Under Construction

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Interview with Allan Frewin Jones

1. How do you get ideas for stories?

This is an easy question to answer, in a way, but the answer is seldom helpful to the questioner. I get ideas for a huge number of places – anyone who is creative for a living has a part of their brain that is constantly on the alert. I call it being in “sponge” mode. When I am putting a plot or storyline for a book together, this “sponge” part of my brain goes into overdrive – and I am constantly watching out for patterns or random input or proto-ideas in what goes on around me. I might hear a line of dialogue on a TV show, and I might couple that with something I have read recently (Warrior Princess in particular involved a lot of research) or something I’ve seen – a particularly spectacular sunset, or a clear night where the constellation Orion seems to fill the sky. Or an unusual bird appearing in my garden. Or a friend who says something that has nothing to do with the story I’m plotting, but which triggers other ideas. Or a piece of music or an illustration. Or a forgotten memory of something I read twenty years ago. Or watching a movie. And sometimes ideas just pop into my head seemingly out of nowhere – this is when the creature I call my “Muse” is at work. I have no control over this “Muse” – she comes and goes when she likes, slipping ideas into my head waking or sleeping. I can wake with a brand new thought – or I can be having a conversation with friends and a new thought will just be placed into my head by my Muse. She is very useful, but she has to be treated with respect. So…do you see what I mean about the answer not being very helpful? The short version of the above is that I get my ideas for all around me, life, books, friends, TV, movies, music…you name it, ideas are lurking in there waiting to be lined together to form a new chain – a new story.

2. Do you ever base your characters off of people you know?

I don’t think I do. Of course, character traits of friends and acquaintances – or even people one notices in the streets, hang about in ones mind and can pop up at any moment – but I don’t think I have ever really taken a specific person and inserted them into a story.

3. In your opinion, is the literary business competitive?

Not sure here whether you mean is it competitive in terms of other media, or whether you mean are writers competitive among themselves. If the former, I think writing will always have an important place – even if every book becomes an e-book and nothing ever appears on paper again. Even if “reality TV” seems to be everywhere right now, people still like to be told stories – and someone has to write these stories. And although people are developing computers that can tell the “perfect” story – hit all the right beats, include all the right characters, plot-twists and complexities – computers are still way more stupid than people – and computers can’t yet come up with anything new. Writers have to do that.If on the other hand, you’re asking about competitiveness within the publishing industry. Then, sure, publishers compete each and every day for your dollar – every book is in competition with every other book in the same genre. Of course they are – in exactly the same way that shoe-stores or supermarkets compete against one another. Every publisher wants their book to get onto bookshelves and to fly off those bookshelves and into people’s hands. That being said, I don’t ever feel that I’m personally in competition with other writers. I write the best books I can within the limits of my talent and skill, and I hope that people “out there” will like what I have written.

4. Where did the idea for the Shining Ones in Warrior Princess come from?

Let me answer this by showing you my thinking while the series was being created. This is how I originally put my ideas to the publishers:

It is the period known as the Dark Ages – a time of change and conflict on the Welsh borders. (Remember – Brython is Wales) Long years of truce with the Saxons have come to an end – a new king has arisen in England, uniting the country – and their eyes are looking west once more – greedily looking towards the several kingdoms of Brython.

The Welsh Border lords know that their only hope in combating this powerful new enemy is to unite against them and to engage as equals with the modern world that is beating on their doors. The times of the Old Tribes, of the Old Ways are dead and gone – the beliefs and ways of their ancestors are of no use against this new foe.

It is three hundred years since the Romans fled the land, and what ruins remain of their buildings are overgrown or have been robbed away to fortify the ramparts of hill-forts. Their time is becoming the stuff of legend – and the times before the Romans came – well, nowadays that is just mythology; stories handed down to amuse and frighten children. No one worships the Old Gods of the forests and rivers and mountains any more. No one believes that spirits dwell in these places or that once humans had intercourse with these creatures. No one tells the Old Tales. The time of prophecies and omens and portents and of supernatural intervention is dead and gone. The ancient wizard/priest caste – the Druids – was all but wiped out by the Romans, and no one wants them back. Some foolish people say that a few Druids remain, hidden away in the forests, or in caves or on solitary islands, but they have no power any more. No one wants to or needs to talk with mystic stags in the forests, nor to learn secrets from the wise salmon, nor hear the cryptic riddles of the tree dryads nor have any fear of the Tylwyth Teg or other mischief-makers from the fantastical realm.
Branwen is a modern 7th Century girl, in that she too thinks the old stories are just a lot of nonsense for children. But she learns that she and the others are quite wrong – and that they are foolish to dismiss the Old Powers. She learns that she has a destiny – a destiny to lead the Welsh in arms against the Saxon invaders. But she doesn’t want to have a destiny – like any other girl of her age, she wants to lead her own life, to follow her own path (even if she is not sure what that path may be), and to make her own choices. She at first dismisses the whole idea of her destiny as nonsense. But then she learns that destinies cannot be so easily dismissed. She refuses to follow instructions given to her by a mystic power – and is horrified and devastated by the results. She realises she cannot avoid her destiny, but she fights it every inch of the way, resenting the fact that she has been chosen for this lonely destiny, trying to avoid the trials and tribulations of being a Hero to her people. But in her heart she knows she is that Hero and that she must play her part, no matter how hard it will be for her.

The Shining Ones were originally conceived thus:Rhiannon of the Spring (White Lady)Maelgwyn of the Woods (Stagman, name means “Prince of the hounds”)Meirion of the Rocks (mountain-dwelling crone)
Fane: a hawk, messenger of the Shining Ones in various guises, also keeping an eye on Branwen.
Readers of the series will see that some changes were made to this trio. It’s not easy to remember exactly where each one of the Shining Ones came from. I had a cassette of a Beltane Mystery Play called “The Shining Ones” – but although I used the title, there’s not much of a link between the Play itself and Warrior Princess. I wanted them to be “nature” gods – so I chose natural elements for them to inhabit or represent – water, forest, mountain, air. As I mentioned in a previous question, it is hard to pinpoint exactly where an idea comes from. Rhiannon as a white lady on a white horse could easily fit into Arthurian Legend, or any Pagan mythology. The idea of the “stag-man” is also an old one – he is called Cernunnos in Celtic Mythology, and Herne the Hunter in others. (As I live in a place called Herne Hill, I feel quite linked to this concept!!) Similarly the “crone” or old woman is part of the female “triad” often seen in Pagan Mythology. I came up with Caradoc as a young boy (as seen in later books) because I liked the image I had of clouds dancing in the wind – and changed it into a wild young man.

5. Do you think it helps to travel to the place you are writing about?

I think it does – descriptions of places are much more vivid if you have actually been there and looked around. I visited Hampton Court Palace prior to writing The Faerie Path, and although I did change quite a few things (A lot of the Palace as it exists now was rebuilt in Georgian times, and only the front fa├žade is Tudor – the period I was interested in) having been in among the old buildings helped a lot. I also often base the “London” sections of The Faerie Path on actual places I have seen – and when I cannot get to them, I have either got someone to take photos for me, or I go on-line and check up on any relevant photos. In The Immortal Realm, the town of Rhyehaven is based on a town I know in Cornwall, while Hymnal in Weir is based on a town I have often visited in Kent in the South of England. As it isn’t practical for me to travel to Wales to check out the landscape there, a lot of my descriptions are based on the evidence of photographs and written comments found in books and on-line. Of course, there are a lot of places in Faerie that don’t exist anywhere else but in my head – Crystalhenge, Leiderdale, Caer Kymry etc – but I think these imagined places are also shot through with memories of real places I have seen and visited.

6. What made you want to write Warrior Princess? What got you into that time-frame and setting?

Curiously enough, I did not come up with the original idea for Warrior Princess. It was created by a team of editors in the UK with whom I often work. The Publishers of The Faerie Path books were pleased with how they were selling, and were looking for a new project for me to write. The UK editors showed them the original Warrior Princess concept – a purely historical idea with no magic in it at all. The Publishers said they would like some magic added and that they would like me to write it. I came aboard – most of the original concept got swept away at that time and I brought in the idea of The Shining Ones and Branwen’s mystic destiny. Although the series was planned to take place in Wales in the Dark Ages, the actual dates were vague when I was brought it. I did some research and picked a particular date – 638 AD. What particularly appealed to me about that period in history was that it was a time of great change and chaos. The Saxons were moving in with their own pantheon of gods – and the Welsh people were still in a post-colonial place since the collapse of the Roman Empire, and not only had lost the Roman gods, but had also lost track of their own ancient gods. Plenty of opportunity there for exploring the supernatural in nature, I thought! And I especially relished the idea that Branwen was following gods that no one else even believed in anymore. I don’t want to get all eco-warrior about this, but part of my thinking with the “nature” aspects of The Shining Ones is because I think we are losing touch (or have lost touch!) with nature these days – and that we distance ourselves from the natural world at our great peril!

7. What is your best advice for someone who wants to continue writing a story, but it frustrated due to a bad case of writers block?

Best advice? One of three things spring to mind. 1. If you are sick of staring at a blank page, just give up for a few days, go so something else – surf or cycle or jog or visit the great outdoors – do something physical and let your mind float for a while. Often, while you’re thinking about something else, a way through your block will present itself. It’s a little like trying to get to sleep and not being able to. The worst thing is to lie there tossing and turning. The best ting is to get up and do something – usually you’ll feel tired pretty soon and be able to go back to bed and fall quickly asleep. Writing can be like that – stop trying – it’ll come!2. Just carry on writing – white any nonsense that comes into your head – even if it is utter garbage. You might find you’ll be able to power your way through the block – even if it means that the last twenty pages are totally useless and need either shredding or completely rewriting. Remember – you always revise bad writing the following day – but if you have written nothing at all – you might find yourself in the same position over and over.3. Leave whatever you’ve been working on if you hit a brick wall, and move onto some other piece of writing. Again, while you’re thinking about something else the solution to your original problem might present itself. If you’re in the middle of a book-length story, back-burner it for a while and try plotting out another book or a short story or a poem or a song lyric. And finally – and think hard before you go down this path – it might simply be that a story you thought was going to be great, just runs out of steam half-way through. It happens. If you aren’t able to move forward with the story, maybe you should abandon it? Don’t worry – nothing is ever wasted – all the good parts of that story will appear again in brand new stories.

8. Any advice for teen writers?

Several things. Never pay anyone to help you with your writing – if it’s good, people should be paying you, right? Don’t try “quick fix” publishing options – again, if you’re prepared to pay to have your work published, the person pocketing your money will tell you whatever you want to hear and they won’t care if your work is good or not. Be wary about posting your work on the Internet – once it’s out there, it’s going to be hard for you to reel it back in again!Get yourself hooked into a writer’s group where you and a bunch of others can discuss and make suggestions and comments about each other’s work. I’d suggest you try to do this in the “real” world rather than on-line – things like that work better face-to-face that on the Internet.Get a professional to look at your work (only if you already think it’s good enough for people to see!). There are plenty of Literary Agents out there who are always on the lookout for new talent. Don’t assume that your favourite author is the person to approach, though – writers are not the best people to ask for writing advice – not in detail anyway. You’re far, far better off seeking advice and help from a publisher or a Literary Agent.Take all the professional advice you can get! It will be hard and possibly horrible to be told your work sucks – but it is always worth listening to advice and running with it. If you have determination and talent and are prepared to learn the skills of writing – there’s nothing in the world can stop you getting your books into bookstores. Don’t take no for an answer! Work hard, and be smart and flexible and if you have it in you, you’ll get there.


GirlwiththeBraids said...

Wow! You can definitely tell you're a writer, Mr. Jones. :)

Great advice, by the way. Yes, the Internet is something to be wary about.

Leo's girl said...

That was a very interesting interview. I enjoyed all the details. Thank you for putting it on your site.

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