I think the most I ever wrote in 8-9 hours was a passage in Vazkor, Son of Vazkor (1st of the dual sequel to Birthgrave.) It amounted to about 17 long page-sides in rough — around 9-10 thousand words. But I was late twenties then. Now I judge my most recent bulk scribble was about 5-6 thousand words, in a contemporary novel, (due out late this year, I think, from Immanion: Ivoria). Some of these things do wait in the wings, very definitely, either on a scrap of paper with a tiny note, or title, or else unconsciously picked up from something or other I can usually, subsequently, identify. The Greyve— the story for Cold Grey Stones — didn't relate to anything, so far as I know — aside from the collection's title. But then, I might well be the very last to know…

sffchronicles: Are you ever intoxicated by words — your own or anyone else's?

Tanith Lee: Regularly — by others. ( I read whenever I can, and some very wonderful writers.) With my own stuff I'm more often than not permanently intoxicated just by the sheer act of writing — the bus is allowed to be drunkenly happy with the drive. Sometimes a line, a phrase — more frequently the conjuring of an image seen by me, either in so-called real life, or on the inner screen, extremely excites and pleases me. I never feel these are mine — by which certainly I don't mean I've stolen them from others. (Though for sure, reading geniuses can educate and enable any writer who is open to it.) It's just that for a split second I feel This is it. Which, translated, is: This has caught some Essential — what I/we/the bus-Driver/s were after. It doesn't intoxicate as such. It's — like coming home.

sffchronicles: It seems that more and more of your novels and collections are published by the smaller presses. Do you feel that the smaller and newer presses allow you more freedom?

Tanith Lee: In many ways they do. Often they are run by writers themselves, and of high caliber. They know, of course, what writers hope for and try to accomplish, and exactly how they do NOT wish to be edited. An intelligent 2nd line editor is invaluable — one should always be one's own 1st line editor. I have had the delight with working with 2 or 3 of these in the past, and now — with the writers I spoke of — very often. Even, once, one quite wonderful copy editor.

The good editors are gold. The rest… I rest my case.

sffchronicles: What made you decide to return to Vis and to the Flat Earth? To what extent do you think these new books will be continuations of the previous stories?

Tanith Lee: I don't know yet. They are future projects, for which, nevertheless, I've had a hankering since the 1980's. The Vis book sequel will also be a Birthgrave-Vazkor -White Witch sequel. How and why? Because I'd realized for some while, after completing both trilogies, that the albino Lost Race of The Birthgrave must also be the (firstly racially-abused and subsequently Fascistic) albino Amanackire of The Storm Lord etc: A strong clue lies in the absence of the colour green from the 3 Vis novels and an obsession of the Lost with all green stones, pre eminently jade, in the histories of Vazkor and his mother. (Backbrain on full power even back then, I think.) Other than these facts, I know really nothing of what will comprise the new linking book, though it has a working title: Sun in Amber, Moon in Jade.

On the Flat Earth, one of the proposed new books is a linked collection of (often long) short stories. This volume will be called, perhaps over-helpfully, The Earth is Flat. The last volume goes by the title of Earth's Master. It will concern the final tussle — between all the earth's most involved parties — gods, demons and mankind — for mastery of their world. The only thing I seem to know about this one is that the 5th Lord of Darkness has more than a mere cameo role. He has a sort of cameo appearance in Delirium's Mistress, but no one — at least to me — claims to have spotted him. It will be intriguing to find out, ultimately, who did… Anyway, I shall see what exotic mayhem turns up once I sit down with the engine running.

continued in next post

Part II

sffchronicles: It provided an extra pleasure when reading your new anthology Cold Grey Stones to learn how diverse are the inspirations for the stories you write: a chance combination of words, an emotion you feel in the middle of the night, even an inanimate object. Even your first two published adult novels, The Birthgrave and Don't Bite the Sun seem to have arisen from entirely different influences. Can you remember what those were?

Tanith Lee: The Birthgrave, as I mentioned, and have said in my intro to the new Norilana edition, came from the image of a pale female shape curled up inside an about-to-erupt volcano. The first paragraph was based on a strange awakening from sleep I myself experienced in my very earliest twenties. The image, particularly, stayed with me, a benign and enigmatic — yet insistent haunt. Once I'd sat down to it, there she was, Birthgrave's heroine, white as ice, unknown to me as the back of the moon. But she told me, and let me ride in her cool, lovely, cruel, kind, longing and exiled brain. We rose from fire and from death, fell deep into the passions of love, raced the chariots, killed pitilessly in the black storm of war, worked miracles, bloomed, withered and regained our destiny. A breathlessly, astonishing journey for me, a 21-22 year old, usually totally at a loss in the ordinary world, but in her world, safely at large inside that colossal canvas, with a goddess as my guide. (Several dreams that came to me while I wrote this novel I put verbatim into the book — the girl in the pool, the winged men and women in the sky. Yes, in the dream I had wings too. I still recall what that was like.) Don't Bite The Sun was written just a little earlier. I escaped from my limited and clerical-work-tormented life, to the Cities of the Fours. They started as a crazy letter to a friend, done as a mini-diary entry of a few pages that came to make up the first pages of the novel. And of course it was one heck of a first hook line. I let DBTS take over, and become. As with everything I write, it was just all there. It's original title was Jang. But once the quote came in I knew that was the title. I can see certain (prior reading) influences too, from Aldous Huxley's stupendous comedy of Horrors, Brave New World; and I think, Anthony Burgess's ditto masterwork, A Clockwork Orange, threw a few levers as well.

sffchronicles: I won't ask about any particular one of your short stories because they are so numerous, but I will ask if there are any recurring themes in your short fiction.

Tanith Lee: There must and will be. Many writers will have those. With me they are not truly conscious at the time of writing. (Here we go again.) And I do have the fairly universal obsessions with Love, Sex, and Death, common to writers of almost every ilk. I think the 'Loner', the exile or outcast — set apart for different reasons, but therefore ending up a Nation-of-One, is something I began with and always return to. I am a social animal, who likes people, but also I like lots of space and privacy — ie, Aloneness. And I do identify with the ones set — by themselves or others—quite apart. And this, unmatched to the rest of my personal trend, I recognized from early on. I like justice too, and Villainy suitably rewarded. The sorts of worlds and climates I tend to write about facilitate the violent and brutal measures that my characters often vengefully mete out. I also, again, not uniquely, seem to have a strong perchant for la femme- and l'homme -fatal. No doubt there are other recurrent themes, but as I've said, I swim in these seas, and analysis, though a lot of the fun for me, only occurs as a side effect, and that often only when asked.

sffchronicles: While we are on the subject of early influences: You have written stories where characters switch gender unexpectedly or where gender is ambiguous. I am reminded of Virgina Woolf's Orlando. Have you read it? Did it provide inspiration for any of your own work?

Tanith Lee: Quite probably. I am a great admirer of Virginia Woolf. I read Orlando certainly, in the late 1980's, and loved all of it. One of the best Total Transformations, too, the pure and unexplained simplicity of the switch. Orlando's world seems to be a life that was so determined to experience both prime gender states, that reincarnationally easier modes (which would provide a childhood first, to relearn the modus operandi of an opposite sex) are cast aside. Now you are This; now That. Woolf was a major genius (still is, thank God, since her work still lives). I think she will have influenced, or helped to teach me various things as do all the greats I read, to the limit of my ability to learn.

But of course I was already instinctively into these games and challenges of being now-female, now-male etc:— Shakespeare had a major part in this too. He was and is one of my eternal loves, and his girls who dress as young men — Rosalind, Viola… et al — plus the young male actors (or normally young!) who firstly acted all his women — alerted me early on to the sensuous and intriguing dichotomy of me-as-thee and thou-as-I. Besides, anyway, I feel rather definitely that the animus — male aspect — guide of a woman, the anima — female aspect — guide of a man, are there apparent in any of us who are content to glance within ourselves. Also, if reincarnation is a fact we've all been both, and in all their permutations, many MANY times.

sffchronicles: Much of your work has a mythic quality, Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern in particular. I have read that at one point you were quite enthralled with India, but have you made a study of these other mythologies or was the influence more indirect?

Tanith Lee: My mother had a fascination with and knowledge of the Dionysian, and a host of mythologies, (and religions). Most notably the Ancient Egyptian. She began my life-long quest for them, and later, inevitably, I read magical Graves, and certain portions of mystic writings, (such as the Upanishads.) Mine is a vastly imperfect and unfinished awareness, unfortunately. But my brush with such beauty and profundity has been monumentally inspiring, both in my books and in my dreams.

I fell madly in love with India in the early 1980's (it really was like a sort of love-affair, the love object elusive yet kind.) I chose the best time, or it was luck — there was some type of 'Indian Experience' Celebration, and both radio and TV were rich with wonderful documentaries and extravaganzas — not to mention the extraordinary and exemplary films of Merchant-Ivory.

Myth in itself is altogether something that seems part of a real Real world. It is possible (encouraged?) to touch the edges of its cloak. Perhaps only the truly Wise-or silly, could dare much more.

sffchronicles: Most of your stories are dark, though sometimes there comes an unexpected moment of grace, a fortunate turn of events, or a bittersweet ending. Do the uplifting endings surprise you more than the tragic ones?

Tanith Lee: Well. Both can make me cry, (different genres of tears.) This less at the instant of delivery to the page, than on sitting back, or reading after. The 'surprise' is always an extra pleasure though. And if it's a deliverance, I love it. I rejoice.

sffchronicles: Do you have any science fiction or futuristic fantasy coming out in the near future? [This question courtesy of my daughter, Daisy, who loves Sabella and The Silver Metal Lover.]

Tanith Lee: Thank you, to Daisy. (When someone is nice enough to say they like my work, or that 'that particular story' — that's pure gold for me.) So, I do have a Science Fiction Collection coming out soonish from Aqueduct Press: USA. This contains some new short stories, and some older ones. They're not, however, really of the same sort as either Sabella or Silver. I have, for some while, wanted to write a third book in The Silver Metal Lover sequence. The title: The Tin Man. But as none of the 'Big' houses are interested, I haven't yet taken time to do it. For me, SF has always had to be about flesh and blood, that is, humanity. Or at least what is the best and worst of the human psyche and intent, even if translated through the medium of the android and/or robot. So no doubt however and whenever, there will be more takes on the theme.

sffchronicles: The Secret Books of Paradys and The Secret Books of Venus are marvelous reading simply for the stories, but there is also an added pleasure in discovering your alternate Paris and Venice. There is already short fiction about Petragrava, which I understand is an alternate Moscow. Can we expect novels to follow?

Tanith Lee: Petragrava is a parallel Moscow-St.Petersburg. The one existing example is a novella: Stringberg's Ghost Sonata, published in the Ghost Quartet — SF Book Club of America. I'd love to write more on these lines, but there has been no encouragement and little time. Maybe, whenever, I can — ?

sffchronicles: Could you tell us something about At the Court of the Crow, which I’ve seen listed as dark fantasy coming out in 2012? Are there any other new novels coming out in 2012 that you would like to tell us about?

Tanith Lee: ATCOTC isn't coming out in 2012 — or should NOT be. It is an unfinished work which was offered here and there as an example of the finished novel I wanted to write. Responses were negative or strangely confused. No one bought the work. And so far I haven't completed it. It is, this one, an (to me) interesting and weird project. A rural place, feeling somewhat 1900, but where stars crash on the ground by night. Something apocalyptic happened, it seems, some years before, and civilization ground to a halt. There is the House, and the Town, and the Plain between, where you must Never venture after dark for fear of the peculiar and lethal creatures that teem there. And then the Old Man turns up, gorgeous of voice, unholy and persuasive of character. To the lonely, obscure young woman (oh, her again!) trapped in the house, with her cruel and ridiculous relatives, does he represent a way out, or the way… to Hell? Or both.

There are, though, other novels just out or due presently, from Immanion this year. They are part of what I've called my 'Colouring Books' series — dark, sometimes uncanny contemporary novels that are, I'd say, far more bizarre than much of my fantasy. To date, they list as: Greyglass. To Indigo. L'Amber. Killing Violets. With, to come: Ivoria. Cruel Pink. Also there is more Garber fiction (Gay/Lesbian) due from Lethe USA, and the dark fantasy collection from NewCon Press: Cold Grey Stones.

sffchronicles: Books like Vivia or the Lionwolf trilogy can leave readers emotionally exhausted, feeling that the sex and violence (and the violent sex) were more graphic than they actually were. Where these things are concerned, do you believe that skillful suggestion can be far more powerful than even the most detailed descriptions?

Tanith Lee: If skilful suggestion is what I am being 'unconsciously' directed to convey, then I'd hope it might. But to repeat myself I'm afraid, I don't normally set out to use a design model or map for working. The Voice of the work will arrive, and I go with that.

Vivia is a book I, now, have a slight difficulty with. Intended as Horror, I was to a small extent working 'to order' — as Horror was what I'd been asked for. Obviously, if I hadn't liked the genre/concept I'd have kept clear. (This has happened — I can't do what I don't like.) A lot of Vivia works for me, but some of the horror does seem, in retrospect, overloaded. In such a novel one needs only so much — ? Perhaps I was correct in skidding all the way down the slippery slopes I was being shown. But, my first line editor now, I would censor a little more than then I did. ( I don't regret this; I did my best at that time. So long as I did that, for me, mistakes or oversights, are tolerable. Though of course not for anyone else who reads them, and quite right too.)

Conversely, and oddly(?) my enormous Horror epic The Blood of Roses is far more appalling — yet somehow, again for me, here the lavish and gory measures do work. I never got fully to check the proofs on this book, and a lot of printers' and editorial errors never therefore got eliminated. Also some persons have formed (seemingly) wrong opinions about its underlying motif and aim. This annoys me — I have no quarrel with anyone's disliking my work. I only dislike their disliking something in it which they have completely misunderstood.

I think the most terrifying 'Horror Novel' of mine was, for me, my historical, The Gods Are Thirsty, which concerns the French Revolution, and can indeed be classified as Horror. Blood everywhere, Terror everywhere, despair, broken hearts and dreams. And, as it really did happen, you can't be surprised by a redemptive ending. The end was written on stone, and cut in place by the blade of a guillotine.

sffchronicles: It seems incredible that an author of your experience and standing is not able to sell books to major publishers simply on the basis of name recognition (not to mention a reputation for excellent work), but many publishers will only publish books that mimic the books that are putting up the biggest numbers right now. Considering your versatility, it is surely within your powers to write something that fits inside their current restrictive little box. Have you ever considered doing so?

Tanith Lee: No one, it seems, among the 'Big' houses, wants me to do anything at all for them, or remembers me, even when I remind them. (I have now and then tried to elicit a response. But, as in my early-mid-twenties, when I offered, for example The Birthgrave, if I get a reply it is No Thanks. A few are less polite. Plus a great deal of ungolden silence.) As for writing inside a box, there is one of my limitations. Unless the box entices me, I can't do it. Very occasionally I've been offered one that did. For example I was invited to write a zombie short story for a very interestingly presented anthology, and wrote one with passion and suitable disturbed dismay. It had for me the ease I normally encounter when I write. But that was a one-off. (Zombie Apocalypse — 2011) Also I did a Romantic-Supernatural novella for Harlequin. I found this both alluring and an interesting discipline, and wrote the piece with dedication and enjoyment. I still like it, too. (Shadow Kissing — When Darkness Falls — 2003). Otherwise a couple of schemes I didn't dislike nevertheless fell through. So, Fate, or 'Big' business, decrees my banishment. I do worry a bit, not just for my own work, but for new young fine and non-ghetto-minded writers trying to make their own break. But things go in cycles. The Market will open up again, in time for them, I hope, if not for some of the rest of us.

continued in next post

Part III

sffchronicles: So many of the elements that are hailed as groundbreaking in books being published now have been there in your stories since the 1970's — though with greater authenticity, because they emerge from the plots and the characters. What is your reaction to the kind of fantasy that is most popular now?

Tanith Lee: Again, thank you. I'm afraid I read very little among modern fantasy and SF and Horror — aside from work by certain friends whose books are heart-liftingly excellent. However, I never did read too much any more inside these genres once I had started to write in them — again aside from certain firm favourites. This was and is partly self-protective. I don't want to find, say, (as you have seemed to) that someone else has come up with a similar thesis to one of mine from way back. And I don't want to be influenced, either — one can't always avoid bits rubbing off. My gods were/are Bradbury, Leiber, Vance, Sturgeon, Ballard, Le Guin. Luckily they seem still respected as they should be. (Though I wish more people would recall how astonishing were/are the novels of Jane Gaskell — particularly the Atlan books, The Serpent and so on). Therefore of today's trends I am mostly ignorant, and can't make a comment.

sffchronicles: Which authors have influenced or inspired you the most?

Tanith Lee: Those listed above. And earlier and elsewhere — ie. Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf… If I ran the whole list it would perhaps be a book in itself. But certain writers and playwrights have dominion: Chekov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pinter, Turgenev, Bunin, Dickens, James, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Renault, Jean Rhys, John Fowles, Rebeccah West, Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, John Le Carré ( to whom I was recently converted and who I now adore), the Bróntes, E.M. Forster, Maugham, Isabelle Allende, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Ruth Rendell, Laurence Durrell, Elroy Flecker, Ted Hughes, Blake — I must stop!

sffchronicles: What book lost or non-existent would you like to read?

Tanith Lee: Oh, more than one. For example: 1) Written but unobtainable — Most of the works of Ivan Bunin — who despite being a prose-poet and genius, and having won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1933, is hardly to be found in translation in the west. 2) Probably unlikely — Anything extra that Jane Gaskell might ever write. 3) Psychic Alert — Dicken's own version of the end of Edwin Drood, which he died before finishing. And others, lots of them.

sffchronicles: Do you have any advice for new young writers — or new old writers for that matter?

Tanith Lee: Write, that is the main advice. Write and read and watch movies and listen to music — or any of these — or other — you like; they will feed the flame. Meanwhile don't let anyone — or thing — stop your writing. Resist adverse criticism unless it chimes — not with your own unsureness — but with your coolest analytical personal feelings as your own first line editor. Even then, be careful. You can, sometimes, be your own worst judge in the matter of inadequacies. Remember, your work may have flaws — but they won't prevent its being damn good. (Emeralds have flaws.) If you get the chance, publish. If, for now at least that chance is evasive, continue to write for yourself, while expecting and believing that eventually you will be published. Trust what inspires you and drives you. A very great mystic, known as A.E. , suggested that what we normally call a 'Gift' in any field or area, is in fact a reward for some excellence in a previous life, or elsewhere. Believe in your self and your powers — something (and who knows what?) already seems to have done so.

sffchronicles: Do you listen to music as you write, and if so, what is your preferred “writing music”?

Tanith Lee: Not normally as I write (though a solitary exception was the 2nd Movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, played continuously as I worked on Camille Desmoulins' pamphlet France Set Free for The Gods Are Thirsty.) But I do anyway at other times, and quite often a particular piece of music, from a song to a symphony, will for me associate itself with a particular book or story. Shostakovich's 5th Symphony inspired many scenes in Anackire; Saint-Saéns Agnus Dei from the Requiem brooded over the last page of all in Venus Preserved — if I reread the book, I always replay this piece immediately on finishing; the entire ballet music from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet burned throughout my Romeo and Juliet retelling: Sung in Shadow; Sting's song Valparaiso assisted me with the end sections of Piratica. And on, and on…

sffchronicles: What are you reading now?

Tanith Lee: collection of Bunin, so darkly beautiful — and the last piece I have of his. And I just finished Jeanette Winterson's 1st class autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? It reveals, yet again, what an extraordinary woman she is.

sffchronicles: As a reader, what makes you reluctant to keep on reading?

Tanith Lee: Not connecting with or becoming fascinated by any of these three: Prose, characters or storyline. This is caused, generally, by the reader's — in this instance my — own preferences. Sometimes one senses that if one persists it may get better — or even amazing — so I keep going, which has often proved rewarding. I usually try to persist to at least page 100 — unless the whole thing makes me sick.

sffchronicles: What makes you eager to keep on reading?

Tanith Lee: Same: Prose and/or characters/storyline. I list, in both categories — eagerness or repulsion — the most important elements in order of lose-Lee or grab-Lee value.

sffchronicles: Are there any new authors that you would like to recommend?

Tanith Lee: Ivan Bunin — though he's hardly 'new' — but he was new to me until a couple of years back. His work concerns many places, including a vanished Pre-Revolution Russia, and varieties of people portrayed with a perfection of lightness and depth. A unique and beautiful Master. Out in the contemporary SF/Fantasy tumult, established but still among the younger team: Liz Williams, Storm Constantine, Ian Whates, Leigh Kennedy, Neal Asher, Craig L. Gidney, Sarah Singleton, Chaz Brenchley. Also Vera Nazarian — Lords of Rainbow in particular, a stunning idea, fabulously employed — a book to submerge in!

sffchronicles: You are so prolific; how many hours a day do you write?

Tanith Lee: As in my earlier answer, I find physically I can't or don't want to push my body to put in quite so much now. When I was in my thirties, and lived happily alone in a tiny house with my batchelor-girl cat, I'd think nothing of encompassing 9.30 a.m. till 6.30 p.m., with a lunch-break, and going back from, say, 9 p.m till midnight — or, now and then, 4 in the morning. And this would be around 6 days a week. Now I start about 11 or 12 in the morning and continue till about 5 or 6 evening-wise, and that seldom every day; plus tea-breaks and lunch-breaks are generally longer, and sometimes also include socializing or an hour's read or CD concert after lunch. Very seldom either do I return to work post dinner. That's reading or DVD or radio time, or sometimes early-going-to-bed-as-worn-out. There are also excursions and general companionship with partner and friends, which pleasantly intervene, of course. When work is flowing though, which it still does as a rule, I can clock up quite a lot inside the shorter perimeters. I love working. If anything, I've come to love it more and more. And when you're in love, you just want to spend as much time as you can, and experience as much intensity as you're able with the object of desire. Simple as that.

Thank you for that, Teresa. I've not, to my shame, read anything of hers, but she has such an engaging and interesting voice here (and appears so warm and generous as a person) that I'm very eager to find something now!
I'm glad to see this bumped up. Lee is one of my blind spots: I've meant to read something of hers for decades but except for a few short stories, have not. An informative and welcome interview.
Tanith Lee is one of those authors who's always been in my, "I really need to check them out soon" list for years. I actually know a bit of her work- namely, the scripts she wrote for Blake's 7 ("Sarcophagus" and "Sand") which I recall were really strange and excellent.