Elizabeth May Interview
Due out in autumn, Elizabeth May’s The Falconer is one of the most eagerly anticipated books to hit the shelves. The Twittersphere can’t wait to read it; bloggers want to review it (I know I do!) and generally, everyone is awaiting the debut of the faerie murderess of Edinburgh. But what about her author? To ease the wait for The Falconer, read on for an insight into Elizabeth May’s writing process, how The Falconer came to be, and everything in between.
Just to get the ball rolling, who is Elizabeth May and what is she all about? Why does she write and on a rainy Saturday, what is she up to?
Elizabeth May is a silly girl. She loves urban fantasy, chocolate, a good pint, a nice glass of wine, and apparently discussing herself in the third person. All right, that’s enough third person for now! 🙂
I began writing in my adolescence as a coping mechanism for dealing with the ladies who made fun of me at school. So I bestowed upon my heroines all the strength I wish I had. Which created a number of author self-insertions, but at the time, it helped me feel better. Writing still holds that same place for me; it’s what I do when real life becomes too overwhelming. It’s a source of comfort.
On a rainy Saturday (an oft occurrence here in Scotland!) my favourite bit is sitting next to the fireplace with the window open (I am aware these two cancel each other out, but never mind that!) so I can listen to the rainfall and smell the damp air while I write. I’m currently writing books about Scotland, faeries, and ladies with secrets.
The Falconer, expected in autumn later this year (19th September 2013), promises action, romance, adventure and murder—a promising mix for an Edinburgh-set historical fantasy where a young socialite takes to the shadows in order to track down the faery who killed her mother. What can readers expect from 18-year-old Lady Aileana Kameron and her story?
I suppose I’ll begin with this: The Falconer tells the tale of a girl whose mother was murdered by a creature out of nightmare. A girl who had gone out into the world armed with iron and nearly died. A girl who was remade into a killer.
Readers can expect everything the book says on the tin. A heroine who slays faeries, who is torn between the need for vengeance and her life as a proper gentlewoman of the 19th century. Who finds herself drawn further into this underworld of faeries and violence until she isn’t sure if she’s already too deep to claw her way out.
Following on from that, how to you feel about the term “period/historical urban fantasy”? The Falconer has—at least from the synopsis—the essential ingredients for an urban fantasy story, except the fact that it’s set in 1844. It has murder, otherworldly creatures and a protagonist bent on hunting down a killer and the chance of romance—all of which just cry out urban fantasy. Increasingly, more period/historical novels tend to err towards urban fantasy (for example, Emma Newman’s Between Two Thorns, and Liesel Schwarz’s steampunk novel A Conspiracy of Alchemists); do you think this can be defined, even loosely, as a branch of the genre or even a sub-genre?
I’d say that historical urban fantasy branches from alternate history (a sub-genre of speculative fiction). A strict alternate history novel has historical events unfold differently (ex. what if the States had not won their independence?), while urban fantasy occasionally exists under the supposition that there is an extraordinary world within the mundane that humans are completely unaware of. So there may be no alteration of the actual historical record, in some cases.
There’s the occasional odd duck combination, something like Gail Carriger’s Soulless, which is a combination of alternate history, urban fantasy and steampunk. I’d say The Falconer is kind of in that vein. It includes some technology that either weren’t widely in use at the time (including, funnily enough, electricity) or didn’t exist at all, which I suppose gives it steampunk elements, but there isn’t enough for it to firmly qualify, either. And aside from its fantasy elements, it’s quite firmly grounded in its historical roots.
How did The Falconer come to be: was it a process or did the story just walk into your head?
I began my Anthropology PhD in 2009 and was keen to do something on Scottish folktales. There’s a great deal of lore here in Scotland on ghosts and faeries and witches and curses. So my initial research for the book was from an academic standpoint. Eventually I jokingly thought to myself that if someone slayed paranormal creatures as a hobby, they would surely have a lot of work in Scotland!
Which led me to the initial idea of a lady who hunted creatures from myth. And since part of my PhD research dealt with the Victorian era, it only made sense that she be from that time period. Then I thought of the most awful spin I could put on the Heroines With Paranormal Secrets trope: she should be the daughter of a titled gentleman. Because that would surely complicate matters.
So I had my idea, I had my heroine, and I wrote my book and everything fell into place! Except that it didn’t. That is a complete lie.
The first draft of The Falconer was dreadful. Absolutely dreadful. I pull it out occasionally if I need to feel better about the current state of my writing because it is that bad. It had everything. Faeries (the main antagonists, as they are now), ghosts and witches and and and I’ll just stop there because there’s no need to embarrass myself further. The story wasn’t working. There were too many mythologies that I would have to explain and I wasn’t a skilled enough writer to incorporate them.
Back to the drawing board I went. I thought a lot about faeries. Primarily that while faeries have received a fair number of books in fantasy, they are rarely painted as the nightmarish creatures from Scottish myth. They’re always startlingly attractive (which some species are), and the novels tend to be a bit Game of Thrones-ish, focusing largely on fae politics and deception. Which is perfectly fine, but I wanted to write about the kind of creatures people would wear iron to protect themselves against, that people were desperate to appease out of fear. I wanted to write about the creatures that would kidnap and kill people on a dark roadside. So I took out the ghosts and the witches and focused on faeries.
And I wrote my book over again, and everything fell into place! Except that it didn’t again.
I honestly believe that, at the time, The Falconer was beyond my abilities as a writer, period. I didn’t have the written skill to match the concept. But, I suppose, the great thing about writing is that each book is an improvement. So the second draft was better, but it still wasn’t quite there. Aileana and the other characters didn’t have the nuance on paper that they did in my mind. It was only when I got to the end of that 2nd draft did I have an idea of where I needed the book to go that would take it to the next level.
So I rewrote it a third time. And it did fall into place. It was a completely different tone than the first and second drafts, and more importantly, it was the tone that fit the story. It was that third draft that my agent signed, and the draft my editors offered for. While it’s gone through some extensive editing since — befitting of my current abilities as a writer — I’m glad I had the patience to develop it. It’s the first thing I’ve ever written that I’m proud of.
You say that you believed the book beyond you: how did that feel and how did you begin to tackle the subsequent steps, in a practical sense? What did you do and how did you do it? How did it feel to have a book trapped in your imagination, entirely and completely yours, yet to be incapable of expressing it as desired or required? What would you tell other writers who experience the same regarding their work? What’s best to do?
It was frustrating – but at the same time, I enjoyed the challenge. It’s easy for authors to fall back on writing styles and subjects that are familiar, so my first decision after Awful Draft 1 was to change it up. The Falconer was, after all, already a genre I had never previously written (I am a fervent reader of historical fiction, but had never attempted it myself!), so it made sense to try a different style. I’ve written 9 other manuscripts in 1st person/past tense – which draft 1 is written in – so I decided to write Awful Draft 2 in third person.
Which didn’t really work, but it helped me recognize precisely where I needed to go. Toward the end of that second draft – literally within the last few chapters of the book – Aileana’s voice naturally started coming out in 1st person present tense (a surprise to me because I had never written in present tense before) no matter how much I tried to shift it back into 3rd person. So I immediately recognized that the manuscript once again needed to be rewritten. It was certainly a bit of a “…shit,” moment, and one of my readers did ask, “Are you sure you need to write this again?” But I was. I was absolutely sure. And, ultimately, that decision is what ended up working for both the character and the story.
So, I suppose my advice is that if a style just isn’t working, it’s best not to force it. Try something different and don’t settle for “good enough.” It’s possible that Awful Draft 1 could have been edited into something publishable, but it wouldn’t have challenged me as a writer. It wouldn’t be the same book that I have now, which gave me the kind of character I’m delighted to continue writing for 2 more books. So I don’t have any regrets about it taking me that long to shape the manuscript. I believe the effort that goes into writing should be just as rewarding as the final product.
Was it difficult to realise you were trying to involve just far too many plot strands in the early drafts of The Falconer? Did you feel frustrated that you couldn’t express everything that interested you, or rather liberated by the newfound direction? Do you think you will write more about ghosts and witches in other stories, or were they pushed from mind when you settled down to focus on faeries?
Not difficult at all. I realized about midway through the first draft that it wasn’t working, so the rest of the draft just ended up being about faeries. But at the time, I was writing the manuscript for fun. I wasn’t on contract, I wasn’t trying to be published. I was just having a good time writing about Scottish lore that interested me. I already knew I’d have to go back and rewrite it, but I had to finish it anyway to get a sense of whether the story arc I had plotted would work at all.
And, ultimately, the story hasn’t changed at all between Awful Draft 1 to its current form. It was still about a girl mourning her mother and torn between two lives, still about the threat of an all out faery war, and virtually all the original scenes are intact – albeit played out much differently. I just got rid of the excess and kept the focal point on faeries because they were the most compelling aspect within the original structure. I may write about other lore one day. I guess we’ll see! 🙂
What can you tell aspiring authors about drafting? How do you know when a draft isn’t working? How can you tell what needs changing and how to change it? How did you cope with the anxiety of having written and finished a book, only to realise it’s all quite wrong inside? Is there a way to make the process less painful or frustrating?
For me, it was really easy to recognize while writing. Other authors are masters at tying together different creatures and aspects of lore, but The Falconer ended up being more intimate and character-driven than I originally intended. It made sense for me to cut out the other lore so I could focus on the characters. I guess I coped by treating it as a positive. The manuscript was improving, and I had a good feeling about its potential. I knew that once I got it in the direction it needed to go, it would be worth it. And it was.
Directly addressing any readers who may be in doubt right now: if you’re feeling stretched thin while writing, it’s possible that you’re tackling too much at once and you might consider narrowing the focus of the story more. Honestly, I think that’s the best indicator – that feeling of needing to address everything may be a sign that the manuscript has too much other stuff and not enough of a central story. Even while writing multiple characters, they should each have their story arc. If you’re in doubt about how a book is progressing, I do encourage character vignettes; see how their voices come out, see how they write. You might be surprised what comes out.
Who is Lady Aileana Kameron: what makes her tick and what will readers love and hate about her?
Well, I could go on about Aileana being a kick-ass heroine. But as lovely and admirable as that quality is, it doesn’t solely define her as a character. She is someone who lives in a society that thrives on a guise of politeness, where ladies are not to show outward signs of grief or anger. So she is a girl who rages in secret, who attends formal functions and dances with a polite smile plastered on her face. She finds comfort in the solid weight of a blade in her hand, in those first few moments after a kill.
I think this is a quality of her that readers will either love or hate. She is not a hero. She does not kill faeries to save lives. She is burdened by her grief, and entirely driven by a need for vengeance so strong that it is potentially destructive. Some readers may be repelled by that, but if readers are looking for a gritty leading lady, I think she’ll appeal to them.
When writing Aileana did you ever imagine scenes of the book as they might be in a movie, to be able to picture things more clearly, and if so, who, in your fantasies, might play the lead lady of The Falconer if it hit the big screen?
Sometimes I’d picture “movie-view”, but since I wrote in first person present, I thought it important to imagine things from Aileana’s perspective. It’s a limited view, but it’s also very visceral. Scenes are balanced between what she sees, smells, tastes, feels and hears. Imagining only in “movie-view” has the danger of making scenes solely about the “visual” aspects of a scene. Which is fine, but I wanted to heavily incorporate the other senses so readers could feel like they’re experiencing the story through Aileana, too, rather than solely viewing the events from afar.
I’m pretty bad with actresses, but the closest any have come to looking how I picture Aileana is Rose Leslie – who plays Ygritte on Game of Thrones – if only she had untameable ginger curls!
Besides the wealth of Scottish mythology and folklore, what might your influences – in a mode literary sense – have been for The Falconer and for your writing in general? What authors did you veritably inhale during your formative years and which writers do you turn to in recent years?
I’ve always read quite widely, but when I was around 11 or so, I became addicted to L.J. Smith (of The Vampire Diaries fame) and those books made me want to read more fantasy and UF (which is right around the time I started writing it, as well!). So I fell in love with Charles de Lint, Robin McKinley, Ursula K. LeGuin, Garth Nyx, Juliet Marillier, Holly Black. Later, I read more adult UF like Jim Butcher, Ilona Andrews, Kelley Armstrong, Seanan McGuire. And lately I love books with writing that balances gorgeous language with stunning imagery: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, and Stolen by Lucy Christopher (contemporary).
Who is your biggest and brightest influence and did they ever find their way into the pages of The Falconer in one way or another?
I’m a very visual person, so I’m inspired often by settings more than people. The Falconer was largely influenced by Edinburgh, the dark stone buildings and wynds and lore and legends. They’ve shaped the entire story. So the people on the page are pure works of fiction, not influenced by anyone I know. No avatars, at least not consciously.
If you write to music, what tracks made up your “Falconer” playlist? And if not, what tracks would be embedded as The Falconer’s soundtrack if books came with music? What would be Aileana’s theme?
The Falconer has a huge playlist, which I’ll be compiling and posting online soon! But Aileana’s theme is “Still It Has Only Just Begun” by Mortal Love.
Who is your absolute favourite fictional character?