Interview with Karen Maitland – Author of A Gathering of Ghosts
Peter Donnelly sits with Karen Maitland
Peter: Karen, I have loved your books from the Company of Liars, the Owl Killers through to The Plague Charmer and now we have the new book release, “A Gathering of Ghosts” on 6, September 2018. You have been one of my favourite authors for many years so it’s a pleasure to conduct this interview with you.
Karen: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Peter: What was your main inspiration behind writing A Gathering of Ghosts?
Karen: The seed for this novel was planted when I was a child on a camping trip on Dartmoor. I woke one chilly morning to find myself lying in the mist beside an ancient grave. Ever since, I’ve tried to imagine who might have been buried out there, miles from any village or church and why? Then, a couple of years ago, I read about a great famine which affected the whole of Europe from 1315-1317, and caused thousands of people to take to the road in a desperate search for work and food, meeting with fear and hostility from locals. This had a very modern echo. I began to imagine a series of characters, some who lived on Dartmoor watching incomers invading and tearing their world apart, and those strangers coming into the wilds of Dartmoor terrified of this strange, bleak landscape. I knew that lonely grave was at the heart of this story – the question for me was, which of my character’s bones, local or incomer, lay under those ancient stones and who put them into that grave?
Peter: In great tradition with your writing, there is a lot of serious background research undertaken. What was the most interesting aspect of the research for this book?
Karen: One group of characters in the novel who invade Dartmoor are the tinners. I was amazed to discover how medieval tinners tore the moor apart on such a huge scale, reducing whole valleys to mud and spoil heaps, diverting and polluting streams in their quest for the valuable metal. At first glance, the land now looks untouched by man, but you can still see the signs of medieval tin streaming once you learn what to search for. And I was fascinated by the way in which in medieval times complete communities sprang up in these remote valleys, like the goldrush camps in the wild west, with some poor souls breaking their backs in the cold and wet, while others moved in like sharks to prey on the desperate.
Peter: You love to develop rich deep characters. Who was your favourite character in this novel and why?
Karen: Prioress Johanne. She is the head of the remote and isolate priory of the Sisters of the Knights of St John on Dartmoor. At this point in history, the Knights of St John had forced most of their sisters to abandon their priories and become safely cloistered under male protection. Johanne is fiercely resisting this. Not simply because it means the loss of her freedom, she has to remain as head of the priory or risk a secret being uncovered that would mean death for her and others. She’s really up against it, trying her best to care for the sick and hungry, fight those trying to bully and destroy her, and keep the whole priory afloat. I love her because she’s no saint. She gets so exasperated at times with the other sisters, furious with the knights and knows that sometimes you have to break the Ten Commandments to prevent bigger wrongs – steal to feed the hungry; kill to protect the innocent.
Peter: With most of your novels there is a foreboding supernatural element. What excites and appeals to you about adding this aspect to a story?
Karen: When all the lights are blazing in your home, it’s easy to rationalise that strange noise or the photo falling from the wall. But if the lights fail or we are walking out on the moors or through a wood at night, our primeval fears of the supernatural start to surface. You see an old woman standing by the path in the darkness, look again and now its twisted tree. Was she ever there? You climb up to one of the tor caves on Dartmoor. You can hear whispering voices, but there is no one inside, no one for miles and you shiver. I think at moments like that, we come very close to feeling and thinking as our medieval ancestors did. Even with all our scientific understanding, those deep, dark fears are never far from the surface and bubble up in our dreams. So, by weaving in the supernatural into the stories, I hope I can tap into those fears, which most of us share, and through them draw the reader closer to the medieval world.
Peter: You have an amazing ability to characterise the landscape into your stories. How much do you research the landscape for a particular book and what intrigued you about the Dartmoor landscape for this novel?
Karen: I explored Dartmoor at different seasons and weathers, the towering granite tors and the ancient twisted woodlands such as Wistmans Wood (photograph is of entrance to Wistmans Wood), where the roots of the trees slither over great mossy boulders. I sat and visualized the scenes that would take place there, sometimes even acting out bits so I knew what it would feel like to scramble over the boulders or squeeze into a cave. That helped me describe what the character would feel and where the hazards might be. I also research the history and legends of the places, because the legends grow out of the shape of the landscape, such as Great Hounds’ Tor, where the rocks look like a petrified man and his hounds.
Even today, Dartmoor is a wild and lonely place, where ancient granite crosses mark the paths over which the dead were carried, passed stone circles where the old gods were worshipped. When the sun shines, Dartmoor is a place of vivid colour and beauty, but when a mist descends it becomes menacing. Though it’s a vast open moor, if you are lost in the middle you feel utterly trapped, as if you might never escape. What better place to imprison my characters?
Peter: Who has been your favourite character in all your books and what is it about them that you are most satisfied with?
Karen: That’s like trying to choose a favourite friend or family member. But I suppose one of my favourites would be Will from ‘The Plague Charmer’. He’s a disgraced ex-jester who was mutilated as a baby so that he could be sold as a fake ‘dwarf’. After the way he’s been treated, he doesn’t see why he should help anyone, but somehow finds himself doing so. Will was a huge surprise to me as the author. He was only intended to be a minor character, but managed to wriggle his way to the head of the queue of characters and trick me into making him a major player. In his past life, he’d fallen in love which I didn’t know and I did not plan what happens to him in the Epilogue, that’s not the way I thought his life would turn out. The satisfying thing is that like the character of Camelot in ‘Company of Liars’, he became so real he would no longer obey the author.
Peter: Do you use storyboarding or strawman processes to develop your plots or do you go with the flow and follow your instinct and gut feeling?
Karen: I tend to write the first quarter to third of the novel in a burst of excitement just by going with my gut feeling to see what emerges. That way I start to get to know my characters, their backstory, their hopes and fears and how they might react when cornered, in the way that you would gradually get to know new friends. By that stage, I can see the themes, plots and sub-plots emerging. Then I stop writing and spend a week or two plotting the rest of the book, using coloured bullet points with a different colour for each of the main characters and subplots, so that I can see at a glance if I’ve let a subplot or character drop for too long. In terms of how the plot develops, in every scene, I ask myself how might the knight or the boatman or the old woman living at this moment in history interpret what’s just happened and what would they instinctively do about it?
Peter: Did you have any formal education or training in literature and writing?
Karen: I’m afraid not. My education in literature came from a lifetime of devouring novels from a wide range of genres and my training came from my wonderful editor, Mari Evans, at Penguin and then Headline, who is one of those brilliant people who can put their finger on exactly which aspects of a novel aren’t working and nudge the author towards discovering their own way of resolving those issues.
Peter: Did you always feel that writing was a path you would take?
Karen: I remember lying in the dark as very small child inventing stories for myself every night. As a school kid I loved writing stories, but the teachers appeared to ignore what I’d written about and seemed only interested in whether it was spelt correctly. To be fair, that was probably because my spelling was so bad, the over-worked teachers couldn’t make any sense of the story. But I assumed this meant I could never be a writer, so never told anyone that’s what I wanted to be. But I continued ‘scribbling’ for myself. I never stopped. If you are a singer, you will sing even if no one else is listening. If you are a writer, you have to keep writing even if, at first, no one else reads it.
Peter: What authors have you most admired and have had an influence on you?
Karen: My first adult read as a teenager was Graham Greene, who I loved for his flawed and compelling antiheros, and the way he could make you feel hot and dusty just though his descriptions of a place. Angela Carter, Maya Angelou and Margaret Atwood for their fantastic imagination and the way they pull you from the real world into the imaginary one where anything seems possible. Sarah Dunant, who has this gift of being able to take a well-known figure from history and make you see a new side of them by revealing them to you through a shadow character. Most recently, Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ I admire so much for the way he was able to convey the misery and horror of War II and holocaust, by focussing down on one little girl who wasn’t even directly involved in the concentration camps or battles. That is a rare gift.
Peter: What is your favourite book you’ve read this year?
Karen: It’s been out a couple of years, but it’s a novel I’ve listened to twice this year – ‘Magpie Murders’ by Anthony Horowitz. It is a story within a story and in the course of solving the murders, the narrator, who is a literary agent, analyses why and how crime fiction works. I also love the wicked and cheeky references to certain real-life publishers, agents, writing schools and authors. Not sure how Horowitz got away with this, but it is a ‘must read’ for all aspiring authors, because as well as being a neatly plotted crime novel, it reveals so much about the craft of writing and the publishing industry.
Peter: What advice would you give to aspiring or debut authors?
Karen: All writers get excited when they finish their first story or novel and naturally want it to be published immediately. But an actor or musician wouldn’t dream of giving a public performance without a lot of practise first. So, don’t rush it into print, put it aside and write another story and another, practise your art in private first, like any other artist or craftsman. Don’t be tempted to show it to dozens of friends or you’ll end up with so much conflicting advice your creation will emerge as Frankenstein’s monster rather than the statue of David. If, after you’ve written a number of pieces, you look back at the first piece and think ‘that is good’, or ‘now I have the skills to make it good’, then send it out, but if not, it wasn’t wasted time, no rehearsal ever is.
Peter: What are the greatest benefits and restrictions of being a published Author?
Karen: Being a published author is likely constantly sweating over exam results; you never know if you going to pass or fail with the next one. And as much as you love writing, there are days when the sun is shining or you have flu, when you just don’t feel like writing and when even clearing out the drains seems a more inviting prospect than sitting at the keyboard. But when you are under contract you have nail yourself to your desk every day, whether you feel inspired or not, because there are deadlines to be met.
The great benefit of being an author is to be able to spend your life exploring things that fascinate you and playing child-like games of ‘let’s imagine’, which is a pretty good way to spend your working life. Also, you get to meet authors who are your heroes, and readers who love books as much as you do, and they both often turn out to be the kindest people.
Peter: As a published author how involved are you in finalising other aspects of the book, for example, the cover design, narration and the promotion of the book?
Karen: I have no skills whatsoever in design, narration or promotion, so I am delighted that the people with those talents take command of those aspects in publishing. Its one of huge advantages of being published. Actually, I’m thrilled when someone takes the words I’ve written and turns it into another art form such as narration or artwork which has a life quite separate from me as an author. I’ve always loved my covers, but I know things can go horribly wrong for an author if the cover doesn’t reflect the book and puts off readers.
Peter: How much time do you spend on writing compared to promoting your books?
Karen: Promotion for me is mainly concentrated on the two months before and two months after the publication date. Before publication it’s writing historical pieces linked to the book and after publication giving book talks, where it’s the travelling between venues which takes up most of the time. But I love the opportunity to visit different places and to learn from readers what they enjoy in novels. Audience members often share with me a little-known historical snippet, an old cure or a superstition in their family, which for a writer is like being given nuggets of pure gold. Though, I have to confess, when the promotion has to be done just at a critical point in the writing of the next book, I do sometimes long for the days of the Bronte sisters when authors could simply hide in their parsonage and write.
Peter: How important do you feel narration is or will become to the book industry?
Karen: Audio books are my lifeline. After a day spent writing at the keyboard and part of the evening reading old reference books, I can’t comfortably read novels for hours, so I always have an audio book on the go. It means I can get through so many more books, because I can listen while I’m cooking, ironing or travelling. I think we’re all becoming increasingly short of time, and will suffer from ever-greater screen fatigue, so narration will become important for readers of all ages. It has health benefits too, research has shown that being read to lowers your blood pressure, and helps adults and children fall asleep at night, as opposed to looking at a screen last thing in the evening which overstimulates.
Peter: Can you give us any insights into any future books or projects that you’re working on?
Karen: Interesting you should ask that because the novel I am currently working on, while it is still historical, it will be a change of period and genre from my previous novels. Can’t say any more about it at the moment, except that I am really excited.
Peter: How can readers learn more about you and your work?
Karen: My website is http://www.karenmaitland.com
I blog on The History Girls website on the 8th of every month http://www.the-history-girls.blogspot.com
And I also contribute strange and weird historical facts for H is for History http://www.hforhistory.co.uk
Peter: Karen, I appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions and if there are other snippets of information you wish to provide, please feel free. All your books have a wonderful balance between history, plot and characters and I would like to congratulate you on their success and wish you even more success in the future.