(Billings, Montana Book Fest Panel – October 2, 2015)
You may be familiar with the expression “to trip the light fantastic.” It originates from John Milton’s poem L’Allegro. Here are a few lines:
Haste thee Nymph and bring with thee
Jest and youthful jollity,
Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods, and becks and wreathèd smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come and trip it as ye go
On the light fantastic toe,
I like to stay up late, so I often write in the evening, or lie in bed in the dark, thinking about writing. The idea for the title of this session popped into my head one night. All three of the books originally short listed for the Young Adult Book Award contain fantastical elements and, of course, all writers dance with words, images, ideas and symbolism. (The three books were Camp Outlook by Brenda Baker – winner; Harry Potter and the Art of Spying by Lynn Boughey and Peter Earnest; Queen of Fire by me.)
In her book, The Hills of Faraway, A Guide to Fantasy (published in 1978) Diana Waggoner says a great deal about theories of fantasy fiction, and trends in fantasy, including mythopoetic, heroic and adventure, ironic, comic, nostalgic and sentimental, and horrific fantasy. I’m not going into these theories here, but I want to mention the book because it’s fascinating, whether you are a reader, writer, or teacher of fantasy. It includes lists of authors and books as well as containing a variety of captivating black and white illustrations.
One of the quotes I like in the book is from G.K. Chesterton, apparently in reference to fantasy, “the soul is sane, but the universe is wild and full of marvels.” Now, Waggoner doesn’t footnote this particular quote, though she does footnote others, so I wondered how reliable the quote was. After some additional research I discovered that Chesterton had written a delightful essay entitled “The Dragon’s Grandmother,” and I found the complete essay on line (love the Internet!). The actual quote is, “Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming.”
Now you may or may not agree with that thought, but at any rate, in my novel I wanted to mix fantasy and reality to some extent. To build a world that had its physical and some of its cultural basis in the places that I know, dancing in a sense with those two aspects of fiction.
I decided that rather than setting the story in medieval or Arthurian England or Ireland for example, or making it a contemporary urban fantasy, I’d use the forests, plains, mountains and bad lands of Western Canada and parts of the United States. I’ve lived and travelled in these areas, and I’m very familiar with them and I love them.
So I used some real places and symbols, but I also changed them. Let me give you a couple of examples from the book regarding how I mixed reality and fantasy. In Chapter II, the character Samel, is talking about where he lives and says, “As for the Lord, he’s the ruler of the city of Aquila and the lands around, the lands of Ameer.” A little later in the same chapter, we read that, “There’s an eagle soaring overhead. The great birds are guardians of the city of Aquila.” I took the word “Ameer” from America. The bald eagle was chosen as an emblem of the United States of America in 1782. Many Native American or as we say in Canada, First Nations people, have long viewed the eagle as a sacred bird. As well, the Romans used eagle standards for their legions, and those who know any of the ancient Latin language you will note that “Aquila” means eagle.
Similarly to parts of Montana, the city and province where I live is home to people from many different places. There are the First Nations people, of course, as well as inhabitants with ancestors from parts of Europe, Asia, and all around the world. I specifically decided to incorporate some of these cultures in Queen of Fire. For example, Samel has French neighbours who are artists: “Mère and Père have named each of their three daughters after a colour. Magenta is seventeen and soon to be married. Ivoire, the youngest, is ten. Ali (which is short for Alizarine) is thirteen and a half.”
I invite you to find other examples in the book of how I mixed real places and real cultures within my fantasy world.
One of the key dances of my novel is a pas de deux between the main character, Rowan, and her brother Samel. A performance for two dancers, a duet. Queen of Fire is told from their two points of view in alternating chapters.
I don’t remember where or when the central idea for the book came to me. I often get ideas while driving, or while walking along the river in Saskatoon, sometimes from dreams. At any rate, the first images that surfaced were about a young woman who discovered that she had a brother she didn’t know about. Of course, she wanted to find him. And so she set out on a journey, a typical event for a hero or heroine in a fantasy, the call to adventure of Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
It took a few years to write this book, research, and many drafts to clarify the story and have it flow and dance the way I wanted.
Of course, if you’re dancing, you need music. Early on it emerged that Samel and his father are both musicians. That’s one of my favourite things about writing: along the way you learn things about your characters and your setting that you didn’t know initially. It’s a dance of discovery.