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Robin Hobb on changing cultures, writing about violence, and the anonymity of living on a farm

The author’s best selling fantasy books tackle complex topics like slavery, gender and sexual violence, in a magical world full of plotting pirates and forgotten dragons.

Robin Hobb is at peace. Last year, she put the final touches to a twenty-year long literary project: the intertwined stories of the Realm of the Elderlings, the fantasy epic that sold over a million copies. The 16-book series, divided into five parts, ran over two decades, starting with Assassin’s Apprentice (1995) and ending with Assassin’s Fate (2017). Over the course of 20 years, four trilogies and one quartet, characters from one book could re-appear in another, creating an ever-expanding web of complex societies, secret family lines, buried cities and uncharted islands. George RR Martin, with whom Hobb shares an editor, described her books as “diamonds in a sea of zircons”.

“The last books of the Farseer were very hard for me to write, very emotional. For a year, I stopped writing,” Hobb, 66, told the New Statesman at the Imaginales festival in Epinal, France, in May. Fans had travelled from Lille, in the north of France, and Marseilles, in the far south, to meet the author.

When she is not writing best sellers, she lives on a small farm near Tacoma, Washington state. Robin Hobb is a pseudonym – her real name is Margaret Lindholm Ogden – and a cape of anonymity, a disguise she seems to enjoy. “I needed to go to the grocery store and I was still in my boots, and my jeans were dirty. And that never happens, but a woman came to me and said: ‘Oh, you’re that fantasy writer! You’re Melody Young!’” She has a tranquil laugh. “I really wanted to say yes, but I said ‘No, I am the other one’.” Hobb is measured about her success; the farm, she says, is work, too.

Her books tell tales of dragons and pirates, of noblemen and royal plots, masterfully threaded with magic and adventure. The stories are immersive and the characters complex – Hobb alternates points of views from all ages, genders and social statuses with an elegant style. Set in different times and countries of the same world, the Elderlings epic allows Hobb to develop diverse societies – the matriarchal, business-oriented Bingtown; the macho, warring state of Chalced; the rough land of the Six Duchies; all colliding with the return of an ancient dragon race. By introducing cultural clashes between them, Hobb cleverly touches on the subjects of slavery, gender equality, political unrest and sexual violence. In Hobb’s world, whores become queens and gay characters live and love openly.

Five series – trilogies of the Farseer, The Liveship Traders, The Tawny Man, The Fitz and the Fool, and the four books of The Rain Wild chronicles – may seem too vast a reading task, but the Realm of the Elderlings can be entered by many different doors. The Liveship Traders trilogy, for instance, a tale of economic collapse and political crises on the high seas, can be read entirely separately from the rest of the novels set in the same world.

Like Game of Thrones, to which the Elderlings has been compared to for its tapestry of voices – although it is often more tightly threaded than GoT’s – the series seriously tackles political, sexual, and physical violence. Unlike GoT, it does so without glossing over or underplaying the consequences: “I try to express how horrifying and ugly violence is”, Hobb says. “I have read descriptions of violence in which it is almost like a beautiful, or a satisfying, or almost a sexual thing, and that always makes me uncomfortable as a reader.” Rape is present in the series, and Hobb made sure to write the scenes from the victim’s perspective. It reads as a traumatic, haunting experience that never fully leaves the characters it happens to. “I did not want it to be written as something lascivious or somehow exciting. I wanted it to be a terrible, terrible thing.”

The brutality of conflicting regimes and the inhumane logic of for-profit economies manifest themselves in the development of a slave market. “Slavery is not really an old issue, it is an ongoing issue”, says Hobb, adding that where she lives, there have been cases of trafficked women, lured to the United States to be sexually exploited or work to repay their trip. “It is an ongoing thing, and I think it is important to remind people of what slavery is.”

The Elderlings books never ignore women’s stories. In the Liveship Traders series, Hobb paints striking portraits of three generations of women caught in a political maelstrom. The matriarch, Ronica Vestrit, “lives to the old standards, and has not relinquished her power”, Hobb says. Her daughter Keffria has married a man whom she has let control her life: “She has said: ‘I will let my husband make the decisions, it is easier.’ And so you get an imbalance”, Hobb explains. “It can be dangerous.” Teenager Malta’s certitudes are overturned when puberty hits at the same time as violent revolts in her town. “Cultures change”, Hobb says, citing the positive example of Saudi women recently winning the right to drive. “But when regimes change, sometimes there are people who lose privilege, and it can come from above, as a legal system.” Her books are set in a medieval world, but resonate in our era: sometimes, like Keffria Vestrit, “if you do not exercise your power, it goes away”, Hobb says. Just like, perhaps, when you are so sure of what the result of the presidential election will be, that you do not vote: “If you do not vote, you lose your power.” That is as close as the American author will get to Trump’s name. To anyone who has read her books, “Grab her by the pussy” certainly sounds like a brag from the misogynist nation of Chalced.

Unlike Game of Thrones, the adventures of the assassin Fitzchivalry, the dragon Tintaglia and the ship captain Althea have never been adapted for the screen. There has been a French graphic novel version of the Liveship Traders, but Hobb remains careful when dealing with potential adaptations. (She says she doesn’t have an agent for film or television, which complicates things.) And then, there’s the problem of the volume: “Sixteen books!” She laughs. “I think it would be very difficult series to make. You start with these characters in the Farseer trilogy, and then the next season they're all gone and we have a whole new cast. You could do alternating episodes, but I think it would be very complicated.” To play the Fool, one of her most beloved characters, she imagines “a very young David Bowie”. “Of course”, she adds, “it is far too late to hope for anything like that.”

In Hobb’s Elderlings universe, names matter. Her own pen name was carefully chosen by checking which letter of the alphabet is better placed on libraries’ shelves. “It was H”, she says. And “Robin” is intentionally gender neutral. (In the books, The Fool is similarly careful about gender, refusing to reveal whether they are male or female.) Her process for naming characters is more obscure: “It happens in a part of my mind which I don’t have access to. They step out on to the stage with a name”, she explains with a fond smile. In her universe, names can embody a character’s virtues – like the noble brothers Chivalry, Nimble, Swift, Steady, Just and Hearth – or make them reflect poorly on their actions – like the captain Kyle Haven, whose greediness creates endless troubles for his ship and family’s business. The sailor Brashen, a character from her Liveship Traders series, was named after the “very best deckhands” and a colleague of Hobb’s husband, who is a marine engineer. Now, just like George RR Martin’s Khaleesi, there are children named after Brashen and his lover Althea. “It’s a very strange feeling, because I think: ‘Will the child like this when they are older?’” she worries.

Hobb has learned to “fit writing wherever” she can, because when she started, there was no time to waste: “I was a mother with small children, my husband was at sea and I also had a job.” Fitz and the Fool, Bee, Brashen and Althea grew up in “different pieces of time” in-between her other life, the one spent raising four children at the farm, “with chickens and ducks and things”. During the writing of Assassin’s Apprentice, her youngest daughter was about three years old. When approaching her deadline, Hobb made her daughter sit on a cushion on the floor and played Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on a loop while she wrote. Now Hobb will write over her morning coffee, then feed the farm’s animals, fix things around the farm and come back to the writing. “All the time when I am not writing, I am thinking about it. That enables me to come back and say ‘Now I know how the conversation will go,’ or ‘Now I know what they will do next’,” she explains. “So even when I am not writing, I am still writing.”

There are still children at the farm – they’re just her grandchildren now. “If I’m busy, I will say: ‘There's a package of hotdogs in the refrigerator, go outside and build a little fire, find some sticks, you'll be fine’.” She laughs: “Sometimes it's a disaster, but often they just learn to do things for themselves and it works out.”

Hobb hasn’t ruled out coming back to the Elderlings, but she is currently writing something new: an urban fantasy story based near Tacoma, Washington State, where she lives. “It’s a story I have wanted to write for a long time, but I don’t know if anyone will want to publish it.” If no one does – which the New Statesman, and thousands of fans, highly doubt – there will always be the farm. Tending her animals, imagining dragons.

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.