By: Nalini Haynes, Blogger in Residence
Juliet Marillier, writer of historical fantasy, has won Australian and international awards for her novels. She is also very active in the writing community, mentoring aspiring writers, teaching workshops, serving on the Literary Board of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre and contributing to Writer Unboxed. Here she chats writing, representation, and her Blackthorn & Grim series (the final instalment, Den of Wolves, has just hit shelves).
Tell us a little bit about Blackthorn and Grim, your latest trilogy.
Blackthorn and Grim is a historical fantasy series focused on the personal journeys of the two main characters who are older than those in the rest of my novels. I wanted something more gritty, focused on real people with real world issues. It’s not your standard quest and sword-fighting fantasy.
Blackthorn was a healer and a wise woman who suffered trauma. She’s shattered and disillusioned, which manifests in bitterness and anger. At the start she’s not really capable of working. To be a healer and work hearth magic you need calm, inner strength and balance; if you’ve been through trauma you lose all of that.
Grim is a big quiet man, not handsome, not pre-possessing. He gradually emerges, becoming a wonderful person. He is a calm, stabilising influence for the edgy Blackthorn.
They both suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not that it was called that back in early medieval times, but it’s been around. The damage done by anything very terrible screws you up mentally, causes sleeplessness or terrible nightmares or hyper vigilance like returning soldiers. These characters have to work through this and learn to support each other.
Blackthorn is driven by a desire to bring the person who most wronged her to face justice. A mysterious rescuer frees her and Grim but forbids her from seeking justice.
Each stand-alone novel has a fairy tale–based mystery with uncanny elements. There’s one historical character in the entire 3 books, everyone else is invented, but the uncanny elements, place names and geography, are all Irish.
As a druid, I have a theory that all historical strange and uncanny tales had their roots in something that was real. I’m not saying that fairies were flying around in the sky or there were dragons or whatever, but they all had their basis in reality. So I write historical settings with an underlay of the otherworld.
When reading Celtic fairy tales as a child, I felt that ‘these are the stories of my people’. What are your thoughts on representation?
I certainly agree with finding the stories of your people, finding the stories of your ancestors. I don’t mean looking for them, but discovering them and feeling, not an intellectual understanding but a visceral heart understanding, that this belongs to you. I think it’s very important that we do find those stories and recognise them.
Narrative therapy is about telling your stories and reinforcing the good parts. Blackthorn and Grim telling their stories was part of their healing process. Was this deliberate?
It was fairly conscious because I have seen that work. For Blackthorn and Grim, sharing their stories was a sign that they’d reached a stage where they trusted each other above anyone else. You have to be very close to someone and have that full trust in them to be able to let go and get the words out, to put your worst experience into words.
I particularly like Blackthorn as a female character because she felt more my age than your usual 20-something and she wasn’t obsessed with domestic life. What led you in this direction?
I’ve been challenged because I tend to have central characters who are in that 17–25 age group. It’s not to capture a particular readership, it’s because of the period the books were set in. People did everything a whole lot earlier. They married very early, had children at 14, fought wars and got killed in their teens or were plying a trade. Women died young in childbirth. They had nasty accidents and bled to death or died of infections with no antibiotics. They were short lives. 40 was old. Even 35 was getting on a bit. The people who lived to my age, in their 60s, were remarkably sage and ancient in those days.
If I wanted my protagonists to be active they needed to be in that younger age group, but I liked writing these older protagonists. Blackthorn is a much more complex individual because she’d lived longer, more things had happened to her, she’d suffered. She needed to come to terms with her past and forgive herself, to find worth in herself, even though it was obvious others found her competent, worthy and likeable. I’d love to write more strong older female characters.
Can I ask you about your experience with breast cancer and how you think this has affected your writing and the maturity of your characters?
Any big crisis affects you afterwards. I was—touch wood—very lucky in that I had surgery and treatment and, with luck, it’s all gone, although you never know. It can come back. I was one of those people who was picked up with a standard mammogram, I had no symptoms and no idea. Then, suddenly, I was in for an operation then having chemo. It was quite a shock.
It really makes you see your life and your world quite differently. A whole lot of stuff that seemed to be very important fell away. There are a small number of things that are really important, like family. It’s worth reminding myself now. That was 2009. Sometimes I lose sight of that wisdom that I gained then because our lives are full of things that are not actually very important. Focus on what really matters.
It has changed the way I approach character. I wrote a book the year I had cancer. It’s a fairly angsty, introspective book, the Seer of Sevenwaters, the one with the trainee druid as the central character. That was more a reflection of my chemo-vague brain and the lack of focus because that year was mostly taken up with fairly taxing treatment. Perhaps it’s coming out in terms of crises and resolution and people needing to be courageous in the face of difficulties and learning to forgive yourself.
Forgiving yourself is a powerful theme for both the main characters, but I think the Tower of Thorns‘s revelation might be my favourite.
I was very pleased with the revelation. The backstory is one of the passages that I’m quite proud of. Now I’m starting to wonder if my love for the Cadfael stories might have influenced my dealing with that particular theme in that book, who knows, I’d forgotten them. The Cadfael books are full of wonderful historic detail, not dolloped on in large paragraphs but beautifully blended into the story.
A drawing teacher once said that, if you draw from reality, your work can be so much richer and more detailed than something you’re trying to imagine. Do you think this is true for writing?
Yes. I’ve found it much easier to write historical stories and tap into what people might have believed at the time rather than make up something magical to impose on the story that’s not related to that time and culture.
Are you currently writing your next book?
No, I’m in the process of planning. Publishers are being very cautious and a bit prescriptive about what they will take at the moment, so my story hasn’t been accepted yet. It’s a story with two female protagonists, one older, one younger, with witches and magic. It’s historical, based on a fairy tale.
In the past it has been much easier for me to submit a proposal and get the tick quite quickly. It’s been quite difficult this time. Normally I would be submitting a new novel in January or February, but not next year.
I knew we’d come to the point where what I wanted passionately enough to write was not going to sell well enough for them. Now that they’re very cautious, they want something they know is going to make big bucks, and I know that I am not going to want to do something that is contrived to fit that mould. It’s hard to tell what the mould is, anyway; they can’t really spell it out.
The reverse side of that is that I am not really keen on facing the technicalities of self-publishing and I hate self-promotion that you have to do even more as a self-published author. I would have the advantage of an existing readership but I’d much rather spend my time writing than doing all the admin, getting it up on whatever platform then telling people ‘here’s this great book that I’ve written’. That just doesn’t come naturally to me, so we’ll see.
The other option might be reverting to one of the reputable small presses here in Australia and seeing if they would take it and just publish it locally. So we’ll see…
“When I was 4 years old, I discovered a large hardcover book of poetry in a corner store and my father bought it for me. Later he wanted me to read ‘Triantiwontigongolope’ by CJ Dennis. I said the poem was silly; I couldn’t possibly read a word THAT BIG so the trees and grass being purple was a great excuse. My father challenged me to think about possibilities in this strange world. I knew my disability separated me from others so I asked ‘Could I be normal in a world like that?’ He said ‘Yes’. Thus my love of genre and my passion for social justice were sown with the hope of changing the world.”
— Nalini Haynes.
You can find Nalini at: her website, Dark Matter Zine,Twitter as Dark Matter Zine and as herself, Facebook as Dark Matter Zine and as herself, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.