Barbara Hambly on the Legend of Anne Steelyard

For decades, Barbara Hambly has been one of those novelists whose sales don't often equal their critical acclaim. Jumping from one genre to the next, Hambly has written fantasy, historical fiction and mysteries in addition to tie-in novels for the Star Trek, Star Wars and Beauty and the Beast franchises, managing to satisfy and subvert the expectations of every genre in often surprising ways.

"Anne Steelyard and the Garden of Emptiness: An Honorary Man" is the first in a series of three graphic novels from Hambly and Penny-Farthing Press. The idea for the character of Steelyard may have been inspired by Gertrude Bell, the famous archeologist and explorer, but the book is very much its own creation, a unique combination of old fashioned adventure comics, pulp fiction, and a Barbara Hambly book.

The first volume, featuring art by Claude St. Aubin, Alex Kosakowski, Ron Randall and Mike Garcia, debuted last month at the New York Comic Con, and Penny-Farthing is planning to release the next two volumes in quick succession In addition to the Anne Steelyard series, Hambly also has another graphic novel from Penny-Farthing in development, a prequel to the publisher's series, "The Victorian."

CBR News spoke with Hambly about all this and more.

CBR: Tell us about the origins of the Anne Steelyard project.

Barbara Hambly: The folks at Penny-Farthing wanted to do a graphic novel with a character very loosely based on an actual female archeologist named Gertrude Bell. She was working in the Middle East immediately before World War I. She studied the language and the culture. She loved the culture. She was also working for the [British] Foreign Office, taking photographs and making maps of archeological sites close to places that had strategic importance.

Anne Steelyard is loosely based on Gertrude Bell. Like Gertrude Bell, Anne Steelyard has red hair, but that's where the resemblance ends.

They wanted something that was an adventure yarn, something that was a little bit supernatural. I wrote the scripts before I started video gaming, but one of the things that has always slightly irritated me about Lara Croft is that she has infinite amounts of money. She can wreck jeeps and it doesn't matter. I thought, well what if you couldn't? Anne's father has infinite amounts of money, but Anne's father wants her to marry a member of the aristocracy and become a respectable upper class woman. So the overriding arc of the three graphic novels is that Anne is searching for a lost city, which if she finds it, she will able to get work at one of the universities as the great discoverer of this lost city.

If she were to just break with her father, she would not be able to afford to live in the Middle East. That's kind of the backstory behind all the desert adventure and riding with the Bedouins and fighting sand demons and being imprisoned by murderous sheiks who are actually working for the Germans.

If you read about the life of Gertrude Bell, she had exactly that issue and she knuckled under to her family. With Gertrude Bell, it was okay with her family if she continued to do what she did, but she was not permitted to marry the man she loved. You've got a choice, what is the most important thing? You can have the most important thing, but you can't have anything else. That was the vibe I got from Gertrude Bell, which I then translated into how would Anne Steelyard deal with this.

You've written a lot of historical mysteries and a lot of fantasy. Why was it that Penny-Farthing came to you with this project, which is more like pulp fiction?

My first project for Penny-Farthing was about the villain of "The Victorian" series. Len Wein was writing "The Victorian" series and Len is a friend of mine. He mentioned me and they said, "You know Barbara Hambly?" I'd written a series of historical murder mysteries about a free black musician in New Orleans about thirty years before the Civil War.

The "Benjamin January" mysteries.

Yes. I had lived in New Orleans. I'd studied the history of New Orleans. I know the city in the nineteenth century better than I know it in the twentieth century, certainly better than I know it now.

They asked me to do a single volume graphic novel back-story about the villain, which takes place in New Orleans right after the Civil War. This has not yet been published because they just finished with "The Victorian." I got to know them then and they got to know my feel for historical writing. So when they had this Gertrude Bell project, they called me.

Coincidentally, my late husband, George Alec Effinger, his series, "When Gravity Fails," "A Fire in the Sun," and "The Exile Kiss," take place in this future in an unnamed Middle Eastern city, and when he passed away he left me with a garage full of books about the Middle East. So when they said, "write something in the Middle East," well, I happen to have a few thousand books on that subject.

You've written mostly novels before. How does writing a graphic novel compare?

It's very different from writing a novel because you're telling the story in a series of still pictures. In a novel, you can say, "he ran across the room and opened the door." You can't have a still picture of someone running across the room. I have to analyze how to tell the story and what series of moments do you chose. This was my first attempt and my dialogue is wordy. I need to work on cutting that down. I thought I was cutting it down, but now I read it and I could have done that a lot better. I will be curious to go back and see the third volume when it comes out to see the changes in my work between the first volume and the third volume.

Did you have a hand in choosing your artists and did you work closely with them?

If I had found the artist obnoxious and had said something to them, they would have rethought the artist, but I don't know, and that isn't necessary. Penny-Farthing has the same view of storytelling that I do. It's one reason why I felt so comfortable working for Penny-Farthing. They have very lush, naturalistic style in their period work. I guess some people would call it old fashioned. They're not trying to be avant-garde, which is perfectly fine for more modern projects, but if you're doing a Victorian period piece, please make the art naturalistic so that it's not fighting the storyline.

Just in educating yourself about writing comics, was there anyone who helped you or anything you read that was especially enlightening?

The first comics story I wrote was never published, but Neil Gaiman talked me through writing my first script. So I figure that's learning from the best. I'm idiosyncratic in my taste in comics but I've read enough comics to understand that style of storytelling. Of course I read Eisner's book. It's a wonderful book.

The other thing is, when I was a small child, before I learned the alphabet, I used to write stories by storyboarding them. Coming back to it felt very natural. It did not feel like something I hadn't done before.

What comics do you read?

The comics that got me into reading comics were all of the Silver Age Batman and Justice League. I was a DC girl. I really like the Silver Age Batman. I don't like the psychotic "Dark Knight" Batman. Then of course there was a long hiatus where I was too cool to read comic books. When I got back into it, I loved "Grimjack," "Hellboy," and "The Sandman." I dabbled in other comics, but I can't get interested. When I'm working on a novel -- and now that I've started teaching -- it's hard to get into reading something new if it's emotionally demanding at all. I tend to just read nonfiction because I can pick it up and put it down and I have much less time than I used to. In this economy, everyone is short of time. It takes more of your time to earn the same kind of living.

What else do you have coming out soon?

The "Benjamin January" series, which has been on hiatus for a number of years, finally got picked up again by a different publisher. I'm doing at least two, and I hope more. That's next year. Everything else is up in the air.

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