Kanti Burns interviews the author of the Mariana de la Mar books
Please note that Mariana de la Mar Book 1, Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists, will be FREE on Amazon from the 1st to the 5th of March.
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Perhaps I should mention in advance that Jim and I are not strangers, though our friendship has always been at a distance, via the internet; we originally got to know each other when, for several years, we both wrote reviews for the late, lamented MedievalMysteries.com.
KB: So, shall we start at the beginning? It's a long time now since you wrote the first Mariana book. I remember reviewing it for Medieval Mysteries.
JM: A very long time. I suppose I've had Mariana on my mind for about fifteen years. I published the first completed Mariana novel, The Witch of Balintore, with Lulu in 2004.
KB: Then you published two more as part of a planned series, the Mariana Books. But what I want to know, as someone who wrote five-star reviews of the original books, is why you later withdrew them all and then, last year, started publishing radically revised versions of them with new titles and under a new pen-name, Jim Hawkey. And even then, back in 2004, why you started with Marian, Mariana, as a woman of – what? 26? – in The Witch of Balintore – and then afterwards worked backwards until finally you reached her childhood (in Mariana la Loca).
JM: Right. I often holiday in the north of Scotland, and I wrote The Witch of Balintore after spending a month near Tain and on the Nigg peninsula in Easter Ross – that's where Balintore actually is. I'd already written half of a rather different novel, set in the same area but 800 years earlier, in the 6th century. In that story, the main protagonists were a small indigenous people I called the Elpin – Elps – and suddenly Mariana, who as I say had been on my mind for quite a while, acquired yet another strand to her already very mixed ancestry: Elpin blood, to go with her father's Scottish ancestry (Pictish, Gaelic and Viking), and with her mother's Spanish, Moorish, Jewish descent. And she acquired a name to go with it: MacElpin. From there, the novel took off: Mariana from Spain via Paris and London now in the north of Scotland among her father's people and what were left of the indigenous Elps. It wrote itself, as they say. Then came, Mariana in Paris seven, eight years earlier, with Raoul, who had been in Scotland with her – or rather would be in Scotland with her –
KB: It confuses even you!
JM: No! That was a slip of the tongue. Then I knew I had to write the story of her life before Paris, the one that was originally published as Wrong Way Round the Church. I started it, but got stuck, distracted by other things, busy at the school, and so on. But listen. Let's leave that and switch to the new series of books. The new Thirteen-Card Spread, the one set in Paris, is called Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists.
KB: Which you wrote under the name Jim Hawkey. Why is that? When an author publishes under two or more different names, it's often because he prefers to keep the different genres he writes in quite separate. Is that what is happening here?
JM: It is, yes. Under my own name, I normally publish poetry and articles and posts on esoteric religion and philosophy, gnosis, reincarnation, as anyone who follows me on Twitter for instance, or Wordpress, will know. When I first started writing the Mariana books, I envisaged them fitting in with this –
KB: Literary novels written by a poet.
JM: Yes, and with esoteric themes, like the witchcraft and astral travel and tarot in what is now Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists.
KB: And the Cathars and the Mary Magdalene Heresy in The Rose of Sharon. Well, I've read the new versions of both, and I think I can see what is coming.
JM: The best laid plans of mice and authors gang oft aglay. I've found I'm incapable of imposing my will on the main characters in my novels. Mariana in the first two books as I originally wrote them was a Lady with a capital L forced into playing the whore. It wasn't really working in Thirteen-Card Spread, and spoilt the book. In Wrong Way Round the Church, the prequel to Thirteen-Card Spread, it became obvious that to everyone else she was a whore playing at being a Lady, whatever her background may have been. Everyone, that is, except her late father's old friend, the Scottish knight Sir Farquhar. He insisted on her being her father's daughter, the Scottish Lady, rather than the Spanish whore she had become between being kidnapped at the age of fourteen and arriving in Paris with him soon before her twentieth birthday. I believe strongly in character-led novels, and these two were leading me from – from –
KB: From James Munro to Jim Hawkey. From literary fiction to what Graham Green called "entertainments" laced with erotica.
JM: Well, not erotica exactly, but given Mariana's special niche ...
KB: So you rewrote the books, giving Mariana a free hand and allowing all those around her to react and respond in the way they naturally would.
JM: Exactly. I'd been bowdlerising my own work! And the turning point was Avignon in the last part of The Rose of Sharon, where Mariana is forced through no fault of her own to work once again in a bordel. The Mariana who – let's be honest – took to that like a duck to water was not the Lady Marian – or even the Mariana! – I'd depicted in Paris or in Scotland. They had to be completely rewritten. But in order to do that successfully, I had to give myself free rein as well. As James Munro I was – I am – too straight, too much the child of my upbringing, too tight-arsed in a word – too inhibited, too repressed. But when I adopt the Jim Hawkey persona ...
KB: You are suddenly free to – I was going to say to be yourself. Which is the real you, I wonder? But can we just get the new books and their titles clear for people who read this. I notice that Mariana in Paris, Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists, is Mariana de la Mar 1 now.
JM: Yes. And the prequel has been rewritten and published as The Rose of Sharon.
KB: Okay, so we have the prequel and book 1 published. And next?
JM: The Undeparted Dead (Mariana de la Mar 2) will be out on April 1st. That's set in Southwark, for hundreds of years the red-light district across the Thames from London, and in Essex, where Mariana finds herself being used as live bait by powerful people attempting to trap the walking dead –
KB: Zombies? Don't tell me!
JM: Revenants, back up out of the grave. It seems there were many such in the years following the Black Death, especially in Essex. But also a wraith and a harpy and –
KB: I want an advance copy!
JM: You'll be the very first. Then there is Mariana in Revolt, which will be Mariana de la Mar 3. You remember what happened in 1381?
KB: The Peasants' Revolt. But I had no idea Mariana was caught up in it?
JM: Oh, yes. And on both sides. As the Lady that old Sir Farquhar, who has now assumed complete authority over her, still expects her to be, and as one of the girls at the Green Unicorn in Southwark and the Shag in Colchester, Essex, where many of the rebels and their leaders come from. Mariana in Revolt contains a sub-plot called An Errand for Lady Alice, which I'd originally intended to stand alone –
KB: Lady Alice? Not the much-maligned Alice Perrers?
JM: Yes, old Edward III's mistress.
KB: Plots and sub-plots. Right. Anyway, that brings me nicely to something I always like asking authors about: your thoughts on the interface between fact and fiction and fantasy in historical novels, especially those set in the medieval period. Alice Perrers is fact, a historical character, while Mariana is fiction, a figment of your imagination.
JM: Right. And then we have mermaids and lamiae, which are fantasy. Let's try to clarify this. Bruce wins at Bannockburn: historical fact. Bruce hiding in a cave by the sea watching a spider swing back and forth: legend that could be historical fact. A woman with Bruce in the cave: historical fiction.
KB: How do you know?
JM: I just made it up. A mermaid with Bruce in the cave: fantasy. So far, fairly clear. But between the last two, for instance, if it's the woman, not the mermaid, but she's a witch? She is communicating with the spider, influencing it, making it keep swinging: historical fiction, or fantasy?
KB: Yes, witchcraft – and shape-shifting. All the things that Mariana can do, and her Scottish grandmother, and Niniane in Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists, and the old witch that Niniane and Mariana take on. And then, of course, the revenants and wraiths and harpies you just mentioned.
JM: The question is, to what extent should our criteria for what could have been true depend on their idea of what could be true rather than our idea now?
KB: How many impossible things was it possible for them to believe before breakfast.
JM: When you are writing historical fiction, it's all a matter of point of view. From the protagonist's point of view, anything is acceptable and believable that would have been acceptable and believable then, at that time, while anything which would not have been acceptable and believable is inadmissable. When it is First Person narrative, this becomes even more so. A hint by the author to the effect that of course he doesn't believe all this rubbish, and the whole thing is ruined. His hero becomes a time-traveller, not a native born and bred in the period.
KB: I like that, yes. Homer mixes history, legend, fiction and fantasy and his characters are all absolutely at home in that setting, and we have the impression he believes in it all as well. Whereas Euripides' Agamemnon and Iphigeneia are clearly time-travellers.
JM: That's a very good example.
KB: Thank you. And now we're going to have to stop.
JM: And thank you, very much, for your support over the years.