Shaun Farrell interviews Dennis L. McKiernan
Shaun's QuadrantJuly 2005
Dennis L. McKiernan is the bestselling author of the Mithgar series, which features the bestselling novels The Iron Tower, The Silver Call, and The Dragonstone, among others. He is currently writing a five part series where he retells classic fairy tales. The second book in this series, Once Upon a Summer Day, was recently published in hardcover and is available at all major booksellers. You can visit Mr. McKiernan’s website.
Shaun Farrell: Your most recent novels, Once Upon a Winter’s Night and Once Upon a Summer Day are the first installments in a five book series in which you are retelling fairy tales. How did your childhood influence your love for fairy tales?
Dennis L. McKiernan: Greatly. As a pre-school child, my mother and my maternal grandmother told me (and my brother and sister as well as others) lots of stories, some of which were fairy tales, filled with witches and magic and goblins and wee folk and other such. My father was an avid reader, and he talked about what he read, and so he influenced me as well. When I was about nine, I fell in love with reading, at first pulp SF (pulp magazines with names like Thrilling Wonder, Startling Stories, Planet, Amazing, Fantastic, etc.), and then anything I could get my hands on.
Soon I began haunting the library. It was in the library that I discovered the Andrew Lang fairy tale collection, and they brought back memories of those preschool fairy tales, as well as gave me many, many new ones. I went from there to the Oz books and from there to other genres and works, such as mysteries, adventures, historicals, biographies, and so on. But I always returned to SF, fantasy, and fairy tales.
SF: How did you choose which fairy tales you wanted to retell for these books?
DMcK: The first one was easy, for I had always loved the tale (and its variations) of East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The next three were a bit more difficult, for, although I had ideas for them, I wanted to make certain that, whatever story I chose, it would have a strong element of romance entangled throughout. Also, I didn't want to choose stories that closely echoed one another, and so they had to be not only distinct, but also not easily recognizable (except for East of the Sun and West of the Moon). Too, fairy tales are typically only five to ten pages long, and so I wanted whatever story I told to be "stretchable" into a full novel. Hence, choosing the next three was a bit harder than choosing the first one. Finally, in the fifth and final book, I wanted a story that would bring most of the characters from the first four books back into a final tale. So, for the fifth book, no fairy tale that I had ever read would do, hence, it is not based upon any known fairy tale.
SF: What was your goal when you set out to write these books?
DMcK: It is the same as the goal for any book I write, and that is 'to tell a good story well.'
SF: How foundational were fairy tales to the historical formation of the fantasy genre?
DMcK: Ah, me. I think many elements in the modern fantasy genre use some of the elements of fairy tales, whereas in the modern genre the stories themselves are much more complex. Most fairy tales of old are rather simple and simplistic, a thing that cannot be said of hardly any modern fantasy. Oh, there are great and rather complex stories of old that one can point to (for example, the Odyssey and the Iliad), but I think fairy tales in general are on the whole uncomplicated.
SF: You are perhaps best known as the inventor of the Mithgar series. When you first started writing your Mithgar novels, did you have any idea that the Mithgar story would become so huge? It must be pushing three million words!
DMcK: I didn't realize what the overall Mithgar story arc was until I wrote the sixth book in the series Dragondoom (it was the third story, but the sixth book), and when I did know the overriding premise, I knew it would take me awhile to tell the entire tale. And so, the answer to your question is, No, I didn't know how big the series would be when I started.
SF: The “quest” has always been an important element of high fantasywhere the characters must travel great distances, often on foot, usually in search of an object of power. Why do you think this device is important to fantasy?
DMcK: Well, one can go on a long journey to obtain an object, or to gain revenge, or as the result of war, or to rescue someone, or to find love, or on a mission of discovery, or to gain wealth, or any number of other reasons. The important thing is that while on that journey, the reader gets to experience the world, gets to see what the characters are made of and gets to see the characters' grow, gets to experience all the perils and wonders and delights and disasters that occur on the journey, gets to see (sometimes through flashbacks) just how did these characters get to be who they are and where they came from. Too, on the journey, the characters can discuss ideas and philosophies and history and tell tales around the campfires or from horseback or while sitting on the deck of a ship, and that illuminates not only the characters but also the world as it was and is and where it's going and how it should be. So, the journey is where everything 'else' happens.
SF: Fantasy and science fiction can often help us better understand our world because they place issues in a new context, allowing us, as readers, to gain a new perspective. Are you conscious of this when you write?
DMcK: Oh, yes. In most of my tales, I take up a metaphysical or philosophical idea and explore it. I do this by providing at least one naive or inexperienced character who can ask the questions that are needed to explore the issue. But I try to do it in such a way that the reader does not run into a dry treatise, but instead gets to explore these ideas alongside the naive character. I also try to sprinkle these discussions a bit here and a bit there throughout the tale, so that any discussion is not prolonged and is broken up by action or peril or other interesting and engaging occurrences.
SF: Your novels are rich with a variety of languages, including Latin, Greek, German, French, Irish, Japanese, Norwegian, and probably others I am unaware. What do you consider when you are mating these languages with the cultures in your fantasy world?
DMcK: The culture of the people to which I attribute these tidbits of words and phrases dropped into the text. I think that some Scandinavian language would sound entirely wrong in, say, the context of a quasi-oriental society. Hence, I look at the fantasy culture portrayed and choose an earth-like language from a similar culture on Earth. In the case of the Dwarves and Elves and other such cultures, though, for the most part I make up the language used.
SF: You write with a very poetic style, often reminding me of the Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others). Do you read poetry, and, if so, which poets have influenced you the most?
DMcK: I only write poetry in my novels. I believe, however, that my favorite poetry comes from poets more along the lines of Robert W. Service. :) However, in the text of my tales, I do try to make certain that many of the passages have a "beat," and oft I'll add a word or two, or delete a syllable, etc., just to get that beat.
SF: What is the most important thing you have learned about writing since you began your career?
DMcK: To read the text out loud. The ear hears what the eye misses, and so reading what I have written out loud is the very best editing tool I have at my command.
SF: What do you think is the most important piece of advice for new writers to hear?
DMcK: Oh, man! That's a loaded question if I ever saw one. The most important thing is "To tell a good story well." However, that really is two things: 1) you have to have a good story to tell, and, 2) you have to tell it well. Those two things in themselves consist of many things, all of which make up entire courses of learning.
SF: What are you reading right now?
DMcK: At the moment I am reading some P.G. Wodehouse stories. Usually, though, I read mysteries when I am writing a fantasy, though I often need to do some research on some aspect of the story I am writing.
SF: What are you working on right now?
DMcK: The fifth and final book in the Faery series. It is called Once Upon a Dreadful Time.
SF: Do you have any desire to write in a genre other than fantasy and science fiction?
DMcK: Sometimes I get ideas for thrillers or mainstream works. I'd like to do several of those someday.
SF: If you could collaborate with any author, who would it be?
DMcK: Collaboration is a difficult thing. I don't have any desire to do so right now. However, I do like Patricia McKillip's stuff, and so
SF: Is there anything else you would like our readers at Far Sector SFFH to know?
DMcK: I'd like them to know my books. :)
SF: Mr. McKiernan, thank you so much for your time.
DMcK: You're most welcome.
Copyright © 2005 Shaun Farrell. All Rights Reserved.