Ever since I read the first book in the Dalriada trilogy by Jules Watson, I have been hooked on her writing! I have been anxiously anticipating the release of The Swan Maiden. I was therefore very pleased to get the opportunity to interview Jules on behalf of all of us here at Historical Tapestry. I think I might have been a little bit excited on the Australian connection on the day I wrote the questions, but I hope that I can be forgiven for that!
How does an Aussie girl end up living in Scotland, writing books about Ancient Celts?
I had "this thing" about the Celts even as a child - for no reason whatsoever. My parents were English immigrants. I'm not Irish or Scots by blood, and no one in my family knew about such things. It just came up from within! It made me start reading all the Celtic-inspired fantasy authors for kids, such as Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and LLoyd Alexander. I was obsessed with ancient peoples, and when I got to university I did a degree in archaeology to feed the maw of the history beast. That sealed my love of the Celts. I then fell in love with The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, set in Dark Age Britain, which had Celtic undertones. I kept waiting for another Mists of Avalon, with the same mixture of adventure, romance and Celtic spirituality, but no one was writing such a book. When I decided to write, I knew that's what I had to do. My husband is a Scot transplanted to Australia as a child, but I did not get my connection to Scotland from him. I just knew I had to go there, I was drawn there, and the moment I saw the wild mountains I knew instinctively it was my home. I've been trying to get my husband to move back there ever since, and finally I succeeded! The Celts came first, the history second, Scotland third, and writing fourth. And last is that I married all of it together and ended up married to a Scot, in Scotland, writing Scottish history.
Looking about your About Me page on your lovely new website, you have had some pretty interesting jobs. What was the strangest, or most interesting job that you have had?
I would have to say driving huge trucks on a gold mine in Western Australia. One minute I was a bookish city-dweller, the next I was standing in 60 C heat in a red desert, surrounded by gigantic machinery digging rocks out of a kilometre-long hole in the ground. It was like a Wild West camp, with only kangaroos and tattooed bikers for company! I had an absolute blast. My memorable moment was when I was driving an enormous house-sized truck, piled with rock, out of the pit. The track was wet when I got to the dump, and I lost control. This behemoth started to slide beneath me, and then did a complete spin in what felt like slow motion. When I stopped I just sat there, wondering if I was alive. So yes, that was interesting!
One of the things that I often hear from authors is that they don't get time to read very much anymore, or that they have to read outside their genre. Do you still find time to read, and if so what are a couple of your favourite recent reads? What are your favourite books and/or authors?
I am guilty of that. The problem is that when you become an author, you tend to write the kinds of things you liked reading before. But now you can't read them, in case you accidentally cross-pollinate. So all of a sudden your reading slows. Also, after looking at words all day I need a break from that. I have stopped reading, and it's awful, so I am trying to start up again. My favorite books are The Mists of Avalon and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, plus Lord of the Rings. I also really liked Joan Wolf's series about the Saxons and Britons. I obviously have to read outside my genre, but have not been very good at it of late.
When I read the Dalriada trilogy, I was particularly impressed with the detail that you were able to provide of life in the tribes. Reading the authors notes, it seemed that there is very little known, so how much freedom does that give you as a writer? Is the same true for your new book, The Swan Maiden?
One reason I wrote about the first century AD in Scotland is because not much is known. I wanted to write a great adventure romance, and I didn't want to be too restricted by historical records. I have stuck to the bits we know - mainly from Roman records about their invasions into Scotland - but I personally loved setting my imagination free to do the rest. I thread aspects of Celtic spirituality all through my books, in the sense of dreams and visions, and I think that sits better in a little-known time. It's a cliche, but the Scottish landscape IS mysterious, and if you set any story here, the edges naturally start dissolving into the mists. I like hovering at the fringes between known and the great unknown, between civilisation and wilderness, and that translates into my books. This is even stronger in The Swan Maiden, since it is based on an Irish myth. My previous trilogy used scraps of Roman history, and archaeology of the first century AD. But scholars don't even know when the Irish epics were set, so even that certainty is taken away. I chose to set The Swan Maiden in the first century BC, so the lifestyles of the characters are roughly the same as in the Dalriada trilogy, and I draw on the same archaeology and snippets of Roman writings about the Celts from across the "Celtic" world.
Tell us a bit more about The Swan Maiden? What inspired you to tell this particular story? What are you hoping the reader takes away from the book?
It is based on the tale of Deirdre and the Sons of Usnech, which though it was not written down until the 12th century, probably dates to earlier than the 6th century. I love the heroic Irish myths for all their drama and nobility, and the Deirdre tale is one of the most beautiful and tragic. I always found it inspiring: the tale of a girl betrothed from birth to an old king, who finally takes her fate into her own hands. She defies her king and her people and runs away, claiming her own love and a life of freedom. It's incredibly romantic in the same vein as Romeo and Juliet, Paris and Helen of Troy, and Tristan and Isolde: lovers defying society to be together. There's also a feminist element, I suppose, of a woman rejecting the shackles put around her by a male world of warriors and power-hungry kings. I hope her courage is inspiring, but most of all, I like the way she breaks away to discover who she really is in her deepest self. She claims her right to stand as herself alone, not existing only in relation to a man. I think that's inspiring for everyone, male or female - to somehow be your own unique self in this crazy world. Of course, she also risks all for love, and I think love is a vital thing to cling to the crazier the world gets. I'm also interested in the spiritual elements of the Celts: the ability of souls to move between different forms; the existence of an Otherworld close to our own. So I hope readers go away feeling uplifted, that we can transcend violence and tragedy and still triumph.
Your current agent represents some really big names in historical fiction. How important is this in terms of getting your books out, particularly into the US market? Does the same agent represent you in all regions?
Yes, it is important. Over thirty years, he has built up a reputation for spotting bestsellers, and signing leading authors in the historical fiction / fantasy genre. He knows all the US editors buying work like mine, and they respect his judgement. So when he's putting me forward, they are least going to listen to what he says. They may still pass, of course, because they don't like it even if he does, or it's not their thing. But having a great agent puts you way ahead of the pack. He represents me worldwide.
What's next for Jules Watson?
I'm currently working on the second book based on ancient Irish myths. It's not strictly a sequel to The Swan Maiden, and both books can stand alone. It is called The Raven Queen, and it's a reimagination of the life of Queen Medb or Maeve, and her part in the famous Irish epic The Tain. She is a juicy character, since the monks that wrote down the oral tales about her in a later period portray her as a sex-crazed war-mongerer. I wanted to imagine what sort of woman she "could" have been to inspire such hatred. My previous heroines have all had a spiritual dimension, often being seers or priestesses, but in this case Maeve is a warrior and ruthless ruler in her own right. Though there is an intriguing druid lurking about in the background...
Last question. Having lived overseas myself, every now and again there were things that I missed from Australia. Is there anything that you miss from Australia and why?
I don't like the blazing heat, but I miss the feel of the air in Perth on a summer's eve when the burning sun had just dropped below the horizon. Then there was a magical hour of dusk where you could sit on the beach and smell the salt air, and enjoy the balminess. I miss balmy. I also miss Australians! They are so easy-going and up for anything, and I like how they are free of class consciousness. I didn't realise there was an "Australian-ness" of character until after I left. Oh, and good Thai food...and swimming... It was hard to write misty Scottish epics in such a climate, however. I get very inspired hiking up Scottish hillsides, despite the rain!
Author of Celtic historical fiction
NEW BOOK: THE SWAN MAIDEN -
the ancient myth of Deirdre,
the Irish "Helen of Troy"
Thank you so much Jules for taking the time to answer our questions. You can read reviews of all of Jules' previous books by clicking on the following links:
The White Mare
The Dawn Stag
The Boar Stone
Please note that The Boar Stone is published in the US under the title, Song of the North.