Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels. The Aldabreshin Compass Series, now being reissued in ebook formats, explores an absolute ruler’s dilemma when his armies and authority cannot counter devastating magical attack.
Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess? Who was she?
This turns out to be a surprisingly tricky question because thinking back to my earliest independent reading in an English primary school, I was drawn to fantasy and historical fiction very early on, through writers like Rosemary Sutcliffe and books like The Boy with the Bronze Axe. All my favourite stories had male leads. There were usually girls around them and I distinctly remember wanting to know more of their stories but that so rarely happened. It wasn’t till later that I discovered Noel Streatfield’s girl-centred stories and books like Little Women and What Katy Did.
Giving this considerable thought, I realise that the first story to satisfy my wish for girls sharing an adventure on (nearly) equal terms was The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis. That’s where I encountered Aravis Tarkheena – and her mare Hwin, another independently minded female character who doesn’t care two lumps of sugar what other horses might think of her rolling on the grass when she gets back to Narnia.
Can you remember what it was she did or what qualities she had that captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?
Aravis took charge of her own destiny. Even at the cost of being prepared to sacrifice her own life rather than be forced into a vile marriage, at least until Hwin intervened. That’s significant too; Aravis wasn’t stupidly stubborn. She was ready to listen to reason and to take a different road, all the way to Archenland. She wasn’t stupidly impulsive either. Aravis planned and prepared her escape, using her wits. When events took unexpected turns, she adapted and went onwards, learning all the way. I really, really liked seeing an intelligent girl who made things happen rather than waiting to have things happen to her.
How does she compare to the female characters in your work? Is she their literary ancestor? Do they rebel against all she stands for? What might your creations owe her?
She’s very much in the same mould as (almost all) the women I write as protagonists and point of view characters; Livak and Halice in the Tales of Einarinn, Risala and Janne in the Aldabreshin Compass, Failla, Larissa and Branca in The Lescari Revolution books. They’re all pro-active and decisive, using their skills and wits to get what they want or to get themselves out of trouble. Even Zurenne in The Hadrumal Crisis eventually learns to stand on her own two feet and to make her own choices after a lifetime of deferring to men.
And while Aravis ends up married to Shasta, they’re friends first of all – even though they’re still often quarrelling long after they’re married, according to the book’s final page which I’ve just gone and checked. There’s a very good chance my characters’ relationships owe something significant to that. Friendship is the foundation of every solid romance in my writing – and that never means my female characters giving up on their own ideas, even when some difference of opinion causes tension.
Bonus round: How do you feel about the word heroine? In these posts, I am specifically looking for female authors’ female influences, whether those women they looked up to were other writers or Anne of Green Gables. Does the word heroine have a purpose that isn’t served by equally well by hero?
The older I get, the more I find the term ‘heroine’ problematic, in terms of fiction at least. Because it seems to be so inherently and indivisibly part of a pair; hero and heroine – and the hero always comes first. The heroine is defined by that relationship with a man above anything else. Her choices and motivations are driven by the actions and needs of lover, husband, son or father. Which isn’t to say these motivations can’t be as complex and varied as anything else when it comes to driving a story but since my teens, I’ve wanted female characters in my reading to be doing so much more than that. Female heroes.
That’s why, when it comes to personal heroines – or female heroes – in terms of epic fantasy writers, I so very much admire Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon and Melanie Rawn. Their work is full of strong girls and women making their own choices, and dealing with the consequences on their own terms, even when those decisions turn out to have unexpected, awkward or even dangerous consequences. These characters can and do have romantic and family relationships but those are facets of their lives and personalities, not the be-all and end-all of their stories. More than that, these women remain distinctly feminine, not sacrificing their own integrity by merely attempting to out-macho the men (Something I’ve seen described as ‘faux-male’ behaviour which I think is rather neat.) Reading these writers assuredly had a powerful influence on my own work.
About this post: The Heroine Question is my name for a series of short interviews with female writers about their favorite characters and literary influences. Clicking the link will allow you to browse all the other interviews, with awesome people like Leah Bobet, Alex Bledsoe, Marie Brennan, and Kelly Robson. Or, if you prefer something more in the way of an actual index, it’s here.
Goodreads is giving away five shiny copies of A Daughter of No Nation. Does one of them have your name on it? I’d like to think so. To sweeten the pot, and of course to spread the word far and wide, I’m going to run a simultaneous draw for a copy of Child of a Hidden Sea (or, if you already have it, your choice of my previous novels, Indigo Springs and Blue Magic).
Here’s the deal:
–Post a link to this post to Facebook, or retweet this.
–Be sure to tag me, so that I capture your name! Drop me a line here if you aren’t sure.
–If you tweet and hit Facebook, that’ll count as two entries.
–On October 31s,t I’ll draw a lucky winner and contact you for your info.
I’m feeling teachy today, so here’s a short revision exercise for a pleasant autumn morning. It starts, naturally enough, with your current work in progress. Grab a sentence. Make it a nice long one, something you think isn’t bad but maybe needs some work. Or something you’re obscenely proud of. You get different results with different choices.
Next, put it through the wringer. Treat that sentence badly. Imagine the worst of it. Make it justify its every syllable and turn of phrase.
- Read it aloud. Get someone else to read it aloud. Get a machine to read it aloud. How does it sound? How closely does the sentence you imagined hearing sound like the one that hit your eardrums?
- Cut all of the following: actually, really, seems, started to, began to, turned to, sort of.
- Note all of the other adverbs and give them a serious frown so they know they’re in serious trouble.
- Now, home in on the verbs. Are they workmanlike, or even boring? Can they be punched up?
- What is this sentence for, anyway? Is it sidewalk, smoothly conveying the reader from Point A to Point B without calling attention to itself? Is it scenery, a delivery mechanism for sensual imagery? Is it striking an emotional chord, delivering a character speech, slipping in a bit of exposition, transitioning us to a new idea, or eliciting a laugh? Is it only doing one of these things? Should it do more? Damn these lazy sentences anyway!
- Now that you have a job description for the sentence, ask yourself: how well is it performing?
- What is the vaguest word in the sentence? Who let that word in?
- Is anyone declaring, exclaiming, simpering, snorting, purring, giggling, or sneering when they ought to just be saying, asking or replying? (Pro tip: Sneering is not a synonym for saying. It’s something you do with your lip.)
Wait a minute, I hear you saying – you just told me to punch up the verbs! This is true, but it doesn’t apply to said. Look up Said Bookisms in the Turkey City Lexicon if you need to know why.
- How is this sentence supposed to sound? Is it in a passage featuring the jangly off-road surprises of improvisational jazz, or an easy listening scene? Is it a classic country tragedy about a lost dog and a dead truck, or is it the Imperial March from Star Wars?
- If someone threatened to take a blowtorch to your favorite action figure, could you parse out the subject and object of this particular sentence? Do you need that semicolon, honestly? And if you do, are you sure you used it correctly?
- Take the eviscerated remains, smooth them out, and read the sentence again. How does it sound now?
This kind of interrogation works nicely on paragraphs and scenes too, of course, but remember to interview your subjects separately before examining them to see if they’ve got their stories straight.
Here’s the Imperial March to play you out.
Leah Bobet is a novelist, editor, and bookseller with Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada’s oldest science fiction bookstore. Her debut novel, Above, was short-listed for the Prix Aurora Award and the Andre Norton Award and commended by the CBCs Best Books for Kids and Teens; her second, An Inheritance of Ashes, will appear from Clarion Books in the US and Scholastic in Canada in October 2015. Visit her at www.leahbobet.com.
I asked her: is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess? Who was she?
Hard question! This isn’t usually how I ever interact with books: I tend to fall in love with worlds, and the books I loved were the books that had something to teach me, or that showed me something new. Which is why this might be an odd answer: I absolutely loved Molly Grue from Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
I still love her, decades on. I never pretended to be her, but we live a little in each other’s shadows. She is the person in literature who grows with me always; who always has something new to show me whenever I reread that book.
Can you remember what it was she did or what qualities she had that captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?
It’s funny, because understanding that connection took me a great deal more self-knowledge than I had as a kid.
Molly is manifestly not the first choice for a grade-school reader to identify with: She’s middle-aged, and tired, and full of bad life choices and regrets and cynicism. All in all, she’s not the person who is supposed to be able to go on an adventure or befriend a unicorn—but does. But that wasn’t why.
Even when I was very young, there was something about what Molly does in The Last Unicorn that appealed to me. She’s the person who keeps the soup on, who sees through bullshit, who is honest; who is practical and pragmatic and pays attention to rations and road miles and all the little things that actually back up the high-flying ideals of quest fantasy. The person who can call bullshit on other people, but in a way that’s compassionate, and who carves out a kind, warm, welcoming space inside a castle full of fear and despair. A unicorn can’t quite create solace in Haggard’s kingdom—but Molly Grue can.
Even very young, I understood deep down what a gift it was for Molly to listen to Prince Lir’s awful love poetry, and be his friend, and have him peel potatoes so he could be appreciated and useful to someone. And even very young, I understood that Molly’s hard-won competence and hard work were the only things keeping that quest together through the back half of the book, and admired the hell out of them.
She was kind. She gave people so much space to be themselves—and support to grow into themselves—mostly just by being herself, and taking care of the day-to-day braveries. She’s the very epitome of the “Chop wood, carry water” proverb. And in a very beautiful, quiet way, I think she helped me realize very young that kind was a thing I wanted to be too.
How does she compare to the female characters in your work? Is she their literary ancestor? Do they rebel against all she stands for? What might your heroines owe her?
I think that idea of God being in the details, about quests being won on hard work and compassion, about a world made up of accreting small deeds and not so much the noble grand gestures has really rubbed off on my work thematically, even if it doesn’t show up in every character. I find myself telling a lot of stories about the characters we’re told aren’t supposed to get a story, be a hero, or take centre stage. I write a lot of stories about keeping the world on its keel.
But—and this goes especially for An Inheritance of Ashes—I write a lot of women who are angry, and have every right to be; angry and competent and kind. So maybe there’s a lot of Molly Grue in my women characters after all!
About this post: The Heroine Question is my name for a series of short interviews with female writers about their favorite characters and literary influences. Clicking the link will allow you to browse all the other interviews, with awesome people like Tina Connolly, Alexandra C. Renwick, and Kelly Robson. Or, if you prefer something more in the way of an actual index, it’s here..
A Daughter of No Nation is on the Shelfie Top 10 list for Most Anticipated SF and Fantasy books, in great company, with novels by Charlie Jane Anders, Kameron Hurley and Catherynne M. Valente. Review copies of the book are percolating out to the usual (and hopefully a few unusual) suspects. Soon we’ll be hearing what people think of the second installment of Sophie Hansa’s adventures.
I’m finding the prospect a little nerve-wracking. I don’t think there was anyone who absolutely hated Blue Magic. There were a few people whose response came down to “Holy gosh, this book sure do have a lotta queer people in it!” but there’s not much you can do about that except go, “Yep.”
Child of a Hidden Sea, on the other hand, and Sophie in particular got under a few readers’ skins, and not always in a way that led to true and enduring love. I decided to take this as a sign that I’d become better at characterization, especially since most of the reviews were, in fact, raves. Anyway, it might simply be the effect of a lingering head cold, or the fallout from a rather unusual week, but right now I’m thinking my only sane response is to go “La la la, can’t hear you!” and think of something else until my head clears.
Having been to Stratford for the first time this past weekend, and having seen three shows – Carousel, The Alchemist, and She Stoops to Conquer, Kelly and I are finally embarking on watching Slings and Arrows. We’ve had so many chances to do so over the years–I think people have lent us the DVDs on three separate occasions, and we never quite managed to pop one into the gadget before sheepishly returning the disks. It’s been one of those gaps that was almost embarrassing to admit to, what with me being such a raging Paul Gross fan. But it never happened, until now, and it’s almost–but not quite–too dated. It’ll be good prep for seeing His Almighty Grossness and Martha Burns in Domesticated next month.