Friday, 9 July 2010

Mythic Friday Interview: Number 15 - Gillian Philip

Gillian Philip and I have much in common, not least a deep and visceral love of Scottish myth and legend. (She's also a really superb teller of tales. When I read Gillian's scarily dystopian Bad Faith and her gritty teen novel Crossing the Line last year, I knew I was Onto A Good Thing, and I told her so.) What she says below (quoting Stuart McHardy) about the importance of knowing the myths of the land you live in is something I've been banging on about for years--and in part why I wrote Coll the Storyteller.  There is so much richness and complexity to be found in those Celtic tales (Skye and the Isles providing a particularly fertile vein)--and she's right, the places themselves tell stories without even trying.  I wrote the text of  my first published picturebook on the banks of the River Awe, and I'm convinced the spirit of the water (maybe even a kelpie) whispered it into my ear. 

Like Gillian, I was brought up in a household where the background of Scots superstition was part of everyday life--we had two rowan trees at the gate to prevent faeries and witches from getting in and bespelling us.  As I said last Tuesday over on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, faeries are not always tiny sugar-pink winged entities from Disney--certainly the Sidhe of Scotland are old and dark and scary--and I find them endlessly fascinating.  Which brings me neatly to Gillian's new book--Firebrand--which is published on 27th August, and is the first of four.  I was lucky enough to wheedle an early copy, and my goodness I'm glad I did, because it's one of the best faerie fantasy books I've ever read.  No kidding--it's that amazing, and you can quote me.  What slightly niggles me about some of the current crop of  'modern faery tales' is that the faeries have been translated from their original Celtic homelands to the USA.  Nothing wrong with that--but sometimes it just doesn't sit quite right.  Gillian's book is not set in the USA, but in the Scotland of the 16th century where there's a whole otherworld of gloriously dangerous telepathic faeries just beyond the Veil.  In the dour and dirty mortal world, on the other hand, witches are burned, superstition is rife and 'different' is often fatal to your chances of living to a ripe old age.

Now, I am quite squeamish about burning people (I walked out of the film Elizabeth as the opening credits rolled).  It takes a lot to get me to read a book where burning witches is described in any sort of detail at all (maybe because I know that if I'd lived in another century, I too would have climbed that brushwood pyre and died in the flames).  Firebrand had me so tight in its grip by the end of the second page that I just didn't care when, later on in the book, Gillian was putting nightmare images of popping, crackling flesh into my head.  It is one of those (sadly unusual) books where I simply forgot I was reading--because I was so totally engaged with her richly created and beautifully crafted world. Her feral yet fiercely loyal Sithe hero, Seth, is a fully-imagined and fascinating character who I fell for immediately. He's a driven, volatile, knife-edge sort of boy--unflinching in his shield of outward fierce pride and yet (in his own head) so vulnerable and so unsure that he is loveable or redeemable in any way. His older brother Conal--opposite to Seth in almost every way on the surface--nearly broke my heart with the power of his generous, breath-stopping love.  The faerie queen, Kate NicNiven is suitably amoral, cruel--and a vicious political genius who knows just exactly when to exercise the power of a grand gesture. I could go on and on here, but I don't want to put up any spoilers, so I will just say this: go and buy the book when it comes--in fact, put in a pre-order right now. 
To sum up, it seems to me that in Firebrand Gillian has taken her own mythic heritage and made it into something rare, new and infinitely exciting.  I don't know how I will possess my soul in patience until the other three in the Rebel Angels series appear.  I seldom use bold capitals in posts to make a point, but just so you know, I REALLY REALLY LOVE THIS BOOK!  (Got it?)  Now it's time for me to welcome Gillian to Scribble City Central, which I do with great joy, and to hand you over to her.  I think you'll find her answers provide a fascinating and wide-ranging contribution to the Mythic Friday Interview series.  I know I did. 

1. Do you think that the retelling of Greek and other myths is important or relevant for the children of today? Why should they care about some “dry old stories” which come from ancient cultures they might never even have heard of?
There’s nothing dry about myths! Children need to discover them simply because they are such fabulous stories. And they are completely relevant, because the themes are eternal – heroism, loyalty, sacrifice, betrayal, vengeance, fatal arrogance: you name it, it’s there. Always in such a huge, dramatic context, too – the stakes and the consequences are terrifying, yet we always get to relate to the main characters as real, vulnerable, flawed human beings. You care about them, worry for them, mourn their fates - even if they are the sons and daughters of gods.

Besides the straightforward fact that they’re good stories, though, I think it’s important for children to know mythology, especially their own. Stuart McHardy, who writes about Scottish myths and folklore, quotes an old saying: ‘Gin ye dinnae ken whaur ye’ve been, hou can ye tell whaur ye’re gangin?’ Or, if you don’t know where you’ve been, how can you tell where you’re going? Myths are born out of landscape and history, and they’re a way of understanding your own home.

2. What age were you when you came across your first myth or myths? Tell us how you felt then about the myths you first discovered. Did you love them or hate them? Did they scare you, excite you—or were you indifferent? What kind of myths were they? Greek? Norse? Native American? Celtic? Or from another culture entirely? Were they in a book you read? Or did you hear them as oral storytelling from someone else?
I’ve cudgelled my brains about this, Lucy, but – I simply can’t remember. I do remember they were Greek myths, and my father introduced me to them, but which ones, or in which books, I just don’t know. They would have been books I borrowed out of his study, which was a lovely place full of old books that smelt of dust. I was fascinated by all things Greek, and he had a copy of Teach Yourself Greek from which I learned the alphabet to no apparent purpose except that, along with the myths, it keeps my husband happy on Saturdays when I can fill gaps in the Telegraph crossword. I soaked up myths from the movies, too – I loved all those films like Jason & the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, with their fantastic Ray Harryhausen monsters.

I loved myths, always. That didn’t mean I wasn’t scared, or that I didn’t think some of them were just appalling in the way they turned out. I was always deeply offended on Orpheus’s behalf – that was just not fair! He only looked back the once. As for Persephone – her poor mother! The gods always seemed terribly cruel or indifferent, but the mortals never stopped trying to get the better of the deal. I liked that.

I don’t remember either where I first heard Scottish myths about selkies and kelpies and faeries. They were just there, in the background. We knew it wasn’t a good idea to cut down rowans, and it was a bad sign if you saw your own doppelganger. They were the kind of stories we told to scare each other, along with absurd urban myths.

I think I especially love Scottish myths because there seems such a fragile line between them and reality. They’re this close to visible, this close to tangible. Since I think of myself as very boring and rational, this is kind of embarrassing, but it’s true. I’ve a friend who spends a lot of time on the island of Gigha, and she says there are distinct spots where you can feel the closeness of the otherworld; I feel the same about Colonsay. And you only have to look at the hill Schiehallion in the right weather conditions and you know fine there must be Sidhe around up there.

On the other hand, Scotland’s historical tales can be just as wild and outlandish as its myths. There’s a fabulous story in my husband’s clan, the Keppoch MacDonalds, about the clan bard taking revenge on treacherous relatives who had murdered the true chief. Having killed seven of them, he sent their heads to the Privy Council in Edinburgh – but washed them in a well by Loch Oich on the way. There’s still a sculpture there of the heads, and it’s called the Well of the Seven Heads. You see what I mean about a fine line between myth and history!

I have to say that when my children were smaller, I shamelessly used kelpies to frighten them around lochs. There’s such a thing as being too confident around water, and if you know there’s a big horse in there waiting to eat you….

3. Looking back, what is your favourite myth of all time, from any culture? And why would you choose it?
Oh, such a tough choice. I’d have to go for the Iliad, though, because it has everything. When I was an expat and had far too much time on my hands, I decided it was something I should read and I assumed it would be a bit of a chore. But a couple of chapters in, I was hooked. The characters are so human – even the gods are flawed and jealous and fractious – and the themes are timeless. There’s everything from intimate family tragedy and lovers’ quarrels, to epic battlefield scenes. Nothing’s predictable, no one side is in the right; I found myself one minute cheering the Greeks on and the next siding wholeheartedly with the Trojans. I love Achilles and good old Pallas Athene; I love Hector and Priam and Patroclus and of course Odysseus. Oh dear, you shouldn’t have got me started….

4. Who is your most hated mythical hero or heroine, and what made you feel that way about them?This was another difficult one – it’s easy to get angry with many of them, but I find them hard to hate. But I’ll have to agree with Nicola Morgan here and say Hera. The sour old boot – always throwing a spanner in the works and ruining everyone’s plans. Mind you, she did have to put up with a lot from Zeus.

5. Is there a mythical beast you are particularly fond of? If so, which one?
I’m especially fond of kelpies (despite using them to scare my children) and they feature quite prominently in my fantasy books. That water-monster thing is such an atavistic, instinctive terror, they somehow seem very real. Out on the moors, if I’m near water, I’ve often expected to turn and see a temptingly gorgeous horse at my back.

They’re sly, they’re violent and murderous and wild, yet they’re terribly beautiful. In my fiction I’ve tried to use them in a way that puts them on my heroes’ side without compromising their savage, dangerous nature.

6. How have myths had an influence on your writing life, if at all?
A huge amount! Myths seem to creep into my books whether I like it or not; maybe that’s because those old stories are so universal and so timeless, it’s hard not to return to them. I didn’t set out to reference lots of myths in Bad Faith, for instance, yet the Orpheus myth and the Maenads crept in.

And in my Rebel Angels fantasy series I have played fast and loose with Scottish myth and legend. I always wanted to write about faeries and kelpies, witches and ancient warriors. I said earlier that myths are firmly rooted in landscape – well, the Scottish landscape has practically shouted stories at me ever since I can remember. I can’t pass a hill or a loch without ‘seeing’ something happening there. I had to write about it eventually – but what I especially love about myths is that they are so adaptable. We all own them, and we can retell them in our own way. (Not that that’s always a good thing – I give you the movie abomination that is TROY.)

But I had great fun playing with mythic characters, and inventing some of my own. I made my Sithe human – why not? – but a little differently evolved, so that they’re telepathic. (I also made them Sithe instead of Sidhe – I wanted Sith but that was a bit too Star Wars.) My villain, the Sithe queen, was based on a witch from Scottish history, Kate MacNiven; I’ve given a MacLeod clan chief a cameo because the MacLeods of Dunvegan were said to own a faery flag given to them in return for a favour they did for the ‘People of Peace’. Rowans are said to be sacred to the faeries, so I’ve made rowanwood the only thing that can wholly block their telepathy. I’ve used odd details like the rumour that kelpies don’t like liver (I can relate to that) because there was a certain water-weed that got dark and wet and swollen, and people used to assume, when it floated ashore, that a kelpie had left someone’s liver behind. It’s those little details I love...!

7. If you could choose to be the demigod child of any one mythical god or goddess from any culture, which one would it be? Which power would you like to inherit from them—and what would you do with it?
If you can fix it for me, Lucy, I’d like one of the Tuatha de Danaan for a parent, so I can have some faery blood. I’d rather like to have the powers I’ve given the Sithe in my books – speed, telepathy, healing – all except for the Second Sight one of them is cursed with. I’d hate that. If I had to choose just one power, I’ll go for the ability to tame and ride water horses! Thanks – now, if you could manage to sort that by a week on Wednesday…. Thanks for inviting me Lucy – this has been terrific fun! xxxxx

More about Gillian:
Gillian Philip was born in Glasgow, lived for 12 years in Barbados and now lives in the north of Scotland with her husband, nine-year-old twins, one labrador, two sociopathic cats, and four nervous fish.  She has been writing all her life, but has also worked as a record store assistant, theatre usherette, barmaid, sales rep, political assistant, radio presenter, typesetter, and as a singer in an Irish bar in Barbados. In 2001, when her children were born and she moved back to Scotland, she became a full-time writer of Young Adult fiction. Her books include Bad Faith, Crossing The Line, Firebrand (first of four in the Rebel Angels series) and (for Hothouse Fiction) the Darke Academy teen horror series.
Gillian's website is at and she contributes to a children’s authors’ blog at;
Gillian tweets by the name of @Gillian_Philip;  she was recently kidnapped by fiendish monsters and will be blogging with the other captives at;
Gillian's Facebook page is HERE.


Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Ah, a brilliant interview with one of my favourite authors! Fascinating to read, and you know, I really envy you all your lore. The line ‘Gin ye dinnae ken whaur ye’ve been, hou can ye tell whaur ye’re gangin?’ really struck - as a mongrel living between cultures, I've never "belonged" to a particular cultural mythology and I feel like I've missed out on heaps - reading other people's mythologies is a joy, but never quite the same.
Can't wait to get my paws on Firebrand!
Thanks for a terrific interview, both of you!

Gillian Philip said...

Lucy, thank you so much for all the wonderful things you said about Firebrand. I'm really thrilled and touched. And thank you for having me! I had such a good time thinking about your Mythic questions - it was challenging and it was also terrific fun. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Lucy, I thought you were never going to stop there and let Gillian have a say. I know G is wonderful, but did you have to praise her twice as much as all the rest of us?

Nicola Morgan said...

Oooh, Firebrand sounds gruesomely horribly deliciously evilly ACE. I want it and I want it NOW.

And Gillian's interview was not bad either! (Mind you, I won't walk past a loch too carelessly again.)

Thank you, Lucy!

Mary Hoffman's Newsletter said...

Another great Mythic Friday interview! Gillian, be sure to get your publisher to send me Firebrand in my capacity as Book Maven.

Can't resist a build-up like that from Lucy!

Lucy Coats said...

Nicky--a wolfy is never a mongrel! But I take your point.
Gillian--it's the first proper long review I've ever done on SCC--but I just wanted to get all those things off my chest (so to speak). Glad you enjoyed answering the questions.
Bookwitch--sorry. But when you read the book (if you haven't already)--you will, I hope understand why I banged on for so long and didn't let Gillian have a turn!
Nicola Crabbit--'gruesomely horribly deliciously evilly ACE'. Yep. Got it in one!
Mary--I'm sure Gillian is listening!

Lucy Coats said...

Mary Mayfield commented too (but it wouldn't load): She says...
"I spent my early teens reading all sorts of Scottish/Irish myth and magic books. Sadly no such tales from the Nottinghamshire coalfields where I grew up (Robin Hood's a poor substitute and all too human).
Wonderful interview and Firebrand is a wonderful book - everybody go read it!"

Gillian Philip said...

Thanks guys, I'm blushing. Mary, I am definitely listening and would love to send a copy to the Book Maven - there should be advance copies ready in a couple of weeks or so, and I'll get one in the post to you asap! x

Katherine Langrish said...

Yes, I too now want to read "Firebrand". It sounds wonderful! Let's recapture the Celtic legends for ourselves...

Ellen Renner said...

Good to know there isn't long to wait for this book. Thanks, Lucy and Gillian, for a brilliant interview.

Stroppy Author said...

Oh, you make me feel so ignorant about Scottish legends, Gillian! I love the detail about kelpies hating liver...eeugh

Jo Treggiari said...

Firebrand sounds absolutely fabulous and I can't wait to read it!Thrilled that it is only the first of 4 books to come too.

Anonymous said...

Say not all that you know, believe not all that you hear.............................................................

Blog Design by Imagination Designs all images from the Before the First Snow kit by Lorie Davison