Dear Readers: A Letter from Robin Hobb

From the Desk of Robin Hobb

Dear Readers,

In the Harry Potter saga, we encounter the character who is He Who Must Not Be Named.  It was an effective technique, wasn’t it?  A character so dark and deadly that even to utter his name was to invite his attention and all the disaster it might bring.

I don’t have a fictional character who must not be named.

Instead, in my real life, I have a real thought that must not be thunk.  Or thoughted. Okay, a real thought that must not be thought, even though that makes a very ugly sentence.

It’s a thought that perhaps haunts other fiction writers as well as myself.  Not just fantasy fiction writers, but all fiction writers: romance, historical, western, even literary fiction writers.  For all I know, perhaps it keeps editors awake at night and sends publishers in search of a drink. I know that when it comes creeping into my consciousness, it causes me to quail and hide myself behind a veil of words.

No, it’s not e-books.  It’s not even what might come after e-books.

It’s the thought that comes in the dead of night, when I’m at my keyboard alone except for an obnoxiously purring orange cat.  It comes when my fingers slow and then halt in their pressing of the keys.  Often it happens when I’ve let my characters run wild, and they’ve painted themselves into a corner and are now staring at me with that ‘well, what happens now?’ look in their child-wide eyes.  It comes when I know it’s my job to rescue them with a devilishly clever plot twist or a (God Forbid) Deus Ex Machina Get-Out-of-Jail- Free Card.

I look at my screen, I re-read the last twenty lines or so, and suddenly the Forbidden Thought comes to my mind.

“Isn’t this silly?  Isn’t what you have spent the last 40 years of your life doing the silliest thing you can imagine?  Saying to other adults, ‘Pretend this with me.’  And then spending a year writing the pretend.”

I remember when I was a kid on the playground, back in the late 50’s or early 60’s, and I would say, “Pretend I’m a beautiful black Arabian horse!”  And with that, I was no longer that third grader in the dress with calf length skirt that tied around my waist with a bow, but a magnificent black Arabian horse galloping around on the asphalt, jumping over the Four Square markings painted onto the pavement. And none of the other girls challenged that fancy.  No, they became Flicka or Misty or Fury or Black Beauty or some other imaginary or literary horse, galloping alongside me as I invented games where we had to evade the evil horse catchers or save our beloved owners from landslides or floods!

Third grade playground games. Didn’t we all play them? Sometimes we had dolls in hands, or G I Joe figurines or Breyer horses, our little avatars to focus the magic of our imaginations.  Sometimes we just galloped, neighing and tossing our heads. And we pretended.

But you outgrew that, didn’t you?  No galloping out of the office building on your coffee break, right?

You all outgrew it.

And I didn’t.

I may not be galloping down the sidewalks of my neighborhood, pausing to paw at the sidewalk with a sneakered hoof, but I’m still doing it.

I still sit down at the keyboard and say to my friends, “Pretend I’m an assassin, growing up in a castle, and I’m going to tell you every single thought I have and what I do, and who I fear and who I love.”  And you are going to believe me, just as my friends on the playground did.  You are going to invest the hours of your coffee break or the time before you sleep in playing pretend with me. I will make you care about the fate of a world that doesn’t exist.  I will make you chew your nails over a character who has never drawn a breath.  I will steal your sleep from you, and make you grumble in anger or perhaps shed a tear and all for the sake of a “Let’s pretend” game.

“How silly!  How silly of me to think anyone will want to play ‘let’s pretend’ with me still.”

There.  That was it.  The most dangerous thought a fiction writer can entertain.

I’m holding all the threads in the tapestry.  Each must be put in place with meticulous care.  But if, for one careless moment, I permit that thought into my mind, if for one second I think, “How silly of me!” will I ever be able to weave myself into that world again?  Will I ever be able to make myself love the characters and believe that what happens to them is significant and important.

If I ever stood up at a signing and said, “Oh you silly people! Why do you care about the Fool?  It’s all a lie, I made it all up,” would any of us ever be able to open the door into that world again?   Or any world that only exists within the covers of a book?

It’s a frightening thought, isn’t it?  It’s as dangerous as saying, “there’s no such thing as a unicorn.”  Because once you say that, with any sort of conviction, you will never see a unicorn again.

And so I will again refuse to think that thought.

I will scold Fitz for his stubbornness or plead with the Fool to once, just once, say something straight out. But I promise I will never say to you that my world or my characters are not real.

I will not think that thought.

Because I know it isn’t true.


Robin Hobb

  • Your stories make your world as real as this one so please don’t ever stop. Thanks for sharing it with us all x

  • Sam Nadasky

    I remember back a few years i had just gotten my nook and had packed a few books on it to take to Canada with me. And while we were driven along the coast of the bay of Fundy with magnificent views of surf and rock. I was lost in the world of an acidic river with a dragon boat that talked. Thank you for the many hours of pretend that i have had with you and may you and all my other favorite authors never stop.

  • Yggdrazzil

    Everyone plays pretend every day, when they wake up and tell themselves the world is alright. We all pretend that war, famine and disease are not still taking lives all over the world just so we can keep doing the things we do. Work, eat, sleep and everything we fill the rest of our waking hours with.

  • Thank you for taking us into your world Robin, and reminding me why I love the power of imagination.

  • Wonderful way to express the fear and doubt most writers face. I don’t believe it’s much deeper than just that. Momentary doubt. Thank goodness you don’t stop and give it all up. Keep pretending.

  • Thank you. I am glad I am not alone. Now if I can just not feel alone.

  • For me, it’s “Who am I to create these worlds and write these stories as if anyone cares what I have to say or what I’ve imagined?” And sometimes the dreaded: “How did I do it? How did I invent so much and will I ever be able to do it again?”

    Thank you for naming the thing that should not be named, so we can all stand a little less afraid of it, together!

  • Loved reading this. Thanks Robin. I spend my days chasing words and playing with coloured water. You weave your worlds so well.

  • Brandy

    I love your stories and fall in love with the characters as if they are real. I carry them around with me in my thoughts and heart long after the last page has turned. If that isn’t real, I don’t know what is. Just because we can’t see, touch, smell, or hear that world you create, it doesn’t make it any less real to us. When I pick up one of your books I get sucked in and the world I live in ceases to exist while I am walking in the one you created. Thank you for that and for sharing your innermost thoughts with us humble fans.

  • Thank you so much for this! Just knowing that other writers go through it makes it easier!

  • Kari Havoth

    Dear Robin:

    I too can still neigh VERY REALISTICALLY, a gift I was born with that convinced my GFs in elementary school, quite possibly I was really a horse reincarnated as a human. I actually whickered and snorted and chuffed while reading that you did the same. My horse for some strange reason was always male (not always a stud either, a good-hearted steady gelding waws ok too and often a hero in my playbook), though I am female in my human form, but that might be because we had The Blood Horse magazine laying around our house and I worked at Churchill Downs from age 12-19 as a groom/walker/shit-shoveler/errand girl/hay-loader. So I always wanted to be the Barb or the Godolphin Arabian, a MAJOR forerunner of the Thoroughbred breed. the history of Thoroughbreds has always lent itself to my horseplay fantasies. So, even as a little tike in 3rd grade, I was a knowledge nerd with a wild imagination. I do recall eating grass and that Brenda A had all the Breyer horses (I was so jealous, often forgetting that I saw the REAL things everyday!)

    OK – so – Robin, the UNICORNS are real. ALL of fantasy and legend are truths brought to us somehow by universal wire through all author’s hands. Everything we as a species ever thunk(or thoughted) up, has/is/was happening in some other place/time/dimension – we just don’t always realize the dreams and the thoughts you are so gracious to write down, are just embellished history transmissions sent to humanity in the most efficient form available – imagination and dream cycles- since the messages have to come from so far away- relatively speaking. I believe there is a place in our brains, and in the brains of writers of fictions, in particular, that is especially tuned as receivers. We are transmitters, so I hope the other ONES OUT THERE, that are writing their fiction, based on our “histories” are having as much fun as we are, reading your works. Thank you for all you do.
    Kari Havoth

  • Jana Keller

    Just because it’s pretending doesn’t mean there is no truth in it. I think no one ever tought me as well as Nighteyes not to worry so much about what might happen in the future. I think sometimes it is easier to understand a truth if it is wrapped in a beautiful pretending, and I thank you for your wrappings just as much as for the truth they contain.

  • michael callan

    I know that fairies live at the bottom of my garden, even when I don’t have one. What worries me is that World Leaders and Captains of Industry pretend every day that they know what they are doing.

  • Pat Carroll

    we weave. the warp and weft of our wisdom is widespread in the world. (enough alliteration already)

  • Luke

    For me it is not the literal truth at all; it is the truth behind the characters, the interactions we have with the fathers in our lives, the horrible miscommunications we have with friends and the love that doesn’t stop drawing us back together, the things in our pasts and in ourselves that we need to learn to heal from. Please, never stop writing, it is a gift and it is forever helpful and loved.

  • Hera Protopapas Wettergren

    “Shed a tear” is an understatement – I cried my eyes out twice in Fool’s Fate, first because of an event in the book (guess which) and then simply because the book was over. Every moment waiting for Fool’s Assassin is an agony, and when I get it I’ll spend a couple of days in complete euphoria before returning to a state of gloomy abstinence. Isn’t that silly? I’m hopelessly addicted to these games of “let’s pretend”. I can’t get out of that addiction and I wouldn’t try if I could. So please, don’t ever stop pretending. Your books (and a few others) cause me more pain than almost anything else in my life, but it is SO worth it for the wonderful bursts of pure joy they give me. Thank you so much for sharing these amazing stories and for introducing us to your wonderful characters. They will always be real to me.

  • Pat

    Your silliness kept me so engrossed that it helped me cope through some very trying times in my real life. Reading brings me great pleasure, joy and is a necessity! Please, never stop! Thank heavens for silly people!

  • James Martin

    I cannot prove that yesterday happened, but I remember it.
    The memories I have of Fitz, and the Fool are just as vivid in my mind.
    I can’t believe these worlds aren’t real.
    Every day several billion realities are lived. I say one thing to a friend and it has a history and a meaning and a connotation but they interpret it with their own set of histories, meanings and connotations. They have just by listening, created their own fictitious reality that is just as real to them. We only understand people as existing through our interactions with them and my interactions with your characters are many. After reading the first 3 series 6 times over, I know your characters far better than many people I know.

    Besides, our entire social structure, power, economics. All pretend.
    All of it was made up at some point.

  • S Clayton

    Well, i lost 2 hours of my day sobbing my eyes out when one of your characters “passed on” (i’m pretty sure you can guess which one). That’s more than i’ve done for some “real” people in my life. So by all means, please continue to play make believe with us…the world would be a boring & dry place without it!

  • Kyle D.

    Robin- I sincerely enjoyed your note. I work in the corporate world in Finance with all of the other \grown ups\ and growing up isn’t all it’s worked up to be. Not because it can’t be fun, not because there isn’t a lot to learn or accomplish or you name it. Growing up tends to strip creative people of their imagination. You mentioned that you \never grew up\. In my opinion, you stayed true to yourself. I’ve read your books and I have thoroughly enjoyed each and every one. To say that you never grew up is a shallow and depthless observation. Rather, you’ve grown up but can twist in your inner imagination. Trust me, I’ll take your creativity and flare over another boring powerpoint.

    You don’t need me to tell you but you certainly bring a level of complexity that adults like myself appreciate. Each and everyone one of us has an inner child. The difference between the \grown ups\ and we who still “Pretend I’m a beautiful black Arabian horse!” is that fact that we still embrace our inquisitive curiosity and sense of adventure. Some of the greatest historical figures in history are those that refused to grow up and started exploring. Science Fiction and Fantasy writers are some of the modern day explorers. They may not be exploring new places but they are certainly exploring new ideas.

  • tntreasure

    How wonderful to find that someone else played those horse fantasies in their youth! I can’t tell you how many times I spent recess jumping anything I could find while galloping over the playground. I have loved all of Robin’s books so far that I have read, and look forward to more. Now I know why I feel such an affinity to the works! Never lose that quality that you have, and thank you for giving me an outlet for my need of fantasy.

  • Liane Benson

    I can only say that I completely love and embrace your “silliness.” I have read all of your books and loved them all, and many have moved me deeply (when Fitz lost his wolf, I cried and felt like I had lost my best friend. That passage still haunts me – in the best way). What a beautifully written scene. I live in hope you will write more books in this realm, and will forever be your devoted fan who waits impatiently for your next book. Keep writing. About anything you like. I guarantee I’ll love it.

  • Wm Seán Glen

    Many a time and oft have I got a short night of sleep. I have a lifetime pass over the suspension bridge of disbelief

  • I did think that for a while, in my mid 20s. And I decided not to be a novelist anymore but to go back to school and get a teaching degree and teach English instead.

    And you know what I discovered? It’s NOT silly. It’s important. Those stories heal souls. Those characters save lives…. and I’m not even talking metaphorically.

    You might have made Fitz and the Fool up, but they are not lies, not at all.

  • I’m a french RPG player, so I didm’t outgrew it either. I still play to pretend I’m someone else.
    I’m also a game master, whitch gives me an advantage : when I’m creating a world, it’s not for faraway readers, but for players just behind me. So I know they want to play “let’s pretend” with me.

  • I think this is a thought that troubles not only writers but artists in general. It is like a spell or voodoo. Your belief is what holds the story and allows others access to the world that only existed in your head or on the pages of script.

  • I absolutely love playing “Let’s pretend” with you. I’ve only read your Soldier Son Trilogy, and I really, really loved it. It’s people like you, people with such huge stories to tell, that make life worth living. I’d die without a good novel. And you of all people deliver some of the best. 🙂

    Keep that thought away!


  • Rachel

    I didn’t read science fiction before your work with Fitz. Now I find myself thinking, ‘wonder how Fitz is getting on now’. He is a very real friend. I feel his loss in the love of his life.

  • Anne McCulloch

    It takes courage to allow your imagination to play with others. But, just as you found fellow “horses” as a child, you can always find those interested in sharing your worlds today. Thanks for writing

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