(Spoiler Alert: It’s recommended that readers finish Books 1 and 2 of Waterspell before reading this interview.)
Q: What is Waterspell?
A: This series springs from the realm of epic fantasy (with an environmental fantasy twist) … It’s got ancient and mysterious magic, a passage from one world to the otherworld, a (reluctant) Chosen One, a Hero/Heroine’s Quest, and a search for belonging and redemption. It’s a portal fantasy with complex characters and the gothic sensibilities of Jane Eyre. There’s mystery, murder, and a little unconventional romance. Think “Jane Eyre meets a sorcerer.”
Q: An intriguing combination of elements. Where did you get the idea?
A: It’s been with me, in one form or another, for years. The notion of traveling to other worlds or alternate realities has long held an appeal for me. I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood, and fell under the spell of the fantastic upon discovering C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J.R.R. Tolkien’s wonderful work and, of course, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I grew up on a farm and always had an appreciation for nature; at one time in college, I studied to become a park ranger or wildlife biologist. But the desire to write won out. I earned a degree in journalism—not a fine arts degree, but a bachelor of science—and have since managed to work into my writing both my appreciation for science, nature, and environmental concerns, and my fascination with things magical and supernatural.
Q: Isn’t that a bit of a leap, to combine science and magic?
A: Not really, when you consider that—to the unlearned common folk of the Middle Ages, for instance—science was magic. The two have always rubbed shoulders. Alchemy was a blend of philosophy, mysticism, and chemistry. The Druids—the original “wizards”—were the intellectuals and learned professionals of ancient Celtic society. I suspect they got their reputation for working magic from their knowledge of astronomy—being able to predict eclipses, alignments of the planets and such—and their skill as physicians, curing the ill with herbal remedies. Such knowledge was potent—revered and feared. They took pains to preserve their mystique by keeping their lore secret. Knowledge was not written down, but was passed orally to new initiates. Druidic poets, for example, spoke “in a dark tongue” so that the uninitiated could not understand. It’s easy to see how and why the ignorant masses would begin to think that these learned professionals were actually working magic.
In fact, the English language still reflects this connection in the words “grammar” and “glamour.” I read in David Crystal’s fascinating Encyclopedia of the English Language an etymology of the two words that shows the close ties between science and magic. Grammar had come into the language by the early 14th century. To the illiterate, the word came to be identified with the mysterious world of the scholar, and therefore developed the sense of “learning” in general, and then of “the incomprehensible,” and even of “black magic.” Later, in 18th-century Scottish English, a form appears which is spelled with an l—glamour—which still retains its magical sense. Mr. Crystal points out that the Scottish poet Robert Burns links the two words in referring to gypsies who “deal in glamour” and those who are “deep-read in hell’s black grammar” (1781). Glamour developed the sense of “enchantment.” Katharine Briggs, in An Encyclopedia of Fairies, defines “glamour,” in terms of fairy-lore, as “an enchantment cast over the senses, so that things were perceived or not perceived as the enchanter wished.” By that definition, I can certainly claim that there’s a good deal of glamour in Waterspell—and good grammar, too!
Q: And quite a lot of research, it seems. Aren’t there echoes of Scottish and Irish English in the books, and many references to traditional fairy-lore?
A: Yes, I made a deliberate effort to pay my respects to those who really are the originators of the sword-and-sorcery tale in the English language: those great old Irish and Scottish storytellers who are a link to the Celtic mythology that underpins much of the genre. Readers who are familiar with Irish Fairy & Folk Tales (1892, edited by William Butler Yeats) may recognize some of the uses I’ve made of the vernacular and common sayings or figures of speech. For instance, at one point my melancholy sorcerer, Lord Verek, tells Carin: “It’s a long lane that has no turning.” That’s an adage taken from “The Kildare Pooka,” by Patrick Kennedy–one of the selections Yeats included in his anthology.
Ms. Briggs’ encyclopedia (see above) is another resource I’ve used extensively. Her discussion of “fairy trees”—to name one example among many—guided my use of tree types in the books. ‘Most every library has a copy of her encyclopedia; interested readers will see that the oak, rowan, and apple trees in my story are there for a reason. And, yes, I did adapt to my purposes that old saying: “Rowan, amber and red thread / Puts witches to their speed.”
Q: Does Waterspell take its inspiration from Celtic mythology?
A: Broadly and indirectly, yes. When I started reading the early Irish legends and Celtic myths, I was looking mainly for “the telling detail”—authentic figures of speech, colorful descriptive terms, gritty background textures. But as I read, I noticed that aspects of the mythology had their counterparts in this fantasy I was writing. Or vice versa. For instance, water often has mystical qualities in the legends—Irish rivers like the Boyne were held sacred. It’s pretty obvious from the series title—Waterspell—that water has magical properties in my story, too. The traditions tell of quests, leading into the Otherworld and back. “Other worlds” figure prominently in Waterspell—the premise that what’s harmless in one world or reality may prove deadly if it arrives, whether innocently or by skullduggery, where it doesn’t belong. Also central to my work is the heroic quest, undertaken to gain information or wisdom, to bring healing, or to find or restore lost objects.
I am by no means an expert on Irish legends. Given the huge number of books that have been produced on the subject and the very few of them that I’ve read, I can barely claim a nodding acquaintance. My sole aim, in working into my writing details from the legends, is to make Waterspell “fit” into the world of Celtic mythology the way Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings fits with traditional Scandinavian mythology. Katharine Briggs said of Tolkien’s work: “The whole was not decorated but deepened by the use of traditional folklore which gave it that sense of being rooted in the earth which is the gift of folklore to literature.” That’s what I’m after: to create a fantasy world that’s rooted deeply in an ancient tradition.
And while I’m giving credit where it’s due, I must mention The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom (1994, Caitlín and John Matthews) and The Druids (1994, Peter Berresford Ellis). From the latter I gained a much better understanding of why the modern-day view of Druids makes them out to be powerful magicians and soothsayers, “supplying magic potions from mystical cauldrons,” and how it was the Christianizing of Ireland that made this class of intellectuals into “wizards.” And the Matthews book was the inspiration for the two narrative “lays” or poems that figure in Books 1 and 2 of Waterspell. The Matthews encyclopedia contains lots of excerpts from incomprehensible Celtic poetry. After reading enough of it to blur my brain, I decided to write my own incomprehensible poems—though I hope that, by the time the reader has reached the end of Book 2, the poems will both make perfect sense.
Q: How hard was that to do—to write poems which contain clues to the mystery but don’t give the whole thing away?
A: It was eerily simple. I think Stephen Hawking was right with his theory of “alternate universes.” At least, I think that’s Hawking’s theory! Anyway, it’s been treated in enough episodes of Star Trek that I expect everybody reading this will know exactly what I’m talking about: the notion that everything that could have happened, has happened, with the result that all these other “realities” are playing themselves out in alternate universes. As an example, think of the forks in the road of your own life. Haven’t you wondered how your life would be different if you’d taken the other fork? Well, the alternate-universe notion suggests that some other “you” is in fact living the life that would have resulted from making that choice.
What all of this has to do with the poems in Waterspell is this: It’s become perfectly simple for me to think that this story has actually happened, to real people, in some “other universe” because, in the course of writing it, none of it has felt contrived. Each scene or episode has fallen into place with what seems very little nudging from me; I’ve been the scribe, taking down what the characters are saying and recording the action. Each of the poems came in a flash of inspiration, as the cliché goes. And they both “arrived” well before I’d reached the point in each book where they were to be included. I mean, it wasn’t a matter of writing “up to” the point where the poems went, and then crafting them line by line. Each of them came all-of-a-piece at an unexpected moment.
I don’t remember the exact circumstances of the first “arrival,” but I recall grabbing a notepad and locking myself in the bathroom to make sure I wasn’t disturbed. I sat on the toilet (lid down) and scribbled out the first draft in longhand. What appears in the book is very little altered from that longhand version. The second one came to me one morning while the maid was here. She had the vacuum cleaner going; the stereo was on—it was quite noisy, and I’m a writer who generally likes it VERY quiet when I work. But in the midst of the racket, I wrote the second “lay,” again getting it down on paper in longhand, in a form that was essentially final in its first incarnation. It was a pretty weird experience—almost as if the poems actually existed “out there,” and I was just writing down somebody else’s work. That’s been among the most gratifying aspects of this years-long effort: getting better in touch with my subconscious mind, learning how it works, and learning to make better use of it. Because, of course, for all my talk of other universes and writing down what the characters are saying, I know that what’s really going on is my subconscious creative mind creating, and my conscious mind getting it down on paper.
Q: You said a “years-long” effort. How many?
A: Sixteen, all told—from 1996 through publication of Book 3 in 2012. The first couple of years I didn’t get much done—just the first eight chapters or so. I tell myself it was because I was busy making a living and really didn’t have time to write an epic, but deep down I know I was procrastinating for fear of failure. Self-doubt must be a writer’s worst enemy. I’d already published three books, all of them award-winners, all of them well received by readers and critics. And one of them was well over 100,000 words, so I’d demonstrated that I had the persistence and patience to keep going on a project of that length and see it through.
My first three books, however, were nonfiction—history and biography—and so there wasn’t as much of my own heart and soul in them as appears in the Waterspell books. Beyond the obvious differences between fiction and nonfiction, the distinction that’s perhaps the most important is: When you’re writing nonfiction, you’re oftentimes writing about a person or a subject outside yourself, and you’re expected to keep yourself out of it as much as possible. I studied journalism; it was pounded into me to “be objective.” Writing fiction is truly “sitting down at the computer and opening a vein.” Even if your story is the wildest flight of fancy, you can’t help but put a good bit of yourself into it. Your likes and dislikes, your attitudes and opinions, your sensibilities and personal traits will all be reflected, at least to some extent, in your characters and your story.
Certainly I relate strongly to the viewpoint character in Waterspell, young Carin. I have her—or she has my—innate suspiciousness and mistrust of authority, my pride, self-reliance, and desire for self-determination, tempered (I hope) by a sense of honor, justice, and compassion. In many ways I’m still her age—and, no, I can’t say what her age is. I deliberately left it vague, for two reasons. First: There’s really no way to say for sure, because she doesn’t remember her childhood. She knows only that she came to the world called Ladrehdin as a “half-grown child.” When we pick up her story, it’s five years later. What’s a “half-grown child”? Age 10 or 11? That would make her 15 or 16 now. But she exhibits traits both younger and older than that. She’s impulsive, not entirely logical sometimes, and so boyish in her figure that the sorcerer’s housekeeper likens her to an elf, and the sorcerer himself decides she can pass for a servant-lad instead of a serving-maid. On the other hand, she’s articulate, an analytical thinker, self-possessed when she needs to be, and uncomfortably aware of hormones stirring. So I think of her as being at that awkward age—neither child nor woman. And different girls mature at different rates.
Which brings me to the second reason for leaving her age vague: I want readers of all ages to be able to identify with her. Those of us who haven’t been teenagers for a while can still vividly remember what it was like, and hopefully we’ve all got some of that youthful impetuosity and curiosity still inside. I found out that I’m still 10 years old, in many ways. As part of a visiting-author program in the public schools, I talked to fourth-graders about my writing, and discovered that it was no reach at all to communicate with them! I hope I never lose the child within.
But getting back to the notion that writing fiction is like opening a window into your soul for readers to peer within: Of course there’s also a lot of me in the moody, tormented, 44-year-old (by his world’s reckoning) wizard, Verek. We’re both short-tempered and impatient, can be brusque in our speech, do not suffer fools gladly, and tend to be secretive. He has more grounds for secrecy, however, than just his creator’s temperament. Besides the reasons treated in the book, there’s traditional precedent. As Katharine Briggs discusses in her Encyclopedia of Fairies, all magical beings jealously guard their privacy and deeply resent those mortals who infringe it. Think of the elves of Lórien.
Q: Tell us more about the process of writing Waterspell. Did you work on it every day?
A: Every day that I could, and every night that I could squeeze some hours out of, too. Writing Waterspell became an obsession. I’d be up until 2 or 3 in the morning, then spring out of bed after a few hours’ sleep and start pounding the keyboard again. It was an exhilarating experience. There’s something mystical about being awake in the middle of the night, hearing voices in your head as the characters talk to each other—or shout at each other, as was often the case with Carin and Verek—and typing as fast as you can to get the whole confrontation down on paper in “real time,” while the characters are speaking.
Q: Did you make an outline before you started writing?
A: No. Outlining has never come naturally to me. I jot down notes as I go, but I don’t make a formal written outline. The first book of Waterspell had been in my mind for so long that the story was clearly before me, in my head, throughout the writing. As its climax neared, I knew there were certain things that had to be accomplished in those last three or four chapters. Lingering questions had to be answered, and some final parts of the mystery solved. Other threads had to be carried forward into Book 2. I knew what those were, but I jotted down a list to be sure I didn’t omit anything vital. That’s the only outlining I did for Book 1.
Book 2 was different. It’s a quest that takes the characters cross-country, and lots of things had to happen before they reached journey’s end. My “outline” for that book took the form of a map. I sketched the characters’ route through the landscape, and along the path I jotted down the major story events that I thought would happen at those places in the journey. Some of them actually did happen just where I’d planned them, but others got moved later in the story. The map served its purpose, though, in keeping me on track through both the physical geography and the plot. (Interesting, isn’t it, that “plot” can refer equally to a piece of ground, a map of a piece of ground, or the main story of a book.)
Book 3 posed its own challenges. Because some of the action takes place simultaneously on two different worlds, the timing of events was critical to make sure the two main characters worked through their individual problems and arrived at the same place at the same time. The outline I followed for Book 3 was really a timeline. Timelines and maps are fun to create, whereas outlines in an academic sense can be a drag.
I’ve learned that an outline is only a tool, to be used or not, as the needs of writer and book dictate. Many writers find them indispensable as an aid to thinking the story through and working out the plot, then guiding the writing from beginning to end. Other writers feel straitjacketed by them. If you’ve got a story that you’re raring to get down on paper and you don’t want to take the time to make an outline first, then don’t feel that you must. But if you are “discovering” the story as you go, you can expect to take some wrong turns. The trick is to know when you’ve gone off on a tangent, and to turn around before you’ve gone too far.
In writing the first book of Waterspell I digressed a few times, and always knew that I had done so as soon as the two main characters had nothing to say to each other. If you’ve read the book, you know that those two are never at a loss for words. So anytime they fell silent, I only had to backtrack a few paragraphs to find where I had shortcut something important, or diverged from the story line. When I’d fixed the problem, the people started talking again. That sounds unscientific, but I’m not one to over-analyze the creative process. I’m just glad that my subconscious has its own peculiar checks and balances.
If you’re a writer who needs and wants to work from an outline, be glad your mind is turned that way. It’ll undoubtedly save you hours of backtracking. Don’t feel that you’re doing it “wrong,” though, if you don’t outline before you write. If the lack of an outline causes you to rework your material, to explore your idea from various angles, it can be an excellent way to deepen the story—as long as you don’t end up with so many rewrites that you get lost in them.
Q: What gave you the most trouble?
A: “Show, don’t tell,” has been pounded into me by workshop leaders, editors, and authors of how-to books until I wanted to show everything in excruciating detail. In revising Waterspell, I had to cut out detailed descriptions of the characters mounting their horses, bracing their bows, putting their boots on. I saw the events so vividly in my mind that I was moved to record them in finest detail. But that’s death to the pacing of a narrative.
My biggest weakness as a writer is wordiness—I love words and enjoy using them. In revising, I’m constantly on a search-and-destroy mission, killing the unnecessary descriptions, details, adjectives and adverbs. Dialogue and action scenes don’t give me nearly as much trouble as simple narrative. Connecting one scene to the next should be done quickly and concisely. I never get the writing tight enough, the first time through. Several drafts later, I’ll still be weeding out the excess.
Q: Sounds like a bigger challenge but a lot more fun than writing nonfiction.
A: Absolutely. What I always wanted to do when I “grew up” as a writer was to write science fiction and fantasy. But I had such respect for the genre that I put those sorts of books up on a pedestal and feared to approach them, except as a reader. I was afraid of failure. What if I tried to write a fantasy epic, and failed utterly? Could I bear the disappointment, if I discovered that I wasn’t capable of it? I had to do other sorts of writing until I got enough self-confidence and maturity to tackle “the big one,” the fantasy saga I’d always dreamed of producing. In Waterspell I’ve given it my best shot.
Q: Who are some of your favorite SF & fantasy authors?
I favor the classics. In no particular order: Frank Herbert (Dune), Anne McCaffrey (The Dragonriders of Pern), Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea), Edgar Allan Poe and Andre Norton (anything they ever wrote), Nathaniel Hawthorne (Twice-Told Tales; I only recently discovered these short stories of his, and they’re wonderful—like genteel, deceptively mild-mannered versions of nightmares as bad as anything Poe conjured up), Barbara Hambly (Darkmage, The Rainbow Abyss), Roger Zelazny (The Chronicles of Amber), Isaac Asimov (The Foundation Trilogy), Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), Ellis Peters (any and all of the Cadfael mysteries—a rich source of medieval vocabulary and great fun to read), Jack Finney’s Time and Again, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Carl Sagan’s nonfiction as well as his novel Contact, and a few dozen others I can’t call to mind just now.
Q: Speaking of the classics—in Waterspell Book 1: The Warlock we learn that the “Jabberwocky” poem from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There possesses “odd” properties when transplanted to Ladrehdin. How did you get the idea of turning “Jabberwocky” into a magical incantation?
A: Well, it reads like one, doesn’t it? “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves … ” The language is as strange as any of the “real” magical incantations that I read in books like Irish Fairy and Folk Tales or The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom. And it fit beautifully with the overall theme: That things which are harmless or even benign in one setting may cause great harm and injury in an environment where they are alien. But that’s enough of that! I want people to read the books. Let’s not tell the whole story here.
Q: OK, we’ll let that go. Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: Just that I’d love to hear from people with their comments or questions. E-mail me at djls (at) djlightfoot.com and I’ll do my best to answer, either by private e-mail or, for the questions or comments that I think would be of general interest, through this blog. So check in from time to time, and see what’s new.
Q: We’ll do it.
“What is the best writing advice you can give?”
“What is your favorite thing about being a writer?”
“Which writer, if any, would you compare yourself to?”
“Are you a plotter or a pantser?”
“Mismatched or matching socks?”
“What was the hardest part of writing your book?”
“If a fairy godmother told you your life could be like a favorite book for 24 hours, which book would you pick and why?”