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!