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Interview with Nancy Bond

31 AUGUST 1988

   Travelling back to Nova Scotia from New York, I met Nancy Bond in Concord, Massachussetts. At the inn where I stayed the night, they were used to tourists visiting the homes of such past celebrities as Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Emerson, but they knew nothing about contemporary authors in the community, an interesting comment upon the nature of literary fame.
   Bond's use of Arthurian legend is confined to borrowing the figure of Taliesin as part of the Welsh background in her fantasy for juveniles, A String in the Harp (New York: Atheneum, 1976). She did not really consider that she was contributing to Arthurian tradition. Nevertheless, the use of figures like Taliesin, even where largely divorced from their Arthurian context as here, reveals the extent to which the legend has become an essential part of our Celtic past.

RT: Before the interview started, we were talking about unlikeable characters. By trying to understand the reasons for their behavior, one can generate sympathy for them. Do you try to do that in your novels?

NB: I find that I do. This started in the third book that I wrote, Country of Broken Stone, where I created a family of people who were basically very unlikeable. As I worked on the story, I began to find out why they were unlikeable. In order to create a story I need to understand why characters behave as they do. It's all part of making the story as logical as possible. I find as I write that the characters become the most important part of the book for me. Therefore understanding why they do what they do is a very important part of figuring out what the story is.

RT: Has the understanding of unlikeable characters been gradually developing in your writing? In A String in the Harp the museum curator is hardly a sympathetic character, is he?

NB: No, I don't think he is a sympathetic character. On the other hand, I understand his point of view. The young people who talk to him need information about the object that Peter has found, an object that turns out to be the tuning key for the harp of Taliesin. Whether or not they like the museum director, they have to understood his point of view and why he wishes to preserve this thing. Since they are swayed by his views, I have to make them credible. No, I don't think he is particularly likeable, but I don't think everybody is. He's also a relatively small character, although very necessary.
   A String in the Harp is probably the book that I can least analyze, because it was the first one I ever wrote and I didn't know what I was doing when I was doing it. As I've gone on writing books, I've often wished I could remember how I wrote that book, but find that I can't. I think this is true of a lot of people who write: the first book is sort of "lost." The writing was just instinct; you just do it. And then you find out how hard it is to do the next one.

RT: A String in the Harp shows a family struggling to cope with drastic changes in their life. Did you set out to write a book that would offer guidance to young people?

NB: No. I was just writing a story. I started that book because I had just spent a year at library school in Wales where the story takes place. When I came home to look for a library job, I found that the library market had changed while I'd been away, and so I spent the best part of a year before I found a job. I'd always played with writing, but never really seriously. I thought that this would be a good time to see if I could write anything that took me a long time. I'd never tried that before. So I began writing about my experiences in the form of fiction.
   I wrote about an American family that goes to live in Wales, and I don't think I had much more in my head than just seeing what I could do with that situation when I started. The story developed as I discovered what I really wanted to write about. I've always been particularly susceptible to places, and I wasn't 100% happy while I myself was in Wales. It was, however, a very important experience for me at that time in my life. I'd never been in Wales before, and this was a chance to live there, to see what it was like all year round. I also found, and have found before as travellers do, that, when you try to tell somebody about an experience you've had and they haven't, it's very hard to do. After a while they smile politely, and you know that they're thinking about other things while you're talking. So I really wanted to write about what it was like to live there, what I'd found. When I was eight, my father had a Fulbright Scholarship, and so we spent a year living in south London. That came into it as well, because I knew what it was like as a child to go through the emotional experience of adjusting to a new place, even though my problems were not the same as those of Peter, the protagonist of A String in the Harp.
   The whole plot is entirely fictional. I don't really know why, when I started writing, I chose a family that had suffered a loss. That was something that was a given when I began, but I don't remember ever making a conscious decision about it. I've been asked about it a number of times. It was just an added adjustment that the family had to make, something that was deeper emotionally than simply adjusting to a strange place.
   The whole fantasy, the whole myth, came in because I wanted very much to convey a sense of the age of the country, which is something that we in the United States don't have in the same way. I think this is one reason why so many people in this country, whether they're children or adults, are fascinated by fantasy, especially Celtic fantasy. It may be a little in abeyance now, but as a librarian I have observed that it has always been something that kids have read and that adult reviewers have reviewed. We are particularly drawn to it. I suppose it speaks to a great many of us in this country who have a Celtic background, or wish we did. Many of us, particularly in this area, are Anglophiles of one degree or another. There is a lot of Celtic fantasy, much of which I knew about. Not so much is centered in Wales, but Britain is where those of us go who want to write that kind of fantasy, because it doesn't live in this country. If you want to get into mythic patterns in this country, you have to go to the tales of the Native Americans. For many of us, however, they are not our first love. It's a whole different world, a whole different mythology.

RT: In some ways it is more alien to your way of life, isn't it?

NB: Very much so, and it is, after all, a different kind of magic. Also because we haven't dealt very well with our native peoples, we are uncomfortable about them subconsciously. When I was writing A String in the Harp, I really wanted to create something that would give insight into Wales and how old it was. For instance, I found out that the supposed burial place of Taliesin was not authentic, because it was older than he was. Therefore, it had to have been there before, even though it carries his name. That is the kind of thing that gives you a jolt, when you realize that although Taliesin lived in the very distant past, the burial place is older even than that. Also I wanted to show how a number of people in that area, without being eccentrically superstitious, do have a sense that there are things going on they don't completely understand. It's perfectly alright to have another layer of reality operating underneath the layer that we all deal with every day. That truly was why I decided to include the Taliesin material in that book.

RT: So Taliesin serves as a link with the distant past, as well as with the supernatural?

NB: Partly. I found, though, that I wanted to make Taliesin as real as possible, rather than the mythic character whose story is tacked onto The Mabinogion. I was much more interested in the little scraps I could find about a person who might actually have been closer to the kinds of people that we know now. Indeed, I consider myself a realistic kind of person, and it really surprised me in many ways that the first book I should write would be a fantasy. It didn't start out to be, and I hadn't really considered fantasy as something that I would try writing.

RT: One of the strengths of A String in the Harp is that details are so clearly realized. You are aware that you are dealing with real people. Did you do much research on life in sixth-century Wales?

NB: Not a great deal, I have to confess. I did have to do some, because I had to find out what things looked like at that time. I mostly did it as I went along, and I haven't done another book like that. The last one that I did involved a tremendous amount of research, and before I was comfortable with writing it, I had to do most of that research first. In A String in the Harp, however, I was feeling my way because I didn't really know what I was putting into it. When I needed a piece of information I would try to find it, sometimes without success.
   In fact, the harp key itself comes out of the research I did into the code of laws that existed at that time. Although I knew I needed an object, I had no idea what that object was going to be. Then I discovered that if you were a harpist you had to have a tuning key for your harp, as well as the harp itself, and that both of these things were very important to the bards, obviously. If somebody stole one or the other, it was a very grave crime. When I read that, I realized that it was just what I needed. Then I had to find out what one looked like, which involved writing to somebody in Wales who could tell me. To my knowledge, though, no one has ever found a tuning key that old, or even nearly that old.
   I really was feeling my way along, and in the book itself I skated over a lot, actually. I was more concerned to create the right atmosphere. But that book wrote itself in two very distinct parts. That I do remember strongly. It was almost like shifting gears every time I wrote about the ancient world. The modern world was the one that I became much more interested in, as I worked out the relationships of the characters, and what they were doing, and how they got to where they ended up at the close of the book.

RT: But by confining yourself, in effect, to brief glimpses of that ancient world, you deal very effectively with the problem caused by limiting your research. Since the reader is offered only brief and somewhat tantalizing glimpses of the past, you don't have to fill out that whole world. Was that a deliberate choice or an intuitive solution?

NB: Less was I deliberately doing that to avoid all the things that I didn't know about the past, than it was a decision I made when I was deciding what the rules of the fantasy were. I had a discussion by letter with a writer and critic on the west coast, who included A String in the Harp in an article she wrote. She was writing about fantasies in which more than one character shares the fantasy experience, in which bits of the fantasy touch other people who are not actively involved in what's going on. She wondered whether this weakens the fantasy, and whether the fantastic experience should just happen to one person. I was very pleased to be included in her article, and pleased that she had thought so much about the subject.
   But then I began thinking, now, when I wrote this, I did things very deliberately; let me see if I can remember what they were. I went back and thought about it, and I recalled the rationale for my choice. One of the really hard things about writing a fantasy, is that you have to make the fantasy as believable as possible. Once you've managed to get people involved enough to be willing to leap with you into whatever abyss you're leaping into, then you have to give them something solid to land on. Many beginning writers think fantasy must be very easy: because it's not real, you can arbitrarily do whatever you want with your characters and your story. I wanted to make very sure none of my characters thought that Peter was emotionally unbalanced enough to be hallucinating, and so I deliberately chose to let others witness certain phenomena. The magic that the harp key gives off is strong enough to show everybody the ships, the lights out on the estuary, the wolf even, because these sights were actually seen long ago in that part of Wales. They're all connected with that area. The other things that Peter sees, he sees by himself because they aren't connected with that area.
   Then I found that I was interested in something which I have dealt with, off and on, in everything I've written since: I put a group of characters in a particular situation, then show how differently they react. In order to do this, however, I had to allow other people glimpses of the past as well. I also decided that Peter would not actually enter that world of the past. I didn't want to deal with that at all: taking a real, twentieth- century person into another time and making him function there. Would he automatically understand everything that's said, and can he automatically speak the language? Well, Peter remains an observer in the past and doesn't have any effect on it at all until he returns the key. I deliberately wanted to keep him removed from that earlier world. He sees it, but does not enter it. You have to decide what the boundaries are in your fantasy world, and what you're prepared to deal with. Often you don't even know what they are until you start writing. Then you find yourself in a trap, and you have to figure out how you're going to escape from it.
   It was very different when I was working on my latest book, Another Shore. There I take a seventeen-year-old from this time and send her to Louisbourg in 1744. She does have to interact with people, she does have to speak the language and understand it, and she does have to see all the details of life. That was the same problem that I had in A String in the Harp, only in the later book I was going in its direction, instead of steering away from it and just showing glimpses. She is crossed with someone else and doesn't come back to her own time again. The book gave me all kinds of problems.

RT: Does that other person remain in the past too?

NB: No, the other person presumably is here in our time, but I never follow that part of the story. Someone who's read it in proofs said it needs a sequel; you need to find out what happens to the person who comes into the present. I don't want to deal with that aspect at all. I would like to write a sequel, but it would cover what happens to a modern character in the past.

RT: As well as doing research into the historical background of sixth-century Wales, did you reread any of the tales in which Taliesin appears?

NB: Not a great many. I'll tell you what happened. When I came home from Aberystwyth, before I started writing anything, before I even thought of writing anything, I did what I usually do, which was read about the place that I had been. I find it hard to read about a place that I'm going to with the same interest as after I have seen it. One of the books I picked up in the library, never having read it before, was The Mabinogion, and the edition that I picked up was Lady Charlotte Guest's. The more recent edition, I discovered with a shock when I got hold of it, doesn't contain a word about Taliesin. I finally found a secondhand copy of Guest's edition, and basically the part that I went back to again and again was the historical information in the notes at the back, not the story of Taliesin itself.
   The other book I read and used to some extent, though it's a much more fantastic telling of his life, is Robert Nye's Taliesin, which I like very much. It's a combined version of a number of stories, and it emphasizes the magical elements. I first saw it being put into the Lincoln Library where I worked as a children's librarian before I went to library school. I didn't read it then, but when I returned home, I remembered it as something I'd like to get hold of.

RT: Did you read any other books about Taliesin?

NB: Not specifically. From the Harvard library, I borrowed a copy of the ancient poems. They were in a very badly xeroxed book, where the xeroxed pages are folded, then bound. From these fragments that have survived of poems attributed to Taliesin I found the poem that starts the book. But that's really it.

RT: Did you read anything about King Arthur?

NB: Only bits on the historical background and archaeology, like John Morris' The Age of Arthur and Leslie Alcock's Arthur's Britain. That's what I was aiming for, much more than the legend itself. What I know of the legend came well before, when I was a lot younger. When I was in high school and college I was quite caught up in the legend.

RT: Did you read Malory?

NB: More the modern retellings, I must confess. I did read, long ago, Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset and T. H. White's Once and Future King. At that time I did like the more mythic versions of the story, but as I grew older I preferred more realistic treatments.

RT: When you used Taliesin, were you aware of his associations with Arthur's court?

NB: When I discovered the Arthurian links, I found that rather nice, but the reason I chose Taliesin was because he was linked, through place names and through association, with the part of Wales that I'd just been living in. That was my way of achieving a sense of the past.

RT: Someone else, with or without Arthurian connections, might have served your purposes just as well?

NB: Such a person would have served the initial purposes, yes.

RT: Different authors have responded to the tradition in different ways, and some more by accident than design. Presumably, the same is true of the past as well.

NB: Taliesin is somebody who is, at least in the area I'm working in, relatively obscure. I don't know that I would have attempted Arthur, simply because I am so aware of what there is, and how many people have worked on the story. It has never been my desire to write a book set wholly in that time and about those characters. To introduce them perhaps in some other way, as I did with Taliesin in that story, is something that appeals to me far more. I can enjoy and admire, as I do tremendously, Rosemary Sutcliff's retellings, but I would never try to do that myself because it's just not something that I would feel comfortable with. If I'd been writing about Caerleon, where there are reasons to believe King Arthur's court might have been if he was an ancient British chief, I don't know whether I would have picked that up and said, okay, I'm just going to put Arthur in here.

RT: Did you want a figure about whom little was known?

NB: I don't think I deliberately chose that, but I think I was much happier as a result. If I were writing now, when I am much more conscious of what I'm doing as I'm doing it, I know that I would have chosen an obscure figure. I suspect that one of the things I would have found had I chosen Arthur, is that I would have gotten very much more bogged down in the whole idea of research, because you just go on, and on, and on. There is a tremendous amount, and I might not have known when to stop.

RT: Has your approach to writing changed since A String in the Harp?

NB: I am more conscious of what I'm doing now. Partly because I've been asked questions about the book, and partly because one of the things that I've been doing at Simmons is teaching a writing course, I have thought more about what I did in various books and why I did it. In spite of that, there are things that I wouldn't want to stop and analyze too closely. Much of what happens when you're writing is unconscious. Things work out. If they work out well, you don't always know that they're going to. You don't always preplan. You're not always aware of what it is you're doing, only that it makes you feel as if what you're doing is okay. Then you can go on to the next chapter, and that's fine.    But I don't think that I had any sense of that at all when I was writing A String in the Harp. What I wanted to do was to convey the realness of living in that part of Wales, what these people were experiencing, and how it looked to me. I really wanted to share my responses with other people, and that is what I was concerned about more than fantasy. For a long time I worried about that book. I was afraid that the fantasy element and the realistic story weren't closely enough connected to work. The fantasy almost seemed to write itself, partly perhaps because it wasn't sustained chapter after chapter after chapter. It was, as you say, glimpses. I struggled a lot with the realistic story, as I have struggled with every story I've written since. The fantasy, by contrast, was easy to put in. I didn't do much revising of the fantasy parts of the book, whereas I did for the rest of it. I have never understood exactly what that means.

RT: Have you been tempted to incorporate more fantasy into your subsequent writings?

NB: I have always thought it would be really nice to be able to try to write something where you create an entire world of your own. I'm not sure that I can ever do it. I'm not sure that's my kind of writing. I really tend to be much more mundane and real. Even in the two other books of mine that I would consider have any kind of fantasy in them at all, once I have established that element, then what I write is as real as I can make it.

RT: Are your books intended for adults as well as for children?

NB: Well, I write for anybody who reads what I write. I remember reading an article by Aidan Chambers quite a long time ago in Hornbook magazine. He claimed that the old saying that a writer writes first for him or herself is ridiculous, that it's just not true. I would take issue with him very strongly, because if you're going to sit down at a typewriter to write, day after day after day for a year--or, in this last case, four years--and you're not going to please yourself first, then I don't know how you're going to do it.

RT: Do you think about your audience when you are writing?

NB: That's very much why I started by writing for older children. If I were to write for younger children, I think I would have to be very aware of the kind of language and number of words I use. I deliberately chose to write for older children because I didn't want to think about such matters. I just wanted to write a story.
RT: And that story included an Arthurian element.

NB: That was not exactly accidental, but it was serendipitous, I suppose. I'm sure that there is a link with what I enjoyed when I was younger, and that's why I happened to choose Taliesin. But it's not a tradition that I have gone into in great depth. I Just read what I wanted to read and picked out what I needed.

RT: So, like Taliesin himself perhaps, you find yourself drawn into the court of King Arthur more by accident than design. Thank you.