Gillian has kindly agreed to visit tall tales & short stories to talk about writing and her latest book, FIREBRAND – the first book in the Rebel Angels series.
Hi Gillian and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi Tracy, and thanks for inviting me!
I’m a full-time writer living in the Scottish Highlands – I always wanted to be a writer and have always written, since I was a child, but it took me a long time to get around to a serious attempt at a career. I was an expat in Barbados for 12 years, and started writing short stories professionally then, but I couldn’t settle to a novel. Oh, except for a couple of genre romances, but I was terrible at them: they’re incredibly hard to write. I found YA novels almost by accident – buying books for my own children, I kept being distracted by the teen shelves. And also, after my children were born I came back to Scotland, and somehow I found it much easier to write. I was back with my muse, I think.
It's the last decade of the sixteenth century: a time of religious wars and witch-hunts in the full mortal world. But the Sithe are at peace - until their queen, Kate NicNiven, determines to destroy the protecting Veil.
Seth MacGregor is the half-feral, bastard son of a Sithe nobleman. When his father Griogair is assassinated, Seth is exiled with his brother Conal to the full-mortal world.
They vow to survive, to return to reclaim their fortress and save the Veil.
But even its power can't protect the brothers when the witch-hunts begin...
* What inspired you to write Firebrand?
The main character! Seth was a subsidiary character in the books I was supposed to be writing – which were contemporary fantasies – but he elbowed his way in and demanded not only equal billing, but a prequel. Brat.
* You’ve based Firebrand in two worlds - sixteenth century Scotland and a parallel fantasy world. Although this is a wonderfully rich historical fantasy I'm presuming it’s still important to get the period detail and social mores as authentic as possible. How much historical research did you do for Firebrand and do you enjoy this part of the writing process?
I had to do more research than I usually like – I’m not the world’s hottest researcher – but as soon as I started reading about the period I was hooked. It’s a fascinating time. It’s true that I could do pretty much as I liked with my fantasy world – so my faerie characters could have some fairly modern attitudes and perspectives – but I had to get the Scotland of the period right. That meant details of rural life and clan traditions as well as lots of information about the Reformation, and the witch trials of the time. In many ways it was an ugly period in history, but that doesn’t half give a writer scope for throwing hardship and conflict at characters.
I also needed to check the Gaelic words and phrases that I used, but I had a get-out clause there as well – Gaelic can be mighty hard to pronounce and it’s full of silent letters, so I let my Sithe have their own simplified version of some words. They do live in a different world, after all... For the same reason I felt able to let my characters speak in occasional anachronisms – Seth is narrating the story from the present day, and he’s doing it in translation, so I felt the story ran smoother if I gave him free rein. He uses a lot of colloquialisms, too.
* When writing historical fiction do you think it’s important not to laden the narrative down with too much information? That sometimes, less is more? How do you decide what to include and what to leave out?
Absolutely: less is more. In fact I was so fascinated by the historical details of my research, I put far too much of it into the first draft. I had to go through the whole thing with a red pen. More often than not I do believe it’s better to have a single description of the texture of a fabric against skin, say, than a detailed description of clothing. I think you need to know the details in the back of your mind – to be able to see it all – but that’s where the details should mostly stay. Otherwise they can drown the story. Your character, after all, isn’t constantly thinking about the way his house is built or the way his food was cooked, and I like writing from inside a character’s head. I leave out anything that my character wouldn’t know or notice.
* What, if anything, do you think historical writers should bear in mind when writing for a younger audience?
Oh, this is a tough one. I tend to come from the school that says: leave nothing out. But for example, I don’t like writing explicit sex scenes anyway, so I’m almost always describing sex or horror at one remove – offstage. I think it’s quite clear in Firebrand that some terrible things happen to the characters who are accused of witchcraft, but none of it is actually described on the page as it happens. I suspect, though, that that’s how I’d want to write for adults too, because I like leaving things to the imagination. Horror’s always worse in the imagination; sex is always sexier.
The one thing I do tend to describe in detail is violence, but that’s a deliberate policy. I think so long as it isn’t self-indulgent or pornographic, it’s important to show the reality of violence. I loathe books and films where violence has no consequence, where it’s bloodless, where it doesn’t hurt. I do think Firebrand is quite violent, but I also hope and believe the violence has moral and physical consequences for both the victim and the perpetrator.
As for language and historical detail... well, I wouldn’t write any differently for young people than I would for adults. The pace may have to be faster than in an adult novel, but you can’t talk down to young readers, and they certainly aren’t going to want to be smacked repeatedly on the head with a history lesson.
* How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal for Firebrand?
I think I started it in late 2006, and entered a partial for the Scottish Association of Writers’ Constable Trophy in early 2007. It won, and that gave me the impetus to finish the whole book. So I probably finished the first draft in 2007, polished and rewrote it in 2008, and Strident bought it in 2009 to publish in 2010. OK, four years!
* Firebrand is the first in a series of four. I was wondering, given that the Sithe live so long, if the story moves through the centuries? Can you give us a sneak preview of what might be happening in the next book?
Yes, the series does move through the centuries. In fact it comes right up to date in the next book, Bloodstone, and that gave me a few obstacles when it came to mood and atmosphere. Firebrand, when I wrote it as a sort of prequel to the others, changed everything, and I realised I would have to change the next three books a huge amount. I don’t mind, though. I like these characters and I like spending time with them, so it was far from a chore – more like a good excuse.
I can give you a sneak preview without spoilers, I think... there will be new characters, of course, but the ones from Firebrand will still be very much centre stage. Conal and Seth haven’t been idle over the centuries, and they certainly haven’t stayed on one side of the Veil – and it’s their habit of crossing it that gets them into trouble at the beginning of Bloodstone. One incident at the start of the story has terrible consequences, not just for them but for their whole family and clann.
* Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?
Now, I usually say that I don’t plan at all, and often I don’t. I remember getting to the end of Book 3 (in its first draft, which will admittedly change a lot) and typing THE END, and being suddenly swamped with panic, because I realised I had no idea how to get them out of their situation, or how it was all going to end. But a very kind friend let me stay in her beautiful clifftop cottage – just me and my laptop and some wine – and as soon as I submerged myself in the story and let the characters lead me, I saw where it was going. It was a scary moment, though...!
Sometimes – with Bloodstone, for example – I do know roughly what will happen in the end. It’s getting there that’s the fun part. But I wrote Firebrand pretty much without knowing what would happen – there’s nothing more exciting than chucking yet another obstacle in your characters’ way, then seeing how they’ll deal with it.
I can take it too far, though. I wrote The Opposite of Amber – a thriller that’s coming out with Bloomsbury in 2011 – with no idea of what would happen; I just submerged myself in the characters. It took a lot of brain-beating and rewrites to make the plot fall into place. It did, in the end, but it was quite a relief. I wouldn’t like to do that all the time.
* Rewrites and Revisions: How much do you do throughout the writing of your books?
A lot. There’s always something that can be removed or improved, and there are always mistakes. Always.
Even after a book is printed, I see things I should have taken out. The Sithe ride bareback, but I must have read Bloodstone thirty times before I noticed Seth slipping his foot out of a nonexistent stirrup. Firebrand was almost ready to go to print when I woke up at 3am with the horrible realisation that something had to be added to it, or Book 3 would have a nonsensical ending.
And I always tell myself to turn off my inner editor while I’m writing a first draft, but I just can’t. I read over sentences and chapters compulsively, rearranging, editing...
* Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?
No. Perhaps luckily, my own children are still too young. I don’t run ideas or early drafts past anyone, but when I’ve worked on them a lot more I do sometimes ask teenagers (or adults) to read them.
* You’ve written several books under your own name and as Gabriella Poole, how long on average do you take to write a book and do you ever have more than one project on the go? If you do have more than one project how do you divide your time?
The timescale varies enormously, probably because I usually do have more than one project on the go. I’m a deadline junkie, so I often leave myself with more than one urgent job and a week to go. If I’m on a roll I can get a draft done in three months or less. If I’m idling... it can be a lot longer. There’s no method to the way I divide my time – it usually depends which book is more urgent and which editors have given me a deadline.
* Before getting an agent and achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way? Could you tell us about your journey to publication?
Oh yes, lots of rejection. I almost gave up at one point, but that was because I made the mistake of not moving on. I was so determined that the rejected book was the best I could do, and that I couldn’t put it to one side. I had a real struggle to give up that book and then write another, and another... until finally I wrote the one that attracted an agent.
Now, of course, I’m really glad that book was never published. I’d have been embarrassed by it. It was the original Bloodstone, in fact, and it wouldn’t have been right. In fact it would have been disastrous. There’s usually a good reason for rejection, even if you can’t see it at the time and you’re biting the carpet in frustration.
* What made you think ‘I want to write for young adults?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
Absolutely – I don’t think anyone should write what they don’t enjoy reading. It took me a while to discover young adult fiction, but once I did I was smitten. I love the fast pace, the breadth of subject matter, the sheer adventurousness of it. I know adults who refuse to read it because it’s ‘for kids’; all I feel is sorry for them. They’re missing out. I reckon it can have all the depth of adult literature (indeed more) with none of the faffing around.
* Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?
I tended to read the same books over and over. The first ones I fell in love with were the Famous Five. Then I was crazy about the Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings – and the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which I read lots of times. I loved horse books too – Christine Pullein-Thompson and Ruby Ferguson... oh, and the Silver Brumby books, I ADORED those. I used to write my own stories about Thowra, oh my. And Misty of Chincoteague. And the Flicka and Thunderhead books – I was mortally shocked this week (Banned Books Week) when I heard that My Friend Flicka was once banned because of the word ‘bitch’ – used to describe a female dog...
I suspect books were written very differently then, but I couldn’t say how, because I’m very reluctant to go back and read them again. I think it might spoil the memories. I did start to read Misty of Chincoteague to my daughter, and it seemed very different to how I remembered. Certainly I didn’t find the Famous Five books half so gripping when my children were into those – but on the other hand, I could see that they were gripped, just as I used to be.
What do children of today want to read? Just good stories, I think, as they always have. I never knew what I wanted until it was in my hands and it was past my bedtime, and I couldn’t bear to put the light out till I’d read one more chapter. But I think that’s just as true of adults and their books.
* Could you tell us a bit about your other books – Bad Faith and Crossing The Line?
Bad Faith is a murder mystery set in a dystopian Scotland governed by the theocratic One Church. My heroine Cassandra is the daughter of a One Church rector, but is in love with the son of atheist infidels. Things get a lot more complicated when they stumble across the body of a missing bishop, and for reasons that seem perfectly sound at the time, decide to hide it.
Crossing The Line is a contemporary novel – it’s the story of Nick, once part of a violent gang and now trying to turn his life around. A member of his former gang is in prison for a knife killing; Nick himself is in love with the sister of the murdered boy. And the jailed boy’s older brother is out for revenge on Nick’s sister Allie for testifying against him.
* You also write under the pseudonym, Gabriella Poole, for the Darke Academy series. Could you tell us about this method of writing? Do you think there is much difference between writing a novel of your own making or writing for a series such as Darke Academy? Do you approach them in much the same way or are your methods and style strictly dictated by other factors? If several authors are involved, do you all have to conform to an in-house style?
There is a really big difference writing these. My own way of working is to feel my way along the storyline, with maybe a rough idea of where things are heading but no detailed plot. For the Darke Academy books I’m given a chapter-by-chapter synopsis by the editors. This may change in some ways as we work, but the outline is basically already there.
I also tend to work out my plot through my characters, so it’s a gradual process of getting to know them. With Darke Academy, the characters are already there and more-or-less fully formed. And of course the other major difference is that I don’t have the final say in the finished product. The company, Hothouse, own the rights to the characters and the book, so their editors can add or change things, though we do discuss most things very thoroughly and there’s plenty of give and take.
As it happens there is no other Gabriella Poole (at least, not yet) but in theory there could be, and I suppose another author writing under the name would conform to the existing style. It’s a fascinating way of working and I enjoy it – there’s none of the nerve-racking business of losing my way with the plot or realising I have no way of resolving matters. It’s not how I’d choose to work on my own books, but it’s fun and different and it’s a payday too!
* Would you recommend having an agent and, if so, why?
Absolutely, if at all possible. It can of course be as difficult as finding a publisher (or even more so), but an agent is invaluable. An agent has a far better chance of persuading a publisher to look at your book; he or she deals with all the complicated negotiations and contracts; will ensure payments are correct and on time; and is altogether a fantastic source of advice and support and practical help. I really value my agent and what’s more, I really like her. We get along very well, and that’s probably important.
* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
Don’t give up. And don’t keep gnawing over one book if you can’t sell it; put it aside and start another. And another. A publisher who takes you on is going to want more than one book out of you, so there’s no harm in practising! The other important thing is to know how and when to take advice about your writing. If you’re hearing an opinion that rings even vaguely true with you, or if it comes from more than one source, there’s a good chance it’s sound. Be willing to adapt and change things and realise it doesn’t necessarily mean compromising your story.
* Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?
No, I think I’ve rabbited on long enough!
Many thanks Tracy! This was a great interview, fantastic questions! Thanks for asking me!
Gillian's website: www.gillianphilip.com
Gillian blogs at -
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And Firebrand's very own Seth MacGregor can also be found on Twitter
Firebrand ~ a tall tales & short stories review
I think the art of creating a believable historical or fantasy novel (or in this case both) lies in being able to evoke such a strong sense of time and place that the reader lives and breathes that world as naturally as they do their own. For this reader that is one of the greatest strengths of Gillian Philip's, Firebrand - I could smell the peat and wood smoke, I could inhabit the world so completely I felt the cold, and the earth beneath my feet, and I shared the pain and shed some tears.
The Sithe characters lead lives of such intensity and emotion that are as rich as the century spanning story that unfolds within the pages of this book. I wanted to walk with the charismatic characters, Seth and Conal, to go on their journey and experience the two worlds through the intensity of dark and brooding Seth - who's not perfect - he's angry and scared, violent and loving. He's a three-dimensional character who lives and breathes, who grows and changes - who becomes a man.
Firebrand is like a rich, vibrant tapestry of fine silks and coarse threads; characters good and bad; images beautiful and ugly; all strands skilfully and seamlessly woven together into a dark, sexy, sometimes violent, sometimes tender, but always powerful story that can only make the reader want more...