Juliet Marillier is a New Zealand-born writer of fantasy, focusing predominantly on historical fantasy. Juliet is currently working on the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. Her earlier books include the Sevenwaters series, set in early medieval Ireland, the Viking duology Saga of the Light Isles, the Bridei Chronicles, set in the kingdom of the Picts, and two series for young adults, the Wildwood books and the Shadowfell books. She has also written a stand-alone novel, Heart’s Blood, based on the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, and a collection of short fiction, Prickle Moon. Visit the Books page for further details. Juliet’s short fiction can be found in various anthologies. Juliet has won many awards for her writing, including five Aurealis Awards and four Sir Julius Vogel Awards, as well as the American Library Association’s Alex Award and the Prix Imaginales. Juliet will be my guest at Stories on Stage on October 14 at Koorliny Arts Centre, Perth.
Monique: Your novels combine historic fiction, folkloric fantasy, romance and family drama. What draws you to writing these kinds of books?
Juliet: That’s something I never thought about until I started doing author interviews! I ‘m very much influenced by the books I read as a child and as a young adult, notably a wealth of fairytales and folklore from around the world. I enjoyed historical novels by authors like Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease. But I was drawn to stories that included magic, probably because they take the reader into a whole new world of possibilities.
My favourite kind of story (to write) is created around characters who are not particularly heroic or remarkable, but who have flaws and weaknesses like all of us. The story is about those fairly ordinary people being tested to the limit and needing to find their inner strength. I find the most satisfying stories are those in which the protagonist becomes wiser or stronger in some way as a result of his or her experiences. So my stories are not the grand, epic kind of fantasy. I try to write characters the reader can identify with. As for romance – as a reader I love a good love story. My favourite is a romance that is not obvious but sort of creeps up on you. There is a love story in each of my novels.
Monique: What prompted your interest in history and folklore?
Juliet: Childhood reading. My best friend’s mother was the Children’s Librarian in Dunedin, NZ, and she steered me in the direction of some great reading I might not have found for myself. I loved Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books (I now have a beautiful Folio Society set of those.) Dunedin, where I grew up, is very Scottish, in everything from its architecture to its street names to its kilt shop and Burns Club and pipe bands. My ancestry is mostly Scots with a touch of Irish. That meant Celtic history and culture were part of my world. My parents were musicians and keen readers. As for history, it goes hand in hand with folklore.
Monique: You’ve just released Tower of Thorns, the second book in your Blackthorn & Grim series. Can you give the audience a bit of an insight to the series and the journey this book will take readers?
Juliet: The Blackthorn & Grim series combines history, mystery and a sprinkling of the uncanny. One reviewer described the first book, Dreamer’s Pool, as ‘Holmes and Watson in medieval Ireland.’ The series has older, more damaged protagonists than my earlier books do. Both the embittered healer, Blackthorn, and her taciturn sidekick, Grim, are damaged by past trauma. In Dreamer’s Pool they are thrown together under extremely challenging circumstances and discover they can only find their way by forging a reluctant trust. In each book of the series, Blackthorn and Grim are called upon to solve a mystery. Often a magical element is involved, and there are many fairytale references. In the background there is always the figure of Blackthorn’s nemesis, the powerful chieftain Mathuin, whom she is determined to see brought to justice for the terrible wrongs he has done. And there is Conmael, the mysterious fey mentor who saved Blackthorn’s life in return for a promise that she would live by certain conditions for seven years: staying away from Mathuin, using her gifts only for good, and saying yes to any request for help.
The new book, Tower of Thorns, takes Blackthorn and Grim on a quest to help Lady Geileis of Bann. A screaming monster has taken up residence in an old tower on the lady’s land, and its pitiful cries are casting a blight on all around. But the lady’s sad tale is more than it seems, and they find themselves drawn into a situation in which even the closest friend may prove to be an enemy.
Monique: Can you read your books as standalone novels or are the series best read in sequence?
Juliet: The Blackthorn & Grim novels do work as standalones. However, I strongly advise reading the series in order – that will enhance your reading enjoyment. I have written several different series, so those new to my work should look on my website, where there’s a guide to which books belong to which series and in what order – scroll down when you get there and you’ll see it all set out, complete with covers.
Monique: What sort of research do you do? How? What are some of the interesting things you’ve learnt?
Juliet: Because I’ve written an earlier series set in early medieval Ireland, I haven’t had to do quite as much historical research for the Blackthorn & Grim books as I might have done. The history is quite light on in these books anyway – they’re based far more on the characters’ personal journeys and their relationships. Also, they don’t pretend to reflect real history, though there some historical characters mentioned and the setting is as authentic as I can make it.
Often a particular book will require very specific research – Dreamer’s Pool contains a trial scene, so I had to read up on the legal system for that period in Ireland and what penalties might be imposed for a certain crime. I have built up quite a good library of reference books, which I use extensively. The internet comes in handy for finding specific details, but I’d mainly use it as a pointer toward more reliable sources of information.
The Blackthorn & Grim books are set mostly in the north-east of Ireland, though I’ve taken some liberties with the geography. My research has led me to, among other things, a guide to Irish birds, books on medieval weaponry, and a fantastic reference on ‘how to thatch a roof.’ There’s a fair bit of thatching done in Tower of Thorns. I was also lucky enough to stay in the Cotswolds region for a week or so, so I could watch local craftsmen at work repairing the wonderful old thatched roofs there.
Monique: You’re a member of the druid order OBOD – The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Can you tell us about this? What are the order’s spiritual values? How are they reflected in your work?
Juliet: I discovered modern druidry through researching ancient druidry for my first series, the Sevenwaters series, which has some druid characters. I was thrilled to discover that there were still druids around and that they weren’t all old men in white robes and sandals! I found their philosophies chimed pretty much exactly with what I (a lapsed Christian) believe to be the wisest and truest codes for living.
OBOD is based in the UK but has members all around the world. The basic values are a respect for all living things and a commitment to preserve and protect the natural world (based on the belief that humankind is not set above the rest of nature, but is an equal part in the whole); the recognition of god or spirit as a force that exists within all living things, including humankind; the power of storytelling for teaching and healing; a striving to live THIS life as well as we can, rather than think about some kind of reward after death. There’s also a respect for history, ancestors, and community. Modern druidry is very flexible, not at all dogmatic, so there’s quite a wide variety of personal beliefs within the order, and the same goes for other druid orders of which there are several. Anyone wanting to find out more, click here. The values I mentioned are present in my work, but they emerge naturally as the story develops. I dislike writers who hammer a message into their readers!
Monique: You’ve won a number of awards for your writing. How does winning awards help you as a writer?
Juliet: Awards provide encouragement and recognition, especially those that are jury-awarded on merit rather than decided on popularity alone. I’m proud of my Aurealis Awards in particular (Australia’s major award for speculative fiction), also my Sir Julius Vogel Awards which are the New Zealand equivalent (I count as both an Aussie and a Kiwi – born and raised in NZ, citizenship of both, resident in Australia.) Awards are nice recognition of the huge effort it takes to produce an artistic work. But I also value the letters and emails I receive from readers, letting me know my writing has changed their lives for the better in some way.
Monique: You used to work as a music teacher. Do you play instruments? Does music feature in your novels? And do you play music when you are writing? What kinds of music?
Juliet: Long ago I played violin and oboe as well as performing as a singer, teaching music and conducting choirs. One of my university degrees is a Bachelor of Music with honours. These days I play the piano for recreation and enjoy attending my granddaughters’ various musical performances. Music comes up in the novels where it’s appropriate but I haven’t featured a musician as a major character yet, unless you count Darragh in Child of the Prophecy, who is a travelling man who plays the whistle rather well! I work better if the room is quiet, so no music while I write. Mind you, things are seldom completely quiet as my other role is canine foster carer, so there’s always a bevy of small dogs underfoot or near at hand, wanting attention.
Monique: If you could create a soundtrack for your body of writing, what are three pieces of music that would have to be included?
Juliet: Click on the titles to listen:
- On the Edge – Runrig (Listen to this with eyes shut, imagining some wonderful highland scenery)
- The Lark Ascending – Ralph Vaughan Williams
- Sol Invictus – Thea Gilmore
Monique: Tell me about your road to publication. What are some of the highlights and lowlights?
Juliet: I was one of those lucky writers whose unsolicited manuscript was picked out of the slush pile and passed up to an editor. Out of that came my first contract, and I’ve been with the same publisher (Pan Macmillan Australia) ever since – I now have 19 novels and a book of short stories in print and my books are published in various countries including the USA. Highlights and lowlights? New contracts are always highlights, so are good reviews and lovely letters from readers. One highlight has been the publication of almost all my books in audiobook form. A lowlight? Losing my UK publisher and not finding another one interested in taking my books on, after what had been a promising start in the UK market.
Monique: What are some tips for budding fantasy writers?
Juliet: They’d be the same tips I’d give to aspiring writers of long fiction in any genre. Learn your CRAFT, including the basics of spelling, syntax and punctuation. READ as widely as possible, well outside the genre you want to write in. Study good books about the writer’s craft. PRACTISE writing and KEEP AT IT– there is no quick and easy way to success, only hard work and determination. You will go on learning and improving all your life. So, write a little each day, make it a discipline, and be prepared to polish and rewrite over and over before you are satisfied with your work. Listen to wise criticism and take it on board.
Monique: How would you describe the writing community in Perth? How has it changed over the years?
Juliet: I mainly interact with a group of writers in the fantasy/science fiction/horror genres, rather than the literary circle, though I have been a guest at some mainstream literary festivals including PIAF and I’m a member of ASA and FAWWA. I’ve found my colleagues in the main friendly and supportive. I can’t comment on changes because, although I’ve been writing for quite a while, in the earlier part of my career I mostly worked outside that community.
Monique: Describe yourself as a writer in three words.
Juliet: Romantic, committed, idealistic
Monique: Can you take us through a “typical” writing day?
Juliet: See below – as you can see, the dogs structure my working day.
- Medicate dogs, take dogs for walks, feed dogs (more complicated than it sounds, as my dogs are high maintenance because of their various health issues – all are rescued animals)
- Break for lunch, play with dogs
- Medicate dogs, feed dogs, take dogs for walks
Those blocks of ‘writing’ include not only work on the current book, but other writing-related activities such as research, maintaining my website and Facebook pages, doing accounts, blogging, interviews, editing and proof-reading etc. My working day is longer when I have a deadline looming. I try to work seven days a week but can’t always manage that. I generally write one novel a year, and manage perhaps one or two short stories at the same time. Compared with some writers I am quite slow – I do a lot of editing and polishing of my own work before my publisher gets to see it.
Monique: What other writing-related projects are you working on at the moment?
Juliet: I have been asked to submit short stories for two planned anthologies, but haven’t started work on either yet. My big current job is writing book three of the Blackthorn & Grim series.
Monique: How do you start a novel?
Juliet: Usually with a seed idea or concept, often taken from history or folklore. After that I do some background research reading, then write a proposal, including a complete plot outline (that’s if the book is the first of a new series, or a stand-alone.) That goes to my regular publishers via my agent. I do a lot of planning before I actually start writing the novel proper.
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing? What happens when you get stuck?
Juliet: I have various strategies to get a project started again. Physical exercise is a good circuit breaker as it seems to switch your brain out of that destructive circling mode (‘I must do it, I can’t do it.’) That’s my most common strategy. Other creative occupations are also good – sewing, knitting, cooking, gardening. Looking back on something good you have written earlier helps boost self-belief. I advise people who feel stuck to put their project in a drawer for at least a month and work on something else. Unfortunately I usually can’t afford the time to do this myself – there is always a deadline. Another good trick is getting away from the computer and using pen and paper for a while. Or work with a group and all agree to complete a certain number of words or pages in the session. Peer pressure helps if everyone is mutually supportive.
Monique: What has writing taught you about resilience?
Juliet: I’ve learned to roll with the punches better since I began. You can’t go into it expecting everyone to love everything you write – it’s not like being a child and showing your stuff only to your very supportive mother! You have to keep plugging away even when not feeling very inspired – you can always use that time to catch up with editing or replying to emails or whatever. Sometimes things don’t go well (for instance, I mentioned earlier losing my UK publisher, and the same happened to me in Germany) but those disappointments are often balanced by good things. I keep telling myself what one of my druid characters says: There is learning in everything. These reversals teach us something about humility and striving to become better your whole life. About not getting smug.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Juliet: Self-distraction. I have it down to a fine art. I often blame the dogs, but really I could say no when they ask for just another walk or cuddle or snack. And I don’t need quite so many cups of tea.
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Juliet: That everyone has a book in them.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Juliet: I’m re-reading the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L Sayers. I’m currently on Busman’s Honeymoon.
Monique: Which authors/books do you admire the most?
Juliet: Really, really hard to answer as I read quite widely and it feels wrong to single out only a few. I have favourite classics (Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women.) I have favourite children’s books (Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, C S Lewis’s Narnia series.) I have series I re-read every year (Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornish novels, Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series.) Among more recent novels I have a couple of particular favourites. One is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, which is a historical novel told all in letters, containing a beautiful understated love story. And I loved Among Others by Jo Walton. Both that and the Guernsey book are about the power of books and reading to lift people out of dark places.
Monique: Which “must-read” book have you not read?
Juliet: To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve seen the movie, does that count?