Australian-born novelist Jules Watson established a reputation as an exciting new writer of Celtic historical fiction with her Dalriada Trilogy, set amidst the conflict between Picts, Romans and Gaels in what is now north-western Scotland. Her latest novel, The Swan Maiden, was published in February by Bantam Dell. It’s the first in a two part series, and is based on the traditional Irish story of Deirdre.
On her website, Jules tells us she has worked as a checkout chick, cocktail waitress, PA, mine worker, archaeologist, PR consultant, freelance writer and author. She also has a degree in archaeology, and this is reflected in her meticulous approach to the historical detail of her novels. Here’s a sample of what the critics say about The Swan Maiden:
“In this graceful retelling of the Irish legend of Deirdre of the Sorrows, the young woman whose birth laid a curse upon the kingdom of Ulster and its aging king, Conor, the author of The White Mare captures the sense of tragedy, nobility, and the acceptance of destiny that permeates Celtic myth. Watson’s characters have both a larger-than-life appeal and a commonality that emphasizes their human frailty as well as their dedication to life and love.” Library Journal
I was delighted when Jules Watson agreed to an interview for Writer Unboxed. I started with some questions about genre.
Q. Your first three books were closer to historical novels than fantasy, with a well-researched setting in northern Britain in the early historical period. The central character of the new book, The Swan Maiden, is Deirdre of Ireland, who seems more legendary than historical. Would you see the new books as closer to fantasy?
JW. Only in the sense they are based on myths, otherwise I see them as part of the same Celtic stream. The only “real” characters in my previous trilogy were Romans. My Scottish hero and heroine were fictional, their lives mostly drawn from archaeology — and this is true for the new Irish books as well. They are set in the same time period (100 BC – 100 AD), in a similar environment, using the same research. So I don’t see much difference. Also, myths usually have some basis in fact: an important event is repeated as a story around the hearth fire. Romans and Greeks may have written down their history, but it also passed through many incarnations — just like the oral legends of the Celts. So I have tried to imagine the genesis of the Deirdre story, get back to the “real” person.
Of course, all my books deal with the spiritual life of the ancient Celts: dreams, visions, prophecies, the touch of the gods. Some people view this as fantasy, though I see it as spirituality. From what we know of the Celts, the sacred was central to their lives: the seen and unseen, people and gods, the real world and Otherworld blended together seamlessly. So I have been trying to portray the world as I imagine it from their point of view, as well as exploring my own interests.
Q. In fact your novels span the genres of historical fiction, fantasy and romance. What do you hope devotees of each genre will take from your work?
JW. I love spanning genres! I hope I can illuminate a little-known part of the past for historical fiction fans. We have so little fact to work with in this era: few eye witness accounts, no written history, and not much preserved in the ground. So the time of the Celts might be hard for people to grasp. I hope that I have done my bit to bring it to life, and spark a greater interest in these fascinating people for HF fans.
The fantasy in my books does not come from an invented world, mythical beasts or spells. It stems from the internal world of the characters, the world of soul, I suppose. Are there unseen “energies” in our world that our souls can sense? Can some people see through space and time, or touch the Otherworld? Is this what gave rise to Celtic visions and prophecies? With the new books, I wanted to go a bit further and look at how these abilities might come about. I call it the quantum physics of faeries! If everything in the Universe is made mostly of energy, all sorts of things are surely possible, as scientists are finding out. So I hope that provides a different spin for fantasy fans and lovers of the mystical Celts.
And as for romance…ah. I’m an emotional reader, and an intelligent romance has always helped to amplify the emotional journey of a book for me. The rollercoaster of conflict and salvation in a novel has more resonance if the personal stakes are high for the characters, and what could send them higher than love: the search, the triumph, the loss? So I always put a strong romance at the heart of my books — though the adventure, historical and spiritual aspects are critical, too.
Q. I understand that in the US market at least, a historical novel that contains even the smallest smidgeon of the supernatural is classified by publishers as historical fantasy. Would you agree, and how has this affected the way your novels are marketed?
JW. This seems to be true! I hate labels, though. I started out wanting a bit of everything in my books: a rip-roaring adventure with swords and battles, a great romance, plus the spiritual / fantasy aspects. That does make me a cross genre writer. But the book trade does care about labels. It’s a bit confusing, because some historical books (for example Phillipa Gregory’s The Queen’s Fool and Diana Gabaldon’s novels) also have elements of the supernatural and are not marketed as fantasy, so it’s hard to know who makes these decisions. I think that because the time of the ancient Celts itself is a murky one, with few graspable “facts” it does get marketed more as fantasy. But…I aim to dodge labelling for as long as I can (smile)
Q. Actually, on the back jacket of The Swan Maiden you are described as ‘acclaimed Celtic historical author’ so perhaps the folks at Bantam are not marketing you as a fantasy writer.
JW. Judging by the emails I get, my books appeal to a wide range of genre readers: men as well as women, and people of all ages. Some like the history; some the battles, conflicts and adventures, the “page-turning aspect”; some the romance; some the spiritual angles. I wanted to be marketed as all these things, and luckily, Bantam seemed to agree. They are targeting a bit of each: the romance and fantasy markets, as well as historical fiction. Hence the cover, which is more romantic and historical than straight fantasy.
Q. You moved from Western Australia to the west coast of Scotland before writing this book. During the action of The Swan Maiden, the central characters move from Ireland to a location very close to where you now live. How has living in the place of the story changed the way you work?
JW. I am definitely one of those writers who have to go to a place to truly feel and describe it. I don’t like sensing a gap between me and my characters; I need to inhabit them and them inhabit me. As a rural people who saw the sacred in nature, the Celts were closely tied to the land, and my heroines so far have been priestesses, seers, or in Deirdre’s case, a creature of the wild. So unlike a heroine in a medieval castle, or Tudor or Regency London, my characters are part of the land — and to be part of them, I must immerse myself in the natural places they knew. Roaming the hills of Scotland does not trigger plot ideas, but it does fill me with a sort of spiritual force, more of the “essence” of that ancient time and people, which I hope then runs through my books.
Q. Your novels show evidence of thorough research, perhaps reflecting your studies in archaeology. How do you bring to life a period from which there isn’t much contemporary documentation?
JW. It’s like alchemy…take a pinch of everything and then imagine the rest! There is archaeology — the things people used, ate and wore. There are writings by Greeks and Romans, and though they are often not first-hand, you can glean a lot (taking into account their bias against “barbarians”.) There are the great myths of Ireland and Wales. There seems to be some sort of “pan-Celticness” from Central Europe to Ireland between about 500 BC and 500 AD. So if the Romans said something was done in, say, France (Gaul) I might use it in my books even if there is no specific evidence for that in Ireland and Scotland.
I am the opposite of a scientist, who looks for positive proof. If there is no evidence specifically against something, and it’s plausible based on what we know from other Celtic areas, then I will probably use it. We know there was long-distance trade, so anything from the Mediterranean could theoretically pop up in Ireland or Scotland, even if so far it has not. The lives of the Celts were based around stock rearing and crop growing. The basics of such a life don’t change that much over time, so I used things that were observed in other places or times. Obviously, you must be aware of what technology was introduced when, but the cycles of rural life are set by the environment and what plants and animals are around you. The crofters in the remote areas of Scotland in the 19th century were still using the same basic materials and methods as their forebears — if they only had bracken for bedding, for example, that’s what they used, just as the Celts did in 100 AD.
Also, most of what the Celts owned and used was made of materials that rotted away long ago — wool clothing, bedding, hangings and furnishings; wooden weapons, furniture, utensils and tableware, storage vessels, farm implements, and tools; leather goods, food, perfumes and cosmetics, medicines. We only get glimpses into a small part of their lives: the metal that is preserved in the soil. So there is a lot to imagine!
In next week’s instalment, Jules Watson talks about her approach to plotting, the challenge of writing good sex scenes, and creating strong female characters within a historical setting.