Today I have the second part of my interview with Freda Warrington to share with you. In case you missed it, here is part one. I hope you enjoy the rest of this interview!
Fantasy Cafe: You mentioned starting on a young adult novel on your blog. Can you tell us anything about it? Are there any other books not part of the Aetherial Tales coming out in the near future?
Freda Warrington: Bit wary of talking about it, as it’s only a proposal at the moment, but I’ll just say that I love the Alan Garner, Ursula le Guin, Susan Cooper, Joy Chant, Garth Nix style of dark fantasy that treats its young readers like adults, and I’ve always wanted to try something in that vein. I’m working on a couple of other ideas too, but nothing definite as yet. Sorry to be so vague!
FC: In a post you wrote on Elfland inspirations for BSC Review, you discussed how some writers do not seem to understand why someone would choose to write fantasy instead of mainstream literature. What about reading and writing fantasy appeals to you? What are some fantasy books that you find especially poignant and thoughtful in spite of the fact that they are not “serious literature”?
FW: Actually my answer to the previous question has set me thinking that some of the very best fantasy is written for children – it can be very dark, intelligent and grown-up (Alan Garner, Philip Pullman are two examples that spring to mind) while some fantasy aimed at adults can be quite juvenile. Red Moon, Black Mountain by Joy Chant has always stuck in my head, particularly for a section where a character saves someone’s life by swapping places with them as a sacrifice to an earth goddess… the way it was written, as he voluntarily goes to his death, was so powerful. The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle was another beautiful, elegant and moving story. Or think of Frodo, trudging towards his doom in Lord of the Rings… and later leaving home to go with the Elves because he just can’t go back to his old life after what he’s been through.
That whole theme of bravery and quiet self-sacrifice touches me more than any lurid battle scene. Yes, it appears in mainstream fiction too… but you can use fantastic themes to get to the heart of matters that realistic fiction just can’t reach. It’s the timeless, mythological archetype of the hero’s journey. And I’ve always loved the idea of going through the back of a wardrobe into another world! Obviously I’ve never grown out of it!
FC: I’ve been noticing a lot of great fantasy is aimed at young adults lately, too – Kristin Cashore’s Fire, Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch: Three Times and Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series all come to mind as some of my recent favorites. Why do you think so much of fantasy written for younger readers often ends up being some of the very best? Is there a different approach to writing books for young adults as opposed to adults that makes this possible?
FW: And Philip Pullman – he constructs a story around really deep questions of religion, atheism, philosophy and so on. You get an exciting yet profound narrative that doesn’t talk down to its readers. In any case, there’s probably a large, blurred band of fiction that’s enjoyed equally by adults and children. My personal feeling is that fiction aimed at younger people is allowed to be very direct, very simple – I don’t mean ‘simple’ as in unchallenging, but rather that the author feels obliged to say exactly what they mean. With adult fiction, there may be a tendency to dress everything up in complications or cleverness that don’t necessarily do the story any favours. I think it’s the directness that can make the difference. If the author’s got something powerful to say, all they need to do is say it. That’s the strength of really good fiction, whether it’s for adults or children.
FC: In spite of the supernatural events surrounding them, your characters have such everyday problems and concerns that make them into very real, sympathetic people. How important is making your characters relatable to you? Which of them do you relate to the most?
FW: Very important – I think that’s why I’m finding myself more comfortable with contemporary settings these days, and characters who have “real life” problems as much as “fantasy” problems. I suppose I relate the most to Rosie – hurriedly adding that her story isn’t autobiographical in any way! Or only in small ways, which I’ll leave to the reader’s imagination. She developed as a sort of conglomerate of people I’m very, very fond of – friends who are in some ways ordinary and down-to-earth, and yet at the same time beautiful, bright, witty and lovable. I feel she’s someone who, although she makes a lot of very human mistakes in life, would be a great friend.
FC: Dame Juliana, the famous artist from Midsummer Night, is in her sixties. It’s a bit unusual to see an elderly woman as one of the main characters in a fantasy novel. Did you have any concerns that people may not like reading about someone outside of the norm – even a woman as vibrant and engaging as Dame Juliana?
FW: Goodness, where to start with this one! Is it unusual? I’m sure if we did some research we’d find plenty of fantasy novels featuring strong women over a certain age. I don’t think of Juliana as “elderly” in the sense of being 90-something, too frail to do anything and uncomfortably close to death… although even a character like that, about to “pass through the veil”, could be absolutely compelling… sorry, getting side-tracked by ideas there! And why is it the “norm” that only characters in their teens or twenties have adventures? Is there some convention of fantasy that once you hit thirty-two, say, you’re no longer interesting enough to take part in strange events?
Well, if it is unconventional to have a main character in a fantasy in her sixties, I’m glad. This opens a huge can of worms about sexism and ageism in general – a topic that we could talk about endlessly! I certainly think there’s been an unfortunate tradition of portraying females in genre fiction either as damsels in distress or evil witches. Now we are seeing lots of feisty, kick-ass heroines – but they are still very young and, let’s face it, still not very much like real women. The females I know in real life are intelligent, funny and quirky with a wide range of interests. They come in all ages, shapes and styles. They’re not sex objects or malevolent sorceresses or weapon-wielding martial arts experts. They’re real people. So I like to show women as real people in my novels, to try and redress the balance a bit. In fact, the true “norm” is that we all grow older. I think there is a tension between our desire to stay young and live forever (as seen in vampire novels, or in my ever-youthful Aetherial characters) and the reality that we get old and die. Perhaps creating Dame Juliana, a woman who’s still vigorous and creative but all too aware of her mortality, is my way of challenging the wish-fulfilment elements of my own writing.
So no, I wasn’t concerned that readers might feel uncomfortable with a character in her sixties. If they do – well, what does that say about our prejudices? Also, as I haven’t reached my sixties yet, I’m trying to cheer myself up by proposing that there’s still life and creativity ahead! The world has come around to the idea that life isn’t over at 40, and I think we need to see a broader range of characters in popular and genre fiction to reflect this.
FC: Yes, definitely! I thought it was a nice change to see a story in which an older woman played a huge role, but it also made me realize that I can’t think of a single main female character in fantasy older than somewhere in her thirties (and even those were pretty rare – most of the ones I can recall are in their teens or twenties). Why do you think there is such a fascination in fiction with coming of age and the beginning life and not with transitions during middle or older years?
FW: Possibly because it’s an age when everything is happening to the character for the first time. New experiences make the biggest impact on us when we’re young and everyone will remember those milestones as being the most vivid time of their lives. Of course we want to see the first time these things happened to the hero, not the second or tenth time! The ‘hero’s journey’ of myth and fantasy is a perfect metaphor for the whole coming-of-age journey that we go through. It mirrors the psychological transition of changing from child to adult, finding out who you are, detaching from your parents and proving yourself as a grown-up in charge of your own life. The prince has to defeat the dragon, complete the quest, find his true love and so on, in order to prove he’s worthy of inheriting his kingdom… and all that symbolic stuff!
And there is the more prosaic answer, of course, that young readers have a natural tendency to identify with characters of their own age. They may see older characters (say in their 30s or 40s) as of their parents’ generation, ie. ancient and boring! And of course, younger people are perceived as prettier, sexier, healthier, livelier – which they often are, so it’s just human nature to enjoy that. I hope that as readers grow older, they’ll become more open-minded and realise that adventures (transitions) can happen at any age.
FC: You completely succeeded at writing real women in both Aetherial Tales novels and that’s part of what I loved so much about them. They aren’t perfect, they aren’t damsels in distress, they aren’t kickass – they seem like women you could meet in real life (aside from their involvement in supernatural occurrences, that is!). Why do you think female characters tend to be portrayed at one extreme or the other (more helpless than usual or more independent than normal)? What books have you read that you think achieve the right balance and feature “real women”?
FW: This question makes me realise I actually don’t tend to notice when a female character is well-portrayed and believable… it’s only when they are behaving in extreme, irritating or unrealistic ways – as if being viewed through a sexist prism – that this tends to jump off the page, throwing me out of the story and putting me right off the author. Still, if a book is titled, say, “Slave Girls of Gor” you know pretty much what you’re going to get!
If women have been shown as exceptionally helpless, beautiful, clothes falling off at the wrong moment, and suchlike, that would seem to mix the traditional, secondary role of women in society with male fantasies. (That role has only changed in the last forty-odd years, and it’s still under constant threat). Kickass heroines are a natural backlash, and that’s fine – it’s probably a different sort of male fantasy, but a female one too. However, I prefer not to write them myself because I want to show “normal” women as strong. And not just strong and good, but also complicated and flawed.
It’s probably difficult to find examples of females in fantasy who are completely realistic, because the nature of the genre means that fantastic things are going to happen to them. Ones that jump into my mind are Lirael and Sabriel from the Garth Nix Abhorsen books, or Lyra from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Lessa in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels I remember as a powerful character, although it’s a long time since I read those books. I loved Buffy and Willow – despite their superpowers and their beauty! – because they were also shown as realistic, complex, intelligent and witty people with real-life problems. All the examples I’ve given seem to be from young adult fiction again. Oh – and Phedre from the Kushiel series (Jacqueline Carey). I don’t know that you’d see her as realistic as such, given that one of her main attributes is getting a huge sexual kick out of pain – but a wonderfully portrayed, complex character, surrounded by equally strong, interesting and no-nonsense females. And I’m sure there are hundreds more examples… try Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Ursula LeGuin… the list is huge.
I could talk about this all day but I have to stop! Thank you for asking me to take part in this interview. It’s been great fun.
FC: Thank you for taking the time to answer a few (well, quite a few) questions, Freda! It was wonderful to get to learn more about you and your writing.