Anne here introducing our latest guest, Juliet Marillier, whose name might be familiar to you, either from your own reading or because I've recommended her novels in a number of posts. I'm a huge fan, and I'm not alone: here's her goodreads page.
Juliet writes historical fantasy— her stories weave folklore/fairy tales into history in, for example, places like ancient Ireland at the time just before Christianity makes its first appearance. She's an internationally bestselling, award-winning author. She's won the American Library Association’s Alex Award, the Aurealis Award (numerous times), the Sir Julius Vogel Award and the Prix Imaginales, among other awards. She's also a passionate dog-lover with a small tribe of rescue dogs. This is Juliet with one of her dogs, Harry.
Today I'm interviewing her about her latest book, the second in the Blackthorn and Grim series. I haven't yet read it (it's still in transit), but I opened Dreamers Pool (the first book) the other day — meaning only to glance through it and refresh my memory. Instead I found myself rereading it from cover to cover again, and being transported, moved, and entranced just as much the second time around.
Anne: Welcome to the Word Wenches, Juliet. Most of your books involve the re-imagining or re-exploring of fairy tales, woven into an ancient Celtic background, with an added touch of magic. Why do fairy tales appeal so strongly?
Juliet: I’ve loved fairy tales and folklore since I was very small, so it was pretty much inevitable that they’d influence my own writing. Sometimes I will base a novel on a particular fairy tale (eg Heart’s Blood, which is a Beauty and the Beast story, or my first novel Daughter of the Forest, which places the Six Swans fairy tale in early medieval Ireland.)
More commonly there’s a subtle touch of a fairy tale in my stories, or fairy tale themes and tropes. Fairy tales have deep-down wisdom for us. Back when they were told around the fire after dark, they provided coded ways for dealing with real life problems – a young man of the tribe might easily identify with that youngest son setting off to seek his fortune, and being rewarded for kindness; a young woman might wish to be like Vasilissa, who finds the courage to front up to the witch Baba Yaga and learns a lesson in wisdom.
Those stories contain values that are still important to living well and wisely: courage, friendship, loyalty, faith, family, endurance and so on. And those values resonate with today’s reader, who also recognises the old tropes – the thorn hedge, the magic ring, the three wishes.
Anne: The Blurb for Dreamers Pool , the first of the Blackthorn & Grim series begins: What if you were locked up awaiting execution and a stranger offered you a bargain that would set you free? What if accepting bound you to certain rules of behavior for seven years, rules you knew you were likely to break within days? And what if the penalty for breaking them was to find yourself back where you started, eaten up with bitterness and waiting to die?
And thus commences an adventure as both Blackthorn and Grim battle to survive and to overcome and live with the damage that has been done to them. Blackthorn is a wonderful character. Tell us a little about her.
Juliet: With both Blackthorn and Grim I set out to create characters who were older and more damaged than my earlier protagonists. Blackthorn is a healer, a wise woman, who is deeply disillusioned and embittered after several traumatic events. At the beginning of the series she is eaten up by anger and only one thing matters to her – bringing her old enemy to justice.
As the series continues the reader gets to know Blackthorn better – she is one of three narrators in Dreamer’s Pool and Tower of Thorns. Blackthorn is good at her work and has a lot to offer, but cannot believe in her own worth. And she finds it difficult to be around other people. When she is overwhelmed, usually with anger at herself, she lashes out. Grim, who becomes her companion, suffers a bit from her sharp tongue.
The relationship between these two is complex and develops slowly through the whole series. In addition, each book has its own stand-alone story, always a mystery for Blackthorn and Grim to solve, with an uncanny element.
Anne: I'm always interested in the spark that happens in a writer's brain when out of the myriad story ideas and possibilities swimming around in there, one story in particular springs to life and demands to be told. What was the spark for the Blackthorn and Grim series?
Juliet: The main spark for the series was wanting to write about characters with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – to see them work through the challenges and find ways of surviving. Both Blackthorn and Grim suffer from this disorder. I had been reading a lot about military personnel returning from deployment and the impact of their service on their mental and physical health, in particular the memoir Exit Wounds by John Cantwell and a devastating book called The Good Soldiers by David Finkel. PTSD is an extremely challenging condition not only for the person concerned but also for their family.
While I was reading those books and others, the characters of Blackthorn and Grim came to me. There’s also a fairy tale in Dreamer’s Pool, but I won’t say which. I’d like readers to work that out for themselves. Tower of Thorns has a tower surrounded by a hedge of thorns. But it’s not based on any existing fairy tale. If it were, it would be a very dark one. I explore a lot of moral ambiguities in this series.
Juliet: I’ve looked for broad historical background – the political setup, the leaders, the power structures. There are some excellent guides to the Irish law of the period, which I made good use of in Dreamer’s Pool. And I have to read up on geography, flora and fauna etc. With the folklore, I have a pretty sound basis already because B&G is set in roughly the same time and place as my Sevenwaters series, and I have read vast numbers of fairy tales and folk tales. I do sometimes tweak the geography to suit the story and the historical detail is pretty light on. An expert in the period and culture would find masses of flaws, I’m sure. My choices about voice and dialogue would fill up a whole blog post of their own.
Anne: Would you give us a brief taste of Blackthorn & Grim—either book— please?
Juliet: Here is the opening of Tower of Thorns:
Rain had swollen the river to a churning mass of grey. The tower wore a soft shroud of mist; though it was past dawn, no cries broke the silence. Perhaps he slept, curled tight on himself, dreaming of a time when he was whole and hale and handsome. Perhaps he knew even in his sleep that she still kept watch, her shawl clutched around her against the cold, her gaze fixed on his shuttered window.
But he might have forgotten who she was, who he was, what had befallen them. It had been a long time ago. So long that she had no more tears to shed. So long that one summer blurred into another as the years passed in an endless wait for the next chance, and the next, to put it right. She did not know if he could see her. There were the trees, and the water, and on mornings like this, the mist lying thick between them. Only the top of the tower was visible, with its shuttered window.
Beautiful. Here you will find links to a longer excerpt and some of Juliet's other books. (Below is a pic of my own bookshelf)
Juliet: I’m currently working on the third Blackthorn & Grim book, Den of Wolves (this is the very first time I have made the title public.) My deadline is quite soon, so the pressure is intense. I’ll be occupied with edits for that book until around March of 2016.
I would like to continue the Blackthorn and Grim series beyond the three books I’m contracted for, and will be doing some negotiations to that end. I’m also toying with the idea of writing some novellas, and I have two short stories to write for particular anthologies. I am quite a slow worker, doing heaps of revision as I go, so I need to be realistic about what I commit to. Time off would be nice, too!
Anne: Indeed it would. Juliet, thanks so much for visiting the Word Wenches and answering my questions, especially at such a busy time.
To readers: if you'd like to read more of Juliet's work, try Daughter of the Forest, the first in her wonderful Sevenwaters series, which has more than 35,000 ratings on Goodreads and an average readers' score of 4.28. It's the book that first got me addicted to her writing. Or try the first in her YA series, Wildwood Dancing. But really, you can't go wrong. You can read more about Juliet in this wonderful interview with Kate Forsyth.
Juliet will be giving away a book to someone who leaves a comment, and asks this question: What's your favorite fairy tale?