(Originally posted on my old website 5th May 2015)
Today I am very pleased to introduce M.E. Vaughan, my special guest author, keeper of myths and epic fantasy writer extraordinaire. Madeleine is the author of the fabulous ‘The Sons of Thestian”, book one of the Hamatia Cycle, and has already clocked up more written wordage than most of us dream of in a life time. She has kindly allowed us to pick her brains on the subject. Form an orderly queue!
Describe yourself in seven words:
Ambitious, Creative, Stubborn, Introverted, Bizarre, Curious & Acerbic.
Who is your favourite ANTAGONIST in literature and why?
This has got to be a hard one…I have to say, I’ve always had a partiality to ‘Trickster’ characters. I was a fan of Loki from the original Nordic myths because his design was always to bring everyone down a peg, and he was very clever in how he did it. Subsequently, I kind of like Iago from Othello (though he was despicable), and I root for Tyrion in Game of Thrones (though there is debate on whether he is an Antagonist or not). I’m a huge sucker for an Antihero though, and I think in the end, my favourite type of Antagonist is the one who fails at it.
In comparison, who is your favourite character that you’ve written and why?
Another difficult one! I obviously love and care for all of my characters, but it must be said that some are easier to write than others. Whilst I can appreciate them all for their different qualities, I particularly enjoy working from Rufus’s and Zachary’s points of view. Rufus, as my main character, obviously holds a very special place in my heart, so then does Zachary who is, to all intents a purposes, a parallel of Rufus. As I answered above with the Antagonist question, I like characters who struggle at being the Antagonist, and that’s what Zachary does. He ambitiously paints himself as a ‘villain’ whilst being desperately loyal to his friends, and caring very much about those around him…And that definitely attracts me to him; the internal struggle and the complexity of his mentality.
I know you’re an accomplished author of epic fantasy. Are there other genres you write in/ would like to write in? What draws you to epic fantasy particularly?
Oh, I have always loved Fantasy and as a big myth nerd, the ‘epic’ side of that just comes naturally. My attraction to Fantasy comes from a sense of wonder I had about the world when I was young. I loved the idea of magic, I felt like it was in and all around me and it captured my imagination and never let go. I enjoy Urban Fantasy as well, and like writing Magical Realism too, and Historical Fiction. These all tend to go hand in hand, but I have also been known to dabble in Crime and, as a side-job, I actually write personalised Murder-Mystery games for parties.
Authors often get asked ‘where do you get your ideas?’ when really we should get asked ‘how do you make the ideas give you five minutes peace?’ – so the question is how do you go about translating your ideas from your imagination to the page/ screen?
I have an odd practise called ‘Dragoning’ which I do for all of the major scenes. Basically, when I have an idea about a scene (normally a fight sequence, or something dramatic) I plug myself into my ipod and walk (or aggressively dance/fight) my way through it to map it all out. One day in particular however, as I tried to figure out the logistics of a single man bringing down a humongous dragon, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. My arms were up around my head, flapping and I had my mouth wide open in a silent roar, and I realised for the first time that it wasn’t only the hero I was impersonating…I was also being the dragon. Hence forth, the act has been known to my family and friends as ‘Dragoning’, and it is an integral part of the writing process. I Dragon at least once a day, and owe the fruition and conception of many of my ideas to it.
Which aspect of the writing process do you find most painful/ difficult?
Editing. It’s one of the most important parts of the process, but it can be horrifically boring and sometimes very stressful. You could have worked on section for hours, and sometimes the editing process basically demands for you to cut it all, and that can very painful. Re-writing entire chapters, inserting new scenes, clipping out large chunks of dialogue and then having to fiddle with the remains so that it all fits…Sometimes editing can feel like you’re performing surgery, and you’ll only know if it’s all worked out at the end.
Which aspect is the easiest or most fun?
I would say dialogue. I absolutely adore writing dialogue, and anyone who has read my work knows how speech heavy it is. For me, dialogue is the way you really come to know a character. What they say, how they say it, and sometimes what they don’t say; these are how we as a populous communicate who we are, and it’s got to be the same for characters.
Subsequently, I really enjoy channelling their voices, not least because sometimes what comes out surprises me too, and I learn something new about my characters.
I notice you share my love for Celtic mythology (actually it approaches nerdom for me.) What drew you to myths and legends? Do you think they have helped shape your work? What relevance do you think the archetypal figures of myth hold for us today?
Mythology is wonderful, and it has played an integral part in my life, both as a story-teller and as a person. I shared a love of Roman and Greek myths with my mother, and also an absolute adoration of the Arthurian legends. Something about these mystical men and women who existed out of time, in a realm of infinite possibility, really spoke to me. I loved their stories, their nobility, and occasionally their serious moral ambiguity. As I got older, I expanded and learnt more of Nordic myths as well. Being raised in the Middle and Far East put me at the forefront of some spectacular Arabic, Indian and Japanese folklore as well which I just gobbled up like a hungry myth caterpillar.
My interest in Celtic Mythology was the last to develop I suppose, despite its round-about connection with the Arthurian Legends. I’ve been reading into Celtic Lore for just under a decade now, and am about to start a PhD on Celtic Mythology and Paganism in Literature. I love faeries; their chaotic and beautiful nature, and I feel very firmly that these stories still hold a strong place in our society now.
Characters like King Arthur have always been figures of national pride. During times of war and oppression, King Arthur would pop back up with a new make-over and was used to sort of sanctify a cause. Many people believe that the myth of Arthur actually started off with Fionn Mac Cumhail (Pronounced: Fin Mac-Cool), an Irish warrior. Nowadays, these characters are returning in various ways; as superheroes or new versions on TV. Things like BBC Merlin have changed King Arthur to show him as an arrogant young man with a good heart in need of guidance (something which is supposed to speak to our generation.) We have many modern day versions of Robin Hood (eg. Green Arrow), which take down corrupt corporations to protect the people of a city.
I think these characters, rather than be taken for what they are, are changed in accordance to what we need. But their history, their name, carries a gravity that instils a sense of trust. We know these people, they’re heroes, we can believe in them, and I think that is why, in their various forms, they remain so influential today.
Which writer(s) do you admire most and what influence do you think they have had on your writing?
I admire many writers, and a lot of them have influenced and had a positive effect on me. Of course, JK Rowling is on that list, as the woman who got me into reading in the first place, but as I writer I actually owe a lot to Caroline Lawrence. She wrote the ‘Roman Mystery’ books, of which I was a huge fan, and she was the one who really inspired me to be an author in the first place.
With regards to my writing style, this has been shaped by many writers (both of books, TV, etc.) over a long period of time. I have certainly taken flavour from George R. R. Martin, though that was actually quite a late addition as I’d already finished and was editing the first and second book of The Harmatia Cycle. Others who have shaped my writing style include Trudi Canavan, Phillipa Gregory, and Jim Butcher.
Tell us one random fact about yourself;
I am a 1st Dan (Black Belt) in Washinkai Karate and a three time National Champion.
What makes you really laugh?
I love to laugh, so it’s fairly easy to make me giggle. I especially enjoy witty or sarcastic humour, so Blackadder is right up my street. Sudden, and out of the place absurdity will often set me off as well, and my best-friend Alex and I can make a ten minute joke out of a silly mispronunciation that will have me wetting myself. I think the key to humour is to have a lot of flavours and contrast, which is why some of the darkest stories can be the funniest.
What annoys you most?
Unnecessary rudeness and prejudice. I have no patience for close-minded people, and to those who can’t offer common curtesy to others.
You appear to enjoy to flipping gender roles and traditional hero ‘types’, which is apparent in your novel ‘The Sons of Thestian’. Having read the book it seems that there is a deeper reason for doing this than mere novelty. So why? And what does that (hopefully) communicate to your intended audience?
This is an interesting question, and it makes me think of something else I got asked once; about whether I write Male or Female characters better. I used to prefer writing men, because I was somewhat of a tom-boy. As I grew up however I realised that just because I enjoyed combative sports and climbing trees, didn’t make me any less of a girl, and that being a girl didn’t make a character any less exciting.
There’s this idea that roles in fiction have to be segregated by gender, and when I set out to write The Sons of Thestian (hereby ‘SoT’), I wanted to erase that. A person’s gender isn’t a characteristic, and it makes me angry that we have adopted archetypes based on sex, sexuality and physicality that we then pass off as three dimensional characters. As such, In SoT, Jionathan got the role of the feisty, flighty but courageous royal, Fae was the secretive, silent warrior, and the hero, Rufus, was a scrawny, bookish nerd suffering from depression. Each of them have their own personal strengths and weaknesses, and all of them possess both a traditionally ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ side, like any balanced person.
I don’t want a child of mine to grow up believing that they can’t be the hero of their own story because they’re not a boy, or straight, or strong. These are merely qualities; they are not a whole person, and that’s what I set out to show in SoT.
You find out that you have to go into exile in Avalon and you only have time to grab one book. What is the book?
Oh gracious! Exiled in Avalon! I would probably grab the closest book on Celtic Mythology I could find and make sure my knowledge of the terrain and customs was all up to scratch, before I offend someone and get eaten!
What are you working on right now? Any future projects not set in Harmatia?
I am working on a new series, yes. It’s actually linked (in part) to the Harmatia Cycle, but it’s very different set up. Titled ‘The Kestrel Saga’, it’s an urban fantasy set in modern London, and it follows the catastrophic life of Kestrel McBurney, a cursed English student who providence is relentlessly trying to murder. This follows the Arthurian Legends a little more closely that SoT, and is narrated in the first-person by Kestrel.
If you could be any mythical creature, which would it be and why?
In the context of The Harmatia Cycle I’d love to be a Magi or a Cat Sidhe. For reference, Magi are the equivalent of Mages/Wizards in Harmatia, and Cat Sidhe are a type of mercenary faerey that can transform into a giant winged cat. If I had to be a ‘creature’, I definitely wouldn’t mind being able to turn into a dragon, but I probably wouldn’t want to be one as a full-time occupation…There seems to be a common theme with slaying them.
What’s your one piece of advice for hopeful writers?
I have known quite a few people who have started writing a book, and my best advice to them is, first and foremost, finish it. I know it sounds obvious, but very often people get caught up on re-writes or new ideas, and never actually manage to go anywhere with their work, even if it’s incredible. Having a finished first draft far out-weighs having a semi-finished, partially polished story. You’ve also got to know when a story is worth your time, and when it’s time to junk it and use the good parts for something new. Writing isn’t easy, but it should always be engaging. If you’re continuously unenthused by what you’re doing, then it’s not the right story.
You have an intricate religious set up in The Sons of Thestrian. How big a part does that play in the books would you say? Was it something that just flowed or did you spend a long time developing it?
Religion in the Harmatia Cycle plays a varyingly important role to the plot. On the one side, the gods are prevalent in the story, both the ‘True Gods’ (Athea/Notameer/Aramathea/etc.) and the Sidhe Gods (Niamh/Morrigan/Danu/etc.). On the other side their presence is both physical and metaphorical, and in some ways it’s the characters belief in them which makes them real, rather than any actual encounter.
Religion is always a tricky subject. I was raised by a Catholic mother, and an atheist father in a Muslin country, and went to a school close to the pagan haven of Glastonbury. For some people, their religion is a defining part of them, for others it merely informs some of their decisions, and that’s what I wanted the gods to be like in the Harmatia Cycle. Their importance changes according to the characters point of view.
As a lot of mythology and religion are tied, I spent a lot of time working out the religion for the Harmatia Cycle, both how it would tie in with the Celtic aspect, and also how I could be original with it. This was planned out very early in the process and played an integral part in working some of the finer details of the plot.
Would you choose to be born under Notameer or Athea? (Please explain for the nice readers who they are 😉 )
Quick crash-course on Notameer and Athea. Basically the mother of the Gods (Aramathea) gave birth to eight children, and the ninth child was supposed to rule them all. However, the ninth child turned out to be twins (well, actually, it was one child, but Aramathea cut it in half. As you do. It’s complicated.), and these became Athea, born of Fire, and Notameer, born of Water.
Notameer was decided to rule during the day, and became the sun. He is the God of Life, Justice and Truth. Athea rules during the night, and is the Goddess of Death, Emotion and War.
Depending what time you’re born in Harmatia, you’re said to have an affiliation with one of the gods, (You can find out which God YOU’D be born under here: http://harmatiacycle.com/which-elemental-star-were-you-born-under/
), these eight gods are in-turn affiliated with Notameer or Athea.
Despite her bad connotations, I would align myself with Athea, rather than Notameer. People fear her needlessly, because of the ‘Death/War’ aspect, but she also represents love, and dreams, passion, artistry and imagination. Notameer is the Sensible and Rational mind whereas Athea is the Emotional and Creative part of humanity. A healthy balance of the two allows society to both function and progress.
Tell us a sneaky bit about the Harmatia Cycle that we don’t yet know? Anything coming up that we should watch out for?
Ooh, sneaky bit about the next book? Well, it’s titled The Blood of the Delphi and I can tell you now that Zachary is going to play a much bigger and more integral part as a man character. People can also look forward to being a little stunned by certain pairings, and whilst most of the shocking revelations got covered at the end of SoT, I still have a few surprises for you all up my sleeve…
The Sons of Thestian is out now on amazon.co.uk
and the other usual outlets. Grab yourself a copy and switch off the phone – you’re in for a treat.
To find out more about the Harmatia Cycle, check out the book website for world information, illustrations, games and more. – www.harmatiacycle.com
You can also find M.E. Vaughan on –