Interview with Elspeth Cooper
First of all, thanks for joining us – and congratulations on your debut! First-time authors typically have a cupboard full of horror stories about the ordeal of getting their manuscript to a publisher and then to bookstores – was your own version of that path rocky or smooth?
It’s my pleasure to be here – and thank you. It feels a bit weird when someone says “congratulations on your debut” when the book’s been out in the UK and elsewhere for almost a year, but I’m getting used to it!
I’m afraid I have no horror stories of years of rejection and hard liquor. My path to publication was embarrassingly silky-smooth: I made a shortlist of UK agents who handle fantasy, followed their submission guidelines to the letter, and the second one to reply said yes. Two weeks later, I had an offer from Gollancz for three books. I guess I was lucky and hit the right agent at the right time with the right book.
Have you been a big fan of the fantasy genre? What were your influences in writing “Songs of the Earth”? Was it always a multi-book story, in your conception?
I have been a fantasy fan almost since my cradle. My parents read my Ivanhoe as a bedtime story, and it was all downhill from there. Myths, legends, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, progressing to the likes of Tad Williams and Robert Holdstock as I got older. I read voraciously, and I am a complete sucker for big epic adventures.
I knew from the outset that the story was going to be at least a trilogy. Act I was done and I was already a good way into Act II when I got my publishing deal.
It’s a very cinematic book in some ways – an early scene in which a thrown knife lodges in mid-air against the Veil between worlds just cries out to be filmed! Did films play a part in gestating this series?
I actually see the story like a movie being projected in my head, and write scene changes as if they were on film. It’s something I’ve always done. I love movies and often get ideas or jolts of inspiration from what I’m watching. I also find it can be helpful, when I get to a sticky patch, to take myself in front of the TV with my laptop and put on a big sweeping epic like Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven, turn the sound down and lose myself in the images.
The story has some intensely contemporary resonances – the young hero is hated and persecuted for an innate quality he never consciously chose, and he’s condemned by a Church in some ways very recognizably Christian. Is there a message of toleration lurking underneath the sword-and-sorcery here?
I suppose there is, although I never set out to have an agenda or a message in the story I was telling. I used the history of the Catholic church in Europe as something of a template for the Eadorian faith, largely to give a relatable context for Gair’s struggles. The story was starting to take shape at the time that the child abuse scandals were coming to light in our world, and that got me thinking about an established, once-militant institution whose dirty little secrets are about to come to light – in this case, the existence of magic. How would a monotheistic religious institution deal with something like that: by denial, by closing ranks, by clamping down and becoming even more militant and inflexible, or by opening their arms?
You can also draw parallels with contemporary real-world dilemmas like the acceptance of gays into Christian faith, the role of women bishops, even female soldiers on active military service. I didn’t consciously choose to include these themes, but they wove their way into the story because of what was on the news and in the papers at the time I was writing.
I’ve always loved being outdoors, in high places, wild places. I live in England’s most northerly county, Northumberland, and it has a history that reads like an epic fantasy novel itself. More castles per square mile than anywhere else in the country, they say; cradle of English Christianity (Holy Island, Lindisfarne, is just a little way up the coast from me); home to kings and borderland cattle-raiders; the last place the Romans could hold on this island. How could I not be inspired by its landscapes, its windswept beaches and cold clear air? And then I have Scotland more or less on my doorstep – it’s probably no coincidence that Gair’s homeland of Leah resembles the Highlands.
Your plot-lines continue beyond “Songs of the Earth” – do you have the rest of the series well mapped-out in your imagination? An active writing schedule, these days?
I think I know where I’m going! I’ve just delivered the script for book 2 to my UK publisher, and book 3 is well under way. I still have some kinks to work out for the finale, though – I am not a natural planner, so a board covered in 3×5 index cards with chapter summaries marked up in six different colours of pen is my idea of hell. I have a very organic, instinctive sort of writing style and when I start writing I rarely know more than the beginning, the end and a few high points to hit along the way. It’s a journey of discovery for me as well as for the reader, and that’s more than half the fun.