About the Series:
Fun with Friends is an SF Signal interview series in which I feature fellow SFF authors from Australia and New Zealand. The format is one interview per month, with no more than five questions per interview, focusing on “who the author is” and “what she/he does” in writing terms. This month’s guest is Freya Robertson.
Freya Robertson is a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, as well as a dedicated gamer. She has a deep and abiding fascination for the history and archaeology of the middle ages and spent many hours as a teenager writing out notecards detailing the battles of the Wars of the Roses, or moping around museums looking at ancient skeletons, bits of rusted iron and broken pots.
She has published over twenty romance novels under other pseudonyms and won prizes in fifteen short story and poetry competitions. Freya lives in the glorious country of New Zealand Aotearoa, where the countryside was made to inspire fantasy writers and filmmakers, and where they brew the best coffee in the world.
Helen: Freya, Heartwood is your debut Fantasy novel, which you’ve described to me as a traditional, quest-based epic fantasy. What do you feel makes it fresh for readers?
Freya: Heartwood is a traditional epic fantasy in that it is epic in length-at 528 pages it will be the longest book Angry Robot have published, although it is several hundred pages shorter than many epic fantasies-and epic in scale, with high stakes and dangerous journeys across four lands, as well as to the bottom of the ocean. There are only eighteen hours in the day and there are two moons that give a different structure to the seasons, and yet the quasi-medieval European setting and monastic lifestyle of the Heartwood knights will probably feel very familiar to those readers who like medieval history. There are no elves or dwarves; instead the culture revolves around the four elements (earth, water, fire and air) with an added emphasis on the nature religion the people follow. The story also challenges gender roles, the point being that for the Heartwood knights, gender is irrelevant; women can be knights and in fact the leader of the army is a woman. I hope this makes it interesting to readers who feel they’ve outgrown the traditional epic fantasy.
Helen: And what about Freya? What led you to want to be an author, and to write an epic story like Heartwood in particular?
Freya: I decided when I was fifteen that I wanted to be a writer. I started by writing short stories for teenage and women’s magazines, got a few published and won a couple of competitions. Then at 24 I went to university and studied history and archaeology, and when I left, I wrote my first novel, a medieval “soap opera” based on the lives of a group of villagers in Oaks Cross (still unpublished). I went on to write another four historical novels before turning to epic fantasy. By then, I’d read a lot of other fantasy and I knew this was where I wanted to be. Epic fantasy brings in everything I like-medieval armour and weaponry and religion, plus a touch of magic to make it extra special.
Helen: I have been detecting a trend in recent Fantasy toward what I call “green” or eco-themed magic. How much do you think this reflects current concerns around climate change – and is that what drove a similar choice for you or were there more compelling influences?
Freya: It’s very difficult to write fiction without being influenced by present views on society and culture and religion, and I’m sure current concerns around global warming will have had an influence on some fantasy authors. To a certain extent, this played a part in Heartwood — the idea that we have lost contact with the world, that we are no longer in touch with what the earth needs to ensure its wellbeing. But perhaps more of an influence was my interest in religion, particularly nature religions, as well as my background in studying monasticism. The word “religion” comes from the Latin “religare” which means to reconnect (or bind), and Heartwood explores issues about the disconnection of the land and its people with their religion-that they’ve lost the true meaning behind their origins. It’s based on ancient myths about King Arthur (I loved the phrase, “A king without a sword, a land without a king”), Robin Hood, the Green Man, the Oak and Holly kings, all of which involve the turn of the seasons, sacrifice and rebirth. Heartwood’s not meant to be preachy or to carry a message, just to explore ideas that I find interesting.
Helen: Speaking of influences, I understand you have studied military history – to what extent has that background shaped Heartwood?
Freya: I took an honours degree in history and archaeology in which I specialised in the medieval period in Europe, particularly in England. I studied, amongst other topics, the Norman Conquest, the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses, and forts and castles in Europe from the early medieval to late medieval periods, as well as the spread of monasticism, specialising in the Cistercian order. I developed a particular interest in the development of weapons and armour from prehistoric stone axes through to the advent of gunpowder. I’ve been to a lot of English battlefields and watched re-enactments (including one at the site of the Battle of Hastings), and attended courses at places like Dover Castle where I got to try on chain mail armour and look at different swords. (I also shot the sheriff at the Robin Hood experience in Nottingham, but that’s another story!)
I found the idea of holy knights interesting, that the Templars were celibate monks who also fought in battle. This apparent contradiction of beliefs (where life is supposed to be sacred-unless it’s your enemy’s) interested me, and they are the basis behind the holy knights of Heartwood. I also studied sieges such as King John’s siege of Rochester and the siege of Harlech castle, and this definitely influenced the final part of the novel in which the Darkwater Lords lay siege to Heartwood. Much of medieval warfare involved hand-to-hand combat, making it more of a personal experience in many ways to modern warfare, and I enjoy exploring the way this might have affected a soldier who had to physically hack down his foe with a blade rather than shoot from afar.
Freya: I think characterisation is one of my strongest points, which is why I enjoyed writing about different characters and their reaction to the catastrophic events in the story. Their various points of view are like mirrors reflecting the aspects of the world in which they live, but ultimately Chonrad, Lord of Barle, is the glue that holds them all together.
Chonrad is the main hero of the novel, and although the story follows several other knights as they travel around the four lands to meet their destinies, Chonrad remains the focus around which the rest of the novel pivots, and he plays a crucial role in the outcome. I am very fond of this solid, upright and honest man. He has his faults, but ultimately he’s the kind of guy women want to love and men want to be friends with-loyal, generous, warm and strong. He has a lot of the qualities I admire in the men close to me-my husband, my father, my father-in-law and my son-and he’s a hero in the traditional sense of the word, a very heroic character. I wrote a prequel story about him called “Bearcub” (published in my short story collection, Augur) and it was fun to give him a history and write about the events that made him the knight he is in Heartwood.
Helen: Freya, thank you very much for taking the time to talk about Heartwood and its influences. I know the book is just released in the US and about to be in the UK, so all the very best-I hope you have the very best of launch-time fun.
About the Interviewer:
Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, interviewer, and lover of story. Her first novel Thornspell, was published to critical praise, and in 2012 she won the David Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Fantasy Newcomer, for The Heir Of Night (The Wall Of Night Book One.) The Gathering of The Lost, (The Wall Of Night Book Two), is currently shortlisted for the David Gemmell Legend Award. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the first of every month on the Supernatural Underground, and occasionally on BookSworn authors as well as here on SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we.