To Know You
Questionnaire of Crown Publishers, New York, on the launch of the Camelot Novel Series, Guenevere and
Q:Where are you from? How has your sense of place coloured your writing?
A: When I was a little girl, I lived in a small country town in England beside a great wild woodland with seven lakes. The local children used to roam freely and safely there. I think I have spent my life trying to get back to that green place, where it was always summer.
I was able to put a little of this into the novel,
I, Elizabeth, as the first Queen Elizabeth loved England so passionately, but mostly I returned to it with Guenevere, a woman who lived at a time when all the islands of Britain were deeply wooded, when folk religion held sway, and all life was rural then.
Q: When and why did you begin writing? When did you consider yourself a writer?
A: I wrote my first story when I was ten. It was called ‘The Little Green Man’, and it was about a small but powerful person who lived in the woods and didn’t have to go to school. It must be no coincidence that ten was the age when I started high school, and my education began in earnest.
After that I was directed into academic channels for years, and the first books I published came out of that world. I only felt I could call myself a writer when I could make a living out of writing, and could write anything I wanted.
Q: Who or what has influenced your writing and in what way?
A: At high school I had a teacher I loved very much, who taught us a lot about making ourselves understood in the simplest possible way. Later I had a professor who used to say, ‘If the words won’t come, clarify the thought’.
Then when I wrote journalism, editors would always say, ‘What’s the story?’ – nothing else. Now when I sit down to write, I just ask myself that, every time.
Q: What books have most influenced your life?
A: The books that have most influenced me and my writing are all the old ones, the fairy tales of my childhood, Shakespeare, the King James Bible and the Oxford Book of English Verse.
Q: What is the most romantic book you have ever read? The scariest? The funniest?
A: Romantic? Anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby.
Scariest? As a child, I was terrified and enthralled by the climax of Rider Haggard’s, She, a book given me one Christmas by my mother, who knew I would love it because she loved it herself.
Funniest? I have always found Shakespeare’s comedy very funny, unlike most audiences, but for laugh-out-loud humour, few can beat P G Wodehouse in anything and everything, but let’s start with Carry on,
Q: What music inspires you to write? What do you listen to while writing?
A: I like to be really quiet when I write, not to divert any attention from the task in hand. The struggle for me is to achieve peace, calm and silence to try to catch my thoughts and hear what they say. Listening to music is an activity in itself, and in my life usually occurs as relaxation. Even then, I often think that a simple, tender, reflective silence is better than the best of sounds.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently working on the last of the Guenevere novels and the third in the Camelot sequence,
The Child of the Holy
Grail. The second book, The Knight of the Holy
Grail, has just gone into production, so I’ll soon be working on that one too.
Q: Use this space to write about whatever you wish.
A: In childhood I shared a bedroom with my older sister, and I always wanted to take it in turns telling each other a bedtime story. She soon grew weary of this, so I used to tell her a story every night. These stories were always about fairies and girls who had exciting adventures, so I have not moved very far away from these themes.
History is full of the most wonderful stories in the world, and I never tire of them. But fiction is the best of all because you can make things come out just the way you want, and write about things you really love.
Interview for bookreporter.com to accompany on-line serialisation of The Guenevere series of novels.
TBR: There have been so many books and stories written about the legend of King Arthur and Camelot. What spurred you to write a trilogy on this theme, beginning with
RM: Although the tales of King Arthur and the Round Table have been told for centuries, amazingly no-one has ever told the story from Guenevere’s point of view. Yet she is the central character and the whole drama arises out of the fact that both Arthur and Lancelot are in love with her. Guenevere also struck me as a fascinating character in her own right.
She was a queen who ruled her own kingdom, she owned the Round Table and she had her own band of knights, so she was powerful and central in her own world in a way that most women can only dream of.
The two most exciting men of her age were in love with her all their lives, so she must have had something special.
So I decided to tell her story in three volumes because I did not want to leave any of it out. I felt it had to be a trilogy because the story follows Guenevere throughout her life.
TBR: You are best known for your scholarly books on Ben
Jonson and critical studies of Shakespeare’s
Measure for Measure.
Guenevere is very romantic and imaginative. What led you to depart from the areas you are known for? Have you ever been afraid that writing this trilogy will affect your reputation as a scholar?
RM: There’s always a risk in moving from one field to another but I tried to bring the same level of historical research and detailed writing to the Arthurian period as I had to the Elizabethans.
I very much hope that the work I did on Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and others will stand the test of time but I was ready to move into a more imaginative form of expression.
My first published works were these non-fiction studies on literary themes, but I always wanted to write novels. The very first thing I every wrote was a story when I was ten about a little green man who lived in the woods and didn’t have to go to school – some wishful thinking there!
TBR: Others have already provided differing viewpoints of the legend and the personalities involved. E B White wrote mostly from Arthur’s viewpoint, Marion Zimmer Bradley from Morgan’s, and Mary Stewart used Merlin as her focal point. Although you certainly present Guenevere’s voice in your novel, you also present others as well. Why did you choose to write mostly from Guenevere’s point of view? Why not solely from her point of view?
RM: I was originally tempted to write Guenevere’s story entirely from her viewpoint, using the first-person narrative, so that the readers would have the impression that Guenevere was talking directly to them.
I had used this method when writing about Queen Elizabeth I and that resulted in
I, Elizabeth, a historical novel telling the Virgin Queen’s story in her own words just as she might have written it herself.But in the Arthurian saga, all the characters around Guenevere have such fascinating lives of their own that I really wanted to show that, and to make the Camelot tapestry as rich and full as I could.
It also helps to round out Guenevere’s character when we see her interacting with the other characters and hear their point of view.
TBR: Very little is actually known about Arthur and his court’s place in history. How did you research this book?
RM: I spent years immersing myself in the history of the times but I also would go into the major libraries of Britain and the US and pull up anything they had on Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelot, or any of the other key characters like Morgan or Gawain. I found some amazing and unusual material that way.
I also wanted to give readers a real feel of the Celtic world so I made the effort to go into the myths and legends of the Celts, including their wonderful sayings and poetry, and all of that went into the final result.
TBR: What made you portray both Guenevere and Arthur as individuals whose roles were chosen more by fate and circumstance than by their own desires?
RM: To me the idea of free will and the importance of the autonomy of the individual is a very modern one. It is a luxury that people simply did not have in former times. Queens like Guenevere in particular are driven by duty and cannot thinking only of themselves.
In the past people had their paths mapped out for them by forces outside their control, which they thought of as fate or destiny. In the Old World today, traditional societies are still governed by such ideas far more than by the belief that we are all entitled to fulfil our own desires.
TBR: Marion Zimmer Bradley depicts Avalon and the religion surrounding it as spiritual and mystical, very Mother-Earth/Goddess centered. Why did you keep a more distant perspective on the mysticism of Avalon?
RM: I thought Marion Zimmer Bradley’s earthy, primitive Avalon was just wonderful but I wanted to suggest something more remote and magical. Bradley’s spiritualism is intensely physical and I hoped to recapture some of the mysticism of the Celts.
Their beliefs spoke to men as well as women and they were very interested in the moon and stars and the meaning behind the awe-inspiring beauty of the natural world.
TBR: Throughout Guenevere,
you show the constant struggle between the Church and the Druid
religion. However, one may ask why the main characters, especially
Arthur, don't seem to have any personal conflicts between the two?
RM: Arthur sees himself rather as our Prince Charles does in Britain today as a ruler whose task is to support and unite all faiths. Arthur is also a warrior not a deep thinker, with a strong and simple integrity which means that the conflicts he faces are external challenges not internal ones.
Guenevere was reared in the Goddess religion which is also the basis of her rule as a queen, so she would not dream of abandoning that. And in all early societies like this, loyalty is tribal, not negotiable. Like football supporters, people would choose their allegiance and stick to it, not agonise over which side they were on.
TBR: You don’t spare the Church at all in your writing. Even though it is well known that the Church did try to destroy all other religions that stood in its path, have you received any flack for your often harsh portrayal?
RM: It is so well known that the early Christian church was very militant and hostile to other faiths that most readers have no problem with the portrayal as it is. Some are even intrigued by the idea of muscular Christian soldiers, battling for their faith. For those who see the whole Arthurian saga as a Christian parable, this version is challenging, however.
TBR: As I recall, in the past Merlin and Taliesin were the same person; the names were just used for different roles (Taliesin was the Druid priest name, while Merlin was used when the person assumed the role of Arthur’s teacher). Why did you choose to depict Merlin and Taliesin as two separate people?
RM: I found the sources very interesting on the different roles of Taliesin and Merlin and it seemed more dramatically fruitful to explore them through two different characters. Merlin is also a more advanced trickster and shape-shifter than Taliesin and I felt there could be a fascinating contrast there between Taliesin’s white magic and Merlin’s darker powers.
TBR: Merlin was always a wise Druid priest, a healer and a wizard, but one who always had the best interests of the country, and Arthur, in mind. Here, you portray him as a madman. Your depiction of Morgan also differs widely from others. Here, she is a victim of the Church, not an acolyte of the Lady of the Lake. Why did you choose these different paths for Merlin and Morgan?
RM: Merlin is sincerely convinced that he is right, and no-one has ever challenged this. But to further his plans he ruthlessly brings about the death of an innocent man, Duke Gorlois, the husband of Queen Igraine, destroys Igraine’s life, and takes away her child (she never sees her own baby, Arthur, again, until he is grown up).
Meanwhile her young daughters are also taken from their mother and despatched to wretched fates. Guenevere also suffers from Merlin’s trickery when he tries to stop Arthur from marrying her. So from the point of view of the women in the saga, Merlin is not so wise and kind. But I do not see him as a madman, more as a dreamer in love with his own grand schemes.
With Morgan I have not forgotten the connection with Avalon. That comes up later in the trilogy. For the start of the story I wanted to explore what it would have meant for a young girl brought up in the Goddess religion to be sent to a Christian nunnery, which we know was a harsh regime. Through it all, Morgan remains a woman of extraordinary spiritual power.
With both these characters I tried to go back to the original sources and re-think what the actions and events actually mean, rather than uncritically accepting the verdict of later writers and the received version of the tale.
TBR: The love affair between Guenevere and Lancelot is rationalised by Arthur’s madness after Morgan’s seduction, and his estrangement from Guenevere. Yet despite her love for Lancelot, she returns to Arthur at the first hint of reconciliation. What are your thoughts on this?
RM: Almost every woman has an undying attachment to her first true love, especially when he becomes her husband, her partner and the father of her child. Guenevere’s love for Lancelot does not cancel out her feeling for Arthur and she is always hopeful that the love between them can be rekindled and their marriage restored.
She also feels a strong sense of duty to Arthur and to the land, since they are High King and Queen and not free to please themselves. Like many women throughout history she is unwilling to write off her marriage on the basis of one episode of adultery, and she loves Arthur enough to offer him another chance.
TBR: Guenevere is the first part in your medieval trilogy. Have you mapped out the three books in their entirety? Where will the next book,
Knight of the Sacred Lake, take us?
RM: I have had the whole story in my head from the first. Because it is so rich and full and goes over so many years, it was important to work out all the characters and the sequence of events.
I also knew that this was the only way to create narrative tension, with everything happening in the right place. The reader does not want to have constant hold-ups in the story where we have to go back and explain something that should have taken place a while ago.
All three books of the trilogy are self-contained, but The Knight of the Sacred Lake takes us further with the story of Sir Lancelot, whose full title is of course Sir Lancelot of the Lake.
With Lancelot and his cousins Bors and Lionel, we cross the Narrow Sea to Little Britain as Lancelot revisits the Sacred Lake of his boyhood in the Forest of Broceliande. But Camelot, Avalon and all the other familiar locations are in the book as well.
TBR: Besides your own of course, what is your favourite retelling of the Arthurian legend?
RM: My favourite version of the Arthurian story is that of Sir Thomas Malory, published in 1475. Malory
wrote Morte D’Arthur while in prison awaiting trial for serious crimes, though this may only have meant that he was on the losing side in England’s Wars of the Roses, which went on for many years. Perhaps because he knew loss and suffering, his writing has for me the depth and poignance of a true work of art.
TBR: After the Arthurian legend, what other point in history and myth interests you enough to write about?
RM: The Arthurian world is so wonderful to me that I am not ready to leave it yet. Fortunately the legends feature many more unforgettable characters and powerful themes. My next trilogy is about Isolde, who was Guenevere’s friend and also the Queen of the Island of the West (today’s Ireland) in her own right.
Her true love Sir Tristan is Lancelot’s best friend at the Round Table, and the only knight who can ever challenge Lancelot in the field. Tristan is also the King of Lyonesse just as Lancelot has his own kingdom in Benoic. The story of Tristan and Isolde takes place in Cornwall and Ireland as well as Camelot, so this is the same magical circle of Guenevere and Arthur but with an added dimension of the Celtic world.