Friday, March 27, 2015

Round Table Discussion with Suzannah Rowntree


Hello, friends and fellow bibliophiles! I had the pleasure of reading the Arthurian novel, Pendragon's Heir, as a beta reader. Today I have the precious delight of hosting Suzannah Rowntree with the published product! Join us for a discussion of magic, beta reading, and writing with vision. 

Schuyler: Suzannah, welcome to My Lady Bibliophile, and congratulations on the release of Pendragon's Heir! I was honored to be one of your first beta readers, and got the privilege of an inside peek during the creation process. I still remember the feeling of excitement when I opened that first chapter! :)

Your first novel description was a story that debunked the myths in Guinevere's relationship with Lancelot, similar to the Richard III research in The Daughter of Time. How did your vision for the book refine over time, and did it expand throughout the writing process?

Suzannah: Hello, Schuyler, and thanks for having me!

My vision for Pendragon's Heir definitely refined and expanded over time. I read The Daughter of Time in July 2005 and it actually took me just six days after that to write the first draft of what would later become Pendragon's Heir. At the time it seemed like an immense
achievement, but at only 42,000 words in length it seems tiny in hindsight! The current draft, on the other hand, is 155,000 words, give or take.

With the expansion in size came a proportional expansion in scope and message. I began looking for ways to express some of the important themes of Arthurian myth in my novel. Since I've been writing the thing on and off for ten years, I had a good long time to chew these things over, which I think helped me to construct a very dense and tightly-woven tapestry of themes and ideas in the novel. Not all the threads are as clear as I'd like, but I think I managed to say the most important things that occurred to me--things that seem to me to lie at the very heart of Arthurian myth, like the vision of a heavenly kingdom, and the pain of having to try to build it on the shoulders of fallen, sinful, imperfect people.

Along the way, the plot also expanded to fit the themes. Supporting characters sort of poofed into existence. As recently as Draft 3, the characters of Nerys the Fay and Simon Corbin--both very central to the finished book--barely existed. One of the most recent additions, new since you first started beta-reading, was King Arthur's dog Cavall. I added him as a sort of extension of Arthur's character, since I was concerned he was getting outshone by the more warlike knights around him. Hopefully, Cavall has given him a way to be more indirectly awesome, adding a bit of balance.

That's just a small example of how the book has refined over time. I'll usually add something in order to correct some problem, and then that addition will need to be woven into the plot everywhere else in the book, and then that will make me think of some other ways to use the added character (or subplot, or event), which will in turn give rise to more added details to be woven in and built upon. The weaving-in is important--a number of times, I had to cut out events or characters that only had significance in one or two scenes or plotlines.

Schuyler: Writing is often a process of the book growing in proportion to the author. As I read, I definitely saw the vision for Sarras, and the burden ordinary men felt in trying to bring that vision to pass. In spite of our pre- and post-millienial jokes, I found the way you wove Christian theology into the plot to be truly inspiring.

Speaking of Christian theology, one of our longest discussions throughout the book was on the handling of magic elements. You were a patient teacher as I asked for explanations. :) Could you describe the foundational framework of Logres magic for your readers? I loved how you defined good and evil, human and divine powers throughout our emails.

Suzannah: I approached the magic in Pendragon's Heir from a number of starting assumptions.

1. The practice of certain magic is forbidden in Scripture (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).
2. Magic is possible, and it is permitted to speak of it and read of it, at least in histories (Exodus 7:22, for example)
3. Witchcraft is defined as similar to insubordination (1 Samuel 15:23).
4. However, not every exercise of supernatural power is forbidden. Moses, for example, was able to turn his rod into a snake and turn water to blood by the express power of God.

This last point is important because we are, in RC Sproul, Jr's words, "Enlightenment geeks". We think there is a wide distinction between natural and supernatural power. We assume that it's OK to wield natural power but wrong to have access to supernatural power.
But this is anything but Scriptural. In Scripture the ultimate divide lies not between natural and supernatural, but between obedience and disobedience, between faithfulness and rebellion. Plenty of God's prophets, apostles, and other people have been granted the authority to heal the sick, raise the dead, and perform other miracles. Not even the natural world is completely natural, since God upholds all things by the word of his power.
The ultimate question is not whether the power in question was natural or not. The ultimate question is whether the power is gained and wielded in obedience to God, for God's glory, or not.
So the "magic", or better, the supernatural power present in Pendragon's Heir was written, as much as I could manage it, according to the principles I see in Scripture. Power might be granted by God, either as a special gift or talent (Blanche gains something like this toward the end of the book) or as a general authority given to a certain group of people (like Nerys and the other fay). Or, it might be grasped in rebellion by villainous characters. Throughout the book, I have attempted to keep a very clear distinction between the two kinds of power, demonstrating the limitations of the obedient kind, and the inherent malice and evil of the rebellious kind.

Schuyler: Having that basic groundwork in place made me a lot more comfortable with the idea of certain humans having supernatural powers. After all, magic exists--it's in the Bible--but knowing that you had clear limits showed me that Christian authors could include it in an appropriate manner. It wasn't until reading your book that the light bulb came on that sorcery should be one of the sins included in a book. After all, anything that the Bible forbids is equally sinful, whether rebellion or sorcery or adultery or anything more 'respectable' as well--though with limits, of course! Wisdom and reality are best blended in equal measure.

All right, so on to the beta reading process. All told, Pendragon's Heir took about a year from start to finish, with our weekly chapter and discussions. It was actually at the same time I was sending a weekly chapter of my own book to friends, so I enjoyed double-dipping and learning about both sides of the process. There were quite a few agonizing cliff-hangers in those weeks--especially when you switched character viewpoints on me! :) And sometimes the most challenging was the Australian/US time difference when you had forgotten to attach a chapter and I had to bite my nails in suspense! What did you most enjoy about the beta reading process, and why would you recommend beta readers to others?

Suzannah: My favourite thing about the beta reading process is the encouragement it gives. Writing is hard, and it was particularly hard throughout the year I was writing the 4th draft of Pendragon's Heir, since I was busy and stressed out and finding it really hard to build up the mental stamina necessary to work for a sustained period of time on this enormous and very complex project. During that time, I more or lesssurvived on your weekly feedback. Without it, I would never have kept on through the really hard times, and Pendragon's Heir would have taken two or three times as long to finish.

Beta reading, I believe, has a negative and a positive aspect. Positively, beta reading is an encouragement that you're on the right track, that what you've written is engaging and thought-provoking. Negatively, it's a way to identify what you're doing badly, whether it's a sentence that makes no sense, a character you haven't properly fleshed out, or a moral dilemma you haven't followed through on. Both these aspects are important to me, but because I have high standards when it comes to my own work, it's the second that's most important to me. There's a passage in Proverbs about there being safety in a multitude of counsellors, and I see my fiction as being an important weapon in the long war between the city of man and the City of God. For me, my work isn't just make-believe, and it isn't just self-expression. It's a weapon. It's a tool. It's for something, and it has sharp edges. I want it to be safe for those who use it, and I also want it to be devastatingly effective for the use for which I intend it. I have all kinds of blind spots when it comes to my world, my characters, and my plots, and I believe that counsel from people I trust and respect is absolutely necessary for what I want to achieve.

In choosing beta readers, I try to find people who I trust a) to understand what I'm trying to achieve through my work, and b) to be fearless in challenging my shortcomings. I've heard of a few authors who generally don't make use of beta readers because they feel that what they do is so unique that opening their book up to criticism from others would affect the integrity of their artistic vision. I sympathise with that viewpoint, but personally I have rarely had trouble telling the difference between readers who don't understand my vision versus readers who do but have legitimate concerns.

Meanwhile I see a lot of authors turning out books containing shortcomings that demonstrate a lack of good counsel. There are books that are narrowly focused on ethical/moral rectitude, but fall splat on their faces when it comes to artistic quality: historical accuracy, writing style, characterisation, and so on. Then there are books that pursue artistic quality, occasionally to a stunning height, but which might fumble and limp on some key theological questions. As someone who has committed both sins in the past and will likely do so again in the future, I look to my beta readers as a filter to catch what I miss and pull my attention to my blind spots.

One of the reasons I chose you as a beta reader, Schuyler, was because I knew you had a more cautious approach to magic in fantasy than I did, and I wanted you to push me and test me on that. On the other hand, I chose my friend Christina as a beta reader primarily because I knew she would hold me to a formidably high artistic standard; I was thoroughly delighted when she also challenged me on a number of ethical questions. Another friend, David, beta read my book at a much later stage, but pointed out with almost surgical precision a couple of problems--one character whose repentance didn't ring true to him, a solution to a thorny plot/magic question which you and I had corresponded on rather fruitlessly for a while.

One of the most challenging pieces of feedback I had on Pendragon's Heir came from Christina: after reading the fourth draft, she told me, "Look, as it is, homeschooled girls are going to love this book. But I want to be able to recommend it to all my friends as a mature work of art." I was almost there, but I still had some polishing to do. I could give the same advice to many of the other young authors I've been reading recently: You're doing so well. But you could always be doing better. Find the beta readers who will challenge you to excel.

In November 2013 I got to meet the author and get an autograph. :)
Schuyler: Yes, yes! I love your thoughts on beta reading, especially since I have had some similar experiences. Artistry is both a career and a skill, and every good artist has to serve an apprenticeship to their field. While I love a pioneer spirit, the whole point of an apprenticeship is to submit yourself to other people who will point out weaknesses and blind spots. This sharpening process is often facilitated by beta readers, since writing mentors are hard to find.

Ok, we'll wrap up with one final question here. I think one of the greatest struggles of Christian authors is balancing the main thrust of the vision while writing gripping plot and characters. Did you ever struggle with making sure your vision of Sarras didn't overshadow realistic character development? How important to the overall theme of your book is the fact that you showed characters who failed as well as succeeded?

Suzannah: Writing mentors are hard to find. I think a lot of authors just focus on getting beta readers
from their pool of fans and followers, but in my mind, it's more important to seek criticism from among one's Titus 2 mentors.

I have lots of thoughts about balancing vision with artistic integrity, and I definitely mean to write up a whole blog post about this sometime soon! With Pendragon's Heir specifically, however, I didn't ever feel that the vision of Sarras was at odds with character development. Rather, in terms of the Part 2 plot, it promoted character development, since it provided a way for Blanche in particular to face and overcome her fears. In Sarras, she finds herself in a situation where failure is not an option. She is not a brave or a resourceful person, she is not particularly keen on defending Logres, but Sarras confronts her with a very stark choice, between pure good and undeniable evil. Refusing to fight--the option she's favoured up to this point in the plot--suddenly becomes impossible. She's forced to fight for Sarras--and like the Londoners in GK Chesterton's Napoleon of Notting Hill, that forces her also to love it. So Sarras neatly answers the question of how I'm going to force a somewhat reluctant and selfish character to grow beyond herself.

On a more macro level, Sarras of course is a symbol, almost an allegory, of our own vision as Christians on this earth. When Blanche and Perceval and the other characters talk about Sarras, I am writing what I know--conversations I've had, late at night in far more prosaic settings, so that I am writing about something I know and believe intimately; these are my loyalties, these are my ideals. It never occurred to me that maybe not all the characters in the story would experience the vision of the City in the same way. After all, my Myers-Briggs personality type is often called "the Idealist", so maybe I assume everyone feels as strongly about it as I do!

About characters who fail as well as those who succeed, I am reminded of what St Augustine once said concerning the mercy and the wrath of God--namely, that both are such integral aspects of his character and glory that neither a world in which he saved everyone, nor a world in which he damned everyone, would adequately communicate his character. My job in relation to my subcreated world, my fiction, is analogous to God's in relation to his created world, his history, with this important difference: that I am God's creature, while he is no one's but his own. Therefore not only do I have the power to pass judgement or show mercy to my characters, but insofar as my fiction tells my readers something about history, and insofar as my hand in the story's plot tells my readers something about God's providence, I have the duty to symbolise God as he truly is.

Which is just a roundabout way of saying that in real life, some people fail and others succeed, and my book is bound by that truth. It is important that everyone in my book has weaknesses and failures; that good characters with bad theology are inevitably destroyed; that characters hovering on the brink of destruction are yanked back by grace; that heroic characters stumble into weakness; that villainous characters stumble into grace. That's life, and we don't always understand or like it, but there it is, all the same. Demas finds his silver-mine, and departs the faith; Saul goes to Damascus breathing dragon-fire and meets a hero on the road.

And this is indeed an integral part of the plot. How can deeply sinful people build a perfect City? The answer is that we don't. God does it. And that is what Pendragon's Heir is about.


Where to Get the Book:
Wow! How's that for writing with vision? If this whets your appetite for the story itself, then look no further for plot synopsis and purchase links! Also, you can find my review here

Plot: 
Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she even wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of--or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?

Purchase Links: 


About the Author: 
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t traveling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at www.vintagenovels.com and is the author of both fiction and non-fiction. Pendragon’s Heir, her debut novel, released March 26 on Kindle and in paperback.

3 comments:

  1. I loved this post/interview, Schuyler! Great idea. :)

    Thank you, Suzannah, for sharing your thoughts with us. I especially appreciated your points about magic and the use of the supernatural and why/how you incorporated into your book. It's been an area of literature that I have always questioned myself (when reading it; I haven't written anything), but hearing your convictions really helped to explain it for me. I hope to read your book someday!

    ~Kaleigh S.

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  2. Wow, I really liked this post! :) It was so good and thought-provoking and I enjoyed hearing a little bit more about this book. Thanks for sharing with us, Suzannah! :D

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  3. Kaleigh, I'm so glad you found my comments on magic helpful. I'm grateful for the folks who view fictional magic with suspicion because they've pushed me to search Scripture for what, I hope, is a Scriptural view on the subject, not just a view I've stumbled into. I'm sure I have way more learning and thinking to do on this though :).

    Carrie-Grace, I'm glad you enjoyed the post! I hope that whenever it is you eventually get to read my novel, you enjoy it heaps. :) After hearing from Schuyler about it and being such an integral part of our finishing-the-4th-draft-celebrations, it must already feel like an old friend!

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