Happy Friday! And it is a very happy Friday indeed, because today guest blogger Holly Erwin has a guest of her own, the one and only Juliet Marillier, Queen of Folklore. She really needs no introduction, so without futher ado- Enjoy!
A note from Holly before we start the interview:
Today is a beautiful day. Today, I get to tell you about my favorite books and author. Ask any avid fan about their favorite series of novels/television/movies, and chances are, they’ll jump at the chance to talk your ear off. I will try to be a little more professional and a little less fangirl for this piece, just because I find it easier to read spotlight articles if they aren’t the ramblings of an obsessed fan. So, here goes.
I first came across Juliet Marillier over 10 years ago, the summer of my twelfth year. I was short on good summer reading, and my school list wasn’t exactly keeping me entertained. After asking my mother for advice, she disappeared into her room and came back with a well-worn paperback titled Daughter of the Forest, which she thrust into my hands saying, “I think you’re for this one.” Immediately diving into the story, I hardly came up for air for two days. I fell in love with the ancient Irish traditions and exceptional character development, not to mention the fantasy thrown in with druidic history. I was hooked.
Daughter of the Forest (Book One of the Sevenwaters Trilogy) was first published in 1999, though my editions of the trilogy were published in 2002-03. Son of the Shadows, the second novel, is unequivocally my favorite, and Child of the Prophecy finishes the original threesome. Since publishing the first three novels, Juliet has continued the Sevenwaters family history with three more novels, Heir to Sevenwaters, Seer of Sevenwaters, and Flame of Sevenwaters. These novels are beautiful continuations of the family and characters, though they are still separate in my mind from the original trilogy.
The idea for the novel stemmed from a traditional fairy tale from the Grimm Brothers called The Six Swans. Juliet’s novel takes the Germanic roots of the story and transports them to Ireland, circa 9th century. We follow Sorcha, the youngest of seven siblings, and the only daughter. It’s a fantastical story of loss and at times a bitter determination—and at the end of the day, centers on sacrifice and family. Sorcha loses her brothers to a sorceress’s spell, but finds a way to undo the magic through a deeper, older source of power her family belongs to. It’s a love story, but also one of loss and deception, and true strength of character.
The second novel follows the next generation of characters in the Sevenwaters family, with familiar faces and names. Liadan has her father’s honor and her mother’s sense of duty—which is put to the test when she’s kidnapped by the Painted Men, a notorious band of mercenaries. As a daughter of one of the region’s most powerful families, Liadan’s disappearance doesn’t bode well for a peaceful alliance. Trust is built and destroyed in the blink of an eye, and Liadan finds herself embarking on a journey she’s not prepared for.
The forest and stronghold of Sevenwaters is daunting to young Fainne, who journeys from Kerry for an unspeakable task. As the daughter of a sorcerer and the niece of the Sevenwaters leader, Fainne is torn between who she is and who she has the power to become. Family and honor are wrapped in a prophecy she’s only beginning to understand, and safety becomes a murky concept for herself and those she loves most.
What began as a simple piece about my favorite novels has turned into an author spotlight. I was writing about the Sevenwaters Trilogy when I thought, Maybe I can interview Juliet for this piece. It’s only a dream come true to talk with my favorite author and ask her questions that have been rolling around in my brain for a decade—so when she said she’d love to answer my questions, you can imagine that I jumped for joy. Quite literally.
So, without further ado, I give you my correspondence with my favorite author, Juliet Marillier: historical fantasy author extraordinaire. She had the grace to answer of my questions, no matter how oddly specific or ordinarily general. There are not any terrible spoilers, but as I know that everyone who reads this post will immediately go out and purchase the novels and devour them forthwith, I am unconcerned. Read: nothing too climactic is spoiled. Read on if you’ve read the novels and want to know a little more about them, or if you’re interested in a fantastic author who goes above and beyond in the realm of research.
Questions about Sevenwaters:
The names in your novels are beautiful. Sorcha, Liadan, and my personal favorite, Diarmid. Other names are relatively common Irish names - like Conor and Liam - but how did you come across the other, more traditional names? Do they have any significance?
I use books of Irish names to find the more unusual ones, such as Mac Dara (‘son of the oak’). These days I’m careful to choose names that were in use in the historical period of the story. Back when I was writing the first three Sevenwaters books I didn’t realize some of the character names belonged to a later period (after the Anglo-Normans were in Ireland.)
Sorcha’s brothers almost seemed to name themselves - I used up all my favourite Irish men’s names on them! Some names I do choose because of their meaning. The most obvious is Fiacha (raven).
I’ve always been drawn to Simon, from Daughter of the Forest. Was it difficult writing a sad ending for him?
I always find it hard writing the parts where bad things happen to good characters. I don’t see Simon’s ending as completely sad, though - he does go on to marry well and take on a position of leadership (unfortunately he finds that wasn’t what he wanted after all.) I think it’s a realistic ending, and I never thought Sorcha and Simon were a well-matched pair; he is too needy for her. Red is perfect for Sorcha. So what happens for Simon seems almost inevitable. For me, it was much harder to write the scene where Sorcha is assaulted. Traumatic to put down on the page but necessary for the story. Life contains both good things and bad. It’s not always fair, just and balanced, and fiction needs to reflect that.
I’ve always wondered about Colum and Niamh’s life together - Sorcha’s mother and father. Have you ever thought about telling the story of their generation?
It’s been suggested to me that I could write that story. I do have a hang-up about prequels because the reader knows in advance what will happen (for instance, that a member of the central couple dies young.) That makes it challenging for the writer to engage the reader in the characters’ personal journeys. Not impossible, just harder.
Who was your favorite character to write?
From the Sevenwaters saga, probably Bran from Son of the Shadows. Also Gull, Snake, Dog and the rest of the Painted Men!
What was the hardest scene for you to write?
See above - the rape scene from Daughter of the Forest. If I was writing that now I would probably be less graphic. However, I have had positive feedback from readers on the emotional integrity of that scene.
The religious rituals and ceremonies in the Sevenwaters Trilogy are incredibly in-depth. How did you even begin that research?
That’s quite an interesting story! When I started out writing Daughter of the Forest, and decided to make the family pagan rather than Christian, I didn’t know a great deal about pagan/druidic rituals, especially those of the early medieval period. And of course, there isn’t much in the way of written records from that time, as druidic lore was secret and was only shared by word of mouth. I read what I could find, then my research led me to the discovery that druidry is alive and well in the present day. So I began studying with OBOD (The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, to which I still belong) and found out more about the current practices. For the novels, I had to find a happy medium, based on both my historical research and my practical knowledge. The rituals in the books are neither authentic historical ones (because nobody knows what those were in any detail) nor modern ones, but a blend that reflects, I hope, the philosophy behind a spiritual practice based on humankind’s place in the natural world.
Note: the rituals and ceremonies are almost awe-inspiring in these novels. The detail in which Juliet describes the scenes and histories of the Celtic traditions is simply amazing. Also they’re incredibly unique - I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel which this level research and dedication.
What’s the biggest challenge about writing a novel set hundreds of years in the past?
Making the interactions and relationships between the characters both historically plausible for their time and culture, and also acceptable and relevant for a contemporary reader. Fortunately, in early medieval Ireland women had quite a lot of protection under Brehon law and played a bigger part in society than women were able to do in many other places at that time. That means it’s not quite so implausible for my female characters to take control of their own destiny!
What did you edit OUT of the story?
It’s a while since I wrote the earlier Sevenwaters novels so I can’t answer this in much detail. I do remember being asked by my editor to make major changes to Son of the Shadows. In the original version, Red and Sorcha told Niamh the truth about who Ciaran really was and why they couldn’t marry. The change the editor wanted felt really wrong to me - it was completely out of character for Red and Sorcha to deceive their daughter, even if they were under huge family pressure to keep the unsavoury secret. It was also inconsistent with their approach to Liadan’s pregnancy later. But I was a fairly new author then so I made the changes the editor wanted - if it happened now I would negotiate a compromise that suited everyone. Also in that original version there were long passages in italics (Bran lost in dark visions of his past.) I have learned now that readers hate reading lots of italics and that too much angsty introspection does not make for a well-paced read!
Note: I agree with you completely! I’ve always thought Red and Sorcha’s treatment of Niamh was out of character - Liadan and Niamh both mention that. It’s interesting that it was originally written differently. I wonder if that knowledge would’ve changed Niamh, Ciaran, and Fainne’s lives at all. Huh.
Questions about writing:
When was the first time you unequivocally called yourself a writer?
No specific time, it grew on me. I’ve been writing stories since I was a child, though there was a long hiatus while I worked in other jobs and raised my children. But writer as in ‘career writer’ - that would be the day Pan Macmillan offered me a contract for the first two Sevenwaters books.
What are some of the most interesting, weird, or crazy things your readers have told you?
There is an alternative community in Germany where most of the children are named after characters in my books - hearing about that was quite strange, but in a good way. There are also various readers’ dogs and cats named Sorcha, Finbar etc. (None of my dogs is named for a book character but I do have a rather Irish-sounding Fergal.) I’ve had letters from readers in a hard-core survivalist group in the US and from readers doing long-term prison time.
Recently I had a request from the mother of a reader who had headed off on a long work stint at a research station in Antarctica. This reader was most disappointed that she’d still be away when The Caller, third book in my Shadowfell series, was releasedin Australia. My editor arranged for her own advance reading copy (there were so few of these available that even I didn’t get one) to be put on the supply boat, so the scientist would be able to finish reading the series. And she received it safely, so now there’s one of my books at the bottom of the world!
How do you react to bad reviews about your novels?
I find them devastating. Not sure which is most painful, a bad review by someone who knows their stuff and backs up each point with examples, or the ignorant ‘this book sucks’ kind. While I’ve got a little better at dealing with criticism over the years I am still quite thin-skinned about it. I don’t look at reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads or similar sites for that reason - although there are some well-considered reviews on there, the negative ones would paralyse me. I do read reviews on established book review blogs/sites or in the print media, and if I’m getting the same criticism from several reliable sources I take it on board for future reference. Generally my books are quite positively reviewed - that means the negative reviews really stand out!
What’s your recipe for setting a creative environment? Hot tea with lemon, noisy café, absolute silence?
I write at home and absolute silence is impossible as I have five dogs! But I do like quiet while I work - I don’t have background music playing and I find it hard to concentrate if there are other people around. Tea has to be available whenever required. Earl Grey is my favourite and I drink a lot of it. I am a full time writer - that’s how I earn my living - so I have a fairly consistent routine.
As a woman in the writing industry, have you ever felt marginalized? How, if at all, have you sought to combat that feeling?
I can only speak for the Australian experience and for my own genre. Women writers of fantasy/historical fiction are well respected in the industry here. We have many highly successful female fantasy writers: Trudi Canavan, Kate Forsyth, Isobelle Carmody, Kylie Chan, to name only a few. And there are respected New Zealand writers like Helen Lowe (a David Gemmell award winner) and Karen Healy. Many of the staff at the Australian publishing houses are female, including senior management. Women writers are well represented in the genre awards such as the Aurealis and New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Awards. However, in literary fiction I believe it’s a slightly different situation - fewer female reviewers for the major print publications, fewer reviews of books by women, women writers under-represented in the more prestigious literary awards. That led to the recent establishment of the Stella Award, an Australian award similar to the UK’s Orange Prize, exclusively for women writers.
Do you ever wish you had a career that didn’t require so much creative energy?
Not at all. I’ve had previous careers that required creative energy but were far more stressful (teacher, music performer) and careers that required little creative energy but carried high stress (public service middle manager.) I feel very privileged to be able to earn a living doing what I love best. I do sometimes get tired!
What’s a typical working day like for you? When and where do you write? Do you set a daily writing goal?
I write at the kitchen table on a laptop. I have a perfectly good study complete with desk, but the living area of the house is the only part that is air conditioned, also the dogs like to hang out there and keep me company. And there is tea within easy reach! Generally I get the morning feed/medicate/walk routine out of the way for all five dogs (that means two walks) and then I start work. Late afternoon there’s another dog routine which marks the end of the working day. When I have a lot of work on hand I write in the evening as well. At less pressured times my working hours are much shorter.
If a deadline is looming or I am falling behind, I set a daily minimum word count or (more likely) a weekly word count. Daily - around 1000 words. Weekly - 7000 words. 10,000 if the pressure is really on.
Not all of my working time is spent actually writing the next book. I have lots of ongoing related tasks to do: research, answering letters and emails, keeping up with social media (website, Facebook Fan Page, Goodreads author page), doing my accounts, editing, writing short pieces of various kinds, preparing and presenting workshops.
What’s your least favorite part of the writing process?
Revising and editing my own work.
Historical fiction is a popular genre - especially in e-books. What are your thoughts on this? Are you surprised? Why do you write primarily historical fiction?
I’m not surprised at all. Romance is also very popular in e-books too, as is fantasy. Genre readers do tend to gobble up a lot of books, and e-books are really convenient for the avid reader. As for historical fiction being popular in general, I do think readers are fascinated by the past, and a well written historical novel can draw you right into that other world.
I love fairy tales and mythology, and my first novel arose from that love, when I decided to put a real family of individuals into the middle of a fairy tale story. I see my work as historical fantasy rather than historical fiction. Rather than create a whole secondary world as the setting for a story involving magic/the uncanny, I like to place that story in a ‘real world’ setting. I develop the uncanny parts from what the people of that time and culture would have believed in - fey folk, talking animals, gods and spirits sharing the natural world with humankind. It’s harder to incorporate folklore into a modern story, but I guess urban fantasy goes a certain way down that path.
If you got to choose between living in today’s modern society, with all its convenience and perks, or living in the fantasy realm you write about, which would you choose?
I would find it hard to live in a society without modern medical science, where women so often died in childbirth and there was no effective way to fight infection. I guess if I could rely on the Old Ones to appear when required and provide their magical cures, the world of Sevenwaters might be OK to live in.
Tell me about your upcoming series, Blackthorn and Grim. It makes me think of the Brothers Grimm…any correlation?
No, there’s no connection with the Brothers Grimm except that chime with the ‘dark fairy tale’ concept. Blackthorn & Grim is an adult fantasy series that combines mystery, fairy tale and human drama. The series is a lot darker and grittier than my previous work and its protagonists are older and more flawed than my usual characters That should make some of my readers happy, as I am occasionally accused of making my central characters too good/strong/courageous/young!
The first book in the Blackthorn & Grim series, Dreamer’s Pool, comes out in October (Australia) and November (US) 2014. The novel begins with the embittered healer Blackthorn in prison awaiting execution. A mysterious visitor offers her a lifeline - she can be spared provided she agrees to live by certain rules for seven years. Each time she breaks a rule, another year will be added to the term. Since the rules prevent her from seeking vengeance on the man who wronged her, Blackthorn doesn’t believe she can obey them for seven days, let alone seven years. But who wouldn’t lie to save their own life?
The Shadowfell series has been marketed as a young adult series, but it’s a satisfying read for adult lovers of folkloric fantasy as well - my readers tell me so! It’s an epic story of rebellion and tyranny set in an alternative version of ancient Scotland, and has a big cast of uncanny characters and a lot of magic. The three books are Shadowfell, Raven Flight and The Caller.
The Caller is available in Australia and New Zealand now. The US edition, a Knopf hardback, will be released on September 9. It will also be available in e-book.
Magic and ancient Scotland? Now I remember why I bought Shadowfell (other than seeing Juliet Marillier on the cover)! It sounds right up my alley - I’m interested in seeing the contrasts between the Shadowfell series and my beloved Sevenwaters. I promise to keep an open mind! Looking forward to it already.
Thanks so much Juliet and Holly for taking the time with us today. Everyone, if you haven’t read the Sevenwaters Trilogy yet, we obviously highly recommend it. If you have questions about folklore, the trilogy, or even about Juliet, tweet them to @CuriosityQuills using #FolkloreFriday and we’ll try to answer as many as we can. Don’t forget to check out Juliet’s upcoming release, Dreamer’s Pool!