Writing is hard in any genre. But historicals, in my opinion, are particularly difficult. Let one anachronism fly, and you’ve broken your contract with the reader to immerse them into a world gone by. They’ll question the accuracy of rest of the book. They’ll never trust you again.
There are no such worries with Anna Elliott’s astonishing debut novel TWILIGHT OF AVALON. Set in Dark Ages post-Arthurian Britian, TWILIGHT is a historical retelling of the story of Trystan and Isolde through Isolde’s point of view. In Elliott’s gifted hands, the result is authentic and lyrical ode to the women of Arthurian legend. A touch of mysticism, never heavy, is woven through the story. Elliott’s writer’s voice is deceptively simple, yet there is a definite poetry to her word choices. In short, I adored everything about TWILIGHT, and I wait impatiently for the next installment in Isolde’s journey.
Please enjoy part one of our two part interview with Anna Elliott.
Q: Tell us about your journey toward publication. There’s a bit of mysticism involved, isn’t there? What drew you to historicals, and in particular, the legend of Trystan and Isolde?
AE: It early spring of 2006, and I was four months pregnant with my little girl. I’d been writing and trying to get published for a few years, always coming close but never selling a book. I’d just weeks before been dropped by my first agent, who had decided to pursue another career–and that afternoon, I’d gotten my final-nail-in-the- coffin rejection on the book I’d been shopping around. I remember sitting at my computer and thinking that maybe my career as an author wasn’t ever going to be. I had my daughter to think about, after all.
But at the same time, I did have my daughter to think about, you know? Even though she wasn’t born yet. I had to ask myself what I wanted my daughter to learn from me, to take from the example I set by my own life. That if your goal doesn’t come true easily or right away you just give up on it? Of course not.
And then I had a dream. A very vivid dream in which I was telling my mother about a plan to write a novel about the daughter of Modred (or Mordred), great villain of the cycle of King Arthur tales. I’d been an English major in college with a focus on Medieval literature, and had fallen in love with the Arthurian legends then. So when I woke up, the idea just wouldn’t let me go. I started to do some preliminary research, reading several books that explored the historical foundations of the Arthur myths.
The Arthurian legends as we know them today, with their knights in shining armor, jousts and tournaments are very much products of a later Medieval courtly chivalric world. But Arthur, if he existed at all, would probably have been a 5th-century British warlord, a far cry from the king of Camelot as he appears in the tales. The 5th century was a brutal, chaotic time in Britain. Roman Britain had crumbled; Rome’s legions had been withdrawn from this far-flung outpost of the empire, leaving the country prey to invading Pictish and Irish tribes from the west and north and to Saxon invasions from the east. It was in many ways also a crucible in which the British identity and sense of place was forged and formed.
Both the possibility of a real Arthur and the world in which he might have lived fascinated me, so I decided to set my story there, during the “real” Arthurian age. All I’d known, though, from my dream was that my protagonist was going to be the daughter of Modred. It was only when I was looking through lists of Celtic names for my heroine that “Isolde” jumped off the page at me and I realized that I was going to write a re-telling of the Trystan and Isolde legend, as well.
As one of the later additions to the cycle of Arthur stories, the legend of Trystan and Isolde is particularly grounded in a courtly chivalric world. And to be honest, I’d always found it one of the most irritating of the Arthurian legends, with the supposedly passionate love between Trystan and Isolde being simply the fault of a magical potion, nothing to do with a real bond between the characters at all. I’d always thought that and several other aspects of the story a disservice to the characters of Trystan and Isolde, whom I loved from my first encounter with them–one reason I was instantly captivated by the idea of writing my own version of the tale.
Like the Arthur story, the Trystan and Isolde legend, too, has its roots in earlier traditions. So as I was doing research, I started to wonder what those earliest traditions might have been, what the story might have looked like at its first inception during the chaos and violence of Dark Age Britain. Twilight of Avalon is my attempt to create a story that both fit my Dark Age setting and might credibly have been told and retold, adapted and changed through the ages to eventually become the Trystan and Isolde story as we know it today.
Q: How has your writing evolved over time?
AE: When I wrote my first novel I was 20, jugging writing with a heavy senior year course load in college and planning a wedding to my husband. When my agent sold Twilight of Avalon, I was 28, had been married for 8 years, and had become a mother. Twilight of Avalon was my seventh book, and to say that my voice had changed from that first effort back in college is a huge, huge understatement. I think the books we write and the stories we tell are a sum-total of our life experience, and so having grown up, experienced life as adult, as a wife, and especially as a mother has just tremendously informed and altered the place I’m writing from.
I suppose, though, if I had to identify the most significant overall change in my writing, I would say that in the beginning I was very shy about it all. I was afraid to really let any emotion spill out from me onto the page, afraid of caring too deeply about the work and the characters. Because, you know, What if someone reads it? I read a quote on writing once, though, that said that the act of writing was in essence letting your soul bleed a little onto the page. And I think that is—has to be—true for the best writing to happen.
I ultimately discovered that I had to really strip away my inhibitions about writing—learn to take chances and risks and be passionate about the story without having an imaginary audience looking over my shoulder and judging the work. Because if I wasn’t letting myself be fully involved in and totally passionate about the stories I was telling, no one else—agents, editors, or readers—was going to be, either. In general, I would say that writing a book should stretch your boundaries, push you out of your comfort zone, and —no matter how much you love the process—in some way cost you something to write.
Q: Your Trystan and Isolde series is a blend of history and also myth. Was it difficult to reconcile the many interpretations of the legend with historical fact? Did you worry that fans of the legend wouldn’t like your historical interpretation?
AE: I was conscious, of course, of working within a larger tradition, but I never felt it as a limitation. I loved having the framework of the original stories’ background as a foundation on which to build. I was fairly free in my adaptation of the legend in terms of letting myself tell the story I wanted to–that felt very important to me. After all, these stories have been around for centuries, told and retold countless times. How could I justify yet another re-telling unless my version added something new to the mix?
In terms of reconciling the fantasy of the legend with historical fact, that was a bit of a balancing act. But then for me, the unique enchantment of the Arthurian legends lies in their blend of fantasy and history. The world of the Arthurian legends is a recognizably historical one, part of our own past. Many scholars have explored the possibility of a real, historical Arthur–who, if he existed, was most likely a Celtic warlord of the mid fifth century, a warrior who led a triumphant stand against the incursions of Saxons onto British shores. Trystan, whose existence as a real historic figure is suggested by a memorial stone in Cornwall, was likely a roughly contemporary warrior, possibly the son of a Cornish petty king, whose cycle of tales were eventually absorbed into the legends growing up around Arthur and his war band.
And yet the world of the Arthur tales is one steeped in magic, as well. It’s a world filled with the voices of prophecy, with enchanted swords and Otherworldly maidens and the magical Isle of Avalon, where Arthur lies in eternal sleep, healing of his wounds, waiting to ride once more in Britain’s greatest hour of need.
I was fascinated by this possibility of a real King Arthur and a real Trystan, and fascinated by the world in which they might have lived. So I decided to set my story there, to make my particular Arthurian world grounded in what scraps of historical fact we know of Dark Age Britain. But I tried, too, to honor the original stories and their magical, legendary world–a world that after centuries of telling and re-telling, is as real in its own way as historical fact.
My Isolde is the granddaughter of Morgan (sometimes known as Morgan le Fey in the original Arthur stories; a healer and enchantress of great renown). Isolde is gifted through Morgan with both the knowledge of a healer and with the Sight, which enables her to receive visions and hear voices from the Otherworld. All of which fitted in with what I’d read of both the legends and historical accounts of Celtic spirituality, pre-Christian Celtic belief, with its emphasis on the powers of herbs, on trances and dreams that transcend physical boundaries and touch an Otherworld that is separated from our own by only the thinnest of veils.
And yet, too, there were those elements of the original Trystan and Isolde tale that were harder to fit in with any degree of historical verisimilitude. Like the famous love potion, which in the original legend causes Trystan and Isolde to fall helplessly in love. So in those cases I took a more symbolic approach, which I’ve always felt is a way–though certainly not the only way–of reading the fantastical elements of the Arthurian tales. Dragons, for example, can be literal scaly monsters. But they can also be seen as a metaphor for the evil that exists outside the bounds of organised society. And a love potion like the one Trystan and Isolde accidentally imbibe can be viewed as a metaphor for the overwhelming, all-consuming nature of romantic love.
So in the second book of the trilogy, Dark Moon of Avalon, Trystan and Isolde do journey together by boat, as in the original tale, and it is over the course of the journey that they deepen and develop their relationship, which again is true to the original legend. But the purpose of their journey is based on what scraps of historical fact we can gather about the shaky political situation of sixth- century Britain. And they don’t need a literal cup of magical potion to fall in love–only the magic of their own powerful emotional bond.
Q: Historicals are demanding. I was impressed how TWILIGHT OF AVALON is richly detailed. What’s your research process, and how do you determine when enough is enough, and what’s your rule of thumb for giving the reader the feel of the period without resorting to the dreaded info dump?
AE: Ah, the dreaded info. dump! That is a tricky one. I purely love the research, love learning about how people of the past lived and what the details of their daily lives were like, so it can be hard not to want to cram in everything I’ve learned. Wait, wait, don’t you want to know how they kept turnips preserved through the winter? I know the answer! I do!
I guess my rule of thumb is that the period detail I include must be essential to the story, whether in terms of straight plot or in terms of atmosphere and/or character development. For example, I wouldn’t wantonly spend a paragraph describing the various crops in the fields– but if a character happened to be looking out across the landscape, eagerly awaiting the coming harvest fair where she was hoping to meet a husband, marking the weeks by how quickly the grain and barley was ripening, I’d use that as an opportunity to talk about kinds of crops– and even methods of farming, if the character’s eye could light on a team of oxen plowing the fields. Or I’ll try to use details of costume to illustrate personality–not to just describe someone’s dress in terms of the standards of the day, but to make the clothes a character is wearing somehow unique to them and illustrative of what I want the reader to know about them.
In terms of my research process on Twilight of Avalon, I tried to read all the Arthurian primary sources. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain was the version of the story I’d decided to use as the basis for my book, so of course I read and re- read that, as well as Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, the early Welsh Arthurian tales like Culhwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhonabwy, etc. And of course I also read all the available versions of the original Trystan and Isolde story, and primary sources of the period– though not necessarily Arthurian–like the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
Then I read every book I could get my hands on about Dark Age Britain, on Celitc culture, Celtic folklore and legend, Celtic spiritual practice and beliefs. It definitely helped that I live in a university town and have access to a great research library! And of course all the herbal medicine that Isolde uses meant a lot of research as well, looking through early herbals and studies of medicinal plants in folk tradition to find cures that would have been known and used in 6th-century Britain.
And then, since so many of my characters were warriors and my Isolde is a healer treating battle-wounded men, I watched many, many interviews with soldiers–from WWII veterans to recent veterans of Iraq. I read a lot of firsthand accounts from men in combat. And I read a lot of accounts written by army combat nurses, too. Because although obviously the technology of both war and medicine has changed immeasurably from the dark ages to the modern day, I think the emotions of both have remained very much the same.
Check back next week for part two of our interview with Anna. In it, she talks about juggling motherhood with the demands of writing as well as her revision process. Don’t miss it!
TWILIGHT OF AVALON is now available all all booksellers.