Elspeth Cooper Interview
Elspeth Cooper, brand new SFF author—with her novel just released in June this year—is a special brand of writer: she’s likeable, quirky, and she’s got a lot to say about the genre as a whole, but without any of the trappings of having been immersed in the genre knee-deep for years. Her voice, both in her writing and discourse, is fresh and new, and with her debut novel Songs of the Earth (the first of The Wild Hunt trilogy) published by fantasy giant Gollancz, it’s already a good start.
Songs of the Earth is a novel that doesn’t strive to be any more than that; a story with great characters, a reliable setting that mimics Medieval Europe, and with a political backdrop that’s as familiar and comfortable as that old t-shirt you wear to sleep. When I reviewed it, I gave it a lot of praise—in fact, I gave it a whole heap of praise!—especially due to the excellence of the writing and presentation. It’s only fair to say the book’s gotten a mixed reception (it would be too biased of FF to pretend otherwise), but this is likely due the fact that Cooper makes no move whatsoever to hide or deny the classic themes and classic-era styling of the book: in fact, she’s proud of them, and proud of her stance on the topic of what’s acceptable in the genre as a whole.
As a new writer, many readers might not yet have had the pleasure of Songs of the Earth or perhaps even heard about it. For those that haven’t, the blurb of the book reads as follows:
Gair is under a death sentence. He can hear music – music with power – and in the Holy City that means only one thing: he’s a witch, and he’s going to be burnt at the stake. Even if he could escape, the Church Knights and their witchfinder would be hot on his heels while his burgeoning power threatens to tear him apart from within. There is no hope . . . none, but a secretive order, themselves persecuted almost to destruction. If Gair can escape, if he can master his own growing, dangerous abilities, if he can find the Guardians of the Veil, then maybe he will be safe. Or maybe he’ll discover that his fight has only just begun.
There are no illusions regarding what you’re getting from Songs of the Earth: it’s an exciting, classic, fantasy tale that strives to be only what it is, and nothing more. It’s new, whilst being classic, and I advise anyone intrigued by even a single word of this interview, to hurry out and buy the first part of The Wild Hunt trilogy immediately—and then wait impatiently for March 2012 when the next instalment drops.
As a very new writer, with your debut novel, Songs of the Earth released just this June, and indeed, as a writer whose name is fresh and new to many readers, who is “Elspeth Cooper”?
By day, she is a grizzled, sword-wielding veteran of 21 years in battle against the evil EndUsers on the fields of IT tech support.
By night she is a forty-something Geordie lass with two cats, one husband and no kids. She also writes a bit. It’s true about the sword, though.
To introduce new readers to The Wild Hunt trilogy, how would you sum up Songs of the Earth?
Oh God, I hate this question. I never know how to answer it – I can’t write an elevator pitch to save my life. Um. It’s a fast-paced fantasy adventure about a young man on the run for his life. Just when he thinks he’s found somewhere safe he discovers he’s actually been thrown into the middle of a much bigger conflict, with much higher stakes, and he has to choose between his personal desires and the greater good.
Whilst Songs veers towards the tropes and themes of more “classic” fantasy (as opposed to more “experimental” themes and styling), it’s also a novel geared towards breaking some of the more cliché aspects of SFF, taking them and remaking them instead of simply adhering: how much of this was a conscious decision, and did you set out to bring something new, or just tell a story that was in your head?
I started from a single image, the opening scene where Gair is locked up in the dark. I wondered who this young man was, how he’d ended up in that cell, and what was going to happen next. The story unfolded from there.
I’d been playing about with ideas of faith vs religion, a corrupt Church losing its relevance with the decline of its political influence and the rise of a more literate, secular society – Gair’s world is edging towards an industrial revolution, although this is more background than a theme of the book. As I was filling out his back-story it made sense to have him embroiled in this at a personal level, and what could be more personal than being a suspected witch within the ranks of the Church’s own Knights?
As for how he’d ended up in the Church, I worked backwards and ended up with a soldier’s bastard given up to charity, who once he was of an age was sent to join the Church, because if you look at European history that’s where surplus sons often ended up: if you weren’t making heirs for a noble house or working the land/minding the shop for your da, you joined the priesthood.
And what do you know, suddenly my protagonist was a magically-gifted hero-of-unknown-parentage. Bugger.
But that was just the shape the story took as it evolved. I didn’t set out to follow a particular trope, or subvert it, or invent something new. I’m not widely-read enough in the genre to be able to tell what’s new, anyway – I could have come up with what I thought was a really cool idea only to find somebody else did it five years ago.
Besides, I wasn’t writing for publication, not back then. I had a target audience of one: me. I was writing because this story had a hold of me and wouldn’t let go, and my head was full of these characters living out their lives in these extraordinary circumstances, so I wrote it down. Somebody liked it, and a book happened.
Anyway, fantasy’s a broad church; there’s room for all of us here, right?
Absolutely! In fact, that’s the best way I’ve seen that idea worded: I do think there’s room for all of us and I think that it should stay that way. However, as the genre ages, criticism begins to emerge, focused on breaking the old mainstays of SFF. As a writer who clearly thought up a story, with no groundbreaking agenda in mind, what’s your response to critics who think fantasy should completely change and disengage its roots?
Can we ever disconnect it completely from its roots without killing it? And how far back do you want to go to find those roots: the Eddas? The Mabinogion? Gilgamesh? Human beings have been telling each other stories to entertain and inform for tens of thousands of years; why does this question only come up in the context of genre fiction?
There is a reason why these old tropes exist: they’re universal themes that everyone can relate to, we just have to find new ways of using them to make them seem fresh again. New voices, new twists, new ways of looking at the scenario. Besides, pretty much any tale can be distilled down to one of several basic archetypes: redemption, a journey and so on, or a combination of two or more. Only the telling can be truly new.
Now some smart alec is probably going to have a go at me because I’m spouting about making old tropes new again when some of those tropes are visible in Songs. Well, yes, they are, guilty as charged m’lud. Gair has no parents, but that’s not just a device, it’s shaped his character and given him issues that affect his relationships with other people. Another character shows him a path, but it’s Gair’s choice whether to walk it, or turn back half way, or go charging off across the fields in pursuit of his own goals. There’s no prophecy telling him what to do, and he doesn’t get to be king at the end.
Stories have to start somewhere. Does starting from a familiar place make them any less valid?
There’s a lot of analogy between the Church in your world, and with the Christian/Catholic church in our world. From what you’ve said, I’m gathering it wasn’t an “I must make this analogy!” sort of decision, and rather (better, perhaps?) just the way the story wanted to be told, just something to enrich the backdrop. However, people will see analogy and assume it’s supposed to be there, especially with how much your world resembles Medieval Europe: how aware of the analogy are you now, and is it something you’re happy with, or will try to downplay in future books?
The ideas that would eventually become Songs of the Earth were percolating just as the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal really hit the headlines. That got me thinking about a Church with a dirty little secret, moving heaven and earth to keep it buried. And I thought what if the secret they are trying to keep is the use of magic? How would a rigidly ordered, monotheistic belief system reconcile that? Could it even be done?
I also saw parallels with European history, in the diminution of the Eadorian Church as a political and military force, struggling to find its place in a world that doesn’t seem to need it any more. All this gave me a very rich backdrop for Gair’s story. However I didn’t want the thrust of the book to be a dissertation on the nature of faith, nor was I writing an alternative history. It’s context, I suppose you could say. Here’s a familiar, relatable situation. Now, what if . . . ?
So yes, I am very aware of the analogy, and it is so deeply woven in to the milieu that Gair inhabits that I couldn’t downplay it if I tried. That “what if” and all its little daughter questions are still waiting to be answered.
Writing it down like this makes it sound very analytical and planned, which is the complete antithesis of the way I work (I am what George RR Martin called a gardener, rather than an architect). It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I can figure out how my brain connected the dots to end up where we are now.
When I reviewed and talked about Songs, I described it as “slice of life”, a term borrowed from Japanese anime, primarily. It’s pretty much what it says on the label, and I think it’s something some fantasy can lack. Even new and experimental SFF that hits the spot (for me) at least features this “slice of life” aspect. Songs has this in abundance, and is part of why I’m behind this book all the way. How important was Gair’s life to you when writing Songs? (It seems a silly question, but other writers don’t pay as much attention to the day-to-day, to the people their characters are, as others, and I think it works.)
Epic fantasy is usually defined by its scope: world-shattering events, or things that need a lot of geography in which to happen. Songs meets those criteria, but in many ways it’s also one person’s story, set against the backdrop of these events. Pretty much everything that happens has a direct impact on Gair, or he has some personal stake in the outcome, so his life is the story and the two cannot be separated. Maybe that comes from the way I wrote it: I didn’t conceive a plot, then raid the character warehouse for a cast to fit it; the characters came first, and the story grew around them.
Character is a good place to start, absolutely. I think crafting characters and having a world and plot build up around them is the best way to present a story. Good stories have been written where the author has conceived the plot—or at least a seed of the plot—first, but until there are characters to live out the plot, surely there is no story? Therefore, is character more important than the epic scale of a plot, for you? Epic characters give life to epic plots?
Without a doubt it’s the characters that are important to me, certainly as far as The Wild Hunt is concerned. They’ve lived in my head for so long they’re like real people. As a reader, I can’t stand books with cardboard characters, or where I just don’t care if one of them gets killed or whatever. Even a weak plot can be forgiven if I’m emotionally invested in the cast. If I just don’t care, where is my incentive to read on?
Who was your favourite character to write in Songs and then which character did you like best?
That’s like asking me which of my kids I like best (yes, yes, I have no kids, but work with me here). Aysha was enormous fun to write. She was so smart, so in-your-face, I’m half-way tempted to find an excuse to write a prequel story for her, just because I can – I love her to bits. Also Ansel, the old warhorse mustering the strength for one last charge, determined to save his beloved order or die trying. And then there’s Gair, of course . . . sod it. Dead heat. I love ’em all, even the bad guy.
You mentioned being a “gardener”, (for readers unfamiliar with writerly whatnots) what does this mean in your writing, and how does it shape your creative process?
In interviews, George RR Martin has said that he thinks there’s two types of writers. Architects, who plan out their books like they are building a house: they know how many rooms it’ll have, where the wiring will run, what kind of roof and so on, all before they’ve written a word. And then there’re the gardeners, who plant a seed, water it, and find out the shape the book will take as it grows.
I am very much a gardener. I tend to begin with a single image that sparks me off, then I start writing. With Songs, it was Gair in his cell. Trinity Moon grew from a story arc that I cut out of Songs because it didn’t fit, but the first new scene I wrote for it came from an image of a sword blade reflecting a bright blue sky, which became Gair facing off with a couple of bad guys in the back streets of a desert city. The who and the why followed, and pow, we were off and running.
It’s a very organic, free-range sort of process, but it seems to work for me. Occasionally it means a bit of back-tracking and some stern editing to tidy up the wayward side-shoots, but I cannot make myself think through a story all the way from soup to nuts before I start writing. I reach a sort of critical mass where the ideas are spilling out and sparking off new ones so fast that I have to start getting them down on paper. If I try to do it as notes I last about a half a page before I’m knee-deep in dialogue, so it’s easier to just write the damn scene in full and move on.
I was the same at school. Loathed writing essay plans, so if there was extra credit for them in exams I wrote the essay first, then wrote the plan to fit.
You started writing for yourself, not with publication in mind, but now Songs has been published and there’re the last two books of the trilogy to follow, has this changed your outlook on writing and how does it affect what might come next? Are there any more stories waiting to be written?
I always knew that I would finish writing The Wild Hunt whether it got published or not. Having a contract hasn’t really changed my outlook, although it does make me beat myself up a bit about slow writing days that previously would never have bothered me. I am on the company dime now, as it were, so I can’t really afford to dawdle any more. I have to treat it like a job.
In terms of how publication might affect what comes next, I think it’s a bit too soon to say. I’m trying not to think too far beyond the end of The Wild Hunt because I’m only contracted for these three books, and the ones on my plate are quite enough to be going on with, thanks.
But yes, there are more stories to tell. One for definite, a darkly funny standalone romp through the glittering parties and back-street bars of the White Havens with a gentleman assassin called Valentine Crowe. There’s other stories too; I can feel them sometimes, clamouring for my attention, a bit like that scene in Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites (I think), where Esk is standing between two mirrors and she’s convinced that one of the mirror-Esks is waving to her.
What can readers of Songs expect from the next release Trinity Moon? (Slated for publication next March (2012) at present.)
Trinity Moon is quite a bit darker than Songs. Some of the layers that were hinted at in Book 1 get peeled back, and the stakes are getting higher. Gair is also sorely tested: physically, emotionally, magically. Some minor characters have expanded roles, new characters are introduced, and as the action moves away from the Western Isles you’ll get to explore more of the Empire, including the central provinces and the deserts of Gimrael. The book will be substantially longer, too – approximately 65% more meaty fantasy goodness, same low, low price!
As a writer, from where do you draw your inspiration and influence?
Inspiration comes from all over the place. Overheard conversations on the train, pictures in a magazine, dreams, chance remarks, a scene in a movie. Most often it’s just stuff that pops into my head when I’m doing something else. Showering seems to be a remarkably fertile time, perhaps because I’m still only half-awake.
Influences, crikey, there’s almost too many to list. Stand-out names are always going to include the likes of Guy Gavriel Kay, Tad Williams, Melanie Rawn, Julian May, and the late Robert Holdstock, who understood where stories come from.
Alan Garner and Susan Cooper unlocked my imagination as a kid, and I’ve been feeding its monstrous appetite for words ever since, everything from Sir Walter Scott to Homer via pretty much everything else. The only thing I don’t really read is ultra-hard sci-fi because it hurts my puny brain.
And your favourite three authors, living or dead?
Terry Pratchett’s got to be right up there. I never get tired of his books, and each re-read seems to unearth a new gem: a throwaway line, a philosophical thought, a scene that just makes your breath catch (Hogfather, near the end: the bit about the wren tears me up every single time).
I’d struggle to name just three, to be honest. My favourites seem to wax and wane depending on my mood. GGK is there, and Tad Williams will forever hold a place in my heart for the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy. Joe Abercrombie is on my auto-buy list, too.
Writers always get asked this, but how would you advise aspiring writers to go about their arduous journey towards publication, and how easy is rejection to deal with?
You mean the submissions process? Two words: be professional. You’re dealing with professionals, after all, so give them the same courtesy as you’d expect in your day job. Approach the right people; address them correctly; obey their guidelines to the letter; ensure your work is as clean as possible – no grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors that will put obstacles between their eyes and your story. You’ve got about three minutes to impress them, so make sure they spend it reading, not cursing you out.
Oh, and be patient. I’ve seen the size of my agent’s slush-pile. Eeek.
Rejection’s always going to sting, especially the first few times, but it’s not personal. Sometimes it’s just bad luck: the wrong book, the wrong editor, the wrong time. So sleep on it, then when you can be calm and dispassionate (or as calm and dispassionate as you can be in the face of a rejection letter) read their note over again and see if there’s anything you can winnow from it. Hand-written comments, or bits of editorial guidance are like gold dust. Read, digest, learn. These people are professionals, remember; they actually do know what they’re talking about.
Then dust yourself down and get right back on the damn horse. Keep trying. Keep writing. Sometimes it takes several books to hit the mark that makes the publisher say yes.
To finish up with something fun, what’s your favourite quote from Songs?
Hmm. Back to my favourite kids again, eh? Well, Gair has a line of dialogue that’s stuck in my head, that kind of sums up one of the themes of the book, “I believe the Goddess forgives,” he said at last. “It’s just the Church that doesn’t.”
Songs of the Earth is available now, from all good and awesome bookstores. Keep up to date with all the latest news regarding Songs of the Earth by visiting Elspeth’s fantastic website and of course follow her on Twitter.