Interview: Robin McKinley on PEGASUS

Robin McKinley is here to talk about her new novel, Pegasus, which came out last month from Putnam. Pegasus tells the story of Princess Sylviianel and the pegasus Ebon who are ceremonially bound to one another in order to strengthen the alliance between their two kingdoms. The two quickly realize that they have the unique ability to communicate telepathically, which could either bring their kingdoms closer together–or tear them apart.

Robin McKinley is the author of such fantasy novels as The Hero and The Crown, which won the 1985 Newbery award, and Chalice, which Publisher’s Weekly called “a lavish and lasting treat.” We were lucky enough to receive a review copy of Pegasus, which is wonderfully engrossing and unique, and to ask Robin a few questions about the story.

Parker: This story seemed more than anything else to be about exploring two interlocking cultures. How did you discover the pegasus culture and decide on its details? Specifically, what made you decide that the pegasi would keep records of their history by shaping cave walls?

Robin: I’m afraid I have to start by saying something that readers who have been following this series of interviews around the publication of PEGASUS have already heard/read me say/write several times:  it’s not like that.  I don’t decide.  I don’t consciously and deliberately choose or invent.  I listen to the story.  I spend a lot of mind-time in the story world, which I see and hear vividly enough that I can be something of a trial to have around in this world while I’m trying to find out as much as I can about a story.  All the clichéd absent-minded-writer stuff about tripping over the furniture and putting my fresh cup of (hot) tea in the refrigerator is true.

I do a lot of my story-world investigating while I’m out barreling over the local landscape with my two hellhounds.  This is farming country, so I only let them off lead when I’m (relatively) sure of our surroundings, and if I’m deep in a story Chaos, who is the more urgent of the two about such things as off-lead hurtling, will be dancing up and down in front of me saying, Field!  FIELD!  FIELD! and I will slowly come back from wherever I’ve been and register that I need to stay in this world long enough for my hellhounds to have their fun.  Sighthounds (my guys are whippet crosses, with a little deerhound for bulk) are unbelievably fast and to me at least hypnotically beautiful, especially at speed, and it’s perilously easy to slip back into the world with pegasi in it, and see them blur into breath-catchingly elegant creatures with wings.

Most of the important stuff in my books has come to me first as sight or sound.  I first saw pegasi flying rather the way Viktur and his people did:  against a setting sun and for a vertiginous moment I wasn’t quite sure what world I was in.  I’d been thinking about pegasi in a cautiously purposeful way because I’d felt what I thought were the stirrings of a story about them—about a culture clash between them and the humans they shared landscape with.  Seeing them flying—and they are so beautiful they’ll make you cry—was one of those signs that the story was there, and I was going to be allowed to tell it.

I didn’t know the pegasi didn’t write things down much when I first saw them sculpting the walls of the Caves.  I didn’t know at that point that the sculpting was about anything but making interesting shapes and shadows—although as I realised how extensive the work was I realised there was some powerful motivation behind it.  Watching them sculpt is also how I found out that their little hands are weak but clever and useful.

Parker: At the heart of the book is an unlikely friendship between two people with very different life experiences. What joins the princess Svyli and the pegasus Ebon is their ability to communicate telepathically. Do you think their two kingdoms could have ever come to understand each other without sharing a language?

Robin: The critical thing is that they understand each other’s languages, I think, not necessarily that they share a single language.  Although you know how languages grow and change partly by absorbing words from other languages, especially when speakers of the two languages have a lot to do with each other.  If humans and pegasi do start talking to each other directly I’d expect an overlap of vocabulary to develop.  But even if the pegasi and humans build a bridge over the incomprehensible barrier that Sylvi and Ebon have equally incomprehensibly breached, there will remain some pretty spectacular problems of sheer physiology.  Human heads, throats, vocal cords, mouths, tongues and sinuses are very different from those of the pegasi.  It’s already difficult for ordinary humans to learn other ordinary human languages when the languages contain different sounds.  (How about those Khoisan clicks?!)  Now imagine different species . . . And supporting spoken language with physical gesture doesn’t help much either, between pegasi and humans.

Parker: We like to talk about made-up languages here on The Spectacle. How did you come up with the unusual names and words used by the pegasi?

Robin: I listened!  I have assumed—I have hoped—that the reason the pegasi language sounds rather whuffly is because of the long narrow faces and long narrow sinuses of the pegasi, with their relatively small mouths and relatively large nostrils, and not because I was hearing badly.  Trying to figure out a way to write it down consistently, and to make some sense of the grammar . . . uggh. That is not one of the fun parts of writing this story.

Parker: Sylvi’s pegasus friend is rather horse-like but at the same time a distinctly different creature–presumably because it’s hard to imagine big-boned, heavy horses flying. Can you tell about the process you went through to design a pegasus? I found it especially touching that while the humans in the book dream of having wings, the pegasi long for strong, nimble hands.

Robin: Pegasi are not flying horses. Nothing like, beyond that they’re both hoofed mammals.  But it wasn’t up to me;  I didn’t design;  I looked and listened.  I did realise that something the size of pegasi either had hollow bones or some magic to allow them to fly at all, but that kind of explanation or confirmation tends to come later in the story-telling process.  There are certainly moments when I’m feeling my way when I think, wait, unh, I’m missing something, that makes no sense—for example I’ve got other, bigger, scarier flying things in PEGASUS, and which you will see more of in the second book, and there has to be a way for them to fly too.  Rocs are magical—rocs reek with magic, there’s barely any definable, this-world anything about rocs—but norindours for example can’t fly far, the way pegasi can, but they could leap over the Wall if the magic defending it ever failed.  Usually if I’m worried about something, as for example big things flying, I will try to hunt down some information about it or them before I start writing the story.  I know I keep going on about seeing and hearing—but it is still horribly easy to get stuff wrong when you transform it into cold hard print.

There was a real ‘of course’ when I came to it, about humans wanting wings—well, don’t we?  And we don’t even live with pegasi!—and pegasi wanting hands like ours.  Well of course. But having realised these longings were inevitable they provide part of both the bond and the tension between the two peoples—and therefore the liveness of the story.

Parker: The pegasi are characterized as beautiful and awe-inspiring. With their wings and their delicate handiwork, they seem other-worldly, almost angelic. Did you mean for them to represent something spiritual?

Robin: Not per se, no.  They came as themselves;  I didn’t make them up, although I have some (very nervous-making) leeway in how I characterise them as I write them down.  And I’m aware of trying to make clear—and therefore perhaps exaggerating—the differences between us.  The pegasi have to be physically almost ethereal, to be that big and be able to fly long distances as birds do.  I suppose they might not have been beautiful . . . but I can’t imagine pegasi not being beautiful, somehow, and I think that’s part of the system that I like to call the Story Council, where a story needs a writer and a writer needs a story she can tell.  I just wouldn’t do very well by a story with a race of ugly pegasi, so that story wouldn’t come to me.  (Of course as I write this I’m busy thinking, okay, if I were going to write a story about another species of flying ungulates, and this lot were ugly, what would they look like and what would that story be about?)

Parker: Can you give us hints about what we’ll find in the sequel? I’m really looking forward to reading it!

Robin: Um.  I’m not sure I can without spoiler-ing the first one!  Well, I give you a ride down to the bottom of that cliff I left you hanging over at the end of PEGASUS . . . and then there’s rather a slog the long way back up that hill!  But there’s a good bit of pairing-off that happens, including, I think, some surprises, and there are some battles and confrontations and at least one questy kind of journey . . . and a meeting with someone long-time readers know from elsewhere!  And I think that’s probably as much as I dare say . . . except that you shouldn’t worry too much about the ending of PEGASUS.  That bit is going to come out all right.  As for the rest. . . .

ETA: The giveaway is now closed. Thanks for stopping by!

Parker Peevyhouse

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40 Comments

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40 responses to “Interview: Robin McKinley on PEGASUS

  1. Natalie Aguirre

    Parker, that’s so cool that you got to interview Robin McKinley. It’s so interesting to read about her process of creating her stories. I’d love to win Pegasus. I love her books. Thanks for the contest.

  2. This looks like a great story. Can’t wait to read it!

  3. Oh, i loved this interview! Her world building sounds like so much fun, and I am so glad we all get to read about it in her books! Thanks for sharing this interview :)

  4. Sounds marvelous. I would love to experience their world. Having lived between cultures myself, I am very interested in the cultural conflict of the story as well as the poetic beauty of the pegasi.

  5. carpelibris

    I really hope that I remembered to put this on my Christmas list!

  6. Julia

    Robin McKinley is brilliant. PEGASUS is amazing. I cannot wait for the second book!

  7. Erin

    I am completely in love with Robin McKinley. She shaped my childhood. I would LOVE a copy of Pegasus.

  8. Kate M.

    I love horse so I cannot wait to read it! Great interview/questions!

  9. I have discovered Robin McKinley later in life (I am in my late sixties) but been a fantasy fan since forever. She is masterly in her depiction of worlds and her characters are enchanting in the best possible way. Long may she write!

  10. Deb A.

    I love the way Robin describes her story-writing style, the way she respects her stories as they reveal themselves to her. It must be the respect — almost reverence — she has for her characters, for her worlds — that results in such authentic experiences for her readers. Her worlds are unforgettable, and the world of “Pegasus” is no exception.

  11. I absolutely love Robin McKinley! Can’t wait to read Pegasus. Fingers crossed.

  12. I was hooked on reading Robin’s books since I first came across Beauty. I enjoy devouring all her books and meeting her stories, people, and worlds.

  13. Kat Kan

    Thanks so much for a great interview. I’ve been a fan/reader/rereader of Robin’s books for many many years now, and she keeps writing fabulous stories that are always well worth the wait. I just keep rereading the ones I’ve got until the next one …

  14. Robin’s absolute respect for the story itself shines through. This is what makes her, for me, such a great writer–she really is opening windows on another world, not just painting pretty pictures on the wall. (Though there’s nothing wrong with painting pretty pictures on the wall, especially if you’re stuck in a windowless room…but to be able to punch a hole in the wall and show what’s on the other side…that’s very, very special. And very hard to do.)

  15. Danielle

    I am a huge fan of McKinley’s – I absolutely adored Chalice (I have worn out my copy already) and I can’t wait to read Peg I OR Peg II. I would love to win a copy, as I am out of work right now and my disposable income previously earmarked for books has dried up completely.

  16. Amanda

    Thanks for the great interview – can’t wait to read the book!

  17. Georgia Mannering

    Every Robin McKinley book I read, I love – can’t wait to read this one either and it’s great to read an article about her writing technique except it’s made me want to get my hands on it even more!

  18. Jeanine

    Interesting interview. Thanks for letting us listen in on your conversation.

  19. Melissa

    I can’t wait to read this book – but just interesting to note that Pegasi long for strong nimble hands – makes so much sense! One of those things that anchors fantasy worlds as ‘real’, I feel.

  20. Linda Hay

    Interesting interview … you got some great information about book 2. We’ve been wondering if the Sea of Dreams and the Lake of Dreams are one and the same … maybe if a character from earlier books is going to show up, the water and/or the dreaming will be the connection.

    One of the many things I love about Robin’s books is that I can read them over and over and find things to mull over which had escaped my notice previously. Once you know ‘what will happen” then on subsequent re-reads you can look at things like minor characters, the details of plot development, the landscape and so on and see the richness of the work. This is the first time she has published a “two parter” and the cliff hanging nature of the ending means re-reading becomes a search for hints about what will happen next as well as a leisurely hunt for previously un-noticed “really good bits.”

    For me the essence of whether a book is really successful (for me) is whether I will want to read it again.

  21. Marie

    I love to read author interviews, and see the different ways each individual approaches their creative process. I LOVE Robin McKinley–she is one of the authors who just live on my bedside table, so I can pick up and reread whenever the need strikes. I would love to win “Pegasus”–and it would be a perfect read aloud for my family–since my kids are just the perfect age!

  22. Lex

    I was incredibly happy when I found out there was going to be a sequel. Robin Mckinley is one of my favourite authors and she generally does not leave her stories in such a lurch. I was walking aimlessly in shock after reading this ending. The interview is engrossing and I wonder if the meeting with someone we all know is Luthe, he is the one most in between worlds and the best helper for questy type journeys.

  23. HollyAnn

    Robin McKinley is my favorite author and I am looking forward to reading Pegasus. So far, of all her books, the one that moved me the most was Deerskin.

  24. Tessa

    Thank you for this interview. Robin McKinley has been a favourite author ever since I picked up HERO in the library. Every story has been unique, each world utterly real. Thank you!

  25. Ruth

    That sneak peek was interesting. I can’t wait to read part 2!

  26. Elaine

    I still can’t believe there’s going to be a second book . . . Robin McKinley has this amazing ability to make me fall in love with a world, and then abandon it completely (*Cough* Sunshine! *cough*). I’d love to win a copy of Pegasus, especially since I’m starving college student and can’t afford it ;)

  27. Jeanine

    I’m thinking it will be Luthe as well or maybe the moonwoman from Deerskin? I’m not sure we’re in Damar, but also not sure what other universe might make sense. And I’m really hoping that Robin is right about this being a two-parter and that the story council doesn’t send her any more additions, so that it won’t become a trilogy….

  28. Kim

    I can’t wait to pick this book up, though I am sure I will be on the hold list at the library for ages. Dragons and unicorns get a lot of attention, but the pegasus presents so many challenges as a character, it takes a special talent to tune into their story without getting bogged down in explanation. I am sure it will be wonderful.

  29. Laura M

    I can’t wait to read this! It looks awesome

  30. I knew that this book was a two parter when I read it, but the ending was still a shock. I really really can’t wait for the next one! Very interesting hints about the sequel. I agree that the character she’s talking about that shows up is probably Luthe, which would be awesome, but if not it’d still be awesome.

    And while I did buy Pegasus already, I’d be happy to win another one, there’s lots of people I know who could use a copy!

  31. zanne

    oooh thank you for this interview! i love robin mckinley, and was thrilled to find out that that my son’s girl (who we hope becomes his wife) loves her books too. i’m giving her this book for Christmas. yes, it’s kind of a bribe. :)

  32. Lovely interview. I cannot wait to read the book!

  33. NotACat

    I devoured Pegasus and am therefore looking forward to the second half (not so much a sequel) avidly.

    So now my mind is working furiously over the tiny spoilerette about someone turning up we might recognise: there’s some good ideas up-thread but Robin is always able to surprise us ;-)

  34. Taryn

    Nice interview.

  35. That lake in Pegasus reminded me of a certain other lake in Damar. Curiouser and curiouser

  36. Mike Jung

    Looks like a great book, I’m in!

  37. Anna H.

    Thanks for the lovely interview! I’m relieved to hear that the ending to book II is going to come out alright, and I can’t wait for it to get here!

  38. Tabitha F.

    I haven’t gotten a chance to read this (yet!) but everything Robin writes just pulses with life. Always so much fun to hear what goes on behind the author’s mind!

  39. Alannaeowyn

    ……They’re going to meet Luthe, aren’t they? They are. I bet they are. Well, I was wondering whether this was in the same world as the other stories–I mean, taralians and wyverns are found in the region of Spindle’s End, and dragons are mentioned too, so it seemed likely. And Spindle’s End has a character from the country Deerskin ends in, and Deerskin mentions Aerin, so they’re clearly on the Damarian continent. But if we’re going to have a character from one of those books show up, even if it’s not Luthe, there will no longer be any question whatsoever. Nice, Robin.

    (P.S. You don’t necessarily have to enter me in the drawing, since I bought a copy as soon as I could get to a bookstore. While I’m sure I could find something to do with another copy, it’s more interesting if they aren’t the same edition. Just sayin’.)

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