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Fantasy Theme Park
An Interview with Robert Holdstock

conducted by Sandy Auden

© Sandy Auden
Robert Holdstock
Robert Holdstock
Born in 1948 in Kent, Robert Holdstock worked in medical research before becoming a full-time writer in 1975. He has written more than 20 novels under his own name and various pseudonyms, and has received both the British Science Fiction Award and the World Fantasy Award for his work. He lives in London, but escapes to the forests whenever possible.

Robert Holdstock Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Iron Grail
SF Site Review: Celtika
SF Site Review: Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn
SF Site Review: The Mythago Cycle
Interview with Robert Holdstock

Since Mythago Wood first put down its roots in 1984, Robert Holdstock has produced a series of enchanting and challenging fantasy novels. Celtika and The Iron Grail -- books one and two of The Merlin Codex are Holdstock's newest tales and many of his favourite themes of family and myth are folded into them. But his writing processes are not as deliberate as the complexity and scope of his books suggests...

'The theme of a book is definitely not planned in advance,' Holdstock says. 'I work totally notionally. I have an idea -- a complex one in Celtika and The Iron Grail -- and a direction I want to take the story. Everything else grows along the way. I knew I wanted the enchantress Niiv, for example, to reflect the capricious yet often calculating enthusiasm of youth, but the way she shapes Merlin in the novels, and his reactions to her shaping, came later. I also knew I wanted to use the two books to explore Tennyson's sentiment, from Ulysses, "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" in contrasting ways, but I had not realised how many aspects of our lives are defined by those four, brief phrases, and they keep echoing through the two works, coming back to surprise you.'

The "sundered family" theme has, unintentionally or not, kept Holdstock's creative spark burning brightly for several stories. Why does he keep returning to them? 'Because they're a damn sight more interesting than un-sundered ones!' he says. 'Imagine:

   ' "Good morning, darling. I hope you didn't mind my being ravished by that two-thousand year old 'presence' in our bedroom, last night." '
   ' "Good Lord, no, darling. The 'presence' and I talked it through, over a skull of ale, and if you're happy, then I'm happy." '
'It just wouldn't work!'

'What I do find a tad irksome is the assumption, especially overseas, that I must have some deep-rooted, psychological relationship with the "sundered family". Am I from one? No. Am I in one? No. Do I want to be? No. Do I know of them? Loads. It's one of the essential crafts of any writer: to be able to stitch threads from the fabric of other people's lives into something original in our own work.'

Masks are another strong theme that have haunted Holdstock's fiction. They appeared in Lavondyss in 1986, and are still present in his current series. 'I own a small collection of masks,' he admits, 'and I treat two of them -- one from Central Malaysia, one from Sarawak -- with great respect. There are days when I feel comfortable with them, and days when I don't.'

'The ten masks for Lavondyss were created to both illustrate the forgotten stories, and to allow for further tales, further explorations. They came out of nowhere, several of them out of a dream (literally) and when a dream makes sense the next day, you don't let it go! The essential and axiomatic truth about a mask is that it's a dual entity: it looks out, but it also guards against looking in. Masks, and the need for masks, are encoded in Homo Sapiens; they have to be. For a creature as cruel, as aggressive and as fast-living as our species, 120,000 years of evolution is certainly long enough to genetically select the ability to hide. Even in the early years, we were skilled at disguise, feared the claustrophobia of the forest, but coped with it; feared the openness of the savannah, but coped with it. We may only experience the ghosts of those primal experiences now, through pleasure, carnival, curiosity and religious fixation, but once, our lives depended on knowing how to hide and how to survive. The "mask" was everything.'

Holdstock's stories look behind the masks of our towering legends, like King Arthur, to the forgotten men and women who made it all possible. 'I believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of individual tales of survival, encounter, heroism and betrayal lie behind the legends as we have them. But time, death, and wastage of all kinds would have filtered those individual tales down into a tight stream that might, just might, have been picked up by a natural storyteller. I'm certainly curious as to what has been forgotten and when small pictures of lost lives come to light, those small lives become compelling: a letter from a legionary on Hadrian's Wall; or from a Centurian's wife; a collection of dolls and toys from an Iron Age grave. Humanising touches like that remind us that twenty thousand years ago people were almost exactly like us today, not technologically of course, but in the way they thought, acted, dreamed, hoped, aged and enjoyed a good joke.'

'Nevertheless,' he adds, 'they did many things differently there; it is the past, after all. Their visual horizons were almost incomprehensibly narrow; but what about their imaginative horizons? They must have far outstretched our own. Our imaginations are damped down by the knowledge of what we see; their imaginations were fired by the wonder of what they saw.'

(This interview first appeared on Sci Fi Channel Europe.)

Copyright © 2005 by Sandy Auden

Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; a diligent interviewer/reviewer for The Third Alternative and Interzone magazines and a combination of all the above for The Alien Online. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. Visit her site at The Auden Interviews.


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