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Interview with Alan Garner
Interview with Alan Garner
HOLMES CHAPEL, CHESHIRE
12 APRIL 1989
Since I interviewed Alan Garner the day after my arrival in Britain from Canada, I was suffering from jet lag. It dawned, however, a bright spring morning and the Cheshire countryside was clothed in a fresh green growth that lifted the spirits. To my surprise, I found that Garner lived in not one but two houses, the second of which had been moved onto his property and was being lovingly restored. After lunch with Garner and his wife in a traditional farm kitchen, he and I settled down in front of an open fire in his study for the interview, a very appropriate setting for the author of the Alderley Edge books, The Wierdstone of Brisingamen (London: Collins, 1960; rev. ed. London: Penguin, 1963) and The Moon of Gomrath (London: Collins, 1963).
At first sight, neither book seems particularly Arthurian, but closer scrutiny reveals a number of borrowings, particularly the Cave Legend. The story of a king and his followers sleeping in a secret cave certainly predates Arthur, as Garner points out, but it became attached to him in the minds of many who passed it on, including Garner's own family. Why he chose to mute, rather than strengthen, the Arthurian links was one of the topics we explored that afternoon. Another was the challenges he encountered embarking upon a career as an author, for The Wierdstone of Brisingamen was his first book. There is room for a third Alderley Edge book, but, since he has in some senses moved beyond the scope of the original series, Garner is unlikely to write it. Still, one never knows . . . .
RT: When I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, I was struck, not so much by the extent to which you use the Arthurian legend, as the extent to which you don't use it. Many of the elements which one can recognize as Arthurian seem to have been stripped of their Arthurian identity. Was this a deliberate action on your part?
AG: No. It goes back to the function of the source material in my own life. This may have been unusual in that I grew up, as a child, with the Arthurian legend as part of my cultural background. I grew up in a rural working-class family in Alderley Edge, a hill sticking up out of the Cheshire plain just seven miles from where we're sitting now. My family were rural craftsmen. My grandfather could read, but didn't and so was virtually unlettered. The family did, however, have the last remains of a genuine oral tradition, which was the story of the King Asleep Under the Hill, being guarded by Merlin. The story is so deeply embedded in my psyche that I can't tell you when I first heard it. I've always known it, and it came to represent the whole of that rural, working-class part of my background.
It's a British phenomenon which is still a problem: the problem of the first-generation educated child. What happened to me, and what is still happening to other children, is that I was selected by our educational system as being worthy of education. The effect of this was to remove me from my cultural background, but to enable me to understand the price that was being paid, for this removal produces enormous tensions within the individual. So, as I learned formal, analytical, rational, and academic disciplines, I became aware, rationally and academically, of all that I was losing. My family could not cope with me, and I could not cope with my family. Emotionally, "my" legend came to stand for all that was being lost, and so it took on a poignant tone, Perhaps that poignancy is not there in the Matter of Britain, but I think it is. I was set firmly on an academic career when the writer in me, who I think was there from birth, started to emerge, to wake up and kick and say no, there are other things which you have to do, which are uniquely yours.
This I got from my grandfather. He was a craftsman, and he gave me two precepts which as a writer I've not been able to get away from. One was always take as long as the job tells you to take, because the job will be there when you are not, and you don't want people to say, what fool did that? So I'm a very slow worker. The other precept was if the other chap can do the job, let him. In other words, do only what is uniquely yours. That began to emerge subconsciously in me, and to pull me away from an academic career.
As I turned toward writing, which is partially intellectual in its function, but is primarily intuitive and emotional in its execution, I turned towards that which was numinous and emotional in me, and that was the legend of King Arthur Asleep Under the Hill. It stood for all that I'd had to give up in order to understand what I'd had to give up. And so my first two books, which are very poor on characterization because I was somehow numbed in that area, are very strong on imagery and landscape, because the landscape I had inherited along with the legend. My education enabled me to understand the landscape in a way that my family did not. I understood it as a member of my family; but I also knew that Alderley Edge was a faulted Triassic scarp. You see, I could appreciate the geology of it as well. I tended to switch away from people, and to direct my emotions into the land and the legend. I did not initially approach the legend with any Arthurian thoughts. It was totally intuitive.
Now, I think I could just put in something here which may not be relevent, but shows how the legend runs through my life, and how I was able to use the academic side of myself that has been developed. When I went back to the legend with a formally educated mind, I was also interested in the mythopoeic aspects of tradition, as well as in anthropology and archaeology. All of these were linked with my linguistic interests. I approached the legend as if I had never known it, and as if it were factual. The original function of legend and myth is not to entertain, but to explain - to come to terms with that which is. Therefore, I said to myself, what is it that my grandfather knew that was so important that he had to make sure I knew the story as well? What is it that my grandfather did not know he knew? What is it in the myth that is materially and objectively true? So I examined it, not as a creation, but as a report, and I applied it to my knowledge, my intimate knowledge, of the ground.
It would take a long time to give you the argument, but I can give you the result quite succinctly. I discovered within the story certain anomalies that did not fit the ground. Now, those immediately attracted my attention, because they were anomalies that should not have been there. The story was told only by people who knew the ground intimately well, and who were not themselves literate. By examining those anomalies, and by finding a purpose for their being in the legend, I discovered, in the legend which my grandfather had told me orally, traces on Alderley Edge of Bronze Age settlements and copper workings, the memory of which has survived in the legend. I also discovered within the legend evidence which led me to find on the ground a simple calendar marking system on Alderley Edge, again dating to the Bronze Age. These were stones deployed across the hillside, and they marked various solar and lunar positions with great precision. Such calendars are now accepted by formal archaeology as being a skill practiced in Bronze Age Britain.
There, embodied in the oral tradition, was factual knowledge that had survived for four thousand years. I was aware of being part of a very vibrant tradition. While my employment of the Arthurian legend started entirely emotionally, it showed itself to be extremely rich on many levels for me personally, and I felt myself--this sounds grandiose, but it was an action of history--I felt myself placed by history and by education in a privileged position in that I could do something about it.
I was carrying the flame, if you like. I was equipped to take that material given to me by my grandfather, who knew nothing about Arthurian tradition, and to keep it alive by deploying it again. Now this led me, through my background reading, into an awareness of British mythology that was not part of my formal education. I was a classicist; it was the western Mediterranean and the whole of European thought that influenced me. I came privately to the Celtic element of British mythology; and I came privately, because I was a classicist, to Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I discovered them for myself, and that, I think, is the way to discover them.
RT: I think you may be right.
AG: So, in the first books, there is a great unleashing of pent-up emotion which is controlled intellectually to a certain extent. But they are meant to be rather chaotic books. To conclude this rather long explanation for your not finding elements of the Arthurian tradition, I did not approach the subject at all drily; I approached it purely emotionally. Only later did I start to deploy intellectual skills and literary acquired knowledge.
RT: When you say later, do you mean later in the process of writing these books, or are you talking about writing later books?
AG: Writing later books. I now move you on, if I may, to a broader issue. Everything I say to you is not, by the way, a statement of achievement, but a statement of intent. They're things I'm aware of, but I'm not aware of ever achieving what I'm talking about. I think if I were to achieve them, I would be in serious trouble. I was led to what I consider my main function: to work, in the late twentieth century, with the Matter of Britain, which is my inheritance. It takes devious forms, but I see it in everything I've written. The Matter of Britain is crystallized in the Arthurian tradition, but I don't see it as limited to that.
What is the Matter of Britain? The answer to that question is extraordinary and can go on for hours. I would briefly summarize it by saying that in the Matter of Britain you have reworked, through the centuries and through literature, the idea of man coming into collision with the Godhead, exchanging roles with that Godhead for a while, and having to face up to man's involvement with the Godhead. For example, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Gawain is faced with a game. The Green Knight says, you can do something to me, provided I can do it to you in a year's time; you chop off my head, and then I'll chop off yours. Gawain undertakes this quest. From the Welsh collection of myths, The Mabinogion, I used "Math Son of Mathonwy" in The Owl Service. In the former a mortal, Gronw Bebyr, falls in love with Blodeuedd, the wife of an immortal, and he has to pay the price. He kills the immortal, which is paradoxical; the immortal, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, comes back to life, then says, now it's my turn to kill you. And the mortal has to endure that. Which is scarcely fair.
RT: With little more success than Gawain.
AG: Yes. For me there seems to be, running throughout the whole of what I would call the Matter of Britain in English literature, this collision between man and the Godhead where the question has to be faced, what do I do about it? It surfaces from time to time in many guises, though it's not always of prime importance. And it's very much there in Arthurian tradition.
RT: Do you think that this in some ways accounts for the sense of poignant loss that often pervades your books?
RT: When you take on the Godhead and knowledge and power, you lose a lot in the process, don't you?
AG: As you do if you go to Manchester Grammar School, become a classicist, and are removed from a small oral tradition. So there, it works on many levels. Perhaps the reason I'm drawn to this formal deployment of the motifs is because it is very close to my own personal history as a child, especially the poignancy.
RT: To what extent did your grandfather believe the Alderley Edge legend?
AG: I don't know whether I can answer. If he were faced with a tape recorder and that question, he would have covered his traces pretty quickly. During the Second World War when everything was very dark, however, I can remember my grandfather and my own parents discussing the legend and being more than half serious. They were saying, it's time for King Arthur to wake up now. Now is the time for him to come out and fight the last battle. I can remember their reactions, which even as a child I registered as being uncomfortable reactions to the strength of their feeling, because they would then try to turn it into a joke. They would say, but he'd need more than silver armor and white horses. He'd need white tanks.
In a dark hour what they turned to instinctively was their own legend, which had within it the seeds of salvation. So, yes, he did believe in it. He made sure I knew it and all the finer points of the legend which apply only to Alderley Edge. That rock, that tree, that piece of water; each has significance.
RT: Did your grandfather identify the wizard as Merlin?
AG: No, he was not Merlin to him. He was the Wizard, and the King was not really Arthur. Arthur has taken over the name of the King. The King and the Keeper are far older concepts than Arthur and Merlin. It's no coincidence that I later found embedded in that oral tradition material which pointed archaeologically to the Bronze Age. I think there is in the Arthurian tradition embedded fragments of very ancient belief, which had survived orally and then were employed by Malory and others. For instance, I found in my own native tradition evidence which took me back to the first metalsmiths. Now, here I'm only playing with ideas. You're talking to a writer, and writers make things up. But when I had found this connection, if only in one instance, between King Arthur and the Bronze Age, I immediately saw the Sword in the Stone as a marvellous metaphor for the discovery of ore. The man who could extract from a stone the sword was indeed powerful. I'm now just throwing this idea at you as I make it up.
RT: You haven't used it yet in your writing?
RT: Perhaps next time? When you came to write the book, did you intend to add the Arthurian links yourself, or make them more explicit, or what?
AG: I tended to take what I wanted, and to leave what was not relevant for the occasion. So I quarried the material very freely. As far as I am aware, I used only my inherited legend, but I know that by that time I was contaminated by my reading. Thus I probably did bring in other influences from the French without being aware of it.
RT: So you used Cadellin rather than Merlin. Was that an invented name?
AG: No. In The Mabinogion, in the story "Culhwch and Olwen," Culhwch comes to Arthur's court and claims a boon. He claims it in the name of . . . and then follow about four and a half pages of people's names. That is a marvellous source for me because I don't like invented names. On the other hand, if one takes a pre- existing name, one has to take on all that is associated with that name. If you take the name Gawain, you have to take Gawain. In what is known as the boon list of "Culhwch and Olwen," however, there are authentic names to which, no doubt, there were once traditions and stories attached, but which have since been lost. Therefore, I have the genuineness, but no burden. Angharad Goldenhand is out of the boon list also. It's very short on women's names, but that is one of them.
RT: Where did her floating island come from?
AG: We're a mere four miles away from the floating island, which does exist. It so offended the bureaucrats that they chained it to the shore. It is now tethered. Originally some peat bed must have come adrift and acquired seeds and enough firm land for trees to grow on it. The trees act as a sail to the wind, and so it tends to drift about the lake.
RT: Are there any legends attached to it?
AG: Yes, there is a legend, and I adapted it to Angharad. The lady of the local landowner fell in love with a knight at the time of the Crusades. As I recall, when he went away to the Crusades, he said that he would be faithful to her, even against all the odds. She didn't believe him, but he said that even though the island floats upon the mere, that is not more strange than my being faithful to you. The island did float whenever she experienced moments of doubt, and so her faith was restored. There are variations on that legend, even locally, Yes, there is a tradition about the Lady of the Lake, and the floating island on Weedsmere.
RT: In your books, you link her with one of the sleeping knights, and of course the association that springs to mind from Arthurian tradition is that of the Lady of the Lake who marries Pelleas. Was that something you did consciously?
AG: Yes. That's an example of what I meant by contamination. I based the account on a genuine local tradition, but I had read of Pelleas.
RT: Did you also have in mind the story of Merlin and Nimue, who in some versions retire to a floating island?
AG: Yes. It was all added material. You see, I do an enormous amount of research because that was what I was educated to recognize as work. Also it puts off the awful moment when I must start writing. At the end of the research, I have an apparently incoherent set of notes, and if you were to read my notebooks before the book was written, you would not see a book; you would see a mish-mash of seemingly random jottings. Most are not relevant, but with hindsight you would see the book within the notes. Since the action of making the notes records them for me, I don't actually read the notes very much. What happens is that I work like a computer. I program myself, and then I sort out subconsciously the relevant data. I would, for instance, with the theme of the Lady of the Lake, have collected several other stories, but at the end of the research they would not have the resonances that the Lady of Lake has. Starting with the local tradition, which has nothing particularly Arthurian about it, the theme picks up the resonances from the Arthurian tradition, and in this form preselects itself for me as being more relevant to my theme than, say, another motif that I did not use, which I've forgotten about. All the ideas I didn't use are in the notes.
RT: Do you keep these notes?
AG: Oh, yes, yes. I am sending them to Brigham Young University in Utah. I didn't want to let them go, but the material was visibly deteriorating and needed archival attention. The Mormons do it very well.
RT: You include the Wild Hunt in both novels, although it plays a more important role in The Moon of Gomrath. Were you aware when you were writing that some traditions associate Arthur with the Wild Hunt?
AG: Yes. Again, this would predispose that theme for selection, but the connection is not meant to show. You can't have Arthur as both the Sleeping King and the Leader of the Wild Hunt. It was my way of giving the story an emotional charge, which the reader should not be consciously or intellectually aware of as you are. You are, in a way, reacting quite falsely to my intention. If the material is put in, it will emerge as an emotional charge without any intellectual content whatsoever; nor should it have. But if you are equipped to extract it, and you enjoy it in the process, then certainly it's there.
The Wild Hunt was, for me, an attempt to synthesize the Scandinavian tradition of the Wild Hunt with the Celtic theme of the Horned God, Cernunnos, which again is an element that I've discovered active archaeologically within the legend of Alderley Edge. In The Moon of Gomrath, after the Wild Hunt has been fully evoked and released by the children's stupid behavior, the riders go to the Holy Well and drink of the water. In the first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the Holy Well is where the wizard Cadellin first appears, where the children first encounter the Other. Now, the Holy Well is a real place. It is a pre-Christian well with traditions that are still alive. In my grandfather's time it was used to cure barrenness in women. Since it is pre-Christian, I have the Wild Hunt drinking from the well in order to secure their hold in the world.
Now, another tradition that my grandfather told me was that a huge rock fell down from the cliff above the well and landed below the well in the marsh. He said it happened in 1745, but I don't know on what authority. This is the rock on which, in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the children are caught by the evil creatures known as svarts. That rock, in local tradition, fell down in 1745 and landed on an old woman and her cow. Now, why an old woman and a cow should be on a near vertical slope, up to their armpits in the bog at the one moment when a gigantic boulder should fall upon them, in the year 1745, I don't know, but there we have a very ancient Celtic tradition. The old woman at the well occurs time and again in Celtic tradition. She's the washer of the shirts of the dead. And the horned animal is also associated with violent death at the well. Here is a tradition that goes way back into Celtic myths. So, for me, it was important that this should be where the Horned God Cernunnos, or Garanhir as I called him, is consolidated in this world.
Themes like that run through everything I write. I have to have my reasons on the ground for doing something. So I'm always going back to my grandfather, rather than to my library.
RT: Did your grandfather know the story of the Wild Hunt?
AG: No. I brought that in, and Celemon who is the daughter of Cei in the boon list. In The Moon of Gomrath she exists on another dimension beyond this world. Her function there is entirely mystical. There are nine Shining Ones because the Celts found religious significance in three. And three times three is nine. So, the nine-fold goddess is an element which occurs in Celtic iconography. Usually it's three, but if it's particularly magical it's nine.
RT: One thing I find very powerful in both novels, particularly the second one, is the conflict between emotion, as represented by the Old Magic and Susan in some ways, and reason, represented by Cadellin and the elves. From what you have said about the tension between your own intuitive, emotional family background on the one hand, and your intellectual education on the other, we can see where this comes from. But what I find emerges very strongly and powerfully in The Moon of Gomrath, is the poignancy with which you express the longing for that world of the Old Magic. The rational world, for all its advantages, is not necessarily considered an adequate compensation for the loss of the beauty in the older world, is it?
AG: Well, at the time I was writing that book, I had not solved that equation myself. The loss was the price I was paying for the intellectual ability to write. To construct a novel is an intellectual process in the end. It is the flange on the wheel. The intellect ultimately controls the imagination. That was a tension within me that I did not resolve until I was well into my forties. Then I wrote four very short novels which hang together as one work, called The Stone Book Quartet, where again I write about Alderley Edge, luminously but not magically. I am writing about my own family, and indirectly about myself at one stage, about my own childhood. There is a boy who comes into the last story. He is not me, but he is the age I was at that time. It would be reductive and misleading to say it's autobiographical. That is not the function of the piece. But yes, you have hit the nail squarely on the head. At the time I was writing those first two books, I was coldly and angrily aware that I had been educated to articulate precisely the cost of my awareness.
I had been educated into a world that I embraced, because it was exciting and fulfilling. But it was the world of the high table, and it was ultimately arid. I could see myself heading in that direction, and denying a part of myself. And yet I could not go back genuinely and say, I've changed my mind. You can never go back. When I wrote those books I was emotionally severed from my family. I could not communicate in the way that I had communicated with them as a child. It was not until my forties and towards the end of my father's life that he took me seriously, and would actually have a conversation with me about things that mattered to both of us. He thought that any inquiry I made was some form of intellectual attack. Because I was so alien, he could not see that what he had between his ears was of genuine value to me. I was a cuckoo in the nest. So, yes, that is the nature of the poignancy in the book. It is an attempt to reconcile what was, at that time, irreconcilable.
RT: In a sense we're talking here about the loss of innocence, aren't we?
RT: And there are times when one wonders whether the price one pays has been worth it.
AG: Oh, yes.
RT: And since one has little choice, one has to hope that it is.
AG: Well, that is what saves you in the end. You have to put it all aside and say one has no choice. The choice has been made before the awareness.
RT: In your case the tension has proved very creative. Did you draw upon it consciously, or did it well up from your creative subconscious?
AG: It's a wry joke against myself that I from time to time become aware of. At the point of writing, I always write intuitively. I always discover the story. I make it up as I go along. I don't plot. It wells up, and I write it down. Subjectively, it's as if I'm taking dictation. I come in here every night, into this room, and I keep an appointment. I say to the book, though not in so many words, I'm here; are you? And that goes on for a very long time. And that I now know is when the book is being written. I just convect the themes and the thoughts round and round, and don't attack them at all aggressively. I just work them over, as though kneading dough.
Then, when I become my own first reader and critic and editor, I switch on that other side of me that has been in the closet all the time, locked away. I switch on the rational, intellectual, analytical side of me and attack the text. And here's where I groan, because I find that, yet again, I'm telling the same story; that all the agonizing, all the stress, all the emotional tension, all the labor of constructing a novel intuitively, as I think, still boils down in the end to a few basic themes which recur and recur. Each book is a refining of the question, not a resolution through answer, though I do find that the book I have just written resolves the unresolved tensions of the previous book. I see it all rather like adding another brick to the wall. The wall is the unity, and I'm adding another brick to it. I can always see the continuity when I've finished a piece. I can see where it fits into what's gone before, although at the time I kid myself into thinking that at least I've got rid of that theme and am working new ground. The process is not conscious, however; it's not deliberate. I don't set out in order to, but with the result that.
RT: And you discover more tensions in the process?
AG: Yes. It's the difference between a final clause and a consecutive clause. I don't set out to write a final clause, but I do write a consecutive clause.
RT: I like that expression. How many times do you reread the text in the editing process?
AG: Usually once. Over time, my method of writing has changed somewhat. The period after research, which I call the "Oh my God" bit, when I have to come in here and just sit quietly before starting to write, is getting longer and longer and longer. The writing period on the other hand, is getting shorter and shorter and shorter, and the text is cleaner and cleaner and cleaner. In other words, I'm doing a lot of the revision before I start to write. I'm getting closer to a received given text. But the period of gestation, of mulling over, of just waiting, is getting longer.
RT: Now, you mentioned earlier that you saw the Arthurian legend as one aspect of the Matter of Britain. Have you left that Arthurian aspect behind for the time being while you explore other aspects of the Matter of Britain?
AG: Yes, although it's dangerous to say that. If I don't see it in what I'm doing at the moment, I probably shall see it when I've finished it. The themes which I see as recurring are themes of isolation, confrontation with the Godhead, tension, and resolution. Betrayal comes into it a lot, and sacrifice. It really is as simple as that. There are about three themes that run through everything I've ever written. And I don't see anything wrong with that. I write quests which result in epiphanies, but not necessarily leaving the protagonist the happier for it.
RT: I'd like to ask you now about your Arthurian sources. You mentioned that you've read Malory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You have obviously read The Mabinogion. Had you read Geoffrey of Monmouth as well?
AG: Yes, I have done, but I hadn't. All this postdates my formal education at Oxford where none of this world was open to me except by coincidence. I happened to be there just after Professor Tolkien had retired, but he still gave bravura demonstrations of Beowulf. He would walk up and down and declaim it, and I used to go to those performances. That's when I first heard English, and I was thrilled by simply the drama and the music of it. Otherwise, all my reading postdates my formal education, and is entirely private in origin. I was not directed towards it. Geoffrey of Monmouth was part of my conscious research.
RT: Had you read Tennyson?
AG: Tennyson I had met as a young child before the age of ten, and had not enjoyed. I don't think he tapped the fountain at its root.
RT: How about modern writers?
AG: Not until I'd written several books myself, and then I read T. H. White. I might even have picked things up on the fringe, without knowing. I didn't know Charles Williams, but my tutor at Oxford was one of the Inklings. Thus I was on the fringe of all of that, and I've no doubt that my tutor talked about things that C. S. Lewis had said the night before.
RT: Were you able to make a living from your writing at the outset?
AG: To begin with, it's a very difficult position to be in, because I discovered that there's very little one can't say in the world, but one of the things that you can't say is, I'm going to be a writer. So in the time when I was producing The Weirdstone of Bisingamen and had nothing to show, no track record, I couldn't say to people, sorry folks, I'm busy; I'm going to be a writer.
That was very rough, and it lasted four years, during which I worked as a general laborer. I tried teaching at first, but I found that I couldn't write and teach; the energies were too similar. I would come home and find a blank page at the end of the evening. So I gave that up and became a general unskilled laborer. I was unemployed for long periods and just survived as best I could. It didn't feel like hardship at the time, but it was extremely precarious.
After my first book was published, I could say I was a writer because I had written something. I stopped being a laborer, and quite illogically I was able to earn enough money to get by on by working as a freelance television reporter. The television companies came to the mistaken conclusion that, because I'd written a book, I could interview somebody in the street. I found that I did, indeed, have a facility for it. I would go out and spend two or three days a month working very intensively as a reporter, and that would provide enough money to survive on for the rest of the month. It was a great benison, however, because it taught me an extraordinary amount about dialogue. In those days I was working on a shoestring. It really was the beginning of television reporting in this country, and the reporter was responsible for editing as well. I had to take back a mass of material to the studio, and there edit it down to the required length of the interview. Moreover, I had to capture what the interviewees meant, which was not always what they said. That developed my ear remarkably, and was of great value to me as a writer. So it was not just of financial benefit, it was of professional benefit to learn how a camera works and how people talk.
From the point of formally closing my academic career and saying to myself, frivolously, I'm going to write, I have never done anything else. And we still live from hand to mouth. It so happens that the books sell and the royalties come in, but there's no guarantee that they will. I've been successful critically from the start, but I'd been published nine years and had written at least four books, before I was earning from my writing anything other than a bare existence--to begin with, not even that. I can remember my first half-yearly royalty statement was nineteen pounds. I remember that very clearly because there had been such glowing reviews. Fortunately, I felt there was no choice after the initial commitment, and once that was made, my grandfather's precepts followed.
RT: Did you deliberately choose the fantasy form for your two Alderly Edge novels?
AG: No. I just wrote what was in me. It came out in that way because it seemed to be the way to express it, and it was what I knew. It started off with the question, so you're going to be a writer; what do you know? And there was very little I knew that other people didn't know. But I did know what I felt about that hill. And I thought, I'll try to say something about that.
One of the things I realized soon after I began was that fantasy was the only way to approach reality with any clarity. I didn't set out with that intent, but I did become aware of it quite early on. I recognized that fantasy wasn't mere entertainment, that it wasn't escapist. I became aware quite early on of something I first discovered during my classical education. I remember two very important influences which are still present. One is Homer, especially The Odyssey. That is where I learned that it is possible to let go of the trapeze and fly; to just explode, episodically if you will; to let the voyage take over. The other is Aeschylus. I think I rewrite Aeschylus almost every time, especially The Oresteia. The Libation Bearers is a very poignant story because of the family tension within it. I was aware, from my experience with Greek rather than Latin, that the writer is ultimately the loser. Words will not go where we want to go. We cannot say what we most deeply feel. In the end, we can only say what we mean through image. Not through the words, but only through the images that those words can construct. Therefore I came to realize very early on that fantasy was reality, and that I had been aware of it in my classical studies as well. Homer and Aeschylus linked up with my grandfather quite quickly.
RT: When you set out to write the Alderley Edge novels, did you intend them for younger readers?
AG: No, I had no intention one way or the other. I certainly have never written for children. It's the most frequently asked question that I get, and it's the one that I always fall down on. I think you're asking me to look at the back of my head, and I'm the one person who can't do it. Now it would be very easy and glib for me to say what I used to say, which is that I don't write for children, and that's the end of the answer. I write for me. However, I can't get away from the fact that child protagonists figure exclusively in what I've written. There must be a reason for that, but I don't know what it is. I can't come up with anything plausible.
I have four filing cabinets of correspondence from readers, and over the years the message is clear and unwavering. Readers under the age of eighteen read what I write with more passion, understanding, and clarity of perception than do adults. Adults bog down, claim that I'm difficult, obscurantist, wilful, and sometimes simply trying to confuse. I'm not; I'm just trying to get the simple story simply told. Of course my files are not statistically valid because they have preselected themselves. If you are confused and bored by a book, but not particularly irritated by it, you don't bother to write to the author to say so. You write to the author if you are exercised one way or the other, either by anger or delight. Usually it's delight, and that delight comes from the younger end of the spectrum. But I don't know why. I didn't consciously set out to write for children, but somehow I connect with them. I think that's something to do with my psychopathology, and I'm not equipped to evaluate it.
RT: Have you ever been encouraged by publishers to write for a particular audience?
AG: I have never had any publisher pressure though I have always had to fight to get my work published. By fight, I mean engage intellectually with the editor and argue my case, because I think almost without exception the readers' reports have suggested to the editor that the book should not be published. Then the editor has said, well, here are the reports; what do you say? We always engage very intimately on the text, and I've been very fortunate editorially. I have never had anything but the finest editorial assistance. We have always had the same interest, and that is the text. What is the text? How do we arrive at the text? Not, what do we do about the market? I find, however, that once the book is published, the next time I write a book the readers say, why isn't it like the other one? Which we also recommended you shouldn't publish. Why can't he follow the successful formula? I note that, writhing. I think this is quite a common feature in writers' experience, that the writer has to create the atmosphere within which to be published.
RT: Have you had to cope with suggestions for rewriting?
AG: Oh, yes, that usually occurs. There is an editorial response, and a percentage of the questions require elucidation. Some of them are objections, and my reaction to that varies. Sometimes it's oh my God, thank goodness you saw it first, and I willingly and gratefully respond to the editorial criticism. Then there are areas where I say, no, I know what I wrote, and I wrote it, and that's that. Stat. I wouldn't rewrite for what I could not see as the correct reason. It would be a betrayal. Nor have I ever been asked to do it. Sometimes I will change an occasional word that obviously bothers the editor, because it's not an area of concern to me. My editorial experience has always been with the best, however. No complaints at all.
RT: Have you read any modern Arthurian fiction recently?
AG: No. By the time I've done the reading for my research, I need to relax. Also, I'm terrified of unconsciously lifting somebody else's material, which is always a great danger.
RT: Do you work on each book sequentially, or do you have more than one book on the go at a given time?
AG: This is a paradox. I don't know what I'm going to write after the book I'm working on now, but I know that by the time I'm much further on with this book I shall probably be pregnant with the next one. They do overlap. There is a period, possibly after the first book is secure, when I become open to new ideas. The ideas are very vague, nor are they intellectual or rational. I always receive a book as a series of images, as visual images which have no logical connection. It's in finding the connection that I discover the originality--in the vision.
RT: When you wrote The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, did you have in mind that you would write a sequel to it?
AG: No. By the time I'd finished, I realized it hadn't finished with me. Also there's something unique about a first book. It's where the learning of question asking is at its most acute. Never again does the question asking bite so hard as in that first book. Everything is a question. You don't know that you're going to be able to finish it. I feel that with every book at some stage, but at least I can say I have written, whereas with the first book everything's new. Do I really know how to punctuate? And then the more interesting question: how can I make the punctuation go where it hasn't been before? So at the end of the first book, there was a lot that was unresolved. A lot of hares had been started for me and were running, and I had to follow them. At one stage, before beginning The Moon of Gomrath, I thought it was a trilogy. By the time I'd finished The Moon of Gomrath, however, I knew it was time for me to be moving on. There was no need for me to write that third book. But there is, lurking within The Moon of Gomrath, the idea that something else is going to happen. And there is. There's a third book, which I shall never write. I couldn't write it now if I wanted to, because it wouldn't match. One changes.
RT: Was the Stone Book Quartet planned as a series?
AG: No. With hindsight, I know that it was coming to terms with all those irreconcileables I articulated earlier. Finally, I was able to write about my own family, and what it is is an emotional history of my family. Through three of them the same character appears: as a child, as a mature adult, and as the grandfather who dies at the end of the whole sequence. And the first book, in which he doesn't appear, is the annunciation of his coming. This connects it with a mystery, which links into prehistory, archaeology, and the Arthurian tradition. To see the Arthurian connection, however, you would have had to have had this conversation with me first.
Those books were based on imagination, on the speech rhythms of my family, and on the anecdotes of my family, which are not necessarily historically accurate. They're the only books that I know my father read. I asked him to read them in typescript, and though he was not a reader, they were short enough for him not to be put off by them. I was very gratified, because time and time again he was irritated by them: he thought I was disclosing family secrets, and I wasn't. I was making them up, but I had got it right. I was going back to the child crouched under the table during numerous adult conversations, when the tape recorder was working, but not being listened to. The tensions within the family had produced questions which I set out to resolve, imaginatively. And time and time again, I got it right.
They really were given texts. They delivered themselves, and they wrote themselves. They're each seven to nine thousand words, and they delivered themselves almost at a sitting. The manuscript looks like automatic writing. The pressure of the ballpoint pen on both sides of the paper is so great that the paper fibers have broken down. It was exhausting work, but the most rewarding of everything I've written.
RT: In what sense did you mean they were Arthurian?
AG: There is nothing overtly Arthurian. The first one, The Stone Book, involves a quest underground in the mines, for something that is secret, and hidden, and waiting. It's not a king; it's something beyond that.
RT: I recognize that such patterns underlie works of literature and add resonance to the writing. The task of the scholar or the critic is sometimes rather a thankless one, of bringing these patterns out, and sometimes it might be better just to leave them to work as they do.
AG: Well, yes. A lot of the writer's energies go into creating the book in the original form. So, although a part of me can go along with you all the way, another part of me resents your function.
RT: Thank you.