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New Fantasy & Science Fiction

Interview with Eileen Kernaghan

Here is our complete interview with Eileen Kernaghan. It also appears in Challenging Destiny Number 22.

interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer

CD: You wrote a book titled The Upper Left-Hand Corner: A Writer's Guide for the Northwest. What's special about writers in the northwest?

EK: First let me give you a bit of background on The Upper Left-Hand Corner. The original 1975 edition was the first ever co-published project by a British Columbia publisher (J. J. Douglas) and a Seattle press (Madrona Publishers). During the early seventies there was an explosion of regional publishing throughout the northwest -- much of it environmental, small press literary, alternative and radical -- but there was no single source of information for writers who wanted to take advantage of these markets. What we put together was a kind of Whole Earth Catalogue for northwest writers. It was a modest bestseller and went through several editions. Now, of course, all that painstakingly compiled information is readily available on the internet.

Which leads me to your question: what's special about northwest writers? For a start, Cascadia isn't quite like the rest of North America. To quote from our preface to the ULHC, "In the upper left-hand corner of North America there is a large, uncluttered region that comprises the Pacific rain forests, the northern prairies and a lot of mountains and snow. It is not so much a geographical area as a state of mind." Our climate is different, and so, generally speaking, are our politics and our world-view. Out here, we're isolated from the power centres, and so it's as though we're watching events unfold at a slight remove. Maybe that's why we tend to be more liberal, more open to innovation, maybe a bit off-centre -- or in some cases, just plain weird. (Besides which, people who don't fit in well on the east coast tend to move west.)

The northwest has produced some very distinguished, internationally celebrated writers -- I'm thinking among others of William Gibson, Douglas Coupland, Tom Robbins, Ursula Le Guin -- each one an innovator, an experimenter, a thinker-outside-the-envelope, who has brought radical change to their genre.

CD: Your Grey Isles trilogy is based on the origins of Stonehenge. Have you been to Stonehenge, or what inspired you to use it in your books?

EK: I've always had an interest in prehistory and the megalithic cultures, but the Stonehenge suggestion actually came from my husband Pat, who said, "You know, I've never read a fantasy novel about Stonehenge." What we didn't realize, of course, was that even as he spoke, other people were writing them (Cecelia Holland' s 1985 Pillar in the Sky comes to mind). But back in the late 70's I imagined I had the field to myself.

When I wrote the Grey Isles novels, I hadn't been to Stonehenge -- my research came from books and from scholarly articles. Then in 1990 I made my first trip to England, and spent some time in Wiltshire, visiting the megalithic sites in my books: the valley of the Grey Wethers on the Marlborough Downs -- the original source of the sarsen stones; West Kennett Long Barrow; Avebury; and Stonehenge itself. Stonehenge at that time was roped off to visitors, but my daughter Sue arranged a letter of permission from English Heritage that allowed me, as a writer and researcher, to go inside the rope after hours and wander freely among the stones. We -- my husband, my daughter, a friend and myself -- stayed till well after dark. It was an odd experience, visiting the sites that until now had existed only in my imagination. I was worried that my descriptions of the sites might not be accurate. To my relief, I seem to have got things right. On the same trip we visited Glastonbury, which plays a large part in The Alchemist's Daughter -- so in that case, yes, I did do the on-site research before I wrote the book. The book I'm working on at present (as yet untitled) is set in Victorian London and probably in Paris -- also places where I've actually been.

CD: How did you become interested in Tibetan Buddhism, which provided the background for Dance of the Snow Dragon? What kind of responses to this book have you gotten from readers?

EK: My interest in Tibetan Buddhism really started with some interviews I was editing for a Vancouver filmmaker, on reincarnation and past life experience. One of the more interesting interviews was with the Dalai Lama. However, the tape had been damaged and the transcription garbled, so to sort out what the Dalai Lama was saying, I had to go back to his autobiography, some other interviews, and various writings on Tibetan Buddhism. That's where I discovered the legends of the journey to Shambhala, the mystical kingdom somewhere north of the Himalayas. It was Shambhala that James Hilton re-invented as Shangri-La in his novel Lost Horizon. Part of the original Buddhist legend was a prophecy that one day a great king would come out of Shambhala to defeat the forces of evil, and establish a new golden age. The resonances with the western legends of King Arthur, Charlemagne and the Fisher King are inescapable. So there was a piece of the plot for a fantasy novel, practically ready-made. Then a friend brought me photos of the Royal Bhutanese Dance Troupe performing at an Asia Pacific Festival, masked as gods and demons of Buddhist myth. At her suggestion I decided to set the story in the mysterious kingdom of Bhutan, where Tibetan Buddhism, with its roots in the old Bon animist beliefs, still exists in a practically pure form.

As to response, readers seem to enjoy the story and the unusual setting, and the book got some great reviews. Though one reviewer thought that no modern teenager would be able to identify with an 18th century Bhutanese monk. (A reflection, I think, on the current YA enthusiasm for teenage angst, as opposed to the kind of book that lets you escape from the angst into another time and place.) My most satisfying response was from the small English-speaking expat community in Bhutan -- certainly the toughest imaginable audience -- who circulated the book and gave it a general nod of approval. There were a few small errors, they said, which you'd only pick up if you lived in the country -- "But it's a fantasy, after all."

CD: Winter on the Plain of Ghosts is about the collapse of an ancient civilization. How closely was the book modelled on real events? Are there any records from that time period? How do you go about finding characters and writing about them convincingly for such a different era?

EK: The Indus Valley civilization has left a wealth of physical evidence -- the foundations of buildings, pottery, statuary, terracotta toys, jewelry, traces of food and fabric. And the famous Mohenjo-daro steatite seals, with their cryptic animal symbols and pictographic markings. From the various excavations carried out since the first discovery of the ruins in 1921, we know that Mohenjo-daro was a settlement of about 5000 people, with streets and buildings neatly laid out in a grid pattern, and some huge brick structures that have been identified as a granary, a kind of giant tank or bath, assembly halls, and massive fortifications. The only written records are the mysterious seal inscriptions. However, we do have existing records from ancient Mesopotamia of the same period, which suggest trading links with the Indus Valley. That trade declined, and then apparently came to an end, around the time that the Indus Valley civilization collapsed. Another sign of economic decline was the increasingly shoddy construction of the houses in the upper levels of Indus Valley ruins.

So the events in Winter are modelled on a combination of physical evidence, archaeological interpretation, my own imagination, and some parallels from recorded history. For example, the purchase of children for ritual sacrifice described at the beginning of the book was still practised in some tribal areas into the last century. In the description of the looting and the massacre at the end of Winter, there are some echoes of the Indian rebellion of 1857. Sometimes, watching the evening news, I've felt that I was seeing the events of my novel re-enacted -- although when I wrote the book, I could not have predicted those present-day events.

As to the characters in my book: the character of Bima was inspired by the famous bronze statuette of a dancing girl, found in the ruins of Mohenjo-daro. The priests had their prototypes in surviving sculptures of what may have been priests or kings. I was struck by their expressions -- cold, remote, and to my eyes, at least, ruthless and domineering. As for the rest, I imagined what sort of person would be likely to survive and even prosper in that society: hence, thieves, merchant-adventurers, financiers, alchemists, sorcerers -- clever, ambitious people, with the craft and intelligence to stay well under the priestly radar. Their motives are pretty much the same as ours --- greed, ambition, honour, courage, religious conviction, need for love and lust for power.

CD: Could you tell us about the reasons for the collapse of civilization that you used in Winter? Do historians have alternate explanations for the real collapse? Are you worried that our civilization is about to collapse?

EK: Among archaeologists, the reasons for the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization is still a matter of lively debate. Every generation tends to interpret the evidence from its own perspective. The early twentieth century theory of straightforward invasion by Aryan horsemen from the north has given way to a more complicated scenario of ecological and climatic change. That is, even before the northern tribespeople moved in, conditions in the Indus Valley were steadily deteriorating, and the invasion was one more contributing event. In Winter, I used some of those environmental theories -- recurring floods caused by a mud dam on the Indus, deforestation, overgrazing, crop failure, an influx of tribespeople into the cities -- and then I factored in a rigidly orthodox theocratic government, with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Not one cause, in other words, but a continuing series of disasters, leading to civil unrest and vulnerability to invasion.

Sooner or later, all civilizations collapse. Right now, we're facing so many potential threats -- environmental, biological, political -- that it would foolish to make any predictions about our own survival. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about our immediate survival. I do worry about the kind of world my grandchildren will have to deal with.

CD: Why did you choose Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen as the basis for your book of the same title? Do you see an influence of old fairy tales on current fantastic literature? On your own books?

EK: Quite simply, because it's my favourite fairy tale (and nearly everyone else's favourite, I've since discovered). In actual fact, it's not a fairy tale at all -- it 's a novelette, or a very short novel, with three-dimensional characters, realistic dialogue and vividly described settings. The underlying theme is a central preoccupation of the mid-19th Century -- the conflict of scientific inquiry with traditional religious belief. (How curious that we're revisiting that very question at the beginning of the twenty-first century!) Beyond that, it has that rare thing in fairy tale literature -- a strong female hero who embarks on a quest to rescue a boy. In the bad-tempered, tough-talking Robber Maiden, with her totally dysfunctional family situation, Andersen created one of the most memorable characters in all of children's literature.

My retelling of Andersen's tale started out as a poem, and later became an adult short story ("The Robber Maiden's Story") both of which were published in Canadian small press magazines. But somehow the story just wouldn't let go of my imagination, and eventually I decided to write it as a young adult book. The only part of Andersen's story I found unsatisfying was the conventional mid-Victorian ending, when Gerda goes home with Kai to a life of peaceful domesticity. The great thing about rewriting fairy tales is that you can change them to suit yourself -- and so I let Gerda dump Kai and sent her off with the Robber Maiden on further adventures.

That wasn't the only change, of course. In the meantime I'd become interested in northern shamanism and the Finnish myth cycle The Kalevala, and thought I could hear echoes in Andersen's Snow Queen of the Kalevala's Woman of Pohjola, the Terrible Enchantress. And so that older, darker mythology was woven into my retelling of Andersen's Christian fantasy.

The influence of fairy tales on modern fantasy literature is huge -- the retellings, and books using fairy tale themes and motifs, are too many to list. Some of the best, I think, are the ones by Robin McKinley. A. S. Byatt's are High Literature, and Tanith Lee's re-imaginings are wonderfully perverse. The better known tales, like Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, are the most often retold, but writers are discovering some of the more obscure stories as well. The Snow Queen is the only one of my books I've based entirely on a fairy tale. However, if I look for fairy tale motifs in my other books, I find a few. The Marsh King's Daughter turns up in a Sumerian marsh in Journey to Aprilioth. I thought when I started writing The Alchemist's Daughter, I'd be drawing on the plot of Rumpelstiltskin (the maiden spinning gold from straw for the king -- or in my case the queen) but then it went off in quite another direction.

CD: What attracts you to young adult fantasy? How do you judge what would interest a young reader? Where do you see young adult fantasy going?

EK: What attracts me to fantasy, per se, is that for as long as I can remember I've loved stories of magic, and ancient peoples and places, and the far distant future. I grew up on Weird Tales and Thrilling Wonder Stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Vance, Clark Ashton Smith, A. Merritt. When I started to write my own stories --at about age six, as I recall -- that was my chosen genre. My first novels were marketed for an adult audience, but looking back at them, I think they would work just as well as young adult books. In fantasy, particularly, there's really no hard and fast line between adult and YA literature (Harry Potter being one case in point). My books are marketed to the upper edge of the YA age group -- 12 to 16 -- and I suspect that just as many adults read them as do teens. Maybe more. I write about what interests me, and just hope I can make it exciting enough to interest a young reader. Your protagonist has to be young (say a year or two older than the average reader) and the challenges they face should be challenges that speak to that age group -- whether in real life, or in an historical setting, or in pure fantasy. Those are the usual rules of thumb -- but in fact I don't think about them much while I'm writing. Nor am I conscious of writing for a particular demographic. I just try to get into the heads of my protagonists, as they embark on whatever journeys I send them on, and face whatever challenges may present themselves.

Where do I see YA fantasy going? Well, since the Harry Potter phenomenon, there seems to be no limit to the demand for more Harry Potter, and also for epic fantasy series, especially those written by teen-age prodigies. My own little subgenre of historical fantasy has a more modest following, but I like to imagine that the readers are loyal. Every trend has its day. I make no predictions.

One thing that attracts me to young adult fantasy, as a writer, is the opportunity to interact with readers, face to face. Over the years I've done a great many talks and readings, and answered vast numbers of questions about writing and publishing, in schools and libraries across the province. Not all adults read fantasy -- but most young adults do. Another consideration, a purely practical one, is the fact that I publish my fantasies in Canada. Many Canadian publishers have a lively interest in YA fantasy, whereas the market here for adult fantasy (apart from the Alberta publisher, Edge) is almost non-existent.

CD: What was your best experience as a writing instructor?

EK: That's not an easy one to answer. But I think my most gratifying experience has been with an adult student who had suffered a serious brain injury, and had problems with short-term memory. When he first came to my class, quite a few years ago, he was planning to write the history of his family, but all he could manage at one go was a single paragraph. Gradually that paragraph grew into a page, then two pages, until he was bringing a full chapter every week. In the meantime he was doing extensive research in newspaper archives. Since then he's finished his family history, and is contributing to a book on surviving brain injury. All the credit goes to his own perseverance, the enthusiastic support of the group, and a facility with words he didn't know he had.

CD: You do a lot of research for your books on some wildly varying topics. How do you get interested in a topic?

EK: Often it's pure serendipity. I've mentioned the Dalai Lama interview and my friend's photos of the Bhutanese dance troupe, which inspired The Dance of the Snow Dragon. Winter on the Plain of Ghosts had its start in a Victoria, B.C. used bookstore, where I came across a small self-published pamphlet, The Indus Script of the Mohenjo-daro Shamans. The only thing I knew about the Indus Script was that no one had succeeded in deciphering it. Now it appeared that somebody had. Or thought he had. I bought the pamphlet, and contacted the author, John Newberry, who lived in Victoria. He told me that this was the first of a series of monographs which recorded his ongoing efforts to decode the Indus Valley script. When I was working on my first fantasy, Journey to Aprilioth, which is set partly in ancient Mesopotamia, I'd come across references to trading links between the city of Ur and a mysterious land called "Meluhha" -- which some archaeologists identified as the Indus Valley. And since no one as far as I knew had ever set a fantasy novel in the early Indus Valley, I decided to do some further research.

CD: How do you go about researching a topic? How do you know you've done enough research to write about something convincingly? Do you run your resulting stories past experts in the field?

EK: I tend to research on a "need to know" basis. With my first novel, Journey to Aprilioth, I was following the hero from England to western Europe, then across the Caucasus through the Middle East, south to ancient Sumer, and eventually back to the Mediterranean. As he progressed on his journey, I researched the geography, history, culture, architecture, etc. of each new region -- using archaeological records where they existed, and extrapolating where they didn't. So in effect I was discovering each of these new territories hand in hand with my protagonist.

You can't ever be sure you've done enough research. I try to know enough that I'm not violating established theory -- what is generally accepted to be true. The problem is, that with new technology and new archaeological discoveries, that established theory can be abruptly turned upside down. Case in point: the new radiocarbon dating methods developed in the mid-sixties, that pushed the building of Stonehenge back by hundreds of years, and in the process badly messed up some academic careers.

I haven't made a habit of running my stories past experts in the field, though I do have useful resources within my own family. My daughter, who had been travelling in the Himalayas, checked out a lot of details in Dance of the Snow Dragon. My son the fungal ecologist provided some useful expertise for The Snow Queen and for several short stories.

CD: How do you decide which facts to include and where to embellish? Why do you prefer to write historical fantasy rather than historical fiction?

EK: I include the facts that contribute to the story, that are necessary to advance the plot. And sometimes a newly discovered fact will lead to new plot twists, or even send the plot spinning off in an entirely new direction. If I'm writing about a time before written records existed, I rely on generally accepted archaeological theory (or where there is debate -- as there often is -- I choose the theory that best suits my purposes). I imagine the daily lives of the people on the basis of the artifacts they've left behind. All the rest -- social structure, religion, culture, has to be extrapolation where possible, and otherwise embellishment.

If I'm writing about an historical period, there's less room for embellishment. We know how people lived, how they dressed, what they ate, the kind of world in which they moved. The embellishment, then, is the element of fantasy, the "what if." Gerda and Ritva journey through the real, historic world of mid-Victorian Scandinavia -- until they cross into the Snow Queen's uncharted country. That's where the real world ends, and fantasy begins.

Why do I write historical fantasy rather than historical fiction? In fact, I think my recent books are moving closer to historical fiction, with the fantasy element playing a lesser role. But where does the line actually fall? Can you write a purely realistic novel about 18th century Bhutan, without accepting that to the Bhutanese, the gods and demons are real? Or about alchemy -- magic to us, but science to the Elizabethans?

CD: How did you get started writing?

EK: I've been writing as long as I can remember -- I think I must have started writing stories shortly after I learned to read and hold a pencil. The earliest one that comes to mind was a shameless rip-off of Alice in Wonderland, called "Molly in Mouseland." It didn't show much originality, but my Grade Four teacher was impressed. When I was twelve, without mentioning my age, I sold a children's story to the Vancouver Sun, about a boy trapper in the north woods. (It required some research, since I lived on a dairy farm in rural B.C.) That one earned me a byline and a cheque for $12.65, and I think determined my future career. Meanwhile I was churning out an epic tale of interplanetary adventure with lots of starship chases, which I handed out, one installment a week, to my Grade Seven class.

After high school came university, work, marriage and children, and it was twenty years before I started writing again. I floundered around between genres for a while, attempting a horror story and a mystery, neither of which went anywhere. Then in the early seventies I sold a long science fiction story, "Star Cult," to Galaxy Magazine. After that came the first of the Grey Isles books, Journey to Aprilioth, which sold to Ace, and came out in 1980. In those days there was far less fantasy being produced, but if you wrote a publishable book, chances are it would find a publisher. Sadly, that's no longer always the case.

CD: Are there particular authors you think are influences on your writing?

EK: I think the authors that first influenced my writing were the ones that first influenced my choice of reading material. Writers like Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Clark Ashton Smith and L. Sprague de Camp gave me a life-long fascination with far-off times and exotic places. But the one book that made me a devoted reader of fantasy was Jack Vance's Dying Earth. It's still my all-time favourite.

It was a previous generation of historical novelists, rather than contemporary fantasy writers, that helped to shape my style and choice of subject matter. I'm thinking in particular of Evangeline Walton, Mary Renault, the British historical author Henry Treece, and a wonderful writer of young adult historicals, Rosemary Sutcliff.

As to my fondness for research, I should give some credit to the bad movies of the fifties -- those historical sagas that had Tony Curtis proclaiming, "Yondah is da castle of my faddah." After watching the Hollywood version of history, I would grab the family encyclopedia to find out what actually happened.

CD: What's the best fantasy movie you've seen lately?

EK: I guess the expected answer would be either the final Lord of the Rings movie, or Narnia. I enjoyed and admired them both, but really, my vote goes to the latest Wallace and Gromit clay-animation, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. A close second would be Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

CD: What are you working on now?

EK: Another YA historical, set in London and Paris, 1888-89. It involves, among others, Madame Blavatsky, the doyenne of the Theosophist Society; and the fin de siècle enthusiasm for spirit-raising, table-rapping and all manner of psychic phenomena.

CD: What's the best thing about operating a used bookstore?

EK: Definitely, the customers. Nobody in their right mind would open a used bookstore in order to make money, but the conversations with the fascinating variety of people who wander in, make it well worthwhile. And then there was the thrill of the hunt -- finding a treasure trove of saleable books at a garage sale. And in the days before Abebooks and Google made it so easy, the satisfaction of tracking down an elusive title from an obscure publisher that you'd never find in Chapters.

Last modified: March 10, 2006

Copyright © 2006 by Eileen Kernaghan.

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #22 | Interviews