David Howe speaks to new fantasy novelist Juliet E. McKenna.
Juliet E McKenna’s first novel The Thief’s Gamble was published to great acclaim last year, with a follow-up now available called The Swordsman’s Oath, but the path to getting published was not easy. ‘I always wanted to write,’ explains Juliet. ‘I’ve always made up stories, even written some of them down and certainly felt that earning a living as a writer would be wonderful – but that it was a rather impractical ambition, a bit like my four-year-old wanting to be a train driver on the strength of Thomas the Tank Engine stories at bed time. The Thief’s Gamble came about when I began to take the whole business and technique of writing seriously. Writing offered me mental stimulation unrelated to motherhood and childcare, the possibility of making some contribution to the family finances and flexible work that could be fitted round kids, playgroup, school, whatever. So I wrote The Thief’s Gamble (which was not nearly as simple as it sounds) and sent it out to numerous agents. None offered to take it on but the rejections were positive and that encouraged me to keep on: sending it to publishers direct, ringing up, finding who to send it to, pitching it as professionally as I could in my covering letter.
‘Orbit, who eventually published it, got the manuscript via a different route. I had worked in my local Ottakar’s book shop between children but was at home full time after our second son was born. I gave a friend who works at Ottakar’s an early draft, knowing I could rely on her to tell me if she thought I was wasting my time (every author needs friends like these). She liked it enough, both as a reader and as a bookseller to pass it on to one of Orbit’s reps; he felt it had sufficient potential to pass it on to the commissioning editor, and he saw a story worth his while publishing. Nothing would have happened if each individual hadn’t seen something worth recommending; friendship is one thing, business is quite another!’
I wondered why Juliet had chosen to write in the fantasy genre rather than any other. ‘Because I enjoy it, I always have done,’ she smiles. ‘There’s a freedom in the genre that continues to appeal to me. So much modern literature is inward looking and self absorbed; the best fantasy has always looked outwards, offering new ideas and questions. I also felt fantasy was something I could write using my own background in history and the books I had to hand. As long as I kept the internal logic consistent, no one could contradict me or tell me I’d got it wrong, unlike for example a crime or historical novel.’
The Thief’s Gamble is fundamentally about ordinary people getting caught up in extraordinary events. ‘Whenever you come across a really enthralling story, be it fantasy or any other genre, there’s always part of you that wonders how you would react in similar situations, how you would cope. But you generally find a gap you just can’t cross, however much you empathise with a character, because so often they’ve got the magical power or the talent to talk to dragons or the forethought to have the right parents that gives them the answers they need. I wanted to see how someone without those extraordinary advantages would cope.
‘So I created Livak, a female protagonist in sharp contrast to so many fantasy heroes. She was built from some elements of myself and my closest female friends, some key aspects of other characters I had come across that suited my purposes for her and then coloured further by the demands of the plot. All my characters are based on real people, in so far as I use friends, family and people I read or hear about as a constant reality check, to keep behaviour believable. Most include aspects of people I know but no single character is drawn from any one individual; I think that would be a very quick way to lose most of your friends as well as rather stifling the imagination. The key is to be discreet and to use what you see and hear to create something original, so you don’t end up with everyone watching what they say around you, in case you later use it against them!’
Juliet is already at work on the third volume in her ongoing story. ‘Let’s just say that in The Gambler’s Fortunes, which I’m writing at the moment, Livak is looking to turn her new-found links with wizards and noblemen to practical advantage, preferably the round, gold and silver kind.
‘I enjoy exploring the fundamental challenge of realism within fantasy. I’m trying to present a socially and historically plausible world where a lot of other things are going on besides the concerns of wizards and heroes, where whatever those wizards and heroes decide to do has consequences for a lot of people. I want to explore the impact of magical and outlandish events on people who have lives of their own, whose families, friends and lovers are at least as important to them as whatever arcane quest might be dragging them away. What I want to achieve above all else are compelling stories that people really enjoy reading.’
The Thief’s Gamble and The Swordsman’s Oath are published as Orbit paperbacks, £6.99 each.
David J Howe