An interview with fantasy fiction author Lavinia Collins
Lavinia Collins is the best-selling author of several Arthurian fantasy fiction books, including The Guinevere Trilogy and The Morgan Trilogy. We asked her about her approach to fiction writing, her mentors and inspirations.
TBF: What started your passion for writing fiction?
LC: That’s a difficult question — I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love reading or I didn’t love to write stories. My parents love to wheel out the anecdote that when I was a very young child of two or three I used to insist on taking a pen and paper to bed to ‘write stories’ (squiggles, but I’m sure they were great). But then again, I also used to insist on wearing a pink woolly hat to bed, and I didn’t become a hat-model. I wrote a bizarre and rather terrifying book when I was about 5, which I won’t relate here, as I read it again recently and the events described were far too disturbing.
TBF: What are the main challenges you have found in creative writing?
LC: One of the main challenges I find is getting anything else done. When I’m supposed to be doing the washing up (boring), organising my life (boring) or getting on with my academic work (not boring, but harder work), I have to fight the urge to be lazy and self-indulgent and stay in bed writing instead. I’ve got better; I now only let myself write after 6pm; if I do it in the morning, it’s on my mind all day.
When I was an undergraduate, I wrote less. I was crippled by the idea that I had to write something “literary”, and ended up writing a lot of rubbish that I didn’t enjoy and that will never see the light of day. I did a wonderful masters degree that opened up my mind to the value of popular fiction and it was like an immense freedom settled over me — I could read and write what I enjoyed, and didn’t have to participate in some snobby idea of “high fiction” that I hated reading and was terrible at attempting to write anyway. I think getting over myself and realising that it was alright to enjoy myself, and for things to be fun, was one of the main post-undergraduate-pretension challenges I had to overcome.
TBF: Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write the Morgan Trilogy?
LC: When I finished Guinevere, I felt that there was so much story left to be told. I think Morgan is by far one of the most intriguing characters in the whole Arthurian cast, and one with whom I identified quite strongly. On the edge, too educated to fit comfortably in a deeply patriarchal society, and causing disruption by refusing to quite fulfil any of the models set out for her.
TBF: How has your academic study of medieval literature influenced your writing?
LC: It’s certainly been a huge source of inspiration for me. There’s so much beneath the surface of medieval texts, and particularly if you look for women, and the ways in which they act (and don’t act) within both the confines of medieval literature and of medieval society. I wanted to show the rich life behind some of these figures that seem, in the original, to move without much emotion or motivation. It’s there if you look for it, and I felt that it was something that I could share and bring to life. Textuality as well is something that has made a deep impression on my work; people in the medieval period often deliberately emulated texts they read, and everything you read from that period is very cross-referential. I wanted to get across a sense of that both in the borrowing of tropes from medieval romance in my own writing and in characters like Morgan’s constant reference to and reliance on books and the written text. I’m fascinated by medieval books, and medieval ideas of the power of the written word and the physical object of the book; that’s why books and reading became such an important part of Morgan.
TBF: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider as a mentor?
LC: What a question! I was deeply inspired as a child by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, and certainly that’s stayed with me, though I would hesitate to call her a mentor for various reasons that I won’t go into here. I think it’s always complicated, the relationship we have with the heroes of our youth. I don’t think we need to put them away, but it’s important to revise that model of admiration when you get older, even as you acknowledge that someone and their work has had a great influence on you.
If I could pick anyone in the world ever, I would have Christine de Pizan. She was a fourteenth-century French writer who supported herself and her children after her husband’s death with a prolific writing career which mainly consisted of sticking it to the patriarchy. She took on this huge antifeminist tradition of literature and culture, and she both made a success of herself on her own and made a huge impact in the way women were represented in the high medieval literary scene. I love her so much I named a character after her!
I’ve also been lucky enough to have a real-life author mentor. The American crime-fiction writer Kenneth Abel, who has known me pretty much since I was wearing that pink woolly hat to bed, has been generous to give me invaluable advice and support along my journey to here, both on this and the other side of the pond, and I really can’t thank him enough. He’s certainly been a mentor to me on the publishing world, and on writing genre fiction alongside a career in academia. I couldn’t be more grateful for his support.
TBF: What did you learn from writing your books?
LC: I actually learnt more from editing Morgan than I did from writing it. I tend to write in a frenzy of (partially wine-induced) typos, so for me working with Joe, the editor, was an eye-opening experience. (I’ve talked about it more fully in a series on my blog: http://vivimedieval.wordpress.com/2015/07/21/the-editing-diaries-part-4/.) I was a little nervous to begin with, but I found that working with an editor has already made me a better writer. It’s easy when you’re writing for yourself to become self-indulgent, and also to keep everything you ever write “just in case” — working with someone who clearly ‘got’ Morgan gave me the freedom to be more self-critical of my own work, but also to make the cuts that I needed to make to make Morgan a better book. Sometimes you just need someone else, someone whose judgment you trust, to say ‘yes, this bit is better than that, and that other bit could go’. As a writer whose main foible is endlessly making more words, I’m now learning to make fewer! Wish me luck…
TBF: What do you have in store for readers to look forward to in your next book?
LC: Ooh, exciting! I’ve been working on another three-part series, this time through the eyes of Morgawse, the sister who is often (unfairly) chopped out of modern adaptations of Arthurian legend. In this series, we see both further into the past, into a pre-Arthurian Britain through Morgawse’s memories, and further into the north. The history of Arthurian adaptation (and until recently, study) has been rather Anglo-centric for my liking, and I was excited about the chance to represent a different kind of ancient British kingdom, and the politics within it. I’ll be excited to see how it’s received — there’s absolutely nothing out there written about Morgawse since she’s usually sidelined or erased, and I certainly felt this was a wonderful story waiting to be told. Readers can look forward to seeing a lot more of characters who have only been on the very distant horizons of Guinevere and Morgan, like Lot and Uther, and to see the scheming and plotting of Camelot from an entirely different perspective. So that’s (pretty much) ready to go, and I do have something else in progress as well, although I am going to keep that under my (pink woolly) hat for now…