This Interview has been provided by Orbit, and is printed with their permission.
What inspired you to take up writing?
I think it must have been my sister, Sarah (Ash). She’s nine years older than I am and she used to write stories and read them to me from an early age. I know that I have been busy inventing worlds and living in them since I was very young. Originally they were populated with talking cars and helicopters.
Which writers have influenced you most?
That’s a difficult one. I have to mention Tolkien, because reading him early on got me addicted to maps and other worlds. Then there were more of the usual suspects – I adored Ursula le Guin, particularly the Earthsea Trilogy. I think once again that her use of coherent invented languages fascinated me. I hate it when fantasy writers use long words with lots of apostrophes. Also Robert Holdstock, for his use of myth and his deep fascination with the English countryside, and David Gemmell, who just has incredible characters. I find his stories very moving, particularly “Morningstar”. And I have to squeeze in a mention of Phillip Pullman – I’ve just finished reading the trilogy “His Dark Materials”, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days!
The lands and mythology of La Souterraine appear to draw from many aspects of European folk-culture, could you explain a little of the mytho-history of your world and why those elements were so appealing to you?
Help! Well, it all started with the Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology… I think my world was synthesized out of a number of disparate elements. The original impulse came from a place I first visited in 1980, when I went on a work-camp in France. It was in Drome, just north of Provence, and I find that landscape very eerie. But my characters were Russian, and I needed to understand how and why they came to be living in France. It was quite late on that I realized it had to be a parallel world. The characters shaped the world, and vice versa. For instance, I knew that Govorin was 100% Russian and also black, and I had to figure out how that came to pass. The result was an “upside down” world, with an under-developed Europe and technological societies in India and China. I wanted the primary religion of the West to be strongly like Christianity – but with one important difference; instead of worshipping the Holy Trinity, they venerate the Mother and the Son dyad. In other words, its effectively a matriarchal religion, with a mother goddess – but that religion is or can be just as oppressive as a patriarchal one! I think in a lot of women’s fantasy goddesses are seen as positive, and I felt that they could have darker aspects. I drew on “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves, which is a wonderful, crazy book. But the goddess he describes is threatening and cruel – I wanted that to appear in the contrast between the Bright Lady and the Cold One. The idea that these deities could turn up in people’s lives and totally mess them around, whether in a positive or a negative way. Then there are the Wanderers…of course I drew on Judaism, and the idea of the Wandering Jew – but in this case, the curse that caused them to be Wanderers came from the Mother. I thought it was interesting that a curse which might be unjust could still be effective … it’s as though her curse really has driven them out of Zyon, so that they live in a diaspora around the Mediterranean, and further north.
Was there a particular theme you wished to explore when you first put pen to paper?
I suppose I wanted to look at the relationship of fathers to sons. I was very interested in the idea that Malchik is rather a wimp, while Yuda, his father, is very macho. And yet, although Malchik is not physically strong or capable of violence, he has – or has to learn – other strengths. I think I know quite a lot of men who are like Malchik in some way. I suppose the other important theme is the bisexuality of shamans. I loved “Left Hand of Darkness” by le Guin, where the alien peoples are hermaphroditic. I liked the idea that Yuda could be homosexual, and feminine, and maybe vulnerable – and then he has this other, macho side! But all shamans are bisexual, and I hope that in future I may get to look at some other aspects of the dilemma. In the book, it has devastating consequences, in practice…
Did the novel turn out exactly how you imagined, or were there some unexpected twists and turns along the way?
I guess this must be about the fifth version! Yes, there were quite a few surprises.
Do you follow any sort of schedule when you write?
None at all! I wish I did have a schedule. I like to do between 1-2000 words at a time, but not every day.
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
I think it was Terry Pratchett who said it was the most fun anyone can have on their own! Not having to go in to work is a big plus…
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished “The Amber Spyglass” by Phillip Pullman. The trouble is, there are so many good books out there! I really want to read “Transformation” by Carol Berg. I think she’s next!
Does Harry Potter make you dance or despair?
I was just talking to a friend about this last night, I think it’s totally brilliant! I wish I could create plots like that, and I think the writing is so clear and simple. Seems to be going down well amongst my 40-something acquaintances … what can that mean?
What happens in your world away from the keyboard?
Not a lot! I have a very quiet life. I gave up my day-job (or vice versa) three years ago. I seem to spend a lot of time writing emails to people all over the place. I live with my parents, who are elderly, so that requires a fair bit of input. For about two years or so, I have been into collecting dolls. Not cutesy ones with glassy eyes and pink frilly nylon everywhere. I go for Sasha dolls, which were designed by a Swiss artist, Sasha Morgenthaler. They are very unusual, they have dark skins, painted eyes and pensive expressions! But they are also incredibly expensive these days, so I’m rationing myself. Most of my friends live in London, so we tend to spend hours on the phone.
And finally, what next from Jessica Rydill?
I’m writing the sequel to Children of the Shaman. It’s called The Glass Mountain and takes place about four years after the action of the first book. I want to further explore all this stuff about shamans…
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