Historical Fairy Tales - My Interview with Suzannah Rowntree
Hi, everyone! I'm so excited to have Suzannah Rowntree featured on my blog today. She is an amazing talent, and I have so enjoyed everything I've read by her. I hope you will enjoy learning more about her and hopefully discover a new favorite author!
Hi, Suzannah, and welcome! I'm so pleased to feature you today. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. We'll start out with an easy one: When did you begin writing stories, and how did you first start publishing?
Suzannah: Telling stories is something I’ve always been good at, even before I could write (I think my dad took dictation). I started writing my first novel when I was 12, and finished it when I was 16, and promised myself, “Never again!”
Reader, I didn’t even last fifteen minutes before starting something else. That was when I realized that this was what I was made for.
My debut novel, Pendragon’s Heir, is the one I started writing when I was 17. I worked on it for ten years on and off, constantly rewriting and titivating. Over that same ten years, I also learned a lot more about the publishing industry, and eventually decided that my best bet for making a career off my writing was to self-publish. Pendragon’s Heir released in March 2015, just three months shy of its tenth birthday in a fevered week in 2005 when I wrote the entire first draft in just six days (still the most productive week of my writing life). But it wasn’t the very first thing I’d ever published – a few months previously, around Christmas 2014, I’d released The Rakshasa’s Bride, a Beauty and the Beast retelling (in the style of Bollywood! Yes, really). I’ve been busily writing and self-publishing ever since. It’s been four years now, but I still feel like I’m just getting started.
Do you find that your life experiences affect your story ideas? If so, can you give us an example?
Suzannah: The most obvious example of this happening is from that time I spent a wonderful week exploring the resort town of Wanaka in New Zealand’s South Island, and felt so much like a glamorous Mary Stewart heroine the whole time, that I decided the experience couldn’t be allowed to go to waste. So I wrote Death Be Not Proud to immortalise it all. Swimming in glacial waters! Watching the sunrise from Mount Iron! Seriously, New Zealand is glorious.
Otherwise, usually I’m not writing about places I’ve been and experiences I’ve had. For example, trying to trade my love interest’s soul to the devil in a fantasy version of Renaissance Venice (in The City Beyond the Glass). Although I can tell you that growing up as the eldest of three sisters definitely had an effect on that story...
Do you ever base your characters (even partially) on people you know?
Suzannah: Ah ha! Should I admit to this? Well, all right: yes – partially. My characters are almost never based on just one person; more often I think of them as a type, as
represented by two or three people I know personally.
After all, I need plausible deniability, right?
Though this doesn’t always work. I was rather surprised when both my sisters told me that Ruby in Death Be Not Proud is definitely me. Oops?
Why do you write fantasy in particular?
Suzannah: I’ve always been entranced by ideas – philosophy, theology, ideology. In addition, as a Christian, I believe that there’s a supernatural, spiritual dimension to history itself. Fantasy has always lent itself particularly well to discussing matters of faith, philosophy, and spirituality, and that’s why I personally have always gravitated towards it.
Also, fantasy just lets you do cool things.
Have certain authors inspired your work or given you jump-off ideas for your stories?
Suzannah: Oh, yes! The Inklings, especially JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams and Roger Lancelyn Green, gave me my love of medieval history and fantasy, and Pendragon’s Heir is deeply influenced by them. Then, most of my fairytale novellas are inspired by books and movies I love – I wanted to challenge myself to write experimental stories in a lot of different genres. So, The Rakshasa’s Bride is my homage to
Bollywood movies. The Bells of Paradise is strongly influenced by Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and George MacDonald’s Phantastes, among many other things. Death Be Not Proud was my challenge to myself to write a Mary Stewart romantic suspense story. Ten Thousand Thorns come from my love of Chinese wuxia movies, and is deeply inspired by the classic wuxia novel The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden. The City Beyond the Glass is much more a creature of my own creation, but if I’m going to be honest with you, it has a good helping of Rosamund Hodge’s 90%-dark-chocolate fairytales in there as well.
With the Watchers of Outremer series, Tim Powers is a big influence. Powers is a venerable author of amazingly detailed and well-researched historical fantasy. I haven’t always enjoyed his books, but I’ve always been deeply challenged by the sheer level of historical detail which he blends seamlessly with fantasy elements (I particularly liked Hide Me Among the Graves, which is about the Rossetti siblings fighting vampires!). My aim with Watchers of Outremer is to build similar fantastical stories into a similarly detailed and accurate picture of the medieval crusader states.
What is the greatest challenge for you in mixing fantasy with real-world history?
Suzannah: Ordinarily I think about how intuitive this process is, actually. I see the inclusion of fantastic elements as simply being a way to discuss the spiritual and ethical realities going on beneath the surface of the history. Sometimes, like in the Watchers of Outremer series, this means reading the historical chronicles and exaggerating things like the visions, prophecies, and sorcery that’s already recorded in the history. And sometimes, like in The City Beyond the Glass, it just means coming up with the Glass Doge as a big fancy metaphor for the evils lurking beneath the glittering facade of Renaissance Venice.
So in some ways the process is very easy. But no creative process is without difficulty. One of the challenges I’ve faced, especially with Watchers of Outremer, is knowing that since my stories are based on historical reality, I also want the fantasy elements to be based on real history and mythology. So, I’ve actually been researching Near Eastern religion and mythology, angelology and demonology. Some of the books I’ve read have titles like The Adversary, Unholy Spirits, and The Dictionary of Demons and Deities in the Bible. Next on this list: The Unseen Realm. Learning about all these things and managing to harmonise them all into a mythology that fits my own stories is a bit tricky, given the complex and sometimes contradictory evidence of all the different sources I’m using. I find that fantasy worldbuilding becomes a lot trickier when you’re linking it up with existing mythologies!
And there you have it, reader friends! Fascinating answers from a truly fascinating writer. I hope you are all inspired now to go pick up Suzannah's work. Believe me, you won't regret it!
And meanwhile, do you want a chance to win one of her fairy tales for yourself? Because I'm offering a giveaway for all my subscribers! If you haven't subscribed to my newsletter yet, be sure to do so, and you'll be given a chance to enter the Author of the Month Giveaway!