I’m a big reader, no surprise there, but I usually rely on recommendations, buzz, and loans for my reading list. However, one day I was wandering around Borders and a cover leaped out at me from an end-cap display. I’m not usually a sucker for that kind of marketing, but the art for FIRETHORN, a debut fantasy novel from Sarah Micklem, was so compelling I had to pick up the book. While reading the dust jacket I noticed that the publisher was Scribner, a house not noted for publishing commercial fantasy fiction. That told me that this book was something special.
I wasn’t wrong. I lost a whole weekend and part of a Monday morning to this amazing piece of fiction, which was a hybrid between fantasy and a historical novel. It left me exhilarated, envious, and impatient for a followup effort. I am so pleased to be able to interview Sarah for WU.
Q: Tell us about your road to publication.
SM: Long and not straight. I made my first serious attempt to write when I was a teenager. I saved money, rented a house that looked like a hotdog stand outside of a small town, and wrote my way through a science fiction novel inspired by Frank Herbert and Carlos Castenada. In college I inflicted various chapters of it on creative writing classes, with discouraging results.
A decade later I started Firethorn as a secret hobby. Only my husband knew about it. I thought about Firethorn’s world on the subway to work and read and made notes. Eventually I started writing on summer vacations. On the third vacation I gave up, having produced about 70 pages. No problem. As I hadn’t announced that I was going to be a Writer, it didn’t matter that I had stopped.
Long pause of several years. My husband, Cornelius Eady, is a poet and playwright, and has been a writer without stopping for angst since he was in high school. He introduced me to Abigail Thomas (see her wonderful memoir, Three Dog Life) who had a writing class for women in her apartment in NYC. She invited me to come to her class and I told her rather belligerently that I wrote science fiction. (Of course I wasn’t writing at all.) I expected a dismissive reaction, but Abby said, “Great!” I started her class in 1998, and wrote lots of exercises. I gave Abby my 70 pages and she said, “Hand in the first chapter.” She was so encouraging that I didn’t find out for years that she found the first chapter very dull. I needed a mixture of encouragement and critique, and I got both from Abby and the other generous and careful readers in the class.
It took four years to write and rewrite the book after that. I tried not to think about publication until I had finished. Connections through my writing class got the manuscript on various desks, and I was fortunate to find an editor and an agent willing to take a chance on the book, even though it needed a lot of revision. Scribner rarely publishes fantasy or science fiction, aside from Stephen King. They hoped Firethorn would find a larger audience, reach people who like historical fiction, for instance.
Q: Do you recommend that writers, especially in the beginning, reach out to other writers? Do you find critique groups helpful?
SM: I didn’t get a lot out of my writing classes in college, as I said, but I don’t fault my teachers for discouraging me. I discouraged myself. I discovered that everything worth writing about had already been written about by better writers. That problem never goes away; you just have to ignore it.
Abby helped with the what-to-write-about problem by assigning short and sometimes silly exercises (see her essay on Getting Started HERE). I found these so much easier than writing a story—what the hell is a story anyway, and how can you tell when you’ve written one? Three of the four short pieces I’ve published started as exercises for Abby’s class.
I’m teaching creative writing myself now at Notre Dame. Some people say you can’t teach it, a writer has talent or not, but the premise of any class has to be that writing can be improved. Many problems in stories can be fixed quite easily. Have you said the same thing three different ways in three successive paragraphs? Did you put a modifying clause in the wrong place? Other problems are harder: Why would this particular character do this inexplicable thing It helps to try things out on readers. User testing. You may think you’ve said something clever, and find out that one person in ten in your class got it. Then you have to ask yourself if you want to be clear or if you are happy to suit yourself and this one other person who enjoys obtuseness. If you get five different interpretations of a piece, you have to figure out why. Good readers, if you are lucky enough to get them, can point out things about your own work you didn’t notice, and open a door where you saw a wall.
Q: What was the inspiration for FIRETHORN?
SM: The irritant, the grain of sand in the oyster, was an image of a wild woman in the woods. The rest of the story accreted around that. Why was she in the woods? What did she do after? I knew she would run off with a soldier because I wanted to write about war. I had no idea the soldier would be Galan.
Q: One of the things that knocked my socks off was your authorial voice. Did you work at achieving a particular voice? How important is it for a writer to find their ‘sound’?
When I’m very lucky, and I have been working in a disciplined way for days and weeks, I start telling myself the story in my head, and there’s a rhythm and pace to it that feels quite natural. Most of the time, though, I’m sitting there trying to figure out what happens next and how I can possibly put it down. I don’t like my sentences and scratch them out. This is not recommended for first drafts but it seems to be how I do it. Then I’m convinced that elusive voice has deserted me. And yet when I look at pages I wrote a month ago, it often turns out to be there, maybe showing up in certain rhetorical tricks of parallels and oppositions, or in rubbing two words together according to their sound and meaning.
I made certain decisions—to use contractions, for instance. Characters in fantasy films tend to say, “I do not know,” or even, “I know not.” Firethorn says, “I don’t know.” Once in a great while she might say, “I know not…” if the rhythm of the sentence seems to call for it. It’s easy to fall into a sonorous ponderous voice, and sometimes I have to go back and insert contractions. Firethorn is a low-caste woman and not hoity-toity.
Obscenities were a problem. Sometimes I wish I had used the real ones instead of substitutions. I was afraid the obscenities we use would seem too modern, even though they are in fact very old. I wanted equivalents, not euphemisms. But looking back, the substitute words just don’t carry the same weight or freight. Obscenities are necessary, of course, because Firethorn is in the army. I remember reading From Here to Eternity when I was a kid, and asking my father if the army was really like that—so much swearing and drinking and whoring—and he said yes. So I have it on his authority and that of James Jones.
Firethorn’s narrative voice came first. Figuring out how characters talked to each other was harder—which is one reason why there is so little dialogue in the prologue. There are low-caste and high-caste people, and two languages, the High and the Low, which is easy to overlook because there’s no typographic distinction between them. I wish I’d used different quote marks, << and >>, like they do in comic books, to show when people were speaking the Low. The mudfolk have one way of talking to their superiors, and another way of talking amongst themselves. In our society at present, deference is not enacted as ritualistically, and I find it hard to depict in a believable way, which may be why Firethorn is not so careful in her speech to her betters as she ought to be.
Firethorn grows up in a traditional village society, where wisdom (nonsense too) is passed on in aphorisms. My sister and I had collected my grandmother’s sayings in a little book and published it for the family, and I used some of those. Most of them were familiar clichés, and some were straight from Shakespeare, but she had obscure ones like, “Living like a toad under a harrow,” “sewing with a red-hot needle and a flaming thread,” or “he’d skin a flea for its hide and tallow.” Chinua Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart, has wonderful proverbs all through the dialogue, and it was a good example for me. I made up aphoristic-sounding phrases when I didn’t find ones to suit.
Thank you, Sarah! Click part two below for part two of Sarah’s interview with WU.