When international bestselling author Robin Hobb came to York on Monday, superfan Alice Lavelle went to meet her
Being a rather big fan of Californian-born fantasy author Robin Hobb I jumped at the chance to interview her before her talk at the new Coney Street Waterstones.
A devotee of Robin’s since I came upon Assassin’s Apprentice – the first of the Farseer Trilogy published in 1995, I consequently devoured every book of hers that I could get my hands on.
I’m not the only one. The first nine Robin Hobb novels had notched up one million sales by 2003. Since then she’s written several more volumes – and sold countless more copies.
Among her army of fans is friend and Game Of Thrones author George RR Martin, who describes Robin as “a remarkable storyteller: a diamond in a field of zircons”.
She was in York with her new book, Fool’s Assassin – the first of a trilogy starring two of the great characters of fantasy fiction, FitzChivalry Farseer and the Fool.
In person, Robin is exactly how I thought she’d be: elegant, composed, incredibly well-spoken and happy to answer my questions, even if she might have been asked some of them many times before.
‘It’s strange to be respectable’
With Game Of Thrones now the most talked-about TV series on the planet, and everything from adaptations of Lord Of The Rings to Avatar breaking movie box office records, fantasy is now mainstream.
How does she feel about that?
“It’s been a very interesting ride,” Robin said. “When I first starting writing science fiction and fantasy, many writers said ‘oh yes we’re in the genre ghetto, you will never be taken seriously.’
“The New York Times steadfastly refused to review science fiction and fantasy books and Oprah Winfrey does not look at science fiction and fantasy as viable, that she would consider for her special picks despite the fact there are some absolutely brilliant people of colour writing fantasy and science fiction.
“There is still that little exclusion of ‘we’re not quite respectable,’ but then you look at what all of the blockbuster movies are and they’re all fantasy and science fiction.
“And when you do read the NYT best seller list its populated heavily with genre, mystery and science fiction and fantasy so we’re definitely moving into the mainstream.
“It’s a little strange to suddenly be a little bit more respectable.”
But no one should judge you on what you love to read, she says.
“Stories are stories and people read what speaks to them. You shouldn’t be made to feel embarrassed if you really love young adult and you want to read Harry Potter or Twilight or if you love romance and you want to read all of the Victorian romance novels – there shouldn’t be any stigma attached to any of it.”
Click to see the full images
‘It was just time to do it’
It’s been more than a decade since the last appearance of Fitz and the Fool – their last outing was Fool’s Fate, the final book of The Tawny Man Trilogy, published in 2003. Why did she decide to write about them again?
“When I first started writing about Fitz and The Fool some 20 years ago now I had a vision of this very large story arc in this world and coming back to it; I think it was just time to do it.
“There’s the hooks and the foundations for there to be more to the story of Fitz and The Fool. He reaches quiet water for a while as he did at the end of the Assassin’s trilogy.
“But then life goes on and it comes at you from a new angle. So I was very happy to return to working with them – I had some uncertainties about it. I still do. I hope the book is well-received, so we’ll see what happens.”
Robin – real name Margaret Ogden – shies away for reading reviews because they can be “really discouraging and make me stop writing for a few days. I try to keep my eyes on what I’m doing and move forward”.
But she’s “heard encouraging things on Twitter, which is nice”.
‘Cult of personality’
She began writing pre-internet. Back then she’d only hear from readers by letter, forwarded by her publisher sometimes months later.
“And now the feedback can be immediate and kind of overwhelming because when people email you, you feel socially an obligation to respond and that can add up to be a lot of email in a day.”
Today she spends the first two hours of her working day on emails and social media which “leaks into the writing time”.
What Robin is reading
“The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes. Sam is one of the newer, younger writers and it’s very different from what I write.”
“I’ve recently finished are Half A King by Joe Abercrombie and Prince Of Fools by Mark Lawrence, which reminds me of Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser by Fritz Lieber – those were some of my favourite stories when I was teenager.”
“The Lord Of The Rings is my touchstone.”
Although she enjoys the interaction, Robin is concerned about the “cult of the personality” fuelled by the internet.
“People want to know who you’re dating and you may be between movies but people are still taking pictures of you on the street and talking about your children.
“I don’t think it will ever go quite that far with writers. Most people who become writers are rather introverted and introspective by nature.
“In the spotlight some of us behave badly, and others flee shrieking back into the shadows.”
Her own writing routine involves a lot of distractions – whether its mowing the lawn or doing the laundry.
“I always say to my husband ‘just because I’m not writing doesn’t mean I’m not writing.’ But sometimes you have to deliberately step away.
“There’s a lot of walking around talking to myself.”
Books vs screen
Although it’s been “thrilling to watch Game Of Thrones” Robin says she only catches glimpses of the TV series. “I don’t want to watch it on the screen until I’ve read every possible book that George will write on it because I have my images of the characters.”
Also on its way to the small screen – MTV of all channels – is Terry Brooks’ Shannara series.
But although she’s sold the options to her books to filmmakers “a couple of times”, the complexity of getting the books onto the screen means no adaptions are in the pipeline.
“There’s been some interest and readers do ask me a lot, but at this point it’s just books.”
I had heard from Waterstones events manager Kirstie Lount that Robin had spent the day exploring York, so I ask her what she did.
“We walked to the Minster and we went inside and we climbed all the steps to the very top and of course the moment we got out at the top it started raining! But it was absolutely lovely.
“We wandered around for a while, found some lunch and wandered through the Shambles. A really lovely day.”
And it finished in the company of more than 80 fans, hanging on her every word at Waterstones.
After the Q&A, I nip out for a drink, help the staff move their furniture back to where it belongs and wait for the queue to die down before getting my book signed, wishing her well on her travels and thanking her again for her time.