Internationally acclaimed Australian author Juliet Marillier writes epic fantasy novels with true-to-life characters, singular plots, vivid weavings of myth and magic, and buttery prose. Her meticulous research of unique settings–Norse Orkney, ancient Ireland and Pictish Scotland–put her on the cutting edge of historical fiction as well.
But don’t believe me. Here’s what the reviewers have to say:
“Marillier is a fine folklorist and a gifted narrator who has created a wholly appealing and powerful character.”
—Publishers Weekly on Daughter of the Forest
“Australian new voice Juliet Marillier provides a beautifully wrought answer to the legend of the swans in this sequel to her debut novel, Daughter of the Forest…The exquisite poetry of the story is carefully balanced with strong characterizations and more than a nod to Irish mythology.”
—Romantic Times (Gold Top Pick) on Son of the Shadows
“The clash of cultures and the limits of loyalty form the thematic framework of Marillier’s compelling new stand-alone fantasy….A multilayered plot, intriguing characters and lyrical prose distinguish a novel that, long as it is, never feels padded.”
— Publishers Weekly on Wolfskin
“Another great story full of well developed characters from this fine fantasist.”
— Booklist starred review on Foxmask
Writer Unboxed is truly honored to have her with us for this in-depth three-part interview.
Part 1: Interview with Juliet Marillier
Q: Where do the seeds for these epic stories come from? Are they all based on bits of old tales?
JM: The seeds often come from real history – for instance, the story for Wolfskin was inspired by my interest in the history of Orkney and what might have happened when the first Norse settlers (0r invaders) clashed with the indigenous Pictish population. I like unanswered questions: why did the Picts vanish from the north of Britain so quickly, after being such a strong military and political presence? The basis for The Bridei Chronicles is real history. I was fascinated by the story of the young Bridei being groomed for kingship by an influential mage or druid, which has some parallels with Arthur and Merlin. Because I love myth, legend and folklore and have been reading it all my life, many motifs and themes from traditional stories work their way into my books almost despite me. I also gain inspiration from what I see, hear and experience in my daily life. There are elements in the Bridei books that relate strongly to the fact that I was writing in the early days of the Iraq war.
Q: The stakes are always exceedingly high in your stories, whether characters are out to save a race of people, win peace, or in some other way combat evil. How important are high stakes in the fantasy genre and why?
JM: I find it hard to generalize about the fantasy genre because it is now so diverse, spanning everything from gritty urban fantasy to the traditional invented-world epic to outright comedy and covering a wide range of writing approaches from the highly literary to the unabashedly commercial. Many fantasy stories do tap into the archetypal themes of mythology, which involve the highest stakes – defeating evil, saving the world, being happy ever after … It is traditional for a fantasy story to be about the struggle between good and evil, although that can be portrayed in a thousand different ways and need not be a grand epic story. Readers tend to expect a quest of some kind. Again, that need not involve slaying a dragon or saving the whole of Middle Earth, it can be an individual, personal journey to enlightenment.
In my novels, although often there are high stakes involved on a political or family level, I try to balance that with the personal journey of my protagonist. As a reader, I like to be involved in the characters’ struggle to become wiser or better, so that’s what us most important in my stories. That touches me more than a quest to save the world.
Q: What is your writing process, and has it differed from book to book? How long do you work on each of your novels?
JM: I generally write one novel a year. Mine are quite long books and involve substantial research, so I will often be researching one novel while writing another and editing a third. I work most days of the year. When I am not doing new writing I will be performing related tasks such as research reading, updating my website, responding to letters and emails, editing or proof-reading, doing my accounts, giving talks and workshops and so on. It’s hard to put a number on the hours I work each day, as this varies hugely depending on what stage of a book I’ve reached, and I am good at interrupting myself to make cups of tea, play with the dogs etc. Sometimes it’s as little as two hours, sometimes as much as ten. I think I would average about five or six hours a day. This hasn’t varied much since I wrote my first novel, which took much longer because I had no deadline to meet, and was also working fulltime in another job.
I am a planner. I do research even before the book outline is written, finding out about the history and culture of the setting I’m considering, immersing myself in it to get a good ‘feel’ for it. Then I write a longish outline of the story (that’s partly for my agent and publisher and partly for myself, although the finished book often departs from that outline.) Next step is to flesh out the outline into a chapter plan, with the overall shape of the book more or less known before I start writing the first chapter. Then I begin on chapter one and write scenes in sequential order.
As I go, I refine the chapter plan for the remainder of the book, so it gets more and more detailed the further through the novel I get. By the time I am on the last few chapters, reaching the climax, tying up the loose ends, my remaining plan is very detailed. I revise as I go, so by the time the first draft of Chapters 19-20 is being written, Chapters 1-10 may be on their third draft.
OK, I am a bit of a control freak! That doesn’t mean I am not prepared to deviate from the plan. Sometimes characters take over and push the narrative in unexpected directions. I let that happen when I think it will make the story better. Sometimes I get bright ideas late in the piece and incorporate them. But I don’t do masses of revision – I am not a ‘ten drafts’ kind of writer.
Q: Do you give yourself mini-deadlines (e.g. must have chapters 1-3 written by July 1st) or do you progress with an ultimate deadline in mind?
JM: Generally, I progress with the final deadline in mind. If I am worried about finishing, I do sometimes divide the remaining time into weeks or fortnights and set deadlines for each to ensure I will deliver the book on time. I belong to a critique group and that leads to the setting of deadlines too – if we have all agreed to produce a certain number of pages to be discussed at our next meeting, we feel duty bound to write them! Quite mundane processes like that can lead to remarkably good writing.
Q: When you first think about story, what are the bare elements you must first consider? Where do you go from there? (Do you follow a blueprint such as the Hero’s Journey or one you’ve fashioned yourself?)
JM: I don’t follow a blueprint, so when archetypal patterns emerge in my stories it is through a subconscious process, brought about by my familiarity with traditional storytelling. I do a lot of my structuring instinctively, which makes it hard to set the process down coherently. There are two elements I think about together – they’re indivisible in the planning process:
1. The personal journey of the main protagonist(s) – what is its shape, what does the person learn, what challenges must he or she face, where does he or she end up?
2. The thematic, political, historical story – the ‘big’ story – what is its overall shape, how does it affect the time line of the book, how can it be interwoven with (1) to make a satisfying whole?
While writing the outline, I do consider where the dramatic points of the story will occur, where the main climax will be, placement of the conclusions of both (1) and (2) so the ending is satisfactory. Ideally the resolution of both personal and thematic stories will mesh together at the end. One element I find very challenging is the very start of a book – I am criticized sometimes for slow starts to my stories. I’ve made a conscious effort to improve that! It can be especially difficult in an epic series like The Bridei Chronicles, where there is quite a bit of ‘back story’ that must be included for the benefit of readers who may not have read the earlier books.
I may have particular themes I want to work into the story, so I’ll consider how to do that. For example, in Wolfskin there is the theme of sworn oaths versus personal conscience. Foxmask has something to say about faith, and also about leadership and identity.
Q: What do you take into consideration when weaving storylines together?
JM: I try not to have a chunk of this followed by a chunk of that; I try to include subtle parallels and contrasts between the various storylines. It was certainly a more complex task to write a book like Blade of Fortriu, with its several sets of characters and its contrasting settings, than my first novel, Daughter of the Forest, which had a single, first person point of view. Of course, first person presents its own set of plotting challenges.
With multiple storylines, each of them needs to be kept fresh and memorable so the reader is happy to return to it when it’s time. Ideally, the reader would be hanging out for the next installment of each of the storylines. Cliffhangers are good for that, though they can be over-used, as in The Da Vinci Code! Maintaining links of some kind between the separate threads is helpful, even if it’s only in the form of having character A muse a little about Character Z, who went off elsewhere five chapters ago. If the reader can see that the threads are eventually going to link up into the same tapestry, that helps him or her find a comprehensible way through.
Q: One of the things I enjoy about your work is that you don’t back away from tackling dark themes; in fact the darkness in your stories adds to the realism. When you first sit down to write, do you make a conscious choice to leave all doors open, whether those doors lead to rape or mutilation or the slaying of a sibling? Do you think these choices make storytelling more compelling for both the writer and reader? How do you handle these scenes and these choices?
JM: I hope I never use gratuitous violence. The periods and cultures I write about did see a lot of violence and hardship in daily life, and it’s realistic that the stories reflect that – deaths in battle, deaths in childbirth, assaults and nasty accidents. I do leave most doors open, but there are some limits to what I would include, and definite limits to what I would ‘show’ in a graphic way. If dark themes help me tell the story better, so be it.
It is compelling to read about human beings facing extreme hardship and extreme choices. Without giving away any plot secrets, I should say that in Blade of Fortriu the back story of the male protagonist, Faolan, includes a truly terrible moment of choice, and that although the details are darkly gothic, his situation is based on a true story.
I like to open a window on human behaviour, to show strength and weakness, to examine how individuals, when challenged, either grow more resilient and wiser or crumble under the pressure. That was one of my major motivations for making the fairytale of The Six Swans into a fully fledged novel with Daughter of the Forest – I wanted to look at how each of Sorcha’s brothers would cope with the shocking experience of undergoing an animal transformation and losing three years from their lives. Some cope with it well, others fall apart to varying degrees.
Certain scenes are painfully hard to write, and remain very hard to read afterwards. A character whom I really loved dies in Blade of Fortriu. I know the death scene is well written but I find it wrenching to revisit. Even though I knew killing this character was the right choice for the story, I fought a battle with myself over it. The rape scene in Daughter of the Forest was distressing to write. I imagine all writers find it challenging when they have to do cruel things to well-loved characters.
Q: How much research do you invest in your stories, and at what stage of crafting a story do you conduct the research?
JM: I do masses of research and I start it well before I am due to start writing the book. I am building up a good library of reference books and I use the Internet to point me in the direction of valuable sources of information. (The Internet is unreliable as a direct source of information but is worth its weight in gold for speeding up the process of finding the right reference tools.) Where possible I travel to the locations of planned books so I can learn about physical settings and culture. I try to stay there for a while, taking photos of locations, talking to locals, visiting ethnographic / cultural museums, retracing the journeys of book characters and so on. This year I visited Turkey to gather background for Kybele’s Gift, a novel for young adult readers set in Ottoman times. I came home loaded with reference material I would never have found without going there. One great advantage of having a number of books in print is that I can actually afford to travel now.
Q: You mentioned Kybele’s Gift. Can you tell us more about it and its sister story, Wildwood Dancing, including how these tales differ from your other stories? And would you mind sharing some of the insights you gleaned while in Turkey to more vividly craft the story?
JM: Wildwood Dancing and Kybele’s Gift are the first books I’ve written especially for a young adult readership. Readers tell me that Wildwood Dancing, which is already out in Australia, is a great read for adults too! I did intend these to be cross-over novels.
The settings are far removed from the Celtic culture of my earlier books. Wildwood Dancing is very loosely based on a fairytale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and has a bit of Frog Prince in it as well. It’s set in a crumbling old castle in Transylvania. I had a great time with Romanian folklore, including vampires under another name, but it’s essentially a story about sisters, family loyalty and growing up.
Kybele’s Gift takes one of the sisters on a merchant voyage to Ottoman Turkey in search of a rare artefact. During my trip to Turkey, as well as visiting mosques, churches and museums, I was fascinated to observe what a melting pot of cultures the country still is (in Ottoman times Istanbul was a great trading hub where east met west.) I gained insights into Islamic religious observance and associated customs such as the wearing of the headscarf, which was frowned on until quite recently in this secularised Muslim country, but is now coming back, especially among younger women. I found a great bookshop in Istanbul, Galeri Kayseri, which specialises in books on Turkey in English. After spending hours in their upstairs reading room drinking Turkish tea while staff brought me interesting titles to look at, I came home with enough research material for several novels.
[WU Note: Wildwood Dancing will come out in the US from Knopf in January 2007 and Kybele’s Gift will be published a year later.]
Q: Why choose to blend real world with fantasy when you might create worlds completely from your imagination? What are the advantages and disadvantages to this approach?
JM: I love real history and culture and have no strong personal desire to go beyond it for great story inspiration. Where the fantasy aspect is concerned, the magical elements in my books are based on the likely beliefs of the people of that time and culture, for instance, the devotion to Thor by the warrior cult in Wolfskin, the superstitions about mer-people and selkies (common to many island dwellers) in Foxmask, the embracing of earth and sky deities by the Pictish race in the Bridei series, and the belief in an Otherworld peopled by various fairy folk, which appears in both my Irish and Pictish cultures.
Advantages: There’s an existing framework to build on, which is believable because it is real. The supernatural elements fit effectively into the real world elements as they are firmly based on the same culture and national identity. The mythical, fairytale part of the story strikes a chord with people of Celtic (or Norse, depending on the book) descent.
Disadvantages: A different kind of work to do – while there’s no need to invent a world from scratch, there’s a lot of research required to keep all the details as authentic as possible, from the variety of languages that were spoken at the time (can character A actually communicate with character B?) to the workings of church and state in various different cultures, to the geographical features, to who was king and who was bishop in the year 850. The fictitious, invented parts of the story must blend convincingly with the historical parts. Making the setting ‘imagined history’ means there are certain directions that cannot be followed in the story, as what occurs must be at least possible in the context of known historical fact, unless one is writing alternative history. Blade of Fortriu and The Well of Shades include information about St Columba and his journey up the Great Glen to King Bridei’s court. I had to read historical accounts of what happened (complete with details of miracles performed on the way) and make decisions on how to weave that into the book, what to leave out, what to alter. Because, of course, the historical accounts are not always an accurate representation of fact.
Click below for part 2 of WU’s interview with Juliet Marillier, where we’ll learn all about her new release, Blade of Fortriu.