Getting acquainted with Harriet Goodchild

I know I’ve mentioned that I love being part of the writing community and helping out fellow authors before, but I have to say it again: The writing community rocks.  It rocks so hard.  Know why?

This is why:

If you haven’t heard of Harriet Goodchild yet, you should have.  And you’re in luck!  Because today, she’s going to chat with me about writing, fantasy, and her latest book, After the Ruin.

KK: Hi, Harriet.  Tell us about yourself.

HG: I live in Edinburgh now but I was born in the west of Scotland and go back there whenever I can. Lest that sound a narrow life, I’ll say I’ve lived in a few other places as well, including the United States and Australia, and spent twelve years in Oxford. Life in Oxford is rather like living in a fantasy novel: pretty soon you start meeting seneschals or quaffing from an aurochs horn after dinner.

I share my flat with two pets: a Bengal cat called Talisker and a very large goldfish called, imaginatively, Big Fish. Big Fish is outgrowing her third tank and soon I’m going to have to find a safe pond in which to rehome her. Until then, Talisker enjoys sitting nearby her tank to keep her company. Or at least I think that’s her reason. Never assume nefarious intent, even in cats!

KK: Have you always written?

HG: In my teens I wrote a lot. Short stories and poetry, mostly, and a novel that rambled on and on through several college notebooks, acquiring characters along the way. It wasn’t good – and I hope it never surfaces – but I enjoyed writing it hugely and that’s all that matters. Some of the ideas in those stories, in fact, laid the groundwork for all that I’ve written since, although I think my writing has improved since my teenage years. After that, reading a lot and writing a bit was enough, although I published some non-fiction along the way. Then, about five years ago, I decided it was time to take my fiction a bit more seriously. After the Ruin came out of that.

KK: What part of the writing process do you enjoy the most?

HG: The point where suddenly the words and ideas and people come together as a story. Let me explain…

I am a pantser to the nth degree. I’ll have characters, usually several different characters in different times and places, I’ll have a setting, I’ll have some sort of motivation for each person but  I don’t (can’t) plan out my stories before I write them. Instead, I find them out as I’m making them up. Nor do I write the first draft in order but jot down scenes and scraps of dialogue as and when they come to me. And then, quite suddenly, something will click and the story will appear. Not necessarily the one I thought I was writing but a story with a beginning, middle and end that I can finish and revise and polish.

KK: I laughed out loud about being a pantser to the nth degree, because I’m the same way.  And the rambly, never-ending novel was my specialty as a teenager. 🙂  What do you enjoy least about writing?

HG: It’s the other side of my last answer: not knowing where I’ll end up until I’m long past halfway through. It’s nerve-wracking as I can have thousands of words but no real idea of the plot or where the story is going. Then I start worrying that I’ll never have a story and I’ve wasted all my time and energy on something that simply doesn’t work, and will never work…

I wish I could plan and plot in advance but I find if I try to do that I lose all interest in writing that story. I suspect all this is a reaction against the way I work with non-fiction.

KK: Do you write in more than one genre?

HG: All my fiction is fantasy, although, as I said, I’ve written a fair amount of non-fiction. I write stories to relax and exercise the creative side of my brain. Non-fiction requires such a huge amount of careful fact-checking that I don’t want to have to do it for fiction too. With my kind of fantasy internal consistency is all that matters. If you get the small details plausible and consistent, readers will swallow any amount of impossibility.

KK: What got you interested in writing fantasy?

HG: Writing fantasy gives me freedom from the constraints imposed by the real world. It allows me to set my imagination free without worrying about what a place or a person is/was really like. If I wrote stories set in the past or present of the real world I would end up worrying so much about getting the detail and the setting right I would never be able write at all. I’m one of those pedantic readers who is pulled out of a story when I know something in it is simply wrong. If, however, I create a world and societies within that world no one, not even me, can say I got the detail or the history wrong. This sets me free to write and to imagine.

KK: What inspired you to write After the Ruin?

HG: I listen to huge amounts of folk music and, in doing so, have become extremely familiar with the Child Ballads, a diverse collection of traditional songs from Scotland and northern England collected in the late nineteenth century. They aren’t, on the whole, cheerful. But they are beautiful, honed into shape by a process akin to natural selection. They tell of a world filled by melancholy and longing. Betrayal is commonplace, and so is violence; friends become foes; love begins with secrets and ends, like as not, with death. Although they are often set in real places, and sometimes tell of real events, these songs blur the lines between the real and the supernatural, making no clear distinction between the two. That’s the sort of mood I’m after in my fiction: a real place with real people in which, sometimes, magic can happen. After the Ruin is a riff off the oral tradition and takes its tone from the ballads. It is, I’ll freely grant, somewhat melancholy. But I hope it is also, at times, beautiful.

KK: Did this story require much research?

HG: The fact it is fantasy frees me to muddle together all sorts of interesting ideas from different times and places just as I like. That said, I did do a lot of research. I read, a lot; I go to museums; I travel. As I do, I squirrel away facts and ideas for possible use. Although the world and societies in After the Ruin are invented, to make objects and references seem plausible I often read up widely on their real world equivalents. For example, in the book the Sea People don’t use iron so they can’t have either compasses or lodestones. Thus there’s a throwaway reference to navigation using a sunstone. In order to feel comfortable including that reference I spent a couple of evening reading everything I could find about sunstones and how they were (possibly) used. Similarly, as I know nothing at all about swords and fighting I checked those passages with someone who does (thus any remaining errors are mine!) and to ensure journey times were reasonable in a pre-industrial civilisation I used ORBIS, a geospatial model of the Roman world built by Stanford University. I have my limits… I’m not, I’m afraid, interested enough in horses to read up so there are no horses in the book at all.

KK: Can you tell us about some of your other projects?

HG: I’ve written some short stories linked to After the Ruin which are available as e-books. At the moment I’m working on another couple of novels set in the same world, one takes place before the events of After the Ruin and the other later.

KK: Finally, if you could recommend one book, which would it be and why?

HG: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Not for only for the story but for the writing. When I read the beginning of Wolf Hall for the first time, I felt a visceral shock at just how good it was. I’d read Mantel’s earlier books but Wolf Hall showed me a new perspective, a different way of writing. Its sequel, Bring up the Bodies, is arguably a tighter, more focused book but you cannot have that frisson of recognition Here is true greatness twice. I am waiting impatiently for the third instalment, not to know how the story ends – any history book can tell me that – but to see how it is written.

KK: I’ve heard good things about Wolf Hall – it sounds like it’s right up my alley.  Thanks for joining me, Harriet!

atrAbout the Book

What is the price of a man’s life? An apple? A sword? A kingdom? There are many ways to leave a life in ruins. But ruined lives go on, and so, after the ruin, there is love, sweet as roses on a summer’s evening. But love is such a little thing, no stronger than a candleflame at noontime. For, after the ruin, Averla, fire made flesh, is hiding in the light. She will use lover against lover, sister against brother, father against son, to build again her kingdom of everlasting fire. Love is not enough to set against her fierce desire. As well seek to turn back the tide with a wall of sand.

About the Author

Harriet Goodchild was born in Glasgow and lives in Edinburgh. She reads, a lot. She writes too. Fantasy, after a fashion. Oh, and she likes folk music, almost as much as reading.

You can find Harriet on Twitter, and sometimes on her blog.

To read more about Harriet and her writing, check out these lovely posts from AFE Smith, Jane Dougherty, Ted Cross, and Heroines of Fantasy. You can get your own copy of After the Ruin at Amazon, Amazon UK, or Barnes & Noble.

(c) 2015.  All rights reserved.

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