Go to Homepage   Janny Wurts: Kaleidoscopic Life

Janny Wurts and her horse, Phil (Photo by Don Maitz, courtesy Janny Wurts)

It started with a "frivolous annoyance." The teenaged Janny Wurts decided she was sick of fairy tales where the youngest and the blondest always won out, and you could gauge the virtue of a character by the lightness of his or her hair. She already viewed life as a kaleidoscope of overlapping motives, interests and perceptions that shifted every time you adjusted your point of view. But it took years of travel and training in disciplines as diverse as fine arts and archery, history, hard science and swordsmanship to prepare herself to tell the story that became the Wars of Light and Shadow series.

At Dragoncon 2002, Crescent Blues talked to Wurts about the history and experiences that shaped her many arts. The conversation ranged from the killing field of Culloden to the oil paintings techniques of the Old Masters, with a double-shot of prescience on the side.

Crescent Blues: You've got a wonderful career as a writer and a wonderful career as an artist. Which came first, the fiction or the arts?

Janny Wurts: They are both so hopelessly tangled up with each other, I couldn't separate them. The number of times I had an idea for a story then wanted to paint it to see what it looked like, or the times I tried to do a painting just to make a picture and halfway through the characters started talking, "While you're here -- " and suddenly I had a story… The one time I did a painting and said, "This has no story," Marion Zimmer Bradley came up to me, and she said, "We want to run this for the cover of our magazine. Could you, please, give us a story?" So I had to write a story about it. So the pictures and the words are tied together. I really don't feel any one thing came first.

Book: Janny Wurts, perils gate

Crescent Blues: But you didn't decide to pursue this in college.

Janny Wurts: Oh, I decided to pursue this long before college.

Crescent Blues: But your course of study in college was much broader than writing or art.

Janny Wurts: It was. I couldn't go to an art college, because at that time there was a general overriding impression that art students were flakes. That wasn't me. Nonetheless, I had to go to a college that had conventional parameters, but I went to a very unconventional college where you contracted your education.

At the time I left for school, I didn't know what I wanted to do. It could be writing. It could be art. It could be any one of three or four or five different things in the sciences. So I had to pick a college that was strong in all those things. I was actually thinking I would go into science, until I got in there and realized that wasn't going to work. There were too many things that didn't fit in the box.

I think it's a dangerous thing if your perceptions stop shifting. To me, that's the day they nail me in the coffin, and even then, how can I prove it?

I looked at oceanography. I looked at astronomy. I looked at biology. I looked at all kinds of the natural sciences, and I ended up the college lab technician for telescopes. I ran the telescopes at night. Too many times when I saw something, and there'd be a full astronomy professor right there, and I'd say "What is that?" And he'd say, "We don't know." And they weren't even curious. So what do you do with the things that don't fit in the box?

In addition, the scientific mode of thought tends to limit thinking. (I think we're starting to run into the edge of that. It really is very constricting.) And I realized to get anywhere in the sciences, I was going to have to do only that to the exclusion of everything else. And there were certain questions I was trying to ask and areas of research I wanted to go in that were not acceptable, because, basically, we can't measure those things yet.

So I said, "You know if I write stories and paint, I can encompass everything in my life. No matter how radical or how strange or how different the idea is, I can write it in fantasy, and nobody's going to mind. I'm not upsetting anybody's boat.

I left science, because I was thinking outside the box way too much, and I'm glad that I did. Science is lovely. It's wonderful. I still get scientific journals and read them. But there's a very narrow opening that scientists look at the world through.

Crescent Blues: Peril's Gate and the whole Wars of Light and Shadow series are very much "outside the box" in terms of their depiction of good and evil. Was its genesis in any way related to your college experiences in science?

To Ride Hell's Chasm ((c) 2002, Janny Wurts, courtesy of the artist) Note: Downloading art without permission from the artist is a violation of copyright.

Janny Wurts: I had the idea for this story before college. I thought I would write part-time and work in some scientific field as a full-time job, but that's not how it worked.

So what is "good?" That's a absolutely scary question, because what is good for me is not necessarily going to be good for you, because your viewpoint is going to encompass other things. So I'm not exploring good and evil. I'm exploring what happens when you look at the bigger and bigger and bigger picture.

An event or character is going to constantly change. Your reference scale is going to constantly change, and that's what [the Wars of Light and Shadow] does. Depending on how big your panoramic view of what's happening is, in the end, ultimately, you're going to realize you never are equipped to make a judgment call like that, because you never have enough information. Because there's always that piece you don't know, and that could change your entire opinion.

So you read this book, and you'll like a character -- or you won't like a character until you see him from a different angle, and you realize that maybe you do like that character. Even if they're totally awful and they behave very badly over here, there may be a redeeming quality to them over there. So your viewpoint into the character constantly shifts, and it's a factor of your consciousness and your awareness.

Book: Janny Wurts, ships of merior

Crescent Blues: Have you found that as you developed the Wars of Light and Shadow over the years that your own viewpoint on the characters began to shift?

Janny Wurts: I think it's a dangerous thing if your perceptions stop shifting. To me, that's the day they nail me in the coffin, and even then, how can I prove it? So there's no way I'm going to draw that box around myself.

So if you say to me, well, I set out to write [Peril's Gate] this way, and I stayed there…Life is a kaleidoscope, and each time you get bumped or jostled, it changes.

Crescent Blues: Do you find that the image of the kaleidoscope resonates in your painting as well as your writing? When you're painting, does the painting shift as it goes along, for example?

Janny Wurts: I don't give sketches to my art directors. Usually, I just give them the finished piece, because I like to evolve my thinking before I present it.

I would say that the two mediums are very different, because the word is more symbolic in some ways. Music -- that's real direct. It hits you, and you've got it. Painting is one step removed. You're taking in an image, and since so much of your unconscious and subconscious mind works off of images, you're talking beyond what you can accomplish consciously. So pictures are going to hit a whole different register of a person's awareness.

A word is a symbol, and everyone is going to interpret that symbol slightly differently. On the other hand, it's an extremely precise symbol. So you can really shave the meaning and the impact of what happens on that page pretty tightly. Not perfectly, because everybody brings their own baggage to a scene. This person loves the drunken character, because he thinks beer bashes are great. This person had alcoholic parents and was beaten, and he or she can't stand that character, because he drinks. You bring your own stuff to it. But with a word, you can really auger in on a point and just nail it.

That's partly why the language in the series is so intricate, because I want you to experience more than just what happens next. I want you to feel it. I want you to remember it. I want it to affect you like you were there. So the series is written in a great deal of detail to set that up. You literally have to slow your thoughts down to read these books, and that makes the impact, when events happen, ever so much greater.

Crescent Blues: Is the lyricism and intricate language of the Wars of Light and Shadow something you strive for in all your books, or do you prefer to suit the voice to the subject matter?

The first is that I don't believe a killing war solves anything. It makes us better killers. It makes us better haters.

Janny Wurts: I think that the power of the mind is huge when you can tap it on more than one level and more than one sense. Because I'm a visual person and I do music and I write, there's an enormous range of sensitivity to the environment. When you can pull enough pieces of that together and put it on the page, the impact of the event for the reader is much more graphic and more direct.

People don't forget my books. If they finish them, they do not ever forget them. Where [readers] run into trouble is when they try to over-simplify it and hurry through.

In one sense, it was a conscious choice, but in another, it was not. I did not set out to do it this way. I did not sit down one day and logically, coldly say: "I'm going to slow your mind down so that you take in an audio-visual experience through the written word." That's exactly what I'm doing, but I didn't set out, in cold blood, to do that. The material demanded it. The only way I can describe it is, when I try to write it, it blocks if I don't do it that way.

Other kinds of writing, other things I write, I write differently. I write in a simpler style. This one doesn't [work that way], and the only way I can describe it is to say that I know when I hit it, because it rings like a bell.

I know when it's right. There's an internal rhythm to the words. It's designed to be read aloud, as well. But mostly, it's the feel of what's happening on the page, and you do have to slow down for it. I'm often writing to a degree of complexity that requires some time. Yet this is a fast-paced commercial market where things are supposed to fly off the page, and some people get impatient with it. That's OK. I forgive them, but that's not what I'm trying to do.

Crescent Blues: Your handling of the language in the Wars of Light and Shadow series reminds me a little bit of the way J.R.R. Tolkien handled language in The Lord of the Rings. Was this intentional?

Janny Wurts: People say to me, "You must sit there with a dictionary on your desk all the time." And I tell them that my dictionary's full of silverfish, and the only time it ever comes out is when I have an argument with a copy editor over a word usage -- and usually, I win. [Laughs.]

Book: Janny Wurts, Curse of the mistwraiths

I didn't set out to make the language this way. I read and read and read. I literally read the library. So all the words that are on those pages, I knew before I wrote them down. Those were just the precise words that fit my meaning. The books go through ten rewrites to make sure I've got the most refined form. And I do go through a lot of cutting in my rewrites, but do I set out to write in a really complex language and stretch people's minds? No.

Crescent Blues: The Wars of Light and Shadow is definitely a saga. When you were first developing the storyline in the days before you got to college, did you know it was going to be this complex?

Janny Wurts -- Continued