Interview: On All Things Celtic

Q: After your last mega-series which took place over eons of time and the whole multi-universe of space …. you have settled in Iron Age Ireland.
A: I’m home! This is a familiar place for me: the Celtic world. Whether it’s Scotland, Wales, Ireland or any of the ‘lesser’ Celtic lands, this is a world I know pretty well and navigate easily.  

Q: And is the setting historical, or mythical?
A: Both. Historically speaking, I’ve set it in the time when the Bronze Age was becoming the Iron Age on the island we now call Ireland, somewhere around 1000 BC. Most scholars agree that it was the Celts who brought iron with them when they arrived from central Europe. That ‘arrival’ might have been a peaceful migration, or it might have been an invasion – who knows? In any case, the move from bronze (copper + tin) to the stronger metal iron had an impact on the quality of tools and, more interesting for my purposes, weapons.

Q: What’s the mythical setting?
A: For one thing, there are faeries. It’s been said that in Ireland even today, it’s hard to find someone who will admit to not believing in faeries. I don’t know about that, but I figured it was about time I put some faeries in my books. It goes without saying that by faeries I’m not talking about Tinkerbell, but rather about creatures, entities, people who possess powers of enchantment that can be used for good or ill. My faeries are severely compromised by iron, and that fact drives much of the action of the series.

Q: What research did you do for this series?
A: Much of my research—knowing the Irish landscape, history, pre-history, and all the rest—has been done over the past, what, thirty years? As I said, this is all so familiar to me, it’s my happy place creatively speaking. I’m always looking for some obscure historical event or an ancient mythology to hang a story on. I recently became interested in the Lebor Gábla Érenn, which is variously translated as The Book of the Taking of Ireland or The Book of Invasions. It is a collection of old, old tales probably committed to writing sometime around the 11th century and is basically Ireland’s mythic history from the days before the flood of Noah to medieval times. There’s a wealth of crazy ‘history’ in it, but I was drawn particularly to the stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann—a race of such towering stature that they came to represent the gods and goddesses of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland. And, yes, there are faeries in the Book of Invasions, so there are faeries in my series. I also pick up on the figure of Balor, a king of a barbaric race who were the enemy of the Tuatha Dé Dannan. This king was said to have a single massive, death-dealing eye in the middle of his head. That seemed a bit Minion-like to me, so you’ll be relieved to know that my Balor is a warlord who originally had two eyes but lost one in battle. I treat these characters not as supernatural beings, but as flesh-and-blood humans—before the myth-making mechanism turned them into something else.

Q: Would you call your books ‘magic realism’?
A: That’s a curious term, and an interesting type of literature, but I don’t think it’s descriptive in my case—although Terry Pratchett said that ‘magic realism’ is just a polite term for ‘fantasy.’ In magic realism you usually have a very logical, mundane, modern world into which you inject some sort of impossible supernatural person or event, and it’s often for shock effect or atmosphere, or some other writerly purpose. With mythic fantasy, mythic history, and to a certain extent in science fiction, you have a sub-created world where what we would call ‘fantasy’ co-exists comfortably with what we might then call ‘reality’ and when it’s done well these elements are perfectly combined so the 21st-century reader becomes immersed in and convinced by the world described, and all the post-Enlightenment assumptions of contemporary life are set aside. So, within the story, everything seems normal. What I like to envision is a reader who puts down the book and looks around her and has a bit of a jolt, a bit of a ‘wow’ moment as she wonders …. wonders if her assumptions about the present world are correct, or if there’s something else going on that she can’t see, but that is nevertheless real. 

Q: Go on.
A: Well, this is why I love fantasy, and mythic history, and art and literature that dares to explore the possibility that, as Tielhard de Chardin said, ‘We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.’ We’re not mere flesh and bones, occasionally having a disorienting supernatural experience like falling in love, being overcome by natural beauty, or sensing the presence of a divine intelligence in the world. We are spiritual beings whose existence is eternal, who are created by the divine, who transcend in a million ways mere energy and matter—but for a brief period are having a physical experience insofar as we are living as human beings on Planet Earth for a set time that commenced at our human birth and terminates at our death. The conditions and interactions of that peculiar state are so intriguing to me, so compelling, they seem worth exploring in my writing. I suppose that’s what I’ve been doing one way or another for the past forty years. 

Q: Your readers thank you!
A: My readers are very welcome indeed.


Read the previous interview ‘On Research’