Friday, 30 July 2010

Mythic Friday Interview: Number 17 - Anne Rooney

It's not often I feel that my words are redundant on this blog--but I pretty much do today.  Anne Rooney is a woman of many talents, an author of books on every subject from Einstein to Volcano, Cambridge Lector of the Royal Literary Fund (which makes her scarily intelligent) and an ace website designer. In addition to all this, Anne has a very unique and useful blog called Stroppy Author's Guide to Publishing.  I take the liberty of quoting from its 'mission statement' here--it will give you a flavour of why Anne also makes me laugh a lot.  "So - now you're a writer. You've got your book deal and drunk the champagne. Congratulations. What next? Is this book going to be a one-off or just your first? If the former, don’t worry your pretty little head over things like repro, margins, PLR, bogits, bungs and e-ink...." I've never had dealings with a bogit or a bung myself, but it's comforting to know there's a bogit 'n' bung expert on hand should I ever need one. However, none of these things are why I feel redundant (I know you were wondering). That comes down to the fact that the Amazing Anne, cornucopia of arcane knowledge that she is, even knows about hagfish vomit. No. I'm not joking. How can anything I have to say now compete with that? A woman who knows about hagfish vomit trumps pretty much anything I can muster in the way of a follow-on, really, so I'll shut up quite soon and let her get on with answering my Mythic questions. 

I've talked to Anne at length on the subject of myths (of course she knows about myths as well), and I think you'll find her answers below witty, erudite and incredibly informative. She's certainly taught me several things I didn't know.  As for what she terms her 'bio bit'--all I will say is that it contains eagles, skewers and kebabs.  I just hope no one chokes on their morning coffee, that's all. Welcome to Scribble City Central, Anne, and over to you forthwith. Thanks so much for visiting (but not so much for making me spit shortcake crumbs all over my keyboard).

1. Do you think that the retelling of myths is important or relevant for the children of today? Why should they care about some “dry old stories” which come from ancient or forgotten cultures they might never even have heard of?
‘Why the hell is that half-naked guy holding a head covered in snakes? What was that artist ON?’
‘Look at those old men leching after the bint! Are they paedos, or what?’
So goes a visit to an art gallery if you’re never heard of Perseus and Medusa, or of Susanna and the Elders. The myths of ancient societies run like a seam of gold through all of European culture. Our own heritage is a closed book if we don’t know them.

If you want to go to a fancy dress party painted all blue, it’s cooler to go as Krishna than a smurf. I got to paint one of Big Bint’s friends all green when he and his girlfriend went to a party as Isis and Osiris. If they hadn’t known their myths, it might have been the Jolly Green Giant or Green Cross Code man – a sad and shameful waste of face paint that would have been.

But more than that, the myths of all cultures speak to us about our common humanity. That we are captivated by the stories of the Aztecs, the ancient Japanese and the Inuits, as well as by the tales that form our own heritage, is testament to the enduring same-ness of human beings. We might have an iPad and central heating, but we’d still readily tear the world apart when betrayed by a friend or dumped by a lover – nothing changes.

Storytelling forges a bond between people across all times and places, and it can undermine narrow political propaganda. How we can think people of the past, or of ‘enemy’ states, are so very different from us if their stories tell of the same human emotions and motivations as we feel ourselves? Stories that have survived have done so because they say something that is true for all time. They are not ‘dry’ stories though there may be dry tellings of them.

All ages find their own ways of retelling traditional stories – oral storytelling, painting, drama, written tales, films, animation... What about Jim Henson’s muppetising of the Greek myths in The Storyteller? (Perseus and Medusa on YouTube is HERE) Or Marcia Williams’ comic-book versions of the Illiad and the Odyssey?

2. What age were you when you came across your first myth or myths? Tell us how you felt then about the myths you first discovered. Did you love them or hate them? Did they scare you, excite you—or were you indifferent? What kind of myths were they? Greek? Norse? Native American? Celtic? Or from another culture entirely? Were they in a book you read? Or did you hear them as oral storytelling from someone else?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hear myths, so I don’t know which was the first. My father told me the stories of the Greek gods, and the Romans, and some of the Norse myths, and the Arthurian stories, from when I was very tiny. I wasn’t keen on the Romans. What they good for? Roads and fighting. Yawn. I liked stories with scary monsters best, and of people outwitting those more powerful than themselves. I suppose that’s what children do to their parents all the time.

When I was quite young, I was given two books of myths for Christmas: one Greek and one Egyptian. For a long time I ignored the Egyptians to frolic with the familiar Greeks, but one day I dipped a toe in the stories of the Nile and was swept away by the current. I loved the Egyptians after that, and even wanted to become an Egyptologist. I was captivated by this culture that had a green god, and a goddess who scoured the Earth for every fragment of her beloved husband’s corpse. I wanted that all-consuming passion, a spirit that would face anything, even – especially – the impossible. Orpheus’s trip to the underworld was suddenly nothing – a jaunt with a harp to play a gig to spirits, who probably weren’t too fussy, and the only trick not to look back? Amateur! I wanted to search every crevice of the globe for scraps of flesh.

3. Looking back, what is your favourite myth of all time, from any culture? And why would you choose it?
Oh, did I answer that already? No, I’m not sure. Maybe Pandora. Why wouldn’t you look in the box? Is the world not divided into people who open the box and people who don’t? Take the money/open the box. Box every time, no matter what.

See, you can’t even understand Dr Who if you don’t have the mythical background….

4. Who is the mythical hero, heroine or being you most dislike, and what made you feel that way about them?
Atalanta because she is such a WAG. She’s 100% materialistic bint: ‘Ooh, look a bauble… let me stop and pick it up.’ Well, dur! Get on with the race, airhead! And she only wanted to marry someone strong and good at running, not someone smart enough to cheat. As for Melanion – well… why did he even want the ditzy bint? He should have won and then refused to marry her, just to make the point. They make me angry. They are the Posh and Becks of the ancient world. Which proves my point in question 1, I suppose….

5. Is there a mythical beast you are particularly fond of? If so, which one?
Oh, so many! Gorgons are most certainly very cool. But then there are basilisks, which I have rather a soft spot for. Things that can kill with a glance, the femmes fatales of the myth world.

Those skeletons that spring from Hydra’s teeth are neat. Oh, and the whales that come from Sedna’s fingers as they are cut off by her father when she clings to his boat. I suppose they are an ordinary creature, but with a mythical genesis. Doesn’t that just underline the wonderfulness of real creatures, that we make up myths to explain them? I’ve long been a fan of T.H.White’s Book of Beasts which mixes mythical and real with gay abandon. I even wanted to do my PhD on its source. (My PhD supervisor wouldn’t let me because he said my insular Latin was crap, which is true, and a fair objection.)

Actually, I rather like the raven Noah sent from the ark who couldn’t be arsed and just ate the dead things. Does that count?

6. How have myths had an influence on your writing life, if at all?
How can they be disentangled from it? The only straight retelling I’ve published is a version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but I’m very interested in taking mythical elements and reworking them. I wrote a story a long time ago in which a boy is charged with looking after a bunch of mythical creatures and he had been left things like sunglasses and a bag. He had to work out which things could go together and which couldn’t, why he needed the sunglasses and so on. It’s out of print now (thankfully – it was probably quite bad!)

I’ve also got a collection of half-written re-workings of traditional European stories, though they’re not really myths, moved into modern settings. I’m finding it fascinating how easy it is to transpose these old stories. Bluebeard (there’s another Pandora) and Hansel and Gretel (eating your children never goes out of fashion) are so easily reworked for the modern world – as long as you situate them in Haringey where you can be sure social services will leave your characters to get on with it.

7. If you could choose to be the demigod child of any one mythical god or goddess, which one would it be? Which power would you like to inherit from them—and what would you do with it?

Has anyone said they want to be Christ? No, it sucks really.
I think I might be a daughter of Quezalcoatl because having a feathery serpent around would be quite awesome. As he was considered responsible for human culture I might claim creativity as my special power. Does it count? It is a god-like power, the ability to make entire worlds out of nothing, don’t you think?

More about Anne:

Five random facts about me:
1. I first sent a book to a publisher when I was about 12. It was sent back by the receivers – poor choice of publisher. That’s still happening….
2. There’s a pond in my garden with an island called Monster Island. It was named optimistically, but the only inhabitant is a terrapin called Jeffrey. Jeffrey eats fish from Waitrose, which is not very monstrous behaviour.
3. I was stung by a jellyfish in Albania. I kicked it. It stung me again. I had to be coaxed out of the sea before I kicked it again. Story of my life.
4. My favourite book as a child was Edward Gorey’s La Chauve-souris dorĂ©e. It’s about a girl who finds a dead bat.
5. I have fed kebabs to eagles in the Gobi. Beware of falling skewers if you try it.

Anne's website is HERE
Anne's blog is HERE
You can follow Anne on Twitter HERE

Friday, 23 July 2010

Mythic Friday Interlude - The Snow Woman's Hair (A Brand New Myth from Lucy Coats)

I've always loved the idea of 'new' myths, legends and fairytales.  Kipling wrote his Just So myths to explain how various animals came to acquire their distinctive characteristics--The Elephant's Child has always been a particular favourite of mine. Another favourite was Frances Browne's Granny's Wonderful Chair--a sort of Irish Victorian cross between Cinderella and the Arabian Nights (if you haven't read it, seek it out, it's a true classic of children's literature, as are Eleanor Farjeon's Little Book Room and Martin Pippin stories). All these books have resonances which stretch far back to the time when our long ago ancestors huddled round a fire and listened to their shaman bards try to make sense of the world around them.  So a while ago, I started thinking about writing a personal take on this genre with my own set of 'new myths'.  The book itself has been a long, hard time in the making, and will take a while longer yet to come to fruition, but I thought I'd share one of  the stories it contains with you.  It's the middle of summer now, and we're a long way from the snows of last spring--but somewhere in the world, the Snow Woman is combing her long, white hair....

illustration copyright © Anthony Lewis 2010
"Now,” said the Old Storyteller. “Whose turn is it to choose tonight?” The youngest of the North children, whose name was Gerdal, shyly put up her hand. The Old Storyteller lifted Gerdal onto her lap, and pulled out the magic pouch. “Dip your hand in, my dear, and we shall see what we shall see.”
Gerdal shut her eyes and dipped in her hand. Out came a beautiful crystal snowflake, hanging from a long white thread of hair.
“Ah,” said the Old Storyteller,  “That reminds me of a story I was told long ago…” And she began to rock Gerdal slowly, as she began the tale of...The Snow Woman's Hair.
“Far, far north of here, in the place above where Earth meets the sky, there lives Snow Woman. She is very very old, and very very round and very very wrinkled, and her long, long, heavy hair is whiter than swansdown, and softer than velvet. Her little house is made of a million huge icicles all stuck together by her friend, Jack Frost, and the tiny square windows are covered in lacy ice paintings of all the flowers that ever were in the world. She has few visitors—only Jack Frost and the North Wind can bear the cold of her house—and she lives all alone except for a flock of white snow geese, which lay eggs for her, a winged white reindeer, which gives her milk, and a herd of white polar bears, which bring her white fish to eat, and white sealskins to wear.

All year long she trudges the snowy fields around her house, setting traps for ice rainbows. She bundles the rainbows into the big white sack on her back, and when she gets them home, she untangles the colours, and puts them into glowing piles on the floor. When she has enough, she gets out her big loom, and weaves them into shimmering blankets, each one strange and different. Some are green and ghostly, some are fiery and frightening, others have colours that change and swirl as you look at them.

Once a month, she fills her sledge with the blankets she has woven. Then she harnesses up her winged reindeer and flies off to the edge of her world, where she hangs her blankets from a long line of air. She fixes them on with sharp hooks made from the broken-off points of stars. There they flap and float in the wind, and sometimes, if the season is right, we can look up into the sky and see them glittering on the horizon. We on Earth call them the Northern Lights.

Long, long ago, when Snow Woman was young, she had a different name (which only she remembers), and she lived on a different world, in a place where it never snowed. It was warm and sunny, and full of trees and flowers. She was the only daughter of a great warrior, and not one of her six brothers could equal her skill with lance and bow, with sword and stave—and on horseback she could outride and outfight anyone in the kingdom. She was also very good at a great many other things. But Snow Woman was not happy. Every day she looked up to the frozen blue sky that lay over the ice mountains of the north, and every day she felt them calling her more and more.

In the September of her sixteenth year, there was a great tournament, not only for those who fought, but also for those who played chess, and five stones, for cooks and winemakers, for inventors of great inventions, for storytellers and jugglers and bards. In fact, it was for anyone who was any good at anything. Snow Woman was determined to be the best at everything, for the king had announced that whoever won the most competitions would get a great prize of gold and jewels.

But the great ice god, Friij, up in his great ice palace in the farthest north had also heard of the tournament. He looked down at the beautiful green land, and licked his icy blue lips. How nice it would be if all the pretty plants and trees shrivelled in his frosty breath, and how much better the land would look if it was covered in ice. Friij mounted his snow dragon, and flew south to try his luck.

The tournament was in full swing when he arrived. Everyone gasped as Friij landed his snow dragon in the middle of the main arena and seized a trumpet from the nearest herald.
“I challenge all comers at everything,” he boomed. Frost and ice appeared where he stood, and he looked so huge and frightening that no-one dared to accept his challenge—except Snow Woman. Friij looked her up and down and spat.

“Pah!” he snorted. “A mere girl! I shall freeze your bones and give them to my dragon to crunch!” But Snow Woman was not afraid, and two days later, with only the five stones competition to go, she and Friij were even.

Friij was angry. He was a god.  He wasn’t going to be beaten by a mere mortal, and a twig of a girl at that. He simply must win the last game. But he wasn’t very good at five stones. What should he do? He decided to cheat.

“I will make you a bargain,” he said, smiling an icy smile. “I will stake all the riches of my kingdom on this last game of five stones. If you win, you may have the six hoards of the Frost Giants, and the great Ice Diamond of Norgard. But if you lose you must come north with me and do whatever task I set you, for as long as I ask, or I will freeze your land and its people to death.”

Snow Woman was very good at five stones. She considered carefully, for she was tempted by the thought of such riches on top of the king’s prize. Anyway, even if she lost, she would gain her heart’s desire to go north, and surely no task could be as difficult as all that. She was young and brave, so she took a deep breath and spoke.

“I accept your terms,” she said, rashly.

Friij got out a little pouch from his dragon’s saddlebag, and shook it out onto the ground. Five little stones and a bigger pebble lay there, each glittering and glimmering as the sun shone on them. Snow Woman picked them up and threw the first throw, but as the stones rose in the air, Friij twiddled his little finger, and the stones bounced off Snow Woman’s knuckles and fell to the ground. Friij smiled a wicked smile and picked the stones up for his turn. He made a perfect throw. At the end of the seventh and last round, Snow Woman had not won a single point.

So Snow Woman had to keep her promise, and go with Friij. She said goodbye to her father and brothers, goodbye to trees and flowers and warmth, and mounted the snow dragon. Away, away they flew, northwards and further north still, till they reached Friij’s great palace. It was all even more beautiful than Snow Woman had imagined.

As they dismounted in the great ice hall, Snow Woman asked Friij what her task was to be.

“I will show you,” he said, and he clapped his hands. A magical picture appeared within a huge icy wall of a land all blue and green. “This is the world called Earth,” he said. “Every year, in the season they call winter, your task will be to cover as much of it as you can with snow. Remember, if you fail, your people will suffer! You must start off at once for the place where Earth meets the sky, and there you will live and carry out your work. From now on you will be called Snow Woman, and this task will be yours from now until the end of time.”

It would take too many days to tell you the full tale of the terrible journey Snow Woman had to make to reach the place above where Earth meets the sky, and of the despair she felt at her impossible task. How could she save her people from Friij? How would she find the way? But in the end Jack Frost found her trudging through the skies, lost, lonely and desperate, and he took pity on her. He brought her one of his winged reindeer, and he showed her the path to her journey's end.  There he built her an icicle house, with some of his exquisite flower pictures on the windows to remind her of happier times.

What I can tell you is that on that journey she changed. Whether it was by her own magic or by another’s, nobody knows, not even Snow Woman herself. Her dusky rose skin became white, and her eyes changed from the deep green of leaves to the ice blue of the northern sky. And her hair…as she reached her new home, her dark hair became white too, and it grew and grew and grew until it was so heavy she had to shear it off with great scissor blades of ice. As the first cut was made, it slithered off the edge of the ice and fell down the sky to Earth. And as it fell it changed to flakes whiter than swansdown and softer than velvet, and covered the winter Earth below with snow. So in that way, Snow Woman’s hair saved her people from the terrible ice god Friij, and as far as I know, is saving them still.”

The Old Storyteller put the crystal snowflake back into her magic pouch. Then she lifted her head as if she had heard something outside.
“Listen, children, I hear a sound of cutting now!” As the older children ran to look out of the tent door, they saw that it was true. Snip! Snip! Snip! Long strands of Snow Woman’s hair were covering Earth in a veil of white, and as they looked up into the sky they seemed to see a small round figure wielding a large pair of scissors in the gleam of the Northern Lights above.  Little Gerdal yawned sleepily, and the Old Storyteller smiled as she cuddled her deep under her white cloak.
“Time for bed!” she said. “There’ll be another story tomorrow.”

Story copyright © Lucy Coats 2010

Friday, 16 July 2010

Mythic Friday Interview: Number 16 - Anthony Lewis

Illustrators are vital for children's authors.  It's that simple, and it's why I am so pleased that Anthony Lewis has agreed to give us a Mythic Friday Interview from the illustrator's point of view.  It's hard to overstate the part an illustrator plays in an author's life (at least the life of one who writes children's books).  Without an illustrator, such an author's words would remain just that--little black squiggles on paper.  Now, you may say that is fine--that if the words are right, then the child's imagination will soar anyway.  True--for a novel (though I happen to like illustrated novels).  But for a picture book? Of course not--the images go hand in hand with the text, bringing it to life.

How about a book of myths then? How do pictures add to one of those?  Well, that's something I feel very qualified to talk about.  Anthony and I have worked together on exactly 150 myths--both Greek and Celtic. Without Anthony, there would be no Atticus the Storyteller or Coll the Bard, because his illustrations go hand in hand with my words and have made the books what they are.  He has taken what started as a germ of an idea in my head and made my characters real, made my stories come to a beautiful life of their own on the page, and for that I will be eternally grateful to him.  The Atticus project alone was a massive undertaking.  100 stories, with colour illustrations (sometimes more than one) on each page, plus the amazing sepia cartoons which tell the story of Atticus's journey through Greece.  That's a lot of drawing--and Anthony did it all twice, once for the black-and-white roughs, and again for the finished artwork.  It was a true collaboration--I sent reference when needed, and we talked all the way through.  The most difficult bit was creating the map of Atticus's journey.  I'd had a large map of Greece and Turkey pinned to my wall for a year, covered in stickers and scribbles and string.  Anthony had to turn that into something a child could follow.  It also had to be visually attractive.  Personally, I think it's a triumph of the cartographer's art, but you can judge for yourselves here

Now, last week I was accused in certain quarters of not letting my interviewees get a word in edgeways--so without further ado, I shall hand you over to Anthony and welcome him to Scribble City Central.  Thanks for visiting, Anthony!

1. Do you think that the retelling of myths is important or relevant for the children of today? Why should they care about some “dry old stories” which come from ancient or forgotten cultures they might never even have heard of?
Through the vast array of wonderful myths books available, the stories appear to be more prevalent to today’s children than when I was a child. The breadth of storylines and characters will, I’m sure, provide inspiration to authors, illustrators, games designers, musicians and film makers for generations to come.

2. What age were you when you came across your first myth or myths? Tell us how you felt then about the myths you first discovered. Did you love them or hate them? Did they scare you, excite you—or were you indifferent? What kind of myths were they? Greek? Norse? Native American? Celtic? Or from another culture entirely? Were they in a book you read? Or did you hear them as oral storytelling from someone else?
The first myths I recall were all Greek; the stories of Icarus, Pandora’s Box, King Midas, and Theseus and the Minotaur. At the age of 4 or 5, it seemed perfectly feasible that these stories were real and were all the more scary for that reason.

I seem to recall watching them on television at infant school, rather than them initially being read or told to me.

3. Looking back, what is your favourite myth of all time, from any culture? And why would you choose it?
I would say my favourite collective myths are our own Celtic ones. Walking through a British woodland or standing on a rugged coast, I can still sense the atmosphere of these tales even today, probably because the stories are more earthly bound than those of the Gods and Goddesses of other cultures.

As for an all time favourite, possibly one of the stories of the giant Cormoran, whose body is said to lie under St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, whether it was put there by his wife, Cormellian or Jack the Giantkiller. I’d choose it because I love to stand on the beach at Marazion and imagine the remains of the giant buried under the Mount in the bay.

4. Who is the mythical hero, heroine or being you most dislike, and what made you feel that way about them?
I don’t hold a grudge against any of them, but the Cyclops, Polyphemus, seems like a nasty piece of work.

5. Is there a mythical beast you are particularly fond of? If so, which one?
Talos, the man of bronze who guarded the island of Crete. I loved the scene in the film ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ where he comes to life.

6. How have myths had an influence on your illustrating and cultural life, if at all? 
I’m not sure of their influence, but there is a certain pleasure as an illustrator of being given the opportunity of bringing to life the stories I recall from childhood. Of all the 300 or so books I’ve illustrated the one I enjoyed the most and that I’m most proud of is our book of Celtic Myths, Coll the Storyteller’s Tales of Enchantment. NB from Lucy--I'm pretty proud of it too, Anthony!

7. If you could choose to be the demigod child of any one mythical god or goddess, which one would it be? Which power would you like to inherit from them—and what would you do with it?
Not sure whose child I’d want to be, but I would like to be able to control the weather. My studio gets unbearably hot in the summer, so I’d turn the temperature down a bit. I’d also ensure that we always have snow at Christmas!

More about Anthony:

As a child, Anthony had a passion for drawing, which was (luckily) encouraged by his parents and teachers and ultimately led to his career as a freelance illustrator.  Anthony graduated with a first class honours degree from the Liverpool School of Art in 1989, and has illustrated and contributed to more than 300 children's books both in the UK and abroad.  In 1997 The Owl Tree, written by Jenny Nimmo and illustrated by Anthony, won the Nestle Smarties Children's Book Prize.  Anthony, his wife Kathryn (a graphic designer) and their three children live in a small village in Cheshire. He is also a keen supporter of Liverpool FC. 
Anthony's website is at

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Scribble City Central is delighted to accept...The Unicorn Glitter Award

I'm delighted to accept the brand new Unicorn Glitter Award ("for bloggers who post in the spirit of the enchanted mists")  from Kath Langrish at the wonderful Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.  Now, as with all awards, there are some rules to follow--the first of which is that I must hand it on to people with suitably magical and glittery qualities on their blog.  So, without further ado, I pass the sparkly unicorn baton Robin McKinley (a woman who understands unicorns if anyone does!) and to Absolute Vanilla for her sterling services to the cause of promoting magic and fantasy books via her wonderful author interviews. 

The other rule is that I have to tell you some favourites of mine (see below), so here goes....
My Favourite Book: always hard, but would have to be JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I know, I know...but it IS.
My Favourite Film: Chariots of Fire because a): I'm in it (well, a glimpse of my hand is), and b): it is the most uplifting film I know (plus I fancy the pants off Nigel Havers as Lord Andrew Lindsay).
Poem or song: Ruth Pitter's The Heart's Desire is Full of Sleep because it says what I feel about my life.
Myth or legend: The myth of The Fates. Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos--the spinners and weavers and snippers of our lives who don't mind if a random thread of chance comes into their tapestry now and then.
Enchanted creature: I've always wanted a pegasus.  But on the other hand, more practically, I could do with a house elf.  Any house elf of mine would be treated very well--so pace all members of Hermione's S.P.E.W.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Mythic Friday Interview: Number 15 - Gillian Philip

Gillian Philip and I have much in common, not least a deep and visceral love of Scottish myth and legend. (She's also a really superb teller of tales. When I read Gillian's scarily dystopian Bad Faith and her gritty teen novel Crossing the Line last year, I knew I was Onto A Good Thing, and I told her so.) What she says below (quoting Stuart McHardy) about the importance of knowing the myths of the land you live in is something I've been banging on about for years--and in part why I wrote Coll the Storyteller.  There is so much richness and complexity to be found in those Celtic tales (Skye and the Isles providing a particularly fertile vein)--and she's right, the places themselves tell stories without even trying.  I wrote the text of  my first published picturebook on the banks of the River Awe, and I'm convinced the spirit of the water (maybe even a kelpie) whispered it into my ear. 

Like Gillian, I was brought up in a household where the background of Scots superstition was part of everyday life--we had two rowan trees at the gate to prevent faeries and witches from getting in and bespelling us.  As I said last Tuesday over on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, faeries are not always tiny sugar-pink winged entities from Disney--certainly the Sidhe of Scotland are old and dark and scary--and I find them endlessly fascinating.  Which brings me neatly to Gillian's new book--Firebrand--which is published on 27th August, and is the first of four.  I was lucky enough to wheedle an early copy, and my goodness I'm glad I did, because it's one of the best faerie fantasy books I've ever read.  No kidding--it's that amazing, and you can quote me.  What slightly niggles me about some of the current crop of  'modern faery tales' is that the faeries have been translated from their original Celtic homelands to the USA.  Nothing wrong with that--but sometimes it just doesn't sit quite right.  Gillian's book is not set in the USA, but in the Scotland of the 16th century where there's a whole otherworld of gloriously dangerous telepathic faeries just beyond the Veil.  In the dour and dirty mortal world, on the other hand, witches are burned, superstition is rife and 'different' is often fatal to your chances of living to a ripe old age.

Now, I am quite squeamish about burning people (I walked out of the film Elizabeth as the opening credits rolled).  It takes a lot to get me to read a book where burning witches is described in any sort of detail at all (maybe because I know that if I'd lived in another century, I too would have climbed that brushwood pyre and died in the flames).  Firebrand had me so tight in its grip by the end of the second page that I just didn't care when, later on in the book, Gillian was putting nightmare images of popping, crackling flesh into my head.  It is one of those (sadly unusual) books where I simply forgot I was reading--because I was so totally engaged with her richly created and beautifully crafted world. Her feral yet fiercely loyal Sithe hero, Seth, is a fully-imagined and fascinating character who I fell for immediately. He's a driven, volatile, knife-edge sort of boy--unflinching in his shield of outward fierce pride and yet (in his own head) so vulnerable and so unsure that he is loveable or redeemable in any way. His older brother Conal--opposite to Seth in almost every way on the surface--nearly broke my heart with the power of his generous, breath-stopping love.  The faerie queen, Kate NicNiven is suitably amoral, cruel--and a vicious political genius who knows just exactly when to exercise the power of a grand gesture. I could go on and on here, but I don't want to put up any spoilers, so I will just say this: go and buy the book when it comes--in fact, put in a pre-order right now. 
To sum up, it seems to me that in Firebrand Gillian has taken her own mythic heritage and made it into something rare, new and infinitely exciting.  I don't know how I will possess my soul in patience until the other three in the Rebel Angels series appear.  I seldom use bold capitals in posts to make a point, but just so you know, I REALLY REALLY LOVE THIS BOOK!  (Got it?)  Now it's time for me to welcome Gillian to Scribble City Central, which I do with great joy, and to hand you over to her.  I think you'll find her answers provide a fascinating and wide-ranging contribution to the Mythic Friday Interview series.  I know I did. 

1. Do you think that the retelling of Greek and other myths is important or relevant for the children of today? Why should they care about some “dry old stories” which come from ancient cultures they might never even have heard of?
There’s nothing dry about myths! Children need to discover them simply because they are such fabulous stories. And they are completely relevant, because the themes are eternal – heroism, loyalty, sacrifice, betrayal, vengeance, fatal arrogance: you name it, it’s there. Always in such a huge, dramatic context, too – the stakes and the consequences are terrifying, yet we always get to relate to the main characters as real, vulnerable, flawed human beings. You care about them, worry for them, mourn their fates - even if they are the sons and daughters of gods.

Besides the straightforward fact that they’re good stories, though, I think it’s important for children to know mythology, especially their own. Stuart McHardy, who writes about Scottish myths and folklore, quotes an old saying: ‘Gin ye dinnae ken whaur ye’ve been, hou can ye tell whaur ye’re gangin?’ Or, if you don’t know where you’ve been, how can you tell where you’re going? Myths are born out of landscape and history, and they’re a way of understanding your own home.

2. What age were you when you came across your first myth or myths? Tell us how you felt then about the myths you first discovered. Did you love them or hate them? Did they scare you, excite you—or were you indifferent? What kind of myths were they? Greek? Norse? Native American? Celtic? Or from another culture entirely? Were they in a book you read? Or did you hear them as oral storytelling from someone else?
I’ve cudgelled my brains about this, Lucy, but – I simply can’t remember. I do remember they were Greek myths, and my father introduced me to them, but which ones, or in which books, I just don’t know. They would have been books I borrowed out of his study, which was a lovely place full of old books that smelt of dust. I was fascinated by all things Greek, and he had a copy of Teach Yourself Greek from which I learned the alphabet to no apparent purpose except that, along with the myths, it keeps my husband happy on Saturdays when I can fill gaps in the Telegraph crossword. I soaked up myths from the movies, too – I loved all those films like Jason & the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, with their fantastic Ray Harryhausen monsters.

I loved myths, always. That didn’t mean I wasn’t scared, or that I didn’t think some of them were just appalling in the way they turned out. I was always deeply offended on Orpheus’s behalf – that was just not fair! He only looked back the once. As for Persephone – her poor mother! The gods always seemed terribly cruel or indifferent, but the mortals never stopped trying to get the better of the deal. I liked that.

I don’t remember either where I first heard Scottish myths about selkies and kelpies and faeries. They were just there, in the background. We knew it wasn’t a good idea to cut down rowans, and it was a bad sign if you saw your own doppelganger. They were the kind of stories we told to scare each other, along with absurd urban myths.

I think I especially love Scottish myths because there seems such a fragile line between them and reality. They’re this close to visible, this close to tangible. Since I think of myself as very boring and rational, this is kind of embarrassing, but it’s true. I’ve a friend who spends a lot of time on the island of Gigha, and she says there are distinct spots where you can feel the closeness of the otherworld; I feel the same about Colonsay. And you only have to look at the hill Schiehallion in the right weather conditions and you know fine there must be Sidhe around up there.

On the other hand, Scotland’s historical tales can be just as wild and outlandish as its myths. There’s a fabulous story in my husband’s clan, the Keppoch MacDonalds, about the clan bard taking revenge on treacherous relatives who had murdered the true chief. Having killed seven of them, he sent their heads to the Privy Council in Edinburgh – but washed them in a well by Loch Oich on the way. There’s still a sculpture there of the heads, and it’s called the Well of the Seven Heads. You see what I mean about a fine line between myth and history!

I have to say that when my children were smaller, I shamelessly used kelpies to frighten them around lochs. There’s such a thing as being too confident around water, and if you know there’s a big horse in there waiting to eat you….

3. Looking back, what is your favourite myth of all time, from any culture? And why would you choose it?
Oh, such a tough choice. I’d have to go for the Iliad, though, because it has everything. When I was an expat and had far too much time on my hands, I decided it was something I should read and I assumed it would be a bit of a chore. But a couple of chapters in, I was hooked. The characters are so human – even the gods are flawed and jealous and fractious – and the themes are timeless. There’s everything from intimate family tragedy and lovers’ quarrels, to epic battlefield scenes. Nothing’s predictable, no one side is in the right; I found myself one minute cheering the Greeks on and the next siding wholeheartedly with the Trojans. I love Achilles and good old Pallas Athene; I love Hector and Priam and Patroclus and of course Odysseus. Oh dear, you shouldn’t have got me started….

4. Who is your most hated mythical hero or heroine, and what made you feel that way about them?This was another difficult one – it’s easy to get angry with many of them, but I find them hard to hate. But I’ll have to agree with Nicola Morgan here and say Hera. The sour old boot – always throwing a spanner in the works and ruining everyone’s plans. Mind you, she did have to put up with a lot from Zeus.

5. Is there a mythical beast you are particularly fond of? If so, which one?
I’m especially fond of kelpies (despite using them to scare my children) and they feature quite prominently in my fantasy books. That water-monster thing is such an atavistic, instinctive terror, they somehow seem very real. Out on the moors, if I’m near water, I’ve often expected to turn and see a temptingly gorgeous horse at my back.

They’re sly, they’re violent and murderous and wild, yet they’re terribly beautiful. In my fiction I’ve tried to use them in a way that puts them on my heroes’ side without compromising their savage, dangerous nature.

6. How have myths had an influence on your writing life, if at all?
A huge amount! Myths seem to creep into my books whether I like it or not; maybe that’s because those old stories are so universal and so timeless, it’s hard not to return to them. I didn’t set out to reference lots of myths in Bad Faith, for instance, yet the Orpheus myth and the Maenads crept in.

And in my Rebel Angels fantasy series I have played fast and loose with Scottish myth and legend. I always wanted to write about faeries and kelpies, witches and ancient warriors. I said earlier that myths are firmly rooted in landscape – well, the Scottish landscape has practically shouted stories at me ever since I can remember. I can’t pass a hill or a loch without ‘seeing’ something happening there. I had to write about it eventually – but what I especially love about myths is that they are so adaptable. We all own them, and we can retell them in our own way. (Not that that’s always a good thing – I give you the movie abomination that is TROY.)

But I had great fun playing with mythic characters, and inventing some of my own. I made my Sithe human – why not? – but a little differently evolved, so that they’re telepathic. (I also made them Sithe instead of Sidhe – I wanted Sith but that was a bit too Star Wars.) My villain, the Sithe queen, was based on a witch from Scottish history, Kate MacNiven; I’ve given a MacLeod clan chief a cameo because the MacLeods of Dunvegan were said to own a faery flag given to them in return for a favour they did for the ‘People of Peace’. Rowans are said to be sacred to the faeries, so I’ve made rowanwood the only thing that can wholly block their telepathy. I’ve used odd details like the rumour that kelpies don’t like liver (I can relate to that) because there was a certain water-weed that got dark and wet and swollen, and people used to assume, when it floated ashore, that a kelpie had left someone’s liver behind. It’s those little details I love...!

7. If you could choose to be the demigod child of any one mythical god or goddess from any culture, which one would it be? Which power would you like to inherit from them—and what would you do with it?
If you can fix it for me, Lucy, I’d like one of the Tuatha de Danaan for a parent, so I can have some faery blood. I’d rather like to have the powers I’ve given the Sithe in my books – speed, telepathy, healing – all except for the Second Sight one of them is cursed with. I’d hate that. If I had to choose just one power, I’ll go for the ability to tame and ride water horses! Thanks – now, if you could manage to sort that by a week on Wednesday…. Thanks for inviting me Lucy – this has been terrific fun! xxxxx

More about Gillian:
Gillian Philip was born in Glasgow, lived for 12 years in Barbados and now lives in the north of Scotland with her husband, nine-year-old twins, one labrador, two sociopathic cats, and four nervous fish.  She has been writing all her life, but has also worked as a record store assistant, theatre usherette, barmaid, sales rep, political assistant, radio presenter, typesetter, and as a singer in an Irish bar in Barbados. In 2001, when her children were born and she moved back to Scotland, she became a full-time writer of Young Adult fiction. Her books include Bad Faith, Crossing The Line, Firebrand (first of four in the Rebel Angels series) and (for Hothouse Fiction) the Darke Academy teen horror series.
Gillian's website is at and she contributes to a children’s authors’ blog at;
Gillian tweets by the name of @Gillian_Philip;  she was recently kidnapped by fiendish monsters and will be blogging with the other captives at;
Gillian's Facebook page is HERE.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Mythic Friday Interview: Number 14 - Peter Dickinson

Peter Dickinson is, quite simply, one of the greatest writers of children's books there has ever been and probably ever will be.  I can find no other way of putting it, and if anyone tells me I am exaggerating, I will be delighted to duel them at dawn. That's how strongly I feel about the matter! So when I asked (in hopefulness rather than in expectation) if Peter would do a short Mythic Interview, and he said yes, well...quite frankly I did a jig of delight and joy around the kitchen, whooping and yelling in a way very unbefitting to a woman of my girth and advancing middle years.  Obviously, I dashed immediately to my bookshelves for an orgy of Dickinson re-reading, and it strikes me that the process of reading Peter's work is an excellent education for any writer, whether of children's books or not.  Not only can the man tell a story which keeps you up far into the night, but the richness and depth of his language--the way he puts words together in a way that makes you say 'yes--that's how it IS (except that I never knew it quite like THIS before)' is nothing short of miraculous.  I expect you're now going to ask me which is my favourite of his many books.  It's so hard to pick just one.  Right now it would probably be The Blue Hawk (for which he won the Guardian Award in 1977).  Meeting Tron the Goat-chosen again made me feel the soul of the hot desert sand under my feet, made me tremble at the terrible, inexorable chanting of the priests of O and Aa, caught me entirely in the soaring webs of godpower and magic and sheer tale-telling mastery Peter wove over 30 years ago. Reader, I was entranced!  But perhaps YOU might think I should have chosen Tulku, or The Kin, or Changes or The Tears of the Salamander or Angel Isle or the Ropemaker--the latter two quite newly-discovered loves of mine? I'm sure lots of you will have your own favourites, and I'd very much like to hear about what you'd choose of Peter's oeuvre--and why--in the comments underneath.

The most recent of Peter's books is Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits--a collection of short stories he has written jointly with his wife, the marvellous Robin McKinley (who will, I hope, be sharing her own mythic musings with us later in the series). As with the previous book, Water, I enjoyed both their contributions immensely. There's a story in there--one of Peter's--called Phoenix.  It is set, mostly, in a wood.  Now I have spent a lot of time in woods and this particular one is perfectly and carefully observed.  The way Peter has woven the myth of the phoenix right into the deep heart of the English landscape so that it seems entirely natural there,  is quite remarkable.  It's a story I keep thinking about, over and over, because often, when someone else writes about a thing you love greatly and know well (as I do woods), it is disappointing.  In this case, I am left with the comfortable and comforting sense that 'my' woods (or at least my heart's ideas about and memories of what woods should be) are safe--are preserved forever--in Peter's exquisitely imagined words.  I can pay him no greater compliment than that.  And now, I want to hand you over to Peter himself.  I am so glad and honoured that (despite being very unwell earlier in the year) he is here with us all at Scribble City Central--and I am sure you will agree that his mythic answers are admirably informative, succinct and to the point.  I quite agree with him about the dragons, by the way.  Dragons are tricky, intelligent and dangerous beasts--which should always be treated with respect. His answer to question 7 made me laugh a lot.  He's quite right, of course. Who'd be a demigod, given their track records? Here he is:

1. Do you think that the retelling of myths is important or relevant for the children of today? Why should they care about some “dry old stories” which come from ancient or forgotten cultures they might never even have heard of?
If a myth is retold as a dry old story it will die. If it is told because it seems to embody, however remotely, some truth or belief that is important to our society, or simply to us as humans, it will survive. When someone talks about “the Dunkirk spirit” they are treating the event as myth, helping to keep alive a part of an unformulated belief of what it means to be British. “When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side/ What stalked through the Post Office?” Same sort of thing.

2. What age were you when you came across your first myth or myths? Tell us how you felt then about the myths you first discovered. Did you love them or hate them? Did they scare you, excite you—or were you indifferent? What kind of myths were they? Greek? Norse? Native American? Celtic? Or from another culture entirely? Were they in a book you read? Or did you hear them as oral storytelling from someone else?
I don’t think I distinguished myth from story much until somebody told me about the death of Baldur, and presumably told me what it was about. I don’t think I actually hated anything because it was a myth. I remember liking Perseus and Andromeda because I thought winged sandals were really cool, and using them to swoop down and slay the dragon and rescue the girl (I don’t think she was wearing much in the illustration) excited the young male mind. But really it’s just a story. It’s lost its function as a myth if it ever had one.

3. Looking back, what is your favourite myth of all time, from any culture? And why would you choose it?
Oedipus. Terrific story about the sheer inexorability of fate

4. Who is the mythical hero, heroine or being you most dislike, and what made you feel that way about them?
Achilles, Siegfried, all those ultra-masculine bully-boys.

5. Is there a mythical beast you are particularly fond of? If so, which one?
No, but I particularly dislike cute dragons.

6. How have myths had an influence on your writing life, if at all?
 Of course they have, but too vaguely to discuss. They’re just part of the mix, along with King James’s Bible and trashy adventure stories and SF magazines, etc

7. If you could choose to be the demigod child of any one mythical god or goddess, which one would it be? Which power would you like to inherit from them—and what would you do with it?
No thanks. Nightmare scenario. Do you know of any divine by-blow who had a good time? Mostly they ended up as shrubs or rivers or constellations or something.

More about Peter:
Born 1927 in what is now Zambia. Father, British colonial civil servant; mother from South African farming family. Three brothers – he’s the second. Family returned to England when he was 7, but his father died the same year. Very little money, but he was privately educated at boarding schools, thanks to generosity of relatives. Scholarship to Eton. Briefly conscript in British army just after World War 2. Then Cambridge University, then 17 years working for the British humour magazine, Punch. Published his first two books, an adult detective story and a children’s SF adventure, in 1968, and from then on has been a full-time writer. Has been nine times on the Carnegie Medal short list and won it twice, as well as other major prizes. In l952 married his first wife, and they had two daughters and two sons. He now has six grandchildren. His first wife died in 1988, and two years later he married Robin McKinley. They live in a small Hampshire town with a couple of lurchers.
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