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Tabula Rasa
[Rachaela] disliked colour on her person, it wounded her.
    Dark Dance

I find that if you mention Tanith Lee, people jump to conclusions. They've all read something; but for one person it was the 'fantasy' novels Storm Lord and The Birthgrave. An acquaintance knew her by the 'children's' book The Winter Players. Then there's the one who's read The Book of the Damned and Sabella, and keeps raving that Anne Rice doesn't know what she's talking about, these are vampires. Same acquaintance discovered Sabella in the Children's section of a book store, presumably by virtue of it's 'novella' size. Suffice to say, Tanith Lee has written much more and more varied than what you or I have read.

Ms Lee was gracious enough to give written answers to our questions. Read on, and find yourself --

On the Lee Side

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#4, 1994

Tabula Rasa: Firstly, could you please tell us a little about your background, and when did you start writing?

Tanith Lee: I was born in North London in 1947. I didn't learn to read until I was almost eight -- partly bad schooling, and partly I suspect slight dyslectic problems. My father, driven mad by this, taught me to read. At nine I began writing.

TR: How did you make the transition to becoming a professional writer, (and how did it feel)?

TL: In the usual way I submitted manuscripts to publishers. This was not so much a feeling that I should be published as a wish to escape the feared and hated drudgery of 'normal' work. In my twenties some of my work for children was published by Macmillan. However, I was twenty-seven before my adult novel, The Birthgrave, was taken by DAW Books in the USA. This enabled me finally to stop doing stupid and soul-killing jobs, and start working day and night as a professional writer.

It felt like a rescue from damnation, and still does.

Tanith Lee
Photograph © Jerry Bauer.

TR: Do you consider yourself a 'British Author'? Do you think working in Britain as distinct from say, America, influences your work?

TL: I think of myself as a story-teller, and that is it. Locality is, in my case, unimportant. My mind and heart go where they wish. America does influence my work, also France, Europe generally, the East and India.

TR: Your work frequently comes across as being mythic; that is, having resonances of various myth cycles, and the depth that comes with them. Would you like to say something about your work in some relation to, for instance, Celtic or Christian myth?

TL: I am interested in most mythology. Celtic or Christian no more than anything else. I will admit to a pleasure and sense of hope in what I see as the basic teachings of Christ, stripped of the nonsense that has sometimes been accumulated about them and the embarrassing misunderstanding.

TR: A specific mythology, Vampirism, plays a major part in your work. The question we'd like to ask is, what do you like about vampires?

TL: What I like about vampires is what I like about everything I want to write about, the depths and heights, the pain and joy. Life.

TR: A change of pace was the well-regarded short story Three Days. Was this simply something refreshing, or was it linked to your other themes and interests?

TL: Three Days comes from my interest in reincarnation which I explored in a number of works. What had struck me was the desire of certain people to undermine any form of pure self-expression. In whatever form, or by whatever means, everyone has the right to develop or transform -- providing this hurts no one else in any life-threatening way. The axis of the story is just such a flight, motivated by a belief in reincarnation, stifled by a constipated evil the like of which even I have seldom written of. The curiosity of the case is quite usual, in circles where reincarnation is credited.

TR: Another of our favourite stories is Sabella, which has been described as a fantasy/horror/science fiction novella. What is your opinion on genre categories, such as these?

TL: Genre categories are irrelevant. I dislike them, but I do not have the casting vote. Writing is writing and stories are stories. Perhaps the only true genres are fiction and non-fiction. And even there, who can be sure?

TR: Genre not withstanding, you have written a number of what are generally referred to as children's books. What do you find is the difference between child and adult audiences, where does this demarcation lie?

TL: Again, no difference. How dare one presume to write in a particular way, for children? They deserve the best of a writer, just as the writer deserves the best of themselves. The only limits are sex, for reasons of censorship, and violence, for reasons of common sense.

TR: With this in mind, might we mention The Tales of the Sisters Grimmer. What was the inspiration behind these?

TL: I rather like turning all stories around. As a child, my mother told me lots of fairy stories, many her own invention. She too tended to reverse the norm, as for example her tale where the prince ended up marrying the witch -- this one I stole from her -- with her complete consent, to use in my children's book Princess Hynchatti. Red as Blood was my first concerted excursion into turning all my personal favourites around. When I am fascinated by something, I like to play with it.

TR: And writing for television! What was it like working on Blakes 7? How ever did it come about?

TL: Blakes 7 approached me, to write for the series. I had watched most of it, and already had some ideas about what the characters could be missing out on. I liked doing the two episodes, and had plans for others, I would have liked to concentrate on each personality in turn. But of course the series ended.

TR: Have you ever been approached by the movie industry, in your home country or elsewhere? Do you indeed have any interest in this field?

TL: I have been approached several times by the movie industry, who have sometimes taken out options on my work. So far nothing has come of any of this. I like films, or some films, and would be intrigued to see my work on screen.

TR: One of the most recent books to arrive in the country is Personal Darkness, the second in the Blood Opera series. The books seem to initially set up a conflict between various shades of Gothic, particularly between Rachaela and the Scarabae, and then Ruth in the sequel. Can you comment on these novels and your use of the contemporary setting?

TL: An editor suggested to me I might try contemporary horror. At first this didn't appeal -- then the idea arrived. I had for years had the notion of a huge diaspora of a family, immensely secretively powerful, with roots in past ages. Cool and stifled Rachaela came next, and the old dark house on the cliff. Things grew from there. The contrast between the ancient and the modern is what I enjoy most about these books. I don't know why, and have no intellectual reason I can give. Possibly it has something to do with the eternal awfulness and sweetness of all life, therefore of any age: for example the expression, 'This is no world to bring children into' has always been, and, alas may always be true. I mean to attempt to get into these parallels even more in book four.

TR: Do you write to any schedule, or pattern, and is it easy to stick to?

TL: I used to work all hours of day and night, but changes in my life and physical stamina have meant that now I rarely work so long as I did -- four in the morning was a reasonable time to me, for finishing up. That isn't in my range any more. There are now so many interruptions by that old ogre, life, that my schedules have become non-existent. I work when I can and feel able to, but that is still most days.

TR: If it's permissible, what are you presently working on?

TL: I have just finished a parallel Victorian novel, Reigning Cats and Dogs, about a duel between the powers of Bast and Anubis, or between man and woman -- or between hate and love, pain and comfort, power and kindness. This should be out from Headline over here, sometime probably in 1996.

TR: A year or so ago a book was released entitled Black Trillium. This was reputedly constructed by the three authors each exploring a strong female archetype. I would be interested to know what you think of the idea of 'strong female archetypes'.

TL: What does this mean? Archetypes are universal, and, in subtle or extravagant ways, interchangeable. I like writing about women, weak and strong, pathetic and heroic. I like writing about men, ditto. And all the variants of men and women, beasts and demons.

TR: And just to round off, what are a few of your favourite things?

TL: Almost too many to mention. Prokofiev and Shostakovich and Rachmaninov. Colette and Graham Green and Rebecca West. Olivier's Hamlet and other Shakespeare. Vivien Leigh, Anjelica Huston, Elizabeth Taylor, Rutger Hauer. Cold white wine, Indian food, crisp salad. NYPD Blue. Football. Every animal, a few people. Writing, always that.

TR: Ms Lee, thank you, and our best wishes for the future.


Tanith Lee Bibliography

  • The Dragon Hoard, 1971
  • Princess Hynchatti and some other surprises, short stories, 1972
  • Animal Castle, picture book (illustrations by Helen Craig), 1972.
  • The Birthgrave, Birthgrave #1,1975
  • Companions on the Road, 1975
  • Don't Bite the Sun, Don't Bite the Sun #1, 1976
  • The Storm Lord, Wars of Vis #1, 1976
  • The Winter Players, 1976
  • Drinking Sapphire Wine, Don't Bite the Sun #2, 1977
  • East of Midnight, 1977
  • Volkhavaar, 1977
  • The Castle of Dark, Dark Castle #1, 1978
  • Night's Master, Tales from the Flat Earth #1, 1978
  • Vazkor, son of Vazkor, Also known as Shadowfire, Birthgrave #2, 1978
  • Quest for the White Witch, Birthgrave #3, 1978
  • Death's Master, Tales from the Flat Earth #2, 1979
  • Electric Forest, 1979
  • Shon, the Taken, 1979
  • Cyrion, 1980
  • Day by Night, 1980
  • Kill the Dead, 1980
  • Sabella, or, the Bloodstone, 1980
  • Delusion's Master, Tales from the Flat Earth #3, 1981
  • Lycanthia, or, The Children of Wolves, 1981
  • The Silver Metal Lover, 1981
  • Unsilent Night, includes some verse, 1981
  • Prince on a White Horse, Dark castle #2, 1982
  • Anackire, Wars of Vis #2, 1983
  • Red as Blood, or, Tales from the Sisters Grimmer, 1983.
  • Sung in Shadow, 1983
  • The Beautiful Biting Machine, limited ed. 127 copies, 1984
  • Delirium's Mistress, Tales from the Flat Earth #4, 1984
  • Tamastara, or, the Indian Nights, short stories, 1984
  • Days of Grass, 1985
  • The Gorgon, and Other Beastly Tales, 1985
  • Dreams of Dark and Light -- the great short fiction of Tanith Lee, Arkham House, 1986
  • Night's Sorceries, a novel of the Flat Earth, Flat Earth #5, 1987
  • The Book of the Damned, The Secret Books of Paradys #1, 1988
  • The Book of the Beast, The Secret Books of Paradys #2, 1988
  • Madame Two Swords, 1988
  • The White Serpent, Wars of Vis #3, 1988
  • Forests of the Night, short stories, 1989
  • A Heroine of the World, 1989
  • Women as Demons: the male perception of women through space and time, short stories, 1989
  • The Blood of Roses, 1990
  • The Black Unicorn, 1991
  • The Book of the Dead, The Secret Books of Paradys #3, 1991
  • Into Gold, Pulphouse Short Story Paperbacks #32, 1991
  • Dark Dance, Blood Opera #1, 1992
  • Heart-Beast, 1992
  • Elephantasm, 1993
  • The Book of the Mad, The Secret Books of Paradys #4, 1993
  • Personal Darkness, Blood Opera #2, 1993
  • Nightshades, short stories, 1993.
  • Darkness, I, Blood Opera #3, 1994
Plus: four radio plays: Bitter Gate (mythology), Red Wine (vampire), Death is King (historical) and The Silver Sky (SF), between 1979 and 1980 inclusive, and the Blakes 7 episodes Sarcophagus, 1980, and Sand, 1981.


  • The Gold Unicorn (sequel of The Black Unicorn), 1994
  • Vivia, 1995
  • The Gods are Thirsty (Historical novel about the French Revolution), 1996.

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