It's a cliche that writers are often asked where they get their ideas from - but for best-selling American fantasy author Robin Hobb, one of her best known was thanks to her husband working on a fishing boat in Alaska. "At the time I could live aboard whatever ship my husband was working on for a week or two during the summers.
"I'd listen to the other guys all tell their stories and what really comes across is that the fishing boats really have their own personalities - and it seems to transcend who's the captain and who is the crew.
"The guys will talk about it like it's well known: 'I'm never going to work on that ship again', or they will say something like: 'well it's a rough ride, but she knows which way is up'."
Hobb took the "extra step" as she calls it, of imagining ships that really are alive. These sentient "liveships" as she calls them were the basis for a trilogy of novels, The Liveship Traders, published between 1998 and 2000, part of Hobb's gigantic and ongoing fantasy sequence of novels and stories called The Realms of the Elderlings, all set in the same imagined world. Hobb is now up to her 15th novel in the sequence, The Fool's Assassin, the first of a new trilogy, to be released in September.
But while readers unfamiliar with Hobb's work may think the concept of a "liveship" sounds like a nautical twist on Thomas the Tank Engine, Hobb's fantasies are very much for adults. And for all of their use of familiar fantasy elements, including dragons and magic, Hobb's works are serious, gritty and with a nod to the harsh realities of real life, much in the same vein as Game of Thrones. A Game of Thrones author George RR Martin no less has praised Hobb's works.
"In today's crowded fantasy market Robin Hobb's books are like diamonds in a sea of zircons," he's said.
Best-selling sci-fi and fantasy writer Orson Scott Card has been equally impressed, stating that Hobb "arguably set the standard for the modern serious fantasy novel".
Hobb, 62, is now in the rare position of being a big seller and critically admired. Speaking from Perth where she's a guest at Supernova Pop Culture Expo, she'll appear at the giant Comic Con in San Diego next month and in August as a guest of honour at the World Science Fiction Convention in London, the mecca for sci-fi and fantasy literature writers and readers. It's a long way from her beginnings.
Hobb is the second pen name for writer Margaret Ogden - although Hobb prefers to be addressed as Robin. Born in California, she grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. She studied at Denver University for a year, but returned to Alaska at age 18 and married Fred Ogden. The couple settled in Fred's hometown of Kodiak island. While raising four children, Hobb pursued a variety of writing forms. She wrote exclusively under the pen name Megan Lindholm from 1983 to 1992 and her talent in writing fantasy and a small amount of sci-fi was recognised quickly, including nominations for the two genres' two biggest awards, the Hugos and Nebulas.
Hobb still writes under the name Lindholm for some works, but since 1995 she's used Hobb for big epic traditional fantasy works. Hobb says she always had a natural inclination to write fantasy.
"Fantasy has always been what I loved to read, whether it was fairytales and myths and legends when I was small. [But] the first time I read Lord of the Rings it was simply a life-changing event," she says.
"If the first rule of writing is 'write what you know', the corollary of that should also be 'write what you love to read'."
Even within the confines of Hobb's worlds there is a depth of detail. Hobb, who often writes in a spiral notebook during long flights, says she does a lot of research. "Everything you do and read comes out eventually somewhere in your writing. Although it is fantasy and I've had people say: 'I want to write fantasy 'cause you can make up anything' - that's not exactly true.
"I do a lot of research for the books because if I am writing about a sailing ship, or a horse, or what herb you use when you get a headache, and I get it all wrong - there are going to be readers who helm sailing ships and horses and do herbs and they are going to say: 'If you don't know what you are talking about with these things, obviously you're not going to know what you are talking about with dragons'."
Hobb's research doesn't only involve reading, she interviews and talks with people. "I have never climbed a mountain. My favourite thing is to go to a primary source. [I] go talk to people that climb mountains for fun and say: 'Well, what would happen if this happened? Can I steal a story from you and give it to my hero?' "
Hobb is using her time in Australia to visit New Zealand this week and while she will be signing her books and talking to fans in Wellington on Thursday, another motive for visiting the capital will be her chance to meet world-renowned fantasy illustrator John Howe.
Howe, a Canadian, has worked on Sir Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies and has done the cover illustrations for several of Hobb's novels. "I've never met John, even though we've corresponded by email for 20 years now. So this is exciting for me. This is the high point of this trip, actually."
Robin Hobb will be signing copies of her books at Arty Bees Books in Wellington, Thursday, 5.30pm. The Fool's Assassin, published by HarperCollins, is out in September.
- The Dominion Post