The Big Idea: Judith Tarr

The revolution in publishing that’s happened in the last few years has shaken up things, in ways that are sometimes good, and sometimes bad. But as Judith Tarr tells it, in a very significant way the shake allowed her to tell, in Forgotten Suns, a tale she’s always wanted to tell — how she wanted to tell it.


Some writers start their worldbuilding early. Whatever the inspiration—gaming, fairy tales, Tolkien, favorite authors and worlds, their own imagination—they begin as kids or teens or young adults, and the structures of their personal universe build and build until at some point they burst out in publishable form.

We can go all the way back to the Brontë siblings’ Gondal, and all the way forward to the likes of Joy Chant and Sherwood Smith. Tolkien not only inspired generations of fantasy works and worlds; he created his own over a long lifetime and in obsessive detail.

I first started building a world a year or two before I discovered Tolkien. I’d been reading science fiction for years: all the Golden Agers, James Schmitz, Alan E. Nourse, Asimov-Clarke-Heinlein of course, basically every volume on the science-fiction shelves at my small-town public library (a couple of towns over from Stephen King, who seems to have been doing the same thing). Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings enthralled me. Magic and spaceships in the same book, and humans turning into animals and then back again, and alien cultures and alien life forms and that whole sensawunda thing—I couldn’t get enough of it.

So here I was, larval writer, chewing my way through anything and everything that tasted even remotely good, and spinning it out in teeny-tiny handwritten scribbles on purloined notebook paper, narrow rule, two lines per ruled line and four or five at the top (ah, young eyes!). It wasn’t Tolkienian at all; it was Nortonesque and space-opera-esque. It had a starfaring empire and wandering singers and byzantine (for a tweenaged kid) politics and family drama on a grand, indeed operatic scale. There was a whole army of nondead kings; I didn’t know anything about the Chinese terracotta warriors, but if I had, I would have fist-bumped old Qin Shi Huang. He got it right. Except mine were alive (eventually) and had a terrible lot to say.

Then because I could, I genderflipped the protagonist, to see what would happen. This was like 1967; nobody even knew what genderflipping was. I changed all the “he” to “she,” stood back and said, “Whoa.” And it was weird, in the very gendered, very sexist Sixties, but I liked it.

There weren’t any white people, either. One of the characters was an albino (with the vision problems that go with it), but everybody else came in colors, the darker the better. Except one of the main characters had red hair, because Drama. But otherwise he looked, basically, Tibetan.

When I finally decided to come out as a writer, I shopped this thing around. It was epic, some 987 space-and-half typed pages in 10-point Courier, painstakingly transcribed on my high-school-graduation Smith-Corona. Editors passed, of course, but Lester del Rey wrote back, three whole pages, explaining what I’d done right, but also why he wasn’t going to buy it. I’d managed to straddle the line between fantasy and science fiction, and that, he said, wouldn’t fly in the marketplace. Too much fantasy for the science-fiction readers, but too much science fiction to sell as fantasy.

After a round of editorial no-thankses I tried the agent route, and the agent who took me on said much the same—then glommed on to a little thing was I playing with for amusement, about a monk who couldn’t age or die, and King Richard the Lionheart. And that was both fully categorizable and not quite like anything else out there (though R.A. McAvoy was shopping her medieval fantasy at the same time, and Katherine Kurtz had risen to stardom with her Deryni books); so I was encouraged to pursue that, and my “first” novel was historical fantasy instead of unclassifiable space adventure.

But I still loved that world and wanted to keep writing in it. So I thought, hey, there are millennia of history in this universe. Why not go back to the Bronze Age and write the origin story, base it on my favorite ancient epic hero, Alexander the Great (Mary Renault: another of my heart-and-soul authors)—and sell it as epic fantasy. Which I did, and my agent did, and nobody was the wiser.

But I’d always worldbuilt with a science-fictional slant; my “elves” owed far more to the X-Men than to Tolkien. If I was playing with ancient history, I was also, in my head, plotting all the way into space and beyond. The market wouldn’t let me do anything about it, but it was still there.

Then publishing went down with the rest of the economic ship, and I was in steerage, so I sank with it. But ebooks had become a thing, crowdfunding was a thing, and I clawed my way to the air and realized…

I could write anything I damned well wanted.

I could write that space opera. I could set it on that world, in that universe. I could roll all those nondead opinionated kings into one highly opinionated individual, more or less credibly explain the how and why, and meanwhile, science had discovered the multiverse and psi powers were out of vogue but did I care? I could do whatever I wanted. I could even intersect the imaginary world and the more or less real extrapolated Earth of a thousand years or so in the future, with space travel and colonization and what the hell, evil Psycorps (thank you, Babylon-5) and financially strapped archaeologists and my favorite space-opera construct, the space whale or sentient starship (we love you, Moya, and commemorate you). There could even be real opera, and my head was giving me its own sound track for that; some of it made it into the book, and twisted the plot in oh so twisty ways in the process.

The whole point was to go wild in my own personal universe, but make it work as a long-form fiction. To have one whole hell of a lot of fun, in short, and rock that whole straddle-the-genres thing. Stop hiding from it or apologizing for it, and own it. Bloody-handed Bronze Age warlord, evil (and not so evil) psi masters, parallel universes, space whales, stargates (I had them first!), lost-world mysteries, and all.


Forgotten Worlds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBook|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.


45 Comments on “The Big Idea: Judith Tarr”

  1. I thought I already had this on my wishlist, but a check said no. It is now.

  2. This post not only made me buy the book, but also to pick up some Alan E. Nourse.

  3. Crap. Another one on the ‘to read’ list.

    And I’ll be dipped if the Big Idea didn’t just bump it past 137 other books. Double crap.

    And indie published….triple….aw hell, y’all get it.

  4. Have been lurking on this site for a long long time. Had to finally break my silence to say: I read your big idea; downloaded and read the sample chapter; and clicked on buy. Am so excited to start reading…

  5. Catnip. It sounds to me like catnip smells to my cat. I must go roll around in it, NOW.

  6. Andre Norton-esque SF&F all glomed together ? W00t! Count me in! (Norton was also a prominent feature of my preteen and teen-aged library scavenging years)

  7. Alan E. Nourse! That’s it. I’ve been trying to think of the first SF author I ever read and it was ‘Scavengers in Space’. Great. Now I can devote that portion of my brain to other long forgotten trivia.

  8. So, I not only want to read the book, I want to read this gorgeous essay about six more times.

    “So here I was, larval writer, chewing my way through anything and everything that tasted even remotely good, and spinning it out in teeny-tiny handwritten scribbles on purloined notebook paper, narrow rule, two lines per ruled line and four or five at the top (ah, young eyes!).”

    That is beautiful.

  9. This sounds like a good read. I’ll have to give it a try. I really enjoy a long, complex space opera.

    In that vein, and inspired by the mention of Sherwood Smith, I’ve got to say something about Exordium. It is, without doubt, my favorite space opera. It is such a good story, done so well, that I have always been puzzled at why it wasn’t much more successful. In most things it is pretty much impossible for me to pick a single thing as my favorite. But in space opera it is very easy for me to say Exordium is my favorite.

  10. It seems strange that publishers would pass on a hybrid SF-SF novel; Anne McCaffrey was pretty successful doing just that. Also, I miss Farscape.

  11. Wow – Ms. Tarr and I have way much in common – B-5? Smith-Corona typewriter? reading Andre Norton in the 60s? Wish horses were also on that commonality list but alas, such was not my path in life. This book definitely goes on my list. Wondering how I’ve not read anything by her yet & planning to fix that soon!

  12. Darrelle: I just proofread a completely revamped and updated edition of Exo 3, and 4 is in the works. Book View Cafe. Keep an eye on it. (Holy crap, they blew up the [redacted]!)

    Dave Trowbridge vetted the handwavium in FS, and Sherwood Smith was Madame Editor, she of the eagle eyes. We acknowledge the debt.

    Catherine Reed: Couldn’t even get it past the agents. “But you have a YA protagonist but you have an adult protagonist but it’s space opera and you’re not a twentysomething guy (hello, is Ann Leckie?) but the writing is just not -contemporary- enough, thankyouverymuch but we all loved the read and shared it with all our families and but and but.” Thought about persevering anyhow, looked at what publisher deals have devolved into unless you’re a very, very big seller, and Book View Cafe it was. If I’m going to be a niche author, I shall do it in style.

    I hope everyone who bought the book enjoys it. It’s meant to be fun.

  13. This book sounds delightful, and I’m very glad that indie/self publishing is a thing that lets excellent books get published. However, I do almost all of my reading through my public library. If I bought everything I read, I would quickly run out of space to store books, and shortly thereafter money to feed myself. And indie/self published books rarely show up in my public library. While I’m seriously considering buying this, reading it, and then donating it to my local library, is there a better way?

  14. I read Forgotten Suns the first week in January when the Kickstarter delivered. Loved it. Loved its connection to the bronze-agey series. Want more.

  15. Mike T: Do you read ebooks at your library? Ask them to order it through Overdrive (it’s also available through some other services, depending on where you are). They might also order the print edition on the strength of its having been reviewed in Publishers’ Weekly. It never hurts to ask.

    We love libraries. Book View Cafe has arrangements with quite a few systems worldwide. (We don’t really count as indie any more; we’re a small-to-medium press publishing over a hundred books a year, all by members, and all through volunteer labor.)

    Rooty2: Thank You! I am seriously contemplating the sequel. Even Madame Editor is leaning on me to hurry up and tell her what happened to her favorite characters.

  16. I’ve discovered quite a few new authors from Scalzi’s blog, for which I am grateful. I had a lot of email to slog through today, and almost deleted my entire inbox, but for some reason I unclicked this Big Idea email and am so glad I did. I can’t wait to get my hands on your new book, and must say, Ms. Judith Tarr, you know how to write a sales pitch. It’s too bad the publishers wouldn’t greenlight this before, but you know, maybe it just had to happen this way. The story sounds fun, but honestly, your writing of this essay made me click over to your blog, and I feel like I was just introduced to a new, delightful human being.

  17. I read a ton of Ms Tarr’s books in the 80’s and 90’s, but then she seemed to disappear from bookstores, and I guess she fell off my radar. Boo hiss! I definitely have some catching up to do, especially since we are fellow alumnae, 15 years apart. Starting with this new novel, of course, now that my interest is piqued.

    I wonder what publishing would be like if agents and editors did market research the junk food and movie companies do. Unfortunately, the time investment is significantly longer…

  18. Just checked San Francisco Public (overdrive), a couple other library systems and Link+ and did not see it. :-( Guess I will put on my wishlist for now.

  19. SusanB, it’s tricky, and you may have to ask your librarian to help (especially if said library doesn’t already own any ebooks by Judith Tarr; that makes it more difficult for some reason), but it IS possible to request books via OverDrive–that is, if the library doesn’t own the ebook, “recommend” that they buy it. In my experience, they usually do. The last time I requested an ebook, the notification of “Book On Hold” showed up in my email less than five hours later.

    I mention this only because it took me nearly two years of checking out ebooks from my local public library before I figured out what that “Recommend” button was for. I’m kind of a techno-klutz . . .

  20. Norton was the first sci fi I ever read. And you have space whales? I am on board.

  21. The new culture of publishing is as earth-shattering as moveable type. I have “Forgotten Suns” competing with another new book, and a re-read of something that’s been out for a couple of years. I’d love to cut cards, and finish one completely, but then I have the other two books muttering. Best I can do is switch once-a-day, and keep universes separated to the best of my ability. I’m getting subconscious crossovers, something I’m not looking for.

    Then I have a universe to fill out, and some disgruntled characters poking me in the subconscious ribs because they feel that THEY deserve my full attention. Finally, there’s RL waaay in the background, muttering darkly about how it can apply REAL discipline on my ass. So part of my time is devoted to find some way to placate RL, without going TOO far overboard about it.

  22. Wondering from the OP – are the Avaryan books the backstory that’s mentioned? If so, will be even more peeved that I never got my hands on Tides of Darkness (bought all the others in paperback as they became available in Ireland, some in UK and some in US editions). I have picked up several ebooks from Book View Café in the meantime (nice straightforward system, choice of formats) but I gather there is some issue over reverting the rights to Tides of Darkness.
    Anyway that won’t stop me from getting Forgotten Suns. Will probably purchase this weekend for when I finish Michelle West’s Oracle.

  23. brightglance, Tides of Darkness is available on the MediaOverdrive Books to Recommend list at my local public library, so I imagine that there is at least an ebook that’s available–not sure if that’s the format you wanted or not (or if it would “do”) but it is definitely there.

  24. I am trying to get Tides of Darkness back, but it’s a process. Having the other books out means people are buying it which means it’s not OOP. One of those unfortunate fortunate situations. The ebook is badly formatted, full of errors, and has no cover. Makes me twitch. Book View Cafe is a gold standard for ebook formatting and design, and then there’s…that.

    There is an audiobook. If that helps.

  25. I’m an antediluvian who prefers to read hard copy (although I do read e-books when no other option exists). I shall poke the purchasing agent at my local library and see if they’ll bite, and may buy the e-book for myself regardless. Good authors deserve to make good incomes.

  26. Thank you for posting this, Scalzi. I bought the ebook and I am delighted to be reading adult prose about a vast set of ideas. Wonderful.

  27. I loved your books that I stumbled upon in the 80s and 90s, and this one looks like it’s a lot of fun! Sold!

  28. Definitely looks interesting (and I’m a bit mindboggled that the author of the _Hound and the Falcon_ books can’t get attention from conventional publishers!) but I was sad to see that the “excerpt” link points to a mere blurb.

  29. Chris, scroll to the bottom of the blurb page. You will find two format options for the sample.

    I got ditched years ago for shitty sales. Traumatic at the time but ultimately best thing ever. I could never have written this book if I’d stayed where I was. It colors outside too many lines.

  30. Is it on Google Play, and can we add those to the links of places to buy it if so? I’ve been buying a lot more ebooks there this year (partly because I’m pretty sure Google is going to be around longer than Barnes and Noble).

  31. The Google Play interface is a thing of eldritch horror, but you’re right, I should gird up my lions (Binky and Aslan) and get the book up.

  32. Thanks, Mary Frances, I would buy an ebook but it’s not available that I can see on this side of the Atlantic.
    Anyway I’m away to read Forgotten Suns now, and have also bought something from Sherwood Smith to keep me going.

  33. This is one of these Big Ideas segments where I really really really wish I could take the author for coffee and keep the conversation going. So stoked to spread the word—and good on ya fellow indie for getting your work out there the way you think is best!