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Fun with Friends—Helen Lowe Talks with Fellow Authors from Australia and New Zealand: Today’s Guest Is Juliet Marillier

About the Series:

Last month I kicked off a new series for SF Signal, interviewing and in some cases introducing 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. Although with well-known SFF friends such as today’s guest, Juliet Marillier, the focus may tilt slightly more toward what the author is currently doing.

Juliet seemed like a great person to have as my guest, not just because she is well known outside Australia-New Zealand, but because she is both a New Zealander and an Australian – but onward to the interview to find out just how that works!

Allow me to introduce Juliet Marillier:

Juliet Marillier’s historical fantasy novels for adults and young adults, including the popular Sevenwaters series, 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 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. In addition to this interview, you may find out more on Juliet’s website; she also blogs monthly on

An Interview With Juliet Marillier

Helen: Juliet, you’re a New Zealander by birth and upbringing, but have lived in Australia for a long time, and your writing draws deeply on Celtic mythology and legend – are these three distinct traditions or do you find they overlap?

Juliet: The overlap, for me, is that I was born and brought up in Dunedin, which is one of the most Scottish places outside Scotland itself. Scots settlers brought their traditions with them. As a child I was surrounded by Celtic music, stories and culture, from the Burns Club to the pipe band competitions to the shop where you could have kilts made in your clan tartan – mine is Scott. I think Scots immigrants must have loved Dunedin for its physical similarity to their homeland – hills, forests, sea and islands. And freezing winters!

My love for the culture of my ancestors has remained life-long, though in retrospect I am saddened by the lack of exposure to Maori culture in the years of my schooling. I regret that in those times (the 1950s and early 60s) our indigenous New Zealand culture and language were not part of mainstream society as they are now. Mine was a city school with very few Maori students and not much effort was made to introduce us to that rich and wonderful mythology and history. By the time I started university, Maori poets and artists were making their presence felt in the arts community in Dunedin and I began to realise what I had been missing. I believe there is some commonality between Maori and Celtic lore because the natural environments are quite similar, with forest and water playing a significant part in the ancestral stories. Also, both have strong warrior traditions and a rich musical and poetic life.

I’ve lived in Australia longer now than I lived in NZ, but I have never quite become attuned to the Australian landscape and traditions. My ancestral roots are long, and the places in Australia that inspire me are those that remind me of home – the sea, islands, forests. I’m a cold climate creature at heart. I worked with Australian indigenous people in my public service job for thirteen years, and learned how vibrant and fascinating their cultural traditions are, including a deep and powerful relationship between mythology and nature – as a practising druid I think of this as the ‘magic of place’, which also has a part in the Celtic tradition. But I would be uncomfortable exploring Australian or New Zealand indigenous lore in my novels. It would feel like appropriating something that doesn’t belong to me. Having said that, I really enjoyed Kiwi writer Karen Healey’s YA novel Guardian of the Dead, set in contemporary New Zealand and using Maori mythology as the basis of its fantasy elements.

Helen: I know you’re a very dedicated and committed author, but what do you feel is your strongest motivation when writing?

Juliet: There are three things I especially love to hear from my readers: ‘You started me reading again’; ‘You inspired me to write’; ‘Your books helped me to be strong when I was in a dark place in my life.’ I hear all of these pretty often, and I’m deeply pleased to know I can communicate something of value and make a difference in some readers’ lives (while aware that for some, all I do is entertain – that’s also good.) Equal to that is a passion for storytelling, born from being an avid reader from a very early age. Dedicated writers start off as dedicated readers, and generally once they start writing they can’t stop – there’s always a story bursting to get out.

Helen: You made your name writing Fantasy for adult readers, but more recently have written YA as well –and your latest novel, Shadowfell, is also YA. What drives the YA, as opposed to adult, decision for you when developing a story?

Juliet: Usually I’m writing one or the other at the request of an editor (a very prosaic answer, I know!) So I’ll be aware before I start developing the story which it’s going to be. In fact there isn’t a huge difference between my adult and YA fiction, apart from book length. In the historical periods I most commonly use as settings, people were heading families, fighting wars, plying trades, marrying and having children when they were in their teens. People died early too, of accidents, infections, nasty farm accidents, in battle or in childbirth. There was no extended period as a young adult, and indeed not much of a childhood. So the protagonists of my adult books are often in the 16-22 age range, only a little older than those of my YA novels.

A young adult novel is usually built around the personal journey of the protagonist(s) – often a journey to maturity. My books are strongly based on the protagonist’s internal journey – often to find the strength within herself. Traditional fantasy elements such as world-building and magic take a back seat to character development and relationships. There’s quite a big crossover element in my readership. Adults read and enjoy my YA books and vice versa.

If I decide to explore darker themes in any detail – sexual abuse and mental illness are two examples – I generally choose to put them in an adult novel, though I know there are many novels out there for young adults that deal with confronting issues. It’s not so much what you write, as how you write it. A writer should be mindful of the possible impact of a story on a sensitive reader.

With Shadowfell I have gone down a fairly dark road – the world of the book is a world of cruelty and suspicion, where the innocent can be summarily executed for saying the wrong thing, and where the misuse of magic can see people’s minds destroyed. It’s important to me in any novel to retain a note of hope, no matter how dark the story may be. That applies whatever age the reader may be. At the end we need to know the protagonists have learned something, become wiser or more self-aware, and that there is some hope for the future. For a YA book that is absolutely vital.

Helen: Your two previous YA novels, Wildwood Dancing and Cybele’s Secret, drew on Eastern European and Turkish traditions, while Shadowfell returns to the predominantly Celtic tradition that informs your adult books. But in this case it is not a fairytale retelling – or at least, not an obvious one – so where did the idea and/or inspiration for the story come from?

Juliet: The inspiration for Shadowfell was two-fold at least. One was my wish to write a tribute of sorts to my Scots ancestors, reflecting my lifelong love of their stories. The Good Folk, the uncanny people in the book, are developed from Scots folklore and in the sequel, which I’m currently working on, you’ll find some places named after locations in Otago, New Zealand, which in their turn were named after places in Scotland.

In Shadowfell we meet some creatures straight out of traditional lore (a brollachan, an urisk) though I’ve allowed my imagination free rein in fleshing out those beings. And there’s a whole cast of other fey creatures that both help and hinder Neryn on her quest. The human rebels in my story are brave in the way the fighters of the clans were brave – they hold onto their ideals against quite daunting odds, and make great personal sacrifices in the name of justice and freedom. That leads to the second part of the inspiration, which relates to what was happening politically at the time I planned the series. There were various popular uprisings in the Middle East, with several repressive regimes toppled by ‘people power’ – rebellions that seemed at first impossible, but that kept up their momentum until they achieved their end. In Shadowfell we have a smallish band of rebels, all young, up against a king backed by a massively powerful army and an inner circle with the power to wield magic. A situation like that brings out the best and the worst in people.

There’s an element of inspiration from a favourite Thomas Hardy novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, in there too. It provided the ‘what if’ impetus for the story in terms of Neryn’s relationship with her father, and whether she can ever truly forgive the betrayal that occurs very early in Shadowfell. Hardy’s classic begins with a very similar scenario and shows how one ill-considered act can affect a person’s whole future. My take on it is somewhat different though.

Helen: Shadowfell has both an interesting plot and two appealing central characters in Neryn and Flint – but these elements characterise most good fiction. For you, as a Fantasy author, what is the element that goes further to make standout Fantasy?

Juliet: This is hard to answer because I don’t think of myself as a fantasy writer, simply as a writer. And when I’m reading, I look for the same elements no matter what the genre of the book: great characterisation, powerful storytelling and excellent style. A strong voice. Intelligence. Originality.

Fantasy these days is an extremely broad genre with a zillion sub-categories and a pretty broad range of writing styles and approaches. I think the single element that must be added to those I’ve listed above is a wholly believable world. The setting of the book – whether it’s the real world with magic added, as in my own work, or a fully realised secondary world, or something else – must be so convincing that the reader is drawn straight into it and held there throughout the story. At least, that’s the ideal we aim for.

About the Interviewer:

Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, interviewer, and the current Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury. The Gathering of the Lost, the second novel in her The Wall of Night series, is just published, and she has recently won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012 for the first-in-series, The Heir of Night. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the first of every month on the Supernatural Underground. and occasionally here on SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we.

List of Links used (in the order they appear in the text):

4 Comments on Fun with Friends—Helen Lowe Talks with Fellow Authors from Australia and New Zealand: Today’s Guest Is Juliet Marillier

  1. Thanks, Helen.

    Yeah, I think Juliet is well known enough that I actually didn’t know she was from New Zealand. I’ve thought for years she was from England, maybe Scotland…

  2. Good interview and answers.

    I really liked “Heart’s Blood”. It’s a good one to try if you are new to Juliet Marillier’s work because it is a stand-alone novel.

    I’ve read Ms. Marillier’s YA novels, enjoyed them very much, and am looking forward to reading “Shadowfell”. I am an adult reader but they cross-over easily.

  3. Paul: Dunedin, where Juliet grew up, is the Celtic form of ‘Edinburgh’ and known as the ‘Edinburgh of the south’, complete to the statue of Robbie Burns presiding over the town square (the Octagon) so I suspect “Scotland” is a good guess in spirit.:)

    June: I think you will enjoy ‘Shadowfell’ if you enjoyed “Herat’s Blood”

    Thank you both for commenting.

  4. Hmm, that should probably be “Heart’s Blood”

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