An Interview with Elspeth Cooper, Author of “The Wild Hunt” Series—Plus A Giveaway!
The giveaway for Songs of the Earth and Trinity Rising (The Wild Hunt series) has now closed and the result will be posted at ca. 6.30 am, Wednesday 13 (NZ Time)
I enjoy doing interviews with fellow authors and am particularly pleased to be bringing you today’s interview with UK-based author, Elspeth Cooper, who like me is a new name on the international Fantasy scene. Again like me, Elspeth is currently writing a four-book epic Fantasy series, The Wild Hunt (Gollancz.) Songs of the Earth, the first novel in the series, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award, for Best Fantasy Debut, in 2012.
I did a “Just Arrived” post for both Songs of the Earth and Trinity Rising, here, and reported back on reading them here—and so am delighted to confirm that as part of this interview Elspeth will be giving away a UK trade paperback set of both books, the recipient to be drawn from those who comment on the post. (Details will be provided below the post.)
But for now—onwards, to the interview!
Helen: Welcome to “…on Anything, Really”, Elspeth—it’s a great pleasure to have you here. Can you tell readers a little bit about The Wild Hunt series from your point of view—what is the story you are trying to tell and what is important to you about the characters and the world?
I’ve always had this overwhelming desire to tell stories, right from an early age. I had some ideas about choices that had sprung from frustration with all those late 80s/early 90s fantasy books where the prophecy was the plot and the characters were just tokens to be pushed about with no agency and no personal stake in what was happening to them. I was also playing with concepts of faith vs organised religion, and the tendency of buried secrets to come out, inspired by the child abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church.
After a painful break-up I started writing as therapy, and what came out was Gair, in the iron room, waiting to be sentenced for witchcraft. Somehow all those nebulous ideas came together, and a book happened. I wish I could say there was some grand plan, some calculated decision to include this theme or that which would make me sound terribly thoughtful and clever, but there isn’t. I flew by the seat of my pants the whole way.
Helen: When I read Songs of the Earth, the first book in the series, I thought: “Ah, Gair is a paladin” and realized it was a really long time since I had read a true paladin story—so what drew you to write one?
Elspeth: I grew up on tales of high chivalry and the Knights of the Round Table – my parents read me Ivanhoe as a bedtime story – so that seed was planted firmly from a very early age. However, as I said up there, it wasn’t really a conscious decision to make Gair a paladin. I’d been thinking about buried secrets and when I wrote that scene where he is wrestling with his growing abilities, it occurred to me: “What if the secret his Church is so afraid of is magic?”
I instantly had the cultural back-story, Gair’s predicament in the opening scene made sense if he was a novice in a martial order sworn to hunt down magic users, and it set the stage to open up the story from his personal journey to the epic. Plus, whilst I enjoy reading the current trend for “charming shits” as protagonists, I have a soft spot for an old-fashioned hero.
Helen: As an author, and an epic fantasy author in particular, are their characteristics you feel particularly define your storytelling?
Elspeth: There’s an emphasis on character rather than breakneck plot. I try to make my characters feel like real people, talk like real people and not be tokens, in any sense of the word. I also do my worldbuilding with quite a light hand. I’m a reader, as well as a writer, and as a reader I get irritated with worldbuilding that feels laboured or intrusive, where I can see the author’s fingerprints in the plaster, as it were.
Oh, another characteristic of my storytelling would be magic that feels well, magical. Numinous, otherworldly. I dislike overly systemised magic that feels too much like science.
Helen: Trinity Rising, the second-in-series, extends the cast of characters and opens out the world considerably from Songs of the Earth. What led you to approach the story in that way, rather than having the first book define the scope for the entire series?
Elspeth: When I originally wrote Songs of the Earth, it included Teia’s opening arc that forms the beginning of Trinity Rising. This kept the timeline chronological, but her early story didn’t obviously tie in with Gair’s, nor come to a satisfying conclusion at the same time as his (and it made the manuscript too long to boot) so I moved it to the next book. That meant Trinity starts in Gair’s “past”, i.e. five months or so earlier than where we left him at the end of Songs, but the trade-off was that Songs became a tighter book because it was all about his journey.
When we first meet him he’s quite naïve and unworldly, so this first book is his coming of age. He steps out of a cloistered existence into a wider world, grows in confidence, falls in love, and finds out that pretty much everything he’s been taught up to this point has been based on a lie, and whether he wants it or not he’s hip-deep in a larger conflict.
In Trinity we have the juxtaposition of the personal and the epic. Gair’s in pain and torn between his visceral desire for revenge and the greater good. Then something happens that casts him completely adrift, and he has to start making personal choices that might have profound effects on the wider story.
So the decision to structure the two books the way I did was a largely instinctive one (I do a lot of my writing by feel – I am not a natural planner) but it’s actually worked out quite well because it mirrors Gair’s path as a character.
Helen: As is usually the case with epic fantasy, you have developed an alternate fantasy world. But are there aspects of this world—for example environments, cultures, or periods of history—that you consider particular influences?
Elspeth: I have a background in late medieval-early modern history; it was the subject I would have studied at university if I’d gone, so I drew on European history (and geography, come to that) for some of the facets of the Empire, such as the gradual separation of Church and state, the diminution of the Church as a political force, widespread literacy etc. Writing what you know, and all that.
I’ve pushed the technological developments a bit, as there are accurate (if ruinously expensive) clocks, a state press, mechanised weaving and so on, so it’s culturally a world on the cusp of an industrial revolution, just waiting for some clever bugger to start looking long and hard at fireworks . . .
Helen: Actions sequences are an important component of epic fantasy and so far The Wild Hunt seems no exception to that. So do you have “go to” sources for weapons and tactics, to ensure that you get the combats and battles “right”?
Elspeth: Um, mostly I make it up as I go along
If I have a big set-piece battle to choreograph, I’ll look at accounts of real-world battles over similar terrain, with similar military hardware, but to be honest I’m more interested in the personal stories of the characters involved in the fighting, the grunts rather than the generals. I want to describe the actions of the guy who’s had his horse killed under him and only has his wits and an axe he looted from a corpse to help him survive the next ten minutes. I want to write about the mud and the fear and the adrenalin singing in his blood.
So mostly it’s one-on-one combat I need to study, and the internet gives me a wealth of choices of HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) videos and re-enactments. There’s also something that can be learned from movies, believe it or not: yes, it’s carefully choreographed stage combat, but it still has to look like the real thing, and you don’t get to be fight co-ordinator on, say, Kingdom of Heaven unless you know what you’re doing.
If I was still able-bodied, I would have taken some lessons in order to have a better idea what to do with the various swords I own but, alas, that’s not an option any more. And anyway, let’s face it, if you’re in the middle of a mêlée there’s no points for style, and good form goes out the window in favour of hitting the other guy before he can hit you. This is why I don’t try to describe sword strokes with technical precision, and concentrate instead on describing the urgency of the moment.
Helen: In terms of not being able-bodied anymore, I understand you have multiple schlerosis. Does that present difficulties in being a full time writer, or not so much?
Elspeth: It’s a mixed bag, to be honest. Increased fatigue and mobility problems meant I could no longer sustain a commute that was two hours each way, nor could I work to a timetable, which was why I had to quit the Day Jobbe. Now that I am working from home I can be kinder to myself and get the rest I need, yet be at my desk for 9 am, even if I only got up at 8:40.
On the other hand, I’m still sitting in front of a computer all day which makes me stiff and tends to increase the likelihood of me falling over, so I have to take regular breaks and pace myself carefully to make the best use of fluctuating energy levels. Writing full time enables me to do that, in my jimjams if necessary, but I’ve also had to learn to manage my productivity better. Now that I have all day to write, it can sometimes seem to take me all day to get anything written . . .
Helen: Ah, I know that particular feeling well! But I would love to know more about those various swords you own—do you collect them?
Elspeth: I’m not a collector as such, I just love edged weapons, and have done since I was quite small and watched The Water Margin and Shogun on the telly.
A couple of years ago, I realised that I was about to publish a book about a guy who’s spent half his life with a sword in his hand, and I’d never touched one. So I hunted around and found a combat-ready replica of a 15th-century longsword similar to the one Gair uses, and bought it so that I could better understand what it felt like in the hand, how the weight affected my muscles and so on.
In the second book, Gair’s in the desert and gets to use a curved, single-edged sword called a qatan that I’d based on the Japanese katana, so naturally I had to buy one of those too. Again, it’s a functional replica, and hangs on the wall above my desk. I’d like to add a matching wakizashi one day.
I’ve tried to persuade my accountant that these are research materials and can therefore be offset against my taxes, but she wasn’t having it. Curses!
Helen: Curses, indeed! But—regretfully—leaving the swords, what do you, as the author, love most about your central characters, such as Gair and Teia for example?
Elspeth: Gosh, I love them all, even the bad guys – Savin’s snobbery and snark are such fun. Gair’s quite tough to write sometimes because of his reserve and introspection, but it’s qualities like that which remind me of my husband. I think Gair’s somebody I could have been friends with. Tanith is a gentle and compassionate creature, but strong in her own way, and I love Teia’s determination, her drive: she just doesn’t give up, even when she feels like doing exactly that.
Helen: The wonderful thing about a series is that you get to spend more time with both your characters and their respective stories. So is there anything you can share now about how you see both developing—what are you most looking forward to with Books Three and Four of The Wild Hunt?
Elspeth: Book 3, The Raven’s Shadow, has just gone for copyedit, so that one’s in the can as it were, but without spoiling anything I can say that it sees a coming-together of the stories that began as separate threads in Trinity Rising.
I’m particularly enjoying Teia’s development as a character: just when I think she’s reached a point where she can’t go on, she digs deep and surprises me. Gair continues to struggle and feels his humanity is slipping away from him, which pushes him to make another one of those decisions that seems like the right thing to do at the time, but has ramifications for the wider story. Oh, and a couple of “Chekhov’s guns” that have been carefully placed on the mantelpiece in previous books will be fired before the end.
As for Book 4, well, I’m writing that at the minute so even I don’t know exactly what will happen, but it’s going to be big: politically for the Empire, and personally for the characters. There will be blood, oh yes indeedy.
Helen: A raven’s shadow, smoking guns, and plenty of blood—this sounds like truly epic reading, Elspeth, so I’m looking forward to seeing both books come out! In the meantime, thank you very much for doing the interview with me today, and I hope that the ongoing writing of Book 4 is a tour de force: I am sure it will be.
About the Author:
Elspeth Cooper was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne in the north east of England. A fantasy reader from an early age, she began writing her own stories when still a child and never quite grew out of it.
In 2009, ill-health forced her to give up a 21-year career in IT and now she writes full-time. Songs of the Earth, published in 2011 by Gollancz, was her first novel, and the first in The Wild Hunt Quartet.
A sword-owning, tea-drinking imagineer, she lives in Northumberland with her husband and two cats in a house full of books.
About the Interviewer:
Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, interviewer, and blogger. The Gathering of the Lost, the second novel in her The Wall of Night series, was published in April 2012, and in June last year she won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012 for the first-in-series, The Heir of Night. Helen has twice won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Excellence in SciFi-Fantasy: for Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009, and The Heir of Night in 2011. She posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, and monthly on the Supernatural Underground and SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we
About the Giveaway:
The giveaway is fully international and will remain open until 12 midnight, Monday 11 February (NZ time), with the winner announced as my blog post on the morning of Wednesday, February 13.
Just leave a comment to go in the draw—and don’t forget to check in on Wednesday 14 to see if you’ve won. If the winner has not contacted me by 12 midnight on Friday, 16 February (NZ time), I will re-draw on Saturday 17.
The draw will be made by Random.Org Integer Generator.
Other Recent Author Interviews on “… Anything, Really”:
To read, click on the links immediately below:
- Daniel Abraham & The Dragon’s Path
- Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris, Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel
- Kristin Cashore & Bitterblue
- John R Fultz—Author of “Seven Princes”
- Tim Jones: A Magical Mystery Tour through “Men Briefly Explained”
- Brandon Sanderson
- Mary Victoria & Oracle’s Fire