Celtic historical author Jules Watson has received glowing reviews for her recently published novel about Deirdre of Ireland, The Swan Maiden. In the concluding part of our interview, Jules talks about Celtic women, her approach to the mystical and the spiritual in her writing, and some of her influences.
Q. Your Deirdre is a strong and independent character. It can be a juggling act for writers of historical fiction – creating a female protagonist with whom the present day reader can identify, while keeping the character true to her time and culture. Was it difficult to give Deirdre her head and still keep things plausible historically?
JW. I’ve never found this difficult, because we have plenty of hints that Celtic women enjoyed more freedom than Romans and Greeks. They sometimes fought alongside men, ruled in their own right and lead armies (Boudicca), and became druids. The Irish Brehon laws, though later, enshrine for women rights over property, divorce, protection from rape, and the raising of children. The Celts had many powerful goddesses who ruled over war and death, and kingship relied upon the blessing of a goddess, not a god. Celtic society was definitely male-dominated, but if women fought and could have sex outside marriage, demand divorces, and own property they were no doubt respected and outspoken: a lot like women now, except for the swords part!
Readers like brave heroines who take their fate into their own hands, and it’s easier to write a Celtic woman like that than a woman from virtually any period thereafter, from Roman right up to the 19th century. When Deirdre escaped, she wasn’t faced with a network of towns, churches, priests, or lawmakers who would report a woman to the thought police for leaving her husband. Ireland was a land of little scattered farmsteads, based on the clan, not on the rule of feudal lords. And don’t forget, we don’t know much about women then — only that they were different from the women of the classical or later medieval world. So you can speculate, within reason.
My books always deal with the spiritual side of life, and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that women were respected for their religious aspects as well as their child-bearing role. My heroines often have high-ranking positions because of these sacred aspects.
Q. Your central characters, Deirdre and Naisi, live their lives attuned to the spiritual world. You always show Deirdre as close to nature – she is often seen out of doors, and is uncomfortable when confined in any way. Deirdre experiences shamanic journeys while sharing the bodily form of a bird and has ecstatic visions that seem to make her almost an avatar of the pagan goddess. Naisi’s spirituality is tied up with honour, pride and brotherhood. How did you go about discovering, or re-inventing, the spiritual beliefs of the period and culture, and how conscious was your division of these into clear male and female paths?
JW. Most of it is intuitive, a brew of the things that have influenced me in my life. I started with gleaning things about the historical Celts: how they portray themselves in their myths; what the Romans said about them; what was found in Celtic areas influenced by the Romans. For example, a 1st century BC calendar shows the importance of the festivals of Samhain and Lughnasa, which all good pagans know about today. But a lot of what is now seen as “Celtic belief” reflects our modern ideas, rather than a direct link to the ancient Celts. We simply do not have a written history of their thoughts and beliefs.
Second, I studied anthropology, and there are remarkable similarities of belief among pre-industrial cultures worldwide. We have all dealt with the same challenges on this Earth: feeding, sheltering, and reproducing ourselves. We developed spiritual beliefs to explain inexplicable things: to plead for survival, seek food or safety, protect ourselves from storm and drought, and increase fertility. Most cultures thereby venerated nature gods, and spent their time figuring out how to please them. So I felt safe mining that seam for the Celts.
Lastly, my books reflect my own beliefs. We can’t have changed that much from our forebears. We also wonder if we are alone in this Universe, where we go after death, whether we can influence our lives with our minds or souls. People go to psychics, and believe in otherworldly beings such as angels. However, my books are not about “spirit” per se, but more about the emotional journeys of the characters. I’m interested in how we overcome adversity — my heroines are often recovering from a trauma that has cut them off from their gods. Like many people, I’m interested in how we grow as spiritual beings, but I’m exploring it through novels about the ancient Celts.
Regarding the male / female thing, my hero and heroine in The Swan Maiden pursued their paths because of their particular backgrounds, rather than gender. In my next book The Raven Queen the positions are reversed. The heroine, Queen Maeve, is a warrior and battle-leader. Her love interest Ruan is a druid who connects to the land and its unseen denizens. Having said that, because of biology, men in myth and history are more associated with battle, weapons, and the brotherhood of war. Women, who grow new life from nothing, are usually associated with the sacred “mother earth”. Since early peoples could not control fertility, women were also seen as part of the wilderness, the unknown, the untameable — and this is Deirdre’s nature. Different male and female spiritual paths are therefore common among all tribal peoples, not just the Celts.
Q. The second in this series, The Raven Queen, comes out in 2010. Are you working on that now, or have you started another new project?
JW. I am working on The Raven Queen now. It’s a reimagining of the life of another great Celtic woman of myth: Queen Maeve, or Medb. She is my first heroine who is a warrior, mother, and political ruler in her own right, rather than a seer or priestess. So that’s proving fun! It’s due in October, and will come out in 2010. To be honest, I’m not sure what I’ll do next: there are some ideas floating about, but I need a break first to let them surface.
Q. What are some of your favourite books – the kind of novel we might find on your bedside table? Have any writers especially influenced you?
JW. Since becoming an author, my reading has tailed off terribly. I originally loved reading books in my genre, which is what got me writing. But as soon as I became a writer, I did not want to read books like mine in case I cross-pollinated. Hence, I don’t get to read what I love any more. My biggest influence was The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I loved the blend of romance, pagan spirituality, Celtic influences, and adventure and battles, and wanted to do the same when I decided to write. I also love Diana Gabaldon’s books, for her realistic characterization and romance, as well as her way with a good yarn. Your books, Juliet, about Sevenwaters also had a big effect on me. I grew up on fantasy books and then moved more into historical fiction. I particularly love books set in ancient eras, though there don’t seem to be very many out there. More opportunities to consider!
Q. Thank you for being so generous with your time, Jules. It was great to catch up, and I’m really looking forward to the next book. (Visitors to Writer Unboxed may not know that Jules and I were for a while both living in Perth, Western Australia, and researching very similar periods in early Scottish history for our novels.)
JW. Thanks so much for having me — this was fun! If anyone has any more questions, feel free to email me through my website.