From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Tanith Lee

Browsing online one day, I found excerpts of an interview with Tanith Lee from Contemporary Authors stating she wrote her first story when she was nine years old. She goes on to explain that she continued to write out of the “sheer compulsion to fantasize.” Judging by her body of work, this “compulsion” must be quite strong indeed.

Tanith LeeBeginning with her first short story—a darkly humorous slice of weird fiction called “Eustace” from The Ninth Pan Book of Horror Stories in 1968—she has created a wide body of work spanning multiple genres including horror, fantasy, historical fiction, romance, science fiction, and various amalgamations of these. One could argue that  she is the definition of a true “cross genre” author. In addition to writing various genres, she demonstrates further range by writing for both adults and children. Since the publication of her first short story, she has gone on to publish more than seventy novels and 250 short stories.

In The Flat-Earth Cycle, for which she is perhaps best known, Tanith Lee created a fully realized fictional world of massive scope. Thanks to the sheer size and ambition on display in these books, they are often favorably compared to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories. Like in her story “The God Orkrem”—which appears this month in Fantasy Magazine—her Flat-Earth Cycle showcases a world in which gods directly interact with the lives of men, sometimes in terrible and frightening ways.

In her story, “The God Orkrem,” we see Tanith Lee stretching her writing muscles between genres yet again. While on the surface the story is a second-world fantasy, in some ways it is also a tale of cosmic horror. It could even be read as a very human and very real philosophic or theological meditation on the nature of suffering and pain itself. Heavy stuff for fantasy, a genre all too often unfairly derided as escapist by nature.

Below, Tanith Lee answers some of my questions concerning “The God Orkrem” and provides insight into her writing process.

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Your literary career to date has been quite prolific and spanned many genres. What is the secret source of your seemingly endless inspiration? In particular, where did “The God Orkrem” originate?

I love writing, and ideas, thank goodness, seem everywhere around. My husband (writer/artist John Kaiine) is also an ideas factory! And several of the motivations of stories written in recent years owe something, or sometimes a lot, to inspirational elements he has thought of. Not this particular story however. It simply arrived, as they so often do. There was no special trigger. Just suddenly the angry and bitter voice of the hero was in my mind, ready to tell me all.

While a fantasy, “The God Orkrem” deals with some pretty heavy subject matter in the theology and worldbuilding as presented. This is a thought-provoking dark fantasy that pulls no punches. Yet it is also highly entertaining. How do you balance philosophy and the need to propel a narrative? What is the best way to transmit ideas without losing sight of a satisfying story arc?

I have to say, truthfully, I really don’t know. The structure of a tale, along with all its parts, including the characters, turns up adjacent to the first idea. I can’t analyze my work, or barely. I think reading a lot of all types of literature has helped me grasp some of those things you mention. I agree with you though. Not for the first time, I found elements of what I was writing quite shocking.

Crones figure prominently in “The God Orkrem.” They point the way forward and provide cryptic warnings for the future. What is it about crones that make them such an enduring figure in fantasy, folklore, and legend?

Crones fascinate me, and they haunt many of my books and shorter works. Some are mad old hags, others evil to their last grey hair. But mostly I tend to see them as the archetype of the Wisewoman, ancient in a mediaeval or earlier time-frame, probably about the age I am now—60s—witches and healers, powerful and potentially removed from the everyday of the (then) female life—mating, reproducing, caring for males and children. (There is a strong group of these in my LionWolf Trilogy, The Crarrowin, whose older members are true crones.) Maybe it is, too, they’re being finally enabled to stand outside the virgin-wife-mother career, given all or most of their gender that points them up as powerful. They are, ”useless” and still alive. They had better have a purpose, and/or a power. They represent (seemingly, one wonders how truly) the Sexless Woman (as also the Maiden can, at the opposite pole). Maidens who stay maidens turn into saints. Old women become sorceresses. Tough jobs, both of these.

Speaking of crones, were the crones in this story inspired by any specific crones from literature? If so, which ones?

They may have been, but I don’t recall if so. They, like the rest, simply appeared before me, as before the hero.

Ultimately, “The God Orkrem” was an examination of the very nature of pain itself. It is explained that in the world of this story that pain is necessary and unavoidable, much like in our own world. Why use a fantasy setting to examine pain?

I didn’t, and don’t, set out to examine any theme in quite that way, ever. Yet, as you moot it, why shouldn’t fantasy provide the setting? Fantasy should be as ”real” and lifelike as a contemporary novel or story. In some respects, possibly, a little more so. The only way you’d have a fantasy world without pain, examinable or not, is if that place were deliberately designed—not by the writer, necessarily, but by the characters—to be a pain-free environment. Meanwhile, of course pain exists, and tends to get reflected into almost everything. One of the ways, no doubt, we try to cope with it. On the other hand, the fact of pain being necessary is debatable—and certainly so in “The God Orkrem.”

Thank you so much for answering my questions! Just one last thing: What’s next for Tanith Lee? Do you have any upcoming publications or appearances you would like to announce for your readers?

Thank you for asking such interesting ones.

New Lee things coming out are the on-going re-releases of all the Flat Earth books from Norilana, and also the Birthgrave and Storm Lord Trilogies ditto. I’m also working on a new Paradys collection of short novels and novellas. I’ll have more news on that when it’s done. Aside from these some of my contemporary novels (which are, I always say, much weirder than my fantasy) are being launched by Immanion Press. The first, Greyglass, will be around, I think, in about a month.