This interview took place in March 2003, and appeared in Vector (issue #230, July 2003) the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.
TB: Your novel Wolfskin is the superlead launch title for Tor UK, but it's not your first novel - you've written a fantasy trilogy, haven't you?
JM: Yes, the Sevenwaters trilogy - the first one's called Daughter of the Forest. They're set in Celtic Ireland in approximately the ninth century. They were published by HarperCollins under the Voyager imprint. The third in the series just came out in paperback in January this year. They've done very well, particularly in America and in Australia.
The trilogy started with my wish to retell a favourite fairytale from childhood, 'The Six Swans'. It's the story about a girl whose brothers are turned into swans by their stepmother, and she has to maintain her silence while she weaves shirts for them out of a very prickly plant. She undergoes all sorts of trials while doing that. I've always liked that particular story because it has a strong female character at the centre of it, and that was the story I really wanted to do as my first novel. I wanted to put a real family in the heart of it, and a real historical and geographical setting, and to see how they responded as individuals to the terrible tests that befell them. Each of the six brothers has his own character and develops in his own way.
While writing that first volume, Daughter of the Forest, I became interested in the setting and the family, and the fact that catastrophic events don't only affect one generation, but can affect the family for years and years. That theme developed into a trilogy that followed three generations of the same family. Each one of those stories is told in the first person, narrated by a young woman. They're particularly popular amongst women readers because even now there are relatively few fantasy books that are so female-focussed and based on women's psychology and women's personal journeys.
TB: The cover of Wolfskin, with its longship on a sunset sea, makes it look like a typical Viking novel, and for the first hundred and fifty pages it is a typical Viking novel. Then you introduce Nessa, who's a Pictish priestess.
JM: Yes, Wolfskin starts with Eyvind's upbringing as a Viking warrior. This is obviously a big contrast with my first series, because I've moved away from the female narrator. I'm telling the story in the third person and sharing the narrative between Eyvind, who's a berserker - a Viking warrior par excellence - and Nessa, who is a Pictish priestess from Orkney. I'm exploring the way that the two cultures of those protagonists clash violently, and what the fall-out is from that.
TB: Why Orkney, and why the Vikings?
JM: My imagination tends to be sparked by little bits of history or little bits of story that I hear. My daughter and her husband travelled to Orkney while they were working in the UK. They were tremendously struck by the layer upon layer of history that exists there, starting with Neolithic times and going through the Pictish settlement and then the arrival of the Vikings. The islands changed hands between Norway and Scotland: they were sold off, and given away as a dowry. My daughter instantly knew that the place would attract me. She said, "You've got to go there, there's got to be a book there," and this was true: I went and was absolutely captivated by the history and the folklore.
I was particularly interested in a part of Orcadian history that we don't really know much about, which was what happened to the Pictish settlement that was there prior to the first Norse arrival. It just disappears. Suddenly, we have Norse Orkney, with the jarls in charge and settlers coming across from Norway. The written record - the Orkneyinga Saga - was written in about 1200, which is quite a few hundred years after those events happened. It doesn't say anything about the inhabitants who were there before the Norse. It simply says that the Norse arrived in the islands. It's as if those Picts that we know about from Roman histories and so forth had just vanished.
There's a lot of debate amongst historians and archaeologists about what actually happened to them: whether they were overrun and annihilated, or whether Norse settlers came in dribs and drabs and settled down thinking, "This is a good place for an anchorage, a good place for farming", and intermarried, and became the dominant culture. Being more of a fantasy writer than a historian, I immediately thought, "That's a story that's just waiting to be told." I had a go at portraying a version of what happened in this book.
That's half of it. The other half is the Viking culture, and particularly the berserk warrior. I guess when you think about berserkers, you think of someone like Conan the Barbarian - the insane warrior who fought with no thought for his own safety, who slashed and murdered and maimed. And yet in the old Icelandic sagas the berserkers are not really described like that. They're certainly very much to be feared, but in between their viking episodes, they go back home and put in a crop and father a child and keep an eye on the farm. The berserker was part of an elite guard to a nobleman, who could also turn on this amazing trance-like courage when required. I discovered strange things like the fact that there were whole bands of berserker brothers who would be hired: you'd hire six brothers all at once to go and fight together. I was quite fascinated by that, and I decided to have a berserker as the central character of the novel. I tried to think through his psychology so that in one aspect he could be a mad killing machine, but he could also be an ordinary, pleasant family man. I went out of my way to make Eyvind someone who'd had a very happy, stable childhood, and who was a very pleasant and well-liked person; not particularly forthright except when he was doing what he did best, which was fighting and killing. So there's that dichotomy within him, which eventually becomes quite difficult for him.
TB: I've always associated the berserkers with Odin, but you've made an association with Thor...
JM: I've added a historical note at the end of the book that explains why I did that. They were followers of Odin, and I made one of those arbitrary creative decisions that my Wolfskins would be followers of Thor, because I see Thor as a straightforward god who doesn't play nasty tricks the way Odin does. More wholesome, even though somewhat warlike! The particular band in this book are straightforward men who have great friendship and loyalty to one another. They see things in fairly simple black-and-white terms and I decided Thor suited them. I knew I was going to have to put that in the notes: I guess the reasoning is, it's a fantasy history!
TB: Eyvind starts off by seeing things very much in black and white terms. It's when he begins to see things in shades of grey that it all starts to go wrong for him. He may have bravely slain the enemy, but he's also killed the kinsmen of the woman he wants to marry. It's as though his conscience wakes up, and he begins to realise that his blood brother is not what he seems.
JM: That's right. Up till then, because he has this bond of blood brotherhood with Somerled who is his childhood friend, he has tried very hard to see Somerled in black and white. Eyvind has a tendency to try to see the best in everyone and everything, and that's because he himself is such a good, courageous and honourable person. Once he starts to see beyond the obvious, that bond of blood brotherhood, that loyalty, becomes very difficult for him.
Of course, in those days, you were expected to adhere to these bonds, and they would be more important than your own conscience or your own personal inclination. A Wolfskin was expected to adhere to his oath to Thor, which meant that he would be a warrior until his death and that he would have a life expectation of only three to five years. And that was fine, because if you died in Thor's service you went straight to the table of the gods. An oath of blood brotherhood was also binding for ever, regardless of everything else. One of the themes of the story is that while Eyvind still holds to his oath, even at the end, it's not quite the thing that it at first seemed to be, where you stick up for your blood brother against all enemies. It's more a case of being responsible for his behaviour.
TB: Somerled is a really interesting character: I kept reading him as someone who was born before his time. He's too complex for the rest of them. He belongs in the Renaissance, really!
JM: Where he could have plotted, schemed and moved upwards! Yes, he is too clever for his time. A lot of the speeches and pronouncements he makes are absolutely spot-on in terms of where his people will go. He's quite right about the fact that the Norse are a stronger people who will eventually take over the islands. They are the dominant culture. He's the kind of man who was very much admired in his time, because he's decisive: he doesn't really care who he tramples on in order to make what he sees are the right decisions. Being cruel and inhumane wasn't so important in those times. He's the kind of man who was more likely to succeed than a man like Eyvind who probably has far too many scruples.
TB: Another interesting aspect of Wolfskin is the prophecies. Although there's no definite magic in the novel, there is something that works. At least, the characters are experiencing something that works! It's never explained or questioned, it's simply there.
JM: I think that the way I use magic, not just in this book but to a certain extent in my previous books, is different from the way that quite a lot of fantasy writers use it. That's why I see my books as veering slightly more towards history, slightly further away from fantasy. I will always include a mystical and magical element to my fiction, because real life has a mystical and magical element. And in Wolfskin that element is shown as part of what those people would have believed.
So you've got prophesy, certainly: once you've got a dire curse like that over you, you know that some day it's going to catch up with you. Ulf knows that's how he's going to die some day, but, being the man he is, has just decided he's going to cram in as much as possible of the stuff that he wants to do before it overtakes him. Another scene that would be read as mystical or magical, is the initiation ceremony where Eyvind becomes a Wolfskin, and again I've tried very hard not to spell out what happens in that scene. While there is something that is supremely mystical and life changing, I don't spell out how much of it is physically real and how much of it is in his head. Even towards the end, where the magical harp plays its music, I've tried not to say how it sounds, just that it's different for each person. It's not overtly magical, but that magical thread is there throughout.
I have to say that in the Sevenwaters books, there is more overt magic. There are characters in those books that are otherworld characters, based on Irish mythology, who interact with human characters. The human characters firmly believe in the mythological characters that share the forest with them. Therefore, if they happen to meet someone who is not human, it's somewhat wondrous but it's not a shock.
TB: In Wolfskin you have the Hidden Folk, who I thought of in terms of the Neolithic tribes who came before the Picts…
JM: I'll have to tell my folkloric advisor from Orkney that you thought that. Originally the Hidden Tribe were much more obviously magical than they are in the final book, and his advice was to make them something that's halfway between a magical portrayal and something that could be an ancient ancestor.
TB: There are three women in the book - Nessa, Margaret and Rona - who can be seen as typifying the three faces of the Goddess: maiden, wife and crone.
JM: Initially Margaret was a fairly minor character, but I was very interested in her and her relationship with Somerled, and what happens to both of those people. I tried to make her the typical young wife of a Norse chieftain who, like the other Norse characters, is very much bound by duty and by her sense of what she feels is right. But she's a character who is able to step across the boundaries of cultural expectations. Somebody said to me that there's a natural bond and understanding between women that's shown in this book, which surmounts culture and custom.
TB: It's a gradual understanding: Margaret and Nessa don't get along at all to start with.
JM: No, they don't even want to speak to each other at first. There comes a point where they have to extend a hand to help one another. All of the women in the book have the sense of 'the right thing to do', and they all eventually take that step in the right direction.
The other interesting thing with Nessa and Rona is their religious faith and their beliefs, which I more or less had to create. We don't know very much at all about the Picts, except that they were a Celtic-type race. They disappeared not only from Orkney but also from the Scottish mainland. They've left behind artefacts, and they've left behind the standing stones that have all sorts of wonderful carvings of what might be family symbols. In order to show that clash of cultures, I had to create their religious faith, and I decided the most likely thing was that it would be a Goddess faith. I've made it a fairly peaceful nature-based religion, in contrast with the warlike gods of the Norse invaders. There is a theory, hotly debated, that the royal line of the Picts came down through the women rather than through the men. I liked that idea, so I've kept that for them. I felt that the fact that there were influential priestesses was tied in fairly closely with the women's line being the bloodline.
TB: The harp of bone is a fascinating myth: I'd never encountered it except in British ballads.
JM: I mention a couple of Norse stories where it comes up, but I have to say that they were completely invented. It's historical fantasy! I can't prove to you that it comes up in Norse mythology, but it does pop up in a lot of different cultures, so I think that leap is probably not too unlikely. In terms of what happens in the story, without wishing to give too much away to the people who haven't read it, it's essential that the characters are familiar with that particular piece of folklore. It is a pretty universal idea, that the bones of the dead will speak … it's the idea behind casting the bones, or burning them and using the ash as a tool of divination. I do love that story about the harp made of bone, and hair. You hear these ballads that sound so wonderful, and then you think about actually making such a harp, and what the difficulties would be, and how such an instrument couldn't possibly make a musical sound.
TB: Wolfskin is the first in a new sequence, isn't it?
JM: That's right. It's a two-book sequence. The second one's called Foxmask, and that's already written: it actually comes out in Australia in August of this year. It skips a generation between book one and book two. At the moment it's a two-book sequence, but I have a strong feeling that some of my readers are going to want a third one!
TB: You were born in New Zealand, yet you're writing historical fantasy set in Scotland. Why Scotland?
JM: My ancestors come from the north of Scotland. I grew up in a part of New Zealand that was settled by Scottish people, and all the street names are named after Edinburgh streets. I grew up surrounded by Scottish culture and music and stories, so I couldn't escape it, and I'm sure that's why now, even though my first series was set in Ireland with the Celts, I've now gone back to Scottish history. Those old stories are deep in my blood. The book I'm working on now is also based on Scottish history.
TB: Can you tell us more about that work in progress?
JM: I'm writing a trilogy based on Bridei, who lived in the sixth century. He had some confrontations with Saint Columba, to do with whether his Pictish territories were going to be allowed to become Christian, or whether he was going to adhere to the faith of his upbringing, which was more of a pagan druidic culture. It's a very interesting period of history.