Today I'm happy to be interviewing Suzannah Rowntree!
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at www.vintagenovels.com and is the author of both fiction and non-fiction. She’s written two non-fiction books on literature, The Epic of Reformation: A Guide to the Faerie Queene and War Games: Classic Fiction for the Christian Life. These day’s she focusing on writing and publishing fiction: Pendragon’s Heir, her debut novel, which springs from her lifelong love of medieval literature; and a series of fairytale novellas including The Rakshasa’s Bride, The Prince of Fishes, and (upcoming!) The Bells of Paradise.
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1. (Heidi) Some differences and similarities you see between the three major forms of storytelling—literature, music, and film?
(Suzannah) Um. Wow. Big question. Let me try.
Literature is my own expertise. It’s by far the most precise of the three storytelling forms, since it involves the most precise of the storytelling media—words. You can make things very explicit in a book which it would be difficult to make explicit even in a film. This goes for description as well as for theme: just think of how much hilarity PG Wodehouse loses in the translation to screen. How can you film “the shifty, hang-dog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French” or “the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom”? You can’t.
Film is perhaps the most immersive and immediate of the three storytelling forms. Its strength is, of course, visual and physical, and it majors on dialogue. Its popularity has impacted immensely on the way we write books—more dialogue, more description of characters’ or landscapes’ physical aspects, elaborately choreographed dances or duels, a greater sense of movement, scene-setting reminiscent of camera angles—but I’m not convinced that’s always a good thing. Things which work beautifully in film don’t always translate so well to literature.
Music is the least precise of the three storytelling forms, which is probably why so many composers wanting to write music with a point have chosen to add words—either as liner notes, or in a title, or in song lyrics—to explain what the music is supposed to depict. Music has always been recognised for its effect on mood and emotion, but there was also a time—especially in the Baroque period, as exemplified by JS Bach—when music was believed to have rational, philosophical/theological import as well, and musical lexicons were even published to explain the precise significance of various chords and rhythms. (For more information, I highly recommend James Gaines’s book Evening in the Palace of Reason).
As for similarities, I think one of the big similarities is a sense of plot structure; of starting at Point A, and then proceeding in a linear fashion through various climaxes and resolutions to Point B. Another universal is the appeal to the emotions, but as hinted, I wonder if this might be a somewhat artificial distinction; it’s quite possible for music, as well as film and literature, to appeal to reason.
2. How have you seen those three mesh together in your own creative process?
Film is here to stay, and it’s revolutionised the written word. I don’t think that’s an entirely good thing, but I also don’t think it’s entirely bad. Plus, people expect a cinematic element in their storytelling, and I’m happy to use all its strengths as I can.
As for music, I have a lot of respect for it (and I’ve been a musician most of my life). I don’t listen to it while I write because it uses up parts of my brain I need to focus on the rhythm and cadence of my words. So a musical faculty definitely plays into my writing.
Also, people often seem to burst randomly into song in my stories, like in The Lord of the Rings. Because I secretly believe Heaven will be a lot more like a musical than we think.
3. When and how did you first begin writing?
In addition to loving books and being good with words, I had a strong tendency to play make-believe games when I was small. One day I decided to write a story based on one of my make-believe games for my best friend’s birthday. It look four years and three drafts to finish. It was then that I realised I’d probably never be quite the same again.
4. What are you currently working on?
Two projects—a series of novella-length fairytale retellings, and a giant huge immense epic novel, because I do not know the meaning of the word “moderation”. I’ve already published two of the fairytale novellas an am preparing another two for publication in the near future.
5. Particular author/s who have influenced you?
The Inklings (JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Charles Williams), along with their spiritual forbear GK Chesterton have probably had the biggest influence, but others include John Buchan, Edmund Spenser, and Jane Austen.
6. Is there a “non-writing” activity that shapes your writing?
I’m always reading avidly to feed my writing. I read history and factual books as research. I read theology to give my themes some real philosophical heft. I read classic literature so as to know what I’m aiming for. And I read current literature so as to know what’s on the market and what the tropes of my genre are.
7. Your opinion on the advantages and disadvantages of digital books?
The advantage is that I can feed my reading habit for a much lower cost, and be more selective about the books I do buy physical copies of. The disadvantage is that in a thousand years or so when they’re digging up our bones, it’s our paperbacks that are going to survive to pass on our work, our philosophy, and our stories. Not so much our Kindles.
8. Do you ever do graphic design to help with your writing?
I design my own covers, and I generally work on them for as long as I’m working on the story. That’s about the limit of it. My graphic design repertoire is extremely limited.
9. Do you outline? If so, in a general way or very detailed?
Yes, I’m a confirmed outliner, to a moderate level of detail. Too much detail in an outline, and I feel I might as well be writing the first draft. Too little, and I risk running into problems when I don’t know what to do next. Major plot points and climactic scenes get the most level of detail in my outlining, since they’re the big scenes I’m building towards.
10. Do you work on multiple projects at once?
I am at the moment. I don’t like tearing myself away from one project to another in quick succession, but I do consider long hiatuses (hiati?) essential, so as to give my thoughts time to mature.
11. Do you edit as you write?
Editing and rewrites account for an enormous proportion of my writing time. Even in first-draft work, it’s hard not to tinker a bit.
12. Certain themes you see surfacing and resurfacing in your work?
Multigenerational vision. The struggle of building the Kingdom of God in an imperfect world among imperfect people. Optimistic eschatology. The nobility of ordinary things. All these things crop up pretty regularly, especially in the stories I get most excited about.
13. A particular aspect of writing you struggle with or a challenge you’ve overcome?
I don’t know I can point to anything specific. Writing is pretty backbreaking. One thing I’m trying to be sensitive to is not trying to accomplish too much in a story—just limiting myself to the essentials, rather than weaving in every possible option.
14. How do you deal with feedback—particularly negative feedback?
Positive feedback always makes me happy. Negative feedback differs according to whether it comes from someone who understands what I’m trying to achieve, or someone who doesn’t get it at all. The former is often very useful—which is why I try to get it before publication, so I can use it. After, I do often read the negative feedback—and then I often have to take a couple of weeks letting the sting subside before I go back and see if I can take away anything worthwhile.
15. One thing you’ve learned from other writers?
Everything. I’ve learned everything from observing and analysing masters of their craft like William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, JRR Tolkien, and so on—how to plot, how to craft sympathetic characters, how to incorporate theme, how to work faithfully every day.
16. A helpful nonfiction book or website?
Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays by Peter Leithart opened my eyes to how literature works, especially when it comes to chiastic structure and how theme can underlie literally every plot/characterisation aspect of a book.
17. What do you consider one of the single most important things to remember (i.e. an attitude or technique)?
No matter what you’re doing, you can always be doing better. Never take it for granted that you’ve succeeded. Always try to improve.
18. A word of encouragement for fellow writers?
Remember 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, which I believe applies to all cultural works. Your work has eternal significance. Your foundation is Christ, and it’s up to you to build on that foundation-stone with gold, silver, and jewels—not with wood, hay and stubble. If you work well, you will receive the reward for the work of your hands, and those that endure will enter into eternity with the glory and honour of nations brought into the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24). Some things you actually can take with you!
And therefore, no matter how long it takes you to produce something worthwhile, no matter how much blood, sweat, and tears you must shed, it’s going to be worth it. Things that deserve to last for all eternity aren’t made in a day; aren’t made without painstaking work and attention. And while it may feel difficult and thankless today, you have the best incentive in the world to persevere—the words of the Creator himself, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
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Note from Heidi: Thank you so much for sharing Suzannah! :)
And everyone, be sure to check out Suzannah's blog at Vintage Novels.