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Gillian Philip has been writing ever since she can remember. Her books include ‘Crossing The Line’, ‘Bad Faith’ and the ‘Rebel Angels’ series (‘Firebrand’, ‘Bloodstone’, ‘Wolfsbane’ and ‘Icefall’). She has been nominated and shortlisted for awards including the Carnegie Medal, the Scottish Children’s Book Award and the David Gemmell Legend Award. Having lived in Barbados for twelve years, her home is now in the north-east Highlands of Scotland with her husband, twins, three dogs, two cats, a fluctuating population of chickens and many nervous fish. She likes nothing better than writing stories, but sometimes she’ll go clean the loos rather than sit down at her desk and start.
For what age audience do you write?
I write for middle-grade, for Young Adults and for older adults, and I’ll write in almost any genre that grabs me – I’ve written historical and urban fantasy as well as crime, dystopian fiction, romance and horror. I’m one of the Erin Hunter team, writing ‘Survivors’ (about dogs in a post-apocalyptic landscape) and I’ve also ghostwritten as Gabriella Poole and as Adam Blade. But I think my absolute favourite genre, and my natural home, is fantasy.
Henry: Dogs in an apocalyptic landscape!? That puts an interesting spin on that scene in Lady and the Tramp when the two dogs are sharing a strand of spaghetti. Also, I love that you’ve ghostwritten as a man. I wonder if there is a subtle psychological effect on you when you do so.
Tell us about your latest book.
‘Bloodstone’ is the second in a series called ‘Rebel Angels’, about the Sithe – or faery folk – of Scotland. It had a strange evolution, in that I rewrote it many times before realising I was telling the wrong person’s story! A villain completely took over the book (and my head) and demanded I write his story instead. That became ‘Firebrand’ – now the first in the series – and once I had that straight, the other three books in the series fell naturally into place. Seth became an antihero rather than an outright villain, of course, and it turned out he was right, because he has proved quite a popular guy! Jumping forward in time from ‘Firebrand’, which was set in the 16th century, ‘Bloodstone’ takes place in the modern world. It centres on Seth and his brother Conal – who are Sithe warriors in search of a talisman for the faery queen – and on a young girl called Finn who is completely unaware of her faery heritage. That causes no end of trouble…
Henry: Villains CAN be very demanding at times. Books from the villain’s perspective can be loads of fun. Hmmm, now I’m wondering if I’ve ever met people who were unaware of their faery heritage.
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
Well, foremost I hope they’ll be caught up in the adventure and the suspense. And I guess I hope what a lot of authors hope – that readers will get to know my characters as well as I do, and will care about what happens to them. They’re all so real to me, and it’s like wanting people to like your children (and forgive their flaws when they act out). My characters make a lot of bad choices, even when they’re trying to do what’s best, and I hope a lot of readers will relate to that – I know I do… And I’d love it if some readers fall for the myths and landscape of the Scottish Highlands.
Henry: Any people who paint themselves blue, mousse their hair, and charge into battle naked save for two-handed claymores are OK in my book.
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
I’m really flummoxed by plotting. I used to think I couldn’t be a writer at all, because I couldn’t for the life of me plot a book before I started. Honestly, it took me years to realise that I could simply do what I did in my head – find some characters, tell myself their story and see what happened. So one day I bit the bullet: I sat down and started a story, and before I knew where I was I had a four-book series. That’s still how I write, mostly. I do find it unnerving and hazardous, though. I often have a lot of rewriting to do. And that bit in the middle of the book, when everyone is in place but you’re nowhere near the climax – that’s a horrible time. You just have to write through it.
Henry: You just reminded me how much fun the word flummox is. Although the Scottish use of the word wee always tickles me.
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
Probably the way it feels to be in someone else’s head. Obviously that’s not just something a writer has to learn, but for a writer I think it’s essential. Everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own story, and everyone has motives that they think are sound. It doesn’t mean I sympathise with the bad guys, in fiction or in real life, but I think it helps you connect with your own humanity if you can try to see the world through alien eyes.
Henry: Well said!
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
As Erin Hunter, I tour the US once or twice a year. It’s always the most incredible experience, and I love it. There was an existing Erin Hunter fanbase long before I arrived, and I benefit from that, but I’m so happy that I’m helping create the next chapter in the Erin story. The fans are wonderful and welcoming and so enthusiastic – they know the stories and the characters inside out. It’s not just touching, it’s really humbling to see the effect that fictional characters can have on readers, and the importance of them in people’s lives.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Not just to write – constantly, and whenever and wherever you can – but to rewrite. And then rewrite again. And then put it away, and take it out after a month and rewrite again. Your story can always be better. I’ve had rejections that gutted me at the time – but looking back after a few years, I am incredibly relieved that those stories never saw the light. I’m so, so glad I had a chance to work on them some more. If I could, I’d probably rewrite again. (But there does come a point when you have to stop. Just make sure it’s the right point!)
Henry: Darn, I should have also asked you how you know when it’s the right point to stop re-writing.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
One of my favourite writers is Russell T. Davies, the screenwriter and showrunner on Doctor Who for the first years of its reboot. There’s a moment in his book ‘The Writers’ Tale’ when he’s agonising about a special effect in the Titanic episode. He says, “I spent a long time thinking that the meteorites wouldn’t be burning. They’d be rocks. They’d only burn on entering the atmosphere. But they need to be burning, because it looks better, so I gave [two characters] a bit of dialogue saying they were composed of ‘flammable nitrofine rock’… and then cut it, because that’s dull and I don’t care. They’re gonna burn!” I love that quote. Research and accuracy are important, for sure, but there comes a moment when science has to take a backseat to storytelling. I’m not writing textbooks, I’m writing adventures!
Henry: I respectfully take the opposing view. I’m all for suspending disbelief. So, I can enjoy ‘The Hobbit’ even though it has a ring of invisibility, goblins, and a dragon. But I still like all the other real-world constraints on physics and behaviors. Without them to anchor me, I feel adrift in a sea of literary chaos.
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write?
Not so much rituals as really bad habits. I have to have my coffee (several cups). I have to check Twitter. And I have to go see if that racket next door is the cats trashing the kitchen.
Henry: Or the cats trashing the chickens…
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I’d love to be able to travel between dimensions. I’m sure they exist, and I’m sure I’d meet my characters in one of them.
Henry: Well, you kind of have that superpower already, in your head.
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
I’d like C.S. Lewis, Christopher Hitchens and Armistead Maupin, please. We’d have rollicking good arguments, fabulous gossip and then we’d stay up late putting the world to rights over a good bottle of whisky.
Henry: Love it! Most people know C.S. Lewis for Narnia. But, he also wrote ‘Mere Christianity’, which is the most incredibly clear, logical writing on the topic of religion I’ve ever seen. Him in the room with Hitchens! Priceless. Wikipedia helps me out as follows: “Armistead Jones Maupin, Jr. is an American writer, best known for his ‘Tales of the City’ series of novels, set in San Francisco.”
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
My absolute favourite mythical creature is a kelpie. These are the water-demons of Scottish myth that take the form of beautiful horses. They’re said to dupe innocent travellers into riding them, then gallop into the nearest loch, drown and eat them. I love their savagery, their slyness and their beauty; they’re perfect monsters. I use them in my own books, as my characters’ warhorses, and they’re never completely trustworthy.
Henry: Not to be confused with selkie: “Selkies are said to live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land.”
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Gardening is a fantastic displacement activity. I have a really big, wild garden, and I spend all summer trying to tame it, cutting and chopping and burning. I love that it’s such hard physical work, and it helps me think about stories.
But for relaxing, my favourite thing is to curl up on the sofa with my kids, some popcorn and a bottle of wine (that’s not for the kids), and watch a really good action movie. Or maybe a Buffy marathon.
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
This is going to be an awfully big adventure.
Where can readers find your work?
I’m published by Tor, Harper Collins, Strident and Bloomsbury, among others, and you can find me at http://www.gillianphilip.com and at http://www.facebook.com/gillianphilipauthor. And I’m on Twitter as @Gillian_Philip
This interview is also posted to the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.