Tell us about Malarat.
Malarat is the name of a person and a place. It’s the title of the Duc de Malarat, a powerful nobleman who plans to put a puppet king on the throne of Lefranu. The Duke wants to rule the whole country so he sets out to attack the independent southern states. He’s backed by the Domini Canes, an order of monks who are a cross between the Inquisition and the Crusaders. The name means ‘Hounds of God’ and was a nickname for the Dominicans historically, when they staffed the Inquisition. They are commanded by a young man called Valdes de Siccaria, who is stunningly beautiful but malevolent.
Their main problem in attacking the south is the shamans, a group of humans with magical powers sufficient to drive them off. Siccaria develops a secret weapon called the Spider, made from iron. Shamans, being magical, react badly to iron, so he discovers a way to neutralise them and sets out to do so. He believes that they offend against the natural order of things, so he is determined to eradicate them.
The shamans learn about this through intelligence information but have no idea how bad it is until they experience it first hand. And then they’re in trouble. Only a handful of them are powerful enough to fight – most shamans just do healing, otherwise you can imagine – kerpow! So it’s an immediate problem for them as a group, and for the people they’re trying to protect.
In addition to that there’s a demon on the loose – no-one knows how it got out (or in). It tends to go round possessing people and hiding out, occasionally emerging to cause trouble.
How does it relate to your earlier work?
It takes place in the same world and the same country. I have ret-conned a few things, such as the name of the country (Lefranu). A lot of people thought it was set in Eastern Europe, but in fact it’s an alternate version of France. I wanted to emphasise that detail. The confusion arises because of the large number of characters with Russian names. In fact, they are all exiles or émigrés of various kinds. Climate change plays an important part in the background of the novel! A mini Ice Age has just ended, and some places have been left technologically and culturally stranded. It’s like the Victorian era with bits that are stuck in the past.
Though the story follows on from the events in The Glass Mountain, my second book, it can definitely be read on its own. It’s not a children’s book. There are some graphic scenes and the themes are dark. It continues to explore my interest (or obsession) with the underworld, and two of the narrative threads take place in the afterlife or spirit world, from the shamanic point of view. I use elements from Russian and Jewish folklore, together with some origin myths about the English. There’s an Anglit (or Englishman) with a mad and spectacular plan to colonise Heaven. He believes that his countrymen are the true Israelites (Ya-udi), as opposed to the Wanderers, and sets out to alter history accordingly.
Are there more Malarat stories to come?
There could be sequels. I’m working on something at the moment, but I’ve zoomed the perspective out a bit and brought in two more parallel worlds, one of which is supposed to be this one – up to a point. I hope the next one will be lighter.
What is the significance of Goddesses in your work?
Many years ago, I was hugely influenced by Robert Graves’s book The White Goddess with its ‘eternal theme’ of two men fighting for the love of one woman. And then after a life-long interest in the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau, made famous by Holy Blood and Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code, I came across the legend that Mary Magdalene had sailed to France with a group of companions that included two women also called Mary (a tradition still celebrated in the South of France today).
This triggered the idea of a hidden and heretical goddess-based religion in France, starting with the two Marys who settled in Arles with their Egyptian servant Sara. Not unlike the syncretisation of African gods and goddesses in Vodou, Candomble and Santeria!
That lay behind the creation of several goddess-based sects. Doxa, the state religion, is similar to Christianity with the Virgin Mary as part of the Trinity. Though it’s a matriarchal religion, men hold positions of power. The other religion is worship of the Lady, who appeared in Children of the Shaman as two separate divinities – the Bright Lady and the Cold One. They are aspects of her, dark and light, and in Malarat the Goddess has been reunited with herself. But she’s an ambiguous character– is she good or evil? What is she up to? She has her own way of being, her myth, and some of the characters get caught up in it. So though she seems benign, she’s ambivalent.
Describe your typical writing day.
I don’t have a typical writing day, but I find it easiest to write late at night when there are fewer distractions.
Some reviewers have suggested that your writing is filmic, or even designed to be filmed. What films have influenced you?
One of my all-time favourite films is Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman. It is a historical film with elements of magic and is really scary in places. It becomes a fight to the death between a young boy and his really horrible step-father, the Bishop, who is one of the scariest characters in film. I also like cartoons and anime and would love to be filmed by Studio Ghibli (in my dreams!). I wanted to convey that atmosphere of a fairly realistic world where nonetheless some strange things happen. And I enjoyed Cronos by Guillermo del Toro – I’d love to have seen what he made of The Hobbit!
What would you draw attention to from your back-list?
I’m planning to reissue my first book, Children of the Shaman, as an ebook – and its sequel, The Glass Mountain. They are both out of print now and I’d like to bring them back. And also to harmonise the language with that of Malarat. Some people criticised me for using untranslated French and I think that’s absolutely fair, so I want to remove some of the French and otherwise provide translations, as I have done in Malarat.
Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?
There are so many good people out there. I love the work of Kari Sperring, who writes intelligent and thoughtful fantasy novels that deserve to be published in this country – her latest title is The Grass King’s Concubine. I’d like to mention Adele Abbot, whose novel Postponing Armageddon, an alternate history, is due to be published as an ebook in June. And I enjoy the writing of Meyari McFarland, whose Matriarchies of Muirin tales have been issued as a series of ebooks on Amazon.
Publishing is going through a period of rapid change. How has this affected you as an author, and what are your plans?
My plans are to carry on writing, and to see whether Malarat finds an audience. It is hard to predict how things will turn out in future. I would love to be published in a traditional manner, but the digital format gives me an opportunity that would otherwise be missing. The real problem is bringing readers to the novel – there is so much out there and readers are spoilt for choice. Unfortunately, a lot of the advice you are initially given about using social media is flawed since, as someone observed, the result can be writers trying to sell their books to other writers. (cf. ‘WRITING ON THE ETHER: Writers in the Inferno’ by Porter Anderson, guest-posting on Jane Friedman’s blog.)
If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
Not to self-censor on the first draft but once that is done to edit and re-edit. And then edit some more.
Jessica Rydill was born in Bath in 1959. She read English at King’s College Cambridge before training as a solicitor. In 1998 she gave up work to write. Her first two novels, Children of the Shaman and The Glass Mountain, were published by Orbit in 2001 and 2002. She lives just outside Bath with her husband and her collection of Asian Ball-jointed Dolls, some of which resemble characters from her invented world.
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