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Juliet Marillier

e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson

New Zealand born Juliet Marillier dazzled fans of historical fantasy with her Sevenwaters trilogy, the second of which, Son of the Shadows, won the 2000 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel. She recently wrote the Saga of the Light Isles, set amidst conflict between Vikings and Picts in the Light Isles of Orkney. This is a duo, the first of which, Wolfskin, will be available in N. America in June 2003, to be followed by Foxmask.

Q: You grew up in a part of New Zealand settled by people of Celtic origins. Did that foster your own appreciation of Celtic lore and do you miss Dunedin now that you are living in Western Australia?

A: My upbringing definitely had a profound influence, giving me a lifelong love of folklore and a fascination with history, especially that of the Celtic peoples. I felt an uncanny sense of homecoming when eventually I travelled to the places where my ancestors had come from, Orkney in particular. Yes, I do miss Dunedin: the dense green forests, the hills and the wide expanses of water particularly. The Lord of the Rings movies brought it all back!

Q: So far, islands are integral to your stories - Ireland itself, the sacred islands revered by the Sevenwaters clan, the island refuge of Bran's people, the Needle, and now Orkney in the Saga of the Light Isles. Why are islands so important in your work?

A: I'm a strong believer in what I call 'ancestral memory' by which I mean that the places where a person's ancestors came from are somehow imprinted in their system and have a part in their psychology, though not everyone is aware of it or able to awaken it. My own people long ago were island people. Islands are also highly significant in folklore as places of magic by virtue of their isolation. The second book in the Saga of the Light Isles concerns a shaman dwelling on such a perilous isle.

Q: The first of the Sevenwaters books is a (multi-dimensional) re-telling of the story of the girl who labors long and painfully to return her six brothers to human form after they have been turned into swans by an evil sorceress. The second and third are completely fresh and unique. Why did you start with a re-telling, and did you have a plan for the entire trilogy when you began?

A: I have always loved that particular fairy tale (The Six Swans) and when I started writing my version of it, I hadn't particularly thought beyond that book. I wanted to create a real family of brothers and sister, and show how the terrible events of the traditional tale affected them in the long term (since I don't believe happy endings are ever as simple as they seem.) By the time I was a short way through writing Daughter of the Forest, the characters had become real for me, and I knew I would be following them through more than one book. At that stage I plotted out all three volumes of the trilogy.

Q: The Sevenwaters story seems to have grown through the three books into more and more of a truly original work of fantasy - indeed, I found the third book, Child of the Prophecy, the most powerful (and fantastic) of the three. Has your confidence in the fantasy element of your story-telling increased through the trilogy?

A: I think my confidence as a storyteller and as a writer has increased, rather than specifically confidence with the fantasy element. My next book, Wolfskin, actually contains less fantasy than Child of the Prophecy, but I believe it's a better book. One of the aspects of my writing that I think has developed and matured with each book is my treatment of characterisation. The personal journeys of the young protagonist and other major players are very significant in the new books. In Wolfskin, the main character is male, so there's quite a different emphasis from the Sevenwaters series.

Q: One of the things that impressed me most in Daughter of the Forest was the way in which you showed the ties that bind a close-knit group of siblings, as well as the conflicts that can arise amongst them (your characters are often at odds with those they love most). Do you come from a large family?

A: No, I have just one sister and no brothers - I suspect I gave Sorcha five brothers to compensate! On the other hand, my mother was the youngest child and only girl in a family of six, and I myself have four children, so I guess I do have some experience of large families.

Q: All of your heroines are incredibly (and refreshingly) strong, while retaining both their humanity and their femininity. Do you have a role model for them?

A: Not a particular individual, though I'm certain I use aspects of people I know in the creation of my characters. There are and have been many admirable women in my family. My two daughters in particular are wonderful, courageous and highly individual people.

Q: Through the Sevenwaters trilogy, your heroines come into increasing conflict with parental figures (including the godlike Tuatha de Danaan) who try to control their destiny. They find their own ways. Are you a strong individualist?

A: Yes, very much so. In my own life I have had to break out of a couple of quite soul-destroying personal situations, and facing those challenges has made me stronger as a person. I have allowed my own children the freedom of choice in many aspects of their lives, and while they've made some mistakes, they have emerged as mature and self-sufficient adults who are confident of their place in the world and close-knit as siblings.

Q: I enjoyed the deep vein of romance in the Sevenwaters stories (including the fact that none of the relationships developed easily), and especially that between Fainne and the faithful Darragh in Child of the Prophecy. Did you ever know a Darragh?

A: Interesting question - Darragh is in fact one of the few Sevenwaters characters who is based on a real person, at least in part. However, the real life story is not quite like the book story.

Q: You write of peoples who are close to, and value, the environment. Are you involved in any environmental causes?

A: I'm a regular contributor to Greenpeace and I'm a member of the Greens political party in Australia. The keystones of Greens policy are environmental issues and social justice.

As a member of OBOD (The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) I have a deep personal commitment to the health of the environment and an awareness of our responsibility to preserve and respect it in every way.

Q: Aspects of your writing have reminded me of other excellent historical and fantasy novels that I have enjoyed a great deal - Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy and Cecelia Holland's Firedrake and Kings in Winter. Have you read these authors? Which writers have influenced you most?

A: I've read Mists of Avalon and Mary Stewart's Merlin books and very much enjoyed both. The authors I admire most are the historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett and, for fantasy, Orson Scott Card and Guy Gavriel Kay, both of whom combine great storytelling with a deep insight into character and an underlying humanity. I've probably been influenced most of all by my reading of source material such as fairy tales, folklore, the Icelandic sagas and so on.

Q: I am looking forward to reading the Saga of the Light Isles, and have noted that Wolfskin is scheduled for N. American release in June 2003. Do you have a date yet for Foxmask?

vYes, Foxmask is scheduled for April 2004 for North America.

Q: You mention on your website that you are working on a new trilogy. Can you say anything yet to your fans about its (historical and geographical) setting?

A: I don't want to give too much away so early, but I can tell you it's set in the Dark Ages again, and that the geographical setting is the north of Britain. It contains power games and battles, journeys for body and spirit, Otherworld magic and human conflict. It is based on a real historical story.
Juliet Marillier lives and writes in the Swan Valley area near Perth, Western Australia. Find out more about the author and her work by visiting her Website.
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