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A Conversation With Susan King
An interview with Catherine Asaro
April 2000

Copyright © Susan King Susan King
Susan King

Susan King grew up in upstate New York and the Washington D.C. area. She has always loved art, writing, and reading. She earned a BA in studio art, an MA in art history, and most of a PhD in medieval art history. Currently she is on a leave of absence to raise her three sons. She explores her fascination with Scottish history in her bestselling novels, which have also won numerous awards and critical acclaim. Her books include: The Stone Maiden, Heather Moon, Laird of the Wind, The Raven's Wish, and Angel Knight. She is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and often lectures on art history, her research, and writing. King is also the recipient of the Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award for Career Achievement.

Thanks to the Cari Buziak's Celtic Art site for the gracious use of their clip art.

Susan King Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Stone Maiden

The Stone Maiden
The Angel Knight
The Raven's Moon
Lady Miracle
Laird of the Wild
Heather Moon

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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.

"My books almost always have fantasy in them. The magical element. For me, it gives the story a sparkle. I'm fascinated by Celtic legends, Celtic culture. For The Stone Maiden, I wanted to go back further and deeper into the culture than I had with my other books. Celtic culture and mythology touch a rich foundation in fantasy literature. What delighted me the most about writing it was the opportunity to explore the fascinating web of the Celtic culture. Immersing myself in ancient legends and tales, in poetry and song, and in Celtic artwork, I tried to imbue the novel with some of that strong, beautiful spirit."

What sparked your interest in writing about Celtic history and legend?

"I always wanted to write when I was a kid, but I never thought of it as a career. It was just something I did. I wrote two novels between the time I was twelve and sixteen that I hid under the bed. (Smiles ruefully) No one knew about them. I was also very interested in art. All these threads came together when I went to art school. I took a bachelors in studio art and went to a graduate program in art history. I discovered that art history combined all my favourite interests: art imagery, writing, and history. So I was happy for a long, long time. The Celtic has just always been with me. Something I can't explain."

Are you Celtic?

"My grandmother is Scottish, and my grandfather is Irish, on my mother's side. My father's side is French and Italian. So we've a lot of Celts in there. I've always been fascinated with it, very comfortable with any form of Celtic culture."

The main character in The Stone Maiden, Alainna MacLaren, is a Celtic stone carver. Is her craft unusual for that time?

"The art of stone carving was actively developed in Scotland, which has an abundance of fine native stone. Medieval sculptures and carvings, produced in the Lowlands as well as the Highlands, combined Romanesque and Gothic features with Celtic elements in works of extraordinary beauty. Since medieval women played integral roles in the arts in Britain and Europe, it is very feasible that a woman could have wielded mallet and chisel upon stone in Scotland."

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'm so glad you saw that. No one else has. Stone carving serves as a metaphor for Alainna's personality. She has a rigid side, always taking the hard way. She isn't a sculptor who would work in clay. She has to hammer it out in stone. Sebastien is a softening element for her. He makes her look up and go, 'Hey, you can be a little more flexible here.'"

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?

"In Scotland, the Normans did not invade but rather infiltrated and influenced through culture and increasing their presence. Scotland was diverse and poor, separated within itself by language, culture, and geography, varied between the Celtic culture of the Highland Gaels and the English-influenced lowland areas. During the twelfth century, Scottish monarchs, including King William (later called 'The Lion'), invited Normans to Scotland, needing their riches and military strength, for they had no armies and few wealthy leaders. Land, titles, and brides were granted to Norman knights who settled in Scotland."

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.

"That's right. Maybe there's also that metaphor, she has a chip on her shoulder. (Laughs) But yes, it's all there in her story, in the design of her work. That sense of the weaving together the strands of life, which the Celts believe is symbolized in interlace patterns, is part of what I wanted to convey in the book. As Alainna works with her stone carvings, she's weaving the past, present, and future together with the strands of her own life.

"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.

Celtic knotwork "Yes. The knotworks. They appear in all Celtic art: stone carvings, weaving, and painting. In illuminated manuscripts, from the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, you'll see the Celtic designs, just fabulous, Book of Kells and all this. There's real meaning to these designs. Knotwork, chain patterns, and plaitwork figure throughout Celtic art, and knotted threads and strings have powerful applications in healing and in charm work.

Celtic knotwork "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.'"

Celtic knotwork

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?

"I created the legend for the book, but it is very much in keeping with that time, place, and culture. Stories like that occurred everywhere. Every little stone had a tale inside it. I had to tailor-make a legend that would fit what I wanted to do with the characters.

"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.

"At one point I felt, well, I was overdoing the stones in this book, that there were too many! But they're fascinating. The Celts actually have judgment stones. It is a stone precariously balanced, often on top another stone, so that the slightest touch sends it rocking one way or the other. The Druids apparently used them to decide trials and important questions. They would note the direction of the rocking, east-west or north-south, and it would mean yes-no, positive-negative. So they called on it to provide answer from an outside source.

"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.

"She is very much the Stone Maiden, because she is constrained, and she is trapped. She needs some element of life to change that. The book starts with her dream vision, where the faery king holds out his hand and says, 'Come with me.' She has this choice. Will she make a sacrifice? Sacrifice is a big thing for her. It's something she has to, and is willing, to do. I think it was Joseph Campbell, or maybe Christopher Vogler, who said that the best heroes sacrifice themselves. That is very much a part of Alainna, that she is willing to do that. Sebastien, on the other hand, isn't. He's like, 'I'm outta here.'"

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.

"Sebastien is not based on an actual person, though there are hints of my husband in him -- that reserve and stubbornness. And the blond hair. (grins)

"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.

"You know, that isn't something I even consciously realized. But, yes. She does. The original Stone Maiden was trapped in the pillar during the time the Christians were coming into Scotland from Ireland. There's a wave of change at the time, and another wave coming in for the characters of the story itself, seven centuries later.

"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.

"Yes. That theme comes out early, with the concept of the 'time between times.' There's an ancient Celtic belief that a strong magic exists in the 'time between times.' Dawn, sunset, twilight, mist. It's as if the veil between reality and the otherworldly parts then. The magic is stronger. That reflects in many ways in the story. At one point Sebastien says to Alainna, 'Let's set everything aside, all our differences, and call this the time between times. Don't worry about your name or my name or anything else.' It is a time when winter is ending and spring coming in. So instead of rejoicing in the onset of spring, she doesn't want the flowers to bloom -- because it will mean the time between times is ending."

The entire issue of his taking her name fascinated me. I had no idea that custom existed back then.

"I ran across it in my research. Sometimes Norman knights adopted the Celtic woman's name. Most of the time they did not, and this is where you get the clans with Norman-based names, such as Fraser, Bruce, and Sinclair (my own Scottish roots are Fraser). However, documented incidences exist where the Scottish king gave a Norman knight a bride and a portion of land, and the knight took the Celtic's clan name as his own, especially when the inheritance was considerable.

"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.

"Scottish women primarily in history did not take their husband's name. That's changing now, but in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth centuries, they kept their own. That's different from English women. Elements of Celtic society still endure in Scotland. Alainna is very much a Celt."

I notice you say her name differently from how I pronounce it when I read the book.

"In Gaelic the emphasis is on the first syllable. It's pronounced ALL-inna, based on the word "alainn", which means or beautiful. It's probably more natural for us to say Ah-LAN-ah. At one point Sebastien tells his friends how to say it. I put that in because one of my sisters said, 'I wish you'd work into all your books how to pronounce your characters' names.' So I did it for her."

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?

"Not consciously. But it's natural to an art historian. We're used to looking at layers and how one relates to another. I love to play with the symbolism and imagery. I always build metaphors into my stories. I don't want to lay it on too thick, but touches can give the story richness and substance. Otherwise, it's just a story, it's just a way to pass the time. You can go deeper through metaphors and symbolism."

How about your other books? Are they also romantic fantasy?

"Most are historical romances with magical elements. The next in this trilogy is The Swan Maiden. It leans a little more to the historical side than to the fantasy, but it does draw on swan lore, which is a beautiful theme throughout Celtic myth and culture.

"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.

"Thanks. I have a lot of fun writing them."

Copyright © 2000 by Catherine Asaro

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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