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Sunday May 30, 2010

World weaver

From her prolific pen comes tortured characters, living amazing lives in wonderful realms.

FROM the thoroughly-grounded-in-the-real-world field of software engineering, Carol Berg travelled as far as a person possibly could, to publishing best-selling fantasy novels. And this she did after working for multinational technology corporation Hewlett-Packard for 17 years. Talk about a late bloomer!

Though Berg was an avid reader as a child, this native of the American state of Texas – born at the “foot of the Rockies”, as she puts it – was caught up by science and the excitement of the US space programme, which was in its golden years when she was a teen in the 1960s.

Carol Berg is a late blooming author – but she’s certainly catching up quickly, publishing 11 books in one decade,

(Berg doesn’t address questions about her age but the Internet Speculative Fiction Database – tinyurl.com/3xacffy – has her in her early 60s now.)

She didn’t escape creative influences entirely, though, as she comes from a family of teachers, musicians and railroad men (who were, we’ll have you know, very creative in building the great rail network that eventually traversed the length and breadth of the United States!).

But Berg didn’t like writing school papers, she says in an interview at sffworld.com (tinyurl.com/386skrs), so she took maths and eventually got a degree in maths and another in computer science. She taught secondary school-level math for several years before becoming a software engineer for Hewlett-Packard. And there she stayed for almost two decades.

So how does one go from that to producing 11 fantasy novels in a decade, not to mention being a finalist or a winner in some form of awards or another almost every year since then 2000?

“Actually, I never believed I could write a book,” says Berg in an e-mail interview.

“... The idea of figuring out a complicated plot, making characters come to life, foreshadowing events so that a reader would say, ‘Ah-ha!’ just seemed horribly difficult.”

However, the writing bug finally bit her halfway through her engineering career, sometime in 1989. A friend suggested that they start writing a series of e-mail letters “in character” so that she could practice her writing. It sounded like a fun and easy exercise, so Berg decided to give it a go.

“When I sat down to write the first letter, I came up with 20 pages. I was astonished, and I was hooked,” she says.

She continued writing just “for the sheer pleasure of it” and although she read many genres, found herself attracted mainly to the fantasy genre: “What I love about fantasy is that it is such a grand canvas for telling any human story,” she explains.

For nine years she wrote her tales, never thinking that anyone would read them. Then, in 1998, one of her novels, Song of the Beast, about a musician who could “sing” visions, won a contest for unpublished authors at a writers’ conference in Colorado, United States. Somehow, she ended up reading her newest story, Transformation, to an editor from Penguin Putnam there.

“A year and a half later, I sold Song of the Beast, Transformation and the book that became Revelation and Restoration,” she says.

In 2002, when her company gave those who had been employees for 15 years the option of retiring early with pay, Berg grabbed the opportunity and became a full-time author. She soon began producing some of the best novels in the fantasy genre.

After Song of the Beast (published 2003), came the Books of the Rai-kirah (comprising Transformation, Revelation and Restoration, published 2000-2002), The Bridge of D’Arnath (Son of Avonar, Guardians of the Keep, The Soul Weaver and Daughter of Ancients, 2004-2005), and The Lighthouse Duet (Flesh and Spirit, Breath and Bone, 2007-2008).

Berg is currently working on The Novels of the Collegia Magica. The first book, The Spirit Lens, was published early this year, and she’s putting the finishing touches to the second book, The Soul Mirror.

Her family – Berg is married to Pete, a mechanical engineer, and has three sons “just about out of the nest” – thinks that her job is absolutely cool.

“Of course, my eldest son, a musician, has told me he thinks my books need more pictures. I threw a book at him,” she says.

I have to admit to being a Berg fan; I think her books are fantastic – if you’re not one of her characters, that is. It’s not unusual to find some of them undergoing wince-inducing torture, imprisonment and enduring all kinds of injuries and injustices throughout the series.

“It’s true, I am not easy on my heroes and heroines,” Berg says, but then, conflict is the meat of a good story, she adds.

“Conflict changes people. And in order to make people change, in order to make them do things they really, really don’t want to do – to be truly heroic – I confront them with hard events,” she explains.

In fact, her books are usually born when she imagines a character in a terrible situation!

“A handsome, arrogant young warrior riding through the desert, as if bound for a great destiny, though I know he is currently unworthy of it (whatever it is), or my poor musician getting released after 17 years of torment still not knowing why he had been imprisoned,” she says.

Alternatively, she might be struck by something she heard or read. She was inspired to write The Lighthouse Duet duology after hearing a news feature on US National Public Radio about The Last Lighthouse.

“I (always try to think): what would these people really do, and how can I turn these events upon their heads. I keep notes and timelines and ‘who knows what’ lists that I develop as I go,” she says.

Till this day, Berg, who calls herself a “confirmed introvert”, is amazed by the fact that she has published 11 books and is now speaking at conventions, writers’ conferences and events.

“I still don’t quite believe it. I see myself as a very ordinary person – wife, mother, teacher, engineer. I took up this hobby, and wow, here I am doing an interview for a Malaysian publication!”

But Berg’s success is a rare story in the brutal publishing industry; staying published is always a challenge. Berg attributes her success to her readers who not only buy the books but write reviews and recommend them to friends and colleagues.

“I like to think that happens because I work hard to create stories I am passionate about. Readers do need to know that almost every author they follow is on the verge of being dropped,” she says.

Which is why, although she is thrilled that her books are now being turned into eBooks (authors get a bigger cut from eBook sales), she isn’t happy about how eBooks are pirated.

“I’ve seen ‘torrent sites’ where 1,500 copies of one of my books have been downloaded, and there are hundreds of these sites,” she says. (Torrent sites are based on a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol used for distributing large amounts of data.)

Authors do not get a cent from pirated books, and this prevents them from getting royalties – much needed income.

“It cuts into an author’s sales, which means publishers won’t pick up their next work. Readers will eventually be stuck with the 20 best-selling authors and miss out on lots of wonderful stories,” she says.

We do hope that’s never going to be Berg’s fate, as she has more than a few books still in her head. There are limitless possibilities in fantasy, she says, and right now Berg is content to stay in the genre, producing tales about broken men and women living in magical but devastated worlds who manage to overcome it all to emerge triumphant.

The Spirit of the Lens is reviewed on SM17

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