INTERVIEW: Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier was born and brought up in Dunedin, New Zealand, and now lives in Western Australia. Her historical fantasy novels for adults and young adults have been translated into many languages and have won a number of awards including the Aurealis, the American Library Association’s Alex Award, the Sir Julius Vogel Award and the Prix Imaginales. Her lifelong love of folklore, fairy tales and mythology is a major influence on her writing. Juliet is currently working on the third book in the Shadowfell series, a story of tyranny and rebellion set in a magical version of ancient Scotland. When not busy writing, she tends to a small pack of waifs and strays.

Tell us a bit about your story, “Otherling.” What’s it about?

“Otherling” is set in a chilly Nordic realm where the people are dependent on the weather and the seasons for survival. Their bard has the task of passing on the ancient Songs each season in order to help the people make good choices about their co-existence with nature–whether it’s safe to fish, how large a catch to take, when to go hunting, what to set away in store and so on. However, the choice of a new bard comes at a shockingly high price, and when that choice is not made correctly, dark days can ensue for the whole community.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I wrote “Otherling” when I was researching Viking lore for a novel called Wolfskin, based on the first Norse voyage to Orkney, a group of islands off the north coast of Britain. I had been immersed in the Icelandic sagas, with their extremes of nature and of human behaviour, and as well as visiting Orkney I went to the Faroe Islands, which are halfway between Norway and Iceland. The story grew from all that Nordic angst and darkness.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Getting the ending right was indeed challenging–it was a case of needing to reveal just enough and not too much. I did a lot of brainstorming before reaching what I hope is a perfect ending for the story.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I’m of Celtic descent, and my spiritual path is druidry. Central to our philosophy is respect and responsibility for the natural world and an understanding of our place in it; also a recognition of the power of storytelling to teach and to heal. “Otherling” is about what can happen when the balance between man and the rest of nature is lost, and when people grow deaf to wisdom built up over generations. It’s not only a fantasy story set in a challenging invented world, it’s also about us and the world we live in.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

The research was already done as I’d been reading intensively about Norse culture in the time of the Vikings and following in their footsteps (maybe that should be following in their wake.) The setting of “Otherling” is not exactly ancient Norway or Iceland or the Faroes, but that research definitely made its mark on the story.

What is the appeal of epic fantasy? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write it? Why do you think readers/viewers love it so much?

I’d encapsulate this as ‘high themes and heroic journeys’, the same qualities that make mythology an essential part of human development. This kind of story encourages us to aspire to better things. Only, unlike a lot of mythology in which the characters are archetypes, the best epic fantasy provides both a grand and complex story and empathetic, nuanced characters whose journeys the reader can really share.

What are some of your favorite examples of epic fantasy (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

The Lord of the Rings (both Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s films.) It’s a classic, with a heroic story and a meticulously created world. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series: an inventive saga set in a wonderfully detailed alternative renaissance Europe, with a cast of unforgettable characters. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon: feminist takes on traditional stories are more common these days, but when this novel was first published its left-of-field approach to the Arthurian legend was pretty radical.