Thursday, 15 January 2015

Notes from ukyachat - representations of witches in YA/other fiction, and CROW MOON cover reveal!

Lucy Powrie very kindly hosted me as a special guest this week on #ukyachat to talk about representations of witches in children's fiction as well as revealing the cover of CROW MOON, which was very exciting indeed. Here's the cover:

Pretty!!!! Thanks Quercus! And, should you want to preorder the book, you can do it here. It's out on 5th March.

Anyway, like a massive nerd I had already made some notes around Lucy's questions but with the rapid fire nature of something like #ukyachat - I mean, I REALLY don't know how Lucy does it, she's amazing - there was a lot I didn't say, so here's a bit more stuff around the topics. For what it's worth.

I'm going to do another blog post about my top witchy book recommendations and my favourite witches in fiction another time.

QUESTION ONE: What are your favourite books about witches? How have they challenged the typical witchy stereotype? 

Arha in book 2 of the Earthsea Quartet, the Tombs of Atuan. Technically she's a priestess of an old cult rather than a witch but the whole setup is ceremonial and devotional rather than potions and wands. 

There's a lovely picture book for young readers called The Everyday Witch which is where a little boy wonders if his mum is a witch riding a broomstick etc and when he asks she explains she is a witch, but in the sense that she uses family wisdom to heal, knows about herbs etc. 

The Witches of Eastwick, the book (though the film is great) the witches are normal women with more of a grasp of manipulating the natural world than supernatural beings. 

I liked Laura Powell's Burn Mark which was a YA title where the main witch character was very east end, working class, and the witches were kind of petty criminals. Her nan had taught her all she knew. It was nice to read a rather unglamorous  witch rather than the sirens one tends to get. There's a siren character in Crow Moon but lots of middle aged ladies and awkward kids too. 

Most witch fitch, though, (my term - I invented it - me) reflects the historical misconceptions of wise women, and the continuing lack of understanding about either Wicca being all spells and potions or ideas about white and black witches, evil, sexy sirens and toothless hags, and also the idea that witches are born with power and not made from hard work, dedication and practice! So somehow the witch stays as a paranormal concept out of reach of the normal person rather than a skill and faith anyone could develop, and empower themselves with.  People seems to be genuinely unaware that there is a huge pagan and modern witchcraft movement going on RIGHT NOW and that though those people might not be riding around on brooms, they are witches. People who in very real ways are working to positively influence their own lives and those of others.

On my most conspiracy theory days I would say that if popular culture tends to reflect the hegemony of the ruling elite, then it is in the interests of those that control us to maintain old superstitions and prejudices about concepts like the witch to discourage most people from pursuing enlightenment and gaining power for themselves. To keep imagining that magic isn't real. 

My favourite novel specifically about a witch, a powerful woman, is The Sea Priestess by Dion Fortune. If you are remotely into witchy things you should read it.

QUESTION TWO: What affect do you think mythology can have on the way a story is told? 

Stories that draw on mythology always appeal to me because of that depth of meaning they draw on, a resonance of cultural memory, symbolism, jungian collective imagery. Tolkien based LOTR on existing mythology which is partly why I think it has such a strong resonance with us still. Narnia too, which is deep in Christian mysticism. Mythology (in my view) enables us to connect to the spiritual journey of the soul, in allegory, in symbol, to give a story deeper understanding. I keep coming back to "resonance". 

Mythology comes up in so many children's and young adult stories too, because I think on one hand children are immersed in legend and fable via fairytale so it's all current for them anyway, and on the other, it's a way to impart deep meaning in an apparently simple way. And I think writers are generally fascinated with myth, and want to work with it, refashion it, share what they love. I loved Bone Jack by Sara Crowe, which is the chasing the stag myth, the old pagan idea about the stag as the symbol of masculine energy, the sun and the earth, being sacrificed for a good crop, for the good of the land. And she reflects in that about how the stag chase needs to happen even more so, that maybe today we need to honour the earth more than ever before because it's sick, it's suffering. We don't honour the natural cycles anymore, and if we did, you can say for damn sure that we wouldn't be messing up the environment. 

I'm really looking forward to Lu Herseys Deep Water, as that's a selkie myth. Margo Lanagan did one too - Sea Hearts. I also love anything with mermaids. I love the mermaid and siren myths. Basically I love all mythology. I would, I'm a pagan.

QUESTION THREE: Crow Moon focuses on pagan teenagers. How important do you think it is for religion to be represented in YA?

I think it is - lots of people live in religious cultures, families, in the UK, and just because many households are more secular, or atheist, that shouldn't be the accepted norm in books. Again it's a diversity issue. Wicca and paganism are very popular with teens, and there are lots of teen Muslims, teen Christians , teen Jews, teen Catholics etc etc. Religion and faith is a big part of life for lots of people and is under-represented in all fictional media. Again, specifically for pagans, it can be annoying when the only representations of your faith practice are only this completely fictionalised lightning-from-fingertip thing, or evil hags. I mean, I like a pointy black hat as much as the next person, but I think it reflects an unfortunate assumption certainly in the UK that anything spiritual is a bit silly, and if those people were being rational they'd be atheists. 

And now more than at any other time is the need for us to be talking about faith and representing it in a variety of ways, talking about the issues within it, the deep questions. I think it can be hard to work it seamlessly into fiction without sounding preachy or evangelical, or alternatively very negative. But actually one of the things YA does really well is consider the big issues - coming out, gender identity, race, bullying, growing up, friends, family. So I think it's a good place to see more representations of religion and faith.It doesn't have to be ABOUT religion. Faith can just be there in the background, sometimes.
QUESTION FOUR: Have you read any cli-fi? Do you think there will be a rise in them as their relevance increases? 

I think so. With clifi it's the same challenge about not making the prose clunky with all the science, but on the other hand, scifi has been managing that one way or the other for a long time - I mean, some scifi is definitely for the scientists out there, some is a bit more accessible. 

I thought Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver was very good, but even in that there were quite long passages about butterfly habits and classifications and stuff. I mean, I probably learnt a lot. Don't ask me about it now, mind. The MADDADDAM trilogy by Margaret Atwood is amazing, and it's chillingly relevant to where we are today in terms of genetic modification, food production, biochemical engineering, GM crops etc. Also, it's a cracking read. 

But I think our common concerns are always reflected in fiction, and we are now very concerned about the environment. Just like the big dystopia epics are reflecting a worry about the rise of totalitarianism and government control, the divisions between rich and poor, power and disempowerment, like in The Hunger Games, I think we'll see more and more fiction thinking about climate change and environmental issues over the next few years. The longer story arc of the CROW MOON trilogy engages more and more with the energy crisis and the inevitable results of capitalism.

As the film 2012 klaxoned at us in mile high letters - WE WERE WARNED. Right before it goes really weird at the end and loses all sense of geographical logic.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Books that influenced Crow Moon

It could be said that Crow Moon was influenced by every book I ever read. I know that there are books that I’ve read over and over again that have little or nothing to do with witches, or Cornwall, or any other thematic elements of the Greenworld trilogy – but they’ve probably had a huge impact on my prose writing style. Some novels I’ve reread so frequently that their rhythms, language use, even their style of punctuation have infiltrated my brain, like Dracula, Rebecca, Stephen Kings’s Firestarter and The Running Man, Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, Alias Grace, Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood, The World According to Garp, The Story of San Michele, 1984, Brave New World. As well, there’s a raft of poetry collections and short stories that I love – being a poet as well as a YA writer. Film and TV too – nothing was ever the same in my brain after The X Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Alien, Battlestar, Twin Peaks and Star Wars.
However, Crow Moon has some particular influences which I thought it might be fun to share with you here.

1. Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy

I first read this 1970s second wave feminist utopia/dystopia novel for my A Level extended essay in 1995 (God I’m so old) and reread it many times since; it is always thought-provoking. The story is of a woman undergoing psychiatric treatment in a hospital that starts to “visit” a strange utopian land. As the reader you are unsure whether it is real somehow or delusional. The utopia is a free and anti-capitalist community based on love and sharing. Romantic relationships are open, unheteronormative and for pleasure; parenting happens within the community rather than in the traditional family unit; the community are self sufficient and organic. By contrast, in the “real” world, the main character suffers within an entirely repressive and dystopian contemporary society which treats her unstated mental illness harshly; she is a poor woman of colour that is exploited by an all-too-familiar patriarchal, capitalist medical culture.

The utopia/dystopia juxtaposition and the feminist nature of the utopian land fed into the Greenworld and the Redworld. The Greenworld shares much of Piercy’s anti-capitalist, organic and environmental focus, as well as its community emphasis. However, as it is a “real” society and not (potentially) a fantasy or vision, it had to have downsides and people that lived within it that weren’t happy with things. Similarly, the Redworld has many bad elements – pollution, corruption etc, which is explored more in books 2 and 3, but it’s not all bad. It’s short sighted and unrealistic to paint one side all good and the other all bad – nothing is ever that way in life, after all. And as Arthur C Clarke said “Utopia was here at last: its novelty had not yet been assailed by the supreme enemy of all Utopias—boredom.” 

So I had to introduce this actually quite wonderful green feminist nature-loving, woman-centred utopia through the eyes of a disaffected teenage boy within it, partly because when you’re a teen, whatever your parents do, even if they’re rock musicians or Nobel Prizewinners or heart surgeons or astronauts, you think they’re totally boring and uncool. And partly so that Danny could show us the chinks in the armour of this apparently wonderful place – partly because nothing is perfect – the Greenworld witches are human, and therefore subject to human weaknesses – and partly so that conflict could occur. There would be no story if everything was perfect in the Greenworld. For me, the ultimate message about both cultures – the Green and the Red – are that they can learn from each other. There’s a fair amount of thought on my part in the books about the relationship between magic, spirituality and science and technology too, and how, in my view, the way forward is to learn from each other and not persist in this false idea that they are opposites.

2. The Sea Priestess – Dion Fortune

This book is a beautiful, readable fiction novel underpinned with a great deal of witchcraft practice, kind of in the same way that the Narnia books have Christian mysticism at their core. Dion Fortune was a great mystic and her work was one of the important precursors of the development of modern Wicca and paganism in the 1950s. In The Sea Priestess, a man suffering from severe asthma recuperates by the sea where he meets a mysterious woman that teaches him about connecting with the natural energies of the sea. It is a beautiful book, full of mystery, imagery and symbolism of the wild magic of water and of the strong connections of the Goddess principle to tides, water and the moon.

I deliberately set Crow Moon in Cornwall because of the intense magic in the landscape and the drama of the North Cornwall coast at Tintagel. I wanted to explore a sense of the natural power that comes from the waves crashing against rocks and sucking into the caves; I knew also that Tintagel and Boscastle, just next door, are traditionally very witchy places, not least because of the Witchcraft Museum and the King Arthur myth. Cornwall has a strong tradition of natural magic, wise women, herbalists and healers. It really was the case not that long ago that each village did have its own witch. So I started thinking – what would happen if each village had one again (some of them still do – there’s lots of traditional and modern witches in Cornwall and Devon still, and all over the UK) but they had the ultimate power, instead of being an outsider or whatever? And what if the culture was like 1970s feminism/goddess religion had won and taken over?

3. Oryx and Crake/The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood

Possibly one of my favourite fictional worlds ever, the Oryx and Crake series has been a strong influence on the Greenworld books. I mean, I’m a massive Atwood fan anyway. In this world, you have genetic engineering gone so astray that ultimately it wipes out the planet and a few survivors have to start again – and some of those survivors are Gods Gardeners, a kind of semi-pagan environmentalist group. I loved how the Gods Gardeners had made their own mythos, to some degree, about foreseeing a mass extinction event like the biblical Flood, and in its wake, canonising real people from the pre-Flood world as saints (my favourite is St Diane Fossey). Gods Gardeners also have the skills to survive the chemical-induced end of humanity  – permaculture, beekeeping, wilderness survival etc – and the foresight to hole up until the worst is over. In MADDADDAM, ultimately, it’s ecology, wilderness survival and a respect for the natural world that wins out over science (which brought the world as we know it to an end) and technology. I also liked Atwood’s pre-Flood polarised society, where the rich and priveliged live in gated communities and the poor live in the crime- and filth-ridden “pleeblands” – but that the rich and priveliged live under close watch by a ruthless government and military and the poor are, at least, freer in some ways.

4. 1984 – George Orwell

As for many people, 1984 is the classic fictional dystopia that provides a horrifying and dark inspiration – the effect of absolute power upon an initially utopian ideology. Sadly, in some ways and as I get older, it feels like 1984 is closer upon us than ever, with government surveillance increasing, the capitalist-driven media and growing gap between the super rich and the poor. The Redworld is not as deeply propagandist as 1984, but it is a dark world of suffering and corruption where only the super rich have access to an extremely limited supply of fuel and the “proles” are repressed by ever more violent means. However, the Greenworld too is increasingly in danger of moving away from its beautiful ideals and towards a less tolerant stance.

5. Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet – Joanne Proulx

I don’t hear as much as I’d like about this great Canadian YA title, but I read it around 2009 and the voice of the main boy teen character inspired Danny. Like a lot of YA it’s 1st person POV and I just loved Luke’s disengaged, apathetic approach. The book has a slightly paranormal theme, in that Luke appears to be able to predict people’s deaths, but it is absolutely not a classic paranormal story. The story is completely rooted in real life and the boring town Luke lives in; about being a teenage boy, having a crush on someone, hanging out with your friends, swearing, smoking and music.

6. How I Live Now – Meg Rosoff

HILN was probably the book that made me want to write for young people. I was (and still am) so impressed by its sparseness (Crow Moon is nowhere near as sparse) and emotional punch. Again, the “I” point of view works brilliantly; there’s a strong character voice and the coming-of-age and self realisation themes against a wider social conflict really stood out for me.

7. Glastonbury: Avalon of the Heart – Dion Fortune

I’m from the west country and it is a huge part of who I am. For me and many others, Glastonbury (the location of some of book 2) is the spiritual heart of this wonderful country we live in. The UK has a rich pagan history and our ancestors had a deep connection to the land, as is demonstrated by the many stone circles, burial mounds and sacred wells you can find in most regions. We are lucky to have these things. It makes me sad that more people don’t visit them more often and connect to the land we live in; take comfort from it, respect it and learn its history and the history of the people that once lived here.

This book looks at the spiritual history of Glastonbury and speculates what the Tor might once have been; it charts the development of the town into its current incarnation as a new age mecca and considers the King Arthur connection to Glastonbury as Avalon. For me, it’s a book that really exemplifies the importance of the sacred UK landscape, which is very important in Crow Moon. It’s important because it’s full of magic, but also because it is our natural environment that sustains us, and it’s being threatened by pollution, fracking and rampant, unchecked consumerism. Which needs to stop.

8. A Witch Alone - Marian Green

When I was thinking about the magic and the style of witchcraft the Greenworld would use, I knew it had to be particularly the nature-based part of Wicca and the general environment-loving element of paganism. I think most people think instantly of spells and potions when they think about witches, real or caricature, but the thing that is key about real witchcraft is that it’s a nature religion. One observes and appreciates the elements, and the Earth as a living source of wonder. All pagans and witches, then, are basically environmentalists. If Nature is your God, you want to look after it.

Marian Green is the poster-woman-witch for the Greenworld, in that case. Her books (nonfiction) are all about how to become in tune with the natural world around you and work with it to effect change in your own life and generally make the world awesome around you. In the Greenworld, everyone is deeply in tune with the rhythms of the earth. They notice the phases of the moon, the calls of the birds; they know the energies of plants; they mark each passing season with the old, traditional festivals.

9. Celtic Lore & Spellcraft of the Dark Goddess: Invoking the Morrigan - Stephanie Woodfield

The central belief system in the Greenworld is a Celtic pagan one, drawing on the ancient myths and legends of Ireland which is just as present in Cornwall as a Celtic region. There are a lot of Irish, Welsh and Scottish gods and goddesses, so for Crow Moon I had to simplify and focus on a trinity of Brighid, Morrigan and Lugh as three deities from the Celtic belief system. I knew of Brighid and Lugh already – Brighid, the Irish goddess of heavenly cleansing fire and inspiration, poetry, farming (she is represented by a cow – cows were important then. Still are) and Lugh, a sun god and warrior. I was not so knowledgeable about The Morrigan, though. 

I learned, though, that the Morrigan is the Irish goddess of battle, death and rebirth, sex (wooh!) and is a protectress of the land, and it was that element of her in particular that made her appropriate for Crow Moon. Crows, ravens, horses, cows and eels are her animals. Brighid, the lovely light goddess of agriculture, poetry and fire, sea and earth made a good general Goddess for Greenworlders to worship, but the Morrigan’s feistier environmental warrior aspect that really came to power the book along, and into book 2. She also fit well with the feisty Melz character, as Brighid fit with her more pleasing sister Saba.

10. The Vanishing Face of Gaia – James Lovelock

Kind of massive downer, this book, but it needs to be heeded: the message is that we can expect huge environmental collapse quite soon. Lovelock reckons that we currently have about 20 years to enjoy ourselves before an energy crisis/global warming turns all the lights out and vast areas of land are flooded, leaving our poor largely-capitalist butts in the midst of basic survival without power, thousands/millions displaced, resources stretched and basically if you do still have your house to live in, be prepared to protect it from looters or worse. 

We are as a society so poorly prepared for the reasonably likely consequences of global warming, even just as one part of a huge brewing cocktail of chaos that Gaia (the living, breathing world) is about to unleash on us, the irritating fleas on her back which have got out of control, that the future really is likely to turn into a dystopian epic unless something really quite major happens now. According to Lovelock, even if we did stop doing all the bad stuff right now it would still happen anyway. I mean, think about it. Look what happens if we have a heavy snow. What would happen if East Anglia and Cornwall flooded? Permanently? We’re not prepared.

In the Redworld there’s an energy crisis and a pointless war to try and get whatever tiny bit of fuel there is left. Rather than prepare for an existence with less or no power and empower its citizens with Greenworld agricultural and survival skills, The Redworld chooses to use its remaining resources to fight each other. Hmmmm.