Interview: Elaine Isaak

Elaine Isaak dropped out of art school to found Curious Characters, designing original stuffed animals and small-scale sculptures, and to follow her bliss: writing.She is the author of The Singer’s Crown (Eos, 2005), and sequels The Eunuch’s Heir (Eos, 2006), and The Bastard Queen (Swimming Kangaroo, 2010). A mother of two, Elaine also enjoys rock climbing, weaving and exotic cooking—when she can scrape the time together. She attended the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop in 1997. Visit www.ElaineIsaak.com to read sample chapters and find out why you do not want to be her hero.

Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep?

Prior to Odyssey, I was an inspiration writer. When I was struck by inspiration, I flung myself at the computer and wrote for hours or days. But sometimes, it took weeks for inspiration to find me again, and I would grow despondent. I don’t know if that counts as a schedule, but that’s the way I thought it was done, and done best. I was a slave to the muse.

What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?

To be perfectly honest, I think I wanted someone to go into throes of ecstasy about my deathless prose and then tell me how to sell the book I was working on. I knew my writing had a few flaws, but also felt I had a good grasp of all the basics. I expected Odyssey to help me polish up. Instead, it taught me how to take apart the work I considered nearly-perfect, examine it from the inside, one element at a time, then reconstruct the elements, and put them back together in a much stronger way.

How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?

Each week of Odyssey had us exploring a new element in great depth, with exercises as well as sustained writing on our own stories. A huge part of the lesson for me, was that inspiration strikes more often the more you’re writing and investing yourself in the world of your work. I write better when I do it every day. That seems to be a lesson I need to keep reminding myself of, unfortunately.

In terms of the creative work, I think the relationship between character and plot was a big discovery: how the character’s actions should be driving the plot, how to shape the right conflict for that character or vice versa—entangling these aspects to the point where it feels like the only way to tell that story is through the eyes of that character. Mastering point of view was a important part of this.

Can you describe your Odyssey experience? What surprised you most about Odyssey?

Odyssey was intense and exciting. We didn’t have much time to rest. It was great to be in the company of dedicated writers for an extended period of time. I was surprised to realize that critiquing other people’s work is excellent training for recognizing the flaws in your own. I had done a little critiquing before that, but always thinking I did it to help out the other writer, not realizing the way that kind of examination could teach me how to edit myself.

When and how did you make your first sale?

Technically, my first sale was a short story I wrote based on a research assignment in the Odyssey session on setting, but it you’re asking about professional-level sales, then I did actually sell that novel I was working on when I started Odyssey. After some work, of course…I submitted through the slush pile to a big-name editor who liked it, but the offer fell through when I got an agent who wanted to negotiate some of the terms. Luckily, my agent sent the book out to several other publishers and brought in a better offer.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

Finding the right balance of plot. I’ve always thought of myself as more of a plot-driven writer, but sometimes that means I’m working too hard forcing big events, when the characters and the story I want to tell are actually more subtle than that. It’s always a bad sign when you feel you suddenly need an earthquake to happen. I’m now with a new critique group, some of whom are more literary in approach, and they’re helping me to identify smaller, but no less significant, movements that can guide a story.

At your Web site (http://www.elaineissaak.com), you have a section titled “My Hero,” where you write that you have a terrible reputation for torturing your characters. Why do you feel it’s necessary for a writer to “torture” his or her characters, especially the hero?

I believe that a great hero must be greatly tested. He must face not only significant challenges from the conflicts and antagonists in the story, but also challenges that are about him personally, who he is–or who he thought he was. Most worthwhile goals require sacrifice, and the magnitude of the sacrifice also shows how important that goal is, both in external terms (like saving a life or a world) and also internal terms (proving your self-worth or overcoming a personal flaw). I think this approach to fiction results in a greater cathartic payoff at the end: the character really earns his or her reward.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

Right now, I’m revising the new dark fantasy series I’m starting with DAW books, so I can’t think too far ahead. However, I’ve been doing some reading and world-building for an oriental steampunkish thing. I also have some young adult projects I’d like to get back to when the new series is ready to go.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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