Painting the Fantastical Canvas – Deborah J. Ross

By Julie Horner

On an unassuming back road in one of Boulder Creek’s rustic wooded neighborhoods not too far from downtown, I found myself at the threshold of another world. I had heeded the “Dragon Xing” sign and was standing at the gate eagerly waiting to meet the writer of such epic science fiction fantasy novels as The Seven-Petaled Shield trilogy, Jaydium, and Northlight, and the enduring and evolved voice of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover® series. Local writer Deborah J. Ross had invited me into her little piece of mountain paradise to “peek inside her magnificent imagination.”

I was ushered into the writer’s retreat by Tajji, a 10 ½ year old retired German Shepherd service dog. Shelves of reverently ordered books dominated one wall floor to ceiling; cats on well-lit perches, a teapot with cozy, and a piano set a welcoming tone. Through the windows an expanse of winter garden shivered expectantly in the not-quite-spring sun. It is in this warm nook surrounded by the creatures and comforts she loves, where Deborah embarks on fantastic journeys through time and space and all imagining.

Deborah has been writing science fiction and fantasy professionally for over 30 years. Her connection to the late Marion Zimmer Bradley began with a fan letter that Deborah wrote to Bradley in 1980. “Marion wrote back, three pages of single-spaced typewriting. We began a correspondence, and I must confess to a certain giddiness that my favorite author had taken the care to write to me,” Ross writes in her blog.

The Darkover series is a science fiction-fantasy chronology consisting of several novels and short stories set in the fictional world of Darkover. Deborah writes, “I began working with Marion in the final year of her life, thinking we would collaborate on one or more novels.” Deborah eventually wrote six books in the series after Bradley passed away, under contract to the MZB Literary Works Trust, which holds the copyright.

Initially, she tried to maintain Bradley’s voice and vision. “By the end of the sixth book, I realized how much of my own imagination colored the story and its landscape. I found myself drawn away from the characters and situations that Marion had envisioned, and toward those I had invented.”

Ross recalls while living in Lyons, France the commemorative placards posted throughout the city honoring victims of the Holocaust. Reading them caused a deep awareness which infuses her characters with the resilience to overcome. She writes of heroines and heroes with big hearts who carry out necessary roles on fantastical alien worlds, putting them in situations wherein they become a touchstone for social politics, feminism, gender fluidity and ultimate equality in society, stretching the reader’s perceived notions to illustrate the assumptions people make and how wrong they can be.

Ross writes about things she has loved to read…”take me away to Dune or Middle Earth,” she says. But Ross points out that so much early science fiction was written by men (Heinlein, “who didn’t have a clue about women,” for instance) or by women under a male penname because it wasn’t fashionable in those days for a woman to write science fiction.

Many of Ross’ characters are women in “kick-ass” roles who drive conflict to non-violent solutions. Sci-Fi author, Tom Easton wrote about Ross’ writing in Jaydium, “There is an emphasis on the quest for peace that is unusual when so many novels focus on the quest for dominance and victory.” And in The Seven-Petaled Shield, females are the heroes. “From the outset, I knew that this story had to be told primarily through the experiences of women and would require a huge canvas…and a different kind of heroine.”

But Ross’ heroes are not hardened. Northlight, Ross’ novel about an otherworld female Ranger, a wild and savvy knife-fighter on a treacherous northern border, has been called, “A beautifully constructed fantasy with characters who grow and mature before the reader’s eyes and who are engagingly human while being fantastically heroic…” (Affair de Coeur)

Back on Earth you might bump into Deborah at Johnnie’s Supermarket or at a San Lorenzo Valley Community Band concert. She proudly knits for charity, plays classical piano, studies yoga and lovingly retrains retired service dogs. The warrior woman within also studies martial arts, with some 25 years of Kung Fu San Soo under her belt.

Recent accomplishments include winning Finalist for the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for her novel, Collaborators (as Deborah Wheeler), and she is a member of the online writers cooperative, Book View Cafe. Deborah has signed contracts for three more Darkover novels and is now finishing up the first, Thunderlord, and hopes to turn it in to her editor this summer.

A snippet from Deborah’s blog reads: “You are wise to trust your instincts, for they have served you well through many perils. All too often, women are trained to ignore our gut feelings about a person or situation. We allow ourselves to be persuaded into dangerous circumstances instead of standing up for ourselves. My advice is to come prepared for anything. Bring your slayer arsenal — stakes, spears, swords, the works — and keep your wits about you.”

On the Web:

Darkover® is a registered trademark of the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust.

(c) 2015 Julie Horner – Originally published in the Santa Cruz Mountain Bulletin, March 2015

Julie Horner is an Irish folk musician and writer living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. Email:

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