Author Interview: Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier, a New-Zealand born resident of Western Australia, is a popular writer of historical fantasy best known for her Sevenwaters adult series. Her young adult novel Cybele's Secret won a 2008 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel - Young Adult. She has won an assortment of awards for her books including the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel (2000, Son of the Shadows; 2005, Blade of Fortriu; 2006, Wildwood Dancing), the American Library Association's Alex Award (2001, Daughter of the Forest) and a YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Best Book For Young Adults (2007, Wildwood Dancing). Look here for a list of her awards.

Juliet graduated from Otago University with a Bachelor of Music and a Bachelor of Arts in languages. She is a member of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and her beliefs are deeply reflected in her writing. Her latest books, Shadowfell and Flame of Sevenwaters are due for publication this year.

How hard was it to get Daughter of the Forest out of your head onto the page and then into print when you first started publishing in 2000? Have you, fifteen books and several short stories later, developed a routine that works for you?
JB: Not as hard as you might think. I’d done a lot of writing when I was much younger, during my school and university years, and I’ve always been an avid and broad reader so I had the foundations of the writer’s craft already. Daughter of the Forest was written during a period of my life when I’d been through a big personal crisis and was putting myself together again, and it was written more as personal therapy than as an attempt to forge a professional career as a writer. I took three years to write the novel, while working fulltime and being a single parent. The story pretty much flowed out without my needing to think much about it – I wish I could still do that! I need a good routine these days because my publishers like me to turn in a book a year, and I can be editing one, writing another and planning a third at any given time. Keeping to that routine requires a huge amount of self-discipline. My working day does vary in length dramatically depending on how close the nearest deadline is! My four dogs make sure I take breaks and get exercise reasonably often.
RB: How easily did you make the transition from teacher to author? Did anything make it easier?
JM: It wasn’t a direct transition as I had a 13 year period working in the Commonwealth public service between finishing teaching and becoming a full time writer. That actually made it easier because my workmates in the public service, including bosses, were enormously supportive of my career as a writer, pretty much cheering on every small success and providing me with an instant readership and great word-of-mouth publicity. That meant I could gradually decrease my hours in the day job in order to fulfil the three-book contract I had for Sevenwaters, first droppig to four days a week then three.  Eventually I quit the day job to write full time. I’m sure the life experience I’ve had, both in employment and in raising children, has made me a more mature writer than I would have been if I’d penned my first ‘serious’ novel as a new university graduate.
RB: You've mentioned in previous interviews that your fight with breast cancer inspired Heart’s Blood, what else gives the flesh, blood and breath to the characters we love so dearly?
JM: I believe the key to writing ‘real’ characters lies in understanding human nature and accepting people with all their flaws and weaknesses – recognising the humanity and the worth in even the most apparently unlovable individual. The only way to learn that is to live your life in the belief that there’s something worthwhile in everyone. And you need to be able to put yourself in that character’s head and walk in his or her shoes for a while.  
I can understand why readers love and identify with the stronger characters in my novels, especially the Sevenwaters women who are the first person narrators of their own books. What really pleases me is when readers tell me they’ve loved one of the flawed characters (eg Somerled in Wolfskin and Foxmask, or Breda or Deord in The Well of Shades) – those kinds of characters are so interesting to create and to get to know. Deord’s death scene was one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever had to write and I hated the need to re-read it for editing.  
If I were to go back and rewrite Daughter of the Forest now, I would work on making both Lady Oonagh and Richard of Northwoods more three-dimensional, not such cardboard cut-out villains.
RB: Do you find it difficult to write in a teenage voice? Your characters are placed in a completely different time, and settings, to modern teenagers, but you seem to avoid a lot of the shallowness given to teenagers by other young adult authors.
JM: I think I would find it very difficult to write in a contemporary teenage voice because my children are adults and my eldest grandchild is only 8. So I don’t have teenagers around to listen to. That’s a shame because I have a couple of great ideas for contemporary YA novels.  
Even in my adult books the main character is often in the 16-18 age group, but in the time and culture of the novels a person of that age would be viewed as an adult – the girls would marry as young as 14, the boys would be plying a trade or off at war, or if high-born, learning to be a leader. People led shorter lives and many died young (in childbirth, in wars, of illness or accident.)  
With dialogue and first person narration in those historical settings I aim for something halfway between an ‘authentic’ historical voice and a voice that is acceptable to the contemporary reader. Sometimes I’m criticised for making the voice too modern, but I’d rather err on the side of readability than attempt to be absolutely correct to the period (besides, mostly my characters would be speaking Irish or Pictish or Romanian anyway.)  
As for shallowness, well, I view every character as a complete human being with a full set of strengths and weaknesses, whether that person is 5 or 95. Although my teenage protagonists face some truly fearsome challenges, especially in Shadowfell, they share many of the same kinds of uncertainties and doubts that today’s young people do. 
RB: You have a real knack for producing different accents in text. I was reading the scene with the Brollachan aloud because it sounded so good. What other languages do you speak? How have they helped your creativity?
JM: I’m thrilled that you liked the Brollachan’s voice! (I am waiting with some trepidation for someone to ask me to read that section of Shadowfell aloud. Those sections weren’t hard for me to write because I grew up in the most Scottish place outside Scotland itself.) At one point I was fluent in French and had a working knowledge of Italian and German. I also studied Latin and Russian at tertiary level. But that was a long time ago – I’d need a refresher course to be fluent in anything except English now. 
I’ve had a lot of experience as a musician and that has given me a good sense of rhythm, balance and flow which transfers over to my writing. Also, I love traditional storytelling (myths and legends, fairy tales and folklore) and that has its own rhythms which are not hard to find in my work. A knowledge of languages other than your own is hugely valuable to a writer – it opens up your mind to all kinds of possibilities, it enhances your use of your own language. I wish our schools here placed more emphasis on languages, not only as a tool for jobs in business and commerce, but to develop thinking.
RB: For a teen novel, Shadowfell starts in quite a dark place. How do you change your writing style for YA? How much do you discard in order to keep the stories simple when compared to your Sevenwaters or Bridei Chronicles? 
JM: Interesting one! I am still waiting to hear what my editors think of the manuscript for the second Shadowfell book, which ends on a really dark note. Really there are only two things I concentrate on for YA.
Firstly the protagonist is young – in Shadowfell, Neryn is fifteen at the start of the novel (fifteen in a world very different from ours, so needing to make some very grown-up decisions).
Secondly, the story turns on that central character’s personal journey, usually a coming-of-age story of some kind, and as a writer I try not to get derailed by sub-plots or by other characters who want to assume too much importance. 
There’s also the question of book length, as publishers expect a YA novel to be around the 75,000 word mark, about half the length I get for an adult novel. In fact all my YA novels are in the 100-110,000 word range – sometimes a story just can’t be squashed down. I do try to be less wordy, keep descriptions concise, make sure I write dialogue rather than conversations (in other words, don’t write down everything these characters would say in real life, keep it to what is required for meaning and emotional punch.) 
The Shadowfell series has a big story, almost epic, about an attempt by a band of young rebels to dethrone a tyrannical king and to reverse years of repression and fear in Alban (an imagined version of ancient Scotland.) That story is told over three books; in Shadowfell we see Neryn’s personal journey from being alone, penniless and hunted to … well, people will need to read the book to find out.
As for dark material, it’s not so much a matter of what you include as of how you write it, I think. In fact I am hoping this series will be a successful crossover – an equally satisfying read for adults and young adults. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone younger than a mature 13.
RB: One of the things I love best about your books are the little stories you throw in, especially about the Good Folk. I've never seen you use the same story twice, and I've read a lot of fairy tales and folk lore, and you still pull new ones out to surprise me with. Where do you find a tale to suit every situation?
JM: There are far more ‘made up’ stories in there than traditional ones. I enjoy writing in that style and it seems to come naturally to me, I guess because I’ve loved fairy tales and folk tales since I was a child. I do also use traditional stories, of course, for instance a version of the Scots ballad Tam Lin told by Liadan to Bran and his men, and in Child of the Prophecy an Irish folktale about a wee man being tricked out of his hidden treasure.
RB: Unlike a lot of your other novels Shadowfell has a relatively open ending. Have you planned a certain number of books for this series?
JM: Yes, I’m contracted to write three books. The story about tyranny and rebellion runs across the whole three-book length, as does the love story, though each book also has its own complete story. Whether the series continues after those three books will depend on how readers respond to them. They’re pretty different from my previous young adult fiction.
RB: Have you got many new stories on the go? I've heard that the editing draft for Flame of Sevenwaters (due out November 2012) is done, you've completed a draft of Raven Flight for NaNoWriMo 2011 and you're still powering on.
What else can we look forward to? If you could write anything you wanted next, would you start something completely new, stick with your current stories, or go back to one of your older series like Bridei or Wildwood Dancing?
JM: A small correction there – I did start Raven Flight during NaNoWriMo but I deleted at least half of what I wrote during that month and ended up exhausted and annoyed, so I won’t be doing NaNo again. Odd, really, as I quite often maintain that kind of word count when I’m under deadline pressure. But yes, Raven Flight is finished and submitted to the editors, and will come back to me next month with their comments, I hope mostly favourable. 
There will be a third Shadowfell book coming; I should be getting started on that now. And after that, another adult book. Readers keep asking me for another Bridei or Wildwood book, but I’m somewhat at the mercy of my publishers / the market on both those series.
If there were no time constraints and no commercial constraints I would like to start a new adult series, and build in some technical challenges for myself. I’ve loved writing the world of Alban for Shadowfell, so maybe something based in Scotland. As an alternative, I might attempt a contemporary, non-fantasy novel. 
By the way, I have a collection of short fiction coming out in March 2013 from Ticonderoga Publications. That will include the best of my previously published short stories plus a few new ones including, I hope, a new novella. I find short fiction quite challenging to write, but I was thrilled to get this opportunity. The collection will be available both as a print book and an ebook.
RB: Is there one of your characters that you especially relate to or one you'd particularly love to be?
JM: I’m generally deeply involved with whatever cast of characters I am currently writing. I’m not sure there’s a character I would really love to be – I don’t exactly make their lives easy for them! 
Who do I relate to? Probably Caitrin in Heart’s Blood, a character who starts her journey with a lot of uncertainty and learns not only to appreciate her own good qualities but also to show several other characters that despite their mistakes they are fine people, worthy of love.

Expect the review of Shadowfell this Sunday, and there will be a little surprise included!

Look at my Shadowfell ARC! Isn't is fabulous?



  1. awesome interview
    i so need to read her books

  2. Loved reading this interview! I love Juliet's writing and can't wait to read her next book.

  3. Anonymous11:02 AM

    I am such a huge of fan of Marillier's. SO JEALOUS of your ARC of Shadowfell!

  4. Rowie2:55 AM

    A wonderful interview! I'm always so inspired by Juliet's enthusiasm for her work. And I'm anxiously awaiting any book she will write in the future!! ^^


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