Chats with Suzannah Rowntree // author interview and giveaway

Authorly Interviews! Aren’t they delightful? 

Suzannah Rowntree is a skilled writer and lovely woman, and I’ve been hoping to host her on Curious Wren for awhile now. Her most recent novel, Pendragon’s Heir, is an absolute favorite of mine, and so in addition to the interview we have a special treat for you all, my precious gingersnaps! 

Which is, A GIVEAWAY. Woot! Majorly excited over here. It’s opened internationally with a winner from Australia or the US receiving a tangible copy. If the winner is from any other country, they’ll receive a Kindle edition. Right ho?
On to the interview!

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Hello, Suzannah! I’m delighted to be interviewing you here on Curious Wren! To start off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? Hobbies? Tea or coffee? Favorite cozy reads? Ideal writing day? Elves or Knights of the Round Table?

Hello, Annie! It’s such a pleasure to be here!

I don’t hobby much because WRITING IS THE AIR I BREATHE, but occasionally I tear myself away to do something else. I play the French Horn. I knit. I sew. I design covers for my books and fliers or invitations for friends and family. In the past I’ve also done fencing and swing dancing. I love making beautiful things.

Definitely tea: chai, oolong, rooibos or Russian caravan for preference. Mary Stewart is my guilty-pleasure cozy read, but I also love Wodehouse, Trollope, and the odd sentimental vintage romance like Florence L Barclay or Grace S Richmond. Ideal writing day is a quiet house and a long-awaited melodramatic scene. I’m going to pick the Knights, but that’s probably only because they’re my babies and I haven’t read Tolkien for a few years (the Epic LOTR re-read is scheduled for LATER THIS YEAR OH MY OH MYYYYYY).

When did you realize your love for Story? Who or what prompted you to pursue writing seriously?

I began writing my first story as a birthday present for my best friend when I was 12, and when it was done I looked at it, found it unsatisfactory, and began to write it again. I’ve never been able to shake the habit since; but I think the decisive moment came when I finally finished the third draft. I told myself, “That was exhausting, I’m never doing that again” – but ten minutes later I had opened a new Word document and was already typing. That was when I realised I had a serious problem!

My elder brother had already realised several years previously. “You should publish this!” he said after discovering and reading my battered exercise book first draft. I laughed him to scorn. Thankfully, he didn’t take no for an answer. (Although, no, that first story will never see the light).

What was the inspiration behind Pendragon’s Heir? Can you share with us a bit about your journey with this particular tale?

Pendragon’s Heir came to me about eleven years ago. I read Josephine Tey’s wonderful book The Daughter of Time and was suddenly seized with the desire to rehabilitate some other much-maligned character. The tragic love of Guinevere and Lancelot in the King Arthur legends had always frustrated me, and so I wrote the first draft of what would later become Pendragon’s Heir in just six days with the aim of doing for the character of Guinevere what Tey had done for Richard III. Over the following ten years, I worked on second and third drafts intermittently until just three years ago I came to the realisation that I was a good enough writer to finish and publish it. So I went all the way back to the beginning, started again, and you have read the final result.

The thing I learned writing and rewriting the same story almost exclusively for ten years was that stories, like fruitcake, get richer and richer with time. While good characterisation and plotting can help shorten the time you spend working on a story, it’s still a shame to rush a story. You have to let it marinate. You have to spend months or years thinking about it. Lasting art generally isn’t made in five odd minutes of the day.

Are you currently working on a book that you can share about spoiler-free? What genre(s) do you prefer? And do you have a favorite “mode” of writing, e.g. first person, past tense?

For the last twelve months or so since publishing Pendragon’s Heir I’ve been working almost fulltime on another novel, this one a sprawling epic based around the 200-year history of the Crusader States. It’s working–titled Outremer, and it looks at the Crusades from the perspective of the indigenous Syrian Christians and the native-born Frankish nobility. I grew up on western-centric tales like Ivanhoe and Winning His Spurs where everyone was always coming home from the Crusades, but in this story, home means right there in the East. That’s a perspective that has almost never been told, and it’s the one that fired up my imagination.

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Genre is a question that evaded me for years, since I love all sorts of genres and have tried everything from thrillers to space operas. OUTREMER was going to be straight historical fiction until I realised that a few fantasy elements would help me emphasise the themes that I wanted to bring out most. That was the moment I realised that I write historical fantasy.

Most of my stories are written in limited third-person, past tense, sometimes spanning several points of view, since I find it the most natural way to write the stories I want to tell. But I have this fairytale novella series where I get to mess around in a whoooole lot of different genres, and the one I’m working on now is in first-person.

Tell us a bit about your current favorite movies/TV shows/books. Why are they favorites?

The Lord of the Rings is my favourite book–or was the first eight times I read it, ten years ago. It is a work of unusual and incredible beauty, with titanic emotional power and sensitivity. Unlike most secondary-world fantasy, its worldbuilding is meticulous and entirely convincing–in fact, if you want the gold standard of speculative-fiction worldbuilding, this is it. It also draws heavily upon Tolkien’s firm Christian faith. It is the book equivalent of a medieval cathedral: immense, detailed, and absolutely gut-wrenchingly beautiful. Otherwise I have about a squillion other favourite books, but notable authors include Lewis, Buchan, Chesterton, Wodehouse, Spenser, Shakespeare, Austen, and Trollope.

Film seems to me a much lesser medium, and my favourites tend to come and go. I enjoy almost everything Christopher Nolan has ever done, especially the mental challenge and sheer actiony fun of Inception. Another favourite film is The Empire Strikes Back. I can take or leave pretty much all the other Star Wars movies, but this one is a masterpiece of brooding and ominous power culminating in a truly anguished ending. Who doesn’t love it when characters suffer?

If you could have luncheon with several authors of your choice (dead or alive), who would you choose?

GK Chesterton, because he’d be a hilarious conversationalist, and Jane Austen, because she’d be so incredibly down-to-earth. And Tolkien, so I could get his autograph.

What books have made you cry? If none, are there any that almost brought the tears to your eyes?

Pardon the fangirling, but The Lord of the Rings almost never fails to tear me up. I don’t usually cry in a book, but years ago Paul Gallico’s Jennie reduced me to a quivering, blubbering mess, and not in a good way.

What are four books you think everyone should read? Why?

Well, obviously, The Lord of the Rings, because you need to experience the splendour and nobility of great Christian art. Douglas Wilson and Douglas Jones’s Angels in the Architecture, so you can begin to appreciate the medieval vision that inspired it. Paradise Restored by David Chilton because the things I learned in that book still wake me up every morning with a smile on my face. Um, and Francis Nigel Lee’s Central Significance of Culture, because it presents a staggering vision for Christian art.

You will notice that three of these are non-fiction books that help set a tremendous cultural vision. This is not because I think fiction is unimportant. After all, I’ve dedicated my life to it. But after reading these books you ought to be able both to get more out of both the art you consume and to put more into the art you make.

What kinds of stories and characters delight you the most?

I love characters that are flawed in their goodness, or sympathetic in their villainy; the former because they can inspire you to overcome those sins, and the latter because they can cause you to see the villainy in your own heart. I love the quality of nobility that comes with the patient endurance of great suffering. And I cannot do without hope for the future. If a book has all these things, I’m sure to like it.

Share with us a few beautiful words/quotes that give you a happy, glowy feeling.

In no particular order:

The pallid cuckoo

Sent up in frail

Microtones

His tiny scale

 

On the cold air.

What joy I found

Mounting that tiny

Stair of sound.

– James McAuley, “Late Winter”

 

Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys

garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.

*

In Paradise they look no more awry;

and though they make anew, they make no lie.

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,

and poets shall have flames upon their head,

and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:

there each shall choose forever from the All.

– JRR Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”

Remember that all worlds draw to an end, and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.

– CS Lewis, “The Last Battle”

How does your Christian faith affect your purpose as a writer?

In so many ways that I do not know how I would be a writer without it. I make art to glorify God and tell anew His mighty works in history and salvation (Psalm 145:10-12). I make art reverently, begging the Holy Spirit for inspiration (Exodus 32:2-3) and submitting it to the counsel of those older and wiser than myself (Proverbs 15:22). I make art because I believe God gave us the raw materials in creation and that both the dominion mandate and the Great Commission means using those raw materials to construct a glorious Christian culture that will one day cover the earth (Daniel 2:44). I make art seriously, with every fibre of my being awake and straining for perfection, because I believe that the work of my hands will pass through a testing (1 Corinthians 3:11-15), and will, if found worthy, be brought into the New Jerusalem with the glory and honour of the nations (Revelation 21:24).

What would you say characterizes your writing style?

Stylistically, I like adapting myself to the needs of the story. Imitation comes naturally to me, and I use it to give the setting a more authentic flavour: so that in Pendragon’s Heir I mimicked the rhythm and diction of Thomas Malory, and in The Bells of Paradise that of Shakespeare. I have an unhealthy dependence upon semicolons, and a sly love of alliteration. I delight in distilling striking images into striking words. And I’m grateful to have learned the importance of being painfully sharp and specific with my words, which is the only way to paint a very vivid and unfamiliar setting, so clearly you can almost see and smell it.

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If you could have a good, long face-to-face talk with one of your characters, whom would you choose and why?

LOL, none of them! Why would I do that? I have enough trouble coming up with things for them to say to each other. XP

Do you have any unique writer quirks or strange habits?

Perhaps the most scandalous thing I can say is that I don’t! I am a very boring kind of writer. I don’t struggle with writer’s block, I don’t look at Pinterest for inspiration, I don’t find that my characters have a will of their own, and I don’t listen to music while I write. Maybe that’s because I’m also a musician, but I find it too distracting, and it uses up parts of my mind I need for hearing the rhythms and cadences of my words.

Sometimes I compose poetry in the shower?

As a writer, in those moments of discouragement when you feel like your writing deserves to be burned (and the ashes buried six feet under), how do you keep going forward?

Ohhh yep. I do feel this way from time to time. Usually, I remember that Pendragon’s Heir turned out OK, and that gives me a lot of confidence. I have to admit that sometimes I read someone else’s turkey and come away with the serene assurance that I can do way better. Most powerful of all, I go back to what inspired me to write the story, and get excited all over again by the wonderful potential it has to be great–if I’ll only keep going through the hard bits.

Few of us who’ve read Pendragon’s Heir have been able to resist the charm of the knight Perceval, and I know he’s special to you also. Might we be gifted a glimpse into your thought process and method–as it were–for coaxing his character into what you wanted it to be?

Haha! Good old Perceval. I’m actually really pleased everyone loves him as much as I do. The most important thing to say about him is that I based him off the original knight from the legends, who is already a terrific character–I think of him as the unsocialised homeschooler par excellence: someone with very few inhibitions and an utterly unashamed zest for life.

At the same time, I knew he was the love interest and I didn’t want to produce a character that had been voodoo-dolled all out of resemblance to actual real men, so while writing him I always tried to ask myself how my brothers would act in his circumstances. As I went on, I mixed in some other aspects of other young men I knew in real life: which actually gave me the courage to make him as chivalrous and romantic as he is (as well as the sense to make him arrogant and overconfident).

What have been a few of your most special moments and experiences as a published writer, and as a writer in general? I’d love to hear about them!

By far the thing I love the most is getting to spend all day, every day, doing a job I love better than anything else in the world. My writing doesn’t bring in much more than pocket money at the moment, true, so my parents supply my day-to-day needs. As a “stay-at-home” (ha!) daughter, I’m so very, very blessed to have like-minded parents who have as much of a vision for my writing as I do. In fact, my parents deserve so much of the credit for everything I have done: I owe them my education, my vision for Christian culture, and the time and tools I need to produce all these stories.

Other neat things. Getting to send a copy of Pendragon’s Heir to CS Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham. Being told by a well-known Inklings scholar that I had written “a masterpiece.” And reading people’s reviews of my book, with a singing heart because I am finally getting to share my stories with other people–and they are coming away refreshed, encouraged, and moved.

Why don’t we end with a fun question? What fictional worlds do you most wish to visit and why?

Hee, that is a fun question. Narnia, Perelandra, and Middle Earth are absolutely the top of my list. Narnia because I would have so much fun dancing with the dryads at the feasts or swashbuckling around in chainmail armour. And Perelandra because it sounds absolutely heavenly – an unfallen planet? Fruits that give you an transcendant experience of innocent pleasure? Yes please! And Middle Earth, because it would be wonderful to explore the Elvish cities.

(Aww, wasn’t that delightful, y’all? Suzannah is such a sweetheart and I will never recover from the gloriousness that is her books. *happy sigh* Don’t forget to enter the giveaway, humans! This is a book you don’t want to miss, I promise. ^_^)

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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 Vintage Novels and is the author of fiction and non-fiction including Pendragon’s Heir, a retelling of Arthurian legend, and the Fairy Tales Retold novella series.

 

39 thoughts on “Chats with Suzannah Rowntree // author interview and giveaway

    1. Hey, I’m also one of six home schooled siblings!! ^_^ Well that’s some fun trivia, hehe. Where are you in the birth order chain, Suzannah? (I’m the oldest.)

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      1. That’s awesome, Brianna! I’m the second oldest–I have an awesome elder brother (see above, under THE PERSON WHO TOLD ME I SHOULD BE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR)

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  1. Fantastic interview Suzannah and Annie! ❤ I must admit to totally fangirling over this post and just loving it to bits =).

    Suzannah, reading your responses was a joy! One day, if the Lord wills it, we just HAVE to meet each other and have a good cup of rooibos or chai tea, cake and talk… 🙂 ❤ Let's just hop on the plane or somethin'.

    I totally approve of your fangirling response of the Lord of the Rings books – it warms the cockles of my heart. Also I want to look those other books up. If we had a time-machine, I'd totally want to meet Jane Austen, G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien. I guess I'd just add C.S. Lewis and Rosemary Sutcliff to the bag and I'd be the happiest lass alive ;).

    Oooh, I've been aware of your new novel Outremer and it being set during the Crusades and have been excited about it, but that it is being written from the perspective of the Syrian Christians from the East, well that just thrills my Coptic little soul deeply ^_^. I'm SO HAPPY ABOUT THAT!!

    Wow, I started writing when I was 12 also – it's that age, isn't it? 🙂 Also your comment about letting a story marinate and think deeply on it encouraged me because it's kind of what I tend to do also.

    Gah, I'd love to comment on all the little wonderful things in this interview, but I enjoyed it from the bottom of my heart ^_^. Thanks, dear Annie and Suzannah <3. Love you, girls!!!!

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  2. For Narnia! I love LOTR, too, but Narnia has first place in my heart. And I just started reading the Space Trilogy- it’s pretty cool!

    I can’t find a way to follow this blog except by my parent’s WordPress account. Any idea as to what I should be doing. I’ve tried about three time over the last few months. :-/

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    1. Narnia was my first love too 😃. I hope you love the Space Trilogy! It’s quite different to the Narnia books, but it’s wonderfully deep and beautiful – the second two books especially.

      Maybe Annie can give you some pointers on the technical side of things? I’m afraid not a WordPress native!

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    2. Oh, yes, I agree, Dani! As much as I adore LOTR Narnia was actually my first love. That and The Hobbit. I still have to read the Space Trilogy! After Suzannah mentioned it in this interview it jumped to the Top Ten on my TBR tower.

      If you don’t have a WordPress account you can follow via email! Just let us know in the comments when you grab that giveaway entry, okeydokey? And I’m sorry that it took me so long to reply! Just got back from our family holiday hence life is insanity trying to catch up with everything I missed. 0.o *offers you chocolate chips in apology*

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      1. Thank you so much! I hope I do, too!

        I finished the Space Trilogy a couple of nights ago. It was really good, and slightly disturbing. His concepts, especially of the space travel, are really neat!

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      2. I just received Pendragon’s Heir this afternoon! I can’t wait to dive in, but I’ll be a good girl and wait until my work is done for the day. But then I’m guessing I’ll be up late, reading. 😁

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  3. Glad you enjoyed the interview, Joy–it was so much fun to write up!

    YES, OUTREMER is definitely–I hope–from the perspective of local Christians! That is a viewpoint that has been basically ignored since…well, since the time of the Crusades! Christians in the Middle East, including Israel, need our love and support more than ever these days. We’ll see if I can do them justice 🙂

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  4. “The thing I learned writing and rewriting the same story almost exclusively for ten years was that stories, like fruitcake, get richer and richer with time. While good characterisation and plotting can help shorten the time you spend working on a story, it’s still a shame to rush a story. You have to let it marinate. You have to spend months or years thinking about it. Lasting art generally isn’t made in five odd minutes of the day.”

    Ahhh – I love this so much!! I feel this so deeply. I once wrote a terrible novel (which fortunately I never tried to publish), and I’m convinced that the main problem with it was I never let it marinate. I had the idea, outlined the plot in a few months, and thought, “Hey, I know what happens… might as well jump in and write it!”

    Nooo. It was awful. It had no depth. And I spent FOUR. YEARS. writing it. O.O

    But it wasn’t exactly a waste a time, because I also spent those four years daydreaming about other stories. One of those, of course, was my current WIP, Emergence. And I’m so grateful for those extra four years that I left the idea in the oven, because I know the story became all the richer for it. ^_^

    I’ve learned my lesson… never rush a story!! It’s a good test for the best ideas, too. If they stick around for years, you know they are worth writing. 😉

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    1. Brianna, they do say you have to write 500,000 words’ worth of rubbish before you write something worthwhile! I don’t know about that, since I’m sure plenty of people have written WAY more than 500K’s worth of rubbish, but I know I’ve put in my 500K and I KNOW it’s every word of it has done me good. I don’t regret any of the unfinished drafts or story flops on my hard drive.

      I love the deep richness that develops when a story has time to fully mature. I deeply covet that for all my stories and it gives me a lot of happiness to see other young authors learning the same lesson!

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      1. Wow, that’s such a good point!! I’ve never heard that specific idiom, but I have heard people say that your first novel is always a practice run. I’m sure I’ve definitely done 500k over the course of my life. >_> You’re totally right… it’s not a waste at all. It’s an essential part of the journey. 🙂

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    1. So glad you enjoyed the interview! INCEPTION is an amazing movie – it’s blend of fun with serious philosophical depth is the same kind of thing I try to achieve in my own storytelling.

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    1. 😁 I’m not allowed to hope anyone in particular wins the giveaway, Emilie, but I do hope you get the chance to read some of my stories sometime, and that you enjoy them!

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  5. Thanks to both of you for the lovely interview! 🙂 Its always so much fun getting a little peek into the minds of other creators. And by the way, I totally feel you about not having “weird writer habits”-I’m not a real author, but I am an artist/illustrator/graphic designer and I’ve found I don’t have a lot of those “quirky artist habits” so many people seem to have. I think it’s entirely possible to be a creator without them, and for me it’s just the way I work best. I’ve heard about your books from other lovely people in the blogosphere but I’ve never got around to hunting down a copy-so regardless of whether or not I win the giveaway I might just have to look into getting my hands on one. 🙂 Again, thanks for the cool interview!!

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    1. So glad you liked the interview, Anna!

      I think it is possible to be a creator without quirky habits–in fact I think that the mindset that approaches art as a craft, as a 9-to-5 discipline (which is how I tend to approach it) is going to be less quirky than a Romantic mindset that approaches it as a mystical force flowing from within, that cannot be tamed or scheduled.

      Which is not to say that I don’t think my job has anything special or otherworldly about it; I believe one of the foundations of art, after all, is inspiration from the Holy Spirit, the Muse of Christian art. Or that I think it’s wrong to have quirky habits–I have a few myself, they’re just more in my leisure life than my work life!

      Hope you do try some of my stories, Anna, and that you enjoy them!

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  6. I love your style of writing in Pendragon’s Heir, and I’m still reading through War Games, though it’s sporadic reading (not because of you; just because I read some books on and off). Really hoping to get paperback of Pendragon’s Heir. 😀

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  7. I loved reading this interview! Obviously you worked for a very long time on Pendragon’s Heir, Suzannah, but when did you first get the idea for Outremer? What first sparked the idea for it?

    (Also, I had to laugh when you said you said you have an unhealthy dependence upon semicolons, because I can definitely relate to that. 😉

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    1. Hello, Hayden! Yes, semicolons are a favourite of mine–they keep my sentences from becoming too short and choppy. But I’m trying to minimise my habit!!!

      So glad you enjoyed the interview. OUTREMER has been simmering in my mind since I read Ronald Welch’s book KNIGHT CRUSADER in January of 2012. Before reading that book, I had been pretty much oblivious to the 200-year existence of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. As I mentioned in the interview, I knew of the Crusades primarily as expeditions to the East from which main characters were always returning; I had never really realised that some Franks lived in the East, put down roots, built dynasties, reconstructed cities, pioneered fortifications, and hung on there for 200 years. KNIGHT CRUSADER featured as its hero a Frankish native of the Crusader kingdom, and that perspective was what grabbed my attention. I thought, what an AMAZING vision, what an incredible example of hopeful multigenerational thinking, and what a different perspective those people must have had to the perspective held by those who returned to the West. Someone should write a book about it!

      It took some time to admit that that person should be me (I felt, and still feel, rather inadequate to the task), but here I am, by God’s grace, approaching the end of the (massive) first draft. Can’t wait to see where this story goes!

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  8. Eek! I’ve been wanting to read this book for awhile, but just never have gotten around to it. (seems like I am saying that with all too many books these days.) But the cover. o.o And all the fangirling I’ve heard about it. Crossing my fingers for this giveaway! Or maybe I should eventually just give in and buy it. 😛

    Awesome interview! ❤

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    1. Claire, I think King Arthur fans would particularly love this story 🙂

      My favourite retelling and the one I more or less based this book on is Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. Green was a late Inkling and a pupil of CS Lewis’s, so he’s writing from that perspective.

      I also took a lot from Malory, of course 😀

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