It gives me tremendous pleasure to be able to announce the official publication of Harriet Goodchild’s After the Ruin. Harriet has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her work and influences.
H: Thank you, Jane, for inviting me here to talk about After the Ruin. It was you, of course, who acted as midwife to bring it into the world. Thank you for that too – without your help I doubt it would ever have been published.
J: After the Ruin has a timeless quality about it, in the sense of it being out of time. It reads like a story that was written centuries ago about people and events already passed into legend. You use a writing style that has more in common with poetry than with most contemporary fiction. What or who would you say have been your most important influences?
H: I think my style when writing fiction is, in large part, a reaction against academic prose, which – for obvious reasons – is designed for straightforward communication of information rather than style.
I was a reader long before I was any kind of writer and there are all sorts of influences muddled up together in my stories. As far as mood goes, I’d probably name Rosemary Sutcliff as an influence. She writes with a bittersweet elegiac quality, always aware of the transience of beauty. Her novel Sword at Sunset is the most hauntingly lovely retelling of the Arthurian legend I’ve ever read. She is also very good on relationships, the delicacy with which friendships and marriages must be negotiated when one side has all the power. The other, important influence is Mary Renault. She treats myth as though it were history in her two novels centred on Theseus. In those books, the gods, the supernatural, the preternatural, is real, so, although Poseidon or Zeus never actually appear, because everyone knows that, at any moment, they might appear, a reader is convinced of this too. One of the important things Renault did in her books was present gay and bisexual relationships as easily as breathing and just as natural. Also both Renault and Sutcliff wrote beautifully. Not just telling a story but completely and un-selfconsciously inhabiting a world.
Beyond that, it is poetry. Robert Graves, best known for I, Claudius, was, I’d say, the greatest English lyric poet of the twentieth century. Others I read over and again are Louis MacNeice, Kathleen Raine and Philip Larkin, and a poet few people seem to have heard of, Michael Roberts. His poem, The Images of Death, is something of a touchstone of mine.
And, of course, folk songs, especially the Child Ballads.
J: I would hesitate to call After the Ruin fantasy; it seems to recall a folk world that is almost familiar. Was this deliberate?
H: After the Ruin begins with the declaration Stories link together. That’s true, not only within the confines of a book but within the wider world of storytelling and thus one can use these common frames of reference to create an atmosphere which is almost, but not quite, familiar.
When creating the setting for the story I borrowed a lot from myth (largely Greek and Roman with a pinch of Norse) and folk lore (largely British) but, like the landscapes, it’s all changed and twisted and mixed about to suit the needs of my story and my world. Is the firstborn tree Yggdrasil? No, it isn’t, any more than it’s either of the trees which grew in the gardens in Eden or the Hesperides. But its presence and purpose in the story draws on my knowledge – a reader’s knowledge – of those other trees. The same is true of many other elements within my stories.
J: How do you feel about the categorisation of literature, and do you think fantasy is an adequate description for your work?
H: I’m entirely happy with describing it as fantasy. There’s a magician, a witch, a symbolic sword, a tree with magical apples… If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then why worry about calling it a duck?
Categorisation is something else. Its main purpose is to enable people to find what they want to read by providing a system for putting books on shelves. When it becomes prescriptive, rather than descriptive, when it is used pejoratively, then it becomes a straitjacket constraining both authors and readers. Individual books may have something meaningful to say about the world or be intended as entertainment or – thinks sadly here of Terry Pratchett – both. Moreover, and often regardless of authorial intent, individual readers may find something in a book that speaks to their interests and experiences. None of this has anything to do with the category in which the book sits upon the shelf.
There seems to be a lingering perception – recent discussion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant springs to mind – that genre fiction can be of no literary merit, thus if a book is perceived as literary fiction it can’t also be genre fiction. This leads to convolutions such as ‘appropriates many of the conventions of genre fiction’ or ‘seems to demand an allegorical reading’ (Alex Preston’s review of The Buried Giant, The Observer, 1 March 2015)*. Anyone who has read broadly knows this is nonsense. Genre labels such as ‘fantasy’ or ‘science fiction’ are descriptive categories of what type of story lies between the covers of a book: they say nothing of that book’s quality.
J: Your writing is very dense. Each word counts. There are none of the passages of short sharp sentences to accelerate the pace or indicate action we are used to seeing in modern prose. How do you answer the critics who say that this very rich style of writing in which the story develops slowly is not suited to a modern age of instant everything?
H: When one looks beyond the superficial trappings of instant communication, it’s clear that people do still have long attention spans. To pick out a couple of examples: A Song of Ice and Fire rivals (probably beats hands down) the serial novels of the nineteenth century in length and Wolf Hall is no slim tome. Both are successes, according to several different definitions of success. In each case a reader has to hold multiple relationships, motives and plot strands in their heads across very large number of pages and, for ASoIaF, over an increasing number of years. So people – or at least, some people, some of the time – are interested in reading complicated books that require thought and concentration. Often I think of reading as akin to eating (well, it’s nearly as necessary): sometimes one is in a rush and grabs a sandwich on the go, other times one has time to sit down and eat a long meal that took effort to prepare. Both are satisfying. It’s a both/and situation, not either/or.
J: It isn’t just the pace of After the Ruin that flies in the face of modern convention. The reader won’t find the almost obligatory ‘strong female’ main character, where ‘strong’ means violent and aggressive. Not that Marwy Ninek is a dishrag or a simpering damsel in distress, but her courage is much more that of a woman who knows her physical limits and yet manages to surpass them. What is your take on ‘kick-ass’ phenomenon? Empowering, feminist, or simple glorification of violence, and a case of letting the girls play with the boys’ nasty toys?
H: I think there are several points to disentangle here. After the Ruin is not a thriller and, as you’ve pointed out, it’s not fast-paced. Moreover it is the consequences of violent aggression that I wished to explore. This means in large part it’s about reaction rather than action. It’s not just the women who are not ‘kick-ass’ heroines, the men aren’t kick-ass heroes either. One of the themes is self-restraint, where those with power must set a curb upon their own will so as not to cause harm to the vulnerable. The conflict and crises in the book arise largely from a failure to exercise such self-restraint and from the abuse of power.
So no, there isn’t a violent, aggressive female character in After the Ruin. There’s only one person in the book with those traits and he’s a villain. He’s not, however, the primary antagonist. That’s a woman. The difference between them is, when faced by a locked gate, he breaks it down and she asks that it be opened. The consequences each time are devastating: patient determination can be as effective as brute force.
As for my take on the kick-ass phenomenon? I’m going to say what I always say when someone asks me this sort of question: it depends. Some women are violent and aggressive, some men are timorous and fearful, most people are somewhere in between. The strong, violent heroine who can outfire, outfight and outthink any number of opponents is a perfectly valid reaction to years of women being defined by the male gaze, to heroines who are objectified and obscured and reduced to a single dimension. Written well, I quite enjoy the kick-ass heroine. Written badly? Well, no one enjoys badly written books.
The trouble comes, as others have pointed out before me, when there is only one female character in a book (or play, or film). In such a case, the character can easily cease to be seen as only herself and to appear instead as the representation of Woman, the part standing for the whole. This is as true for the strong, powerful heroine as for the fainting violet. If you don’t want to write such a heroine – and I didn’t – it’s a very easy fix: include a multiplicity of women with different characters and attitudes. And write those women, and the men they interact with, as rounded human beings with complicated and multiple motivations.
Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, ‘Courage isn’t a man with a gun.’ That is something which is easily forgotten in a society which values action, decisiveness and physical strength and skill. Sometimes, however, simply to endure is the most courageous act of all. The women in After the Ruin have agency, even Marwy Ninek at her lowest ebb the morning after the fall of Felluria. They make choices, good ones, bad ones, and those choices shape the story.
J: The last question has to be: what are you working on now?
H: After the Ruin is complete in itself but there are other stories that are linked to it still to be told. I’m working on those. I hope that they too will be published one day.
Thank you so much, Harriet, for sharing your thoughts with us. I, for one, am waiting very eagerly to read the rest of the literature set in your wonderful world that is still to appear. Because it’s so lovely, here is the cover art for Harriet’s two collections of short stories.
Here is the blurb for After the Ruin.
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 flame. Love is not enough to set against her fierce desire. As well seek to turn back the tide with a wall of sand.
Here are the links to Harriet’s UK and US Amazon author pages:
UK author page:
Here’s the link to Barnes & Noble:
Here’s the link to Fishpond:
Here’s the link to Heroines of Fantasy, where Harriet has a regular book review slot: