I was born in South Connellsville, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, on December 13, 1954, which makes me a Sagittarius, if you believe in such things. For those who look to eastern tradition, I was born in the Year of the Horse. My mother wanted to name me “Tamara,” but the nurse who filled out my birth certificate had never heard of such a fancy name (we are talking Pennsylvania coal country in the 1950s), so she misspelled it, and I legitimately became Tamora (pronounced like “camera”). I actually like it better than Tamara, which means “graceful” and “a palm tree,” and is the name of a Russian saint. I am none of these things.
I was my parents’ first child, born into a long, proud line of hillbillies on my dad’s side of the family (the Pierces and the Prices, the best people on earth), and a family which was ashamed of its hillbilly roots and told my mother she married beneath her. (They know who they are.) I was five when my sister Kimberly came along (the one I based on Alanna), and six when Melanie was born. My dad worked for the telephone company while my mother did something pretty unusual for that time and place: she went to college for her degree in English, intending to become a teacher. I remember it thusly: when my mother was in school, the babysitter let me watch “Robin Hood” before I went to school–my sisters got to watch the second half of “Captain Kangaroo” after I left; if my mother was home, my sisters got to watch all of “Captain Kangaroo,” and I could whine about “Robin Hood” till the cows came home, for all the good it did me.
We were poor, but I didn’t know it then. Everyone in Dunbar, where we lived from the time I was five until I was eight, was pretty much in the same basket. We had a garden where my folks grew fruit and vegetables; our water came from a well (I used to amuse myself by dropping pebbles through the hole in the cement cover); my parents made their own root beer; my dad kept homing pigeons; we always had dogs and cats, and one rainy day I watched our cat produce five new cats, just like magic. We always had plenty of books. My uncle gave us a set of World Book encyclopedias, and a special treat for me was looking through them, even before I could read. My uncle also gave me my first personal books, WINNIE THE POOH, THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER, NOW WE ARE SIX, and WHEN WE WERE VERY YOUNG. I also had Dr. Seuss books, HORTON HEARS A WHO, YERTLE THE TURTLE (which is still one of my favorites), THE CAT IN THE HAT and THE CAT IN THE HAT COMES BACK (which gave me nightmares–it seemed like the cat always came to visit when my parents left me to watch my sisters), but the Milne books were my very own, and I read them until they fell apart. Books are still the main yardstick by which I measure true wealth.
In June, 1963, my parents bundled us up and we drove to California, where my dad had gotten a transfer. I’ve blocked out a lot of that trip. For one thing, I couldn’t read. Two weeks with no books! I tried, but every time I did, I got carsick. I’m surprised I remember anything. What I do remember is: the bumper coming off our VW bus in Ohio. The marshlands campground in Missouri where I saw my first waterlilies and egret, and lost my habit of sucking my thumb because my mother soaked us all in bug repellent. The sandstorm (dust storm?) in Kansas. Going to shower at the campground in Colorado Springs at six in the morning and discovering, much too late, that there was only one kind of water: cold. Very cold. Very, very cold! And the signs for Carson City, Nevada, with the California border close at hand.
Our first house was in San Mateo, right on El Camino Real. Our second was on the other side of the San Francisco peninsula, in Miramar. We lived there for half a year, in El Granada a full year, and then three years in Burlingame. There was always cool stuff–looking at the animals in tidal pools, watching the surfers at sunset, flying kites, my dad reading Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” one night as the fog rolled in and the foghorns blew, but under it all was my parents’ fighting.
My dad probably saved my sanity one day when I was in sixth grade, a year before he moved out. He heard me telling myself stories as I did dishes, and he suggested that I try to write some of them down. He even gave me an idea to start with, a book about travels in a time machine (we both loved history and television shows like the original “Star Trek,” so he knew what would grab me). The next year, as I was still scribbling my own stories, my English teacher (bless you, Mrs. Jacobsen!) introduced me to The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein. I got hooked on fantasy, and then on science fiction, and both made their way into my stories. I tried to write the kind of thing I was reading, with one difference: the books I loved were missing teenaged girl warriors. I couldn’t understand this lapse of attention on the part of the writers I loved, so until I could talk them into correcting this small problem, I wrote about those girls, the fearless, bold, athletic creatures that I was not, but wanted so badly to be.
I wrote reams of stories: I wrote “Star Trek” stories, “Here Come the Brides” stories, “Time Tunnel” stories, Tolkein and Howard and Moorcock and Heinlein and Bradbury stories. (In those days nobody ever thought of calling them fan fics!) And I wrote my own, which were mishmoshes of all the above. I didn’t worry about the fact that whatever I wrote often read like the thing I’d read and loved most recently; I was just trying to entertain myself and block out the long train wreck of my parents’ divorce. In 1969 my mother took my sisters and me back to Fayette County, to a world and a way of living I had forgotten.
Hm, culture shock. I went from the San Francisco Bay area (micro mini skirts, love beads, polyester dresses that never wrinkled, peace signs, hippies, acid rock music on the radio) to western Pennsylvania (twin sets–blouses with matching sweaters, knee-length hemlines, white blouses with round collars, conservative politics, pop music on the radio, and not a hippie in sight). One thing remained the same: I was still a geek. I still didn’t fit. Oh, yes–and we were still on welfare. The Pierces and Prices took us in, helped us get on our feet, and welcomed us back to the family gatherings of cousins, aunts and uncles. That part was good. Two years in a house in a cow pasture with only an outhouse, no bathroom, and only a coal stove in the living room for heat, not so great. But even there I found things I treasured. On winter nights I could see all the stars in the world, because there was no smog or city lights to hide them. We could always find wild blackberries and strawberries in the summer, and there was a Concord grape arbor in our yard. Since we were in kind of a strange area for radio waves, we could pick up Virginia and New York radio stations, so I kept up on music as much as I had ever done. There was the sound of the wind in pine trees, the visits to Cucumber Falls and Cheat Lake, the drives through deep woods. I made friends at Albert Gallatin Senior High during the two years I was there, getting to know some good people I could respect (which was a change from my usual major geekazoid school life). I could balance those things against the hard times, and I did.
I lost my ability to create my own stories in tenth grade. I could still write papers, satires, bad poetry, school paper articles. It wasn’t enough, not for me. I felt that if I couldn’t do my own stories, I wasn’t really writing. When it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to do my own stuff, I had to start thinking about my life. Since sixth grade I had meant to be a writer. That was now out. I cast around for a while and decided that I wanted to help kids as messed up as my sisters and I were. With that in mind, I applied to and was accepted by the University of Pennsylvania. In the meantime we moved again, to one room in a Uniontown hotel. I spent my senior year at Uniontown Area Senior High School, acting in school plays (I acted at every chance I got), singing in chorus, hanging with some more very good people (it’s amazing how little the cool-geek thing mattered the closer we got to graduation), writing for the school paper, competing in speech contests, even (whisper it) dating. For three whole months I had a boyfriend, a good-looking college guy at that. (I based Duke Roger on him, in case you’re wondering how the relationship turned out in the long run.)
Penn in Philadelphia was, well, an education. I went on full scholarship, studying psychology and working part-time and in the summers, usually in jobs that would help me to a career in social work with teenagers. I worked as a psychiatric research assistant, a student social worker, and as a tutor, in addition to office jobs inside the university. I volunteered at the Penn Women’s Center, writing satiric literary critiques for the Penn Women’s Newsletterand teaching a course in the history of witchcraft at the Free Women’s University. From my third week there I had a boyfriend, a cheerful hippie with a taste for good food, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and Jefferson Airplane, movies, and a love of science fiction to match mine. We remained together through my time at Penn and lived in his home town in upstate New York after college for about a year and a half before we broke up. I took courses in film, social work, education, German, French, sociology, psychology–I just wish I’d taken more history. I came to love history, not the way it was taught in high school, after I left college. I also had yogurt and Middle Eastern food for the first time, went to my first rock concert (and several others after that, before I realized I got claustrophobic in crowds), fell in love with martial arts (not the doing just then, but the movies), discovered my favorite electric folk group, Steeleye Span, in addition to comic/singers the Limelighters and Tom Lehrer, and read a wide range of books for fun and for school. I gained a lot of weight and grew my hair really long (all the way to the bottom of my shoulderblades). College was truly educational.
In the summer before my junior year at Penn I wrote my first completely original short story since tenth grade, “Demon Chariot”. It was five whole pages, each word a drop of blood, but I finished it. My writer’s block had broken for good. I was writing stories again. A year later, I sold my first short story. With that to give me courage, I took a fiction writing course in my senior year. My teacher was a brilliant writer named David Bradley (author of SOUTH STREET and THE CHANEYSVILLE INCIDENT in addition to his magazine and film writing). He told me it was time to write a novel, perhaps one based on my years growing up and the hard times my family went through. I tried to write that book, but could only manage five pages. Terrified that my writing would evaporate again, I decided that it didn’t matter what my first novel was about, as long as it was a complete first novel. I asked myself what I’d been writing about, back when writing had been as easy as breathing. The answer was simple: fantasy with teenaged girl heroes. Thus I began my first sword and sorcery novel, and finished it six months later. It wasn’t very good, but it was novel length, and that’s what mattered.
I never got my psychology degree–I bombed out on the statistics requirement (and at schools everyone laughs when I tell them my worst subject was m-m-m-math). Somehow I did manage to persuade the university to give me a degree, since I had met all the area requirements for most degrees, including several graduate courses. Just don’t ask me what the degree’s in. It just says “Bachelor of Arts” on the sheepskin.
I moved to Kingston, New York to live with my boyfriend in 1976. I drifted through rent-paying jobs, selling a story here, an article there, until my father and stepmother invited me to live with them in Idaho for a while, to renew old ties. While I was there I had the first, and only, job for which my education qualified me: I became a housemother in a group home for teenaged girls. At that time I was sending out a 732-page novel, THE SONG OF THE LIONESS. My girls would have liked to read it, but our director felt that parts of that adult novel were inappropriate (it was a very strict home). Instead I told the girls Alanna’s story, edited for teenagers.
In the fullness of time, I moved to Manhattan to get my publishing career started, and went to work for a New York literary agency. When Claire Smith, who would become my first agent, recommended that I turn SONG into four books for teenagers, I realized that, in a sense, I had already done so. When Jean Karl at Atheneum Books saw the manuscript, she agreed to take me on after rewrites. I set about the work I’d be engaged on throughout most of the 1980s, cutting up the original adult manuscript and pasting sections in around new material, then typing the whole thing out afresh. That adult novel was never published and it won’t be: I got rid of all the fragments once I had clean pages. You’ll have to trust me on this–The Song of the Lioness quartet is better written, because I had learned so much more of my craft between the original novel and the rewrite for the quartet. In 1983 my first book, ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE, was published in hardcover by Atheneum.
While all that was going on, I tried other ways to bring in some extra cash: I read manuscripts for Silhouette Romances, reviewed martial arts movies, and did some freelance editing. I also helped to start a radio production company that recorded radio comedy and drama. Some of our work aired in New York and Los Angeles, while other material aired on National Public Radio: three series of 15- minute short dramas and a half-hour comedy/drama series based on life in a big city’s Municipal Building. I wrote, acted and directed for the company, in addition to helping other members of the company to write scripts we could produce. I’d been with it for a year when I met Tim Liebe, a friend of one of our actresses. He’s now my beloved Spouse-Creature, a funny, intelligent, talented, very sociable consumer electronics writer and webpage designer/administrator (that’s in this incarnation–he was a comedy writer and comic/dramatic actor for the radio company, as well as an actor/videomaker then, with such wonderful credits to his name as “Fort Apache: The Bronx” and “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”). We stayed together as I left the literary agency and worked as a temporary secretary in advertising, banking, and law (when I wasn’t writing books or radio scripts). I didn’t even know he’d lied to me when he assured me he wasn’t at all interested in marriage until we were actually standing before a minister, in front of 200 people who’d come in person because otherwise they never would have believed I actually went through with it. (My views of marriage were and continue to be quite firm, even though ours seems to work. It has for nearly 25 years, anyway.)
In 1992 I became one of the lucky, rare percentage of writers who can actually make a living from their writing (it wasn’t much of a living for a long time, but it beat being a secretary). We struggled through most of the 1990s as my books gained popularity slowly. By 1995 I was starting to do more than the occasional school appearance; I began to go to science fiction conventions in 1997 or 1998, and in 2000 I went on my first publisher-sponsored tour, in England! Last spring came my second publisher tour, to Australia; last fall it was the United States and Canada. When they send you on tour, you can be assured of one thing: you have arrived. I look forward to it because I get to see places I might never go otherwise, and to meet the people who have been keeping me in print and who love my books. It’s good to be able to put faces to names, to talk about what people like and don’t like, to find out what they’d like to see in my books, and to learn what else they’re reading and want to recommend. (I am always looking for good new books to read.) My success is due to my readers, adults and kids, and I love being able to thank them in person.
So now I am a successful writer with a much-loved Spouse-Creature, who looks after me just as I look after him. We don’t have children, but you know something? I think it’s easier to like kids if you don’t have any of your own (certainly I don’t grumble about kids like so many adults I know do). I have three-brothers-in-law and two sisters-in-law in addition to my stepmother, step-brothers, and sisters. (My dad died recently, something I still have trouble dealing with.) I have a very cool mother-in-law, stepfather-in-law, and grandmother-in-law. I have four nieces (Tameran, Nicole, Hanna and Hollis Liebe), four nephews (Kenan Liebe, Fred, C.J. and Tino) and a great-nephew (Jeffrey Ellyson) and a great-niece, Maddie: they live all over the United States (Iowa, California and the East Coast). In addition I have friends I’ve made through my books who are doing things like getting married, working in publishing, and having children. More readers for me!
It’s a pretty good life, if I do say so myself. Struggling along as a kid and even through my twenties, it’s the kind of life I dreamed of but never believed I would get. Yet here I am, after a lot of work, a lot of worry, a lot of care for details, and a massive chunk of luck, the kind that brought me such strong friends and readers. Pretty good for a hillbilly, yes? And I never take it for granted.