Robin McKinley gained early fame when her second published novel, The Blue Sword (1982), was named a Newbery Honor and her third novel, The Hero and the Crown, won the Newbery itself. Among her 15 other books are Beauty, a retelling of "Beauty and the Beast," and Sunshine, a vampire novel. In the world of Pegasus, McKinley's newest tale, human beings must coexist with a race of sentient, winged ungulates with whom communication is extremely difficult. Princess Sylvi, one of McKinley's trademark no-nonsense heroines, develops a psychic bond with a pegasus and soon finds herself enmeshed in a complex web of interspecies politics.
From your point of view, what’s the difference between writing for children and writing for adults?
This is actually a hot button for me. I don't differentiate in the way that the genre creators want differentiation to be made. I feel that I have never written children's or YA stories particularly. What I write, if you have to label it, is crossover, and I think that much of the stuff that is called children's or YA is in fact crossover and is equally valid for anyone who likes to read fantasy. Is Huckleberry Finn a YA novel? I don't think so. I understand that some form of genre labeling is necessary for people who are in a hurry or people who don't themselves like fantasy and want to give a gift to a twelve-year-old niece or nephew. But as a label to stick on a book, I'm inclined to think that it does more harm than good, because people take it too literally.
Because YA fantasy is now a big deal, it's not nearly as much of a problem as it used to be 20 or 30 years ago when it was, I think, a bit of a nightmare. The children's/YA label hung around my neck like a millstone and I really hated it. Now it really amuses me that an awful lot of the best fantasy is coming out as YA.
As some of our readers may know, you're married to the noted author Peter Dickinson. What's it like living in a home with two working writers?
Well, in the first place we live in three different houses, which makes it somewhat easier. We used to live in an enormous old ramshackle house in the country and then as Peter started to feel his age, he didn't like being out that far anymore. He said that his idea of growing old gracefully was to be within walking distance of the shops. So we moved into town, but we couldn't afford a town house that we thought we wouldn’t drive each other mad in. I'm the one who came up with the bad idea that we simply move into two little houses, which is what we've done, and then I'm afraid I bought a third one to house our backlist because I'm insane. I am a night owl and Peter is a lark, so I get up late and I go down to Peter's house, which is called the Mews. I spend from the early afternoon until much too late at night there. I usually walk back down here with the dogs at some point and do some gardening and then walk back up to the Mews for supper. Then Peter goes to bed early and I hang around muttering over my computer before walking back to my house, the Cottage, and then going to bed. I think it works out pretty well.
Some questions about Pegasus. You've stated that as a girl you saw yourself as somewhat plain, bookish, and decidedly uninterested in boys; how much of you is in your heroine, Princess Sylvi?
When I was younger, my heroines were idealized versions of me; they were who I would have liked to have been when I grew up. As I get older and probably as I've written more stories and exorcised some of that, dare I say, adolescent longing to be someone other than who I am, I no longer identify with my heroines the way I used to. Sylvi I'd like as a friend, but I don't feel like her. One of the things that I was very conscious of when I was looking out through Sylvi's eyes is that she's short—this is an important thing in the book, that she's small—but I don't ever remember being quite so aware of a character's height. Harry in The Blue Sword is very tall and I remember her being tall, but I don't remember that shock of being someone else when I was looking out through Harry's eyes. Of course back then I was identifying with my heroines and I would have liked to have been a little taller than I am.
Pegasus develops at a leisurely pace, with a strong emphasis on the culture of the pegasi. How do you react to the claim that today's young adults lack the attention span for anything that isn't all action?
My first reaction is that I couldn't care less. My second reaction is that of course I have to care because I have to sell books to earn a living. Somewhere in between I would say that I've always written in a leisurely fashion and I’m probably getting worse because I'm more and more interested in the minutia of other people's lives. I've always been fascinated by the grassroots folktale level of a culture and as a storyteller, I have to follow what seems to be leading me on. In Pegasus one of the biggest things was not merely the details of the pegasus culture, but the difference between the pegasi and the humans and also the fact that neither of them is right and neither of them is wrong. That's one of the things that humans do not get right over and over again. My way is the way and if you're not doing it my way, you're wrong. So often that is not true.
I get a little cranky with the whole business about kids not having attention spans. This reminds me of the usual business of thinking that the next generation is hopeless. Every generation has said that about every younger generation. We have a particular set of differences now due to computers and the Internet, but I just don't really feel that the human animal has changed all that much. You know, I'm on Twitter myself and I write long, leisurely books, but I still tweet like mad; you know you can do both the 140-character thing and the long, leisurely novels. I don't see any reason to believe that our young adults aren't going to learn to do that too.
Most fantasy authors ignore the probability that different races or species would have difficulty communicating with each other, yet you decided to place this issue at the center of Pegasus. Why was that?
The short answer is that that's the way the story goes. The longer answer is that as I'm exploring the story that seems to need worst to be written by me at the present time, I'm looking for why I need to write it, why it needs to be written, why it has come to me rather than some other writer to be written, because, and I've said this many, many times—I don't feel that I make this stuff up. I feel that it comes to me, that it happens to me. Now, I do believe that the story is itself, but it is enormously transformed by the fact that I'm the person who is writing it down.
One of the things that I'm fascinated by is the difficulty of communication. I suppose I would say that it's the biggest problem of the human critter. We're hard-wired to learn language, to communicate, but so often we don't. To some extent I think that all of my stories are about this difficulty of communication, the probability of miscommunication, of thinking that the other person, the other race, the other gender, is completely hopeless and you're not even going to bother any more. All of that is either pulled together or split apart in Pegasus by the fact that you have humans on the one side and pegasi on the other who desperately want to communicate and can't. So they're forced to rely on a completely unreliable translation process, which is the magicians.
Pegasus is clearly the first half of a longer book. Why did you choose to end this volume when you did, at a moment of great sadness?
Because I wasn't given a choice. Stories are terrible bullies. It wasn't supposed to be two books, but it just kept on getting longer and I was starting to freak out. I know that tremendously long fantasy novels are actually quite popular, but, well, I need to eat. I'm a slow writer and I needed to get a book finished so that I could get paid for it. When it occurred to me to chop it in half, there was simply no other place to do it. When you read the second book and see how it starts, you will understand. I argued with the story about it and it just ignored me and just kept taking me to that place and saying "either you're going to write an 800-page novel or you're going to end it here; take your choice." So, that's what I did.
Your first novels—Beauty, The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown—came out in the late 70s and early 80s to great acclaim. What are the most important things you've learned about writing fantasy over the past 30 years?
I don't think it's changed. I don't want to say that it's gotten easier, because it hasn't. The thing that's always been the most important thing is to listen to the needs of the story. The story is your first and final arbiter. I need at this point to make a caveat; that's me, that's not everybody. I know a lot of writers who take input from early readers and editors, but I'm not one of them. . So the first and last thing is listen to the story, but the harder you listen, the more intense and draining the writing process is; it's not as if you're getting an easier ride. What does, I think, get easier for me is that the book world static doesn't bother me as much as it used to. I was more or less forced by publisher and agent and various professional people who have my best interests at heart to first start up the Web site and then three years ago, to start the blog, and then a year ago I added Twitter and Facebook. This means that I am out there and paying attention to the book world far more than I was 30years ago.
I get upset when fashion takes away from good books, just because they're not fashionable. The fickleness of fashion and readers and fame, all of that bothered me much more 30 years ago than it does now. I'm pushing 60. I've been doing this for over 30 years, but I still never know from day to day if what I call the crack in my skull that the stories come through is going to close. It hasn't yet and I have a pretty good working relationship with the stories I tell. You could call it increased self-confidence; I've always been a bit short of that, and I've gotten much better at saying, "okay, this is what I am and this is what I do."
Pegasus by Robin McKinley. Putnam, $18.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-399-24677-7