Interview with Sharan Newman

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Interview with Sharan Newman

from: The Camelot Project  1999

MYTHCON: VANCOUVER, B.C.
28 JULY 1989

   I had not expected to meet Sharan Newman for she lives in California, a long way indeed from Nova Scotia. She was, however, another of the participants at the Mythopoeic Conference in Vancouver, and I was able to take advantage of her presence to conduct this interview. Because the meeting was unplanned, I had not read the second two books of her trilogy, which placed me at some disadvantage in asking questions. I have, of course, read them all now, but the experience of not being as familiar as I should have been with the material we were discussing was a salutary lesson.
   Newman's Guinevere trilogy consists of Guinevere (New York: St. Martin's, 1981), The Chessboard Queen (New York: St. Martin's, 1984), and Guinevere Evermore (New York: St. Martin's, 1985). Her short story, "The Palace by Moonlight," which was published in Invitation to Camelot, ed. Parke Godwin (New York: Ace, 1988), provides an epilogue to the trilogy. As both a scholar and author, Newman was deeply concerned with historical authenticity in her books, even though they are fantasies. She also talked about the difficulties of trying to write while raising a young child. Such problems, both literary and practical, give a strong sense of the challenges with which a writer must learn to cope.


RT: What first attracted you to Arthurian legend as a subject for your Guinevere trilogy?

SN: About 1973 I was doing research on Guinevere for a scholarly paper. I went through the academic libraries and the MLA lists, but I found nothing on her to speak of: she was a very neglected part of the legend at that time. Then circumstances forced me to leave academia and start working on my own. I realized, eventually, that what I wanted to say about Guinevere would fit better in a novel than in a scholarly paper, since she comes across as a real super bitch in medieval literature, Chretien especially. I always thought he was a bit of a misogynist, and Malory definitely was. Neither of them treated Guinevere very well. I thought, alright, given that this is a woman who behaves like this, what would make her do it? I started from there, working out how she could have grown up, what kind of life she might have had.

RT: Had you written fiction prior to this book?

SN: Yes. It too originated in a scholarly paper for graduate school. I found I had a whole lot of extra material, and so I wrote a young adult novel set in fourth-century Ireland.

RT: What kind of books had you read that first aroused your interest in Arthurian legend?

SN: Although I was one of the Camelot generation, I never had more than a passing interest in Arthurian legend until I reached graduate school. There I took two graduate-level seminars at the masters level and two at the doctoral level in medieval Arthurian literature from a man named John Yunck who was a magnificent teacher. He started with Geoffrey of Monmouth and he worked up to Malory. It was he who really helped me to see that the legends were not written in stone, that they were free for everybody to make use of as others, including Malory, had done before. One of his favorite parts of Malory was what he always called the Cowboy Section where everybody just lines up and jousts. It's very similar to Le Chanson de Roland where all the knights are listed, one after the other. I was not too interested in Roland, however. I thought it was much better to be "sage" than to be "pru" myself, and I would have blown that horn a long time before.
   As a result of these courses, which I took over two years, I pretty much covered the field of medieval Arthurian literature in English, French, Welsh, German. At the same time I was taking a history course on the Fall of the Roman Empire, where I read Gildas and Ausonius, the fourth-century Gaulish poet, as well as modern historians like John Morris and Geoffrey Ashe.

RT: How about modern fiction writers?

SN: These I am less familiar with. I read T. H. White because Jack said that was the best of them. I also read Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave, which I thought was just wonderfully authentic, but I was less enthusiastic about her second book. When you learn too much, you sometimes can't enjoy things that should be just for fun.

RT: Once you determined that you were going to write a work of fiction as opposed to a scholarly paper, did you do further research?

SN: Tons. I think every doctoral student should be required to do research for a novel because it's entirely different from more conventional scholarship. I spent ages, for example, just trying to find out how women rode horses in Arthur's day. There were things that I assumed were true, for some reason or other, and found out they weren't. As a result I had to rewrite whole chapters. I know that I write fantasies, and I know that they're considered light reading--which is good because people like to read light things. But every bit of history in those books is absolutely as accurate as I could make it. I read numerous archaeological studies, discovering, for example, that the body of a Saxon girl was found in a Roman graveyard in York, far away from any other Saxon. I used this information for my character Alswytha. I don't think that society at that time was as nasty, brutish, and short as many assume. I think that people were still trying to live like Romans.

RT: Did you read any further in Arthurian tradition?

SN: I had already read just about everything, though I kept referring back to Geoffrey of Monmouth whom I used a lot. I used other sources for different episodes. For example, for the kidnapping of Guinevere, where I included such details as the sword bridge and the ride in the dwarf's cart, I relied upon Chretien de Troyes' Chevalier de la Charette. I have copies of these books in my work room, and when I need them I just pull them out.

RT: Did you do this referring back before or during the writing process?

SN: You have to do it during the writing because you never know what's going to come up. I get halfway through something and I say, wait a minute. Then I go look it up, and if I can't find it, I'll spend days researching it. Because I have academic contacts, I call or write people in England and in France and in the United States.

RT: Would you leave the book aside while you're doing that, or would you continue writing other parts of it?

SN: Often I leave the book aside, but remember I had a toddler at the time. I was trying to potty train a kid while I was writing these books. It's a distraction. The kid will not wait when you say, I just have to finish this chapter, dear. NOW, Mommy! There's no alternative in this demand.

RT: Can you write readily in short sessions with frequent interruptions, or was it a struggle?

SN: You do what you have to do. I prefer not to have interruptions, but since I did I had to put up with them. I did put the poor little kid into preschool fairly early, for two and three-hour periods, so that I could work on the book uninterrupted. Even now I only write during school hours. When young people are in high school it's most important to be available right after school to hear what they say about what's going on. I generally stop before she gets home though sometimes I get up again late at night and work.

RT: How conscious were you that you were working within a long tradition?

SN: I was very conscious of it. I was enveloped in it. I felt that I had to play fair with the audience, that I couldn't allow Guinevere and Lancelot run off and live happily ever after, for example. That would be like cheating them. Sometimes I may have assumed the readers knew too much, however, just because I knew it all so well. One review describes Gawain as a knight with a strange sleeping problem. Now since a number of romances mention that Gawain's strength waxed and waned with the sun, it is obvious that he is a solar hero, deriving probably from the Celtic sun god, Lugh. I knew that, and so I just carried the feature to rather absurd lengths. Then this reviewer says, Gawain has this strange sleeping problem. I thought, don't they know? They thought it was my own invention when I was carefully following tradition. Medievalists thought it was funny.
   I was, however, using Arthurian tradition to say what I wanted to say about society of the Dark Ages. The only reviewer that ever caught that was Byron Searles, at Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine of all places. I was exploring the struggle to survive even though you know that the barbarians are at the gates, that your society's dying, and that Rome has abandoned you.
   Also I wanted to say that this whole view of the world ending and the Dark Ages closing in when Arthur died just wasn't true. The world went on. What I believe the real Arthur, whoever he was, actually did, was allow a breathing space so that his society did not completely crumble. I don't think it did. Arthur provided time for the Saxons to develop contacts with the Roman world through the Franks, to accept Christianity, to start a written culture, and so forth. I really think that's what Arthur achieved. The last book ends several years after Arthur's death to show that he didn't fail. His vision of civilization succeeded, even though people at the time might not have understood it.

RT: Did you find a tension between your awareness of Arthurian tradition, with its familiar forms of the stories, and your need to adapt the material to your own aims?

SN: I felt that the literature was fair game. If I wanted to borrow elements from Chretien and interpret them in my own way, that was perfectly fair. After all, it was Marie de Champagne who asked Chretien to write Arthurian romances anyway. He might have had other ideas, but you know who's paying the bills! I saw all of this literature as something that was written for a purpose, and therefore I could deal with it as I wished for my purposes also.
   Because I was working within a tradition, however, I recognized that I owed something to it. I had to retain certain basic features that everybody accepted. I felt that it was necessary that Guinevere marry Arthur; that she have an affair with Lancelot; that Galahad find the Grail; that Mordred rebel.
   What I was absolutely unyielding on was the history. I even tried to make it clear that people at that time would have believed stories that we now consider fantasy. The voices that Geraldus hears are really those of otherworld creatures; but if someone in a Christian society at that time said he heard voices, people automatically assumed they were the voices of angels.
   I feel much more at home in the Dark Ages than I do in the twentieth century. The twentieth century I find terribly confusing and awfully scary. But I also believe in the synthesis of history, which means we study everything about a people, including what both the upper and the lower classes thought. And so when I was writing, it was important to me to get the history right because my people were there. They were more like friends of mine than creations, because once characters are created they tend to do things that surprise you. That didn't bother me. What bothered me was being true to them. I owed it to them to get their lives as right as possible. Thus they did not interfere with writing the story. They were the story. They're certainly all extensions of me, but I'm also an extension of all that I've learned about the centuries that I've studied. I try to get the period right, which is why I write so slowly.

RT: Did you find it difficult reconciling Arthurian tradition, which developed during the High Middle Ages, with the history of the Dark Ages, which is where you set your trilogy?

SN: Sometimes. Readers of the medieval romances would expect Lancelot to save Guinevere from being burned at the stake. I knew very well, however, that you didn't burn people for adultery in the fifth century. You didn't even kill them for adultery, whether you followed the Roman Theodosian Code, which I think they were probably working under at that time, or the customs of the Celts or the Saxons. I honestly didn't know what to do about the motif.
   So I had to work in a religious explanation which became very complicated in my mind. The group trying to burn her was doing something which everybody knew wasn't normally done, but somebody had whipped them up into a renewal of old pagan rites in which burning Guinevere would release her soul. She couldn't even be burned as a witch because the first witch was not burned in Europe until 836, and even that was a political act: she was Gerberga, sister-in-law of Charles the Bald. My friends at UCSB came up with a variety of alternative solutions. Under the Theodosian Code the punishment for patricide was to place the offender in a bag filled with live vipers, then to throw the whole bag into the ocean. I thought that was piquant, but I couldn't use it.

RT: Why did you choose to write fantasy, rather than historical fiction, particularly since you have been so careful over historical research?

SN: There were two reasons. First, I was sick of reading stories set in the Dark Ages, where everybody was sitting around in skins in front of musty fires and belching. That didn't appeal to me. I wanted to show the period in a different light.
   Second, I was interested in perception. The first book, Guinevere, is about how people perceive their world. In those days there was more belief in the magical nature of things. Thus I posited, what if someone who claimed he heard voices really did hear voices? It was fun to play with such ideas.
   I'm not exactly sorry I wrote fantasy. I think I might have gained more respect if I had written in another genre, but I still enjoyed it. I really enjoyed creating the figure of Geraldus, who was named after Geraldus Cambrensis, by the way.

RT: Why do you feel that you didn't get respect because you wrote a fantasy?

SN: The popular reviews were very good, but the academic reviews dismissed the books as light work. A scholar at the University of Maryland wrote a long paper on the trilogy and sent it to me. He said he wanted to defend me because he thought the work had been dismissed as light reading. Moreover, people are inclined to say, these are nice little fantasies because they are clearly written with plenty of humor in them. I think that in a lot of cases people who read Arthurian literature don't want to laugh at it. Much of the research I did wasn't really noticed. After all that work one would like a pat on the back.

RT: Does it worry you that the academic world has not, perhaps, given you recognition for the amount of work you did?

SN: The academic people that I know, both historians and Arthurian scholars, are, to a person, very accepting. I'm a member of the medieval academy. I have never been put down for writing this trilogy. Indeed, most people want to know how I did it. Who's my agent? Who's my publisher? How they can get in on it too? My concern is mostly with these little comments written by strangers that I only learned about quite recently. Often I just find that I'm left off reading lists. Then as a writer I think, well that's okay because several people sent me lists of summer reading from public libraries and I'm on those. Let's face it, if you're writing for a living, that's where you want to be. You are writing for the public, not for the university.

RT: What advantages did you gain by writing in the fantasy genre, as opposed to historical fiction?

SN: I don't really see the trilogy as fantasy. The books were all published as mainstream fiction. It is fantasy, of course, in the sense that it includes an element of magic, but I posited that it was not only part of the cultural belief at the time, but real. I did get a little carried away with the Lady of the Lake, but other than that I think everything else was acceptable. I felt I was writing a historical novel, only I was using the fantastic elements that the people in those days would not have been surprised to find. These elements were part of the social history.

RT: How did the editor react to the books?

SN: Guinevere he liked straight off. The second book was a little too medieval in that a number of separate stories were interlaced. Whereas the first book was about perception, the second book was about various forms of relationships. I introduced several minor characters, couples who had different kinds of relationships, and my editor said, this is becoming too baroque. You've got to cut out some of this and get on with the story. So I did. The editor of the third book was concerned only with saleability, which is essential. He wanted me to start the book at a different place, just because I hadn't given enough background, and so I had to think of a way to fit in the background. Otherwise, I was given a free rein.

RT: Were there any themes inherent in the Arthurian stories that you particularly wanted to explore in your trilogy?

SN: I think the only one was the sense of duty. There was a desperate need to keep the old social order going and to maintain your place in it; to keep up the mask as long as you could, because otherwise chaos would prevail.

RT: Are you thinking particularly of Arthur ignoring the love between Lancelot and Guinevere?

SN: Right. That, of course, carries the idea to an extreme. What keeps Arthur going is the idea of Arthur. If he were seen as anything less than superhuman, then the social order would collapse. That happens with real people as well as with legendary characters, which is one reason why it's so intriguing; because real people always do have feet of clay. I was, however, interested in the societal implications, the attempt to keep civilization going, rather than more personal conflicts.

RT: I suppose that this wider social concern arises naturally out of the extensive historical research that you have done. Did you find that your sympathies were unexpectedly engaged by a particular character who to some extent developed in directions that you had not anticipated?

SN: That happens frequently. In all my work, characters appear who I don't think are going to. Geraldus was certainly a man who just walked in out of left field, and he's been one of the most popular characters in the trilogy, considering he has absolutely nothing to do with the legend at all. People always seem to mention him, and they created a fuss when I killed him off in the second book. Thus I decided to bring him back as a ghost in the third book. I feel sympathy for all my characters because they are all human beings. I deplored Modred and Morgause and Morgan, but I understood why they acted the way they did. I care about all of them. Poor little things, having a writer push them around!

RT: Do you feel it's important for your characters to learn some kind of a lesson in your books? I'm thinking particularly of Guinevere in the first book, where she discovers that she has to fulfil her duty to society despite her preference for remaining with her unicorn.

SN: I really felt in the first book she didn't come very far. I based her partly on someone I knew, someone who had been very much loved and spoiled. She was a very sweet person, and she could be kind and thoughtful except that she didn't think to do it unless someone reminded her. Guinevere doesn't really think for herself because she's never been given the chance to. It really isn't until the end of the last book that she starts to realize, wait a minute, I can think for myself. I'm not very bright, but I can still put a couple of ideas together. I need to find out what I can do.
   In any novel worth reading, the characters have to develop and change. I certainly was interested in the development of my minor characters: Gawain was the character that I was really the most interested in because life just didn't seem to have treated him fairly at all. Here he is, absolutely gorgeous, reeking with sex appeal, but he falls dead asleep the minute the sun goes down. Everybody seems to conspire to play jokes on him, and in the end he's killed by someone who's almost his best friend. Watching him develop fascinated me. I always like my minor characters best.

RT: Did you set out to write a trilogy from the very start?

SN: No, I never intended to write a trilogy; they're so trite. It just happened that way. When I finished the first book I thought that was the end of it, and I had no plans to continue. It was my editor who said, it's doing well; let's try a sequel. The first book was set on the fringes of the legend and was really intended to be a prologue to the Arthurian story, dealing with an aspect that had never been done before: the childhood of Guinevere. I hadn't wanted to get into the well-known parts of the story. I was, however, interested in interpreting it my own way, and so I agreed to write a sequel. Everybody wants to put their finger in the pie. When you've lived with the legend so long and you've seen what everybody else has done with it, with certainly no more credentials than you have, it seems a shame not to try. I thought I could finish the story in the second book, but it was clear that wasn't the end either. I knew where I was going, but it took too long to get there, that was all.

RT: Did you find that your concept of the undertaking changed as the series progressed?

SN: Sure. For one thing I had grown. I was twenty-five or twenty- six when I started the first book. By the time I wrote the third, I was in my thirties, had a child, was out of school, and was in the suburbs where I was living an entirely different kind of life and looking at people in a very different way. Somehow from the middle of your twenties when you're still a student, to your thirties when you are established as a working person, there's quite a difference in how you see the world. As a result I viewed the Arthurian story with more acceptance. I recognized that you can't accomplish everything you want to, but that if you can sweep up your own little corner, that may be enough. And that's what Arthur did.

RT: Did you write yourself into any situations in the early part of the trilogy that you regretted in the later part: killing off Geraldus, for example?

SN: The readers objected to that plot development, not me. Geraldus was a completed character. He had another place to go to, and so I felt that it was time he got on with it. No, I really didn't regret any directions I took, even though I hadn't set out to write a trilogy. There were, moreover, many different avenues I could have gone down to tell my story. That's why I don't criticize other writers for taking whichever path they like when they write about the legend.

RT: Do you plan to write any more Arthurian books?

SN: No, people have asked me to write on other facets of the legend, but I don't want to. I really don't. I did write a short story, "The Palace by Moonlight," because Pete Godwin asked me to, but that was an epilogue to the trilogy anyway. I'd always wanted to write something about how legends are born, and that gave me the opportunity to do so. No, I loved those people, but I thought I'd taken care of them all. They did what they were supposed to do.

RT: If you could re-write the books, would you do anything different?

SN: I would tear up the unicorn. Just after I published the book, the unicorn craze began, although it wasn't a big thing when I was writing it. Now I'm sorry I did it. First of all, it was a studied anachronism, and I knew it. I just liked the symbolism. But the fact is it's become so trite since then that it embarrasses me, even though I didn't do it to cash in on the craze. I receive fan mail from people who just buy Guinevere because there is a unicorn on the cover. I'm sure I could come up with something else. Part of me is still the purest academic, and that part says, if it really sells it can't be very good.

RT: What particular part of the legend did you feel was most important to include in your story?

SN: I did try to retain the bare bones of the legend. I also felt that it was necessary to include the Grail legend, even though I didn't stress it as much as I might have.

RT: Do you have any final comments or are there any questions you'd like to answer that I haven't asked you?

SN: I could certainly go on forever about all the little picky things that I was delighted to find, especially details from archaeological treatises that fit in nicely with the legend. I did ignore Tristan entirely because I felt his story was grafted onto the main Arthurian legend. It deserved a book of its own, but I wasn't interested in writing it.

RT: Thank you.