Thursday, July 13, 2006

Interview with O. R. Melling

Several weeks ago, David and I had the opportunity to interview O.R. Melling, author of The Chronicles of Faerie: The Hunter's Moon (book 1) and The Summer King (book 2). The interview took place in a delightful attic office at The Children's Bookstore in Baltimore, Maryland. We're grateful to the Children's Bookstore for allowing us to use their office for the interview. Melling was fascinating, and we had a lot of fun interviewing her.

Sheila: According to your biography, you were born in Ireland but grew up in Canada. How and when did you get interested in your Irish heritage? Or were you always?

O.R. Melling: Oh, always! Because I grew up in a big Irish family, my mother told us faerie stories. In the Summer King, my character Ian says “It’s an Irish tradition to scare your children to death before you go to bed,” and my mother would! She would be telling us about the death beetle that ticks in the wall, or the pooka which is this huge black dog with red eyes that can also be a huge black horse with red eyes, or the banshee which is a green ghost with long hair who combs her hair and wails to tell you that someone in your family is going to die. And this would be your bedtime story before you go to bed!

And then I was an Irish dancer and lived in an Irish neighborhood. And then when I went to college I ended up doing Celtic studies. The Irish are always aware of their culture and their background. Even though I grew up Canadian, and have many Canadian attitudes, rather than Irish ones. Sometimes when I say, “We do this, “I mean “We Canadians” and sometimes I mean “We Irish,” and they’re really quite different.

Sheila: What kind of research did you do for your books? Obviously with a background in Celtic studies you knew a lot...

O.R. Melling: And even the fairy stories, which would have come from my mum.. I would have read síscéal which is the Irish word for fairy tales, but in fact I would read them in Irish and English. I would do a lot of research in terms of fairy books. In fact you can see the influence of Brian Froud’s and Alan Lee’s Fairies, which I would have gotten in the early seventies, I have a really battered, tattered copy of it. I would look at modern versions of fairy tales. In fact in my books I list some of my research. So when they mention their favorite books, such as the series of books Granda lists in The Summer King, these would have been books that were part of my research. There are others such as The Other Crowd that are directly collected Fairy stories; they’re sort of the purest of the folk fairy stores. But I also used the mythologies as well. The Irish don’t quite separate the mythological cycles from the fairy cycles, because they do bleed into each other, where fairies show up in the mythological cycles. So even someone like John Stevens, and Yeats.

Some of stuff I make up. Now the Fir-Fia-Caw I made up, in The Summer King. The Raven People. The Raven does play a role in mythology, but it’s more a North American thing. The Boggles I made up myself, although not the word. In the third book, The Light-Bearer’s Daughter, there’s these little brown Boggles that are bog people. So even though the term Boggle goes with hobgoblins and boggarts, and all that clan, I actually did make up my own version of the bog people. So I do like to invent as well as use the traditional.

David: In your book, The Hunter’s Moon, you said the old Ireland was not gone, it was merely hiding. What I was wondering is, what happened to the old Ireland that you were talking about. Is it in museums, or is it out there?

O.R. Melling: When I say hiding, I don’t mean in museums, I just mean underneath things. For instance, you could go to a village that’s all very modern, but you could ask about the fairy fort and they’ll actually just point it out to you, outside the village. And you might notice that at midsummer, that the people go up there and light a fire on it. Even though, they wouldn’t tell you that they believe in fairies. So it’s almost like it’s a secret, but it’s an open secret that everyone knows about it. It’s like the thing where they wouldn’t cut down the tree. You ask the farmer, “Do you believe in fairies?” “Not at all.” “Well, would you cut down that tree in your field?” “Not at all.” [“Not at all” was spoken in a wonderful Irish brogue] A lone tree in a field is a fairy tree, and that’s why they wouldn’t cut it down.

Sheila: Getting back to your research, do you travel to any of these places?

O.R. Melling: I do. For instance, for The Summer King, I twice went to Achill Island, which I adore. If you think Ireland is magical, Achill Island is even more magical. It’s a huge mountainous Island off the west coast of Ireland, and when you travel there, you feel like you’ve actually entered another world. And even the Irish say it as well. It can be summer in Ireland and winter on Achill, and visa versa. It has it’s own weather, different from the rest of Ireland. As soon as you are driving through it, or you’re walking through it, you’re just saying, “This is another place.”

So I went there twice in the course of finishing The Summer King, and hiking up the mountain - I had to get up Croaghaun - we nearly fell off Slievemore, that was quite dangerous the second time. They told us not to go up Slievemore, but I only had one day left I had to go up there before I wrote the scenes there. I’ll be putting that on my bookmark blog, a photograph of me standing beside the big white stone. [Editor's note: Since the interview she has indeed posted this picture on her blog.] Because I’ve been working so intensely on the books, I haven’t had the time to put a lot of the research materials on the blog. But that’s what I actually intend to do. That’s what the bookmark blog is for. There’s even one of the blogs on the bookmark blog where I listed all the books that I was reading for The Light-Bearer’s Daughter. But there’s even more I want to go back. I have material I that want to go back and put up. Because I know that kids are really interested in that and readers are really interested in that. As soon as I have a moment - as soon as I’m finished the set - I’m going to take a sabbatical for at least a year and I’m going to put a lot of that research material and photographs on the blog.

But yes, so I end up climbing the mountains, going to the places, and that often creates things that feed into the book. It was when my sister and I were climbing Croaghaun - it was really hard, hardly anybody climbs it, it’s quite steep, quite high, and the precipice that looks down is quite stunning. I have some amazing photographs. But it was when we were climbing down it that she goes, “This is like a ziggurat the way we’re going.” And I said, “You’re right! Ziggurat...ziggurat...ziggurat...” [mimes pulling out a notebook and writing it down]. And then suddenly the whole thing of the temple of the birds came up. I’d had a dream of the temple of the birds years and years and years ago and never had anywhere to put it. And my sister said, “You know there was something like that in Rupert the Bear.” And I haven’t found it but it probably is in there. Because I loved Rupert the Bear when I was little. So you don’t always know even yourself where all these things come from. But the course of the research often influences the book. So that’s where that whole thing came from, the ziggurat vision of it.

David: Have you even been to Inch Island?

O.R. Melling: Oh, yeah. I lived on Inch Island. The granny is based on Breege McCrory, who used to mind my daughter Findabhair when she was a baby.

David: Did you ever go in the fairy fort?

O.R. Melling: Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s quite a spooky little place. It’s very odd. Now Breege would have told me a lot of fairy stories about the island. And things like, Our Good Neighbor and the fairies talking, those would be bits of stories she had told me about Inch. And she brought me up to the fairy fort. We had to fight our way through the bracken to get up there. And it was really funny, because it was a warm sunny day, but it was quite eerie. You would shiver. It was quite otherworldly.

Sheila: I would imagine going to places like that, the fairies seem real.

O.R. Melling: Oh, totally, totally. But it’s not that they seem real...[long pause] If you’re staying around for the talk, I’ll probably talk about a few of my fairy experiences.

David: All the fairy forts and fairy groves and stuff like that, have you ever seen anything like that in any place other than Ireland?

O.R. Melling: Well, they’re certainly all over Wales and Scotland, as well. And in England where they haven’t put a motorway over them. In Cornwall, you know, where King Arthur’s Castle.

Sheila: You updated the books with modern references. Were you concerned that that might make them outdated more quickly?

O.R. Melling: The only references I make are to classical, things that I can’t imagine ever going out. I can’t imagine the Lord of the Rings ever becoming obsolete. So in that sense, I’m afraid that’s where newer authors wouldn’t get a mention, because you don’t know whether they’re going to stay or go. But certainly anything like the Chronicles of Narnia or Tolkien, I don’t expect them ever to go. Or if they’ve gone, mine would probably be long gone.

But there’s more going on with the updating. The books are almost half the size again than the original. These are like the extended DVDs. What happened is, when I first wrote the books, I didn’t think about where anything was going. I just wrote the stories. By the time I got to the Book of Dreams, which was the biggest book and the best written, I realized the effect of the first three, and I thought, “Oh, I’d really like to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Because this time I’ve finished the giant canvas, and I can see where the bits of the beginning need to be improved. And that coincided exactly - I had literally just published The Book of Dreams in Canada, just finished it, and promised myself a big huge break, when Amulet asked to take the books, and the Amulet editor said, “Would you do a little bit of editing,” and I said, “I’m not doing a little bit of editing, I’m rewriting these books!” The original Summer King isn’t half the book that this Summer King is. The story is there, like an outline, but the new version is a hundred times better. It’s also almost twice the size. The Light-Bearer’s Daughter will also be about twice the size. The Hunter’s Moon I think was a third bigger. So there are entire scenes in The Hunter’s Moon that didn’t exist. And Gwen, I think, is a better-developed character. Because by the time I had written her in The Book of Dreams as an older young woman, as a teacher, she had way more personality than she had. And I realized I should have shown that back in The Hunter’s Moon.

David: Right before they challenged Crom Cruac, when they go to their higher form, was their higher form designed to reflect their personality, and if so, in what aspect?

O.R. Melling: Yes, it was their ideal self. It would be as if they wore their soul on the outside. I thought of each character and what they were - not so much what they represented. You know how you describe your friends. If you said one word, there’s one friend you would think about, and if you said another word it’s another friend. So Findabhair did take on the aspect of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. As a teenager she is more interested in boys than anything else. And Gwen took on a much different aspect. Even though she liked the fact that she has her first boyfriend, that’s actually not the core of her life. Her life would have been something else - what she was searching for, what she was seeking. And Granny is like a shaman, a high priestess. And then of course when it came to the Fairy King, I thought, “What could be higher than a fairy king?” And then suddenly I realized, “Oh, of course, an Archangel.” Because the fairies, even though they’re magical, they’re not particularly better than human beings, in the way you consider angels to be better than human beings.

David: Mostly it seems that the fairies don’t have much different powers than the humans. They have the fairy glamour in their realm...

O.R. Melling: They can move around pretty fast, and shape shifting. I give them basically the powers they have in the fairy stories. And sometimes if they are contradictory, if it seems that they are powerful sometimes and powerless other times, that’s exactly their nature in the fairy stories. You cannot actually pin them down. Which is really great if you’re a fantasy writer, because you don’t have to worry about contradictions. The fairies do contradict themselves.

Sheila: We’ve taken up enough of your time, but it was really fascinating. Thank you for your time.

O.R. Melling: It was fun.

* * *

After the interview, we stayed to listen to her presentation. It was a fascinating presentation. She talked about some of the actual faerie experiences she has had, and she read sections of the books and talked about the things that inspired them. I won’t try to reproduce the entire presentation, but here are a couple of notes about interesting things she said during the presentation:

  • She doesn’t plan her books out in advance but just writes what comes out. She believes that there are books out there floating around that attach themselves to writers to be written.
  • There are four books in the Chronicles of Faerie series - “An Irish trilogy has four books.”
  • There is a book “soul” behind many of her books; the book behind The Hunter’s Moon is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the book behind The Summer King is Wuthering Heights.
  • Melling was grieving for her father’s death when she wrote The Summer King and it helped her to deal with the issue of death and what it means.
  • She wrote the series so that even though the books are linked, each book in the series can be read independently. She did it that way because she hates to get a book and then discover it’s part of a series and she needs to have read the earlier books to understand it.
  • She doesn’t like a clear cut division between good and evil in books. She much prefers the yin/yang concept, with black in white and white in black. “Things get really dangerous when we start saying I’m the good one and you’re the bad one. What happens in our world is that everyone is the good fighting the good because one side thinks they’re the good and the other side’s sure they’re the good and they’re both calling the other the evil. As far as I’m concerned, the only evil is what happens when that happens.” In The Hunter’s Moon you think of Crom Cruac as evil, but he’s not evil. He’s the universal force of things that happen to you that seem evil to you but isn’t evil, like cancer.

Melling’s Books:

The Chronicles of Faerie:
The Hunter’s Moon
The Summer King
The Light-Bearer’s Daughter (forthcoming)
The Book of Dreams (forthcoming)

Two Celtic Mythology books that will be brought out here after The Chronicles of Faerie series:
The Druid’s Tune
The Singing Stone


Little Willow said...

Great interview! I really enjoyed the first book in the series.

Unknown said...

Thanks. The second book is definitely worth reading, too. I enjoyed it a lot, although it is a little darker than the first one, since it has death as a theme. It's on my "to be reviewed" list.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE these books! We have a book club for junior high to high schoolers and we LOVE The Summer King!!! It is the most amazing one we have read from you yet! I've read The Summer King 4 times!! I love how every time I open up the book, wherever I am, I can completely picture where I am like I am actually witnessing it! It is amazing! Keep up the wonderful work!!