Faerieworlds: The Interviews
Spelling, inspiration and the writing lives of Holly Black and Patricia McKillip
by Suzi Steffen
In honor of the fifth Faerieworlds Festival (July 21-22 at Secret House), which seems to be growing every year and attracts a huge number of illustrious humans (and an unknown number of faeries, though that doesn’t seem like a great idea), EW decided to interview two of our favorite authors. Both Patricia McKillip and Holly Black kindly emailed back answers in time for a special Faerieworlds online piece.
Patricia A. McKillip, whose Riddle Master trilogy stands as a revered classic for fantasy and SF readers, spins spellbinding tales with prose so disarmingly beautiful that readers, like the characters themselves, don’t realize until too late that this dreamworld teeters between cruelty and wild victory. EW books editor Molly Templeton reviewed McKillip’s fine Solstice Wood (a companion piece to Winter Rose) in last year’s Winter Reading edition (www.eugeneweekly.com/2006/12/14/coverstory.html). I felt like a total fangrrrl both speaking to and emailing with McKillip, who thankfully ignored my geekiness and responded with meaty (or perhaps tofu-y) ideas about writing and consciousness, not to mention a charming story about Faerie-master Brian Froud.
Can you talk a bit about your writing process? (Perhaps describe a typical day, or the ways your ideas turn into novels, or your revision process?)
I sold my first novel in 1973, so I’ve been writing for quite some time. The daily process has gone through various transformations, but by the early ’90s I pretty much settled on my present routine, which is 4-5 hours a day, 4-6 days a week. At the moment, I’m happiest writing in the same place every day — my study overlooking the bay and the mountains. Writing habits differ wildly between writers. I’m one of those who tried once, ages ago, to outline my entire novel, from Chapter One to The End. I found that, by The End of the outline, I simply wasn’t interested in the story any more. So ever since then, I’ve gone with the seat-of-the-pants version of writing: I need to know what world the story is in, I need clear voices for my narrators, I need to know what I would like the reader to feel at the end. Everything else is up for grabs. I jot down chapter notes and change them completely; I run through scenes in my head, choosing and discarding before I write them down. I need a balance between knowing what I’m doing, and being surprised by plot twists or style as I go along. It’s a pretty murky business, but it seems to work for me.
Fairy or faerie? Does the spelling make a difference to you in terms of considering them as amoral/cold instead of charming and (sweetly) fey?
I’ve never thought about it that way — that’s an interesting view of the question. I’ve gone back and forth with editors about this one, since I tend (rather carelessly) to be arbitrary about it sometimes in my stories. Basically, I think of “faerie” as the more formal or inclusive spelling — meaning a people, a realm, an idea. “Fairy” seems more personal, meaning an individual in a certain group. But as I said, I’m not always consistent, and never entirely sure that I’m correct.
How did you learn about faeries and their history in folklore and literature?
I think the first fairies I met were the good fairies/bad fairy in “The Sleeping Beauty,” the fairy godmother in “Cinderella,” Tinkerbell in Disney’s Peter Pan. Childhood memories: There wasn’t much in the way of fantasy besides fairy tales when I was young, until The Lord of the Rings was published, and Tolkien’s very strong and beautiful realm of Faerie became part of the lore of fantasy. I learned quite a bit more about Faerie by trying to track his ideas back to the earliest sources of Welsh and Irish myth, the Norse Eddas, etc. Early ballads like “Tam Lin”, 19th century poetry — “Christabel,” “Goblin Market,” Tennyson’s “Merlin” — are good sources of inspiration for fantasy writers. There are many, many sources these days for learning about Faerie — very recently I’ve made use of A Field Guide to the Little People by Nancy Arrowsmith and George Moorse, which names and defines a surprising number of beings from many different folklores, and “The Enchanted World” series by Time-Life, which has lovely artwork as well as information. Online, the Endicott Studio website (www.endicott-studio.com)has many scholarly articles about the subject.
If you do read other works about fairies, how does that information influence your own work?
On a basic level, reading other people’s work adds to your general knowledge about the world of Faerie. All our information of them comes from other people’s tales, so every different writer’s view of them becomes part of the lore. But other people’s work influences you only when it engages your imagination in a powerful way, shows you a different way of looking at something. Then you might be tempted to take what you’ve learned from their work, and use it to explore whatever you found important in it. Of course you have to be very careful — there’s a great difference between using a kernel of an idea to forge your own story, and simply imitating, or simply stealing, somebody else’s ideas. Sometimes you just have to stand back and admire what another writer has done — for instance, Diana Wynne Jones’ very subtle, unusual, contemporary retelling of the Tam Lin ballad, Fire and Hemlock. I used the same ballad as the basis for my novel Winter Rose. There have been many retellings of that same story, since it’s a compelling and romantic tale, with a very dark and dangerous view of Faerie. But though the story is the same, the details can vary greatly according to what’s important to the storyteller.
Have you visited Faerieworlds before? Any thoughts about Brian Froud, Holly Black or the other artists who will be there?
I didn’t know Faerieworlds existed until I was invited as a guest this year. I’ve met Brian Froud several times, at various events. I remember sitting at a bar with him once, telling him that no way I believed fairies existed, while he told me that a fairy had just flown past my shoulder. Such is the charm and whimsy of Brian Froud that I found myself believing his tales of them, even while refusing to believe that they actually exist. If they exist for anyone, it must be Brian.
I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting Holly Black, who is doing very fine work with the Fair Folk for YA readers.
I enjoyed Alphabet of Thorn with its intimations of the danger, and the beauty, of learning. Your novels usually have many layers of meaning — metaphor, narrative, parallels with human non-fantasy lives. How do you juggle all of these meanings?
That’s a very tough question to answer. The closest I can come is to quote Robert Graves in The White Goddess on the subject of poetry and ancient bards: the bard must know “the history and mythic value of every word … ” Of course, for a modern writer that’s an impossible task. But reading widely helps you understand in what ways a word can resonate, and how words can influence meanings, and suggest other meanings, when placed next to each other. All this is what I aspire to, at any rate: to make any given word suggest all the meanings the reader knows. In the end the only magic in fantasy is the language: you succeed or fail using the same words as everyone else.
I always think the Pacific Northwest rainforest is so present in your work, but perhaps I’m projecting. How do you think the geography of western Oregon influences your novels?
I’ve only really lived here for about six years. I’ve been in and out of Oregon visiting relatives since I was a child — I know the rugged and gorgeous coastline has been the setting for at least two novels: The Changeling Sea and Something Rich and Strange.
The archetype of the endless forest which I do use frequently might have come from various places, including an early stay in Europe, when my father was stationed in Germany with the Air Force, and he rented a house for his family in a very tiny village that seemed surrounded by that same endless forest. Maybe all forests become, in the imagination, a part of that mythical forest that we travel through so often in fantasy tales, yet which is always unpredictable each time we begin our journey through it.
What writers do you like to read? Do you have any particular books to recommend to Eugene Weekly readers?
I read everything and anything — Jane Smiley, P.G. Wodehouse, T. H. White, Elizabeth Bowen, Gregory Benford, Tim Powers, John Mortimer, Neal Stephenson, Iris Murdoch. Wodehouse and Bowen taught me a great deal about dialogue and sentence structure. As far as novels about Faerie go, I would recommend work by Diana Wynne Jones, Terri Windling, Charles de Lint, Holly Black, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Peter Beagle — there are many fine fantasy writers out there, and I haven’t read all of them yet. And of course J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Lord of the Rings trilogy showed me, when I was seventeen and finding my way as a writer, the astounding realms the imagination can invent when you set it free.
Holly Black, who’s available at www.blackholly.comand blackholly.livejournal.com, is the author of the bestselling young adult novels Tithe, Valiant and the new Ironside (see review, this issue) and the children’s book series The Spiderwick Chronicles (with illustrator Tony DiTerlezzi, who was at last year’s Faerieworlds). She has been interviewed practically to death by YA bloggers this summer (you can find those interviews through her websites), but she agreed to talk to us before Faerieworlds began. Read her thoughts on our state’s awesome coffee, tantalizing YA crossover possibilities and the soon-to-come Spiderwick Chronicles movie.
First of all: Faries or faeries? How did you pick? (The spelling, not the characters.)
The spelling “fairy” has strong associations with fairy tales and with the tiny, cherubic Victorian fairies, while the spelling “faery” is more closely associated with older, folkloric faeries. So, basically, the decision I made was to signal the reader that they would be reading an urban fantasy novel using the capricious, dangerous faeries of Celtic and Scandinavian folklore.
Have you been to this part of the country before? What drew you to Faerieworlds? Any thoughts on the other artists — Brian Froud, Patricia McKillip, etc. — who will be there?
I am really excited to go to Faerieworlds and be among people that love faeries as much as I do. Not only that, but I am very much looking forward to being back in Oregon, a state I associate with gorgeous landscapes and delicious coffee.
I am a huge fan of Brian Froud. When I was a kid, my mom brought home Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s Faeries. She had bought it for herself, but I loved it. That was my first introduction to faerie folklore and was the impetus for my scurrying off to the library to get more books on folklore. Without that book, I don’t know that I would have discovered any of the stories that I love so much today.
Patricia McKillip was a huge inspiration to me too. Her sentences are gorgeous and her books get under one’s skin in the most pleasurable way possible. I am very excited to be spending some time with them both.
It seems to me that Kay [Fierch, the main character in Tithe and Ironside] has incredibly human emotions and reactions. As Kate tells her late in the book, she doesn’t really know how to be a fairy. How do you conceptualize her emotions and reactions? Why does she care about Corny? And do other fairies fall in love the way she did with Roiben?
Writing Kaye was incredibly difficult, because she had to be both a character that readers could relate to and also somewhat inhuman. Every time I wrote a scene, I tried to make sure that I considered having her do something unpredictable and even opposite what a human girl might do. That was the reason I had her jump onto the counter in the scene with her mother and break into the house from the attic in one of the later scenes. My hope is that she has emotions that feel familiar to us, but reactions to those emotions that feel strange.
Kaye cares about Corny because he’s helped her through figuring out who she is and because she likes him. I don’t see faeries as being incapable of friendship.
I think that faeries fall in love a lot, actually. Sometimes for sport, but mostly because they are intense creatures living out what amounts to a perpetual adolescence. Roiben’s love for Silarial, for example, is the reason that he endured all that pain at the hands of the Unseelie Court. What I hope is different about Kaye and Roiben’s love at the end of Ironside is that it has moved into a place that is not quite so desperate and scary and intense, but is starting to be an actual relationship. As a reader pointed out to me recently — all the things that attract Kaye to Roiben in the first book annoy the heck out of her in the second book. He’s damaged and close-mouthed and used to being alone. Once that stops being romantic, you still have to deal with it.
You said in an interview with Gwenda Bond (available at gwendabond.typepad.com/bondgirl/2007/06/sbbt_stop_holly.html ) that your new graphic novels with Ted Naifeh will be set on the West Coast. How will West Coast fairies/faeries differ from your East Coast group? Related to this, do you think there are different Unseelie and Seelie courts for every geographical area?
Well, Ted lives in San Francisco, and I think that it’s more important for the books to be set in his landscape than in mine. But it also gave me a chance to imagine a place where the faerie court system (that’s breaking down in the Modern Faerie Tale books) is completely gone. There are no more courts in the graphic novel I’m writing, but that leaves a place for anyone to step up and lead.
Rue, the protagonist, is both cooler and has more friends than either Kaye or Val. She’s happy, has got a boyfriend she really likes and hobbies (photography and urban exploring) that she enjoys. She’s basically a pretty well-adjusted person until she isn’t. I hope the characters seem like they could live on the West Coast. You’ll have to let me know.
Before you started Tithe, what kind of books on urban faeries had you read? What are some of your urban fairy favorite books (and/or authors)?
I think the urban fantasy book that had the most profound influence on me was Charles de Lint’s Jack the Giant Killer, which I read together with its sequel as Jack of Kinrowan. I am a huge fan of Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks and Finder, the Border Town anthologies, Midori Snyder’s work, Elisabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Guard and Terri Windling’s Wood Wife. I didn’t read all these books before I’d started writing about faeries, but I wish I had.
Also incredibly inspiring to me were the faery poems of William Butler Yeats. His work, particularly “The Hosting of the Sidhe,” captures the sense of the numinous in a way that constantly reminds me what language can do. And his faerie scholarship, along with WY Evans-Wentz’s Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, Dermot MacManus’s The Middle Kingdom, the many works of Katharine Briggs, and Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies were constant sources of ideas and inspiration.
So if Kaye opens her coffee shop, is she going to get Cyd Charisse [protagonist of Rachel Cohn’s Gingerbread, Shrimp and Cupcake] to help out? Just kidding, but that leads me to ask: What YA writers who aren’t writing about faries or fantasy worlds do you like to read?
Oh, what a great crossover that would be! I do love Rachel Cohn’s Gingerbread series and with Cupcake, Cyd is even conveniently in New York. I’m also an avid reader of Cecil Castellucci, David Levithan, John Green, Laurie Halse Anderson, Coe Booth, MT Anderson, Maureen Johnson, Nancy Werlin, Ellen Wittlinger, Angela Johnson, E. Lockhart, Barry Lyga and many others. It is a really exciting time to be writing for teens.
Sometimes, I find urban fairy tales fake gritty, as though the people writing them make the cities too coincidentally connected and only surface-scary. I think your cities, full of iron and dirt and dilapidation (Corny’s car has to be one of the most realistic beaters in fiction) and decay and despair, fit the reality of cities so much better. Do you go out and perform site research? Seriously: What places in N.Y. and N.J. did you visit in order to write about them?
Wow, thank you. I’m really glad that you think that I managed to pull off that portrayal. I guess I’m really lucky (or unlucky) to have grown up in a pretty gritty suburb. A lot of the non-magical things that have happened to characters in my fiction have happened to friends of mine, so in some ways I feel that I am writing the only world that I know. I know Corny’s car and I know kids who are strung out and I did sleep one night on a subway platform when I was thirteen. My sister died of a heroin overdose when she was in her early twenties. So, basically, a lot of the site research in New Jersey didn’t take me very far from home.
I did a lot more research in New York for Valiant, though. I had been spending a lot of time in the city and I’d worked in Chelsea, but that’s not the same as living there. I went to all the locations I’d written about and added description about the ways things smelled and whatever weird little details I could find. In some ways, it’s kind of strange how strict I was with myself about that geography and how lax I was about changing around Jersey Shore geography to suit whatever I wanted to happen. I even restored a burnt-down pier to life for one of the settings in Tithe.
OK, let’s talk Spiderwick Chronicles. I admit to being a YA reader, not usually a children’s reader, but I have read a couple of the Spiderwicks, and they are truly scary. Do you think that kids who grow up reading Spiderwick move on to Tithe when they hit, say, 8th grade?
My agent read the Spiderwick books to his son and the part his son found the scariest was the part about the parent’s divorce. I thought that was really interesting. I think the scariest things in the book are how alone the kids are, how the mother is too stressed to believe them and the other adults are too lost in their own lives to help. That’s especially true in the first book where Jared doesn’t even have his brother and sister on his side.
As for whether Spiderwick readers will read and like my teen books, I guess I can only hope.
Is the Spiderwick movie (due out in February) going to be as funny, moving and terrifying as the books?
I hope so! I have read the scripts and been to the set and I think that Mark Waters, the producers and everyone working on the film has done their best to try and capture the feel of the books. I am going to see a rough cut of the film just after Faerieworlds, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it all came together.
Thanks a ton. I hope you have a great time at Faerieworlds!
Thank you! I hope you are stopping by Faerieworlds yourself — I want to talk more about this Cupcake/Ironside crossover.
BOOK NOTES: Anne Fadiman reads from At Large and at Small, 7:30 pm 6/14, Powell’s on Burnside, Portland. Michael Ondaatje speaks, 7:30 pm 6/18, Portland Art Museum. $10. Tony Wheeler reads from Bad Lands, 7:30 pm 6/18, Powell’s on Burnside, Portland. Karen Karbo talks about her Minerva Clark teen detective series, 1 pm 6/20, Downtown Library. Karbo also hosts the library’s Teen Book Club meeting at 4 pm 6/20. Shirley M. Collins reads and discusses “Who and What We Are,” her series of handmade books, 7 pm 6/20, Mother Kali’s. Austin Grossman reads from Soon I Will Be Invincible, 7:30 pm 6/21, Powell’s on Hawthorne, Portland.