Interview with Susan Shwartz

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Interview with Susan Shwartz

from: The Camelot Project  1999

FOREST HILLS, NEW YORK
27 AUGUST 1988

   Susan Shwartz was one of the first authors whom I interviewed, travelling by train to reach her apartment on Long Island. She was, moreover, actually working on another Arthurian novel, and so she had no difficulty recalling details about the writing process. Although she has a Ph.D in medieval literature from Harvard University, Shwartz has forsaken the academic world to earn her living on Wall Street. The resulting tension between the world of commerce and that of the imagination has proven productive.
   In Heirs to Byzantium, a trilogy set in a world with an alternate history, stories are told of "Arktos the Bear," and both Gereint and Olwen play major roles in the second and third books, The Woman of Flowers (New York: Warner/Popular Library, 1987) and Queensblade (New York: Warner/Popular Library, 1988). She creates another alternate history in "The Count of the Saxon Shore," published in Alternatives, ed. Robert Adams and Pamela Crippen Adams (New York: Baen, 1989), by allowing Arthur to survive Camlann and rebuild a kingdom based on reconciliation. "Seven from Caer Sidi," in Invitation to Camelot, ed. Parke Godwin (New York: Ace, 1988), tells the story of Arthur's voyage to the Otherworld in search of the cauldron that revives the slain. Since the interview, she has completed her Grail novel, The Grail of Hearts (New York: Tor, 1992), told from the point of view of Kundry. Needless to say, this required that some comments in the interview be updated.


RT: To date you have written one short story that is Arthurian, "Seven from Caer Sidi," and you introduce Arthurian elements in the Heirs of Byzantium series, haven't you?

SS: Yes. In the latter Arthurian elements occur mostly in The Woman of Flowers.

RT: Why did you decide to include Arthurian elements in your fiction?

SS: I was trained as an Arthurian scholar. My Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard was on the prophesies of Merlin and their application to Plantagenet political propaganda.

RT: Your fiction, however, borrows from the earlier Welsh material, rather than the later medieval accounts, doesn't it?

SS: My feeling is that the Celtic versions of the legend are by far the oldest part, but I can't prove it because the manuscripts, by and large, don't back it up. The Celtic versions fascinate me, although I enjoy Malory tremendously and I find in Charles Williams a wealth of ideas. In fact Williams really did point the way for me because his opposition between Camelot and Byzantium really started me thinking. This led to three book contracts and probably more to go.

RT: Although "Seven from Caer Sidi" is based on the early Welsh poem "The Spoils of Annwfn," there are elements in it that reveal your familiarity with other aspects of Arthurian tradition. I'm thinking of the portrayal of Gwalchmai. In Welsh tradition he is normally courteous, whereas in your story he recalls the wrathful figure that is developed in the French prose romances and Malory, does he not?

SS: Yes, I was thinking in terms of Malory's Gawain, who is a woman killer and must serve ladies as his penance. My own feeling is that Gawain is unstable. He's given to violent outbursts of anger, as at the end of Malory where he prevents Arthur from making peace with Lancelot. He plays the same role in T. H. White, who appears in the story, by the way.

RT: Did you feel that the story itself required one of the characters to react with anger, and that this struck you as a good way of managing it, or did you want to bring in this later tradition about Gawain?

SS: The story is precipitated by an attack of nerves. Everyone is nervous in that story. It's after Badon Hill, and they are all strung out. And coming from another very nervous tradition myself, I recognize the Celtic temperament as highstrung. They're on edge. When you're on edge things happen violently, especially if you are a warrior. These men were too much on edge, so that the relief of a nice quick blood-letting was irresistible, followed inevitably by extravagant penitence and guilt.

RT: You felt that Gwalchmai would be more appropriate for this purpose than, say, the impetuous Kay who is also noted for behaving rashly?

SS: Absolutely. It had to be him. Kay is not a woman killer. He is capable of churlishness, but he is not as volatile as Gawain.
   I like character studies. I have another Arthurian story coming out in Alternatives, an anthology of alternate history stories edited by Robert Adams. My story, "The Count of the Saxon Shore," is a pure character study. The "what if" is what if Arthur had survived Camlann? The story was fun for me because I told it from the viewpoint of a Saxon whose lord was serving Mordred. It's a first-person story, and if you ask me for a literary analogue, I would have to say Browning's dramatic monologues. The Saxon survives his lord on the field of battle, which as you know from "The Battle of Maldon" is very bad practice. He meets Arthur, who is also wandering about the battlefield. They avoid grave robbers, who are based on that terrible passage in Malory where the sackers and pillagers come out.
   Arthur realizes that he is fated to live, and he decides to build a kingdom in which everyone will be British. Not Celt, nor Saxon, nor Pict, but merely British. He will make of it a shield wall--essentially this is Falconbridge from Shakespeare's King John. Let these three corners come against us and we shall shock them. This is something that my young Saxon can give unquestioning allegiance to, and since he is an outsider, Arthur uses him for a rather non-canonical trip to the abbey at Amesbury to bring back Gwenhwyfar.
   What I liked about the story is that it happened the way that "The Seven from Caer Sidi" happened. I got an inspiration, started writing on the subway, and spent the weekend writing. Fifty-five pages later I was a wreck, but I had my story. I went to work Monday quite bleary-eyed, but it was so much fun.

RT: Your stories not only develop character more fully than is the case in heroic poetry, but also expand upon details that are obscure in your sources, like Gwair's prison. Is this how you like to work with traditional material?

SS: Good question, and the answer to it is yes. I like to use the techniques of twentieth-century fiction, such as psychological realism. At the same time I'm very much aware that I'm working within the Matter of Britain, and in large part what happens there is set. The great ones who have gone before me have already set the framework. I feel that I have to work as a clarifier of details in Arthurian tradition, because to a certain extent such small works are all that are left to us now. Professor Valerie Lagorio is very skeptical about "The Count of the Saxon Shore"; she says that Arthur has to die. Yes, I know he does, but this is a "what if" story. The real trick will be to see if I can make it believable. I have to displace the readers' emotions after Arthur's death and transfiguration, if you'll pardon the Strauss reference.

RT: Would you be uncomfortable retelling the Arthurian story in its entirety?

SS: It would have to be orthodox to some extent, and I do not want to write the sixteenth version of the Sword in the Stone. Malory did it beautifully; White is the standard. I don't want to write another book on Merlin. Mary Stewart and Nikolai Tolstoy have done it. Nor yet another feminist or not-feminist retelling of Guinevere's life. It's just not what I want to do.
   My next novel, which will be called "God's Spies" [since published as The Grail of Hearts (New York: Tor, 1992)], will retell the Parsifal story from the viewpoint of Kundry--not Cundrie la Sorciere from Wolfram von Eschenbach, but Wagner's Kundry. Essentially, we're going to have a madwoman opposed to a holy fool. And I'm going to follow the tradition that Wagner followed, that Kundry laughed at the crucifixion, and thereafter wandered like the Wandering Jew. I shall turn Klingsor into a Simon Magus figure. Of course I've got to write this and it's going to be a beast to research. Camelot will have to appear, but we do have the duality of Camelot as opposed to Carbonek. I am going to be dealing with the next world, which is difficult for anyone who is as relentlessly secular as I am.

RT: So you consider that you are fleshing out the legend, rather than reinterpreting or recasting the vision?

SS: Yes. My interpretation is traditional. There are certain parts of the legend that just break my heart. For example, we are not shown a very favorable view of the King Arthur. He is a virile man in his prime, but he chooses to take a back seat to his Round Table. So I balance this in "Seven from Caer Sidi" where he has his pride. He will not let Gwair go first into danger; that is his privilege as leader.
   As for "The Count of the Saxon Shore," I have always found something profoundly moving in the plight of the old king. This hit me in 1980 when I saw a revival of the musical Camelot, starring Richard Burton. In his soliloquy, right after he learns that Guinevere and Lancelot are in love, he tries to persuade himself to act like a civilized person. Yet he doesn't want to be civilized. He's a man, and he wants a man's revenge. And then there's that marvelous moment when he holds aloft Excalibur and says, this is the time of Arthur where men reach for the stars. When Burton did this he was either drunk or he had bursitis. In any case the sword wavered noticeably in his hand. However Burton is a Welshman, a supreme performer, and of course he made it seem as if the sword were too heavy for him. Physically it was. But the point is Excalibur is too heavy for anybody but Arthur. It's probably too heavy for him as well, but dammit he's going to try. I cried all of my mascara off, and I fill up when I think about it. This idea that Tolkien calls the "creed of unyielding will" hits me the hardest. The romances of Chretien and the others are very pretty, tra'la, it's May and all that, but that is not the part of the legend that I personally find moving.

RT: You are moved then by the heroic image of Arthur?

SS: Not just that, but also the political commitment. Arthur doesn't go off and have adventures of his own. He acts as he does in order to build Britain. He's going to make something and hold it. He displays a combination of heroism and hard-headedness. He is a responsible person taking on the burden of leadership, and I really like that. It's too much for him, of course, but he's taking it on.

RT: Would you say that your reluctance to change those parts of the legend that are already clearly outlined derives in part from your scholarly training? Because you are so familiar with the various versions of the legend in the Middle Ages, do you have more respect for the tradition than might a writer without your scholarly background?

SS: Again, yes and no. I have a tremendous veneration for the preservation of texts, and the order in which they've come down to us. At the same time, I know perfectly well that we could discover new manuscripts, which I would love. Then I would have to integrate those into my knowledge of the Arthurian corpus as it stands now.
   To a certain extent, I have to respect the historical traditions because that's what we have. Furthermore, I think the Arthurian story is in its present form because it satisfies something in both readers and writers on the psychological, and perhaps even the psychic, level. This is the way the story has to be. In The Uses of Enchantment Bruno Bettleheim says that there were probably marchen that did not satisfy the need in the listeners for some sort of reinforcement, some sort of encouragement, and those stories did not live. It's quite possible that there were Arthurian stories that didn't create the resonances that the readers need to hear. And those stories did not live. That is why I respect the tradition.

RT: Certain features, like the incest motif and the betrayal by the wife with the best friend, are essential in the legend and cannot be changed then?

SS: Not just the Arthurian legend, but many other legends. Such features occur across cultures, and I really do believe that they are there because they have to be. When you're telling a child a story, you've got to explain that the cat is spotted black and white. The child will stop you if you don't do it right. To a certain extent, story is spell, it's incantation, and you've got to get all of it right, or else it won't have the proper effect. This is a hell of a thing for a person who is as rigorously trained in scholasticism as I was. At the same time, this is a datum I have to take into consideration--this material is there because it needs to be there.

RT: Do you find that this sometimes imposes constraints in your writing? Do occasions arise when you would like to make a change but feel you can't, because the tradition dictates otherwise?

SS: That happened to me once. In The Woman of Flowers, which is an alternative history, I came up with the idea that Antony and Cleopatra defeated Octavian at Actium and permitted him to commit suicide. Whether or not it works, that was my major premise. This means no Claudius. This means that the penetration of Rome into Britain ceases with Caesar, and Caesar was not a notorious success in holding Britain. Then I suddenly realized, how am I going to deal with an Arthur when I have no Romano-British tradition? So I came up with the idea of High Queens who have consorts. It's probably the usual revisionist anthropological scholarship if it's scholarly at all. I was thinking of people like Boudicca and Medbh of Connacht. Arthur would be the consort of one of the High Queens. When the High Queen ceases to be fertile, she has to sacrifice herself. Well, what if one of them doesn't, and instead runs away to Gallia with a warrior who will then be her consort? To a certain extent I was thinking of Morgan and Accolon, but I was also having to revise it.
   Now I don't know if this washes, but it was a lot of fun to try. And I think part of the fun lay in the restrictions. There is only so much you can do within the rules. I don't ask to work without the rules. I have to work within them. John Donne, when he writes sonnets, expands the possibilities of what can be done with the sonnet. He doesn't say, well, I'm not going to do this; this line is going to be seven feet. That's cheating.

RT: This traditional framework can be a support to you in your writing rather than a constraint?

SS: Absolutely. It liberates me from compulsive originality. It does not free me from the task of plot invention, but when I write within a tradition I enter into an implicit agreement to honor that tradition. I've had terrible fights with other writers who say, I can do anything I want. Marvellous. They should put on a pair of mirror shades and do anything they want. But if they do not understand the particular joy of extending and nurturing a tradition, I really wish they'd go elsewhere. This sort of romantic impulse is sheer self-indulgence: me, me, me, aren't I wonderful, look at me being original! Well in that case Guinevere would be doing her own thing to run away with Lancelot. Why have a Round Table, why have a Britain at all? When I create my own worlds, I can do what I please, but I can't do that when I'm working with the Matter of Britain. Nor would I do it if I were writing a Carolingian story, nor an Alexander story.
   The constraints of adhering to a framework imposed by tradition are beneficial in that they force me to practice the craft and hone it. You really do need to know prosody before you can write free verse well. T. S. Eliot can write a sestina. He doesn't have to, but he knows how to.
   I've been writing professionally for about ten years now. "Seven from Caer Sidi" was the first time I had tried an Arthurian story, because before that I couldn't look at the stories without seeing the footnotes. This was the first time I could get an emotional and an aesthetic handle on them. I was able to see the story as a text of my own creation, rather than as something out of Loomis' Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages.

RT: Since you plan to write about the Grail, clearly your interest in the Arthurian legend as a source for your writing is growing, is it not?

SS: It's a logical development. If the Matter of Britain had a profound influence on me as a scholar, it stands to reason that it will have the same effect upon me as a writer. It's not the only thing I'm doing. I have been writing about the ancient silk roads: four books to date, including the collaboration with Andre Norton. So it's just one of the subjects I deal with. Many of the themes, though, in the Matter of Britain--the idea of good lordship, the idea of betrayal, the psychological aspects that give it resonance--I use in my hard science fiction as well. It's all a unity somehow.

RT: Have you ever felt tempted to deal with the Arthurian legend in terms of hard science fiction?

SS: It's very hard to do. The Matter of Britain is one of the myths that we will take out with us to the stars, to help us maintain our culture while we build within a hostile environment--we're going to need that myth out there. But whether I myself am going to put Arthur on Proxima Centauri--if such a planet exists and is habitable--I really don't know. Mostly you use motifs.

RT: Given your background as a scholar, have you considered writing historical novels as opposed to fantasy?

SS: As far as I'm concerned I am. We're talking marketing niche here. Questions of quality and the test of time aside, the only difference between what I'm writing and the novels of Mary Stewart or Mary Renault is marketing and the more blatant use of magic. I don't see it as a distinction. For example, Diana Paxson's The White Raven and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon are crossover novels, breakout books. This is marketing speak for books that are going to be published in hardcover, receive extensive publicity, and have large advertising budgets. Consequently, they will receive more serious treatment, the treatment, in fact, accorded to Stewart and Renault. I imagine that if I ever write a breakout book, it will be called a historical novel. I have ideas for a few of them.

RT: When you do write about Arthurian tradition, do you feel that it is necessary to do research beyond what you did in university?

SS: Well, not necessarily. For one thing, my subconscious will tell me stories as I need to hear them, not essentially as they have been told. But then somebody will probably write to me and say, dummy, you got it wrong! So to a certain extent I have to refresh my memory with the story as it was told, and not as I tell it to myself for my own comfort and joy. Who knows, maybe I can get further inspiration from it? If Kundry is going to be a sort of Magdalene who laughed at the Crucifixion, I'm going to have to research first-century Judea, heaven help me. Also I will probably be playing Wagner's Parsifal until my neighbors are ready to have me evicted. It's not just inspiration; it's a kind of saturation. I have to create the environment in which I can work. I don't think it's Stanislavsky and method writing, but it could be.

RT: You feel, when you're writing, that you get inside your characters?

SS: Oh, yes. I'm not Arthur at Caer Sidi and was never meant to be; but I know what he is feeling, I know that I am part of what is happening, I know that my characters talk to me.

RT: What research did you do for "Seven from Caer Sidi"?

SS: I was looking for an Arthurian idea. So I took down my copy of Loomis' Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages and just started leafing through it, looking for something strange that would make me think, this is interesting. The triads about Caer Sidi hit me, and I said yes, I've always thought those were strange lines. I got my whole theme for my dissertation from the Fool's parting speech in King Lear: "This prophecy Merlin shall make / Christ speak before his time." It doesn't do for me to ignore tag lines, because frequently those are where I get my ideas.

RT: How about "The Count of the Saxon Shore"?

SS: I reread the last part of Malory.

RT: Do you sometimes feel that the pressure of time limits the amount of research you can do?

SS: Yes. The life so short, the craft so long to learn . . . I'm always working under the gun. When it is gets to be more than I can handle, I have to stop. There are greater and lesser stops. The lesser stop is all right: you've reached the point of diminishing returns in your research and you have to start writing now; or you have to stop researching and do something else. That's one thing. That's a lesser stop. Then you go back and, as you are writing, check the original reference.
   But then there are the big stops where you just say, as I've said now, look, in two years I've done seven books, six or seven short stories, two or three, maybe four, academic presentations, and some short papers. I've written a lot of letters. I've written a few articles. I've gone to a lot of conventions, plus lived my life, plus changed jobs; and it's enough, it is time to sleep now. To a certain extent, that's just plain burnout. Then I have to stop everything and do something else.

RT: After you have done your research, do you allow yourself time to mull it over before writing?

SS: Yes. Usually, I have to let it percolate for the longer projects. I get the research done, and after a while my mind will process it so that order will form. Then there are ideas like the one for "The Seven from Caer Sidi," where I know what the framework has got to be and the research merely substantiates what I already know. Those stories I can write over a weekend.

RT: Although you are writing fantasy, do you feel the need to research into the historical background?

SS: Yes, of course. First I'd check things like the details of the armor, the clothing, the food, and the languages. I'd live practically with a map pinned to my word processor. I'm not doing a strict alternative history, because to a certain extent I've got to translate it for the reader. It cannot be so alien that the reader will not be able to relate to it in the context of what she knows. For the books and stories that we have been talking about, I looked at Tolstoy's Quest for Merlin, John Morris' The Age of Arthur, Alwin Reese and Brimley Reese's Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, Hilda Ellis- Davidson's The Viking Road to Byzantium.
   In my Heirs of Byzantium series, I did a bit of a demolition job. In my Byzantium there is no Hagia Sophia. There are, however, two great temples to Isis and Osiris. We've got a pagan emperor. We've got a pagan empire. The emperor is both emperor and pharaoh, like Alexander. I have to consider what would be the dominant faith in the new time line, and how it would deal with the Jews, how it would deal with the Moslems, how it would deal with the Christians. Even though this world never did exist, I have to make it exist now, and exist without limping.

RT: What modern Arthurian books have you read?

SS: On the Matter of Britain? All of them. For my orals I studied Masefield, as well as Swinburne and all the other pre-Raphaelites who wrote about the Matter of Britain. As for the historical novels and romances, and the fantasies, those were just books that I liked to read. David Jones's The Anathemata and Eliot's Waste Land I covered in a really nice Arthurian survey in college.
   Among modern novels, I particularly enjoyed Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset which is a beautiful book. She, more than any other writer, captures something that I've always felt was particularly poignant: the idea that all over Britain the lights are going out, the legions are being withdrawn. What happens to the people when the legions are withdrawn, when their emperor is killed? It would be a dangerous time to live in.
   It is interesting that Sutcliff's book would be reissued by a publisher that specializes in fantasy and science fiction. I really do think that this is where the best work is being done on Arthurian legend. C. J. Cherryh's Port Eternity is probably one of the few successful attempts to take the story of Arthur out into the stars. Percivale asks Lady Dela about God, the born men's God, and wonders, do I have a soul? That was incredible. And the way Lancelot goes from a cloned stud to a man. And Elaine--her humanity and compassion are lovely. She is a damsel whom Malory could have been proud of. I like Roger Zelazny's "The Last Defender of Camelot" too.

RT: What about Henry Treece?

SS: Ugh. The Green Man is a disgusting book. It manages to insult three heroic characters whom I've always loved: Hamlet, Arthur, and Beowulf. It's an obnoxious little tour de force with a psychosexual subtext that is filled with a lust for violence. I've tried to blot as much of the book out as I could. That was always passed around in my undergraduate college as an example of how NOT to do it. "This is a sick man, young ladies; you don't do it this way!"

RT: Did you read Steinbeck?

SS: Yes. He is one of the people I call the mimetic Arthurians. They internalize the legend and use it to transform their own lives. I love his descriptions of the way that the ladies are trained to carry themselves with those swan-like necks, and the way the knights walk because their feet aren't used to anything but stirrups. And then the kiss between Lancelot and Guinevere--Paulo and Francesca would go to hell for that one. And I loved his triple quest. I thought that was beautifully done. My only regret is that I would have liked to have seen him finish the story. His Camlann would have been profoundly moving. It's marvellous the way he moves away from a very strict adherence to the text and after a while begins to embroider on it. He's like a baroque composer.

RT: What about the role of women in your stories?

SS: Well, I am a feminist, and I am a woman, and I am a writer. I am also a scholar and historian, and to a certain extent what I bring out is what I see. Women are important in the Heirs of Byzantium series, but not for me in the Matter of Britain. What seems to appeal to me in the Matter of Britain are the comitatus, the Round Table, the heroism, and also the building of the culture.
   In "The Count of the Saxon Shore", Gwenhwyfar's reaction to the Saxon knight who has been sent by Arthur is great: he found that he can't function without me? Marvellous! What are we going to do now? She gives the young man a hard time, until he passes out from injuries. Then, as she's tending him in her role as woman and queen, she says, how is he? How is the King? He responds, why do you care, lady? She says essentially, dammit, you don't live with someone for twenty years without caring about him. If it's there, it's there, but it's not a case of writing about the role of women. I'm not doing revisionist work though I am a feminist.

RT: Your scholarly training has obviously left you with a respect for tradition. How else has it influenced your work?

SS: My degrees were in English, not in history, and so I have used my training in literary criticism and explicating a text to jump-start my own writing. I started publishing relatively late, when I was around thirty or thirty-one. A lot of science fiction writers start much earlier than that. I knew that I was starting later than I wanted, and so I used what I had: the ability to go back and edit. I have edited five anthologies now. I know how to work with the text. In so far as a writer can work with her own text, I try to. In so far as you can subject your own work to literary analysis, I try to.
   I also look carefully at the genres in which I work, in the same terms as I would have analyzed any other text. I personally feel very strongly about the fact that science fiction and fantasy get relatively short shrift from the academic world. I don't feel this is justified. I think that, at the very least, as part of literary history they deserve more emphasis.

RT: Do you worry lest the process of editing become too cerebral, so that you lose spontaneity, the ability to draw from the roots of inspiration that will create the kind of work you really want to achieve?

SS: I worry about it greatly. Fortunately though, because I have a day job, I usually have very limited time to write, and when I write I'm nowhere else, including in my apartment. When I stop, I am wringing wet. I've got muscles where I didn't even know I had muscles. By writing that way, I not only write within the time I have available, but I do preserve the intensity.

RT: So you try to achieve a balance between the intellectual and emotional sides in your writing?

SS: I am trying. I won't be the first science fiction or fantasy writer to be an editor and critic as well, despite the post- romantic view of the writer as independent creator. I've always preferred the pre-romantic view. Shakespeare was a darned good businessman, presumably, who made his pile, retired, and came home to Stratford where he built a fine house. This is an academically unfashionable view of Shakespeare, but he did. Geoffrey Chaucer was a good civil servant who worked on Windsor Castle, served as a diplomat, and served under Prince Lionel. These people were men of affairs. Who says that a writer has to be a subsidized artist? I think they're pains, and I don't think they write as well as they would if they were more fully developed. I don't call myself an artist; I'm a craftswoman. It's for the test of time to determine whether I'm an artist or not. When writers call themselves artists, the next thing you know they put on airs and ask for allowances to be made for them. I can't afford that.

RT: On the other hand might it not be argued that the pressures of the marketplace are such as to leave insufficient time for writers to produce the kind of work that they're capable of?

SS: The market is the market. Until I can earn enough to free myself for a couple of years to do a lovingly and laboriously polished book, I am subject to the market discipline. I don't have to like it, but it is so. I don't know if I had two years to do a book whether it would be any different. I really don't know. Samuel Johnson wrote with the printer's devil at his elbow. Again, it's that romantic idea that the writer somehow has to be sequestered from the world and supported by everybody. Sounds like a great racket for me; where can I sign up?

RT: Do you think that writers of Arthurian tales in the past also worked under pressures of the marketplace?

SS: Some did. Even the clerics faced pressures, though not those of the marketplace. Remember that warning from the bishop, what does Ingeld have to do with Christ? They had to square writing romance with their conscience and with their superiors, and if they were chaplains and actual priests, they'd have the responsibility for the parish.

RT: We talked about the pressures of the marketplace and about how some of these pressures are comparable to those that were placed upon earlier writers in their turn. Is this something you feel as a scholar, or as a writer, or as both?

SS: As a person trying to live my life, trying to be economically self-sufficient, while being creative in my own way. I work on Wall Street during the day. I was at my job during the stockmarket crash of '87. It's a kind of an intellectual schizophrenia. During the day I am as concerned as you possibly could be about the volume of the market, and whether it turns up or turns down. When I leave that place, however, I must be able to shut it out and go to my other work. At the same time, I must not be thinking of Arthur or whatever while I am punching up stock prices.

RT: Do you feel that it is therapeutic for you to do something that is in some ways a complete break with the world of business?

SS: Everybody needs a break. The world of business is a difficult world, and it is not the most life-enhancing place there is. I don't know if writing is therapeutic for me or not, but this is my life.
   I was an Arthurian scholar and an aspiring writer before I was a Wall Street editor. I left teaching because I couldn't make a living at it, and because there was no mobility. Also I realized that I wasn't cut out for life as a contemplative. When a medievalist comes to that conclusion, she's got to leave the contemplative life, and that is a challenge. I know that I am grateful to have both aspects, the secular competence and the intellectual and emotional range to play and to write in. I don't always feel that I am lucky, but I am.
   There are other jobs I could have chosen, but I chose this. To be candid, it allows me to buy all the hardback books I want, to attend whatever conventions I wish, to afford my laser printer. If I want to correspond with people, or talk to a scholar long distance, or take him or her out to dinner, this is not too much of a problem. So it's a trade-off. It is held to be venal to talk about money. I work with money during the day, and I have noticed, looking at Wall Street as an alien culture, that they think of money as, among other things, a commodity. There is a very clinical way of dealing with it. You bring that into the creative world and you're going to have all sorts of culture shock. This is a world writers have to protect themselves against.

RT: Do you feel that your life in the world of business exerts an influence on your writing, apart from the financial security it allows?

SS: Every employed writer is one job away from the unemployment line. Yes, it does. To a certain extent, the writing has got to be tighter and faster, and probably sloppier, because I'm under time constraints. To an extent, I'm going to look at things differently. I'm going to look at trade in a historical period probably more knowledgeably, as I have done in my Silk Roads series. In Byzantium's Crown one of the things that upsets one of my characters is that the usurper has debased the coinage.

RT: Do you see a potential for dealing with commercial and economic aspects of the Arthurian legend?

SS: C. J. Cherryh does in Port Eternity, where the union between Lady Dela and Griffin is at first as much economic as it is sexual. Then there is Charles Williams' Taliesin Through Logres: "Force to Elaine on the King's coins / The King has set up . . . / He's struck coins, his dragon loins / Germinate a crowded preacherly brood / To scuttle and scurry between towns and towns." And then you have Kay: "They laid the coins before the council / Kay, the King's steward, wise in economics, said good / These cover the years and the miles and talks one's styles dialects to London and on." And you go to the end: "What was that coinage, or which coinage can be saved? / Pray mother of children, pray for the coins, pray for Camelot, pray for the King, pray." It's there if you look for it.
   If I need to look at it for my own writing, I will look at it. My main focus, however, is on the Matter of Britain as an order of texts and an order of events within each text that are arranged in a psychologically necessary fashion.

RT: In recent years, female authors have become more and more interested in the Arthurian legend and have taken it in new directions. What do you think accounts for this development?

SS: We haven't BECOME interested in it. It was always told for us. Go back to the twelfth century--the legend is ours. We are simply writing it now, instead of hearing it. Since there are more women writing, they are going to write about something that they have always known and loved.

RT: You feel, then, that the Arthurian legend has as much appeal for women as for men?

SS: Well, women like men. They are our sons, our husbands, our lovers, going off to engage in male bonding and acts of heroism--activities that any sensible woman might consider profoundly stupid, and yet in her less sensible moments might say, yes, I would like to do that; that's a necessary thing to do. I alternate between the two attitudes. I always think I don't know why Guinevere would choose Lancelot. Of course, he's pretty, but Arthur is going to build a future. That's what I would do.

RT: By and large the twentieth century has shown more sympathy for Arthur than for either Lancelot or Guinevere, hasn't it?

SS: Arthur's stuck. He is slogging it out. In World War I he would have been the man in the trenches if he weren't the general. Even though he is the king, he is the sort of aristocratic everyman who has these problems that we all face in some way, shape, or form: our spouses, our lovers, our friends, our work; things going sour, but having to build on them anyhow. I think he's magnificent. The other knights are more dashing, whereas Arthur is more as we are.
   During the 1960s Le Guin was asked, isn't it terribly elitist to have all these kings and queens and princes and so forth in your fantasy? She replied, not necessarily, because the people who are seeking to find themselves are the prince or the princess. When they make the passage within and get the knowledge they need to live their lives as mature individuals, that is the crowning achievement and then they are kings. I'm probably retelling this to myself, because it is something that my subconscious needs to hear. To a great extent that is what Arthur is about, and that is why I find him the most profoundly moving of the characters. It's not very romantic. But then living is not very romantic. It just is.

RT: You see Arthur as a builder?

SS: Absolutely. It is a very American approach, too. Look at Perry Miller's books like Errand into the Wilderness: we will leave this place, we will go across the sea, and we will build us a city on the hill. Americans may view the Arthurian legend differently from the British.

RT: And yet you talked about Arthur in Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset as someone who's holding off the dark. Is not he a builder there too?

SS: Holding off the dark is different because it marks the end of an era. The Roman presence is leaving. The British presence must emerge. Until that happens people are afraid. They want to be part of a community, but they can't because they are between communities. They have to make one.

RT: Is that why you wrote "The Count of the Saxon Shore"? It allows you to show the builder at work?

SS: What happens to Britain and the people who survive the battle? They can't fall on their swords; they're Christian. They have to build something. Certainly appeasement will not succeed.
   Don't forget something else. Every writer is a collection of physical, emotional, psychological, and intellectual traits, confronting a word processor. Some writers are more ethereal, but I am a very sturdy and very practical person. This sturdiness is something I have to rely on when I'm writing, because otherwise I couldn't put myself through the combination of things that I do. This sturdiness is also going to show up in my approach to a text and in my response to it. I personally think that Elaine, the Lily Maid of Astolat, is a twit. You don't fall in love with something that sings tirra lirra by the river. You do your spinning, you weave good wool, you sell it, and you go where you want to go or you make your father take you. You don't go into a decline. If you're delicate, however, you think that her reaction is just marvelous.

RT: You see women as builders.

SS: Oh, gosh, yes. We build children.

RT: True, yet so far in your treatment of the Arthurian legend, you haven't presented women as builders, have you?

SS: I am satisfied to present women as builders, women as peaceweavers, women as diplomats, women to a certain extent as a kind of warrior, in my other work. I'm not interested in revising the Matter of Britain to work out those particular scenes. It is what it is. If I want to do the other things, I can find myself another area to work in, but I suspect that The Grail of Hearts will be a different story.

RT: Rather than be a revisionist writer, as you put it, you're going to stick with the legend, write about those aspects of it that appeal to you, but not reinterpret them radically?

SS: No, not reinterpret them radically, nor deal with the lesser known interpretations. That should not be interpreted as an attack on Bradley's Mists of Avalon or Paxson's The White Raven. Both deal with the old religion, the pagan undercurrents that do flow beneath the Matter of Britain. They have a right as craftspeople to bring those things to the surface. I don't see that as revisionism. I see it as illuminating a different aspect of the legend. It's an aspect I respect. It is not the aspect I deal with. Of course I am looking at Arthurian legend as a Jewish woman and a writer--an outsider. I'm just looking at it as data.

RT: Thank you.