Authorly Interviews! Aren’t they delightful?
Suzannah Rowntree is a skilled writer and lovely woman, and I’ve been hoping to host her on Curious Wren for awhile now. Her most recent novel, Pendragon’s Heir, is an absolute favorite of mine, and so in addition to the interview we have a special treat for you all, my precious gingersnaps!
Which is, A GIVEAWAY. Woot! Majorly excited over here. It’s opened internationally with a winner from Australia or the US receiving a tangible copy. If the winner is from any other country, they’ll receive a Kindle edition. Right ho?
On to the interview!
Hello, Suzannah! I’m delighted to be interviewing you here on Curious Wren! To start off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? Hobbies? Tea or coffee? Favorite cozy reads? Ideal writing day? Elves or Knights of the Round Table?
Hello, Annie! It’s such a pleasure to be here!
I don’t hobby much because WRITING IS THE AIR I BREATHE, but occasionally I tear myself away to do something else. I play the French Horn. I knit. I sew. I design covers for my books and fliers or invitations for friends and family. In the past I’ve also done fencing and swing dancing. I love making beautiful things.
Definitely tea: chai, oolong, rooibos or Russian caravan for preference. Mary Stewart is my guilty-pleasure cozy read, but I also love Wodehouse, Trollope, and the odd sentimental vintage romance like Florence L Barclay or Grace S Richmond. Ideal writing day is a quiet house and a long-awaited melodramatic scene. I’m going to pick the Knights, but that’s probably only because they’re my babies and I haven’t read Tolkien for a few years (the Epic LOTR re-read is scheduled for LATER THIS YEAR OH MY OH MYYYYYY).
When did you realize your love for Story? Who or what prompted you to pursue writing seriously?
I began writing my first story as a birthday present for my best friend when I was 12, and when it was done I looked at it, found it unsatisfactory, and began to write it again. I’ve never been able to shake the habit since; but I think the decisive moment came when I finally finished the third draft. I told myself, “That was exhausting, I’m never doing that again” – but ten minutes later I had opened a new Word document and was already typing. That was when I realised I had a serious problem!
My elder brother had already realised several years previously. “You should publish this!” he said after discovering and reading my battered exercise book first draft. I laughed him to scorn. Thankfully, he didn’t take no for an answer. (Although, no, that first story will never see the light).
What was the inspiration behind Pendragon’s Heir? Can you share with us a bit about your journey with this particular tale?
Pendragon’s Heir came to me about eleven years ago. I read Josephine Tey’s wonderful book The Daughter of Time and was suddenly seized with the desire to rehabilitate some other much-maligned character. The tragic love of Guinevere and Lancelot in the King Arthur legends had always frustrated me, and so I wrote the first draft of what would later become Pendragon’s Heir in just six days with the aim of doing for the character of Guinevere what Tey had done for Richard III. Over the following ten years, I worked on second and third drafts intermittently until just three years ago I came to the realisation that I was a good enough writer to finish and publish it. So I went all the way back to the beginning, started again, and you have read the final result.
The thing I learned writing and rewriting the same story almost exclusively for ten years was that stories, like fruitcake, get richer and richer with time. While good characterisation and plotting can help shorten the time you spend working on a story, it’s still a shame to rush a story. You have to let it marinate. You have to spend months or years thinking about it. Lasting art generally isn’t made in five odd minutes of the day.
Are you currently working on a book that you can share about spoiler-free? What genre(s) do you prefer? And do you have a favorite “mode” of writing, e.g. first person, past tense?
For the last twelve months or so since publishing Pendragon’s Heir I’ve been working almost fulltime on another novel, this one a sprawling epic based around the 200-year history of the Crusader States. It’s working–titled Outremer, and it looks at the Crusades from the perspective of the indigenous Syrian Christians and the native-born Frankish nobility. I grew up on western-centric tales like Ivanhoe and Winning His Spurs where everyone was always coming home from the Crusades, but in this story, home means right there in the East. That’s a perspective that has almost never been told, and it’s the one that fired up my imagination.
Genre is a question that evaded me for years, since I love all sorts of genres and have tried everything from thrillers to space operas. OUTREMER was going to be straight historical fiction until I realised that a few fantasy elements would help me emphasise the themes that I wanted to bring out most. That was the moment I realised that I write historical fantasy.
Most of my stories are written in limited third-person, past tense, sometimes spanning several points of view, since I find it the most natural way to write the stories I want to tell. But I have this fairytale novella series where I get to mess around in a whoooole lot of different genres, and the one I’m working on now is in first-person.
Tell us a bit about your current favorite movies/TV shows/books. Why are they favorites?
The Lord of the Rings is my favourite book–or was the first eight times I read it, ten years ago. It is a work of unusual and incredible beauty, with titanic emotional power and sensitivity. Unlike most secondary-world fantasy, its worldbuilding is meticulous and entirely convincing–in fact, if you want the gold standard of speculative-fiction worldbuilding, this is it. It also draws heavily upon Tolkien’s firm Christian faith. It is the book equivalent of a medieval cathedral: immense, detailed, and absolutely gut-wrenchingly beautiful. Otherwise I have about a squillion other favourite books, but notable authors include Lewis, Buchan, Chesterton, Wodehouse, Spenser, Shakespeare, Austen, and Trollope.
Film seems to me a much lesser medium, and my favourites tend to come and go. I enjoy almost everything Christopher Nolan has ever done, especially the mental challenge and sheer actiony fun of Inception. Another favourite film is The Empire Strikes Back. I can take or leave pretty much all the other Star Wars movies, but this one is a masterpiece of brooding and ominous power culminating in a truly anguished ending. Who doesn’t love it when characters suffer?
If you could have luncheon with several authors of your choice (dead or alive), who would you choose?
GK Chesterton, because he’d be a hilarious conversationalist, and Jane Austen, because she’d be so incredibly down-to-earth. And Tolkien, so I could get his autograph.
What books have made you cry? If none, are there any that almost brought the tears to your eyes?
Pardon the fangirling, but The Lord of the Rings almost never fails to tear me up. I don’t usually cry in a book, but years ago Paul Gallico’s Jennie reduced me to a quivering, blubbering mess, and not in a good way.
What are four books you think everyone should read? Why?
Well, obviously, The Lord of the Rings, because you need to experience the splendour and nobility of great Christian art. Douglas Wilson and Douglas Jones’s Angels in the Architecture, so you can begin to appreciate the medieval vision that inspired it. Paradise Restored by David Chilton because the things I learned in that book still wake me up every morning with a smile on my face. Um, and Francis Nigel Lee’s Central Significance of Culture, because it presents a staggering vision for Christian art.
You will notice that three of these are non-fiction books that help set a tremendous cultural vision. This is not because I think fiction is unimportant. After all, I’ve dedicated my life to it. But after reading these books you ought to be able both to get more out of both the art you consume and to put more into the art you make.
What kinds of stories and characters delight you the most?
I love characters that are flawed in their goodness, or sympathetic in their villainy; the former because they can inspire you to overcome those sins, and the latter because they can cause you to see the villainy in your own heart. I love the quality of nobility that comes with the patient endurance of great suffering. And I cannot do without hope for the future. If a book has all these things, I’m sure to like it.
Share with us a few beautiful words/quotes that give you a happy, glowy feeling.
In no particular order:
The pallid cuckoo
Sent up in frail
His tiny scale
On the cold air.
What joy I found
Mounting that tiny
Stair of sound.
– James McAuley, “Late Winter”
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose forever from the All.
– JRR Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”
Remember that all worlds draw to an end, and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.
– CS Lewis, “The Last Battle”
How does your Christian faith affect your purpose as a writer?
In so many ways that I do not know how I would be a writer without it. I make art to glorify God and tell anew His mighty works in history and salvation (Psalm 145:10-12). I make art reverently, begging the Holy Spirit for inspiration (Exodus 32:2-3) and submitting it to the counsel of those older and wiser than myself (Proverbs 15:22). I make art because I believe God gave us the raw materials in creation and that both the dominion mandate and the Great Commission means using those raw materials to construct a glorious Christian culture that will one day cover the earth (Daniel 2:44). I make art seriously, with every fibre of my being awake and straining for perfection, because I believe that the work of my hands will pass through a testing (1 Corinthians 3:11-15), and will, if found worthy, be brought into the New Jerusalem with the glory and honour of the nations (Revelation 21:24).
What would you say characterizes your writing style?
Stylistically, I like adapting myself to the needs of the story. Imitation comes naturally to me, and I use it to give the setting a more authentic flavour: so that in Pendragon’s Heir I mimicked the rhythm and diction of Thomas Malory, and in The Bells of Paradise that of Shakespeare. I have an unhealthy dependence upon semicolons, and a sly love of alliteration. I delight in distilling striking images into striking words. And I’m grateful to have learned the importance of being painfully sharp and specific with my words, which is the only way to paint a very vivid and unfamiliar setting, so clearly you can almost see and smell it.
If you could have a good, long face-to-face talk with one of your characters, whom would you choose and why?
LOL, none of them! Why would I do that? I have enough trouble coming up with things for them to say to each other. XP
Do you have any unique writer quirks or strange habits?
Perhaps the most scandalous thing I can say is that I don’t! I am a very boring kind of writer. I don’t struggle with writer’s block, I don’t look at Pinterest for inspiration, I don’t find that my characters have a will of their own, and I don’t listen to music while I write. Maybe that’s because I’m also a musician, but I find it too distracting, and it uses up parts of my mind I need for hearing the rhythms and cadences of my words.
Sometimes I compose poetry in the shower?
As a writer, in those moments of discouragement when you feel like your writing deserves to be burned (and the ashes buried six feet under), how do you keep going forward?
Ohhh yep. I do feel this way from time to time. Usually, I remember that Pendragon’s Heir turned out OK, and that gives me a lot of confidence. I have to admit that sometimes I read someone else’s turkey and come away with the serene assurance that I can do way better. Most powerful of all, I go back to what inspired me to write the story, and get excited all over again by the wonderful potential it has to be great–if I’ll only keep going through the hard bits.
Few of us who’ve read Pendragon’s Heir have been able to resist the charm of the knight Perceval, and I know he’s special to you also. Might we be gifted a glimpse into your thought process and method–as it were–for coaxing his character into what you wanted it to be?
Haha! Good old Perceval. I’m actually really pleased everyone loves him as much as I do. The most important thing to say about him is that I based him off the original knight from the legends, who is already a terrific character–I think of him as the unsocialised homeschooler par excellence: someone with very few inhibitions and an utterly unashamed zest for life.
At the same time, I knew he was the love interest and I didn’t want to produce a character that had been voodoo-dolled all out of resemblance to actual real men, so while writing him I always tried to ask myself how my brothers would act in his circumstances. As I went on, I mixed in some other aspects of other young men I knew in real life: which actually gave me the courage to make him as chivalrous and romantic as he is (as well as the sense to make him arrogant and overconfident).
What have been a few of your most special moments and experiences as a published writer, and as a writer in general? I’d love to hear about them!
By far the thing I love the most is getting to spend all day, every day, doing a job I love better than anything else in the world. My writing doesn’t bring in much more than pocket money at the moment, true, so my parents supply my day-to-day needs. As a “stay-at-home” (ha!) daughter, I’m so very, very blessed to have like-minded parents who have as much of a vision for my writing as I do. In fact, my parents deserve so much of the credit for everything I have done: I owe them my education, my vision for Christian culture, and the time and tools I need to produce all these stories.
Other neat things. Getting to send a copy of Pendragon’s Heir to CS Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham. Being told by a well-known Inklings scholar that I had written “a masterpiece.” And reading people’s reviews of my book, with a singing heart because I am finally getting to share my stories with other people–and they are coming away refreshed, encouraged, and moved.
Why don’t we end with a fun question? What fictional worlds do you most wish to visit and why?
Hee, that is a fun question. Narnia, Perelandra, and Middle Earth are absolutely the top of my list. Narnia because I would have so much fun dancing with the dryads at the feasts or swashbuckling around in chainmail armour. And Perelandra because it sounds absolutely heavenly – an unfallen planet? Fruits that give you an transcendant experience of innocent pleasure? Yes please! And Middle Earth, because it would be wonderful to explore the Elvish cities.
(Aww, wasn’t that delightful, y’all? Suzannah is such a sweetheart and I will never recover from the gloriousness that is her books. *happy sigh* Don’t forget to enter the giveaway, humans! This is a book you don’t want to miss, I promise. ^_^)
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at Vintage Novels and is the author of fiction and non-fiction including Pendragon’s Heir, a retelling of Arthurian legend, and the Fairy Tales Retold novella series.