Passages to the Past is delighted to bring you a Q & A with my new favorite author, Jules Watson! Not only is she cute as hell, Jules is also super nice, gracious and charming. She has found a life-long fan in yours truly and I totally want to be her when I grow up! I hope you enjoy the interview, her answers are fabulous!
There are varied versions of how Deirdre met her death - how did you choose her ending and why?
I’ll try to do this without a complete spoiler! I chose the ending based on the oldest version of the myth of The Sons of Usnech, which dates from the ninth century. Later versions give Deirdre an ordinary, lonely death — nothing as poetic and dramatic as in the version I have used. While trying to write a realistic setting, I wanted this book to capture the beauty and mysticism of the original myth, and so her death could not be prosaic. Also, I would not have attempted to novelize such a tragic story if I could not come up with an end that is transcendent and spiritual; that leaves the reader uplifted and still full of hope. The recurring theme of swans and ravens in the book gave me the perfect ending: something about the freedom and power of birds and flying, showing the ultimate triumph of Deirdre over her captors. That’s all I’ll say!
Did you feel a special connection with Deirdre?
Her personality is not well drawn in the original myth; she comes across as either a selfish manipulator or a victim. Having said that, near the end of the original story her nobility and dignity take center stage as the vice of fate tightens around her, and you can’t help but root for her then. These pagan stories were only written down much later by Christian monks, though, and in them powerful women are often demonized. I therefore felt able to reinvent her: to peel back the layers of legend and imagine what she could have been like. The moment I decided to write about her, a richer Deirdre came alive in me. She’s a wild child, a nature sprite, brave and unconventional — just as we’d all like to be. When I was young I also felt alone, and sought solace in nature, and I identify with the way she doggedly follows her own path despite the formidable obstacles. She questions who she really is — and finds the answer in her spirituality — and that also reflects a lot of me. I wish I had her courage, though!
What’s in store for your readers with your next novel, The Raven Queen?
In the Ulster Cycle, the ancient Irish legends, the two most important women were Deirdre, heroine of The Swan Maiden, and Queen Maeve. Maeve is the subject of The Raven Queen. They are two completely different characters: Deirdre is a beautiful and tragic maiden, an Aphrodite, and her story is about true love and jealousy. Maeve is a ruling queen in her own right, a powerful warrior — more of an Athena crossed with Mars. She causes the war between Ulster and Connacht that is at the heart of the best-known Irish epic The Tain. Both women were maligned by the monks who wrote down the oral tales, Deirdre portrayed as a selfish, sexy minx and Maeve as a bloodthirsty nymphomaniac. Both were blamed by the early chroniclers for causing the deaths of many men. What could these women have truly been to inspire such fear and suppression? I wrote the novels to imagine the answer. We don’t have one tale about Maeve, we have many, so I picked out some aspects and left the more fantastical out of it. It’s more a “reimagination” inspired by her. It shows the princess Maeve’s struggle to become queen, triumphing over the men in her life who have always used her for their own ends. She eventually takes her warriors to war against Ulster, facing the famous Irish hero Cuchulainn and the slightly mad King Conor. When disaster strikes, she discovers what her true power could be. There is also an unusual love story, as I always have a romance at the heart of my books.
Before starting your writing career you were in archeology (which was my childhood dream), what was the most exciting discovery you made? Or what was the most thrilling “dig” you were a part of?
I helped to dig up a Roman army fort that underlies a medieval village in Germany. Every time the villagers sunk a drain or built a wall, they stumbled across Roman stuff and one of us was despatched to have a look. I ended up sitting in the bottom of someone’s newly-dug swimming pool, looking at the remnants of human life from prehistoric times to 19th century all stacked up like a sandwich. My favorite moment was digging my spade in and seeing a necklace of glass beads literally roll out around my feet. Since that was in the soldiers’ barracks, we figured they must have been receiving visits from ladies of ill repute!
I got the sense when reading The Swan Maiden that you are a natural storyteller, is that true? Have you always had the gift?
I do see myself as a storyteller, rather than a literary writer, and I did this from an early age. I love beautiful words, but my main drive is to carry the reader on a journey of soaring and swooping emotions. Emotion is the buzzword for me; I always read books to be moved. When people write to say I made them sob for hours I feel a great thrill! This also harks back to tribal storytelling, which was at the heart of Celtic society. People gathered around a campfire, the flames pushing back the dark. The bard leaned in, his voice transporting his audience into his story. It’s all about the “ooh” and “ahh” factor — lifting the listeners into transcendence, plunging them into heartbreak, thrilling them with danger and redemption. Storytelling also joins us together because through it we share the common concerns of humanity. We recognise ourselves in stories: we gain insight from our heroes into how to survive the pitfalls of life, how to discover our own nobility or bravery, or act with generosity. I absolutely love it.
What are you reading at the moment?
A friend’s unpublished manuscript about the Guinevere legend; and Diana Gabaldon’s A Breath of Snow and Ashes.
Who are your top five authors?
Marion Zimmer Bradley, Diana Gabaldon, Sara Donati, Joan Wolf’s Dark Ages series, Tolkien.
Book that changed your life?
The Mists of Avalon, as it was then I knew I wanted to write ancient historical books that had the same mixture of adventure, romance and spirituality.
Favorite line from a book?
Can I have two? “The dream is ended: this is the morning” from the last volume in the Narnia books, The Last Battle.
Also “The grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and Frodo beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.” The end of The Lord of the Rings.
Book that you most want to read again for the first time?
I sound like a complete Tolkien freak, but I did start out reading fantasy before I moved into historical fiction. One day aged 15 I got sent home from school with the flu for a whole week — brilliant — and it was then I read Lord of the Rings for the first time. I wasn’t even IN our world that whole week: I was completely transported to his. Some people find it ponderous, but I love how his books sound like mythical poetry. That same alchemy of the epic and the emotional has always stayed with me, and suffuses my own writing.
Jules Watson Website - highly recommended - be careful, you could get lost for hours!!