Monday, November 15, 2010

Author Interview: Edward Willett (Shards of Excalibur)

Ariane Forsythe’s life is in turmoil. Two years ago, her mother disappeared. She bounced from foster home to foster home until her aunt finally took her in. An outsider at her new school, Ariane quickly becomes the target of group of girls that is determined to make her miserable. And to top it all off, she is having frightening premonitions, and they are becoming more intense. The moment water touches her skin, she sees visions of a lake, a lady, and a sword.

After getting suspended for fighting with the clique’s ringleader, Ariane sneaks out early the next morning so she won’t be around when the school calls her aunt. She makes her way to the fog-enshrouded banks of Regina’s Wascana Lake, where she hears the water singing to her and sees a mysterious glow. The water parts, revealing a staircase that leads beneath the surface, where the Lady of the Lake awaits. Ariane learns that she is heir to the Lady’s power, and soon the stories she thought were legend become a real life nightmare. She and her unexpected companion, Wally Knight, are charged with finding the scattered shards of Excalibur before Merlin can get his hands on them. The infamous magician, known in this world as software tycoon Rex Major, is trying to recover the pieces of Arthur’s sword so he can reforge it and restore his limitless power. Suddenly, Ariane’s life seems to have a purpose and a clear direction – but how can a troubled teen and her brainy sidekick outwit the ancient, ruthless sorcerer?

From publisher's website.

What inspired you to write The Shards of Excalibur? Have you always had an interest in Arthurian legend?

I have always had an interest in things Arthurian, or at least since I read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King as a kid, followed up with Mary Stewart and any number of other retellings since. But what inspired The Shards of Excaliburwasn’t initially my interest in the Arthurian legends, but a very specific place: Wascana Lake, the man-made lake in the heart of Regina where Ariane sees the staircase descending into the water and meets the Lady of the Lake for the first time. I live near Wascana Lake and have for 20 years, so I’m often walking around it. One day I was particularly taken with a heavy mist turning golden in the morning light, and thought, “It looks mystical. Anything could be hidden in that mist.” And then I thought, “Well, why not?”

Fantasy stories don’t have to be set a long time ago or far, far away. As my wife likes to say, Regina may not seem exotic to me, but it does to someone who lives in, say, Tuscany. So I started thinking about the lake in terms of fantasy, and my mind naturally made the connection between “lake” and “Lady of the”...and from that germ, the first book was born.

What was the most challenging aspect of modernizing the ancient myth?

The challenge is simply that this raw material has been shaped so many times by so many people into so many different stories that it is difficult to be original. I hope I’ve managed it.

What were you like at Ariane’s age? Are any of the characters in Shards of Excalibur based on your younger self?

When I was Ariane’s age, I was deep into reading science fiction and fantasy, very involved with music (my father was the chorus director at Western Christian College in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, which is where I grew up), and had already begun writing: I wrote three novels in high school, and when I was 15 I would have been in the middle of writing my second of those (Ship from the Unknown was the title...I still have the manuscript, though I can’t quite bring myself to re-read it...). Unlike Ariane, I had two wonderful parents and was perfectly happy in my school. So not much similarity there. Wally might actually be a bit more like I was, although I certainly wasn’t scrawny! But no, none of the characters are really based on my younger self except in the sense that every character a writer creates draws at least a little bit on him or herself.

If you could be an Arthurian character, which would you like to be? Why?

I’d say Arthur himself. Lancelot wrecks everything, Merlin is a little creepy, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be Mordred. And I really don’t see myself as Guinevere. But really, the Arthurian legend is a tragedy in the end, so I don’t think I’d want to be any of them if I were locked into the original story!

What are some of Ariane’s favorite books? Wally’s?

Both of them read fantasy and science fiction. They’ve both read The Lord of the Rings, and it would rank high on both their lists. Ariane dips into Stephen King some, I think, and other horror writers, but she loathes Twilight and its sparkly vampires.  Wally likes Star Wars novels, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and books like Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (and sequels), Garth Nix’s Keys of the Kingdom, etc.: anything fantastical, and preferably part of a series.

What advice would you give to teens who are being bullied like Ariane?

Endure. High school may seem like it will last forever, but it won't. Find something you love or are good at and focus on that, and try not to let the bullying get to you. I took quite a bit of teasing for the first few years I lived in Saskatchewan, because we’d moved here from Texas and I had a noticeable accent. Also, I was younger than everyone else in my class (I skipped the first grade and had a summer birthday as well) and was no good at sports. And that’s one reason I’m a writer: because during those years books were some of my very best friends.

What do you think are the key components of a compelling fantasy novel?

First and foremost, compelling characters: without people you care about, no story will hold your interest for long. But that’s true of all fiction. What sets fantasy apart is, obviously, the fantasy: the fantastical element, whatever that is, that takes it out of the everyday humdrum world. In the most compelling fantasy novels, that’s something very fresh and original: a system of magic no one has thought of before, a “what if?” notion that startles and intrigues, a made-up world that’s so vibrant and interesting you can’t help but want to explore it.  Put compelling characters and a fresh fantastical idea together, wrap them in a fast-moving, fascinating plot, and you’ve got a winner.

What one book do you think has been the most influential in the past 100 years? Why?

In the realm of fantasy, there’s absolutely no question: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It single-handedly created the modern fantasy genre, as people who had read it began looking for other books that would immerse them as thoroughly as Tolkien did in a fantastical world. On the negative side, there have been a lot of derivative “Tolkien-lite” fantasies since then, with groups of people questing here and there for various magical artifacts; but on the positive side, some of the freshest and most interesting fantasies have resulted from people reacting against The Lord of the Rings, who didn’t like it or wanted to explore other ways of telling fantastic stories. Either way, it has been immensely influential on the field of fantasy.

What authors have inspired you? What about them do you find inspirational?

Tolkien, again. C.S. Lewis. Robert A. Heinlein: all modern science fiction writers owe him a debt. Madeline L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time and many others. Susan Cooper. Andre Norton. Arthur Ransome. The list goes on and on. But although there are many different authors in many different genres who have inspired me, the inspiration I received from them is pretty much the same: the urge to tell stories that will enthrall, enlighten and entertain my readers as much as these and many other writers have enthralled, enlightened and entertained me over the years. I’m a writer because I was first a reader.

What is a random fact readers probably don’t know about you?

In addition to writing, I’m a professional actor and singer who has appeared in dozens of plays and musicals over the years. For instance, a couple of years ago I was in a professional production of Beauty and the Beast, playing Monsieur D’Arque (among many other things, including at one point an animated Persian rug.)

What can you tell us about future Song of the Sword novels?

The quest for the shards of Excalibur will take Wally and Ariane all over the world...but not always together. The second book, Twist of the Blade, not only shifts the action to southern France, but splits Wally and Ariane apart. And there are more twists and surprises to come as the five books play out to the grand climax...but I don’t think I want to give away any more than that.

For one thing, with three books left to write (I’ve already submitted the second book, but the others aren’t even begun yet), even I’m not entirely sure how things will play out! The series is sketched out, but things have a way of mutating when you actually start writing them. I hope readers enjoy coming along for the ride, though. I promise it’ll be an exciting one.

Award-winning author Edward Willett has published more than fifty science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction titles for children and adults, including Marseguro (DAW, 2008), which won the Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association’s Aurora Award for Best Long-Form Work in English. Born in Silver City, New Mexico, Willett grew up in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and now lives in Regina. He writes a weekly science column, and connects with readers online at and on Twitter @ewillett.

Thank you so much to Edward Willett for this fantastic interview! I'll be reviewing Shards of Excalibur: Song of the Sword soon!


Anonymous said...

Great interview! I love stories about King Arthur, Excalibur, The Knights of the Round Table, etc. I agree with Mr. Willett, T. H. White's The Once and Future King is what started it all for me. I recently purchased that book at Books-A-Million :)

The Disney version isn't bad either!

Casey (The Bookish Type) said...

Thanks Lindsi! The Once and Future King has been on my TBR list for a while and I had the hardest time finding it at the library or in stores, but I finally found it on thriftbooks. I can't wait to read it =)

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