Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Juliet Marillier talks to Egoboo

Multi-faceted Perth-based writer Juliet Marillier recently gave Egoboo an hour out of her very busy schedule to talk about Druidry, Wagner, fairy tales, conventions and her writerly life. We had a handful of questions for her – and here they are, along with the words of wisdom she gave us in reply.

Joanna Fay set the ball rolling by asking: Do you draw on your druidic beliefs and practices in your writing?

Juliet: I actually came to Druidry through writing. When I was researching Daughter of the Forest, my first book, I found I needed to research Druidry because one of my characters was destined to become a druid. Just at that time, Philip Carr-Gomm of the UK-based Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) visited Perth to give a workshop for the University of Western Australia’s extension program. I went along to hear him and was impressed by his unpretentious, non-guru-like manner. He told us the story of Taliesin and how the Order sees story-telling as an integral part of spiritual practice. I was so intrigued that I enrolled for OBOD’s correspondence course. This felt rather like coming home – there were so many similarities between the Order’s teachings and  my own belief system. Druidry recognises the power of storytelling for teaching and healing. We see ourselves as part of the web of life on earth, and that means sharing responsibility for the health of the planet. Conservation and sustainability are important in druid work. Another key belief is that the divine exists within all living beings. This ensures that we respect all forms of life, ourselves included. These beliefs can’t help but flow through to my writing.

Joanna: I’ve heard that you’re a Wagner enthusiast, like me. Do you find this influences your writing, too? And how about other music, art, and other literary forms? Are they also influences?

Juliet: My mother loved Wagner! I remember going the home of some Austrian friends when I was about ten, and over a series of evenings, listening to the entire Ring Cycle with musical score in hand. I was captured by both story and music. But although I enjoy Wagner and opera in general, these days I prefer to listen to folk music – Celtic and Hispanic music in particular. My CD collection is 95% folk music. I don’t usually listen to music while I’m writing, but when I do I choose something appropriate to the story and setting – that usually means some form of traditional music.

I love the Pre-Raphaelite painters, especially Waterhouse (I was delighted when Pan Macmillan brought out an edition of the Sevenwaters books featuring his paintings on the covers!) but whether they are actually an influence on my work is a moot point. I like many fairytale illustrators, notably Kinuko Y Kraft, who created the lovely covers for my two YA books, Wildwood Dancing and Cybele’s Secret. Most of the art work on my walls at home is fairytale based. I guess fantastic art has been an unconscious influence since childhood.

As for other literary forms, I read widely. For recreation I prefer general fiction and literary fiction. I love writers who combine excellent craft with great storytelling. I read very little fantasy.

Satima Flavell: Do you follow any fantasy writers at all?

Juliet: If you look at my bookshelves, you’ll see that I do love some fantasy writers. One is Joe Abercrombie, whose work meets my criteria: craft plus storytelling. All the authors I enjoy create characters with a lot of depth, and one reason I don’t care for much epic fantasy is that there’s often an emphasis on worldbuilding at the expense of character development. There are exceptions: Abercrombie is one, and others include Guy Gavriel Kay (I especially love Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan) and Jacqueline Carey. I also enjoy Neil Gaiman and I think Orson Scott Card is a great craftsman who sometimes gets carried away by his personal philosophies. In Australian fantasy, you can’t go past Margo Lanagan. Her Tender Morsels was utterly absorbing.

Satima: What else might we find on your bookshelves?

Juliet: Plenty of mainstream and literary fiction, and, of course, lots of folklore and fairy tales! A lot of non-fiction, too, mostly research-related: customs, languages, geography, history. Books on the writer’s craft. Favourite children’s books. Knitting books. Dog books.

Helen Venn: You’ve used myth and fable in your work a number of times. How do you work it in? And how do you keep it fresh?

Juliet: I’ve loved fairy tales and folklore since I was about two, so traditional storytelling creeps into my work in all kinds of ways. Generally it comes out in the manner of telling or in the choice of big themes – courage, friendship, true love, faith, honour. But sometimes I use a story as the basis of a book – I’ve done this for three of my thirteen published novels. I’ve always loved the Six Swans story, on which my first novel, Daughter of the Forest was based. I wanted to place a real family in the middle of those terrifying events and see how they coped. That fairy tale also appealed because of its strong female protagonist.

For Wildwood Dancing I took the stories of The Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Frog Prince and developed the plot around elements of both. Heart’s Blood uses Beauty and the Beast as its framework, but it is a much more complex and layered story than the fairy tale. I made many changes so my story would resonate for contemporary readers, but kept all the parts I loved most: secret garden, cast of mysterious retainers, magic mirrors. There’s more about this on my website:

As for keeping it fresh, there are two main reasons for using fairy tale material: firstly, because you love it and secondly, because it fits the story you passionately want to tell. If you keep both of those in mind, the "how to" should become clear as you go.

Helen: What are the problems inherent in writing a story such as Heart’s Blood, which is so obviously based on a well-known fairy story?

Juliet: It depends on how closely you’re basing your work on the fairy tale. Some writers might twist the story to make it fit into, say, a feminist paradigm, or they might re-tell it as humour. One challenge is to make a story acceptable (and relevant) to contemporary readers rather than retaining the mores and values of the period in which it was first written down, since these could be unacceptable now. You need to do that without losing the charm of the original.  For example, in Beauty and the Beast, a curse is lifted at the end and the hero becomes handsome. I didn’t want to send a message that physical beauty is necessary for happiness. Anluan in Heart’s Blood has a physical disability caused by a childhood illness, not a curse. He still has it at the end of the story, but has learned that it makes no difference to the people that love him.

Sarah Parker: How did you enjoy this year’s Swancon and the panels you were on?

Juliet: I’m not much of a con enthusiast generally, but this one was fun: well-organised, and in a spacious, comfortable venue. I especially liked the inclusion of the Romancing the West writers’ workshops under the Swancon umbrella. I would have liked to see hands-on writing workshops for speculative fiction writers too, not only for romance writers – it felt odd to me that the romance stream got “how to write better” workshops and the spec fic stream got “how to get published” workshops.

My panels were well attended and brought out some interesting questions. I especially enjoyed "Writer as business person/Writer as entertainer" with Sean Williams, Justina Robson and Simon Brown (who was an excellent facilitator). It was notable for frankness and good humour.

Satima: And how about your workshop on using fairy stories in writing romance?

Juliet: The quality of writing that came out of the workshop was very pleasing. It’s hard to write something that’s both creative and polished under workshop conditions. And I was happy to learn later than some participants had gone home and developed their ideas into stories.

Not only was it great to share my lifelong love of fairy stories with other writers, it also provided me with the opportunity to try out some ideas preparatory to presenting the material as a one-day workshop in Santa Barbara in June, for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). That workshop is called Old Bones, New Flesh, and is based on fairy tales as inspiration for creative work.

After Santa Barbara I fly on to New York, where I’m delivering the keynote address for the Women’s Fiction Chapter at the Romance Writers of America convention. I’ll base it on the ways in which women pass on wisdom from one generation to the next. And then to Lisbon for the release of Seer of Sevenwaters in Portuguese.

Thank you from all of us here at Egoboo, Juliet Marillier!


  1. When I went on my picture book fairy tale buying binge last year, I selected several illustrated by K. Y. Craft! I hadn't realised she was still working—most of the ones I was able to find were out of print, so I had assumed she was no longer around!

  2. Fascinating insights, Juliet - the link between writing/storytelling and its central place in Druidry makes so much sense. Thanks for sharing that. :)
    I love Waterhouse too, and would say the Pre-Raphaelites have been important to my aesthetic as a visual artist, and as my writing is developing its presence is imprinted there too. :)