Juliet Marillier is a multi-award winning author of historical and folkloric fantasy. She lives in New Zealand and has travelled extensively in pursuit of a good story. Juliet is also a member of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. You can find her via her website (which includes her blog) and on Facebook.
We are so excited to be interviewing Juliet Marillier today.
Thank you to all the PWC members who sent in questions, we've tried to get through them all. We've also got a sneak preview of the cover for Juliet's latest novel, Den of Wolves, out later this year. We've included it at the end of the interview.
Hi Juliet. One of our members cited you as the influence behind her own story, The Enchanted Swans, due out later this year. Christy wanted to ask what first inspired you to novelize fairy tales?
I didn’t make a conscious decision to do so. When I was writing my first novel, mainly as therapy after a particularly challenging period in my life, I was drawn to the fairy tale of The Six Swans – one of my favourites from childhood, and a story with a strong woman at its heart. The theme was particularly relevant for me at that time. I asked myself what would happen if the devastating events of that story – the brothers changed into swans, and their sister set a terrible task to win them back their human form – happened to a real life family. Who would stand strong? Who would fall apart? How would the experience change them?
I have loved traditional stories all my life, from the time before I could read, when my parents read to me or told me made up stories. Myths and legends, folklore and fairy tales contain deep wisdom. Many of them were first told around the fire at night to make sense of the world’s challenges and to give people heart. The lessons in them are still relevant today – they teach us about love and loyalty, strength and courage, faith and honour. They teach us how to live our lives more wisely.
Out of my 19 novels, only four are built around particular fairy tales (Daughter of the Forest – The Six Swans; Wildwood Dancing – The Twelve Dancing Princesses/The Frog Prince; Heart’s Blood – Beauty and the Beast, and more recently Dreamer’s Pool, which owes quite a bit to The Goose Girl.) I do include uncanny elements in all the books, though, even the more historically-based stories, and there are many folkloric or fairy tale motifs and ideas in them.
I’ve also written two shorter stories based on fairy tales: the award-winning By Bone-Light, a modern take on Vasilissa the Fair, and a novella called Beautiful, an unusual version of East of the Sun and West of the Moon, which will be published later this year.
You do it so well, do you have any hints on your creative process?
My background as a musician helps. I studied music to honours level at university and worked for quite a long time as a singing teacher and choral conductor as well as being a composer. Alongside my love of traditional storytelling, that background has helped me develop a particular rhythm and flow in my writing. In terms of process, I plan everything out in advance, initial idea and research first, then an outline, a synopsis, probably a chapter plan before I begin actually writing the book. I keep on editing the previous parts of the manuscript while writing the later parts, so it gets a lot of polishing and refining along the way. I don’t do a series of complete drafts, it’s more like one continuous draft over many months.
That may sound quite rigid, but of course rules can be broken and plans can be changed in the interests of better storytelling. It usually takes me a year from initial idea to finished polished manuscript. Writing is my full time day job, though I also look after five needy dogs, all rescues, and they gobble up both time and emotional energy. But I love them!
You are a member of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Can you tell us a bit about your path to joining, and what part your spirituality plays in your writing?
When I was writing my first novel, Daughter of the Forest, set in early medieval Ireland, I needed to include a druid character. I started researching ancient druidry, rather a challenge since it was strictly an oral tradition and extremely secret, so there are no reliable historical records. It happened that Philip Carr-Gomm, chief of OBOD, was visiting Australia at that time. I attended a talk he gave in which I found out about modern druidry and the wealth of lore and knowledge available on both contemporary and ancient druidic practices. I was delighted to find a spiritual path that chimed with so many of my existing beliefs. I completed two grades of the OBOD correspondence course and I am still learning – it’s a lifelong path.
My spiritual beliefs influence my writing strongly. I don’t mean writing about druid characters and druid ritual, though I have done that a few times. It’s a more general thing. The underlying values of my spiritual path are likely to permeate everything I write. Three beliefs are particularly important to me: that storytelling has a great power to teach and to heal; that god, goddess or spirit is not set above us, but resides within all living things and links them together; and that we need to live the life we have as wisely and well as we can, rather than dwell on what might come afterwards. I never hammer home moral lessons in my stories, and I’m happy if people read them solely for entertainment. But there are some deep-down values and some wisdom there for readers who choose to look for them.
There are six series to your name. Do you always know how many books will be in a series? Do you plan it out beforehand, or do you only know how many books there will be once they're written?
These days I submit a proposal to a publisher, not a finished book or series. That is, I sign a contract before I write the series. So I do have to know in advance how many books there will be, and have at least a rough plan for each one. The exception was the Sevenwaters series, originally intended to be a trilogy. I was asked by a publisher to write three follow-up novels, so it became a six book series.
Do you find it hard to close a series and let go of the characters?
Yes, it can be very hard to say goodbye to characters I love. For me, the characters live on after the end of the series.
Do you have a favourite childhood fairy tale or folk character?
Lots! These days I would choose Baba Yaga, the fearsome old woman who lives in the forest in a hut on hen’s legs, and who possesses the gift of fire. As a child I might have chosen a strong young woman from a fairy tale, either the girl in The Six Swans or the brave young wife in East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Admirable role models!
Which authors do you admire? Who helped to shape and inspire you?
Without a doubt, what shaped and inspired me as a writer was traditional stories: fairy tales, folklore, myths and legends. I admire many authors across a wide range of genres and styles. I love accomplished writing that pushes the boundaries but I also love great storytelling, so my favourite writers tend to be those who combine the two. For historical fiction I really admire the late Dorothy Dunnett. I re-read Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels every year, and also Daphne du Maurier’s Cornish novels. All those writers are great stylists. As a young reader I adored Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. That novel helped give me my romantic streak.
You have travelled a lot in pursuit of research for your books. Is there anywhere you haven't been that you still want to explore? Is there anywhere you would like to return to? And please could you tell us a bit about Transylvania and Wildwood Dancing?
Yes, I’ve been very fortunate in being able to travel quite widely for research purposes, thanks to the kind readers who buy my books and allow me to earn my living as a writer. There are plenty of places I haven’t visited and would love to see, for instance Brittany, Cornwall, Russia, South America. It’s becoming harder to get away now that I have so many dogs! I would love to return to Orkney, where my Viking novel Wolfskin is set, and indeed I am intending to do so in mid-2017 for a writers’ retreat. I’ve visited Orkney three times before and it remains one of my favourite places for all sorts of reasons.
My visit to Transylvania was memorable! Most of my novels are set in my own ancestral territory – Scotland and Ireland – and writing a story set in such a different culture was challenging. I was lucky enough to find a Romanian guide who was a history buff and very ready to take me to out-of-the-way places in search of what I needed for the book. With a regular guide, I might have ended up just doing the well-trodden ‘vampire tourism’ route; and on my own I would have struggled with the language, not to speak of the driving.
The landscape and historic buildings in Transylvania are stunningly beautiful and full of character. We stayed in local B&Bs. People were not very keen to talk about folk traditions – I would have had to stay much longer and win trust to bring that sort of information out. Rural Romania was a place of stark contrasts: we’d be travelling past flower-dotted fields where workers were cutting hay with scythes, and right next to them there would be a huge derelict factory, stark evidence of the mismanagement of the Ceausescu era.
I did use a lot of what I learned on that trip in writing Wildwood Dancing. And I’m sure I still built many errors into the book! It’s a fairy tale story rather than a historical novel. I hope I conveyed a general flavour of the Transylvanian setting, at least. And then, of course, it was off to Turkey for the sequel, Cybele’s Secret.
You have won multiple awards for your writing. Is there one that is especially memorable or dear to you?
I appreciate them all! The Prix Imaginales deserves a special mention. This award is for best fantasy novel in French translation – I won it for Soeur des Cygnes, which was the French title for Daughter of the Forest. The memorable part was the trophy: a large, bright red statuette of Puss in Boots. Puss is too big for the trophy shelf so he lives on top of a bookcase. Most dear to me: a tie between my first major award, an Aurealis for Son of the Shadows, and my only short fiction award, another Aurealis for By Bone-Light, my contemporary version of the fairy tale Vasilissa the Fair.
How different do you find it writing short stories to novels?
Each has its own difficulties. With short fiction you need to refine and refine again, pare the writing down to the perfect words, the perfect turn of phrase, the most economical, effective and powerful way of telling your story. I find writing short fiction rewarding but difficult, and I am very slow at it. Novels come more easily to me, even though they still take a while to write! But some writers find it hard to create a workable structure and to maintain focus in a longer work.
We recently interviewed the co-founder of #FolkloreThursday, to ask about the success of their hashtag on global folklore. Over the time that you have been writing fantasy and historical fantasy, do you feel there has been a resurgence in reader interest in folklore and fairy tales? Did it ever go away?
I don’t think it ever went away completely, but I agree there’s been a recent resurgence in writing based on fairy tales in particular. It shows up in novels and short fiction, as well as in movies and television series such as Once Upon a Time.
Have the marketplace and reader interests changed much since your first book was published?
The marketplace has certainly changed in the 16 or so years since I wrote Daughter of the Forest. The publishing business was hit badly by the global economic downturn; publishers had to rethink how they functioned with the rise of the e-book; and then there was the proliferation of self-published work that digital publishing made possible. As a result, publishers are far less ready to take risks and writers have to do far more of their own publicity and marketing, with a lot less support than before. There’s a trend currently toward a darker, grittier kind of fantasy, exemplified by writers like Joe Abercrombie. The fantasy genre is very broad, though; there’s room for romantic historical fantasy alongside hip urban fantasy alongside so-called ‘grimdark’.
Is the feeling different getting your twentieth book published to getting your very first book published?
It is still exciting when a new book comes out, especially if it has a beautiful cover like the ones Arantza Sestayo has done for the Blackthorn & Grim series. But nothing beats seeing your very first book out there on the bookshop shelves.
How much say do you get on the cover design for your books?
It ranges from zero to quite a lot! With some of the foreign language editions I didn’t even get to see the cover art until the book was published, and there were some highly inappropriate covers as a result. Over the years my US publishers in particular have commissioned some beautiful covers by distinguished illustrators such as Kinuko Y Craft, John Jude Palencar, and more recently Arantza Sestayo, and I count myself very lucky in that.
How do you feel about your earlier works now that you have written so many? Do you ever wish you could go back and change anything?
There are certainly many things I would change if I were writing some of those books now – in particular, I’d fix the errors I made with the history in my earliest books, back in the days when it never occurred to me that readers would expect historical accuracy in a story that was full of magical transformations and Otherworld beings. And I would pare the wordage down in some of the longer books to improve the pacing. Only, of course, I wouldn’t actually do it because I’d much rather write new stories, not revisit the old ones. I hope I keep on learning from my errors.
If a black hole opened up in the middle of the room and you only had time to save three books from your bookshelf, which three would they be and why?
What a terrible question! It would have to be the books I couldn’t replace: my mother’s edition of The Golden Staircase (an anthology of classic poetry with colour plates, published in the early 1900s); her edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales; and her hand-written diary.
What are you working on now, and what can we look forward to in the near future?
Den of Wolves, book 3 of the Blackthorn & Grim series, comes out in September here in Australia, and in November in the USA. Look for my novella, Beautiful, later this year in an anthology called Aurum, from Ticonderoga Publications. And I’m currently writing a proposal for a new adult fantasy series, but as my agent hasn’t seen it yet, I can’t give you any further details.
Anyone interested in finding out more could keep an eye on my blog, where I will post news when I have it.