Interview with Author Diane Duane

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Diane Duane has been an author of science fiction and fantasy novels for over three decades. Duane has written over fifty books and has also written screenplays for TV and film. She is married to novelist Peter Morwood and they live in County Wicklow, Ireland.

Q:  When did you first begin to write and what or who was your inspiration?

 A:  I started writing when I was very young, but maybe this is no surprise, since I was reading by about the age of three. I have no clear memory of exactly when I started writing, or why; but my first memory of writing a book was when I was seven or so. I didn’t have any sense at that point of wanting to be a novelist, or anything of the kind. I was just writing to entertain myself, and I got the idea that I would write a book.

Since I knew that books had to have covers, I drew a cover for it – I thought that this might be the writer’s job, somehow. And I tried to think of a very long story that would take up lots of pages, because the books I was interested in reading had a lot of pages.

I think what made me craziest in this endeavor was an issue that I later heard about from school kids when I started going out on school speaking engagements for the first time: the question of how to write really small, which seemed to me something book writers also had to do. This was, after all, long before there were home computers, and printers to go with them, so that a child might have some idea of how book-sized printing is produced. Anyway, at the time I thought that if you were going to write a book, you had to be able to write really small. Trying to do that with crayons was something of a trial. I recall I got very frustrated.

What I can’t recall, to my incredible annoyance, is what that book was about. Maybe it’s better that way.

In any case, this writing-to-entertain-myself went on straight through my childhood (though not with crayons), and straight through my early teens… at which point I began committing fan fiction. I say, “committing” because my skill levels at that point verged on the criminally bad. All that stuff is burnt long ago, and it’s probably for the best.

But we learn by doing. When Star Trek came along in my mid-teens, it immediately struck me that this was something I wanted to write fan fiction about. I have to add here, for the ears of a 21st-century audience, that writing fan fiction then was nothing like writing fan fiction now. These days, even the most solitary and anonymous fan fiction writer has an audience waiting online to see what they’ve done. But when I was in my teens, I didn’t know anyone else who did this kind of writing. I didn’t even know that there was a name for it. Not until my early 20s did I discover that there were other people doing it as well: that there was a whole subculture of fans producing and printing Trek fan fiction. The sense of (as it were) coming home to one’s own people, on making that discovery, was profound.

But by the time I learned this I had already moved on from writing Star Trek fan fiction, and was working in another genre: epic fantasy along Tolkien’s lines. Not that it ever crossed my mind to compare myself to the Master: once again, I was writing primarily to entertain myself. Indeed it never occurred to me to share this material with anyone else: it never occurred to me that it would interest anyone else.

I was somehow finding time to do this work while also occupied with my first real career, that of psychiatric nursing. I was still at the writing even as (within a few years) I burned out and got out of nursing, and also still at it when I went on to work for a while as assistant to the justly famous Star Trek writer David Gerrold. But it wasn’t until I watched David going about his own work did it occur to me that what he was doing, I might do too: that maybe, if you both worked like hell and got lucky, it was possible to write as a career: to be a writer.


David’s response at that point, when I very tentatively suggested to him that I might like be in this line of work too, was, well, frankly unimpressed. He sort of rolled his eyes in the way someone does when asking the local deity to give them strength, and said, “Oh, God, not another one.” And this was the very best thing he could have done (and I suspect he knew it), because it got me really angry at him. Anger has always been a useful tool for me in my writing. Maybe for him too? I should ask him sometime. But in any case I went away from that conversation absolutely furious, and absolutely determined to show this insufferably arrogant bastard that I was not just one more wannabe without the skills or talent to produce a book worth reading.

So without further ado off I went and quietly started work on the first draft of what would be a full-length novel in the epic-fantasy universe where I had been world building for a while. I was very careful to keep this endeavor out of David’s view, and went on with it for some months before accidentally failing to dispose correctly of a few pages of work that I had done at his place while he was on holiday and typed out on one of his office machines. He came across those pages, read them, and then very casually said to me, “You know, this thing you’re working on seems like it might not be too bad. Let me see it when you’re finished with it, and if it’s any good I’ll pass it on to my publisher.” (That was Dell SF at that point.)

So when I finished that draft I gave it to David to read. He took only a day or so over it, and then he passed it to his publisher. And two weeks later they bought it.

That was in 1979. Fifty books later, I think I’m starting to get the hang of this business.

Q:  When did you officially consider yourself to be a “writer” or “author”?

A:  Probably on the day that first sale became real — when I signed my name at the bottom of a contract, the confirmation that money was going to change hands because of something I’d made out of nothing. It was funny, in its way, because I never really spared any much time before that wondering if that was what I was going to be. But finally selling a book to a publisher – it does concentrate your mind.

Q:  Do you have any rituals or routines before, during or after your writing your novels?

A:  Only one, but it’s intimately involved with the thing I must do for every novel: write an outline.

images-4     This is at least partly due to my training as a screenwriter, which started around the same time as The Door Into Fire was published. In fact, my first story editor came looking for me, having read the book, and asked me whether I was interested in doing some cartoons. And I said, “Sure, why not?” and started writing cartoons at Hanna-Barbera (which is the precursor company to what is now Cartoon Network). It would be true to say that Scooby-Doo and young Scrappy Doo – who arrived on the animation scene around the same time I did – were to finance the writing of So You Want To Be A Wizard.

Anyway, outlining is an absolutely integral part of screen work. Usually a story editor will require you to outline your story before he or she tells you to go to script. This habit of outlining soon enough began slopping over into my prose work.

Probably it’s just as well it did. It seems to me that having a good solid outline structure to hang your work on is as sensible as having a good shopping list before you go to the supermarket. Once you’ve made the list, if you want to, you can always ignore it. But if you find you’ve forgotten about something that you really needed, the outline will remind you. It seems to me better to have the requirements for your new creative work laid down in at least broad strokes than to do the novelist’s equivalent of going to the supermarket, doing all your shopping, coming home, and finding you forgot the toilet paper.

The ritual associated with outlining, for me, is a bit silly, but then quite a few rituals of this kind are. My preferred paper for this work – and it’s almost always paper where this work happens – is a neutral grey grid paper that comes from the Swiss supermarket chain Migros. At this point I have enough pads of it stockpiled to last me for the rest of my natural life. And if I find myself outlining too fast, it simply means I have to go back to Switzerland and get some more. How sad for me.

Q:  How often do you try to write? Do you have a schedule?

A:  I strongly believe that the only schedule that works for me is to write every day. Even if not necessarily on the project that’s most occupying my attention, something has to be written every day: prose, or script work, or something similar, even if it’s only a page every day.

As for how the day’s schedule is arranged — I try to write as soon after I get up in the morning as possible. I do my best to have at least two or three hours’ uninterrupted work in the early part of the day – from around ten until one would be perfect — and then, having had a break for lunch, I try to work again from about two until maybe six. Some days I might manage to write until eight or nine. But then I need some time off, and if it gets much later than that I start to fade.

Q:  How do you get your inspiration for your novels? (Music, other literature, TV, films, etc.)

A:  There’s no certainty in trying to predict where inspiration is going to come from: I don’t worry about that. But it would be a rare day if, after reading the news in the morning, I hadn’t had an idea for a novel when I was done. Current events and politics, and news from the scientific world, are all likely to spark ideas in me. These can sometimes be very abstract or sketchy to start with, and I have a huge file stored away in Evernote where I keep these early-state ideas – sometimes they’re just phrases or very short précis – to examine and develop later.

Most of these embryonic ideas will get thrown out – either because they prove not to have sufficient complexity to be restructured into a novel, or because on examination I find that I’m not really willing to commit the time or the effort that would be required to turn a given idea into a good piece of work. Ideas are easy: everybody has them. But working out what to do with them — how to restructure an idea into a short story, or a novel — and then working out how to bring to bear on that structure the effort and skill needed to produce a finished, polished work — that’s hard. That’s where the nuts and bolts of writing make themselves manifest, in the day-to-day struggle for rational structure and satisfying completion: the wrestling match with the creative angel, so to speak.

Mastery of this art is what sets the career writers apart from those people who say so glibly that “everybody has a novel in them.” Probably, almost certainly, everyone does: at least one, if not more. Maybe lots more! But it’s not enough to have a novel in you. The real trouble lies in getting it out. The barrier between concept and reality, between the good idea and the finished short story or novel, is not all that permeable. Pushing through it takes work, and it’s not work for the faint of heart.

Q:  Do you base any of the characters in your novels off of people you have met in your daily life?

A:  Yes, but only ones I like. I can’t imagine anything more annoying or potentially frustrating than putting people you know and don’t like in your books: who wants them in both the “real world” and the imaginative one?

Friends, though… those will turn up in my work, sometimes disguised, sometimes not very. Some of my best work has been done as a gift for other people – to thank them for something, or to tell them something that I couldn’t possibly cover in just one conversation or even a series of them. Sometimes it takes a novel to say everything to somebody that I want or need to say.

Q:  Are Nita, Kit or any other characters from your Young Wizards series based on real people that you know?


A:  Sometimes based on: sometimes just named after. Nita, for example, is named after a very skilled psychiatric nurse I used to work with. The two senior wizards in the series, Tom Swale and Carl Romeo, are based on friends. But you can “base” a character on someone and yet have the character, after nine or ten novels, be a completely independent and different personality from the person whose physical description and mannerisms they might mirror.

Q:  Are any modeled after yourself or an idol of yours?

A:  Well, self-insertion is always a slightly edgy business, and I think it should ideally be handled so that no one notices. I’ll admit to a couple of self-insertions here and there: after fifty novels it would have been hard to resist the temptation every time. And that said, I’m sure that nobody expects me to out myself here.

In any case, I think all authors self-insert, to greater or lesser extent; in fact it seems unavoidable. When you write, you are (I think) in what you write… and so in either active or passive mode, self-insertion is going on all the time. Just as well, perhaps. A work that hasn’t been thoroughly inhabited during creation by its author — the way some philosophers say creator-gods are supposed to inhabit what they’ve made — strikes me as potentially pretty dull.

Q:  What is your favorite genre of literature to read? Why is this genre your favorite?

A:  I have a lifelong love of great historical fiction. There is nothing I like better than having an era and the people who lived in it laid out for me to live in vicariously, by a writer who’s both done their homework and is also skilled enough to make the historical setting a foundation rather than the whole story. Right now I’m drowning myself in Dorothy Dunnett, who is spectacular at this, besides having a wonderfully smooth and effortless writing style.

Q:  Do you have any genres you dislike or do not enjoy?

A:  I’m not much for the present run of “apocalyptic” YA: thank heavens it seems to be tailing off somewhat. Beyond that, I’ll read most anything. Once, anyway.

Q:  Do you have any favorite authors? Anything that you are currently or have recently read?

A:  If I started seriously listing my favorites, this would get unnecessarily long. I will always be rereading Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, E. R. Eddison, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Andre Norton, Elizabeth Goudge, E. Nesbit, Mary Renault, Arthur Conan Doyle, C. J. Cherryh, Alexandre Dumas, Tanith Lee, Charlie Stross, Terry Pratchett… Honestly, don’t get me started.

As I said above, the Dunnett books are what I’m chowing down on at the moment.

Q:  How does it feel when you have the final version of your work in your hands? Has this feeling changed for you since publishing your first novel? Does this feeling vary depending on the work (such as a new, stand alone or the next installment of a series)?

 A:  It feels great: it always feels great, regardless of whether a book’s in a series or is a standalone. Even after this many books, I’m never sure any of what’s been going on is real – the whole process from draft to final ARCs — until I’m holding aimages-2 physical copy of the book that will sit in the stores. The thrill of this particular moment hasn’t changed significantly for me from thirty years ago until now. I expect to have it again later this year when I hold the first copy of Games Wizards Play.

Q:  How have things changed or stayed the same from your perspective with the rise of the Internet, e-readers and digital literacy?

 A:  So much has changed in the last three decades that enumerating it here would just get tiring. I’ve learned not to get too attached to “how things are done” – because in two or three years they’re going to change anyway. My job is to keep aware and keep flexible, and watch out for how I can best exploit the changes in the industry in terms of what I’m doing.

Q:  Do you feel that print based works are losing ground or simply evolving into a new form?

A:  Print has been here for a long time, and has a pair of unbeatable advantages over every form of electronic media: printed books don’t have to be recharged, and they don’t crash. And remember how earnestly we were being told, just a few years ago, that “print was dead” and would be gone by now? So much for that. …I think it more likely that print will be reborn in some new and logistically more modern form – like onsite POD: or even more likely, something completely unanticipated.

Q:  What advice would you give anyone wanting to become an author or join any other part of the literature community?

A:  First of all – assuming this is about those interested in pursuing writing as a career: don’t give up the day job. Be sure first that you can handle the inevitable changes in your lifestyle before you burn your bridges. Secondly (and this may sound vague, but everybody’s path will differ): Learn what you most want to write, so that you can successfully identify your potential audience. Once identified, learn what you need to do to reach them. Find them, or do whatever you have to do to have them find you. And then, thirdly, market to them like crazy.

Q:  What are some basic do not dos for an up and coming author?

A:  I think it might be wise to make a general resolution not to blog or tweet while annoyed about something. Online meltdowns are as unsightly for new writers as for old ones, and as persistent. Also: as much as possible, ignore your Amazon reviews. Write, and reach as many people as you can, and let your work speak for itself, and (indirectly) for you.

Q:  Do you feel workshops or certain classes will aid someone looking to begin a career in literature?

A:  I think that’s each person’s own call. I never had anything but the basic high school and college English courses, and those have taken me to the New York Times Bestseller List and to Hollywood. If someone feels they need coursework, or workshop participation, they should seek it out and try it at least once or twice. But nothing teaches writing (I think) quite as well as reading writers worth emulating… and then sitting down and writing and writing and WRITING until you start getting the hang of it. David Gerrold told me, and I think he’s right: “The first million words are for practice.” And practice makes perfect. So don’t just sit there: get started!

Q:  What advice do you wish someone had given you?

A:  “Make sure your backups aren’t corrupt.” I’ve twice lost books that were almost completely written to corrupt backups, and have had to rewrite them almost from scratch at high speed. In one case this might have been a blessing in disguise – once reconstructed, the book went on to spend eight weeks on the Times list – but frankly, I’d sooner have avoided the experience.


To find out more about Diane Duane and her latest projects check her out on her:


Twitter: @dduane




And for more on the “magic“ outlining paper:


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