The Power of Storytelling to Teach and to Heal: A Q&A With Juliet Marillier

April 7, 2020

Have you ever wanted to twirl through the night with twelve dancing princesses? Or to break a curse and restore your brothers to their human forms (even if the youngest will always still have one swan wing)? Or to meet a beast in his haunted garden and work in his magic-laced library?

Let’s be real – we know you do, especially that last one. And so we HIGHLY recommend diving into the exquisite work of author Juliet Marillier, who has been enchanting us both with her folklore-steeped novels since we were in high school. Her novels are lush, poignant, romantic, and they tap into exactly the kind of magic that we desperately need right now.

Our favorite of her novels (although it’s REALLY hard to pick just one!) is Heart’s Blood, her stunning retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Set in twelfth-century Ireland, in a ruined castle, the story follows the adventures of Caitrin, a young scribe with incredible talent and tenacious courage, and Anluan, a chieftan under a terrible curse. The characters are ridiculously charming, the ambiance is incredible, and the book handles real and difficult issues with unfailing compassion.

We obviously could not resist choosing Heart’s Blood as our April book club pick. We’ll be meeting virtually on Sunday, April 19th at 7PM EDT to talk about this gorgeous novel, and we can’t wait to see you there!

As a special bonus, we are ECSTATIC to share this Q&A with Juliet! It’s all about Heart’s Blood but also her love of folklore and fairy tales, the power of storytelling, her writing process, and her upcoming novels and stories. We were thrilled when she agreed to do a Q&A with us, and we were completely delighted with her beautiful and generous answers – you can absolutely see what makes her books shine so brightly in her replies. Enjoy!

Photograph by Alex Cearns, Houndstooth Studio

A Q&A With Juliet Marillier on Heart’s Blood, Fairy Tales, and More!

1.Your novels have retold fairy tales like “The Six Swans,” “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” What drew you to retell “Beauty and the Beast” in Heart’s Blood? Was there a particular version of the story that inspired you? Or an aspect of the story that you really loved or that you felt you needed to change?

“Beauty and the Beast has always been one of my favourite fairy tales. I must have first discovered the story in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book. That’s one of the most familiar versions of the story, which as you know goes back a long way in one form or another. I’m glad I didn’t grow up with the Disney fairy tale movies, because I love the older, often much darker versions of traditional stories. Beauty and the Beast is a deeply romantic tale. There’s the stolen rose, the mysterious castle in the woods, the magic mirror, the heart-stopping journey to get back to the Beast before he dies of a broken heart. But for today’s reader, some aspects are jarring. I wanted to keep those romantic elements, because I love a good love story. But I wanted to present the characters and their relationships and decisions in a way that worked for me and for today’s readership.

Illustration by Paul Woodroffe

What don’t I like about the fairy tale? Beauty’s lack of agency looms large – she’s so often a victim of other people’s poor choices (her father, her sisters) and rarely gets to make her own decisions. In my story, Caitrin is a victim of domestic violence, she’s been gaslighted, and she’s almost lost her sense of self-worth. She’s finally made a brave choice to escape. I gave her a place to run to; what she’s left behind is more terrifying than Whistling Tor, which scares the pants off all the locals with its creepy inhabitants, things that go bump in the night, and reclusive chieftain. I gave Caitrin skill, compassion and a good heart. But I also left her physically and mentally scarred by past trauma. She has her own problems; this is no straightforward ‘girl saves boy’ story.

The other thing I wanted to change was the magical transformation of the Beast character into a handsome hero. That gives the message that to be loved and accepted a person must be physically beautiful, wealthy, and probably royal too. No. Just no. Anluan is disabled as the result of a palsy (a childhood stroke – they do happen) which has left him partially paralysed down one side. In that time and culture, such an illness would not have been well understood, and people might have believed the victim cursed. His transformation occurs, not through a kiss or the flick of a magic wand, but because he gradually learns, through Caitrin, that he is a worthwhile person, that he can be a leader, that he has folk who value him and love him. That he can be a lover, a husband, perhaps a father. At the same time Caitrin too is learning. That she can be brave, that she can confront the demons of her own past, that she can love a man without fear. The message I want to convey is that everyone is worthy of love, but that before you can reach out to others you must learn to love and respect yourself.”

Illustration by Warwick Goble

2. All your writing is deliciously steeped in folklore. Why is folklore such a big part of the stories you create?

“I’ve been intrigued by folklore since I was a small child. As a member of a druid order, I believe in the power of storytelling to teach and to heal. As characters in my books quite often say, even the most unlikely of old tales probably once had a basis in truth, and even the silliest ones have some wisdom to share. Folklore links us, as humans, with the rest of the natural world. It shows us our place in the web of existence. Through it we learn the importance of history in shaping how well we deal with today’s challenges. We learn respect for the unknown, the different, the Other. And the more we learn, the more we realise we don’t know. It’s a lifetime journey.”

3. When you’re writing a new novel, what is your process like? Do you discover the characters as you write? Are you an outlining queen (like Brittany) or an explorer with a very questionable map (like Sara) or somewhere in between?

“I do masses of planning before I start writing the book. I like to know where I’m going, otherwise it feels a bit like building a cathedral from the lower left hand corner upwards without any architectural plan and hoping it will hold together! In the research and thinking-out stage I will generally be working from one particular idea or concept, whether it’s something from folklore or fairy tale, or an interesting event from history, or an issue from the contemporary world (for instance, the Blackthorn & Grim series, also set in early medieval Ireland, grew from my interest in military PTSD.)

Once the research and overall planning stages are done, I finalise my story outline and draw up a chapter plan. The plan is flexible – minor characters may march into the centre of the action, plot strands may not quite go where I first intended, history or geography may be tweaked to suit (most of my books are set in versions of the real world, but with uncanny/fantastic elements added, based on the likely beliefs of that time and culture.)  For the current novel I have a chapter grid on Excel, with different colours for the various narrators, who take chapters turn about. I revise as I go, generally three chapters at a time, and I frequently go back over the whole manuscript-to-date before writing the next part. I don’t write a sequence of complete drafts. For me, it’s one continuous drafting and revision process lasting many months, until I get to the end, by which time the manuscript (I hope) is fairly polished.”

4. OK, we’re dying to know. What did Eichri do? What was the sin he refers to that he thinks condemns him?

“As almoner at the monastery he siphoned off funds intended for charitable works to a pet project of his own. When this was found out, his assistant took the blame and Eichri denied any responsibility. The assistant was booted out of the monastery and later committed suicide.”

5. One of our favourite things about Heart’s Blood is that the hero is disabled and awesome. We are so happy to see a disabled protagonist, and especially to see a disabled protagonist who isn’t killed or cured by the end of the novel – he gets to have a happily ever after and a beautiful romance as a disabled person. This is SO rare in fairy tales and pretty rare in a lot of contemporary fiction. How did you come up with the character of Anluan?

“Once I’d decided the cause of Anluan’s disability was a stroke (at age 13) I considered how that would have affected him mentally as well as physically. He’d also lost both his parents at an early age. He’d have pretty low self-esteem, despite the presence of the stalwart Magnus. Being ostracized by the locals would increase his self-loathing. Being unable to do certain things and being slow/clumsy at others would make him impatient and frustrated. And of course there is a malign influence in his house that he doesn’t know about, something that doesn’t help his self-confidence. I did want him to be redeemable; able to learn that he could, in fact, lead a full life and be the leader he was born to be.

I have a friend who is a professional calligrapher – she crafted the beautiful chapter headings for the book – and her input was brilliant for the writing elements of this story. I was particularly pleased to learn how teaching a left-hander to write with a quill pen requires a high level of physical closeness! Learning to write legibly may seem a small thing, but for Anluan it’s a key step forward. Note, after that initial meeting in the garden Caitrin never thinks negatively about his appearance – for her, the disability makes no difference. She finds him beautiful.

It was a delight to follow Anluan’s gradual development into the person he is at the end, accepting of himself, confident in his dealings with others. No magic wand required!”

6. If you had to choose a fairy tale or legend to tell the story of your own life, what would it be? What tale is your heart-story?

“That is a challenging question! I can’t think of a particular story that fits. But I was aware while writing Heart’s Blood and then while re-reading it before answering these questions, that there’s more of me in Caitrin than in any of my other female protagonists. Through her, I celebrate women who manage to escape from toxic situations, regain their sense of self and make purposeful new lives.”

7. What are a few books that you’ve read lately that you’ve loved? We all need book recommendations now more than ever!

“I loved Madeline Miller’s Circe. Beautifully written, a wonderful reimagining of a myth. The storytelling is very immediate, and the pacing excellent despite the story covering a huge time span. The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith is set in a part of Hell called the Unwritten Wing, housing unwritten or unfinished books. Librarian Claire must track and capture a Hero who escapes from his book and goes on the run. I found this highly entertaining. For more of a folklore/fairy tale sensibility, try Zoe Gilbert’s Folk, a collection of interlinked short stories set on the remote island of Neverness.”  

8. (a) Tell us about your upcoming collection, Mother Thorn. (b) What project are you currently working on?

Mother Thorn is a collection of four fairy tale-based stories written by me and illustrated by the wonderful Kathleen Jennings. Readers will recognise the source material in three of these stories (The Well of the World’s End; The Princess and the Pea; The Tinder Box) while the fourth story is based on the folkloric belief that a lone hawthorn may house a portal to the Otherworld. But I’ve taken each in its own quirky direction. Readers will meet young women making tough choices bravely and young men being kind and steadfast. Also dogs, a toad, and too many cups of tea to count! Mother Thorn comes out in November from Serenity Press. I expect the story Pea Soup to be the first ever version of The Princessand the Pea to allow the pea a point of view (something my readers challenged me to include.)

I’m currently working on the third book in the Warrior Bards series, set in medieval Ireland (in an earlier period than Heart’s Blood.) The second book in the series, A Dance with Fate, comes out this September, and I’m excited about that – the story has action, drama, magic, music, and a love story. It’s best if people read this series in order, starting with The Harp of Kings.”

Can we just mention again how giddy we are that Juliet agreed to do this interview with us? BECAUSE WE ARE SO GIDDY!! As mentioned above, we have both loved her forever (Brittany’s Mom has loved her forever too, and she was ALSO so giddy when she found out we were doing an interview with her!) Getting to talk to a favorite author about our very favorite of her novels was an absolute dream come true. Thank you so much to Juliet for her kindness and enthusiasm!

Once again, our book club meets Sunday, April 19th at 7PM EDT to talk about Heart’s Blood – we can’t wait! See you there?

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