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Interview with Catherine Kohman
Part One (X)




1. Your book, Lembas for the Soul, represents experiences of a huge amount of people whose lives changed thanks to The Lord of the Rings. What similarities do you see among them? What do all these stories have in common?

While each author who contributed an essay to Lembas for the Soul has taken LOTR to heart in a different way, there are similarities. LOTR is not just a story they greatly enjoyed. The tale has some sort of personal meaning for them, or has struck a deep chord within them. Their involvement with LOTR has given them new insights or the impetus to make changes in their life. In every case LOTR has had a positive impact on the author´s life.

2. Which particular story moved you to the deepest emotions? Why?

It´s very difficult to single out one particular story, because I thought all of them moving in one way or another. I had to keep a box of tissues handy when I opened my submissions email each day. I found the section of the book entitled "A Light in Dark Places" affected me the most emotionally. The physical and emotional hardships these LOTR fans endured were heartbreaking, yet I found their stories ultimately triumphant, because LOTR brought light back into their lives.

But I found a lot of laughter and joy in the stories as well. At times I recognized myself in the tales that were told, and they were often the funnier ones.


3. Can you describe for us *your* adventure with Tolkien? How (and when) did it start, and in what way has it changed your life? Simply - your story to your book ;)

I was a voracious reader as a child and had read most of the classics by the time I was 15, when I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I was immediately swept up in the tale. (Only one of my friends became a fan, unfortunately. We didn´t have the Internet to surf and find like-minded friends over the world.) This was in the ´60s after the Ballantine paperbacks came out, so Tolkien was pretty popular in the U.S. back then.

When we had to give a dramatic reading in Speech class, I read the end of The Bridge of Khazad-dűm which is a funny thing for a 15 year old girl to read aloud, at least then it was. I cried when I thought Gandalf was dead, and I still cry at that part of the FOTR film or soundtrack, even though I´ve known he returns for over 30 years!

I read LOTR almost every year, bought all the posters and the calendars, read Humphrey Carpenter´s biography of Tolkien and other works about Tolkien. I will confess I tried to read The Silmarillion when it came out, but couldn´t get past the beginning. When I saw the animated films, I was quite disappointed, for I thought that was likely the only version of the story we´d ever see on film. Other than my annual readings, LOTR faded into the background of my everyday life.

When I finally heard Peter Jackson was making a live-action version of LOTR, I was excited and apprehensive at the same time. Though I had minor quibbles with the film version (I still grieve for the loss of Glorfindel, my 2nd favorite Elf), overall, I was delighted. The movies re-kindled my interest in the book and everything else related to Middle-earth. When I found the Internet sites like theonering.net and The Council of Elrond (www.councilofelrond.com), I realized I wasn´t alone in my obsession. ;)

I realized true LOTR fandom isn´t a fad or a whim - it´s a way of life. It was around that same time I got impatient that no one was recording these LOTR fan experiences in print, because the Internet is so ephemeral. I´m an ardent book lover, and even though I work as a librarian and spend most of my day on the computer, I hope there will always be room for books in our lives. Especially books as brilliant as The Lord of the Rings.


4. What do you think is so unusual in the works of Tolkien that makes them a source of joy, thoughts and inspiration for so many different people?

I´ve often found it curious that some people take to reading Tolkien immediately, and some never get past the first chapter. I´m not a scholar or an expert on popular culture, but I have talked to a great many LOTR fans in person or online.

On a basic level, The Lord of the Rings is what used to be called "a ripping yarn", or a great adventure story. Yet LOTR goes well beyond that. The incredible complexity of Middle-earth--its geography, history, languages and mythology--is so far beyond that of any other fantasy world. The descriptions are so vivid you feel you could open the door and stride right out onto the lanes of the Shire, or climb the steep, cobbled streets of Minas Tirith. That level of detail alone sets Tolkien in a different sphere than most writers.

Yet Middle-earth would be just a beautiful, empty landscape if Tolkien hadn´t peopled it with all its different cultures, if he hadn´t created such marvelous characters. Though many of Tolkien´s characters are archetypal, we still recognize their humanity, their despair, their courage in the face of overwhelming darkness, even their faults and foibles.

I don´t think I would love Gandalf nearly as much as I do if he didn´t have that quick temper and sharp tongue. My heart is taken by Pippin all the more because of his blithe youth. I wouldn´t appreciate Sam as much if he didn´t think of himself as being unworthy, when by his steadfast courage he is one of the worthiest of all. Or Frodo, if he didn´t also doubt himself and wish to be relieved of his burden by someone stronger and wiser than himself.

In the introduction to Lembas for the Soul, I mention that for many of us, The Lord of the Rings is actually a spiritual journey. It touches us on such a deep and soulful level it´s rather hard to explain to someone who isn´t a LOTR fan. Some of the authors in the Lembas book have had a long, hard road to travel themselves. Others are simply moved by the beauty and vividness of a world we long for but can never reach.

I´ve recently formed an idea which many would consider as being "far out", though it was inspired by one of Jung´s theories. I wonder if there isn´t some sort of collective unconscious we are tapping into when we embrace The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien himself said he was simply recording the story as it came to him from somewhere else. Where that "somewhere else" was is still a mystery.


5. What was the funniest experience you had during your work upon Lembas for the Soul?

We have an online group for the Lembas authors. A number of us were able to meet at the LOTR Exhibition in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S., for the Lembas for the Soul book launch party and signing in December 2005. We had fun taking over the LOTR exhibit, but we did it in a nice way. ;)

After dinner, we were going to the IMAX Theater (a giant screen theater) which was showing The Return of the King. It was just across the street from the restaurant. However, an ice storm had coated everything with a half an inch of ice. On the sidewalk outside the Museum, my feet flew up in the air and I didn´t realize I´d fallen until I was flat on my back looking up at the night sky. The people who were with me tried to help me up and they fell on the ice too. As did other people passing by. If it had been captured on film, it would have looked quite hilarious.

Since the sidewalk was like an ice skating rink, only slipperier, I fell again on the way into the theater. Luckily I still had a friend with me, but this time I crawled on my side toward the grass, propelling myself forward with my elbow. I imagined myself as Frodo scrabbling up the slopes of Mount Doom.

We eventually made it inside, but by then I thought sitting through a 3-1/2 hour movie might not be a good idea if I´d injured my back. So while the rest of the group went to the movie, I went to the hospital emergency room to have all my bumps, cuts and bruises attended to. Throughout the "ordeal" I had a copy of the Lembas book signed by the authors (which eventually was sent to Peter Jackson) firmly clutched in my hands. I finally got out of the ER (emergency room) at 3 am, snatched a few hours sleep at my hotel, then caught a morning flight home. Like Sam, I was glad to be safely back home in my own corner of "The Shire".

It may have not seemed so funny at the time, but I tried to keep my sense of humor about it. And looking back on it, it was certainly memorable!


And which one was the most emotive?

When I finally got the Lembas galleys (proof sheets) back to proof-read, I read the entire manuscript in practically one sitting. That was the first time I´d been able to read it from start to finish, not just in sections or individual stories. The depth and complexity of the authors´ dedication to LOTR was even more striking when taken as a whole, and I had this overwhelming feeling of joy and gratitude, first to Professor Tolkien for creating Middle-earth and his amazing tales, and then to the Lembas authors for sharing their wonderful stories.

6. Did this work teach you something new about Tolkien or about people?

My work on Lembas for the Soul brought home to me in a concrete way the universality of LOTR´s appeal. The book contains stories from almost every continent, and the age of the contributors ranges from the very young to some who are in their "autumn" years. I was surprised that about ninety percent of the stories submitted were by women or girls. I can´t say why this is so, except that women may be more comfortable sharing their feelings and experiences with others. It´s something of a mystery to me.

7. Are you a member of some American organisations devoted to Tolkien and his works?

I belong to The Tolkien Society, but there aren´t any chapters (smials) in my area of the U.S., though I have thought about starting a chapter in my area. I am a member of the Council of Elrond (www.councilofelrond.com) but that is mainly an Internet site.

8. How is Tolkien fandom organised in your country?
Have you attended some conventions or regular meetings of Tolkien fans?
If yes, can you describe what they are like?

I don´t have much expertise in this area. I think fandom in the U.S. tends to be rather loosely organized, and much of the "fellowship" is conducted online through groups like theonering.net. There are other groups like the Mythopoeic Society which organize annual conventions, and many regional conventions or "moots". I´ve only attended the more formal conferences like the one at Marquette University in 2004 or Tolkien 2005 in Birmingham, England. I would like to start attending "cons" that are more fan-oriented, perhaps in 2006.

From what I´ve heard from friends and seen from online coverage, the fans "cons" in the U.S. are very joyful and enthusiastic. The fellowship with other fans, the wearing of LOTR costumes, the opportunity to meet film cast members or noted Tolkien scholars or artists seem to be the main attractions. It sounds like it would be great fun.


9. What is the most common opinion about Jackson´s adaptation among the fans that you have interviewed? Are they enthusiastic towards it or rather critical?

Almost all of the Lembas authors are fans of Peter Jackson´s films. They may have minor differences with the way the book was adapted, but in general are very enthusiastic about them, sometimes to the point of obsession. This includes those of us who were LOTR fans long before the films came out.

I had hoped to get some responses from fans who preferred the book and had not seen the films. I sent notices asking for submissions to science fiction/fantasy bookstores and fan organizations, seeking to reach book fans who may not have heard of the project because they don´t go online very much. I received none.


10. And what is your opinion on this subject?

Let me stress that this is just my own opinion. I am aware there is a segment of LOTR fandom which disapproves of the films, and they have a right to their opinion. However, I am also a librarian, and I saw first-hand the effect of the films´ releases. People of all ages were constantly asking for LOTR at the library, and there was a corresponding demand in bookstores. Nearly fifty years after its initial publication, the three volumes of LOTR were on the bestseller lists. If the movies could generate that much interest in the book and create so many new fans, then I was delighted.

There are also several scenes that work much better on film than in the book. The lighting of the beacons of Gondor is barely a sentence in the book, and in the film of ROTK, it´s one of the most stirring and exhilarating scenes on screen. The other bit of film magic that thrilled me was Gandalf and Pippin´s ride on Shadowfax up the winding streets of Minas Tirith to the Citadel. That was probably the moment when I felt most strongly that I was there, that Middle-earth was real!

Personally, I enjoyed the films very much. There were small things I might have changed, but overall I think we were very lucky that Peter Jackson, cast and crew were the ones who brought LOTR to the screen. They gave us Middle-earth and its people in breath-taking, vivid detail while honoring the spirit of Professor Tolkien´s work.


11. There is a new movie out now: Ringers: the Lord of the Fans. The work is quite similar to yours, isn´t it? What can you tell us about these two initiatives?

I´d had the idea for an anthology of fan stories for quite some time (from the time The Two Towers was released). I didn´t hear about the Ringers film project until after I´d decided to go ahead with the Lembas book. However, I thought there were so many LOTR fan stories to tell, and so few of us had the opportunity to be interviewed for the film, that surely there was enough room for both projects in the vast world of LOTR fandom. Actually, I was excited about the Ringers film and purchased a copy the day it was released.

12. What are the main differences between your book and the documentary by Carlene Cordova?

The documentary was a very ambitious project and had lots of resources behind it, including the bright and hardworking staff of theonering.net. Ringers traces the history of LOTR fandom in an entertaining way and interviews famous people with LOTR connections, including some of the films´ cast members. They also were able to get interviews from fans who attended various LOTR conventions and premieres, mostly on the West Coast of the U.S. or in New Zealand.

The Lembas book project solicited submissions from regular fans all over the world. Anyone who had access to an internet connection could submit a story. I wanted Lembas to also have some stories written by those for whom English was a second language, (one from Poland is among those included). We have a small staff and limited resources, but I think the book turned out extremely well, due to the quality and variety of stories it contains, as well as the artwork contributed by Catharine Mallard and Dana Tonello. So far the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

I´ve only had time to view the Ringers film once, but I enjoyed it very much. There are themes common to both the book and the documentary, mainly that LOTR continues to have universal appeal, that Tolkien fans are bright and creative people in their own right, and how great it is that we can now share our "magnificent obsession" with the rest of the world.


Have you cooperated with each other during the work upon them?

Other than sending each other notes of good will and encouragement, we haven´t cooperated on the film or the book. Though if there´s a sequel to Ringers, I´d love to be interviewed! ;)

13. Do all the stories in your book concentrate only on the Lord of the Rings? Were any of the authors influenced by the Silmarillion, the Hobbit, the History of Middle Earth or some other piece of art that was only inspired by Tolkien (like the films or fan fiction) ?

The Lord of the Rings is the main focus of Lembas for the Soul, but the majority of the Lembas authors have gone on to read the rest of Tolkien´s fiction, in particular, The Silmarillion. Some of the authors were fans of the book who went on to appreciate the films, and some of the authors saw the films first, then were inspired to read most of Tolkien´s written works. A few of the authors have also read The History of Middle-earth more than once. Now that´s dedication!

Several of the authors have mentioned their appreciation for the fan fiction as well. As Lynnette Porter says in her story, Ever Onward, it´s nice to have those film-inspired stories to "fill up the corners" and sketch in full the details that Tolkien left to our imaginations.

Other Lembas authors were inspired by the dedication of the filmmakers, actors and crew shown on the Special Features documentaries included on the Extended Editions of the LOTR DVDs.


14. Which characters and scenes created by J.R.R. Tolkien are the most popular among the fans?

This is a difficult question, and many virtual swords have been drawn over who is the most popular character, or the "true hero" of the story. There have been innumerable online polls about the same thing, with nothing really resolved. As far as the Lembas book goes, the authors seem to fall into two categories: hobbits and Elves. I´d say Frodo, Aragorn and Legolas are probably the main favorites, then Sam, Gandalf and Eowyn. Outside of the Fellowship, Galadriel, the other Elves and Faramir are also revered. Even Boromir has his share of supporters. We all have one character closest to our hearts, but that doesn´t stop us from loving the rest of Tolkien´s endearing characters.

15. Which characters and scenes from this legendarium moved *you* to the deepest emotions? Why these particular ones?

I love the Elves, in particular Legolas and Glorfindel. That´s why of the 3 volumes of LOTR, I´ve always preferred The Fellowship of the Ring, because of Rivendell and Lothlorien. It also contains two of my favorite chapters, "The Shadow of the Past" and "The Council of Elrond", which some dislike because of the "back story" (explanation of the history). But it´s all that historical detail that I love.

Different parts of the book move me in different ways. Glorfindel´s arrival and "The Flight to the Ford" thrill me, as do hearing the horns of Rohan as the Rohirrim ride onto the fields of the Pelennor and Eowyn´s killing of the Witch King. Other parts bring me to tears, like the fall of Gandalf, Theoden´s and Boromir´s deaths, many of the scenes with Frodo and Sam, particularly on stairs of Cirith Ungol. Pippin crying that the Eagles are coming. The entire chapter of "The Grey Havens" and even reading the LOTR appendices can make me weep.

Other than the sweep and grandeur of the tales of Middle-earth, I appreciate Tolkien´s use of language; his beautiful, evocative descriptions of the landscapes of Middle-earth, even the weather, are remarkable. Poetry courses through the whole of Tolkien´s work. As a writer myself, I stand in awe and admiration of his amazing talent with words.


16. Which book about Tolkien - his life, phenomenon or work - do you consider to be the best? Why?

I am a big fan of Tom Shippey´s works on Tolkien: the revised Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Shippey gives you the background of Tolkien´s life and career, then shows how those influences help to shape his written work. Lynnette Porter´s new book Unsung Heroes of The Lord of the Rings studies the book and the film versions of the secondary characters who are often overlooked in Tolkien studies. It´s not only an entertaining read, but adds fresh insights into the importance of characters like Merry, Legolas and Eowyn, among others.

John Garth´s Tolkien and the Great War gives a moving account of the TCBS, Tolkien´s school friends. Only Tolkien and his friend Christopher Wiseman survived World War I out of the group. I enjoy Karen Wynn Fonstad´s Atlas of Middle-earth and had the privilege of meeting her at the Marquette conference before she died.

So much has been published about Tolkien since the films came out, I haven´t been able to keep up with it all. When I finally do get some time to read again, I´ll have to delve further. I´ve ordered Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull´s new Tolkien companion volume, and Douglas Anderson has a book coming out which is a compilation of Tolkien interviews and reminiscences. Lots of shiny new treasures to look forward to.


17. What do you think about Tolkien as a person?

Since I didn´t ever meet him, all I know about him is what I´ve read in books, articles and some of the brief film appearances he made which are often included in documentaries. However, I think you can read between the lines of an author´s work and note what they apparently value. The importance of friendship and loyalty, courage and sacrifice and a deep reverence for the natural world are values many of us have found in the pages of The Lord of the Rings. Those are all admirable qualities.

And if I might presume, I think Professor Tolkien had an extremely brilliant mind and an ever-questing spirit. Since his sense of humor seems to be quite dry, many people don´t often recognize the wit in his writing, but there are some very funny moments in his books and letters. He would have been a fascinating man to know and talk to. I wish I´d had the privilege.


18. Whom among Tolkien illustrators do you like the most and the least?

I admire the elegant and beautifully detailed work of Alan Lee, the dynamism of John Howe´s paintings, and Ted Nasmith´s amazing Middle-earth landscapes. But I also enjoy some of the lesser known artists like Stephanie Pui Law. Catharine Mallard´s Tolkien art is fresh and appealing (www.darklingwoods.com), and I´ve been enjoying lots of LOTR fan art. I saw a lovely drawing of Luthien by an artist called Methwen on The Council of Elrond, as well as some striking drawings of Elrond´s sons. I also like the Celtic inspired designs by an artist known online as Creidhe.

There is also a huge quantity of enjoyable film-inspired art out there. On the Council of Elrond gallery, Dana Tonello (gallery name: elf girl Edhelanna) and the Polish artist Ishtariel have some beautiful portraits. Lorraine Brevig also has some lovingly detailed movie-based images on her site www.lorrainebrevig.com.


19. What do you think about writing Tolkien fanfiction? Do you think it is a form of art, or rather a form of plagiarism?

This is another difficult question. As a writer myself, the idea of someone taking my characters and writing stories about them is scary. Yet I´ve written a few fan fiction stories for my personal satisfaction.

Some of the fan fiction out there is extremely well-written and would be considered literary and worthy if it wasn´t about someone else´s original creation. And Tolkien deliberately left unfinished portions in the broad canvas of Middle-earth that fairly begged to be filled in. In one of his letters (#131, from the volume edited by Humphrey Carpenter) Tolkien says of his created world, "I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and "yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama".

The italics are mine in the above quote. Whether or not some people agree with the idea, the scenario that the Professor gives above has been fulfilled almost beyond belief. I can only imagine he would be horrified by the nature of some of what is out there in the world, but he might be gently amused by other twists in the tales and new vistas.

If the stories are written for one´s own pleasure or to share with friends, I don´t see the real harm in it. Now if it´s done to somehow make money off of it, you definitely run head-on into the copyright issue. My advice to those who write fan fiction on an ongoing basis is to try experimenting with an original story and setting of your own. Take something familiar from your own world and then turn it on edge, thinking, "What if I changed this? What would happen next?" Writing fan fiction is fun, but creating your own stories is even more rewarding and could even lead to a writing career if you´re dedicated and talented enough.


20. Have you already heard some opinions about your book? If yes, what were they like?

The reviews I´ve received have all been very good. I haven´t heard very many readers´ remarks yet, but the ones I have gotten are overwhelmingly positive. Most of the readers have been moved or inspired by the book, and now realize there are so many other people out there in the world like themselves. People who love The Lord of the Rings as much as they do, people whose lives have been changed for the better by their Lord of the Rings experience. Many of them have thanked me for collecting these stories and sharing them with LOTR fandom.

Even people in my own area of the U.S. have said, "I didn´t know there were any other people like me, here in my town!" So the process that started way back in the 1930´s with the publication of The Hobbit continues on, bringing people together in their common love for Middle-earth and everything in it.

I´m adding in the process of adding a blog to the White Tree Press site (www.whitetreepress.com) where fans of the book can record their comments about Lembas for the Soul.


21. The White Tree Press is hoping to publish a variety of books connected with Tolkien. Can you reveal us some of your plans for the future? What new works can we expect?

It all depends on the success of Lembas for the Soul. I am considering doing a second volume of LOTR fan true stories if the interest in the first book is high enough. I´d like to do another book on Tolkien, taking a slightly different slant than the publications that are currently out there. I may be doing some collaborating with other authors.

If the grace and good will of the Valar is with us, White Tree Press may branch out into other realms of the fantasy world. I´d love to publish fantasy fiction someday, but don´t send me any stories because that is too far off in the future to even consider at the moment! :)




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