Welcome to Barren Island – wait, no. Today I'm trying my hand at a different kind of interview, so bear with me.
Harriet Goodchild is a former Barren Islands exile (you can read about her chosen five books here) whose debut novel After the Ruin has just been released in paperback and ebook by Hadley Rille Books. Two collections of short stories associated with the book, Tales from the Later Lands and An End and a Beginning, are also available in ebook format.
I have long been an admirer of Harriet's writing. After the Ruin is as skilfully put together as a tapestry, with the threads of different times and places gradually coming together to form the whole. It's not an easy read; it's intelligent and multi-layered and lets the reader figure things out. And like the tapestry, it's beautiful. If I could steal one facet of Harriet's writing above all others, it would be her ability to make poetry from the smallest detail.
Here's the blurb and the gorgeous cover:
And here is the author herself!
Thank you so much for joining me, Harriet, and congratulations on your book release. First of all: we've read the blurb, but how would you describe After the Ruin yourself?
Thank you for inviting me back, and double thank you for not putting any more bears or sharks in my way. I’m still sore from my last bear wrestling experience.
And thank you! for your very kind words about After the Ruin.
How would I describe it? As a meditation on how the present is shaped by the past. All the characters have experienced events that, in one way or another, ended the life they thought they’d live.
As a love story – or rather several love stories.
As a high fantasy of intrigue and manipulation set against landscapes reminiscent of the west of Scotland in the – Well, best not to go into detail about time: vaguely Viking Bronze Age mediaeval with touches of the Renaissance.
I compared After the Ruin to a tapestry. It's a book to savour, not one to rush through, and it requires a little concentration. How do you think books like that fit into our social media driven, instant gratification age?
A tapestry. That’s a good image for the book. There’s certainly a pressure to reduce and simplify in social media interactions and to respond quickly, often without a huge amount of thought. Often, nuance and complexity get lost along the way. There’s also a skill – which I don’t seem to possess – in simplifying a book’s essence to a nifty one line elevator or twitter pitch.
And yet, when one looks beyond these superficial trappings of instant communication, it’s clear that people do still have long attention spans – A Song of Ice and Fire rivals (probably beats hands down) in length the serial novels of the nineteenth century and Wolf Hall is no slim tome; The Luminaries, which also won the Man Booker, is even longer. All are successes, according to several different definitions of success. In each case a reader has to hold multiple relationships, motives and plot strands in their heads across a very large number of pages. So people – or at least, some people, some of the time – are interested in reading complicated books requiring concentration. Often I think of reading as akin to eating (well, it’s nearly as necessary): sometimes one is in a rush and grabs a sandwich on the go, other times one has time to sit down and eat a long meal of contrasting flavours that took effort to prepare. Both are satisfying.
Violence and vengeance, and their aftermath, form a key theme of the book. Do you think the fantasy genre is unflinching enough in its examination of the consequences of violence, rather than the violence itself? Does it have anything to say about these issues in the real world?
The first, general point I’d make is that any fiction reflects something of the time and place of writing. It’s true that some strands of modern fantasy writing are very much more explicit with respect to sex, violence and violent sex than earlier ones, but this explicitness is not restricted to fantasy or to novels and is part of a wider cultural phenomenon.
I’ll turn, however, from the general to the specific: the recent rise of grimdark fantasy, where the world is brutal, life is cheap and both protagonists and antagonists people anyone sane and sensible should be glad are safely confined within the pages of a book. Depending on your world view, you may see grimdark fantasy as realistic, nihilistic or a reaction to the tropes and conventions of earlier fantasy. However, of the books I’ve read positioned towards the violent end of the fantasy spectrum (Richard Morgan’s A Land Fit for Heroes trilogy and George R.R.Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire sequence), an examination of the consequences of violence seems central to the subgenre. To their credit, having upped the ante, the writers appear determined not to flinch but to force the reader to follow them into the dark consequences of their characters’ actions.
One of the important differences between fantasy and, say, historical fiction is that it is not constrained by reality. Because fantasy is, by definition, unreal, I think it can provide a safe release of emotion, and a safe place for exploration, as it is at least two steps removed from reality: not only fiction but a fiction that runs no risk of confusion with reality. This simultaneously allows more leeway to its writers in imposing a moral (or amoral, or immoral) vision upon their world and its readers to be certain of the difference between fact and the author’s imagination. This cuts both ways: in the end, because of that double distance from real life, I’m rather doubtful that fantasy writers* do have more to say about real world violence than those of other genres.
*Except for Terry Pratchett, who’s another thing entirely. He has a lot to say about all this, never flinches from saying it, and everything he says is worth reading.
Phew, that was long. The short answers are yes and I’m not sure.
Without giving away any spoilers, for those who care about that kind of thing … I don't mind telling you that I shed a few tears at the end of After the Ruin. And indeed, everything I've read of yours has had a bittersweet flavour to it. What drives you to write that kind of story?
It made you cry? There’s a part of me glad of that. I struggled with that last scene. I knew what happened but the early drafts were a tad, shall we say, overblown. When I wrote the version that made me cry, I knew I’d got it right.
Why bittersweet? The easy answer is that it’s the flavour of the Child Ballads, and they set the tone for After the Ruin and its associated stories. There’s a longer, more personal answer too:
Although I’d never class myself as a romance writer, or even as a romantic, I think everything I’ve ever written is, at some level, about love. As such it’s firmly grounded in the senses and emotions: sight, touch, desire, hope, despair. And all these things by their nature cannot last. No matter how lovely the rose, it will wither. That transience is a part of what makes it beautiful. One must enjoy the moment and afterwards remember, knowing that that moment, that rose, will never come again. There are many things in the world, as in stories, that are more lovely and last far longer than a rose, but even these fade with time.
As will we all. Larkin wrote, in An Arundel Tomb, What will survive of us is love. It’s often taken out of context as a statement of the enduring power of love, that it’s capable of outlasting death itself. When you think about it, that’s not really true, and it’s this darker thought that provides the tension to Larkin’s poem. Very little remains of most people after a couple of hundred years, an entry in a parish register, perhaps, a set of indentures or a census record. Perhaps in the future it will be traces scattered across the internet: a blog post here, a photograph there. Certainly not love, or whatever else it is makes you, you and me, me.
So in short, I write what I write because I am a pessimist who likes poetry.
You mentioned the Child Ballads above. What is their appeal to you, as a reader and as an author?
I listen to huge amounts of folk music and, in doing so, have become extremely familiar with the Child Ballads. They aren’t, on the whole, cheerful. But they are beautiful, honed into shape by a process akin to natural selection. They tell of a world filled by melancholy and longing. Betrayal is commonplace, and so is violence; friends become foes; love begins with secrets and ends, like as not, with death. Although they are often set in real places, and sometimes tell of real events, these songs blur the lines between the real and the supernatural, making no clear distinction between the two. That’s the mood I want to conjure in my writing: the real world, heightened.
Is there a particular version of a particular song that you feel best captures the atmosphere of After the Ruin?
One song? You realise the chapter epigraphs form a complete playlist for the book? But just one song …
If it’s only one, then it has to be The Unquiet Grave (Child Ballad no. 78), which encapsulates the appropriate mood in seven short verses. I’d round it out, though, with Tam Lin (Child Ballad no. 39). I suggest you try them rendered into music by Lau and Jon Boden, respectively.
Now, let's talk about worldbuilding. There are so many little details in After the Ruin that add up to a fully realised world – the history, the different lands and cultures, the mythology, and of course the beautiful map. So how does your worldbuilding process work? Do you create a world before you come up with the characters to populate it, or do the characters/story come first and the setting afterwards? Or is it a more iterative process than that?
Thank you! My world building is a synthesis of invention and details taken from all manner of times and places. I read, a lot, and squirrel away facts and ideas for possible use. Museums have been very useful, especially the ethnographic collections of the Pitt Rivers in Oxford and the National Museum in Edinburgh. ORBIS, a geospatial model of the Roman world built by Stanford University, was incredibly helpful when thinking about distances and travel times. The places too have real models, though I’ve muddled them around so much as to make them unrecognizable.
Moreover, my world building exists at several levels of focus and certainty. Some ideas evolved organically, but others I deliberately made up when I needed them. Some quite important but long past events I keep deliberately vague, even in my own mind, in order to give myself freedom to manoeuvre as I write. I think of such things as myths or fairy tales, and, as in the real world, there isn’t a definitive version: such stories change depending on when they are told and who is telling them. Other details are history, and those points are fixed and invariant. And some events occupy the middle ground where history becomes story. I’d include the sack of Felluria by Torùkotu in that middle ground. I’ve written two versions of that, one a short story in Tales from the Later Lands and the other in After the Ruin. Both are ‘true’ but not in the same way and if you read both you’ll see how – and guess why – the details differ.
Which aspect of the worldbuilding are you most proud of?
Actually, the map, although I didn’t draw it. Credit there is all due to Douglas Reed, who did a marvellous job in turning my thoughts into a world. I’m not a visual person at all, I think in words, not images, so I wrote the novel and all the supporting stories without a map. I did, however, spend a great deal of time thinking about distances, journey times and landscapes so when the time came for map drawing the world was internally consistent and made sense. That pleased me hugely.
And to accompany that question, do you have a favourite among your characters? Or, if not, a character you had most fun writing?
Oh, making me play favourites is most unfair. But since you ask, I’ll admit to several. From the short stories, my favourite is Taccola because of her honesty, kindness and clear-sightedness; in After the Ruin it’s her son, Assiolo, who shares two of these qualities. However, the people who were most fun to write were Yatta Tala, the old weaver in Felluria, and Ardùvai the nightwatch. Each has a sharp eye and a quick tongue and wits to match them.
Finally, since I can't get away from my Barren Island roots altogether: if you could add one book you've read since our last interview to your island collection, what would it be? (As a reminder, the original five books you took into exile were Where the Wild Things Are, Wolf Hall, These Old Shades, The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie, and the Complete Poems of Robert Graves.)
Please may I cheat and ask for a book that hasn’t been published yet? I’d like The Mirror and the Light, the third and final volume of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. I want to know how she ends the story: not what happens – any history of Henry VIII can tell me that – but how she writes it. I’ve been waiting for it since the minute after I finished Bring up the Bodies and would hate to miss it just because I’ve been cast adrift on a far flung isle. If you can persuade a passing seal to drop it off, that would be perfect (and if the seal will bring along my copy of Bring up the Bodies too, I will be in its – and your – debt forever).
But, if future books aren’t allowed, then I’ve already mentioned Morgan’s A Land Fit for Heroes. Yes, it is incredibly violent but I read all three volumes last year and thought it gripping and highly intelligent despite being deeply flawed in its structure. At places it made me laugh at its audacity: the echoes of Mallory and Tolkien could not have been chance. So I’ll take that because, of all the books I read last year, it will provide the strongest contrast with those I have already.
After the Ruin, Tales from the Later Lands and An End and a Beginning are available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. You can read Publishers Weekly’s glowing review of After the Ruin here.
Thank you very much for having me back; I’ve enjoyed myself enormously.