An Interview with James Hetley, 2004

James Hetley has just seen his second novel, the brilliant Winter Oak, sequel to The Summer Country, published by Ace. I (Cat Eldridge) sat down with him in the Green Man Pub on a cold early Fall day over a couple of pints of Guinness to discuss that book, his use of Celtic folklore, and other matters with him. What follows is my written transcription of the notes from that discussion. Given that we consumed several pints and a rather delicious meal of a Gaelic steak pie cooked with Jameson, and light soda bread, any inaccuracies are solely my fault!

How did you get started writing long pieces of fiction? Having heard of no short works of fiction that you have done, I assume Summer Country is your first work? If so, it's a rather impressive work as I considered it one of the best novels of 2002. I consider its sequel one of the best novels of 2004.

Well, Summer Country was my first sale, but it sure wasn't my first work. I think it was my sixth completed novel manuscript — a couple of the previous ones reached the level of encouraging rejections, and I may go back and rewrite one of those because it ties in with both Summer Country and Winter Oak. That was the story of how Adam Lester and Ish Powell finally made it big. I did write short stories, once upon a time in a far-away land, but never sold one. My brain seems more suited for the longer format, where I can play with settings and character development that get shredded by the requirements of a short. Thanks for all that fulsome praise, incidentally. I'll buy you a beer to pay for it....

What did you do for research regarding the Celtic and Norse myths that form the basis of both novels? How much of the mythos is yours and how much is based on the old myths? How did you find a fresh angle on what has become a terribly trite genre of fiction?

Research? What's that? More accurately, my research consisted of about forty years of widespread reading. I can't pick out a piece here or a chunk there and cite the sources. Likewise, I couldn't tell you how much I invented and how much was synthesis from the twenty or fifty versions of Arthurian Legend or Icelandic Saga that I've read.

The 'fresh angle' probably would be tying those tales together with what we know about the actual history of the times, where our ancestors weren't nice people by current standards. If your neighbor's dukedom wasn't strong enough to defend itself, you took it by sword and fire. You burned your enemy alive in his long-house. My Irish ancestors did take their enemies' heads as trophies. Surviving in that atmosphere, Arthur and Merlin would not have been nice men.

Our readers would love to know what works of literature have found favor with you. For example, what's your take on Tolkien's work? Or LeGuin in her Earthsea series? If you were recommending 'must read' works, what would that be in the Arthurian mythos?

I loved Tolkien's major works when they first came out, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, still do. I can't say that I got particularly interested in his outtakes and research doodles, published later to ride on the popularity. I think I like LeGuin's science fiction, such as The Left Hand of Darkness, better than the Earthsea series, although I've only read a few books of the latter. 'Must read' Arthurian stuff? I know I have Brian ridiculing T. H. White, but The Once and Future King is marvelous. I couldn't have written what I did without reading that many times. The original Mallory. Mary Stewart's series. Holdstock. I couldn't have written these stories without knowing what was already out there.

Following up on that, Merlin in specific, and the Arthurian mythos in general, infuse both novels, particularly The Winter Oak. Will you be dealing with what happened after Arthur, Excalibur, Merlin, and The Lady in the Lake faded into myth?

I'll probably return to this world for another two books, a few years down the road. The next one, tentatively titled Pendragon Autumn, will resolve the rot Brian found in the Pendragons. That may get into 'history' as well as current events. 'Autumn' and the 'spring' book remain vague shadows in the back of my head right now. The two further manuscripts I've already completed for Ace, Dragon's Eye and Dragon's Teeth, involve a different cast of characters and different style of magic, although they are set in the same fictional Maine.

By Holdstock, do you mean the Ryhope Wood series? If so, how did it influence your idea of the Summerlands?

I was actually thinking of the recent "Merlin Codex" series, in which he also played with the origins of the Arthurian complex and tied it to other legend streams, such as the Finnish and Greek. I think I only read Mythago Wood out of the Ryhope (or Mythago) series, and that long-enough ago that it has blended into the background noise in my head.

But I read a lot, and references get muddy.

I read both novels in their pre-pub forms and I found them to be refreshingly free of cliche. Despite the comparisons to Stephen King that your publisher makes, I foundas a resident of Maine that Naskeag Falls, your down at the heels mill town, feels more authentic than the setting of his Maine novels. How did you come up with Naskeag Falls and what Maine cities is it a composite of?

Naskeag Falls blends aspects of Bangor, Lewiston/Auburn, and the other 'fall line' cities of Maine and Massachusetts. I've also dragged Orono into the mix, as the University sits on the edge of town. I've ended up with a larger city because each story wanted certain things for its setting, and you get more of the necessary decay as the city grows....

Music, along with storytelling, figures strongly into this way that you've framed this story. Are you a musician yourself? And on a related noted, which Celtic performers do you listen to?

I once was a musician of sorts, playing piano to the level of having a couple of youthful recitals and spending the obligatory hours with a guitar in the 1960s. I've let that lapse, I'm afraid, and now my best instrument is the CD player. For performers, I love both Altan and The Chieftains, really enjoyed Liz Carroll's gig at the Folk Festival a couple of years back, and schedule my Saturday evenings around Thistle and Shamrock on Public Radio.

The two novels so far up created a universe that leaves a lot to be explored. What's next? Will you be focusing on Brian Albion, the Old One who is one of my favorite characters? And will the dragons show up in their own story?

Yes to both, but it'll be a while. I'm currently about a third of the way through the first draft of Ghost Point, an independent story set in the 1970s that I describe as 'Beowulf meets The Taming of the Shrew.' It has closer ties to Dragon's Eye and Dragon's Teeth than to the Summer Country series, as these later stories are set in small coastal villages rather than Naskeag Falls and the Sidhe Lands. But the Pendragons remain a loose end in the story, and I've really got to get those dragons comfortable somewhere. Can't leave good friends lost in the wrong world.

Your dragons are storytellers, and charmingly enough, strong on family values. Is this a reaction to the more usual cliche of dragons, including Tolkien in The Hobbit, that portrays them as greedy, not terribly smart beings only interested in gold and the like?

Well, I started out with the old advice that no-one is a villain in his own mind. Then, when I started getting into my dragon's head, I found out that he liked poetry. Things degenerated from there. Alligators, for example, use the same nesting technique and protect their young.

Actually, that Smaug cliché is peculiar to a narrow culture — if you look at Chinese dragons, for example, they are portrayed very differently. The concept of dragon society, of epic poetry and life-bonded mates, shows up here and there in non-Western folklore.

Both of your novels were published in trade paper, a fairly typical format these days, Are you pleased with the design, particularly the cover art? And how much say did you have in what was picked?

I like the designs. Cover art is a mixed bag. In my opinion, Summer Country works better than Winter Oak, as I think the overall color balance of the newer art is too orange, too apocalyptic. I'm not sure I'd want to pick it up and look inside. Also, I think the woman (whether Maureen or Jo) is posed in an awkward stance. The dragon is cool.

How much say? None. The publisher chose the art and design and sent me cover flats as an accomplished fact. I believe this represents the industry norm — have you ever encountered the song 'There's a Bimbo on the Cover of the Book'?

Thank you for joining me in the Pub this afternoon. Any questions I didn't raise that I should have?

Yeah— Why anybody in his right mind would get involved in writing. The answer is that old Ayn Rand logic bit — when you come up with a contradiction, check your premises.

Just joking. Maybe.

You can read an excerpt from Winter Oak here, and an excerpt from
The Summer County can be found here. Hetley's Web site is here.