Juliet Marillier’s novels combine historical fiction, folkloric fantasy, romance and family drama. The strong elements of history and folklore in her work reflect her lifelong interest in both fields. However, her stories focus strongly on human relationships and the personal journeys of the characters. Juliet is a member of the druid order OBOD (The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) and her spiritual values are often reflected in her storytelling – the human characters’ relationship with the natural world plays a significant part.
As well as her books for adult readers, Juliet has written three novels for young adults and has contributed short fiction to several anthologies. She is a regular contributor to genre writing blog Writer Unboxed, where she posts on the first Thursday of the month.
1. Shadowfell, the first book of your new trilogy, has just been released and is already getting great reviews. Congratulations. You’ve described it as a ‘dark, gritty story’. Can you tell us about the central character, Neryn?
Neryn is fifteen when the story begins. She’s alone and destitute, living rough in the forested hills of Alban (think a magical version of ancient Scotland) and running from the king’s Enforcers. And she’s hiding a perilous secret; she has the ability to see and hear the Good Folk, the fey inhabitants of Alban, but any interaction with uncanny people is forbidden by the king’s harsh laws. We meet Neryn at her weakest; she has lost her entire family and has nowhere to turn. Or so it seems, until she remembers the name Shadowfell – a mysterious place where there may just possibly be people prepared to band together and fight for freedom.
Neryn has some strengths she hardly knows about, but as the story progresses she learns how important they could be. Along the way she’s both helped and hindered by the Good Folk and by a mysterious stranger, Flint, who may be friend or enemy. The hardest thing for Neryn, who has grown up in a place where everyone lives in fear, is learning how to trust.
2. Folklore, fairy tales, and mythology influence your writing. Can you tell us some of your favourites and why you love them so much?
Traditional stories have so much to teach us – back in the days of storytelling around the fire, they were used to help people make sense of their world and live their lives well, so they deal with all the major life challenges, from falling in love to getting in trouble of various kinds, learning who you can trust, dealing with monsters, either the ogre/dragon/ troll kind or the kind we meet these days. How to cope with being the youngest sibling; how to break free of people who want to control your life. Everything. And they’re still just as relevant, even though we live in a high-tech, fast-moving world, because the qualities they deal with – love, courage, faith, loyalty, friendship, patience – are still things we need to learn.
I have lots of favourites. What they have in common is a strong female character in the centre, someone who makes her own choices and fights her own battles. In The Six Swans, which I used as the basis of my first novel, Daughter of the Forest, the central character wins her brothers back their human form by knitting shirts from a prickly plant and remaining silent under terrible duress. I love Beauty and the Beast, even though in the old versions Beauty is a character at the mercy of other people’s poor decisions. But I do like a great love story, and this is one of the most romantic.
In my take on the story, a novel called Heart’s Blood, I gave the Beauty character far more freedom of choice and as a result she is both more and less heroic – she makes a heap of mistakes and in her way is as flawed as the Beast character. That’s a great thing about traditional stories: they are always being reworked, changing and evolving. Other favourites: Vasilissa the Wise, which has an almost all-female cast including the wonderful witch Baba Yaga; East of the Sun and West of the Moon, in which the heroine undertakes a gruelling quest to get her man back.
Daughter of the Forest was written as personal therapy as much as anything – I only decided to submit it for publication when it was all finished. These days I write full time and make a living at it, and there are always deadlines to meet. I’ve worked pretty hard on developing my writer’s craft over the fourteen books I’ve written since then, and I’m far more conscious of what I’m doing technically these days. So it does annoy me a bit when some readers tell me that first book was my best!
The influence of traditional stories is certainly present in every one of my books, though only three of my novels are actually based on fairy tales. My writing style owes something to oral storytelling, as well as to my background in music – I’m very aware of rhythm, balance and flow, and how things sound when read aloud. Characters – their development and interaction – are more important to me both as a reader and as a writer than elements such as world-building and magic. Anything I write is going to be built around the emotional journey of the main character(s). In more recent times my stories have become a bit darker; that may relate to my serious illness in 2009, or it may be more a reflection of my changing reading tastes!
Writing practice – that is relatively unchanged. I’ve always been a control freak, so I fit in a lot of work, always meet my deadlines and do similar hours every day, even though I work from home and am my own boss. Though probably one of my dogs is the real boss. I have four of them, all rescues, and my working day is structured around their schedule which includes a lot of walks. Dogs are good for a writer – they make sure you rest your eyes and take exercise instead of sitting at the keyboard all day.
4. Which of your fictional characters Burns Brightest in your mind and why?
It’s usually the character I am currently focussed on in my writing. So right now it’s a character named Tali, who shares the lead role in Raven Flight, the sequel to Shadowfell. I thought I’d never write a warrior woman character, because there have been a lot of them in fantasy recently. Think Buffy and Xena first, followed by a long line of ballsy female protagonists in fantasy novels.
Writers were reacting to the cliché passive princess or wicked witch/stepmother characters of earlier fantasies. I love powerful female characters, but I’ve never thought they need to perform traditionally male roles in order to be strong individuals, so many of my women are both feminine and strong. But this story required a female fighter. Tali is one of the rebels at Shadowfell. She’s the master-at-arms who trains everyone in combat skills, and is a character with great outward strength and some secrets that emerge as the story develops. One of my favourite characters ever, and a fine example of burning bright with selfless courage, not to speak of an enviable level of physical fitness! And she has cool tatts.