Thursday, 26 March 2015

5 Questions for Suzannah Rowntree

First, by way of introduction...
She fences, she crochets, she can dance a mean reel. She knows what infralapsarianism is, she eats orange peel, she's.....SUZANNAH ROWNTREE!
I'm really keen to ask Suzannah some questions about her debut novel, Pendragon's Heir, which, frankly, I enjoyed more than I've enjoyed any novel in years. Read my review here. It's an epic Arthurian adventure - bright as an illuminated manuscript, youthful as childhood dreams, and weighted with a deep longing for heaven redolent of the writings of C.S. Lewis. It's smart and well-written and moving and loads of fun. I highly recommend it for people who like their sword fights with a bit of St. Augustine.

Thanks to modern technology, you can start reading it in a matter of seconds, or order a lovely illustrated paperback to display to your friends: 

Suzannah, thanks for visiting my humble blog. Pardon me if my questions are long-winded and rather giddy.
Question the First: One thing I was amazed by was your ability to say what you wanted to say using using concepts and motifs already found in the Arthurian legendarium. I mean by that your ability to both construct a satisfying three-act structure plot and win our hearts to things you are passionate about, without introducing alien concepts that feel awkward and false. It's almost like you saw the Arthur legends as a box of puzzle pieces, all mixed up, that can be put together in different ways and still by some magic make a coherent picture. Can you talk about this? (I'm particularly hoping you'll speak about Sarras, which really astonished me and sent me back to the legends to parse out what was Rowntree and what was not.)
I started out by spending a whole lot of time thinking and wrestling with the actual themes of the Arthurian legend. After all, how was my version of the story going to mean anything unless I had a good idea of just what was going on in the originals? (That, and not knowing what Malory was trying to say drove me crackers). I had plenty of time to think and meditate and read up on the Arthur legends—and I had the help of people like CS Lewis and Charles Williams, who had done good work on explaining the original themes. It was these themes I used to build my own story.
Then, there were definitely times when I had to sit down and think, “I have this character from the legends who I don’t know what to do with, so I need to figure out what he means and how I’m going to tie him into the plot.”
Actually, it’s odd that you should describe the plot/theme density of my novel using the imagery of a box. One of the best articles I have ever read on the craft of writing—though I don’t believe anyone should make a regular practice of reading up on the craft of writing—was titled “Heroic Hollywood: Thinking Inside the Box”. This article (I recommend it to all of you) directs authors to use various themes or images from their stories as a “box” from which to unpack as many interconnected motifs as possible. This results in a book (or film) in which every plot point, character, symbol, motif, or event performs multiple functions within the story. This is simply good tight plotting, and it results in a very coherent and cohesive story. So in a way I did use the Arthurian myths as a toolbox from which I was able to assemble the pieces of my story.
It’s not perfect, though. I never did manage to fit in Perceval’s sister Dindraine. Which is a shame, because I love how Malory uses her and Galahad’s relationship to demonstrate a kind of sanctified and pure version of the courtly love tradition that runs amok wreaking havoc throughout the rest of the book :D.
With regards to Sarras, that was actually a very late addition to the book—it came to me in a stroke of blind inspiration while I was plotting the 4th draft—the one you beta read for me last year. As early as Draft 2, Morgan and Blanche had a series of confrontations in Part 2, but the setting was a bit different. What brought Sarras into play was a series of mental pictures that came to me—first, the green grass and ruined stone of the church in Port Arthur as well as pictures of Gothic ruins in Europe; then the thought of exploring a whole garden-city, then finally the sudden connection of such a place with a) Charles Williams’s vision of The City in All Hallows’ Eve, b) my novel, and c) the mysterious Sarras town of Arthurian myth. It was true inspiration, by which I mean that it was a mysterious and poetic connection that came into my mind not by any rational process but by a leap of intuition. I credit it, and a number of other equally arational inspirations, to the Holy Spirit, to whom be glory and honour.
Not until that moment had I intended to include Sarras in the story. However, I’ve spent a goodish bit of time since then just marvelling over how well it fitted into the existing web, and wondering how I could have finished the book without it.

The roofless church at Port Arthur, Tasmania

Question the Second: I remember Douglas Wilson saying something in the film "Collision" about debating Christopher Hitchens, along the lines of "You can't cram for this, you can't prepare for this, you have to have been thinking about and studying this stuff your whole life." While reading your novel, I felt I was in the hands of someone who was absolutely drenched in the medieval worldview. I suddenly "got" things about these ideas of quest, chivalry, honour, the Grail, that I had only sensed namelessly before. Can you share about your research process for this novel? Is this something you can cram for?
Wow, thank you! I was certainly aiming to convey some of the medieval worldview. Now that you mention it, another advance reader, Isaac Botkin, who also produced three illustrations for inside the book, said,
“The characters act like I would assume warriors in the age of Patrick, Columba, and Augustine would act.
“…I realise that Arthur is most likely a fictional character, and that the exploits of the knights of the Round Table are most certainly fictional. But legends have to come from somewhere, and there was a king in Britain in the early 500s, there was a strong Celtic church then, there was a vigorous theonomic crown by the time of Alfred, and a clear sense of building Christ’s earthly kingdom and fulfilling the great commission. Some of the ideals of the Table I’m willing to accept as extremely probable (almost unavoidable) historical fact. Also bear in mind that Arthur’s men are looking back on the time of Christ as recent history. …The Roman empire has just fallen, there are still barbarians everywhere, but the freedoms and advances of Christian civilisation are staggering. The hopes for success and discouragement in moral failure must have been severe.
“Which is why I love your book. I wasn’t sure at first, because I’m not really excited about homeschooled girls writing novels about knights and princesses, but I am excited about you writing about this amazing time in history.”
:D I have to say there were definitely times when I felt a bit uncomfortable writing about knights and princesses!
My research for Pendragon’s Heir purposefully did not include a great deal of study into realistic matters such as wounds, fighting styles, economy, or indeed anything at all about actual conditions in sixth-century Britain (the traditional setting of Arthurian myth). I did try not to embarrass myself with obvious mistakes, but my whole focus was on reproducing medieval fiction, not on reproducing medieval fact.
But where did this medieval worldview come from? In one sense I’ve been a passionate medievalist as long as I can remember, and that has to count for something. But I’m actually going to tell you that there is a way to “cram for this”: You HAVE to read primary sources. You most particularly especially MUST read the fiction of the people you want to understand. Nothing else will do. Without primary sources and original fiction, no amount of cramming—and no amount of reading history books—will help.
Medievalism - courtesy of St Giles Church, Cheadle,
and Suzannah's Pinterest inspiration board for Pendragon's Heir
I’m passionately insistent on this point. I’ve read too many books that purport to be “historically accurate” but which fail because while the author has his terminology and factual details correct, he has failed to really understand the mindset of the people he is writing about. Reading the histories and the fiction of the people themselves is the only way—I say the ONLY way—to understand who they were, what was most important to them, and what they hoped to achieve with their lives. For this purpose, fiction is about three times as revealing as history.
So I did not research medieval society and economy. I did not intend to reproduce a faithful picture of these things. I might someday, but that was not my aim with this book. My aim was to reproduce something as close to a medieval romance—as close to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Le Morte D’Arthur—as I could possibly manage within the confines of the twenty-first century novel.
Therefore, as research, that was what I read: medieval romances, and commentaries on medieval romances. What I have produced is not remotely factual, but I believe it is deeply true.
Question the Third: Can you tell us the authors who most influenced your...
Prose style/aesthetics
Sense of plot/structure
Mission/vision for fiction.
Probably the safest bet is to say that my six favourite authors—Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, Wodehouse, Buchan, and Spenser—are the ones who influenced me most overall. All my reading has been rotting down in my mind for so long that I don’t know exactly which bit of it came from which author anymore. That said…
Prose style/aesthetics: I admire Tolkien, do not believe myself capable of imitating him, but probably do so unconsciously, especially in my higher-flown passages. If I could write like one of my favourite authors it would be John Buchan, and I have adopted a few things from him, especially a sneaking love of understatement, but I haven’t quite managed to master his glorious simplicity. In the dialogue for Pendragon’s Heir I did consciously attempt to reproduce an suitably modern-sounding version of Malory’s diction, inspired by the speech of Merlin in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength—every one of Merlin’s lines in that novel is a tiny masterpiece. But in the end, the author I copy best seems to be GK Chesterton. I love his shameless alliterations, and I alliterate myself at every opportunity.
Plot/structure: Structure is one thing I feel I’m a bit of a beginner at. That said, most of what I know probably comes from observation of other people’s plots, plus Peter Leithart’s book Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays. Generally speaking when it comes to plots I just try for three acts, an exciting finish, plenty of foreshadowing—and the the plot/theme density I talked about above. One day I should really get around to something a bit more elegant.
Characterisation: This is about people, and of course the basic handbook on People is Scripture. I do find other things helpful—Myers-Briggs typing helps me with variety and consistency, and vaious other personality-pigeonholing tools and sorters help too. I also snitch elements of characters I know in real life (and yep, that does mean that there is a real-life partial inspiration for Perceval walking around out there. Sorry, ladies—he’s taken). With the Pendragon’s Heir characterisation in particular, I had a huge amount of fun playing with the original characters from the Arthurian legends. So, OK, you have Arthur, the awesome kingly figure; why does he seem to lose his grip for a while toward the end of the story, allowing Gawain and Mordred to control him? You have Gawain himself, the hero of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in that tradition a very ideal knight; so why does his love for Lancelot turn into such bitter hatred at the end? You have Morgan le Fay, who spends her whole life trying to destroy her brother and his kingdom; why does she turn up at the end to help save his life? Writing Pendragon’s Heir was an amazing opportunity to flesh out these mysterious characters with their mysterious contradictions, and I spent a lot of time chewing them over. It was great fun.
Mission/vision for fiction: This is something else I’m very passionate about. When it comes to influences, the main one would be Scripture again. How does Scripture use fiction? For what purposes? Christ and the prophets used fiction to surprise their audiences with truth from an unexpected angle. Then, there are the Reformation-era apologists for fiction. Sir Philip Sidney, Torquato Tasso, Edmund Spenser, and John Bunyan all defended their decisions to use fiction to teach. All of them claimed that doctrines were more pleasant and more easy to understand when couched in the medium of fiction. Anthony Trollope in the nineteenth century made the same defence, but it was left to CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien in the twentieth century to arrive at a really full-orbed vision of fiction as a means of retelling the Gospel. Tolkien’s landmark essay On Fairy Stories is the work that first introduced me to the concept of mythopoeic truth, and it has remained my vision and my standard ever since.
Question the Fourth: There are so many things to be really proud of in this book. The prose, for one, which is strong without being minimalist, and evocative without being full of annoying flowery curlicues or constant colour descriptions (a pet peeve of mine - if you can't talk about colour as well as Rosemary Sutcliff, please spare us). Is there something you are particularly proud of? Something that came easily and surprised you, or something that took a great deal of slow and steady craftsmanship and now you can stand back and breathe a contented sigh?
The thing I’m most proud of is something I first heard from you. I think it was something along the lines of, “Most of the time, when you read a very absorbing book, you come away discontented with your life. That wasn’t the case with your book. I came away so excited about building the Kingdom of God, I had a smile on my face the whole day after I finished it.”

Later, another beta reader had exactly the same reaction. “I love your theme of Logres as the City of God on earth in its early stages of construction. This book makes me want to get out and do something.”

Finally, a bit different but related, another reader told me: “I strongly identified with Blanche…Her battle with fear and selfishness was very familiar to me…And she passes! Wow, was I delighted! It’s possible for young women to be strong and brave and deeply principled after all! It felt like a great victory, and one that strengthened my resolve to be a heroine.”
With this feedback, I realised I had accomplished something very important. A lot of people in our crunchy home-educating circles believe that fiction is unimportant or even dangerous, that it tempts readers toward “escapism”—a desire to flee the world of God’s creation into a self-indulgent world of the imagination…with fantasy being the worst genre of all. I understand this concern. Personally, it troubles me when I see readers become so absorbed in good books that they beat a retreat from the real battles in life and start living a half-life, a life of longing for an unreal world. It happens.
However, I believe that good fiction, read wisely, is a powerful weapon in our fight. It is such an incredible thing to have not one but three different readers tell me of their own accord that my novel has strengthened and encouraged them for real life in the real world. That’s what I’m most proud of. I have to say I’m not exactly sure how I achieved it, but I’m more pleased about this than I am about anything else in the book.

Craftsmanship takes time, so "Don't rush it," says Suzannah. 
"...You will never, ever regret taking a bit longer to make sure you have written something worthwhile."
Question the Fifth: You now have become well-connected with this burgeoning and very active community of indie authors, many of whom are home-educated, young and female. What advice would you give people like this who are tossing around an idea for a first novel? What advice would you give the movement as a whole (if it is a movement) to become a real literary force to be reckoned with?
For those who are considering writing their first novel: Don’t rush it.
Don’t rush it. I don’t want to read anything less than the best and you shouldn’t want to give me anything less than the best. I think you can produce amazing things, but I don’t know that you can produce anything particularly amazing at the age of sixteen. Or even twenty-one. Our culture does not tend to produce maturity that early.
I once read of a professional novelist, critically-acclaimed and popular with the reading public, who was asked why so many well-regarded and bestselling authors never publish their first novel until their forties. This gentleman answered that it takes forty years to learn how to write well and to develop the life experience necessary to write anything worthwhile.
He’s pretty near right. I’ve never regretted taking ten years to write Pendragon’s Heir. I’m not telling you you have to do the same, but I am telling you that you will never, ever regret taking a bit longer to make sure you have written something worthwhile. Ignore all your family and friends telling you to hurry up and publish the thing just because they’re excited about you being an author. Wait until you know that you have written something worthy in every respect to stand beside the greats.
Don’t publish just because you can. Publish because you’re ready.
For those who are already publishing and want to become a literary force to be reckoned with: Whatever you do, don’t stop improving. Don’t let early success go to your head.
Life is busy. With twenty five-star reviews on Goodreads from people who thought your novel was the best thing in the world, it’s easy to think you’ve arrived. You’re probably wrong. Maybe what you are is good at marketing a fourth-rate product to people who don’t know any better. Or maybe what you are is a goddess of Plotting or a patron saint of Characterisation, but could use a bit of help when it comes to Themes or Sociopolitical Realism.
What we need is to seek out critique partners who will understand and be sympathetic to our vision as authors, but who will pull no punches when it comes to pointing out our failings. If you know someone like this, treasure her up and make sure she’s slugging you in the eye on a regular basis. If you don’t know someone like this, you can’t have Christina. She’s mine :D.

Oh, I'm very selective about who I slug in the eye. You have to be very special indeed. Thanks for your thoughtful answers, Suzannah. 

The rest of you can read my review here.

Author bio:
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at and is the author of both fiction and non-fiction. Pendragon’s Heir, her debut novel, released March 26.

Pendragon’s Heir synopsis:
Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of—or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

White Nights: the forgotten suspense classics of Ethel Lina White

Ethel Lina White (1876-1944)
I'm always on the lookout for books to read in the middle of the night while breastfeeding infants. After extensive testing, I have found that the perfect book is one which is just sufficiently exciting to keep me from falling asleep mid-feed (and waking hours later with a crick in my neck), while not being too gripping to get back to sleep promptly. The 20th century suspense novels by John Buchan, Josephine Tey and Mary Stewart fit the bill nicely.
I was on the lookout for similar light vintage thrills when I discovered the Welsh crime novelist Ethel Lina White. Innocently, I picked up her suspense masterpiece Some Must Watch from a discount bin outside a local news agent. It was shockingly good--but much too chilling for midnight reading.
This is how you will act for a few days after reading Some Must Watch.
I've now managed to hunt down about half of her novels (The Passing Tramp has managed to read some I haven't), and her unpretentious craftsmanship has won my wholehearted admiration. One of the things I love about her is the way these unabashed potboilers brim with themes that provoke and surprise by their, well, goodness.
White's thrillers show us that there are no small lies; that great people ignore ordinary people at their peril, pride and vainglory meet their demise at the hands of the humble; that evil is real and lives just around the corner; that gossip can kill; that appearances deceive, but sometimes in the very reverse of the way we expect. (It's probably quite reasonable to postulate her familiarity with the book of Proverbs at least, given the Methodist Chapel-pervaded culture of late 19th century Wales.)
White is enough of a craftsman to convey these things without stale didactism. You might not even spot them, while you are busy appreciating her delicious vintage characters and cracking good plots. It is no small achievement to write thrillers that are morally satisfying while being nail-bitingly suspenseful with a terrifyingly potent vision of evil.
Here's a quick guide to the ones I've read so far.

Some Must Watch

A red-haired heroine ("ginger for pluck") must survive a stormy night trapped in a Welsh manor along with an assortment of highly-strung characters - one of whom is a serial murderer. Or is the murderer outside, trying to get in?
This one is practically perfect in every way. It even observes the Aristotelian unities. YES!
You can read a more in-depth review from the incomparable Suzannah at Vintage Novels here.

The Wheel Spins

This one formed the nucleus of one of my favourite Hitchcock films, The Lady Vanishes, and you can also find it published under that (vastly superior) title. Typically, the film takes White's catchy premise somewhere quite different (and equally entertaining). This premise has proved so appealing that Hollywood has adapted it several times, most recently and without credit (grr!) in the film Flight Plan.
A self-absorbed socialite seems to be the only person to notice the disappearance of a mousy fellow passenger on a train journey through Europe. Is it a conspiracy, and will our heroine have enough spunk and decency to stand up for an ordinary little spinster whom everyone wants to forget? White has given us a heroine with overtones of Jane Austen. Read another Suzannah review here.

A Step In the Dark

I think I just died and went to potboiler heaven. A young widowed writer of cheap thrillers seizes her chance of a fairy-tale future in Europe...and finds herself in a nightmare. Her only hope of escape may be her own powers of invention. Does she have the nerve and skill to write herself free from her island prison?
If I say any more about this very Hitchcockian cautionary tale I will spoil it. I loved the way romantic tropes are turned on their heads in this one, and White proves with the heroine's two little girls that she can write children really, really well. This one is so good I'm giving you the Gutenberg link right now. So go read it.

Fear Stalks the Village

With its cozy village setting and large cast of quirky characters, there's more than a bit of Agatha Christie going on in this mystery and it will please those who like their crime served with tea and plenty of 1932 English ambience. At its heart, it's a treatise on the deadly effect of gossip on a picture-perfect community, but I defy you to predict how it will resolve.

She Vanished into Air

This one was utter nonsense and I cannot recommend it to any but the most desperate of White fans. I can only imagine that she had a pressing bill to pay. She managed to produce 14 thrillers between 1931 and her death in 1944, so she's allowed to have an off day, right?

While She Sleeps!

Apparently, this one was written partly as a farce and White seems to be poking fun at elements of her own style while keeping the thrills coming. Miss Loveapple is an amusing and memorable heroine and I honestly could not guess whether she would choose romance or her cozy single life up to the last page. There's the occasional sense of whip-lash from the back-and-forth between frothy and menacing, but still enjoyable.


I resisted reading this one for a while because I couldn't see how even White could do anything even remotely classy with a thriller set in a decaying waxworks museum. But she did. A large cast of morally-complex characters populate this weirdest and creepiest of White's works with multiple layers of twists.
Folks, let's put Miss White back in the limelight after more than half a century of neglect. To be punny about it, she's scarily good.