Jules Watson’s new novel, The Swan Maiden, has been described by Rosalind Miles as ‘mystic and poetical.’ Last week I spoke to Jules about bridging the genres of historical fiction, fantasy and romance. I started this week’s questions by asking her the planner vs pantser question.
Q. We at Writer Unboxed are always interested the way each writer approaches storytelling. Do you do detailed advance plotting or fly by the seat of the pants? Could you take us through your method?
JW. For my first book, pre-publishing deal, I wrote scenes as they came to me. Only later did a coherent story emerge. But once you sign a book deal you are suddenly on the treadmill of a book a year. I found that if I fly by the seat of my pants I invariably write too much and start wandering off on tangents. I could only do that again if I had no deadline, because all my books take a long time to write due to their relative size and the complexity of emotion I (try to) include. Or maybe I’m just slow! And I feel, see and smell it all so vividly, I want to go on and on. Also, my characters all have in-depth back stories in my mind, but I can’t include all that in every novel.
What I had to learn is that a novel is just a slice of the life of my characters at this particular time; a window opened on this bit. So the skill of a novelist is in carving this great mass of instinct, fact, musing, and imagination into a book that moves along at a nice clip and has a narrative that makes sense. Proceeding on pure instinct and continuing to write haphazardly has been a painful lesson for me, because my last two books were delayed by my tangent-wandering. I finally get that to do frequent books, I have to plan them better upfront, so that’s what I do now. It’s about reining myself in. However…I miss the freedom of the old way, and hope to do it again some time.
Q. The Swan Maiden has received glowing reviews on romance websites. A good romance writer needs to be able to create convincing sex scenes. How do you approach this part of the creative process? Immersed or detached? Tongue in cheek or deadly serious?
JW. I’m totally immersed in them! The Celts were a lusty people, with big appetites for food, luxury, fighting, and sex. Their attitudes seem pretty liberal, and women had a relative amount of sexual freedom compared to Romans and Greeks, even if males still ran the show. I sense all my scenes vividly, including the sexual ones, and they roll out just as easily as the others: I don’t really have to gear up for them or anything. Sex and love are parts of the one tapestry of life, after all.
Having said that, my books are romances and with one exception, the sex happens within the main romantic relationship — it’s not bursting out all over the place. I would never toss sex scenes in for titillation, and in fact, unless there is an emotional element I think many readers get bored with them anyway. I wouldn’t put them in gratuitously, either, for no particular reason. They are only ever in there to develop the romantic relationship or the characters, or sometimes the plot. And, once I’ve done one or two in depth I only allude to any further activity. I think once readers have got the idea that these two people are together, and they are having this kind of sex — troubled, detached, passionate, tentative — then you don’t need to go on about it, unless something changes in their relationship and I want to reflect that through the sexuality.
Q. I’m interested in your choice of the myth of Deirdre of the Sorrows as the basis for your novel. What are some of the challenges of choosing a story whose overall shape (and tragic ending) must be known in advance to a good proportion of your readers? Doesn’t that mean you lose the element of surprise in the story? Can the reader invest in the love story emotionally when he or she knows it must end in tears?
JW. But this is true for so many books and movies! We all know how Romeo and Juliet ends, but the audience is still drawn in, and their hearts are still bound to the love story. Don’t you ever watch a sad film and still find yourself biting your nails even though you know how it ends? Everyone knows the fate of Troy, or the Titanic, or King Arthur, or Mary Queen of Scots, but this does not stop people reading books about them or flocking to the movies. Every historical fiction book deals with known facts, and yet people still want to read a new author’s interpretation of that tale, even if they have read it before. So the lack of surprise can’t be that important. Anyone with imagination can still be drawn along by a good story, enjoying the journey as much as the destination.
What was important for me in the case of Deirdre was that I wrote an ending that despite the unavoidable restrictions of the legend, was transcendant, uplifting, and triumphant. I would not have attempted it unless I had some way of doing that. Luckily for me, my spiritual beliefs and indeed the sacred world encapsulated in the Celtic myths themselves gave me the perfect context: a way to end it that conformed to the tale, and yet left readers hopefully satisfied that love had triumphed. That is what I tried to do — very hard!
All my life I’ve been in love with the Deirdre tale, and I thought it too beautiful to ignore as a source for a novel just because of its challenges. I think people are drawn deeper into a love affair with the air of doom hanging over it. It makes everything more poignant, all senses heightened. Tragedy in stories can be like a drug: we seem to get thrilled simply by being deeply moved.
Q. Your website is great! You’ve written eloquently there about the way many of the old Irish myths, previously known through the fluid medium of oral storytelling, were recorded in writing by Christian monks and acquired an imposed set of values in the process. In particular, you’ve commented on what that process did to female protagonists such as Deirdre. In some versions of the traditional story, Deirdre comes across as either a seductress or a helpless victim. What informed your decisions on her character, and how did you develop her?
JW. Well, for a start, I would not find either a mindless seductress or a victim as an interesting heroine to read about, or write about, so I had to toss those two interpretations right out. The fact that monks wrote down these stories hundreds of years after they were composed is effectively a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for an author. Celibate monks of a male-dominated religion are never going to look upon a powerful pagan female, from a sexually permissive society, objectively. They are not going to portray her with any realism: in fact, they seem to treat such females with fear and disgust. Nor were they writing down these stories to preserve them, like modern historians. They would have been using them to further their own religion, or prop up their noble patrons, or whatever. They had an agenda, which I gleefully threw out. That left a couple of clues.
One, the myth says this girl is brought up completely alone in the forest by a druid. So I made her a real wild child, a primal creature closely tied to the woods and streams. She would also have to be a loner, and I give her a rather bold, direct personality because she has not been brought up in a noble household, with all its restrictions. And she would have to be steeped in some kind of spiritual teaching, with that druid about. Two, she actually runs away from the most powerful king in Ireland, so she had to be exceedingly brave. Three, she chooses banishment with Naisi over safety — which could be mere self-interest — but later risks death for him numerous times. She must have really loved that guy!
The last piece of the puzzle for me is that the myths allude to her having some powers of prophecy. Since I love exploring such ideas, this gave me the perfect opportunity to have a character who was not only falling in love and experiencing freedom for the first time, but also trying to find out who she really was. Left alone in the wilderness, she draws closer to the Otherworld and the supernatural energies who share the land with her, and begins to develop powers of second sight, the channelling of healing energy, a shamanistic ability to embody animal spirits, and the like. So the hints of Otherworldly powers in the myth were the springboard for me to develop this whole side to her character, which was also essential to my plot.
Next week Jules Watson talks about the mystical and spiritual elements in her writing, and discusses some of her influences.