|A Conversation With Susan King|
|An interview with Catherine Asaro|
| April 2000 |
A few months ago I participated in a book signing organized by a writers' group in Maryland. At the signing, I had the opportunity to meet Susan King. Intrigued by the gorgeous cover of her book, The Stone Maiden, I bought a copy and discovered a new talent. New to me, that is: Susan King is a national bestselling author with many novels and awards to her name. When I asked Ms. King if she could find time in her busy schedule to do an interview for SF Site, she graciously agreed. We met over lunch and I discovered that the author is as charming and poetic as her book ...
The Stone Maiden crosses three genre boundaries: fantasy, historical, and romance. I can think of only a few books that straddle three different genres so well, such as Vonda McIntyre's The Moon and the Sun. I wondered what drew you to combine fantasy with historical romance.
What sparked your interest in writing about Celtic history and legend?
Are you Celtic?
The main character in The Stone Maiden, Alainna MacLaren, is a Celtic stone carver. Is her craft unusual for that time?
It seemed as if you were using Alainna's stone carving as a symbol for many aspects of the book, in particular her relationship with the hero, Sebastien.
I was intrigued by the political set-up, that Alainna has become head of her clan because all the men except for the most elderly have been killed in a feud with a hostile clan. So King William sends a Norman knight, Sebastien, to be her husband and provide a stabilizing political force in that volatile region. Can you describe the historical background from 1170 that forms the basis for the story?
I liked the way Alainna's stone carving reflected that political situation, particularly her resistance to the solution King William chooses to stabilize her holdings. Her art seems to symbolize many different threads of life for the characters.
"The story has a lot of that 'plaiting.' It's in her designs, in the stories that her kinsman, Lorne, tells as a bard, and in the events of their lives and their hopes. Alainna's most treasured stone depicts a scene of Tir na n'Og, an island paradise that is part of Irish myth, and very much a part of ancient Scottish myth as well, since the Irish legends transmigrated to Scotland early on, with the Irish people. When Alainna's special stone breaks, it symbolizes the threat to her own hope for a happy home.
"Celtic belief also has the concept of 'singing back the soul,' which fit nicely with what I wanted to do in the book. Alainna sings as she carves scenes of her clan's history, to summon the wandering oversoul of her fading clan and bring it safely home. And Sebastien is a wanderer, with a personal quest to find a true home, so the strands of his own life and heart begin to join in the weave. He's saved by the symbolic braiding between them as much as Alainna and her people are saved.
"That was really what I had in mind. As Alainna works with her stone carvings, creating stories set in stone, it's the future weaving I was aware of, all their stories: her own, those told by Lorne, Sebastien, everyone. With the book, in a way, I was making my own weaving."
I loved your descriptions of the Celtic stone carvings. They do always seem to involve braided patterns.
"Individual interlace patterns reflect different journeys in life: marriage, birth, war, death. Interlacings also can depict animal, bird, and plant motifs which are all part of the masterful interweaving of life. One braided design will signify a good relationship within a marriage and another the endless looping of life. The designs are meant to be endless, symbolizing the continuous journey of the soul through life, a never-ending chain of potentials and pathways. Knots and interlinking patterns bind the soul to the world; only if knots are cut or broken can the soul be freed from its earthly journey to begin another spiritual journey.
"In The Stone Maiden, as I worked my way to the end, I could see the story coming full circle, more so than with other books I've done. All the elements knotted together in their own loop. I had not anticipated that, it just fell into place. It felt like, 'This is the right thing.'"
I enjoyed the way you wove together the fantasy elements, the romance, and the history. The legend of The Stone Maiden works so well with it all. Is that an actual Celtic legend or one you created?
"The first Stone Maiden, the one who is turned into the pillar, acts as a symbol for all that Alainna's clan has gone through, and works as a metaphor for the heroine. Although it's a standing stone, it's a very active element in the story. The Stone Maiden watches over Alainna and her clan. Everyone has their own relationship with the pillar. The villain fears it. He won't harm Alainna directly because of its power. Instead, he threatens her by arguing that its enchantment is waning. It's sort of a, 'Just wait: I'm gonna get you, and your little dog, too.' (Grins)
"After I developed the story and began to write, I came across a picture of the Garioch stone and its legend. In Garioch, in the Grampian region of Scotland, there is a pink granite standing stone called the Maiden Stone, which dates to the ninth century. It is similar to the gray granite Stone Maiden in the novel. The Garioch stone features panels carved in relief, showing Pictish symbols (mirror, comb, animals) and a Christian cross. An old legend associated with this stone tells the story of maiden who made a wager with the devil that she could bake bread before he could build a road; when she lost, so it is said, she was changed into this stone. That sort of synchronicity of story and research is always a good sign."
I noticed that in your story, many of the stones seemed to have magical elements. I liked the judgment stone in particular.
"I didn't even go into the stones that have holes in them! A stone with a natural hole gives you a prophetic ability, so you can look through it and see the future.
"A pillar stone connects the realm of the earth and the realm of the sky. It's a bridge. So the Stone Maiden is a bridge between the earthly and mystical realms. When characters come into her circle, into her periphery, things happen. This is what drew Sebastien when he went there to practice swordplay. At one point a character looks out the window and says 'Oh, he's protecting the maiden.'"
Yes, I liked that. Alainna seems to be an aspect of the original Stone Maiden, so that in honouring the Stone Maiden, Sebastien also honours her.
But he's not, really. He's a charming hero (handsome too!). I liked his maturity. He doesn't bog down in misunderstandings with Alainna or the MacLaren clan; he respects their ways, and he shows insight into Alainna's conflicting loyalties. I wondered if he was based on a real person or a historical figure, or if he was cut completely from the cloth of your imagination.
"The characters of Sebastien and Alainna both grew out of proud cultures, the Normans and the Gaels. They have enormous pride and stubbornness in common. Sebastien has no name and no background, except what he made for himself. And his pride. In the opposite way, Alainna has only this enormous treasure of heritage she guards and preserves. And her pride. I wanted to play with that, with these two characters who are such opposites and yet so alike. Both have this huge pride they can't get past. But when you truly love someone, then even if you're angry, a part of you understands how that person thinks and feels.
"When I reach a certain point in a book, I stop thinking on a conscious level and let go. The characters begin to resolve issues on their own. Up to that point, I really wasn't sure how I was going to work out this mess I created with Alainna's conflicting loyalties. You're typing away and you go, 'Oh! That works. Let's do it.'"
I enjoyed the way you told the history through their love story, using their marriage as an allegory for what was happening to Scotland. The legend of the Stone Maiden weaves in beautifully. I also liked that it dated back seven hundred years, to the fifth century. That earlier historical period was also one of upheaval. The Stone Maiden seems to symbolize times of great transition.
"The Normans were very different than England in the way they approached Scotland. There were not battles, there was not a struggle. The Scottish kings were saying 'Come on up. We have land.' The Normans had military might, strength, and stone castles. They came into Scotland and built castles that were stronger, bigger, better.
"There is also the transition between the Lowlands and the Highlands in Scotland. At times they were like two different countries. Alainna's holdings are at the foot of the Highlands, like a gateway. I put her family over towards Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Her clan represents the transition from the more Anglicized Lowlanders and the Celtic, so-called 'savage' culture of the Highlanders. "
In a way, the book is about accepting change.
The entire issue of his taking her name fascinated me. I had no idea that custom existed back then.
"Although surnames were not in consistent use in the twelfth century, they appear with more frequency in the documents, especially as the Normans filtered into Scotland. A prestigious name symbolized honour and lineage in both Norman and Celtic cultures. These are two extremely proud cultures, the Norman and the Celtic. This was part of the inspiration for The Stone Maiden: I wondered what might happen when Norman pride met its equal in Highland stubbornness."
We often think these questions about who takes whose last name as a modern-day phenomenon, but I guess it's not.
I notice you say her name differently from how I pronounce it when I read the book.
In some ways your work reminds of The Moon and the Sun, which won the Nebula a few years ago. Although McIntyre's novel is science fiction, it reads like a romantic historical fantasy set in France during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Both books layer the story with allegory and symbolism. Do you think about those aspects as you write?
How about your other books? Are they also romantic fantasy?
"I like to play with subtle, mystical fantasy elements. Even in my stories that are more traditional romances, it swirls through everything. Laird of the Wind centres around a prophetess in the 14th century. Her prophecy unintentionally gets the hero, James Lindsay, into trouble. He seeks her out to resolve this and resurrect his reputation, and finds out she has no clue as to what she said. She foresees on a big scale -- not what's going to happen next week.
"Angel Knight is about an English knight who meets a Scottish woman held by King Edward in an iron cage on the side of a tower. That actually happened, that the king put a woman in such a cage. In my book, when the hero sees her, she's dying. He has a healing ability he won't admit, one he's not aware of at first. The book Lady Miracle is about his sister. She also can heal, and becomes a doctor. She cannot go to school in Scotland, or even England or France. She has to go to Italy. When she returns to Scotland, of course all they want her to do is nurse. But the hero has a five-year-old niece who needs her help. In Raven's Wish and Raven's Moon, the main characters have second sight. Heather Moon is about a girl who is half-gypsy and half-Scottish. So she uses tarot and palmistry, which is a lot of fun."
As are your stories. Whether they are fantasies or historical romances, or a combination of both, I look forward to reading more.
Catherine Asaro is known for her unique blend of hard science, space adventure, and romance. Her next hardcover in the Saga of the Skolian Empire, The Quantum Rose, comes out from Tor in December 2000, and her next near-future suspense paperback, The Phoenix Code, comes out from Bantam in December 2000. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo and Nebula and has won numerous other awards, including the Analog Readers Poll, the HOMer, and the Sapphire. She earned her doctorate in Chemical Physics and masters in Physics, both from Harvard. Her husband is the proverbial rocket scientist. Catherine says she is a walking definition of the words "absent-minded" and has managed to spill coffee in every room in her house, which is a great source of amusement for her daughter.
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