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I reviewed Lisa Ann Sandell's first book, The Weight of the Sky, a contemporary tale set in modern Israel over a year ago and was impressed by how effectively she fit one teenage girl's personal concerns about growing up into the larger picture of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Lisa followed that title up with a surprising look at King Arthur in Song of the Sparrow. This time around her heroine is none other than Elaine of Ascolat - otherwise known as the Lady of Shalott. Here's part of what I had to say about it in my Bookslut review two months ago:

Sandell has succeeded brilliantly in writing a gripping tale of equally strong male and female characters. It is a compelling thriller and first class story of love, battle and betrayal with familiar characters filling their roles in a much deeper and fascinating way. This is a side of Arthur that few readers have had a chance to explore and seeing him and his men on the battlefield, through the eyes of someone who cared about them, makes him less a mythic figure than a man and a leader who struggled to do the best thing for his men and his people. Sandell wanted to humanize these figures with her story, and she has done that. Song of the Sparrow is a great place for teens to discover just what Arthur's life might really have been like as he sought to build a peaceful world. We all think we know the story of Camelot but as the author shows here there is so much more to this story yet to be discovered.

I think Lisa Ann Sandell is very close to being a breakout YA author. She is taking chances that few other authors are willing to consider and proving how much further the boundaries of YA literature can be stretched. I heartily recommend both of her books although I have to confess, it is Song of the Sparrow that I especially hold dear. LIsa and exchanged several sets of emails as we talked about Arthur, war and women in literature. There's also a bit about Clive Owen here - I hope you all will forgive us our mutual fascination! Now on to the interview......

Why didn't you focus the book on Morgan or Gwyn - the more well known female members of the Arthur legend?

The idea for this book, for writing about Elaine, came about after one rainy afternoon in London, when the sky was heavy and grey, and I, a poor college student at the time, wanted to find a warm, dry place. So I went to the Tate Museum. I was strolling through the corridors, looking for nothing in particular, when suddenly I turned a corner and
stumbled across the most luminous painting. It was John William Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott (1888), and it was arresting. In it a young woman—the lady of Shalott—sits in a boat, cushioned by a lush tapestry, her long red hair flowing down around her white gown. On her face there's this look that stopped me; it's a look of haunted sorrow, but in some way, it's serene, as though she has come to terms with an awful fate that awaits her. It's gloomy, but not depressing,which fit the weather and my mood at the time. I fell in love with that painting. When I got home, I went back to my books of Arthurian legend and read about the character Elaine of Ascolat, on whom the painting is based. There was something fundamentally unfair about how she was cursed and doomed to die for no other reason than her naive love for Sir Lancelot. She stayed with me through the years, as I always wished I could give her a better story, a better ending.

Do you think it is unusual for a writer to hold on to a character for a long time like this - do you think it is a unique situation for you? And why do you think no one else has stepped forward and rewritten Elaine's legend?


I don't know if other writers do the same, but I carried around Sarah, The protagonist from my first novel, The Weight of the Sky, with me for years, also. Although it may not be the most efficient way to work, it does give me lots of time to get to know my characters really well.

And as for the second part of your question, I can understand why Elaine's story hasn't been rewritten by any contemporary writers. First of all, she is a woman in a universe inhabited almost entirely by men. And those men happen to be very compelling characters (Arthur and Lancelot, just for starters), so that focusing on a young girl who is merely nursing a broken heart seems rather silly. Second, for centuries, Elaine has been largely associated with that broken heart, a romantic quality to be sure, but also a very passive one, in an era that seems to be dominated by action. I think this tragic and pretty dour perception of Elaine has made her a somewhat unfit heroine for modern authors. I'm happy to have released her from these shackles, however briefly.

How much research (and where) did you do for the depictions of the battle scenes and life in the camp?

In writing a historical novel, it was extremely important to me to get everything as accurate as possible. This, I soon discovered, was a challenge; after all, they don't call these times the Dark Ages for nothing, and Arthur, despite his illustrious legend, may not have even existed at all. I looked at many sources, but there's not a whole lot from this time. Still, I became obsessed with the details of camp life and war. I spent quite some time, for example, learning about the different herbs—yarrow and comfrey, feverfew and marigold—that Elaine would have administered in her healing. I also paid attention to the lore of Arthur's battles and learned that Arthur allegedly fought twelve great battles. The eleventh one—the battle at Mount Breguoin—is the opening battle in my book, and the final one—the one at Mount Badon—is the battle depicted in the final chapters of Song of the Sparrow. I pored over maps, trying to pinpoint where these locations might have been. Finally, however, I had to stop researching and sit down and write the book, which is good, since I was beginning to scare myself by how deeply I was getting into all of this ancient war stuff.


War stuff can be very addictive - I'm the same way when it comes to WWI. At what point did you decide to make Elaine a healing woman? Was this just the logical choice for a woman at her time in the camps?

Making Elaine a healer was first and foremost a logical choice. I imagined that, at this time, if a woman were to live in a battle camp full of men, even if she were admired and accepted by them, she would be quite restricted in her activities and duties, restricted to what were perceived of as womanly tasks—even in a camp as democratic and egalitarian as Arthur’s. Giving Elaine the gift of healing was one way to make her contributions to Arthur’s army indispensable, and also a way to let her pose a stark contrast to the brutal and bloody nature of every day life in the Dark Ages. Moreover, it further cemented her deep and elemental Connection to the earth.

What were your major sources?


I read Winston Churchill's A History of the English Speaking People, Nennius's Historia Brittonum, as well as Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, and Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, among others. And there was one other source that I found very compelling…but probably for different reasons: Clive Owen's film
King Arthur.

I am so with you on Clive Own. I mean - really!!!

Have you seen him in Children of Men???

Sigh...Okay, for a book with a teenage girl protagonist, Sparrow, gets pretty violent - was this something you were determined to do from the beginning?

I didn't set out to write violence. But, as Elaine's world came to life, and the grittiness of military life became more real to me, I began to realize that violence was very much a part of this story.

These people were fighting for everything they believed in, everything they had. Their survival was wrapped up in fighting. I didn't want to write a book that would glorify all this violence, and I did want to be careful not to get too graphic, but I wanted to stay very loyal to what I imagined Elaine's reality to be.

I don't commonly read books with a female protagonist that contain so much historic (and realistic) violence. Do you think female teen readers might resist those portions of the book - did you encounter any resist to including it?

Fortunately, I didn’t encounter any resistance to including the violence, and judging by the response from readers I’ve been getting, I think that the realism actually appeals to young woman readers. I believe they like Elaine even more when they see that she does not shy away from the violence, and when they see that she is not just a wispy figure living in a soft-focus fantasy world, but a very real adolescent coping with some very real and scary problems. And while I can’t say that the violence was ever intended to be an attraction, I hope that by being faithful to it, and not skirting around it, I managed to build a credible world.

Where did she get the idea to add Tristan and the Tristan/Isolde myth?

There are two main reasons, I think, why I thought the Tristan and Isolde legend would work very nicely in the context of Elaine's story.

First of all, I was struck by how much the two love triangles—that of Lancelot, Gwynivere, and Arthur and of Tristan, Isolde, and Mark—mirror each other. Second of all, it was clear to me right from the beginning that Elaine's love for Lancelot was nothing more than a crush. A crucial part of her growing up would have to do with
realizing that this was just a crush, and finding true, meaningful love with someone else. And there was something beautiful to me about Tristan being that someone. As if, by his and Elaine's coming together, these two complicated and doomed love triangles could be broken, and a new, mature, and long-lasting love could flourish.

This was one of the best parts of the story for me, and a romance that has stayed with me still. I loved Tristan and Elaine.

Thanks! It’s one of my favorite parts, too. Very girly.

The book is remarkably magic free for an Arthur tale - were you determined to make it more "down to earth" from the beginning and why?

I think the one thing I realized before I set out to write the book was that Elaine's reality would have been very different from our own. While we are so modern and rational, she lived in a time in which people paid great attention to myth and magic, not necessarily in the fantastical sense of the words, but just as an ordinary, yet crucial
part of their lives. So, while there is no "magic," per se, no dragons or spells, in the book, there's certainly a sense that comes most powerfully from the image of the Merlin, and that is hinted at in Morgan's character, of life being closely and organically connected to the supernatural. I think this is one of the things that also sets Song of the Sparrow apart from other, more traditional tellings of theArthurian legend; I tried to focus on the magic as a part of life that stems directly from Elaine's and her contemporaries' connectedness to the earth and the elements. I hope I managed to convey that.

I never thought about this way but you're right - the magic is just part of the story instead of something that needs to be pointed out (or pointed to). Were you tempted at all to leave Merlin out altogether? (He does come with a lot of baggage...)

Thy mythology of the Merlin is so rich, and this character is very much a cornerstone of the ancient legends. I couldn’t imagine a story about Arthur without him. But you’re right, he does come with a lot of baggage, and it was tricky trying to strip away the many layer of magic and lore that are associated with him and to see this figure for what he most likely was—if he was real, of course—a sort of ancient shaman who bore a great deal of influence over the politics of his day. So I wanted a Merlin in my story. But not the cartoonish wizard cloaked in a purple cape, rather a man of the land who summoned the deepest mysteries from the earth and who exercised a great degree of mystiticm and power over his people.

After writing a contemporary tale with your last book was it hard to shift gears and go historical?

I loved writing a historical story. I am a research junkie, and it's also an excellent way to procrastinate, and so switching gears like this was really a joy. Moreover, I enjoy trying different things and trying new styles or genres out. This was a very fun endeavor.

Are you working on another historical (any hints...:)?

One of the many reasons I’m enjoying answering yours and Jackie’s questions so much, apart from the fact that they are very thoughtful and intelligent and interesting, is that it’s allowing me to procrastinate working on my next book…I would love, love, love to write another historical novel. However right now, I am working on a contemporary teen novel called A Map of the Known World. It’ll be my first book-length foray into the world of prose and away from free verse. Fingers crossed…

Are you drawn to tales of conflict? (Your first book takes place in Israel and focuses a lot on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and now the Britons vs the Saxons)

It is in moments or situations of conflict that a person's true nature is bared, that we can get down to the very quick of a person's soul. I find that fascinating. I grew up in a quiet, leafy suburb with very little real conflict going on around me. So, when I grew older and traveled to some of the world's most embattled corners, I learned not
only that conflict has drama—which, of course, is terrific for anyone aspiring to be a writer—but that it also teaches you so much about human life and character. And what great fodder that makes for storytelling: how will characters react, how far will they go, what sets them apart from one another, and what makes them the same?

When writing books, when thinking about human nature, these become incredibly interesting questions to try to answer.

What different issues came up while researching these two very different books - was one harder to write than the other? (I know from your afterword that you have been reading about Arthur for a long long time - was this the book you have always wanted to write?)

I don't think that either one of my books—The Weight of the Sky or Song of the Sparrow—was harder to write than the other. They were, of course, very different writing experiences. The Weight of the Sky is loosely based on my own life, and writing it involved mainly getting back to these memories and impressions that had settled into the back of my mind. It was an intensely personal and emotional experience, which would explain in part why it took so long to write—I worked on this book off and on for almost seven years. In thinking about Sarah,the protagonist, I often ended up thinking about myself, why I did what I did, and how certain experiences affected me as a young adult.

Working on Song of the Sparrow was a very different experience. While I had a strong emotional bond with Elaine right from the very first sentence, I had to approach her from the outside in, learning a lot about her surroundings and her world before I could get down to her soul.

What strikes me, however, is how, despite the differences, Elaine and Sarah are really very similar. They're both young women growing up while coming to terms with issues of conflict, nationality, friendship, and romance, trying to make sense of their lives under dramatically difficult circumstances.

I can imagine how hard it must have been to write about Sarah while also trying to distance yourself from the work (not make it too much about you...). In some respects it seems that Elaine's world would have been a respite from that type of writing - a chance to write about someone wholly and completely new to you.

Writing about someone inhabiting a place and time so different from anything familiar to me was definitely a lovely respite, and yet the better I got to know Elaine, the more I realized that her concerns and problems and hopes were remarkably similar to those of any girl. This, I guess, is the kind of literature that has always attracted me the most, and the kind that I strive to write. The sort that, no matter what the plot or setting, addresses those issues which never cease to be relevant.

And finally the big question - why write in verse?

Writing in verse comes naturally to me. I don't seem to see the world in very structural terms. Instead, I'm more attracted to the sensual, and tend to see life as a loosely tied string of scenes. In writing, this translates very naturally to verse. The economy of language lets the impact of each moment play out to the fullest extent of its
potential.

When I look back at my own experiences in Israel, I recall scents and colors and textures. As I thought about the events I wanted to relate in The Weight of the Sky, Sarah's voice came to me in poems, as, for her, too, the essence of the land was wrapped up in the perfume of the jasmine, and the dustiness of the desert.


As I set out to write Song of the Sparrow, I didn't intend to write another verse novel. But, as the images from Elaine's world took shape in my imagination, and as I thought harder and harder about how I wanted my words to reflect the visions in my head and how I wanted this book to find a place in the world of Arthurian legend, the free verse began to feel very right, very organic to the story. If someone had written down Elaine's story in the seventh century, it would have been in verse. So, to use a modern interpretation of this form felt true to what I was attempting to do.

Jackie at Interactive Reader will be interviewing Lisa as well, tomorrow.

[Post pic is "The Lady of Shalott" by John Williams Waterhouse.]

comments

I really enjoyed The Weight of the Sky; it was a really... hard to describe book, and it just stayed with me... after reading your Song of the Sparrow review, and dreaming over the Waterhouse picture, I'm ready for the next bit of history. She really is a writer with a vast scope.

I adored Song of the Sparrow and it's so interesting to hear what was going through your mind as you set out to write it. Reading it I was so happy that someone else agreed there was more to Elaine than her love for Lancelot. I knew there was! And I loved the way you subtly wove in Tristan and his past, and how you eased them all out of their doomed love triangles. It was a refreshing and beautiful read.

She does have an ability to write about vastly different types of people and places doesn't she, TadMack? You will love Sparrow - I promise!

And I also loved her explanation about Tristan and Elaine, Angie. I thought it was so cool the way Lisa wove those two legends together.

Beautiful Interview. Wonderful questions, fantastic answers.

I'm in love with her Tristan explaination, too.

I hope our interview tomorrow lives up to this! This is quite the high bar!

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