What was the inspiration for this book—another dream?
Yes, I’m afraid so. One night I fell asleep and dreamed the terrifying climax to Part One, where Mair finds herself lost in the primeval cave exactly as it happens in the story. I woke up, heart pounding, sweating, grabbed a pencil and paper and wrote it all down before I forgot it. What I wrote then appears more or less unchanged, and comprises most of Chapters 16 and 17—I’ve altered the odd word, but it’s substantially the same. It still makes the hairs stand up on my neck when I read it, even now, because I suppose I saw it happen—I was there. And so, in a sense, it is also true. After that I had to figure out what it meant—and so the book was born, growing up around the dream like the walls of a ghostly castle.
What were your other inspirations?
In writing this story I wanted to create the sort of book I would have loved to read when I was a teenager, or young adult, many years ago. So I had certain criteria in mind.
It had to be set at Christmas, with lots of snow, in a community which had been cut off from the outside world. It had to have wolves, for I don’t think there’s a more magical phrase in English than The wolves are running (unless it’s Over the hills and far away). And it had to be set in my beloved mid Wales, remote, bleak and beautiful, where I was living at the time.
I wanted it to involve magic, but not be set in a “fantasy” world like Middle Earth or The Land, because, although I love reading those stories, the ones that really fire my imagination involve the real and familiar becoming strange and disturbing.
Many years ago, when I was little, my parents brought my brother and me over from New Zealand to a village in England (not far from Daventry in the Midlands) one winter, and I had my first real experience of snow. I remember I was playing outside as the sun went down, and I looked up and saw no boundary between my aunt’s garden and the fields beyond. All was covered in thick snow, and the grey twilight seemed to stretch on to infinity. The landscape I thought I knew had changed, become alien and somehow threatening. I dropped my toys and ran inside, pretty freaked, much to the amusement of the grown-ups (in much the same way I laughed at our cats when they first experienced snow). But that feeling has never left me, and I wanted to try to recreate something of it in this tale.
How many of the legends in the book did you make up?
All of them, more or less, though each element had its won inspiration. Annwn is the Otherworld of the Tylwyth Teg, but the version of it that appears in this book—the Lady, the shadow realm—as well as the Wraiths themselves—they’re all mine.
The legends about Alcwyn in Chapter 3 are substantially my own invention too, though they are, of course, steeped in “real” myths and legends—for instance, Merlin was imprisoned in a tree by Nimue. But I have always been a bit disappointed by real myths—such as those in the Mabinogion—they always seem a bit, well, improbable.
The red kite is a rare bird, though flourishing once again, native to the region, and adopted as the emblem of Powys County Council; we used to see them wheeling over our house occasionally, always a privilege. As for the topography, Elfael was/is a real place, first a minor kingdom, then a marcher lordship, then part of the county of Radnorshire, now absorbed into Powys County Council. The village of Llandderwen is my own creation, as is Llyn Brân, though the landscape is a kind of composite Radnorshire landscape. But, as always, I prefer my own imagination to real life…
Tell us a little about the character of Medwyn Rowlands.
Okay, this will involve some potential spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book you should maybe skip this bit.
One stock character in fiction I have long thought about is that of the good, wise old counsellor, who gets the hero started on his quest, acts as a moral compass, and usually has to die or disappear about a third of the way in to force the hero to act on his own, enter manhood and generally grow up. The name may change—he may be Merlin in The Once and Future King, Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, or Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars—but the character is essentially the same.
Well, I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if the wise old counsellor wasn’t so good, and in fact turned out to be a baddie. What if Gandalf knifed Frodo in the back and stole the Ring, if Obi-wan had gone over to the Dark Side? That was the origin of Medwyn Rowlands.
But Medwyn isn’t a clear-cut good guy or bad guy, is he?
No, he quickly developed into something more interesting and ambiguous. For example, he has many parallels with the legendary magician Alcwyn in my story—in the first chapter he’s discovered sitting on a split tree, with the implication that he may have just escaped from it; he redeems a red kite from the shadow world, a type of bird which Alcwyn left there as a pledge; and his spirit ends up imprisoned in a tree, just like Alcwyn.
So is Medwyn really the same person as Alcwyn?
I was determined right from the start that this point should be left open, and the reader should be free to make up their own mind. More may become clear in the sequels—or it may not. Sometimes you can have TMI, as the young people nowadays say, I believe…
What can you tell us about the sequels?
I conceived Wraiths as the first part of a trilogy. In the second part, called The World’s Midnight, and which is substantially written, Mair journeys to an alternative medieval Wales to rescue Heulwen’s spirit. It’s set around the time of the Norman Conquest and features magic and battles and some really creepy monsters. It’s a good, old-fashioned quest fantasy novel.
The third part (to be titled The Invisible Spheres) will return to the present day and pick up events from the end of Wraiths—but because it will be informed by what’s happened in part two, the focus will be on death and loss.
Sounds fun. When’s The World’s Midnight (Elfael Trilogy Book 2) Coming Out?
I’m hoping to publish it on Amazon kindle at Easter 2013.
So is that it for now?
By no means! Over the years I’ve written a number of short stories, all more or less fantasy, or SF, and I’m planning on publishing a collection in time for Christmas 2012. It’s going to be called The Dragon of Stroma and Other Tales, and will be astonishingly good value at 99 cents a copy.