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Interview Juliet Marillier
by Chris R Paige

Juliet Marillier is the soul of graciousness. In spite of a very busy schedule and health issues, she responded to our many questions. The author of the Sevenwaters series and the Bridei Chronicles, she has a wide and devoted following among readers of historical fantasy. She has received numerous accolades, including the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel for Wildwood Dancing, an extraordinary blending of Transylvanian lore and several fairy tales.  She was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, and resides in Perth, Australia, in a cottage with several four-legged companions. We have reviewed many of her books over the years, and look forward to doing so again soon.

CP: Do you consider yourself a writer born, or did you become one? How did you know, either way?

I don’t suppose you can know, really! Both nature and nurture play a part. I loved books and storytelling from a very early age and my parents encouraged me to read widely. I still have a story about rampaging killer robots, which I wrote aged 7. After that came many more stories, mostly either fantastic or historical or both. My early passion for reading and writing should have suggested an obvious career choice to me.  But I chose to major in music at university and worked in that field for years, followed by a stint in the public service. At a certain point in my life I knew I was ready to write seriously. I do wonder what my books would be like if I’d had my first one published at age 25 rather than 50. I think they are probably better for those years of life experience, especially in the creation of characters and relationships.

CP: According to your bio-blurb, you are a member of a druid order, OBOD. How did you discover the order, and what can you tell us about it?

When writing the earlier Sevenwaters novels I needed to research druidry in Ireland in the early medieval period. My reading led me down some fascinating byways and I made the exciting discovery that druidry still exists as a spiritual path, and that it is not confined to long-haired British eccentrics in white robes and sandals. Philip Carr-Gomm, Chief of OBOD (the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) visited Western Australia to present a workshop on druidry. Attending that workshop was life-changing for me. The values of druidry resonated strongly with what I already believed, and certain aspects of the philosophy opened up possibilities I had never considered.

There are other druid orders as well, spread around the world. OBOD is based in the UK but has members in many countries. We believe in the power of storytelling for teaching and healing; in environmental responsibility; in social justice. Most important, for me, is the belief that the divine exists within each living thing, human, animal, plant, mineral, and links us all together. If you can believe in the divine spark within yourself, it enables you to love and accept yourself with all your weaknesses. If you can believe in the divine spark within others, it enables you to be non-judgmental and to accept difference. Of course, it’s something you have to keep working at. But I like that; life is one long journey of learning.

CP: There are druidic components in many of your books, including my favourites, Wildwood Dancing and Cybele’s Secret. Do you have ideas for any sequels to that series? Who would be the protagonist(s)?

I did plan Wildwood to be a three-book series, with the third instalment to be narrated by youngest sister Stela. However, my US publisher was keener for me to start a new young adult series instead, so that’s what I’ve done. It’s the Shadowfell series, a story of tyranny and rebellion set in an imagined version of ancient Scotland. The first of those, called Shadowfell, comes out in Fall 2012. It would be nice to continue the Wildwood series as well, but at present time doesn’t permit that.

CP: Have you actually met the illustrator, Kinuko Y Craft, who did the cover art for those two books? How  do you communicate your guidelines for the cover art?

I haven’t met Kinuko in person but we did communicate while she was working on those covers, and I found her both warm and professional. I’ve been extremely lucky to have had four covers done by her, those for my Norse novels, Wolfskin and Foxmask, in the Tor US editions, and the ones for Wildwood and Cybele, which are my favourite covers of all. Generally it’s the publisher who commissions the art and writes up a ‘cover brief’ for the artist. Often the writer is not consulted at all during the process, and the final decisions rest contractually with the publisher. As a result, I’ve had some rather odd covers over the years, but mostly I’ve been fortunate. Kinuko did me the rare favour of actually reading the books right through – few cover artists do that – and creating an art work that captured the essence of the story wonderfully while retaining her own individual magic.  Incidentally, I have been consulted on the cover art for the two books I have coming out in 2012, so things are looking up!

CP: Do you know Margaret Mahy, another wonderful Down Under writer of fantasy?

I don’t know Margaret Mahy personally, but I am an admirer of her work. One of my favourite novels is her quirky YA coming of age / love story, The Catalogue of the Universe. There are some wonderful newer writers in Australian and New Zealand fantasy too – for American readers wanting to dip their toes into antipodean fantasy, I recommend Helen Lowe and Karen Healey from NZ, and the brilliant Margo Lanagan (a World Fantasy Award winner) from Australia. Angela Slatter is another name to watch.

CP: You have degrees in languages and music. What do you listen to?

My background is in classical music, and that was my staple listening fare for most of my life. My mother was a piano teacher as well as music critic for the local newspaper and her tastes were a big influence! Now, though, I listen mostly to traditional and modern folk, with an emphasis on Celtic music, whether that’s from Scotland and Ireland or from further afield – I love Breton and Galician music, and the complex rhythms of Eastern European traditions. I don’t listen to music while I’m writing – I prefer silence, though it’s inevitably punctuated by reminders from my menagerie that it’s time for me to get up, stretch and perhaps give them a snack. I tend to have music playing while I’m doing physical work – cleaning, gardening and so on. Some of my favourite groups / performers are Runrig, Capercaillie, Cherish the Ladies, Solas, Hevia, Carlos Nunez.

CP: What instruments do you play? Do you compose?

I majored in composition, but these days my efforts are limited to making up tunes for the various verses that appear in my novels – my characters have a habit of telling stories and singing songs. One of these days I’d love to make a recording of those to offer as a bonus to readers. There’s a stirring song in my forthcoming YA novel, Shadowfell, called the Song of Truth, which I’m especially proud of. I dream of hearing that performed by Scots folk/rock band Runrig.

In my time I’ve played violin, oboe and piano, but singing and choral conducting have been my real loves. I don’t do any musical performing these days – too busy writing.

CP: Who are your literary influences? What books are on your shelves?

Wow, big question! My shelves are crammed, and there are lots of them – bookcases in every room bar the bathroom. My biggest influence is traditional story: myths, legends, fairy tales and folk tales, which I’ve devoured since I first learned to read. Writers who made a particular mark on me include Charlotte Brontë, Daphne du Maurier and Mary Stewart, also Scottish historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett.

I love writers who combine expert craft with great storytelling. Some of my favourites are Iain Banks, Neil Gaiman, Joe Abercrombie, David Mitchell, Rose Tremain, Jacqueline Carey. Fantasy makes up a fairly small component of my reading. It’s mostly literary or mainstream fiction and assorted non-fiction. I’ve recently read two outstanding novels by antipodean writers: Traitor by Stephen Daisley, a beautifully written literary novel about the unlikely friendship between a naïve New Zealand soldier and a Sufi doctor, and the gritty, funny coming-of-age story Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. Both highly recommended.

CP: I’m always fascinated by individuals’ family heritage – what countries their ancestors came from, what prompted the family migrations, and so on. Will you tell us a bit about your family?

My ancestry is three quarters Scots and a quarter Irish. The forebears of both parents came to New Zealand in the mid to late 1800s, part of a big influx of settlers from Scotland – I grew up in Dunedin, known as the most Scottish city outside Scotland itself, so it’s no wonder a Celtic influence pervades my books. On my mother’s side we can trace our ancestry back to an illegitimate descendant of Scots royalty. There are a few sheep-stealers in there too. My father’s family, the Scotts, lived in the Galashiels area. My Irish ancestors were the Greers. Most of my forebears would have emigrated in hope of a better life, ie., for economic reasons. One day I may have time for some proper research; I’d love to learn more. I do occasionally sense my ancient ancestors – from back in Pictish times –whispering their stories.

CP: Does your environment influence your writing?

My immediate environment, not so much, apart from needing peace and quiet. The environment I grew up in, yes. I am drawn to European settings, dark forests, lakes, sea and islands, places that physically resemble the part of New Zealand where I was born and raised. Rather than write a New Zealand story, I have tended to set my books in Celtic countries, reflecting my lifelong interest in the music, stories and history of the lands of my ancestry. Of course, I have stepped outside that with my Norse novels and with Wildwood Dancing and Cybele’s Secret, set in Transylvania and Turkey respectively. I do find myself returning to sea and islands, and the mythology associated with them.

CP: If you could time travel, when and where would you go?

I’d go to northern Britain in the time of the Picts, around 550CE. I’m fascinated by the grey areas in history, those about which there are no contemporary written records. When I was writing the Bridei Chronicles, I had to use a lot of educated guesswork and a bit of pure imagination to create a believable Pictish culture – historians and archaeologists like to disagree about many aspects of it, including the theory of matrilineal succession, and the meanings behind the famous symbol stones that still stand in the Scottish countryside. It would be great to see what Bridei’s time was really like. I would have to take my thermal underwear.

CP: Most people have had experiences that are at heart magical – or synchronistic, or mysterious, or numinous, call it what you will. Are some of the magical elements you describe based on experience, as distinct from imagination, or lore?

As a druid I am open to the possibility of magic, in particular what I would call natural magic. I believe there are many things in the world that cannot be explained by science. I’d say that while most of the magical elements in the books are based on lore and imagination, there is definitely an element of personal experience in there from time to time. I’m not talking about the kind of magic that allows a person to wave a wand and turn a pumpkin into a carriage – it’s more a magic of receiving ancestral wisdom, or feeling a profound serenity in certain special places (often places where the elements meet, such as hilltops, sea shores, caves) or experiencing the amazing empowerment that can come when a group of people approaches a task with shared energy. That may sound a little new-agey but in fact these ideas are as old as time.

CP: Do any of your characters take on a life of their own?

Despite what people say, it is within a writer’s power to keep control of characters, since they are products of the imagination! But during the creative process, the writer can often feel she is being pulled in a certain story direction by the characters. It’s rare for my characters to surprise me, because I’m such a planner. But it does happen. Faolan, the king’s assassin and spy in The Dark Mirror, was intended as a one-book, fairly minor character. But he developed a tragic backstory, and I became interested in his journey. He ended up getting his own two books as protagonist, and became a big favourite with readers.

CP: Do you have a favourite character?

I love Deord, the heroic prison guard from Blade of Fortriu – he’s my tribute to ex-servicemen suffering from PTSD. Of the female characters, I am fond of Eile from The Well of Shades, who has the biggest challenges to overcome of all my female protagonists. And I must mention Gogu from Wildwood Dancing. But I tend to love best whoever I am currently writing about.

My favourite character from other people’s fiction is Francis Crawford from Dorothy Dunnett’s historical series, the Lymond Chronicles, set in Europe in Tudor times. He’s a brilliantly conceived anti-hero. It takes the reader a long time to warm to him, because outwardly he is so unpleasant, but once we start to discover what makes him tick, we become passionately interested in seeing him win through.

CP: Have you ever had to modify a plot or character to meet a publisher’s demands? Add a bit of this, tone down a bit of that, or go with a popular motif?

There’s always a bit of tweaking required at editorial stage. Usually it’s pretty minor, but my editors asked for major structural changes in two books – one was my second novel, Son of the Shadows, and I found that confronting because I was so new to the business, but my editor was especially tactful in the way she explained it to me. I did what she asked even though I didn’t agree with it. Now that I have thirteen novels in print and another two ready to go, I have more confidence in my own judgement and I’ve learned to find an acceptable compromise if my editor and I want different things. I earn my living as a novelist, and that means a balancing act between artistic integrity and commercial viability. I don’t tailor my work to the market. However, there is not a lot of point in writing a book that I know is unlikely to sell. Given free rein, I would be writing more novels like the Bridei books – closer to historical fiction than fantasy, and quite substantial in both themes and word count. However, those books weren’t as popular as the more romantic Sevenwaters novels with their fairytale-based themes and Irish setting. And publishers, realistically, want something saleable.

When aspiring writers ask me how they can shape their novel for the current market, I always say they should write the ‘book of the heart’, the story they feel passionately about, and forget the market, because what’s popular now will be out of fashion before their manuscript is ready to be shopped around . A writer needs to be emotionally invested in the story or it becomes a product, and won’t create that answering spark in the reader that gives a book longevity. One of my major challenges is taking what I know my publisher wants, and shaping it into a story I can truly believe in. It can be done!

CP: You recently visited the US: California for a book signing and New York for a charity event. What were some highlights?

I visited Santa Barbara, where I presented a workshop for SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.) I stayed at the old Santa Barbara Mission, which has a remarkable serenity about it, partly due to the continued presence of religious orders and the use of the buildings for retreats, etc., and partly because of the lovely secluded gardens and gorgeous architecture. It was an unusual setting for a fairytale workshop presented by a druid! The writers who attended were full of enthusiasm and produced some wonderful creative work on the day. My local contact took me for a walk on the beach and I also got to see some of the beautiful old Hispanic-style buildings downtown. That’s a city I’d love to visit again.

In New York I attended the Romance Writers of America convention, a huge and very well organised event with a program packed with useful workshops. I gave a keynote address to the Women’s Fiction chapter of RWA. In both locations, some dedicated fans travelled long distances to have books signed by me, and that was indeed a highlight. I loved taking a long walk around Central Park – an oasis amidst the hustle and bustle. The trip was also an opportunity to meet with my agent, Russ Galen, and my two US editors.

CP: You have attended conventions and workshops. What have been some of your favourite panels and discussion points – or which ones would you like to see on a convention schedule in the future?

So much of the success of a panel depends on the participants (and to an extent the audience.) I like panels on the use of fairytales and folklore in fantasy, and have fond memories of a panel discussion on this topic with Ripley Patton and Kathy Sullivan at the national New Zealand convention in 2010 – all three of us love traditional storytelling and it was a lively discussion that brought out some great audience questions. But the same panel with a different lineup might not have gone so well.

I was on an interesting panel at Worldcon in 2010 about getting attitudes and behaviour right in historical fiction/fantasy – it’s easy enough to research, say, weaponry, clothing or food, but much harder to portray the social interactions of the culture and time in a way that is historically appropriate. As we can’t go back in time to find out how they did it, we need to rely on contemporary sources and our general knowledge of the period in question.  A lot of fantasy writers do this badly, imposing modern attitudes on a historical setting. But does this matter in historical fantasy? And how do you make the characters resonate for a contemporary reader if they’re constrained by, for instance, a rigidly patriarchal society in which women have no power? It’s a great discussion point.

For the future, it would be good to see more panels on the craft aspects of writing, to balance the often heavy emphasis at conventions on gaming, movies and TV shows. I’d love to see more writers’ workshops run alongside the main programming. I’m not talking about ‘how to get published’ workshops, though those also have a place, but hands-on workshops on the writer’s craft. I think I’m beating my head against a brick wall, though – I know how difficult it has been to run writers’ streams at past Worldcons. Perhaps they work better at the smaller events.  Swancon, our speculative fiction convention here in Western Australia, included this year a very successful one-day writers’ program run in cooperation with the local Romance Writers’ association. It had a craft stream and a business stream running in parallel.

Other info you might want from me:

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