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Interview: Elspeth Cooper, Author of Songs of the Earth

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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?

*laughing* I can tell you now it wasn’t influenced by Harry Potter – I haven’t read any JK Rowling, and it was written and on its way to print before I ever saw any of the Potter movies. And it wasn’t consciously influenced by Star Wars either – the young lad with the kindly mentor trope is as old as the fantasy genre itself, and I was so aware of that that I would have changed it up if I could, except it fit the story I wanted to tell, so I followed my heart and rolled with it.

I enjoy many kinds of fiction, but I’m a fantasy reader to the bone. My parents read me Ivanhoe as a bedtime story, and that set the seed for a lifelong love of adventure and mythology and sharp, pointy things. Alan Garner and Susan Cooper as a kid, through Norse and Greek mythology, and on to the likes of Guy Gavriel Kay, Melanie Rawn, Tad Williams, Robert Holdstock. I’m not aware of any conscious influences they’ve had, though; I’ve read so much over the years that everything from Beowulf to James Clavell’s Shogun is swilling around in this huge melting pot of ideas and concepts that all inform my writing somehow. It’s difficult for me to get enough distance from my own writing to see where they’ve bled through.

There’s a lot of what might be called “religious” aspects to the story: though the existence of the Goddess is not in itself addressed, there’s a very powerful Church, Gair is a faithful man, and much of the Church’s history, such as the Inquisition, is clearly a reflection of European history. Were these aspects of the story influenced by your own beliefs or upbringing, both in terms of faith and in your views on institutionalized religion and its history?

My birth certificate says I’m Presbyterian, I went to a Methodist Sunday school, I’ve attended a Roman Catholic mass (as a non-combatant), and seen in Easter in both eastern and western orthodoxies, but I have no faith or creed of my own. The religious aspects of Songs of the Earth came about because the child abuse scandals which rocked the Catholic establishment got me thinking about a church with an ugly secret, suppressed for years, that was about to bite them in the ass – in Gair’s world, that was the truth about what Corlainn Fellbane did in the Founding Wars.

I drew on a fair chunk of European church history to underpin the Eadorian faith, mainly to give a relatable scenario for the reader to start from. The similarities with our world are there to provide context, texture: the origins and structures of the Eadorian faith are less important to the story than how that faith chooses to deal with the concept of the Song, both historically and going forward.

As for Gair, he was raised in the faith, and believed unquestioningly as many children do, then as he got older he started to challenge what he’d been taught. Then his church turns on him and he becomes more disenchanted with it.

Your main character, Gair, is quite the swordsman, and there’s a lot of elaborate descriptions of swordfights and the like in the story, which, I imagine, require a lot of technical knowledge. Do you yourself have any experience with this wonderful weapon, or did you just do your research very thoroughly?

I’ve been in love with edged weapons since I was a teenager – about 30 years now. Just adore them. Katanas, longswords, falchions, all sorts. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to start collecting them, mainly because I decided that if I was going to write about swords, I needed to know what they feel like in the hand. Which muscles take the strain as you start to fatigue, what it actually feels like to bring a 30-inch blade down two-handed, with purpose. What you could call hands-on research.

I was all set to take some lessons too, but sadly my balance has deteriorated to such an extent that I’m more likely to hurt myself than learn anything, so now most of my research takes place in a chair watching WMA (Western martial arts) and HEMA (historical European martial arts) videos online, and
lots of fantasy/historical movies where they’ve had a really good stage combat instructor.

As for Gair, it’s a bit of a bugbear of mine that so many people come to the conclusion that he is handy with a blade because he’s preternaturally gifted in some way, and manage to overlook that fact that he works extremely hard at it and has been training with weapons since childhood, which is going to make anyone with enough ability to avoid stabbing himself in the foot at least reasonably competent . . .

Despite all the swordfighting, though, there’s a really interesting emphasis on the feminine: in a monotheistic world, there’s a Goddess who seems in some ways to resemble the Christian God; in the chess games between Darin and Gair, the queen, not the king, is the key piece….and many other examples. Was this a conscious decision? A response to the “masculine” genre that sword and sorcery tends to be?

That’s a fascinating theme you’ve picked up on, and it entirely fits the world. I wish I could take the credit for it!

I wasn’t consciously reacting against a very masculine perception of the genre (certainly male authors and male themes seem to be the most visible, both in terms of review space and bookstore promotions), but I’m guessing it probably came from me being a female author. This was a book that came from my
heart and my gut, rather than from my head, so there’s all manner of subconscious influences at play. An early reviewer here in the UK (Adam Whitehead at the Wertzone) picked up on a disability theme which I find incredibly intriguing and rather prescient of me: those physically-impaired characters were all conceived before I was diagnosed with MS and became disabled myself.

Regarding the chess theme, I’ve always considered the queen to be the significant piece on a chessboard, though: the king is the one to protect, but his movement is limited and the queen, it seems to me, has all the power. Chess motifs crop up again and again throughout the Wild Hunt series, which is
strange because I have no significant aptitude for the game. Half the time I have no idea where this stuff comes from; it just finds its way out onto the page.

And, finally, this may be a bit too early to ask, but what can we hope for from Trinity Moon, the next book in the series (and when)?

Book Two is due out in the UK in mid-July 2012; I’m afraid I don’t have a firm US publication date, but it’s probably fair to assume that it’ll be about a year after Songs, so early 2013, unless Tor has other plans.

Some minor characters from the first volume get larger roles in the second volume, and there are some new characters to be introduced as the plot layers are peeled back. You’ll see Gair struggling to come to terms with the events of Songs as the action moves south into the deserts of Gimrael and he finds
himself sorely tested physically, emotionally and magically.

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About Anastasia Klimchynskaya

My mind rebels at stagnation. Find the rebellious thoughts of that constantly racing mind at my blog, Monitoring the Media.