Interview with Kathleen Cunnigham Guler

Q: What interests you so much about Arthurian Britain? Why did you choose that period in history to write about?

A: I have always enjoyed puzzles. Early Britain as told from the Celtic point of view first piqued my interest while reading a novel in high school about the Roman invasion. Later, Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy from the 1970’s, helped me to discover the historical side of the Arthurian legend. Curiosity got the upper hand and I kept reading, first some of the books mentioned in the Author’s Notes in one of Stewart’s books, then branching out from there. I have been studying this for twenty years and the fascination does not show any sign of stopping. Because so little is known about Dark Age Britain, the attempt to enlighten readers with a clearer and more unique perspective of it is a tremendous but rewarding challenge. This was Britain before there was an England, Scotland or Wales. It was comprised of around fifty tiny kingdoms, fighting amongst each other probably as much as they fought invaders. What better environment from which to create stories?

And as a sideline, in the process of continuing research, I have also discovered my ancestry is Celtic – Welsh and Scottish – which spurs me on even more.

Q: How historically accurate do you try to be in your books? Are your characters, aside from those we all are familiar with, based upon legend or history, or have you simply invented them?

A: I have tried to be as close to reality and historically accurate as possible in the background. The characters taken from the legend are suspected to be historical figures, although many of them have not been absolutely proven, which is why they remain in the realm of legend. Myrddin (Merlin) is especially enigmatic and it is conjectured that he is a composite of three historical figures. Arthur himself, who actually isn’t born yet by the end of In the Shadow of Dragons, has never been proven as an historical figure. Others, like Ambrosius, Uther, Ceredig of Strathclyde, and Octa the Saxon leader, most probably were real. The lead characters of Marcus and Claerwen, and their family are fictional.

Q: Though your books are not ‘fantasy’ in the most traditional sense, there are elements of the fantastic in them. How much leeway do you allow yourself as an author to develop the magical skills of your characters? Do you have a standard with regard to how far you are willing to stretch reality when it comes to magic and the supernatural?

A: The ‘fantasy’ element is limited to ‘fire in the head,’ a form of second sight. I cast it as a part of pagan spirituality, a ‘gift from the gods,’ so to speak. Although Christianity was slowly creeping into society in those times, Druidry still existed in remote places like where the main characters come from. I want the books to have a spiritual feel more than a ‘high fantasy’ feel. Otherwise, the books are generally conceived and written as historical fiction.

Q: Would you describe your books as character driven, driven by historical fact or legend, or plot driven?

A: Character driven is by far the best description, although the other factors are certainly there as well. The plot is fitted out within the framework of what history we do know of Dark Age Britain and the legend, but the characters drive the action with their wants, needs, tempers, loves, hates, excess emotional baggage, and so on.

Q: Are your books planned in advance? Do you work from outlines? Do you always know what is going to happen next?

A: When I start a book, I have a general framework of time, background and premise to work from. I always start an outline, but it’s never complete. I usually stop midway through, start the first draft, go back to the outline to update changes, and keep going back and forth until both the outline and the first draft are done. The outline often doesn’t make sense once the characters take on life and drive the whole shebang. Then again, sometimes an inconsistency is caught when the outline is updated from what is actually written. They go hand in hand.

After the draft is done, then I go into the real “meat and potatoes” part of the writing: the revisions. I’ll work on up to about five or six chapters, working on pacing, filling in fine details, devising recurring motifs, and so on. Then I start reading it aloud to a group of other writers, an exceptionally knowledgeable bunch of people who are very honest in their critiquing. Once they’ve advised, I revise that portion again. Often I’ll completely recast whole sections several times until it’s right. The last third of In the Shadow of Dragons was rewritten at least six times. In this case, I didn’t know what was going to happen – the characters had to tell me instead of the outline!

Q: Were you always a writer, even as a child? When did you begin writing professionally? Did you envision yourself as a novelist?

A: I don’t think there was ever a conscious point in time when I decided to become a writer. I was the weird kid who, if I didn’t like a story, I’d write my own version. My best friend and I, in junior high school, wrote short stories for each other. John-Boy Walton was my hero in high school. I did envision myself as a novelist, and in the beginning, I never thought I would be capable of writing anything but novel-length fiction. Ironically, the first piece I ever published (in 1996) was a non-fiction magazine article about an early king of Gwynedd, North Wales. Since then, I’ve published steadily, everything from articles, essays and reviews to short stories, poetry, and the two novels.

Q: How much time do you devote to marketing and the ‘business’ of writing, as compared to writing itself?

A: That depends on how close it is to a novel’s release date. For several months before and after, most of my time goes to marketing. It’s a big job, but very necessary. It’s also ongoing, so there will always be a couple hours a day, every day, slotted towards that. The rest of the time, even when I’m not at the keyboard, I’m writing in my head. I get some of my best ideas while folding laundry or in the shower!

Q: Was it hard for you to secure a publisher for your work? Did you go through the arduous process of querying countless agents and publishers before you signed with Bardsong Press?

A: I went the direct query route, then the agent route, then back to direct queries again. Like most everyone else, I could wallpaper the entire house with rejection slips. Then I discovered small presses often fill niches that are overlooked by the big presses and are much more attentive when they find a manuscript that fits their needs. I was very lucky to have found Bardsong Press, because they publish Celtic-themed literature exclusively, which includes Arthurian themes as well. We are able to help each other through a mutual understanding of the audience we are marketing to.

Q: Has the electronic world helped you to market and sell books? Do many people contact you through your website? As an author, do you prefer traditional booksellers to electronic ones?

A: The electronic side of marketing is now a solid part of the mix in selling books. I don’t think it will completely take over brick and mortar bookstores, at least not for quite a while. I don’t have a preference either way because all channels need to be tapped. However, I do enjoy the ease of communication through e-mail and the internet. There are people and resources that I never would have discovered and been put in touch with, and vice versa, without the internet.

Q: What’s next for you? How many books do you envision in this series before it is complete?

A: There will be four novels in the Macsen’s Treasure series. I’m now working on the third book. After that, I might try a screenplay based on the series. Otherwise, I’ve got a whole drawer full of synopses and ideas for several more books. I think I would go positively mad if I couldn’t write. If only there were more hours in a day and the energy to go with them!

Q: Reading aloud is a beautiful way to experience a book. would you want readers to read your work aloud? do you envision your books being read to children by their parents? Is this something that has ever occurred to you?

A: With the right storyteller, I think my books would do well read aloud because there is a lot of action in them. I’m thinking of the way Native-American storytellers narrate their old legends and tales. Likewise, bards, in early Celtic society, served the same purpose, animatedly retelling their myths, legends and history. They often accompanied themselves with music. It was a great form of entertainment as well as an important way to preserve their culture. While my stories are probably not quite suitable for young children, older teens should enjoy them.

Q: Your characters are definitely bigger than life. do you see them as actors on the screen while you are writing? You mentioned that you hope one day to write a screenplay. does that desire influence your characterizations and storyline?

A: Because I am visually oriented, I usually try to fully picture each scene in my mind as if watching a movie, then write it. The more detailed an image I can envision, the more “flesh and blood” I can give the scene. But I don’t write a novel with the conscious goal of doing a screenplay later. It would be too distracting. Actually, the idea of writing a screenplay didn’t come up until recently—it comes more from the standpoint that if a movie based on the books would ever be proposed, I would probably be pretty iron-fisted about retaining control over the characters and the story. I’ve known other novelists whose works were dramatized, but in the process their characters became flattened out so much they were no longer recognizable. They were quite heartbroken.

Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to these questions. It was a real pleasure reading your most recent book, In The Shadow Of Dragons, and I am looking forward to the release of the next one in the series. I hope we can do this again after that book is published.

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