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Cecelia Holland

e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson

I can still recall the excitement I felt when I discovered The Firedrake in the 60s. I had been reading historical novels for some time, but had not found an author who kindled my interest to this extent since devouring everything in print by Rafael Sabatini and Mary Renault. So many historical writers clutter their stories with background information rather than integrating it as part of the unfolding action; I found Ms. Holland's writing soared in comparison.

My only problem with Cecelia Holland's works was that I had to wait for her to finish them. Fortunately she has written over twenty novels over the years (the most recent being The Angel and the Sword) and now there is a new five volume series to anticipate, beginning with The Soul Thief in April 2002. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do this e-interview ...

Q: I have been enjoying your historical novels since the release of The Firedrake in 1966. How has your approach to them evolved over the years?

A: It's been a long time. I've gotten more confident about the writing, more willing to take some chances. I've also used up all my chops and am constantly struggling to find something new. I have a real horror of repeating myself. Also, my work has always been a real bulwark in what has been an often chaotic and unstructured life; I put everything that happens to me into it, and it gives me a way of figuring out what's going on. It may not seem possible that what people are doing in a book set in 950, say, can really be a reflection of 2002, but it is.

I doubt this really answers the question, but there.

Q: What I have always appreciated about your work is that you tend to select lesser known periods of history, as in The Kings in Winter, or another of my favorites, The Great Maria. How do you choose them?

A: I love the Middle Ages, and I spend a lot of time rooting around there, reading primary sources, chronicles and sagas and the like. Usually when I have a book brooding I have an idea for a story, and I need to find some place in history where the story has real oomph. Then I stumble on some really good source, like, for instance, the War of the Irish against the Foreigners of the Western World, which is a great old source for the Battle of Clontarf, which ends Kings In Winter.

Great Maria was the opposite, actually, I wanted to do something about the Normans in Italy but couldn't get it to spark until I thought I would use a woman as the main character. Then it just took off. She walked off with the book, is what happened.

Q: Many writers of historical fiction select powerful people for their protagonists. You often take the perspective of someone more ordinary. Any reason in particular for this?

A: Yes, I think that's where the real history is. Kings and Queens and Popes get a lot of press but the real momentum of events comes from the ordinary people struggling with their ordinary lives. That's what real power is, anyway - not giving orders and commands, but getting control over your life - making meaning out of reality. That's why in Jerusalem the only person with any real power is Rannulf.

Q: One of my two favorites of your novels is Rakossy (the other being The Firedrake). Are there any plans to reprint Rakossy?

A: Rakossy is very rare. I've thought of reprinting it via the on-demand service at which carries two of my other books but I quail at spending $150 for a book to tear it apart to be scanned.

Q: Can we expect to see more of Lily Nevada, or indeed of other California historicals?

A: Not in the immediate future. I have a shadowy idea for a third of the Lily books but first I have this big project I'm doing of 5 books.

Q: Your most recent historical work The Angel and the Sword has a touch of fantasy to it. Is this a new direction?

A: Yes, I was really leery of it at first but the story came with the angel and then the rest of it proceeded from that. Now I'm finding it a very interesting way to get the story told. I'm not into elves or dragons but magic can be a visible expression of people's feelings, and nothing is more valuable in a piece of fiction than making such things tangible.

Q: I enjoyed your science fiction novel Floating Worlds. Why did you not write more in this genre?

A: I like FW very much. I don't really see it as science fiction as much as historical fiction turned inside out. It's really a piece of historical fiction set in an entirely imaginary history. It came right after Great Maria and there are a lot of similarities between them, and I suspect that the real reason I did FW was to get the end of GM right.

Q: You ventured back to 'the dawn of time' in Pillar of the Sky (and even earlier in your online short story Bone Sky). Was once enough here also?

A: I don't know. I like Bone Sky, and I think Pillar has some of my best writing. The voice for stuff set way back is hard, it can tend to get biblical and weird. Unless I can get a really strong voice for a story I can't get it to fly at all.

Q: I understand that your new Viking historical The Soul Thief will be out soon and that it is first of a series of five. On your website you say that it 'nurses a gut feeling I have that, after all, women do run the world.' That sounds most intriguing. Can you add to it?

A: I can't. If I could tell you what I mean I wouldn't have to write the books. All I can say is men and women live in two different, overlapping realities, that women understand men but men don't understand women, and that's the hinge for the books. It's been a very useful thing so far. I've only written 1 1/3 of the books but so far the idea is really cooking. And speaking of running the world you have to remember what I said before about ordinary people.

Q: You have been writing since you were 12 years old. Do you still have a passion for it?

A: Absolutely. I don't mean I rush in every morning panting to get to the keyboard. Writing is the way I figure out what's going on, around me, in me, to me, what I'm doing. It still amazes me that a couple of black marks on a page can inspire a whole cosmos in someone's mind. That's magic. That's the best magic there is.
Cecelia Holland lives and writes in northern California. Find out more about the author, her published works and online stories, by visiting
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