Interview: Eileen Kernaghan, Poet and Novelist

By C. June Wolf

Eileen Kernaghan Photo

Eileen Kernaghan is the author of seven novels, the most recent of which, Winter on the Plain of Ghosts, was released in June 2004. WOPG follows the life of a young boy in the Indus Valley in what is now India, long before the area's current cultures and religions had come into being. The novel has a distinctive feel to it. The setting is intriguing, and Eileen is a careful researcher, giving readers not just a good story, but reliable interpretations of what is known to be true about a given historical place and time. From the WOPG author's note:

Archaeological evidence tells us that when the Indo-Europeans arrived, the Indus Valley cities were already dying. The invasion from the northwest, as described in the Rig Veda (if indeed it was an invasion) was simply one more event in a long process of decay. Many causes have been suggested—changes in the climatic conditions, a shift in the course of the Indus River, overgrazing, stripping of the forest cover, tectonic uplifting of the sea-coast, mud volcanoes. What is generally agreed is that some change took place which upset the delicate balance—ecological, sociological, and economic—that holds a civilization together. This book presents a few of the possibilities.

As a reader, I often prefer spare, undistracting language. Eileen's writing is, on the contrary, lush, but it is not distracting. It is poetic in way that enhances the story rather than detracting from it. It was in large part her language, the vividness of her writing, that drew me back again and again.

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WOPG moves slowly but sumptuously; imperceptibly a child becomes a youngster and then a man. In each stage of his life he has challenges to face, and yet there are rewards as well: joys, friendships, quiet moments between the sometimes terrible difficulties. In other words, it reads like life—compressed, certainly, but rich, with an honest handling of matters that are all too often glibly dealt with in fantasy novels.

C. June Wolf: Could you tell me a little about you as a writer? When you began writing seriously, how you got into your chosen genre, some of your favorite publications? (Yes—your own publications. Time to toot your horn a bit.)

Eileen Kernaghan: I began to write seriously when I was twelve. I sold a children's story to The Vancouver Sun, for which I was paid twelve dollars and sixty-five cents. What an epiphany—that I could earn money by doing what I liked best! In Grade Seven I wrote a rousing tale of interplanetary adventure in weekly installments, which I handed round to my classmates. There was no pay for that one, but I learned to keep my audience interested by always ending on a cliff-hanger. Starting around the same time, I was the Grindrod correspondent for The Enderby Commoner newspaper, reporting on births, marriages, and other social events in our farming village of 600 people. (It helped to listen in shamelessly on our party line.) In high school I wrote and produced a radio play (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) for the Vernon radio station, joined the debating team (and ended up writing the arguments for both sides), wrote the candidates' speeches for the school elections, and scripted the cheers for the cheerleading squad. (Nobody would have dreamed of making me a cheerleader!)

The high point of my Grade Twelve English class was our production of Wild Bill Shakespeare Rides Again by the Stratford-on-Shuswap Players (script mostly by me). We gave minor roles to both of the English teachers, and conscripted the science teacher to help us create a spectacular (though harmless) explosion for our version of Macbeth. We invited the whole community, and played to a full house.

For the next twenty years I wrote only essays, term papers, lesson plans, and eventually—after three babies arrived in the space of four years—nothing at all.

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As for my choice of genre, I wrote what I most enjoyed reading—fantasy and science fiction. When my children were all in school and I started writing again I experimented with other genres, including mysteries and horror, but it was a science fiction story that first found publication, and, apart from poetry and one Victorian mystery story, I've stayed faithful to the speculative genre.

CJW: What an excellent training ground! Did you find a lot of encouragement from the adults around you, or was it more a self-generated confidence—the positive response from your peers? What kept you focussed on writing rather than some other enterprise through the early years?

EK: I got a great deal of encouragement from my parents, who bought me my first typewriter when I was twelve. In fact, my mother was my research assistant when I was writing for the Commoner—she made the phone calls while I wrote up the information. My classmates seemed to enjoy the stories I passed around the class or published in the school newspaper. Our high school was tiny, and there was plenty of opportunity for oddball interests to flourish. And it helped that my teachers were supportive as well. Years later at a conference, I ran into my fourth-grade teacher. He told me he had saved one of my very first stories—an obvious homage to Alice in Wonderland called Molly in Mouseland.

As to what kept me focussed on writing, that was the one thing I was good at—I couldn't carry a tune, couldn't dance or draw a straight line, was hopeless at sports. And when I was still in elementary school, outside of haying season there was not much else to do.

CJW: When I think of the style of writing that you would have been exposed to in your youthful reading of Weird Tales and the like, it is nothing like the very studied and lyrical style that you have evolved. Was this a lengthy process—that is, did you start off writing like a pulp writer—or were there other literary influences that shaped you at that time?

EK: Well, yes, I did read a lot of comic books and pulp magazines—but I also read Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Dickens—some pretty serious stuff. If I have a "studied and lyrical style," it's something that evolved over many years of writing. I didn't intentionally start off writing like a pulp writer (though remember, there were some pretty amazing people, like Bradbury, Jack Vance, Clark Ashton Smith, writing for the pulps in those days). My first attempts at genre writing probably had literary pretensions, but they were pretty darned awful, and I'm glad they never saw the light of day.

CJW: What have you been up to on the literary front this year?

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EK: This has been an unusual year for me, with a book released in June and another one, The Alchemist's Daughter, out in September. I'm a slow writer, and so, as a rule, my books appear every three or four years.

[Editor's note: The Alchemist's Daughter was recently shortlisted for the Sheila A. Egoff Children's Literature Prize, a British Columbia Book Prize.]

CJW: Winter on the Plain of Ghosts is a wonderful book. But unlike your other books, all of which you've found publishers for, this one is self-published. Why is that? It isn't because of the quality of the writing.

EK: WOPG never seemed to find the right editor, or fit into the right market niche. Mainstream publishers thought it was genre fantasy. Fantasy publishers thought it was a mainstream historical novel. One editor objected to it being told in retrospect, as an autobiography—he felt that if the reader knew the protagonist survived to tell the story, there was no suspense. (From my point of view, there are other bad things besides dying that can happen to a character.) And then there was the editor who clearly had not read past the first paragraph of my synopsis, and decided it was a young adult novel. And so it went. WOPG wasn't just an acronym. It was also the sound of the returned manuscript thumping back into my mailbox.

For a number of years WOPG lay forlornly in my desk drawer, gathering dust. From time to time I would package it up and send it out to seek its fortune, but it always bounced back. Then, a couple of years ago, an inheritance made it possible to do what my husband [Patrick] had been suggesting right along: publish WOPG ourselves. So Neville Books acquired a private publishing imprint: Flying Monkey Press.

CJW: Well, bravo to Patrick for putting you up to this.

Do you think that your experience in publishing WOPG is typical of fantasy publishing internationally at this time, or has it more to do with the state of publishing in Canada specifically?

EK: I'd say it's typical of fantasy publishing internationally. Canada doesn't really come into the picture, because so few Canadian publishers accept adult fantasy. I think several factors kept WOPG from finding a publisher. Though things are starting to change somewhat, over the past twenty years or so fantasy publishers have been pretty conservative in what they're willing to accept.

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The industry is very much market-driven, and editors tend to buy the same kind of book that has already proven to sell. A publisher wants a convenient niche into which to slot your book. Formula fantasies, especially in series, are more easily marketed than the one-off, hard to categorize book with an unusual setting. And then there's the sheer volume of books being produced, for a finite number of fantasy readers. In the late seventies and early eighties, far fewer titles were produced. If you wrote a publishable book, chances were it would get published. My first fantasy novel, Journey to Aprilioth, sold the second time out. By 1989, when I published The Sarsen Witch, the third book in the Grey Isles trilogy, the number of titles released each month had skyrocketed, and accordingly, individual sales figures plummeted. A lot of careers bit the dust in the late eighties.

CJW: You recently received an Aurora Award, didn't you? What book was that for?

EK: That was for my second young adult fantasy, The Snow Queen—a kind of feminist revisiting of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

CJW: Let's discuss Winter on the Plain of Ghosts specifically. Would you like to talk about the process of researching this book? And tell me—why the Indus Valley, anyway?

EK: After writing the Grey Isles series, which is mostly set in pre-Celtic Britain, I was looking around for another setting. One day, while browsing in a Victoria, BC, used bookstore, I came across a small pamphlet which caught my interest. It turned out to be the first in a series of privately published monographs by John Newberry of Victoria (who was, as I recall, the brother of the bookstore owner), in which Newberry recorded his ongoing efforts to decipher the mysterious Mohenjo-daro seal inscriptions. It occurred to me that this might be material for a new novel. I contacted John Newberry, and subscribed to his ongoing series (which was intended to form part of a much larger work on the Mitanni.) Of course it's always a wise move to check the competition, when you're starting a new book. It seemed as though no one, in North America at least, had set in a novel in the early Indus Valley. Robert Silverberg used Mohenjo-daro as part of a time-travel novelette, but that was it. So then came a long period of research into the archaeology of the Indus Valley civilization. The physical ruins of Mohenjo-daro had been thoroughly studied and documented. What sort of people lived there, and what their lives were like, was a matter of conjecture. But I tried to follow the rule "never violate what is known to be true."

CJW: You write so beautifully, Eileen! It isn't often I feel called back to a book for its language as much as the story. Well done.

EK: The prose in my earlier books has more than once been described as "gentle" and "lyrical." Readers of those books seem surprised by the level of violence and bloodshed in WOPG. But this book is as much historical novel as fantasy, and it takes place in a violent time and place. Anyone shocked by the opening chapter, describing child sacrifice, will be more disturbed to learn that this no invention of mine, but an actual practice which survived into fairly recent times.

CJW: I don't want to give much away about the novel, but I wonder if there is anything about the story itself you'd like to mention before we go on.

EK: Something I realized as I finished WOPG is that in a way the language has the feel of a Victorian novel. Maybe that's the influence of all the Victorian novels I read in my youth. And as well, I can see echoes of the Weird Tales writers of the twenties and thirties, who wrote of sorcery and spell-making in lost kingdoms and vanished cities of antiquity.

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WOPG is in some ways very different from my other books. In another way, it's part of a pattern. A friend pointed out that every one of my novels involves a journey. That will be the armchair traveller in me. One other thing I should mention: those scenes of rebellion, mob violence, looting—though they may seem inspired by the TV news, they were actually written fifteen years ago.

CJW: Do you think that you have finished with this ancient place in your writing, or might you return to it one day? I for one would love to spend more time there. I'm particularly intrigued by the unorthodox religion that was growing up in the city walls. I may want to join that cult. . . .

EK: When I started WOPG, I envisioned a series of books, to be called "The Meluhhan Chronicles." With WOPG still seeking a publisher, that project was put on hold—though not abandoned. Some day I'd like to tell Bima's story—her travels and experiences as a dancer, in the world of 1900 BC.

CJW: That would be excellent. I really like this character and would love to see how you'd develop a personality like hers in this setting.

EK: The character (and description) of Bima was inspired by the famous bronze figurine of a dancing girl found in the ruins of Mohenjo-daro. It may be nearly four thousand years old, but looking at it—the lithe dancer's body, the easy, confident stance—it's easy to imagine what the model may have been like.

CJW: Is there anything you'd like to add about WOPG or the writing of it? Any little highs or lows—or has it been too long to remember?

EK: Needless to say, the lows came each time the manuscript was rejected. The highs? That would be when the first two reviews appeared on the internet—and they were good.

CJW: So The Alchemist's Daughter is now out as well. Congratulations! Do you want to say a little about it before we close?

EK: TAD was a lot of work to research, and a lot of fun to write. It's set in Elizabethan England, a year before the Spanish Armada attacked, and it tells the story of Sidonie Quince, daughter of the alchemist Simon Quince. In attempting to save her father from the fate of alchemists making false promises to the Queen, Sidonie is caught up in a web of conspiracy and intrigue. While Sidonie and her father are invented characters, some very famous historical figures make an appearance.

CJW: Thanks very much, Eileen. Oh—by the way, you are on your way to Italy in a short time, aren't you? Any chance of a book coming out of that?

EK: Good question. A novel set in Renaissance Italy would be fun to research. But too soon to speculate.

CJW: Wonderful. Well, good luck in all of your literary endeavors, and I look forward to reading whatever you next send our way.

EK: Thanks, Casey!

Eileen's latest book, The Alchemist's Daughter, was released by Thistledown Press in September 2004. A complete bibliography of her work is available at BC BookWorld. Winter on the Plain of Ghosts is available from Amazon, and all of Eileen's out-of-print books are readily available through Abebooks.com.


C. June Wolf Photo

C. June Wolf lives in Vancouver, Canada. Her story "The Coin," set in Haiti, is in the upcoming anthology of science fiction and fantasy Tesseracts 9, and she has a number of other writing projects on the go. She values integrity, compassion, and a great sense of humour above all other things. (Except maybe Fluffy.)