Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An interview with Sarah Woodbury, author of "Cold My Heart"



There was a lot for me to like when I first met Sarah Woodbury, kindred homeschooler, historian and author (although I think it's fair to say she has a leg up on me in all three). So I wasn't surprised that I clutched my heart and sighed when I read her Arthurian novel Cold My Heart. The Crystal Cave series and The Mists of Avalon are, as I've mentioned, among my favorite books ever, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I still smile when I hear a song from Camelot.

Cold My Heart is a worthy addition to the pantheon of Arthurian literature, and I was delighted to have a chance to talk to Sarah about Arthur, history, romance, fantasy and why she writes.

What made you realize you were a writer? When did you decide to write?

Reading and writing are a part of my earliest memories of something that I liked to do. What I wrote most when I was younger was poetry (I’m sure very bad). Then, when I was about twelve, I began to focus more on schoolwork and almost forgot that I loved to write fiction and that I even had a creative side. Having children (and homeschooling them) encouraged my creativity again, once I was in my late twenties and thirties. A little over five years ago, at the age of thirty seven, I took the plunge and started my first novel.

Why did you write Cold My Heart?

All of my books start with a kernel of an idea that grows and changes as the story develops on paper. Cold My Heart began with the character of Myrddin as a world-weary hero, and took on a life of its own from there.

Describe your story.

Cold My Heart tells the story of two people, living in the final years of King Arthur’s reign, who have a pre-cognition of the end of their world as they know it, and the steps they take to face—and avert—that future.

Once I got past the fact that you used the name of one of my favorite characters in literature (Myrddin Emrys from The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart), what I loved was that the main characters were not teenagers but adults with a lot of "life experience". Even Modred, who's usually a snotty teenager, is an adult, although maybe not what we'd call mature. Can you talk about that?

As much as I love teenagers (I have three of them), they don’t have the life experience that tempers both joy and grief. The choices that Nell and Myrddin make are based in the knowledge of failure—along with the ability to face death and accept it as a possible consequence. It is a truism that young people (teens and twenties) think themselves invincible. Nell and Myrddin know they are not, and fight on anyway.

As a side note, Merlin (or Myrddin in Welsh) is central to the Arthurian legend. I wanted to get to know him without the trappings of wizardry and magic which overlay his character in most Arthurian stories.

In your story, there's an Arthur and a Cai (Kay), Aggravaine, Gareth and a number of other names Arthurian buffs will recognize. But those are supporting characters- the main action is with Nell and Myrddin. Did you feel like that was a risk?

What I didn’t want to write was another sword-in-the-stone retelling. Not only has it been done (and done well), but it is historically inaccurate on many levels. Arthur, if he existed, was Welsh, and his rule would have been grounded in real events of the sixth century, not derived from the Anglo/Norman legend that arose in the Middle Ages.

There's a love story that's central to Cold My Heart, but it isn't being marketed as a romance. What do you think is the difference between a love story and a romance?

'Romance' is a specific genre within fiction that operates under an agreed upon set of rules within the publishing industry. Primarily, it is assumed that in a romance, the love story is the driving force behind the novel and while there may be other aspects to the book, they are secondary. Cold My Heart has a love story between Myrddin and Nell, and it is crucial to the plot, but it is only one aspect--even if it is an important aspect--of a greater story played out on a larger stage.

So your novel has a love story, but it isn't a love story, in other words?

In my opinion, it is a love story, but also and equally, a novel of King Arthur.

But it doesn't meet the specs of a romance for a publisher?

No, it doesn't, because the love story isn't the driving force behind the novel.

I'm not a fantasy fan, but I've been an Arthur fan for a long time. I'm going to give a certain amount of leeway to an Arthur story that I won't a lot of other things, but you stayed pretty "realistic" and only used one fantasy element, The Sight. How come you chose not to include any other magical elements, but you did use this one?

I love historical fantasy, but I also love history and felt that in the case of Arthur, I wanted to tell a story that was more historically accurate. At the same time, the sight is something that many Celtic peoples continued to believe in long after Christianity came to Wales. The Church (meaning the Catholic Church) was full of mysticism and otherworldly events. The sight wasn’t pagan or magic—it was very real in a way that modern people probably have a hard time understanding.

Some of your characters have The Sight, and they believe what they see. But they're working to change it anyway. As someone who studied history (just a Bachelors, not a PhD like you!) and believes in civic engagement, I was really moved by that. Were there any moments in history in which you've seen people do just that? Or any moments that you wished you had?

History is full of events that seem to have stood on the edge of a knife, and could have fallen either way. I have another series set in medieval Wales in which history is changed such that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd isn’t murdered by the English—and Wales doesn’t fall to Edward I. How different would the world have been?

Just to look at American history, it’s full of ‘what ifs’ like that. My family is from Boston; John Woodbury, my umpteenth ancestor, crossed the Atlantic to settle there in 1624. What an amazing and terrifying decision that must have been! In turn, his descendents were revolutionaries and abolitionists. My great-grandfather signed up to fight in the Civil War in 1864—his parents went with him to the war office in Boston because he was only 15 years old.

Without giving anything away, it looks like Myrddin has an opportunity to be "greater" than he is now. Would that make him more or less interesting to write for? And are we going to see a sequel to Cold My Heart?

More responsibility brings its own challenges. Myrddin, up until the events of Cold My Heart, basically did as he was told. Now, he has to dig deep inside himself for what may have always been there, but he hadn’t yet discovered. So that sounds like something fun to write about—and yes, there will be a sequel to Cold My Heart! I don’t have a timeline yet, but it’s coming :-)

What's up next for you?

In July, the second book in The Last Pendragon Trilogy should be ready for publication. Plus, I have a medieval mystery that I’ve also finished and (at the moment) plan to send to my agent. And then . . . maybe the sequel to Cold My Heart!

Thank you, Sarah, for taking the time to talk to me- and I can't wait for the sequel!