Interview with Pamela Dean

Pamela DeanPamela Dean is the author of six fantasy novels and a handful of short stories.  Firebird has reissued her Secret Country Trilogy; a reissue of The Dubious Hills is forthcoming.  She is currently working on Going North, the sequel to both.  She lives in Minneapolis with some congenial people, a lot of cats, and an overgrown garden.  You can find her online at

Shauna Kosoris: Tam Lin is arguably your most notable novel.  What inspired you to write it?

Pamela Dean: It was less a flash of inspiration than it was a kind of creeping-upon.  In the mid-1980’s, Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold had put together a packaging company, and they wanted people to write novelizations of fairy tales, in the general manner of Robin McKinley’s Beauty, and create a Fairy Tale Line with a unified appearance and cover art by Tom Canty.  Terri invited me, among many others, to contribute to this new fairy tale line she was envisioning.  I had had a couple of books published in paperback originals, and the thought of a hardcover with a cover by Tom Canty was in itself extremely tempting.  I was also grateful to Terri for buying my first novel and editing it so that it was much better, and wanted to make her proud of me.

That said, my relationship with fairy tales is a little peculiar.  I had three books of them as a child — a selection of Grimm’s fairy tales, a selection of Hans Christian Anderson, and a thick, battered (it had belonged to my father, who read things very energetically) orange collection of Japanese fairy tales.  I read them obsessively, but many of them terrified me so much that the books had to live under the bed where the contents wouldn’t leap out and attack me.  Then from time to time I’d take one out and read it obsessively.  At some point I decided that I didn’t need to do that any more.  So my childhood experience with fairy tales was like that, and my adult experience with them is with mostly modern ones, from Robin McKinley and A. S. Byatt to, much more recently, Cat Valente.  I felt, therefore, ill-equipped to write a book-length treatment of any fairy tale.  But I was much engaged at the time with the Child ballads, so I asked Terri if I could adapt one of those instead.  When she said that I could, I went through the volumes looking for a story where a woman does something decisive.  And there was No. 37, “Tam Lin.”  I was already familiar with it from Fairport Convention’s album Liege and Lief.

Why did you set the ballad in 1970’s Minnesota?

I’d originally planned to set it in 17th-century Scotland, and did a lot of research, which was in itself fascinating; but I just couldn’t get on with it.  The characters didn’t seem to want to be there.  I was pondering the ballad one day and realized, around the verse where Janet’s maidens are playing at the ball, that the whole middle section of the ballad reminded me quite a bit of college in the 1970’s, when many of my contemporaries were discovering sex and worrying about pregnancy.  Suddenly I saw the fairy folk riding over the bridge between two dormitories on the campus of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, from which I graduated in 1975, and it all seemed to fall into place.  My first thought about this was that I would set the story at the Carleton of the late 80’s, and I did some work finding out what it was like attending the college so long after I left it; but, again, the characters didn’t seem to want to be there.  And I had a vast array of material from my sojourn at Carleton, all my papers and class notes and syllabi, the catalogs from the years I attended, an amazing amount of what might have seemed like junk, but I knew all along that, like rope, I would want it, if I hadn’t got it.

Then it’s very good that you kept it all!  The setting of your Secret Country trilogy is also quite interesting.  Where did you get the idea for that world?

I wrote a lot of stories as a child and teenager about kids playing games.  This was before D&D or much of anything else formal, but of course children have always done role-playing games on their own.  I meant to be writing realistic stories, but fantastical elements would keep breaking in.  With this for background, I started a novel about some children whose personal game apparently became real.  It stalled out fairly quickly.   I still have a scene meant to happen near the ending, where Patrick, the skeptical character, cries out, quoting Alice, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”  I didn’t intend the game actually to be real.  That shows how much I knew.   When I was in my twenties, I realized that when I’d culled my bookshelves of books I felt I’d outgrown, I had been very much mistaken.  So I found those books again, reread the ones I hadn’t gotten rid of, and read some classic children’s literature, like the Narnia books, for the first time.  I enjoyed this excursion into the past very much, but after a while I was disappointed: the books had seemed so much more complicated and difficult and wondrous when I was younger.  They had seemed longer, too.  I started to think about writing a book that partook of everything I liked best about my old books, that would appeal to children, but would still have some mysteries in it if the same readers came back to the book when they were grown.  And I had this beginning for a book where five children (Nesbit and Lewis had a strong effect in all this) found a place where their game was real.  I abandoned the whole pack-of-cards ending and started over.  Then I just tried to work it out logically.

Were you always intending to set The Dubious Hills in that same world?

Yes, I was.  There’s a scene in The Secret Country where the wizard Fence, newly returned from a journey, explains that he could not bring any of the children presents because he had been in the Dubious Hills.  I had no more idea than that of what the Dubious Hills were, but I liked the name.  Then Martin Greenberg, the prolific anthologist, looked at the fantasy boom of the early 1980’s, and asked some of the newer writers who were with Ace/Berkley, like me, as well as some more well-known writers, to commit to writing short stories in the worlds of our novels.   I’d had the idea of a culture devised by wizards to prevent violence for quite a while, but nothing solid to apply it to.  So I put together a quick plot synopsis.  When Mr. Greenberg had enough interest from writers, he pitched the anthology to Ace, but they didn’t end up buying it.  I have a lot of trouble writing short pieces, so when I first conceived the idea of the story, I thought it would need to be a very formal, stylized fairy tale so that it wouldn’t get completely out of hand.  Once it no longer needed to be a short story, though, it expanded gleefully.

What can you tell me about Going North, your unpublished novel set in that same world?

It’s very, very long.  It has a lot of dialogue, but also waltzing, and some intrigue.  It has dead people, history, unicorns, and romance.  It has students and gardens and a water clock.  It’s a joint sequel to The Dubious Hills and The Whim of the Dragon.  In a weird way, I guess you could say it’s also a sequel to “Owlswater,” which is a novella set in the history of the Secret Country books; it was originally published in the third of the Xanadu collections, edited by Jane Yolen.   At the end of each of these stories, a young woman who has gotten herself into a troublesome situation ends up going to Heathwill Library, which is a fortified library of books about magic that has more or less inadvertently also gathered about itself a school of wizardry.  I was curious about why this place seemed the only place to send all of these characters.  Yes, I wrote the books, but that doesn’t mean I know all the answers.  And I thought it would be interesting for the two characters from the novels to meet.  Fortunately, I thought of this while I was revising Hills for publication, so I was able to figure out the timing and make it all fit in.  The two characters from the novels are contemporaries; the one from the short story is a great deal older.

I could say more, but I’m a little wary of spoiling the earlier books with too much detail.

That’s fair.  Will we be seeing it any time soon?

I certainly hope so.  My husband and I are working on self-publishing the parts of my backlist that I have the rights to, including The Dubious Hills and “Owlswater,” and I need to finish revising Going North before we publish it.  It got into repeated trouble with the publisher that bought it on spec, because it was just too long.  Then, when I cut it down, my editor rightly thought that I’d gone too far and made it difficult to comprehend.  Also, sadly, the opening, which I am much attached to, does not work for people who haven’t read the earlier books.  That’s the major issue right now; the rest is just adding back in some of the scenes that I cut.

Thinking of your backlist, are there any publishing hurdles that are unique to reissuing books?

The reissuing editor makes you write short essays to put in the back.

Well, hey, that was a hurdle for me.

Aside from that, I can think of more strictly personal hurdles — I had to reread all these books that I had written when I was, in some aspects, a completely different person, and beginning to do so was terrifying.  And there’s the issue of whether you change anything at all, and if so, how much.  I corrected some typos that I’d marked on the galleys but that did not make it into the finished book, and also a vexing place where a character who has left the area still has a stray line of dialogue.  And I put the dedication and acknowledgements into The Hidden Land — those had been left out as well when the original book was published.  But otherwise I decided to leave things alone.

It’s in some ways less harrowing than publishing a new book, because you know that people liked it before.  But maybe those are all the people who will ever like it and the reissue is doomed.

I’m sure there are a lot of marketing issues as well, but I didn’t have to deal with them.  It’s not my strong suit, marketing.

So besides reissuing your books and writing Going North, are you working on anything else right now?

Yes, three things, turn and turn about, though I have to say that none of them is being very cooperative at the moment.  It always at least briefly seems so sensible to just start another project if one’s stuck on the current project; but sooner or later, they all get stuck at once.

Anyway, when I cut Going North, I just removed a group of characters wholesale, to reduce the number of subplots and proliferating themes.  The characters had to go somewhere, though, and when I figured out where that was, two short stories sprang up and clamored to be written.  One of them is now just sulking, there’s no other word for it.  (Technically, that must mean that part of my brain is sulking, but we won’t go into that.)  The other wants to be a novel, like all my short stories, but I think I can wrench out the one storyline I want to have resolved before the novel begins, eventually.  In a sense, I’m also working on that novel, since I’m all too well aware that a lot of what I’m writing to get where I need to be is not going to stay in the short story.

The third thing I’m working on is a novel set in Liavek.  This is a shared world put together by a bunch of Minneapolis writers in the 1980’s.  There were five volumes of stories altogether.  The book I’m writing takes place after a political and religious upheaval that’s detailed in the fifth volume, though its roots are in earlier stories.  It doesn’t require knowledge of the earlier stories.  It’s mostly about the theater, and I’m having a wonderful time inventing an entire literary tradition, complete with the plots of plays and extensive sections of dialogue from them.  This is a bit time-consuming to produce, however, so I’m not sure how long the book will take to finish.

Those all sound like a lot of fun; good luck!  Finally, I have a few questions about what you like to read.  What book or author inspired you to write?

Probably primarily Little Women.  I wanted to write in an attic, with a pet rat, like Jo March.  There’s also a book called A Room Made of Windows, by  Eleanor Cameron, about an eight-year-old girl who wants to be a writer, that I read over and over.  And Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy.  Harriet keeps an extensive journal rather than writing fiction, but her basic approach and strong need to write things down impressed me deeply.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

No, that trick never works.  That is, people are so various and books are so various that the possible interactions between them are incalculable.  No book is going to work for everyone.  That said, I feel that far more people should try the works, any of the works, really, of the late John M. Ford.  His works are varied, but even the funniest of them has a mordant streak and even the darkest has gleams of humor and kindness.  He was a poet as well as a novelist and short-story writer, and the words do pretty much exactly what he wants them to.

And what are you currently reading?

I’m just finishing up a massive rereading of Dorothy Dunnett.  She wrote two sets of fat historical novels, five contemporary suspense novels, and a gorgeous but gruelling single novel about the historical Macbeth.

I’m also reading Ellen Kushner et al.’s Tremontaine, which has been appearing one episode a week from Serial Box Publishing.  You might call it an imaginary historical, or fantasy without magic.  It’s beautifully written, full of witty dialogue, interesting food, mathematics, sword fights, love, and the economics and politics behind all these things.  I should expand the et al.: Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, and a guest appearance by Paul Witcover.  It’s a brilliant achievement.

Before that, I read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword.  I had very much enjoyed Ancillary Justice, the first book in her series; the second was funnier and more intimate.   Moral complexity, space travel, and tea; what more could one ask?   I’m looking forward to the third.

Before that, I read Jaime Lee Moyer’s Delia’s Shadow and the two following books, A Barricade in Hell, and Against a Brightening Sky. These are historical fantasy novels (I sense a theme here), a cross among mystery, romance, and ghost story, set In San Francisco before and during World War I.  The first one is particularly creepy, but all the books are leavened by the wit and sweetness of the romance.

Before that, and don’t worry, I’m going to stop now, I read Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix, which was amazing, funny and terrifying and original.

the secret country

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