Saturday, December 17, 2011

A dream of a great tree: An interview with fantasy author Katie Stewart

Today I'm talking with fantasy author and artist Katie Stewart.


1) Tell us about your book.

Treespeaker is a fantasy set in a forest in a Late Mesolithic-type society. It’s the story of a man who has long taken the idyllic nature of his life for granted, until he is forced to leave by a stranger from outside. Rejected by his own people, he sets out to find a way to save them from the slavery and death he knows the stranger will bring. In the process, he learns what he needs to know about himself for the new role he is to take on. That’s if he ever makes it home.

2) What inspired you to write this book?

A combination of things; firstly, I had a dream about a huge tree that provided sustenance for everyone who lived beneath it. It was a really strange but very vivid dream. Months later I found a picture of a tree in Ireland that was hundreds of years old and so like the tree in my dream that it was creepy to see it.

Secondly, I went through a patch in my life where I felt rejected by a group of people I’d always considered "my people". So, even though my main character is male, there’s a bit of me in him (though I didn’t set out to save anyone). The story is a long step away from my experience, but that’s where it started.

Thirdly, I came across a Scottish actor with a face that simply had to be written into a character. It took a while for the three things to stir together into a story idea, but when they did, the novel flowed easily.

3) Is there a main theme that defines your book?

When I first wrote my blurb, I said that it was a book about "balance, belief and belonging". The need for balance in everything comes out quite clearly. The people in the forest live in balance with the forest. The people outside the forest have lost that balance and are suffering the consequences. It comes across as an environmental theme, though I didn’t intend it that way. Stephen King would be proud of me! (He says a writer shouldn’t write to a theme but let it come out naturally.)

As for belief, I’m a firm believer in doing what you believe to be right, no matter what the rest of the world is saying. It’s often a hard road to follow. My character sets out in faith. It’s his belief in the ‘rightness’ of what he is doing that gives him the strength to go on.

Belonging is something that every human craves and when you lose it, it’s devastating. So the book explores that. In a way, the barrenness of the land outside the forest is a reflection of Jakan the Treespeaker’s state of mind when he is forced to leave. Life without the forest, without the ability to heal, is his worst nightmare.

4) The presence of some form of magic is a major portion, arguably, in what defines something as fantasy. Can you tell us a little about the magic system in your book?

The healing magic of the Treespeaker comes from Arrakesh, the spirit of the forest. A Treespeaker is able to hear the forest and use its energy to heal. He knows the forest’s will and can feel when something or someone is going against the flow of life in the forest. It’s gentle, subtle magic. No wham-bang spells or fireballs.

The antagonist, on the other hand, has magic defined by his own feelings. He can summon negative emotions into a ball of energy that will kill. He can control minds, both human and animal, to do his will simply by thinking it. So it’s magic from within, but because he chooses to use negative emotions, it eats away at him. This is something I explore more in the sequel that I’m writing at the moment.

5) Many current popular fantasy series are notable for their darkness, grittiness, and a tendency toward moral relativism. Some claim this is about imparting more "realism "to fantasy and arguably it's also just a strengthening of the Robert Howard-substrate of fantasy that was somewhat eclipsed by the success of Tolkien and Tolkien-inspired works that have dominated fantasy until relatively recently. Your book eschews gratuitious violence and sex. Was this in any part a reaction to the reign of grittiness in current fantasy?

My stories are very much a reflection of my own personality, I’m afraid! I’m a very quiet, introspective person and so my books tend to be the same. My personal heroes are people like Gandhi and Mandela, not those who charge into battle. I prefer characters who use their brains rather than muscle. At the same time, I try to keep the story twisting and turning enough to keep those pages flipping.

Sad to say, I’ve never read any Robert Howard. Conan’s muscles never attracted me. On the other hand I’ve never managed to read Lord of the Rings either, but that was Tolkien’s writing style, rather than his world –way too much description for me. I quite enjoyed the movies. Frodo is definitely the sort of hero I like. But then there are all those battles…not my scene.

I don’t know that I consciously reacted to the grittiness of other fantasy. I simply wrote the story that was in me. I like to read the sort of fantasy that I write.

6) Do you see your work fitting into any broad fantasy tradition similar to some of the ones I outlined above? Did you have any particular literary influences?

I think one of the problems I’m having is that my book doesn’t really fit into any particular fantasy tradition. I’ve had trouble trying to categorise it on Amazon and Smashwords because it doesn’t fit anything but "General Fantasy" which really doesn’t tell anyone anything. It’s what I think of as High Fantasy, in that I’ve created a completely new world, but that’s as close to categorising it as I can get.

I’m a great fan of Paolo Coelho, Ursula Le Guin and Juliet Marillier. They all write quite simply, but there’s a magic to their stories and their characterization is brilliant. I’d like to think something from their work has rubbed off on me, but I don’t know.

7) What was/were the book(s) that initially drew you into fantasy literature?

When I was a child, I read widely, but particularly liked historical fiction and the classics, which were, after all, historical in themselves. I read the Narnia Chronicles which I loved and had a particularly favourite book of English fairytales that I read and reread a hundred times. The artist in me loved to draw strange creatures and strange places that I’d seen in my dreams and in my imagination or read about in the fairytales.

When I was 19, someone lent me the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin. I absolutely loved those books. I could see Le Guin’s world in my head and her characters were real, as if she’d sculpted the paper to form them and they walked right out of the book. I was smitten with fantasy and have been ever since. I know some consider her ‘old fashioned’ but as builder of completely new worlds, she’s second to none in my opinion.

I think though, that what really got my mind working towards maybe writing fantasy was an assignment I had to do at university. I’d started university expecting to do a degree in English, but one year of murdering beautiful books to get to "what the author really meant" was enough to put me off and I went into Anthropology and History instead. One of my Honours assignments was to "create a society" in detail, with all its social strata, economy, religion etc. I got an A+++ on that assignment, something I’d never managed before, simply because I enjoyed it so much. That godlike power of creating my own world was bliss! That’s what I really love about fantasy – being able to create something completely new and make it seem real. It satisfies the artist in me as well as the writer.

8) Can you tell us a little about your other works?

I have one other ebook out at the moment, a children’s fantasy called The Dragon Box. I wrote it for my son who was being bullied and it’s aimed mainly at boys, though I’ve had a few girls tell me they loved it, which is lovely.

I’m also working on getting another book out early in the new year. I’ve been calling it Young Adult, but like Treespeaker, I’m really not sure that it fits any particular category. The protagonist is a young girl, but it’s really a crossover novel. Anyone could read it and I hope they will. So I’m loath to lose it in the YA section where it might not compete well with zombies and sparkly vampires. Wherever it goes though, it is definitely fantasy and explores the opposition of power and love.


Thanks, Katie.

If you'd like to see more from Katie, you can visit her at her website,

Treespeaker is available at Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes and Noble.
The Dragon Box is available at Amazon.


Marti Norton said...

Wonderful interview, Katie. I'm glad I got the chance to look into your personal "history"... it tells me a lot about why you wrote Treespeaker, one of my favorite stories!!!

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for stopping by, Marti.