You used to write full-time?
[I sense a pause coming so I jump in to ask one of my pre-prepared questions] You don’t shy away from romance in your new book The Lyre Thief. In fact you embrace it—
That is one thing that I really hate.
I do. I really do. I hate it. I hate being thought of as a romance writer. I hate writing it. It was the hardest part of this book. I didn’t set out to write a romance and I get annoyed with gratuitous romance but it was another complication for my characters. If some of the characters had not been lying to one another, they would have had a much better chance of making things work out. In future books, when those lies become entrenched, it will be even harder for some of these relationships to be resolved. It just added that extra level of complexity.
Of the two sisters in The Lyre Thief, Charisee is a romantic, whereas Rakaia is much more calculating. She’s not really in love. She’s out there having a good time, but she’s not in love with anybody.
Rakaia’s not in love with Mica? [Who’s a romantic now?]
You’ll find out in later books, but that relationship is really quite abusive. Mica’s a manipulator. Rakaia’s still in that first blush of love, but Mica has a power over her that’s not healthy, and in the same way that a battered wife becomes protective of herself, Rakaia needs to look out for what’s coming.
Okay, so just to clarify, you don’t like being called a romance writer— but you have two first-time sexual encounters in this book…
I don’t think I can avoid it after writing this book. It’ll be like, “You know that thing you told us about not being a romance writer? Well now you’ve doomed yourself!”
But in this (fantasy) world I have to say, being a virgin is not a virtue in and of itself. Being a virgin is generally considered to be a pain in the arse. The women are trained by the court’esa, and lose their virginity very early on. The Fardohnyan mentality is that it’s perfectly legitimate to have a slave teach your daughter how to have sex because a slave is not a considered a person.
That’s part of what makes the central device, the identity swap, work so well, because one sister is trained and one isn’t, when she really ought to be. So no, Rakaia isn’t in love and she has a very different view of sex than we might have. I love playing with the world and thinking “What would be the consequences of this or that?”
Do you think there’s a greater acceptance of the work of female fantasy authors now than when you started out?
A lot of people think that if you’re a female writer you must be writing some form of romance and I haven’t seen a change in that view. There’s a reason J.K. Rowling wrote as J.K., rather than Joanne Kathleen. She wrote a book about a little boy, and the publisher was worried that little boys wouldn’t read it if they thought a woman wrote it.
But you write under a pseudonym as it is…
There’s a story behind that too. My married name was Tonkin. The publishers loved that name because it put me next to Tolkien on a bookshelf. Then my marriage broke up and I went back to my maiden name because my ex-husband’s biggest contribution to my writing had been to tell me I should give up and be a better housewife because I was never going to get published. So I said: “There’s no way your name’s going on my book, buster!” But the publishers thought my maiden name was terribly boring.
Then my teenage children told me how to work out my porn name, or the name I would have if I were a porn star. It was a combination of my first pet, and the first street I’d lived on. So my porn name was Mittens-Blake. Applying the highly scientific art of porn names, I wrote down all the streets I’d ever lived in. The first was Blake Street, obviously, but the second was Fallon Street and I thought, “Jennifer Fallon sounds nice!” Then it occurred to me that the two biggest selling Fantasy authors at the time were David Eddings and Raymond Feist. So if you went to the bookshop you’d see Eddings – Fallon – Feist.
If I could go back now though, I think I’d call myself John Fallon or something androgynous, so that guys could convince themselves I wasn’t a girl and they weren’t really reading a romance. That was probably the biggest mistake I’ve made in my writing career. I mean Robin Hobb is a female writer who has done really well simply by spelling Robin the “boy” way.
Other than that, I love what I do and it’s a fun job. It’s a bit hectic at the moment for reasons out of my control. There’s really no downside apart from the fact that I don’t have any time. You’ve got to understand that when I’m writing, nothing else gets done. I can either clean a house or meet a deadline but I can’t do both. In fact I’m at the point where I’m having to get a cleaner in. So long as I can earn more than I’m paying the cleaner hour by hour, then I’m financially ahead. That’s how I justify the expense to myself. It’s a thing known as “cognitive distortion”. It’s big in prisons. It’s how criminals justify their crimes to themselves. Also alcoholics, they use it too.
One thing I took away from your new book was that it is a genuinely fun read, and it reads like you were having fun writing it.
I reckon you can tell when an author is being tortured, when the story is being dragged out of them. I write best when I put my head down for two hours and then look up and go, “Oh, is that the time?” Not only does that show I’m enjoying myself, it also means that I’m writing naturally within the flow of the story. I’m not doubting that this is the way events are supposed to go. I mean, I’ve ditched 10,000 words in the past because they weren’t taking me where I wanted to go.
So you mostly plot, but there’s a bit of free-styling going on.
I have to plot because I need a synopsis to sell the book. I always know what the ending will be and I rarely deviate from that. How I get there isn’t so clear cut because as you build characters and they start to come to life you realise that the thing you were going to have that character do, they would never actually do. Or you realise it would be much more logical for them to do something else. You need to listen to yourself when that happens or you’ll have characters doing illogical things because it fits the plot. These new characters have been good fun in that respect. They came pretty easily.
I think it shows. I really enjoyed it.
Despite the fact it was a romance?
Okay, there were a few key moments, but I wouldn’t categorise The Lyre Thief as a romance by any stretch.
I think the most common reaction I see when someone reads my work for the first time, is surprise. I always wonder why that is. They go, “Oh my God! I really enjoyed it! It’s amazing!” And I’m like, “Yep!”
I’ve seen a bunch of reviews in the US, maybe a dozen so far, all saying the same thing: “I’ve never read Jennifer Fallon. This is really good. Why haven’t I read this before?” And it’s actually really frustrating. What was out there that stopped these guys picking up a Jennifer Fallon book? What barrier was there to any of these people reading my book instead of something else? I’d love to know the answer to that…
This interview first appeared in Aurealis #90.