No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, January 25, 2001

Interview: Cherith Baldry, January 2001

This interview took place in January 2001, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector #216, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: I understand you have a new book out. Exiled from Camelot: due out in November last year, it still hasn't quite made it through the presses.
CB: It's being published by Green Knight, in the States. As far as I can tell from what the editor's prepared to divulge, a large printing job came into the printer and they pushed my book aside for bigger jobs.
TB: And when is it likely to appear?
CB: Fairly soon, I think. I'm now informed that it does exist as a physical object, but I haven't seen a copy yet.
TB: It's an Arthurian novel that uses the existing canon and some new characters and elements.
CB: All the named characters, except the villagers, are genuine Arthurian characters. Some of them don't come into the really well known legends - in other words the legend as transmitted by Malory, which is what people tend to know.
TB: Rather than Mordred, Exiled from Camelot features a lesser-known son.
CB: Yes, Arthur's illegitimate son Loholt. He's not a nice young man!
TB: You're an Arthurian scholar, as well as using the myth as a basis for fiction. Why the fascination with the Arthurian myth?
CB: It goes back, actually, to when I was very small, at school. I had a brilliant teacher at a little village school, and she was taking two separate year groups in the same room. Looking back, she was obviously rushed off her feet. Every so often she would get us all together, and she would either read us a story or tell us a story. She told us all the stories that you can think of: Bible stories, Arthurian legends, Greek myths, Norse myths and so on. Ever since then I've been interested in that kind of thing.
TB: You implied there was a lot that Malory didn't transmit. How do you get to that? Where do you find the bits that Malory didn't include?
CB: In other Arthurian writers. The first writer of what you could definitely categorise as Arthurian romance was Chretien de Troyes, in France, in the twelfth century - which is quite a bit earlier than Malory. He was followed by various German writers, and by the anonymous writers who put together the French Vulgate cycle, which is probably the single most comprehensive version of the legends. An awful lot of stuff that appears in the Vulgate didn't make it into Malory. It's very much longer.
[Audience]: What about Geoffrey of Monmouth? CB: He, I suppose, started it all off, a bit earlier than Chretien, in Britain: but he tells it very much as history, although as far as one can tell he made it all up. He doesn't tell it as an Arthurian romance with miraculous happenings; he just tells it as if it's an episode of British history.
TB: You focussed, in Exiled from Camelot, on the character of Sir Kay, Arthur's foster brother. Why is he so interesting?
CB: Because he's so different from all the others. If you know your Arthurian legend you know that Kay is the stroppy one who always gets it wrong. You can go quite deeply into his psychology, which for some of the characters you can't: they're fairly two-dimensional. But Kay is very real.
TB: You refer to him at one point as 'the builder of Britain'; in your novel, it's made clear how much he's shaped the society, from Camelot outwards. Does he get much mention, after Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone, in Malory?
CB: To some extent. There's the story of Guenevere's abduction by Meliagaunt, which comes into Malory as a fairly late event in the Arthurian story, post-Grail Quest. In Malory he's a minor character, but as that story was first told by Chretien de Troyes he's quite important. And he's important in the same story in the Vulgate. He comes into a romance called Perlesvaus, which was written in French, but was certainly written by somebody who knew the Glastonbury area very well. In Perlesvaus Kay's a bit of a villain, because he kills Arthur's son Loholt. That's the seed of this novel. The way I've dealt with it in the novel is rather different from the way it's dealt with in Perlesvaus. Perlesvaus is a kind of rogue romance because it has ideas in it that were never taken up into the mainstream legend. For example, in that story, Queen Guenevere dies very early, whereas in Malory she survives just about everybody else, when the whole of the Round Table is broken and Arthur's gone off to Avalon. Perlesvaus is very different, and to a certain extent I was trying to look at the story of Kay within Perlesvaus and thinking 'Well, how can I reconcile that to the other tellings of the story such as Malory?' In Perlesvaus that particular strand of the story, involving Kay, isn't finished, and it's thought that Perlesvaus is one volume of a cycle like the Vulgate, of which the other parts have been lost. I also had to think about how that particular story could finish, and bring Kay back into Arthur's court to do the things that he did later on, in writers like Malory, where he's there from start to finish.
TB: You've explored Kay in some of your short fiction for Mike Ashley. Can you tell us about that?
CB: I started by wanting to write an Arthurian short story. There's a small press magazine called The Round Table, in the States, which I was targeting at the time - several years ago now. I was thinking of using Sir Gawain, because ever since I was at school Sir Gawain's always been my favourite knight. The idea just sat there, and I couldn't think of anything that I particularly wanted to write. I don't quite know how it was, but it came to me: 'Not Gawain, Kay'. Then I could see that there were all these potential plots just waiting to be written. Having Kay, I could have Gawain as well, because they very often appear in Arthurian legend as foils for each other. Gawain is always so wonderful and courteous and successful, and Kay is always getting it wrong and being a pain in the neck, and annoying everybody! They make a wonderful contrast.
TB: In terms of other Arthurian writers - other writers who've used the Arthurian myth - who do you rate, and why?
CB: Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex. It's a comic, ironic take on the Arthurian legend: it is very, very funny, and yet it goes right into the depths of the tragedy as well. It is a tremendous piece of work, and it has a very good characterisation of Kay! I'd also recommend Fay Sampson's Daughter of Tintagel, which is a novel about Morgan le Fay. You might have seen it coming out in five separate short novels, of which the first is Wisewoman's Telling: it was subsequently published in one volume. That, I think, is the best take on Morgan that I've come across: streets ahead of The Mists of Avalon, in my opinion.
TB: So Marion Zimmer Bradley just didn't quite hit the nail?
CB: I don't think so. I get terribly irritated with this thing about Goddess-worship that seems to be so popular at the moment, because I think it's so woolly-minded. It's fine as a theme in her novel, and I think it works quite well; but I think she's been badly served by her fans, who take it all as being true, a real rendering of what the historical reality would be like. I found that very irritating indeed.
TB: Exiled from Camelot is your most recent work, but you've been writing for quite a while. When did you start writing?
CB: I started writing, quite literally, when I was sitting on my granddad's knee. When I was a small child I was terribly unhealthy, and spent a lot of time off school with various bugs. My grandparents lived with us, so I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. He used to tell stories, and he would make up cycles of stories. Every day there'd be a new episode. It just got into my mind that making up stories was something that people did: that you didn't have to have them out of books. It seemed to me quite normal that you got stories out of your own head. So I started writing about the age of five or six. But it was round about 1989 when things really started taking off. I did have things published before then, but not very much professionally.
TB: Was it a sudden decision to write professionally, full-time? You'd been teaching before that, hadn't you?
CB: Yes. In fact, I went on teaching until 1994. At the end of that year I was made redundant from my teaching job, and it seemed like a good idea to see if I could make it full-time writing.
TB: Most of what you've had published so far is children's books. Can you tell us about the Jenny Dale dog books?
CB: Very fortunately, at the time that my teaching job gave up on me, I got a job with the Writers' Advice Centre, reading children's books and writing reports on the manuscripts of aspiring writers. I'm still doing that. Louise Jordan, who's the boss there - she's an editor at Puffin - put me in touch with a book packager called Working Partners, who produce mass-market children's fiction series under one pseudonym, put together by several different writers. I did one series of those called 'Survive!'. I was half of 'Jack Dillon'. Those were all about natural disasters - volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and so on. While I was doing that, they had sold a series of six books, called 'Puppy Patrol', to Macmillan. Macmillan decided that instead of six books they wanted eight, so they had to look around pretty sharpish for two writers who were prepared to produce a book in about five seconds flat. They asked me if I would like to do it, and I couldn't turn down paying work! I was a bit dubious about writing books about dogs, because I'm a cat person myself. But anyway, I said I would do it and I did it, and they offered me some more. I've actually just finished the twelfth of those, which is number 42 in the series. I think it's going to run and run! I've just heard that they've sold over a million in the UK alone, and they're selling them all over the world as well.
TB: Are they fun to write?
CB: Yes, tremendous fun, but by the time I'd finished number 11, which was late 1999, I was getting a little bit fed up with them. I had a break from them - it was about a year between number 11 and number 12 - and when I came back to do number 12 it was all nice and fresh again and I enjoyed it. I think at one time I was doing rather too many of them.
TB: Was it easier to write the dog books than it was to write the natural disasters? It seems to me that the 'natural disaster' books are very much aimed at boys, and the dog books aren't. Is there a different voice?
CB: Definitely a different voice. I think I find it easier to write for boys than for girls, or to write unisex fiction, anyway. I don't like writing really girly stuff. The natural disasters were quite difficult to write because they had to be very thoroughly researched and accurate. There's a non-fiction section at the back of each book - which I didn't have to write - all about what you do if, for example, you're caught in a hurricane. They had an expert who produced that, who was also available for me to consult. For example, when I was doing the 'hurricane' book, which is set in Florida, he sent me lots of photocopies of newspaper cuttings reporting their hurricanes. I got a lot of information through him that I wouldn't have had otherwise.
TB: Mutiny in Space is a science fiction adventure story. It starts off with rivet-counting, for which we have Carol Ann Green [former editor of the BSFA's Focus magazine] to thank.
CB: Yes, she was talking about 'rivet-counting SF' as a term for hard SF where the technology matters. When I was starting Mutiny in Space I had the main character, who was a space cadet, on report for being rude to his commanding officer. He was crawling around on deck counting all the rivets on the ship. It was written for a series called Surfers, which is for reluctant readers - those who can read quite readily, but are very reluctant to pick up a book. I don't think I'd write another one unless I was pretty sure that they were going to publish it, because if they turned it down there'd be perhaps one other place that I could submit it for publication. It's quite a lot of effort to put in if you're not going to get it published.
[Audience]: When you say you're writing for people who are reluctant readers, what is involved in that? Is your vocabulary different, or is it that it has to be more plot-driven? What is the formula? CB: It's fairly short. Mutiny in Space was about twelve and a half thousand words, which really is only a decent short story. It's got to be plot-driven with fast action. The characters have to be strongly drawn, but you can't go into great psychological depth. I didn't worry too much when I was writing it about vocabulary and sentence structure.
TB: There was another series you were working on, 'Stories of the Six Worlds'. I found the setting of that very interesting. It's a binary system, two planets around one sun and four planets around the other. Presumably each story's set on a different planet. They're lost colonies: they remember coming from Earth but there's no contact any more. What was the premise of those? Why did they stop?
CB: I can answer that better by telling you why they started! I wrote a book, a long time ago now, which was called City of the Dead. It was about an underground city that had developed from a nuclear fallout shelter. The basic premise of that book was that people there were living very regimented lives where they weren't allowed to think. A group of them got together and became fully human, finally breaking out and discovering that it was all right up top after all. Part of what happened to them - because of the way I think - was that they discovered the Christian faith. I submitted the book to some Christian publishers. It got universally turned down, but it was good enough to cause a certain amount of interest so that my name was known. Lion Publishing said that although they wouldn't publish that one, they would be very interested if I wrote them anything else. I wrote what eventually became The Book & the Phoenix, and eventually Lion turned that down also, and suggested that it would be more appropriately published by Kingsway, who were very strongly interested in publishing children's books with a Christian world view. I sent it to them and they took it, and eventually I published four in that particular series. They did quite well over here, although Christian fiction never sells enormous amounts. Kingsway then went into partnership with a much larger concern in the States, and three of my books went over to the States and were published there. They had the most revolting front covers that I've ever seen in my life! They didn't do terribly well in the United States, because they were at odds with the fundamentalist religious right, which thinks that science fiction is evil. The final upshot was that Kingsway gave up publishing children's fiction. I don't think it was entirely because of the 'Six Worlds' books! Kingsway in this country had been quite interested in publishing science fiction and fantasy, and the American partners were not interested in doing so over there. There was a fifth novel which was written but never actually appeared, which was a pity.
TB: Would you write more children's fiction with a Christian slant if there was a particular market for it?
CB: I would be interested, but I cannot write the sort of straight-down-the-line evangelical thing, where someone gets converted on page 87 and as soon as they're a Christian all's well with the world. I think it's dishonest: I can't do it. Kingsway previously didn't want that kind of thing: they wanted something that was much more intelligent. If I could write in a similar vein, I would be interested in doing it again. If it had to be much more fundamentalist, then I wouldn't be interested in doing it.
TB: You've got a trilogy coming out, which has the most glorious cover art. These are out in the spring from Macmillan. It's a children's fantasy series: The Silver Horn, The Emerald Throne and The Lake of Darkness.
CB: This was something that Macmillan broached to me a couple of years ago now. 'Puppy Patrol' is published by Macmillan too. This, I think, is a case of virtue not being its own reward. They wanted somebody who would write an animal fantasy, and they knew that I wrote fantasy as well as dog books, so they asked me if I would be interested in submitting a book proposal for this. The idea was that it was to appeal to the sort of kid who would enjoy [Brian Jacques'] Redwall, or [Robin Jarvis's] The Deptford Mice, but couldn't connect to such huge books as they are. Some kids are so frightened by the look of a volume the size of a Redwall book that they won't even try. This was to be that sort of thing, but to be shorter books. At one time we were thinking of making it into a series, and then they decided that they'd prefer it to be a trilogy. So I did quite a lot of world-building. It all takes place in a fantasy version of the Lake District, where they all go up and down rivers in boats. They're dressed animals: it's not Watership Down, it's Wind in the Willows. They have houses, they wear clothes, and they cook their food. It's a standard fantasy plot, really.
TB: Why pine martens?
CB: Why not? I like pine martens. They're original. There's a mixture of animals: there are four who make up the group that do all the adventuring. The pine marten is the hero but there's also a vixen, a Scottish wildcat and a squirrel.
TB: You've written almost equal amounts of science fiction and fantasy in your work for children. Which do you prefer?
CB: I think I prefer fantasy, or science fiction that is on the fantasy end of the spectrum. The Six Worlds books were science fiction: some of the worlds had lost their technology, and were living a kind of medieval existence, which is really a fantasy setting rather than a science fiction setting. There's only one of the worlds which had survived with technology and a certain amount of limited space travel. The others had gone backwards. So, yes: fantasy, I think. I'm a literary person by education - I did my degree in English Literature - and I don't have sufficient scientific knowledge to write really hard SF novels, of the sort that Stephen Baxter comes out with. I wouldn't know where to start. Fantasy is much easier, and I also find that it's a good vehicle for ideas. Looking at people's emotions and different people's ambitions and fears and so on, through a fantasy plot, is perhaps easier than with a science fiction plot.
TB: You were talking about children being put off by big books. How do you think the average child is going to contend with having the first three Harry Potter books fairly short, and the fourth one much longer - more than twice the length of the previous one?
CB: I think they're probably going to think 'Whee! All that extra Harry Potter!'
TB: What do you think of the whole Harry Potter phenomenon?
CB: I think the books are great fun. They're stuffed full of the kind of thing that kids like. I'm surprised that it's become so big, because that is an incredible phenomenon. It hasn't happened before, and I doubt it will happen again. I don't think there's an enormous amount of depth to them: I don't think you can look at them as literature, but they are enormously attractive to young people. At one end of the children's fiction spectrum you've got the mass-market series fiction, like Puppy Patrol. At the other end you've got some books which are terribly worthy, and teachers and librarians really approve of them. But I sometimes think perhaps children don't actually enjoy them a lot.
TB: One of the writers who's being raised on a pedestal as an alternative to the Harry Potter books is Philip Pullman. What do you think of his books?
CB: I think he's an incredibly good writer. I don't want anyone to think that I'm anti-Philip Pullman. I don't think he'll ever have the following that Harry Potter has, because his books aren't as accessible. They don't have the immediate surface attractiveness of Harry Potter. I think they're very much better books and they'll probably survive longer. I do have my reservations about the kind of thing that he is actually saying to children. There's stuff in the Sally Lockhart trilogy (as was: I haven't read the fourth one yet), especially in volume 3, which I think is quite disturbing for a child. The child who read volume 1 and enjoyed it is going to get quite upset by the time they get to volume 3. I think it's pitched at a much older age group than the first one. This is a bit worrying, because once a child has read and enjoyed the first one, the immediate reaction is to go and read number 2. They don't wait for two or three years until they're a bit more mature.
[Audience]: Do you think there's a problem like that in the Harry Potter books? CB: I certainly think that the ending of the fourth Harry Potter is much darker. I've got a friend who has two children of the right sort of age to be reading it, and she was a little bit worried about how her daughter would react to the end of the fourth book.
TB: Is it necessarily a problem? It can be part of growing up.
CB: It depends on the child, and it depends on the particular stage that the child is at. This is why I very strongly think that parents should read the books that their kids are reading.
TB: One example is [Ursula Le Guin's] Earthsea series. The first three books - the original trilogy - are definitely pitched at adolescents. There's coming-of-age themes and moral crises, but nothing more difficult.
CB: I don't think there's anything in the first three books of Earthsea that would worry the average parent.
TB: The fourth book, Tehanu - which is now being published in the same volume as the other three - is a different matter. I read it at the right age, because I read the trilogy as a child and Tehanu as an adult, when it was published: but a lot of children now will go on and read the four novels as a single work. There are a lot of unsettling things in Tehanu.
CB: I think that's a pity, because I don't think that Tehanu is a children's book at all. The things that happen to the child, and the perversion of the mage who wants to kill them at the end … I don't think a child would understand the emotions that were fuelling that man. I don't think they would see what his motivation was at all, and I think it would be very difficult for a parent to explain it. My elder son, who was quite a keen reader as a child, read A Wizard of Earthsea when he was about nine. That was fine, but he'd have been completely lost with Tehanu.
TB: Who else do you rate as a children's fantasy writer?
CB: Diana Wynne Jones, obviously: I think she's very good. There's depth in her stuff that there isn't in Rowling. Probably for that reason she is a rather more difficult read than Rowling. Again for that reason, she isn't going to get the enormous number of readers that Harry Potter does.
[Audience]: She does claim that she writes books that children enjoy: she doesn't write for children. Do you think that because of that, children may not get as much out of them? CB: Yes, at least on the first reading. I don't think I get everything out of a Diana Wynne Jones book on first reading. I'm sure children don't. They maybe go back to it and reread it and find new things in it later.
TB: And what do you think of Diana's adult fiction?
CB: I don't think it's as good as her children's fiction. Considered as adult novels, they are incredibly readable: I think Dark Lord of Derkholm is wonderful, the way she plays with the idea of the fantasy kingdom that she set up in Tough Guide. I think some of her children's fiction is outstanding: I wouldn't say that about the adult novels.
TB: You're somebody who has written both children's fiction and adult fiction: which do you find is easier?
CB: I don't find either of them particularly easy. I found the King Arthur book (Exiled from Camelot) fairly easy once I'd sorted out what I was going to do in it. I did all the thinking beforehand. It wasn't that difficult to write. The Venice book (The Reliquary Ring: not yet published) was actually quite hard to write.
TB: You say you don't think Diana Wynne Jones's adult fiction is as strong as her children's fiction. Are there other writers who you think can write for both children and adults?
CB: Le Guin? I don't know, because I have tremendous admiration for nearly everything she's written. I think in recent years she's got a little bit too much PC, and some of the fiction is showing that rather badly. Certainly, the great novels, like The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, are going to be with us for a very long time.
TB: In your children's books, you've avoided being overly PC. You also said you didn't like forcing the Christian view on your readers. Do you ever feel the urge to push anything ideological?
CB: I don't like didactic writing in the guise of a story. If you're going to write fiction, then the story and the characters have to be the most important things: it's got to be as good as you can possibly make it. I think any writer's world view is going to come over in the fiction they write, but that's a different thing from deliberately trying to teach a lesson, which I don't much care for.
TB: I think that children perhaps don't notice someone coming to force a point of view on them. Maybe a child will just receive without realising.
CB: I think there are ideas that you'd want to put into children's fiction, like anti-drugs, anti-experimenting with sex, things about bullying - but they've got to be embedded in the story.
TB: You've published quite a number of short stories, including a couple of Shakespearean whodunits, one based on The Merchant of Venice - for which you've also written a study guide. What fascinates you about The Merchant of Venice? Are there other Shakespeare plays that you'd like to use as source material for fiction?
CB: I just like Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice seems to me to be such an interesting play, because there are so many different issues raised by it. The characters are interesting, and there are so many ambiguities within it, so many questions that it raises and doesn't answer. It's very disturbing for a comedy to be ambiguous like that. You cannot honestly see those marriages at the end holding up for very long, which is what I wrote the short story about.
TB: From The Merchant of Venice to a future Venice: your short story 'The Reliquary Ring' in Odyssey 2 is also set in Venice, but it's a future Venice. You've expanded that into a novel of the same name. Which came first?
CB: The short story was the first thing I wrote about that particular Venetian society. I'm not sure, actually, whether it's a future Venice or an alternate universe: it's not the Venice that we know. I started the short story intending it to be the beginning of a novel. I then wrote another short story set in the same world, with some of the same characters but a completely separate story, and when I did the third one I took it to Milford, where they told me that this would make a pretty good novel! I went away and thought about it, and decided that if I put together what I'd written so far, and interwove it with some other ideas that I'd had, but hadn't actually committed to paper at that time, there were the bones of a novel there.
TB: Can you tell us a bit about it?
CB: Well, the society of Venice is a layered society, which I think to a certain extent is true of today's Venice, in that there's a great sense of the past there, the different periods coexisting together. In this particular society they have genetically-engineered human beings, otherwise known as genics, who are commodities. They're created in the labs of the Empire to the north, and then brought south and sold. They are effectively slaves. The basic idea of the novel is the way that genics become accepted as proper human beings. The thing that's interwoven with this is the story of the ring, which is discovered very early in the novel, which has a reliquary containing the hair of Christ. The way that's made use of fits in with the story about what happens to the genics.
TB: Are we ever going to see this novel?
CB: I hope so. My agent's got it at the moment: that's all I know.
[Audience]: I wondered what you thought of Stephen Lawhead, both as an Arthurian writer and as a Christian writer who does tend to hit readers over the head with his beliefs. CB: I really don't care much for his Arthurian fiction, which I know is an awful thing to say. People think I'll like it because it's Christian, but I don't, really, because he has a squeaky-clean Arthur which isn't really backed up by the legends at all, merely to get his ideas over.
[Audience]: Does the Christianity in the Arthurian mythos appeal to you? CB: Yes, it does. If you go back to the original medieval texts, of course, there's a very strong Christian worldview there. But again, it's not hitting you over the head with a message, because everybody was Christian, apart from a few pagans who were there to have their heads cut off. It's quite comfortably there.
[Audience]: Do you think that's one reason you're interested in the Arthurian romance, rather than the earlier works? CB: That's quite possible, yes. When I was first starting to write Arthurian stuff, I felt it was very remote because it's very remote as a time, and also quite remote in the way that they thought. One of the things that I could find that they did, and that I still do, is to attend Mass. It's a kind of meeting point. There's a Mass in Exiled from Camelot which is quite important to the structure of the story.
TB: Cherith, thank you very much.

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