Curiosity Quills recently had the honor of interviewing bestselling Irish author, and collector and editor of folklore Michael Scott.
Irish Folk and Fairy Tales, volume 1: published 1983
How did you become interested in Irish Folklore?
I grew up in Ireland, a country where myth and legend were still very real and present. There are stories aplenty of farmers who refuse to dig up certain trees or cut down bushes because they are sacred to the faery folk. And these are not old stories either; when the famous De Lorean car factory opened in Northern Ireland, two fairy thorn bushes were cut down at the entrance to the factory, against the wishes and advice of the locals. They knew there would be trouble ahead!
Ireland’s folklore is very rich and, for the most part, unique to the island. Because Ireland was not invaded by the Romans or conquered by the Greeks, the stories remained pure and were passed down from generation to generation in an unbroken oral tradition. When the Christian monks first arrived they recorded (and both Christianized and sanitized) some of the stories, but a huge body of the material was never translated from the Irish language.
Growing up, I had always been interested in Irish folklore, especially once I discovered its links to Arthurian lore. So much of Arthur’s story can be found in Irish myth. So, I began to collect stories from across Ireland, especially in the West where Irish is still spoken as a native language. I was lucky to be working as an antiquarian and rare book dealer, which allowed me to travel across the country and collect the stories at source. When I came to write my first book, Irish Folk & Fairy Tales, it seemed obvious to put into print stories which either had never before been told in English or to retell the traditional stories in a modern idiom. Sometimes the purists would be offended because I had changed the story slightly, but my argument is that these stories are part of an oral tradition. The travelling storyteller, the shanachai, would have altered and changed the story slightly depending on the audience.
Looking at your past publications, you seem almost perfectly divided between books on folklore and fairy tales and novels, and many of your novels deal with that same folklore. Do you consider yourself to be a folklorist or an author first? Or are the two intertwined for you?
The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, published 2007
I am a writer who has been very lucky to write about what interests me. I started with Irish folklore, and then branched out into Celtic, then Norse and German lore. Now, my interest encompasses world mythology. My last series, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, allowed me to explore world folklore and the often startling similarities between stories which are separated by centuries and continents.
Also, every story has its basis in myth. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey perfectly illustrates that. All the modern superhero movies are based out of mythology – some, like Thor and the Asgardians, very explicitly – while, at the same time creating their own complex myth systems. Humans have always had the need for Gods and Heros and when we cannot find them, we make them up.
I noticed that some of your books on folklore are intended for adults and some aimed more at a YA or children’s audience. How do you accommodate comprehension differences for each, and choose which tales should be told to each audience?
My writing is now split more or less 50/50 between adults and young adults. Writing for a younger audience is really a matter of understanding your audience and, more importantly, understanding what they understand. Younger readers are incredibly sophisticated and have been exposed to a vast amount of media. However, they are still children.
If I say to you, as an adult, Bay of Pigs, you will instantly start thinking about Cuba, Castro and Kennedy. Children, depending on the age, will think: a bay with pigs swimming in it.
So, you have to know your audience. You have to know what they are reading, watching, wearing and listening to. They are incredibly attentive readers and will spot your errors (and then email, tweet and Facebook you!) Adults, in the main, are not so attentive to some of the smaller and subtle details in a novel.
Usually, the subject matter will dictate how I tell a story and for which audience. What I do find interesting are the huge numbers of adults who are now reading Young Adult material. I think adults come to YA because they have found that these are “pure” stories, not overly violent, not explicit and without a political message. They are just stories.
What do you think of mainstream media depictions of Irish folklore? Would you like to see more or fewer of them? I’m thinking recently of The Secret of Kells, but I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed.
For far too long Ireland was thought of as the land of leprechauns and little people, which is a shame, because it is much, much more than that, with one of the richest folklore and legend systems in the world, and an unbroken storytelling tradition stretching back thousands of years. It is a folklore that has fascinated generations of writers. Ireland has four Nobel Prize winners for literature, (Heaney, Beckett, Shaw and Yeats) all of who touched upon the country’s mythic stories. In any roll call of the world’s most important writers, in just about any genre, you will find plenty of Irish representatives. One of the greatest horror creations of all time, Dracula, was created by an Irishman, Bram Stoker.
But the media perception is that Irish folktales are all about leprechauns. And, don’t get me wrong, while there is a vast body of wonderful lore about the Little People. However, if you knew the truth about Leprechauns and the rest of their clans, the Fir Dearg, Fir Dorcha and Cluricauns, you might not be so quick to have them on a breakfast cereal box. Disney has a lot to answer for with the 1959 movie, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It absolutely enshrined a particular image of Irish folklore – although having said that, some of the imagery is fabulous. Disney’s intentions were good. They wanted to make a movie about Irish folklore and even worked with the Irish Folklore Department for some time before deciding to film Herminie Templeton Kavanagh’s Darby O’Gill and the Good People. We know that Herminie was born in England in 1861 and we know she spent at least one year in Ireland, possibly in 1906 before she married a judge from Chicago. Her knowledge of Irish folklore was extremely limited and there is no evidence that she either spoke or read Irish. She said she got a lot of the stories from her driver and indeed, some of them have a twee touristy fee to them. Unfortunately, however, these are the images which stick.
1990’s children’s fantasy TV series The Mystic Knights of Tir na nOg
There was a program in the late 1990’s called The Mystic Knights of Tir na nOg which was terrible and although it was shot in Ireland, and supposed to be “based” around Irish myth, it showed its Power Rangers roots (and costumes!)
Some fantasy movies have borrowed from Celtic myth: Excalibur, of course, which was shot in Wicklow, south of Dublin. The Lord of the Rings has deep Celtic roots, but then again, JRR Tolkien was also borrowing from Celtic myth for his original creation. Conan (the Schwarzenegger version) has some trappings from Irish myth, and again, his creator, R E Howard, loved Irish myth. Two of his greatest heros, Conan and Bran Mac Morn, are obvious Celts.
What this does mean is that no-one has done it. Yet. But it will happen. Sooner or later Hollywood will discover Celtic myth.
Do you have a favorite fairy/folk tale, Irish or otherwise?
It has to be The Children of Lir, the story of the four children changed into swans by their evil step mother. They spend 900 years as swans before returning to their human form. This incredibly ancient legend is one of the Three Sorrows of Irish Storytelling. My first book for children was based around this legend and it has always remained a particular favorite of mine because it is ultimately the story of trust, family and redemption. You can find examples of the story from all across the world.
Do you have a favorite folk/fairy-related novel or movie?
Far too many to mention. I love big mythic fantasy, especially writers like Charles de Lint and China Mieville, Andre Norton and David Gemmell, Susan Cooper and James Cabell.
But for anyone interested in myth, and its continuing power, then the works of Joseph Campbell are essential reading. Start with The Hero with a Thousand Faces and go on from there.
Tea, coffee, or scotch?
Tea. I drink endless cups. Strong black tea in the morning, then an Earl Grey in the afternoon and finally, green tea for the rest of the evening.
German film composer Hans Zimmer
We know from previous interviews that you have a large collection of instrumental music to write to. If you could choose anyone, dead or alive, to compose a writing soundtrack for you, who would it be?
Ah, an easy question. A couple of years ago, I was introduced to a composer I had been following for a decades. His name was Hans Zimmer. I even got to sit in his composing chair in his stunning studio. (Plus, I have the photos to prove it!) At that stage, The Flamel series was already in development as a movie, and we discussed the possibility that he would do the score. His music is essentially another “character” in whatever film he works on and I wrote some of the big set pieces in the Flamel series to his music. However, I know Hans is booked for what seems like the next decade and I’m guessing he’s not going to be available.
I’ve been following the work of a young composer called Bear McCreary since his music first appeared in the TV series, Battlestar Galactica. I’m a big fan of his music and his recent scores for Da Vinci’s Demons is nothing short of stunning. He has just scored Outlander with a great Scottish/Celtic sound and I would love him to score the new Flamel movie. It would be fascinating to see what he would do with the different myths, legends, ethnicities and eras in the story. The finale of The Enchantress was written to his Caprica.
You’ve worked with an array of publishers over the years for your many works. Do you have any knowledge or advice about working with publishers that you can share? Any efforts that really impressed you in particular?
Do your research and choose your publisher. If you are pitching a manuscript or an idea, make sure it is appropriate to that publishing house. The stories of authors pitching a gothic romance to a publisher who specializes in westerns or science fiction to a non-fiction publisher are tongue-in-cheek, but they are also based on a kernel of truth.
Before choosing a publisher, read some of the work the publisher has put out and, if you get a chance, try and talk to the authors. This is especially true if it is a small publisher.
Be professional. Remember, publishers really do want to you walk in the door with the next Stephen King. It is their job to make your good book great. If there are editorial suggestions (and there will be), try to look at them as coolly as possible. I’ve known too many authors who did not work well with editors … and now they do not work.
The Affair, written as Anna Dillon
You’ve published extensively under the pseudonym Anna Dillon. Do you write differently depending on which name will be on the book cover? Do you start books knowing they’ll be either a Dillon or a Scott work? Also, it looks like most Dillon books are out of print in the US – any plans to bring some of them back?
Yes, the Anna Dillon persona is very different and she writes very different books to me. “Anna” was originally created because I wanted to write a big historical novel set in Dublin in the years leading up to the 1916 Easter Rising. Inasmuch as this story focused on the women, my publishers felt that this was Historical Romance and Historical Romances were best written by women. So I started writing as Anna Dillon and soon “Anna” was outselling my other work and was a much more successful author. To be honest, the pseudonym was never that much of a secret. (It cannot be that much of a secret if “Anna’s” webpages are linked to mine, can it?)
The style of the Anna Dillon novels is different to the Michael Scott work. “Her” books are slower, more character-driven pieces. With the exception of the historical Season’s novels, everything else is contemporary. Many of the Michael Scott books have huge casts of characters; all of the Anna Dillon titles have small casts. The MS books are big, sprawling, and full of fantasy and monsters, the AD books are about real people in real situations.
Yes, Anna continues to write. I am hoping for the new book to appear at the end of 2015 or early 2016
I am often asked what you need to become a writer and is it possible for anyone to be a writer. I really do believe that anyone can write – because writing, just like anything else, is practice, practice, practice. I think this is a great age to be a writer, because there are now so many ways to get your work before the readers.
To become a writer, you need to be a reader. I know this may sound stupid or obvious, but you need to read in as broad a range of genres as possible. One of the first questions I will ask a new writer is what they last read. If they say, “Oh, I’ve no time to read…” Then I know that they will never become a writer.
And writers write. You do it every day. Even if you throw it away the following day, you have to write every day. Writing is all about practice, putting words on paper or screen.
Learn how to type. Do a keyboard skills course, so you can touch type. It is an essential skill and will save your hands endless agony in years to come.
And finally, get a comfortable chair: writing is all about sitting in the chair, putting fingers to keys, or taking pen in hand … and writing.
About Michael Scott:
He writes for both adults and young adults and is published in thirty-seven countries, in over twenty languages.
Praised for his “unparalleled contribution to children’s literature,” by the Guide to Children’s Books, Michael Scott was the Writer in Residence during Dublin’s tenure as European City of Culture in 1991, and was featured in the 2006 edition of Who’s Who in Ireland as one of the 1000 most “significant Irish.”
Find Michael Scott Online:
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