Following on the heels of my review of Songs of the Earth, Elspeth Cooper’s debut novel, I got to ask the authoress herself a few questions, and here they are!
Dear Elspeth, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions! And may I just say, you have a wonderful fantasy name that would fit right in in a story like yours?
Thank you – it’s the Scottish form of Elizabeth. My maiden name was Ferguson, so there’s a whole Scottish thing going on there, even though my family is from the north east of England.
Speaking of names, it’s a strange quirk of mine to always ask authors where they get theirs. The names in Songs of the Earth are certainly not ones you’d hear every day, so how’d you discover them?
A few of them, like Gair, Tanith and Esther, are names from our world, just a little less common; the rest I invented. I try to pick names which sound appropriate to each character’s personality – for example Aysha was a deliberate echo of Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed, not so much to borrow from Haggard’s character but to hint that what Aysha wants Aysha gets.
Just opening the book, I notice already that it doesn’t have a map. Yet the sword-and-sorcery tradition seems to dictate that there’s a map to guide the readers at the beginning, and there’s certainly enough moving around in the story for that kind of thing to be useful. Is there a reason you decided not to include one? Breaking with tradition?
To be honest, I didn’t think about tradition or expectation, I simply didn’t think the book needed a map, since most of the action took place in a couple of fixed locations. Plus, at the time the book went into production I was changing editors, everything was a bit up in the air and by the time we thought about having my rough map re-drawn, deadlines were looming.
Now that the action’s moving to other parts of the Empire in subsequent books, a map may happen. Some books really need one – for example, in Melanie Rawn’s unfinished Exiles series, you need the map to keep track of the ladder pairs – but in other books I get the feeling the map was added just because Big Fat Fantasy is “supposed” to have one, and it doesn’t actually add anything apart from pretty endpapers.
So, all authors (or, at least, most, as I’ve been told) hate the “where do you get your ideas?” question. Nevertheless, if you don’t mind too much, I’d like to ask the cliché question of how Songs of the Earth developed – what was that first idea that crept into your head, nagging, until you just had to write it down?
That one’s easy. I got the idea of a young man alone in the dark, wrestling with a powerful force inside him so strong that he felt he was in danger of losing control of it, and there was Gair in his iron cell in the opening scene. At the time I was going through some emotional upset: I’d just broken up with my then-fiancé and had this great trembling ball of rage inside me that I was scared to let loose in case I did worse than just smash up the crockery.
I often get sudden pictures in my head, inspired by a song on the radio or something somebody says, and then I start wondering who this man is, or how he got there, and the story starts to grow out of that. Sometimes it’s the opening scene, sometimes it’s from the middle of the story, but once my imagination’s off and running I have to start typing really fast to keep up!
Songs of the Earth has clearly been influenced by other works of fantasy: it’s a sword and sorcery tale, to begin with, which seems to have echoes of Star Wars and Harry Potter, among others. Can you tell us a bit about your own reading choices, fantasy and otherwise, and how they influenced the story?