Sunday, March 31, 2002

Interview: Holly Lisle

With 21 novels published in the last decade, you'd think fantasy author Holly Lisle might be ready for a break. But actually, she's working just as hard as ever.

Lisle's latest novel "Vincalis the Agitator" was released earlier this month by Warner Aspect, and another novel "The Memory of Fire" is set for a May release from Avon Eos. She's just finished up a second novel for Eos called "The Wreck of Heaven," and she's currently hard at work pitching her next work to Warner.

Such is the life of the full-time writer - not the glamorous life that many people might envision.

Lisle says there's a common misconception that the writer's life "involves any sort of elegance or grace or adulation by the beautiful people." In fact, she says, it's work - and if you think it's a quick way to become rich and famous, think again.

"My day involves sitting by myself in a dark, cramped workspace, thinking up a story and putting that story on the page, while dressed in sweatpants and baggy T-shirts. There is no filet mignon, no butler, no maid, no champagne, no smoking jacket," she says.

"I work long, hard hours, and when I go to the bookstore, no one recognizes my name from my check and asks me to autograph the books in stock. No one comes up to me in restaurants and tells me he's read my latest. It's a very quiet, private life."

That description may sound a little grim to some, but Lisle says she has no regrets about her choices. She admits that the life of a fantasy writer is unlike any other career you'll come across.

"Your job as a fantasy writer is to think up things that not only never happened, but that never could," Lisle says. "You put them on the page, and then hope that people will pay for the privilege of reading your mind to keep you fed and under a roof. I wake up mornings and am just amazed by the utter weirdness of that."

Lisle left a stable profession to take up the uncertainty of the writing life. She was a registered nurse, but said she cared too much about the patients. Add to that an unhappy marriage, and she was becoming a wreck. She began searching for a way out.

"If you let yourself care about your patients as people, nursing will eat you alive - and it was devouring me," she said. "I needed an escape hatch, and reading wasn't working anymore. I started writing and found something that spoke to me more deeply than anything I'd ever done in my life."

So Lisle took the leap of faith. When she got an offer for a three-book deal, she was so confident of her eventual success that she quit her day job, burned the uniforms in the backyard and didn't keep up her continuing education credits.

"I burned those bridges flat, removing all chance of retreat," she says.

That's not to say she didn't have some second thoughts along the way. Especially in what she calls "nightmare spots" where money was tight and ruin was just around the corner.

"It's a good thing I didn't know when I jumped how hard it would be. If I had seen the future, I don't know that I would have had the nerve to take the plunge," Lisle says. "When it got hard, I looked back on the steady paycheck of nursing, and all I can say is it's a good thing that I did burn my bridges. I might have given up otherwise."

There were second thoughts, but never regrets, Lisle says.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride so far, and the future beckons with the promise of more to come," she says. "It's still uncertain. It's going to be uncertain until the day I die. I think that if I live to be very old, I will look back on my life happily, knowing I gave it a good run."

But Lisle has reason to be excited about the current state of her chosen field. Three of the top films of last year were "Shrek," "Harry Potter" and "The Fellowship of the Ring" - all fantasies. And "Harry Potter" is introducing a whole new generation to the genre.

"Some of the kids and adults who love `Harry Potter' will come looking for `more like that,' and will discover the vast and varied field that is fantasy - and that's a very good thing," she says.

Lisle points out the variety of the genre, which includes the epic tales of J.R.R. Tolkien, the disturbing visions of H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker, the erotic dark fantasies of Laurell K. Hamilton and Anne Rice, the literary works of Ursula K. LeGuin and Samuel R. Delaney and everything in between.

"Any field that can house (those authors) under the same umbrella is going to have something for anyone who dares come looking," she says. "Fantasy is an exciting field with wide-open creative opportunities.

"From a writer's point of view, fantasy gives you more chance to completely fall flat on your face and fail than anything else, but more chance to succeed on your own terms, too."

Lisle is still looking for that breakthrough book that propels her to the top of the fantasy field. But even if that never happens, she'll still be happy if someone remembers her work in years to come.

"I want to write books that still have something to say a hundred years from now," she says. "I want to touch lives, make the world a better place, leave something behind that will continue to matter long after I'm dust."

And so what if Holly Lisle never becomes a household name?

"I may fail at everything I set out to accomplish, but I know what I want," she says. "I'm fighting to make it happen, and when I die, I know I will have given it my best run. Because of that, no matter how it all turns out, I will not have wasted my life."

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