Dennis McKiernan Interview
by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner
Date: / Show Official Info /
SFRevu caught up with Dennis McKiernan to ask a few questions about his new novel, Once Upon an Autumn Eve (on sale now from Roc). The story, which sets a young princess on a quest against tremendous odds, is the third in a series of five.
SFRevu: How would you describe this series to a new reader?
Dennis McKiernan: Most fairy tales are merely a few pages long (basically, short stories).
I've always thought that there should be much more to these classic tales than what we read in, say, the Andrew Lang (rainbow) collection.
And so, this series takes well-known (or fairly well-known) fairy tales and "tells the whole story" in a novel-length story. Or, rather, the first four books in this series does that, while the fifth and final book bases its story on the other four.
I would also say that romance plays a large part in the stories, romance wrapped in adventures.
SFRevu: Was there a specific inspiration that led to writing these four books?
McKiernan: Yes. When I was a child I read the fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," and I always thought that there was much more to that story than an eleven-page tale, and so, I decided to tell the entire tale. As I was pondering the title, I decided it should be called Once Upon a Winter's Night. And then it occurred to me that there were four seasons in a year--not only winter, but spring, summer, and autumn, too.
And so the idea for the series formed. Then I realized that I needed a fifth and final book to wrap the series up, and so, in a meeting with my editor, I proposed a five-book series: Once Upon a Winter's Night; Once Upon a Summer Day; Once Upon an Autumn Eve; Once Upon a Spring Morn; and finally, Once Upon a Dreadful Time. Each of the first four were to be adventure-romances based upon at least one "classic" fairy tale, though I could also incorporate other bits and pieces and tropes of other fairy tales within each novel. And, as I said earlier, the fifth and final book would be based upon the first four. My editor liked it, and thus was born the series.
SFRevu: How is your process for developing these novels — which you have based on fairy tales—different from your process in creating epic fantasies?
McKiernan: Although an epic fantasy has a somewhat different basis from an expanded fairy tale, at heart they involve much the same activities in forming the tale. I would say that the major difference is that the fairy tale is usually more tightly focused upon a single individual, and that's the story we follow throughout the tale, whereas an epic fantasy typically has a larger cast of characters and often we follow many different threads to reach the end. In either case the objective is to tell an engaging story, where the readers submerge themselves in the book, and come up for air at the end.
SFRevu: What makes "fairy tales" different from other fantasy fiction?
McKiernan: Well, most fairy tales are short and to the point and typically do not involve world building. Most fantasies (in particular the novels) are set in worlds where the author has given long forethought as to the societies and economies and other such mundane stuff that comprises his or her world, though most of the research and world building is not directly inflicted upon the reader. But as to projecting a sense of wonder, both fairy tales and fantasies need to accomplish that goal.
SFRevu: Your heroes in these stories often rely on problem-solving and persistence, instead of plunging into action headlong. Liaze in Autumn Eve engages in relatively little combat, but must solve riddles, follow a difficult trail and overcome natural obstacles for most of the book, rather than fighting. Is this a fair assessment? Are the four heroes of the books more thoughtful or do they have their impetuous side?
McKiernan: Even though in Autumn Eve our heroine Liaze engages in combat when there is no other choice, still she faces much peril and wins through, not by force of arms, but through guts and cleverness and heart. My heroines and heroes do use their wits, though they also at times take blade in hand or by fang and claw or by bow and arrow deal death to the foe.
SFRevu: You involve the "small folk" of fairy folklore — sprites, nixies, pixies, goblins, trolls, et al. - in these stories, often as companions or guides. How did you go about creating them as characters, and how might that be different from how you approach human characters?
McKiernan: Each of these fairy folk have different means of coping with the world. I usually ask myself, what is it that the nixies (or sprites, or pixies, or etc.) want? How does the environment affect their choices? For example, my sprites are winged and only an inch or two tall, and they exist on nectar and honey; their world is one where lots of big things can do them in, and so what do they think of, say, crows and bees and other such? How do nixies (human-size water fairies) view the world, and what do they think of those people and predators who deal death to fish?
In other words, I try to imagine myself as each of these folk, and see just how I would view the world and other people and beings in it. I also have to keep in mind how the "classical" literature portrays these people, and not stray too far from that weighty past, though now and again I take off on a tangent.
SFRevu: You note (in the novel's Foreword) that you use French words in the stories. Would you describe how you use French and why? What qualities make this language particularly suited to a fairy tale?
McKiernan: I use French only to give the flavor that the world of Faery is basically a romantic place, and French (to my mind) is a language of lovers. It is a tongue that lends itself to wonderful words like, say, "cherie" and "demoiselle" and other such evocative terms. And those words have a certain essence to them that speaks to the heart.
SFRevu: The stories contain elements of a "meta-plot" that appears to be building to culmination in the next story. Is there anything you can tell us about this?
McKiernan: Yes. The fifth and final book, Once Upon a Dreadful Time, is the culmination of the meta-plot, where the worst thing that can happen in Faery actually does occur. It is hinted about throughout each of the first four books (four romances, four adventures) and the fifth book is basically a war story, where the characters we met throughout the series have to deal with that dreadful threat to Faery. How they handle it ... well, wait and see.
SFRevu: What themes or ideas most interest you as a writer? Have they changed any (or have new interests manifested) since publication of The Iron Tower trilogy?
McKiernan: There are several themes I dealt with throughout the Mithgar series, but the overall theme of that series has to do with individuals fighting to preserve freedom of choice (free will) against those who would take that away from them. However, I also explore religion, the brutality of war, man's dreadful effect upon the environment, and other such themes. I like to have a philosophical or metaphysical question in many of my books, things for the characters to ponder—such as "what is the essence of evil?" "What in the nature of reality?" And so on.
SFRevu: Is there any advice you would give yourself as a new writer?
McKiernan: Read all you can get your hands on, not only in the field where you intend to work, but also in other fields, for you never know what will pop up in a story. Also, read your work out loud to yourself, for reading out loud forces focus, and the ear hears what the eye misses. As for me, I also like to know how the story ends before I begin writing it; that way I am always heading for that goal and don't tend to stray too far off the track and end up in a cul-de-sac.
SFRevu: Between novels, what pursuits help recharge your creative batteries?
McKiernan: Engaging in role-playing games, both running them and playing them. Going to someplace like, say, Zion Canyon, a very peaceful and awe-inspiring place to visit. Reading completely outside my genre — thrillers, for example. Good food and good wine and good companionship always helps (my wife is my best friend and lover and makes the most delicious meals). Having dinner parties with those friends.
SFRevu: Lastly, what will be the next novel you'll be writing?
McKiernan: Well, I have finished the Faery series. I also have finished a collection of shorter stories. At the moment I am goofing off, without much thought as to what comes next, though I am considering returning to Mithgar. Oh, and I've written a ghost story, but as to whether that novel will ever be published is yet to be seen.
SFRevu: Thank you for your time, sir.
McKiernan: You're most welcome, and thanks.
SFRevu would like to thank Dennis McKiernan and Catherine Milne of Roc for their kind cooperation in this interview.