5000 Words About Myself

Robin Hobb
(Originally written for inclusion in Alienisti for Finncon, 2004)

        The request Jussi sent me was a fairly common one: Did Robin Hobb have a short story of about 5000 words that could be published in Alienisti for the upcoming Finncon? Regretfully, I had to tell him ‘no’, that Robin Hobb seems unable to write anything that is less than a novella in length. Something about the style does not lend itself to shorter tales. Jussi was even willing to accept a ‘Megan Lindholm’ story instead, but as I told him, I don’t feel comfortable doing that. The style and the topic choice of my two ‘nom de plumes’ differ enough that I do not like to offer one in place of the other: it would be rather like a restaurant serving a customer chicken when he had ordered fish.
        Yet, Jussi had given me a goodly amount of time, and I thought that I would give it a try. For several weeks, I attempted to concoct a Robin Hobb story that would be short enough to serve. I came up empty-handed. Short stories have always been the most difficult form for me. Either I get a wonderful idea for a short story, and I write it, or I don’t. It doesn’t seem to be a process I can force. I’ve never been successful at manufacturing one out of need rather than inspiration. When, rather uncomfortably, I admitted this, Jussi suggested that perhaps 3000 to 5000 words about myself would suffice.
        This presented me with another dilemma. Almost all the basic facts about me are easily available on the Internet. I myself have a website at robinhobb.com with a Frequently Asked Question list that covers most of the standard interview questions. I think I have answered these questions so often that the replies seem boring to me; I hope the reader of this will not share that opinion, as I have decided to take Jussi’s suggestion, and introduce myself here.
        I am venturing into my mid-50’s now, and have been writing stories almost ever since I learned to write. From a very young age, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. From a very early age, I knew that supporting myself with writing was not a realistic ambition, and that very few writers, even full time writers, are fortunate enough to make a living from that task. Nevertheless, I clung to the ambition, even as I realized that I’d probably have to work as a journalist or a waitress to earn my bread and write fiction for the enjoyment of it. It has been a wondrously pleasant surprise to make my entire living as an author. One of the things that I never lose sight of is how blessed I am to be able to earn a living doing the things I love.
        When I was about ten years old, my family moved from San Rafael, California to Fairbanks, Alaska. My parents felt that their children were growing up too complacent and too ‘easy.’ They decided that we would benefit from facing some challenges in our lives. In all honesty, they were right. Our largest worry at that time was whether we could beg enough money from my mother to get to the corner store to buy potato chips and coke before it closed! My father was a bit bored with his job, and several copies of Alaska Magazine convinced him that this was the right move to make.
        For my older siblings, this was quite a culture shock. We left the comforts and conveniences of warm and sunny suburban California living to move to central Alaska. The house we moved into was a log house that had been left half-finished by the previous owner. I will never forget my first sight of it. My father had driven up to Alaska from Canada in a Volkswagen Camper-van, and when the rest of us arrived in Alaska, it became our family car. When we drove it over the predominantly gravel roads, it threw up gravel against the bottom, so the sound was rather like being inside a shaken can of marbles. I was very impressed with the immense plumes of dust we left hanging in the air behind us from those gravel roads.
        When we got to the lane that led to our ‘new’ home, there were tiny trees growing in the center of it as it had not been used in so long. My father just drove over them, and the trees bent over in front of the car and stood up behind us, so it looked as if they were closing us in. Birches and cottonwood trees arched over the driveway, closing us in like a tunnel, so it really felt as if we were entering another world. The land around the house had originally been cleared, but no one had lived there in so long that it was all grown over with saplings, a forest of little trees, all with trunks less than three inches in diameter.
        After the previous owners had abandoned the half finished house, the windows had been broken and the doors stolen, so the elements had had their way with the inside. It was still full of moldy furniture, stinky couches full of mice and the basement was dark and smelly. Our first task was to take everything out of the house and pile it outside where we ended up burning it or taking it to the dump. In the basement, we had to pull down the interior walls as mildew and rot had damaged them. After a long day’s work, there were no hot baths for us, as there was no indoor plumbing. All water had to be hauled and heated on a stove, and my mother had to do all the cooking on a propane camp stove. To my little brothers and me, it was all a wonderful camping adventure. My older sisters were teenagers, and I think that to them, it was a nightmare!
        We had a frantic month or two of making the house livable for the upcoming winter. It was up to us to add the doors and windows, the wiring, the plumbing, and the insulation. We arrived in Alaska in mid-July, to a climate roughly the same as Finland’s, (including the Midnight Sun) and attempted to do all that work before the snow arrived. Needless to say, we six children learned a lot very fast about carpentry, plumbing and electricity.
        I think that move to Alaska shaped me as a writer more than any other experience in my life. I had never before even seen a moose, let alone had to help skin and butcher one for meat. Our potatoes and carrots had come from the grocery store in California, clean and ready to use. In Alaska, our family garden covered about half an acre of land, and we children participated in every part from clearing the land to harvesting the food.
        I think a lot of that ‘hands on’ experience shows up in my writing. While I was certainly not growing up in the medieval times that so often serve as a backdrop for fantasy, I did become overly familiar with some of the timeless (and time consuming!) tasks that were common to that age, and less common in our own. I think my parents were very wise to expose us, as children, to that type of living. It has often been said that reading fantasy involves the ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ I think the best way to convince a reader that I know what I’m talking about when I recount the habits of dragons is to know what I’m talking about when I recount the details of raising chickens or putting a roof on a house. I am a confirmed believer, not just in research, but in attempting to experience the things I am writing about, so as to be able to include the physical details of them in the stories.
        Like many aspiring writers, I began to keep journals when I was a teenager, and wrote a great deal of very bad poetry. Fortunately for posterity, those writings have largely been lost or scattered in the years since and will never come back to haunt me in published form!. I do think that journals are a very useful training ground for any young writer, and I often recommend them as the first step toward writing. For one thing, they show the person the process of getting ideas out of the brain and onto the paper. For another, journals are a wonderful reference later in life. I sorely regret the loss of many of my journals from my teenage years. The writings that do remain to me have been very valuable in putting myself back into that frame of mind when I want to write from that viewpoint.
        I graduated from the local Alaskan high school at 17, and went off to University in Denver, Colorado. Moving from Fairbanks, Alaska to a large city like Denver was amazing and also disconcerting. At that time, Denver had a great deal of air pollution and I suffered from that, as well as from the altitude change in moving to the ‘mile-high’city. I did well in my studies there, but did not feel that I was learning what I needed to know to be a writer. An instructor who had little use for any of the genres taught the only creative writing class I took there. The one student who did turn in a vampire story for the class to critique was humiliated when the instructor simply announced, “I don’t think we’ll waste any time with this,” and passed on to the next student. Coward that I was, I wrote up a psychological vignette that was long on character and short on plot. I knew very well that it was not a story, because nothing really happened in it. Nonetheless, the instructor critiqued it and praised it. I passed the course with an ‘A’ but the only thing I had learned about writing was how to please my instructor.
        I left Denver University after only a year there, returned to Fairbanks, married the commercial fisherman I had been seeing for a year, and moved with my new husband to Kodiak Island. This is a large island off the coast of Alaska. At the time, it had a very small population, and we lived in a village called Chiniak. Fishing was a bit depressed at that time, so my husband found work satellite-tracking site there, and I found myself with many hours on my hands. So, for the first time, I began to submit the stories that I had been writing. At first, I wrote children’s stories, with the mistaken idea that it was easier to write for children. I soon found that was not the case, for the children’s magazines had a very small word limit and wanted a good story told with a simple vocabulary. It was very difficult work for me, but I think it gave me a very good foundation in exactly what is important in story telling.
        I learned my writing largely by trial and error. I wrote on a portable Smith-corona electric typewriter, painstakingly making carbon copies of every story and using White-Out to correct my errors. (Years later, when computers came into the picture, what I realized is that much of my early time as a writer was taken up more with ‘typing’ than with ‘writing.’ That, to me, is the wonder of word processing. Back then, if I made more than three typing errors on a page, I re-typed the whole page. And if I wanted to add a paragraph to page 2, I had to re-type the entire rest of the story. I love how I can cut and paste and correct on a screen now!) There were no writer’s groups to join at Chiniak, the closest library was several hours away in the town of Kodiak, and I had no mentor to advise me. So, although my first story was published when I was 18, the later publications that followed were hard to come by and scattered through the years. I served a very long apprenticeship, and often wonder if success would have come more quickly if I had been in a position to interact more with other writers and aspiring writers.
        We moved several times over the next ten years, and had three children. I worked at a variety of jobs in the different places we lived, everything from managing an electronics store to serving pizza and beer in a restaurant as well as doing part-time journalism and photography for the local newspapers. The children and the jobs kept me busy, but I managed to keep on writing and submitting stories, and slowly I added more publication credits to my name. I soon realized that fantasy and science fiction were my favorite genres to read, and that perhaps I should try to write what I most enjoyed reading. I submitted to the major magazines with little success, but did better with the small ‘fanzines’, the little self-published fantasy and science fiction magazines that were often someone’s labor of love. I owe a great debt to the editors of those small press publications such as Gordon Linzner’s Space and Time. My first professional sale in the genre was to an anthology called AMAZONS! The story was “Bones for Dulath” by Megan Lindholm and was the first appearance of the characters Ki and Vandien. It was edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and published by Daw. The anthology won the World Fantasy Award for best anthology that year, and so my story got a much wider readership that it might have otherwise.
        In 1982, I sold my first book, titled Harpy’s Flight. This was the first novel length appearance of Ki and Vandien, and three more books about them soon followed. I continued to write fantasy and science fiction as Megan Lindholm for about the next ten years. I published short stories as well as novels. Contrary to what is often reported on the Internet, I have never won a Hugo or Nebula for any of my work, but I am proud to say that I have made the final ballots for those awards several times. Despite such successes and rather good reviews, I remained firmly in the mid-list as Megan Lindholm. The ‘mid-list’ is that difficult place where one is no longer a ‘new’ writer, but one has not yet achieved any level of fame or fortune. It is a difficult spot to occupy, for one has to work a job as well as find time to write. In my case, I also had three children to raise, and often I functioned in that as a single parent, for my husband’s career as a marine engineer for fishing vessels often kept him away at sea for six or seven months at a time. We lived in a very rural area, outside the town of Roy, Washington. We kept chickens and ducks and geese, as well as over a hundred pigeons. I had a garden, and each year we raised a couple of pigs for slaughter, so between my writing, the children, the garden and farm animals and various part time jobs, I had a very busy life. I was pleased to be a published writer, but most of my neighbors knew me more as a good source for chicken and duck eggs than as an author. Without realizing it, I had begun to get rather settled ideas about books and writing.
        Then, in about 1990, I began to collaborate on a book with Steven Brust. Steve and I met as fellow writers when we worked together on stories for the Liavek anthologies edited by Emma Bull and Will Shetterly. We had discovered that we had similar ideas about writing and magic and characters. Out of the blue one day, Steve sent me the first chapter of a book he had begun writing, a contemporary urban fantasy, with a note that said he had thought the magic in it was somewhat similar to what I had written in Wizard of the Pigeons. He invited me to collaborate with him in telling the story. I was sure that I could not work with another writer, and also certain that I did not thave time. Yet the tale intrigued me. More as a curiosity than for any other reason, I wrote the next chapter of the story for him, and sent it back to him. Soon it arrived in my mailbox again, only this time there was a third chapter. I added a fourth.
        Over a year and a half, Steven and I sent the manuscript back and forth. We edited the earlier chapters, made changes, set up challenges for one another (on one bad day, I systematically killed all Steve’s characters, one after another. He cleverly resurrected them all.) We soon lost track of who had written what parts, and began to write bits for each other’s characters. E-mail was unknown to me then, so we wrote the book entirely by regular mail. I continued to work on the books I was contracted for, but this book was something else. I looked forward to it with excitement. Steve and I were writing it for the sheer fun of it, with no outline and no prospect of publishing it. We just followed the story wherever it led, and were both rather startled when one day the book found an ending for itself. We met in San Francisco. Steve was there for a Grateful Dead concert. Over the weekend, while Fred toured all the maritime museums in town, Steve and I did the first complete edit of the book on the coffee table in a hotel. Later, I flew to Minneapolis. We sat side by side in front of his computer screen for the final edit. I had expected that there would be places where we would battle over details. Instead, we found ourselves always in agreement, which was even stranger. I think that was one of the most exhilarating and effortless writing projects in my life. This manuscript was to become The Gypsy and Tor Books eventually published it.
        Writing The Gypsy was a very important experience for me. It wasn’t just the collaboration with Brust, though that was a distinct pleasure. It reminded me of why I had become a writer in the first place, that I loved letting a story wander until it wound itself up, and that it had been far too long since I had let myself do that. And I do want to emphasize that it was I binding myself to a particular style of writing, and not any editorial pressure that had been squelching me. It made me remember what I had wanted to be a writer in the first place, and how exciting writing can be when you let the characters run the show.
        When I had completed the books I was working on and could begin a new project, I brought that renewed energy to it. I wanted to do something completely different, something as challenging and yet fun as The Gypsy had been. The working title that I gave my book was Chivalry’s Bastard. I decided to write it in the first person, and to attempt a completely different sort of voice and telling for the story. I think my agent first suggested that we consider an entirely new by-line to go with this different style. I didn’t hesitate to jump on the idea, but it did take me several weeks to come up with a new name. I chose Robin Hobb because I wanted an androgynous first name. In the US, that spelling of Robin can be either a female or male name. I also liked all the baggage that came with the name, with resonances from everything from Robin Hood to Robin Goodfellow. The ‘Hobb’ part was harder to come by; I wanted something short that would fit well on a book jacket, and go well with the Robin part. Hobb has all sorts of resonances with people, from hobgoblin to hobbit, but I will admit it was a last minute choice, made without too much thought, when my agent phoned me and told me that he had to have the name very soon.
        In interviews, people often seem to put a great deal of emphasis on this name change. To me, it did not seem a large decision at the time, and I’ve been a bit mystified by the level of importance that people attach to it. I’ve been asked if I felt insulted that I ‘had to change my name to succeed’ or if I didn’t feel as if I’d cheated or deceived the reading public. In all honesty, those kind of thoughts never crossed my mind. If anything, it felt a bit like a prank, but mostly it just seemed like a way to add another layer of characterization to the story telling and to escape the limits that I had placed on myself. In the traditions of fantasy and SF, it is not at all unusual for a writer to have several by-lines, or even to write for a magazine under a ‘house name.’ Sometimes I think that people worry entirely too much about this name business when I really wish they would concentrate on the story itself!
        I’ve continued to write short stories as Megan Lindholm, and have several novels for that pseudonym outlined on my computer. If only I could fit twice as many hours in the day, I would happily write books under both names. For now, given that Hobb writes books of such great length, I have to be content with slipping out the occasional Lindholm short story.
        Currently, I live in Tacoma, Washington. This is on the west coast of the US, not too far south of Canada and just south of Seattle. If I have to live in a city (which at this time I do) then Tacoma is a pretty good one. We don’t have the reputation for sophistication and the arts that Seattle does, but we do quite well all the same, thank you very much. We’re a blue-collar town, centered around a large shipping port and a railway terminus. Our population is about 193,000 people, median age 33, so our focus is a fairly young one. We have a wide ethnic variety, with more diversity than most US cities. Our newest influx of immigrants seems to be mostly Russian. It has been fun to watch the signs in the supermarket change to include labels in the Cyrillic alphabet.
        Although we are very much a working man’s city, we have our own idea of art. Most of the working Tacoma artists I know are just that: working artists. They create art in addition to holding down a ‘regular’ job. I feel very comfortable in Tacoma. I live in a middle-class neighborhood, where most of my neighbors are teachers or nurses or engineers or construction workers. As far as I know, I’m the only professional writer in the neighborhood. It’s a Ray Bradbury sort of district, where the kids play baseball in the intersection, and often close off the whole road to play street hockey. No one minds; they just drive around the game carefully. Our area is known as the Proctor District. One of the things I like about it is that I can walk from my home to a theatre, a grocery store, a library, the post office and various retail stores. This has become unusual in many American cities, where residential districts are very separate from commercial ones.
        Just as it was at the beginning of my career, I have little or no day-to-day contact with other writers. Several times a year, when I go to a SF convention or other writers gathering, I have the chance to ‘talk shop’ with other writers, and there is great pleasure in doing so. I have sporadic contact with a number of writer friends, but strangely enough, most of us are far too busy writing to write email to our friends. So for the most part, my day-to-day contacts and friendships are with people from a variety of backgrounds and jobs. I think it helps me with characterization and dialogue for my stories. I learn a great deal about what other people actually do, as opposed to spending a lot of time with people who do the same thing that I do. Being exposed to the daily tasks of other people’s lives is a wonderful way to learn new things, something that I regard as essential to the working writer. This last week, I’ve learned to tie the ‘harper’s knot’ to fix a broken harp string, and how to tune a harp with an electronic tuner. I hasten to add that I am not learning to play the harp; these are simply the tasks a parent picks up when a child decides to take up a new instrument.
        I am now hard at work on my tenth book as Robin Hobb. This one will take place in a different universe entirely from the Farseers. In a way, I miss working with Fitz and the Fool, but I am also having a wonderful time getting to know Nevare and his world. I am often asked if I will ever write another Farseer or Liveship book. The answer is, I would not hesitate to write another book in that world if I came up with an absolutely wonderful idea for one. But I don’t want to take just any worn-out story and set it in the Farseer world just for the sake of writing another book there. I receive a great deal of e-mail, pointing out to me that many stories remain to be told after Fool’s Fate. I know that is true, and yet I would rather leave that stage while the audience is still enjoying the tale instead of waiting until I’m the only one who is still interested in my characters.
        My extra time at home these days is taken up with my garden and two grand-children and renovating a boat called La Charmante. She is about 35 feet long, and Fred’s pride and joy. She is a pleasure boat built on a Roberts work-boat hull. There is a nice large desk in the main stateroom, and my eventual hope is that we will take a pleasure cruise up the Canadian coast to Alaska. If I can write all the way there, I will not feel guilty about taking the time off. Perhaps by next summer, she will be ready for an extended trip like that. For now, we are spending a lot of time on the tasks familiar to any boat owner: scraping, painting, re-wiring and generally reconfiguring the inside of the boat to make it writer friendly.
        Well. I just did a word count and found that I have almost 500 extra words to spend on this! So perhaps I will add a few things about myself that you may not find in an ordinary interview. I am really hoping to meet a number of my readers at Finncon. I don’t always offer to shake hands, but please don’t take that personally. Some days my hands and fingers are very sore from typing. There are even days when I carry a plastic sack of ice around in my pocket, so if I do shake your hand and my fingers are very cold to the touch, you’ll know why.
        I often feel very shy at conventions and gatherings; after all, I think most writers are introverts. We spend a lot of time at our desks with our imaginary playmates on the computer screen. So if I seem quiet, please don’t hesitate to begin the conversation. I’ve never been good at walking up to people and introducing myself, but I do enjoy talking to readers. I’ve been working with a CD of Finnish phrases for travelers, so I may even try out my rudimentary Finnish on you. Or not!
        In closing this, I’ll add my absolute best advice, and the only real secret I know about writing. Persevere. Every book is written one keystroke or penstroke at a time. There is no other way to do it, no short cut to take, and no magic to make your book write itself. I think a mistake many young writers make is that they decide they will sit down and write a book. I don’t think anyone can do that. Instead, think that today you will write a scene, or describe a character or an event. That makes the task possible, and as each day goes by and you add another piece, it is just like stringing beads on a thread. Soon you will have the completed story transferred from your mind to the page.
        Many thanks to Jussi and Alienisti for this opportunity.

Copyright 2004 Robin Hobb